28 October 2011

A Survey of the Old Testament Law--The First Covenant (Part 3)

Two weeks ago we saw God make a covenant with the people that He brought out of Egypt. The physical descendants of Abraham, through his son Isaac, through the twelve sons of Isaac’s son Jacob. God has brought these descendants of Abraham into the land He promised them and has made a covenant with these people that He would be their God. He also promised that He would appoint priests to mediate on their behalf so their sins could be covered over. And that covenant was made only with Israel—if you were not a Jew, you had to become a Jew in order to enter into the “covenant of works,” as it was called, if you wanted to enjoy the privilege of worshipping the one true and living God. God also promised His people Israel that one day He would send the last Mediator of the new and better covenant. But we saw last week that the people, even after seeing the mighty works of God and entering into those promises, they did not slack in breaking them. In fact they broke their covenant with God so frequently that God told them through the prophet Hosea that because of their spiritual adultery He would “You are not My people and I will not be your God” and that all the privileges that He had given Israel would be offered to all nations, both Jew and Gentile.

Fast forward to the NT, the apostle Paul refers to himself as “a Hebrews of Hebrews” (Philippians 3:5), “of the seed of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin” (Romans 11:1)—but also as “the apostle to the Gentiles” (Romans 11:3; Ephesians 3:8). And being a Jew who was called as the apostle to the Gentiles, what he did most often was to take the OT Scriptures—the writing of those Scriptures being entrusted to the Jews—and he shows the Gentiles that the promises once made only to ethnic Israel were now available to both Jew and Gentile. For example, Romans 1:16I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek. And in his letter to the Ephesians, he expands on that promise. Ephesians 2:11-1811 Therefore remember that you, once Gentiles in the flesh—who are called Uncircumcision by what is called the Circumcision made in the flesh by hands—12 that at that time you were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For He Himself is our peace, who has made both one, and has broken down the middle wall of separation, 15 having abolished in His flesh the enmity, that is, the law of commandments contained in ordinances, so as to create in Himself one new man from the two, thus making peace, 16 and that He might reconcile them both to God in one body through the cross, thereby putting to death the enmity.

Under the Old Covenant, Gentiles were “far off”; we—us—would have been strangers, foreigners, and aliens. In fact, the only part of the temple we would have been allowed into was called “The Court of the Gentiles”—an area in the outermost part of the temple, and in fact the place where the moneychangers and those who bought and sold did their business when Jesus came and cleansed the temple. One of the most horrendous displays of blasphemy that is recorded even in secular histories was the Greek general Antiochus Epiphanes entering into the Most Holy Place of the temple in 186 BC and commanding swine to be offered on the altar. In the time leading up to the Advent of Christ, there was a rabbinic tradition that said if a Jew went into the house of a Gentile the Jew was ceremonially unclean. In Acts 21:27-30, the apostle Paul was accused of bringing a Gentile into the inner part of the temple.

BUT—but now, in Christ, both Jew and Gentile are allowed access to the Father. We are not separated by genetics. We don’t have to go through various rituals to be allowed entrance into the saving grace of God—He pours out His grace on whomever He will. Under the covenant made on Mt. Sinai, God promised the people of Israel that if they sinned, they could bring an offering, and that offering would cover over their sin. And we have to be real careful here not to say that the offering would pay for their sin, or take away their sin. Because the OT offerings and sacrifices were never intended to pay for or take away sins. They simply covered them over until the time when God would take them away, as God promised in Jeremiah 31:34I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.” Now, this promise, to “forgive their iniquity” and to “remember their sin no more” was not fulfilled by the OT offerings and sacrifices. Hebrews 10:4It is not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sins. So, for God to completely and utterly forgive sins, take them away, and remember them no more, He would have to make a new covenant, because the old covenant—the Covenant of Law, Covenant of Works—could not do that. Hebrews 8:7For if that first covenant had been faultless, then no place would have been sought for a second.

And the reason that the Covenant of Law could not take away sins was because it was built upon the strength of the human flesh. It would be like taking a door made of 2 ½” thick steel, bulletproof, able to withstand a rocket-propelled grenade—and mounting that door on a frame made of papier-mâché. Romans 8:3For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin. The Law is the 2” thick steel door, the flesh is the papier-mâché frame. The first covenant was not faultless—not because God could not fulfill it, but because we sinful humans could not fulfill it. And because we humans, through the weakness of our flesh, are not able to fulfill all the conditions and commands contained in the Law, there had to come a new covenant.

And Jesus came and preached that new covenant—not only to Jews but also to Gentiles. Ephesians 2:17-1817 And He came and preached peace to you who were afar off and to those who were near. 18 For through Him we both have access by one Spirit to the Father. Jews in Jesus’ day thought that this promised “new covenant” was to come to them and them alone. They read what Jeremiah said in that passage, where God said He would make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah (Jeremiah 31:31). They thought that God was finally getting ready to do away with Gentiles once and for all and establish His throne upon the earth. And there were many who thought that Jesus was the one who would usher in that earthly kingdom. Even some of Jesus’ apostles thought that. And not only when He walked the earth, but even after His resurrection, some of His apostles were thinking that the Kingdom was about to come. Listen to Acts 1:4-64 And being assembled together with them, He commanded them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the Promise of the Father, "which," He said, "you have heard from Me; 5 for John truly baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now." 6 Therefore, when they had come together, they asked Him, saying, "Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?" But Jesus let it be known, many times, that He did not come to establish an earthly kingdom. John 18:33-3633 Then Pilate entered the Praetorium again, called Jesus, and said to Him, "Are You the King of the Jews?"…36 Jesus answered, "My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight, so that I should not be delivered to the Jews; but now My kingdom is not from here."

And even though many Jews were believing in Christ, there were some believing Jews who were teaching that outward, physical circumcision was necessary in order to be saved. Romans 9:6-86 But it is not that the word of God has taken no effect. For they are not all Israel who are of Israel, 7 nor are they all children because they are the seed of Abraham; but, "In Isaac your seed shall be called." 8 That is, those who are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God; but the children of the promise are counted as the seed. Romans 2:25-2925 For circumcision is indeed profitable if you keep the law; but if you are a breaker of the law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision. 26 Therefore, if an uncircumcised man keeps the righteous requirements of the law, will not his uncircumcision be counted as circumcision? 27 And will not the physically uncircumcised, if he fulfills the law, judge you who, even with your written code and circumcision, are a transgressor of the law? 28 For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh; 29 but he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the Spirit, not in the letter; whose praise is not from men but from God.

Even after Paul had preached salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone to the churches in Galatia, he was forced to ask them, Who has bewitched you that you should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed among you as crucified? (Galatians 3:1). It’s almost like there was this spirit of jealousy among the ethnic Jewish Christians—and we could almost say Jewish “Christians”—it’s like they were saying “Hey now wait a minute! Our fathers had to go through all this trouble of building the tabernacle, carrying it around through the desert, making all the priestly garments, spending years learning how to cut up the animals for the sacrifice, standing knee-deep in the blood of bulls and goats day after day, year after year. And all Gentiles have to do is believe in Christ and turn away from their sins? We need to at least make them get circumcised!”

What they didn’t understand was that the gospel for the Gentile was the same gospel for the Jew. That is the point of the Parable of the Workers in Matthew 20:1-16. Salvation for Gentiles comes by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone—salvation for the Jew comes by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Listen to Romans 3:21-23, 28-3121 But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed…22 the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference; 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…28 Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law. 29 Or is He the God of the Jews only? Is He not also the God of the Gentiles? Yes, of the Gentiles also, 30 since there is one God who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith. 31 Do we then make void the law through faith? Certainly not! On the contrary, we establish the law.

The goal of the Law, the consequence God intended to produce, was not having people bring bulls and goats to the priest to have them killed, cut up and burned. That was not what God wanted. The goal of the Law was to produce in His people a conviction of their own sinfulness. Psalm 51:16-1716 For You do not desire sacrifice, or else I would give it; You do not delight in burnt offering. 17 The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and a contrite heart—these, O God, You will not despise. Isaiah 1:1-23 catalogs the crimes of Israel against God. And all they ever offered to God was the blood of bulls and goats with a pinch of incense. Isaiah 1:11-14“I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed cattle. I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs or goats…13 Bring no more futile sacrifices; incense is an abomination to Me…14 Your New Moons and your appointed feasts My soul hates; they are a trouble to Me, I am weary of bearing them.” Proverbs 21:27The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination; how much more when he brings it with wicked intent! God did not want their dead animals. He had become sickened by the constant smell of the incense that the wicked were burning, hoping to purchase His pardon. They did not want to stop sinning; they wanted to have their cake and eat it too—they wanted to keep sinning but still have God overlook their sins. God said, basically, “I don’t want your sacrifice—I want your heart.” Joel 2:18So rend your heart, and not your garments. That was the goal of the Law; that is the goal of the gospel—to bring about the death of sin and to bring about life in Christ.

So the Jews who either rejected Christ or preached Christ plus circumcision were missing the point. No one was ever saved because they had a priest kill an innocent animal. Men are saved because they trust in God, they desire His righteousness, and they understand that their righteousness doesn’t count for anything. They are saved because they believe that God allowed His Son to die and that that blood—and now we can use these phrases—the blood Christ shed is what paid for and took away their sins. John 1:29“Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!” And it is by the blood of Christ that we who were once Gentiles in the flesh have now been brought near—along with all the OT saints who had to become Jews and go through all the rituals contained in the Law—and we are now one body, both Jew and Gentile, in Christ. Ephesians 2:19-2019 Now, therefore, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, 20 having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone. One of the things we hear a lot when we share the gospel is people will use other people as the standard by which we judge whether we’re saved or not. “Well, I'm not as bad as that guy over there.” Well, that may be true, but what’s the problem with that statement? We could probably find 100 people who are “better” than them. That was the problem for the Pharisees. They thought they were better than the common man because they had devoted their lives to memorizing Scripture. They thought that their outward appearance made them “holier than thou.”

But Jesus told a parable that quenched that fire, Luke 18:9-149 Also He spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others: “10 Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, 'God, I thank You that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.' 13 And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, 'God, be merciful to me a sinner!' 14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” And I think in this passage, when Jesus uses the phrase “He who exalts himself” I think He may be calling to the minds of the Pharisees the words of Lucifer, in Isaiah 14:12-15“12 How you are fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! How you are cut down to the ground, you who weakened the nations! 13 For you have said in your heart: ‘I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God’…15 Yet you shall be brought down to Sheol, to the lowest depths of the Pit.” Under the “old covenant”—what is called by some the “Covenant of Works”—it was not the works themselves that were the goal the people were to aim for. The goal was to aim for the righteousness of God—all the while knowing one could never attain it. Now that may seem like a contradiction and that God is setting us up to fail, but that’s not what is really going on.

When we understand that we cannot keep His Law perfectly; when we understand that, as Paul says, nothing good dwells within me (Romans 7:18); when we realize that our sins are exceedingly sinful; when we see that we deserve nothing less than the perfect justice of Almighty God—then the Law has done its work, and we ask God to be merciful to us and to give us His righteousness and lead us in His ways, and as Paul says in Romans 7:21-2421 I find then a law, that evil is present with me, the one who wills to do good. 22 For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man. 23 But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. 24 O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? 25 I thank God—through Jesus Christ our Lord! What he’s saying in this passage is that until God flips on the light and we see the perfection of God’s Law, we do not understand that we are sinful creatures. But when that switch is flipped, we see that we are now in a struggle between what the Spirit calls us to do and what our flesh desires. Galatians 5:17For the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh, and these are contrary to one another.

And that war goes on inside every believer. And it is not a war that can be won by using physical means. However, the physical actions of a believer are dictated by how one responds to the prompting of the Spirit. The Law is good, in that it shows us what is required by God. But it cannot make us do what He commands—that has to be purposed in each person’s heart. To illustrate, suppose you're heading home, and you see a stop sign. Can that stops sign make you stop? No, its purpose is to tell you that you must come to a complete stop before you proceed through this intersection. But it cannot make you stop. You must, before you arrive at that intersection, purpose in your heart that when you see an octagon-shaped piece of red sheet metal with the letters “S-T-O-P” that you will stop. In much the same way, the commands in the Law cannot make a person stop sinning. The person who reads “Thou shalt not steal” must purpose in his heart that when he sees something that does not belong to him he will leave it alone—but that command cannot make the person keep their paws off of what is not theirs.

So to use other human beings as the rod by which we measure our own righteousness is really foolishness. 2nd Corinthians 10:12But they, measuring themselves by themselves, and comparing themselves among themselves, are not wise. That’s why Paul refers to Christ as the chief cornerstone. Because the cornerstone of a building is much more than a commemorative piece of architecture. It is the most important part of the building. It is by the cornerstone that every other angle in the building is measured. And if every angle of that cornerstone is not a perfect 90º, then nearly every angle in the building will be off, and the building will not stand. And if we are measuring our own righteousness against that of people who are just as far off of 90º as we are, then we will not realize that our house is, “up to code” so to speak. BUT—if we measure ourselves against Christ—who is the perfect cornerstone—then we will see where we come short of perfection, we trust in Him to be our righteousness, and as he says in Ephesians 2:20-2220 Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone, 21 in whom the whole building, being fitted together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord, 22 in whom you also are being built together for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit. Jesus Christ is the cornerstone of the Law and He is the cornerstone of the gospel. He is the one the Law pointed to as our perfect sacrifice, the mediator of the new covenant that included not only Jew but also Gentile. And He is the one we will be measured against when God brings about the judgment of the world.

Jesus Christ is Lord. Amen.