This article was written to accompany the ‘The Mission of God and the Story of the Old Testament‘ hangout.
- Why do you think the Old Testament law is in the Bible?
Something Old, Something New
As the sun began to go down over Jerusalem, Jesus and his disciples were preparing to eat the traditional Passover meal. Only Jesus knew that this would be the last time all thirteen of them would eat together, and that this Last Supper would mark a decisive break with everything that had gone before, both for their tight-knit discipleship unit, and for the whole world.
The Passover was the Jewish covenant meal, celebrating the deliverance from Egypt when, through Moses, God brought the Israelites out of captivity and into freedom. The Exodus story was building towards the Covenant (‘binding agreement’) that God made with the nation of Israel at Mount Sinai. This covenant was what made Israel special; they were God’s people, rescued by him, and called to live in his way as shown in the Torah, the Law of Moses.
However, whilst repeating the centuries old custom, Jesus deliberately and startlingly turned their attention away from the past and towards the new thing God that was about to do: “And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying ‘This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.’” (Luke 22:19-20) Whilst they may not yet have understood all Jesus had in mind, the language of a New Covenant made with blood would have been hugely significant to the twelve. The original Covenant at Sinai was sealed using the blood of sacrificial animals, and Jeremiah prophesied a day to come when God would make a New Covenant with his people. Could this really be about to happen? After spending most of the last three years with Jesus, the disciples were beginning to believe that anything was possible.
Jesus was about to bring about a New Covenant between God and his people, but in a totally unexpected way. His death on the cross and resurrection from the dead would be God’s defining, cosmos changing, great last act of Salvation, something to put the mighty exodus in the shade. Rather than the ineffective ‘blood of bulls and goats’ (see Hebrews 10:4), Jesus would offer himself as the ultimate sacrifice; his own body broken and his own blood poured out for us. The self-giving God would take upon himself the punishment that we all deserved, paying for our sin and guilt, and reconciling us to himself. “You were not ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot.” (1 Peter 1:8-9)
THINK IT THROUGH
- What is the covenant meal of the New Covenant?
- Why is the Exodus such a good ‘illustration’ of the gospel?
A Game of Two Halves
The idea of God’s New Covenant is so powerful that we divide the Bible in two about it: The Old Testament deals with everything before Jesus, and with God’s Old Covenant, made at Sinai. The New Testament covers everything from Jesus onwards, and how God is now working on the basis of his New Covenant.
But why was it necessary for God to make a New Covenant?
Was there something wrong with the old one? Or had God simply changed his mind? One popular, but flawed, idea is that God tried running things under the Covenant he made with Moses, but when that didn’t work he tried something new with Jesus. As we will see, God’s plan was always to save the world through Jesus, as the Old Covenant itself tells us…
The Message of the Torah
Much of our trouble understanding the New Covenant comes from our misunderstanding of the Old Testament. The Old Testament begins with five books (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy) that are collectively called the ‘Torah’ (which is the Hebrew word meaning ‘Law’), as a large part of these books is made up of laws given by God to Moses during the 40 years the people of Israel wandered in the wilderness. This is why many Christians and Jews also call the Torah ‘the Law of Moses’. Orthodox Jews today take the Torah as God’s definitive description for all time for how to live a godly life, and believe the covenant God made at Mount Sinai as God’s ultimate arrangement for us to know him. Many Christians also assume that the Torah basically told the people of Israel how God wanted them to live, but that he somehow changed his mind later, when Jesus came. Both views go wrong because they fundamentally misunderstand the real purpose of the Torah.
- Why do you think there were so many laws in the Old Testament?
- What do you think it would be like living for God under the Old Covenant?
Five In One
The first five books of the Bible are not actually supposed to be read as five separate books at all. The division into separate books was purely down to how much writing ancient Israelites could fit on a single scroll. The Torah is actually one complete book with one overall message. However, God’s message in the Torah is not, ‘Here’s my Covenant and here’s how I want you to live under it’, as is commonly supposed. The message of the Torah is actually that living by the Law doesn’t work! It shows us that it is inadequate to fulfil God’s plan to have a community of holy people who love him and please him with the way they live. Even for simply regulating sin and restraining sinners, the law is woefully ineffective.
The Torah is a mixture of Laws and narrative, and it is the way these are put together that is a big clue to understanding the real meaning of the book. To start with, if the Torah is all about the Covenant at Sinai and the Law, why is so much time spent on the account of Abraham in Genesis? As well as being the biological forefather of the nation, Abraham is held up as an example of someone who walks by faith and connects with God, rather than following the laws given at Sinai. He is contrasted with the people of Israel who, even though they were given the law, consistently failed to walk by faith and connect with God.
The consistent message of Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers is that God’s people consistently fail to trust and obey him, that they rebel against God and his laws, and that they continually break his covenant. There is the repeated pattern where the Israelites fail to put their faith in God and to obey him, God responds by giving more laws to guide them, and they respond by once again failing to trust or to obey him. This builds up a picture of the law as being inadequate to help sinful people connect with God.
This pattern begins with Moses leading the Israelites out of slavery into freedom from in Egypt. Yet as they travel to Sinai after miraculously crossing the Red Sea, they are immediately moaning – ‘no water!’, ‘no food!’ (see Exodus 16) – and when they fail to trust God for manna on the Sabbath, the LORD says, “how long will you refuse to keep my commandments and my laws?” (Exodus 16:28) They grumble their way to Mount Sinai, where the law is given and God makes his Covenant. Yet while Moses is still up the mountain, the people make a golden calf and worship it in the place of God (see Exodus 32). More laws are given regarding sacrifices and offerings and the role of the priests, yet as soon as they are in place Aaron’s sons disobey offering ‘unauthorised fire’ (see Leviticus 10:1). Yet more laws are given, but the people respond by complaining about the blandness of their supernatural manna diet (see Numbers 11). Then, in chapters 13 and 14, we are shown the people of Israel, on the very threshold of success (they are at the border of the land God has promised to give them), yet they refuse to go in and trust him for victory. God finally draws a line under their rebellion and declares that they will wander in the desert until they are all dead, and the next generation will go in instead of them.
THINK IT THROUGH
Read Romans 8:3.
- What is the reason that the law is ineffective in dealing with sinners?
The name of the last of the five books of Torah is Deuteronomy, which literally means ‘Second Law.’ In it, Moses reaffirms the Covenant and restates the Law to the new generation of Israelites, 40 years after their parents’ refusal to enter Canaan. However, it has the added dimension of explicitly looking forward to a time when God makes a better Covenant than the one made at Sinai, and provides something more effective than the Torah to produce holiness in his people.
Central to God’s purposes is the command for his people to “love the Lord your God with all you heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” (Deuteronomy 6:5) This is what God has always been working towards; a people who love him and as a result live righteously in fellowship with him. “You shall therefore love the Lord your God and keep his charge, his statutes, his rules, and his commandments always.” (Deuteronomy 11:1) After summarising the experiences and laws of Exodus to Numbers, Moses outlines blessings if Israel obeys and judgement if they don’t. The book then ends with a pessimistic prediction as God tells Moses, “Then this people will rise and whore after the foreign gods among them in the land that they are entering, and they will forsake me and break me covenant that I have made with them. Then my anger will be kindled against them in that day, and I will forsake them and hide my face from them, and they will be devoured. And many evils and troubles will come upon them, so that they will say in that day, ‘Have not these evils come upon us because our God is not among us?’ And I will surely hide my face in that day because of all the evil that they have done, because they have turned to other gods.” (Deuteronomy 31:16-18) So, despite everything he has done and will do for them, God’s people will fail to love him and obey him, and will ultimately be exiled from the promised land. It seems like everything that God has done so far – the Exodus rescue, the Covenant at Sinai, the Law given to Moses – has failed. This is why Hebrews 8:7 tells us, “if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion to look for a second.” (Hebrews 8:7) In other words ‘this doesn’t work.’
‘That Will Work’
However, in chapter 30 there is a short passage that offers a ray of hope. God will do something better in the future, something that will work. “And when all these things come upon you, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before you, and you call them to mind among all the nations where the Lord your God has driven you… the Lord your God will bring you into the land that your fathers possessed, that you may possess it. And he will make you more prosperous and numerous than your fathers. And the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live… you shall again obey the voice of the Lord and keep all his commandments that I command you today.” (Deuteronomy 30:1-8)
Having failed to live as God’s holy people, Israel would be exiled from the land (this happened in 586 BC when the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and took many of the people as captives to Babylon). However, one day God would bring them back to once again live in the Promised Land (this happened in several stages between 538 B.C. and about 433 B.C. under leaders like Zerubbabel, Ezra and Nehemiah). But God would also do something far greater than simply returning the nation to the land. He would do something inside of them that would cause them to love him and to properly obey him, ‘circumcise (their) hearts’. What used to be an external, physical sign of being part of God’s Covenant people will become an internal, spiritual characteristic of the believer. Whilst physical circumcision couldn’t change our addiction to sin, circumcision of the heart will enable us to truly love God and obey him. The problem with the Law given to Moses was that it told us what to do, but never helps us do it – we are by nature too sinful and rebellious to obey. However, at some point in the future, God will do something that will empower us to love and obey him with our whole being.
THINK IT THROUGH
- Why do you think God chose circumcision as a mark of the Old Covenant?
- What are the marks of membership in the New Covenant of the people of God?
Elsewhere in the Old Testament, we find other prophetic messages looking forward to God bringing in a new, effective way of relating to his people, a new covenant that will work, rather than the Old Covenant that doesn’t. Jeremiah introduces this concept in Chapter 31. “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke though I was their husband, declares the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord; I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbour and his each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” (Jeremiah 31:31-34)
Four things stand out about the nature of this New Covenant:
- It is different from the previous covenant God made. The reason given is that the people broke the Old Covenant (see verse 33); it couldn’t change their hearts to want to love and obey God. There will be something about the New Covenant that deals effectively with our sinful disposition.
- It is internal. In contrast to the external nature of the old covenant, where the commandments were written on stone tablets, in the New Covenant they will be written in our minds and hearts (see verse 33). God’s law is going to be put into us as an internally motivated force rather than something outside of us telling us what we should and shouldn’t do – just as Moses prophesied hundreds of years before on the plains of Moab.
As New Covenant believers, we are born again (see John 3:3) by God’s Spirit, given a new nature (see 2 Corinthians 5:7) that loves God, and our lives are governed not by our sinful desires but by the Holy Spirit who lives in us (see Romans 8:9). As such, we are no longer ‘slaves to sin’, always making wrong, ungodly choices, but ‘slaves to righteousness’, people for whom it is more natural to live righteously and to please God. “(You), having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.” (Romans 6:18)
- What kind of life would we expect to see from someone who is a slave to righteousness?
- Are there times when you don’t feel like a slave to righteousness?
- How can understanding the truth of the New Covenant help you in those times?
- Everyone gets to know God, without having to go through priests and prophets. Under the Old Covenant, most people felt relatively distant from God. The distance between God and us was emphasised by the courtyards and sacrifices of the temple, with God inaccessiblyin the Most Holy Place. Yet the New Covenant says, “they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.” (Jeremiah 31:34)
This is wonderfully fulfilled through Jesus, who said, “And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” (John 17:3). Through him we can all boldly approach God’s throne (see Hebrews 4:16), certain that as we draw near to God, he draws near to us (see James 4:8). Jesus invites all who are weary to come to him (see Matthew 11:28) and promises to pour his Spirit into the lives of everyone who is thirsty (see John 7:37-39) – this is no longer for just a few special people in the Old Testament!
- It brings forgiveness. Unlike the Mosaic Covenant, which only provides limited forgiveness for certain sins by symbolic sacrifices; the New Covenant will bring a full solution for sin. Jesus’s death on the cross in our place finally deals with our sin, once and for all. Even under the Old Covenant it was “impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Hebrews 10:4)in anything other than an illustrative way. But in the New Covenant, “by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.” (Hebrews 10:14)Jesus was both the priest and the sacrificial lamb, offering himself up to God to pay for our sins (see 1 Peter 1:18-19). Jesus’ death opens the way for real lasting forgiveness so that God will “forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9)
THINK IT THROUGH
Read Ezekiel 36:24-27.
- How does Ezekiel describe the internal nature of the New Covenant?
- How would we describe this using New Testament language?
New and Better
The writer to the Hebrews is in no doubt about the superiority of the New Covenant. He tells us, “But as it is, Christ has obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises.” (Hebrews 8:6) The New Covenant is simply better, because it provides all the things that were missing from the Old Covenant. Everything that the Law and the Prophets had anticipated was fulfilled through Jesus. That is why the author of Hebrews, referring to Jeremiah 31, says the Old Covenant is now redundant: “In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.” (Hebrews 8:13) God’s ideal is not that we somehow get back to ‘the good old days’ of living by the Law of Moses in the land of Israel, but that as New Covenant believers we live by the Spirit, more than fulfilling the demands of the law as we do so, and that we take the amazing gospel of the New Covenant to all the peoples of the earth.
- In what ways do you sometimes live like an Old Covenant believer despite being in the New Covenant?
- What is your personal experience of being changed inside by the gospel?