by Jacob Ninan
The Old Testament was given through Moses to Israel on Mount Sinai after they had left Egypt on the way to the Promised Land. This covenant was meant to prepare the people for the coming of the Messiah (Hebrew - the Anointed One. Greek - Christ). As such it was like a guardian bringing up a young boy till he came of age and could take over the responsibility of the home (Galatians 3:23) or a tutor preparing a student for higher studies (v. 24). It was a weak covenant for a weak people till Christ could come with the New Testament. The commandments dealt mostly with external actions, and the reward and punishment were also earthly. Israel could not keep the commandments, and went again and again to idol worship following the people around them.
The great lack under the Old Covenant was that the people could not have the Holy Spirit in them to teach them and to enable them to keep the commandments. In other words, the experience of the people of Israel demonstrated the fact that man by his own strength is incapable of coming up to the standards of God. Most people failed in keeping even the external commandments of God, and exceptional men like Saul of Tarsus who kept themselves blameless according to the law (Philippians 3:6) found themselves exposed when it came to inward matters such as coveting (Romans 7:7-11). Under the New Covenant, people can now be born again—receive a new heart, and have God write His laws on it—and be filled with the Holy Spirit. This brings about an inner transformation of life that becomes more and more like the life of Jesus.
After the New Covenant came, the Old Covenant has become obsolete (Hebrews 8:13). Now we have a higher law, the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus, that has taken us beyond the laws of the Old Covenant (Romans 8:2).
A lot of confusion exists among Christians because many people have not understood the difference between the old and the new covenants. Many people only think of the Old Testament and the New Testament as divisions of the Bible or history. We need to remember three things about the Old Testament (covenant). 1) God had meant it to be temporary, to be replaced by the New Testament at the right time. 2) The Old Testament was a weak covenant for weak people, and dealt only with external behaviour and meant to demonstrate that man is not capable of coming up to God’s standards. 3) The Old Testament was a ‘shadow’ of the New Testament, and had many limited models till the Messiah came with the perfect structure.
It is not possible to understand the New Covenant properly without knowing the Old Covenant and God’s work for the people through it. However we must not forget that now the Old Covenant has been taken away and replaced by the New Covenant. As Christians we must live under the New Covenant. (This is not to say that the Old Testament part of the Bible is not important any more. The whole Bible is necessary for our spiritual growth. What we must differentiate is between the old and the new covenants which are discussed all over the Bible.)
a. The Ten Commandments
The Ten Commandments were the backbone of the Old Covenant (Exodus 20:1-17). The first four related to man’s dealings with God and the other six with dealings among men. Jesus summarised them into two commandments to love God with all our heart and to love our neighbour as ourselves. The Ten Commandments gave the outline of God’s standards for men on moral issues, and these were further expanded through more descriptive and specific instructions on dos and don’ts. The laws were read out to the people by Moses and the people agreed to do whatever the Lord commanded them (Exodus 24:3). Then Moses sprinkled the blood of bulls on the people saying that it was the blood of the covenant (v.8). Later on God warned the people that if they obeyed the commandments they would receive blessings and if not they would receive curses (Deuteronomy 28).
An important point to remember is that the commandments were given so as to ensure happy and blessed lives, and not to restrict their freedom nor to take away their enjoyment. God knew that the temporary pleasure or gain that sin offered would turn back on them and bite them like a serpent to cause them pain, sorrow and regret in future. Satan often tries to deceive people into looking at God as a hard-hearted, no-fun, policeman-around-the-corner type of person who takes sadistic delight in catching people when they slip up. No. The commandments are a mark of His love for us.
Another important point for us to recognise is that the Ten Commandments are not the expression of God’s best standards. These were the commandments given to ‘spiritual freshers,’ laying down a set of minimum standards. Jesus explained later that what God really wants from us is a much higher standard. For example, He said it was not sufficient to keep from murder but we should also stop getting angry with people (Matthew 5:21,22). It was not enough to stop committing adultery, but we should also stop looking with lust (Matthew 5:27,28). The Ten Commandments were the best under the Old Testament, but Jesus came with something better, the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:2).
b. The ceremonial rules
Along with the Ten Commandments, God also gave Israel many other commandments and instructions regarding ceremonial aspects. These included rules regarding religious ceremonies, those related to religiously ‘clean and unclean’ things, and others related to hygiene. The Levitical priests were responsible for carrying out the ceremonies and also for deciding on other issues related to implementation of these rules. The purpose of these laws was to create a sense within the people’s minds with regard to what was acceptable to God and not. These laws also gave way under the New Testament.
c. The role of Israel
God’s purpose in raising up Israel as a nation was to use them as a model for the rest of the world, and then to ultimately save the rest of the world also through the Messiah who would come from them. He gave them the laws, and raised up prophets, teachers and kings to take care of them. But the people of Israel kept going astray and getting mixed up with the idol worship of the nations around them. They also imagined that they were special people compared to the others—Gentiles—and acted arrogantly and carelessly. The Messiah (Christ) was born as a Jew. But since the people were looking for a political deliverer and not a spiritual saviour, they did not recognise Him. They rejected and crucified their Messiah. But at this point God opened up salvation even to the Gentiles.
The people of Israel are still special to God because of His promise to Abraham. There are many prophecies concerning their future still to be fulfilled. In the meantime the Jews are still waiting for their Messiah.
d. The new covenant prophecies
God had the new covenant in His mind even before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:1-12). Even when Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden of Eden, God promised that that the Seed of man would break the serpent’s head, which referred to Jesus overcoming Satan on the cross and delivering people from his hands. When Israel started showing signs of breaking the Old Testament, God started giving prophecies about the New Testament and what it would do for the people.
In Isaiah 1 God spoke about how He had disciplined Israel again and again when they went after other gods, and about what He was planning to do for them. He introduced the new covenant by saying that even if their sins were red like crimson, He would wash them and make them white as snow (v. 18). This was an introduction to grace under which He would show them favour they did not merit by themselves. Now we are saved, not based on what we do, but by grace as a gift through faith (Ephesians 2:7-9).
God would take away the heart of stone and give a heart of flesh. He will put a new spirit within us (Ezekiel 36:26). This is the description of being born again (John 3:3,5).
God would write His laws on our hearts, and will help us to walk in His ways (Jeremiah 31:33; Ezekiel 36:27). This is the new nature that we receive when we are born again. We hate to sin and we want to do what is pleasing to God (Hebrews 1:9; 10:7).
God will enable each one of us to hear His voice and have a personal relationship with Him (Jeremiah 31:34). He abolished the system of priests, prophets and kings and gave each one of us direct access to Him.
God said He would forgive us and not remember our sins anymore (Jeremiah 31:34). It does not mean that He forgets them (God cannot forget anything), but that He will not bring up our sins to His memory. In other words He will not hold our sins against us anymore.
e. Israel at the time of Jesus
Israel as a nation had been conquered by the Romans and Caesar was ruling over it. Herod the Great (during the time Jesus was born) and later his son Herod Antipas were ruling Israel under Rome. There was also a Procurator who represented the Emperor of Rome at Jerusalem. Pontius Pilate was the Procurator at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion. There were Jewish tax collectors who collected taxes from the Jews for Rome who were hated by the Jews not only for working for Rome but also for extorting more money from them in the name of taxes.
There were three major religious groups among the Jews at the time of Jesus – the Pharisees, the Sadducees and the Essenes. The name ‘Pharisees’ comes from a Hebrew word meaning ‘separate.’ This term was applied to this sect because of their extreme devotion to the Mosaic law and commitment to leading a separated life. They had a zeal for keeping the law, but in wanting to keep all the details of the law strictly they missed the spirit and ended up in legalism. In trying to interpret the law for daily life they ended up making a lot of strict rules and regulations which neither they nor anyone else could keep. Jesus came into conflict with them at every point of His ministry (Matthew 23). The Sadducees were a Jewish sect who were sceptical, rationalistic and worldly minded, denying the existence of anything supernatural such as miracles, angels or spirits (Acts 23:8). They did not believe in a life after death (Mt. 22:23-33). The Pharisees and Sadducees were both members of the Sanhedrin (Acts 23:6) and were rivals. The Essenes were a mystic or ascetic order among the Jews (similar to monasteries) who shared their goods, abstained from meat, wore white dresses, etc. Since they isolated themselves from the common man Jesus did not come into conflict with them.
Israel had been set free from idol worship after the disciplinary periods of captivity under the Assyrians and the Babylonians. Now they had a new temple at Jerusalem (built by Herod the Great). The religious Jews were waiting in expectation for the coming of the Messiah. But they did not understand the prophetic references to the servant Messiah who would suffer and die for the sins of the people and who would start a kingdom of righteousness, peace and joy. They expected Him to come as a king and overthrow the Roman rule. The Pharisees who were the main teachers of the law at that time had interpreted the Law in external actions without understanding the spirit behind it. As a result of these things, Israel did not recognise the Messiah when He stood in their midst and preached on life in the spirit and a spiritual kingdom. Even though it was the Romans who killed Jesus, it was the Jews who handed Him over to death. Caiaphas, the High Priest, was the one who decided that Jesus should be killed, and God in His sovereignty saw to it that Jesus became the Passover Lamb who died for the sins of the whole world.
f. Freedom under the New Covenant
The New Covenant brought in the ultimate plan of God for man. What the Old Covenant portrayed were the elementary moral standards of God laid down in terms of external actions, as seen in the Ten Commandments. When Christ came, He came as the body that cast the shadow that had been seen in the Old Covenant (Colossians 2:16,17). All the commandments in the Old Covenant found their ultimate fulfilment in the New Covenant. Jesus said that He had come to fulfil the Law (Matthew 5:17). But He did this by fulfilling the spirit of the law rather than the letter.
Jesus said that while murder was prohibited under the Old Covenant, even getting angry with a brother was just as bad (Matthew 5:21,22). If adultery was banned earlier, Jesus said that looking at a woman with lust was actually committing it in one’s heart (Matthew 5:27,28). What Jesus was basically saying was that it was not sufficient in God’s eyes that we keep good standards externally but that we needed to keep them in our hearts. God looks at the heart, and we are going to be finally assessed on the basis of our thoughts and motives rather than our deeds (1 Samuel 16:7; 1 Corinthians 4:5; Hebrews 4:12).
Some people think that these higher standards of the New Covenant bring them under greater bondage as compared to the Old Covenant because they are not able to keep those standards. It is true that the new standards are far higher. But what we need to understand is that the New Covenant also gives us a better framework to live under.
When we repent and place our trust in Jesus, God causes us to be born again. He takes away our heart of stone (which was rebellious, selfish and independent of God) and gives us a new heart of flesh (Ezekiel 11:19). He writes His laws upon our hearts (Hebrews 8:10). Now we hate to do sin and we love to obey God (Hebrews 1:9). So we do not want to sin any more. The Holy Spirit helps us to remember the things we have heard from Jesus (John 14:26) and warn us when we tend to go astray (Isaiah 30:21). We can have personal fellowship with God (Hebrews 8:11). This begins as a transformation of our mind and slowly translates into action and finally character. In this way our righteousness becomes far greater than that of the Pharisees, because their righteousness was merely external (Matthew 23).
God washes the stain of our sins with the blood of Jesus Christ so that our hearts become white like snow (Isaiah 1:18). He will not hold our sins against us any more (Hebrews 8:12). We do not have to face condemnation any more (Romans 8:1). If we fall into sin, we can be forgiven again when we go to God and confess our sins (1 John 1:9). If we are walking sincerely before God according to the light and understanding that we have, the blood of Jesus Christ keeps washing us of the sins we do unknowingly (1 John 1:7). God will not punish us for the sins of our ancestors (Ezekiel 18:20).
Since our life becomes driven from the inside rather than controlled from the outside, all the ceremonial laws that the Jews had no longer apply to us. We are no longer to worry about clean and unclean foods, keeping days (Sabbaths) or places as holy, keeping festivals, etc. (Colossians 2:16). Since Jesus has conquered Satan and all his demons on the cross of Calvary (Colossians 2:15), and He has given us all power and authority over them in His name (Luke 9:1; Matthew 28:18) we do not have to fear them anymore. We do not have to be anxious about the future and about money because as we seek God’s kingdom and His righteousness all the things that we need will be given to us (Matthew 6:33). He has promised never to desert or leave us (Hebrews 13:5). Since Jesus has risen from the dead and gone ahead to prepare a place for us in heaven we are not afraid of death (John 14:3; 1 Corinthians 15:54,55). God has given us brothers and sisters on earth so that we can encourage and strengthen one another. Jesus has removed the barrier between the genders, races, languages, cultures, etc., because all can become children of God (Ephesians 2:14).