Sunday, December 16, 2012

What is the New Covenant?

      What is the New Covenant? I find it tragically odd that something so foundational is so neglected in mainstream evangelicalism. After all, a full quarter of the Bible is named after it (“testament“ is a synonym for covenant!)... so why is it so overlooked? I believe that this woeful ignorance is due to a departure from seeing people related to God and other people covenantally; and looking at our culture, it‘s not hard to see why. We do business with faceless corporations through contracts filled with terms no one reads; we routinely rack up epic financial obligations and then escape them by declaring bankruptcy; and the last figure I saw stated that nationally, less than half of all marital covenants (in some states, barely a third!) survive “till death do us part“. The age of “a man‘s word is his bond“ has given way to contract termination fees. So instead of a covenant with God, we‘re more comfortable with a “personal relationship“ with Jesus, a nebulous, often subjective concept based on an extra-biblical term.
      So just like an actor with a lisp, we must work extra hard to overcome our handicap, and gain a true biblical understanding of what the New Covenant entails. Paul gets us started with the last half of our text: “not of the letter, but of the spirit; for the letter kills, but the spirit... “ (2 Cor 3:6). The best way to grasp the New Covenant is to master the Old (just like the Testaments!): the letter is not only what Paul‘s countrymen (the Jews) were accustomed to, but what all people through all times and places default to: an inescapable foundation of human religion (as opposed to true divine religion) is the correct suspicion that the gods are angry and the faulty belief that there‘s something we can do to get on their good side again. Offerings of food, wine, animals, silver, gold and even infant children were/are all employed to placate them and hoped to be the means by which we can deliver ourselves. Therefore every human stretch upward is tainted by our supposed self-reliance, our labor, by the burden of reconciliation firmly upon our shoulders.
Think that looks hard?  Just try keeping the Law!
      With all this in mind, one has to marvel at the wisdom of God; surely this attitude predates Moses and the giving of the Law at Sinai (one could argue it goes back to Cain). So God in His providence chose to use this foolish self-reliance to cultivate what Paul will later call in 2 Cor 7 “godly sorrow“. Under the Mosaic Law, every transgression has its recompense; imagine the cumulative effect of thousands of sacrifices over dozens of years upon the conscience of a faithful Jew! The ceremonial and ritual demands of the Law were exact and exhausting; surely before long, that Jew would begin to wonder if there was enough animals in the entire world to cover his sin (there aren't; Heb 10:4)! So the end point of the Law, its greatest purpose and goal is utter frustration at our impotent efforts to cleanse ourselves, and total desperation for Someone else to accomplish the work we can't. This is what “the letter kills” entails. We'll apply this to the New Covenant next time, but here's a sampling of verses that demonstrate the economy of the Old Covenant...

Gen 2:17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die."
Lev 18:5 You shall therefore keep my statutes and my rules; if a person does them, he shall live by them: I am the LORD. (quoted in Gal 3:12)
Deu 27:26 "'Cursed be anyone who does not confirm the words of this law by doing them.' And all the people shall say, 'Amen.' (quoted in Gal 3:10)
Eze 18:4 Behold, all souls are mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is mine: the soul who sins shall die.
Jam 2:10 For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.
Photo courtesy of Wessex Archaeology

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