Some time ago it was put to me that since Jesus’ teachings were delivered prior to his crucifixion, they fell under the old covenant and are, therefore, irrelevant.
Uncertain of the logic at work, I was unsure how to immediately respond. Perhaps it was a form of Marcionism applied to all events leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion. Maybe it was an interpretation of Jesus’ last supper words “this is the new covenant in my blood” that presumed the whole of the new covenant’s reality exists only after his blood was shed. Whatever the case, if the statement is followed to its logical conclusion, it essentially discards everything Jesus said, did, and, ultimately, requires of us. Therefore, lest such a notion flourish within the Church community, I wish to share three brief thoughts on the establishing of the new covenant.
First, while the new covenant was certainly certified and initiated at the cross, the reality of the new covenant’s good news was initially established at the start of John the baptizer’s ministry. In Luke 16:16, Jesus says “The law and the prophets were in effect until John came; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is proclaimed”.
The law and the prophets constituted the reality of the old covenant. John’s message heralded the impending new covenant. Where the herald of the king is, there is the reality of the imminent king. How much more when the king actually appears?
Secondly, therefore, as God’s Spirit incarnate, Jesus’ arrival and ministry simultaneously fulfilled the righteous requirements of the old covenant while also transformatively establishing the reality and essence of the new covenant. In his earliest recorded sermon, Jesus began “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Mt5:17-19).
How is it that the old covenant passes away but its law does not? By becoming something else, what it was always meant to be—holiness distinguishing the heart of God in us. Not a system of works-righteousness, but worship lived in responsive conformity to the righteousness the King embodied on our behalf.
Finally, through Jesus’ death as the inaugural sacrifice, the new covenant is initiated as the living standard for all who would follow him. The old covenant followed the same pattern. Moses delivered the law to the Israelite people (Ex19-23), then the people pledged to obey it (Ex24:3). After Moses offered sacrifices (Ex24:4-6), he identified the blood as what notarized the covenant that then defined the relationship between God and his people (Ex24:7). Jesus mirrors this imagery at the last supper when he says, “this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Mt26:28).
Having received forgiveness, we now answer God’s grace with a response of obedience proportionate to what his new covenant requires of us.
Why does this material matter?
John Bright writes “Repelled by all legalism, we have come close to the point of apologizing for any duty religion seems to involve, nay, have offered a religion almost without the demand of duty at all. Can it be that in casting off all religious duty, we have ended up admitting no duty—save to ourselves? It is time that we heeded the lesson of the Holy Commonwealth: that religion, aside from all that it does for man, lays before him a duty and demands that he do it. Christianity does involve duty. And that duty is to obey God, not in general and as it is convenient, but in every detail, and without exception.”
Brought to life as his Church, we are a covenant-people whose culture is to distinguish a holiness and worship that reveals in us the heart upon which God has said “I will put my law” (Jer31:33).