In this third post about the covenant of Moses we begin by discussing the problems of interpreting how the old covenant interacts with the new covenant.
Instead of resolving the problems of interpreting where we are between the “already” and the “not yet” concerning the application of the law of God in the new covenant, Robertson continues with the contrast between the new covenant and the old.
Because of the law’s effectiveness in revealing sin, it subjected man to curse… Instead of bringing in its wake condemnation and death, the new covenant effects righteousness and life. The superiority of this consummative covenant resides not merely in its having some material characteristic of greater glory. Instead, that which the new covenant accomplishes declares to the world its greater glory. (p. 192-193)
To sum up 2 Cor. 3, the new covenant, in contrast to the old, is more glorious, unfading (permanent) and it reveals that which the previous covenant did not: that the goal of the law was to be realized in Christ. The veil symbolizes Israel’s blindness to the “transitoriness [sic] of the law’s administration.” (p. 193-196)
Paul, however, does not despair over Israel. For no veil coves the ministry of the new covenant. Its glory does not fade. With “unveiled face” (v. 18) every covenant believer stands in the immediate presence of the Lord. He shares in the uniquely privileged position of Moses, rather than simply receiving from Moses the report concerning God’s revelation. Beholding constantly as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, he is “metamorphosized” [sic] from glory to glory. (p. 197-198)
But the participant in the new covenant passes from glory to glory. Because the Lord, who is the Spirit, lives within the believer, his glory never fades. By the Lord, the Spirit, he is changed into the likeness of God’s own son.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus manifested himself as the new lawgiver. His “I say unto you” (Matt. 5:22 etc.) displayed his role in relation to the law as superior to that of Moses. Rather than reporting a revelation which he had received, Christ propounded the law of the new covenant as its author himself. (p. 198)
In Matt. 17:2-5 Jesus is portrayed as superior to Moses and Elijah at the transfiguration.
Moses the law-mediator ministered as a servant in God’s house. But Christ the law-originator rules as Son over God’s house (Heb. 3:5, 6).
Paul the apostle indicates that Christ is the end [goal] of the law to all who believe (Rom. 12:4). The convicting, condemning power of the law exhausts its accusations in Christ.
In order to be that end, Christ fulfilled all righteousness. He kept the whole law perfectly, while at the same time bearing in himself the curses of the law. From every perspective, the covenant of law consummates in Jesus Christ.” (p. 199)
I like the esteem in which Robertson holds the Mosaic Covenant.
Somehow, something of God’s law finds its way into the new covenant. Somehow the church acknowledges the validity of the 10 Commandments (though some parts of the church may disagree about which day to keep holy).
According to the principles mentioned in earlier sections of his book each covenant contains core elements of previous covenants. He does a very good job of explaining how the new covenant transforms elements of the Mosaic covenant into a more glorious salvation that features a more glorious administration of God’s law through Jesus Christ, the “law-originator.”
One thing his analysis misses is how the historical progression of the Mosaic Covenant affects the New Testament interpretation of it.
For instance, we only have a vague notion of what the Apostle Paul meant by the “curse of the law” in his analysis.
A closer look at the end of the book of Deuteronomy fills in some of the gaps. Deuteronomy 28 outlines the blessings involved in adhering to the conditions of the covenant as well as the curses for disobedience. Those curses increase in severity until they culminate in exile from their land as slaves in a foreign country. Not only are they slaves in exile, but God promises to persecute them even in captivity for their faithlessness.
That is the curse of the law. Once these provisions of the curse are enacted there is no turning back.
The only way out is for God to grant entrance into a new covenant that nullifies the penalty of the old. (Deut. 30:1-10)
This is the penalty Jesus takes upon himself to redeem his people. He is handed over to the Roman authorities (exile) who cruelly abuse him, then kill him. (This is an oversimplification, since there is a specific punishment for Davidic kings that Jesus also suffers.)
Another element that is missing in his analysis is one that is missed in any others I have seen as well. The writer of the book of Hebrews exegetes the famous passage about a “new covenant” in Jeremiah 31 as proving that the “old covenant” is now obsolete because Jesus brings a new one. What this common understanding misses is that he is exegeting an Old Testament prophet who writes as Judah is in its final decline, with exile into Babylonian captivity looming. This captivity and exile occurred during his ministry as a prophet.
In other words, Jeremiah knew that the end was near for the blessings of the covenant. Soon there would only be the final curses in force, with no end in sight except the possibility of a new covenant with a Messiah – a new Moses – who would once again lead them out of captivity according to the words of Moses in Deut. 30:1-10.
Note that provision for the possibility of a new covenant was already established within the old covenant. This means that the old covenant continues to be relevant even if its blessings are no longer available. (For that matter, it also remains relevant for those who continue to be caught in its curse.)
With this in mind, Jeremiah was aware that the covenant was already broken beyond repair, even in his own day. The writer of Hebrews even acknowledges this by stating outright that the Israelites broke the covenant in 8:7-8. The words being quoted were spoken by Jeremiah more than 600 years before this exegesis.
If his exegesis is correct: God, through Jeremiah, had made that covenant obsolete more than 600 years before the writer of Hebrews wrote his book.
This explains why the Apostle Paul warns the Galatians not to fall into the trap of relying on that covenant to save them. There is no salvation to be found in a covenant that is already in condemnation mode (no more blessing, only curse). It had been that way for more than 600 years.
Moses indicates that any “new covenant” will seemingly follow the same law that was given to Israel as it entered the Promised Land. (Deut. 30: 6-10).
Jeremiah 31:31 reiterates the promise that God’s law will be implanted within their hearts instead of on stone tablets. He does not indicate that it will be a “new” or “different” law from the one God gave Israel.
So… What is a New Covenant Christian supposed to do with the Law of Moses???
As Christians, we need to have a deep and abiding respect for the Law of Moses.
We need to remember that many aspects of that law were administered in a certain context. For instance, while the Israelites were in the wilderness they could hardly administer a Sabbath of the land. For the first two years in the wilderness there was no tabernacle or priesthood. Those things were added as there was a need for them. The same goes for a kingship, which may have been added 3 or 4 centuries later. That law always adapted to circumstances with a certain flexibility.
The condition of Christians is very much like that of Israel in the wilderness, following the “Angel of the Lord” wherever he leads. Jesus is now our light, shelter and guide, but we are not yet fully in the Promised Land. As the writer of Hebrews points out, we are looking for a “heavenly country,” a “city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” In short, we are looking for a “new heavens and a new earth wherein righteousness dwells.”
We are also looking for new bodies that are incorruptible with which to live upon this new earth.
That is the new covenant.
Because of Jesus’ atoning death and resurrection we already have: A New Heart for a New Start of a New Life of love and obedience to Jesus through the Holy Spirit.
And when Jesus returns: a New Body to live forever under a New Heavens on a New Earth in perfect obedience to God’s will.
Have we reached the point of perfect obedience yet? Are we at the point where all Christians no longer need teachers? Unfortunately, no. We seem to be living at a time during which the law is still being written on our hearts by the Holy Spirit.
Moses’ and Jeremiah’s prophetic visions cover the entire span of human self-rule as well as the time of final consummation of God’s plan. We need to be careful to figure out where we are in that prophetic time-frame in terms of fulfilment before judging others for not being “there yet.” To that end, I would commend two things we can study about in the Covenant of Moses to increase both our understanding and our respect for it.
- It is wise to study the Covenant of Moses to see how Jesus fulfills the types and prophecies contained in it. For instance, how does Jesus fulfill the type of the kinsman-redeemer in Leviticus 25:25? (A more detailed look at the kinsman-redeemer occurs in the book of Ruth.)
- It is also wise to study the rules themselves to see how they can help us think about love for our neighbour in specific ways. For instance, farmers are required to leave the corners of their fields un-harvested in order to allow poor people to come onto their fields to harvest food for themselves and their families. A certain dignity for the poor is assured because it is not a handout. The poor have at least some of the satisfaction of working for their living. It would be wise to build something like that dignity into our own care for the poor.
We are not an agrarian society, so some imagination will be required to find an equivalent way to help the poor. That ancient law can be a good starting point to help us think through the issues of how to get along with our neighbour in fair and truly helpful ways. Only if we have a deep and abiding respect for it can it be useful in this way.
The Apostle Paul loved the law. He calls it holy, just and true. At no point does he ever denigrate it or put it down, even when he discusses how much better the new covenant administration of it is than the old.
When I was ten years old I was presented with a Gideon’s New Testament (King James Version). As I perused it I noticed that the introductory pages included the Ten Commandments. I found them fascinating and very sensible, at least after my father explained what “adultery” meant in terms a ten-year-old could understand. These sensible commandments stand at the heart of the Old Covenant, yet the church, as a whole, honours them as the law of God. I believe that the church does so with good reason.
We need to remember that the covenant of Moses contains the revealed will of God that includes provision for the Kingship of Jesus as well as provision for a Second Exodus for all whose hearts are circumcised and who call upon Jesus’ name. Even if we Gentile Christians do not adhere to certain provisions that do not apply to us in this time and place, we would do well to honour and respect the Mosaic Law as an integral and necessary part of God’s plan for our redemption.
If we’re not careful, we might even learn something from it.