Disclaimer: The post below results from the amalgamation of two messages given here at Wascana Fellowship, with additional background not provided during the sessions to help clarify my explanation. The way it is presented here differs in order and style from the way it was presented in person. As a further clarification, I am no longer a member of the denomination named below. The views I express regarding the Old Testament Law and its relationship to the Old and New Covenants is my own, and not that of the denomination, schools or professors listed below. Any misrepresentations of views held by others named below are unintentional and will be corrected upon discovery or notification.
For the first 15 years of my time in the Worldwide Church of God I believed that it was necessary to obey every part of the Old Covenant Law that it was possible to obey in the late 20th Century. There did not seem to be much contradiction between what Jesus (who was, after all, a Jew) taught and what Moses taught. I believed that the 10 Commandments were the basis of Judeo-Christian morality. As it turns out, this is something that most Christian denominations agree about, differing only in minor details such as how the 10 are organized and what day to celebrate the sabbath.
But I went much further under the teaching of Herbert W. Armstrong. I assumed that, because the 10 Commandments were originally found in the context of the Old Covenant, that the entire Judeo-Christian world should take the rest of that covenant as its basis of morality and action, with the exception of ceremonial and sacrificial laws that were rendered obsolete by Jesus’ sacrifice. Even this is not unique, in that the Reformed (“Calvinist”) tradition has a covenantal theology that agrees in general terms, again differing in details such as no longer requiring that Gentiles refrain from eating biblically “unclean” meats.
With the radical change in the WCG to a “grace-based” salvation came the interesting (if not radical) idea that even the 10 Commandments no longer apply in the New Covenant. Rather, only Jesus’ teaching or “the law of Christ” applies in the New Covenant. Fortunately for Western morality, Jesus teaches an ethic that reiterates and even expands on the basic principles found in 9 of the 10 Commandments.
Notice that the basic premise remains intact: the context of the 10 Commandments is that it forms the basis of the regulations of the Old (or Sinai) Covenant. What has changed is the understanding of how that applies to the church subsequent to Jesus’ death and resurrection. They went from assuming complete continuity with the Old Covenant in the New to assuming complete discontinuity between Old and New.
To me, neither of the above solutions seemed satisfactory either logically or emotionally. If the principles of 9 of them apply, why doesn’t the sabbath command apply? Why would God give Israel a complete set of laws – then send a Messiah to rescue people from its apparently oppressive burden? In other words, neither view seems to account for what is similar about the two covenants as well as what is different.
My personal need to understand the New Covenant finally drove me to attend Canadian Bible College, Canadian Theological Seminary, and finally to Briercrest Seminary, where I am finishing a Master of Divinity in Pastoral Ministry. I found professors in all three schools to be open-minded and very tolerant of questions and objections that came from outside their normal world-view. I also discovered that there is a wide range of views about precisely what was troubling me: how do we explain both the similarities and differences between the two covenants?
First, under the guidance of NT Professor Andy Reimer at CBC I came to see that the Old Covenant was not a single set of laws that was dropped out of the sky for Israel for all times and circumstances. There was an older covenant with Noah (and an even older one with Adam and Eve according to Reformed theology – something I came to agree with). Even the so-called Sinai Covenant was broken, re-made and modified before they even left Mt. Sinai. It was renewed (again with modifications) when they were about to cross the Jordan River. There were times when circumstances required changes to the law, such as the case involving a man who had daughters but no sons to inherit. This law was not an inflexible code that could never be changed, but rather a living law that changed with the times and circumstances.
Next, OT Professor Mark Boda sensitized me to the nuances of genre in biblical literature. Parables are wisdom sayings. Genesis 1 is probably a poem or psalm, so don’t expect a literal seven-day creation from it. Ecclesiastes is a royal autobiography, so don’t expect it to be an exercise in nihilism. Revelation is a letter with a large component written in the apocalyptic genre, so don’t expect a literal chronology of events from it. [It was designed to motivate churches not to cave in under Roman domination, not so much to predict the future.]
At Briercrest, NT Professor Martin Culy introduced me to the idea that there are many “echoes” of the Old Testament in the New Testament. Rather than being simple proof texts, a passage alluded to brings associations made in other parts of the original passage that are not directly quoted. (In other words, you remember the whole passage because the quote just triggers the memory of the whole thing.) The main and important ones are direct quotes from OT passages. Others with somewhat less power are allusions to OT passages (places where you can tell the writer is thinking of the passage even though it is not a direct quote). The more you read and remember the Old Testament, the greater the likelihood that these will jump out at you as the read the New Testament. Going back to the passage being quoted or alluded to may help broaden one’s understanding of what was going on in the writer’s mind as he was writing the NT passage one is reading.
Finally, OT Professor Eric Ortland explained to his Pentateuch class in 2008 that even Paul directly quotes OT law as though it applies to NT believers, though he does so in ways very different from how an OT prophet might have done so. He went through a number of possible ways to understand how Paul and others exegete the Old Testament, though he himself had not yet settled on one that completely satisfied him.
I have learned a great deal from all of the other professors at all three of these schools, but the above is the main background for what will follow. Please note that the professors listed above may not agree with my reasoning and conclusions or with the way I have woven their different ideas together. This is not intended as an ultimate statement on the subject, but rather as a place to begin a conversation.
The place that really got me thinking about the relationship of the covenants is one day when I read Hebrews 8:6-13. It occurred to me to wonder why the Old Covenant was “becoming obsolete” such a long time after Jesus’ death and resurrection. Wasn’t it already obsolete when Jesus rose? Then I realized something else about the context: that the writer seemed to be exegeting Jeremiah 31:31-34.
So who was the “he” in Heb. 8:13 who was saying that the covenant was becoming obsolete, and when did “he” say it? From the context, it seems that “he” is actually God. Yet the words being quoted come from the lips of Jeremiah, who was speaking in “thus saith the Lord” mode. So the writer of Hebrews is saying that God, through, Jeremiah, implied that the Old Covenant was becoming obsolete the moment he used the expression “new covenant.”
So when did Jeremiah use the expression being quoted? He said so in the last days of the nation of Judah, shortly before its exile into Babylonian-ruled territories. In other words, according to the writer of Hebrews, Jeremiah was speaking of the impending demise of the Old Covenant while Judah was declining to its final dissolution as a nation. Is this significant?
It might be significant if the covenant was about living a prosperous life in a land that God had given them. It might significant if the final sign that the covenant was broken beyond repair was captivity and exile, such as noted in Deuteronomy 28:15-68. Notice especially v. 64-66, “The Lord will scatter you among all peoples, from one end of the earth to the other; and there you will serve other gods, of wood and stone, which neither you nor your ancestors have known. Among those nations you will find no ease, no resting place for the sole of your foot. There the Lord will give you a trembling heart, failing eyes, and a languishing spirit. Your life shall hang in doubt before you; night and day you shall be in dread, with no assurance of your life.”
This looks like as good a general overview of the state of Jewish life throughout history as any I have seen, including under Persian, Seleucid and Roman rule. As Jerry Lewis once said to Bob Hope, “This is a certificate making you an honorary Jew. It entitles you to 2000 years of retroactive persecution.” If I am correct, this is the secret of the “curse of the law” that the Apostle Paul was warning the Galatian Judaizers about. If you want to live according to that covenant, it is already broken. All that is left of that covenant is the curse of exile and servitude to the Gentile overlords. You are asking for “retroactive persecution.”
Did that covenant have a cure for failure? The short answer is “no.” A longer answer is found in Deut. 30:1-10. Moses has been predicting that they would eventually fail to keep covenant with God, and that all of the curses would take effect. As captive Israelites come to realize the depth of their sin, he would give them hope of a new exodus. This exodus would begin in the heart – a new, circumcised heart that would love the Lord and serve him exclusively. Then the curse on them would be turned away, onto their enemies. “Then you shall again obey the Lord, observing all his commandments that I am commanding you today…” (Deut. 30:8 NRSV, emphasis mine).
The order seems to be repentance, “heart surgery” (a new heart with God’s law written on it), a second exodus, then obedience to the covenant law.
After Jesus’ death and resurrection, Peter preached repentance and baptism in Jesus’ name to receive the Holy Spirit. (Acts 2:38)
Back to Hebrews 8, where the writer is quoting Jer. 31. What exactly is God said to be writing on their hearts? His law!!!! The Holy Spirit seems to be how God writes His law on our hearts.
Whatever is going on here, it does not look like God intends us to be telling people that the law was a horrible mistake on God’s part. Yet it becomes clear that some of it cannot apply now, such as using the sacrifices to attain forgiveness of sin. How do we reconcile Paul’s statements that the law is right and just and good with his telling the Galatian Christians to avoid its “curse?”
Remember how the law could change when circumstances changed? Some things could not apply until they were in the land. Other things could not apply while they were in captivity or if they were slaves to gentiles.
My (admittedly simplistic) solution to this is
a) to understand that Jesus’ death and resurrection has changed many of the circumstances that parts of the law were based on, such as the need for sacrificial atonement for personal and communal sin
b) to understand that, just because the law is written in our hearts, this does not mean that it is possible to obey all of it in every possible circumstance in a fallen and hostile world, and
c) to realize that we are effectively still between covenants so far as the complete fulfilment of the prophecies about a second exodus is concerned
Therefore: Just as the Israelites could obey some of the laws while in the wilderness, yet had to wait for being settled in the land to obey others, so are we also in the midst of an exodus from a fallen world. We have not yet left the territory of the “ruler of this world.” Anybody who is employed by another is what would have been considered a slave in ancient Israel. Not all employed people can afford a sabbath, so Jesus does not make that a requirement for salvation in this time before His return. Since He is “Lord of the Sabbath” He can make that call.
On the other hand, those who have opportunity to obey aspects of the law that appeal to them or touch their conscience can follow Daniel’s example of dealing wisely with his overlords in Dan. 1:8-16. (I personally did this when I was in the military in my early days in WCG. I made sure they had an incentive to grant me time off for festival days I wanted to attend by working extra hard to make it worth their while. I also asked for a posting to the training base that nobody else wanted to go to – Moose Jaw, SK, – so that I could have most sabbaths off without having to fight for it.)
In the case of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt: What came first, obedience to the Law or the grace of freedom from Egyptian slavery? Freedom first, then a call for obedience. It is ever so with God. This is also the case for Christians. Grace becomes the motivation for obedience. (“I am the God who freed you from sin’s curse…”)
Seeking wisdom from the law is a very different kind of motivation than being forced to obey in order to be saved. I do not envy most children who grew up in the original WCG nor those who grew up in strict Fundamentalist/Evangelical traditions. Both were usually taught to fear God’s wrath for disobedience to whatever rules their churches made up to force them to keep whatever version of God’s law their tradition taught them to obey.
My situation was not the same. I was already an adult. And I chose to obey what I could understand of Torah. I already knew I had screwed it up, so Jesus paid the price for me – for sins committed and not-yet-committed. Maybe I’m a bit slow, but it never occurred to me that I could make it up to God by trying to be retroactively righteous.
On the other hand, what would be the point of deliberately doing something I thought God would not be pleased with if I didn’t have to? Just to prove that I live by faith, not by law? (That would be just as wise as to deliberately do something to provoke my wife’s anger, for instance.)
This is the place where morality, law, theology and conscience intersect. This is the place where we also need to give each other respect, freedom, and space. Why on earth would I want to convince a brother or sister to do something that their conscience forbids them to do? To prove that they are legalists, and I’m not? I’m sorry, but that would be just stupid beyond words.
To recap: Some parts of the “law” are relatively universal, such as loving God above all and loving our neighbour. Other parts are rendered obsolete by Jesus’ death and resurrection, such as the need for sacrificial atonement. And still other parts of the law may be waiting for the right time and circumstances to come once again into force. When Jesus returns, we will find out for sure which those might be. This approach does not solve all of the problems of law and covenants, but I hope it gives us a helpful perspective.
In the meantime, we need to give each other space to follow “the law written on our hearts,” the Holy Spirit, wherever and however He directs us individually and as groups. This probably means that we need to cut each other some slack regarding how we each understand what God wants us to do now, and what parts of the law God is asking us to obey in these difficult times of “now” and “not yet.”