God’s relationship with people is based on covenants – that is agreements where both parties understand the terms and conditions. Even the two sections of our bibles are called the Old and the New Covenants (testament is simply the word for covenant that has come to us via Latin).
Many Christians find it comparatively easy to come to grips with the concept of the Old Covenant. It was national – that is it was made with the nation of Israel. It was territorial – that is it involved a specific area of land with identifiable boundaries. It was liturgical – that is it involved specific aspects of worship; a priesthood, a temple, acts of sacrifice and feasts. And it was relational – it had instructions for life and living. Any person living at the time of Jesus would have known whether or not they were part of the Old Covenant.
Few have a similar clarity about the New Covenant. Disagreements in respect of baptism in water and Spirit, communion, the nature of the Church and basic Christian living are nearly all rooted in a lack of clarity about the nature and terms of the New Covenant. Some of the issues are covered in my booklet “Understanding God’s New Covenant in Jesus Christ” (which can be read or printed off from the book section of this website), and I am not going to go over that ground again in this blog. However, I do feel it worth restating some of the comparisons between the Old and the New Covenants in order to stimulate you look at them again.
Whilst emphasising that it was quite definitely glorious, Paul said that the Old Covenant was of the letter, engraved on stones, resulting in a ministry of death and condemnation (II Cor Ch 3). In spite of this, many Christians seem to gravitate toward this old, glorious yoke, declaring themselves to be under its terms and conditions (especially the ten commandments). But whilst not denying its glory, Paul emphasises the greater glory of the Spirit, where the laws of God are written directly onto the fleshy tables of our hearts, not mediated via lumps of granite.
The priestly ministry and Solomon’s earthly temple were similarly glorious; to such an extent that at the dedication of the temple, the weight of God’s glory was such that the priests could not stand before God in the temple (II Chron Ch 7). However, the book of Hebrews makes it quite clear that neither priests nor temple have any place in the New Covenant, and with the demise of the priesthood, the Law is also done away with (Heb Ch 7 v 12). In spite of this many Christians hanker for both a priesthood and a temple environment.
One of the issues is that Jesus said that he did not come to destroy the Law or the Prophets but to fulfil, and that not one jot or tittle would pass away from the Law until all was fulfilled (Mat Ch v 17-18). His declaration can be taken one of two ways. Either, he was reinforcing the Mosaic Law in its entirety, and every Christian is under an obligation to keep every precept of it (including stoning anyone found working on the Sabbath), or he was referring to fulfilment in a similar way to how a loaf of bread fulfils a recipe for the bread. If Jesus meant that he was re-emphasising the necessity of keeping the Old Mosaic Covenant, then Paul and the other apostles all misunderstood him, because the New testament preaching and letters clearly break radically from that. So what about the alternative?
The parallel of the two covenants with that of a recipe and a loaf of bread is so simple, that some of us draw back because it just seems too good to be true. So let’s think about it. Many of us find our mouths watering when we look at glorious pictures in colour recipe books. We read the ingredients, hover over the pictures and imagine what such a feast might be like. When presented with an actual loaf of bread, we may feel some initial disappointment – it lacks the vividness and, in particular, the preciseness of the recipe (two loaves made from the same recipe will vary in shape and appearance and never be identical). So what is the relationship between the recipe and the loaf? It is simply that the bread is the result (fulfilment) of following the recipe. The recipe points toward the bread, and the bread contains everything that was in the recipe. Someone has to follow the recipe, but we cannot do it: only God Himself can fulfil every aspect of it. The recipe cannot be eaten and the recipe cannot give life, but the loaf can be eaten and the loaf will give life.
Jesus said that he is the bread of life. He is the fulfilment of the Old Covenant, and not one aspect of its detail is missing from him, but having fulfilled it, he does not tantalise us by saying “this is what it looks like, now you copy me and fulfil it yourselves”. Rather, he acknowledges that no person other than himself was ever able to follow the recipe, so he offers us the finished loaf instead.
In the New Covenant, we are given the finished work of God in Christ Jesus. The bread of life is available fresh every day and all we have to do is eat and live, and the bread will give life to us. Who wants a recipe, carved on stone and impossible to eat, when the fresh bread is freely available? The essence of the New Covenant is eating and drinking Jesus. All the promises of God are yes and Amen – in him.