The New Covenant & God’s Instructions

When the disciples realised that Jesus had been resurrected, they were astonished. They had been distressed when their Messiah had been killed. But Jesus’ resurrection was a sure sign that he had been vindicated by God.

God’s vindication of Jesus filled them with hope, joy and power. They walked on a spiritual high, declaring both the coming judgment of God (e.g. Acts 17:30–31) and the good news of salvation in Jesus for those who repent (e.g. Acts 2:38). Being on this spiritual high, they experienced a refreshing and renewal of their faith. All their hopes and dreams of the Messiah had been realised. God had acted in history. They worshiped daily in the temple. They were praising God. And even years later, by action and report, they were zealous for the law (Acts 21:20).

Zealous. For the law.

Zealous for the law

Being zealous for the law is one of the promised outcomes of the New Covenant. 

“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and 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, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, 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 law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbour and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more” (Jeremiah 31:31–34).

The law, God promises, will be placed in their heart. When God took Israel out of Egypt, He revealed His goodness, His power, His mercy, His loving-kindness to them. Yet they did not allow God’s character to penetrate their heart. And without loving Him in return, they were unwilling to keep His law. 

This time, says God, the covenant will be better, because the covenant will come with a promise that God will circumcise people’s hearts, so that they truly love Him, and therefore willingly obey.

A new creation

God promised that:

“… the former things have come to pass,
    and new things I now declare;
before they spring forth
    I tell you of them” (Isaiah 42:9).

When Paul read this, he nodded his head because he could see new things happening in front of his very eyes. In acknowledgement of this, Paul wrote:

“If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17).

It is the new creature — the new creation — of the new covenant that brings about the renewed heart and transformed mind required to truly have God’s law placed in the man’s heart.

That’s a pretty significant change. But that's not the only thing that has changed.

Ezekiel’s vision

A few weeks ago, we reviewed the vision in Ezekiel chapters 40 through 48. Ezekiel’s vision calls for a thorough-going renewal of Israel’s religious economy.

In this vision, the temple is magnificently rebuilt, laws are instituted that overcome the weaknesses in Israel’s society, worship is renewed, and a river of life flows from the temple so as to renew the life of deserts, transforming dry barren places into fertile oases.

When Jesus and John read Ezekiel’s prophecies, they applied these prophecies directly to Jesus and His Holy Spirit. Jesus declared that He was that rebuilt temple (John 2:19, 20). Jesus declared that He was the source of living water (John 4:10–14). Jesus declared that his disciples did not need to wait for a fertile harvest, for the harvest had already arrived (John 4:27–38). And John explicitly declares that the outpouring of the river of life from the Messiah came in the form of the Spirit of God.

Ezekiel’s entire vision is intended to be read as introducing the new things that would come. Every symbol, law and aspect of Ezekiel’s vision declares the new, renewed, improved, vastly different thing that God will do. Ezekiel’s vision, from end-to-end, is designed to contrast with the former temple, its religious economy, and the line of Davidic kings who had failed to love the LORD their God with all their hearts.

And so, against this panoramic background of this vision of the new things that would be part of the New Covenant, we find this passage:

“It shall be the prince's duty to furnish the burnt offerings, grain offerings, and drink offerings, at the feasts, the new moons, and the Sabbaths, all the appointed feasts of the house of Israel: he shall provide the sin offerings, grain offerings, burnt offerings, and peace offerings, to make atonement on behalf of the house of Israel” (Ezekiel 45:17).

God’s instructions at Sinai were for the people to bring their own offerings and sacrifices. But here in this New Covenant vision given to Ezekiel, it is the Prince Himself who will provide the sacrifices and offerings.

Moreover, the reason these sacrifices are being made is to make atonement. Now, atonement was given as the reason for the sacrifices within Exodus and Leviticus; but “we know that the blood of bulls and goats can never take away sins” (Hebrews 10:4). Whereas, when the sacrifice was made by the Prince, He made a once and for all sacrifice that atoned for sin forever (Hebrews 10:10, 14).

Jesus’ once and for all sacrifice

Let’s read the author of Hebrews’ commentary.

“When Christ came into the world, he said,

“Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired,
    but a body have you prepared for me;
in burnt offerings and sin offerings
    you have taken no pleasure.
Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come to do your will, O God,
    as it is written of me in the scroll of the book.’”

When he said above, “You have neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings” (these are offered according to the law), then he added, “Behold, I have come to do your will.” He does away with the first in order to establish the second. And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.

And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.

And the Holy Spirit also bears witness to us; for after saying,

“This is the covenant that I will make with them
    after those days, declares the Lord:
I will put my laws on their hearts,
    and write them on their minds,”

then he adds,

“I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.”

Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin” (Hebrews 10:4–18).

So, sacrifices have been done away with in order to establish God’s will in the body of Jesus Christ. Sacrifices have been done away with because the atonement — the reconciliation with God — that they pointed to has been achieved.

Levitical ministry replaced

Beyond the sacrifices, the book of Hebrews teaches that the entire ministry of the Levites has been replaced.

“If perfection had been attainable through the Levitical priesthood (for under it the people received the law), what further need would there have been for another priest to arise after the order of Melchizedek, rather than one named after the order of Aaron? For when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well” (Hebrews 7:11, 12).

After the Israelites sinned in the desert, the tribe of Levites was set apart to serve in the temple. The Levites were charged with teaching people about God’s instructions. They also cared for the temple, and one of their families provided priests that served in the temple. The book of Hebrews is saying that this Levitical priesthood has been superseded by the ministry of Jesus, who is of the order of Melchizedek, and whose qualification to being a priest is His indestructible life.

“This makes Jesus the guarantor of a better covenant” (Hebrews 7:22).

Recap

So we’ve found that a new priest from a different priestly order has been anointed the guarantor of a better covenant. The covenant is better because under this covenant, sins are dealt with once and for all. And under this covenant, the Spirit of God flows from Jesus’ throne into His children’s hearts; and from there this river of life overflows from their hearts to those around them. Truly, this is a new creation. And these new creatures love God in their hearts and so are zealous for God’s law — willingly obey God’s law.

God’s law

Does being positive about law sound strange to you? It does sound strange to my ears.

We’ve been conditioned to think negatively about God’s law. Most of what we hear about the law is quite negative.

There’s a couple of things we need to keep in mind. When we think of “law,” we’re thinking of things like legality, risk and judgment. Yet when you explore the Hebrew word from which we’re translating “law,” you find it doesn’t have a legal connotation, but an educational one. 

The root word of “torah” is also the root word for teacher and parent. “Torah” itself explicitly means “instruction.”

It does seem a lot easier to be positive about something that is instructional rather than something legal. And that is really what “torah” (law) means — instructions.

The outcome of the New Covenant is that God’s instructions are hidden in your heart and guide your attitudes, your decisions and your behaviour.

The second thing we need to keep in mind is the positive nature of God’s instructions.

“Blessed are those whose way is blameless,
    who walk in the instructions* of the Lord!” (Psalm 119:1).

“Give me understanding, that I may keep your instructions*
    and observe it with my whole heart” (Psalm 119:34).

“I delight in your instructions*” (Psalm 119:70).

“The instructions* are spiritual.” “The instructions* are holy, and the precepts* are holy and righteous and good” (Romans 7:14, 12, * alternate translations to better reflect the underlying Hebrew concept).

So, we learn from these passages that God’s instructions are spiritual. And it’s the spirituality of the instructions that are hidden in our hearts, not the letter (2 Corinthians 3:6). For the spirituality of God’s instructions is nothing other than God’s will.

What remains?

So the promise of the New Covenant is to hide God’s instructions in our hearts. And we’ve seen some explicit instructions as to what changes under the New Covenant. 

Based on the promises of the New Covenant, and the expectations and experience of Jesus’ disciples and apostles, we would expect that the majority of God’s instructions are applicable, holy, noble and good for us — when used in the right way. (I must emphasise that — when used in the right way.)

“The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this instruction*” (Deuteronomy 29:29).

Everything God has revealed is a treasure that all New Covenant Christians should treasure. After all, that’s the promise of the New Covenant.

Now, is there anything that scripture explicitly says remains? Yes. For scripture says,

“There remains a Sabbath-ing for the people of God” (Hebrews 4:9).

In this instruction, we have positive confirmation that Sabbath-ing remains. Now Sabbath-ing is a verb, which means it describes the experience of God’s rest. 

Now, in practical terms, God’s instructions describe Sabbath-ing on a weekly basis. They also describe Sabbath-ing on an annual basis. This verb does not distinguish between weekly and annual sabbaths.

 

To go deeper

Hebrews 4:9 is explained in more detail here.

Therefore, we have explicit instructions in Hebrews that:

  1. Sabbath-ing remains (Hebrews 4:9).
  2. The Levitical priesthood is fading away (Hebrews 7:11, 12).
  3. There is a Priest after the order of Melchizedek who guarantees the New Covenant (Hebrews 7:11, 12, 22).
  4. Sacrifices and offerings have been done away with (Hebrews 10:9).

Annual sabbaths

Now, once I had someone say to me that it seemed impossible to understand how to keep the annual sabbaths — the annual feasts of God. Yet by following the instructions we’ve been given, I think I can show you that it is quite simple.

Let’s consider the Feasts of Passover and Unleavened Bread.

 

The Passover

4 “These are the appointed feasts of the Lord, the holy convocations, which you shall proclaim at the time appointed for them. 5 In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month at twilight, is the Lord's Passover. 

Unleavened Bread

6 And on the fifteenth day of the same month is the Feast of Unleavened Bread to the Lord; for seven days you shall eat unleavened bread. 7 On the first day you shall have a holy convocation; you shall not do any ordinary work. 8 [[But you shall present a food offering to the Lord for seven days.]] On the seventh day is a holy convocation; you shall not do any ordinary work” (Leviticus 23:4–8).

 

The [[blocked text]] represents the instruction describing a sacrifice or offering. We’ve been told not to do that, so we understand that it is inapplicable.

Now, this instruction includes us eating unleavened bread for seven days. We don’t have explicit instruction on what to do with this. We do have a hint, however, from Paul, that perhaps the eating of the unleavened bread should be read spiritually. Here’s why.

When Paul was instructing the Corinthian church, he said,

“Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (1 Corinthians 5:8).

You’ll note that he doesn’t say, “we should eat the unleavened bread for seven days and remember that it symbolises being sincere and truthful,” but he said, “Let us celebrate the festival with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.”

The reality of the symbol, rather than the symbol itself. If this is correct, then we would read it like this.

 

The Passover

4 “These are the appointed feasts of the Lord, the holy convocations, which you shall proclaim at the time appointed for them. 5 In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month at twilight, is the Lord's Passover. 

Unleavened Bread

6 And on the fifteenth day of the same month is the Feast of Unleavened Bread to the Lord; <<for seven days you shall eat unleavened bread.>> 7 On the first day you shall have a holy convocation; you shall not do any ordinary work. 8 [[But you shall present a food offering to the Lord for seven days.]] On the seventh day is a holy convocation; you shall not do any ordinary work” (Leviticus 23:4–8).

 

In this reading, the <<angled text>> represents a symbol of the reality of that which is now present. Given this, some people would understand that these practices are not to be done, because they have already been realised in Jesus Christ. 

Now, you may disagree with this. You may believe that practising God's instructions are still educational. That eating unleavened bread still teaches us about the reality. If this is your understanding, then I say, “Shalom.”  

 

To see more

To extend this thinking to the other feasts, see A New Covenant reading of Leviticus 23.

“Shalom.” Remember, however, the symbol is simply a pointer to the reality of the renewed humanity. For on the evening of the Passover, Jesus’ broken body hung limply on the cross. Your sins and mine, all the accusations against us, were nailed to His cross. We considered Him cursed, smitten of God. Yet He took upon Himself our sins. By His stripes we are healed. 

Because we have received this atonement — this reconciliation — we are eligible to receive the New Covenant in Jesus’ blood. Our sins taken away forever. The Spirit is poured out on us, creating the new spiritual person. The spiritual person who rejoices in God’s will, and longs to be conformed to all His instructions.

“… the former things have come to pass,
    and new things I now declare;
before they spring forth
    I tell you of them” (Isaiah 42:9).

“If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. 
    The old has passed away; 
behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17).

Peace and grace be yours in sincerity and truth.

 

References

This message is based on Hebrews 7:11, 12; 10:4–18.

 

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