December 14, 2006

God's Dealings with Man-- Before and After Christ

In the past few years there seems to have been a great burst of nostalgia for things ancient, even in the religious sphere. Christians have been opening the first half of their Bibles and perusing the Old Testament. Bible study is a good thing, but regrettably, a certain group of these innocents are coming to the incredible conclusion that they must somehow revive the old ways and become 'New Testament Jews,' or perhaps 'Old Testament Christians.'

The word regrettable for this spiritual regression is, if anything, too mild. This looking backward for spiritual progress is being fostered, I believe, by serious misunderstanding of Holy Scripture. In addition, we've seen a major retreat to conservative views in the social and political arenas, so this religious phenomenon follows the same pattern. In any case, I believe that the Christian world is much imperiled by this kind of movement that Paul took pains to warn the nascent Christian church to avoid! This weak-willed yearning for the familiar ways of the past threatened to extinguish the very life of the early body of believers, and Paul was zealous in preventing the death of his 'adopted protege'. He himself had made the leap from his traditional upbringing to the Christ-centered faith, and he really 'got it.' Paul understood precisely what the Messiah had accomplished, and what a radical departure it represented from the ages-old thinking of his fellow children of Israel. When he saw the believers of Galatia starting to slip back into observing the old traditions, trying to 'up-grade them' and integrate them into the new way of relating to God, he used strong words to rebuke them, and gave them direct instruction on their new faith.

The biggest problem with the Galatians is that they wanted to play 'double jeopardy' --they wanted to piggy back Christian beliefs on top of their old Jewish beliefs. Put another way, they were attempting to combine the Old Covenant with the New Covenant, creating a monstrosity in the process. Paul knew: you can't live the New Covenant life with an Old Covenant mindset! Jesus had warned his followers against this very problem when he related the parables found in Matthew 9 (vs. 16, 17). He stated clearly that you can't store new wine in old wine-skins. Wine was often used in scripture as a symbol for spiritual belief, and the message here was (supposed to be) unmistakable. To reinforce the same idea, Jesus cited the other example of sewing new cloth onto an old garment. Again he made the point that this is a recipe for failure; the new and the old are simply not compatible!

What were the 'new' and the 'old' things that Jesus was referring to, anyway? That, it turns out, is a fundamental question at the heart of the Christian faith. Not surprisingly, Jesus was referring to the Old Covenant and the New Covenant. But that just raises the subsidiary question: what are these 'covenants' that seem so crucial? Right. The first thing to know is that 'covenant' means the same as 'testament,' and we notice that the Bible has been divided into two major parts that are labelled as 'OT' and 'NT'. The next detail to keep in mind is that a covenant is a legal agreement or pact or treaty, as in fact, the word is still used to this day. So, apparently, the Bible is composed of records relating to two legal contracts. The obvious questions then are, what are these contracts all about, and why were they created?

A great deal of ink has been devoted by an army of scholars of all levels of knowledge and training to the subject of covenants as used in the Bible. Hence, a massive amount of information--and perhaps even more dis-information--is available to the inquiring mind concerning covenants. My purpose here is not to write yet another treatise on covenants. Rather, I would like to paint for the reader 'the big picture' of why the covenants exist, and how they are important to our faith. Therefore, I will try to present a very brief look at the concept of covenants, and then proceed to my main analysis.

If covenants are legal agreements, what are they doing in the Bible? The answer comes from the nature of God Himself. The two ultimate, personal characteristics of God's nature are these: justice and love. John wrote that 'God is love,' and indeed, that is what Jesus was trying to demonstrate throughout his earthly ministry. But God is also a God of justice; He rewards righteousness and punishes injustice or wickedness. His war with Satan is based on His divine justice being affronted by evil, whether by angels or mankind. In accordance with His justice, God does not do things willy-nilly; God acts in a legal, just manner, showing that He is responsible and accountable, despite being the supreme intelligence of the cosmos. Therefore, in His dealings with mankind, either individuals or groups, God establishes His promises on a contractual basis. Think of it--this is really phenomenal; that the God of creation is ready to hold himself to a legal agreement!

That observation covers the 'why?' of covenants. But the 'how?' questions are entirely more complex. For the purpose of this overview, I'm attempting to condense a lot of material into a broad panorama. (The interested student is urged to do individual Bible study and other research). What we'd like to know is: "What were the OT and the NT, and what do they mean for us today?" It turns out that there were numerous covenants cited in scripture. God made covenants with Adam, with Noah, with Abraham, with Moses, and later, with David, and with others. One can analyze these various agreements, and notice the features they share in common, as well as their differences. Many scholars have done just that, and in the process, made the whole analysis as complicated and convoluted as imaginable. In the end, one has to wonder if any of that really benefits the poor believer!

In the face of almost overwhelming information, with a resulting inverse degree of knowledge, I can only turn to the scriptures themselves in seeking clarity. I believe that the essential clarity is not lacking. The Holy Spirit did not leave us to the mercy of multi-lingual, multi-degreed academics, who cannot reach any accord among themselves in any case. Thank God, He inspired his servants, the writers of the Bible, to speak the simple truth. We don't even know for certain who wrote the book of 'Hebrews,' (many believe it was Paul), yet it is a key treatise on the comparison of the covenants, and ought to be essential reading for any professing Christian. That said, most Christians have rarely, if ever, heard a teaching, let alone a sermon, based on 'Hebrews.' Pastors shy away from this fundamental text, while evangelists apparently realize that it would demolish much of what passes for Christian dogma in their campaigns. Our outspoken friend, Paul, tackled the issue head on (how else, for brother Paul!) in his letters to the believers in Rome, in Galatia, and to a degree, those in other early congregations.

So, dear reader, you can start ploughing your way through all those academic treatises on biblical covenants, and get thoroughly confused. Or, you can pray as you read the explanations given in the scriptures themselves, and see the plain truth. It may help to be familiar with the books of the OT part of the Bible as you read the NT parts; but the important ideas can be discerned on the strength of the latter texts in themselves.

The author of 'Hebrews' is addressing his letter/essay to Christian believers from the ranks of his confreres, the people known as (the Children of) Israel. Israel was the name given by God to Jacob, the son of Isaac, the son of the patriarch, Abraham (who came from a group called 'Hebrews' in Mesopotamia). Jacob had 12 sons who were the progenitors of the tribes that constituted the nation of Israel. By the time of Christ, in fact, the original nation of Israel had metamorphosed considerably. Briefly, the original 12 tribes had divided into two nations: Judah (basically the tribes of Judah and Benjamin) and Israel (composed of the other 10 tribes). They had re-united for a time under David, only to split again after the death of his son Solomon. The nation of Israel was taken into captivity by Assyria in 722 BC, and later dispersed, disappearing from the annals of history. What existed in Jesus' day was Judah, now the remnant of the original 'Israel.'

Hebrews' writer, a master of scripture, takes his readers through a solid, logical line of reasoning with one main intention in mind: to point his flock forwards in the (new) Christian faith, and to make it crystal clear why they should, by no means, even long for the good, old days. What were the two 'paradigms,' old and new, that this letter analyses? Let's take a brief look.

Hebrews states plainly that the old system under scrutiny is the Sinai Covenant, brokered by Moses in the dessert, some 1300 years before Jesus' birth. This is the agreement that the people of Israel had been living under for all those centuries, and it was firmly entrenched in their collective minds as their religion and ethnicity--the two are inextricably identified. Yet, building on Jesus' own teachings, Paul was telling Jewish believers to abandon the old traditions, and walk in this new system founded by their savior! The writer of Hebrews explains, in terms that Jews could understand, why this radical departure was unavoidable and, moreover, desirable.

Anticipating Jewish objections, Hebrews defines how Jesus was a perfectly legitimate High Priest, although he did not come from the usual tribe of the priesthood (the Levites). He identifies Jesus with Melchisidek, a famous priest-king who was paid homage by Abraham himself. The writer goes on to consider each major feature of the Jewish religious order--the temple, the great feast of Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), and the sacrificial system. Without providing another analysis of those individual arguments, the summary is that Jesus introduced a new system that is superior in every way to the previous arrangement. The ministry of Jesus is wholly efficacious and all-sufficient in ensuring the salvation of all who believe in Him (Heb 7:25).

In contrast, the writer demonstrates how the old, Mosaic system was inferior in every respect, being installed in its day for the purpose of leading the Israelites to the 'real thing' to come. The old contract contained 'object lessons' such as the Tent of the Lord's Presence, and the articles that furnished it; and the sacrificial system for symbolic removal of sins, and so on, to provide tangible correlatives for a nation that had spent the last 400 years under Egyptian authority. The Old Covenant was, in fact, a complete 'constitution' for this people who had arrived in Egypt as a large family, and left, four centuries later, as a nation of possibly, two million souls. All they had known was Egyptian rule of law and social norms; now God, through Moses, supplied them with a full legal package for an orderly society! Reading the 'Pentateuch' (the first five books of the Bible, and attributed to Moses' hand), one can see that it includes, notably, rules of conduct (principally, the Ten Commandments, but there were dozens of extra rules added by Moses to account for various situations common to society). It also covers rules of public health and nutrition, as well as a system of animal sacrifices to atone for wrong-doing. Without such a comprehensive package, the people of Israel could well have broken down into chaos in short order following their hasty departure from Egypt! God was concerned about His own holy name; if Israel fell into chaos, they would ultimately turn to alien gods and idols, as the model they had grown up with, and His honor would be besmirched. That's why He instituted a 'national covenant' with Israel.

So, the Old paradigm had its utility; but as a means of attaining personal right standing with God, it was hopelessly misunderstood by the Israelites. To begin with, the Sinai covenant didn't promise 'salvation' in return for Law-keeping. Many Christians believe that notion to this very day: i.e. that individual Jews were supposed to 'keep the Commandments' in order to 'be saved' (presumably, meaning attaining salvation or paradise in the next life). But the agreement really tells the Israelites that if they (the collective nation) observe His laws, and thus institute a 'theocratic utopia', then their nation would be supremely blessed and attain pre-eminence among all nations. Individuals who aspired to right standing with God were directed to the sacrificial system that was a foreshadowing of the later, perfect work of the Messiah to come. In invoking the sacrificial protocol, individuals were demonstrating the kind of faith evidenced by Abraham when he was ready to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, but was provided with a ram by God, in its place (Gen 22). It was the Israelites themselves who decided that observing the 'Decalog' (the Ten Commandments) was going to represent righteousness for them (Deut 6:25).

It is doubly ironic that, about three centuries after the inauguration of Christianity in Judea (as Rome called its province) the mainstream 'Christian' church gradually adopted the same fallacy. Although some church leaders still understood that Jesus had come to proclaim God's favor towards mankind, the notion became dogma that Christians had to keep the Ten Commandments in order to 'be saved.' Since there arose a backlash against Jews and their religion, the church fathers decided to 'Christianize' the Decalog--just as they had Christianized various pagan and Jewish feasts, such as the winter solstice (into Christmas) and Easter, in place of Passover. So, having to get rid of the 'Sabbath' of the Commandments, they substituted Sunday worship in its place. The gospel of Christ--the good news that God was gracious, and that all that is needed for right standing with Him is for us to believe in His Son--got completely muddled and concealed. It was not until the Protestant Reformation that the gospel emerged into the light of day once more. Yet, sadly, the Protestants too, soon forgot the essential message, and almost unbelievably, they continued the false gospel invented by the Roman church.

That same false gospel continues its unholy existence to this 'enlightened' day, in a confusing message that proclaims, in effect, 'all you have to do to be saved (eternally) is to believe in Jesus... and oh yes, then live in complete compliance with the Ten Commandments for the rest of your life!' This mixed message is an abomination that desolates the gospel of Christ! Yet, it is the dominant 'gospel' being preached to the world today. And Christians wonder why the pagan masses are not beating a path to their churches. This is not 'good news' to anyone; we know it's impossible to keep those rules 100% of the time, and we're told that slip-ups are not permitted. But this is the kind of thing that arises when we try to live the NT life using the OT mindset.

Paul sternly admonished the Galatians in blunt language intended to get their attention. He told them they were 'bewitched' by the old mindset, the desire to return to the old, bankrupt ways (ch 3, vs 1). If that weren't enough, he told the men who wanted to retain circumcision (the physical mark of belonging to Abraham's lineage) that they might as well go all the way and castrate themselves (ch 5, vs 12)! Now that's blunt language, friends. I won't go through his arguments again, (study them yourselves), but his conclusion is that the faith of Christ is a totally different, freeing way of relating to God. He understood fully that this faith was the one described by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, which he had summarized with 'the golden rule' (Matt 7:12). In chapter 4 (vs 21-31) Paul compares the two covenants to Abraham's wife and concubine, with the former standing for the new covenant of freedom, and the latter representing the old one of 'slavery.'

Similarly, the writer of Hebrews understood that the 'new covenant' was the fulfillment of the prophecies of Jeremiah (see vs 3:16, and especially 31:31-34) who spoke of a new covenant that would NOT be like the one made at Sinai through Moses. This one would have its rules written on the heart, not on tablets of stone. As foreseen in Psalm 40, it would not require animal sacrifices; it would require a heart turned to God. As Ezekiel had prophesied (vs 36:26-27), the 'heart of stone' would be replaced with the heart of flesh (love, grace). It was to be a spiritual revolution! Instead, it was perverted over the years into a confusing abomination, grafting the new ideas from the gospel age unsuccessfully onto the old traditions from the antiquated days of Moses.

God did not leave things in a confusing state; far from it. It was recorded in the gospel accounts (Luke 23:45) that at the moment Jesus exhaled his last breath, the curtain in the Temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. This was a clear demonstration that the old order was finished. The way into the 'Holy of Holies' was now wide open to anyone who approached (Heb 4:16; 10:19ff); the priesthood was futile (Heb 7:27ff), the animal sacrifices valueless (Heb 9:12ff). Both were no longer needed; the 'shadows' were superceded by the things they foreshadowed. Just in case some people didn't get this graphic message (and most did not), God made it abundantly evident a few decades after the Cross when the Roman legions invaded Jerusalem in 70 AD, and completely demolished the great Temple, which the Jewish priests, law-givers and rulers were so proud of. What more could God do? Well, we know that the surviving Jews were dispersed all over Europe, and Judah/Judea disappeared from the map.

To certain inquiring minds, it is a matter of considerable amazement that the early Christian church, which had manifested miracles, degenerated to such a degree over the subsequent ages, that today, it is almost a laughable institution in terms of its moral power and spiritual influence in the modern world. How could this have happened? My thesis is that the miracles disappeared at about the same time as the 'mixed gospel' became the common currency of Christian faith. With this abominable admixture of grace plus works, the resulting 'false gospel' has no real power to attract and hold souls. Worse, it quickly engenders a spirit of legalism, as people scramble fearfully to 'keep the Law.' And legalism is a deadly, stultifying disease, in the life of a believer or of a church, make no mistake! History proves that Paul was entirely justified in his attack on regression to the old ways, the Mosaic Covenant.

Some students label the Sinai Covenant a 'covenant of works.' But, as you can see by now, that is not exactly the case. It was not intended by God to be a covenant of works; it was the Israelites who fashioned it into such a beast. God intended the sacrificial system included in the Old Covenant to point sinners to the coming Messianic Savior, just as Abraham's sacrifice had done... and (many believe) just as practiced by Adam and Eve, and their son Abel. Thus, 'salvation' was always effected through faith in the provision of God. Jesus 'ratified' that eternal covenant when he instituted his 'Covenant of Grace' at the last supper (Matt 26:27), and delivered with it a New Law (or new commandment; Jn 13:34, 15:12, 17). That law of love, abiding in the heart (or mind, literally) is infinitely superior to the old Decalog, the constitutional law written on stone. (That contrast can easily be the subject of another, separate essay, so I'll leave it, for now.)

In summary, the reader can see now, this writer sincerely hopes, that... 1) God holds His dealings with humanity on an orderly, legal basis, expressed in 'covenants' that He made with individuals and with groups. The major covenants considered in the Bible are the one made at Sinai, through Moses, with the children of Israel, and the one sealed with Jesus' blood at Mount Calvary. 2) The Old Testament was re-interpreted and mis-interpreted by the Israelites to assume 'salvation by works', and their faulty understanding has been passed on, over the ages, to the organization known as the Christian church. 3) The New Covenant manifested by Jesus, and ratified by his sacrificial death at Calvary, is the only means to personal salvation. This covenant is based on God's grace, without reference to Law, and is invoked by belief, faith, in Christ and his perfect ministry.

In closing, this writer acknowledges that much of the preceding essay may appear to be radical, and even 'antinomian'--the fancy word used by scholars to mean lawless. You must understand that living in the gospel's freedom does in no way give anyone licence to live a hedonistic, lawless life. Far from it! Living under the law of love (God's grace) means living a responsible life, putting others' interests ahead of our own. There's nothing antinomian about it. Under Jesus' covenant, the focus is taken away from a check-list of external, written rules, and shifted to the completed work of Christ. We are judged righteous, not on the basis of performance, but purely due to faith in Him. Through that faith, we enter into 'covenantal solidarity' with Jesus, and are seen by God as identified with His Son. These concepts, again, are sufficiently important to represent the subject of a separate study (available from this author and others, too.)

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