Monday, September 10, 2007

Jesus always spoke truth, but...

Question: When did the New Covenant begin? When did it go into effect? What we commonly call the "New Testament" begins with Matthew Chapter 1, Verse 1. Does that mean that right off the bat, after we're done with the last book of the Old Testament, Malachi, and begin with Matthew, we're now completely in "New Covenant" territory in everything we read from that point on?

Hebrews 9:16 reminds us of the fact that "where there is a testament, there must also of necessity be the death of the testator." My conclusion, after reading this and the rest of that chapter, is that the New Covenant began with the death of Jesus. ("...not even the first covenant was dedicated without blood." "This is the blood of the Covenant..." "...without shedding of blood there is no remission." Etc). The shedding of the Blood of Jesus, and His death, marked the beginning of the New Covenant. Therefore, much of what is written in Matthew through John refers to a time period that was before the New Covenant.

Jesus, while alive in the flesh, came ministering under the Old Covenant. (Many of Jesus' teachings were from the Old Covenant). He often taught Law. My question is, then... Since Jesus is the one Christians call God and Messiah, are all His teachings from Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, therefore, teachings for Christians to follow?

Jesus always spoke truth. God always speaks truth. But yet there is much that God has said, spread all throughout the Old Testament, that Christians do not follow. Obvious examples include animal sacrifices and purification rituals. We also pay no attention to God's Old Covenant words in Leviticus, to "not sow your field with mixed seed" and to not wear a garment of mixed linen and wool. Why do Christians find it so easy to not follow these various Old Covenant words and commands of God and yet we insist that everything Jesus said is God's word to Christians?

Remember again that Jesus lived before the New Covenant began. Many of His teachings were Old Covenant teachings. That said, He did speak and teach a lot about the New Covenant, too. This is where I believe it's very important to "rightly divide the word of truth." All of what Jesus said was truth. But in what context? Just like all of God's word is always truth, we have to understand the context in order to understand the proper application.

Here are several questions to ask when reading the Bible, including Jesus' words:

- To whom are the words spoken?

- Which Covenant is represented in the teaching?

- What is the overall point being made?

Jesus sometimes was speaking exclusively to Jews. At other times, His audience was exclusively made up of Gentiles. Other times it was mixed. Sometimes His words were aimed toward humble people and sometimes He spoke with proud people. All of this brings up even more questions. If He's speaking exclusively to Jews, is He teaching the Old Covenant or is He teaching them about the coming New Covenant? If He's teaching the Old Covenant... what's His purpose in doing that? If He's teaching the New Covenant... why is He doing that? Did Jesus ever talk "law" with Gentiles? Was His approach to the humble different than His approach to the proud? In any given teaching, is He talking "Christian" doctrine?

Some of the answers here may be easy and some may be more complicated. And there are many more questions too! But the point I want to make is something that some Christians seem to have a hard time with. You can't simply take all of Jesus' words at face value. There, I said it! You're free to go now, or tear your clothes, or call me a heretic. But I mean what I said.

We must look at all of Jesus' words in context.

Here's one example that I've heard all too often in the church. It's said that "Jesus taught the tithe, so the tithe is a Christian principle." Well, it's true that Jesus "taught" the tithe in Matthew 23:23. But following my three questions from above... To whom are the words spoken? Jesus is speaking to Jews, and more specifically to self-righteous, proud Pharisees. Which Covenant is represented in the teaching? The tithe Jesus refers to is unmistakably from the Law. All those listening to Jesus knew He was referring to their Law. What is the overall point being made? Jesus points out lots of things in Matthew 23, including the self-righteousness, pride and hypocrisy of the Pharisees. Verse 23 is part of His whole diatribe. Sure, they've faithfully tithed, but they've ignored other things. Jesus calls them on their hypocrisy and tells them they should keep "the weighter matters of the law," as well as the tithe!

So, should we regard this as Christian doctrine? Should we "pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin" and keep the weightier matters of the Law too? I would answer that this is obviously not New Covenant teaching! We (Christians) have died to the Law in order to be joined to Christ. Jesus' whole diatribe to the Pharisees was a matter of showing them just how unclean they really were, even though they might have had the "appearance" of being clean. (He called them "whitewashed tombs").

As I talked about in The Preaching of the Law - Part 1 and The Preaching of the Law - Part 2, there is a place and a purpose for Law teaching, but it's not for Christians! Its purpose is to condemn, stop mouths and ultimately lead people to Jesus. I believe Jesus used the Law very skillfully for all its rightful purposes, and more to the point of this post, I believe He didn't use the Law in ways for which it was not intended. That is, He didn't use the Law at any time as a matter of teaching Christian doctrine. Again, in this specific example, He showed the Pharisees that they stood condemned because they hadn't really been the wonderful Law-keepers that they supposed themselves to be. And His teaching stopped their mouths. After this, they had two options (in general). Try to prove themselves as righteous by trying harder to keep the Law, or to give up on their efforts and turn themselves over to the grace of God for salvation.

There are so, so many other words of Jesus that are taught in the church as Christian doctrine that really aren't directed towards Christians! Oh, but yes there are many Red Letters (I just remembered that I've written about this before) that are words of life to Christians, too! I pray for wisdom for the church to sort all this out skillfully!


  1. This is great Joel. We are actually having great debate about this exact subject now.

    I agree we are to take the whole council of the Bible, but we must remember we are New Covenant people. As a matter of fact, we must fight with everything we have to hold on to this.

  2. *Applause* I have been seeing the same things. And boy, is it unpopular! ;-)

  3. Katherine,

    You're so right. It's unbelievable how unpopular it is!

    I do see more and more people 'coming around,' and as I look around it seems as if the Lord is going a major work of grace all around the world. That's exciting!

    As Gregg (Grace) says, we must remember we are New Covenant people and I think that we mustn't cave in to the pressure to conform to the legalistic mentality in much of the church. The further I walk into the freedom that I have in Christ, the more I realize that I can never go back into the old chains!

  4. My teenage son is starting to learn the difference between Old Covenant and New Covenant. We just returned from a Classic Christianity conference and he's getting it. No more asking for forgiveness, no more keeping (or trying) to keep the law; the important thing is faith, expressing itself through love.
    He wants to take this new found message back to his church which is a law+grace church. I tried to take this same message to them years ago, and was refuted big time. Must admit, I'm curious to how folks will respond to the "No longer under the Law" part of the New Covenant. My son is insistent. Just hope they don't eat him alive :-(

  5. Yep, unfortunately the actual undiluted "New Covenant" isn't often accepted in "New Covenant" churches. They preach a mixture of the covenants and call it Christianity. I think many/most of them do it ignorantly. They obviously don't think they're in the wrong, and so when someone comes along sharing the actual gospel, which is most definitely not a mixture of the two covenants, they resist, and some are even militant about it.

    And yet some end up being open to it. It must be the Spirit's leading. All the best to your son. I'll be praying for him as he shares the wonderful grace and unconditional love of God with others!