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by Jacob Ninan
There is a world of difference between the old and new testaments. We can understand it better if we see that these two testaments refer to the old and new covenants which God has made with people. The old covenant was the first one He made with His people Israel through the Law of Moses. The essence of this covenant was that if they kept His commandments He would bless them. The other side of the coin was that if they did not keep the commandments they would come under a curse (Lev.26). The incentive that drove the people to keep the commandments was the desire to receive the blessings and to avoid the curses.
God acknowledged that the old covenant was faulty and He abandoned it at one time, when He came out with the new covenant (Heb.8:7,8,13). The old covenant had its purpose, even though it was a limited one, both in terms of its period of validity and its usefulness. It was like a person who was in charge of a child till he grew up (Gal.4:1-3;3:24,25). In other words, the old covenant was God's first step which was ultimately planned to be taken over by the new covenant, in establishing God's relationship with men. When man was spiritually immature he needed to be told exactly what he was allowed or not allowed to do. Once the child grew up and was able to take decisions for himself he no longer needed someone to keep on telling him what he should do and what he should not do. It was then and only then, figuratively speaking, that he was ready for the new covenant.
We come into the new covenant through the blood of Jesus Christ, washed from our sins and adopted into God's kingdom as His children. We receive the Holy Spirit, and through His anointing we receive the ability to know the mind of Christ, and we no longer need the Law to tell us what we should do and what we should not do (1Jn.2:27). We come into a position which is higher than the law of Moses, where we are to be led by the Spirit of God as sons of God (Rom.8:14). It is not that we don't need any law. But instead of listening to laws that bind us to two zones that are called “Permitted” and “Forbidden”, we come into the realm of the law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus (Rom.8:2). There is true freedom or liberty here, coming from the flexibility of the nature of the Spirit, and yet not going into the false liberty of indulging fleshly lusts.
Much can be written about the differences between the old and new covenants. Obviously the new covenant had to be better than the old for God to abolish the first and start a new one (Heb.7:22). I would like to take up just two classic illustrations to bring out the essence of the difference.
The old covenant had the law of the Sabbath. People were allowed to carry out their own work for six days, but on the seventh day they had to rest and devote themselves to God. There were so many restrictions placed on what they could do on the Sabbath day in order to help them to avoid getting occupied with their own work and to help them to find time for God. But unfortunately they did not understand it that way. They did not realise that God's intention was to help them find time for God. They saw the law as a lot of restrictions on their freedom and went about finding out how they could outwit the law without getting caught!
Unfortunately many Christians think that in the new covenant God has mainly changed the Sabbath day from the last day of the week to the first! They have thrown out most of the restrictions of the old covenant Sabbath and go to church on Sundays. But is that what God wants from us in the new covenant?
The other example is that of tithing. Most Christians do not even think that this has changed in the new covenant. They think of the blessings and curses associated with tithing under the old covenant continue now too, and think that by tithing they can get God to open the windows of heaven over them. They have missed out on the essential change in the new covenant.
Paul compares the old and new covenants as a shadow and the body that casts the shadow (Col.2:17). In the earlier metaphor we saw the transition from the old covenant to the new as being like a child coming to maturity. In other words, the new covenant is the ultimate culmination or perfection of the old covenant. God says that the old covenant had limitations, and He brought in the new covenant in order to open up the ultimate possibility of relationship between Himself and His people. So there are things God has brought up for us now which are beyond the Sabbath day and the tithe.
Think of what Sabbath days and tithes meant in terms of the relationship between God and people. People could be held blameless according to the Law as long as they refrained from their own work one day out of seven, and brought one-tenth of their income to God. It didn't really matter how they spent the remaining six days of the week and the nine-tenths of their income, (of course, as long as they didn't do anything unlawful). They could forget about God all six days of the week as long as they put certain restrictions on their activities for one day, and they could do whatever they wanted with 90% of their wealth as long as they paid up one-tenth to God! In other words, all they needed to do, according to the old covenant, was to give God a small slot in their lives, one-seventh of their time and one-tenth of their income.
Now think of the perfection of the new covenant, a perfect, continuous relationship with God and man, which pervades every part of our lives. Isn't this the body that cast the shadow of the old covenant? When Jesus was asked about the most important part of the Law, He said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself” (Lk.10:27). In the context of our present discussion this means that every part of our life should be filled with and moved by our love for God and men. The apostles also brought out this truth by saying in other words that whatever we do, whether we eat or drink or do anything else, we must do everything for the glory of God (1Cor.10:31).
How does this tally with giving only one day out of seven and one-tenth of our income to God? Don't all our time and all our income belong to God? Then what do we mean by giving Him only a part? The answer we give may be that of course we can't give everything to God! We've got to live on this earth! Perhaps. But then why do we put limits as one-seventh and one-tenth? “Oh no,” we say, “if anyone wants to give more he can certainly do so. We are only saying this should be the minimum.” Aren't we getting under a law, or making ourselves a law, by saying that? What about a man who places all his time and money before the Lord and gives what the Spirit of the Lord tells him to? Isn't this a man who has come into the new covenant?
Somebody may say at this point, “It is very well to say that we should give as the Spirit tells us to, but we will end up giving nothing or very little. It is better to have a minimum rule.” He has hit squarely on the problem with covenants between God and man. Do you remember why people could not manage to keep their part of the old covenant? It was because of the weakness of the flesh (Rom.8:3). If we depend on the same flesh to keep the new covenant, we are doomed to failure even before we begin, because, as we saw, the new covenant is the perfection of the old. Those who cannot keep the old covenant commandments in their own strength can certainly not keep the requirements of the new covenant.
But is it really our time or our money that God is asking for? And is God asking for more of them in the new covenant than He did in the old covenant? Isn't it our heart, our love, a relationship that He is looking for? When we give our whole heart, our whole love, and all of ourselves to God, do we then limit ourselves to just one-seventh and one-tenth? Isn't it sacrilegious then to talk about keeping the Sabbath and the tithe while claiming to be under the new covenant?
The real issue is, how many of us really love God with all our heart, and have given all of ourselves and all that we have over to Him to be under His total control? If we would like to do what we like six days of the week and spend nine-tenths of our money the way we like, certainly we don't love God with all our heart.
Let us now look at what the New Testament teaches about the Sabbath and tithing, just to conclude the discussion. The New Testament warns us about giving in to anyone who compels us to keep Sabbaths! Paul points out that the Sabbath day was one of the elements of the shadow which have now given way to the body (the reality) (Col.2:16,17). As for tithing, there is no teaching given to the churches about it in the epistles. Jesus told the Pharisees, who were under the old covenant, that while continuing to give tithes they should know that there were more important things than tithing which God was looking for (Mt.23:23). In the epistles the teaching on giving encourages giving abundantly and cheerfully and does not stipulate any percentage.
So the real issue is not one-seventh and one-tenth versus more. We are not haggling about how much to give. The point is about how much we love. The essence of the new covenant is a real and unbroken heart relationship between God and us. That is what God wants from us. Once we enter into that with a whole heart, the other questions such as about giving will get settled easily.
-- Published in the Light of Life magazine, May 2007
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