Perspective Issues with the Law and the Old Covenant in the New Testament

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For years I had a major perspective issue when it came to understanding the law and how it related to first century Jews. This also applies to what happened to the law in the New Testament as we have been discussin. When we read scripture we tend to find what we want to find. The things that agree with our thinking jump out at us and the things that don’t jive with our opinions are often overlooked. Many of us have heard for years that the law was nailed to the cross. We haven’t heard that the old covenant was nailed to the cross but the law. In my opinion you cannot actually say either was nailed to anything because of what the word “written code” actually means in Colossians 2 but that is an issue we have already spent plenty of time on. I think there is a difference in the law and the covenant that often throws us for a loop.

It was nothing new that the old covenant would come to an end. In the Old Testament there was an expectation that with the Messianic age the Mosaic covenant would come to an end and a new covenant would come into effect. There are two passages that give us some insight on this. The first is in Jeremiah 31 and the second is Deuteronomy 18. Here is an excerpt from 31:31-37:

“31 The time is coming,” declares the LORD,
“when I will make a new covenant
with the house of Israel
and with the house of Judah.

32 It will not be like the covenant
I made with their forefathers
when I took them by the hand
to lead them out of Egypt,
because they broke my covenant,
though I was a husband to [d] them, [e]
declares the LORD.

33 “This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel
after that time,” declares the LORD.
“I will put my law in their minds
and write it on their hearts.
I will be their God,
and they will be my people.

34 No longer will a man teach his neighbor,
or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’
because they will all know me,
from the least of them to the greatest,”
declares the LORD.
“For I will forgive their wickedness
and will remember their sins no more.”

35 This is what the LORD says,
he who appoints the sun
to shine by day,
who decrees the moon and stars
to shine by night,
who stirs up the sea
so that its waves roar—
the LORD Almighty is his name:

36 “Only if these decrees vanish from my sight,”
declares the LORD,
“will the descendants of Israel ever cease
to be a nation before me.”

37 This is what the LORD says:
“Only if the heavens above can be measured
and the foundations of the earth below be searched out
will I reject all the descendants of Israel
because of all they have done,”
declares the LORD.”

That makes it pretty clear that just as Hank pointed out in Hebrews 8:13 – the Old Covenant was designed to disappear and be replaced by something new, something better. That is scriptural and I don’t disagree with that. At this point some of you probably think I would have disagreed with that conclusion and here is why – we have jumped to the conclusion that if the Old Covenant passes away then every practice of the law would also pass away because we have equated the Old Covenant with works righteousness and ritual obedience to all aspects of the law. That is not the case. As Sanders and Dunn have pointed out in the New Perspective on Paul – that is a misreading of the Old Testament due to the influence of Luther and his battle with the Catholic church in his day.

It is entirely possible for the covenant to pass away but for parts of their heritage, tradition, and even law to continue. Why else do we have Christian Jews in the early church, recorded in the New Testament, still practicing parts of Judaism and the law? It is only a problem if they believe keeping the law saves. To quote something I said to Hank in an earlier post – “But that is not what we see in the NT with Jewish Christians. We see them continue to practice parts of the law, not because it was still a valid covenant but because that was their heritage and they wanted to. It was a special identity and place they had shared with God for thousands of years and they kept practicing many parts of it….not for salvation but because that is what they had known for so long. So we have made a false leap when we correctly say that the law was obsolete but then incorrectly conclude that means all Jewish Christians had to stop practicing all parts of the law and their Jewish heritage. The Jewish Christians did not check their Jewish identity at the door. It was part of who they were. The old covenant can be made obsolete and Jewish Christians still keep things like the Sabbath. We have this problem of thinking if something doesn’t lead to salvation then it has to stop.

The second passage that shows us the Jews believed their covenant would come to an end in the messianic age is Deuteronomy 18 where God tells them that there will be a prophet like Moses to come up in their midst who will speak the words of God to them. We learn in Acts 3:22 that prophet is Jesus.

So there is no doubt that the old covenant would become exactly that – an old covenant and be replaced by something better. But the problem we face is a perspective issue. We have to understand the context of the comments in the NT that seem to speak against the law. But to quote a little more of my comment to Hank – “Much of what is written against the law in the NT is actually written to Jewish Christians who were depending on the law rather than depending on Christ. So we hear people depending on the law being rebuked and so we assume that any practice of anything in the Torah must be off limits and should have been nailed to the cross. But that is not what Paul is saying. Paul and the author of Hebrews are reminding people not to put their trust in the law but in Christ. And by the way, that was nothing new. Even in the OT they were not to put their faith in works righteousness but in a God who wants mercy over sacrifice and acknowledgment of himself over burnt offerings. So when we hear the law condemned in the NT it is actually often a condemnation of those who have misapplied the law to put their faith in it rather than Christ.”

So in my opinion, yes the old covenant was put to rest. But the Jews didn’t check their heritage at the door. They still valued their special place and privilege with God (Rom 3:1-2). Because of that they kept doing portions of the law that were just a part of who they were. They continued to circumcise their kids. Why? Because it had to happen for salvation? No. Because that was their custom and because God said that was to be a lasting ordinance. Same with the Sabbath. Paul also speaks against the law to the Gentiles who were thinking about leaning on the law rather than leaning on Christ. So what sounds like Paul downing the law is actually Paul warning people from misusing the law or leaning on something that didn’t have power to save. He is telling them that they don’t need Christ + anything else. Our problem then is we tend to say that means all aspects of the law should have never been practiced again. But the New Testament just doesn’t hold that up as we see case after case of first century Jewish Christians still keeping practices of the law.

So what we have here in many of the passages we turn to and say Paul was “law free” is actually Paul warning people about trusting in the law for salvation. We have a hang up with people keeping portions of the law because then we make a false assumption that it means the old covenant must then still be in effect and we know we cannot accept that. What we have to come to grips with is that early Jewish Christians can practice parts of the law knowing full well that they are under a new covenant. Hope that helps!

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