Have you ever studied something for YEARS and still couldn’t understand it? You knew it was supposed to make sense, but it just wasn’t “clicking”? Like working on a puzzle for a long time and getting to the end only to realize there are pieces missing?
Well, that is how this concept has been for me. As hard as I have tried to make sense of it, I could not reconcile how a perfect, excellent, and God-given letter of law could kill. Since God does not change, I could never reconcile the Old Covenant with the New Covenant. Instead I sat around trying to figure out which parts of which we were supposed to be obeying.
I had heard two different things all my life…the first was that the Old Covenant, which most people think is the law itself, has been completely done away with, meaning the law has been thrown out, and that we are free to do whatever we want unless it contradicts Jesus. Basically throw out the Old Testament because it is only useful for historical purposes. The second way the New Covenant was explained to me was that it did away with the ceremonial and civil laws, but that the moral laws were still in place. I could never reconcile this because I would read a moral law in Deuteronomy and then immediately after it I would discover a command to always wear clothes that were of one kind of fabric. So I would wonder if we were picking and choosing laws to obey and ones to throw out based on our own preferences. Is this confusing to anyone else?
This month, we are going through a Bible Study of Hebrews at Sherwood. The written Bible Study itself has been marginal, but delving into the actual book of Hebrews with some background information from the study has been eye opening. Hebrews has answered some questions that I have had for a long time, but it has also spurred me on to once again fight to reconcile the Old and New Covenant in my heart and mind. I just think this is KEY for my spiritual walk. So this is the outworking of that light starting to come on in my mind. It will probably be a bit lengthy as I put in on paper. It will also need to include some background and history. And honestly, I don’t expect that many people will read or may even need to read it. I may be the only one who struggles with this. It may make total sense to you friends already. In that case, let’s just consider this one a page in my personal journal.
A covenant is an agreement or contract between to parties. It usually involves action on the part of each. When God makes a covenant in the Bible, there is always a shedding of blood to seal it. Just as blood brothers seal a promise to each other with an intertwining of their life force, God shows us His seriousness by requiring life blood to seal His covenants. When God makes a covenant, there is also a guarantee, a “down payment”, or a supernatural sign to accompany it. This sets these agreements apart from mere promises or conversations. A covenant is a serious thing when it is between God and man.
The first covenant God established was with Noah after the flood in Genesis 8 and 9. His part of the agreement was to never flood the earth again. Man’s part was to be fruitful, multiply, and replenish the earth, to refrain from shedding the blood of men, and to refrain from consuming any kind of blood. This covenant was sealed with Noah’s sacrifice on an altar that he built to the Lord. Keep in mind that this was BEFORE the Levitical law and Noah’s sacrifice came not from rule of law, but from a love for His God and a gratefulness for His provision during the flood. The guarantee of this covenant from the Lord was the rainbow in the sky.
The second covenant God established in His Word was with Abraham in Genesis 12. Abraham’s part in the covenant was to leave his country, his people, and his father’s house and trust God to show him a new place in the world. God promised that if Abraham would take this risk, that He would make Abraham and his descendants into a great nation…His chosen people. This covenant was sealed in Genesis 15 with a sacrifice that the Lord Himself directed. Again, this sacrifice came BEFORE the Levitical law. Abraham built altars and made sacrifices out of his deep love and respect for the Lord. The guarantee of this covenant was a miraculous son named Isaac…the beginnings of Israel.
There was no law, yet the Bible calls Noah and Abraham righteous men. How could they be righteous with no laws to obey? What determined their righteousness? Noah and Abraham had relationship with God. They talked with Him. They received His instruction directly and they obeyed it. The spirit of the law has been in existence since the beginning of time, since the law is based on the character of God’s justice, truth, kindness, purity, and holiness. Noah and Abraham believed God, sacrificed for that belief, and obeyed Him even in moments that didn’t make sense to anyone else. That is what made them righteous in the sight of God.
Fast forward a few hundred years to Egypt. God’s promise to Abraham has full fledged blown up into a nation of Israelites. Hopefully you know the whole story of how we got from Isaac to near a million Egyptian slaves, because I don’t have time to explain it here, but the end of Genesis will tell you the whole story. The Israelites are slaves and crying out to be released from bondage. God calls Moses to be the man of the hour. With more than a little supernatural Help, he leads the Israelites out of Egypt and into the desert. Now once all these people are out in the desert, it quickly becomes clear that some order is going to be necessary. They had been living under Egyptian tyranny for a long time. Not only that, but some of the sense of the One True God had been eroded and replaced with Egyptian idol worship, Egyptian culture, and Egyptian custom. They needed a serious training manual on how to be God’s people.
So the Father in heaven did what any and every good Father will do for his children. He laid down the law. Carved that puppy out on tablets of stone under a smoke filled, thunderous sky. His character, His justice, His fairness, His purity…it all came out in print. See God didn’t make the law up out of thin air. He didn’t sit in heaven thinking “what else can I do to make their lives miserable?” Nope, He gave them the blueprints to a utopian society. The law is just a revelation of the principles that heaven sits on. It was perfect and excellent and uniquely detailed so that God’s people could not get Him confused with the idols of the nations all around them. To be sure, if all of them could have followed it perfectly, the perfect society would have emerged. The law was not evil, it just pointed out to us what God had known all along…”the thought of man’s heart is evil even from his youth” (Gen 8:21).
God knew we would need a Saviour from the garden. He knew that once sin entered the world, it would spin out of control. I will go as far as to say, He knew what creating us would cost Him. As He was forming man from the dust of the ground, the cross was in the background.
So God made covenant with the Israelites in Deuteronomy. His part was to consider them His portion…His own special people…His holy nation. The Israelites’ were to obey the law…the ceremonial, the civil, and the moral. The sealing of the covenant was the priesthood and the sacrifices that God laid out for the Israelites in the law. The sign of the covenant was those tablets engraved by God Himself. Understand here that the law itself was not the old covenant. When God created a new covenant, it did away with the old covenant…it superceded this covenant we are talking about in Exodus, but it did not destroy the law. The law is a revelation of God’s character and of heaven itself…why do we always want to destroy it? Like all children, we don’t like rules…even if they are for our own good. We want to play in the street.
And to be sure, the Israelites didn’t like rules…at least not God’s rules. Not only did they end up rebelling against His law, but to add insult to injury, they instead followed the rules of other gods. They went as far as to engage in temple prostitution and child sacrifice. Again and again, God warned them, but this refusal to keep covenant with the One True God ended up in their destruction and put them right back in slavery for hundreds of years.
Even then, after all our rebelling and treachery and adultery, God pursued man. He pursued him with a new covenant… a New and Living Way. He knew that man could never be saved by the sacrificial system and by the keeping of the law, so He promised to write the law on our hearts instead. Isaiah and Jeremiah both prophesied that God would write the law within us, not because what was on those tablets was imperfect in any way, but because it wasn’t enough.
So God came down and dwelt among us. Even while He was here, we didn’t receive Him. We were too caught up in ourselves…in doing what we wanted to do. The Pharisees and Sadducees were too busy learning all their human additions to the law over the years and using them to manipulate people…Jesus was a threat to their very power and livelihood. Why would they want a new covenant? The old was working just fine for them. God walked the earth in human form. He was rejected. He was mocked. He was resisted. He was marginalized. He was tortured. And He was crucified. We didn’t recognize God because we had missed the spirit of the law in favor of its letter. We had the form down, but the entire power was missing. We were whitewashed tombs full of dead man’s bones. And you know what He said? “Here. I’ll fix it. I’ll give you Myself as the sealing of the covenant. Crucify Me. I will die, so that you can live.” Jesus was the final sacrifice. Once and for all, God sent a Savior and His Own Blood was the sealing of a New Covenant. And after it was finished, God sent the guarantee, the down payment, the deposit on what He plans to make good on some day. He sent the Holy Spirit to teach us the law and to write it on our hearts.
Let me tell you how I am beginning to understand this works. Our part is to accept the sacrifice of Jesus as covering for our sin. This means that we are claiming that Blood as our sin offering. When God looks at us, He sees His precious Son and we are saved from any wrath or punishment for our sin. The old covenant is gone because we have a new and better covenant. Jesus is the sacrifice, not the blood of lambs and goats. He is the way to fellowship with God…not a sacrifice on an altar. He is the High Priest now and lives to make intercession for us before God. Our sins are forgiven and washed away when we believe on Him for our salvation. Most Christian churches agree that Jesus was the final sacrifice. Where confusion comes in is what we do with the rest of the law. I’ve heard arguments about which part we carry over into the New Testament, arguments over what Jesus said and whether it is a new law altogether, arguments over whether Jesus’ sacrifice releases us from obeying a law at all…on and on I could go about the confusion that comes in here.
Jesus didn’t come to destroy the law though. The old covenant is gone, not the law. Instead when we accept Jesus, we receive the Holy Spirit into our hearts as a guarantee of the covenant that God is making with us. The Holy Spirit is the written law upon our hearts. The Holy Spirit does what the letter could never do. He CHANGES our hearts to desire the law of God…the character of God…the holiness of God… the purity of God. This is why Paul wrote so much about living by the Spirit. We aren’t bound by the letter of the law because we are filled with the spirit of the law.
We don’t earn salvation by works…by obeying the letter of the law. Salvation is given to us by grace through faith…but along with salvation, we get the Spirit. You simply cannot have one without the other. The Spirit begins to work in us and we become a new creature…our old way of life is gone and the new has come. The best part about it is our new desires. We no longer desire to break the laws of God when we are walking by the Spirit. As a matter of fact, we hate sin. The fact that our flesh is so weak grieves us and leads us only to confession and repentance…away from sin and closer to God.
I am not talking about the letter of the law here, I am talking about something deeper than an outward following of rules…I am talking about a heart change where your desires and motives will keep you 10 steps removed from sin.
“Do not commit adultery.” When walking by the Spirit, you will find red flags if you even flirt with a person who is not your spouse. You may hear a warning not to go to lunch alone with a certain person. You might find yourself going out of your way to avoid that second look. The law of God is written on your heart. Your desire is to be like Christ.
“Do not murder.” When walking by the Spirit, you will find red flags when you get angry. You may hear a warning not to join in conversation about that person. You might find yourself going out of your way to do something kind for someone your flesh wants to hate. The law of God is written on your heart. Your desire is to be like Christ.
“Do not lie.” When walking by the Spirit, you will find red flags if you consciously leave out the truth. You may hear a warning to avoid actions that might later lead to deception. You might find yourself offering more information than necessary at times just to make sure. The law of God is written on your heart. Your desire is to be like Christ.
Living by the spirit of the law solves even issues that are not always so cut and dry in the Word.
- Should you have that drink?
- Should you play the lottery?
- Should you watch that movie?
- Should you be in that relationship?
What is the Spirit saying? If you are truly a born again Christian, the Spirit of Christ dwells in you and writes the law on your heart. The more intimate you become with the Savior, the more you search out His character in His Word, and the more conversation you have with Him on a daily basis, the louder and more obviously you will hear the Spirit speak the law in your heart. And the Spirit will NEVER contradict the character of God.
Charles Spurgeon puts this better than I ever could in his sermon “God’s Law in Man’s Heart” which I highly recommend for reading here.
“When a thing is ‘learnt by heart’, you know the common meaning of that expression, even amongst our children. If they have learnt a thing by heart rather than merely by rote, they have made it their own, and it remains with them. A man with whom God the Holy Spirit deals is one who does not have to go to the 20th of Exodus to know what the law is; he does not need to stop and ask concerning most things, “Is this right?” or, “Is this wrong?” but he carries within him a balance and a scale, a standard and test by which he can try these things for himself. He has the law of God written upon his heart, so that, almost as soon as he looks at a thing, he begins to perceive whether there is evil in it or whether it is good. There is a sort of sensitiveness in his soul which makes him discern good and evil. When God, the Holy Spirit, is dealing with him, there is a true, enlightened conscience within him, so that he no longer puts bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter, or darkness for light and light for darkness; but something within him tells him, “This is right.” or “This is wrong.” It is a most blessed thing when this is the case, and it is always the work of the Spirit of God.”
I don’t have time to go into all the things that this changes. It has taken me YEARS to come to this understanding and I need to just soak in it for a bit.
Because if I am released from the letter in exchange for life in the Spirit, that changes everything for me.