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*Frequently asked questions*
The Bible, the written word of God, is our sole authority in answering all questions pertaining to our spiritual life. However, in reading the Bible, we must keep in mind that the Bible is not written like a book of science where each statement is exact and complete in itself, nor like a book of law where the goal is to elaborate matters in sections and sub-sections so as to avoid loopholes. The Bible is written for the heart, and can be understood in its proper sense only by those who are spiritually minded (1Co.2:14), and who desire to do the will of God once it is revealed (Jn.7:17). Those who want to argue against the word of God can always find arguments, and those who do not want to obey what God says can appear to find words of God themselves to support their stand. Please read the following with an open heart and a willingness to know God's ways and obey them. - Jacob Ninan
The old and the new covenants
1. What are the old and the new covenants?
In the Biblical context, I am referring to two of the covenants God has made with man. A covenant is a formal agreement between two or more parties to perform some action. In the case of God and man, a covenant is an agreement between God and His people in which God makes certain promises and sometimes requires certain behaviour from them in return. The old and the new covenants specifically refer to the covenants which God made with Israel on Mount Sinai through Moses, and the one God made with all people through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
These covenants can also be called 'testaments'. It is unfortunate that the terms 'Old Testament' and 'New Testament' were used to refer to the parts of the Bible which were written 'Before Christ' and 'After Christ'. Because of this nomenclature there is a lot of confusion about what someone means when he refers to the old testament. In order to avoid this confusion I shall be using only the terms 'old covenant' and 'new covenant' to refer to the covenants, and 'Old Testament' and 'New Testament' to refer to the parts of the Bible.
2. Why are they called 'old' and 'new' covenants?
The first covenant which God made at Sinai became 'old' when God made a new covenant through Jesus. When the new covenant came into being, the old covenant was made obsolete (He.8:13). God announced the coming of the new covenant when He found that the old covenant was not succeeding (Jer.31:31). Many people, including many Christians are living as if they are in the old covenant, even though a much better relationship is now available through the new covenant (He.7:22). When we say that the old covenant has been replaced by the new, it does not mean that the Old Testament part of the Bible has become obsolete! The Old Testament is required to teach us much about God and His ways with people, and it is foolish to neglect its study. But at the same time we must realise that the way God deals with us now is through the new covenant, and not the old covenant. It is the terms and conditions of the covenant that have changed.
3. What are the features of the old covenant?
The old covenant is based on law. God gave the people of Israel mainly the ten commandments and also several instructions, and said that they would be blessed if they kept them, and cursed if they disobeyed them (De.28:2,15). The advantages provided by the old covenant were that it gave people a general idea of God's holiness and His standards, and also set out the boundaries for their behaviour. Disadvantages were several. No man has the ability to obey all the laws entirely because of the weakness of the flesh, and as a result people always came short of the expectations of God (Ro.3:20;8:3). Secondly people have the tendency to obey God either out of a desire for the blessings or out of a fear for the curses, and not because they loved God. Thirdly, the laws of the old covenant deal mostly with the external behaviour with the result that inside them people could be still wicked (Mt.23:27). People would want to avoid getting caught, but would not necessarily want to keep the law. Fourthly since people kept on disobeying God's laws, they had to keep on making sacrificial offerings to atone for their sins. They could not come to have a clear conscience (He.10:1). In other words, the old covenant was faulty.
The old covenant was based on the performance of the people, in that God would bless them if they were obedient and would curse them if they were disobedient. The problem was that no one could manage to keep all the law. In that sense one purpose of this covenant was to demonstrate that no one could manage to find acceptance from God on the basis of doing good or being good (Ro.3:20).
4. Why did God make the old covenant if it was faulty?
Remember how God was working out a plan for the redemption of mankind after the world was destroyed through a flood in the days of Noah. First he called out one man called Abraham out of a family of idol worshippers and told him that he would ultimately bring blessings upon all the families of the earth (Ge.12:3). Through his descendents God established a nation called Israel, made a covenant with them (the old covenant), and gave them laws and commandments which would make them stand out among the people of the world as people of God. But it would be also seen through the people of Israel that no one was really able to keep the commandments of God fully. And finally God would set up the new covenant with all the people of the world. So the old covenant, even though it was faulty, was an important step in the whole process of redemption.
5. What did the old covenant accomplish?
The old covenant introduced people to the true concept of God, His holiness, His standards for human behaviour, His ways of dealing with people, etc. In this way it was like a tutor under which a child grew up before he was able to take on adult responsibility (Ga.3:23,24). It also demonstrated the fact man needed something more than the law, because he was unable to keep the law due to the weakness of the flesh. It made people long for something better, which finally came through the new covenant.
6. In what ways did the old covenant point to the new?
The old covenant gave a rudimentary picture of God's laws just as a shadow shows the outline of a real person (Co.2:16,17). The laws of Moses, by depicting the elementary requirements of God's standards, pointed to the fulness that was to come through Christ. Jesus, in the sermon on the mount, pointed towards the new covenant that was going to come. He said that while in the old covenant people were asked not to kill someone else - which was an external act -, under the new covenant we are not even to hate someone in our heart (Mt.5:21,22). He said that if the old covenant required one not to commit adultery physically, the new covenant raised it to a higher level where one should not even look at a woman with lust (Mt.5:27,28). When Israel was ripening in their backsliding and the need for the new covenant was becoming obvious, God told them about the coming of the new covenant (Je.31:31).
7. What are the features of the new covenant?
The outstanding feature of the new covenant is grace. Having demonstrated through the old covenant that man is unable to keep the commandments and qualify for acceptance by God, God is offering acceptance as a free gift. What the law (old covenant) could not do, God is accomplishing through the new covenant (Ro.8:3,4). The new covenant is all about what God will do for us - He will give us a new heart, He will write His laws on our heart, He will cause us to walk in His ways, He will not remember our sins any more (He.8:8-12). Jesus sealed this covenant with His blood, and we enter into this covenant by repenting from our sins and believing in Him.
The emphasis has shifted to the inner man, and attitudes and motives have become more important than external actions (1Co.4:5). Rituals and ceremonies have given way to an inner reality (Co.2:16,17). Worship is no longer a form but a matter of the heart (Jn.4:23).
Under the new covenant we obey God because we want to obey, now that God has given us a new heart and has started writing His laws upon it. The 'works' we do come not from a desire to somehow make an angry God happy or in order to get His blessings, but because we love Him for what He has done for us.
The Sabbath as one day out of seven to be dedicated to the Lord is no longer valid, because now all days belong to the Lord (Co.2:16,17). It is not that Saturday as the Sabbath for the Jews has now moved to Sunday as Sabbath for Christians. It is not that we cannot play games or do any work on Sunday. But since all our days belong to the Lord, whatever we do, whether we eat or drink, we have to do as unto the Lord, in ways that are acceptable to Him (1Co.10:31;Co.3:23,24). In other words, live in a way that is always pleasing to the Lord.
In the same way, now all our income belongs to the Lord, and not just 10% as in the old covenant. (See more on this in the FAQ on tithing.) It is not that we therefore must all our money to the Lord, but we must spend it all in a way that is pleasing to the Lord.
In the old covenant, things and places were considered 'holy.' Remember how Moses had to take off his sandals when he went to see the burning bush? (Ex.3:5). The "holy of holies' in temple of the Jews was a holy place into which only the High Priest could enter, and that too only once a year. But now when Jesus died the veil of the temple was torn into two, opening the way for all people into God's presence through the blood of Jesus Christ (He.10:19). Jesus also said that a time would come (under the new covenant) when worship was not a matter of place but the heart (Jn.4:23). It is not that the 'church' is a holy place where we must not smoke or tell lies. It means that we must not do in any place what is displeasing to the Lord. We are holy (set apart) for the Lord, not places or things.
In the old covenant things were made holy for the Lord, like vessels in the temple, etc. There were certain things people were not allowed to eat. But in the new covenant, things or food are not the important things, but what is inside us, in our thoughts and attitudes (Mt.15:11).
Keeping a Bible under our pillow, wearing a cross around our neck, placing Bible stickers on cars, walking around the house seven times praising God or claiming the blood of Jesus, 'blessing' wedding rings, etc., will not give us any protection from the devil, because these are all 'things' that have no power in themselves, and no power can be transmitted to them. Our power is spiritual that comes from being a child of God, and from walking with Him (Ac.19:14,15). There are many things like this we need to understand which have changed from the time of the old covenant. The symbols have given way to reality in the spirit.
8. What happens now to the Old Testament commandments?
Jesus came, not to annul the law but to fulfill it (Mt.5:17). But He raised the law to its perfect level. It is not sufficient now that we don't murder anyone. We can stop hating people. Instead of just avoiding physical adultery, we can look at women with purity. Instead of dedicating only one day in seven to God as the Sabbath, we can live all the time for God. Instead of giving just 10% of our income to God and spending the rest of the money as we like, we bring all our wealth under the ownership of God and give Him the right to tell us how to spend each cent. In effect, grace through the new covenant enables us to love God with all our heart and strength and mind and to love our fellow men as ourselves (Lk.10:27).
9. What happens if we fail on our part in the new covenant?
God's intention is that we should not fail. But He has also made provisions for us in case we fail, in that Jesus acts as our Advocate and our atonement (1Jn.2:1,2). We can confess our sins and receive forgiveness from God, and go forward again (1Jn.1:9).
10. Can people still live under the old covenant?
Many actually do, not having understood what is available under the new. They think that by keeping the commandments and by having an account of good deeds they can be pleasing to God. Many still try to keep the commandments out of fear of punishment or desire for rewards. Many still think that taking part in festivals and rituals with meticulous care can fetch them an entrance to heaven.
11. Has the new covenant taken away the ten commandments?
The new covenant actually goes far beyond the ten commandments because it has brought the domain of the law to the inner man rather than external actions. But since there are millions of people who have not entered into it yet, there is need for the ten commandments and other laws to keep them under check and also to lead them slowly to the new covenant just as it happened to Israel. Even those who have tasted of the new covenant have not fully experienced it yet, and in every area we can have the old covenant leading us like a tutor to the new covenant. See the article, Who is free from the law?
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