The following is Appendix I from my forthcoming book, Return of the Puritans: Outline of a Christian Social Order.
In chapter four, I asserted and argued that the Law of Moses is the focal point of the ethical standards that apply to the people of God (and the world in general) in both the Old and the New Testaments. I also discussed the changes made in the law at the coming of Christ. These two sermons expand these assertions and arguments further and flesh them out. The first sermon argues that the Law of Moses continues in force as a rule of life for people today. The second sermon discusses the nature of and the relationship between the Old and the New Covenants, how they are similar to and different from each other, and how our understanding of the law is affected by our understanding of these covenants. Since they are sermons, they were written to be delivered by spoken word and to a Christian congregation, and this is reflected in their style, assumptions, etc.
The Abiding Validity of the Law of Moses
Matthew 5:17-20: Do not think that I came to destroy the law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled. Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.
There is a pernicious error that has become immensely popular in modern-day Christendom, in many circles. This error has had devastating effect on the ability of Christians to lead consistent, God-honoring lives in this world, because it has resulted in much of the modern church completely ignoring huge portions of the Word of God containing vital instructions for Christian living. I am talking about the error of thinking that the Old Testament Law of Moses no longer applies to modern-day Christians. To be sure, with the coming of Christ, there have been dramatic changes to our relationship to the Old Testament law, and we will look at these. However, the attitude of many modern Christians is to completely reject the entirety of the Law of Moses as a rule of life for modern Christians. If it is looked at at all, it is typically allegorized away so that it becomes basically meaningless. It is only in the past few years that I myself have come to realize the enormity of this error, and have seen its presence in me. For most of my Christian life, I pretty much ignored the Law of Moses as being applicable only to Old Testament times, thinking that it’s all been fulfilled in Christ so there’s no need to really pay any serious attention to it. Therefore, I would either skip it, or when reading it, I would look at it as having an allegorical meaning referring to Christ and “spiritual things” as opposed to actual rules of life in this world, and thus would miss much of what it had to say. I am convinced that I am not alone in this error. I think it is very widespread, and I think a lot of people simply aren’t even aware of it. But we should be aware of it, because Jesus warns us about it in the passage before us.
In this passage, Jesus is near the beginning of the famous Sermon on the Mount. He has just given the Beatitudes, as they are called, in verses 3-12, followed by a warning to us to live out our lives of good works before the people of this world, so that they will learn to glorify God. What follows through the vast majority of the rest of the Sermon on the Mount is, therefore, logically, an outline of what it looks like to live a life of good works in this world. In our text, verses 17-20, Jesus lays the crucial foundation for everything else he is going to say throughout the rest of the sermon. There is a reason why these verses are here, and if you miss the point of them or misconstrue them, or get them totally opposite of Jesus’s intention in them, as is unfortunately common, you won’t get what is going on in the rest of the sermon. In our passage, Jesus answers this question: “If we are to live a life of good works before men in this world to the glory of God, what is the standard we should look to to know how to live that life of good works?” And Jesus’s answer is simple and straightforward: The law of God, revealed in the Old Testament--the Law of Moses--is that standard.
Jesus says in verse 17, “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill.” The Jews knew that the coming of the Messiah would be a time of great change. They knew, from the Old Testament, that the Gentiles would be added to the people of God, that the Messiah would come as a sacrifice for sin, that there would be changes in the law--for example, there are prophecies that in the times of the coming of the great Servant of the Lord, the Messiah, the law-based boundaries between Jew and Gentile would be broken down. In Isaiah 56:1-8, God told the people of Israel,
Keep justice, and do righteousness, for my salvation is about to come, and my righteousness to be revealed. Blessed is the man who does this, and the son of man who lays hold on it; who keeps from defiling the Sabbath, and keeps his hand from doing any evil. Do not let the son of the foreigner who has joined himself to the LORD speak, saying, “The LORD has utterly separated me from his people”; nor let the eunuch say, “Here I am, a dry tree.” For thus says the LORD: To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, and choose what pleases me, and hold fast to my covenant, even to them I will give in my house and within my walls a place and a name better than that of sons and daughters; I will give him an everlasting name that shall not be cut off. Also, the sons of the foreigner who join themselves to the LORD, to serve him, and to love the name of the LORD, to be his servants--everyone who keeps from defiling my Sabbath, and holds fast my covenant--even them I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations. The Lord GOD, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, says, Yet I will gather to him others besides those who are gathered to him.
Isaiah’s prophecy here is clearly in contrast to the law as expressed by Moses in Deuteronomy 23:1-4:
He who is emasculated by crushing or mutilation shall not enter the assembly of the LORD. One of illegitimate birth shall not enter the assembly of the LORD; even to the tenth generation none of his descendants shall enter the assembly of the LORD. An Ammonite or Moabite shall not enter the assembly of the LORD; even to the tenth generation none of his descendants shall enter the assembly of the LORD forever, because they did not meet you with bread and water on the road when you came out of Egypt, and because they hired against you Balaam the son of Beor from Pethor of Mesopotamia, to curse you.
Clearly, the Messiah would bring great changes to the situation as it was before his coming.
Since people have a natural tendency to go to extremes with everything, it is not surprising that some people would get carried away with the idea that the Messiah would bring changes and conclude that the coming of the Messiah meant that the entire old order is done away with, and therefore there is no more need to pay any attention to the Law of Moses, as if the Messiah would replace the entire old system with something completely new. Ironically, this is precisely what has happened in much modern-day thinking about the meaning of Jesus’s coming as well. Therefore, Jesus minces no words, but says plainly, “Do not think that I came to destroy the law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled.” Jesus clearly refutes any notion that he came to do away with the Law of Moses. Every jot and every tittle will remain in place until heaven and earth pass away. But what does Jesus mean when he says that he came to “fulfill” the law? To “fulfill,” in English as in Greek, can mean to “make come true,” “bring about,” “fill,” “make full,” “bring to completion,” “complete,” “accomplish,” “finish,” “make fully known,” “proclaim fully,” or even “supply fully.” (These are the definitions given in my Greek New Testament.)1 I think the best reading of this word is that Jesus has come, not to destroy the law and the Prophets, but to bring them to completion, which confirms their validity. With regard to the Prophets, Jesus of course has come as the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies. Indeed, everything the prophets wrote ultimately pointed to Christ and his redemption. The Law of Moses contained many types and shadows--such as the laws regarding sacrifices, building the Tabernacle, etc.--which pointed forward to the reality of Christ’s sacrifice, as the Book of Hebrews systematically brings out. Jesus is the fulfillment of all these things. Jesus will also be the one who lives out the law fully, in order to redeem us from the curse of the law, so that we might be forgiven, and given the Spirit, so that the “righteous requirements of the law might be fulfilled in us” in our sanctification, as Paul says, and as we looked at in more detail last week. In all of these ways, Jesus fulfills the law and the Prophets. It was to Christ and his work that all the law and the Prophets were ultimately pointing forward. Jesus’s mission is a confirmation and ratification, not an abrogation, of the law and the Prophets, and re-establishes them by his own authority. All of these things are bound up in how Jesus has “fulfilled” the law and the Prophets.2
Now some people make a very serious mistake at this point. They agree that Christ has fulfilled, or brought to completion, and confirmed, the law. Then they reason in this way: “Since Christ has fulfilled the law, therefore the law is finished, and we need not obey it any more. It no longer applies to us, since Jesus has fulfilled it and thus done away with it.” Now I think you can see by paying attention to our text this morning that this is a terrible perversion of Jesus’s meaning. The whole point of our passage is the continuing validity as a rule of life of the Law of Moses for the people of God. We will continue to see this as we continue through the passage. Some people try to pick up on the word “fulfill” at the end of verse 18, link it to Jesus “fulfilling” the law in verse 17, and thus conclude that the law has passed away because Jesus fulfilled it by the time of his death and resurrection. There are two problems with this reading: 1. The word for “fulfilled” in verse 18, “till all is fulfilled,” is a different word from the one used in verse 17. Now, I don’t normally like to call attention to the Greek language in my exhortations, because it tends to become unnecessarily academic, and the English is usually quite satisfactory. But here, I think the translators, at least of the New King James Version, have made a mistake in using “fulfilled” at the end of verse 18. The word there is Geneitai, which means, according to my Greek New Testament dictionary, to “become,” “be,” “happen,” “take place,” “arise,” “come into being,” “be born” or “created,” “be done,” “become something,” “come,” “go.”3 In other words, Jesus is saying, “till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all has come to pass, or has happened.” 2. To understand “till all is fulfilled” as referring to Jesus’s death and resurrection is to make nonsense out of this verse. Listen to this paraphrase, which will bring out clearly the absurdity of this reading: “For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away--that is, until the end of the world, when the heaven and the earth shall be no more--one jot or one tittle will be no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled, namely till my resurrection, which will be in about two years.” This is like if I were to say, “Until the very universe comes to an end, I want you to continue to keep my instructions, for two years.” This is simply contradictory, meaningless language. It is clear that Jesus’s intent here, particularly when seen in the context of the entire passage, from verses 17-19, as well as what follows, is to affirm the continuing validity of the Law of Moses, not to assert that it will not continue. “Until heaven and earth pass away” is a phrase calculated to say, basically, “forever.” The Bible uses this sort of language elsewhere. In Genesis 8:21-22, for example, God tells Noah, “And the LORD smelled a soothing aroma. Then the LORD said in His heart, ‘I will never again curse the ground for man’s sake, although the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; nor will I again destroy every living thing as I have done. While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, winter and summer, and day and night shall not cease.” This would not be much of a promise if it might mean, “I’ll flood the earth again in two years!” For another example, take Jeremiah 31:35-37. God is affirming the everlasting nature of his covenant with Israel. He says, “Thus says the LORD, who gives the sun for a light by day, the ordinances of the moon and the stars for a light by night, who disturbs the sea, and its waves roar (The LORD of hosts is His name): ‘If those ordinances depart from before Me, says the LORD, then the seed of Israel shall also cease from being a nation before Me forever.’ Thus says the LORD: ‘If heaven above can be measured, and the foundations of the earth searched out beneath, I will also cast off all the seed of Israel for all that they have done, says the LORD.’” Again, this would not be much of a promise if it could mean, “I’ll forget all about you in two years!”
To take words like “fulfill” out of the context of the passage and use them to negate the basic intent of the passage is to engage in the worse kind of biblical interpretation. Jesus is affirming the continuing validity of the Law of Moses until the very heavens and the earth pass away--that is, forever, or at least until the end of the world in the most ultimate sense of that phrase; therefore, to use his words to make him deny the continuing validity of the law is to completely miss his point and to substitute instead a completely opposite point.
If we weren’t convinced already that Jesus is affirming the continuing validity of the Law of Moses in this passage, verse 19 will remove any last vestige of doubt. For here we have the application of what he has said in verses 17-18: “Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” “Don’t think that I have come to get rid of the law!” Jesus says. “It will not pass away until the end of the world. My very life and purpose is to fulfill the law, showing its continued validity. Therefore, since I did not come to get rid of the law but take it so seriously, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” The law is so important, it is so far from being Jesus’s intention to get rid of it, that Jesus here clearly affirms that even the very least of the commandments of the Law of Moses are still in force; and we have a moral obligation, at least as much now as before Jesus’s coming, to keep all of these commandments. Verse 20: “For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.” Some have interpreted verse 20 to mean something like this: “The Pharisees were as righteous as you can get, but you have to be even more righteous. You clearly can’t do that. So this is referring to the imputed righteousness of Christ upon the believer.” But I think that misses the point here, as well as gives the Pharisees far too much credit! Jesus is saying, “You need to keep the law, because it is still required of you! The Pharisees pride themselves on keeping the law, but your standard is not to fall below them, as if the law is annulled, but to rise above them and their hypocritical observance of the law.” Jesus didn’t think much of the Pharisees’ outward show of keeping the law. Later on, in Matthew 23:23, Jesus will have this to say about the Pharisees: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone.” The problem with the Pharisees was not that they tried to keep the law, but that they weren’t really sincerely keeping the law. They were doing the little details of the law, some of them, but were neglecting the entire point of the law--love to God and love to neighbor. Jesus rebukes them for this, but notice that he displays here the same concern as in our text about “the least of these commandments.” He says, “You have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone” [emphasis added]. Jesus wasn’t saying, “Don’t worry about all that little, legalistic stuff. Forget about that and just love God and your neighbor.” No, they should indeed worry about the weightier matters, but also about the lighter matters. As Jesus said elsewhere, in Luke 16:10, “He who is faithful in what is least is faithful also in much; and he who is unjust in what is least is unjust also in much.” In Mark chapter 7, Jesus once again rebukes the Pharisees, not for trying to keep the Law of Moses, but for not keeping it, and replacing it with their own man-made traditions.
Then the Pharisees and some of the scribes came together to Him, having come from Jerusalem. Now when they saw some of His disciples eat bread with defiled, that is, with unwashed hands, they found fault. For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands in a special way, holding the tradition of the elders. When they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other things which they have received and hold, like the washing of cups, pitchers, copper vessels, and couches. Then the Pharisees and scribes asked Him, “Why do Your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat bread with unwashed hands?” He answered and said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written: ‘This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ For laying aside the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of men—the washing of pitchers and cups, and many other such things you do.” He said to them, “All too well you reject the commandment of God, that you may keep your tradition. For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’, and, ‘He who curses father or mother, let him be put to death.’ But you say, ‘If a man says to his father or mother, “Whatever profit you might have received from me is Corban”—(that is, a gift to God), then you no longer let him do anything for his father or his mother, making the word of God of no effect through your tradition which you have handed down. And many such things you do.”
Jesus criticizes the Pharisees here for using their man-made traditions to create loopholes that allow them to avoid obeying the law of God. Jesus quotes two example passages, one from the Ten Commandments--”Honor your father and your mother”--and one from the Mosaic case laws that flesh out the Ten Commandments more specifically--”He who curses father or mother, let him be put to death.” Jesus chides the Pharisees for refusing to obey these, and all the commands of God in the law. Jesus did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill and to confirm it, and therefore we are to be serious about keeping all of it.
As I mentioned earlier, after our text in Matthew 5:17-20, Jesus goes on to spend most of the rest of the Sermon on the Mount spelling out what it looks like to live a righteous life in this world. The rest of the Sermon is mostly a commentary on the Law of Moses. Having just said that the Law of Moses is still in force and exhorted his followers to obey it, even down to the least commandment, he goes on to comment on portions of that law, correcting the misinterpretations of it invented by the Pharisees. Many people have misunderstood what Jesus is doing in this Sermon, because they have not paid close enough attention to his introduction to it in our passage this morning. Jesus employs a language of contrast throughout some of Sermon--”You have heard it said, but I say to you”--and some have thought that he is saying, “The Law of Moses said, but that’s annulled now, and now I say to you in my new law . . .” But that is an untenable understanding in light of our passage. Jesus is not contrasting his teaching with the Law of Moses, but with the false interpretations of the Law of Moses held and promoted by the Pharisees. Let’s briefly look at some examples and flesh this out a little bit. In verses 21-22, Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment.’ But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment. And whoever says to his brother, ‘Raca!’ shall be in danger of the council. But whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be in danger of hell fire.” Jesus is correcting here the idea that it is only outward murder, not inward hatred, that is condemned by the law. The Pharisees could get away with hatred, disrespect, and a de-valuing of their fellow human beings, by interpreting the law in only an outward sense. Jesus says the law applies to inward attitudes as well as to outward actions. Is he inventing a new law here? No, the Law of Moses said the same thing. Leviticus 19:17-18, spelling out the meaning of “Thou shalt not kill,” says, “You shall not hate your brother in your heart. You shall surely rebuke your neighbor, and not bear sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.” Following up on this same theme, in Matthew 5:38-44, Jesus says this:
You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak also. And whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him who asks you, and from him who wants to borrow from you do not turn away. You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you.
Some people say, “You see? The Law of Moses said there should be an eye for an eye; it promoted vengeance, not forgiveness and love! But Jesus overturns this law and replaces it with a new law of love, compassion, and forgiveness.” But this kind of response only reveals ignorance of the Law of Moses, the very kind of ignorance that Jesus here is trying to dispel. As we have already seen from Leviticus 19:17-18, the Law of Moses says that we are not to hate our brother in our heart, and we are not to take vengeance, but we are to love our neighbors as ourselves. That had always been the true meaning of the Law of Moses, and Jesus is simply restoring the true meaning in opposition to Pharasaic loopholes. “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” is a law pertaining to civil judgment and punishment, not to personal vengeance. Personal vengeance is strictly forbidden. It is obviously very important to maintain a distinction between civil justice and personal vengeance. Without that, there can be no civil law at all, only anarchy. If Jesus’s statements here, or the command not to take vengeance in Leviticus, are applied to civil justice, it would mean that when a police officer comes across a thief or a murderer, he should simply give him a hug and forgive him. No punishment at all! Or if “an eye for an eye” is taken to apply to individual conduct, it will lead to vigilantism, where everyone takes the law into his own hands--creating total anarchy. Jesus, here, is simply insisting that we do not use the law’s prescriptions for civil justice as an excuse for something else condemned in the very same law--personal vengeance. Just to add another bit of evidence here, look at Exodus 23:4-5: “If you meet your enemy’s ox or his donkey going astray, you shall surely bring it back to him again. If you see the donkey of one who hates you lying under its burden, and you would refrain from helping it, you shall surely help him with it.” The idea of loving your enemies is new to Jesus’s teaching, is it? No, it’s just that it had been forgotten by Pharasaic glosses. It is interesting that the same glosses have caused many modern-day Christians to misunderstand the Law of Moses in very much the same way. Jesus’s words are clearly very pertinent to us.
Let’s look at one more example: the law of divorce. Here is the law for divorcing wives in Deuteronomy 24:1-4:
When a man takes a wife and marries her, and it happens that she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some uncleanness in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house, when she has departed from his house, and goes and becomes another man’s wife, if the latter husband detests her and writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house, or if the latter husband dies who took her as his wife, then her former husband who divorced her must not take her back to be his wife after she has been defiled; for that is an abomination before the LORD, and you shall not bring sin on the land which the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance.
Here is Jesus’s commentary on divorce in Matthew 19:3-9:
The Pharisees also came to Him, testing Him, and saying to Him, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for just any reason?” And He answered and said to them, “Have you not read that He who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So then, they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate.” They said to Him, “Why then did Moses command to give a certificate of divorce, and to put her away?” He said to them, “Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, permitted you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery.”
Did Jesus contradict the Old Testament law of divorce? No, he gave the correct interpretation of it. According to Deuteronomy, a person could divorce his wife only when there is “uncleanness” in her. What does that mean? Well, different Jewish schools had different interpretations. Two of the most famous were the school of the great rabbi Hillel and the school of the great rabbi Shammai. Hillel said that “uncleanness” meant just about anything at all, even the burning of a husband’s meal. Shammai said that it could only mean adultery, or fornication. Jesus here is clearly rejecting Hillel’s interpretation and agreeing with Shammai’s interpretation. But he is not repudiating the Old Testament law. Some have looked at his statement that “Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, permitted you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so,” and have concluded that Jesus is saying, “Well, Moses said you could divorce your wives, but that was only because God was allowing you to sin because you were just so stubborn, but now that’s all over. You can’t do that anymore. We’re going to have to be righteous in this area now.” I think just saying it plainly like that reveals a good bit of the absurdity of this interpretation. How can the law, which is called holy and just and good, in the Old Testament and the New Testament, have condoned sin? No, what Jesus is saying is that divorce was permitted by the law, and by Jesus himself, because of the hardness of hearts. That is not to say that divorce is always a sin, but simply to say that it only exists because of sin. If it weren’t for sin, there would never be a need for divorce, which is a terrible thing. The Pharisees, or many of them, had come to look on divorce as an easy way out, making it seem more positive than it is, as if it were not a result of the fall and a travesty of how things should have been originally. Jesus is therefore emphasizing that divorce is a bad thing, one that should be looked at negatively, even though it is allowable in certain very narrow circumstances. He sees himself as agreeing with the Law of Moses in this regard, as it is seen in its proper context and properly interpreted. So we see that Jesus, in his teaching, does not annul the Law of Moses, but rather enforces it, warns against breaking even the least commandment of it, gives a practical commentary on it (which wouldn’t make much sense if he was telling people not to follow it anymore), and condemns the Pharisees repeatedly for not living according to it. The meaning of all of this is clear: The Law of Moses is still in force as a rule for Christian living.
The rest of the New Testament confirms that the Law of Moses is still in force as a rule of life for Christians. In Matthew 7:12, Jesus says, “Therefore, whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” In Mark 12:28-23, when one of the Pharisees asks him which are the two greatest commandments, Jesus says that they are to love God with all that they are, and love their neighbors as themselves. Love is the fulfilling of the entire Law of Moses. Love is clearly still in force. In Luke 18:18-23, the rich young ruler asks Jesus, “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus answers, “You know the commandments,” and then proceeds to list the Ten Commandments in the Law of Moses, indicating their continuing validity as a rule of life.
As we saw a couple of weeks ago, the Bible, in spelling out the meaning of our salvation, emphasizes that we are to be sanctified as well as justified. In Romans 8:1-4, Paul points out how salvation relates to the law:
There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin: He condemned sin in the flesh, that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.
We cannot be saved by the law, because that law condemns us. We are saved by the grace of God in Christ. And yet, we are saved to obedience to the law, “so that the righteous requirements of the law might be fulfilled in us.” Which law is this that we are saved from and saved to? Look back to chapter 7, verses 7-12:
What shall we say then? Is the law sin? Certainly not! On the contrary, I would not have known sin except through the law. For I would not have known covetousness unless the law had said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, taking opportunity by the commandment, produced in me all manner of evil desire. For apart from the law sin was dead. I was alive once without the law, but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died. And the commandment, which was to bring life, I found to bring death. For sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me, and by it killed me. Therefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy and just and good.
The law that we are saved from and saved to is nothing other than the Law of Moses--the law that includes, “Thou shalt not covet.” In Romans chapters 1-3, Paul makes the point that the law condemns all people, because all people, Jews and Gentiles, are under it. It is the same law, which for Gentiles who do not have the law in written form have it written in their consciences, while Jews have it in written form as well, which brings all under condemnation, and it is for the sake of being conformed to obedience to this same law that we are saved. So the Law of Moses remains a rule of life for Christians today.
The New Testament confirms this teaching elsewhere in many ways. In Romans 13:8-10, Paul says, “Owe no one anything except to love one another, for he who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not bear false witness,’ ‘You shall not covet,’ and if there is any other commandment, are all summed up in this saying, namely, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.” Paul exhorts his readers to love one another. Why? Because love is the fulfillment of the Law of Moses; so if they love, they are fulfilling the law. Paul still considers the law to be a rule of life and behavior for Christians.
This is reiterated in Galatians 5:13-14, where Paul says, “For you, brethren, have been called to liberty; only do not use liberty as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” Again, Paul considers the Law of Moses to be a rule of life for Christians.
In 1 Cor. 9:8-10, Paul has been explaining to the Corinthians that it is appropriate for the preachers of the gospel to receive compensation for their labors. He then says, “Do I say these things as a mere man? Or does not the law say the same also? For it is written in the Law of Moses, ‘You shall not muzzle an ox while it treads out the grain.’ Is it oxen that God is concerned about? Or does he say it altogether for our sakes? For our sakes, no doubt, this is written, that he who plows should plow in hope, and he who threshes in hope should be partaker of his hope.” Paul appeals to the Law of Moses as support for his teaching--”You should compensate laborers in the gospel, not just because I say so, but because the law says to do it.” Therefore Paul considers the Law of Moses to continue as a rule of life for Christians. He interprets the law as talking not primarily about oxen but people, as the principle in it applies even more to people than to oxen.
In Ephesians 6:1-3, Paul says, “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. ‘Honor your father and mother,’ which is the first commandment with promise: ‘that it may be well with you and you may live long on the earth.’” Paul commands children to obey parents, and then backs it up with the Law of Moses. Paul once again shows that he considers the law to be a binding rule of life on Christians today. He even shows that he considers the promises of the law to be applicable to Christians.
In 1 Corinthians 14:34, Paul, talking about women’s roles in teaching in the church, says this: “Let your women keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak; but they are to be submissive, as the law also says.”
In 1 Corinthians 5:1, Paul speaks about a problem of sexual immorality in the church: “It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and such sexual immorality as is not even named among the Gentiles--that a man has his father’s wife!” Paul seems to expect that the Corinthians should know better than to engage in this kind of immorality. But how would they know this? Where is such a thing condemned? In the Law of Moses. Paul expected the Corinthians to understand that the law is still a rule of life for Christians.
In James 2:8-13, the Apostle James says, “If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ you do well; but if you show partiality, you commit sin, and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all. For he who said, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ also said, ‘Do not murder.’ Now if you do not commit adultery, but you do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so do as those who will be judged by the law of liberty. For judgment is without mercy to the one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.” What is the law that we are supposed to follow as our rule of life? The Law of Moses. If we break one of the commandments of the law, we have broken all of them.
I thinks this will suffice for now to make it clear that it is the teaching of the entire New Testament that the Law of Moses remains in force as a rule for our duty as Christians. Now we need to address an issue that almost all of you are probably thinking about--What about the changes to the Law of Moses that were brought about at the coming of Christ? Surely we are not to follow the whole Law of Moses, for we know that certain laws have been abrogated, such as the laws about making sacrifices, building the Tabernacle, having priests and Levites, etc. And, of course, that is very true. These laws are indeed abrogated, because they were shadows and images pointing forward to the reality that is Christ. In Hebrews 8:1-13, we read this:
Now this is the main point of the things we are saying: We have such a High Priest, who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens, a Minister of the sanctuary and of the true tabernacle which the Lord erected, and not man. For every high priest is appointed to offer both gifts and sacrifices. Therefore it is necessary that this One also have something to offer. For if He were on earth, He would not be a priest, since there are priests who offer the gifts according to the law; who serve the copy and shadow of the heavenly things, as Moses was divinely instructed when he was about to make the tabernacle. For He said, “See that you make all things according to the pattern shown you on the mountain.” But now He has obtained a more excellent ministry, inasmuch as He is also Mediator of a better covenant, which was established on better promises. For if that first covenant had been faultless, then no place would have been sought for a second. Because finding fault with them, He says: “Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah—not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt; because they did not continue in My covenant, and I disregarded them, says the LORD. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put My laws in their mind and write them on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. None of them shall teach his neighbor, and none his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them. For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more.” In that He says, “A new covenant, ” He has made the first obsolete. Now what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.
In 1 Corinthians 5:1-13, in the same passage we looked at a few minutes ago, where Paul is criticizing the Corinthians for tolerating sexual immorality, Paul goes on and shows how the ceremonial laws in the Law of Moses, the laws about sacrifices, feasts, and external uncleanness, have been fulfilled in Christ. In verses 6-8, he says, “Your glorying is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Therefore purge out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, since you truly are unleavened. For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.” Christ is the fulfillment of the Passover, with all its symbols and rituals, and so we must follow him and his ways, which includes obeying his commands.
So we have indications in the New Testament both that the Law of Moses continues in force as a rule of life, and also that it has been, in some respects, abrogated as a rule of life. How do we fit these two elements together? That is an absolutely crucial question of interpretation. If the whole law were abrogated, we would not need to make distinctions, but if God expects us to follow the moral laws contained in the Law of Moses, we must distinguish. Historically, the theological language used to distinguish the parts of the law that continue as a rule of life and those that do not are the terms “moral” and “ceremonial.” Actually, the passage in 1 Corinthians 5:1-8 that we just looked at provides an excellent example of this distinction. In verse 1-5, Paul rebukes the Corinthians for refusing to follow the laws on sexual immorality in the Law of Moses. Clearly, these laws still apply as a rule of life. But in verses 6-8, Paul refers to the laws concerning the Passover, and applies them to Christ, indicating that they do not apply in their original form as a rule of life for Christians, because they were shadows pointing forward to Christ. As Paul says in Colossians 2:16-17, “So let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths, which are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ.” If we look through the New Testament, we see that those aspects of the Law of Moses that have been abrogated include laws about external uncleanness (including kosher food laws), laws about feast days, laws about sacrifices, laws about the Levitical and Aaronic priesthoods, laws about the Tabernacle, the Temple, the ark of the covenant, etc.--because all of these things pointed forward to the reality as it is fulfilled in Christ. But moral commandments, such as laws about sexual immorality, love, murder and hatred, theft, and so on, remain in force as a rule of life for Christians. And oftentimes, they contain rules not repeated in the New Testament, making it imperative that we do not discount these laws but look to them for guidance as to how we are to live.
But how can the ceremonial laws be abrogated, if Jesus said that the entire law is still in force for Christians? Isn’t this a contradiction? I do not believe so, because it is actually true that none of the law is abrogated. Even the ceremonial law is not really abrogated, in the sense that it is done away with and has completely disappeared. It is fulfilled in Christ, which has changed its form, but it is still applicable. We do indeed keep the laws of sacrifices--by looking to the one sacrifice of Christ through faith and sacramentally in the Lord’s Supper. We do indeed observe the laws concerning the Tabernacle--as Christ has entered the Tabernacle in the heavens of which the earthy Tabernacle was just a copy. We do indeed keep the laws about uncleanness--as we keep ourselves holy by avoiding sin, which is what those laws were inculcating in the people of God. That is why Paul calls on Christians to keep the feast of the Passover, with the “unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.”
And even with regard to the original form of these abrogated laws, it is not so much that the law has been changed (as if God had a change of heart regarding how he wanted his people to live) as that certain parts of it were always only intended to be in effect as a practical rule for a limited period of time. If I have a contract that says that I am to perform “action X” “until Tuesday, March 25, 2015, at 10:00 PM,” when Tuesday, March 25, 2015, 10:00 PM comes around, I will no longer be obligated to perform “action X.” This is not because my contract has been changed, but because there was a built-in expiration date for some of its content. Likewise, some of the elements in the Law of Moses, with regard to their original form, were only intended to be in force until a certain time. One example is the instructions regarding the building of the Tabernacle. A great portion of the Law of Moses is taken up with very precise instructions regarding how to build a large Tabernacle in the wilderness, how to carry it about when on the move, etc. When God called Solomon to build the Temple in Jerusalem, many of these instructions became obsolete, as there would no longer be any Tabernacle. The law did not change; some parts of it were simply intended to expire at a certain time. As we have seen, there were a number of laws in the Law of Moses that were intended to apply in their literal form only until the coming of Christ, and therefore when Christ came, they expired with regard to their literal form. The entire law is still in force as a rule of life, but not all parts of it apply in the same way at all times. There have been changes in the application of the law, but those changes were always built into the intentions of the law in God’s historic plan.
A practical question now arises: How do we know when to consider a particular law part of that aspect of the law that has changed form with the coming of Christ vs. part of the law that remains in its Old Testament form? How do we tell the moral and universal from the ceremonial laws or the laws that applied only to the circumstances of the people of God before the coming of Christ? That is a very important, and a very large question. I cannot go into it in any of the detail that the question deserves this morning. I have already laid out some of the characteristics of moral vs. ceremonial laws, so that is a start. The only other thing I can give you this morning is a practical method, which I think is implied by all that has been said. We know that the Law of Moses still applies as a rule of life. We also know that some aspects of it have changed (or at least the applications of some of it have changed). Who has the right to change the form of the observance of God’s law? The answer is obvious, isn’t it? It is not me, or you, or any human, who can change the observance of God’s law. It is only God who can change the observance of his law. So we should look to the Scriptures to determine how we should apply the law as a rule of life. Where it can be proved from the Scriptures that a change in form has taken place, we should observe that change in form. Where it cannot be proven that a change in form has taken place, we should continue to observe the law in its original form (obviously taking into account different applications that might arise in different contexts--for example, “Greet one another with a holy kiss” does not mean that we must kiss each other in church today. Kissing was a common form of greeting and expression of affection in the 1st century AD, so the point of that command is that we should greet each other with affection in whatever way is appropriate for our cultural context).
Well, I have given you a lot this morning, so let me sum up. First, Jesus, as well a the rest of the New Testament, affirms that the Law of Moses is still in force as a rule of life for God’s people. Not as a way of justification, or to earn grace, but as a way of living in response to the grace of God in Christ. 2. There are changes in the application of some of the law due to the coming of Christ. 3. We must look to the Scriptures to determine what has changed and what has not. The typical delineation that theologians have rightly used here is the delineation between the moral and the ceremonial aspects of the law (I am using “ceremonial” here in a broad sense to include all those aspects that only applied to the state of the people of God before the coming of Christ, which would include some judicial laws as well). When a change can be proved from Scripture, we should observe the law in its changed form, recognizing the importance of the coming of Christ. When a change cannot be proved from Scripture, we should continue to follow the law in its original, Old Testament form.
The practical importance of all of this is huge. The entire Word of God, not just the New Testament, is the rule of life for faith and practice. As Paul said to Timothy in 2 Timothy 3:16-17, “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.” If we do not pay attention to the Law of Moses, we will be ignoring a crucial portion of God’s Word, and therefore we will not be thoroughly equipped for every good work. Let my message this morning be an encouragement to all of us to look at the law, the whole of it, and consider what God has to say to us through it.
The Old and the New Covenants
Leviticus 16: Now the LORD spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron, when they offered profane fire before the LORD, and died; and the LORD said to Moses: “Tell Aaron your brother not to come at just any time into the Holy Place inside the veil, before the mercy seat which is on the ark, lest he die; for I will appear in the cloud above the mercy seat. Thus Aaron shall come into the Holy Place: with the blood of a young bull as a sin offering, and of a ram as a burnt offering. He shall put the holy linen tunic and the linen trousers on his body; he shall be girded with a linen sash, and with the linen turban he shall be attired. These are holy garments. Therefore he shall wash his body in water, and put them on. And he shall take from the congregation of the children of Israel two kids of the goats as a sin offering, and one ram as a burnt offering. Aaron shall offer the bull as a sin offering, which is for himself, and make atonement for himself and for his house. He shall take the two goats and present them before the LORD at the door of the tabernacle of meeting. Then Aaron shall cast lots for the two goats: one lot for the LORD and the other lot for the scapegoat. And Aaron shall bring the goat on which the LORD’s lot fell, and offer it as a sin offering. But the goat on which the lot fell to be the scapegoat shall be presented alive before the LORD, to make atonement upon it, and to let it go as the scapegoat into the wilderness. And Aaron shall bring the bull of the sin offering, which is for himself, and make atonement for himself and for his house, and shall kill the bull as the sin offering which is for himself. Then he shall take a censer full of burning coals of fire from the altar before the LORD, with his hands full of sweet incense beaten fine, and bring it inside the veil. And he shall put the incense on the fire before the LORD, that the cloud of incense may cover the mercy seat that is on the Testimony, lest he die. He shall take some of the blood of the bull and sprinkle it with his finger on the mercy seat on the east side; and before the mercy seat he shall sprinkle some of the blood with his finger seven times. Then he shall kill the goat of the sin offering, which is for the people, bring its blood inside the veil, do with that blood as he did with the blood of the bull, and sprinkle it on the mercy seat and before the mercy seat. So he shall make atonement for the Holy Place, because of the uncleanness of the children of Israel, and because of their transgressions, for all their sins; and so he shall do for the tabernacle of meeting which remains among them in the midst of their uncleanness. There shall be no man in the tabernacle of meeting when he goes in to make atonement in the Holy Place, until he comes out, that he may make atonement for himself, for his household, and for all the assembly of Israel. And he shall go out to the altar that is before the LORD, and make atonement for it, and shall take some of the blood of the bull and some of the blood of the goat, and put it on the horns of the altar all around. Then he shall sprinkle some of the blood on it with his finger seven times, cleanse it, and consecrate it from the uncleanness of the children of Israel. And when he has made an end of atoning for the Holy Place, the tabernacle of meeting, and the altar, he shall bring the live goat. Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, confess over it all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions, concerning all their sins, putting them on the head of the goat, and shall send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a suitable man. The goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to an uninhabited land; and he shall release the goat in the wilderness. Then Aaron shall come into the tabernacle of meeting, shall take off the linen garments which he put on when he went into the Holy Place, and shall leave them there. And he shall wash his body with water in a holy place, put on his garments, come out and offer his burnt offering and the burnt offering of the people, and make atonement for himself and for the people. The fat of the sin offering he shall burn on the altar. And he who released the goat as the scapegoat shall wash his clothes and bathe his body in water, and afterward he may come into the camp. The bull for the sin offering and the goat for the sin offering, whose blood was brought in to make atonement in the Holy Place, shall be carried outside the camp. And they shall burn in the fire their skins, their flesh, and their offal. Then he who burns them shall wash his clothes and bathe his body in water, and afterward he may come into the camp. This shall be a statute forever for you: In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall afflict your souls, and do no work at all, whether a native of your own country or a stranger who dwells among you. For on that day the priest shall make atonement for you, to cleanse you, that you may be clean from all your sins before the LORD. It is a sabbath of solemn rest for you, and you shall afflict your souls. It is a statute forever. And the priest, who is anointed and consecrated to minister as priest in his father’s place, shall make atonement, and put on the linen clothes, the holy garments; then he shall make atonement for the Holy Sanctuary, and he shall make atonement for the tabernacle of meeting and for the altar, and he shall make atonement for the priests and for all the people of the assembly. This shall be an everlasting statute for you, to make atonement for the children of Israel, for all their sins, once a year.” And he did as the LORD commanded Moses.
Hebrews 8:1-13: Now this is the main point of the things we are saying: We have such a High Priest, who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens, a Minister of the sanctuary and of the true tabernacle which the Lord erected, and not man. For every high priest is appointed to offer both gifts and sacrifices. Therefore it is necessary that this One also have something to offer. For if He were on earth, He would not be a priest, since there are priests who offer the gifts according to the law; who serve the copy and shadow of the heavenly things, as Moses was divinely instructed when he was about to make the tabernacle. For He said, “See that you make all things according to the pattern shown you on the mountain.” But now He has obtained a more excellent ministry, inasmuch as He is also Mediator of a better covenant, which was established on better promises. For if that first covenant had been faultless, then no place would have been sought for a second. Because finding fault with them, He says: “Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah—not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt; because they did not continue in My covenant, and I disregarded them, says the LORD. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put My laws in their mind and write them on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. None of them shall teach his neighbor, and none his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them. For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more.” In that He says, “A new covenant, ” He has made the first obsolete. Now what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.
Last week, we looked at Jesus’s teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew 5:17-20, where Jesus tells us that he did not come to annul the Law of Moses. We argued that the Law of Moses is still in force as a rule of life for Christians, although aspects of its application have changed with the coming of Christ. I want to follow up on that exhortation this morning, and talk a little more about the differences, as well as the similarities, between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant. The Old Covenant dispensation had some important differences with the New Covenant dispensation that we are now living under since the coming of Christ. We need to understand how these two dispensations, these two covenants, compare and contrast with each other in order to understand what we are called to as Christians, as well as how the Christian life today compared to the life of the people of God under the Old Covenant. As we examine this subject, we will find our thinking about what the Law of Moses has to say to us, and how we are not, and how we are, under that law as a rule of life, clarified for us even further.
Hebrews 8:1-6: “Now this is the main point of the things we are saying: We have such a High Priest, who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens, a Minister of the sanctuary and of the true tabernacle which the Lord erected, and not man. For every high priest is appointed to offer both gifts and sacrifices. Therefore it is necessary that this One also have something to offer. For if He were on earth, He would not be a priest, since there are priests who offer the gifts according to the law; who serve the copy and shadow of the heavenly things, as Moses was divinely instructed when he was about to make the tabernacle. For He said, ‘See that you make all things according to the pattern shown you on the mountain.’ But now He has obtained a more excellent ministry, inasmuch as He is also Mediator of a better covenant, which was established on better promises.” In Colossians 2:16-17, as we saw last week, the Apostle Paul said, “So let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths, which are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ.” The key difference between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant is that the Old Covenant contained types and shadows of the things of reality and substance, while the New Covenant contains the substance and realities themselves. In the Old Covenant, in the Law of Moses, priests were appointed. The sons of Aaron, who were descendents of Levi, the son of Jacob, were appointed to mediate between God and the people. They were to bring sacrifices, usually animals, into the Tabernacle, or later the Temple, that had been built with human hands, and in this way they would atone for the sins of themselves and the sins of the people, and reconcile the people to God. The people needed to be reconciled to God because of their sins against God, their defilement according to the dictates of the law. That defilement would cut them off from a right relationship with God unless atoned for in the manner the law specified. One of the most important of these sacrificial rituals, of course, were the rituals of the Day of Atonement, which we read about in Leviticus chapter 16. In the New Covenant, there is also a priest, a Tabernacle, and a sacrifice.
In the New Covenant, Jesus is our High Priest, and he is a Priest who is infinitely better than the priests of the Old Covenant. Hebrews 7:11-28 says this:
Therefore, if perfection were through the Levitical priesthood (for under it the people received the law), what further need was there that another priest should rise according to the order of Melchizedek, and not be called according to the order of Aaron? For the priesthood being changed, of necessity there is also a change of the law. For He of whom these things are spoken belongs to another tribe, from which no man has officiated at the altar. For it is evident that our Lord arose from Judah, of which tribe Moses spoke nothing concerning priesthood. And it is yet far more evident if, in the likeness of Melchizedek, there arises another priest who has come, not according to the law of a fleshly commandment, but according to the power of an endless life. For He testifies: “You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.” For on the one hand there is an annulling of the former commandment because of its weakness and unprofitableness, for the law made nothing perfect; on the other hand, there is the bringing in of a better hope, through which we draw near to God. And inasmuch as He was not made priest without an oath (for they have become priests without an oath, but He with an oath by Him who said to Him: “The LORD has sworn and will not relent, ‘You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek,’ by so much more Jesus has become a surety of a better covenant. Also there were many priests, because they were prevented by death from continuing. But He, because He continues forever, has an unchangeable priesthood. Therefore He is also able to save to the uttermost those who come to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them. For such a High Priest was fitting for us, who is holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners, and has become higher than the heavens; who does not need daily, as those high priests, to offer up sacrifices, first for His own sins and then for the people’s, for this He did once for all when He offered up Himself. For the law appoints as high priests men who have weakness, but the word of the oath, which came after the law, appoints the Son who has been perfected forever.
In the Old Covenant, there was an earthly Tabernacle, in which earthly sacrifices were offered. In the New Covenant also, there is a Tabernacle; but it is a Heavenly Tabernacle, where God himself dwells. 9:1-15 puts it this way:
Then indeed, even the first covenant had ordinances of divine service and the earthly sanctuary. For a tabernacle was prepared: the first part, in which was the lampstand, the table, and the showbread, which is called the sanctuary; and behind the second veil, the part of the tabernacle which is called the Holiest of All, which had the golden censer and the ark of the covenant overlaid on all sides with gold, in which were the golden pot that had the manna, Aaron’s rod that budded, and the tablets of the covenant; and above it were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat. Of these things we cannot now speak in detail. Now when these things had been thus prepared, the priests always went into the first part of the tabernacle, performing the services. But into the second part the high priest went alone once a year, not without blood, which he offered for himself and for the people’s sins committed in ignorance; the Holy Spirit indicating this, that the way into the Holiest of All was not yet made manifest while the first tabernacle was still standing. It was symbolic for the present time in which both gifts and sacrifices are offered which cannot make him who performed the service perfect in regard to the conscience—concerned only with foods and drinks, various washings, and fleshly ordinances imposed until the time of reformation. But Christ came as High Priest of the good things to come, with the greater and more perfect tabernacle not made with hands, that is, not of this creation. Not with the blood of goats and calves, but with His own blood He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption. For if the blood of bulls and goats and the ashes of a heifer, sprinkling the unclean, sanctifies for the purifying of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? And for this reason He is the Mediator of the new covenant, by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions under the first covenant, that those who are called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance.
In the Old Covenant, there were sacrifices that atoned for sins. As the verses already cited alluded to, there is a sacrifice in the New Covenant as well. But it is a perfect sacrifice that can truly take away sins. 9:23-10:10 puts it this way:
Therefore it was necessary that the copies of the things in the heavens should be purified with these, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. For Christ has not entered the holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us; not that He should offer Himself often, as the high priest enters the Most Holy Place every year with blood of another—He then would have had to suffer often since the foundation of the world; but now, once at the end of the ages, He has appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself. And as it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment, so Christ was offered once to bear the sins of many. To those who eagerly wait for Him He will appear a second time, apart from sin, for salvation. For the law, having a shadow of the good things to come, and not the very image of the things, can never with these same sacrifices, which they offer continually year by year, make those who approach perfect. For then would they not have ceased to be offered? For the worshipers, once purified, would have had no more consciousness of sins. But in those sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year. For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats could take away sins. Therefore, when He came into the world, He said: “Sacrifice and offering You did not desire, but a body You have prepared for Me. In burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin you had no pleasure. Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come—In the volume of the book it is written of Me—to do Your will, O God.’” Previously saying, “Sacrifice and offering, burnt offerings, and offerings for sin you did not desire, nor had pleasure in them” (which are offered according to the law), then He said, “Behold, I have come to do Your will, O God.” He takes away the first that He may establish the second. By that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.
There is a constant refrain in these passages: “The law made nothing, and no one, perfect.” “The former commandment was weak and unprofitable.” “Jesus is the Mediator of a better covenant.” “The New Covenant is a better covenant, established on better promises.” “The New Covenant is for the redemption of sins committed under the first covenant,” indicating that the Old Covenant could not actually free men from sin. “The New Covenant has better sacrifices.” “It is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats could take away sins.” “We have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” The New Covenant is better, infinitely better, than the Old Covenant. Why? What was it that made the Old Covenant so ineffective? What is it that makes the New Covenant effective? It is that the Old Covenant could not actually save, could not actually reconcile people to God, but the New Covenant can. That is because the Old Covenant contained only types and shadows that pointed forward to the reality, while the New Covenant contains the reality. That is why the New Covenant does not only bring atonement for sins for people living under the New Covenant, but for people living under the Old Covenant as well. Some of the passages we have read, taken out of context, might almost sound like they are saying that the Old Covenant was absurd, worthless, and even silly--which would of course be a blasphemous thing to say, as God himself was the author of the Old Covenant no less than the New. But that is not what these passages are saying. The Old Covenant was not worthless; it was the means appointed by God for believers before Christ to be connected to Christ and his atonement. It was absolutely essential, and it was effective, when used properly. When an Old Testament believer sinned, he would bring his sacrifice to the Tabernacle. And if he brought that sacrifice in the spirit of faith in the atonement that it pointed forward to, that sacrifice would be a means of his being cleansed from sin, forgiven, and reconciled to God, not through its own power (for the blood of bulls and goats can never take away sin), but through the power of Christ’s sacrifice, to which it looked forward. When the New Testament authors speak of the Old Covenant as worthless, or unprofitable, or flawed, they are speaking of it in itself considered, not as a means pointing forward to, but in contrast with, the New Covenant. As a means of connecting with the New Covenant sacrifice of Christ, the Old Covenant was of infinite value and efficacy. But when contrasted with the New Covenant, the Old Covenant was unprofitable and worthless. The Book of Hebrews is all about this contrast, and that is why it describes the Old Covenant in the terms it does.
Let’s go on to the rest of our passage this morning, verses 7-13:
For if that first covenant had been faultless, then no place would have been sought for a second. Because finding fault with them, He says: “Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah—not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt; because they did not continue in My covenant, and I disregarded them, says the LORD. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put My laws in their mind and write them on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. None of them shall teach his neighbor, and none his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them. For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more.” In that He says, “A new covenant,” He has made the first obsolete. Now what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.
Again, we see the same themes here that we have been talking about. The Old Covenant was not “faultless”; it had faults. Of course, the author here is not saying that the Old Covenant was a mistake, or was flawed, as if God was trying to get it right and failed. No, as we have pointed out, the Old Covenant is “flawed,” not in its own right and in its proper context as a means of connecting to the New Covenant atonement, but when contrasted with the New Covenant, as it is here. The New Covenant, having brought in the reality and the substance which the Old Covenant shadows were looking forward to, has made the Old Covenant obsolete. If my wife were to leave for a month to go off, say, to Pennsylvania to visit her family, perhaps a picture of her would become even more valuable than usual. I might look at that picture often. Why? Well, obviously, because it reminds me of my wife, and therefore connects me to her in some ways in her absence. However, when she comes home, I will cease to brood over the picture, because the one whom the picture was pointing to has arrived! If, when she came home, I ignored her to continue to gaze at the picture, there would be something wrong with me! The reality has made the shadow, or the picture, obsolete. Likewise, we do not need the Old Covenant anymore, because the reality it was pointing to has arrived. And therefore the Old Covenant “is ready to vanish away.” It has been abrogated; it has passed away. We are no longer under it. Of course, in a sense we are still under it, and always will be, in that the reality in Christ is what the Old Covenant was all about all along. So rather than saying that we have left it behind, we could say that we have finally fully embraced it. And, of course, both ways of talking are valid, depending on what we are emphasizing at the time. That is why our author here can talk of the Old Covenant as “obsolete” and “ready to vanish away,” while Paul, in 1 Corinthians 5:7-8, as we saw last week, can exhort us to keep the Passover feast--that is, keep it in its New Covenant substance, not in its Old Covenant shadow-form.
In verses 8-12, our author quotes from Jeremiah 31:31-34, describing the New Covenant as it was prophesied in the Old Testament. The Lord, in Jeremiah, describes the New Covenant as bringing justification and sanctification. “For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more.” And what is the result of this justification? “I will put my laws in their mind and write them on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. None of them shall teach his neighbor, and none his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for all shall know me, from the least of them to the greatest of them.” This is, obviously, sanctification, which is the fruit of justification. The Old Covenant pointed forward to these blessings, but by itself it could not bring them about. But the New Covenant, having the substance and the reality, can and does. I want to point out something else very important in these verses, something that touches on our theme from last week. Last week, I talked about the mistake of those who would say that the coming of Christ and the New Covenant has annulled the Law of Moses in such a way that we are not under its moral commands any longer as a rule of life. As we have seen abundantly, we are not under the Old Covenant any more as a way of salvation, because the New Covenant substance has replaced the Old Covenant shadows. There is clearly no doubt about that. But there is a distinction, a crucially important distinction, between the moral law and the way of salvation. Whether we are looking at the Old Covenant or the New, why do we need atonement in the first place? It is because we have broken the moral law of God. Salvation through the atonement of Christ, which was symbolized by the sacrifices of the Old Covenant, was necessary because the moral law of God could not be abrogated. If the moral law of God could be abrogated, there would have been no need for Christ to have died. Christ died because the law was against us, because we were sinners. He died to reconcile us to that law through our justification and sanctification, as we have seen in previous weeks. So to say that the effect of Christ’s death, his atonement for sin, was to annul the moral law of God, would be to destroy the very meaning of that atonement. If the law could be annulled, then Christ need not die to reconcile us to the law! The laws of the Old Covenant concerning sacrifices and salvation have given way to the New Covenant, because Christ has brought the substance of salvation through his righteousness and atonement. But both the Old Covenant and New Covenant affirm the eternal, abiding, unchanging validity of the moral law of God, found in the Law of Moses, for otherwise they make no sense at all. The purpose of the Old Covenant in shadow-form, and the purpose of the New Covenant as the reality, is to reconcile us to the law of God, to establish that law, not to annul it. So the very abrogating of the ceremonial law of salvation in the Old Covenant is part of a process that is meant to establish and confirm the moral law of God as found in the very same Law of Moses. Therefore, to confound these two aspects of the law--the ceremonial or salvific and the moral--and to hold that they are both abrogated by the coming of Christ is to miss the entire point of both the Old Covenant and the New Covenant! Our verses here in 8-12 point that out, for listen to what the prophet Jeremiah says will be the result of the New Covenant. Will it be the abrogation of the Law of Moses, in terms of its moral laws as a rule of life? No, but just the opposite! “For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my laws in their mind and write them on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” The very purpose of the New Covenant is not to annul the moral Law of Moses, but to have it inscribed on the hearts of God’s people in their sanctification, having brought forgiveness of their sins in justification. Thus, as the Apostle Paul states so emphatically in Romans 3:31, “Do we then make void the law through faith? Certainly not! On the contrary, we establish the law.”
Before we end this morning, I would like to briefly apply what we have learned to a much-misunderstood section of Scripture dealing with the subject of the Christian’s relationship to the law: Paul’s letter to the Galatians, 3:15-29:
Brethren, I speak in the manner of men: Though it is only a man’s covenant, yet if it is confirmed, no one annuls or adds to it. Now to Abraham and his Seed were the promises made. He does not say, “And to seeds,” as of many, but as of one, “And to your Seed,” who is Christ. And this I say, that the law, which was four hundred and thirty years later, cannot annul the covenant that was confirmed before by God in Christ, that it should make the promise of no effect. For if the inheritance is of the law, it is no longer of promise; but God gave it to Abraham by promise. What purpose then does the law serve? It was added because of transgressions, till the Seed should come to whom the promise was made; and it was appointed through angels by the hand of a mediator. Now a mediator does not mediate for one only, but God is one. Is the law then against the promises of God? Certainly not! For if there had been a law given which could have given life, truly righteousness would have been by the law. But the Scripture has confined all under sin, that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. But before faith came, we were kept under guard by the law, kept for the faith which would afterward be revealed. Therefore the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor. For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.
Many people have interpreted this passage to indicate that the Law of Moses has been annulled as a rule of life for the people of God. After all, Paul describes the law as a tutor, or a guardian, put in charge over us until Christ should come. But after Christ has come, Paul says, “we are no longer under a tutor”--therefore, we are no longer under the Law of Moses as a rule of life. Christ has supplanted it. Paul seems to get very upset when someone teaches that we are still under the law and must still follow it. Galatians 4:8-10: “But then, indeed, when you did not know God, you served those which by nature are not gods. But now after you have known God, or rather are known by God, how is it that you turn again to the weak and beggarly elements, to which you desire again to be in bondage? You observe days and months and seasons and years. I am afraid for you, lest I have labored for you in vain.” Galatians 5:1-6: “Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage. Indeed I, Paul, say to you that if you become circumcised, Christ will profit you nothing. And I testify again to every man who becomes circumcised that he is a debtor to keep the whole law. You have become estranged from Christ, you who attempt to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace. For we through the Spirit eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness by faith. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but faith working through love.”
Now, here’s a clue to discern false teaching from true teaching. Most false teaching arises from someone taking a portion of Scripture and using it to establish a doctrine, without putting that portion of Scripture into its context with the rest of the Scripture. There are certainly statements in these passages (such as, “we are no longer under a tutor”) which, by themselves, might be taken to mean that the Law of Moses is annulled in its entirety as a rule of life for Christians. But, both last week and this week, we have seen abundant evidence that this interpretation is contradicted by other parts of Scripture. Therefore, the careful interpreter will not jump to that conclusion, but will ask what the meaning of these passages is in light of the rest of Scripture. And I think we have seen enough in our studies in these past few weeks to understand what the proper interpretation is. The phrase, “The law,” or “The Law of Moses,” can be used to refer to different things. Sometimes, “The law” can refer to simply the moral, eternal aspects of the Law of Moses. It is in this sense that the New Testament writers are meaning it when they talk in absolute terms as if the law continues as a rule of life. (“Rather, we establish the law.” “That the righteous requirements of the law might be fulfilled in us.” “He who keeps the law but fails in one point is guilty of all.”) Sometimes, “The law” is used to refer to the entirety of the Law of Moses, both moral and ceremonial components, both considered as binding (though in different ways). This is, I think, the right reading of the passage we focused on last week--”Do not think that I came to destroy the law and the Prophets, etc.” I don’t think that Jesus is referring only to the moral aspects of the aw in that passage, but rather to the aw as a whole, indicating that all of it continues to be binding on us. On the other hand, sometimes “The law” is used to refer to “The Old Covenant” in contrast to “The New Covenant.” In that sense, we might be said to be not under law, but under grace. It is in this sense that the phrase is used, for example, in Acts 15:5, where it says, “But some of the sect of the Pharisees who believed rose up, saying, ‘It is necessary to circumcise them [that is, the Gentile believers], and to command them to keep the Law of Moses.” The Jerusalem council met in Acts 15 to decide this issue, and they decide not to require the Gentiles to keep the Law of Moses, since, as Peter put it in verse 11, “we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved in the same manner as they.” In other words, in this context, for the Gentiles to be required to keep “The Law of Moses” would be for them to be required to keep the Old Covenant, symbolized by circumcision (as opposed to baptism in the New Covenant), which would have implied a repudiation of salvation through the grace of Christ, because it would ignore the New Covenant. That is, of course, the same context in which Paul is writing in the book of Galatians, which is addressing the same topic as the Jerusalem council--salvation by the grace of God in the New Covenant, as opposed to justification by law by keeping the Old Covenant and rejecting the New. There was the time of the law, under the Old Covenant, and the time of grace, under the New Covenant. This did not imply that believers were not saved by grace in the Old Testament, for Paul repeatedly emphasizes that believers have always been saved by grace, through faith in Christ. “And Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” Nor did it imply that believers in New Testament times are not bound by the moral law of God as a rule for life, as Paul equally emphasizes. But the Old Covenant is exemplified by “law” while the New Covenant is exemplified by “grace,” because it was under the Old Covenant that the law was given, and because the Old Covenant could not in itself save anyone, it could not provide grace, but only pointed forward to a coming reality. By contrast, Jesus brought not the law, for that had already been given through Moses, but he brought “grace and truth,” as the Apostle John put it in John 1:17, because the New Covenant actually provided the substance of grace and salvation. Therefore, “the law” could not save, either understood as the moral law or the Old Covenant as a whole; only Christ and the New Covenant can save. The Old Covenant was a tutor to lead us to Christ, both by giving us the moral law which pointed out our sin and thus made us feel our need of Christ, and also by giving us the types and shadows by which we would be pointed to Christ the substance. We are now no longer under a tutor--not because the moral Law of Moses is no longer binding on us as a rule of life, but because the New Covenant has come to relieve us of the futility and ineffectiveness of the Old Covenant, which we are no longer under. No longer being under law but under grace, we can bear fruit for God, as his laws are written on our hearts, “so that the righteous requirements of the law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.”
That is why Paul took it so seriously when the Judaizers demanded that the Gentiles be circumcised and required to keep “The Law of Moses”--i.e. the Old Covenant regulations. It was not that being circumcised was itself evil. Paul himself had Timothy circumcised in order to avoid complains that he was not really a Jew. The problem was that circumcision done as if the law still demanded it implied that the Old Covenant regulations were still in force, which implied that the New Covenant had not come. That is why Paul says, in Galatians 5:2, “Indeed I, Paul, say to you that if you become circumcised, Christ will profit you nothing.” Remember my analogy about looking at a picture of my wife as a way of connecting to her while she is gone? If I continued to focus on the picture after her return, it would no longer be a way of connecting to her, but it would be a rejection of her. Similarly, before Christ came, the observation of the ceremonial laws of the Old Covenant connected believers to Christ, whom those laws pointed forward to. But to continue to observe them as law (as opposed to as optional, not moral, lifestyle choices--like being circumcised for health reasons) after the coming of Christ is to choose them instead of Christ, and therefore to reject Christ in an attempt to be saved by the law itself. And this, of course, is fatal to salvation, for Christ is the only true Savior. That is why Paul takes so seriously the injunction no to go back to “the law”--that is, not to go back to the Old Covenant. But this in no way negates what he says many times elsewhere about the continuing importance of the Law of Moses, reaffirmed and established in its New Covenant context, as a rule of life for Christians.
So, to sum up: The main difference between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant is that the Old Covenant contained types and shadows which pointed forward to the reality of salvation in Christ. The New Covenant is the realization of those realities. The Old Covenant, in terms of its distinctive regulations that contrasted with the New Covenant, has been done away with, replaced by what it was really all about all along in the New Covenant. Therefore, while the Old Covenant was a good thing and infinitely valuable and efficacious to believers before the coming of Christ, now it is ineffectual and worthless, and indeed to go back to it is to abandon Christ for that which cannot save, to seek to be justified by law instead of through the grace of Christ. However, none of this negates the continuing validity of the moral law of God as a rule of life for Christians, for it was for the purpose of establishing that very law, so that we could be reconciled to it and have it in our hearts to fulfill it, that both the Old and the New Covenants have existed in the first place. Therefore let us look to Christ alone, and to nothing else, as our only and full salvation; and let us, in reliance on his grace, follow his law, since that is the rule of life he has given to us for our good and for his glory.
1 A Concise Greek-English Dictionary of the New Testament, prepared by Barclay M. Newman, Jr., 1993, from The Greek New Testament, Fourth Revised Edition, ed. Barbara Aland, Kurt Aland, et al. (Stuttgart, Germany: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1994), 144 (the page number refers to the dictionary).
2 In his book Theonomy and Christian Ethics, Greg Bahnsen makes a plausible case that the meaning of the word “fulfill” in this verse means to “confirm” or to “establish.” Bahnsen may be right, but still the other meanings of “fulfill” are a part of the broader idea of the various ways in which Jesus relates to the law and the Prophets. Whether we take Bahnsen’s interpretation or the one offered here, it makes no difference in the overall meaning of what Jesus is saying.
3 Ibid., 37.