May 8, 2008

Covenant Confusion, Old and New

It is a source of constant amazement to me how certain ideas get so entrenched in our collective psyches that it doesn't matter how erroneous they are, they are just accepted as given. A half-century ago, it was the case that anyone could smoke a cigarette anywhere they pleased, and everyone just assumed that it was a harmless indulgence. It took several generations of disease-induced deaths and a battle with the tobacco industry to finally put an end to that dangerous mass delusion. In the realm of religion, there are numerous examples of assumptions that are blithely accepted by millions of believers, but may be deadly to their spiritual well-being.

One area of Bible study that has experienced extreme misunderstanding is the covenant of Moses, also known as the Sinai Covenant, or the 'Covenant of Works' by scholars. Everyone who discourses on this premier covenant of the Old Testament of the Bible presumes the belief that it was, in fact, a covenant of works. In other words, it was a deal between God and the Israelites whereby if one faithfully observes the Law (understood as the 'Ten Commandments' by Christian pundits, but as a full 613 laws by Jews) then that person will merit salvation in the afterlife. At least, that is the way that generations of both Jews and Christians seem to comprehend the Old Covenant. It seems perfectly straightforward: you mind your 'Ps and Qs' like a good boy or girl, and when you die, you get your eternal reward. Isn't that what a covenant of works is all about? Many people of all belief systems around the world have believed this 'OT gospel' over the centuries of human history. Today, it remains the story that Judaism relies on as its hope for the afterlife; and, sadly, it persists in the minds of many Christians as a hazy description of the 'obscure half of the gospel' proclaimed in their churches. But, is this notion correct; is it a biblically valid doctrine?

My clear conclusion from a plain reading of the scriptures is that this notion-- that the OC promised salvation for obedience to the Law-- is completely wrong! However, the error began right within the pages of the Pentateuch itself (the first five books of the Bible). Deuteronomy, chapter 6, verse 25, states: "It will be righteousness for us if we are careful to observe all this commandment before the LORD our God, just as He commanded us." It was understood that without righteousness no-one could stand before God, so by attaining righteousness through law-keeping, the people of Israel expected to deserve salvation. This seems to be the beginning of their assumption that obeying the Law would give individuals a ticket into heaven. Yet, amazingly, verse 24, just before, states: "So the Lord commanded us to observe all these statutes, to fear the Lord our God for our good always and for our survival, as it is today." In other words, they indicated that it was a group covenant for 'our' (national) survival. (See also Exodus 19:5-6). So what gives?

If you read the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, what you find is copious language that makes it clear that God was addressing the entire tribe of Israel through their representative Moses (and later, Joshua). In His words, God promised to give the rootless people of Israel a homeland, and to give them prosperity and dominance as a nation. Now, let's back up a moment and remember what happened in the book of Exodus. This book (the next after Genesis) is the story of the descendents of the grandson of Abraham, who started with the name Jacob and earned the name (or title) Israel, meaning 'overcomer.' Recall that Jacob went to Egypt with his extended family of 11 sons (the 12th son, Joseph, was already there) at the time of a great, widespread famine in the land where he was living, Canaan. They came as honored guests of the Egyptian government, and apparently life was so cushy there that they decided to stay. In fact, they stayed for 430 years, long enough to out-last their welcome and to fall into slavery. By then, the original family had followed the laws of exponential growth, and numbered roughly 600,000 adult males-- which seems to be how they conducted a census in those days (Ex 12:37). Obviously, the children of Israel must have totaled something in the region of 1.5 million souls, which would have constituted a virtual nation within a nation. At the time of the Exodus, picture this great assembly of people suddenly uprooted and sent off into the barren wilderness. All they had ever known was Egyptian rule of law and socio-economic system. Apparently, they had preserved their original culture, language, and religious beliefs as an identifiable social community, over those centuries.

Now, God leads them out of the confines of Egypt and into the great wilderness of 'Sin' (or Sinai) where they are following this 80-year old prophet to some 'promised land.' Allow yourself to imagine the situation, if you can. Then it becomes clearer why God, together with Moses, had to supply this group of refugees with a complete 'constitutional package'-- a moral code (the Ten Commandments), a legal code (elaborated in Deuteronomy), a health and nutrition code, and a comprehensive worship system (the Levitical, sacrificial system). Clearly, this assembly was not left to drift, but God provided all they needed to exist as a new nation in the midst of other established nations. In this optic, the true nature of the Old Covenant at Sinai starts to take shape. Going back now to the fine print of the covenant, it must be noticed that God prefaced His promises of national ascendancy with a big 'IF!' Without taking another, side excursion to consider the structure of OT covenants, suffice it to say (and readers are urged to verify for themselves) that these agreements were entered into by spokesmen for two parties, and spelled out benefits and penalties for observance or abrogation of the stipulations. Both the book of Leviticus (ch. 26) and Deuteronomy (ch. 28) spell out in starkly worded verses, first, the blessings Israel could expect from adherence to the terms (essentially, the Law) and next, the curses that would befall them if they should fail to live up to those conditions. Notice the nature of the blessings and curses: they are all 'group benefits' and 'group penalties.' It is all about national success or national disaster; there is nothing at all about personal salvation!

Well then, one wants to know, how did the people come to think of the covenant as a personal covenant of works? That's a good question, especially when you read the NT book of Hebrews and see that the writer acknowledges this same erroneous interpretation. (He merely reflects back to his readers what they assume to be true of the Mosaic covenant, then goes on to substantiate how the new covenant is superior in all respects.) I think the reason the Israelites got it confused so badly is wrapped up in three main problems. And once the false notion got entrenched in their thinking, it got handed on to the later Christians in the same, garbled form.

First, they did not understand the covenant God had made with their ancestor, Abraham, although they were mighty proud to be his descendents. Since God had made unequivocal promises to Abraham (unlike the Sinai contract) the Israelites presumed that they were automatically covered by right of birth. You can see that attitude even in the arrogant words of the Jews of Jesus' day (Jn 8:33). They just didn't clue in to the clear words of their scriptures that 'Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness' (Gen 15:6). In other words, the basis of their patriarch's righteousness was his belief, his faith in God; not anything he did. Yet his descendents didn't appreciate the value of faith; they found it more to their liking to assume that good works were just as acceptable, if not more so, than 'mere faith.'

And that leads to the second reason, which is that they were predisposed to think in terms of works, as are all humans operating in the flesh. We are raised in a system of reward and punishment from our earliest days of consciousness, and our societies function in the same manner. Remember that at least the last generation of Israelite adults had been raised as slaves of the Egyptians. Slaves cannot operate as free agents; they either follow the rules, or else they are punished. It's a simple system. To free ourselves from such cultural, genetic blinders can only be done with spiritual insight. It is far easier to just ask for a set of rules to follow, a simple and familiar formula. "All the people answered together and said, 'All that the Lord has spoken we will do!' And Moses brought back the words of the people to the Lord." (Exodus 19:8). Apparently, they thought this was going to be 'a piece of cake!' It is this 'servant mentality' that seems to be the hardest habit to break for humans. The plight of Israel is illustrative of the dilemma facing every individual who hears God's gospel of freedom: are you going to believe that you are really free... or are you just unable to accept such an absurd offer that comes with no strings (other than you must believe it, of course)? Sadly, most individuals, and societies, just cannot fully grasp this incredible offer. Read for yourself Paul's stern and scriptural attempts to liberate his Galatian congregation, especially in chapter 4, verses 21-31.

Third, they failed to understand the significance of the sacrificial system of worship spelled out in their covenant package. Again, this failure really harks back to not appreciating the Abrahamic covenant of faith, combined with the desire for simplistic, works-based solutions. Had they understood that the burnt offerings ('holocausts') offered twice daily for the nation, and the other specific sacrifices for individual sins, and the annual Day of Atonement, were all intended to point them forward in faith to the coming promised one, the Messiah, then the whole history of Israel would have been hugely different! It is true that this foreshadowing is not explicitly stated in the texts, yet we can see that King David, for example, expressed an understanding of the Abrahamic covenant in the verses of his psalms (e.g. 51, 85). The book of Job, considered a very early scripture, also expresses the NT gospel (e.g. 19:25). Some 1,200 years after the Exodus, the writer of Hebrews clearly saw 'the big picture' of the covenants, and understood exactly what differentiated the Mosaic/Sinai Covenant from the 'New Covenant.' Obviously well versed in covenant law, this writer had no problem 'seeing' how the OT presaged or foreshadowed the New, and how the Mosaic provisions were mere 'types' or images of the later, genuine, heavenly realities. Notice ch 8, vs 6: "But now He has obtained a more excellent ministry, by as much as He is also the mediator of a better covenant, which has been enacted on better promises." He can confidently affirm that this new agreement is founded on better promises than the Old because he realizes that the covenant sealed by Jesus promises eternal life to the believer-- not merely national greatness in this present world. (See also ch 7, vs 18).

In all fairness, we should not be too harsh in judging the OT people of Israel; most of us would not have done any better in their situation. They had just emerged from slave status; then they were handed a big rule-book with dozens of regulations designed to help them live an orderly, communal life. It is natural that they would assume that if they just followed the rules, they must be doing what God wants; ergo, they must be righteous. The other pitfall lies in the very rituals themselves (the Levitical rites). It is characteristic of human nature that anything done on a repetitive basis eventually becomes 'routine,' mundane, and loses much of its meaning. How many Christians sit through weekly services over the years until it's like a sleep-walk? So too, the Israelites had their burnt offerings and sacrifices for their 'sins.' But how long was it before the rituals became purely 'cultural?' Today, believers in every faith go through their prescribed routines, recite their prayers, make their pilgrimages... and then go about life as always. This innate tendency to regress all ritual to the mean of habit and custom is one of the biggest dangers of all works-based systems! It's only when we internalize faith, base it on the constant attunement to the promptings of the Spirit of God, that we can avoid the subliminal, dulling influence of routine.

That's what the scriptural record shows: a few, spirit-led individuals understood the everlasting gospel-- that God provides for all our spiritual needs through His anointed one, the Messiah-- while the vast majority remained stuck in their preferred interpretation that they could earn righteousness, hence salvation, by following the 'works formula.' That's why Paul wrote in 2 Cor 3: "[14] But their minds were made dull, for to this day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read. It has not been removed, because only in Christ is it taken away. [15] Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts." In other words, they suffer from spiritual blindness, just as today, do the majority of Christians who simply sit and listen to a pastor preach to them, without studying scripture for themselves. So then, how does one get cured of this miserable condition? Paul continues, [16] "But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away." Turning to the Lord requires a teachable heart, a willingness to seek for truth, to ask for guidance, and to respond to the Spirit of God. (Matt 7:8).

As I intimated above, this condition of spiritual blindness is not just something that affected Israel of the OT, or even that affects the modern Jewish faith. No; it is a pernicious condition that afflicts the contemporary organizations that claim allegiance to Jesus Christ. 'How are the churches blind?' you wonder; don't they proclaim the gospel? That's the problem-- they do not! Sure, they think they do, when they tell people that Jesus has won the victory over Satan and by believing in Jesus we can be saved. But-- they almost always add a 'but' to the effect that after accepting Christ as our Lord and Savior, we must then 'keep the Ten Commandments' for the rest of our lives to ensure our salvation. This is not what 'righteousness by faith' means! We are falling into the same trap as the Israelites in the wilderness when we let the pastors sell us that bogus, two-step gospel. By now, the casual reader may be confused, because isn't that what the NT teaches? Again, no! Check for yourself; when Paul was asked by the Philippian jailor 'What must I do to be saved?,' he replied very directly: 'Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household" (Acts 16:30-31). Jesus had already stated the same idea during his ministry (see Jn 3:16, Jn 6:28-29). You see, we've been mind-conditioned, programmed, to expect that there's got to be a 'performance clause' in the agreement somewhere-- but it just isn't there! When God gives a free gift, it is truly free. We fleshly humans just can't seem to 'get it,' because it's so contrary to the way we do things. What the nominal 'Christian' churches have been peddling all these centuries is really 'Judeo-Christianity,' a doomed attempt to live the New Covenant life using an Old Covenant, Israelite mind-set. The fact is, it just doesn't work! See Matthew 9:16-17, and now you will understand those condensed parables!

It's not just my opinion that the churches are off-track and spiritually blind. Jesus himself states it bluntly in Revelation 3 (:14-19) in his address to the church of Laodicea, which many scholars accept as representative of the Christian church in the latter days. The Lord acknowledges that they perform 'deeds,' but he states that they have become mere observances ('lukewarm') conducted by 'blind' followers. Going further, the false gospel of traditional teaching also explains why it is necessary for 'another angel' (Rev 14:6) to proclaim the everlasting gospel in apocalyptic times, to correct the erroneous message. What makes the gospel the 'good news' is precisely the fact that it is a free gift and there's nothing for the believer to prove. Does that mean I advocate anarchy? By no means! A full explanation requires another essay, but if a true believer accepts Jesus, then he becomes open to the promptings of the Spirit of God, and that Spirit leads us to right choices and putting the law of love into action in our lives. It is a matter of following the 'still, small voice' within-- not of running down a check-list of 'don'ts!' (E.g. Rom 12:2, Heb 5:14, etc.). Only when we take our eyes off the Law, and unto Jesus, can a believer be empowered and ready to begin the process of transformation into his image. That's what 'lukewarmness' is pointing at-- this attempt to mix the fervent heat of Jesus' gospel with the old, stony coldness of law-keeping! That's why Jesus wants to vomit it from his mouth! Did he win freedom for us at the cross, or not? If you believe he did, then it's time to grow up in the Spirit, escape the schoolmaster, and actualize that belief in your Christian life. (Gal 3:2-5, 22-26; Heb 5:13-14, 10:29). Face it-- there is NO hybrid gospel in either the Old or the New Covenants! Either put your faith in Christ... or keep trying to add works to the gospel, and fail.

My hope is that the reader will now have a firm understanding of the two major covenants of the Bible, how literal Israel and then figurative Israel (the 'Church') got the story confused, and why the 'eternal gospel' is almost too good to be true. These are all crucial turning points of doctrine, and the heart-converted Christian must understand them in order to resist the strong wine of delusion being poured out by Satan and his agents to intoxicate believers and render them prey to all manner of deceptive doctrines. And perhaps the worst of those lies is that we are under obligation to the same Commandments as the Israelites were during the Old Testament era. Surely the obvious question for all believers should be: What makes the New Covenant 'new'? Once you discover the answer to this conundrum, you are on the road to spiritual freedom and insight. May the Spirit of God enlighten every reader who diligently searches the scriptures to see if this message is true, and to find the everlasting gospel of Jesus.

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