We have just about wrapped up the prologue of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Last time we concluded that Jesus’ sacrifice and the giving of the Holy Spirit was the beginning of the fulfilment of the law and the prophets, which would continue until Jesus’ return to complete the gathering and restoration promised in Deut. 30:1-6.
The last verse of the prologue contains a puzzling statement that is often understood to mean that the Ten Commandments are still binding on Christians, and are included in the New Covenant. What are “the least of these commandments” that Jesus says are necessary to be “greatest in the kingdom?”
If this understanding is true, we should probably be keeping the seventh day holy and refusing to work on it. I held this way of viewing it for almost 20 years myself. While I no longer believe this to be the case, I continue to have a great deal of respect for those who do.
Do we understand the two covenants as overlapping or discontinuous?
The most popular argument for continuity is that Jesus seems to be taking categories from the Ten Commandments and deepening or spiritualizing them. One can see how deepening the understanding of murder or stealing or coveting or adultery in the way Jesus describes makes sense if the new covenant is a deeper version of the older one.
What is more difficult to explain is how you can expand the fourth commandment outside the boundaries of the seventh day without violating it. Can you keep the spirit while violating the letter? For instance, following Jesus’ advice about lusting after another woman also prevents sexual relations outside of your marriage. Should a spiritual understanding of the Sabbath allow a change of day or a relaxation of the requirement to rest? Many have so concluded.
I have never been happy with that contradictions inherent in this view. In fact, I went to Bible College and Seminary primarily to get my head around contradictory ideas about the Old and New Covenants.
One key to understanding why this is not just the reworking of the previous covenant is the fact that the previous covenant predicted that a new covenant “not like the covenant I made with your forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt.” (Heb. 8:9-13 cf Jer. 31:31-34). According to the writer of Hebrews, Jeremiah is already aware that the covenant he was living under was on its way out. Why did he know that? Because the Babylonians were already about to sack Jerusalem and scatter the inhabitants all over their empire during Jeremiah’s day. Jeremiah had read about it in Deuteronomy 28-30 and knew what was coming.
There is a new covenant with a new historical prologue and new stipulations. It has a new form of circumcision: circumcision of the heart. (Remember that circumcision was how the Old Covenant was entered into.) This new circumcision enables believers to obey a new set of instructions that run so much deeper than the old set that they cannot be the same rules made more spiritual.
Worship is done differently, and the new required sacrifice was offered by Jesus Christ, who in return asks us (via the Apostle Paul) to present our bodies as a living sacrifice that brings glory to Him. The holiness required of several orders of magnitude higher: “be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.”
With the description of Jesus on the mountain teaching His disciples and the gathered crowd, we see God talking to His gathered people around another Mt. Sinai. Jesus is not just giving an interpretation of the law God gave to the Israelites. He is telling His people how to make their righteousness greater than that of the most astute keepers of the ancient law: keep My new (and much better!) law!
His “first commandment,” for example, is light-years ahead of the old commandment against murder. Any activity that causes believers to lose confidence in God puts their souls at risk and is therefore against God’s will. Calling a brother or sister useless or irredeemable can cause a wound that leads to a fracture of Jesus’ community through bitterness. This is incalculable spiritual harm. A malicious put-down is not to be tolerated in the body of Christ. (I think the reader is intended to see that the judge and jailer in this case is Jesus Himself.)
While it bears a surface resemblance to the law against murder, it cuts much closer to God’s intent for a harmonious, creative and prolific humanity. It isn’t just damage-control. It is growth-encouraging. It is the embodied will of God. And yet this doesn’t explain all of the differences between the covenants.
There is another element to be understood about this covenant. This is not a covenant that is made with a people already physically released from Egypt. This covenant begins within the captivity of the people of Israel to the Gentile-ruled system of empire-building, featuring the continuing attempt to concentrate wealth and power. The people of God are the underdogs of the world-system, not its lords. Any believers in Jesus Christ who think we can be the system’s masters are falling right into the hands of the empire-builders in the long run.
There is no physical Sabbath required because there is not yet true physical freedom from the empire-builders. Most Christians are still employed by employers and do not have the freedom to choose when they have time off. (Those who have such freedom are certainly encouraged to use it for spiritual purposes.) Because not everybody is free from slavery to working for others for their livelihood, God does not require a physical rest for all of His people. The second exodus begins in the heart and will eventually find its way to the liberation of our bodies from being lorded over.
But until that great day, the New Covenant and its stipulations belong to a people who are still scattered and persecuted. Jesus’ instructions are marching orders for living in a God-hating world that reviles God’s will. Do not be surprised if you, as followers of Jesus, end up being reviled for your good deeds. Rules about living in the Promised Land are pointless and would be counterproductive for us at this time.
Instead, Jesus tells us to be of good cheer, because He has overcome the world. We need to be living examples of His way of overcoming the world. This way includes putting away the greed inherent in empire-building ideaologies. It includes not trying to make a living off the backs of others. It includes avoiding the quick score or defrauding others for a quick profit. It runs completely counter to the “greed is good” ideology of the present world order.
That’s why His New Covenant is not just a spiritualizing of the Old Covenant. The demise of the previous covenant in disobedience and curse, combined with the scattered condition of the New Covenant believers makes it necessary for the New Covenant to have different stipulations, conditions and rewards than the previous covenant.