Understanding Covenant, V: Covenant Distinctions
God, according to His purposes and good pleasure, has consistently associated with humans through the framework of covenant. Covenants represent agreements with mutual benefits and obligations. In days of old God established covenants with the world in the days of Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Israel, and David; most of these covenants find their fulfillment in Jesus, and pointed to a new covenant in His blood. God has always proven faithful to His covenant promises; we have every reason to trust in His covenant loyalty.
We can find many points of continuity among the various covenants God has made with mankind; we should not find this surprising, since God does not change and remains the same (Malachi 3:6, Hebrews 13:8). At the same time all these covenants are not exactly the same; many points of discontinuity can be perceived. Each covenant maintains its own integrity as a distinct covenant, no matter how similar it may be to another covenant. Distinctions between covenants represent a serious matter of concern especially as it relates to the relationship between the covenant which God made with Israel as mediated by the Law of Moses and the new covenant God has established with all mankind in Christ Jesus.
Difficulties began as soon as the Gospel went forth to the Gentiles. Some Jewish Christians insisted that the only way people of the nations could be saved is if they submitted to circumcision and the Law of Moses: they would need to become Israelites to be saved (cf. Acts 15:1-5). The Holy Spirit made known through the Apostles and elders in Jerusalem how this was not so: God had accepted the people of the nations without expecting them to attempt to become part of the covenant between God and Israel, and this was according to what God had prophesied in the prophets (Acts 15:6-31).
Some Jewish Christians resisted this decision and went among churches with Gentile populations and insisted they needed to be circumcised and submit to the Law of Moses to be saved (e.g. Galatians 1:6-9, 4:8-20). The Apostle Paul strongly condemned these Jewish Christians as false teachers and worked to refute their arguments in the letters to the Galatians and Romans. Paul demonstrated that all had sinned and required redemption; no one could be justified by works of the Law, for none had kept the Law perfectly (Romans 1:18-3:23). Jesus took on the curse of the Law to provide redemption from the Law; all who share in the faith of Abraham can obtain the promises God made to Abraham, since Abraham himself received the promise before he submitted to circumcision (Romans 4:1-25, Galatians 3:1-18). The Law was added because of sin, and all it could do on its own is condemn sin and commend righteousness; it itself could not save, and such is why everyone, Jewish or Gentile, required redemption in Jesus (Romans 7:5-25, Galatians 3:19-29). For Christians of the nations to submit to the Law of Moses was to go back on what God accomplished in Jesus; Paul spoke of it as falling from grace, the attempt to finish by works of the Law what God provided in the Spirit in Christ through faith (Galatians 5:1-15).
Paul would continue according to a similar theme in Ephesians and Colossians. Paul described the division between Jewish people and Gentiles as due to the “law of commandments contained in ordinances,” and declared that Jesus killed the hostility between Jewish people and Gentiles by breaking down this wall through His death on the cross, and as a result reconciled Jewish and Gentile people into one man in Himself (Ephesians 2:11-18). Christians were no longer to be judged on the basis of Jewish observances, considered a shadow of the things to come, and not the substance in Christ, since He took away the bond written in ordinances against us, nailing it to the cross (Colossians 2:13-17).
Yet it would be the Hebrews author who would most clearly demonstrate the distinctions between the old and new covenants in his attempt to demonstrate the superiority of the new (Hebrews 6:3-10:39). The covenant between God and Israel included no one else; those of the nations were by necessity excluded (cf. Ephesians 2:10-12), and the covenant could not be added to or have anything taken from it (Deuteronomy 4:2). The Law of Moses had made provision for a priesthood of Aaron and the Levites and animal sacrifices; Jesus is the high priest in the order of Melchizedek, fulfilling the promise of Psalm 110:1-7, and so, by necessity, there must be a change of the law (Hebrews 6:3-7:28). The Hebrews author quotes Jeremiah 31:33-34 to demonstrate how God had promised a new covenant, and the Hebrews author located that new covenant in Jesus, whose sacrifice spoke a better word and proved efficacious where animal sacrifices fell short (Hebrews 8:1-10:39).
The New Testament, therefore, abundantly testifies to the distinctions between the covenants God made with Israel and the covenant God has made with all mankind in Jesus. Israelites were either allowed or commanded to do things which are now explicitly condemned in Christ, like divorcing a spouse for any reason, or slaughtering one’s enemies (e.g. Matthew 5:38-48, 19:1-9, 1 Peter 4:1-19). Likewise, Israelites were banned from doing things which are now authorized in Christ, like eating certain kinds of foods or reconciling with a spouse who had married in the meantime (e.g. Romans 14:14-15, 1 Corinthians 7:10-11, 1 Timothy 4:1-4).
Christians must do all things in the name of the Lord Jesus (Colossians 3:17): He is Lord, and we must serve Him in all things. We learn many things from how God interacted with His people in olden days and ought to take comfort from what has been written for our learning (Romans 15:3, 1 Corinthians 10:1-12, 2 Timothy 3:15-17). We must banish the specter of Marcion from the people of God. Nevertheless, whatever we do, in word or deed, must find authority in what God has made known in Jesus through His Apostles and their associates in the New Testament. Plenty of aspects of the Law of Moses and the covenant between God and Israel help build the foundation of what God has done in Christ, and are often used to support the exhortations of what Christians ought to do in Jesus (e.g. Romans 13:8-14). And yet any practice within the covenants before Jesus which are frowned upon in the new covenant in Christ ought not be performed; likewise, practices from the days of Israel and before which find no commendation in Jesus ought to be set aside.
If the covenant between God and Israel proved sufficient to accomplish all of God’s purposes, there would have been no need for a new covenant. The covenant God has established in Christ is sufficient for all of our faith and practice; we must be wary of establishing authority for anything based on the Old Testament alone, lest we be found to have fallen from the grace God has given us in Christ on the final day. God has fulfilled His purposes for Israel in Jesus; may we become part of God’s people in Jesus and obtain the resurrection of life in Him!
Ethan R. Longhenry