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It is unfortunate that the Bible has been divided into two parts called the Old Testament and the New Testament, because this hides the real meaning of those words. When we hear these two names we only think about these parts of the Bible. But actually the names refer to two covenants (testaments) made by God with people. To avoid this confusion, we shall use the names, the old and new covenants.
The old covenant is the covenant made by God with the children of Israel through Moses. It is called old because it has been replaced by a new covenant through Jesus Christ. God operates now through the new covenant, and the old covenant is not valid anymore (Heb.8:13). This is a very important thing to know when we interpret the Bible, because we need to know what is applicable to us, that is, not what was applicable under the old covenant but what is applicable under the new covenant.
Please note that I am not saying that the Old Testament part of the Bible is no longer relevant! The Old Testament has a great historical value because it talks of things under the old covenant out of which came the new covenant. The OT has many things to teach us about God, and His ways of dealing with people. We also see that God’s revelation of Himself has been progressive from the time of creation to the setting up of the new covenant. We will miss a lot of understanding about God if we omit the Old Testament part of the Bible.
The old covenant was made for Israel (Exo.34:27). We must remember that these children of Israel were taken out of Egypt after 430 years of stay there, mostly as slaves. Their knowledge of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob was minimal, and they were more acquainted with the gods of Egypt. It was not just for the benefit of the Egyptians but also for Israel that God dealt with the so-called powers of the Egyptian gods in the ten plagues that He sent just before the flight of Israel from Egypt. We can say that Israel, at this time, was new to an actual experience with God. God tried to build up their confidence in Him by saving them from the army of Egypt, dividing the Red Sea for them to walk across on dry ground, providing them manna from heaven, water from the rock, etc. Finally, at Mount Sinai, He made His covenant with them.
God gave them the Law, built around the Ten Commandments, and asked them to keep it. He told them that if they kept it, He would bless them in many ways, but if they did not keep it they would receive many curses from Him (Deut.28). In other words, this was a covenant based on their performance. God knew, of course, that they would not be able to keep the Law, neither they nor anybody else for that matter (Rom.3:20). And when they failed again and again, even after repeated warnings through prophets, discipline from God and repentance from their side, and they were convinced that they were unable to keep the Law, God brought in the new covenant through Jesus Christ. This was actually promised through the prophets, e.g., Jeremiah 31 and Ezekiel 36.
The new covenant is based on God’s grace, His unmerited favour that He shows to us without any expectation of anything we ought to do. This is not based on our performance, but given freely as a gift from God that we have to only receive humbly. He accepts and justifies us freely, in whatever condition we are, when we go to Him acknowledging our sins and placing our trust in Jesus. After that He Himself begins transforming us into His character through the power of the Holy Spirit working in us, as we cooperate with Him and submit to Him. We can see that this new covenant is entirely different from the old covenant in the way it works. Now the old covenant has been replaced by the new one, and become known as the old covenant (Heb.8:13).
Given, as it were, to a spiritually developing people, the old covenant terms were suited for beginners or spiritual children. The commandments were addressed mostly at external behaviour, and the blessings and curses also related to the earthly life (related to prosperity, wealth and health or poverty, sickness and trouble). But the new covenant is a far better covenant, based on better promises (Heb.8:6). Jesus introduced this covenant (which came into effect with His death and resurrection) by saying that what the people had heard earlier from the old covenant was being given much deeper meaning. For example, if it was forbidden to kill someone in the old covenant, Jesus said that acting out in anger was essentially the same (Matt.5:21,22). If they were not to commit physical adultery under the old covenant, under the new covenant even gazing at a woman with lust would be considered as adultery (Matt.5:27,28). In other words, under the new covenant, matters were taken deeper, to the level of the heart or the spirit, which is what God is really interested in (1Sam.16:7; Prov.4:23). (However, in telling us about a much higher level of life than what the old covenant prescribed, God was not leaving us helpless but giving us the Holy Spirit to live in us as our Helper.)
The blessing of the new covenant moved from earthly prosperity, wealth and health to spiritual well-being and transformation into the character of Jesus (Rom.12:2;Col.3:1,2;Rom.8:28,29). God still guarantees that He will provide all that we need for our earthly life when we seek Him first in our life (Matt.6:33). But Jesus did not promise His disciples a comfortable, trouble-free life on earth, but instead said that we would have problems in this life (Jn.16:33), and promised that He would never leave nor forsake us (Heb.13:5). The peace that He would give us is not as the world gives—an escape from problems—but His peace in the midst of the problems (Jn.14:27). His main goal with us is to transform our inner man into His character, and He causes all things to work together for this. What is needed for this transformation is sometimes hardship and challenges.
Now we can see how dangerous it would be for us to take promises that were given to the people of Israel under the old covenant and apply them to us literally. Under the new covenant we are not promised material prosperity, freedom from trouble or sickness, triumph over our enemies on the earth, etc. Imagine the damage it can do to our faith if we expect such kind of promises to work in our lives and then find out in real life that it is not so!
“I will put none of the diseases on you which I have put on the Egyptians; for I, the Lord, am your healer” (Exo.15:26). Apart from the fact that the first part of this verse places a condition of obedience to all the commandments, this was a promise to the people of Israel as they were leaving Egypt. We do recognise that it is the Lord who is our healer, even when we get healed through medical aid. However we cannot say that we would never get sick, because it is not promised to us in the new covenant teachings. Even though the apostles did heal many people miraculously as a part of the evangelistic efforts, there were sometimes believers who were sick, like Epaphroditus (Php.2:25-27), Timothy (1Tim.5:23), and possibly Paul himself (2Cor.12:7-9). This is not to say that God never heals any child of His miraculously these days, but only that it is not promised as a matter of course for everyone. Also, on the practical side, we see that even the godliest people among us die when the body stops functioning (a result of sickness), and no one is translated to heaven (before the rapture) like Enoch or Elijah! One guideline which we can use for appropriating any old covenant promise for ourselves is to see if that promise is repeated, confirmed or taught under the new covenant.
We know that the rituals of sacrifices and prohibition of unclean food under the old covenant which were meant for Israel are no longer applicable for us Christians. These were essentially a shadow of the things to come, and when Christ came and fulfilled all those sacrifices by one sacrifice of Himself, all of them became obsolete (Heb.7:26,27). All divisions into clean and unclean food ceased when Jesus declared everything to be clean for us (Mk.7:18,19).
A similar change occurred when the religious festivals of the Jews gave way for a continuous celebration for the Christians. We no longer celebrate the feasts of Passover, Tabernacles, or such Jewish special days. In the new covenant we are not duty bound to celebrate any religious festival (Col.2:16,17). ‘Christian’ festivals such as Christmas, New Year and Easter are essentially man made, and even though there is no ban from God’s side to celebrating special days as unto Him (Rom.14:5,6), as long as it is done in order to honour God, it is not as if we have to.
Even when it came to the commandments, the weak command-ments in the old covenant that pertained mostly to the external behaviour gave way to the more perfect standards of the new covenant where the focus shifted to the condition of the inner man. Two examples that Jesus gave illustrate this point. He said that while the old covenant commanded people not to commit murder, the new covenant would address sinning by hating others in the heart (Matt.5:21,22). It would be obvious that if there was no hatred in the heart, there would not be any murder also. In another example, Jesus said that while the law only prohibited the physical act of adultery, God really wanted purity in the heart. In that case, even looking at a woman with desire in the heart would be tantamount to adultery in the heart (Matt.5:27,28). In other words, the new covenant standards address the core of the issue of sin as well as the place of transformation. When God transforms us in our inner man, our external behaviour will automatically change accordingly.
So we can see that the new covenant life is really what God wants from people, and thus is the ultimate goal to which the old covenant was just a pointer. In other words, the old covenant was made as a stepping stone leading towards the new covenant at the right time. Let us look at a few more areas where the new covenant fulfils the old in the core.
God gave Israel the law regarding Sabbath (Exo.20:8), as the fourth of the Ten Commandments. However, it was a special covenant with Israel (Lev.24:8), and not automatically applicable to everyone else. When the early Christians stopped the practice of meeting together every Saturday (as the Jews did), and started meeting together on Sundays (or on the first day of the week, as they called it), it was not as if Sunday became the Christian Sabbath on which Christians were not to do any work for themselves. There is no such requirement under the new covenant. If any doctor or an emergency worker has to work on a Sunday it is not that they should be put to death. Sabbath itself has taken on a new meaning under the new covenant (Col.2:16,17).
The old covenant Sabbath was patterned according to the way God worked when He created all the world. He worked for six days and ‘rested’ on the seventh day. Under the old covenant the Israelites were not do any work for themselves on the Sabbath day, and anyone found doing so would be put to death. But there was no restriction on their carrying out their businesses during the rest of the days. If we understand that under the new covenant we are not to do our own will at any time on any day but only the will of God, every day would be a Sabbath day for us. God talks of the new covenant Sabbath as ‘ceasing from our own works’ and entering into God’s rest (Heb.4:9,10). It is God’s calling for us to live perpetually in that rest. Now we see that it is not a matter of keeping one day (Sunday) as a day of physical rest which is devoted to God for worshipping Him. I am not saying that there is anything wrong if we do this. But we must not lose sight of the goal of entering into and remaining in a life of doing God’s will.
Another change that has taken place is in the way we spend money or our income. Tithing, or giving a tenth of our income to God, actually came much before the old covenant was established. We read of Abraham giving a tenth of the spoil of war to Melchizedek. When people gave their obligatory ten per cent to God, they were actually free to spend the remaining money according to their own interests. But when we come under the new covenant, we become entirely God’s, because He has redeemed us from Satan’s hands by paying the price of redemption in the form of the blood of Jesus. Now all that we are, and all that we have belong to God entirely. God has the right to ask us to give away all our money if He so chooses. In fact, Jesus asked a rich young ruler to do just that. Even when He does not ask every one of us to sell off everything in order to follow Him, we must not forget that He is now the owner of everything He has given to us under a stewardship. (Some people point out the fact that Jesus taught people to tithe in the New Testament (Matt.23:23). We must remember that even though it is recorded in the NT, it was meant for people under the old covenant law, because the new covenant had not yet come but came only with the death of Christ!)
In such a scenario, the tithe loses its significance. The New Testament teaching does not lay down any percentage for giving, but encourages us to give cheerfully (2Cor.9:7), abundantly (v.6), systematically (1Cor.16:2) and secretly (Matt.6:3,4). There is no punishment for not giving, even though we will miss the blessing of giving (Acts.20:35).
To repeat, when we look at the old covenant we can learn what it signified to the people of Israel. To see what is applicable to us now, we must see what the New Testament teaches about it. The new covenant way is not about following any written law, but to be led by the Spirit of God (Rom.8:2,14).
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