Sunday, 20 September 2009

New Covenant Living

Jeremiah 31 is one of the most significant texts in the OT. It prophetically announces the New Covenant. And it does so in a way that shows off its distinctiveness in comparison to the Old. This was incredibly brave of Jeremiah given Israel’s commitment to the Law of Moses. It also shows the depth of revelation he moved in given that he, along with Ezekiel, was one of the few prophets to foretell this momentous change that was coming. It would literally rock the religious, political and social worlds of the time. And it is meant to do the same today!

It is the significance of this change from Old to New that I want to focus on. For I see many believers today living with an Old Covenant mentality in their approach to God and life. It’s not a bad approach, for Paul tells us that the law is good, Rom 7.12. It’s just that the New Covenant is better. This is the key word that appears over and over again in the book of Hebrews, twelve times to be exact. Hebrews covers the historical transition Jews had to make in their worship of God where temple, sacrifices and priesthood were all changed, radically. More of that later.

Let’s begin by establishing the four major differences between the two covenants highlighted by Jeremiah. Each has a profound impact on the way we relate to God and do life. Here is the text in question, which is repeated in full in Heb 8.8-13:

“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 [that] I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, though I was a husband to them, says the LORD. But this [is] the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. No more shall every man teach his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, 'Know the LORD,' for they all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them, says the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more." Jer 31.31-34

Here is what I observe:

1. Outward to Inward
We move from outward approach to an inward approach in knowing truth. The Sinai covenant was written on tablets of stone and learned. But the new covenant offers a different way of knowing and understanding. Truth is now written on the heart. Paul challenged the Jews of his generation with this reality in the book of Romans.

“For circumcision is indeed profitable if you keep the law; but if you are a breaker of the law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision. Therefore, if an uncircumcised man keeps the righteous requirements of the law, will not his uncircumcision be counted as circumcision? And will not the physically uncircumcised, if he fulfills the law, judge you who, [even] with [your] written [code] and circumcision, [are] a transgressor of the law? For he is not a Jew who [is one] outwardly, nor [is] circumcision that which [is] outward in the flesh; but [he is] a Jew who [is one] inwardly; and circumcision [is that] of the heart, in the Spirit, not in the letter; whose praise [is] not from men but from God”.

Notice the force of Paul’s argument here. The real Jew (a play on the word Judah meaning praise – the true worshipper of God), is the one whose heart has been circumcised by the Spirit of God – an inward reality that allows him to fulfil the written law, for now it is written on his heart. The Jew who is one ethnically is incomplete without the New Covenant. It is like having all the sheet music to Handel’s Messiah but no ability to play. You know what it should sound like but all your attempts lead to too many wrong notes; frustrating for you and all those listening to you.

But the New Covenant deals with the human heart – the place where all the problems begin, Matt 15.18. The Old could not do this. And so verses like Prov 4.23 “Keep your heart with all diligence, for out of it [spring] the issues of life”, take on new force. The New Covenant shifts the focus – not to the point of commission when we sin but to the point of origin – the heart, where it is conceived, James 1.15. Take Jesus words about adultery in Matt 5. It’s not just about avoiding the act of sex; it’s about not looking and lusting so that you’ve already had sex in your mind and heart.

The Spirit of God is able to convict the heart. David was a prototype of this sensitivity. He felt guilty just for cutting off a piece of Saul’s garment. It was very much an inward experience. Further, this sensitivity goes way beyond what the law prescribes, speaking to issues of attitude and motivation. Paul prayed that the church at Ephesus would be “Strengthened with might by His Spirit in the inner man....” Eph 3.16. It is the inward man that is ‘renewed day by day’ even while ‘our outward man is perishing’, 2Cor 4.16.

And so as New Covenant believers we have to give primacy to the inward life of the heart. If we focus on rules and regulations we privilege the outward over the inward and are in danger of living in something less than the best. Further, we open our lives to the possibility of becoming legalistic like the Pharisee of Jesus day; clean on the outside but full of dead men’s bones. This of course tends towards hypocrisy and judgementalism where we put on masks to hide our real thoughts and hidden agendas and look down on others who sins are more obvious than our own.

I’ve noticed over the years that in the church we have a hard time dealing with those who go through divorce, often barring them from meaningful ministry, even after years of restoration. Yet we tolerate gossips and divisive people. We fear that by confronting them in an upfront way we will be perceived as ‘unloving’. But God looks on the heart. He sees the motivation. When Jesus calls us to judge righteous judgement this is what He was challenging us to do. And it is a challenge, for it requires discernment, which touches on my second point.

2. Instruction to Revelation
Jeremiah said that we won’t need anyone to tell us, ‘know the Lord’. All can know Him! So not only does the New Covenant move from outward to inward it moves from ‘being told’, instruction, to ‘just knowing’ through revelation. This ability of the human spirit to receive revelation is called intuition. Through intuition we are able to know things without being told. It is the place where we commune with God; where He speaks to our hearts and we can hear. But we must cultivate this hearing in the heart.

One of the few benefits of our postmodern age is the value it places on personal experience. The focus of the ‘Modern’ era was objectivity built on science, with the huge assumption that all things could be known and explained. Reason had replaced God. Man could now fulfil his dream of building his own utopia. But two World Wars later and in the midst of global ecological crises as well as financial crises, nobody believes this lie any longer. It just doesn’t hold water. People still feel empty and unfulfilled. Technology, with all the benefits it brings, is not enough. And so people are searching and opening their lives to spiritual journeys. Intuition is back in. How I feel about something now have value. What a perfect opportunity to use the gifts of the Spirit to speak to people’s inner needs – the needs of the heart.

For too long we have tried to disciple people by simply telling them what to do, operating primarily at the cognitive and rational level. It’s Old Covenant. Jesus was different. He pointed out when the disciples were operating out of a wrong spirit and challenged them. He discerned their motivation by operating at an intuitive level. When He encountered people, He seldom said the same thing twice. The way He spoke to Nicodemus in John 3.1-10 was different to the way He challenged the rich young ruler in Luke 18.18-23 and different again to the woman at the well in John 4. He could discern a genuine question, like that of the disciples of John in Matt 11.1-6, from the Pharisees who were out to trap Him in His words, Luke 20.20-26; Matt 11.27-33.

Jesus doesn’t speak to people in a formulaic way. All are at different places in their journey toward (or away from) God. This is because discipleship is not like a factory with set processes. It has to be nuanced for each person. It requires involvement and relationship; discernment and courage to speak what you see. These are the things that truly change people. And in the end they become disciples of Jesus – not us.

I have experienced people asking me to pray for them in a particular area and then immediately I sense the Holy Spirit pointing out another area of need to pray for. This ability to hear is part of the New Covenant. It is receiving revelation and it transforms ministry. It means we don’t just address the presentation problem but we tune in, through the Spirit, to the deeper needs of the heart. During such times people really feel like they have encountered God. But it often requires courage on our part to pray into an area not named.

Paul speaks of this in 1Cor 2.10-12. But God has revealed [them] to us through His Spirit. For the Spirit searches all things, yes, the deep things of God. For what man knows the things of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him? Even so no one knows the things of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might know the things that have been freely given to us by God.

God searches. God knows. And God the Holy Spirit reveals things to those who are spiritual, so that we can help others to see and experience the things He has freely given to them. This is an intuitive process. It is more caught than taught.

3. Selective to Inclusive
Unlike the Old Covenant, which was limited to a select group of priests, all male between the age of twenty and fifty and all fit and healthy without any kind of defects; the New is universal; “They shall all know Me... (emphasis mine)”; men and women, old and young, sick and healthy, rich and poor, Jew and non-Jew – all. Everyone can come into relationship with God through His son Jesus. None are excluded; no one is second class; no one is second best. Ethnic, religious, social or cultural distinctions are no longer important criteria in deciding who has value. All have sinned. All need saving. All need grace. And the New Covenant makes it available to all.

Paul was passionate about this. Given his background he had much to boast in at the human level. He was born a free Roman and was Jewish. He belonged to the tribe where the first King of Israel was chosen from, that remained loyal to David when the Kingdom divided. He was educated at the feet of the greatest Rabbi of his time, Gamaliel and he was a Pharisee – considered the most devout and elite of all the religious groups of his day. His zeal for the law meant he would brook no time with ‘followers of the Way’ and so he persecuted them at every opportunity.

Then he met Jesus. Years later he would reflect on all the above and make this comment, “But what things were gain to me these I have counted loss for Christ....and count them as rubbish”, Phil 3.7-8. The Greek is much stronger but so as not to offend let’s stay with rubbish. Compared to Christ, compared to knowing Him, compared to what He gives us, what we offer and have achieved, either through birth or personal effort, is rubbish.

The Cross is the great leveller. All must come. All must confess. All must receive. And all can have equal value and status before God. It is what we do with the least in the Kingdom that shows where we really stand on this issue. Do we try to position ourselves to be alongside those we consider can advance us or do we minister to those around us who can do nothing to add to our status? Do we see that we have value because of who we are in Christ or we still insecure, trying to impress others with our performance? Are we jealous of the ministry of others or can we genuinely rejoice in their ministry because in Christ we too have a ministry no less needed in the Body of Christ?

By birth I may be illegitimate. In the New Covenant I am chosen – a son of God, Gal 4.6-7. By birth I may be poor. In the New Covenant I am rich in faith and can see my world transformed, James 2.5. By birth I may be despised for my race or colour or gender. In the New Covenant I am of equal value to any King because I too am in Christ and an heir of God, Gal 3.28.

4. Partial to Total
Finally we move from partial forgiveness to total forgiveness. “Their sins and iniquities I will remember no more”. Under the Old sin was dealt with, but partially and temporarily. Every year they had to repeat the process of Passover and the Day of Atonement. Every sin required a new sacrifice – more blood. But this was a shadow of something better; a sacrifice that would be so complete, so perfect, so satisfying to the heart of God that no longer would any more of His creatures need to die. Man’s sin and rebellion had exacted a heavy toll. But the blood of Jesus has achieved what no other sacrifice was able to do.

The writer to the Hebrews declared that the blood of Jesus speaks better things than the blood of Able, Heb 12.24. Able’s blood cried out from the ground to God, Gen 4.10. It cried out for justice. He had been cut down in the prime of life, robbed of his future. But the blood of Jesus calls out for mercy. From the Cross He forgives. We receive what we cannot earn, grace and get what we do not deserve, mercy. Total and complete. Under the New Covenant there is no sin that is bigger than the cross. “The blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin”, (emphasis mine), 1John 1.7.

We must learn to live in this amazing truth. For too often I meet believers who still live with guilt from past failure. My old pastor once defined maturity in this way; “Maturity is measured by the time it takes for you to respond to conviction with repentance and receive forgiveness, after you fail”. Think about that. The gap between failure and repentance is a reflection of our maturity. The shorter the gap, the more mature we are. I like that. To live with guilt when you can bring failure to the cross is to live like an Old Testament (which actually is a different way of saying Old Covenant) saint. All that is required in the New is confession. That is what qualifies us to be forgiven. How utterly devoid of human works grace is. It’s scandalous. And that is the glory of the New Covenant. God chooses not to remember your sin – ever.

But there is an equal challenge here. Not only must we be prepared to ask for forgiveness we must be prepared to give it too; in the same unconditional manner God does. All He requires is confession. Peter struggled with this idea. There must be limits. “Then Peter came to Him and said, "Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?" Even that seems too much to many. But notice Jesus’ response: “Jesus said to him, "I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven”. And just to drive the point home Jesus told the story of the unforgiving servant.

Forgiveness is one of those things that is best given once it is received. But to receive and then not forgive is counter to what makes the New Covenant distinctive. We don’t need to judge and condemn, as they did under the Old covenant. We leave judgement to God and choose to forgive. And this is what guarantees our own spiritual health and freedom. Without forgiveness towards others we remain locked up and bound. It can rob us of joy, purpose and ultimately our health. So counter to the Spirit of the New Covenant is unforgiveness that God refuses to forgive us if we don’t forgive others, Matt 6.14-15; 18.32-35.

My prayer for you is that you will live in the full benefits of what Jesus has secured for us through the New Covenant. Let’s go from the living in the good to living in the better.