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Saturday, December 13, 2008

Doctrines Paper - 2 Covenants

Here's a paper I recently wrote for our doctrine's class at the MAC internship. I learned a lot. Feel free to comment with any thoughts...

The Two Covenants
Daryl Winger - 12/11/2008

As I've grown in my faith and my knowledge of the Bible, there are a few things I've had a very hard time understanding about God and how He's chosen to work with humans. Some of those things I expect I may never understand since God's thoughts are so much higher than mine (Isaiah 55:9). But there some of these things of which I get the idea that I'm supposed to have an understanding. One of these issues that I've never quite understood is the relationship between the old covenant and the new covenant - old testament and new testament - law vs. grace. I notice that at least Paul, in the books of Romans, 2 Corinthians, and Galatians, and the writer of Hebrews seem to have a very good understanding of this mystery in my mind, and they make it seem like a large part of my foundation as a Christian should rest on this understanding. As I've been lately studying the old testament Pentateuch - the books of the law - this tension and question in my mind has only increased. The assignment of this paper on an issue of doctrine seemed like a very good time to seek out the truth from the bible and the Holy Spirit.

Let me start by giving a brief introduction to the two covenants I'm referring to. I will later go into more detail. The old covenant I'm referring to is best portrayed in my mind by what God did and said at Mount Sinai. The Israelites were camped there after God had led them out of slavery in Egypt. This is where God gave the ten commandments to Moses and commanded that the Israelites follow those commands. If the Israelites would obey the Lord, he would bless them in many ways. If they would not obey the Lord, he would take away His blessings and they would suffer. When they disobeyed (or sinned) there would be punishment - often harsh. "Each must be put to death for his own sin.(Deuteronomy 24:16)" There was also a system of sacrificing animals to pay for sins and being ritually unclean. So the old covenant is associated with the law. It's terms were that God would give blessing only if He was obeyed perfectly. The new covenant is associated with Jesus and grace. Rather than being saved by obeying all of the law, we are saved by Jesus. God sent Him to live a perfect life, obeying all of the law, but He was still killed to pay for the sins all all humans who believe in Him. We just need to believe in Jesus and we'll have the eternal life that would have only come from a sinless life in the old covenant (John 3:16). So the terms of the new covenant are that a person just needs to believe that Jesus died to pay for their sins and make them right with God and they'll receive God's full blessings - including eternal life. A covenant of grace.

With this simple understanding of the two covenants, I'd like to explain some of the confusion and the questions that I have had. The biggest question for me has been "Why did God make these two different covenants?" It's not as if I haven't thought about this question and I haven't read any scripture that pertains to it. I've been reading scripture and been preached to in the Church all of my life. But every answer to this question that's made some sense in my mind always seems to have a huge hole in it, so it doesn't really un-confuse me. When I've read certain sections of scripture or heard teachings on certain topics, they'll seem to partly address the issue, but then leave inconsistencies that don't allow me to hold onto any real doctrine regarding the issue. I will explain some more specific questions that I want to deal with.

An idea that seemed to make sense to me from my childhood is that God's original plan was the First Covenant. He thought we should be able to just obey His commandments, but He noticed after a while that no one was actually living up to it, so He gave in and made an easier way through Jesus. One can get this idea from the parable of the vineyard and the tenants in Mark 12. That idea made sense to me until I combined it with the doctrine of God being all-knowing (Jeremiah 23:23-25, Psalm 147:5) So if God knows everything, He knew from the beginning that humans wouldn't live up to their side of the first covenant. I also have to combine my thoughts with the doctrine of God being unchanging (James 1:17). If God doesn't change His mind, I can't believe that His purposes for humans has changed with the coming and death of Jesus. So if I acknowledge that God is unchanging, meaning that the new covenant with Jesus was His final, and only, plan for salvation, why did He implement the first covenant and cause people to fail so miserably? I'm also confused about why Moses told the Israelites that the first covenant was not too hard for them (Deuteronomy 33:11) and then Paul seems to say it's impossible (Romans 7)? Another thing I haven't understood is why the old covenant was so firmly attached to physical things in this world - a tabernacle, ark of the covenant, sacrifices of animals and produce, promise of land - while the new covenant speaks of the sacrifice of Jesus (which was physical, but we don't physically experience it) and eternal inheritance and blessings that aren't physical.

Possibly the hardest thing for me to understand about this two covenants idea is what it means for all of those people in the old testament who were trying to follow God, but Jesus hadn't come to earth and died for their sins yet. I read Jesus in John 3:18 saying "Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.(ESV)" which seems pretty clear to me. But it makes God seem unfair if he made it that Jesus is the only way for salvation but let hundreds of generations live and die before Jesus' resurrection without the opportunity to trust in Jesus since He hadn't been revealed yet. My only conclusion about this is that maybe Jesus was revealed in the old testament and therefore believers could have the same faith as we are called to in Jesus, but Jesus coming to earth in the new testament was just fuller revelation. This seems possible given my understanding of God, but if it's true, I want to know how Jesus was revealed in the old testament and what examples are we given of people who had the same faith that we are called to in the new covenant. So with these questions in mind I have sought to understand and have my mind transformed by God's word. I've found the books of Romans, Galatians, and Hebrews to be extremely enlightening on these issues as the Holy Spirit is guiding me into truth.

A more complete understanding of a covenant seems to be in order. According to WordNet dictionary, a covenant in the sense we're dealing with is "an agreement between God and his people in which God makes certain promises and requires certain behavior from them in return;" God made several covenants at different times in the Bible (Genesis 9; Genesis 17; Leviticus 26:42; Numbers 25:12,13; Exodus 34:27,28; Ezra 10). So it seems that a covenant is made by God to reveal some of His purposes to those with whom He made the covenant.

The Old Covenant

Let's look more closely at the old covenant. What we call the old covenant might be more aptly named the "covenant of works." It seems to have been established from the beginning of creation. In Genesis 2:16-17, Adam and Eve are living in eternal life, but they're given one command - not to eat of a certain tree. If they obey all of God's commands - only one at this point - they can live, but if they disobey they die. They chose death. And so have all of us every since. God is perfect and all good, and cannot accept those who reject His goodness, but He wants His creation to embrace His goodness. God laid out more rules for the nation He chose for Himself in the ten commandments (Exodus 34) and again demanded that they obey them to have life. So what exactly are the terms of this covenant? Leviticus 19:2 sums it up very succinctly - God says "You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.(ESV)" Jeremiah 11:1-5 explains that those anyone who doesn't keep the terms will be under a curse, but those who do will be God's people and receive land flowing with milk and honey. We also see that there is forgiveness for some disobedience. Much of Leviticus explains how atonement would be made for the sins of the Israelites through sacrifices and rituals performed by the priests. The old covenant requires holiness and perfect obedience on the part humans. If they keep their end of the bargain, God will accept them as His people and bless them. It is a covenant of law. God also provides grace and mercy by setting up the sacrificial system so that sins can be "paid for" and not held against the people.

So what was the purpose and results of this covenant? We see in the old testament a few examples of people who were trained under the old covenant and law and learned to fear God and experience some closeness with Him. According to Deuteronomy 4:1, it was supposed to produce life, but Paul tells us it brought death (Gal 3:21). Paul and the author of Hebrews give us some more results and purposes of the law that they've observed (and we know Paul was a Pharisee who supposedly was very good at following the law):
  • Condemnation (2 Cor 3:9, Romans 7:7)
  • To make us see our own powerlessness and need for redemption. (Romans 7:8-13, 18-20)
  • To stop every mouth and show us our sin (Romans 3:19-20)
  • To be a tutor to bring us to Jesus to be justified by faith. (Galatians 3:24)
  • To bring a better hope (Hebrews 17:19)
  • To show us a shadow and symbol of good things to come (Hebrews 10:1,Hebrews 9:9-10)
Paul and the author of Hebrews also tell us several things that were NOT the purpose or results of the old covenant and law:
  • NOT to make anyone perfect (which is what is required) (Hebrews 17:19)
  • NOT to make us able to carry out the law. (Romans 7:18)
  • NOT to justify us (Galatians 2:16)
  • NOT to impart the Spirit of God (Galatians 5:18)
  • NOT to cleanse consciences (Hebrews 9:9-10)
  • NOT to bring us into God's presence - (Hebrews 9:8)
It seems that God had some specific purposes in mind with the old covenant. It makes it clear that God is holy and perfect. For some it stirs in them desires to please God and be holy for Him. It doesn't make God less desirable. In our inmost being perfection and relationship to God is what we desire. But the covenant makes it clear that we don't measure up. The weakness of the law is seen in that while it shows us our need and rejection from God it gives us no remedy for our condition. As we look at our failings in the covenant, we see very clearly our need for a mediator - someone to go between our sinfulness and God's perfection and make a way for us. We also see through the priesthood and sacrifices a glimpse that God is able to make a way for our imperfection to be done away with. But it's only temporary and limited and partially dependent on humans in the old covenant. Even the high priest could only go into the holy of holies (where God's presence was) once a year. The animal sacrifice symbolizes God forgiving sins committed up to this time, but it doesn't do anything to do away with a man's guilt or tendency to continue sinning. It shows us our sin but doesn't help us to stop sinning. I need that help! Since God seems to be the one wanting relationship with humans, we can expect Him to make a way. And we see that He has.

The New Covenant

The author of Hebrews tells us that this old covenant is faulty, as designed by God, giving people a reason to look for a better covenant (Hebrews 8:6-7). God gave glimpses of the inability of the old covenant and the promise of the new covenant long before the coming of Jesus. God gives Jeremiah these words:
"Indeed, a time is coming,” says the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and Judah. It will not be like the old covenant that I made with their ancestors when I delivered them from Egypt. For they violated that covenant, even though I was like a faithful husband to them,” says the Lord. “But I will make a new covenant with the whole nation of Israel after I plant them back in the land,” says the Lord. “I will put my law within them and write it on their hearts and minds. I will be their God and they will be my people.

“People will no longer need to teach their neighbors and relatives to know me. For all of them, from the least important to the most important, will know me,” says the Lord. “For I will forgive their sin and will no longer call to mind the wrong they have done.” (NET)

And in Jeremiah 32:40,

"I will make a lasting covenant with them that I will never stop doing good to them. I will fill their hearts and minds with respect for me so that they will never again turn away from me." (NET)

This speaks of a covenant in which God does all that's required. Rather than it being all about what we can do, God will work His perfection in us, and we won't need to remind each other. David in Psalm 40:6 realizes that God doesn't really want sacrifices. Habakkuk 2:4 says the "righteous will live by faith."

We can be sure that God's desire of holiness and perfection of humans has not changed between the two covenants. We do however see hope of that perfection and closeness actually occurring through this new covenant.

We learn more about this new covenant and about its relationship to the old covenant in the new testament. In Mark 13, during the last supper, Jesus makes reference to the wine and bread the disciples are drinking being the blood of the new covenant. According to Jesus, Paul, and the author of Hebrews, here are the purposes of the new covenant:

  • Eliminate consciousness of sin to bring true worship. (Heb 10:2-4)
  • Make believers holy through the sacrifice of Jesus (Heb 10:10)
  • Eliminate need for sacrifices for sins. (Heb 10:18 -)
  • Justification (Galatians 2:15)
  • Perfection (walking in the Spirit) (Galatians 3:2-3)
  • Sanctify a people for God. (Heb 10:14)
  • Create way to God's presence with clean conscience (Hebrews 9:1)
  • God's rest for believers (Hebrews 4:1)
  • Peace and reconciliation with God (Romans 5:1,11)
Jesus - Fulfillment of the Covenants
This new covenant sounds amazing, and we can see it includes much better promises (Hebrews 8:6-7) but how will it come to pass? Hebrews 9:12 tells us that Jesus has made all of this possible. We're told that He fulfilled the old covenant in revealing the new covenant. Jesus himself said he came to fulfill the law (Matthew 5:17) and He actually made it clear in the sermon on the mount, that the law of the old covenant was even harder to keep than the people of His day thought. But we know that Jesus actually did measure up to all of the requirements of the old covenant. He was perfect, as required. We know He was the only who didn't deserve punishment for sin, but He took upon Himself the punishment for the sins of all humanity. He also fulfilled the punishment required by the law for us. Jesus is this mediator that we need (Hebrews 12:24, 1 Timothy 2:5-6, Luke 22:20). He creates a way into God's presence so we can truly worship God in His presence with clean consciences (Hebrews 9:12). Jesus appears in heaven before God for us (Hebrews 9:24-26). Jesus fulfills the requirements of the first covenant for us, giving us all of the rewards of a sinless and obedient life. Jesus fulfills all of the symbolism of the old covenant. The author of Hebrews explains it in chapters 8-10. It's new clear that this new covenant through Jesus what God intended all along - "for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose." (Galatians 2:21 ESV). And "the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ." (John 1:17 ESV)
This new covenant has a lot of promises and seems to be totally hinging on the grace of God, but what is required of the other party - me, you, any human? This is made very clear - faith! "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." (Hebrews 11:1 ESV) It is by faith that we come near to God, have our consciences cleansed and become righteous (Hebrews 10:22, Romans 3:22). It's by faith that we receive eternal life (Hebrews 10:39, John 3:16). It is by faith that we receive the Spirit who works in us to follow God (Galatians 3:2) and be transformed more into God's likeness as his glory is revealed to us(2 Corinthians 3:18). And if we're led by His Spirit who He gave us, we're no longer under the law of the old covenant (Galatians 5:18). Receiving the Holy Spirit is our sign of coming under the new covenant as circumcision was the sign of coming under the old covenant. So we enter this new covenant only by faith - by believing that it is necessary to be holy as God is holy, that only Jesus has accomplished this, has paid for my rebellion, and acts as a mediator to bring me into God's presence.
Faith Before Jesus
Hebrews 11 is all about people with faith that pleased God. All of them lived before Jesus came to earth. So this chapter is integral to
understanding my confusion about how people before the new covenant was revealed lived according
to it and received God's promises by faith. The chapter is filled with accounts of people believing beyond their power that God would do the work for them to fulfill the promise He made. It talks about Abraham, whose faith Paul mentions in Romans 4. Abraham was considered righteous by God because of His faith. Though it seemed impossible for God to give him a son and make a great nation out of him, and give him a land of his own, he chose to believe that God could do what He promised. This is the same kind of faith we're called to in the new covenant. By faith we believe that Jesus has paid for our sins and we are considered righteous in God's sight. In Hebrews 11, examples of people with faith are given from all history, before the law was given, and after it was set in place. All of them saw what was promised - something amazing God would do to bring them to Himself - but they didn't receive the promise during their lifetime (v 39). They were "seeking a better homeland" (v 14-16) and they believed that God would bring them there.
Now the author of Hebrews says that "God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect." (v 40 ESV). This passage is difficult to understand. We see that perfection is still God's goal - in both covenants. But it doesn't seem like we have anything to offer the faithful saints of the old testament to make the perfect. But it seems like this means that the old testament faithful ones have had to wait until Jesus' resurrection to actually experience the fulfillment of their hope. According to Chuck Smith, when they died they didn't enter the heavenly kingdom, but waited for Jesus to make the way for their salvation. They went into "Abraham's bosom" (Luke 16), Abraham being the father of faith, and waited for God to send Jesus to save them It's recorded that old testament saints were seen walking around Jerusalem after Jesus' resurrection (Matthew 27:52-53). It also seems like Jesus sees Abraham as having waited to see His day of bringing salvation (John 8:56). Since we live after Jesus' resurrection, when we die, we won't have to wait to realize our full salvation. Whether Chuck Smith is right or not, it's clear that what Jesus did to atone for our sins was for all time (1 Peter 1:10-12, Hebrews 7:27,9:26,10:10-14).

Conclusions and Personal Application

The Holy Spirit, who lives in me because of the new covenant has revealed a lot to me through this study of His Word. It's hard for my mind to wrap around the concept that God knows I can't
live up to the law and he didn't intend for me to be justified by living up to the law. He does desire for me to live up to the law and be holy and perfect as He is, but He's well aware that I can't on my own. So He designed the law to show me that and I'm supposed to see that and despair of attaining righteousness on my own and look to Him for another way. So the law shows me that I need His grace. The law is not at odds with faith or grace. God requires holiness, but He is full of grace, so He provides a way apart from the law to fulfill the righteous requirement of being perfect - Jesus! Jesus accomplished what none of us could in fully pleasing God with His life. He lived up to the law and was perfect and holy as we were meant to be. Then, instead of receiving his right reward and us receiving our rightful punishment of death, He took on death and said we could partake of the reward for His righteousness. So, God still wants perfection from us, but I won't accomplish that on my own and I see His offer of grace in
letting my life be in Jesus. If I walk by the Spirit my life will be found in Jesus. God will identify me with Jesus' righteousness and the Holy Spirit will work in me to die to my sin and actually fulfill the law of being holy and perfect like God. I can't focus and try real hard to walk by and be led by the Spirit - that's applying the same methods I use for trying to be justified by my own righteousness. Walking by the Spirit is supposed to be by faith, so it seems that if there was no sin or rebellion in me, what would happen naturally would be walking in the Spirit - I wouldn't have to try to do it. It would be my nature because my heart would be fully set on pleasing God. But it's my sin and self-reliance that gets in the way of the natural way of living by the Spirit. So when I know I have the desire to walk by the Spirit and not according to the flesh, it seems that the best way for me to do that at this point might be to first remind myself of my inability to be justified and to please God by my own strength. He requires perfection. I'm not accomplishing that. And then I'm in a place to look to Jesus for His grace and to have faith in His atonement for me and His power to work righteousness in me. Oh God, please make my faith grow! I want to
experience this grace and this walking in the Spirit the way you intend! I want to please you and I'm not able except through Jesus!


Brock Glaze said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Brock Glaze said...

Awesome paper, Daryl!

The verses used throughout make your points VERY clear, and I loved the personal application at the end. Excellent work.

Your English syntax is also excellent and very clear!