New Covenant and Torah

Q – Dear Pastor Jim,

I was very impressed recently after reading a portion of your Hebrews commentary and have a question for you. My question is regarding the New Covenant. I agree with your interpretation that the New Covenant is Israel’s, not the church’s. Although intended for Israel, it seems that in some way the New Covenant has been inaugurated, and the church is currently benefiting from its blessings.

Jim – Undoubtedly. The New Covenant was instituted at Calvary, as Christ clearly indicated at the Passover before His betrayal. He said, “For this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins.” (Matt 26:28) So, the shedding of Christ’s blood is tantamount to the inception of the New Covenant.

And yes, the Church must be currently under that covenant, according to Paul. Speaking to the uncircumcised – the Gentiles – he wrote –

“And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath he quickened together with him, having forgiven you all trespasses; blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross.” (Col 2:13-14)

Even a cursory look at the details of that passage tells us a few vital things:

1) The Gentile believers had their trespasses forgiven.

2) They were quickened, or made alive, despite being born dead in sins.

3) And the handwriting of ordinances – the Law of Moses, or Old Covenant – that would have condemned them, which was contrary to them, was taken away and nailed to the cross of Christ.

So, if the Old Covenant of the Law is done away with and we are saved and forgiven by the blood of the New Testament, then it’s axiomatic that the New Covenant is in effect and the Church is enjoying the blessings attendant to it.

Now, none of that is to say that the covenant was not initially intended for “the house of Israel and the house of Judah.” That’s the place where so many purportedly “new covenant” theologians stumble. They can’t get past the fact that both Jeremiah 31 and Hebrews 12:24 – both Old Testament and New – declare unflinchingly that the New Covenant is intended for Abraham’s physical descendants. So, they go off into all sorts of creative theology and allegorical interpretations that I assume you’re familiar with.

There is no doubt that the houses of Judah and Israel must indeed be brought into the covenant that is rightfully theirs or the promises of God come up woefully short. And, the introduction of the Church of believing Jews and Gentiles in no way negates the promise or its intended recipients. Our theology, whatever we call it and however we define it, must recognize those facts in order to be consistent with Scripture.

Oh, and thank you kindly for the encouraging words about our Hebrews study. It has always been our hope that this website would serve as a resource for folk to read, think, interact and expand their knowledge of God’s word. So, thanks again. Very kind of you, indeed.

Q – However, if you told this to a strict dispensationalist, such as Charles Ryrie, who would simply blow a gasket, he would say the New Covenant is all future, and the Church is under a completely different covenant. How do you interpret the New Covenant, as well as other seemingly-partially-fulfilled Old Testament prophecies, such as the NT quotations of Joel and Amos in Acts?

Jim – Yes, Mr. Ryrie would probably take a different view. But, that’s okay. It’s amazing how much light Scripture can throw on some of these commentaries and theologies. 🙂

I have always wanted some of the stricter dispensationalists to tell me, or show me from Scripture, which covenant exactly the Church is under. In simplest terms, it’s impossible to find any other Covenant established in the blood of Christ than the New Covenant. If anyone is saved then it must be as the result of that covenant. Every elect individual and the elect nation of Israel will all be drawn by the grace of God and established eternally by the “once for all” sacrifice. Those really are fundamentals.

As far as “partially fulfilled Old Testament prophecies.” I subscribe – as do many of my contemporaries – to the “now/not yet” approach. It seems to be the most Biblically consistent. Unquestionably, Peter was speaking by the Spirit when he declared the onset of Joel’s prophecy at Pentecost. And, the manifestations of that prophecy were decidedly physical – speaking in tongues, the declaration of the resurrection, etc. But, to say that the sun was darkened or the moon became as blood at that moment stretches credulity, especially if you look at Peter’s actual words. He predicted that those signs in the heavens would precede “that great and notable day of the Lord.” (Acts 2:20) So, the text leads us to believe that Peter saw the onset of that move of the Spirit and genuinely expected the utter fulfillment of every detail of Joel’s prophecy in short order. But, he could not see what we can plainly see 2,000 years later – Christ hasn’t come back and the myriad prophecies concerning the Day of the Lord have not come to fruition, yet. Some Old Testament promises are still hanging out there, awaiting Christ’s ultimate return, the re-establishment of Israel, and the culmination of those promises.

So, some of those Old Testament promises have been partially fulfilled while the balance of those promises have no historic fulfillment and must be fulfilled at some future date if God’s Word has any credibility at all. Hence, “now/not yet.”

Also, I subscribe to the “gap theory” way of thinking. Actually, it’s more of a “gap fact.” I wrote about that in some detail in the introduction to “A Brief History of the Future” – a book-in-the-works that is available on this site.

I’ve always been intrigued by the last question the disciples asked Jesus before He left Earth and floated up into the Heavens. They asked, “Lord, wilt thou at this time restore again the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6) That’s an incredibly interesting question. Jesus had died and resurrected. The New Covenant was in effect. The Spirit of God was about to descend and establish the Church. And, they wanted to know when the rest of the promises made to Israel would be brought to completion. They still expected an earthly kingdom and the gathering of Israel. And interestingly, Jesus did not say, “Don’t you understand? The Church is Israel!” Instead, He simply told them that it wasn’t for them to know the times or seasons that the Father had put in His own power.

In other words, Jesus affirmed that the promises to Israel and the kingdom they longed for were still firm and established. They simply weren’t happening “now.” That’s the verse that I ask every amillennial thinker I meet to explain to me. Of course, they gyrate through all sorts of apoplexy, but they are always without a genuine answer.

I have a tape of John Reisinger, the editor of Sound of Grace magazine and website, admitting that amillennial theology cannot be exegeted or deduced from Scripture. It has to be “read into” the text. And, he’s right, you know. No man, starting from ground zero, with no background in the Bible or any man to sway him, would ever sit down and read the Book from cover to cover and come away an amillennialist. It just won’t happen. You have to read other amils and adopt their theology in order to come to those conclusions.

Okay, I’ll get off my soapbox.

Q – By the way, I have often chatted back and forth with Fred Zaspel, whom I understand you are friends with, and I have benefited much from his teaching.

Jim – A fine fellow, Fred Z. He won’t steer you wrong. A keen mind and a ready wit. If you’ve never heard any tapes of him preaching, do yourself a favor and order a few. Just pick a subject and go with it. I love to hear solid Bible teaching and Fred is a fine expositor of the Word. You can link to his site from our links.

Q – I’ve been devoting much time lately to the studying of the whole Israel/Church relationship, which your Hebrews commentary has been shedding light on. A friend of mine is very into Messianic Jewish studies, and he’s directed me towards some Messianic Jewish material (Israelology -Arnold Fruchtenbaum; Rosh Hashanah and the Messianic Feasts – Joe Good).

Jim – I’m familiar with Fruchtenbaum. I’ve read two of his books and I thought “Isrealology – The Missing Link in Systematic Theology” was a seminal work, although a bit dry and academic. As for Joe Good, I am not familiar with him.

Q – Some of the material I agree with, while some of it is quite shocking. Perhaps it’s because of the whole tone which is very “Christianity has been utterly defiled and we need to get back to our Jewish roots” that adds to the shock. But again, I do agree with some of what is being said.

Jim – Right. I have also encountered this. Several of the people who interact with us through our website are Messianic Jews, probably because our theology is “Israel friendly.” It’s quite a compliment that they are willing to discuss these matters with us, and I am not accusing them of the sort of comments you mentioned. But, there are plenty of Messianic Jewish sites on the Internet and many of them do have that sort of “Jewish roots” thing going. It’s almost an insidious sort of “anti-Gentile” prejudice. It’s very odd, but not unlike the sentiment originally demonstrated by James and John when Peter and Paul explained the inclusion of Gentiles to the Church.

And, I understand it, whether or not I agree with it. I do believe that it’s impossible to understand the full scope of genuine Christianity if you truncate its Jewish heritage. And, certainly Christianity in the 21st Century is a far cry from what it was in the 1st Century. But, that does not mean that Christianity has been utterly defiled. Genuine Christianity is a personal, one-on-one relationship with God, not defined by external religious activities. God is a Spirit and He seeks those who will worship Him in Spirit and in truth (John 4:23). So, it’s not essential to return to the rudiments of Jewish worship in order to achieve a Christian mindset or engage in genuinely Christian worship.

Christianity is Christ. What think ye of Christ? “Whom do men say that I the Son of man am?” (Mat. 16:13) We are able to answer that question accurately and savingly without returning to fundamental Judaism.

Nonetheless, I understand the rich heritage and emotional attachments that the culture and history of Judaism play in the minds of Jewish converts to Christ. And, I’m not advocating that Jewish converts extricate themselves from that heritage. But, I think it’s inherently wrong to accuse Gentile believers, who don’t share that heritage, of having a lesser faith or inferior form of Christianity. In fact, Paul’s letter to the Galatians argued that very thing. And, it was the subject of the Jerusalem conference in the book Acts. The earliest believers understood that it was not necessary to impose Judaistic principles on Gentile believers. God had accepted them, deposited His Spirit in them, and they professed Christ as Lord. What more did they need?

So, an argument in favor of returning to “Jewish roots” demonstrates a lack of knowledge of that very debate in the 1st Century Church and the resolutions the apostles advocated.

Q – Perhaps the teaching that confuses me the most, however, is that Jewish believers were, and are to be today, Torah-observant Law-keepers. This goes beyond mere circumcision and extends to dietary laws, celebrating the feasts, Sabbath observance, even sacrifices (if there were a Temple today).

Jim – You touched on a couple of things, here. So, let me address them one-by-one.

“Perhaps the teaching that confuses me the most, however, is that Jewish believers in the first century were, and are to be today, Torah-observant-Lawkeepers.”

The relationship between New Covenant faith and the Mosaic Law has been the subject of conflict and debate for 2,000 years, starting with Paul and James. I understand the 1st Century Jewish believers incorporating Torah into their new religious system. It would be incredibly difficult to instantly extricate 1400 years of Moses – the primary, fundamental elements of their entire religion and form of worship. Naturally, they would try to blend the two. And, Paul seemed aware and empathetic to that reality.

He was adamant, however, that Gentiles not be shackled with a yoke that not even Israel had ever managed to bear (Acts 15:10). And in time, especially after the fall of Jerusalem and destruction of the temple in 70 AD, the House of Judah was scattered and the influence of those outward religious practices held less influence over Jewish converts. But, between 70 AD and the Christianization of Rome under Constantine, the Jewish influence in Christianity gradually waned. And, that’s to be expected. But post-Constantine, a definite anti-Jewish sentiment swept through Christendom.

Still, the real question is – Can you be a practicing Messianic Jew, saved in the sight of God and completely resting in the finished work of Christ, without keeping the rule of Torah?

And, the answer is – Of course you can.

So, why do many Messianic Jews continue to propagate and extol the virtues of Torah? Well, one of two reasons. Some do it because of their emotional attachment to their Jewish history, tradition and heritage. And again, I can understand that. I can enter into not wanting to give up such a rich history of promises, covenants and status. And, some very knowledgeable Jewish converts see the connection between the practices of Torah that cast the shadow, knowing that the body, the substance that cast the shadow, is Christ (Col. 2:17). In other words, they use Torah to teach the truths of the Messiah. They recognize that the Law was a schoolmaster intended to lead God’s people to Jesus the Christ (Gal. 3:24). That’s a legitimate, New Covenant way of approaching and utilizing the Law.

However, on the other hand, there are some Messianic Jews (and Gentiles!) who are attempting to keep the Law as a matter of sanctification. They sincerely believe that God will accept them on the basis of their adherence and dedication to keeping the “handwriting of ordinances” (Col. 2:14) – which Paul would go on to say “was against us, which was contrary to us, and [Christ] took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross.”

That’s a dangerous approach. God accepts no man’s person. We will not impress Him by means of our personal righteousness. The main failing of the Law of Moses was that it could not stoop down to help those who failed to keep it. It could only stand in condemnation against them. It said, “Do and live.” But, no one short of Christ ever did it. So, those Jewish Christians who are using the Law as a means of acceptance before God are on a very slippery precipice.

Let me make one more distinction. The Law of Moses is one, unified, codified set of practices and ordinances. It did not come down from Sinai subdivided into the categories we so often hear – dietary law, religious law, ceremonial law, civil law, etc. It was just one Law – the Law. And, to mess up in any one place was to be guilty of the whole law. If you ate an unclean thing, you were not merely guilty of breaking a dietary law, you were guilty of sinning against God in the matter of the whole law. You were required to keep each and every minute bit of the entire legal code.

That leads us to your further comments.

“This goes beyond mere circumcision and extends to dietary laws, celebrating the feasts, Sabbath observance, even sacrifices (if there were a Temple today).

Right. As mentioned above, if they are eating kosher for health reasons, or even reasons of heritage and custom, I have no qualm with them. But, if they think that eating kosher will keep them ceremonially pure, free from sin, and acceptable before the Lord, they’ve missed the point. If they are keeping the Passover to remember the deliverance from Egypt, but don’t see Christ’s deliverance from sin, they are emphasizing the shadow to the exclusion of the substance.

Jesus often criticized Pharisees who lived (at least ostensibly) by the letter of the law, while misunderstanding the spirit of the law. For instance, Jesus – being the very embodiment of the Word of God – ate without ceremonial washing first, which thing angered the Pharisees and gave them an opportunity to accuse Him of being a lawbreaker.

“And Jesus said, Are ye also yet without understanding? Do not ye yet understand, that whatsoever entereth in at the mouth goeth into the belly, and is cast out into the draught? But those things which proceed out of the mouth come forth from the heart; and they defile the man. For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies: These are the things which defile a man: but to eat with unwashen hands defileth not a man.” (Matt. 15:16-20)

Paul promulgated a similar theology extending it even into the feasts and holy days –

“Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holyday, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days; which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is Christ.” (Col. 2:16-17)

Paul even went so far as to say that what you eat is a matter of personal conviction. Some can eat everything with a clear conscience. Others have convictions against certain things, so for them to offend their sense of propriety becomes sin for them.

“As concerning therefore the eating of those things that are offered in sacrifice unto idols, we know that an idol is nothing in the world, and that there is none other God but one. For though there be that are called gods, whether in heaven or in earth, (as there be gods many, and lords many,) But to us there is but one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we in him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we by him. Howbeit there is not in every man that knowledge: for some with conscience of the idol unto this hour eat it as a thing offered unto an idol; and their conscience being weak is defiled. But meat commendeth us not to God: for neither, if we eat, are we the better; neither, if we eat not, are we the worse. But take heed lest by any means this liberty of yours become a stumblingblock to them that are weak.” (1 Cor. 8:4-9)

Some people simply don’t have the liberty that Paul had. And, they are offended by some kinds of food. Or, they would be offended by breaking with their traditions and heritage. Paul calls that a form of weakness. But, we who have liberty are not to flaunt that liberty in front of our weaker brethren. We are to understand the binding that is on their conscience, forego our liberty for their sake while we are in their midst, and have our liberty to ourselves in order not to cause offense.

“For, brethren, ye have been called unto liberty; only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but by love serve one another.” (Gal. 5:13)

My point?

Well, clearly the New Covenant affords Gentiles the liberty and freedom of conscience to live with God in grace without the rudiments of the Law. According to Paul, himself a converted Jew, this liberty ought also to be among the Jews. That’s the point of the book of Hebrews. The superior covenant has come and the old covenant has passed away.

However, if some Jewish believers are bound in their conscience and cannot eat certain things without offense, then it’s not our place to flaunt our liberty or condemn their adherence to their tradition. Our hope is that they will one day share in the liberty wherein Christ has made us free. And, through careful study and attendance to the word, they will hopefully understand that.

But – and this is an important distinction – if they are keeping Sabbath days and feasts, eating kosher and living by Torah for the purpose of ritualistically purifying themselves before God, seeking His approval and ultimate salvation on the basis of their personal merit, then they have not yet truly comprehended the fundamental doctrines of genuine Christianity. They are attempting to mix grace and works, and that just won’t fly.

“For what saith the scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness. Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt. But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness. Even as David also describeth the blessedness of the man, unto whom God imputeth righteousness without works, Saying, Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin.” (Rom 4:3 8)

Paul’s whole point in that passage is that the forefathers of Israel understood this principle. It is reflected in their writing. Both Abraham and David rested in God’s grace without the works of the flesh. It’s nothing new that Paul was preaching. So, Messianic Jews who reach back into the Law looking for sanctification not only fail to understand New Covenant principles, they fail to understand Abraham and David.

Q – Acts 21:20-24 is indeed a convincing proof text to show that Paul was observant of the Law, and that he wanted to confront a misunderstanding of his circumcision teaching (which was that he was teaching Jews that they needn’t circumcise their children) and Paul was eager to correct this misunderstanding.

Jim –And the day following Paul went in with us unto James; and all the elders were present. And when he had saluted them, he declared particularly what things God had wrought among the Gentiles by his ministry. And when they heard it, they glorified the Lord, and said unto him, Thou seest, brother, how many thousands of Jews there are which believe; and they are all zealous of the law: And they are informed of thee, that thou teachest all the Jews which are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, saying that they ought not to circumcise their children, neither to walk after the customs. What is it therefore? The multitude must needs come together: for they will hear that thou art come. Do therefore this that we say to thee: We have four men which have a vow on them; Them take, and purify thyself with them, and be at charges with them, that they may shave their heads: and all may know that those things, whereof they were informed concerning thee, are nothing; but that thou thyself also walkest orderly, and keepest the law. As touching the Gentiles which believe, we have written and concluded that they observe no such thing, save only that they keep themselves from things offered to idols, and from blood, and from strangled, and from fornication. Then Paul took the men, and the next day purifying himself with them entered into the temple, to signify the accomplishment of the days of purification, until that an offering should be offered for every one of them.” (Acts 21:18-26)

I don’t think this text necessarily shows that Paul was “observant” of the Law, so much as it shows that he was not an enemy of the Law. He saw it as good and holy, the righteous standard from God. However, he understood that it could not save. Indeed, no works of the flesh could satisfy the high standard of God’s perfect holiness.

But, you are absolutely correct that Paul was attempting to confront their misunderstanding of his teaching. He did indeed teach that Gentiles should not be forced to be circumcised as a symbol of their obedience to Judaistic practices. Circumcision is the sign of the Abrahamic Covenant, and the physical descendants of Abraham are right in performing that ritual. It is a sign of the promises God made to those covenant people. And, He will keep every promise He made to that particular seed of Abraham.

However, Gentiles are under the blessing of that promise to Abraham – that through his seed all the nations would be blessed – although they are not connected to Ephraim’s birthright promise of national re-emergence, the land inheritance and the restored kingdom. Circumcision is a sign that Gentiles have no part in. That’s the essence of Paul’s letter to the Galatians.

So, Paul was eager to show that he was not against circumcision within Israel. He was against imposing it on Gentiles.

Q – But I wonder if this Torah-observance wasn’t for the sake of witnessing to his Jewish brethren? As he states in 1 Corinthians 9:20, “And to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews; to those who are under the Law, as under the Law, though not being myself under the Law, that I might win those who are under the Law.

Jim – Absolutely. Very good observation. Paul allowed himself to take a vow, he shaved his head, and he even sacrificed an animal. All this was after his conversion to Christ. As a Jew, it was not out-of-character. As a Christian, he used his liberty to participate (or not) as a means to reach his fellow countrymen with the gospel.

Good for you for understanding that. It’s a principle that many people fail to recognize. And, that’s what we were talking about earlier. If the Law is used as a means to preach Christ – the shadow and the substance – then it does not interfere with Christian liberty. And, Paul’s actions here were perfectly in keeping with his overall theology. It’s pretty cool, when you see it.

But, Paul absolutely would not allow that the Law could save or sanctify a person apart from Christ’s finished atonement. He never taught that anyone, Jew or Gentile, should keep the Law in order to obligate God to save them. Rather, he had personal freedom to interact with both groups, and be like them, live with them, and offer no offence to them, for the purpose of glorifying Christ and spreading the good news.

Q – Appreciate your thoughts…

Jim – You brought up very significant points and you appear to have a good handle on the controversy. Stay the course, my friend. And, help others to see the true freedom that only Christ can offer. Some will see it, some won’t.

Again, Christianity in its purest form has nothing to do with outward performance. Remember that Christ never preached an ethic, practice or religion apart from Himself. He never set down rules and rudiments, or taught a means or way to Heaven. He made Himself the deciding factor in every person’s eternity.

“I am the way, the truth, and the life; no man cometh unto the Father but by me.” (John 14:6)

That means that everyone – Jew or Gentile, nationally or individually – that approaches the Father through Christ will find acceptance not because of their performance or strength of will, but they will be “accepted in the beloved.” (Eph. 1:6)

Any other means of approaching God is an encroachment and will ultimately result in failure and condemnation. That’s rough, but them’s the facts.

Grace and peace, my friend, and thanks for writing.