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In order to understand the total plan of God for manís salvation, it is important for us to learn about how He proceeded from the time Adam and Eve sinned. God had already anticipated manís sin and He had already planned his salvation even before He had created the world (Eph.1:4;1Pet.1:20). He began to accomplish His plan in steps after the Fall. When most people of the world went deeper and deeper into sin, He destroyed the world that had become corrupted with sin through a flood and made a new beginning through Noah and his family. But sin began to multiply even then. Then God picked up a man called Abraham out of an idol worshipping family, took him away from his old surroundings to a new place and instructed him to bring up a godly family after him. Out of Abrahamís successors, God identified the twelve children of Jacob (later renamed Israel) to start twelve tribes of the children of Israel. As these people multiplied, God formed them into the nation of Israel to become a model for the rest of the world.
It was to this nation of Israel that God gave the Ďoldí covenant (which became old once the Ďnewí covenant came). This was an agreement between God and this nation. God gave them the Ten Commandments and many other instructions related to sacrifices, festivals and what was clean and unclean. The covenant was that if Israel kept all the commandments they would be blessed above all other nations and also that if they disobeyed Him they would be cursed (Exo.19:5;Deut.28:1,2,15).
The Law of God that He gave to Israel through Moses made them very special compared to the nations around them. They had God Himself to provide abundantly for them and to protect them from their enemies and sicknesses. He had told them how to acknowledge Him through sacrifices and festivals. They had moral boundaries that protected them from wrong behaviour that would hurt them and those around them. They knew how to get right with God if they failed to keep any of His commandments. God had also given them instructions on the personal and social aspects of hygiene and many other practical aspects of life. If Israel paid heed to all these directions from God they would become the envy of all nations around them, and other nations would be drawn to know and serve this true and living God.
When the Law and the covenant were announced to Israel, they agreed with their whole heart that they would follow them (Exo.24:7). But they broke it soon afterwards when the made a golden calf to represent God and worshipped it.
What followed were cycles of turning away from God to idols, God punishing them, and their coming back to God. God sent them many types of warning, but it turned out that they just did not have it in them to keep His commandments. Finally God sent them over to a long time of captivity under the Assyrians and the Babylonians. By the time they returned from the Babylonian captivity Israel had learnt not to go after other gods, but they were never able to keep the whole Law of God.
What we understand from the teaching of the apostles later is that God knew always that no one would be able to keep the Law by human effort alone (Rom.3:19,20). But God wanted people to try their best and then come to recognise their impotence when it came to the Law. This is what happened through the nearly 1500 years in which Israel struggled with the Law. At the end of this period God brought in a new covenant through Jesus Christ. When this covenant came, the old covenant became obsolete and was replaced by the new covenant (Heb.8:13). As the Gospel was thrown open to the Gentiles (non-Jews) also, this new covenant became Godís arrangement for all the people of the world. (Israel was not really a favourite of God but a very important link in His overall plan for the salvation of the world.) We understand from the apostles that the salvation of all people was what God had in mind all the time (1Tim.2:4;2Pet.3:9). The old covenant was only intended to serve a temporary, intermediate purpose till the new covenant became available. It was like a child being held under the authority of a tutor till he became mature enough to inherit the fatherís property with necessary responsibility (Gal.3:23-25).
What were people expected to learn under the old covenant that would prepare them for the new? That Godís standard of holiness is high and keeping it would lead to blessings, and that no one is able to reach that standard by oneself however earnestly and sincerely one tries. Once people saw that they came far too short of the demands of God (Rom.3:23), then they would be in a position to appreciate their need for grace that came under the new covenant.
The new covenant comes with the offer of grace (unmerited favour and help Ė Heb.4:16). There is free forgiveness from past sins and there is help that enables us to keep Godís laws (Acts 13:38;Tit.2:11,12). What the Law was unable to achieve because of human weakness, God has now done through His grace (Rom.8:3).
Under the old covenant, blessings of God were based on obedience to the Law. In other words, it was a performance based covenant. But the big catch was that absolutely no one would be able to receive Godís blessings on this basis. Under the new covenant, Godís blessings are made available to us even though we do not receive them, based on Godís grace. We can receive them freely, without having qualified to receive them, through our faith in God (Eph.2:8,9). As we have seen in the earlier chapter on faith, this faith includes accepting what God says about us, that we are sinners who deserve punishment in hell, and receiving salvation by grace by accepting the sacrifice of Jesus in our place.
Under the new covenant God takes away our heart that was inclined towards sin and gives us a new heart that hates sin. He imprints His laws on our mind and heart through His Holy Spirit and enables us to walk according to them as we are led by the Spirit (Jer.31:33;Ezek.36:25-27;Rom.8:2,14;Php.2:12,13). God forgives our sins to such an extent that even if it was the dirtiest, He makes us whiter than snow (Isa.1:18) Ė justifies us just as if we had never sinned Ė and He promises never to remember our sins against us anymore (Heb.8:12).
There are some more things we need to understand about how different the new covenant is from the old. When Jesus came He explained that the standard of life God wants us to have was much higher than what the Law demanded under the old covenant. Let us just look at three examples He gave. He said that even though the old covenant forbade murder, the real root was in the anger behind the murder. If we keep anger in our heart towards someone but avoid killing him, we would still be guilty in Godís eyes who pays more attention to our heart than to our outward behaviour (Matt.5:21,22:1Sam.16:7). In a similar way, if we look at a woman with desire we would be guilty of adultery even though we have not even touched her physically (Matt.5:27,28). Jesus said that everybody loved others who were good to them. But true love is seen when we love those who do not deserve our love, such as our enemies (vv.43-48).
It is easy to see that God is moving the focus from our external behaviour deeper to what goes on in our heart. It is what is inside that makes us the real person that we are. Jesus was furious with the Pharisees who paid great attention to the external details while inside they were full of self-indulgence and uncleanness (Matt.23:25-28). If we kept the inner life pure, our outer life would certainly follow (v.26). Salvation from sinís power in our inner life and transformation into the likeness of His Son Jesus is Godís goal for us (Rom.8:28,29). This likeness is in terms of His character than an imitation of the things Jesus did. What would matter in eternity is how much our Ďinner maní has been renewed (2Cor.4:16), rather than our physical experiences down here on earth. That is what He brings to us under the new covenant. Now we can see that the old covenant was only an intermediate step before bringing the new covenant!
In fact, the old covenant focus was mainly on external behaviour, and the rewards and punishments based on the keeping of the Law were also earthly (Deut.28). The sacrifices under the old covenant found their real fulfilment in Jesus Christ. The blood of bulls and goats could not actually take away our sins (Heb.10:4). Those sacrifices kept sins covered (Psa.32:1,2) till Jesus came as the Lamb of God and took them away (Jn.1:29). The concept of clean and unclean things taught people the idea of being holy and separate unto the Lord. When the Holy Spirit comes into our hearts He teaches us that what is really clean or unclean in the eyes of God is in our hearts (Mk.7:14-23). People were taught by rule to keep the Sabbath day holy unto God (and do their business on the other six days) till men learnt to do all things at all times as unto the Lord (1Cor.10:31). Then keeping one physical day as Sabbath became redundant when all days were equally holy before the Lord (Col.2:16,17). The Jews were taught to give a tithe of their income to God (and do what they liked with the remainder) till the Holy Spirit worked in peopleís hearts and helped them to realise that everything they had belonged to God (and not just a tenth) and they learned to give cheerfully and abundantly (without any legal requirement on how much to give) (2Cor.9:7,8).
What we see is that the old covenant rules have now been extended to their fullness under the new covenant. So now it is not right to preach the old covenant standards to people, which will limit their potential to reach the full abundance of life Jesus has come to give us (Jn.10:10).
At the same time we must avoid making the mistake of neglecting to read and study the Old Testament part of the Bible. We must remember that it is on the foundation of the old covenant that the new covenant has been built. Without understanding the old covenant we cannot see the full glory of the new. Without realising how far short we come of the expectations of God we cannot appreciate the grace God has shown to us. We must also see the whole revelation of God coming to us in steps Ė and the old covenant was a very important part of His revelation Ė even while we seek to live in the liberty of the new covenant.
Now we donít have to follow all the external laws pertaining to sacrifices, festivals, clean and unclean things, etc., because we are to live according to the spirit of life in Christ Jesus and not according to the letter of the Law (Rom.8:2). We are free from having to follow external rules such as not eating certain foods, keeping festivals, keeping the Sabbath day, giving God based on tithing, etc. We are free to seek to do all things according to the fruit of the Spirit (Gal.5:22,23).
Finally we must remember that the new covenant has taken us to a higher level of life than what was available in the old. On one hand we must realise that the standard of the new covenant is far too high for any of us to reach to while here on earth. None of us is going to become perfect here. But what is most important is that each of us must be pressing on towards the goal of perfection or full maturity that is offered in Christ (Heb.6:1). When we fail, we have forgiveness made available through our Advocate, our Lord Jesus Christ (1Jn.2:1,2) so that we can get up and press on more earnestly.
Under the old covenant the mark of Godís blessings was wealth, health, comfort, etc. But now the blessing of the new covenant is to partake of the life of Jesus Christ (Rom.8:29). The mark of this blessing is seen in the growth of the fruit of the Spirit in our lives. Jesus and the disciples have clarified to us that kingdom of God is not about external things but ďrighteousness, peace and joy in the Holy SpiritĒ (Jn.6:27;Rom.14:17). They have also warned us that we are going to face trouble in this world (Jn.16:33), opposition and persecution (Matt.10:35,36;Jn.16:2;2Tim.3:12) and that we will have to go through much trouble in order to inherit Godís kingdom (Acts.14:22). Let us not be deceived by any who promise us a trouble-free life with the blessings of health and wealth or prosperity because they deceive themselves and others by misquoting from the old covenant.
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