Many people believe the Old and New Testaments stand in stark contrast to one another—that the nature and purposes of God revealed in the OT Scriptures are totally different than the nature and purposes of God revealed in the NT Scriptures. In most cases, such people either do not own a Bible or do not read the one they have. A serious student of the Word sees with clarity and ease that the Bible is a harmonious narrative from beginning to end. Genesis 1 to Revelation 22 is one big story about a gracious God working to reconcile sinful men to himself through his Son, Jesus Christ.
However, there are a number of twists and turns within this big, harmonious story—the major one being the inauguration of the New Covenant (the Gospel). I think it’s possible some of us fail to see just how radically different this New Covenant is from the Old Covenant (Mosaic Law). We certainly take notice of the full forgiveness we have through the finished work of Christ. We constantly emphasize and glory in this blessed reality, as we should! But I think we tend to minimize or even forget the other breathtaking benefits of the New Covenant—particularly, that those whom God calls into it are transformed into faithful and obedient people.
For example, almost every time I have gathered with a group of believers to study the Old Testament, at least one person has said something like, “Wow, we are just like Israel!” Was Israel, God’s Old Covenant people, a “shadow” or “picture” of a greater, future reality—namely, the church? Yes. But are we, the saints of God in Christ Jesus, just like the Israel we observe in the Old Testament Scriptures? No, we are not.
God rescued Abraham’s bodily descendants from Egyptian captivity, lavished them with his mercy, gave them his Law, and richly provided all that they needed. Yet most of them (there were always a few faithful Israelites) continually grumbled against him, rejected him, and fled to the altars of false gods. When God would drop his disciplinary hammer, they would usually come running back with apologies and promises to change. But their spurts of outward obedience were always short-lived. As soon as the pains of the afflictions God brought upon them wore off, the vast majority of them continued whoring after other gods and indulging in innumerable forms of evil.
It is inaccurate to say that we, the beneficiaries of the New Covenant promises, are just like this. Do Christians struggle to obey God? Absolutely. The flesh is a tenacious foe that persistently tugs us toward sin, and we do at times give in to its urges. However, there is a night and day difference between people who strive to obey God and sometimes sin (God’s New Covenant people) and people who strive after sin and sometimes obey (God’s Old Covenant people).
Disciples of Christ are not modern-day versions of the faithless Israelites; we are new creations (2 Corinthians 5:17). In his perfectly righteous living, sacrificial dying, and triumphant rising from the grave, the Son of God inaugurated a covenant that would transform us into the kind of people the Old Covenant did not have the power to create: people who worship God in spirit and truth (John 4:24). Jesus’ redemptive work not only purchased our pardon; it purchased for us new hearts in which the fear of God dwells (Jeremiah 32:40) and upon which his laws are written (Jeremiah 31:33).
The author of Hebrews wrote about how different this New Covenant is from the Old, and how different the church is from Israel:
“Christ has obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises. For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion to look for a second.
For he finds fault with them when he says:
‘Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord,
when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel
and with the house of Judah,
not like the covenant that I made with their fathers
on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt.
For they did not continue in my covenant,
and so I showed no concern for them, declares the Lord.
For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel
after those days, declares the Lord:
I will put my laws into their minds,
and write them on their hearts,
and I will be their God,
and they shall be my people.” – Hebrews 8:6-10
Once again, Christians are not yet perfect. But neither are we just like Israel. We still sin, though not in the same manner that they sinned. They holistically rejected the God they did not love. They utterly forsook him time and again, casting his yoke off their necks and plunging without restraint into sensuous idolatry. You and I, on the other hand, have been born of God and are unable and unwilling to continue in a life of unrepentant sin (1 John 3:9). We experience microbursts of evil in our lives, but our lives are not overwhelmingly characterized by faithlessness. Even in our not-yet-perfect state, we remain generally faithful to the God whom we truly love—continuously seeking his forgiveness, mercy, and empowering grace. We do not holistically turn away from God in utter unbelief.
I realize what I’ve written today may cause some of you to ask, “But what about Christians who really do act like Israel? What about people who profess faith in Christ but live continuously in a severely ‘backslidden’ state?” Though it may be difficult for us to digest, the Bible makes no room for this kind of “Christian” life. When the New Testament writers addressed people who were utterly overcome by sin and no longer fighting to be faithful to Christ, they did not issue any comforting or affirming words. They sternly warned such people. I’ll end with a sobering word of caution from the author of Hebrews:
“Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end. As it is said,
“Today, if you hear his voice,
do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion.”
For who were those who heard and yet rebelled? Was it not all those who left Egypt led by Moses? And with whom was he provoked for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness? And to whom did he swear that they would not enter his rest, but to those who were disobedient? So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief.” – Hebrews 3:12-19