This is part 2 of the old covenant Q&A asked via text messages following my March 1st sermon: (You can read Part 1 here)
Q: Why did the Council at Jerusalem (in Acts 15) choose a few commands from the law that Gentile believers had to follow? Do those laws still apply to us & why?
I think the answer from the New Bible Commentary (InterVarsity Press) is quite helpful:
Things which are cultural requirements for Jews were not necessary for the salvation of Gentiles, but their observance would have made it much easier for all types of believers to associate, worship and eat with each other.
Q: Why doesn’t God still show his authority like he did in the Old Testament? Why won’t he smite our enemies?
A: The main answer to this lies in the old covenant. God’s part of the deal in the Suzerain-Vassal Covenant made with the Israelites was to protect them in this very barbaric / conquering age. Deuteronomy 28 & Leviticus 26 lay out these blessings for following God’s law, as well as the curses for not following it, in gruesome detail. The idea of the old covenant was to give the Israelites the Promised Land, from where they could be a light to the ancient world. Smiting of enemies was necessary in order to attain this land and then retain it. But as the story progresses, the Israelites themselves were the ones who were “smote” as they broke the covenant for so long that God finally took the land from them, just as the covenant said would happen if they broke it.
Since the land is no longer part of our agreement with God and is no longer necessary to be protected, you see entirely different commands from God on how to treat our enemies. See Matthew 5:38-48 & Romans 12:14-21.
Q: As Abraham’s offspring, are we still under the Abrahamic covenant?
A: An evangelical friend of mine who believes in “health and wealth” / “prosperity gospel” (a rare combination) would say yes, and use the Abrahamic covenant as the rationale for believing that it’s God’s will for Christians to have lots of money and that bad things won’t happen to Christians if we are faithful to God. If you take away the dozens of examples that point to the contrary in both the New and Old Testaments, in a vacuum, his point is compelling enough that it requires a closer look. After all, the Abrahamic covenant was unconditional (not dependent on us) whereas the Mosaic covenant is conditional.
Thankfully, we have Paul’s hermeneutics of the Abrahamic covenant to assist us with this in Galatians 3:16-18 & 29. The Abrahamic covenant consisted of blessing, land and offspring (seed). The direct fulfillment of the promise of offspring was the ancient Israelites (Abraham’s son Isaac had a son Jacob/Israel. Jacob/Israel’s 12 sons were the 12 tribes of Israel.) and the fulfillment of the land was the land of Israel which Joshua moved into.
What is helpful about Galatians 3 is that it shows us that the promise of the Abrahamic covenant was ultimately about Jesus himself. It was a promise that Jesus would come in the bloodline of Abraham and that the blessing was that Jesus came to give us grace and to do away with the law. So when Galatians 3:29 tells us we are Abraham’s offspring, it is saying this in the context that we have inherited the blessing of Jesus, not that the promise of the promised land extends to us. This is debated amongst Christians, but I would argue that the Abrahamic promise of land (literally that the modern day land of Israel is still promised by God to modern day Jews / Christians) expired when Jesus came. That what Paul is explaining in Galatians 3 is that the blessing of Jesus is the unconditional promise of the Abrahamic covenant, not the material blessings laid out in Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28 of the Mosaic covenant. Yes, Abraham was told his descendents would be given the land of Israel, which they were, fulfilling that promise. But it wasn’t promised they’d always unconditionally hold it; the unconditional piece of the promise was that God would bless them (e.g. Jesus!) Further evidence for this can be found in Jesus’ life. He cared very little about restoring the Roman-occupied Israel to Jewish political control; in fact you see no evidence that this was ever on his mind at all. He told the Jews/Christians to pay their taxes to Caesar and to obey the laws of the land, keeping the Romans status quo rather than trying to restore anything politically to the Jews. He even predicted that things would get worse for the Jews politically, not better, when he predicted the destruction of the Temple, which happened ~40 years after Jesus’ death.
So yes, we are under the Abrahamic covenant in that God’s unconditional promise of the blessing of Jesus is still for us. But the promise of material blessing given to Abraham and then fleshed out in the Mosaic covenant is no longer active now that Jesus has come.
Q: How do you filter out what you read in the Old Testament with what actually matters to your salvation?
I think it’s important to not divide Scripture up into “what matters for your salvation” and “what doesn’t.” Reason being, it can become easy to dismiss parts of God’s word if there are parts of that go against popular culture. It becomes too easy to say, “Well such and such issue isn’t about my sins being forgiven so that passage doesn’t matter as much.” If we throw out part of God’s word, we throw out the reliability of all of God’s word. Technically none of the Old Testament matters to your salvation, but our walk with God is much deeper than just a transactional salvation decision. The Old Testament shows us God’s holiness and our desperate need for a Savior, which allows us to enjoy his New Testament grace to fuller and richer extents than we ever could otherwise. (How do you appreciate grace if you never realize how much you need it?) The Old Testament is also our faith family tree, filled with truth and lessons about how to stay faithful to God through the ups and downs of life and faith.
I don’t think “filtered out” is the right metaphor to use for reading the Old Testament. We do use a filter when we read the Bible, that’s essentially what hermeneutics is, but it’s not filtering out parts of the Bible and keeping others. Hermeneutics figures out how a text was applied in the Ancient Near Eastern context it was written in. It then filters out the ancient contextual application, while keeping the divine meaning. My example of Romans 16:16 at the end of the above sermon video is a good illustration of this. So I can give the first half of this question a solid answer: In the Old Testament, we filter out the old covenant law, which includes the commands themselves and the punishments given for breaking those commands. We also filter out the specific blessings and curses of the old covenant, found in Deuteronomy 28 and Leviticus 26, but that also show up throughout the rest of the Old Testament whenever “land” is mentioned. Popular examples of this happening would be 2 Chronicles 7:14 and Jeremiah 29:11 (more on that here). In these texts, we have to filter out the fact that the promise of the land of Israel which these verses are referring to is not for us, so we can’t apply the promise of land or the prosperity of land to us, which both of those passages refer to. If we don’t filter the contextual application out, we are saying that America is God’s covenantal land to Americans, which is as unbiblical as it gets. The premise of hermeneutics is to filter out the contextual application but keep and apply the divine meaning. The application typically looks different, but the divine meaning or principle will be the same in all cultures at all times.
Q: It’s easy to get bogged down reading some of the Old Testament books (lots of lists and names). Are there some Old Testament books more important than others?
The best way to appreciate the Old Testament books is to know their genres and to know the overarching narrative of the Bible and how the Old Testament tells a crucial portion of that narrative. Here’s a link listing out the book genres of the Bible. Each genre serves a different purpose. If you don’t know the purpose of the genre, it’s easy to set up expectations for a book that are going to go unmet. For example, when you read the books of the Law, they are going to be super boring–they are law! 🙂 Think about reading a book of Banking Law from a law school library. Important stuff, but don’t expect a bunch of exciting stories. And in the case of the Old Testament, you’re reading expired law, which puts another important angle on your reading.
It’s also helpful to understand the chronological order of the Old Testament books, as it helps put them together in a cohesive story. The Old Testament we use is ordered by genre whereas the Hebrew Bible has the books in mostly chronological order, which is much more helpful for devotional reading as it actually tells a story. You can see the list here. What I find most helpful about the chronological ordering of the books is it shows that the land covenant was given (Exodus), the land was entered (Joshua), the people live in the land (Judges, Kings, Samuel), centuries of warnings are given as the people disobey the covenant they made with God (This is the primary message of all of the prophets, which makes reading the prophets very repetitive as its plea after plea to repent along with warning after warning that the people will indeed lose their land if they don’t repent), until finally the people do indeed lose their land (Lamentations) and we then read about Daniel and Esther which take in the foreign land the people were exiled to. The story ends in Ezra-Nehemiah (one book in the Hebrew Bible, not two like in ours) where the people get to conditionally return to the land. You can see how understanding how the books relate to the others helps the overall story come alive. This is helpful so when you’re reading a boring/dry part of the Old Testament, you can still see its purpose within the broader story, which is a very interesting and exciting story full of faith lessons. The story can be summed up: People are promised land, people get land, people disobey, people are warned, people disobey, people lose land, the need for a Savior is extreme, Jesus arrives.
Q: How do you reconcile God’s character in the Old Testament with what we see in the New Testament?
It’s helpful to understand that Jesus is the full revelation of God’s deity (Colossians 1:19). He is the complete revelation of who God is, so prior to Jesus we only have an incomplete revelation of who God is. It’s important to understand that the God of the New Testament (Jesus) and the God of the Old Testament are not 2 different Gods, nor does God change. What happens is that as redemptive history progresses, God reveals more and more of himself. You see this in the Old Testament itself: Moses knew a lot more about God than Abraham did. Daniel knew a lot more about God than Moses did. They knew more than the people before them because God has revealed more of himself over history through the way he interacted with his people.
Additionally, it’s important to remember that the Old Testament sets up the New Testament. Romans 7:7 tells us the Law was meant to show us what sin is; to show us how far we fall short of a savior. Romans 7:24-25 then tell us it’s Jesus who rescues us from the impossible situation the Law put us in. So in other words, the Old Testament shows God’s holiness, his holy standard, and how far we are from that standard. It puts us in the desperate position of needing a Savior, knowing we can’t save ourselves. Enter Jesus and the New Testament, which is what the Law was pointing toward the entire time (Zechariah 3).
When reading the Old Testament, it’s very important to remember that mankind (us definitely included) deserves judgment from a holy God. If we read something and think “that was pretty harsh of God,” it shows we haven’t fully grasped what we actually deserve as sinners. A person can’t fully appreciate grace without knowing how desperately they need it and how much they don’t deserve it.
Q: The first covenant was for a particular culture. The new covenant was for a more developed culture (including our current times). It was based on a grown mental and spiritual growth than the old covenant. Do you think it is possible that there were certain elements of the new covenant that were given based on a level of understanding that humans will grow out of into a new level of understanding that we have not reached yet? Do you think there could be another covenant in times to come?
Great question! While the new covenant was given during a more developed culture than the one in which the old covenant was given, it wasn’t given because of this change in culture. It was given because Jesus had arrived on the scene, something the old covenant pointed to all along. Now, could God have chosen to arrive on earth as the incarnated Jesus in the 1st century because of this progressive change in culture and knowing that his people were finally ready for a “new law”? We can’t say for sure, but that’s definitely plausible. But even if that were the case, it’s important to know that the change in culture still isn’t why the new covenant was given; it was given because Jesus died on the cross. Jesus’ phrase “it is finished” in John 19:30 is pretty telling here. What was finished was everything needed to pay for our sins, but also everything needed to fulfill the old covenant and bring about the new covenant. We can say with confidence that there will be no “next covenant.” The reason being, the old covenant is very up front and open about how its purpose was to look toward the Messiah and toward a new covenant. There was nothing secretive or surprising about Jesus bringing a new covenant. So we can look to what’s revealed to us in the new covenant about what’s coming next. Jesus tells his disciples at the last supper, when he institutes communion, that he won’t drink this cup with his followers again until he comes back and we are with him on the new heaven and the new earth (Matthew 26:29). Rather than a 3rd covenant on this earth, what we have to look forward to is Jesus’ 2nd coming, when sin will be done away with forever and we will be with God for eternity!
There certainly are elements of our culture that have progressed or changed in the past 2000 years. Those changes do change how we apply certain New Testament scriptures (take Romans 16:16 for example again), again which is the premise of hermeneutics, but they don’t allude to a new covenant, which would be mean a new way of relating to God and/or a new way to be saved.