Unchanging Laws

Tallitot (prayer shawls) by  Robert Couse-Baker, CC BY via Flickr
Tallitot (prayer shawls) by Robert Couse-Baker, CC BY via Flickr

Last week we started a study about whether or not the commands and instructions given to Biblical Israel apply to us as Christians today. I answered with a qualified “yes” — we are spiritual Israel, which is not so much separate from physical Israel as it was the next step in God’s plan for His chosen nation. Now, the question becomes, “How many of the laws given to Israel apply under the New Covenant?”

I’ve grown up believing that the Ten Commandments, including Sabbath keeping, carry over into the New Covenant, along with the Lev. 23 Holy Days and the clean and unclean meats laws. I still believe that, but now I’m starting to wonder why we keep those things and not others like the command to put tassels on our garments (Num. 15:37-41) or blow shofars on Holy Days (Ps. 81:3-4). When I ask this question, I’m usually told that not everything from the Old Covenant applies, and when I ask how they know which ones to keep they say, “It’s our tradition.” In my mind, that’s not a good enough answer, so it’s time for some Bible Study.

A New Priesthood

If you read through the laws of the Old Testament, you find quite a lot about the Levitical priesthood. Some of these are described as “a statute forever to their generations on behalf of the children of Israel” (Ex. 27:21), yet it is evident that Christ’s priesthood supersedes that system. If the switch to the New Covenant changed that, how much else was changed?

 For the priesthood being changed, of necessity there is also a change of the law. (Heb. 7:12)

But now He has obtained a more excellent ministry, inasmuch as He is also Mediator of a better covenant, which was established on better promises. (Heb. 8:6)

When it talks about a change of the law, I think we often imagine quite a disconnect between the Old and New Testament. We think of change as in something old being replaced by something completely new, but I think perhaps the change is more in how God’s laws apply.

For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put My laws in their mind and write them on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. (Heb. 8:10)

The Old Covenant was replaced with the New (Heb. 8:13), but God’s laws were not done away with. Even before the Old Covenant was instituted at Mount Sianai, God had laws in place. We can see this in Genesis 26:5, where God says, “Abraham obeyed My voice and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes, and My laws.” Since God is unchanging, His standards for what He expects from us do not change either.

Jesus said, “till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled” (Matt. 5:18) In the Greek, this means “filled to the fullest extent.” The laws were brought to a spiritual plane, much as physical Israel became spiritual Israel. You still keep the physical laws, but there is a spiritual aspect as well, and we are held accountable for what goes on inside us as much as for what we actually do (Matt. 5:17-30).

Updating The Law

The laws governing the Levitical priesthood are examples of parts of the Old Covenant that have already been filled to the fullest extent by Jesus Christ. We don’t have a physical priesthood any more because He is our High Priest forever. We don’t sacrifice animals any more because Christ’s sacrifice completely fulfilled all the Old Testament commands for blood sacrifices.

For Christ has not entered the holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us; not that He should offer Himself often, as the high priest enters the Most Holy Place every year with blood of another — He then would have had to suffer often since the foundation of the world; but now, once at the end of the ages, He has appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself. (Heb. 9:24-26)

Without a physical priesthood or temple, many of the ceremonial laws no longer apply to spiritual Israel. Though we as the New Testament church can examine and learn from them and how they foreshadowed Christ’s role as priest and sacrifice, people in the church no longer serve as priests and we no longer sacrifice animals.

Similarly, there were civil laws given to govern the nation of Israel that are not in effect now because the church is scattered through other physical nations with their own laws. Many of the civil laws had a moral aspect, though, and this is updated for us to follow under the New Covenant. Take, for example, the law that said a man and woman who commit adultery must both be put to death (Lev. 20:10). The Pharisees brought Jesus just such a case, and Jesus told them, “He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first” (John 8:7). When all her accusers left, Jesus told the woman, “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more” (John 8:11).

Jesus didn’t say that she hadn’t committed a sin. He said that there was room for mercy and forgiveness even of sins that had formerly incurred a physical death penalty. For judicial matters, Christians are now under the laws of the countries we live in. For moral matters, God’s laws are applied to spirit and in truth with an emphasis on mercy. Is there a guy in your church shaking up with his step-mother? We don’t stone them as was the case in ancient Israel (Lev. 20:11), but we do make it clear that behavior like this is morally wrong and won’t be tolerated in the church (1 Cor. 5:1-13). If he repents, you have to welcome him back just like God welcomes us back into relationship with Him when we repent of our sins (2 Cor. 2:3-11).

"Shema Israel" by  Yaniv Ben-Arie, CC BY-SA, via Flickr
“Shema Israel” by Yaniv Ben-Arie, CC BY-SA, via Flickr

There are also aspects of the Old Testament laws that we are specifically commanded to continue observing. This includes the weekly Sabbath (Heb. 4:9) and Passover (Luke 22:19-20). We infer from these specific commands, and from the fact that Jesus and His disciples observed the other Holy Days, that all those days are still commanded observances. Even more obvious is the fact that we should be keeping the Ten Commandments, which are succinctly comprehended in the two greatest commandments.

Jesus answered him, “The first of all the commandments is: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ This is the first commandment. And the second, like it, is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:29-31)

God’s focus is on our hearts, and whether or not we choose to keep His commandments tells Him what our hearts are like. Jesus said, “If you love Me, keep My commandments” (John 14:15). The implication is that if we don’t keep His commandments, we are telling Jesus we don’t love Him. If our hearts are right, obedience to God naturally follows.

My feelings on the question, “What is applicable under the New Testament?” is that everything God didn’t specifically replace/update to a spiritual level (the priest hood, physical temples, civil laws) are probably still in effect. It’s up to us to seek out the spiritual reasons for these commands and find a way to physically keep them. There are still some I’m not sure about — like those tassels on the borders of our garments or what we’re supposed to do on New Moons — but I want to keep searching and learning. I want to worship God the way He tells me to, not the way I think sounds like a good idea.

Are We Israel?

credit:  T K, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0, via Flickr
credit: T K, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0, via Flickr

You know that feeling when you’re having a conversation with someone and can’t think of a reply, then the perfect words come to you three days later in the shower? Something similar happened to me a couple weeks ago. I was talking with someone who doesn’t think shofars are necessary in church services, and asked what he thought of Psalm 81 that tells us to blow the shofar “for this is a statute for Israel, a law of the God of Jacob” (Ps. 81:3-4). His response was, “We’re not Israel. We’re spiritual Israel, but we’re not Israel.”

The subject rolled around in my mind for a week before I decided to write about it. Whether or not the Old Testament commands given to physical Israel apply under the New Covenant is a much broader issue than shofars. I think its an important question to answer, because if the answer is “yes” then there are quite a few things most of us Christians have been wrongly ignoring, and that’s a dangerous thing to do.

Welcomed Into Israel

In the Old Testament, Israel was God’s chosen people — the small group He decided to work with and make His own.

Now therefore, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be a special treasure to Me above all people; for all the earth is Mine. And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” These are the words which you shall speak to the children of Israel. (Ex. 19:5-6)

In much the same way, the New Testament church is a fairly small group of chosen people, called into a special relationship with God.

But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; who once were not a people but are now the people of God, who had not obtained mercy but now have obtained mercy. (1 Pet. 2:9-10)

At this point in the history of the church, God wasn’t exclusively working with the physical nations of Israel any more. He was calling Gentiles as well. It’s very interesting to see how this calling is described.

Therefore remember that you, once Gentiles in the flesh — who are called Uncircumcision by what is called the Circumcision made in the flesh by hands — that at that time you were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. (Eph. 2:11-13)

The process by which Jesus Christ welcomes us into His church also makes us part of Israel. In Jesus Christ, we are no longer “aliens from Israel” and “strangers from the covenants” because He “has made both one, and has broken down the middle wall of separation” between physical Israel and the Gentile nations (Eph. 2:14).

Spiritual Israel

It is evident that there are differences between spiritual Israel and physical Israel. Paul addresses this in several epistles. The Old Covenant contained in it the promise of Messiah, and the ones in Israel who recognized Jesus as that Messiah became spiritual Israel as they transitioned to the New Covenant. At that point, God opened up salvation to the non-Israelitish people as well.

that He might make known the riches of His glory on the vessels of mercy, which He had prepared beforehand for glory even us whom He called, not of the Jews only, but also of the Gentiles? As He says also in Hosea: “I will call them My people, who were not My people, and her beloved, who was not beloved.” “And it shall come to pass in the place where it was said to them, ‘You are not My people,’ there they shall be called sons of the living God.” Isaiah also cries out concerning Israel: “Though the number of the children of Israel be as the sand of the sea, the remnant will be saved.” (Rom. 9:23-27)

This “remnant” is a small part of the physical nation of Israel, and now includes Gentiles as well “according to the election of grace” (Rom. 11:5). It is what God intended all of Israel to be, and that’s what we are grafted into (Rom. 11:13-24). The rest of Israel is still “beloved for the sake of the fathers” because of the promises God made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Rom. 11:28). Now, though, “God has committed them all to disobedience, that He might have mercy on all” (Rom. 11:32). That indicates He will treat those who’ve ignored Him as if they are outside of Israel so they can eventually be welcomed in as former strangers rather than punished as children who should have known better.

So the question, “Are we Israel?” seems to have answered itself. Paul even tells us quite plainly in Galatians that we are “the Israel of God” (Gal. 6:16). We’re also told that we are under the New Covenant which was promised to Israel.

Because finding fault with them, He says: “Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah — not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt; because they did not continue in My covenant, and I disregarded them, says the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put My laws in their mind and write them on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.” (Heb. 8:8-10)

When Jesus Christ came, He didn’t bring a new religion — He came as the next step in God’s plan. “Christianity” is the name that was given because the rest of the world thought it was just a new sect of Judaism. In reality, though, this is what God intended Israel to become all along. Instead of starting with the idea, “I’m Christian, so how much of this Old Testament stuff do I have to keep?” we should start at the beginning and see how the Old Covenant relates to the New Covenant. Some things did change, and some things did not change. That sounds like a good topic for next week’s blog post.

Rooted In The Lord

After finishing last week’s Bible study, I opened my Bible at random and found myself in Jeremiah 17. Usually when I’m in this section of scripture it’s to quote verse 5 — “Cursed is the man who trusts in man” — or verses 9 and 10 — “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked.” But this time a different verse caught my eye.

Nestled in between these warnings against trusting in ourselves or other people is a lovely picture of what it looks like to trust in God.

Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, and whose hope is the Lord. For he shall be like a tree planted by the waters, which spreads out its roots by the river, and will not fear when heat comes; but its leaf will be green, and will not be anxious in the year of drought, nor will cease from yielding fruit. (Jer. 17:7-8)

This word translated “blessed” is baruch, the same word I wrote about in connection with the phrase “Baruch Hashem” — “bless the name [of the Lord].” In this context, it means to receive a blessing from God. The nature of this blessing is explained in verse 8, but first there are two prerequisites.

Trust and Hope

The verses we’re talking about start out by saying, “Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord.” The Psalms also have quite a lot to say about this idea —  both the necessity of trusting in God and the fact that He doesn’t disappoint those who do trust in Him.

Those who trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion, which cannot be moved, but abides forever. As the mountains surround Jerusalem, so the Lord surrounds His people from this time forth and forever. (Ps. 125:1-2)

This verse uses the example of Jerusalem to show how God protects His people. But Jerusalem has been a war-zone off-and-on for hundreds of years — what sort of protection is this?

God does not promise to shield us from every harm. We are in a battle, and “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.” Trusting in God doesn’t mean we won’t have to battle. It means we have a hope of winning the battle using His strength and His armor (Eph. 6:10-18).

Speaking of hope, the next part of the verse in Jeremiah reads, “and whose hope is the Lord” (Jer. 17:7). Hope is an integral part of being a Christian. It’s listed with faith and love in 1 Corinthians 13:13. It’s connected with Christ’s indweling presence in Colossians 1:27. Hebrews 6:18-19 calls our hope “an anchor of the soul, both sure and steadfast.”

For we were saved in this hope, but hope that is seen is not hope; for why does one still hope for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we eagerly wait for it with perseverance. (Rom. 8:24-25)

Hope’s even a part of our salvation process, described here in Romans much the same way faith is described in Hebrews 11:1. “Hope” in the Greek is elpis, (G1680), and it means “desire of some good will with expectation of attaining it.” That definition brings us right back to the idea of trust. We trust in God because we believe and have hope that He will be with us, and our sure expectation of that hope increases our trust.

Planted by the Water

Even before getting to a more thorough description of this person who is blessed by God, the words “trust” and “hope” are already giving us an idea of someone being firmly attached to God. They imply a focus on God, and an act of clinging fast to Him. Fittingly, the next phrase is, “he shall be like a tree planted by the waters.”

First, note that this person is “planted,” not growing there naturally or by chance. All of us who hope and trust in God have been personally selected by Him and purposefully “planted” into His family beside “the waters.” This isn’t physical water we’re talking about, any more than it’s a literal tree. This is what Jesus described as “living water” (John 4:10).

Jesus answered and said to her, “Whoever drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst. But the water that I shall give him will become in him a fountain of water springing up into everlasting life.” (John 4:13-14)

God is the source of the living, life-giving water that we need to flourish where He has planted us. If we forsake “the fountain of living waters,” we end up in a state opposite that of blessedness (Jer. 2:13). But if we stay close to Him, we will grow and thrive.

For I will pour water on him who is thirsty, and floods on the dry ground; I will pour My Spirit on your descendants, and My blessing on your offspring; they will spring up among the grass like willows by the watercourses. (Is. 44:3-4)

Willow trees have strong, fast-growing root systems that love water. When planted by a water source, the roots grow so quickly and densely that they actually help hold the banks of a stream or pond in place. That’s how firmly we must be attached to the source of Living Water. That’s also the next thing mentioned in Jeremiah, as the blessed person is compared to a tree that “spreads out its roots by the river” (Jer. 17:8).

As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him,  rooted and built up in Him and established in the faith, as you have been taught, abounding in it with thanksgiving. (Col. 2:6-7)

When Heat Comes

This tree, firmly rooted by the Living Water, is next described as having no “fear when heat comes, but its leaf will be green.” When I think of “heat” in the Bible, my mind usually goes to the idea of fiery trials. We’re going through a refining process that involves heating us up and seeing how we react so bad things can be purged away and we can become pure.

Now if anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each one’s work will become clear; for the Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each one’s work, of what sort it is. (1 Cor. 3:12-13)

Walking through metaphorical fire is an inescapable aspect of being Christian (1 Pet. 4:12-13). If we’re firmly founded — or rooted — on Jesus Christ, though, passing through fire is not disastrous for us. In fact, it can draw us closer to Him and refine us to be more like He is. He doesn’t just abandon us “when heat comes.” He says, “Fear not, for I have redeemed you … when you walk through the fire, you shall not be burned, nor shall the flame scorch you” (Is. 43:1, 2). Like the bush God spoke to Moses in, we can be in the midst of fire and still be green and flourishing because the Lord is in us (Ex. 3:2).

Yielding Fruit

The phrase “will not be anxious in the year of drought” had me a bit puzzled (Jer. 17:8). Drought means a lack of water, which in this analogy we’ve been describing as the Holy Spirit poured out through Jesus Christ. So, does the mention of “drought” mean that something is going to happen that makes God’s Spirit generally unavailable, but will not affect those who are already firmly rooted in God?

“Behold, the days are coming,” says the Lord God, “That I will send a famine on the land, not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord. They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east; they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the Lord, but shall not find it. “In that day the fair virgins and strong young men shall faint from thirst.” (Amos 8:11-13)

This is the first scripture that finally came to mind for this idea of drought. In the United States, we’re used to living in a country where we can pick up a Bible in most stores, search translations and commentary online, and find a plethora of Christian churches to visit. But that hasn’t been the norm for most of history, or most of the world, and it might not stay that way here. And even if the words are available, they won’t make any sense unless God gives His Spirit of understanding. That’s why we need to seize every chance we have to draw closer to God, and be tapped into the source of Living Water.

The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your soul in drought, and strengthen your bones; you shall be like a watered garden, and like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail. (Is. 58:11)

And when this happens, we can not only be unworried by drought, but also not “cease from yielding fruit” (Jer. 17:7-8). Being fruitful is the subject of the opening verses in John 15. Here, Jesus describes Himself as “the true vine,” and tells us the only way to bear fruit is to be connected to Him.

I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit …

Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me. “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing. …

By this My Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit; so you will be My disciples. (John 15:1-2, 4-5, 7)

If we’re securely attached to Christ, our lives will yield fruit that reflects that relationship. We’ll be demonstrating the fruits of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23), and walking “in all goodness, righteousness, and truth” (Eph. 5:9). And then not only will we be blessed, but we’ll be a blessing to others. Not only will we have access to living water, but rivers of God’s Spirit will flow out from us as well (John 7:37-38). Blessings from God affect us wondrously, but they don’t stop with us — they’re designed to overflow us and spill out to bless others, and show that we are indeed Christ’s disciples.