I know there are a number of West Wing fans here so I'm going to start with a West Wing illustration. Do you remember the end of the Pilot episode? The President's team have been having problems - not a West Wing fan, don't worry I think you'll get where this is going – In pilot episode the President's team are having problems with religious fundamentalists insisting homosexual behaviour is wrong. The Episode ends with President Bartlett putting those religious broadcasters in their place with the following pointed questions:
"I'm interested in selling my youngest daughter into slavery as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. She's a Georgetown sophomore, speaks fluent Italian, always cleaned the table when it was her turn. What would a good price for her be?"
"My chief of staff, Leo McGarry, insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly says he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself or is it okay to call the police?"
"Here's one that's really important cause we've got a lot of sports fans in this town: touching the skin of a dead pig makes one unclean. Leviticus 11:7 If they promise to wear gloves can the Washington Redskins still play football? Can Notre Dame? Can West Point?
"Does the whole town really have to be together to stone my brother, John, for planting different crops side by side? Can I burn my mother in a small family gathering for wearing garments made from two different threads?"
What is he saying? The law's out of date, we can't base our understanding of right and wrong on what it says. We've moved on and that's it. So the debate over homosexual behaviour – the Law in Leviticus clearly says that God hates it – but the law also tells us not to eat shell fish, since Christians now feel free to eat shell fish, why do Christians not allow the same freedom to engage in homosexual behaviour?
That's picking up on some of the ideas we've seen already in our series on the Law and Christians – as we saw in our first week, Jesus introduces a radically new way of relating to the law. Things have changed, we can't just pick up the OT, read and go and do, we can eat shell fish for instance.
Not only that, but as we saw last week the law is not decisive for how we relate to God – it's not about our performance, but about Jesus' performance on our behalf. Since in NT times that was quite hard for some people to get their heads around, quite a lot of the NT is taken up with arguments about how the law can not save us. We're not under law, but under grace.
Again that has led to some concluding that the law now has no place in the life of a Christian. We should be led by the spirit, not by the old letter of the law.
But then how do we reconcile Jesus saying that he hasn't come to abolish the law – and that anyone who breaks the law and encourages others to do the same will be called least in the Kingdom of heaven – but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven (Matt 5.19)!
Clearly there is a lot to figure out here. The law can't save us, that's clear. And the law doesn't remain unchanged by Jesus' coming, that's clear. And the law is not rejected and forgotten, that's clear. What might not be so clear is how we are now to understand and relate to the law – when I sit down to do my quiet time and I find myself reading through Exodus, Numbers, Leviticus and Deuteronomy, what am I supposed to learn, how can I apply what it says to my life?
That's the small question we've set ourselves to answer this morning.
So how do we learn from the law – well I'm going to turn back to the OT prophets to look at how Jeremiah said we would relate to the law in the New Covenant. And I want to look at it under four headings:
A New Covenant;
A New Covenant of Sins Forgiven;
A New Covenant of Law written on our Hearts; and
A New Covenant of Knowing God.
Let's get stuck in:
Point One: A New Covenant
This first point is really a reminder and a summary of what we've seen already: now that Jesus has come, died and risen again we're in a new age, a new relationship with God.
Have a look at Jeremiah 31: 31
31 "The time is coming," declares the LORD, "when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. 32 It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them," declares the LORD. 33
This is our first big point – with Jesus coming, things have changed. When God gave this promise it was all in the future, now it's come. But the point is that the old covenant is superseded by a new covenant.
This is where we the language of Old Covenant and New Covenant, or Old Testament and New Testament. Just so we're clear what we're talking about look at verse 32 – the old covenant was the covenant God made with his people when he led them out of Egypt – he's talking about the OT law, the Law that Moses handed down from the mountain as the people were on their way from Egypt to the promised land. This is Exodus, Numbers, Leviticus and Deuteronomy, the Law, the Old Covenant.
And the time is coming – this side of Jesus has now come – when God will replace that covenant with something new, something better, something radically different. This is why when Jesus came he used the language of the old and the new – the old has gone the new has come. He was claiming to be fulfilling this very passage. Before he died he told his disciples his blood would be spilt and it would be the blood of the new covenant for the forgiveness of sins (Matt 26.26).
But what I want you to notice is that this was Gods plan all along, when Jesus came and everything changed he wasn't doing away with the OT, he was fulfilling it, like he said. And that is because he fulfils this dynamic of promise and fulfilment that was always there. God wasn't surprised that no one could keep the law, he didn't scramble for a new plan, his plan was for the old to give way to the new.
So in saying there will be a new covenant God isn't abandoning all that's gone before, but revealing what it was all about. The OT law was put into place for a time, to prepare the way, so we could make sense of Jesus when he came. To use a gardening analogy it provides the prepared soil in which Jesus ministry grows; to use a building analogy it provides the materials that Jesus re-assembles into a magnificent new building; to use a musical analogy it provides the instruments and the musical lines that Jesus combines to form a beautiful symphony. Jesus said I have not come to abolish the law, but to fulfil it.
The Law continues to teach us, most importantly it points forward to Jesus. But, to begin to answer President Bartlet's critic we can't just pick it up and read it and put it into practice as if we were the people of Israel, there's a change.
The second thing to notice is that the law doesn't condemn, that's point two: A New Covenant of Sins Forgiven
Point 2: A New Covenant of Sins Forgiven
Look at verse 31 again:
31 "The time is coming," declares the LORD, "when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. 32 It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers …
What's going to be different? Look down to the end of verse 34:
34b "For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more."
The fundamental difference between the Old Covenant the New is forgiveness of sins, everything else rests on this. I'm not going to say a lot about this point, it's more or less the point that Rich made last week. We don't come to God on the basis of what we do – ticking off the Old Testament laws as a check list, and holding our works out for inspection. We could never manage to do that. That leads only to condemnation; the inspection reveals gapping holes at every point.
We can't stand on the basis of keeping the law, because we can't keep the law. We need to be forgiven instead, and that's what Jesus does for us.
But again, notice how this necessarily involves a change in our stance towards the law. The law doesn't condemn us –it reveals our sin and our failings, but it doesn't condemn us for them. Jesus has dealt with them, we're right with God because we've been forgiven. We don't go to the law to find out how to get right with God, and because of that the law is no longer our enemy, it is no longer a record of our wrongs that stands against us and gives the enemy ammunition to shoot us down with (remember Satan is called the accuser – the power he has over us is his power to deceive us into sin, and the power to accuse us before God when we do – now that we are forgiven this power of accusation is taken away).
But we still haven't got the guts of our topic – how do we apply the OT law as we read it? Which bits do we have to do? How do we work out what's changed in practice?
So this leads us on to our third point:
Point 3: A New Covenant of Law written on our Hearts
What is this new covenant going to do for the law? Listen to verse 33:
33 "This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after that time," declares the LORD. "I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.
The new Covenant is the age of the spirit, not the letter. We've been released from the law of sin and death, we're to keep in step with the spirit. Some people have interpreted these and other similar NT passage as saying that the law is completely irrelevant to us now.
But look at this – God doesn't simply forget about the law, he does the very opposite, he imprints that law on our hearts. We're in the context of the Law of Moses remember; when Moses received the law on the Mountain God gave him two tablets of stone – tablets on which the very finger of God had inscribed the law. But when he saw the sin of the people Moses broke those tablets and they had to be re-written out. The symbolism is pretty clear isn't it?
But here we again have the finger of God writing out the law – but this time not on tablets of stone for us to look at, or drop and break – not on any external surface at all. Now the finger of God writes on our hearts.
So the new covenant, the age of forgiveness, the age of the Spirit – remains an age where God communicates his moral standards to us by law. That is interesting isn't it? Our relationship to the law has changed, but not to the extent that we have no relationship with it – God's law continues to teach us how to live in God's world.
But the big difference here is that the law is internalised – the Spirit writes it on our hearts, so that it doesn't come to us from outside and meet only resistance, but it is impressed on our hearts to move us to obey it. This it seems to me is the language of Romans 7 – the struggle now is between our old nature that resists the law, and the work of the spirit within us, leading us in obedience to the law. Can you see how significant this is for the meaning of the law? Under the old covenant the Law of God came to the people in the form of a community code of conduct, enforced by penal regulations – you could be stoned to death for adultery, punished for stealing etc. This was necessary in the political and social context of a national people of God.
But under the new covenant the law doesn't come to us in the form of a national code of conduct, but to our hearts. This means that we're not called to stone the adultery to death, but it also means that the law can be far more comprehensive.
Think about – you can legislate against behaviours, but not against thoughts and attitudes of the heart – the law condemns adultery and murder. But what law can legislate against lust or hate? Only a law written on our hearts. Because it's internal God can make commands about our attitudes, about our thoughts. A law written on our hearts comes to us directly in our inner most being and confronts us with the absolute standards of God.
We can see this worked out in practice in the sermon on the mount as Jesus' restates elements of the law. He reveals the underlying moral intention, and it's bigger and harder than the Mosaic law. Not just 'don't kill', but 'don't hate'; not just 'don't commit adultery', but 'don't lust after a woman in your heart'; not just 'write a certificate of divorce and swap your old wife for a new one', but 'be faithful to your marriage vows and do not divorce or remarry'.
So Law continues; but the form is different - no longer external restraint and corporal enforcement, now internal movement of the Spirit. But is this just another way of saying that the law, as it's written in the OT is actually obsolete – we don't listen to it, we don't need any sort of commands, God speaks to us internally and we follow his lead?
Some people have read it that way – but the results haven't been good. The people in the states at the moment who are pursuing an agenda by seeking out practicing homosexuals to lead them as bishops do so on the basis of a claimed internal leading of the spirit. They claim to have discerned the voice of God correcting the OT prohibition on homosexual behaviour. But it can't mean that can it? The Holy Spirit is not so inconsistent is he? Is the Spirit going to lead us now contrary to the way he lead then, contradicting his own law?
Well what about the food laws – Jesus declared all foods clean, but the law was clear in restricting what was clean. Isn't that an example of inconsistency – are they clean or unclean?
This raises the central issue for us – we need to be able to work out which laws that are time bound and context specific – laws for establishing Israel's unique identity as God's people – and which laws are moral and therefore not time bound, not specific, but general.
There's another debate around this one too, but it's clear that broadly speaking the Law of Moses contains elements that are moral, some that are civil or civic – governing the nation – and some that are ceremonial or religious. Now the categories aren't carved in stone, some things can't be neatly categorised as one or the other, there's overlap and all that. But still we can see that there are distinct categories within the various law codes of the OT and that they are treated differently in the New Testament. So the religious elements and symbolic elements are carried over into the New Testament only in so far as they are fulfilled in Christ. That is to say that the underlying spiritual realities to which the OT law pointed continue, but the markers are largely left behind or changed into New Testament forms – so we must be circumcised to be saved – and that is the spiritually reality of putting off of the sinful nature, as opposed to the physical symbol of having a foreskin cut off (Col 2.11). And so it goes with Jesus serving in heaven now as our true high priest in the true tabernacle that is made by God not human hands, offering the once for all sacrifice of himself, not the blood of bulls and goats that can never save (cf the book of Hebrews for an extended explanation).
The civic laws in their penal aspect – the legal code and it's specified punishments - are specific to the nation of Israel and are not carried over to the New Testament.
And those laws which are clearly moral – well Jesus reveals them in a whole new depth and focus as we've been seeing.
So we need to be able to understand what sort of law it is and then to understand how Jesus coming, his death and his resurrection fulfil and reveal their meaning before we can fully appreciate how a given law applies to us (remembering all the time that we are not condemned by the law, but seek to put it into practice in it's fulfilled New Testament Written on our Hearts sense).
President Bartlet examples: Slavery in Exodus 21 – that was part of their historical context, not like the slavery we think of, but a form of bankruptcy. Stoning people for working on the Sabbath – the external restraint, the corporal punishment civil, part of their special character as God's nation, but still honour God by one day off a week Touching dead animal makes you unclean; planting mixed crops and weaving mixed threads together – all ceremonial teaching Israel to be different to the nations; fulfilled now in our holiness, living different lives. So finally the last point here:
Point 4: A New Covenant of Knowing God.
Read from verse 33 again:
33 "This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after that time," declares the LORD. "I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. 34 No longer will a man teach his neighbour, or a man his brother, saying,`Know the LORD,' because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest," declares the LORD. "For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more."
The last thing to notice here is that under the new covenant we will know the Lord.
But I guess the difference that is suggested here is that, in addition to having the law inscribed on our hearts so that we understand it, there is a deeper and better relationship with God that consists in knowing God. We've talked about knowing God in our morning sermons very recently, I preached on 'The Mind of Christ' from 1 Cor 2.10-16 – you might want to look that up on our website if you need a refresher… the big idea that stands behind our knowing God is the giving of the Holy Spirit. We can only know God directly as he is because he comes to reveal himself to us by his Son – historically as Jesus walked on earth, lived, died and rose again; and in the present day as the Father and the Son make their home in us through their Spirit living in us. It is because of the Holy Spirit living in us that we can know God, and know him truly, know him in his depths, know him as he is. Of course the Holy Spirit can only make his home in us because we have been forgiven in Christ and cleansed and made holy by him.
But don't miss the significance of this change in our relationship with God for our question of how a Christian relates to the law.
Under the old covenant the law of Moses was purely external, compelling behavioural modification by community enforcement. It couldn't touch our hearts, the problem of sin was very effectively revealed, but it couldn't be solved. The law exposed just how sinful we are – and it condemned us for that sin, but it couldn't change us.
How different things are under the new covenant. Now the external command of the law is inscribed on our hearts, now we know God – not as the tyrant with the big stick, but as the loving Heavenly Father. Now the Spirit within us moves us to want to obey the law, to want to do all that is pleasing to our heavenly Father.
So the law is met with the internal work of the Holy Spirit to change us ever more and more into the likeness of our Lord Jesus Christ. As we read his word God shapes us by it.
Now I know we've only just scratched the surface, but we're out of time, we have to finish. What has Jeremiah taught us about how we now relate to the law?
He's confirmed that there is a dramatic change from his time to ours – Jesus introduces such a difference that it is called a whole new Covenant. And under this new covenant we have forgiveness of sins, so the law is no longer against us to condemn us. But the law is not done away with, in fact the law is now written on our hearts so that we understand it in it's maximal, New Covenant application, and the Spirit of God is at work within us to move us to obey it.
In practice what this means is that when we sit down to read the OT law we are instructed by it how to live to please God. However we need to learn those laws in a new covenant way – working out what is external trapping that are stripped away in Christ as the internal realities are made known – those aspects that are ceremonial and civil aspects – and what is moral and needs to be applied in it's maximal, New Covenant sense.
I know that leaves a lot unsaid, I'm afraid we need to develop our ability to do this by putting it into practice. As a first step I recommend you read and re-read the sermon on the Mount to see how Jesus models a new covenant application of the OT laws, and have a look at our website for more helps.
For Further Reading:
This topic repays careful reading and further thought. For those who would like to look at the topic in greater depth (and from a slightly more academic angle) I have posted a copy of a dissertation my wife wrote for her theological degree at Moore Theological College. It covers a lot of the same ground as this sermon, and deals with a few popular alternative proposals as to how Christians should use the Old Testament Law. You can find it here, or you can find an edited version in The Churchman journal, available from the Church Society here and here.
For a shorter overview David Holloway has written a brief article for the Jesmond Parish Church coloured supplements, which can be read here.