a better word

Preparing for this Sunday’s sermon from Isaiah 35 on Joy, I’ve latched upon Hebrews 12:18-24 as an accompanying epistle text, and will spare my congregation (and burden you with!) this reflection :)

Much like 2 Corinthians 3:7-18 or Galatians 4:21-31, Hebrews 12:18-24 boldly contrasts the ‘old covenant’ with the ‘new covenant’.  Now, I’m somewhat weary of patterns of interpretation that too easily and too carelessly either sweep aside or mis-apply texts from the old testament/covenant.  The relationship between the ‘old’ covenant/testament and the ‘new’ must be characterised by both discontinuity and continuity; and our eagerness or disdain for this or that particular result too often determines which one of those two we hold to.

Having gotten that throat clearing out of the way, this passage is boldly stating the discontinuity between the Mosaic covenant and the new covenant instituted by Christ.  Daringly and provocatively, yet without discarding or discounting the value and role of what had come before, the author describes the ‘old’ in the following ways:

  • undesirable.  The ‘word of God’ through the Mosaic Law were of a nature that “those who heard it begged that no further word be spoken to them”.  God’s word was so fiery, dark, gloomy and stormy they begged ‘No more!’.  There are a few passages that we can think of as especially ‘harsh’ to say the least.  But the best and strongest sense here, considering the ‘old’ as a whole is that of someone giving a very public and very exhaustive report of all of your deepest darkest failings, to the point where you beg them to stop because the truth hurts so much.
  • unbearable.  The word of God (despite the claim of Deuteronomy 30:11-14!!) ended up being too high of a moral bar, not because the Law failed, but because “they could not bear what was commanded”.  Stop God… please… I simply cannot take this.
  • unapproachable.  Animals stoned, sandals removed.  The Law, which nonetheless had the purpose of instructing in Life and Love, showed how full of death and indifference we are.  It is such a terrifying reality that like Moses we are “trembling with fear”.

By contrast, which couldn’t be any more strongly stated, the new covenant is gob-smackingly glorious and just plain ‘better’.

  • better joy.  The new and living covenant transcends earthly mountains and cities and is characterised by more joy than the image of ‘thousands upon thousands of angels’ can evoke.  Whatever gloomy realities of life, temptation, struggle and pain that still persist, infinite quantity and quality of joy is available for us – even if all we can dare is to peek.  Our guilt under the Law was depressingly accurate, whereas our freedom in Christ from precisely that guilt is shockingly liberating.
  • better transformation.  The Law was well able to declare guilty, but powerless to remove that guilt, at least permanently.  Jesus, however, is more (though not less!) than a Judge, but also the teacher, leader and giver of the Spirit, who helps actually transform and change people, making them ‘complete’ or ‘perfect’, one (sometimes tiny) step at a time.
  • better memory.  The blood of Abel – remembered each time an animal sacrifice was made in the temple – reminded people of their lingering sin.  The blood of Jesus – remembered each time the eucharistic Cup is shared – reminds people of his lasting forgiveness.

In addition to being a rather bold statement on the specific topic of covenant theology, this raises interesting questions about how we understand things like revelation and Scripture.  God apparently always planned to reveal himself in a way that was not sudden and fixed from the start, but rather through an unfolding series of events and encounters that would indeed have identifiable and obvious thematic consistency, but nonetheless also very real and at times troubling variation and development.

It was always going to be a spiraling, turning, twisting and evolving story, whose end goal (or ‘telos’) was always going to be the person and work of Christ.  As Hebrews begins, “In the past God spoke to our forefathers though the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe.”

romans 10:13-15

On Sunday, a well-quoted passage was… well… quoted. Not exactly a blog-worthy occurrence, as this should be pretty common.

Romans 10:13-15 – How can they call upon who they’ve not believed >> and believe in whom they’ve not heard >> and hear without preaching >> and preach without being sent? Standard missionary text. People need to hear to believe, so we need more missionaries. I don’t disagree. But I did have an observation… Continue reading romans 10:13-15

covenental confusion

A friend and I was checking out the various ministry booths at a Christian music festival this past weekend. We encountered two ministries that were very similar. Both of them were what you could call ‘pro-Israel’ ministries. Now, I don’t think we should be ‘anti’ Israel, but I do think their understanding of the covenant(s) is reflective of the ‘covenental confusion’ right through Christianity.

If you are not familiar with the topic, the ‘pro-Israel’ position emphasises all things Jewish. They do so with good intent and with the appearance of good reasons. After all, Jesus (and most of the early church) was indeed Jewish.

The ‘pro-Israel’ people will usually teach (or encourage) the observance of various Jewish festivals and rituals (Passover, Sabbath, Days of Unleavened Bread, and much more). They will often point to the various examples of the Jewish-ness of the early church (Synagogue attendance, etc.) and various verses of the New Testament to demonstrate that the early Jewish simply carried on in their Jewish-ness, and to support their suggestions that Christians today need to do these Jewish things as well.

This discussion is vast, (and I’m generalising to keep it short) but I’ll try to explain my understanding of it as simply as I can.

Part of the difficulty is that the Bible wasn’t written in the same style as, for example, a theological encyclopedia. Since the New Testament is not a Covenant Theology handbook, we often see the details of Covenant as we read in-between-the-lines of what the writers are communicating (having said that, you don’t have to read between the lines much in the epistle to the Hebrews!). Another thing to remember: we can see from Acts 15 and Galatians 2 that the Apostles didn’t always see eye to eye about everything. Paul disagrees with Barnabas and Peter at various times.

Having said that (and trying to keep this short), let’s look at the issue further.

Everyone agrees that Jesus ushered in the New Covenant, but the question is this: How is the New different from the Old? What changes to the lifestyle/belief of believers did it make?

OK. Here’s how I see it.

God is a covenental and promise-making God. He doesn’t break His covenants or His promises. As for any and all of the promises of God, Paul is emphatically clear (and I make a point not to be this dogmatic very often) that they are ‘Yes’ in Jesus. In other words, God keeps all His promises, and He keeps them in His way – namely, the Jesus kind of way.

As for the covenant(s), the way I like to say it is this: the ‘Old’ covenant was ‘baptised’ and became the ‘New’ Covenant. Baptism is, of course, a symbol of death and resurrection – of dying and rising. There are too many points of detail, but basically, all of the various aspects of the Old Covenant (the Land, the Temple, the Sacrifice, the Passover, the Sabbath, the Law, etc.) were ‘baptised’ and raised anew. All of their meaning and significance was now found in not a place, time or event, but a Person – namely, Jesus.

The implications of this were huge. Gentiles could ‘come to Jerusalem’ by simply ‘coming to faith in Christ.’ Their circumcision was not of the flesh, but of the heart, and so on…

The Old system was tired, worn and fruitless. God was bringing judgement on Israel. This judgement, however, was going to be like no other. But thankfully, with God, judgement always is one side of the 2-edged sword… the other being blessing. Judgement for fruitless and nationalistic Israel, and Blessing for believing/spiritual Israel.

jesus means this much

What does Jesus ‘mean’ to you?

Most responses would not be too likely to stray too far from the very familiar bible verse, John 3:16. We don’t often recognise Jesus as being much more than someone who died for ‘me.’ To be absolutely certain, Jesus most assuredly did die for ‘me‘, but I think it it vital that we push through this individualism and realise that He is also so much more than that! Not only is He Lord of my heart, He is also Lord of the entire universe.

The Gospel-writers wanted to direct their audience to the true Jesus. The Jesus that the Holy Spirit had been (and still was) opening and renewing their minds to see more clearly. Not just a one-sided, prop-up Jesus, to give the intellectual nod to, and/or give a nice, warm and fuzzy hug. Instead they wanted them to see a full-fledged, exasperating Jesus, to worship, adore and serve – indeed, to die for.

This, I think, is why the Gospel-writers didn’t simply provide us with a handful of happy texts telling us only that God loves us (or a list of texts about how to discover the secret Jesus, as in the later-written Gnostic text, the Gospel of Thomas). Instead, they wrote Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Instead of giving a list of things to believe about Jesus, or whatever, they wrote stories – indeed, true stories. These stories – in very different, yet complimentary ways – have much more to say about Jesus than simply that he died for ‘me.’

Instead, the Gospel-writers drew upon the rich story of their people (Israel), and presented Jesus as the centre, the theme, the end, the solution, the climax – even the very point! – of this story. In other words, for the Gospel-writers, all who Jesus was/is and all that He accomplished had eclipsed and surpassed the meaning of the entire story of Israel!

For example, everything that the Temple had ever meant or stood for, was trumped by Jesus. The author of Matthew records Jesus declaring that He was ‘greater than the temple.’ (12:6) John’s Gospel tells it more explicitly, “Jesus… said to them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up…’ …but He was speaking of the temple of His body. Therefore, when He had risen from the dead, His disciples remembered that He had said this…” (2:19-22)

The New Testament way of speaking about this ‘trumping of meaning’ is called ‘fulfilling.’ This is one area in which I think we may need to re-evaluate our thinking. I think the writers of the New Testament saw Jesus as ‘ful-filling’ the meaning of not just a few ‘proof’ verses here and there, but the Old Testament as a whole! I think He means that much!

Take Isaiah’s Suffering Servant imagery in chapter 53, for example. We often reduce the entire passage down to a few verses, but the image of the Suffering Servant is not just in a few verses in this chapter. It is a broader, much larger image (beginning in ch. 42), thought by many to represent the entire nation of Israel itself, or a specific leader at the time. With our limited perspective, we may not know what each and every verse meant at the time, but I suspect the writer knew. I’ve heard people say that Jesus must have been un-attractive based on the verse that says, ‘there is no beauty that we should desire Him‘. I don’t think that’s the point. I think the point is this: The Gospel writers saw Jesus as ‘trumping’ the meaning of the Suffering Servant. Every single scrap of meaning that the Servant imagery had, is even more fully realised in Jesus. He is the personification of Suffering, and the personification of Service. Indeed, the word became flesh!

What I’m suggesting is that Jesus doesn’t merely ‘fulfill’ a verse here and there, but rather He embodies the entire story of Israel. Every holy place (temple, Jerusalem, etc.), every role (prophet, priest, king), every event (passover, sabbath, etc.) and every other symbol (covenant, manna, law) finds its substance in Him! He is the Tabernacle, the Sacrfice, the High Priest, the Passover, the Sabbath, the Law, the Covenant, the King, the Prophet, the Warrior, the Slave, the Lamb, the Messiah, the True Israelite, the Son of Man, and so on… (The writer of Hebrews moves from symbol to symbol in similar fashion, yet in meticulous detail.)

May we see Jesus for all that He is. May we see Him as so much more (and no less!) than our personal, individual Jesus. May we see Him as some-One to live and die for.