Does the old covenant nullify Jesus’ teachings?

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).


Ash Wednesday’s road to becoming

I was having a conversation with my sister the other day when she randomly invited me to an Ash Wednesday service for February 10th.

My first thought was “It’s here already?”

My second thought was “I don’t want to get ash on my forehead.”

My third thought was “What should I give up for Lent?”

The first is what it is. The second thought I accepted.  The third thought, however, I took some more time to think on.

Ash Wednesday marks the seasonal start of the Church’s march toward the cross of Good Friday. To quicken contemplation and piety, believers are encouraged to surrender or suppress something that hinders devotion to God.  At least that’s the idea.  More or less it’s usually treated either like a Christianized form of New Year’s resolutions or a sabbatical from something we know we really shouldn’t be doing in the first place.  And really, this is all understandable when its prevalent thinking is often fixated on what surrendering something is going to cost us.

If, however, we try to see how surrendering puts us upon the way of the cross, then those costs become not so much about losing or letting go of something as being shaped into something; or, as we discover as the cross comes closer into view, into someone.

The cross shows us God at work. As we move toward the cross with attentiveness to Christ, his holiness invites us to thrust aside that which hinders Christ’s image from being formed in us.  Should we choose to do so moment by moment, day by day, we begin to gradually encounter a grace that inhabits this way to the cross.  It is a grace that molds us in each reverent step.

The way of the cross is a way of worship, a way of becoming upon which Christ’s worth is shaped in us. After some thought, I have decided on something to give up to God.  Rather than much dwelling on it, however, I want my faith and energy concentrated on the LORD who is our liberty and life.  By the end of this seasonal march, when the Church has again beheld and believed Christ-on-the-cross, may that we will have more closely arrived at being a people in whom God is recognized, received, and revered.

The good news Jesus preached | Matthew 4:12-17

In his zeal for God’s honor, John had publicly spoken against Herod Antipas’ adultery and was subsequently imprisoned.  His ministry was basically over, creating a vacuum Jesus would step into.  Upon hearing the news, Jesus left the small town of Nazareth and settled in the fishing village of Capernaum.  Matthew describes its location as by the Sea of Galilee, in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali.  Matthew is carefully specific because this pivotal moment comes right out of Isaiah’s ancient prophecy.

“The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, by the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—The people who were sitting in darkness saw a great Light, and those who were sitting in the land and shadow of death, upon them a Light dawned.”

It’s a beautiful and climactic picture of God’s grace breaking into and through the desolate gloom.  Exhausted by the burden of performing rules, oppressed by injustice, downcast by disappointment, and shredded by sin, a ravenous darkness is how the people’s reality is depicted.  They walked in it, they lived in its haunted halls, they sat sapped in the heaviness of its shadow, drenched by its despondency.  There was nothing to look forward to.  But as Jesus arrived, “upon them a Light dawned.”

“From that time Jesus began to preach and say, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’”

When this message was preached by the herald, it was a preview; now proclaimed by its King, its reality.  A reality bursting with good news.  It is not necessarily good news in terms of something neat that happened today or a viral story that will restore your faith in humanity, but good news that flows to the very root of human reality.  The Kingdom of Heaven is that good news.

The Kingdom of Heaven is the reality of God’s sovereign and redemptive reign transplanted into the midst of everyday human reality in the person of Jesus the Messiah.  It is good news because it reveals the redemptive reordering of reality to begin in light of God’s reign.  Set from Heaven into Earth, this kingdom-reality will change everything—how Jesus is to be known, how the community of the King bears witness to the reality of his reign, how kingdom-ethics are righteously lived out, how history is redemptively understood, how kingdom-economics are redemptively managed, how kingdom-justice is redemptively perceived and dispensed, how national identities are redefined in Christ, what it means to be a part of redeemed humanity.  The Kingdom of Heaven will mold everything it touches and it will touch everything.

All of us hope for something good to come along, to bathe us in its rejuvenation.  To reveal what is real and worth our while in life.  We wonder if it will ever come, if we’ll ever get to be a part of it.  This text unveils the arrival of the good life, the reality saturated with God’s goodness.  By entering this text through reading and assimilating its truth through prayer, reality from out of God’s throne room is formed in us, enabling us to perceive all of life redemptively through Christ’s eyes.   It invites us in to participate as residents of its alien realm.  God is up to something good, and that goodness is rooted and revealed in “the kingdom of heaven…at hand.”

Meditations on Christ’s Temptations | Matthew 4:1-11

Once Jesus identified himself with Israel, the Father identified Jesus as His righteous son. As Messiah, he is one of us and all of God. God’s Spirit now leads Jesus into the wilderness to relate with Israel in ways they normally stumbled—temptation.

He first spent forty days and nights fasting, an echo of Israel’s forty years of wandering in the wilderness. When he grew hungry, the tempter drew near; he said to Jesus “If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread.”

The Father had just identified Jesus as his son; the tempter casts doubt on that notion, hinging its reality only on whether or not Jesus will use his deity to provide for his very real need. It’s a temptation Israel had given into often; it’s a temptation we all give into—“You’re supposed to be our God; provide for us! Jehovah Jireh! I’ve named it and claimed it! Now bless us!” After all, we feel (Ps88:10), how can God be glorified if we’re not alive? Jesus answered the tempter “It is written, ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.’”

Jesus sees life differently than the tempter (and us). Life is more than proper digestion; more than the provisions or materials we need and demand. What’s the point of life if it’s not the God-formed life? The life worth having, Jesus implies, is the one God gives form to in us through his words. God’s words speak a salvation substance into the soul no sustaining nutrient ever could. God spoke creation into existence; his commands precede creation. Craving creation independent of its creator’s command discards the God-formed life. We may be fed and filled by creation’s sustenance, but it comes at the cost of salvation’s substance given form in God’s commands. Jesus certainly had an appetite for food as we do, but not at the cost of the salvation reality he was bringing to be formed in us.

So the devil takes him to the highest point of the Jerusalem temple and tells him to jump off, again hinging Jesus’ identity of son-ship on this stunt. Since Jesus has appeared dependent on God’s words, the devil targets that, citing a psalm poetically reflecting on God’s protection (Ps91:11-12). Again, this tendency to be exacting of the letter of Scripture rather than embracing its spirit was a temptation Israel often gave into (Mt 9:10-13, 12:1-14). And again, it’s a temptation we often give into—“The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it”. Jesus knows Scripture wasn’t given so we could merely obey its letters, but that our character may conform to the holiness of God. So Jesus cuts through the letters the devil quotes him to remain true to its spirit of holiness: “On the other hand, it is written, ‘You shall not put the LORD your God to the test.’”

Scripture will always form the God-honoring life in us; if it doesn’t, we may be trying to manipulate Scripture to our own ends. While it is wise to always beware that which might delude or distract our witness to the holiness of God, it may also be wise to extend that wariness to our tendency to use those fortune cookie passages we quote out of context, as the devil did, to further our own spiritualized agenda. By placing God’s high and holy honor at the center of his focus during this temptation, Jesus was able to remain true to the God-honoring life Scripture forms in us.

The third temptation is unlike the others. In the previous two, the tempter sought to create doubt in Jesus concerning the identity of son-ship the Father had placed on him; Jesus cut through the fog of those temptations by remaining devoted to the priority of the God-formed life and the God-honoring life. This time, there is no condescending questioning of Jesus’ identity. The devil knows Jesus is assured he is the “beloved Son” and Messiah who will usher the Kingdom of Heaven into the reality of Earth. There is nothing left to do but make Jesus a deal.

Taking Jesus to a high mountain and showing him a vision of all the kingdoms of the world and all the splendor, worth, and wealth they had to offer, the devil says “All these things I will give You, if You fall down and worship me.”

The devil was offering precisely what the Jews wanted—a world where their Messiah was in charge, where justice was mediated through military might, a new golden age where all the world awed and oohed at the wealth and wisdom of their king. And again, much of this is what we also often want—power and prosperity, respect and affluence. But considering who was making the offer, Jesus saw the clear demonic nature of these desires. Hearing enough, Jesus ordered “Go, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the LORD your God, and serve Him only.’” 

Jesus had certainly come to take up residence in all the kingdoms of the world, though not to receive their glory, but to reveal to them his glory—the redeeming reality of God’s heavenly reign on Earth. Really the devil only offered Jesus more of the same—more of Earth’s tyranny, bullying, manipulation, exploitation, self-aggrandizing. These things would have absolutely no place in the redemptive reality Jesus was bringing. Jesus would usher in a kingdom whose reality would fall upon the ears as good news, bearing good fruit in the lives of those who gladly received it; the worship of God alone would become the culture of its citizens.

In all three schemes, how Jesus responds reveals what is at stake in moments of temptation. Temptation is all about what way our lives will bear witness to, whether it’s the way of God’s redemptive reign as formed in his words and matured in how we honor him, or more of the same dark, corrupt and crooked ways that have oppressed humanity from the beginning. Temptation is an opportunity to step into the way of salvation reality Jesus formed in his righteous witness in the wilderness. How Jesus responds in his own temptations shapes how we can respond during ours. When tempted, Jesus’ response pushes us down upon his way, following in the footsteps of his redemptive reality, enduring until we’ve escaped.

For we who strain to faithfully follow Jesus, the text allows us to relax in the recognition that Jesus has done what we often cannot (Heb 4:15-16), and that is grace and peace to us. We can know we are not alone in our temptation as we persist gracefully forward upon the way with he who is one of us and all of God.