Did the New Covenant Make the Old Covenant Obsolete?

Did the New Covenant make the Old Covenant obsolete?

In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first [old covenant] obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.

Hebrews 8:13

In the course of a respectful (not sarcasm!) conversation on Facebook, a friend made this statement:

Based on other interactions, it’s clear that you hold that the New Covenant did not make the Old Covenant obsolete, and therefore you must have an alternative explanation to Hebrews 8:13 which – in English – appears to plainly state that the New Covenant DID make the Old Covenant obsolete.

I thought readers of American Torah might also appreciate my reply:

It depends on what you mean by “obsolete”. Whatever the author of Hebrews meant, it seems that he didn’t mean it was completely gone (annulled) at the time he wrote, decades after Jesus’ resurrection, because he wrote that the “old is ready to vanish away”, not that it had already vanished away.

In my opinion, Hebrews is the second most misunderstood book in the Bible (Revelation being the first). I’ll use a couple of metaphors to explain two core concepts that the writer discusses.

One, the writer compares Jesus’ priesthood with Aaron’s. Two, he compares the New Covenant with the Old (Sinai) Covenant. (I say one and two, not first and second, because he jumps back and forth and all around in making his points, which convinces me that Paul was the author, possibly through an intermediary.)

Two Priesthoods

Metaphor One: Think of the two priesthoods as a hammer and screwdriver. A hammer is great for driving nails, but terrible for driving screws. In fact, if you try to use a hammer to drive a screw, you’re likely to make a mess of the wood and break the screw, possibly a finger as well. Hammers were intended to drive nails, and that’s fine as long as you’re only nailing things together. But if you have a new task that requires driving screws, you’re going to need a new tool to drive them.

If the task at hand involves certifying a leper as clean or making a burnt offering in worship, you go to Aaron. That’s what he’s good for. The Aaronic priesthood is fine for what it does, but it was never capable of mediating eternal salvation. Aaron was completely incapable of permanently removing the stain of sin and restoring us to a right relationship with God for all eternity. If that’s your goal, then you need a new tool, a new priesthood: Jesus.

Hebrews doesn’t say that the Melchizedek Priesthood replaces the Aaronic. It says that, if you are dealing with a different covenant, altar, and domain, then you need a different priesthood too. One doesn’t replace the other, but operates in parallel on a different, higher level.

Two Covenants

Metaphor Two: Picture the Sinai Covenant as a full moon and the New Covenant as the rising sun. As the sun rises, the moon doesn’t cease to exist. It continues to “rule the night” and to influence the tides, but it does fade in comparison to the much brighter light of the sun. The moon gives light both at night and in daytime, but when the sun rises, the moon’s light becomes superfluous–osbsolete, one might say–as if it has faded with age.

Just like the moon, the Old Covenant has no light of its own. It is a reflection of a much greater covenant, that the Scriptures anachronistically call the New Covenant. It’s “new” because, although it was promised and existed in principle from the very beginning, the sacrificial blood that sealed it was shed relatively recently, and it is still not fully risen. Until the promise of Jeremiah 31 (quoted in Hebrews 8) is fulfilled, we can’t really say that the New Covenant has reached its zenith:

“And they shall not teach, each one his neighbor and each one his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.”

Hebrews 8:11 & Jeremiah 31:34

When Will the New Covenant Be Fully in Effect?

According to Jeremiah and Hebrews, one of the distinctive qualities of the New Covenant is that God’s Law will be written on the hearts of the people. They will no longer need a written Law because they will know God’s character instinctively, and will know right from wrong without having to be told. This presupposes that the Law as written in the Old Covenant is an accurate reflection of God’s character and what he considers to be moral behavior.

As we internalize his Law, we obey what the Law says without having to continually reference the written word. This absolutely does not mean that we are free to throw out all of the moral standards detailed at Sinai because we have the Law written on our hearts. If we believe that, then it is clearly NOT written on our hearts and we still need to be told what to do.

“The Law was written for sinners, not for the righteous.” But “If any man says he doesn’t sin, he’s a liar and the truth isn’t in him.”

I believe that when–or sometime after–Jesus returns, he will complete the process of establishing the New Covenant. We will finally have God’s Law fully written in our hearts and nobody will need to tell anyone “Know God” because we will all know him at every level. When that happens, we can say that the Old Covenant has finally become completely obsolete because its light and purpose has been fully subsumed into the light of the Sun of the New Covenant.

A related post on Galatians: Galatians and Torah, the short version.
And for more on the false dichotomy of “Grace vs Law”: Grace vs Law.

God’s Olive Grove

Every faithful believer supplies oil for the Menorah that shines God’s Light into the world.

 

You shall command the people of Israel that they bring to you pure beaten olive oil for the light, that a lamp may regularly be set up to burn. In the tent of meeting, outside the veil that is before the testimony, Aaron and his sons shall tend it from evening to morning before the LORD. It shall be a statute forever to be observed throughout their generations by the people of Israel.
Exodus 27:20-21

Sometimes I wonder if I am completely insane, because of all the crazy stuff I see in Scripture. Do you see the parable of the talents in this passage? The gifts of the Spirit? Homeschooling? Mentoring and apprenticeship? I see all of those things, and I wonder if I’m hallucinating.

There are several different metaphors in those two verses.

Olive oil is healing, comforting, enlightening, a picture of the Holy Spirit, the Ruach haKodesh, and beaten oil is deliberate refinement in/of/by the Holy Spirit. That this oil for the Menorah is to be supplied by the people is a picture of every faithful believer’s priestly role in God’s service.

God has given everyone resources which they are required to use for the profit of his kingdom. We all have a gift, a calling, a special skill that can be made available to the Kingdom of God. Paul listed some of those gifts in 1 Corinthians 12, but he did not intend for us to take that list as comprehensive. He described three categories of contributions (gifts, services, and activities), and only expanded them in part. I believe that teaching and counseling could be included alongside faith and healing, as well as musical talent, mechanical aptitude, writing, and every kind of artistry and craftsmanship.

With the right refinement, all of those things can be fuel for God’s Light in the world.

Like its organic counterpart, the fuel God has implanted in each of us doesn’t come straight off the tree, ready to use. It must be harvested, pressed, and refined. Nor does it suffice to pour it into any lamp or onto just any fire. It must be channeled into the right reservoirs and tended by God’s appointed authorities.

Parents, first of all, and then pastors, educators, priests, and people of all kinds of skill and talent are to instruct their successors in serving God and using their spiritual gifts to the profit of God’s kingdom. Men with special skill in the engineering of homes and office buildings must mentor apprentices into building to God’s glory. Those with extraordinary artistic talent must work with the next generation of painters, sculptors, dancers, musicians, etc., use their gifts in ways that enlighten God’s kingdom rather than corrupting it.

God’s appointment of gifts is also like olive oil in this respect: it is counter-productive to isolate a single ingredient or aspect. Each person is a complex interaction of flaws and talents, and we need to seek a balance. While one of us might have a more beautiful voice than others, that isn’t a license to ignore character development in favor of breathing exercises. Olive oil is valued for its scent, flavor, color, and combustibility. It isn’t enough to achieve maximum caloric output. It must be an attractive, multi-dimensional output that allows God’s character to show through us.

As the keepers of God’s olive grove–and we are all both keepers and trees–he will hold us responsible for how we managed his oil. Are you a talented musician who can play any instrument he touches? Then play for God’s glory, and use your talents to encourage other musicians to use their talents for God’s glory. Are you a leader who can take the full measure of a man in minutes? Then lead God’s people, identify the potential leaders around you, and mentor them also into righteous, productive leadership of God’s people.

You are the priests in the tabernacle of your own family and community.

You are the people of God supplying the oil for the Menorah. You don’t possess even one skill or experience that is solely for your own benefit. God has entrusted you with a valuable treasure, and he will demand an accounting of it one day. He has not asked for volunteers, but has commanded every single one of us to produce or be cut off.

Beauty in the Eyes of God

The High Priest in his uniform
The High Priest preparing for Yom Kippur

God loves beauty. Gold, silver, jewels, fine craftsmanship…The wilderness Tabernacle was embroidered and bedecked with the best that those humble, recently freed slaves had to offer. (Perhaps I should say with the best that they had liberated from their former masters.)

Consider the uniform of the high priest. For his outer layer, he wore a gold crown, shoulder pieces of carved onyx, a gold breast plate covered in jewels and attached to a multicolored, embroidered tunic with gold chains. Beneath that he wore a blue robe fringed with golden bells and little, cloth pomegranates. If all of this wasn’t flashy and extravagant enough, would that you could see what he wore next to his skin!

Plain, white linen. That’s it. Simple, clean, and beautiful.

The high priest wasn’t elected. He didn’t run for office or volunteer. Out of all of Moses’ cousins, some of whom wanted the job badly, God picked Aaron for his purity of heart and attitude of service. Hebrews 5:1-2 says that the high priest wasn’t a proud man. Although his successors weren’t always like him, Aaron was a kind and merciful man of the people. Like Moses, he was a simple man who would have been as happy ministering to slaves as leading the worship of an entire nation, and this is what God found most beautiful about the man he chose to be high priest.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, they say, but what if the one looking on can see past everything you’ve built up on the outside to fool the world? God knows you, and your gold and jewels can’t fool Him.

God loves finery, but what He loves most of all is an obedient & merciful heart.

Is there someone you know (or knew) who exemplified this spiritual ideal of inner purity?