Previously we have examined the nature of covenants and what a covenant represents and the covenants of the Old Testament. Before we turn to the new covenant in the blood of Christ, let us examine the nature of covenant during the life of Christ up to the day of Pentecost.
Jesus Christ is rightly considered to be the climax of history. Everything that had occurred before His life was leading up to His arrival (Ephesians 3:11), and ever since we have looked back to His death and resurrection. This is also true in terms of covenant: Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of the old, and ushers in the new (Matthew 5:17-19, Hebrews 9:15). The difficulty, however, has been in ascertaining exactly how covenant works during the life of Jesus, since He fulfills the old and inaugurates the new.
This difficulty has been exacerbated in recent years with the emergence of various doctrines regarding God’s truths regarding marriage, divorce, and remarriage (MDR). Some, trying to justify illicit marriages, have attempted to make irrelevant the statements of Jesus in Matthew 5:32 and 19:9 by asserting that they represent “Old Testament doctrine” since Jesus’ life and death occurred before the institution of the Kingdom at Pentecost. The implication of this argument is immense: if this is true, everything Jesus says in the Gospels has no bearing on the life of a Christian. Let us examine, then, the nature of covenant during the life of Christ.
Jesus of Nazareth was born and died a Jew under the Law of Moses
This is an important point to remember, for it is easy for us to think of Jesus as the “first Christian.” Jesus of Nazareth was born as a Jew, circumcised on the eighth day, and His ministry was directed mostly at the Jews (Luke 1:26-2:39, Matthew 15:24). Jesus describes His purpose in Matthew 5:17-18:
“Think not that I came to destroy the law or the prophets: I came not to destroy, but to fulfil. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass away from the law, till all things be accomplished.”
We recognize, of course, that Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension led to the accomplishment of all things regarding the law, and it then began to pass away (Hebrews 8:13). Nevertheless, during the life of Jesus, the covenant in force was the one between God and Israel, and no new covenant was made until after Jesus’ death and the proclamation thereof on Pentecost (Acts 2:1-48, Hebrews 9:15-26).
We do see that Jesus does spend much time refuting the traditions of the Pharisees and others, pointing back to the law itself (cf. Matthew 15:1-9, Matthew 23, etc.). Such is certainly a part of Jesus’ ministry.
Jesus preached the Good News of the Kingdom
While it is certainly true that Jesus lived and died under the old covenant, the message that He preached was the good news of the Kingdom, as it is written in Matthew 4:23:
And Jesus went about in all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, and preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing all manner of disease and all manner of sickness among the people.
Jesus’ teachings can be broken down into the two categories like those given above: on the one hand, He certainly admonished the Jews on matters regarding the law, yet on the other hand, Jesus provided a message that superseded the old covenant and looked forward to the new. The space constraints of this article do not allow for a thorough discussion of many of the particular doctrines that Jesus preaches; such may be found in “Did Jesus Teach Only Old Testament Doctrine?”. In summary, the article shows that many of the statements of Jesus in Matthew 5:20-48 and Matthew 19:1-9 represent standards more strict than those in the Law of Moses yet harmonious with what later authors of the New Testament– Paul, James, etc.– establish. Such standards could be met under the Law of Moses without penalty, yet Jesus was not binding such upon them, for He was, in truth, preaching the message of the Kingdom to come.
This makes sense when we think about the substance of many of Jesus’ teachings, especially in the parables. Judaism, both historically and presently, has not been a proselytizing religion– Jews have certainly welcomed in any who wanted to join to them, but have only rarely gone out to attempt to convert anyone to Judaism. The religion is based on lineage. Yet Jesus’ parable of the sower in Matthew 13 speaks of converting people to the Kingdom. The parable of the talents in Matthew 24:14-30 refers to the conversion of souls. If Jesus were only expounding on the Law of Moses, why would He speak about such? It ought to be clear that Jesus often preaches a message that conforms to the new covenant guidelines that those of the old.
Jesus Commissions His Disciples to Preach His Message
We are aware that Jesus commissions His twelve disciples to preach His message, even after His death (Matthew 16:18-19, Matthew 18:18). What, then, is this message?
Jesus, just before He is taken prisoner, speaks to His disciples in John 14-16 regarding such things. He says the following in John 14:25-26:
“These things have I spoken unto you, while yet abiding with you. But the Comforter, even the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said unto you.”
Now, we know from John 16:12-14 that Jesus did not reveal all things to the disciples during His lifetime, since they were not able to then bear them, yet it is obvious that Jesus taught the disciples some things that would be brought into their remembrance. This certainly occurred on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2)– it stands to reason that at least part of the message preached by the Apostles comes from the remembrance of what Jesus said to them. If this is the case, then Jesus certainly provided many messages we read in the New Testament directed at Christians under the new covenant.
The Example of the Wilderness
We have seen, therefore, that Jesus did live under the covenant between God and Israel, was amenable to the Law of Moses, yet preached the message of the Kingdom, i.e. the new covenant. How can it be, then, that Jesus lives under the old covenant but can preach the message of the new covenant?
We can gain insight as to how this can be the case by looking at a transition period in the life of the Israelites: the wanderings in the wilderness. Moses says the following in Deuteronomy 4:5:
Behold, I have taught you statutes and ordinances, even as the LORD my God commanded me, that ye should do so in the midst of the land whither ye go in to possess it.
Moses confirms here that the Law– given to him by God throughout the books of Exodus-Numbers, is to be done when the Israelites are in the land of Canaan. Further testimony is given by Amos in Amos 5:21-25:
I hate, I despise your feasts, and I will take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Yea, though ye offer me your burnt-offerings and meal-offerings, I will not accept them; neither will I regard the peace-offerings of your fat beasts. Take thou away from me the noise of thy songs; for I will not hear the melody of thy viols. But let justice roll down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream. Did ye bring unto me sacrifices and offerings in the wilderness forty years, O house of Israel?
God, through Amos, condemns the sacrifices and feasts of the people. He asks in verse 25 a rhetorical question, asking the people whether or not they provided sacrifices to God during their time in the wilderness. Based on what we read previously, the most likely answer is “no.” If this is the case, then even though God established all kinds of guidelines about sacrifice while the Israelites were in the wilderness, the actual application of those guidelines was reserved for life in the land of Canaan.
These two passages work well to show that the body of legislation given to the Israelites by God in the wilderness, was, in the main, not realized until the Israelites conquered the land of Canaan. Moses, therefore, preaches the laws that are only realized after his death when the Israelites occupy Canaan.
If the above is true, we can then certainly understand Christ’s message in a similar way: just as God first preached the law to the Israelites in the wilderness for them to fulfill it in Canaan, so Jesus preaches the Gospel of the Kingdom first during His life so that people may fulfill it after His death, resurrection, and ascension.
What shall we say then? Let us examine another example that will illustrate the entire situation– Mark 7. Mark 7 begins with the Pharisees rebuking Jesus because He allowed His disciples to eat with unwashed hands, which violated the traditions of the elders. Jesus rebukes them for adding their traditions to the law of God– a place where Jesus is assuredly expounding upon the law and providing understanding for the old covenant. His concluding message, however, which He reiterates below to the disciples, is a different matter.
And when he was entered into the house from the multitude, his disciples asked of him the parable.
And he saith unto them, “Are ye so without understanding also? Perceive ye not, that whatsoever from without goeth into the man, it cannot defile him; because it goeth not into his heart, but into his belly, and goeth out into the draught?”
This he said, making all meats clean (Mark 7:17-19).
Jesus’ message is that it is not what goes into a man which can defile him, yet that which comes out of him. The message is then given that by saying this, Jesus makes all meats clean. Yet we can clearly read in the law that there were many animals that were unclean. How can this be?
We must remember that the Gospels are the story of Jesus Christ as told by His disciples later in time. Mark writes his Gospel after Jesus has died, been resurrected, and ascended, and after the Kingdom has been established. Mark, not Jesus Himself, makes the comment at the end of Mark 7:9.
In this example, then, we can plainly see how the message of Jesus Christ dealt with both covenants at the same time. Jesus contends with the Pharisees about their traditions, and establishes that what a man takes in does not defile him, but what comes out of him can defile him. When Mark recounts the story in his Gospel, the Holy Spirit inspires him to make the comment that by saying these things, Jesus makes all meats clean, a point stressed often in the New Testament (cf. Romans 14, 1 Corinthians 8, 1 Timothy 4:1-5, etc.). Mark, therefore, takes a teaching of Jesus, made during the old covenant while Jesus was amenable to the Law of Moses, and declares that it is the foundation of the teaching that all meats are clean, something not true under the covenant with Israel yet established as truth in the covenant with all men through Christ.
It is plainly evident, therefore, that those who would make Jesus’ words in the Gospels totally irrelevant are in the wrong: while Jesus certainly spends some time teaching the truth about the Law of Moses to the Jews, He also is engaged in preaching the good news of the Kingdom, the foundation of the guidelines of the new covenant in His blood. When Jesus is preaching the good news of the Kingdom, we should heed His words just as much as we heed the message of Acts through Revelation. There is no contradiction in recognizing that Jesus preaches a message that is realized only after His death.
Next we will examine the new covenant in Christ more deeply.