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Sunday, May 8, 2022

The Terms of the New Covenant

In the Gospel of Matthew, we read that Jesus Christ said: "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore, anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 5:17-20, NIV)

The Greek word translated here into English as "fulfill" is "pleroo" (pronounced play-ro-o). Moreover, I think that the way that Blue Letter Bible outlines the word's usage in Scripture is particularly applicable to its usage in the passage quoted above. They outline its Biblical usage in the following terms: "to make full, to fill up, i.e. to fill to the full - to cause to abound, to furnish or supply liberally...to render full, i.e. to complete - to fill to the top: so that nothing shall be wanting to full measure, fill to the brim - to consummate: a number - to make complete in every particular, to render perfect - to carry through to the end, to accomplish, carry out, (some undertaking) - to carry into effect, bring to realization, realize - of matters of duty: to perform, execute - of sayings, promises, prophecies, to bring to pass, ratify, accomplish - to fulfil, i.e. to cause God's will (as made known in the law) to be obeyed as it should be, and God's promises (given through the prophets) to receive fulfilment" [See G4137 - plēroō - Strong's Greek Lexicon (kjv) (blueletterbible.org)]

In previous posts on this blog, we have noted how Christ accomplished this fulfillment of the Law by 1) keeping it perfectly, 2) distilling it to its essence [LOVE - for God and neighbor], 3) revealing God's intent and will in various provisions of the law - clarifying and expanding their meaning [e.g. anger as it relates to murder, lust as it relates to adultery, revenge as it relates to forgiveness and mercy, physical circumcision of males juxtaposed to spiritual circumcision of the heart, a physical Sabbath rest juxtaposed to resting from our own works in Christ], 4) revealing the meaning of the symbolism of the rituals outlined in the Law, 5) inaugurating a new priesthood, and 6) offering himself as a sacrifice for our sins - becoming the Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world. Likewise, we noted in previous posts how Christ also fulfilled the writings of the Prophets [See Matthew 1:22, 2:15, 17, 23, 4:14, 8:17, 12:17, 13:14, 35, 21:4, 26:54, 56, 27:9, 35, etc.] Hence, we see that NOTHING really disappeared from the Law or was abrogated/done away with by Christ. Instead, he made clear that both the Law and the Prophets FOUND THEIR FULFILLMENT IN HIM! In other words, Christ represents the culmination or filling up of the Old Testament/Covenant!

Which brings us to the point of this post: What then are the terms of the New Covenant? Christ's Golden Rule is a good starting place in answering this question. We read that Christ told his disciples: "So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets." [Matthew 7:12] Later, when asked what the greatest commandment was, Christ replied: "‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments." [Matthew 22:37-40] These observations of Christ's about the Law set the stage for the "new" commandment which Christ gave to his disciples. We read in the Gospel of John that Christ told his disciples: "As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. This is my command: Love each other." [John 15:9-17]

Hence, we see that Christ identified the principle of love as encompassing the entirety of the Law, and then made it part of the terms of his New Covenant with his followers! However, unlike the Old Covenant, the people who are made a party to the New Covenant were required to live their new lives according to the Spirit of the Law as an expression of their gratitude for what Christ had done on their behalf - NOT as a means to receive the promises which Christ alone has made possible for them to receive! As Paul characterized it, "we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code." [Romans 7:6]

Indeed, in that same letter to the Romans, Paul makes plain the relationship of Christians to Torah laws. First, he makes plain that both Jews and Gentiles have sinned - transgressed the Law. [Romans 3:10-12] Continuing, he explained:  "But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus. Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. Because of what law? The law that requires works? No, because of the law that requires faith. For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles too? Yes, of Gentiles too, since there is only one God, who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith. Do we, then, nullify the law by this faith? Not at all! Rather, we uphold the law." [Romans 3:21-31] In his letter to the Galatians, Paul makes this even more clear. He wrote: "We who are Jews by birth and not sinful Gentiles know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified." [Galatians 2:15-16]

All of this, of course, underscores the fact that Christ is at the center of everything related to the New Covenant. Indeed, it is through his perfect performance of the requirements of the Old Covenant on our behalf that we are made a party to the New Covenant! This is made clear by the first part of Christ's discourse to his disciples referenced earlier in the Gospel of John. He told them: "I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. 'I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples." [John 15:1-8] Hence, even though Christians are saved by their faith in Christ, Jesus made clear that they are expected to bear the fruits of righteousness in him. And, once again, both Paul and John made clear that this was accomplished by Christians practicing love [Romans 13:8-10 and I John 3:11-19].

This moral requirement of the people who are parties to the New Covenant is also made plain in what Paul had to say about one of the other primary tenets of that covenant: baptism. Once again, he wrote the saints at Rome: "What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin— because anyone who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God." [Romans 6:1-10] So, Christians were expected to live moral lives after baptism - even though they were saved by grace, not by the works of the Law. Moreover, that baptism was made a part of the terms of the New Covenant is underscored by Christ's final instructions to his disciples recorded in the Gospel of Matthew. He told them: "Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you." [Matthew 28:19-20]

What are the other provisions of the New Covenant? Well, Peter told the people who were soon to become the foundation of the Church that they should REPENT and be baptized [Romans 2:38]. This is consistent with the moral behavior that Paul said would be expected of people after they were baptized. It is also consistent with those folks receiving God's Holy Spirit to help them in their new walk and to place God's law of love in their hearts. Of course, the other primary ritual associated with the New Covenant is known by many different names, but its place within the Christian faith is almost universally recognized - that is the ceremony known as the Communion, Eucharist, Lord's Supper, New Testament Passover, etc. In the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), we find that Christ instituted a ceremony whereby his followers would drink some wine to symbolize the blood which he would shed for them and eat some bread which would symbolize his body which would be broken for them [Matthew 26, Mark 14, and Luke 22]. Christ also instructed the saints at Corinth about the proper observance of this New Covenant ceremony [I Corinthians 11}.

Moreover, just as the Old Covenant was based on certain promises (blessings for obedience), the New Testament makes clear that the New Covenant is based on better promises [Hebrews 8:6]. (Although Christ also makes clear that Christians will share in his inheritance of the promises originally made to Noah, Abraham, and David.) What are those better promises? The most important promise is that Christ's sacrifice would accomplish the forgiveness of our sins. The Prophet Isaiah predicted that Christ would effect the forgiveness of our sins and reconcile us to God [Isaiah 53]. Under the terms of the Old Covenant, a system of animal sacrifices had been instituted to deal with Israel's sins. Under the terms of the New Covenant, the sacrifice of Jesus Christ accomplishes the complete removal of sin and reconciles the sinner who accepts that sacrifice to Almighty God.

In the epistle to the Hebrews, the efficacy of Christ's sacrifice is contrasted with the animal sacrifices of the Old. We read in the ninth chapter of that letter that, as the High Priest of the New Covenant, Christ offered himself as a superior sacrifice for our sins [Hebrews 9]. We are informed there that just as the High Priest entered the tabernacle each year to offer the blood of animals, Christ "did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption. The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean. How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God! For this reason, Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance—now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant." [Verses 12-15] Continuing, the anonymous author of the epistle wrote: "For Christ did not enter a sanctuary made with human hands that was only a copy of the true one; he entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God’s presence. Nor did he enter heaven to offer himself again and again, the way the high priest enters the Most Holy Place every year with blood that is not his own. Otherwise, Christ would have had to suffer many times since the creation of the world. But he has appeared once for all at the culmination of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself. Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him." [Verses 24-28]

What is the promise that this sacrifice makes possible? The gospel of John frames that promise in what is probably the most often quoted passage of the New Testament. We read there: "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him." [John 3:16-17] Paul framed the promise in these terms: "But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord." [Romans 6:22-23] He also explained the process of how this promise of eternal life would find fulfillment in his first letter to the saints of Corinth [I Corinthians 15]. Christ even tied this promise to the Eucharist when he said, "Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day." [John 6:53-54]

Finally, Christ implied in some of his discourses and parables that he would one day return to this earth and establish a literal kingdom on this planet [Matthew 24, Luke 19, Revelation 19, etc.]. Moreover, an angel explicitly promised his disciples that he would one day return to this earth in the same manner in which they had seen him leave [Acts 1:11]. There are also a number of scriptures which indicate that Christians will have the opportunity in this life to improve the position they fill within that kingdom by the effort that they put into growing the moral character which God and Christ expect of all of his followers [Matthew 20:20-28, 25:14-30, 37-40, Luke 6:22-23, 35, II John 1:7-8, etc.].

And, after reviewing all of these Scriptures, we can finally summarize the terms of the New Covenant: 1) Christ has fulfilled all of the requirements of the Law for humankind, 2) By doing so and offering himself as a sacrifice for our sins, he has cleansed us of our sins and reconciled us to God, 3) Christ has also magnified and distilled the Law for us and commanded us to love each other as the symbol of our participation in the New Covenant, 4) Christ has commanded us to repent of our past sins and has instituted two rituals [Eucharist and Baptism] associated with the New Covenant as a physical representation of our faith in him and acceptance of the work he has done on our behalf, 5) Christ has promised us eternal life with himself and the Father, and that he would one day return to this earth, and 6) He has given us the opportunity to be rewarded for the effort that we put into developing the moral character which God expects of us anyway. These are the terms of the New Covenant.


2 comments:

  1. Good exposition. I am still puzzled over the idea that emerges occasionally in discussions with Armstrongists that the New Covenant has no terms. I am going to try to find Garnie Teddo's article, that you mentioned in a previous article, on the NC to try to figure out what they are talking about.

    My guess is the logic they are trying to invoke is that since the NC has no terms that the OC contains the terms and that the NC is, therefore, just a way of viewing the OC - an additional clause added in an appendix to the old contract. Hence, the Sabbath is still in force. (But the Sabbath pulls with it all of the Law of Moses, sans ceremonies.)

    The Sabbath is to Armstrongism what circumcision was to the Circumcision Party that arose in the First Century Jerusalem church. Both are examples of Jesus transforming a physical implementation into a spiritual implementation centered on his Messiahship and Priesthood. To observe the Sabbath as a requirement for salvation is to fall from grace.

    I recently heard a theologian state that the Law of Moses, central to the Old Covenant, was not a way to salvation but was a behavioral model for the already "saved" Israel. I am going to explore this further. The irony is that the Gnostics and their descendants have made the Law of Moses to be on the critical path to salvation - something that the OC did not do, maybe.

    Neo

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    1. An astute observation about the Sabbath replacing circumcision for Armstrongists as the symbol of a Christian's obligation to observe the tenets of the Old Covenant between God and Israel.

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