The Great Christian Revolution 2D – Points of Discontinuity

The Christian needs to recognize that what distinguishes Biblical law in the New Testament era from the Old Covenant era is the vastly greater empowering of Christians by the Holy Spirit to obey the law.

Most Christians understand that significant changes have taken place, through the inauguration of the New Covenant, in Jesus Christ. Briefly, these are:

  1. Sacrifices for sins were made with bulls, goats and lambs. Jesus has become the sacrifice for sin Himself (Heb.9:11-14).
  2. There used to be a multitude of priests offering sacrifices. Jesus has assumed the role of our high priest, and every believer is a priest.
  3. The temple in Jerusalem was the centre of worship in Israel. Now, the Bible says that individuals are “a temple of God” (I Cor.3:16).
  4. The marks of the covenant were Passover and circumcision. Now they are baptism and communion.
  5. The Old Testament believer faced dietary restrictions, which have been lifted in the New Testament (Mk.7:18-19; I Tim.4:4-5).
  6. The Old Testament centred around the land of Israel. Now the New Covenant relates to the whole world.
  7. The Old Testament related primarily to the tribes of Israel. The New Covenant relates to all people of the earth (Mat.28:19).

These changes have been points of confusion and controversy, even since the time of the New Testament, when Paul confronted Peter for “fearing the party of the circumcision” (Gal.2:12). To understand aspects of covenantal continuity and discontinuity, we need a set of principles to understand just how these changes are implemented, and how they apply today. Dr Gary North has provided these:

Hermeneutics is the principle of interpretation. My theonomic hermeneutics enables me to do three things that every system of biblical hermeneutics should do: 1) identify the primary function of an Old Covenant law, 2) discover whether it is universal in a redemptive (healing) sense, or whether 3) it was conditioned by its redemptive-historical context (i.e., annulled by the New Covenant). In short: What did the law mean, how did it apply inside and outside Mosaic Israel, and how should it apply today? This exegetical task is not always easy, but it is mandatory. It is a task that has been ignored or denied by the vast majority of Christian theologians for almost two millennia.

The question here is the hermeneutical problem of identifying covenantal continuity and covenantal discontinuity. First, in questions of covenantal continuity, we need to ask: What is the underlying ethical principle? God does not change ethically. The moral law is still binding, but its application may not be. Second, this raises the question of covenantal discontinuity. What has changed as a result of the New Testament era's fulfillment of Old Covenant prophecy and the inauguration of the New Covenant? A continuity — prophetic-judicial fulfillment — has in some cases produced a judicial discontinuity: the annulment of a case law's application.

I begin any investigation of any suspected judicial discontinuity with the following questions. First, is the case law related to the priesthood, which has changed (Heb. 7:11-12)? Second, is it related to the sacraments, which have changed? Third, is it related to the jubilee land laws (e.g., inheritance), which Christ fulfilled (Luke 4:18-21)? Fourth, is it related to the tribes (e.g., the seed laws), which Christ fulfilled in His office as Shiloh, the promised Seed (Gal. 3:16)? Fifth, is it related to the "middle wall of partition" between Jew and gentile, which Jesus Christ's gospel has broken down (Gal. 3:28; Eph. 2:14-20)? These five principles prove fruitful in analyzing Leviticus 19:19 and Deuteronomy 22:9-11.

There are several other hermeneutical questions that we can ask that relate to covenantal discontinuity. Sixth, is it an aspect of the weakness of the Israelites, which Christ's ministry has overcome, thereby intensifying the rigors of an Old Covenant law (Matt. 5:21-48)? Seventh, is it an aspect of the Old Covenant's cursed six day-one day work week rather than the one day-six day pattern of the New Covenant's now-redeemed week (Heb. 4:1-11)? Eighth, is it part of legal order of the once ritually polluted earth, which has now been cleansed by Christ (Acts 10; I Cor. 8)? 1

I will not attempt to deal with these issues exhaustively. However, the late Dr Greg Bahnsen has identified some of the other fundamental discontinuities between the Old and New Covenants:

A. The New Covenant Surpasses the Old Covenant in Glory:
(i) While the Old Covenant was fundamentally a ministration of condemnation and death, the New Covenant is a ministration of righteousness and life (II Cor.2-3).
(ii) The New Covenant provides the believer with a greater confidence in approaching God.
(iii) Unlike the Old Covenant, the New Covenant has a permanent and unfading glory.

B. The New Covenant Surpasses the Old Covenant in Power:
(i) The New Covenant provides us with further and stronger motivations to obey the law.
(ii) Unlike the Old Covenant law, the New Covenant empowers obedience to the revealed pattern of righteousness… “The law made nothing perfect,” (Heb.7:19) but the new and “better covenant” has “better promises” – in particular the internalization of the law by means of Christ’s sacrificial and priestly work so that the law is kept (Heb.8:6-10)…The NewCovenant accomplishes what the law required but gave no ability to perform.

C .The New Covenant Reality Supercedes the Old Covenant Shadows:
(i) The New Covenant secures the redemption foreshadowed in the Old Covenant. The logic of the writer of Hebrews is that, if a New Covenant has been given, then it must be a better covenant which as such makes the Old Covenant outmoded. We no longer use or apply the Old Testament laws regarding sacrifices, the priesthood, etc the same way.
(ii) The New Covenant redefines the covenant people of God.

Under the Old Covenant order, Israel was constituted as a nation and adopted as the people of God, but under the New Covenant the people of God is an international body comprised of those who have faith in Christ. The kingdom has been taken from the Jews (Mat.21:41-43), and the church is now “the Israel of God” (Gal.6:16), “the commonwealth of Israel” (Eph.2:12), the “kingdom of priests” (I Pet.2:9), and the “seed of Abraham” (Gal.3:7,29). Faithful Israel of old is included within one household of God comprising the church (Heb.3:1-6); Israelites and Gentiles are separate branches, part of one olive tree of faith (Ro.11:17-18).

D. The New Covenant Surpasses the Old Covenant in Finality:
(i) It surpasses the Old Covenant law in clarity.
(ii) The New Covenant surpasses the Old in its efficiency.
(iii) The New Covenant brings greater responsibility for obedience.

There are definite discontinuities between the New Covenant relation to the law and that of the Old Covenant. The New Covenant surpasses the old in glory, power, realization, and finality…and there is no textual indication that the Old Covenant standard has been categorically laid aside. The Covenantal administrations are dramatically different- in glory, power, realization, and finality- but not as codes defining right and wrong behavior or attitudes.2

1. North, G., “Inheritance and Dominion,” 1999, ch.53. This book deals with this subject exhaustively.
2. Bahnsen, G., “By This Standard,” 1991, p.155-168.

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