Friday, January 17, 2003

What is really different in the New Covenant -- Part 1 -- How the Old Covenant Failed

During the Passover the night before He died, Jesus said, "This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood." (Luke 22:20) By this Jesus connected His death and resurrection to the New Covenant about which the Lord spoke to Jeremiah the prophet, "'Indeed a time is coming,' says the Lord, ' when I will make a new agreement with the people of Israel and Judah. It will not be like the old agreement that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand and led them out of Egypt. For they violated that agreement, even though I was a faithful husband to them,' says the Lord, 'But I will make a new agreement with the whole nation of Israel after I plant them back in the land,' says the Lord. 'I will put my law within them and write it on their hearts and minds. And I will be their God and they will be my people.'"

The Old Covenant, or agreement as the NET Bible puts it, promised blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience. In Jeremiah's day, the curses ruled. Jeremiah had the tragic task of being the Lord's spokesman to the generation that suffered the destruction of Judah, Jerusalem, and the Temple. The Old Covenant had been presented and ratified by the children of Israel during the days of Moses. The covenant was a good covenant. It was fair. It faithfully laid out the duties of each side. It said that the Lord God would bless His people if they obeyed the Law and that He would curse the people if they disobeyed. Of course, when you distill the essence of the covenant in such terse terms, it sounds awful. The actual reading and meditation of the Old Covenant is enjoyable and uplifting, because one can sense the underlying principles and know that it speaks of relationship, truth, justice, and goodness. After all, it is the Old Covenant that the Psalmist refers to when he says, “Your instructions are a lamp that shows me where to walk, and a light that shines on my path.” (Psalms 119:105).

With great blessings for obedience and horrible curses for disobedience, why could not the nations of Israel and Judah choose rightly? Why did they come to receive the curses instead of the blessings? The answer lies in the ineffectiveness of the Covenant of Law.

The Law is ineffective because the heart (mind, will, and emotions) is defective. The heart of man does not naturally lean towards the Lord and His ways, but rather is full of self-interest. Jeremiah wrote: "The human mind is more deceitful than anything else. It is incurably bad. Who can understand it?" (Jeremiah 17:9). In other words, the heart leads the man against the things of God. It is dishonest and sick.

The Law is ineffective because the heart is unmoved by it. The Law can reveal lawless behavior, but it is usually ineffective in changing behavior. I may find myself wanting something my neighbor has. If I have the means, I may get one for myself. If I do not have the means, I may stew and fret over my misfortune. I may secretly hope that my neighbor loses his possession or breaks it or tires of it. The point is, I am in a mental and emotional state. Its origins are within myself, because of the deceitfulness of my heart. When the Law comes along and says, “You shall not covet,” what am I to do? Often, I am in the same mental and emotional state with the addition of the Law’s condemnation. The Law typically does not correct my heart; it only condemns my heart. I can read the command and know that I am a man who covets, but the command does not lead me to seek my neighbor’s good.

The Law is ineffective because the heart gravitates to legalism and defeats the intent of the Law. We have a sick heart and a law that shows its sickness. At the same time, we might acknowledge that the Law is good and marvel at our inability to meet its standards. One scheme that the heart, in its deceitfulness, has for self-justification is legalism. Legalism focuses on what is measurable in the Law. Meeting the requirements of such laws requires discipline and character, and in the meeting of the measure, the heart contents itself. The misfortune is that laws of measure do not get the heart right with God. Here is a maxim well worth understanding: “Legalism likes the tithe and hates the corners of the field.” The tithe, Deuteronomy 14:22, is a gift of 10% of your income. The corners of your field (Leviticus 19:9) are what you leave unharvested for the sake of the poor. One can know when he or she has met the tithe standard, but when have you left enough of your field behind? Can you count what you leave behind in your field as part of your tithe? The questions can go on and on. In the asking of the questions, the weightier issues of generosity and compassion are lost, and yet it is generosity and compassion that both the tithe and the corners of the field would like to promote.

The Law is ineffective because the heart misuses the redemptive provisions in the Covenant of Law. The blessings in the Old Covenant of Law did not demand perfect obedience. Instead, an entire system of blood sacrifice and offerings was erected to provide a covering for sin. So there were Guilt Offerings, Sin Offerings, etc. Once a year, the high priest would take blood into the Holy of Holies to provide redemption for national guilt. In other words, the Law never required perfect obedience. However, the provision for covering tends to promote more sin. What God intended as a vehicle for His mercy, man distorts as a palliative for a guilty conscience. The Lord, through Jeremiah, expressed this well, "“‘You steal. You murder. You commit adultery. You lie when you swear an oath. ... Then you come and stand here in my presence in this house I have claimed as my own and say, 'We are safe!'" (Jeremiah 7:9, 10).

The Law is ineffective because the heart’s deception and wickedness does not seek God by faith. Faith is not a New Testament concept. Genesis 15:6 and Habakkuk 2:4 both underpin the role of faith in establishing righteousness in a man or woman. However, the heart’s gravitation to legalism subverts the formation of faith.

In short: The Law reveals sin, but it does not impart righteousness. Ask yourself this question, “When is a thief not a thief?” You might answer, “When he is not stealing.” That is wrong; a thief not stealing is a thief out of work. When is an adulterer not an adulterer? You cannot say, “When he is not with his mistress,” because his mind is full of longing, fantasies and the schedule for the next encounter. Once more we see the commandments “Do not steal” and “Do not commit adultery” provide a diagnosis of sin, without imparting righteousness. You can see, in part, that this is because the Law identifies sin, but not righteousness. Righteousness is more of a “corners of the field” issue. It always moves outside of self-interest and engages in the interests of others. Thus, in answer to “When is a thief not a thief” one might prefer Ephesians 4:28, "The one who steals must steal no longer; rather he must labor, doing good with his own hands, so that he may share with the one who has a need."

A person who works to have things to give to others in need is not a thief.

Monday: Diagnosis and Cure

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