The New Covenant – part 2

Adding to the importance of this announcement is the fact that it appears in similar form in Ezekiel 36:23-28 Adding to the importance of this announcement is the fact that it appears in similar form in Ezekiel 36:23-28

23 I will sanctify my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them; and the nations shall know that I am the LORD, says the Lord GOD, when through you I display my holiness before their eyes.  24 I will take you from the nations, and gather you from all the countries, and bring you into your own land.  25 I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you.  26 A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.  27 I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances.  28 Then you shall live in the land that I gave to your ancestors; and you shall be my people, and I will be your God. 

Exekiel and Jeremiah were contemporaries but there is one great difference between them: Ezekiel was one of the first exiles taken to Babylon. His work was done entirely in the foreign land, yet his message was very much like that of Jeremiah back in Jerusalem, especially in his expectation that the Lord was not going to tighten the requirements of Torah but was going to transform the hearts of his people. We will be given a new heart and a new spirit. Notice that we will receive both a new spirit and new, more human heart. To be spiritual is to be more human, not less.

Lest we think the message had no effect on the Jews, notice that idolatry was no longer a temptation for them after the Exile.

Ponder with some care the observation that neither Jeremiah nor Ezekiel speaks of the end of Torah. Rather, Torah is to be written into our hearts and minds. The psychologist would say we are now internalizing the ways of God.   We are not free of Torah but it is now the formative structure of our very being.

So, wherever we are in the story of the Exile, whether in the dreary, depressive remains of Jerusalem or the saddening alien land, the message is the same: We are being renewed by our Lord. It is not our doing but is a gift of the Spirit to us.

Now we jump ahead to the New Testament. In the Snyoptic Gospels explains the wine of the Last Supper as his blood of the covenant. And in Romans 11:27 Paul makes passing allusions to the New Covenant in Romans 11:27, I Corinthians 11:25, and II Corinthians 3:6.

Something remarkable happens in Hebrews, however: The passage from Jeremiah is quoted twice. It appears fully in 8:8-12 and partially in 10:16-17. In the New Testament, the word “covenant” is found 12 times, while in Hebrews we see it 19 times. Very clearly, the idea of covenant is critical to the author of Hebrews.

Why is this? I suspect it is because Hebrews is written to contrast Jesus Christ with the religious dimensions of Judaism, centered as they were around the Temple and its rituals. Paul tended to speak of the Gospel in relation to the ethical dimensions of Judaism, that is, Torah as a way to make us righteous. That’s why he clashed so much more with the Pharisees than the Sadduccees.

The external covenant encouraged an external religion while the New Covenant now established in Christ is internal and requires an internal response. The inner response, of course, is possible only in communion with Jesus Christ. It is the Spirit of Christ who writes the Torah on our hearts and the Spirit of Christ who empowers us to live by our new reality.

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The New Covenant – part 1

Jeremiah was left behind in Jerusalem when the Babylonians abducted all those who might be of value in rebuilding Israel. Apparently, a mere prophet was not considered a valuable citizen! Jeremiah continued speaking out but he did not counsel rebellion. Rather, his word was to repent and await God’s next move. He had no doubt that the Exile was only a temporary rebuke from the Lord. Nonetheless, he did not believe that the Israelites were to resist their captors. In chapter 29 he speaks to the captives, telling them to build houses, plant crops, and settle down. Obviously we are not to think of their captivity as imprisonment. Once freed to return to Israel, the vast majority of those now known as Jews chose to remain in their new land.

Most remarkable in Jeremiah’s long ministry is his deliverance of this striking word of the Lord:

29 In those days they shall no longer say: “‘ The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.’ 30 But everyone shall die for his own sin. Each man who eats sour grapes, his teeth shall be set on edge.

31 “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, 32 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. 33 But 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. 34 And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor 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.”

First, we notice the undoing of the Lord’s Word delivered through Moses in Deuteromy 5:9-

You shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me.

Then comes the amazing news: the Covenant, a phrase which at this time meant the centuries-old Mosaic Torah Covenant, is being supplanted by a New Covenant! Torah (which has always meant more than Law, including all God’s wisdom, guidance, counsel) has been seen as an external directive to right behavior. Now it is no longer to be external but to be so very internalized that it is as if Torah were written directly on our hearts.

And we see that we will no longer know merely Torah – We will know the Lord directly, each and every one of us.

Our first thought, of course, is that we are unworthy. In fact, the old Israelites had feared such direct knowledge of God. They wanted only to “know” him through Moses. Under the New Covenant, we will all know God. What an incredibly revolutionary thought! It could have made little sense in the sixth century before Christ but we now understand that it became true for us in Christ.

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Jesus the Disciplemaker – Part Three

A way of life.   What are the lessons we might learn from this passage and from the questions we have asked?  For ourselves, the secret of the kingdom is to respond appropriately to the Word of God, even if one can do no more than say, “ Jesus, I do not understand,” or, “God, I am angry at you,” or, “God, I dare not hope anymore.”  Whatever your honest response to God is at that moment is appropriate and desired by God.  It does not matter where you are in your own personal growth.  What matters is which way you are moving and growing.

Another lesson concerns evangelism.  Evangelism is not a matter of telling a person how easy it is to become a Christian.  The task of the Christian is to draw another person out of unbelief by eliciting response.  We are not to give answers to questions that have not been asked.  Rather, we are to help people ask the right questions and then give them as much of the Word as they are ready to hear and accept.

To be like Jesus in evangelism, our concern must be to raise questions, to draw out appropriate and honest responses.  Surely from Jesus, if not from our own experience in the modern school system, we can learn that simply telling someone something is the world’s least effective way of communicating significant and life-changing information.

Perhaps now we are ready to take seriously Jesus’ repeated insistence that the cost of discipleship is immeasurable.  In Luke 14, for example, Jesus warned the people not to think lightly of the prospect of following him: “If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.  Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple” (Luke14:26).

In addition to the high cost of being a Christian, two key ideas are suggested by this passage.

First, like Jesus and unlike most modern Christians, we must warn a nonbeliever in advance of all that Jesus Christ demands of a Christian.  In modern Christendom we have nearly forgotten that Jesus makes demands of us.  What little attention we pay to the cost of Christianity is normally shared only with those who have already stepped through the door of salvation.  Our unwritten policy seems to be to sell them the product before we tell them the price.  This is deceitful evangelism.

The second concept is closely related to the first, although more basic.  Jesus’ words—as well as the whole of the New Testament—lay a great stress upon becoming disciples, not mere converts.  Of all the biblical ideas which have been lost or compromised over the centuries, this is the most significant.  God’s goal is to gain obedient disciples of Jesus Christ, not merely to have a population explosion in heaven!  Time and time again, Jesus calls followers, stresses obedience, warns that his way demands all or nothing.

In modern evangelical circles we stress that the way to become a Christian is to “accept Jesus as personal Savior.”  The call of the Bible, however, is to accept Jesus as Lord if you desire to be saved.  And then he will be your Savior.  We should not accept him just to avoid hell, for becoming a Christian is not a matter of receiving infallible life insurance.  It is a matter of giving to God in Christ that which he deserves.

As we might expect, Jesus not only exemplified proper evangelism but also taught us a great deal about it.  On his last evening with the disciples before his crucifixion, for example, evangelism was very much on his mind: “By this all men will know that you are my disciples”—note that he did not say converts—“if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).  Later in the evening, he prayed in a similar vein “that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, are in me and I in thee, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me” (John 17:21).

On this final evening, Jesus was thinking of evangelism as the Christians’ mutual love and fellowship in God the Father and in himself as Son.

How unlike modern evangelism!  Today evangelism is thought of as the pattern of words we speak when we are trying to persuade someone to become a Christian.  Evangelism has become, like all else in our secular society, a technique, a way of doing things.

Rather than being an activity in which we may occasionally choose to participate, evangelism is a way of life.  It is a life lived continually in discipleship.

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Jesus the Disciplemaker – Part Two

What does the parable mean? In verses 14-40 Jesus explains the parable.  It is a warning not to be the kind of person who rejects the word in the name of popularity; not to be the kind of person who sees the word only as a source of joy and not to be the kind of person who accepts the validity of the word but wants to maintain other conflicting values also.

Jesus desires instead that we be those who hear the word, accept it and bear fruit, thirtyfold, sixtyfold and a hundredfold.  The “word” we may take as the word of truth or the Word of God or, in this case, the word which Jesus himself was speaking.

What does it mean to “accept” a word?  Suppose I tell you, “You will be blinded by this page if you read four more words.”  You do not believe me!  For if you had believed you would not have read on.  Likewise, if you believe the Word of God, you will obey it.  To believe is to respond appropriately.  This is accepting the Word.

Jesus Christ does not wish to aid anyone in an inappropriate response.  He does not desire people who commit themselves halfway, who are willing to accept forgiveness without the discipleship to his Word which bears fruit.

Why did  he speak in parables?  His purpose was simply outstanding pedagogy: Do not give an answer until you have helped the learner ask the proper question and find the proper way of seeking answers.  How does one find the truth of God? Certainly not simply by hearing a sermon or two—even from Jesus himself—and walking away thinking you have mastered the material.

Jesus came to speak, embody and enact a message of forgiveness.  It would have been unfair and unloving to merely talk about it, treating it as nothing more than a concept or an idea.  He chose instead a method that forced any honest person to recognize that he or she did not understand.  At that point the only honest response was to turn to Jesus and ask for understanding.  And that was precisely Jesus’ goal!

Why does Jesus speak in parables?  So that, as much as possible, no one will hear a significant word until the “soil” has been prepared.  And we should learn from his example.

All we are told about the “secret of the kingdom” in a direct way is that it has been given to those who, with the twelve, asked Jesus what he was talking about.  Having already explored the answers to our primary questions, however, this fact should not surprise us.  For coming to Jesus with an honest appropriate response to his Word is exactly what Jesus demands of his hearers.  The “secret of the kingdom” is nothing more than to hear the Word and act, to hear the Word and respond appropriately.

 

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Jesus the Disciplemaker – Part One

This article first appeared in His Magazine and was reprinted in 1976 in the book His Guide to Evangelism, InterVarsity Press.
As a teacher, Jesus is commonly admired for the clever parables he told.  It is often remarked that he chose to convey his teaching in simple, homely little stories, using familiar pastoral elements to make his message more easily grasped by even the most unlearned of people. Many modern Christians have drawn from this picture of Jesus the lesson that our evangelism ought to so simplify the message of the gospel that anyone who is genuinely seeking truth will be able quickly and easily to accept Jesus Christ as Savior.

Such a view of Jesus and his parables, however, omits two significant facts.  First, even for those of us who can reap the benefits of 2,000 years of Bible study, the point of his parables is not at all easy to perceive.  Nor was it for the hearers of Jesus’ day.

More important, the picture of Jesus using parables to simplify his message directly violates his own teaching on the matter!  “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables; so that they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand; lest they should turn again, and be forgiven” (Mark 4: 11-12).

Jesus’ purpose in teaching with parables is quite the opposite of making his message as clear as possible.  He seems, rather, to be saying that he wants to make his point deliberately unclear.  Even more amazing, his purpose in so doing is to keep people from turning again to be forgiven.  Incredible!  Can this be the Son of God who is “not willing that any should perish”?

To ascertain the meaning of this passage we need to examine its immediate setting, Mark 4:1-25.  Jesus has just told the parable we now call, somewhat misleadingly, the parable of the sower.  His disciples and a few others from the crowd come up to inquire of its meaning.  In response to their inquiry Jesus makes his strange remark.  He then explains the parable and goes on to add two emphases.

In reading this whole passage, some very basic questions seem to demand immediate attention. We’ll begin exploring those questions in the next blog entry.

 

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Studies in Colossians – 4:7-18

Paul likes to conclude his letters with what I call a “knitting section.” In 2:2 he spoke of his desire to see people’s hearts encouraged as they are “knit together in love.” Now, as he ends his epistle with lots of greetings and words of encouragement to specific individuals, Paul seems to me to be knitting people together in a very practical way.

I’ll just comment on a couple of Paul’s remarks.

First, in verse 9, Onesimus, Paul’s faithful and beloved brother. Not until we turn to the brief note to Philemon do we grasp the importance of this reference to Onesimus. He is a runaway slave! Paul and Philemon, the owner of Onesimus, are friends. Both in the letter specfically addressed to Philemon and here, Paul is making sure it is well known that Onesimus has become a Christian and a beloved brother to Paul and, therefore, also to Philemon. He should be freed, though Paul comes just barely short on saying it directly. Paul treats him as a free man and even gives him a share of the responsibility for delivering these two letters.

Second, Epaphras, who is himself a Colossian, is said to be always in prayer for their maturity, as is Paul himself. That’s exactly how we should be praying for one another, praying for maturity in the faith and in our love for God.

You may wish to take a few minutes to look up the people Paul names here. It is almost a Who’s Who of the early church. Mark and Luke, for example, became the authors of two of our four Gospels.

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Studies in Colossians – 4:2-6

Notice that there is a fairly significant break in subject at 4:2. The first verse ends the section on household relations and the second verse begins something new. More precisely, 4:2 is a return to the general instructions on what we are to be “putting on” as we clothe ourselves with the characteristics of Jesus Christ and therefore mature into Christlikeness of character.

Two quick observations. First, chapter divisions are of no value in interpreting Scripture. They were added centuries after the closing of the New Testament and are meant not as aids to understanding but merely as a shortcut in communication. It is easier to refer to a chapter and verse number than to quote each verse during a conversation. Our common habit of reading or studying a chapter at a time reflects a serious misunderstanding of the purpose of the numbers.

Second, the household section is itself a part of the teaching on how to be Christlike. While Paul is in fact focusing particular attention on one kind of relationship (that of the household), he is not leaving the general subject that began at 3:12.

His teaching now is that we are to be persistent in our intercession for one another (with thanksgiving, of course). Verses 3-4 are a bit of an interruption as Paul lets them know how much he wants their prayer support.

The big question about intercession is, Why does the Lord want us to pray for one another at all? He doesn’t need to be informed or motivated. So why do we pray? The answer seems to be simply that the Lord wants us to be fellow workers with the Spirit of Jesus Christ, not for his sake but for ours. We are allowed the great privilege and pleasure of working for the good of others. Amazingly, God values teamwork and we get to be on his team!

Continuing his instructions, Paul calls us to be wise in our relationships with non-believers. What is wise? Paul means we are to take advantage of opportunities opened for us by the Spirit. The word he uses is kairos, which does not mean chronology but opportunity. We are to be on the look out for appropriate chances to speak a word about God’s love and grace and faithfulness. He speaks of answering others, suggesting that we may not always be the ones taking the initiative in a conversation. While we are concerned with showing others how much we are like them, how ordinary we are ( I call it “bridge building”), they are likely to see something very different about us. And many of them will want to know what accounts for our unique sense of peace and compassion.

Are you ready to explain to another what lies at the core of your own sense of identity?

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