How Then Shall We Live?

We’ve been exploring the New Covenant in the last several posts. We’ve seen that we have a better priest, a better propitiation (the spotless sacrifice), and better promises. At the end of the last post, we asked the question, “What do we do with this?” Or, as I used to say to my students, “So what?” Good theology is more than just information to be learned and believed. Good theology is that which helps us encounter God and changes our hearts. So, then, what does the New Covenant really mean for us? We’re going to look at this by asking and answering a few questions.

#1: What is the most basic, fundamental difference between the Old and New Covenants?

The Old and New Covenants have some similarities. They were both instituted by God, not man. They both required a sacrifice, and both were sealed with blood and a covenantal meal. There are many differences between the two covenants, as we have seen in the previous posts. The most basic difference lies in how the covenant people (Israel and the church) relate to the covenant and to God. Under the Old Covenant, the people obeyed (or didn’t obey) God’s law simply because it was the law. The mentality is, “The law says this. . . . I should do this. . . . I’m supposed to do this.”

Fallen human nature has no desire to obey God. In fact, fallen human nature is hostile and opposed to God and His ways. You’ve heard the saying, “I just don’t have it in me . . . “? When it comes to obeying God, fallen humanity just doesn’t have it in us. Obedience is mostly (if not fully) outward.[1) The New Covenant, however, doesn’t just give us a new way to obey, nor does it just give us a new reason to obey. The New Covenant fundamentally changes the one who trusts in Christ. He or she now has a heart that desires and longs to obey and please God, to know Him and to walk in His ways. This is why Paul can say that if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17). This is the most fundamental difference. The Old Covenant demands obedience but leaves the heart unchanged. The New Covenant changes the heart and then invites obedience.

#2: If the promises of the New Covenant are actual truth (not just theological or positional truth), then why do we still sin?

This is a logical question, and one that’s asked often. Unfortunately, many people assume that since Christians still sin, we must not have been actually changed. But that’s not the case. We have to ask ourselves, “Does God do what He says He will do?” The obvious answer is, “Yes!” He is faithful to keep His promises. When God gave those promises of the New Covenant in Jeremiah and Ezekiel, did He intend to keep them? Of course He did! Remember that Jesus specifically referenced the New Covenant when instituting the Lord’s Supper.

And [Jesus] took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” (Luke 22:19-20)

Paul certainly speaks of believers as having been changed. Look what he told the Corinthians:

Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (1 Corinthians 6:9-11, emphasis added).

Notice how Paul speaks of the Corinthians. Now, we need to remember that this was a very troubled church. The whole of 1 Corinthians addresses multiple problems in the church. When we read this passage in context, we see that Paul is saying, “You are acting like the unrighteous! Why are you acting that way, when you’ve been cleansed and changed?” So, the New Covenant, the blood of Christ, does change us.

But back to our question. If that’s the case, why do we Christians still sin? Now, we know that we do sin–unless one believes in sinless perfection, in which case that’s a totally different conversation (and you’ll find the answers here less than satisfying). But why? The short answer is the flesh. In the previous post (“Better Promises, Better Covenant“), we saw that the Lord promised, “I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh” (Ezek. 36:26). We referred to the heart of stone as the Sinful Heart. The Sinful Heart is totally opposed to God, seeking to live independently of Him and His ways.

The Bible considers the heart the very center, the very core, of our being. And as such, the Sinful Heart thoroughly programs our entire body and being to live independently of God. We learn to do things our own way. We learn that we can arrange our lives to provide our own satisfaction, safety, and significance. There is no part of the human that is untouched by the corruption of the Sinful Heart. This programming, if you will, occurs through the mind. We develop beliefs and images of ourselves, God, the world, and others that reinforce the notion that we must and can live independently of God.[2]

What happens at the new birth (John 3:3) then? God promised to remove the heart of stone (the Sinful Heart) and replace it with a heart of flesh (the Spiritual Heart). Since we’ve established that God does what He says He will do, we can say that one who is saved has that new, spiritual heart. This heart, instead of being opposed to God, is inclined toward Him, desiring to worship, obey, trust, and please Him. Now, while the heart has been replaced, the old programming in the rest of us has not. The Bible calls this “the flesh.”

I like to use the analogy of the old-style mainframe computers. Back in the early days of computers there would be a mainframe computer (usually the size of a room) connected to other terminals (called “dumb terminals”). The dumb terminals took their programming from the mainframe. So, if someone wanted to infect the terminals with a virus, all that was needed was to introduce the virus into the mainframe. That’s exactly what’s happened withe the Sinful Heart. It has thoroughly programmed us with the virus of sinful independence from God.

Now, even if that mainframe were replaced, the programming in the terminals would remain, so they would need to be reprogrammed through the mainframe. That’s what God has done. He has replaced the Sinful Heart with the Spiritual Heart. But the flesh (the old programming) remains. It’s so interwoven throughout our being that it will take time (a lifetime, actually) to replace it. Remember, that old programming consists of those ideas, beliefs, and images that reinforce our independence from God. Spiritual growth and transformation, then, consists in cooperating with the Holy Spirit as He replaces that old programming. Paul calls this “renewing of the mind” (Rom. 12:2). Notice that there’s nowhere in the New Testament where we are told to have our hearts renewed or changed. That’s because our heart has already been changed.

We’ll pick up with this topic, how we grow spiritually, in our next post.

Continue to Part 2 of the series >>>


[1] There are many examples of Old Testament believers having the desire to obey God from their heart, and in fact this is what the law requires. Those people had their heart changed like what we have described.

[2] Since this isn’t a post on the theory of the person or biblical counseling, we won’t go deep into this subject. However, it is an important subject both in understanding spiritual formation/discipleship and biblical counseling.


Better Promises, Better Covenant

But as it is, Christ has obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises. (Hebrews 8:6)

So far in this series, we have seen that the New Covenant has a better High Priest (“Jesus, the Highest Priest“) and a better sacrifice (“Jesus, the Spotless Sacrifice“). Those are both amazing truths, and we need to take time to understand and apply the implications of them. In this post, we are going to talk about the most fundamental difference between the Old and New Covenant. The New Covenant was founded on better promises.

As we’ve said before, it’s not that the Old Covenant (the law, if you will) was bad. In fact, even the New Testament says that the law is holy, just and good (Rom. 7:12). Why then do we need a New Covenant? Because the law could not change man’s nature, nor could it give life to men. Both Paul and the writer of Hebrews describe the law as weak (Rom. 8:3; Hebrews 7:18). The thing about the law is that it cannot make one righteous; it can only tell if someone is. One can be declared righteous only as he fully keeps the law. One slip and he is forever condemned as unrighteous.

Thus, none of us is or will ever by righteous by the law. We are all already lawbreakers. The law can only promise earthly blessings–and not eternal life. And those blessings are only given as one keeps the law. Yet, the law does not and cannot help man keep it. The law simply says, “Here are the standards, now obey them.” The law is temporal; it has power over a person only as long as he or she lives (Rom. 7:1-6).

So, if the New Covenant is better because of better promises, what are those better promises?

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 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. (Jeremiah 31:31-34)

Thus says the Lord God: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations to which you came. And I will vindicate the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them. And the nations will know that I am the Lord, declares the Lord God, when through you I vindicate my holiness before their eyes. I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God. And I will deliver you from all your uncleannesses. (Ezekiel 36:22-29)

If you’ve read much of this blog over the years, you know that we’ve talked about these passages much (and if you haven’t you really should). These really are central passages to understanding the New Covenant. So, we are going to look at these passages to see the “better promises.”

Before we do that, however, one thing needs to be pointed out and clarified. Notice in these two passages that the Lord is speaking to “the house of Israel.” These prophecies, like so many in the Old Testament, were given specifically to Israel. The New Testament makes it clear that the new Covenant was first given to Israel. In fact, Jesus said that His death would institute the New Covenant. Read His words:

And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. (Matthew 26:27-28)

These words are an echo of the words Moses spoke to Israel. After he read the whole law to Israel, we are told,

And Moses took the blood and threw it on the people and said, “Behold the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words.” (Exodus 24:8)

So, the New Covenant and the gospel were offered to Israel first. That the Gentiles should be included in the gospel on the same basis was a mystery, as Paul calls it. It was not revealed back then but was revealed to the apostles. He writes:

Lest you be wise in your own sight, I do not want you to be unaware of this mystery, brothers: a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. . . . For this reason I, Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus on behalf of you Gentiles— assuming that you have heard of the stewardship of God’s grace that was given to me for you, how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I have written briefly. When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit. This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel. (Romans 11:25; Ephesians 3:1-6)

So, Paul says that the Gentiles are now fellow-heirs with Israel in the blessings of Abraham (compare Rom. 11:11-24). More than that, Israel has experienced a partial hardening until “the fullness of the Gentiles” (or the full number of the Gentiles). Thus, this better covenant (the New Covenant) is open to all.

The Better Promises

Returning to our passages, the first thing we should notice about the promises God makes is this: They are unconditional. Notice the repetition of the phrase “I will.” Under the Old Covenant, Israel was promised blessings if they obeyed. It was an “I will if you will” arrangement. As we’ve mentioned previously, the Old Covenant did nothing to change people or help them actually obey the law. It simply said “Obey and be blessed, disobey and suffer the curses.” Not so with the New Covenant. There is no “I will if you will.” There is only “I will.” And the repetition of “I will” strongly emphasizes the unconditional nature of the covenant.

This New Covenant is a fulfillment of the promises made to Abraham so long ago. When God called Abram (later known as Abraham, father of many nations). He repeated that same “I will” (Gen. 12:1-3) Like the covenant with Abraham, the New Covenant is unconditional. Both are eternal and still stand today.

Not only is the New Covenant unconditional, but it deals with far more than just the outward temporal things. The blessings of the Old Covenant are blessings of this life. The law only has authority over those who live. Its authority ends at death. The New Covenant, however, promises eternal blessings that go beyond this life. These blessings have to do with identity and inheritance, or who we are and who we will become.

Who We Are, Then and Now

The New Covenant changes everything. Specifically, it changes everything about us. When we put those two passages together, we see four key changes:

No longer defiled

Where once we were defiled by sin, we are now cleansed. Not like the repeated washings of the Old Covenant, but through the once-for-all cleansing through the blood of Christ. The Lord promised, “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. . . . And I will deliver you from all your uncleannesses” (Ezek. 36:25, 29). No matter what we have done, when we turn to Christ in dependence and trust, we are cleansed from all our defiling sins. There is no sin that will escape His cleansing.

Forgiven, not just covered

Our sins are forgiven, not just covered. Under the Old Covenant, God accepted the sacrifices for an atonement or covering for sin. Yet, as we learned in a previous post, animal blood cannot take away human sin. Thus the debt of sin was continuing to pile up. The Lord promised, “I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more” (Jer. 31:34). The New Testament bears this out in such passages as this: “Let it be known to you therefore, brothers, that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and by him everyone who believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses” (Acts 13:38; see also 10:43; Eph. 1:7; Col.1:14; 2:13; 1 John 1:9; 2:12).

A new heart and motivation

Not only are we forgiven and cleansed, but we are also changed. Our very nature is changed. Notice what the Lord promised: “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. . . . I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh” (Jer. 31:33; Ezek. 36:26). Why are cleansing and forgiveness not enough? Because those things, as wonderful as they are, don’t change our nature. We would continue to sin, making a mockery of that forgiveness and cleansing. So the Lord changes our heart. The old heart (the Sinful Heart, the heart of stone) is totally opposed to God and desires to live independently of Him. The new heart (the Spiritual Heart, the heart of flesh) is inclined toward God and longs to commune with Him and obey His voice. Thus, our motivation to obey has changed. We no longer obey because “the Bible says so,” but because obedience is part of who we are.

A new relationship and empowerment

The Lord promised that “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. . . . I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules” (Jer. 31:34; Ezek. 36:27). Imagine that. Not only are our hearts changed, but now we have a relationship with the very One who created us! The very one we dismissed and sinned against. How do we have such a relationship? Through the presence of the Holy Spirit living in us. Jesus gave us information on the Holy Spirit, in what is a fulfillment of this promise. He said, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you. . . . the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (John 14:16-17, 26). In the Old Testament, the Spirit was said to be upon people, but never was it said that the Holy Spirit indwelt them!

Future Glory as Sons and Daughters

Because of the New Covenant, not only are we cleansed, forgiven, having a new heart and a relationship with God, but there is still more. We have been and are being adopted into the very family of God as sons and daughters. Paul tells us, “For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Rom. 8:15-17, see also v. 23; 9:4; Gal. 4:5; Eph. 1:5).

Jesus Himself calls His disciples brothers (see John 20:17 for an example). Think of it, we are considered part of the family of the God of the Universe! Because of this, we will share in Christ’s glory. Paul wrote in that passage we are heirs of God and fellow heirs of Christ and we will be glorified with Him. Nowhere in the Old Covenant will you find such statements. This is what Paul means when he often refers to our inheritance.

The Real Question

The real question here is this: What do we do with these glorious truths? Like all of Scripture, we are to believe them and then act accordingly. This is why the oft-quoted statement, “I’m just a sinner saved by grace” is so inaccurate and misleading. The Bible does not call us sinners any longer. He calls us saints–holy ones separated out for God’s own purpose. If you see yourself as a sinner, guess what you’ll continue to do? Sin. If, however, you begin to see yourself as a new creation in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17) and begin to apply these truths, you’ll begin to walk in freedom from sin and victory over sin more and more. Will we be perfect in this life? No. Will we grow? Absolutely.

All thanks to Jesus and the New Covenant.

Jesus, the Spotless Sacrifice

But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God. . . . Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the holy places every year with blood not his own, for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. (Hebrews 9:11:14, 25–26)

In something only God would do, not only is Jesus the Great High Priest and mediator of the New Covenant, but He was also the sacrifice that sealed the covenant. In the Old Testament, covenants were often sealed with blood by means of a sacrifice. Under the Old Covenant given to Israel, many different animal sacrifices were required to be made, either for specific sins (“I sinned, therefore I must sacrifice”) or at specific times of the year (the Day of Atonement). The author of Hebrews tells us that “under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Hebrews 9:22).

The sacrifices always had to be unblemished, with nothing wrong with them. They had to be in perfect health. This was particularly true of the sacrifices for sin. The bulls and goats used had to be firstborn and without spot or blemish. That’s all well and good, but as we noted in a previous post, there were some weakenesses in the sacrificial system.

The sacrifices were not human. Israel used the blood of bulls and goats in their sacrifies. But in order to actually remove sin, the sacrifice would have to be human. The author of Hebrews bluntly puts it this way: “For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Hebrews 10:4). How did this work then? Were the sacrifices pointless? Not at all. The people sacrificed in faith, and God honored their faith by accepting their sacrifices and agreeing to count their sin as atoned for or covered. Yet the sin remained, which brings us to the next problem.

The sins of the people were not done away with. Though God counted the sins of the people as covered when they sacrificed according to the law, the sin remained. It was not actually paid for. Not only that, but the very sacrifices reminded the people of their sin! The author of Hebrews says once again,

For since the law . . . it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near. Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, since the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have any consciousness of sins? But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year. (Hebrews 10:1–3)

The point of a sacrifice is the put away sin. This the law did not and could not do. So, debt of sin continued to mount. This is what Paul means when he writes of the record of debt in Colossians 2:14. That record continued to accumulate until Christ came. Only by His sacrifice was that gigantic debt paid.

The Better Sacrifice

Now, let’s talk about Jesus. When John the Baptizer introduced Jesus to some disciples, he said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29; 36). He identified Jesus as the Lamb of God who would take away the sin of the world. How could one man’s sacrifice take away the sin of the world? Four reasons:

Jesus was and is human. This may seem obvious, but it needs to be stated. Some deny that Jesus was fully human, but that is not the biblical record. He was 100% human, and thus His sacrifice could take the place of humans.

Jesus was spotless. Even though the animals sacrificed under the old covenant were said to be spotless, even they were stained with sin and corruption due to the fall. All of creation was impacted by the fall, including animals. Jesus, however, was born perfect. He was untainted by sin. He was the true spotless lamb. Thus, while the Old Testament sacrifices were acceptable, His was perfect.

Jesus was and is divine. As God-incarnate, Jesus remained 100% divine. He cannot cease to be who He is, the eternal Son of God, coequal with the Father. As God-incarnate, His sacrifice is an eternal sacrifice, more than sufficient for the sins of all humanity. Hebrews says, “For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.”

Jesus’ sacrifice was once-for-all. As we read earlier, the sacrifices of old were offered day in and day out, year after year. They were unending because they were imperfect and unable to take away son. Jesus’ sacrifice, however, was done once for all. This is why He said from the cross, “It is finished” (John 19:30) and sat down at the right hand of the Father (Hebrews 10;12). Mission accomplished, the debt was paid. Because of His sacrifice, there remains no more sacrifice for sins (Hebrews 10:18, 26).

For those who trust Christ, we have the Father’s word. He had forgiven us, our sins are gone, and He remembers them no more.. This thanks to Jesus, the spotless Lamb of God, our sacrifice.

Jesus, the Highest Priest

For it was indeed fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. (Hebrews 7:26)

In our first post in this series (“A Better Word than Abel“), we talked about why a New Covenant was needed. Beginning with this post, we’re going to look closer at the “better” word that Christ’s blood speaks and why the New Covenant is so much better. In this post, we’ll look at how Jesus is a better high priest and mediator than Moses and Aaron.

Before we begin, we should note that Moses was called and appointed by God, as was Aaron. God said of Moses, “[He is] faithful in all my house. With him I speak mouth to mouth, clearly, and not in riddles, and he beholds the form of the Lord” (Numbers 12:7-8). And Aaron, according to the text, was also a faithful high priest–except for the golden calf business and ganging up with Miriam to oppose Moses in Numbers 12. They weren’t bad, especailly compared to the later rulers of Israel and Judah. Yet, the people needed things that Moses, Aaron, and the Old Covenant could not give. Thus, they needed a better high priest and mediator. So what makes Jesus better? (I mean besides being the Son of God and all.)

A New Order of Priesthood

As we know, Aaron was the first high priest of Israel, appointed by God. His sons succeeded him, and the Aaronic line continued. No one could be appointed a priest unless he came from that line. According to the Bible, however, Jesus did not come from that line, since He descended from the tribe of Judah.

For the one of whom these things are spoken belonged to another tribe, from which no one has ever served at the altar. For it is evident that our Lord was descended from Judah, and in connection with that tribe Moses said nothing about priests. (Hebrews 7:13-14)

If Jesus is not descended from Aaron, then how is He a priest? The author of Hebrews tells us that He has “become a high priest forever after the order of Melchizedek” (Hebrews 7:20). Melchizedek? Who is this guy? It’s a fair question. We don’t read much about him. Here’s the story.

We read in Genesis 14 that Abram’s nephew had been kidnapped. Abram (later called Abraham by God) gathered his 318 men and pursued the kidnappers, defeated them, and rescued his nephew Lot. Then we are told,

After his return from the defeat of Chedorlaomer and the kings who were with him, the king of Sodom went out to meet him at the Valley of Shaveh (that is, the King’s Valley). And Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. (He was priest of God Most High.) And he blessed him and said, “Blessed be Abram by God Most High, possessor of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand!” And Abram gave him a tenth of everything. (Genesis 14:17-20)

In terms of his story, that’s all we know about Melchizedek. The writer of Hebrews gives us a little more information when he writes,

For this Melchizedek, king of Salem, priest of the Most High God, met Abraham returning from the slaughter of the kings and blessed him, and to him Abraham apportioned a tenth part of everything. He is first, by translation of his name, king of righteousness, and then he is also king of Salem, that is, king of peace. He is without father or mother or genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but resembling the Son of God he continues a priest forever. (Hebrews 7:1-3)

Notice that the writer says Melchizedek “resembled the Son of God.” He is calling this priest a type of Christ. He points forward to Christ. We’re also told that Abram paid tithes to Melchizedek. Well, look at what that means according ot the author of Hebrews:

See how great this man was to whom Abraham the patriarch gave a tenth of the spoils! And those descendants of Levi who receive the priestly office have a commandment in the law to take tithes from the people, that is, from their brothers, though these also are descended from Abraham. But this man who does not have his descent from them received tithes from Abraham and blessed him who had the promises. It is beyond dispute that the inferior is blessed by the superior. In the one case tithes are received by mortal men, but in the other case, by one of whom it is testified that he lives. One might even say that Levi himself, who receives tithes, paid tithes through Abraham, for he was still in the loins of his ancestor when Melchizedek met him. (Hebrews 7:4-10)

His point here is that Levi, the ancestor of Aaron, the first High Priest of Israel, paid tithes (through his ancestor Abram) to a greater high priest.

In addition, the Aaronic priesthood terminates at death; a new high priest is chosen. The writer of Hebrews says that Melchizedek “is without father or mother or genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life.” Now, he likely did have a mother and father, and did die. Yet what we know about him seems like he has no beginning or end. In that way he “resembles the Son of God [and] continues a priest forever.” In the same manner, the author tells us that Christ continues as a priest forever. He is of a greater order.

A Perfect Priest

Not only is Jesus from a greater order, but He, unlike the priest of the Old Covenant, is spotless and perfect. The author of Hebrews tells us this,

For it was indeed fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. He has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people, since he did this once for all when he offered up himself. For the law appoints men in their weakness as high priests, but the word of the oath, which came later than the law, appoints a Son who has been made perfect forever. (Hebrews 7:26-28)

Contrary to earthly high priests who had to offer sacrifices for their own sins, Jesus had no sin to atone for. His sacrifice, as we will discuss later, was wholly devoted to our salvation. The Bible affirms that Jesus was sinless, and thus had no sins to atone for:

And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth. (Isaiah 53:9)

[Jesus is] one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. (Hebrews 4:15)

You know that he appeared in order to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. (1 John 3:5)

So, unlike Levi, Aaron, and every other High Priest under the Old Covenant, Jesus was perfect; He was spotless. In fact, as we’ll discuss later, He was the spotless lamb, the fulfillment of every sacrifice made under the law.

Tempted but Blameless

We metioned Hebrews 4:15, which says that Jesus is without sin. Now we’ll look at the rest of that passage and why it’s important to us.

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. . . . The former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office, but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them. (Hebrews 4:15–16, 23-25)

Three things stand out here. First, Jesus can sympathize with our weaknesses. He was tempted in every way that we have been. He can say, “I understand; I know what it’s like.” Second, though He was tempted, at no time did He give in to the temptation. He remained fully and completely devoted in trust and obedience to the Father. Third, because Jesus is a priest forever, He always intercedes for us, and is able to completely save those call on His name (“save to the uttermost”).

So, we can come to Him without fear in our times of temptation, because He knows what it’s like. We can come to Him not only for understanding but also help. And what is it that helps us? Grace. Notice that the author says we “receive mercy and find grace to help.” It is God’s mercy and grace that helps us in those times of struggle. And He offers it freely, not begrudgingly. Thus, we can draw near in confidence. Not confidence in ourselves, mind you, but confidence in the love, grace, and power of the one who became the Greatest High Priest.

A Better Word than Abel

But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. (Hebrews 12:22–24)  

In case you didn’t know, Pentecost is fast approaching. It is held to be the actual formation of the church. The Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples as they were praying and gave them utterance in other tongues, power to live a godly life, and courage to proclaim the gospel  Though many people understand the basic difference between the Old and New Testaments, there is often confusion about why a new covenant was needed. Wasn’t the old one good enough? In the next several blog posts we’re going to look closely at that question.

What is a Covenant?

Before we get started, it’s a good idea to get a basic grasp of what that word covenant means. Some people think it’s a simple contract, like one my sign a contract to do work or buy a car. A covenant, however, is more than that.

The word for covenant in the Old Testament is the Hebrew berît. When referring to a covenant between God and man, the word is always said to be God’s covenant (note the phrase “my covenant” in such verses as Gen. 6:18; 9:9-15; 17:2-21; Exod. 6:4-5). It is not a contract made by equal parties. In a contract, if one party refuses to honor the terms (breaks the contract), the other party is free from the obligations. Not so in a covenant. The covenant binds all parties, and one party’s failure to honor the terms of the covenant does not free the other. Not even deceit would cancel the covenant, as Joshua found out.

But when the inhabitants of Gibeon heard what Joshua had done to Jericho and to Ai, they on their part acted with cunning and went and made ready provisions and took worn-out sacks for their donkeys, and wineskins, worn-out and torn and mended, with worn-out, patched sandals on their feet, and worn-out clothes. And all their provisions were dry and crumbly. And they went to Joshua in the camp at Gilgal and said to him and to the men of Israel, “We have come from a distant country, so now make a covenant with us.” But the men of Israel said to the Hivites, “Perhaps you live among us; then how can we make a covenant with you?” They said to Joshua, “We are your servants.” And Joshua said to them, “Who are you? And where do you come from?” They said to him, “From a very distant country your servants have come, because of the name of the Lord your God. For we have heard a report of him, and all that he did in Egypt, and all that he did to the two kings of the Amorites who were beyond the Jordan, to Sihon the king of Heshbon, and to Og king of Bashan, who lived in Ashtaroth. So our elders and all the inhabitants of our country said to us, ‘Take provisions in your hand for the journey and go to meet them and say to them, “We are your servants. Come now, make a covenant with us.”’ Here is our bread. It was still warm when we took it from our houses as our food for the journey on the day we set out to come to you, but now, behold, it is dry and crumbly. These wineskins were new when we filled them, and behold, they have burst. And these garments and sandals of ours are worn out from the very long journey.” So the men took some of their provisions, but did not ask counsel from the Lord. And Joshua made peace with them and made a covenant with them, to let them live, and the leaders of the congregation swore to them.
At the end of three days after they had made a covenant with them, they heard that they were their neighbors and that they lived among them. And the people of Israel set out and reached their cities on the third day. Now their cities were Gibeon, Chephirah, Beeroth, and Kiriath-jearim. But the people of Israel did not attack them, because the leaders of the congregation had sworn to them by the Lord, the God of Israel. Then all the congregation murmured against the leaders. But all the leaders said to all the congregation, “We have sworn to them by the Lord, the God of Israel, and now we may not touch them. This we will do to them: let them live, lest wrath be upon us, because of the oath that we swore to them.” And the leaders said to them, “Let them live.” So they became cutters of wood and drawers of water for all the congregation, just as the leaders had said of them.
(Joshua 9:3-21)

Even though the Gibeonites lied to Joshua, the covenant still stood. In fact, in David’s years, Saul had tried to wipe out the Gibeonites, and thus God’s wrath was against Israel–there was a famine in the land for 3 years (see 2 Sam. 21:1-14). God takes covenant very seriously. This is also why God kept calling Israel back to Himself when they would seek after other gods. The covenant contained blessings and curses, and in judging the sin of the nation, He was honoring the terms of the covenant.

The New Testament word for covenant is the Greek diathekes, which often means “covenant, testament, or will [specifically a last will]. It’s most often used when talking about the New Covenant. This was prophesied in the Old Testament (see Jer. 31:31-34; Ezek. 36:25-29). As we know, Israel continually broke the covenant that God made with them, so He promised a new covenant, one that wiould enable His people to obey the covenant and love Him with all their hearts.

Jesus, on the night He was to be betrayed, said that His death would inaugurate the New Covenant.

And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood. (Luke 22:20)

With that cup being poured out came a better covenant.

The Better Covenant

The writer of Hebrews tells us that Jesus is “the mediator of a new covenant [whose] sprinkled blood speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” Abel, as you’ll remember, was the second son of Adam and Eve. He was killed in a jealous rage by his older brother Cain. Abel has always been declared righteous in Scripture and held up as an example of faith. Hebrews tell us that, “By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he was commended as righteous, God commending him by accepting his gifts. And through his faith, though he died, he still speaks” (Hebrews 11:4). Yet, what Jesus speaks is a “better” word, and the New Covenant is a “better” covenant.

In this series, we’ll see why the New Covenant is a far better covenant than the Old Covenant. It’s not the Old Covenant was bad. Paul calls it holy, just, and good (Romans 7:12). What we’ll see, however is that the law was “weak.” Not because of God, mind you, but because of sinful humanity. In fact, Paul says that God, by sending Jesus, did what the law could not do. He writes,

For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (Romans 8:3-4).

What could the law not do? According to Paul, the law could not “condemn sin in the flesh.” The law could not do away with sin. It can only pass judgment on sin. As we’ll see, this is the reason that the OT sacrifices had to continue day after day, year after year. Sin was never put away, but “in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year” (Hebrews 10:3).

Not only is there a reminder of sin, the truth is that “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Hebrews 10:4). One might wonder, then, why the Old Covenant was given at all then, if that’s the case. This is an importnat question, and we’ll address it later.

In this series, we will learn what better word the blood of Christ speaks to us. It tells of:

A better high priest and mediator. Moses, though called by God as the mediator of the Old Covenant, was no less a fallen man than the Israelites he led out of Egypt. He had his own sins to reckon with, and in the end died before reaching the Promised Land because of disobedience. As we’ll see, Jesus is the fulfillment of everything that Moses and Aaron could not be.

A better sacrifice. As we mentioned, the Israelites continually offered the same sacrifices, day in and day out. They did so as an act of faith, and God was faithful to honor their faith, in that their sins were not counted against them. Yet, instead of doing away with sin, the sacrifices served only to remind people of their sin. As we’ll see, the New Covenant promises to forgive and cleanse those who trust in Christ.

A better promise. The promises of the Old Covenant were about earthly blessings. Further they were restricted to Israel and any who would enter the covenant through the prescribed way. There was, as Paul calls it, a wall of hostility between the covenant people of God and the rest of the world. The New Covenant breaks down that wall and invites the Gentiles into the blessings of God, which are far more eternal than the earthly blessings of this life (Ephesians 2:14).

The question still persists, though. Why did God do it this way? Why even establish an Old Covenant? If there had never been an Old Covenant, well, this blog would never have been written for one! Seriously, though, God established the Old Covenant to move the world toward His plan of showing all creation His attributes of wisdom, justice, holiness, love, grace, and mercy. Without the Old Covenant, man would have no sense of just how depraved he is apart from God. Man would have limited knowledge of God’s redeeming grace. Man would have no real understanding of just how holy God is.

In the end, all history is about God, not man. Though God is reconciling sinful man to Himself, He is doing it for Himself. For His glory. He alone is the one worthy of glory. Salvation is about God showing His greatness. Redemption is about God showing His love and power to redeem fallen and broken people to Himself. He invites all who will to come to Him and drink freely of the water of life.

Stay tuned….

Posts in This Series:

Jesus, the Highest Priest
Jesus, the Spotless Sacrifice
Better Promises, Better Covenant

The God Who Sees

Incline your ear, O Lord, and hear; open your eyes, O Lord, and see (2 Kings 19:16).

The Lord is in his holy temple; the Lord’s throne is in heaven; his eyes see, his eyelids test the children of man (Psalm 11:4).

The eyes of the Lord are in every place, keeping watch on the evil and the good (Proverbs 15:3).

We’re going to talk about four women. They could be any four women. In fact, they could be any four people. These women have something in common. 

Meet Hagar, the Egytian maidservant of Sarai, wife of Abram. She has been faithfully working for Sarai for a long time now. One day, it’s decided that, according to custom, Sarai will give Hagar to Abram to birth a child, since Sarai is too old. By custom, the child would be considered Abram’s. Lo and behold, Hagar conceives a child. She is so excited! Perhaps she says some unkind things to her mistress Sarai. After all, she has a child and Sarai still doesn’t. We are told that Sarai went to Abram to report the situation, and Abram says, “Sarai, she’s your hadmaiden, do whatever you think is right.” 

So, Sarai “dealt harshly with her, and [Hagar] fled from her” (Genesis 16:6). Hagar is now on the run. She ran away from her mistress, probably headed back to Egypt. She is in distress. The angel of the Lord meets her and promises a blessing upon her. At the angel’s instruction, she returns and submits herself to Sarai. (See Genesis 16:1-14 for the full story.)

Now meet Hannah, the wife of Elkanah. She loves her husband and he loves her, she is sure of it. But Elkanah also has another wife, Peninnah. Peninnah has children by Elkanah but Hannah has no children, for “the Lord had closed her womb.” That was bad enough. In that culture, a wife who couldn’t bear children was seen as defective and one under the Lord’s judgment. But that wasn’t all. We are told that Peninnah often would provoke Hannah because of her childlessness. Hannah is very grieved at this treatment.

After making sacrifice to the Lord, Hannah decides to go to the tabernacle and pray. We are told, “She was deeply distressed and prayed to the LORD and wept bitterly” (1 Samuel 1:10). She was crying out to the Lord not only because of her childlessness but also because of her rival’s cruelty toward her. She vowed that if the Lord would only give her a child, she would give that child back to the Lord. And the Lord, in time, remembered Hannah and her prayer. She conceived a son. (See 1 Samuel 1:1-20 for this story.)

Now meet Miriam. That’s not really her name. In fact, we don’t know her name. (But we need to call her something, right?) She is a woman from Samaria. She goes to the well in the heat of the day, not in the early morning like the other women. She is not like them, and she feels their judgment. She lives…. differently. She’s currently living with a man not her husband. In fact, we learn she has had five husbands before. We don’t know her story, but we can feel the pain in her heart. She simply wants someone to love her. Instead, what she has now is the rejection of people and a counterfeit of the love she seeks.

Until she encounters a stranger at Jacob’s well one hot day. He talks to her about water, then living water–and promises to give her some. Then he brings up that subject. This Jewish stranger was not only talking with her but doing so respectfully, even though he “told me everything I ever did!” She ran to tell the other people about this man. (See John 4:1-30 for this story.)

Finally, meet another unidentified woman. We’ll call her Esther. She had such high hopes for her life. But her life has not gone as she hoped or planned. Though married, she finds herself in the arms of another man. She seeks love, but only finds guilt now. This particular morning, the door to the man’s house was kicked open, and she was dragged out of bed. A group of men drug her through the dusty streets of Jerusalem, then basically threw her in the middle of a crowd. She has no idea what’s going on, but it’s a sure bet she is frightened. She listens and finds herself in the middle of a debate.

The Jewish leaders–she recognizes many of them–say that she must be stoned according to the Law. They are directing their questions at another man. A stranger she has never seen before. He seems to ignore them and oddly stoops down and begins writing on the ground. She can’t tell what he is writing, but at least everyone’s eyes are off her and on him now. The leaders persist in asking the man what to do with her, and finally he stands up to reply. “Let those who are without sin be the first to stone her.” The crowd is perplexed. The leaders slowly walk away, until it’s only Esther and the man she now recognizes as the one they call Jesus. He asks her, “Where are the ones who accused you? Is there no one left to condemn you?” She simply says, “No one.” He looks at her a long moment and replies, “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.” (See John 7:53-8:11 for this story.)

What do these four women have in common? Two Jews and two foreigners. They were all in distress. Judging from their stories, they all asked the same question in their hearts: Does God even see me? Does He know what I am going through? Does He care? Hagar called the Lord “the God who sees.” In fact, she named her son (at the angel’s instruction) Ishmael, which means “God hears.” Hannah named her son Samuel, which means “asked of the Lord.” There’s no doubt that in her crying out she asked the Lord to look on her afflictions (see her). The Samaritan woman no doubt wondered where God was (“Where are we supposed to worship? Where is he?”). Her questions masked her real heartcry: Does God see me? The woman of John 8 no doubt was fearful of God (at least as represented by the Jewish leaders). She stood before their accusing eyes and wondered, “What does God think of me? Does He see and care about me?”

In some religions, God is seen as simply too big to see or worry about individuals. Thus, people are supposed to pray to angels or saints so that their prayer might be heard by God. That, however, is not the God of the Bible. God is the One who sees. He sees all, and He sees to the deepest parts of our soul. What each of these found is that God is attentive. He sees us right where we are. The woman at the well could have easily said, “He told me everything I did, and He’s still here! He still loves me!” Likewise the woman caught in adultery. She looked into the eyes of the one who saw right into her, the one who could fully and finally condemn her. Yet, He didn’t.

We live in a fallen world. We are fallen. Even those of us who have been redeemed by the blood of Christ are still fallen and do fall. We struggle in the midst of life’s trials. And we wonder if God sees us. We can take heart that our God, the Lord, sees us. He knows everything about us, including what we are going through this very moment. He is near the weak and the brokenhearted. Psalm 139 tells us,

O LORD, you have searched me and known me! You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar. You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O LORD, you know it altogether. . . . Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me. If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light about me be night,” even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light with you. . . . Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them. (Psalm 139:1–16)

And Hebrews 4:13 tells us that “no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” While this verse often is used to strike fear into people, it is a comfort that our God sees us. He sees everything about us. He knows us more intimately than we know ourselves. Not only does He know us and see us, but also “your hand shall lead me and your right hand shall hold me.” God not only sees us and knows us but is with us in the pain and suffering that we go through. That is the greatest truth of all.

Maybe you’re alone in the corner of an empty house
Or maybe you’re the one no one notices in the crowd

He sees you, He’s near you
He knows your face, He knows your pain
He sees you and He loves you
He knows your name, He knows your name
(“Name,” Fireflight)

Words of the Heart

Save, O LORD, for the godly one is gone; for the faithful have vanished from among the children of man. Everyone utters lies to his neighbor; with flattering lips and a double heart they speak. May the LORD cut off all flattering lips, the tongue that makes great boasts, those who say, “With our tongue we will prevail, our lips are with us; who is master over us?” “Because the poor are plundered, because the needy groan, I will now arise,” says the LORD; “I will place him in the safety for which he longs.” The words of the LORD are pure words, like silver refined in a furnace on the ground, purified seven times. You, O LORD, will keep them; you will guard us from this generation forever. On every side the wicked prowl, as vileness is exalted among the children of man. (Psalm 12:1–8)

Recently I saw several memes on social media that disturbed me greatly. Several had to do with the controversy over the COVID-19 vaccine, one was about the tragic death of the 16-year-old girl in Columbus, OH, and one simply tried to correct “cultural” theology by using a cultural symbol and closed with a rather snarky comment.

These memes disturbed me because they were flippant, insensitive, and generally in poor taste. I experienced a grieving (and continue to as I write) that was quite unexpected. It hurts my heart that folks who Christ died to set free would think it appropriate to be so flippant in their language. So often we think as long as we don’t use swear words or curse words (or in the southern twang “cuss words”) we are controlling our tongue.

Unfortunately, the Bible disagrees.

There are far too many passages about our speech and controlling the tongue to list here. Here are just a few of them. 

O men, how long shall my honor be turned into shame? How long will you love vain words and seek after lies? (Psalm 4:2)

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer. (Psalm 19:14)

Transgression speaks to the wicked deep in his heart; there is no fear of God before his eyes. For he flatters himself in his own eyes that his iniquity cannot be found out and hated. The words of his mouth are trouble and deceit; he has ceased to act wisely and do good. (Psalm 36:1–3)

But to the wicked God says: “What right have you to recite my statutes or take my covenant on your lips? For you hate discipline, and you cast my words behind you. If you see a thief, you are pleased with him, and you keep company with adulterers. You give your mouth free rein for evil, and your tongue frames deceit. You sit and speak against your brother; you slander your own mother’s son. These things you have done, and I have been silent; you thought that I was one like yourself. But now I rebuke you and lay the charge before you.” (Psalm 50:16–21)

Why do you boast of evil, O mighty man? The steadfast love of God endures all the day. Your tongue plots destruction, like a sharp razor, you worker of deceit. You love evil more than good, and lying more than speaking what is right. You love all words that devour, O deceitful tongue. (Psalm 52:1–4)

Gracious words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body. (Proverbs 16:24)

 Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. (Ephesians 4:29)

Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person. (Colossians 4:6)

Show yourself in all respects to be a model of good works, and in your teaching show integrity, dignity, and sound speech that cannot be condemned, so that an opponent may be put to shame, having nothing evil to say about us. (Titus 2:8)

These are just some of the passages that talk about our words or speech. We need to briefly answer two questions. The first is, “How should Christians talk and conduct themselves in conversation?” These passages give us a good start on the answer. Those of us who are saved are to have our speech filled with grace and salt. We are to avoid flattery, wrathful speech, speech that demeans or puts down, and speech that puffs ourselves up. Now, this is far deeper than the old standard of just “not cussin’.” Why does Paul use the term salt to describe our speech? For one simple reason. Salt makes people thirsty. Likewise, our speech should always be that which draws others to Christ.

The second question is, “Why does it really matter?” Why does the Bible give all these commands? Why does the Lord care about our speech so much? Simply put, because our speech reveals the nature of our heart. Jesus put it this way:

But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. (Matthew 15:18–19)

We must speak the truth, yes. By all means. But we are to do so in love, with our speech seasoned with grace and salt. Both have the effect of drawing another to Christ. Our attitude should be one of humility and with a goal of encouragement and restoration. Beyond that, we are told that we are to be united 

I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. (1 Corinthians 1:10)

Elsewhere Paul tells us that we are to live “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:2–3). Look at the last two phrases: the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of peace in the modern church today. And many of us are certainly not living in peace with ourselves or each other (see also Rom. 12:18). 

One of our goals as we remain on this earth is to “attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes (Ephesians 4:13–14). Notice that maturity in the faith includes the idea of unity. 

Now, this is not some paper “unity,” or “going along to get along.” Regardless of some of our stances, we who are followers of Christ have more common ground than different ground. Unity of the faith means that we have the same purpose. And what is our purpose? To see God glorified among the nations by making disciples of Jesus. Our words will either hinder or help us in reaching that goal.

If your first reaction to this post is, “I’m going to speak the truth no matter what,” then I applaud you for your desire to speak the truth, while also admonishing you to do so in a manner worthy of your calling. Let your words be the Spirit-led words that convict and draw others to Christ, not judge, criticize, dismiss, or tear down. For with the measure you use, the same measure will be measured to you.

Same Same but Different

Loving My (Different) Neighbor, Part 3

But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question. So, being sent on their way by the church, they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and brought great joy to all the brothers. When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they declared all that God had done with them. But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses.” (Acts 15:1–5)

In the first post of this series (“Breaking Down the Walls”), we mentioned this passage as one of the first issues the early church had to confront. Evangelicals have rightly seen it as a defense of the Gospel, a Gospel that preaches salvation by faith apart from works. When we consider the groups involved and the religious context, however, we find a bit more to the story than that.

Beyond the implications of salvation, what was the real issue? The real issue was whether Gentiles should be forced to become Jews. God had established one way into the covenant community of Israel–the sign of circumcision and obedience to the covenant. For a Gentile to submit to that requirement would mean he was no longer a Gentile but a Jew. The Jews worshipped one specific way–everyone did it the same. Though several schools of interpretation had come up by the time of Christ, the Jews were, by and large, a unified and uniform community.

So, the real underlying statement by the Pharisee party was, “You must become like us. You must be circumcised, adopt our laws, follow our customs, and worship like we do if you are to be saved.” This is not just a nationalist statement. This is not just a religious statement. No, this is also a racial statement. Those Gentiles who submitted to circumcision would lose their primary identity. They would forever be known as Athenian Jews, Roman Jews, Ethiopian Jews, etc. Their racial identity would be wiped out.

Why highlight this? Simply for this reason: To point out that such thinking is still rampant in the church today. How is it that, in the United States, once the “foremost exporter of democracy” and the largest missionary-sending country in the world, 11:00 A.M. on Sunday morning is still considered the most segregated hour? Is it not because we hide behind our walls of “do it our way”? When we send missionaries to other countries to form churches, do we not teach “our” style of worship and cultural standards instead of learning to worship in that culture? Instead of the church being a multicultural body with one Head, have we not become separate bodies that stay away from each other, interacting only when it serves “our” purposes?

The church has so many divisions over so many minor things that we can have ten or more churches of the same denomination or label within a few square miles of each other. Why is that? Because we want the others to become like us. But then, we also have churches across the street from each other, one predominantly white, and the other predominantly Black or Hispanic, or some other minority. 

As Paula Fuller writes in The Kingdom Life, “What is perhaps the most painful aspect about this phenomenon [of 11:00 AM on Sunday mornings being the most segregated hour in America] is that we, as the church, are divided even though we live with the truth of the gospel’s power to reconcile us to God. God ‘has committed to us the message of reconciliation’ (2 Corinthians 5:19).”[1]

We most become the church of Christ when we learn from each other. We most become a united church when we are willing to move out of our comfort zones and experience worship from a different cultural perspective. 

As the Thai expression says, we are “same same but different.” We have the same Head, Christ. We have the same salvation, by faith alone. Yet, not only do we have differing gifts, personalities, and abilities within the church, but we have different people and cultures. The Bible says,

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands. (Revelation 7:9)

Notice one thing about this passage: The tribes and ethnic groups and languages will be distinguishable when all are around the throne. Cultural identity is not erased in the Gospel. There is no “Christian culture” (I know that may shock some of you). God wants all peoples to worship Him in their culture and language. And we would do well to see this time on earth as training to bring that about. 

When is the last time you worshipped with a group of people unlike you? When is the last time you deliberately spent time with people not of your culture? Remember that the Gospel is not a white Gospel, a Black Gospel, an Hispanic, Bantu, Creole, or Kurdish Gospel. It is God’s Gospel.

Paula Fuller, in that same work, told the story of her own transformation:

In November 2007, I attended a Native American theological conference along with other national leaders from InterVarsity Christian Fellowship’s multiethnic ministries department. Our department did not have a dedicated associate director for Native American ministries, and it was the desire of one of our senior leaders that the entire department and some of our Native American staff attend a Native American event so we could immerse ourselves in the culture and realities of Native American people. As we sat through a number of presentations, heard testimonies, and read articles about the historical and present-day atrocities committed against various tribes, I did not have words to articulate the anguish, brokenness, and pain I was experiencing. In that context, I did not feel like a fellow disadvantaged ethnic-minority woman. In that moment, I was attending as the vice president of a prominent parachurch ministry seeking to grow in my understanding of how to minister to Native American college students. 
    After the conference ended, we held a consultation with the Native American leaders who convened at the conference to seek their insight and counsel on our campus strategy for Native American students. We sat for several hours as they shared about their tribal histories and personal stories. When we began to discuss our ministry goals, one of the leaders asked, “Why are you interested in ministering to Native American students? Do you plan to indoctrinate them into a system that has resulted in the destruction of their people and culture, or are you coming in a way that is restorative?” As I reflected on the history I had heard that day, I realized that many of the perpetrators who had committed injustices against the Native American community were people who said they came in the name of the Lord. What could I say that would communicate that I was bringing a gospel that was actually “good news” for the Native American people? [2]

Do we not have the same good news, to share with all cultures? Let us therefore be the church, and live on earth as we will in heaven, embracing, learning from, and growing with “those other” people, our brothers and sisters in Christ.

[1] Paula Fuller, et al, The Kingdom Life: A Practical Theology of Discipleship and Spiritual Formation (p. 218).
[2] The Kingdom Life, (pp. 218-19).

Seeing Christ in Them

Loving My (Different) Neighbor, Part 2

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’ “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Matthew 25:31–46)

In our last post (“Breaking Down the Walls”), we talked about how Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan teaches us to consider as a neighbor anyone who comes across our path who is in need. This is especially true of those who we might ordinarily dismiss as our neighbor. We also said that we in the church have been given the ministry of reconciliation, and part of that ministry certainly includes ethnic and racial reconciliation.

When Jesus talked about the two greatest commandments, He tied them together. Notice what He says here:

[The lawyer answered,] “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” And [Jesus] said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live” (Luke 10:27-28, emphasis added).

As we said in the previous post, it’s impossible to do one without the other. One cannot claim to love God if he is not loving His neighbor. Likewise, one who does truly love his neighbors does so because of his love for God. And, one who truly loves God will love his neighbor, and that especially includes those who are hurt, disadvantaged, marginalized, broken, or forgotten by society. 

Let’s now talk about one important part in loving our neighbor. Our last post made the point that we can be Christ to another. We are to represent Christ to others in our truth, love, and self-giving service. But notice what Jesus says in the statement above: “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me. . . . as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me” (Matt. 25:40, 45, emphasis added). It’s an somewhat obvious truth that Jesus counts service to “the least of these” as service to Him. I suggest, however, that there is more to it than that. We actually find Christ when we serve “the least of these.”

Greg Paul, director of Sanctuary, a ministry to Toronto’s poor and homeless, wrote of a deeply forming experience in caring for a gay man dying of AIDS. Neil had deteriorated to a shell of his former self, without strength or mobility. One day, Greg stopped in on Neil to find him in a panic, struggling with his bedsheets after having soiled himself. Greg picked him up, bathed him, cleaned his bed, dressed him, and placed him back in the bed.
     “He lay quietly back against the pillows and allowed me to take his feet, one at a time, and tuck them under the covers. Doing so, I noticed that one foot, somehow, had not gotten completely clean. Getting a washcloth, I wiped that foot. As I did so, I was struck by what I can only describe as a powerful revelation, two streams of thought converging, and both seeming to me to be the voice of God.
     “Cradling his foot in my hands, my mind was filled with the image of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples at the Last Supper, a towel around his waist, determinedly taking the servant’s role. I had been meditating on that story from John’s gospel just the day before, and now I could almost see Jesus hunched over Peter’s foot, his hair hanging forward and obscuring his face, quietly insisting against Peter’s protestations that those feet, but only the feet, needed to be washed. This moment was what my whole time with Neil had been for! This was what it meant to be the presence of Christ. I had been looking for opportunities to preach, wanting to effect a clear and possibly dramatic conversion. I realized in that moment that my longing for those things was as much or more an indication of my desire to be successful as they were of my passion for Neil’s soul. It became clear that being Jesus to Neil, while it certainly included praying for him and announcing the good news to him, was most perfectly summed up by the mundane and even odious task of gently wiping excrement from his foot.
     “At the same time, I was deeply touched by his profound vulnerability. His foot was bare, and he hadn’t even enough strength left in his ruined body to lift it and put it back under the covers. The words of Jesus were ringing in my ears: ‘I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me. . . . Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’ This, too, was the purpose of my time with Neil. For the first time during our whole relationship, I saw Jesus in Neil. I had been seeing him as someone upon whom I could practice my own imitation of Christ, and had missed the Presence right before me. I recognized that Neil was, at that moment, a physical representation to me of a vulnerable and dying Christ. Jesus was allowing me to clothe him, and look after him, by caring for his ‘brother.’
     “After a quiet moment or two, trying to assimilate these powerful impressions, I asked Neil if he would like to pray. ‘Yes, I’d like that,’ he whispered. I prayed first. I have no idea what I said. When I was done, I thought Neil might have fallen asleep. But then he spoke, whispered, into the stillness of that room. He didn’t address his prayer to anyone, just spoke. And the words he spoke were words of blessing upon me. He knew he was dying, yet he asked nothing for himself; instead, he blessed me! Then he was so quiet and still, I thought again that he might have drifted off. But he spoke once more, without opening his eyes, and his voice this time was clear and surprisingly strong.
     “‘In the name of Jesus.’
     “Apart from saying good-bye, they were the last words I ever heard him speak. When I visited him again a couple of days later, he was curled up in a tight little ball, unconscious. A week after that, he was gone.[1]

Why do we not see Christ in the “others”? We see those who are different from us through lenses that, as we will talk about in our next post, demand that “they” become like “us.” It’s only in serving them that we can see Christ in them. As we become Christ to them, they become Christ to us.

[1] Greg Paul, God in the Alley: Being and Seeing Jesus in a Broken World, cited in The Kingdom Life: A Practical Theology of Discipleship and Spiritual Formation (pp. 221-223).

Breaking Down the Walls

Loving My (Different) Neighbor, Part 1

And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”

     But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.” (Luke 10:25-37)

In recent days, weeks, and months, the Lord has been focusing my attention on the Gospel. If you’ve followed or read much of this blog, you know that is the overall theme. Lately, though, I’ve been learning about the implications of the Gospel and barriers to receiving the Gospel that many have.

As I’ve been reading a book on discipleship and spiritual formation, I took a fresh look at the parable of the Good Samaritan. Some surprising things jumped out–both directly in the text and implied by the text.

Framing the Discussion

Most of us probably know this story. But, it’s a good idea to revisit it. So, here we go. First, we need to understand why Jesus told this story. A certain lawyer asked Him a simple question: What shall I do to inherit eternal life? Instead of answering directly, Jesus and his own question: What does the law say? To which the lawyer (correctly) replies, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” 

Now, let’s stop there for a moment. Jesus told the lawyer the he’d answered directly. In fact, He said, “If you live by these commandments, you will have life.” Notice that He didn’t separate them. The implication of this? Eternal life consists of loving God with all we are and loving our neighbor as ourselves. It’s not possible to do one without the other.

Back to the story. The lawyer, as lawyers tend to do, focuses on one part of that. Luke says he was trying to justify himself by his question: Exactly who is my neighbor? He was confident that he was loving God, but wanted to make sure he was loving the right people. So, he wanted clarification of the term neighbor. It’s in response to this question that Jesus tells the parable.

A Man in Need

Now we get into the parable. We know the story. A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho. On the way, he was attacked by robbers who took everything and beat him badly, leaving him for dead on the side of the road. Jesus doesn’t identify this man, but it’s reasonably safe to believe he is a Jew (we’ll touch on this later). A priest was going down the road and passed by on the other side (the sense of the text is that he crossed the road). Also, a Levite (a temple servant, a teacher of the law) came along and also crossed the road and passed by on the other side. Neither man stopped to help.

But, a Samaritan did stop to help. We read that the man “had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back’” (vv. 33–35).

We might be tempted to see this story simply as a story of a man in need and how we likewise should help those who are in need. And it certainly teaches us that. But, looking closer, we find more.

The People Involved

In this story we have four people. A priest, a Levite, an unidentified victim, and a Samaritan. Why did Jesus choose these people for this story, to answer that question? As I mentioned above, it’s reasonably safe to believe that the victim here is Jewish. From the context, it’s clear that Jesus is first teaching that we should be willing to cross ethnic barriers and help those in need, even those who are different than us.

In this context, it would make sense for the priest and Levite to come to the aid of a fellow Jew. Their “pass[ing] by on the other side” had nothing to do with the man’s ethnicity, but with their religious duty. They looked, and for all they knew, the man could be dead. If they touched a dead body they’d become unclean and have to go through numerous rituals of purification. But notice something. Jesus asks the lawyer, “Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” Do you notice what the lawyer’s answer is? He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” He didn’t say, “The Samaritan.” He couldn’t even bring himself to say the word, so great was the animosity between Jews and Samaritans. 

Likewise, think of the victim, who was likely unconscious from the beating. If he was Jewish, and if he had been awake, he might have even refused help from the Samaritan. Yet, he was in no condition to do so. One wonders what his reaction was when he woke up and found that a Samaritan had helped him. Might his views of Samaritans been changed? Or perhaps he was in such a desperate place he would have accepted assistance from anyone.

A Misunderstood Point

As with all Scripture, we need to ask, “What’s Jesus’ point here?” To ask our question earlier: Why did Jesus choose these people for this story, to answer that question? If His point was simply one of sacrificial giving, He could have chosen to tell the story of a Jewish man helping a fellow Jew. If His point was merely that the term neighbor crosses ethnic lines, He could have chosen the Jew as the hero and a foreigner as the victim. After all, the Law had much to say about helping the stranger and foreigner.

Jesus, however, framed His answer to the lawyer’s question in the context of two ehtnic groups with long-standing animosity between them. What does this tell us? First, a neighbor is indeed anyone in need whose path we cross. Second, as “ministers of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:18-19), we are to intentionally act neighborly toward those who are different from us and whom we often have a tendency to dismiss as our neighbors. Third, when acting in a neighborly way toward those who have animosity toward us, we should be prepared to encounter resistance. Some will refuse our help. Fourth, as ministers of reconciliation we are to actively engage in the ministry of ethnic and racial reconciliation. 

That last statement may well (and often does) spark controversy. The fact is, the first real issues within the church had to do with ethnic tensions. The very young church had to deal with such issues quickly. In Acts 6, we read this:

Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists [Greek-speaking Jews] arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them. (Acts 6:1–6)

We won’t go deep into this passage at the moment. Notice, however, that the dispute was over how one group (Greek-speaking Jews) were treated by the other group. The Hellenists often would have been looked down upon by the other Jews, and now we see the fruit of that. Strict orthdox Jews would have shunned the Hellenist ideas and regarded the Hellenists as just short of apostates.

Then, several years later, after Paul’s conversion, we read this:

But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question. So, being sent on their way by the church, they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and brought great joy to all the brothers. When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they declared all that God had done with them. But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses.” (Acts 15:1–5)

Notice again that it is one ethnic group against the other. One group, followers of Christ who were Jews, was seeking to compel the Gentile Christians to be circumcised and obey the law of Moses. In essence they said, “You have to become like us to be saved.”

Both of these situations arose because one group failed to view the other group as their neighbor. More specifically, they failed to act in a neighborly way. Too often in the church today, we likewise fail to act neighborly. We still have groups (especially in the American church) who insist that other cultures adopt their way of thinking, believing, worshipping, and acting, instead of embracing those parts of the Body who are different but have the same Head (1 Cor. 12:12:20)

And these conversations are uncomfortable. People in the church are so afraid of becoming (or being labeled) “woke” that they stifle the voice of the Spirit who simply seeks to awaken them. 

Let us be the church. Let us be awakened by the Spirit to be neighbor to “the least of these,” especially to those who are the marginalized, broken, and forgotten in society. As we will talk about in another blog post, they are Christ to us.