Jesus, Paul and the New Covenant

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Jesus, Paul and the New Covenant

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Modern historians and theologians generally regard the apostle Paul as the founder of a distinct branch of Christianity that eventually converted most of the Roman world. They present Paul as having the courage to cut Christianity loose from its Jewish roots by depicting the New Covenant as a replacement for biblical law.

Is that view of Christian doctrine accurate? Did Paul's teachings really differ from the teachings of Jesus and His original 12 apostles?

These are crucial questions! Answered one way, they challenge the validity of nearly all of today's Christian denominations. Answered in the opposite way, they challenge the validity of Paul as a true apostle of Christ.

For anyone desiring his sins to be covered by the blood of Christ, nothing could be more important than finding the correct answers to these questions.

The key to understanding the teachings of both Jesus and Paul is to rightly understand the New Covenant that Jesus instituted by His death when He became mankind's sacrifice for sin. Even a slight misunderstanding of that covenant's intent and purpose is sufficient to confuse and bewilder most individuals.

So let's get it right!

The promised New Covenant

Notice the promise of this New Covenant given by God through the prophet Jeremiah more than 500 years before Jesus was born:

"Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah—not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, though I was a husband to them, says the Lord.

"But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people" (Jeremiah 31:31-33, emphasis added throughout).

This promise, directly quoted several times in the New Testament, is not about abolishing old laws to create less stringent standards for defining righteousness. It is about where existing laws of righteousness are to be written—in the heart of God's people. It is about reshaping the character of people so they, from the heart, can truly become the people of God.

That change of heart begins with and includes the descendants of Israel and Judah. It is not a promise aimed exclusively at gentile converts. In fact, gentiles become heirs of that promise only if they, through Jesus Christ, are reckoned as the children of Abraham.

It was Abraham—known then as Abram—who received the special messianic promise that "in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed" (Genesis 12:3). As Galatians 3:29 explains, "If you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise."

The problem in the Old Covenant

Where was the problem in God's covenant with Israel? Most theologians and religious leaders teach that the problem was with the laws, and therefore Jesus needed to abolish them. But does this view agree with what the Bible itself says? "For if that first covenant had been faultless, then no place would have been sought for a second. Because finding fault with them, He says: 'Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah . . .'" (Hebrews 8:7-8).

God found fault with the people—the ancient Israelites (except for a few specially selected servants). Though they had received His righteous laws, they had not yet received a righteous heart. That was the fault or weakness in their agreement, not the laws themselves.

The promise to them through a New Covenant was that, at a future time, God would change their hearts so as to enable them to obey—with heartfelt sincerity—the laws they had already received.

The manner in which that promise would be fulfilled God made plain through the pen of Ezekiel: "I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgments and do them" (Ezekiel 36:26).

To live up to everything God was teaching them, they needed God's Spirit in them—not just in those prophets who were their teachers.

So the purpose of the promised New Covenant is to make the power of God's Spirit available to all who desire to obey Him. By receiving the spiritual strength and power to practice God's teachings from the heart, men and women could become truly pleasing to Him.

Jesus speaks out regarding God's law

Hebrews 8:6 tells us that Jesus Christ "has obtained a more excellent ministry, inasmuch as He is also Mediator of a better covenant, which was established on better promises." The intent of His ministry and mission was to make those "better promises" possible.

Yet Jesus knew that His sin-bearing role would be used by some to grossly misinterpret the reason for His first coming. He realized that His sacrificial death for us—which eliminates the need for animal sacrifices and ritualistic ceremonies that had merely foreshadowed His death in our place (Hebrews 10:1-10)—would be twisted out of context as implying the entire body of Old Testament law also was no longer necessary.

He warned His disciples not to fall for that distorted reasoning. Therefore He spoke plainly!

"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. I tell you the truth, 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.

"Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least [by those] in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great [by those] in the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 5:17-19, New International Version).

The meaning of "fulfill"

The word "fulfill" here in Matthew 5:17 is often interpreted incorrectly as meaning abolished. This is absolutely inaccurate. The Greek word translated "fulfill" used here is pleroo, meaning "to make full, to fill, to fill up . . . to fill to the full" or "to render full, i.e. to complete" (Thayer's Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, 2002, Strong's number 4137). Jesus came to enhance and complete, not to abolish, God's law.

In Matthew 5:18 He says even more plainly that He did not come to destroy, rescind, nullify or abrogate the law: "For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled." Here a different Greek word is used and translated "fulfilled"—ginomai, meaning "to become, i.e. to come into existence . . . to come to pass, happen" or "to be made, done, finished" (Thayer's, Strong's number 1096).

Jesus likens the continuance of God's law to the permanence of heaven and earth. He is showing that God's spiritual law is immutable, inviolable and indestructible. It can only be fulfilled, never abrogated. Jesus came to complete or finish that law, to make it perfect by showing its full spiritual intent and application.

Continuing in this chapter, Jesus expands and enhances the spiritual purpose and intent of several specific commandments. Until the ultimate completion of God's plan to provide salvation for humanity comes to pass—that is, as long as there are still fleshly human beings—the physical codification of God's law in Scripture is necessary. This, Jesus explained, is as certain as the continued existence of the universe.

Jesus Christ stated clearly that keeping the commandments of God is essential to receiving eternal life. One person asked Him directly, "Good Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may have eternal life?" Jesus answered just as directly: "If you want to enter into life, keep the commandments" (Matthew 19:16-17).

All of Christ's apostles followed His example. One of His apostles, John, wrote: "Now by this we know that we know Him, if we keep His commandments. He who says, 'I know Him,' and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him" (1 John 2:3-4). Paul likewise taught that "keeping the commandments of God is what matters" (1 Corinthians 7:19).

What must Christians obey?

Other remarks by Jesus and His apostles make it plain that the entire Bible—the Scriptures of the Old Testament and the New Testament—are included in the New Covenant as guidelines for Christian learning and behavior. Jesus explained, "It is written, 'Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God'" (Matthew 4:4).

Paul confirms that he held the same conviction. He explained that "all Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness" (2 Timothy 3:16). Christians must learn from "all Scripture" if they are to live properly by the teachings of the New Covenant. None of the Old Testament Scriptures are irrelevant!

However, in the above passage Paul uses the word "profitable" for a reason. He was careful not to misrepresent what is required of new converts.

He explains first that everything in the Old Testament Scriptures is profitable for living under the New Covenant. But some symbolic aspects of the Sinai Covenant are no longer required of Christian converts. Those symbolic aspects are clearly defined in the book of Hebrews. They are "concerned only with foods and drinks, various washings, and fleshly ordinances imposed until the time of reformation" (Hebrews 9:10).

They were the sacrificial and ceremonial regulations that symbolically represented the sacrifice of Jesus Christ for the cleansing of humanity's transgressions of God's laws. They looked forward to His death as payment for our sins. It is His sacrifice that cleanses us from our guilt.

Therefore, those ritualistic washings and animal sacrifices are no longer necessary. But understanding what they symbolized is still very profitable. Therefore, not even a word or part of a word is to be ignored in the reading of the Old Testament Scriptures. All of it is instructive. Why? So "that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work" (2 Timothy 3:17).

Administrative considerations

The government of ancient Israel was a theocracy. Therefore, the Old Testament contains statutes that regulate how Israel's judges were to administer punishments to evildoers in a society that had not received God's Holy Spirit and where spiritual forgiveness was primarily anticipated through symbolism rather than actual. For some offenders the Israelite officials were told, "And you shall stone him with stones until he dies . . . So all Israel shall hear and fear, and not again do such wickedness as this among you" (Deuteronomy 13:10-11).

Paul explains that such administrative statutes are still instructive, providing their application now is "not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life" (2 Corinthians 3:6). Instead of criticizing the administration of such punishment in ancient Israel , Paul refers to that "ministry of death" for capital sins as "glorious" (verse 7).

Then he adds this question: "Will not the ministry of the Spirit be even more glorious? If the ministry that condemns men is glorious, how much more glorious is the ministry that brings righteousness! For what was glorious [the administration of capital punishment under the Sinai Covenant] has no glory now in comparison with the surpassing glory [forgiveness of sin by Christ's sacrifice under the New Covenant]. And if what was fading away [the requirement that such sinners be put to death] came with glory, how much greater is the glory of that which lasts!" (verses 8-11, NIV).

Forgiveness of sin through Christ's sacrifice (as distinct from condoning sin) is a major part of the New Covenant. Therefore, transgressions must be dealt with under the New Covenant according to the person's repentance. Those who repent—who turn to God to seek to obey Him with their whole heart—receive mercy instead of justice with its implied condemnation.

However, that divine mercy applies only to those who become Christians through repentance. For those who do not repent, Paul explains that they should fear judgment not only from God, but also from whatever civil authority is over them.

"For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. For he is God's servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God's servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer" (Romans 13:3-4, NIV).

The principle is plain. Civil authorities still have God's approval for punishing wrongdoers.

Therefore God expects obedience to law, both biblical and civil (so long as it doesn't contradict God's law, Acts 5:29), from those who want to please Him. The apostle John makes this very clear: "Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness" (1 John 3:4, NIV). Then he adds: "No one who lives in him [Christ] keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin [that is, as a way of life] has either seen him or known him" (verse 6).

While Christians do stumble and fall into sin at times (1 John 1:7), they are to be, as Jesus was in His human life, "striving against sin" (Hebrews 12:4)—thus, struggling with all their might, with God's help, to remain obedient to Him.

Beware of distortions of Paul's writings

Jesus Christ and all of His apostles, including Paul, taught the same. They all regarded the Old Testament Scriptures as the foundation of the Christian way of life. But Paul's writings have been greatly misinterpreted from the first century until this day.

For that reason Peter warns us to beware of distorted applications of Paul's writings. Here is Peter's warning: "Bear in mind that our Lord's patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote to you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction" (2 Peter 3:15-16, NIV).

Those who have accepted the distortions of Paul's letters have derailed themselves from the truth. That is partly why modern Christianity is so divided and typically becoming more and more like the world rather than coming out of it. GN