Leading Question: “On what basis have some Christians concluded that the Old Testament represents the “old” covenant and the New Testament the “new” covenant?
Introduction to the Issue: Some Christians who resolve the old covenant/new covenant tension by simply separating the testaments, surprisingly retain a view of God that makes him directly responsible for some of the most violent aspects of the Old Testament. Here we want to explore alternative explanations.
Two biblical passages can set the stage for our comparison: Hebrews 9:15 and Jeremiah 31:31-34. The passage from Hebrews is the memory verse for this week’s lesson.
Hebrews 9:15: For this reason Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance—now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant (NIV).
Jeremiah 31:31-34: The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 32 It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt – a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. 33 But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more (NRSV).
What needs to be said here is that while Hebrews quotes the Jeremiah new covenant passage (Hebrews 8:8-12), the original new covenant passage in Jeremiah applied to Old Testament people in Old Testament times. Since the author of Hebrews is pre-occupied with the sacrificial system, it is easy for him to adopt the view that what Jesus has done represents the “new” covenant since Jesus fulfilled the old sacrificial system.
But we must resist the temptation to import New Testament interpretations into the Old. Each Testament must yield its truths. Then we can bring them together. Furthermore, we can see Jesus as something more than simply someone who mechanically fulfilled the various aspects of the Jewish sacrificial system. We can see Jesus as the highest and clearest revelation of God, the clearest revelation of God’s character of love. Then we can also admit that some of the terrible things attributed to God in the Old Testament are not a direct reflection of God himself, but are a reflection of his radical adaptation to people with a tragically distorted view of divine authority.
Traditionally, the “theocracy” argument has been the primary means of explaining the violence of God in the Old Testament. In other words, the closer God came to direct rule over Israel, the more violent he became. The problem with that interpretation is that the one place where we would agree that God came closest to humanity, namely, in Jesus, we see a non-violent revelation of God. In our Gospel records, Jesus never killed any one; he never even struck anyone. When he cleansed the temple, Jesus attacked the furniture, not the people, as Reynolds Price put it. And in Matthew’s account of the cleansing we glimpse a beautiful picture of the right kind of anger, for after Jesus angrily drove out the money changers, the blind, the lame and the children came to take their place. I would love to have that kind of anger, an anger that drives away evil, but draws the children. Normally, when adults get angry the children head to the hills. When Jesus got angry, the children came running to him.
Some time ago when I was in conversation with a former Adventist who had moved into a strong evangelical perspective on law and gospel, I pressed him with questions about the violent customs attributed to God in the Old Testament. “What about law of cherem,” I asked, “where God commands the death of everything that lives: men, women, children, babies, and animals?” I was thinking not only of the story of Achan in Joshua 7, but also of God’s command through Samuel to destroy the Amalekites as recorded in 1 Samuel 15:3. I was stunned by his answer:
“In today’s world where Islamic Jihad is a very real threat, I wouldn’t be surprised if once again God commands the death of men, women, children, even the babies.”
My jaw dropped. Is Christian Jihad the answer to Islamic Jihad? I should hope not. It was Jesus who commanded, “Love your enemies” (Matt. 5:44). It was Jesus who cried from the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).
But an evangelical theology that too easily divides the covenants between the testaments is not afraid of a violent God. An eternally-burning hell is typically part of the package. And traditional evangelicals refuse to allow any into God’s kingdom unless they explicitly accept Jesus Christ as their savior from sin. The good Buddhist, the good Muslim, the good heathen are all left outside the gates of the New Jerusalem.
Here it is well worth noting the expansive vision of Ellen White in her commentary on the Jesus’ story of the sheep and goats:
Those whom Christ commends in the judgment may have known little of theology, but they have cherished His principles. Through the influence of the divine Spirit they have been a blessing to those about them. Even among the heathen are those who have cherished the spirit of kindness; before the words of life had fallen upon their ears, they have befriended the missionaries, even ministering to them at the peril of their own lives. Among the heathen are those who worship God ignorantly, those to whom the light is never brought by human instrumentality, yet they will not perish. Though ignorant of the written law of God, they have heard His voice speaking to them in nature, and have done the things that the law required. Their works are evidence that the Holy Spirit has touched their hearts, and they are recognized as the children of God. – Desire of Ages, 638
Law before grace and grace before law
In a lesson focusing on the covenants, it is well to note a biblical alternative to the law/gospel pairing that is so often seen as the New Testament perspective. From a motivational perspective, the idea of grace before law offers a real alternative and some powerful insights. If one sees the role of law as an instrument of condemnation, then it can scarcely be seen as good news within a new covenant experience. But if we reverse the sequence, seeing grace coming to us when we do not deserve it, then a God-given law can also be seen as good news. Such a perspective can be glimpsed in both testaments, in the Old at the Red Sea crossing; in the New, in Romans 5.
Note the sequence of grace before law in the story of Israel’s deliverance from Egypt. The record in Exodus gives no evidence that Israel “deserved” deliverance or had “earned” deliverance. God came to them by pure grace while they were still simmering with rebellion. But because he delivered them by grace, they were able to also see his grace when he gave them his law at Mt. Sinai. Grace softened their hearts; then they could hear the law as good news. Sinai scared them half to death. But they were thrilled. As Moses put it: “For what other great nation has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is whenever we call to him? And what other great nation has statutes and ordinances as just as this entire law that I am setting before you today?” (Deut. 4:7-8, NRSV).
In the New Testament, grace before law is taught in Romans 5. Note the highlighted phrases in the following quote:
Romans 5:6-11. For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person – though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. 8 But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. 9 Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. 10 For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life. 11 But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation (NRSV).
While we were still weak, while we were still sinners, while we were enemies, Christ died for us. In the knowledge of that grace, we can proceed to see God’s law as a gracious guide to our Christian living.