Preached on 9/24/17. You can listen at cfctaylor.com/resources.
Text: Galatians 3:7-29
Over the next two weeks I want to talk about the old and new covenant, about the law and the promise, what is different, and what is continuous though both covenants. Partly, to make clearer the purpose of the law and the priests and sacrifices, and to show that God hasn’t changed. And then next week, from that point we will get into a little bit of the history leading up to the reformation and hopefully bring some clarity to some of the errors of the church at the time and to show that, just like through redemptive history that spans old to new covenant in the Bible, God’s promise is sure and He will build His house.
As Jesus promised to Peter (Mt. 16:18), “I will build my church.” Hear the words of Peter to first century Christians (1 Pt. 2:5),
[Y]ou yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.
God is building His church—His house—out of living stones, which are those who have come to Jesus the living stone (1 Pt. 2:4). In the very beginning, God made a promise to His people, namely to Adam and Eve. And later to Abraham, who we are told, saw this house by faith (Heb. 11:13). Moses, God’s servant who received the law on tablets of stone, was also a part of this building process as he trusted Christ (Heb. 11:26).
When a house is being built there are elements that are necessarily put in place for construction. To use modern examples, elements such the frame and form of the foundation, or scaffolding to erect walls. These building elements are necessary and yet, they are temporary by design.
They aren’t actually part of the house at all. They are put in place for a specific purpose and when that purpose is complete and the time comes the foundation form is removed and the scaffolding is taken down. All the while, and even after, the house is being built.
We can think of the Law and Levitical priesthood—the system of priests and sacrifices—as these kinds of building elements. They served a vital purpose and yet were non-permanent by design. When Jesus came, He put away those construction elements, not destroying them or what they were meant to accomplish, but rather He completed the work and put the tools away.
Listen to what He says in Matthew 5:17-20,
Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
As I said, next week, we will get into a very small bit of history leading up to the reformation and specifically some of the factors that lead to Martin Luther’s actions and conversation. But for now, notice in that passage the ways in which tension and confusion could flood a person’s mind as they realize that their righteousness must exceed the righteousness of the scribes and pharisees, who were arguably some of the most pious and self-disciplined religious men.
Redemptive history, from Adam to Abraham to Moses to David to Isaiah to John the Baptist to Paul to the Reformation to the world and culture we now inhabit, is not God, trying different plans or approaches and them just not working as well as He wished or they run out of gas over time.
God hasn’t been scrambling since the fall trying to catch up. Jesus was never plan B. Grace was never plan B. Faith in Messiah was never plan B. The New Covenant was never plan B. No, God’s purposes are eternal and they cannot be thwarted (Job 42:2, Is. 14:24,27).
Something else about God that is obvious but really important for us to keep remembering, is that God does not lie. He promised Adam and Eve a seed that would crush the dragon’s head (Gen. 3:15). When He made an everlasting covenant with Abraham (Gen. 12; 15; 17), He didn’t just forget about it or abolish it and start over with Moses at Mt. Siani. He remembers His promise and His promise is Christ.
So when the Bible speaks of a better or new or second covenant we must take care to understand, remembering that God is not a liar.
When Jesus died and rose from the dead and ascended to the Father He set aside and put away what was always temporary because it’s purpose was fulfilled. He removed the foundation forms, not the foundation. He took down the scaffolding not the house. And even now it’s the same house, it always was and it always will be, world without end.
And that has some serious implications for how we read and understand what we call the Old Testament with its commands and promises. When we read about Abraham and Moses and the children of Israel, we must understand that throughout their history, God deals with them as His called out people. And as this exodus motif plays out over and over again, He would often give His people new names, and as we come into the new covenant, God’s called out people—the Church—is no exception.
So who are the people of God? Was it the Jews but now it is the Church? Was it by birth and genealogy but now it isn’t?
Galatians 3:29 says, “If you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.” We are no longer Jews or Gentiles according to the flesh, and yet, by faith (promise), we are who Paul called, at the end of Galatians (Gal. 6:16), the “Israel of God”. This is what Paul means when he points out that it is offspring singular, who is Christ. It is singular not because it is talking only about the individual Jesus Christ. It is singular because it is not many houses, but rather one house with one Head who is Jesus Christ. The Church, by faith in Christ, is that singular house.
The children of Israel were under a temporary system that was a copy, that foreshadowed or spoke of and pointed to the true heavenly system. This is why when Moses was about to set up the earthly tabernacle, God said (Ex. 25:40), “See that you make everything according to the pattern that was shown you on the mountain.”
God was having Moses build this tabernacle (temporary house) and all it’s furnishings and implement this system to be a shadow of the heavenly substance that God showed him and to be a copy of the original (Heb. 8:5). (Even a copy of Eden when we see was also a copy of Heaven.)
Therefore, since the old covenant, or what has been called the “heavenly shadow covenant”, was a copy or shadow, the new covenant, or the “heavenly covenant”, was actually already in operation before the old covenant and during the period of the old covenant.
Those who understand the new covenant as something beginning at a certain point in time…do not understand that the covenant is different in kind, and not merely different in time sequence. This covenant, like the Priest who is the minister of this covenant, is “without beginning of days or end of life.” The new covenant does not start in time — although it does come to fruition and fulfillment in time.—Doug Wilson
Hebrews 8:6-7 tells us that 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 the first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion to look for a second.
When the author of Hebrews uses the terms old or first covenant, in contest, he is referring to the law and the Levitical priesthood which came 430 years after the promise was given to Abraham (cf. Hebrews 7, 8, 9). This doesn’t mean the law is contrary to the promise. Like Paul said in Galatians (Gal. 3:21), “Certainly not!”
And yet the scriptures teach the distinction between promise and law—faith and works—and at the same time, the continuity of God’s everlasting covenant throughout all of redemptive history.
Exodus 2:24: And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob.
Exodus 3:15: God also said to Moses, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.
Leviticus 26:40-42: “But if they confess their iniquity…if then their uncircumcised heart is humbled and they make amends for their iniquity, then I will remember my covenant with Jacob, and I will remember my covenant with Isaac and my covenant with Abraham, and I will remember the land.”
2 Kings 13:22-23: Now Hazael king of Syria oppressed Israel all the days of Jehoahaz. But the Lord was gracious to them and had compassion on them, and he turned toward them, because of his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and would not destroy them…
Again, in Hebrews 8:6-7, the author says, “better promises” and mentions that the first covenant was not faultless. So the questions is, where then did the fault lie? Was the law flawed?
The law in and of itself was not flawed or evil, as Paul makes clear in Romans 7:7, “What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means!”
If you go on and look at the very next verse in Hebrews 8:8, it begins by saying this, “For he finds fault with them when he says…”
The fault is ours as the law-keepers, or more accurately, as the law-breakers. And it is for this reason that righteousness and life cannot come by the law. The law is not flawed or evil. We are. And the law, by nature, couldn’t remedy that—it couldn’t give us life and make us righteous. Just like going to school cannot give you a brain.
So then, since the law couldn’t make us righteous, what was the remedy? Kids, who can save us from sin?
The new covenant is better because the promises are better. The promises are better because they actually deal with us! The new covenant, unlike the old, goes to the heart of the issue—the heart.
Galatians 4:1 says that the people in the Old Covenant were like children, and Galatians 3:24 says that the law was like a tutor for children. The law, then, was a “simplified accommodation” for children. We expect more from adults than from children. Adults have greater responsibilities and are more accountable than children. Thus, the New Covenant law is actually much tougher to obey, because it makes so many demands on our inward attitudes.—James Jordan
Under the old covenant, when I sin, intentionally or unintentionally, when I become “unclean” whether avoidably or unavoidably, I must present an offering of blood. And under the old covenant my offering is killed for me, and I simply go free.
You can easily see how this covenant would never suffice—this constant repetition couldn’t satisfy God’s holy standard of justice so He was patient with His people and in His divine forbearance He passed over former sins and eventually imputed them all to Christ. So God could be just for not ignoring sin, and the merciful justifier of the one who trusts in the blood of the Lamb—who has faith in Jesus.