Understanding Covenant, Part V: Misunderstandings of Covenant

Previously we examined the nature of covenant and covenants in the Bible. We began by seeing that covenants are agreements, with two sides having obligations to one another, and that the existence of a covenant signifies a relationship between the two parties. We proceeded to examine the covenants in the Old Testament, the nature of covenant during the life of Christ, and the nature of the new covenant. Let us conclude our examination of covenant by exploring many common false doctrines that exist due to misunderstanding of covenant.

Who is amenable to which covenant?

A significant misunderstanding of covenant that has led to many false doctrines involves a lack of respect for divisions between covenants, specifically between the one between God and Israel and the one between God and all mankind through Christ Jesus. Many will advocate doctrines and practices allowed or commanded in the Law of Moses without justification from the New Testament. Is this practice justified?

We have seen that Old Testament covenants tended to compound upon one another. A covenant was made between God and all flesh under Noah; later, a covenant was added for a particular descendant of Noah, Abraham, and all of his descendants. God then fulfilled some of the promises He made to Abraham in his descendants through Jacob/Israel. Many would extend this logic to the new covenant under Christ.

While it is certainly true that the covenant between God and mankind through Christ co-exists with the “Noahide covenant”, and represents the ultimate fulfillment of the promises of the “Abrahamic” and “Davidic” covenant, the new covenant, by necessity, cannot co-exist with the covenant between God and Israel, because the new covenant is specifically stated to change and replace the old in Hebrews 7:12 and Hebrews 8:13:

For the priesthood being changed, there is made of necessity a change also of the law.

In that he saith, “A new covenant,” he hath made the first old. But that which is becoming old and waxeth aged is nigh unto vanishing away.

The covenant between God and Israel involved those two parties: God and Israel. Covenants are not different from other similar agreements in that only the stated parties are amenable to its guidelines. The Law of Moses was never bound upon the Gentiles, and Paul has the following to say about the difference between the covenants and the result of binding the Law of Moses on Gentiles in Galatians 4:19-5:4:

My little children, of whom I am again in travail until Christ be formed in you– but I could wish to be present with you now, and to change my tone; for I am perplexed about you. Tell me, ye that desire to be under the law, do ye not hear the law? For it is written, that Abraham had two sons, one by the handmaid, and one by the freewoman. Howbeit the son by the handmaid is born after the flesh; but the son by the freewoman is born through promise. Which things contain an allegory: for these women are two covenants; one from mount Sinai, bearing children unto bondage, which is Hagar. Now this Hagar is mount Sinai in Arabia and answereth to the Jerusalem that now is: for she is in bondage with her children. But the Jerusalem that is above is free, which is our mother.
For it is written, “Rejoice, thou barren that bearest not; break forth and cry, thou that travailest not: for more are the children of the desolate than of her that hath the husband.”
Now we, brethren, as Isaac was, are children of promise. But as then he that was born after the flesh persecuted him that was born after the Spirit, so also it is now.
Howbeit what saith the scripture? “Cast out the handmaid and her son: for the son of the handmaid shall not inherit with the son of the freewoman.”
Wherefore, brethren, we are not children of a handmaid, but of the freewoman. For freedom did Christ set us free: stand fast therefore, and be not entangled again in a yoke of bondage. Behold, I Paul say unto you, that, if ye receive circumcision, Christ will profit you nothing. Yea, I testify again to every man that receiveth circumcision, that he is a debtor to do the whole law. Ye are severed from Christ, ye would be justified by the law; ye are fallen away from grace.

We will do well to respect the covenant boundaries established in the Scriptures. The “Noahide covenant” was made with all flesh, and that certainly includes us today. God’s covenant with Abraham is fulfilled in Christ, and we have received the Blessing from the seed of Abraham. Likewise, a King from the line of David rules today and over us all (Matthew 28:18). The covenant between God and Israel, however, is limited to God and Israel, was fulfilled and set aside by the new covenant in Christ Jesus, and it is now to Him that we look. Just like we, in America, look to the law code of the U.S. and not the U.K. as our authority, so we as Christians look to Jesus, not Moses, as our source of authority.

When the boundaries of covenants are respected, beliefs that the Jewish Sabbath, dietary restrictions, Jewish ceremonial practices, and the use of the “Ten Commandments” from Exodus 20 as such are bound upon Christians have no basis and are therefore false.

Law and Covenant

Misunderstandings of covenant also exist in terms of the relation between law and covenant. A common manifestation of this misunderstanding may be seen in arguments attempting to justify the use of instrumental music in worship to God today, specifically, that since David used instruments, and his use of instruments was not commanded by the Law of Moses, that his example is relevant for our doctrines today. Is this the case?

First it must be noted that the law is part of the covenant, and is not the covenant itself. The covenant is the terms of the relationship between God and Israel with the Law of Moses representing the set of obligations of Israel to God. Therefore, even though David’s use of instruments cannot be tied to the Law itself, it is still done under the auspices of the covenant between God and Israel, and as such, is not able to be bound upon those under the auspices of the covenant between God and all men through Christ Jesus.

Secondly, in the New Testament, we find that Jesus and the Apostles use the term “law” as metonymy to refer to any portion of the Old Testament. The following is written in John 10:34 and 1 Corinthians 14:21:

Jesus answered them, “Is it not written in your law, I said, ye are gods?'”

In the law it is written, “By men of strange tongues and by the lips of strangers will I speak unto this people; and not even thus will they hear me, saith the Lord.”

Jesus cites Psalm 82:6 and Paul cites Isaiah 28:11, respectively, and we do not generally consider either the Psalms or the Prophets to be part of the “Law of Moses,” the first five books of the Old Testament. While we are assured that the word “law” is used as metonymy to refer to all the Old Testament, it does show how the replacement of the covenant and replacement of the law are bound together. It is manifestly evident, therefore, that whatever is under the covenant between God and Israel is authorized for that particular covenant, and any practice that Christians ought to engage in must be authorized under our new covenant through Christ.

Dividing the Law of Moses

Another way in which some attempt to justify imposing parts of the Law of Moses upon Christians is by asserting divisions within the Law of Moses. Generally, it is believed by such persons that the Law of Moses is divided into sections, the “moral law,” the “sacrificial law,” and the “ceremonial law.” It is then argued that when Paul and the Hebrew author speak about the replacement of the law in places like Ephesians 2:11-18 and Hebrews 7:12-14, they refer to the “sacrificial law” and the “ceremonial law” and believe that the “moral law” remains. Is this a legitimate way to understand the Law of Moses?

It must first be said that many of the commands that comprise the ethical laws of the Law of Moses are repeated in the New Testament and Christians ought to heed those laws; we follow them not because they are in the Law of Moses, however, but because they are confirmed as part of the new covenant.

Regardless, the attempt to divide the Law of Moses is an example of taking ideas made to facilitate understanding of a text in the Bible and then beginning to believe that the ideas are actually in the text. Most of us, in our minds, make distinctions between various portions of the Law of Moses, somewhat akin to those enumerated above. In the text itself, however, we have no such division. It is admitted that Moses will use multiple terms in succession to describe the body of work we call the Law of Moses– including “commandments,” “statutes,” “ordinances,” “testimonies,” etc. (cf. Deuteronomy 6:17, 8:11, etc.)– yet “commandments” stands out by being used often, and we do not really know what kind of distinction, if any, was made between the words listed above. If a distinction existed, it would not be between a “moral” law versus a “sacrificial” law versus a “ceremonial” law, else we would expect to see such language. Since the Law itself does not claim to have divisions, we have no right to impose categories we create for ease of understanding as if they are part of the text itself. Deuteronomy 4:2 and James 2:10 prove well that the Law stands as a whole, and if one part is changed or is violated, then the whole must be changed or is violated.

Even beyond this, we have the evidence of Colossians 2:16-17:

Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of a feast day or a new moon or a sabbath day: which are a shadow of the things to come; but the body is Christ’s.

We have seen these verses before, for they and verses 14-15 before them describe well the change between the old and new covenants. Paul makes the conclusion seen above on the basis of Jesus having nailed to the cross the “bond written in ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us,” (v. 14), and the conclusion is that these various items are not a reason to judge anyone. Lest anyone believe that the judgment justifies the practices, Paul concludes that the listed practice conform to the shadow, not the substance, of the things to come. When we look at the list, we find items that conform to what would be deemed the “ceremonial law” (feast day, new moon) and the “moral law” (sabbath day, one of the 10 commandments). We can see, therefore, that even if one were to divide the law into segments, Colossians 2:14-17 and Hebrews 7:10-14 prove that all segments have been taken away, being the shadow of the things to come, not the substance in Christ.

30-70 CE: The Transition Period

Let us finally look at a matter regarding the nature of covenant in the earliest period of Christianity. Although the New Testament never speaks of a “transition period” per se, we do have evidence that there were many Christians who had converted from Judaism that were still following the Law of Moses. We read about a sticky situation in Acts 21:17-26:

And when we were come to Jerusalem, the brethren received us gladly. And the day following Paul went in with us unto James; and all the elders were present. And when he had saluted them, he rehearsed one by one the things which God had wrought among the Gentiles through his ministry. And they, when they heard it, glorified God; and they said unto him,
“Thou seest, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of them that have believed; and they are all zealous for the law: and they have been informed concerning thee, that thou teachest all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children neither to walk after the customs. What is it therefore? They will certainly hear that thou art come. Do therefore this that we say to thee: We have four men that have a vow on them; these take, and purify thyself with them, and be at charges for them, that they may shave their heads: and all shall know that there is no truth in the things whereof they have been informed concerning thee; but that thou thyself also walkest orderly, keeping the law. But as touching the Gentiles that have believed, we wrote, giving judgment that they should keep themselves from things sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what is strangled, and from fornication.”
Then Paul took the men, and the next day purifying himself with them went into the temple, declaring the fulfilment of the days of purification, until the offering was offered for every one of them.

The situation is odd indeed: here we have Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles, who has written strong letters to the churches in Galatia, Corinth, and Colossae about the law not being bound upon Gentiles, observing rites of the Law of Moses in Jerusalem to placate the Christians there! Many say that Paul here sins by acquiescing to the expectations of the Jews– but if this were the case, where is the statement saying that Paul has sinned? Where is Paul’s rebuke of the Christians in Judea for adhering to the Law of Moses?

Furthermore, the Hebrew author writes to these very brethren, and while he does chastise them for many of their shortcomings, and shows that the new covenant is superior to the old, we have no explicit condemnation of the Jews, for the time, following the Law of Moses. If it were a sin for the Jewish Christians to continue holding to the Law of Moses at that time, we would expect to see some form of rebuke or condemnation of their practices from Paul or the Hebrew author, the former of which felt no compunction in rebuking Gentile Christians who were following the Law…and yet we have none.

Perhaps a clue may be gained from Hebrews 8:13:

In that he saith, “a new covenant,” he hath made the first old. But that which is becoming old and waxeth aged is nigh unto vanishing away.

It is notable that the Hebrew author does not speak of the old covenant as having already completely passed away, but that it was, at that time (ca. 61-67 CE), passing away. We can also remember the words of our Lord 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.”

Jesus Himself fulfilled much of the prophecy present in the Old Testament regarding Himself and the Kingdom He inaugurated, yet we find the final fulfillment of the prophecies of the Old Testament in the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE (Daniel 9:24-27, cf. Matthew 24:15). After this time it was no longer possible to adhere to the Law of Moses as written, since the entire system of the priesthood and sacrifice was abandoned, and by 123 CE, the Jews no longer inhabited Judea at all.

What shall we say regarding these things? It appears that between the day of Pentecost and the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, God allowed those Christians who came out of Judaism to continue in the Law of Moses without counting it as sin against them. This apparently is allowable since the old covenant was passing away, and its complete fulfillment, and thus supercession, occurred only in 70 CE. After that time, without the Temple and the functioning priesthood, it was no longer possible for the Law of Moses to be completely observed, and the Law became a source of bondage for any and all men under it.

We have now completed our examination into the nature of covenant. May we use the knowledge we have gained for the furtherance of the Gospel and our own understanding.


One thought on “Understanding Covenant, Part V: Misunderstandings of Covenant

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.