As there are two Covenants – Old and New – within the Christian Bible, so there seem to be two Gods associated with them. One is the God of Moses and Joshua who mercilessly destroys Israel’s enemies – young, old, men women, and children, who details a series of grievous curses to be visited upon the disobedient (Lev 26: 14-39; Deut 28:15-68), the God of the Exodus and Ten Commandments, the God of Jeremiah who set Himself against His own people and presided over the destruction of the temple and exile to Babylon. The other is the God of Jesus whose law is embodied in the Sermon on the Mount, the God of mercy and atonement, the God of the Jews who opens His arms to incorporate all peoples and freely bestows His salvation even upon the Gentiles. What are we to make of this profound change of visage from one Covenant to the other?
god in covenant terms
The God we encounter is the God of the Covenant we address, one and the same God but revealed in covenant terms. The God of the Old Testament is the God of the law. The covenant relationship with Israel was one based on legal requirements. Where the law is transgressed it brings wrath. Thus this God is viewed understandably as a God of wrath by many. He demands absolute obedience to His law, the fulfillment of which is life. To break this law, by which one exists in image of God, is to invite scourge upon one’s head. But existing in God’s image does not come from observing the law but by existing in relation to God; absolute obedience is a result, not a cause, of being in right relation to God. It is the relation that gives us self-image, that gives symbolism, that gives meaning. We seek to avoid God’s disfavor but because we don’t exist in His image we are incapable of fulfilling His law. We may try to obey by conforming rigidly to each of the Ten Commandments and to other precepts laid down in the Old Testament; we observe the Sabbath, go through the obligatory rituals, ceremonial cleansings and purifications, and perform our sacrificial duties (or our own versions of these activities), yet we still live under the shadow of judgment all our lives long. What more can we do? Alas, we go through the motions but our hearts are not in them. We attempt to fulfill a spiritual law by obeying commandments without having a right spirit within us to fulfill it. The emphasis then has to be on the spirit, the life, of the law. The sinful spirit of our natures compels us to live in accordance with the demands of our flesh and minds (Rom 7:23).
A person can’t overcome the symbolic investment of those things (objects, images) in which his self is invested so God, in His love for us, sent us a Savior. This is the basis of the New Covenant. The Old Testament spells out the absoluteness of God’s law. The God of the New Testament is the God of grace. Having atoned for our sins by his death, Jesus has died to the law. “Where there is no law, there is no transgression” (Rom 4:15) and where there is no transgression, there is no wrath. Further, Paul says, “(You) have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead in order that we may bear fruit for God” (Rom 7:4). Jesus puts us in right relation to God so that our lives can manifest this relation. This new relation to God, through Christ, fulfills the law; we don’t have to go through life with a copy of the Ten Commandments (each with its own addendum) in one hand and a magnifying glass to our every action in the other. In Christ’s atonement, we see clearly the fundamental difference between the two covenants: the first covenant is the law, the second the symbolic relation to God that manifests itself in fulfillment of the law. And the two are not exclusive of one another; as Jesus said, “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matt 5:17). The New Testament is all about this fulfillment while the Old Testament is not rooted in hopelessness but in hope as God promised through His prophets a new covenant and a better hope (Is 53; Jer 31: 31-34; etc.). The law and the Spirit, the Old and New Covenants, are eternally one and the same in Jesus Christ. But the law, as it was given to the people of Israel in the Old Testament, was abstract to them. Even as many Christians today see faith as being merely a matter of obeying the Ten Commandments, the people of Israel saw the law as a series of ritual obligations and ceremonies, perfunctory duties, fasts, feast days, and keeping of the commandments. It felt like a burden and it was a burden. They too could go through the motions perfunctorily as these motions were incorporated into daily life but it is obvious from scripture that the people’s minds and hearts were elsewhere. As their prophets made clear to them, they were continually unfaithful to the Lord, pursuing their own pleasures and doting on the idol-gods who allowed them to indulge these pleasures. They wanted meaning, real effect, in life and they weren’t getting it by obeying the Lord’s commands.
So the law was abstract to the Israelites, defining an image of God they didn’t invest symbolically. Their spirits were invested in other things, in the “things of the flesh” (Rom 8:5). Basing one’s life on abstract images is dangerous because these images, being unsymbolized, are rigid and inflexible and to live in accordance with them, one relates to the world in similar terms. If you retain a mental image of an object, be it another person or not, that you don’t symbolize, one that has no meaning to you, then this image is strictly one of the object – there’s no modifying relation to multi-dimension it – and the next moment an image of the same object is a completely separate image. It’s a person’s own self, his symbolism, that is the unifying factor between these images over time, that enables an image to evolve and change with reality; in other words, it’s the relativity of an image and this relativity proceeds from symbolic relation to an object and investment of its image. Judging people and things in terms of rigid mental images leads to all kinds of prejudice and if enough people feel compelled to adhere to the same rigid images, widespread societal ostracism of peoples and groups of peoples can result, based on certain very narrow criteria. So symbolism of a mental image enables it to evolve and to incorporate non-physical qualities; it expands and qualifies an image so that it’s realistic, reflecting the real or natural world, and isn’t stuck in one moment or place in time. We see in Israel’s covenant experience of old the stark disparity between abstraction and symbolized image. Those things that the self invests with meaning comprise one’s life; whatever you invest symbolically is self-meaning. If the law was abstract, this meant that the God of the law was also abstract to His people or at any rate to the vast majority of them. The prophets seem to have been the exception. The people and even the priests, judging from prophetic exhortations, did not have each their own personal relationship with God that was meaningful. They did want to worship God but a God more in line with their own natures and abilities to comprehend Him. In attempting to be more heartfelt and spontaneous in their worship, they went astray repeatedly, sacrificing to other gods whom they understood better (i.e., who reflected their own human natures) and who gave them a more in-depth religious experience, one meaningful to them in terms of their own desires,- not man in God’s image but a God in man’s own image Which led to disaster. If the people refused to worship God on His terms, He would effectively withdraw from them (Ezek 10-11: 22-25; Deut 31:17-18) and allow their institutions to be overthrown and the people exiled. But being the God of the “everlasting covenant” (Jer 32:40), God remained true to His covenant people.
need for a new covenant
In due time, God would send His people a Savior who would institute a new covenant (Jer 31:31-34; 33:14-16; Ezek 11:19-20) based on a new standard and usher in a new age of the Spirit. This covenant would not rest on commandments but on grace. To obtain this grace, one would need only believe; the requirement of this new covenant is faith and not works of the law. Faith would be the sole condition of a right relationship with God. The Old Covenant relationship was a relation to the law (to God as God is defined by the law) through an intermediary. The law was the abstract embodiment of God (you had to know the law in order to know what God was) and obeying its commandments was the closest a person could come to knowing God. To “know” God in this way is to have an abstract knowledge of God but not a personal relationship with Him because to know Him personally you have to fulfill the law. In order to fulfill the law you have to be in symbolic relation to God in the first place and man in sin cannot establish this relation of himself. Because man is sinful and God perfect, there is no bridging the chasm except through a mediator. But the mediator of the Old Covenant between God and man was a man himself – Moses – who could not perfectly fulfill the law; that it had to be made known to him by God tells us that it was not fully his innate nature. A new and better covenant had to be enacted because people could receive the commandments but not keep them. A person trying to fulfill the commandments still has a sinful spirit and this sin prevents him from fulfilling them. The Old Covenant had done nothing to instill a right spirit within a person; it had just made known to him his sin and the legal requirements. So sin must be addressed decisively before any relationship to God can be established. Now the New Covenant is a relation to God through an intermediary also. “Now an intermediary implies more than one, but God is one” (Gal 3:20). Christ – the mediator of the New Covenant – being God in the flesh is able to reconcile us to God by bestowing on us his Spirit which has triumphed over death. God is one. Your relation to Christ is a relation to God; “He who confesses the Son has the Father also” (1 Jn 2:23) or as Jesus told Phillip when he entreated ” ‘Lord, show us the Father, and we shall be satisfied’, ‘Have I been with you so long and yet you do not know me, Phillip? He who has seen me has seen the Father; how can you say, ‘Show us the Father?’ Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father in me?’ ” (Jn14:8-10). It is the experience of Jesus’ death (to one’s sin) and resurrection (of one’s self in image of God) that is salvation and this salvation, gained only through Christ, puts us in right relation to God so that we fulfill the law perfectly. Now it isn’t “law” anymore; now it’s our true nature.
So we see God’s eternal purpose revealed in both the Old and New Covenants. The Old Testament laid down the law, the New Testament the fulfillment of this law. In fulfilling the law, Christ died to the law, “abolishing in his flesh the law of commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two” (Eph 2:15), in place of the Jew who knows the law and of the Gentile who doesn’t know it. Neither can fulfill it of himself. Christ died to the law so that it is no longer an issue or a stumbling block, or an excuse, to either Jew or Gentile. We need only believe in him to be in right relation with God. “For Christ is the end of the law, that every one who has faith may be justified” (Rom 10:4).