MESSAGE FOR OCTOBER 28, 2001
Fifth in a series of messages on Christ’s church
This week, our look at what the Bible says about the church continues. Last week, we examined the biblical truth affirming that the church is native, NOT to this world, but to heaven. Christ’s church is a heavenly group who look to heaven, not to this world as their home. We looked at some of the implications inherent in being a citizen of heaven. This morning, we turn our attention to another facet of this jewel of Christ’s called the church as it is seen in the pages of Scripture. The church is also known as the New Covenant community. Later on in this series we will take a hard look at what it means to be a community. This morning, we want to spend our time mining this truth surrounding the New Covenant. All genuine, born-again believers have been included in the New Covenant of Christ. Like all the other theological truths we have explored in this series, the term “New Covenant” should be, not only in the vocabulary of the believer, but it and what it represents should have a powerful impact on how we see ourselves and how we live as followers of Christ.
Before we get into what it is to be part of Christ’s New Covenant, we need to do some background work so we can better understand what the New Covenant is and how it relates to the Old Covenant and before we can delve into those issues, we need to get settled on what a covenant in general is. Simply stated, a covenant, as the bible uses that term is a relationship. When God establishes a covenant with his people, he is bringing them into a particular relationship with Him. Each covenant God enters into with His people is a bit different and each is governed by certain covenantal stipulations that lay out both God’s role in the covenant relationship and the people’s. The Old Covenant is the covenant relationship God established with Moses and His people at Mount Sinai. In Jeremiah chapter seven, God, through his prophet summarizes the terms of this covenant relationship. In verse 23 he says, “but I gave them this command: Obey me, and I will be your God and you will be my people. Walk in all the ways I command you, that it may go well with you.” God lays out the terms of the covenant this way, “Obey my laws and I will be your God and bless you.” This was a conditional covenant with the Jews and the condition upon which the covenant was based was obedience.
The big problem with this Old Covenant relationship is the Jews did not hold up their end of the covenant. In the next verses in Jeremiah chapter seven, God summarizes the sad story of the Old Covenant relationship. (Verse 24) “But they did not listen or pay attention; instead, they followed the stubborn inclinations of their evil hearts. They went backward and not forward. From the time your forefathers left Egypt until now, day after day, again and again I sent you my servants the prophets. But they did not listen or pay attention. They were stiff-necked and did more evil than their forefathers.” The tragic story of this relationship God established is that God continually showed Himself faithful to bless, to heal, warn and forgive his people, but his people repeatedly, consistently, almost without exception rebelled against His loving Lordship. Why did the Jews disobey? They were filled with unbelief and they had hard hearts. They refused to believe God’s promises and they hardened their hearts against his commands. This is the consistent pattern of their relationship with God in the Old Testament. In this sense, the Old Covenant was defective and in Hebrews chapters eight and nine, the author writes to explain why God would institute a covenant that was defective. That’s where we want to spend the bulk of our time this morning in Hebrews chapter eight.
Let’s look at Hebrews eight verses five and following. The author begins by describing the Old Testament priesthood under the Old Covenant and he tells us the purpose of this priesthood and by extension, the covenant. He speaks of these priests and says (verse five), “They serve at a sanctuary that is a copy and shadow of what is in heaven. This is why Moses warned when he was about to build the tabernacle: “See to it that you make everything according to the pattern shown you on the mountain.” The author says this Old Covenant, with its earthly priests and sanctuary and all its earthly fittings, were all intentionally established by God as a “copy and a shadow” of the heavenly sanctuary and High Priest. That is, the Old Covenant was put in place for the purposes of preparing for the New Covenant in the same way as seeing someone’s shadow before they emerge from behind a curtain, prepares you to meet the person—the reality that casts this shadow. The shadow is not the person, it simply indicates the general shape and size and direction of the person. The person is the reality; the shadow is simply a silhouette of the person. That’s why this defective Old Covenant was established—it was put in place to point to the reality of Jesus Christ who will establish this New Covenant. This new and superior relationship God has set up with His people is made possible and fulfilled in Jesus Christ.
As the author moves on in the text, he contrasts the New Covenant of Christ with the Old Covenant from Mount Sinai. Beginning in verse six he says, “But the ministry of Jesus has received is as superior to theirs as the covenant of which he is mediator is superior to the old one, and it is founded on better promises. For if there had been nothing wrong with that first covenant [the Old Covenant], no place would have been sought for another. But God found fault with the people and said: “The time is coming, declares the Lord when I will make a new covenant with the House of Israel and with the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt because they did not remain faithful to my covenant and I turned away from them, declares the Lord.” The author says what was defective about the Old Covenant was the people in the relationship with God. Paul says the same thing and is more specific in Romans 8:3. He is speaking of the law of the Old Covenant and says, “…the law was powerless...in that it was weakened by the flesh.” The flesh, that is the sinful, fallen humanity of the Jews was not able to keep the terms of the covenant, obedience. The fault of the Old Covenant is this—it laid down God’s standard of righteousness but did not equip the people with the capacity to carry out that standard of righteousness. We see this in Deuteronomy 29:3 which says of the Jews, “the LORD has not given you a mind that understands or eyes that see or ears that hear.” This incapacity for obedience made the Old Covenant unworkable.
All of that is introduction. That gets us up to speed on what the terms, “covenant” and “Old Covenant” mean. Now we are ready to look at the New Covenant mediated by Christ. This is the covenant—this is the relationship with God that has been provided for all born again followers of Christ. As we look at the rest of this section of Hebrews chapter eight, we will be asking this question: How does the biblical reality God has given in the New Covenant affect the believer in Christ? If the Old Covenant was only the shadow of the reality of the New Covenant, then how is this superior reality seen in the life of the believer? What should be the difference between a person under the Old Covenant and a person under the New Covenant in Christ? We see the answer to that question in verses 10-12. He says, “This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time, declares the Lord. I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”
Before we say something about what that text says about the effect the New Covenant should have on the believer, let’s first note what it DOESN’T say. It doesn’t say the law or God’s standard will change. The problem with the Old Covenant wasn’t the law—Paul says “the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good”(Rom 7:12). There are those in the church today who live as if they believe that the difference between a person under the Old Covenant and a person under the New Covenant is that God has lowered the bar in the New Covenant. Absolutely false. Hebrews 12:14—New Covenant text says, “without holiness no one will see the Lord.” The standard hasn’t changed—it remains the same in Old and New Covenant—holiness evidenced by obedience. The problem with the Old Covenant wasn’t with the law; it was with the unbelief and hard hearts within the people. Its THAT problem that is addressed by the New Covenant according to these verses. We see three of the blessings of the New Covenant that fill in the huge gap in the Old Covenant.
The first blessing is in verse ten, “I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts.” In the Old Covenant, the law was this external obligation—the Old Covenant person could love the law for its holiness, cherish it for its purity, but there was not within the Old Covenant person the heart to obey it. This was, quoting John Piper, an “external, ritualistic, will-power religion” and no one has the sheer will power to live out the law in holiness. The New Covenant is not a stone tablet religion; it’s a heart relationship. Those who are born again and walking rightly with God are not called to just “gut it out” by their own power and desire for God. No, this is in our hearts. The question is, how does God put his law in our minds and write them on our hearts? The answer is seen in other New Covenant promises in the Old Testament. Ezekiel 36:26 says, “Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit 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 you will be careful to observe my ordinances.”
The stony, dead, unresponsive heart will be taken out in the New Covenant and transplanted in its place will be a fleshy, supple, submissive heart. That is done by virtue of the fact that in the New Covenant believer, God has “put my Spirit within you.” This will result in God causing us to “walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe my ordinances.” The internal heart transplant God performs in the New Covenant believer brings about an external change of behavior. We see this promise in many forms in the Old Testament. Later, in Ezekiel 37 the prophet writes, “And they will no longer defile themselves with their idols….and they will walk in my ordinances, and keep my statutes and observe them.” These New Covenant people will have a better covenant, they have a better High Priest, better promises and that will cause them to live much better lives as it relates to God’s law. At the very heart of the New Covenant is the promised gift of the Spirit and it’s the Spirit who has the mind of God and the heart of God. It’s as the Spirit influences our minds and hearts that our lives are more and more fulfill the law of God.
A second blessing of the New Covenant follows the first, “And I will be their God, and they shall be My people.” As we saw a couple of weeks ago, God is pledging here to possess this New Covenant People as he did His Old Covenant people. As God of these people, he will protect and feed and nurture and discipline and lead and empower them. They will be his and his alone.
A third blessing of the New Covenant is verse 11, “And they shall not teach everyone his fellow citizen, and everyone his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for all shall know me, from the least of them to the greatest.” The word used for “know” there is the same word used for a husband knowing his wife on their wedding night. It communicates intense intimacy. For the New Covenant believer, this is not a God who performs a role or lays down rules or is some nebulous, impersonal, higher power. This is Abba. This is Father and we can get to know Him on a personal basis and we can call him “Father.” That’s virtually unheard of in the Old Testament—for an individual to refer to God as Father. This blessing of the covenant logically follows the first one about obedience because Jesus says in John 15:14, “You are my friends if you do what I command.” Doing what Christ commands is a condition of his friendship, this intimacy with Him and for the New Covenant believer, doing what Christ commands is provided for within the Covenant through the Person of the Holy Spirit.
Knowing God intimately must certainly be a driving passion of every believer’s life. This is what David wanted. “King David, if you could tell me what your deepest desire is, what would it be?” “One thing I ask of the Lord, this is what I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple.” That’s a heart ablaze with a passion to know and see the beauty of God. “Apostle Paul, what is your deepest desire in life?” “What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things…. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his suffering…” If knowing Christ is not a driving passion we burn white hot for, then there is something seriously wrong with our hearts. That’s what this Christianity thing is about—knowing Him, loving Him and out of that knowledge and the love that flows from it, serving Him for His glory for all time. That’s what it is to be a Christian.
As you move on in Hebrews eight, notice that these three blessings are rooted in the same work of God, verse 12, “FOR [this is the cause and the three preceding blessings are the effect of this cause] I will be merciful to their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.” All these blessings are rooted in the mercy of God in forgiving our sins. This only makes sense doesn’t it? This Spirit who puts his law in our hearts and minds can only dwell in a holy temple that has been cleansed by the blood of Jesus. The New Covenant only comes by virtue of the shed blood of Christ which cleanses us from sins and thus gives the Holy Spirit a holy place to dwell. We see this in the blessedness of being possessed by a God who affirms, “I will be their God.” Of course He will possess us—in His mercy He purchased us with the cleansing, blood of Christ. And with respect to the blessing of his intimacy with us, He would never choose to become intimate with someone still in their sins. Only someone who has been forgiven, whose sins he chooses to remember no more can be a candidate for intimacy. That’s briefly how the New Covenant of Christ affects the follower of Christ.
A second question is Why in the church today is this New Covenant reality not more widely seen and experienced? Before we address that question, let’s first think about how serious this matter is to God. How serious is it to God to have people under this New Covenant and who are allegedly described by texts like Hebrews eight, Hebrews 10 and 13, Jeremiah 31 and Ezekiel 36 and 37 and other promises of this same variety—how serious is it to God to have comparatively few people under this covenant actually living it out? First, it begs the question of the sufficiency of Christ’s death and resurrection. If Jesus died on a cross not only to forgive us, but to set us free from sin’s power but so many of his followers, who have been supposedly washed in the blood, live lives dominated by sin’s power, what does that say about the cross? This kind of inconsistency tramples on the blood of Christ. This inconsistency also threatens to call into question Christ’s ministry of intercession. He lives to intercede for us before the Father and He is assumedly praying that his sanctifying power through the Spirit would be made manifest for His glory. It would seem his prayers aren’t that effective when you look at so many in the church today. This inconsistency threatens to call God’s integrity into question. All those promises about the power of the New Covenant and how it is so much better than the Old Covenant—are they really true? You don’t see it very often in the church—the one place where it should be seen with some frequency.
These issues should be what break our hearts about our own failures here. So often, I a much more distressed by my own failure and the frustration that comes from that, then what my spiritual mediocrity says about GOD and how He feels about that. When that is the case, I only show that my concern isn’t so much about having an intimate relationship with this awesome, glorious God, its more about avoiding failure and the embarrassment and shame that come from it.
I will give three reasons why this New Covenant reality is not more widely seen and experienced than it is today. There are doubtless more, but here are three. The first reason is ignorance of the New Covenant quality of life purchased for us by Christ. Large segments of the church are often simply ignorant of this today. We have people in the church today who think repentance is optional, holiness is optional, discipleship is optional and grace is provided solely for the purpose of cleaning up our messes, not empowering us for supernatural living. These people are not fringe elements of the church, they put out study bibles and teach at evangelical seminaries and they and others like them have unbiblically lowered the bar for believers so that if anyone seeks to actually live out the Sermon on the Mount, they are considered legalists. There is simply way too much confusion on this topic. Many people in the church today measure the quality of their spiritual life, not by examining themselves to check for hard evidence of the New Covenant quality of life in Christ, but by comparing themselves to the lukewarm person down the pew from them. Status quo, not the Scriptures rule in this area. Many of these are those who will hear at the judgment to their eternal disgrace, “I never knew you. Away from me, you evil doers.”
A second reason why this New Covenant reality is not more widely seen is we pursue Christ and the righteousness provided in the New Covenant wrongly. We’ve said the Jews had unbelieving, hard hearts and it was because they had unbelieving, hard hearts that they pursued God and his righteousness wrongly. Romans 9:31 says, “…Israel, who pursued a law of righteousness, has not attained it. Why not? Because they pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works.” The Jews, as a people were hard hearted and the only way unbelieving, hard-hearted people pursue God is externally by keeping a bunch of rules. The reason is because when an unbelieving, hard hearted person keeps rules they can feel good about themselves and when they fail to keep the rules, they can beat themselves bloody because they are so frustrated and disappointed with themselves. Their religion is all about themselves and God is only Someone they use to make themselves feel either really good or really bad about themselves, but whether they love or hate themselves, their faith, their trust is in themselves. That can happen to some degree to people with soft, supple hearts as well if we listen to that part of us Paul calls “the flesh.” The religion of the flesh in a believer is no different than the religion of the unbelieving, hard-hearted Jews—it’s the religion of legalism and works, not faith. If we have fallen for that lie by trying to get God to love us by what we do or trying to be acceptable in God’s sight by what we can do for Him even if we know in our heads that it wrong, we must repent of our self-righteous legalism and in contrition fall on our face before God and look to Him and Him alone “who works in us both to will and to act according to his good purpose.”
A third and final reason why some people don’t consistently live out the New Covenant quality of life is because, they aren’t IN a New Covenant relationship with God through Christ. They are false converts, having prayed a prayer but they don’t have the Spirit living within them. Today, so much emphasis in the church is placed on justification to the exclusion of regeneration. In other words, there are many Christians who conceive of their salvation almost exclusively as having their sins are forgiven and understanding that they have been declared righteous before God because of Christ’s righteousness. That is a glory of the gospel, but it’s not the whole story. Another key element is this business of having the Holy Spirit come into your life and make you a spiritually alive, new creature in Christ. It is one thing to understand the truth of forgiveness through Christ and justification through Christ and quite another to actually have the life giving, power imparting, discipleship-enabling Person of the Holy Spirit living within you.
As you look at your life, is there evidence of the supernatural presence of God? We must ask those kinds of questions when we are speaking of the New Covenant because this kind of new heart and new life lay at the root of this glorious truth. May God give us the grace to know the glory of the New Covenant in thought, word AND deed.
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