‘I believe we live in a waiting age when multitudes are convinced that something vastly deeper than they know in the present church is fundamentally needed. The land is full of seekers; the church is full of seekers… Over the horizon men dimly see something glorious, they know not what. But what they see is Christ walking again in lowly simple love, recapturing the church for Himself, rebuking the scribes and Pharisees, who sit in Moses’ seat, and tenderly leading men to share in His immediacy and enthrallment in God.’
(Thomas Kelley, 1893-1941)
Welcome dear reader to a challenging but exciting journey! It is one of discovering (or perhaps re-discovering) the new covenant of Jesus Christ together.
Very briefly, my own journey began just over ten years ago, after pastoring mainline churches for decades. At that time God in his sovereignty put my wife and myself on ‘a road less travelled,’ outside of denominational churches. Along the way, naturally and graciously, the Lord gave us a new understanding of many things, including Christ’s new covenant with his people. (I’ve discovered quite recently how this is happening in the lives of many believers all over the world, many testifying of a new freedom and glory in Christ)
The scriptural basis for this journey is broad, so I shall highlight only a few ‘peak passages’ lest I lose my readers along the road! Oh yes, before we set out, can we perhaps agree to humbly try and set aside any ‘theological systems’ we may have imposed on the Bible, probably inadvertently, and let the text speak for itself?
- Our first stop-over is with our spiritual forefather, Abram, in the ancient Middle Eastern city of Ur, recorded in Gen. 12:1ff (? BC). God calls Abram to leave kin and country with the covenant promise, ‘I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing… in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’
- Our next stop is with the OT prophet Isaiah (701-681 BC?), who repeatedly reminds God’s covenant people of their call to ‘be a light to the Gentiles and the nations of the earth.’ They would ignore this command at their own peril.
- The next stop is with the OT prophet Jeremiah (626-586 BC, 586 being the year Israel went into Babylonian exile). “The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt – a covenant that they broke… this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more’ (31:31-34). [NB! unlike many today, the OT itself never divides up the law into categories, i.e. dietary law, ceremonial law and moral law. The law = the law]
- We stop over with the OT prophet Ezekiel (593-563 BC), who speaks about God’s covenant people being given ‘one heart, a heart of flesh, a new spirit within,’ so that they may truly obey God (11:19-20).
- Centuries later we meet up with the apostle Paul, who counters the threat of the Judaisers to the Galatian believers (48-53 AD?) by teaching extensively on the matter of ‘law and faith.’ “Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian (Gr. paidagogos, i.e, a personal slave-attendant accompanying a freeborn boy, a kind of child minder-cum-informal teacher) until Christ came, so that we may be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith… There is no longer Jew or Greek… for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, you are Abraham’s seed, heirs according to the promise’ (3:23-29). We may also here recall Paul’s earlier rebuke of Peter, Barnabas and others: “But when I saw that they were not acting consistently with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, ‘If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?'” (2:14) Why must I as an ‘adult’ Gentile follower of Jesus be pressurised by modern Gentile Judaisers, to live like a Jew? Why shouldn’t I enjoy my eggs with bacon?
- Next we stop over with Paul as he writes his second letter to the Corinthians (55 AD?) re ‘Ministers of the New Covenant,’ to counter the accusations of false apostles among them. ‘You are a letter of Christ, prepared by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts…’ God ‘has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter kills but the Spirit gives life. Now if the ministry of death, chiselled in letters on stone tablets, came in glory … how much more will the ministry of the Spirit come in glory? … indeed, what once had glory has lots its glory because of the greater glory’ (3:1ff). Speaking about Israel, Paul indicates that whenever the old covenant was read, a ‘veil’ blinded God’s people. ‘When one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit’ (v. 6-18). [maybe you think at this point that I am headed toward libertinism, quite the contrary, as you can check out from my blog series Cheap Grace] Over the years I have painfully learned that the most powerful restraint from sin is not fear of the law but the sheer love of Christ (2 Cor. 5:14-15). Love will lead us where fear never will. ‘God may thunder his commands from Mount Sinai and men may fear, yet remain at heart exactly as they were before. But let a man once see his God down in the arena as a Man – suffering, tempted, sweating and agonized, finally dying a criminal’s death – and he is a hard man indeed who is untouched’ (Dr. J.B. Phillips, 1906-1982).
- We visit Paul writing to the Roman believers (57 AD?). He pens some interesting words concerning God’s ‘elect,’ ‘For not all Israelites truly belong to Israel, and not all of Abraham’s children are his true descendants… it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise…’ (9:6-8).
- Our final stop-over is with the author of the Hebrews letter (prior to 70 AD). Again the problem is Judaisers, pressurising Jewish believers to return to law-keeping. The writer presents them with Jesus, the mediator of a ‘better covenant,’ “which has been enacted through better promises. For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no need of a second one… ‘The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah; not like the covenant that I made with their ancestors… for they did not continue in my covenant… This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days… (echoes of Jer. 31 follow) I will put my laws in their minds, and write them on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And they shall not teach one another or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least to the greatest. For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.’ In speaking of ‘a new covenant,’ he has made the first one obsolete. And what is obsolete and growing old will soon disappear.” Would you prefer a Model-T Ford or a modern 4X4 SUV for travelling over land from ‘Cape to Cairo’?? I know what I would choose.
Before we take a coffee/tea break, let’s do a reality check: what do you and I know, cognitively and experientially, of this new freedom and glory through Christ alone? What about our faith community, whether traditional or non-traditional, large or small?
THE FREEDOM AND THE GLORY!
(DISCOVERING THE NEW COVENANT TOGETHER: PT. 2)
When making a journey it’s often exciting to look back and trace all the way you have come… why not quickly scan Pt. 1 above?
As we journey on, shall we now consult the trail-blazer himself, Jesus? As Canadian pastor and author Bruxy Cavey once put it, ‘If the Bible is God’s instruction manual on how to live life, Jesus is God’s instruction manual on how to read the Bible.’ Light shows us what shadow never will.
- Yes, Jesus did warn his followers against ‘abolishing’ the laws and the prophets. He stated in the ‘Sermon on the Mount,’ ‘I have come not to abolish but to fulfill‘ (Mt. 5:17ff). Let’s not rush over those words. ‘Abolish’ means annul, destroy, do away with. ‘Fulfill’ means to finish, or complete. Benjamin Corey illustrates: If I were to say that my daughter’s softball game was cancelled (abolished), it would say two things: the game is over and it finished prior to its natural end. However, if I said that my daughter’s softball game has been completed (fulfilled) it would reveal that the game was in fact over and did not finish prior to the natural end.’ Seems logical to me. In any case, when the Pharisees try to trip up Jesus on the law, Christ presents to them, in a nutshell, the very essence of the commandments as meaning to ‘love God, and our neighbour as ourselves’ (Mt. 22:34-40). As simple as that! To summarise, ‘In the old covenant, man tried to do things for God; in the new covenant, God comes to work in the place of man. The difference is incalculable.’ (Rodrigo Abarca)
- Jesus reveals that what his people Israel were unable to be, he became and continues to do so. Isaiah’s sad ‘Song of the Unfruitful Vineyard’ reads: ‘My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a vine vat in it; he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes’ (5:1-5). Contrast John’s account of Jesus as ‘The True Vine’: ‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower… Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me… Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.’ (Jn. 15:1-17)
- Think of Jesus and the temple in Jerusalem. Jesus presents himself as ‘greater than’ Moses, the old covenant law, the prophets, David, Solomon, Jonah, and the temple. ‘I tell you (the disciples and the Pharisees), something greater than the temple is here’ (Mt. 12:6). Jesus was revealing himself as the new temple (Mt. 26:61), the new Israel! Irish OT scholar Christopher Wright writes, ‘The NT presents Jesus to us as the Messiah, Jesus the Christ. And the Messiah was Israel. That is, the Messiah was Israel, representatively and personified. The Messiah was the completion of all that Israel had been put into the world for – i.e, God’s self-revelation and his work of human redemption.’ Today many recognise Anglican Tom Wright as one of the experts on Jesus and the Gospels – he writes in his must-read The Challenge of Jesus: ‘Jesus came as the true Israel, the world’s true light, and as the true image of the invisible God. He was the true Jew, the true human.’ [Sadly, this has become a rather emotive matter, especially among some Western believers. They would label the above scholars and myself as promoting ‘replacement theology,’ i.e replacing Israel with Jesus and the Church. I prefer to call it ‘fulfilment theology.’ There is a subtle but critical difference. If you see things differently, I surely respect that. I simply ask for the same respect. I would love you to finish this journey with me!]
What are some of the practical benefits of discovering Christ’s new covenant? Let me mention four…
First, this journey expands our intimacy with God. Our walk with God becomes more relational. We relate to him not so much as holy Law-giver as Holy Lover. Old covenant people are often terrified that this new covenant understanding will undermine our fear (honouring) of God, when it in fact strengthens it – that is my personal and our family testimony. Our walk with God is no longer performance and guilt-based. I’ve been saying to my friends for years that most church-goers ‘live like old covenant people rather than new covenant people’ (Frank Viola, David Gay and others concur). My paternal forebears were raised in an austere Calvinistic, Reformed denomination where the ten commandments were read at every service (by the way, I called myself a ‘Reformed Baptist’ once. I still have good friends among my Reformed colleagues). Instead of pointing them to God’s grace in Christ, the law emphasis seemed to lead largely to fear, condemnation, guilt and even despair. Here’s another confession: for many years I was guilty, like so many preachers, of preaching a kind of ‘try harder gospel’: i.e. attend more, pray more, Bible study more, evangelise more, etc. In recent visits to churches I see many church members bowed down and disillusioned. They did ‘try harder,’ but somehow it didn’t work. However, when we begin to ‘abide in Christ’ as ‘he abides in us’ (Jn. 15), things change! It’s more spontaneous, it’s organic. Why? We know from Scripture how closely Abraham, Moses, and David related to God. Those under the new covenant have an even closer relationship with God through simple faith in Jesus: ‘all these (Abraham, Moses, David, etc), though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.’ (Heb. 11:39-40).
Second, this journey expands our understanding of church. ‘Church’ is no longer a temple, a special building where believers go to find God once or twice a week. Rather Immanuel is our temple, and those in his body his portable temples 24/7, reflecting his glory wherever they go. I have blogged much on this subject, so won’t labour the point. Over and above the passages mentioned in Part 1, you could look at 1 Cor. 3:16-17; 1 Cor. 6:19-20; 1 Pet. 2:4-10; etc.
We’ve climbed a steep hill! Shall we take another breather on our journey, and then come back to complete the last lap?
THE FREEDOM AND THE GLORY!
(DISCOVERING THE NEW COVENANT OF CHRIST TOGETHER: PT. 3)
Some years ago, a new couple moved in across the road. She had grown up in rural Eastern Cape (South Africa), he in England. She loved farm life, he had spent his life on boats on the English coast. They got married, and she brought him to South Africa. They motored down from the High Veldt, through the Free State, and then entered the Cape Province. They stopped on the escarpment, looking down on the Great Karoo which stretched into the distance for ever. He burst into the tears. He had never seen anything so big, so expansive and spacious in his life! That happens when we take the New Covenant road…
Third, our journey expands our experience of God’s ultimate purpose in Christ, viz. to ‘gather up all things in him (Christ), things in heaven and on earth’ (Eph. 1:10). We who are ‘in Christ’ get to be full participants in this magnificent process, beginning in Gen. 1 and concluding in Rev. 22! God’s church is not a hiccup in his saving purpose, it is vital to transforming the whole earth. God influences the whole universe through his people: ‘so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now (!) be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was in accordance with the eternal purpose that he has carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord’ (Eph. 3:10-11). When we read in Jn. 14:15ff of Jesus’ promise to ‘come again’ to his people, it includes his coming in the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Those first recipients turned their world upside down. Jesus dwells in the world in/through his people! We carry within us the divine life of Christ. My wife and I could give many examples of this happening in the marketplace, and we are just very ordinary, ragamuffin believers. Sadly the church at large has been so brain-washed with the idea that its all just about getting to ‘heaven,’ ‘just Jesus and me,’ that they have missed the big picture. They are just biding time until Jesus comes for us on the clouds – meanwhile Jesus is continuing his life on this planet through you and me right now. Jesus is no ‘absentee land-lord!’ (Jon Zens). This gives us purpose, without which we become depressed and die (cf. Auschwitz survivor, Viktor Frankl). God’s kingdom has come in Christ, is coming in Christ, and will come in Christ. As Prof. Gary Burge of Wheaton College has said, it’s a tragedy when Western believers’ zeal for the end of the world outstrips their love for all the peoples of the world.
Fourth, this journey enables us to live lightly. Again I will not go into detail, having blogged on this under the title, Learning to Live Lightly! You remember Jesus’ well-known invitation to the weary and heavy laden to come to him for rest? (Mt. 11:28-30) We’ve quoted it, preached it, read it in gospel tracts, etc. Unfortunately we have often overlooked the context. The background includes Jesus’ dealings with the Pharisees who heaped heavy religious and law-keeping burdens on the shoulders of God’s people. Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase puts Jesus’ invitation correctly and beautifully: ‘Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me – watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.’ Let’s just say that it actually works, particularly if you practise it every day.
As we wind up, a word of balance:
- New Covenant theology embraces a theology of suffering. Few know that Dr. J.B. Phillips, quoted earlier, had a near-death experience in his twenties, laboriously paraphrased the NT for his beloved young people while hiding in bomb-shelters during the London ‘blitz,’ etc. He suffered from chronic depression for most of his life. Yet he triumphed by the grace of God, as evident from his vibrant paraphrase! Many of us reading this blog have walked through the fires of suffering: it is the massive grace of God in Christ that has enabled us to overcome.
- As those privileged to share in God’s magnificent new covenant, we have the huge responsibility of living it out in our present world. It will affect everything: the way we conduct our family, do our work, relate to others, treat others, especially those who may be very different to us, etc. Let us shoulder this responsibility daily and gladly, for the sake of Christ and his love.
There is much more to be said. May what I have shared whet your appetite for more of Jesus, and may he bear witness in our hearts to the truth and reality of these things!
[Footnote: Walking this road may cost you, it cost Jesus, it has cost others, it has cost us. My family and I have gradually lost a number of wonderful, long-standing family friends on this issue, causing us much pain. My wife and I have good Jewish friends both locally, in the UK and in Israel. I have visited Israel for myself, and was profoundly impacted by the land and of course the Holocaust Museum. I have been privileged to study and read the OT in Hebrew. Yes, God in his sovereignty may yet have some special plan for the Jewish people, but as I read my Bible that doesn’t include ethnic and real estate guarantees: long ago God made it clear that he was the ultimate owner of the land, ‘The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants’ (Lev. 25:23). The land was conditionally promised to Israel, as long as they remained faithful to the LORD, which they weren’t, then nor presently (cf. Lev. 20:22). In any case, God ‘so loved the world!’ (Jn. 3:16). Jesus commissioned us all to make disciples of all nations (Gr. panta ta ethne) (Mt.28:16-20), so let’s get on with the job wherever the Lord has placed us!]