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: Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 0 For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into 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, “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.” 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,
Thus saith the Lord, Keep ye judgment, and do justice: for my salvation is near to come, and my righteousness to be revealed. Blessed is the man that doeth this, and the son of man that layeth hold on it; that keepeth the sabbath from polluting it, and keepeth his hand from doing any evil. Neither let the son of the stranger, that hath joined himself to the Lord, speak, saying, The Lord hath utterly separated me from his people: neither let the eunuch say, Behold, I am a dry tree. For thus saith the Lord unto the eunuchs that keep my sabbaths, and choose the things that please me, and take hold of my covenant; even unto them will I give in mine house and within my walls a place and a name better than of sons and of daughters: I will give them an everlasting name, that shall not be cut off. Also the sons of the stranger, that join themselves to the Lord, to serve him, and to love the name of the Lord, to be his servants, every one that keepeth the sabbath from polluting it, and taketh hold of my covenant; even them will I bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer: their burnt offerings and their sacrifices shall be accepted upon mine altar; for mine house shall be called an house of prayer for all people. The Lord God, which gathereth the outcasts of Israel saith, Yet will I gather others to him, beside those that are gathered unto him.
Isaiah’s prophecy here is clearly in contrast to the law as expressed by Moses in Deuteronomy 23:1-4:
He that is wounded in the stones, or hath his privy member cut off, shall not enter into the congregation of the Lord. A bastard shall not enter into the congregation of the Lord; even to his tenth generation shall he not enter into the congregation of the Lord. An Ammonite or Moabite shall not enter into the congregation of the Lord; even to their tenth generation shall they not enter into the congregation of the Lord for ever: Because they met you not with bread and with water in the way, when ye came forth out of Egypt; and because they hired against thee Balaam the son of Beor of Pethor of Mesopotamia, to curse thee.
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, “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be 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 sweet savour; and the Lord said in his heart, I will not again curse the ground any more for man's sake; for the imagination of man's heart is evil from his youth; neither will I again smite any more every thing living, as I have done. While the earth remaineth, seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, 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 saith the Lord, which giveth the sun for a light by day, and the ordinances of the moon and of the stars for a light by night, which divideth the sea when the waves thereof roar; The Lord of hosts is his name: If those ordinances depart from before me, saith the Lord, then the seed of Israel also shall cease from being a nation before me for ever. Thus saith 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, saith 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: “Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same 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 unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into 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 unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other 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 that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much: and he that is unjust in the 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 came together unto him the Pharisees, and certain of the scribes, which came from Jerusalem. And when they saw some of his disciples eat bread with defiled, that is to say, with unwashen, hands, they found fault. For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, except they wash their hands oft, eat not, holding the tradition of the elders. And when they come from the market, except they wash, they eat not. And many other things there be, which they have received to hold, as the washing of cups, and pots, brasen vessels, and of tables. Then the Pharisees and scribes asked him, Why walk not thy disciples according to the tradition of the elders, but eat bread with unwashen hands? He answered and said unto them, Well hath Esaias prophesied of you hypocrites, as it is written, This people honoureth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. Howbeit in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men. For laying aside the commandment of God, ye hold the tradition of men, as the washing of pots and cups: and many other such like things ye do. And he said unto them, Full well ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your own tradition. For Moses said, Honour thy father and thy mother; and, Whoso curseth father or mother, let him die the death: But ye say, If a man shall say to his father or mother, It is Corban, that is to say, a gift, by whatsoever thou mightest be profited by me; he shall be free. And ye suffer him no more to do ought for his father or his mother; making the word of God of none effect through your tradition, which ye have delivered: and many such like things do ye.
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, “Ye have heard that it was said of them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou 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, “Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thine heart: thou shalt in any wise rebuke thy neighbour, and not suffer sin upon him. Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself: I am the Lord.” Following up on this same theme, in Matthew 5:38-44, Jesus says this:
Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also. And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain. Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away. Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully 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 thou meet thine enemy's ox or his ass going astray, thou shalt surely bring it back to him again. If thou see the ass of him that hateth thee lying under his burden, and wouldest forbear to help him, thou shalt surely help with him.” 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 hath taken a wife, and married her, and it come to pass that she find no favour in his eyes, because he hath found some uncleanness in her: then let him write her a bill of divorcement, and give it in her hand, and send her out of his house. And when she is departed out of his house, she may go and be another man's wife. And if the latter husband hate her, and write her a bill of divorcement, and giveth it in her hand, and sendeth her out of his house; or if the latter husband die, which took her to be his wife; her former husband, which sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after that she is defiled; for that is abomination before the Lord: and thou shalt not cause the land to sin, which the Lord thy God giveth thee for an inheritance.
Here is Jesus’s commentary on divorce in Matthew 19:3-9:
The Pharisees also came unto him, tempting him, and saying unto him, Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause? And he answered and said unto them, Have ye not read, that he which made them at the beginning made them male and female, and said, For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they twain shall be one flesh? Wherefore they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder. They say unto him, Why did Moses then command to give a writing of divorcement, and to put her away? He saith unto them, Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so. And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit 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 them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath 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 sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh: That the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after 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? God forbid. Nay, I had not known sin, but by the law: for I had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet. But sin, taking occasion by the commandment, wrought in me all manner of concupiscence. For without the law sin was dead. For I was alive without the law once: but when the commandment came, sin revived, and I died. And the commandment, which was ordained to life, I found to be unto death. For sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me, and by it slew me. Wherefore 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 man any thing, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law. For this, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Thou shalt not covet; and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. Love worketh no ill to his neighbour: therefore love is the fulfilling 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, brethren, ye have been called unto liberty; only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but by love serve one another. For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this; Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” 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, “Say I these things as a man? or saith not the law the same also? For it is written in the law of Moses, thou shalt not muzzle the mouth of the ox that treadeth out the corn. Doth God take care for oxen? Or saith he it altogether for our sakes? For our sakes, no doubt, this is written: that he that ploweth should plow in hope; and that he that thresheth 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. Honour thy father and mother; which is the first commandment with promise; That it may be well with thee, and thou mayest 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 silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience as also saith the law.”
In 1 Corinthians 5:1, Paul speaks about a problem of sexual immorality in the church: “It is reported commonly that there is fornication among you, and such fornication as is not so much as named among the Gentiles, that one should have 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 ye fulfil the royal law according to the scripture, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself, ye do well: But if ye have respect to persons, ye commit sin, and are convinced of the law as transgressors. For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all. For he that said, Do not commit adultery, said also, Do not kill. Now if thou commit no adultery, yet if thou kill, thou art become a transgressor of the law. So speak ye, and so do, as they that shall be judged by the law of liberty. For he shall have judgment without mercy, that hath shewed no mercy; and mercy rejoiceth against 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 of the things which we have spoken this is the sum: We have such an high priest, who is set on 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 pitched, and not man. For every high priest is ordained to offer gifts and sacrifices: wherefore it is of necessity that this man have somewhat also to offer. For if he were on earth, he should not be a priest, seeing that there are priests that offer gifts according to the law: who serve unto the example and shadow of heavenly things, as Moses was admonished of God when he was about to make the tabernacle: for, See, saith he, that thou make all things according to the pattern shewed to thee in the mount. But now hath he obtained a more excellent ministry, by how much also he is the mediator of a better covenant, which was established upon better promises. For if that first covenant had been faultless, then should no place have been sought for the second. For finding fault with them, he saith, Behold, the days come, saith 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 continued not in my covenant, and I regarded them not, saith the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, saith the Lord; I will put my laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts: and I will be to them a God, and they shall be to me a people: And they shall not teach every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: for all shall know me, from the least to the greatest. For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their iniquities will I remember no more. In that he saith, A new covenant, he hath made the first old. Now that which decayeth and waxeth 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. Know ye not that a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump? Purge out therefore the old leaven, that ye may be a new lump, as ye are unleavened. For even Christ our passover is sacrificed for us: Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, neither 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, “Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holyday, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days: which are a shadow of things to come; but the body 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 perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works.” 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: And the Lord spake unto Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron, when they offered before the Lord, and died; And the Lord said unto Moses, Speak unto Aaron thy brother, that he come not at all times into the holy place within the vail before the mercy seat, which is upon the ark; that he die not: for I will appear in the cloud upon the mercy seat. Thus shall Aaron come into the holy place: with a young bullock for a sin offering, and a ram for a burnt offering. He shall put on the holy linen coat, and he shall have the linen breeches upon his flesh, and shall be girded with a linen girdle, and with the linen mitre shall he be attired: these are holy garments; therefore shall he wash his flesh in water, and so put them on. And he shall take of the congregation of the children of Israel two kids of the goats for a sin offering, and one ram for a burnt offering. And Aaron shall offer his bullock of the sin offering, which is for himself, and make an atonement for himself, and for his house. And he shall take the two goats, and present them before the Lord at the door of the tabernacle of the congregation. And Aaron shall cast lots upon the two goats; one lot for the Lord, and the other lot for the scapegoat. And Aaron shall bring the goat upon which the Lord's lot fell, and offer him for a sin offering. But the goat, on which the lot fell to be the scapegoat, shall be presented alive before the Lord, to make an atonement with him, and to let him go for a scapegoat into the wilderness. And Aaron shall bring the bullock of the sin offering, which is for himself, and shall make an atonement for himself, and for his house, and shall kill the bullock of the sin offering which is for himself: And he shall take a censer full of burning coals of fire from off the altar before the Lord, and his hands full of sweet incense beaten small, and bring it within the vail: And he shall put the incense upon the fire before the Lord, that the cloud of the incense may cover the mercy seat that is upon the testimony, that he die not: And he shall take of the blood of the bullock, and sprinkle it with his finger upon the mercy seat eastward; and before the mercy seat shall he sprinkle of the blood with his finger seven times. Then shall he kill the goat of the sin offering, that is for the people, and bring his blood within the vail, and do with that blood as he did with the blood of the bullock, and sprinkle it upon the mercy seat, and before the mercy seat: And he shall make an atonement for the holy place, because of the uncleanness of the children of Israel, and because of their transgressions in all their sins: and so shall he do for the tabernacle of the congregation, that remaineth among them in the midst of their uncleanness. And there shall be no man in the tabernacle of the congregation when he goeth in to make an atonement in the holy place, until he come out, and have made an atonement for himself, and for his household, and for all the congregation of Israel. And he shall go out unto the altar that is before the Lord, and make an atonement for it; and shall take of the blood of the bullock, and of the blood of the goat, and put it upon the horns of the altar round about. And he shall sprinkle of the blood upon it with his finger seven times, and cleanse it, and hallow it from the uncleanness of the children of Israel. And when he hath made an end of reconciling the holy place, and the tabernacle of the congregation, and the altar, he shall bring the live goat: And Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions in all their sins, putting them upon the head of the goat, and shall send him away by the hand of a fit man into the wilderness: And the goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities unto a land not inhabited: and he shall let go the goat in the wilderness. And Aaron shall come into the tabernacle of the congregation, and shall put 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 flesh with water in the holy place, and put on his garments, and come forth, and offer his burnt offering, and the burnt offering of the people, and make an atonement for himself, and for the people. And the fat of the sin offering shall he burn upon the altar. And he that let go the goat for the scapegoat shall wash his clothes, and bathe his flesh in water, and afterward come into the camp. And the bullock for the sin offering, and the goat for the sin offering, whose blood was brought in to make atonement in the holy place, shall one carry forth without the camp; and they shall burn in the fire their skins, and their flesh, and their dung. And he that burneth them shall wash his clothes, and bathe his flesh in water, and afterward he shall come into the camp. And this shall be a statute for ever unto you: that in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, ye shall afflict your souls, and do no work at all, whether it be one of your own country, or a stranger that sojourneth among you: For on that day shall the priest make an atonement for you, to cleanse you, that ye may be clean from all your sins before the Lord. It shall be a sabbath of rest unto you, and ye shall afflict your souls, by a statute for ever. And the priest, whom he shall anoint, and whom he shall consecrate to minister in the priest's office in his father's stead, shall make the atonement, and shall put on the linen clothes, even the holy garments: And he shall make an atonement for the holy sanctuary, and he shall make an atonement for the tabernacle of the congregation, and for the altar, and he shall make an atonement for the priests, and for all the people of the congregation. And this shall be an everlasting statute unto you, to make an 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 of the things which we have spoken this is the sum: We have such an high priest, who is set on 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 pitched, and not man. For every high priest is ordained to offer gifts and sacrifices: wherefore it is of necessity that this man have somewhat also to offer. For if he were on earth, he should not be a priest, seeing that there are priests that offer gifts according to the law: who serve unto the example and shadow of heavenly things, as Moses was admonished of God when he was about to make the tabernacle: for, See, saith he, that thou make all things according to the pattern shewed to thee in the mount. But now hath he obtained a more excellent ministry, by how much also he is the mediator of a better covenant, which was established upon better promises. For if that first covenant had been faultless, then should no place have been sought for the second. For finding fault with them, he saith, Behold, the days come, saith 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 continued not in my covenant, and I regarded them not, saith the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, saith the Lord; I will put my laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts: and I will be to them a God, and they shall be to me a people: And they shall not teach every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: for all shall know me, from the least to the greatest. For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their iniquities will I remember no more. In that he saith, A new covenant, he hath made the first old. Now that which decayeth and waxeth 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 of the things which we have spoken this is the sum: We have such an high priest, who is set on 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 pitched, and not man. For every high priest is ordained to offer gifts and sacrifices: wherefore it is of necessity that this man have somewhat also to offer. For if he were on earth, he should not be a priest, seeing that there are priests that offer gifts according to the law: who serve unto the example and shadow of heavenly things, as Moses was admonished of God when he was about to make the tabernacle: for, See, saith he, that thou make all things according to the pattern shewed to thee in the mount. But now hath he obtained a more excellent ministry, by how much also he is the mediator of a better covenant, which was established upon better promises.” In Colossians 2:16-17, as we saw last week, the Apostle Paul said, “Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holyday, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days: which are a shadow of things to come; but the body 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:
If therefore perfection were by the Levitical priesthood, (for under it the people received the law,) what further need was there that another priest should rise after the order of Melchisedec, and not be called after the order of Aaron? For the priesthood being changed, there is made of necessity a change also of the law. For he of whom these things are spoken pertaineth to another tribe, of which no man gave attendance at the altar. For it is evident that our Lord sprang out of Juda; of which tribe Moses spake nothing concerning priesthood. And it is yet far more evident: for that after the similitude of Melchisedec there ariseth another priest, who is made, not after the law of a carnal commandment, but after the power of an endless life. For he testifieth, Thou art a priest for ever after the order of Melchisedec. For there is verily a disannulling of the commandment going before for the weakness and unprofitableness thereof. For the law made nothing perfect, but the bringing in of a better hope did; by the which we draw nigh unto God. And inasmuch as not without an oath he was made priest: (For those priests were made without an oath; but this with an oath by him that said unto him, The Lord sware and will not repent, Thou art a priest for ever after the order of Melchisedec:) By so much was Jesus made a surety of a better testament. And they truly were many priests, because they were not suffered to continue by reason of death: But this man, because he continueth ever, hath an unchangeable priesthood. Wherefore he is able also to save them to the uttermost that come unto God by him, seeing he ever liveth to make intercession for them. For such an high priest became us, who is holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners, and made higher than the heavens; who needeth not daily, as those high priests, to offer up sacrifice, first for his own sins, and then for the people's: for this he did once, when he offered up himself. For the law maketh men high priests which have infirmity; but the word of the oath, which was since the law, maketh the Son, who is consecrated for evermore.
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 verily the first covenant had also ordinances of divine service, and a worldly sanctuary. For there was a tabernacle made; the first, wherein was the candlestick, and the table, and the shewbread; which is called the sanctuary. And after the second veil, the tabernacle which is called the Holiest of all; which had the golden censer, and the ark of the covenant overlaid round about with gold, wherein was the golden pot that had manna, and Aaron's rod that budded, and the tables of the covenant; and over it the cherubims of glory shadowing the mercy seat; of which we cannot now speak particularly. Now when these things were thus ordained, the priests went always into the first tabernacle, accomplishing the service of God. But into the second went the high priest alone once every year, not without blood, which he offered for himself, and for the errors of the people: The Holy Ghost this signifying, that the way into the holiest of all was not yet made manifest, while as the first tabernacle was yet standing: Which was a figure for the time then present, in which were offered both gifts and sacrifices, that could not make him that did the service perfect, as pertaining to the conscience; which stood only in meats and drinks, and divers washings, and carnal ordinances, imposed on them until the time of reformation. But Christ being come an high priest of good things to come, by a greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this building; Neither by the blood of goats and calves, but by his own blood he entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us. For if the blood of bulls and of goats, and the ashes of an heifer sprinkling the unclean, sanctifieth to the purifying of the flesh: How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? And for this cause he is the mediator of the new testament, that by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions that were under the first testament, they which are called might receive the promise of 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:
It was therefore necessary that the patterns of things in the heavens should be purified with these; but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. For Christ is not entered into the holy places made with hands, which are the figures of the true; but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us: Nor yet that he should offer himself often, as the high priest entereth into the holy place every year with blood of others; For then must he often have suffered since the foundation of the world: but now once in the end of the world hath he appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment: So Christ was once offered to bear the sins of many; and unto them that look for him shall he appear the second time without sin unto salvation. For the law having a shadow of good things to come, and not the very image of the things, can never with those sacrifices which they offered year by year continually make the comers thereunto perfect. For then would they not have ceased to be offered? because that the worshippers once purged should have had no more conscience of sins. But in those sacrifices there is a remembrance again made of sins every year. For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sins. Wherefore when he cometh into the world, he saith, Sacrifice and offering thou wouldest not, but a body hast thou prepared me: In burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin thou hast had no pleasure. Then said I, Lo, I come (in the volume of the book it is written of me,) to do thy will, O God. Above when he said, Sacrifice and offering and burnt offerings and offering for sin thou wouldest not, neither hadst pleasure therein; which are offered by the law; Then said he, Lo, I come to do thy will, O God. He taketh away the first, that he may establish the second. By the which will we are 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 should no place have been sought for the second. For finding fault with them, he saith, Behold, the days come, saith 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 continued not in my covenant, and I regarded them not, saith the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, saith the Lord; I will put my laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts: and I will be to them a God, and they shall be to me a people: And they shall not teach every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: for all shall know me, from the least to the greatest. For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their iniquities will I remember no more. In that he saith, A new covenant, he hath made the first old. Now that which decayeth and waxeth 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 iniquities will I remember no more.” And what is the result of this justification? “I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people. And they shall teach no more every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: for they shall all know me, from the least of them unto 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, saith the Lord; I will put my laws into their mind, and write them in 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 the law void through faith? May it never be! 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 after the manner of men; Though it be but a man's covenant, yet if it be confirmed, no man disannulleth, or addeth thereto. Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He saith not, And to seeds, as of many; but as of one, And to thy seed, which is Christ. And this I say, that the covenant, that was confirmed before of God in Christ, the law, which was four hundred and thirty years after, cannot disannul, that it should make the promise of none effect. For if the inheritance be of the law, it is no more of promise: but God gave it to Abraham by promise. Wherefore then serveth the law? It was added because of transgressions, till the seed should come to whom the promise was made; and it was ordained by angels in the hand of a mediator. Now a mediator is not a mediator of one, but God is one. Is the law then against the promises of God? God forbid: for if there had been a law given which could have given life, verily righteousness should have been by the law. But the scripture hath concluded all under sin, that the promise by faith of Jesus Christ might be given to them that believe. But before faith came, we were kept under the law, shut up unto the faith which should afterwards be revealed. Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster. For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus. And if ye be Christ's, then are ye 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: “Howbeit then, when ye knew not God, ye did service unto them which by nature are no gods. But now, after that ye have known God, or rather are known of God, how turn ye again to the weak and beggarly elements, whereunto ye desire again to be in bondage? Ye observe days, and months, and times, and years.” Galatians 5:1-6: “Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage. Behold, I Paul say unto you, that if ye be circumcised, Christ shall profit you nothing. For I testify again to every man that is circumcised, that he is a debtor to do the whole law. Christ is become of no effect unto you, whosoever of you are justified by the law; ye are fallen from grace. For we through the Spirit wait for the hope of righteousness by faith. For in Jesus Christ neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision; but faith which worketh by 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 law in that passage, but rather to the law 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 there rose up certain of the sect of the Pharisees which believed, saying, That it was needful 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, even 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, “Behold, I Paul say unto you, that if ye be circumcised, Christ shall 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.