All families have stories to tell, regardless of their culture or their circumstances. When parents share family stories, their children benefit in many ways. They demonstrate better understanding of other people’s thoughts and emotions. And they more often have higher self-esteem, more robust identities, better coping skills, and lower rates of depression and anxiety.
In Psalm 78 the Israelites are reminded of lessons from their history so they could to tell the next generation about what God had done. The main historical event recalled is the exodus from Egypt (Ps. 78:13-13; 42-53).
Egypt reminds me of two great characters in the Old Testament. Joseph and Moses both rescued God’s people. Joseph rescued them from a famine and Moses rescued them from slavery. Joseph led them into Egypt and Moses led them out of Egypt.
The events in Egypt described in the Bible range from the safety of a refuge to the tyranny of slavery.
A refuge from danger
Famine was one of the dangers in the ancient world. Both Abraham and Jacob’s family (the Israelites) travelled to Egypt to avoid a famine (Gen. 12:10 – 13:1; 46:1-7). Although Abraham’s visit was short, the other visit was for about 400 years. The longer visit was enabled by Joseph who rose to a position equivalent to that of Governor or Prime Minister.
There are some similarities between the life of Joseph and the life of Jesus. They were both rejected and betrayed. But their suffering saved many (Gen. 50:20; Jn. 3:16). And they were about 30 years of age when Joseph was put in charge of Egypt and when Jesus began His ministry (Gen. 41:46; Lk. 3:23).
Others fled to Egypt to escape danger. Jeroboam fled to Egypt because Solomon wanted to kill him (1 Ki 11:40 – 12:2; 2 Chron. 10:2). After the invasion of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 586 BC, some Jews fled to Egypt (2 Ki. 25:25-26; Jer. 41:16-18) and later a group of Jews forced Jeremiah to go with them to Egypt (Jer. 43:6-7). And Joseph, Mary and Jesus fled to Egypt because Herod was killing all male Jewish infants. Joseph was divinely directed to take Mary and Joseph to Egypt to escape the wrath of Herod (Mt. 2:13-20).
On these occasions Egypt was a safe refuge that people could run to for protection.
Joseph was sold into slavery in Egypt. But he rose to be second to the king and his family thrived in Egypt. Later they were subject to slavery when a new Pharaoh cruelly used them for slave labor. They were only delivered from this under the leadership of Moses after the miraculous ten plagues. The Bible says, “the Lord at one time delivered His people out of Egypt” (Jude 1:5NIV).
There are some similarities between the life of Moses and the life of Jesus. They both narrowly escaped being killed by a king who was murdering baby boys. They both performed miracles. They both led God’s people out of captivity, being from slavery to Egypt in the case of Moses and from slavery to sin in the case of Jesus. They both mediated a covenant between God and humanity. And the Bible says that Jesus is a prophet like Moses (Acts 3:22; 7:37).
The exodus was a great victory of the God of the Israelites over the gods of Egypt, which was to be remembered in the annual Passover Festival. After the exodus, Egypt came to represent all that is opposed to God. After the decline of Egypt, Assyria and Babylon become the main distant enemies of the Israelites.
On this occasion Egypt was an oppressive place of punishment that people wanted to run away from. But during the journey from Egypt to Canaan the Israelites were tempted to return to Egypt.
An idolatrous nation
The Egyptians worshipped many gods (polytheism). And their Pharaohs were considered to be divine. Whereas the Israelites worshipped the true God and they were forbidden to marry idolatrous and immoral foreigners because they would cause them to be unfaithful to God (Dt. 7:1-4; 1 Ki. 11:1-13; Ezra 9:1-2, 10-12, 14).
When Moses was on Mount Sinai during the exodus, the Israelites built a golden calf idol (Ex. 32). So they disobeyed God and worshipped Egyptian gods instead.
Later when Israel was settled in the promised land, King Solomon married an Egyptian princess and many other foreign women who turned him to idolatry. Because of this disobedience, God caused the nation to be divided into two kingdoms (1 Ki. 11:9-13).
And when Jeroboam returned from Egypt to establish the northern kingdom of Israel, he set up calf images in Dan and Bethel (1 Ki. 12:26-33). These may have been Egyptian gods (or those of the Canaanites). Jeroboam’s sin was idolatry (1 Ki. 14:9). And subsequent kings of Israel followed his wicked example. Finally, God allowed the kingdom of Israel to be invaded by the Assyrians because of their idolatry (2 Ki. 17:7-23).
Likewise, many of the kings of Judah also worshiped idols. And finally, God allowed the kingdom of Judah to be invaded by the Babylonians because of their idolatry (Jer. 44:1-6). When some of these Jews fled to Egypt they were warned of disaster because of their idolatry (Jer. 44:1-30).
So Egypt was one of the nations that influenced the Israelites to worship idols instead of the true God. This idolatry led to the downfall of the Jewish nation when they were driven from their lands just as they had driven the Canaanites from their lands 770-900 years earlier.
Lessons for us
What can we learn from the role of Egypt in the history of the Israelites? They lived under the old covenant of Moses, whereas Christians live under the new covenant of Jesus.
First, God cares for His people. As He cared physically for the Israelites, so He cares spiritually for those who trust in Him through Jesus today. Their salvation is assured.
Second, God is powerful. As miracles accompanied the Israelites deliverance from Egypt (ten plagues; crossing the Red Sea), so miracles accompanied Christ’s act of salvation (Christ’s resurrection) and will accompany Christians deliverance from the presence of sin (their resurrection).
Third, God’s people needed to obey Him in order to benefit from His care and power. Obedience leads to blessing. To be delivered from Egypt the Israelites needed to obey God’s instructions given by Moses. Likewise, to be delivered from sin, we need to accept God’s gift of salvation through Jesus. Have you done this?
Fourth, disobedience and idolatry (following something or someone else than the true God) leads to God’s judgment. God wants His people to be faithful. Are idols keeping you from living for Jesus?
What can we tell the next generation about what God has done for us? That’s the best kind of family stories to tell.
Egypt is mentioned in the Bible more times than any other place outside Canaan/Israel (in 673 verses of the ESV). Egypt and Israel shared a border in antiquity as they do today. And Goshen in Egypt is about 400km (250 miles) from Jerusalem. Egypt (Mitsrayim in Hebrew, Strongs #4714) is named after the grandson of Noah (son of Ham) who settled there after the global flood (Gen. 10:6).
Israel is located between the Nile river (to the southwest) and the Euphrates river (to the north east). Nations thrived in these fertile river valleys and they were great powers in the ancient world. And it’s not surprising that the inhabitants of Israel were influenced by superpowers such as the Egyptians, Assyrians and Babylonians.
Written, December 2017
Because the old covenant is partially obsolete and the Sabbath is obsolete
Moroccan water sellers carry water in goat skins. This reminds me of the illustration of wine skins. Jesus said, “no one puts new wine into old (inelastic) wineskins. For the old skins would burst from the (fermentation) pressure, spilling the wine and ruining the skins. New wine is stored in new (elastic) wineskins so that both are preserved” (Mt. 9:17NLT). Jesus’ ministry was not a revitalization of Judaism but a new entity – “the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (Jn, 1:17NIV). Mixing Judaism (the old) and the ministry of Jesus (the new) is like putting new wine into old wineskins. So Jesus taught that the Old Testament laws are not a part of Christianity.
In a previous post I stated that the law of Moses (or the old covenant) is now obsolete and has been replaced because Christians have been “released from the law” (Rom. 7:6NIV). As a commentator disagreed with this viewpoint, I have decided to investigate the relationship between the old covenant and the new covenant in this post.
The law (Exodus to Deuteronomy) was given to the Israelites before they entered the promised land (Ex. 31:13), while the new covenant was promised to them before they were expelled from Judah and it was initially implemented by Jesus Christ (Jer. 31:31-34; 1 Cor. 11:25). The new covenant is an unconditional agreement which God will make with the people of Israel when the Lord Jesus sets up His kingdom on earth. Believers today enjoy some of its blessings, but its complete fulfillment will occur when Israel is restored and redeemed nationally.
What Paul says
When Paul was criticized by men in Corinth who mixed law with grace by teaching Christians that they must observe certain portions of the law of Moses in order to be fully accepted by God, he responded by comparing and contrasting the old and new covenants.
“6 He (God) has made us (apostles) competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter (the law of Moses) but of the Spirit (the gospel); for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. 7 Now if the ministry that brought death, which was engraved in letters on stone (the law of Moses), came with glory, so that the Israelites could not look steadily at the face of Moses because of its glory, transitory though it was, 8 will not the ministry of the Spirit be even more glorious? 9 If the ministry that brought condemnation was glorious, how much more glorious is the ministry that brings righteousness! 10 For what was glorious has no glory now in comparison with the surpassing glory. 11 And if what was transitory came with glory, how much greater is the glory of that which lasts!” (2 Cor. 3:6-11).
Paul says that the old (first) covenant (the law) brought:
– Condemnation because of our sin (Rom. 3:20; Gal. 3:10). Under this covenant, blessing was conditional on people’s obedience (with curses and death for disobedience). It was a covenant of works. But because it depended on humanity, and no one could perfectly keep the law, condemnation (and punishment) was inevitable.
– Death (v.6-7) was the penalty for disobedience and all humanity are guilty lawbreakers.
– And it was transitory (v.11), “The letter” (v.6) (the law of Moses), and that which was “engraved in letters on stone” (v. 7) (the ten commandments) was superseded by the new covenant. It was fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Note that this isn’t just the ceremonial laws, but it includes the Sabbath day requirement, which was “engraved in letters on stone”.
This is contrasted with the new covenant (the gospel) which brings:
– Freedom from the condemnation because of our sin (Jn. 8:35, 2 Cor. 3:17). Under this covenant, God promises to bless people through Christ’s sacrificial death. Because it depends on God, the new covenant is able to deliver its promised blessing to those who accept the good news of salvation. It’s a development of the Abrahamic and Davidic covenants, which were both unconditional (Gen. 15:9-21; 2 Sam. 7:5-16).
– Spiritual life (v.6).
– Righteousness (an inward transformation, v.9; 2 Cor. 3:18).
– More glory (v.7-11).
– And it is eternal; “it lasts” (v.11).
Clearly the new covenant is superior to the old one. Only by trusting in Jesus Christ can the condemnation and the sentence of death pronounced by the law on the lawbreaker be annulled and be replaced by the life-giving grace of the new covenant (2 Cor. 3:6, 16-17).
What Hebrews says
After the writer of Hebrews says that Jesus is greater than a Jewish high priest, he writes,
“6… the ministry Jesus has received is as superior to theirs (Jewish high priests) as the covenant of which He is mediator is superior to the old one, since the new covenant is established on better promises.
7 For if there had been nothing wrong with that first covenant, no place would have been sought for another. 8 But God found fault with the people and said:
“The days are coming, declares the Lord,
when I will make a new covenant
with the people of Israel
and with the people of Judah.
9 It will not be like the covenant
I made with their ancestors
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.
10 This is the covenant I will establish with the people 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.
11 No longer will they teach their neighbor,
or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’
because they will all know me,
from the least of them to the greatest.
12 For I will forgive their wickedness
and will remember their sins no more.”
13 By calling this covenant “new,” He has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and outdated will soon disappear” (Heb. 8:6-13).
This message is similar to Paul’s. The new covenant is a “better/superior covenant” (Heb. 7:22; 8:6) because of:
– Better promises (v.6).
– Its unconditional nature (Jer. 31:31-34). It depends on God’s faithfulness.
And the old covenant is inferior because in the first century:
– It was replaced by the new one (v.7).
– It was “obsolete and outdated” (v.13).
– It “will soon disappear”(v.13).
– It was conditional. It depended on people’s faithfulness, but they were unfaithful (v.8-9).
Hagar and Sarah
In his letter to the church in Galatia, Paul illustrates the difference between legalism and grace with the story of Hagar and Sarah. See Genesis 16 and 21 for the original account.
“21 Tell me, you who want to be under the law, are you not aware of what the law says? 22 For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the slave woman and the other by the free woman. 23 His son by the slave woman was born according to the flesh, but his son by the free woman was born as the result of a divine promise.
24 These things are being taken figuratively: The women represent two covenants. One covenant is from Mount Sinai and bears children who are to be slaves: This is Hagar. 25 Now Hagar stands for Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present city of Jerusalem, because she is in slavery with her children. 26 But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother. 27 For it is written:
“Be glad, barren woman,
you who never bore a child;
shout for joy and cry aloud,
you who were never in labor;
because more are the children of the desolate woman than of her who has a husband.”
28 Now you, brothers and sisters, like Isaac, are children of promise. 29 At that time the son born according to the flesh persecuted the son born by the power of the Spirit. It is the same now. 30 But what does Scripture say? “Get rid of the slave woman and her son, for the slave woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with the free woman’s son.” 31 Therefore, brothers and sisters, we are not children of the slave woman, but of the free woman.
1It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery” (Gal. 4:21 – 5:1),
The story had a symbolic application where Hagar represents the old covenant (the law, or legalism) and Sarah the new covenant (the gospel). Paul uses it because he said that legalizers threatened “the freedom we (Christians) have in Christ Jesus and to make us slaves” (Gal. 2:4). He saw a similarity between the freedom of Christianity (the new covenant) compared to the slavery of legalism (introducing parts of the old covenant); and the freedom of Sarah/Isaac compared to the slavery of Hagar/Ishmael.
This passage teaches that the old covenant:
– Enslaves (Gal. 2:4; 4:1, 22), because sinners are slaves to sin (Jn. 8:34; Rom. 6:16).
– Its followers persecute those following the gospel (v.29).
But the new covenant:
– Liberates and brings freedom (4:22; 5:1). This is freedom from sin being the dominant power in our lives (Rom. 6:15-18) and from the penalty of sin.
– Will be followed by more people that the old one (v.27).
– Its followers shouldn’t go back to the slavery of legalism (5:1).
– Its followers should separate from legalism and not tolerate it in the local church (v.30).
It’s obvious from these passages of Scripture that the new covenant is superior to the old one. But is the law of Moses (or the old covenant) now obsolete and has it been replaced? The answer seems to be yes (for Christians) and no (for non-Christians).
For Christians, the old covenant (including the Sabbath day) is obsolete and has been superseded by the new one because it was fulfilled in Jesus Christ. So the teaching that believers must keep the Sabbath day is contrary to Scripture, which is consistent with “do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ” (Col. 2:16-17). So the Sabbath day symbolized the type of eternal rest to be enjoyed by all who would believe on the Lord Jesus Christ (Heb. 4:3a, 9). But now that Jesus has come, the symbol is obsolete because it has been fulfilled.
However, the ministry of the law to unsaved people hasn’t ended: “the law is good if one uses it properly” (1 Tim. 1:8). The proper use of the law of Moses is to produce the knowledge of sin and so lead to repentance – the law was designed to show people their sinfulness (Rom. 3:20b; 5:50; 7:7). But as the Sabbath day law isn’t to be practiced by believers today, it can’t produce the knowledge of sin in unbelievers and so lead to repentance – “the law is made not for the righteous” (1 Tim. 1:9). In this respect, it is unique in the ten commandments. This is a consequence of the Sabbath day command not being repeated in the portion of the New Testament that’s addressed to the church.
The new covenant is superior to the old one. For believers, the old covenant (including the Sabbath day) is obsolete and has been superseded by the new one. But for non-believers, the old covenant (except the Sabbath day) can produce the knowledge of sin and so lead to repentance. So in both cases, the Sabbath day is now obsolete.
Written, November 2016
Also see: What about keeping the Sabbath day?
What does the New Testament say about the Sabbath?
I’ve been told that Christians should keep the ten commandments as they were God’s law and not the law of Moses. Is this true?
The Sabbath day difference between Jesus and Paul
I went to a church service that was held on Saturday instead of Sunday and was told that was when we should worship God. What dos the Bible say on this topic?
Is insistence on Sabbath-keeping legalism?
First Aid (Emergency First Response) courses teach us how to sustain life when there can be a danger of death. We follow the acrostic DRSABC: Danger, Response, Send for help, Airway, Breathing and CPR. We need oxygen and blood circulation to keep living. This is threatened in drownings and heart attacks. That’s why the treatment is cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). Death results if severe blood loss from arteries and veins isn’t stopped as can occur in car accidents and stabbings.
The Bible often uses figurative language to describe death. The main word used in this sense is “blood”. In order to understand this symbolism we will look at the usage of the word “blood” in the Old Testament, where “blood” is often a symbol of death. Likewise, the mention of Christ’s blood in the New Testament is a figurative way of referring to His death.
“Blood” in the Old Testament
The word “blood” (dam Strong’s #1818) is used in several senses in the Old Testament. The literal meanings include: the fluid flowing in arteries and veins of animals and people, which is essential for life (Gen. 9:4; Lev. 17:11, 14); and the blood of an animal sacrifice that could take the place of a sinner’s death in dealing with their sin (Lev. 17:11). The figurative meanings include: death (Num. 35:33; Josh. 2:19, Ezek. 5:17); killing a person (bloodshed), as in murder or capital punishment (Gen. 9:6; Dt. 17:8); killing an animal (Lev. 17:3-4); guilt (Lev. 20:9); a red color (2 Ki. 3:22); and wine, which is the juice of the grape (Gen. 49:11).
So the word “blood” is often used in the Bible as a figure of speech. And it has a range of meanings.
The meaning of atonement
The Hebrew word translated “atone” (kapar, Strong’s #3722) means to cover over or make amends. For example, the timbers of Noah’s ark were covered inside and outside with pitch (Gen. 6:14). In the other 103 occurrences of the word it means being made right with God by the forgiveness of sins. For example, animal sacrifices are said to “make atonement for them for the sin they have committed, and they will be forgiven” (Lev. 4:20, 26, 31, 35; 5:6, 10, 13, 16, 18; 6:7NIV). In this case the animal took the penalty as a substitute. An innocent animal took the punishment that was due to a guilty person.
Recently a Saudi blogger was sentenced to 1000 lashes for criticizing Islamic clerics, and seven religious freedom advocates offered to take the floggings in his place. That’s like atonement; when someone else takes your punishment.
Let’s look at some examples of the usage of the word “blood” in the Old Testament.
Abel – Murder
The first mention of the word “blood” in the Bible is associated with Abel. After Cain killed Abel, God told him, “Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground” (Gen. 4:10). This is a figure of speech called personification because blood doesn’t literally cry out. It means that there is a need for justice to be done. And justice was done when Cain was punished by losing his livelihood of cropping the land and he became a nomad. Here the word “blood” symbolizes death or murder. When Jesus summarized martyrdom in the Old Testament, He mentioned, “from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah” (Lk. 11:51), which means from the death of Abel to the death of Zechariah.
Noah – Lifeblood and murder
After the flood, God commanded Noah, “you must not eat meat that has its lifeblood still in it. And for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from each human being, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of another human being. Whoever sheds human blood, by humans shall their blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made mankind” (Gen. 9:4-6). Here the term “shedding blood” means murder. In this way, the word “blood” is associated with death. People are valuable because they are made in the image of God. That’s why the Israelites were told that execution was to be the punishment for murder (Ex. 21:12-14; Num. 35:16-32).
In this passage “blood” is associated with life and death. We know that if too much blood is lost from the body, life is replaced with death. In this sense blood is the life of the body. That’s why it’s translated “lifeblood”. But blood has no life on its own. Blood inside the body is a sign of life, while blood outside the body can be a sign of death. So blood can be associated with both life and death. But we will see that in the Bible it’s usually associated with death.
After the flood they were allowed to eat meat but prohibited from eating blood. This command was also given to the Israelites (Lev. 3:17; 7:26-27; 17:10-14; 19:26; Dt.12:15-16, 20-28; 15:23; 1 Sam. 14:32-35). And this is still one of the regulations today for Jewish kosher food. Both physical and spiritual reasons were probably behind this prohibition. Blood present in meat means it is not fully cooked, and eating uncooked meat can lead to disease or sickness. Another two reasons are given in this passage: “I will set my face against any Israelite or any foreigner residing among them who eats blood, and I will cut them off from the people. For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life” (Lev. 17:10-11). First, it was essential for life – “the life of a creature is in the blood” (Lev. 17:11, 14; Dt. 12:23). Second, because blood had a special role in animal sacrifices, it was not to be eaten as part of their food.
Joseph – Apparent violent death
When Joseph’s brothers sold him as a slave, they deceived their father by dipping his multicolored robe in goat’s blood and taking it to him. Then Jacob said, “It is my son’s robe! Some ferocious animal has devoured him. Joseph has surely been torn to pieces” (Gen. 37:33). So blood on the clothing was taken to be evidence of a violent death.
Moses – Animal sacrifices and forgiveness
In the first Passover each Israelite household in Egypt killed a lamb and put the blood around their front door. At midnight all the firstborn Egyptians and their animals were struck dead. But God told the Israelites “when I see the blood (around your doorways), I will pass over you” (Ex. 12:13). None of the Israelites died because a lamb had died instead of them. They benefited from the animal’s death.
The word “blood” is mentioned 88 times in the book of Leviticus. That’s the greatest number of any book in the Bible. On these occasions blood is associated with burnt, fellowship, sin and guilt offerings; offerings for ceremonial uncleanness; the dedication of Israelite priests; not eating blood; or it’s a symbol of murder (bloodshed), atonement (17:11), or death (20:9).
The blood of slaughtered animals was a part of the Israelites’ offerings. In the burnt, fellowship and guilt offerings, the priests splashed blood on the altar (Lev. Ch 1, 3, 7). And in the sin offering, the priest sprinkled blood in front of the curtain to the Most Holy Place as well (Lev. 4). But these offerings for sin couldn’t address unknown sins. Because of such sins, the tabernacle, the land and the nation were ceremonially unclean. So God instituted the Day of Atonement for the compete atonement of all sin (Lev. 16:33).
Blood was a significant part of the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) (Lev. 16). This was the only day of the year when the High Priest could enter the most Holy Place of the tabernacle/temple. A bull was killed and he sprinkled the blood on the ark of the covenant and in front of it to atone for the sins of his household. Then he did the same with the blood of a goat to atone for the Israelites’ sins. Then he put some of this blood on the horns of the altar. God wanted His people to know what happened in secret in the tabernacle. So the High Priest put his hands on another goat and confessed their sins and the scapegoat was taken away and released in the wilderness. Symbolically it carried away the sins of the people.
In all these cases, innocent animal life was given up to protect human life. The animals die so that the people can live. The Bible says that “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). The judgment and penalty for their sins were carried out through a transfer of the sin of the people to the animal sacrifice. Forgiveness is possible because the penalty of sin (death) is transferred to a sacrificial animal. The animal’s blood was evidence that the penalty had been paid. The transfer was also depicted by the scapegoat.
This is summarized in the New Testament, “the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed (ceremonially purified) with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Heb. 9:22). So in the animal sacrifices, blood stood for death and judgment. But it also enabled God’s people to continue living godly lives.
Moses – Covenant making
After God gave the Israelites the ten commandments and other instructions, Moses wrote them down (Ex. 24:3-8). He then read them to the people, and they promised to obey them. Then Moses built an altar and animals were slaughtered as offerings to God on the altar and the blood was splashed on the altar and splashed on the people. The blood on the altar symbolized God’s part in the covenant (His forgiveness) and the blood on the people symbolized their obligation to obey the covenant. The blood probably symbolized that they would die (like the sacrificial animal) if they broke the covenant (Gen. 15:10-18; Jer. 34:18-19). So the Mosaic covenant was confirmed by blood from animal sacrifices (Ex. 24:6-8).
Other examples of “blood” in the Old Testament
Murderers are sometimes identified by blood on their clothes or shoes. So they were referred to as having on them the blood of the person they killed. Since murder demanded punishment, the person who carried this out was said to be avenging the murdered person’s blood (Num. 35:19, 26-27; Ps. 79:10). This was said to take the blood away from those responsible to take vengeance, and to return it to the head of the murderer (1 Ki. 2:29-34). Murder is said to pollute the land (Num. 35:33; Ps. 106:38). It needs atonement: “Bloodshed pollutes the land, and atonement cannot be made for the land on which blood has been shed, except by the blood of the one who shed it” (Num. 35:33). Here murder is called “bloodshed” and “blood” stands for the death of the murderer.
To kill someone for no reason is to “sin against innocent blood” (1 Sam. 19:5ESV). Jeremiah said if they killed him, they would bring “the guilt of innocent blood” upon themselves (Jer. 26:15). If a person deserved to be put to death, or if they caused their own death, their blood was said to be on their own head and not on someone else’s (Josh. 2:19; 2 Sam. 1:16; 1 Ki. 2:37).
The symbolism of blood in the Old Testament
God chose blood as a symbol of life and death because of what it is. Blood is associated with both life and death. It’s a mixture of cells (red, white and platelets) and plasma that’s pumped through the arteries and capillaries to provide oxygen and nutrients to every cell of the body. The veins also carry away waste products. The loss of too much blood, without a transfusion, can lead to death, which is loss of life. The Bible says that “The body without the spirit is dead” (Jas. 2:26). Likewise, the body without sufficient oxygenated blood is dead. When our circulatory system stops, we die. That’s why CPR is important.
For us today, blood is mainly a symbol of life. Blood tests monitor our health and blood transfusions help to sustain life. If you Google “blood” and “death”, you mainly get web pages on computer games! Today blood is mainly associated with death when there is terrorism and war. But in ancient times, blood was mostly a symbol of death.
In animal sacrifices an innocent animal was a substitute for a guilty person. It took the penalty for their sin and rebellion against God. There was no other way to escape this death penalty. Likewise, Jesus Christ died for people like us who sin and rebel against God. He is our substitute. There was no other way of salvation to escape this death penalty. The Bible says, “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23). And “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). Have you accepted God’s gift that replaces our destiny of eternal death with eternal life?
An animal sacrifice also included a cost to the person giving the sacrifice. Animals were valuable to them. The price of the animal involved represented a price that had to be paid by the one providing the offering. Each time an animal sacrifice was made, the person giving it was reminded of the cost of sin. What about us? When are we reminded of the seriousness and the cost of sin? Does the Lord’s Supper help us remember this?
Day of atonement
Each year the High Priest entered the Most Holy Place of the tabernacle by means of the blood of animal sacrifices so the sins of the people could be forgiven. This was a physical picture of what Jesus did for us. He entered God’s presence by His death (“His own blood”) for our eternal redemption (Heb. 9:11-14. His was a superior sacrifice – it only needed to be done once, not annually. It superseded all the sacrifices associated with the day of atonement.
Isaiah described it as “he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are (spiritually) healed” (Isa. 53:5; 1 Pt. 2:24-25). Jesus died for our sins like a sacrificial animal. The innocent for the guilty. As our substitute; to make us right with God.
Pope Francis has just visited the former Nazi death camp Auschwitz where Maximillian Kolbe died. In 1941 when a prisoner escaped from the camp, the Nazis selected 10 others to be killed by starvation in reprisal for the escape. One of the 10 men selected to die began to cry: “My wife! My children! I will never see them again!” At this Maximilian Kolbe stepped forward and asked to die in his place. And his request was granted. The innocent substituted for the condemned and took the punishment.
Blood of the covenant
As Moses was the mediator of the old covenant that was ratified by “the blood of the covenant” (Ex. 24:8; Heb. 9:20) when blood was sprinkled on the people, Jesus was the mediator of the new covenant when He died. His death brought in the new covenant. As the death of animals, symbolized by their blood, atoned for the sins of the Israelites, Christ’s death atones for the sins of all who accept His sacrifice.
This relates to the Lord’s supper. After He drank from the cup of wine, Jesus said, “This is my blood of the (new) covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” and “This cup is the new covenant in my blood” (Mt. 26:28; Lk. 22:20; 1 Cor. 11:25). So Jesus is quoting from Exodus. Only this time He’s using a figure of speech in using the word “blood” to stand for His death. Did you know that the cup of wine in the Lord’s Supper represents the death of Jesus? How does this work? We have seen that in the Old Testament, the word “blood” can be used figuratively for the word “death”. Also wine is called “the blood of grapes” (Gen. 49:11; Dt. 32:14; Isa. 63:2). I suppose this came from the fact that if you crush grapes you get wine, while if you stab an animal you get blood. So death is linked to wine because they are both linked to blood in the Old Testament.
This was a superior covenant because it fulfilled the old one. Christ’s sacrificial death (which is called “blood” in the New Testament) fulfilled the animal sacrifices of the old covenant (Heb. 9:7-28; 13:11-12).
Although today we see blood as a life-giving substance, the Old Testament often uses the word “blood” as a symbol of death. Likewise, the mention of Christ’s blood in the New Testament is a figurative way of referring to His death. For example, “God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith” (Rom. 3:25). His death is described as “the shedding of His blood” and elsewhere as “His blood” or “the blood of Christ”, and it was like “a sacrifice of atonement”. Let’s remember it’s not referring to the fluid flowing through His body, which was just like yours and mine. Like the rest of His body, it was common to humanity.
Real blood from animals was evidence of their death as a sacrifice. They paid the death penalty as a substitute for people’s sins. That’s the background to the New Testament which shows Jesus as the ultimate sacrifice who paid the death penalty for us.
We have seen that the Israelites’ spiritual life was sustained by animal sacrifice, evidenced by their blood. This was a foretaste of the situation today where spiritual life begins with our acceptance of the death of Christ and is sustained by our ongoing appreciation of this by reading and meditating on Scripture.
Written, August 2016
Also see: Symbols of Christ’s death
Did you watch the recent soccer World Cup? One of the close games was the semi-final between the Netherlands and Argentina which went to a penalty shoot-out. There was a great cheer when Sergio Romero stopped the first Dutch shot. Even more when he did it again. He was a hero for the Argentinians.
We all have heroes. We all admire someone and have desires that can influence our behavior. Today we are looking at the highlights of the first 10 chapters of the book of Hebrews where we see that, because Jesus is greater than all our heroes and all our desires, He’s the one to follow and live for.
We don’t know who wrote the book of Hebrews, but we do know that it was written to Jews. That’s why it’s called Hebrews. These Jewish Christians were being persecuted for their faith (Heb. 12:4-13). Other Jews usually persecute those who convert to Christianity. In this instance, Jewish Christians were being tempted to go back to their Jewish customs and maybe force Gentiles to follow them as well (Gal. 2:14). The book answers the question, while the Jews have their heroes and customs, what do Christians have?
Who were the heroes of a devout first century Jew? Their earliest ancestors Abraham, Isaac, Jacob (who was also named Israel) and Joseph (Acts 7:2-16; Heb. 11:8-22). Their leaders such as Moses (Acts 7:20-41; Heb. 11:24-28 and Joshua were also heroes. Their kings such as David and Solomon. Their priests, particularly the High Priest. And their prophets who conveyed messages from God.
They also revered the Mosaic Law given at Mt Sinai which governed their life and the temple in Jerusalem because that was where God lived on earth (Acts 7:44-47).
Hebrews shows that Jesus is better than all their heroes. It’s a bit like a song by Rod Boucher that went:
God is better than football
God is better than beer
God is better than cricket
God’s there all the year!
Greater than the prophets
The writer of Hebrews jumps straight into his topic: “In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days He has spoken to us by His Son” (Heb. 1:1-2).
The Old Testament was written by the prophets and the New by the apostles and their associates. The revelation of God’s truth is added progressively as we move from Genesis through to Revelation. What Jesus taught is summarized in the gospels. His teachings supersede those of the Old Testament prophets. While the prophets predicted the Messiah (Acts 10:43), Jesus was the Messiah. So of course He is greater than the prophets.
Seven more reasons are given for Christ being superior to the prophets, including Jesus made the universe and sustains it. He is the divine God. Through His death, our sins can be forgiven. And after His resurrection and ascension, He now sits on a place of honor and privilege at God’s right hand. None of these apply to the prophets.
Who are equivalent to prophets today? I think that scientists could be because they speak with authority. So an updated principle is that “Jesus is greater than the scientists”.
A British geneticist has published a book titled, “The Serpent’s Promise: The Bible Retold as Science”. He claims the Bible is out of date and that science is a better way to understand the universe than through its doctrine. So he gives the scientific version of parts of the Bible.
What do we do when experts and scientists ridicule the Bible? What about when they make statements that conflict with the Bible? Do we always believe them? Or are we skeptical?
Not only is Jesus greater than the prophets and scientists, He is also greater than the angels.
Greater than the angels
Straight after this, Hebrews says that Jesus is superior to the angels (Heb. 1:4). The Mosaic Law was given by angels (Acts 7:53; Gal. 3:19; Heb. 2:2). In the Old Testament, angels brought messages from God (Zech. 1:14-17) and protected God’s people (Dan. 6:22). Angels also told Mary and Joseph about Christ’s birth (Mt. 1:20-25; Lk. 2:26-38). That’s why the Jews revered angels.
The Jews thought that Jesus was only a man and therefore He was inferior to the angels (Ps. 8:5; Heb. 2:7). But Hebrews says that Jesus is superior to angels in two ways: as Son of God (Heb. 1:4-14) and as Son of Man (Heb. 2:5-18).
As Son of God, Jesus has a close relationship with God the Father. That’s what this metaphor means. But God never addressed an angel as His Son. The angels praised God at His birth (Lk. 2:13-14) and will worship Christ when He returns to rule over the earth (Heb. 1:6). Another contrast is that Jesus rules while angels serve. Jesus is in a position of honor and power at God’s right hand, while angels serve God’s people (Heb. 11:13-14).
Hebrews stresses “It is not to angels He has subject the world to come” (Heb. 2:5). According to Psalm 8, mankind was to have dominion over the earth, not the angels (Ps. 8:6-8). But this dominion was lost when Adam sinned. Hebrews reminds us “Yet at present we do not see everything subject to them” (Heb. 2:8). This is illustrated by the fact that some people are still killed by animals. But there is hope because he writes, “But we do see Jesus … now crowned with glory and honor”. As Son of Man, in a coming day, Jesus will rule over the earth and restore mankind’s dominion over the rest of God’s creation on earth.
Then Hebrews describes how the effects of the fall into sin are reversed. Jesus became a human being and offered His perfect life as a sacrifice for our sin. It notes that Jesus became a man, not an angel and Jesus saved people, not angels (Heb. 2:16-17). So even as a man, Jesus was greater than the angels. He did what they couldn’t do.
Who are equivalent to angels today? I think that those into dreams and visions, meditation and the new age could be because they involve spiritual experiences and the mystical. So an updated principle is that “Jesus is greater than those promoting spiritual experiences”.
How do we respond when someone claims that John the Baptist was the reincarnation of Elijah? Or if they blame demons for all their ailments and misfortunes? What if they always seek to know God’s will through dreams and visions?
Not only is Jesus greater than the angels and those promoting spiritual experiences, He is also greater than Moses and Joshua.
Greater than Moses and Joshua
Moses was one of Israel’s greatest national heroes. He led them out of slavery in Egypt and received their law at Mt Sinai.
Next we are told. “Fix your thoughts on Jesus” (Heb. 3:1). He is our Apostle and High Priest. These are figures of speech. An apostle is sent – Jesus was sent to earth by God the Father. Whereas a high priest entered God’s presence to make atonement for the people of God (Heb. 2:17). So Jesus represents God to us and also represents us before God. He is a mediator or go-between.
Then there is another figure of speech – “God’s house” means God’s people – it is explained later as “we are His house” (Heb. 3:6). Moses was a faithful servant in all God’s house, which means that he served the Israelites (Heb. 3:5). But Jesus Christ was the builder of the house and He was God (Heb. 3:3-4. He was also faithful as the Son over God’s house (Heb. 3:6). Being a Son means that He is equal with God. So Jesus is greater than Moses.
Joshua took over from Moses and led the Israelites into Canaan, which was to be a land of rest for them. But most of them died before they reached Canaan and those that entered didn’t find that rest (Heb. 3:1-19). Instead there was conflict in Canaan, and sin, sickness, sorrow, suffering and death. While Joshua was unable to provide rest, it is available through Jesus Christ – “we who believed enter that rest” (Heb. 4:3). So Jesus is greater than Joshua.
Who are equivalent to Moses and Joshua today? I think that Presidents, Prime Ministers, kings and queens could be because they lead nations. So an updated principle is that “Jesus is greater than the leaders of nations”.
What if someone believes that a certain politician is superhuman and can solve all our problems? If they praise them and put them on a pedestal?
Not only is Jesus greater than Moses and Joshua and the leaders of nations, He is also greater than the Jewish high priests.
Greater than the Jewish high priests
Next Jesus is called “a great high priest” (Heb. 4:14). We have already said that He represents us to God like a high priest did for the Jews. His priesthood was greater than the Jewish one because it was like that of Melchizedek in the Old Testament (Gen. 14:18-20; Heb. 7:1-3). Melchizedek was king of Salem (now called Jerusalem) in the time of Abraham. His priesthood was similar to Jesus’ priesthood because it didn’t depend on his genealogy (he was not a descendant of Aaron like in the Jewish priesthood) and his priesthood continues forever (it didn’t end when he died like in the Jewish priesthood).
Three reasons are given to show that the priesthood of Melchizedek and Jesus is greater than that of Aaron:
- The first involves tithes and blessings (Heb. 7:4-10). Abraham paid Melchizedek a tithe of 10%. The one who collects a tithe has a greater position than the one who pays it. Melchizedek blessed Abraham. The one who blesses has a greater position than the one who is blessed.
- Second, there has been a change in the priesthood (Heb. 7:11-19). The eternal priesthood of Jesus has replaced the temporary priesthood of Aaron. But the Jewish priesthood was established by the Mosaic Law. This means that the law has also changed. Because of Jesus, both the Jewish priesthood and their law have been replaced. When Jesus died this was signified by the tearing apart from top to bottom of the curtain to the Most Holy Place in the temple. (Mt. 27:51; Mk. 15:38; Lk. 23:45).
- Third, the priesthood of Melchizedek and Jesus is perpetual and permanent (Heb. 7:23-28). Jesus lives forever, whereas the Jewish high priests were replaced when they died. Also Jesus is “holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens”. He didn’t need to offer sacrifices for His own sins because he was sinless. Also, “He offered Himself”, not an animal.
So the Jewish priesthood was superseded by a divine eternal priesthood.
Who are equivalent to the high priests today? I think that archbishops and popes could be because they are religious leaders. So an updated principle is that “Jesus is greater than the religious leaders”.
What if someone believes that a certain religious leader is always right and can solve all our problems? If they put them on a pedestal?
Not only is Jesus greater than the Jewish high priests and the religious leaders, He also offered a greater sacrifice.
His sacrifice is greater than the Jewish sacrifices
We now come to the writer’s main point – “Now the main point of what we are saying is this: We do have such a high priest, who sat down at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven” (Heb. 8:1). Here’s his answer to the Jews who say ‘We have the temple, the priests, the offerings, and the ceremonies; but you Christians have nothing like this’. His response is ‘We have such a high priest’ who sits at the right hand of God in heaven! Our high priest is in heaven close to God! He is greater than all your Jewish high priests. We have Jesus Christ. What you have is “a copy and shadow of what is in heaven” (Heb. 8:5). You have the model, we have the full-scale. You have a photo or illustration or copy or shadow or silhouette, we have the real thing (Heb. 8:3; 9:23).
Christ’s ministry as a high priest was superior to that of a Jewish high priest because He worked under a superior covenant (Heb. 8:6). The new covenant, which superseded the old Mosaic covenant has “better promises” because they are unconditional, not conditional on obedience like the old covenant (Heb. 7:22; 8:6b-13). “God found fault with the people” because they were unable to obey the Law of Moses. So it was replaced with the new covenant which depended on God alone. He said:
- “I will put my laws in their minds”
- “I will be their God, and they will be my people”
- “I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more”
This makes the old covenant and its priests and animal sacrifices obsolete (Heb. 8:13).
Since the writer is going to contrast the offerings of Christ and Judaism, he selects the most important offering – the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur; Lev. 16) (Heb. 9:7). This is the most important day in the Jewish calendar. On this day the high priest sacrificed an animal to pay for his sins and the sins of the people. He entered the Most Holy place of the temple and sprinkled blood on the mercy seat of the ark. But Jesus put away sins, not merely covered them. And He gave believers a clear conscience, not an annual reminder of sins (Heb. 9:14, 26, 28; 10:3). This shows that Christ’s ministry is greater than that of the Jewish high priest on the Day of Atonement.
But Jesus was not only the high priest, He was also the sacrifice. He was a “better sacrifice” (Heb. 9:23) because He offered Himself as a sacrifice, instead of animals (Heb. 9:25-26). One sacrifice was sufficient – it was “once for all” (Heb. 7:27; 10:10), not again and again (Heb. 9:25). It gave “eternal redemption” (Heb. 9:12). Fortunately the Old Testament system of sacrifices has now been superseded by Christ’s sacrifice (Heb. 10:8-10).
The New Covenant is an unconditional agreement of grace which God will make with the Israelites when the Lord Jesus sets up His kingdom on earth (Jer. 31:33-34). Today Christians enjoy some of the blessings of the New Covenant but its complete fulfilment waits until Israel is restored and redeemed nationally.
What is equivalent to Jewish sacrifices today? I think that good works could be because that is how people generally think they will get to heaven. So an updated principle is that “Jesus’ sacrifice is greater that our good works”.
We get requests to support charities and the needy. Some do volunteer community service. How do we rate such good works against spreading the good news about Christ’s sacrifice?
Lessons for us
Are we tempted like the Jewish Christians to go back to our old heroes? To those who occupied us before we changed to follow the Lord. Those which are popular and followed by the majority.
We have seen that Jesus is greater than all the Jewish heroes like the prophets, angels, Moses and Joshua, and the priests. He is also greater than all our heroes whoever they may be including scientists, those promoting spiritual experiences, and the leaders of nations and religions. Likewise Jesus’ sacrifice is greater than the Jewish sacrifices and our good works.
What about our desires for money and what it can buy? Our desires for recognition, success and popularity? And our desires for recreation, entertainment, leisure and pleasure? Are we placing these temptations above living for Jesus? How do we use our time? How do we spend our money?
Because Jesus is greater than all our heroes and all our desires, He’s the greatest of all. So let’s follow and live for Him.
Written, July 2014
Also see the next article in this series:
Keep on running – Heb. Ch 10-12
Also see summary of the book of Hebrews:
Never give up!
We live in a world of contracts. They regulate our lives and financial transactions. There are employment contracts and marriage contracts. Contracts for the supply of telephone and internet services. Contracts when you buy a car or a property or build a house. Anti-bullying contracts at schools.
This article looks at some of God’s contracts in the Bible. We will see that because God keeps His contracts, we can rely on them.
Adam and Eve lived in utopia. But after they disobeyed God, they were banished from the Garden of Eden. Sinful behaviour increased until it had to be punished when God destroyed the world in a global flood and started again with Noah’s family. Noah lived about 2,500 years BC. We see two aspects of God’s character in His response to humanity’s sin. First there is judgement and punishment. Second there is grace and mercy. God’s covenants in the Old Testament are contracts with great promises.
The first five books of the Bible were written by Moses at about 1,500 years BC. The most important types of contracts, agreements and treaties at this time involved kings. There were two types:
- Royal land grants – A king’s free gift of land or some other benefit to a loyal servant. The grant was normally perpetual and unconditional, but the servant’s descendants benefited from it only if they continued to be loyal.
- Suzerain–vassal treaties – A treaty between a great king and the lesser kings that he ruled. Here the one with the political control is called the suzerain (a French word) and the other is called the vassal (a Latin word). The suzerain protected the vassal as long as the vassal was loyal to him. It was a conditional treaty.
We will now look at a series of covenants/contracts that God made with humanity. A contract is a legally binding agreement between two parties.
After the flood, God told Noah’s family, “Never again will all life be destroyed by the waters of a flood; never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth” (Gen. 9:11NIV). He called it “a covenant for all generations to come” and an “everlasting covenant” (Gen. 9:12, 16). It was between God and every living creature on earth and was symbolised by the rainbow. It was unconditional, like a royal land grant.
When in Babylon, Ezekiel had the vision of God’s glory, and the radiance was like a rainbow (Ezek. 1:28). When on Patmos, John had the vision of the throne in heaven, which was encircled by a green rainbow (Rev. 4:3). The rainbow symbolises that God keeps His covenants/contracts.
How did people respond to God’s promise never to destroy the world again with a global flood? At this time they were also told to “fill the earth” (Gen. 9:1, 7). But they were disobedient and built the city of Babel instead and resisted being scattered across the earth (Gen. 11:1-4). That’s behaving like a teenager who is given everything by their parents, but rebels and goes their own way.
What about us? The Bible says that Jesus is “sustaining all things by His powerful word” and “in Him all things hold together” (Col. 1:17; Heb. 1:11). Do we live as though God sustains the universe, or do we ignore Him and go our own way?
So the first covenant/contract was a promise of God’s protection and now we will move to the second.
Promised nation and land
When the people proudly built a tower as a monument to celebrate their achievements, God judged their sin by causing the people to start using different languages (Gen. 11:7-9). Because they couldn’t understand each other, they scattered across the earth into different nations that spoke different languages.
Then God responded with grace and mercy and promised to give Abraham’s descendants the land of Canaan from the Wadi of Egypt to the Euphrates River (Gen. 15:18-21). This was unconditional like a royal land grant. By the way, this promise has not yet been fulfilled. Although Solomon ruled over it as over vassal states, his people didn’t occupy all of it themselves (1 Ki. 4:21, 24).
How did they respond? Sarah, unable to have any children, persuaded Abraham to father a child by her servant, Hagar (Gen. 16:2). The child was Ishmael, the ancestor of the Arabic people. Sarah and Abraham lacked faith and took matters into their own hands.
So God repeated the promise to give Abraham’s descendants the land of Canaan and promised to be their God (Gen. 17:1-22). He promised a son who was to be named Isaac who would have many descendants and Ishmael would also have many descendants. It was an everlasting covenant/contract (Gen. 17:7-8). They were to undergo male circumcision because it was the sign of this covenant/contract (Gen. 17:11).
How did they respond? Abraham promptly circumcised the males in his household. When they were told that Sarah would have a son, Abraham worshiped and laughed in amazement, while Sarah laughed in disbelief as she was past the childbearing age (Gen. 17:17-18; 18:9-15). In this case Sarah doubted God’s promise and needed to hear, “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” (Gen. 18:14).
Politicians make promises before elections. But people often doubt them because afterwards they can get downgraded into core and non-core promises or scrapped because it is alleged that the circumstances have changed.
What about us? In the New Testament, God promises eternal life, the Holy Spirit, and Christ’s second coming. Do we treat God like we treat politicians? Do we live as though these are doubtful non-core promises? Are we like Abraham who trusted God or like Sarah who didn’t?
So the second covenant/contract was a promise of a nation and land and now we will move to the third.
The promises given to Abraham were repeated to Isaac and Jacob; and Jacob’s family followed Joseph to Egypt. After being in Egypt for many years, Jacob’s family grew to a nation of 2 million people and Moses led them out in the exodus to Canaan. At Mt Sinai, God promised the Israelites they would be His special people – “my treasured possession” (Ex. 19:5) and He would drive out the Canaanites so they could occupy their land (Ex. 19 – 31). As it was conditional on obeying God’s laws, including the 10 commandments, social laws and religious laws, this covenant/contract was like a Suzerain-vassal agreement. There were blessings for obedience and punishment for disobedience (Lev. 26, Dt. 28-29). It was based on works; if people obeyed, God would do His part. The Sabbath day was given to Israel as a sign of this covenant/contract (Ex. 31:13, 17).
How did they respond? The 4th time that Moses went up Mt Sinai to met with God lasted 40 days (Ex. 24:18) and the people got impatient and made a golden idol shaped like a calf (Ex. 32:1-6). It was not a good start! Then after the spies explored Canaan, the people rebelled against God and wanted to go back to Egypt (Num. 14:1-4). Their punishment was to wander in the wilderness for 38 years, while those that rebelled died before they reached Canaan.
After the Israelites occupied Canaan, they were ruled by Judges for about 300 years. Then they became a monarchy. Saul was the first king and David the second. David lived about 1,000 years BC. Later in the monarchy they divided into the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. All of Israel’s kings were ungodly; they followed idols instead of keeping the covenant/contract. They were punished in the Assyrian conquest of 722BC. Many of the kings of Judah also followed idols instead of keeping the covenant/contract. They were punished in the Babylonian conquest of 586BC.
If a tenant fails to pay the rent on time or damages the property, they are warned of the danger of being evicted. If they continue failing to comply with the contract then the lease is terminated and they are evicted.
Fortunately, it wasn’t the end for the Jews as some returned to Judah after the exile in Babylon. But we will see later that this covenant/contract is now called the “old covenant”.
Likewise, sin shouldn’t be the end of our fellowship with the Lord. The Bible says, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn. 1:9). If we confess our sins, then we can experience God’s parental forgiveness.
So the third covenant was a promise of a special relationship with God and now we will move to the fourth.
When king David planned to build a temple for God, God promised him an everlasting dynasty, a great name, and peace for the nation of Israel (2 Sam. 7:5-16, 28; 1 Chron. 17:11-14; 2 Chron. 6:16; Ps. 89:3-4). His son Solomon would build the temple and experience God’s mercy. This covenant/contract was unconditional like a royal land grant. But it was conditional for Solomon’s descendants (Ps. 132:11-12). It was repeated by Jeremiah and Luke (Jer. 33:17-26; Lk. 1:32-33). The prophets also predicted a Messiah who would bring peace and prosperity.
A descendant of David ruled in Judah until the Babylonian conquest in 586BC when the descendants went into exile and there was no kingdom and no king for about 400 years. Then King Herod ruled but he wasn’t Jewish as he had Edomite (Idumean) ancestry. At this time Jesus was rejected as king, but since His ascension, He is on His throne in heaven. Peter and Paul said that Jesus Christ was the fulfilment of God’s promise to David (Acts 2:29-36; 13:20-24). Jesus is a descendant of David (Lk. 3). His kingdom is everlasting.
Unrest has stopped peace talks in the Ukraine and between Pakistan and the Taliban. There is little progress in Syrian and Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Peace is illusive in the world’s hot spots.
The Bible says that this world will not have peace until Jesus returns to set up His kingdom. Just as Solomon had a peaceful kingdom, Jesus will bring peace to the world. Do we believe this?
So the fourth covenant/contract was a promise of a dynasty and now we will move to the final one.
We’ve seen that the Israelites couldn’t keep the old covenant/contract. The prophet Jeremiah said that because they had broken the covenant by disobedience and idolatry, God would bring a disaster (Jer. 11). He predicts a Babylonian conquest and 70 year exile (Jer. 12-13; 25; 27). Then he predicts that Israel would be restored after the captivity (Jer. 30-31).
He also promises the Israelites a new covenant/contract, which becomes effective after the 2nd advent of Christ (Jer. 31:31-34). “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the Lord. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more” (Jer. 31:33-34).
The nation is revived and indwelt by the Holy Spirit (Ezek. 36:25, 27); they willingly obey the Word of God; they have a unique relationship with God; everyone will know the Lord; their sins are forgiven and forgotten; and the nation continues forever (Jer. 31:35-37). In fact Paul says that Jews will begin to turn to God after the rapture (Rom. 11:25-26). This was a mystery to people in the first century and many are ignorant of it today.
This is called the “New covenant” (Heb. 8). It’s a promise for the Jews, involving Christ’s millennial reign on earth which will merge into the eternal kingdom. This covenant/contract was instituted at the first Lord’s Supper when Jesus said, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you” (Lk. 22:20). It began at His death when the curtain inside the temple was torn in two. His death makes the new covenant/contract possible. It’s the foundation.
Ancient covenants were validated by the sacrificial death of an animal (Gen. 15:9-21; Heb. 9:19). Christ had to die before the new covenant/contract commenced. He is the mediator of the new covenant/contract (Heb. 12:22).
The blessings of the new covenant/contract for the Jews are both physical and spiritual. Believers enter into it spiritually; they enjoy its spiritual blessings. Our sins are forgiven and we have peace with God if we accept the gospel by believing that Christ paid the penalty for our sin. Gentiles like us have been grafted into the tree of the faithful, but in future believing Jews will be grafted back into the tree (Rom.11:17, 23-24).
The new covenant/contract is different to the one given at Mt Sinai. It is unconditional like a royal land grant. It depends on God alone. The old covenant/contract of the Jewish law is now obsolete (Heb. 8:13). We shouldn’t live by those rules and practices. The old covenant/contract was a shadow of what was to come. Its purpose was to bring a knowledge and conviction of sin (Rom. 3:20; Gal. 3:10). It was temporary, until the time of Christ. God confirmed this by destroying the temple in AD 70 (1 Cor. 3:7, 11). The new covenant/contract is eternal (Heb. 13:20). Since Christ’s death, the Jewish law has been replaced with the Christian faith and the Jews have been replaced by the church as God’s people on earth (Gal. 3:23-25).
With the advent of computers, typewriters are now obsolete. Photocopiers have made carbon paper obsolete. Other things like floppy disks and video tapes are also obsolete. So let’s not be tempted to try to please God by following the Old Testament laws, because they are now obsolete.
The gospel is called the “new covenant” (2 Cor. 3:6). Because it depends on God and not humanity, it brings forgiveness of sins, something the old covenant/contract couldn’t do. It’s a “better covenant” with “better promises” (Heb. 7:22; 9:6) as explained in Hebrews chapters 8-10. The law promised blessing for obedience but threatened death for disobedience. It required righteousness but didn’t give the ability to produce it. The gospel imputes righteousness where there is none and empowers believers to live righteously. It’s better, because it relies on God alone. The Old Testament offerings were ceremonial and ritual, they didn’t deal with the guilt of sin (Heb. 9:9-10). Christ’s sacrifice was superior, it was once for all.
The Lord’s Supper is our symbol of the new covenant/contract (Lk. 22:20; 1 Cor. 11:25). Do we celebrate it regularly and recall our spiritual blessings?
So the final covenant/contract was a promise of Jewish revival and spiritual blessings for believers.
Lessons for us
What can we learn from these five covenants/contracts that God made with humanity?
We have seen that God’s covenants in the Old Testament are contracts with great promises. They illustrate God’s grace and mercy.
The covenant/contract often had a sign or symbol to remind people of it:
- Rainbow – given to Noah to remind of God’s protection for all
- Male circumcision – given to Abraham to remind of Jewish nation and land
- Sabbath day – given to Moses to remind of the Jewish relationship with God (They were His special people)
The other two covenants didn’t include a sign, although the Lord’s supper reminds Christians of the spiritual blessings of the new covenant/contract (Lk. 22:20; 1 Cor. 11:25) and receiving the Holy Spirit could also be viewed as a sign (Eph. 1:13).
They show us that God keeps His covenants/contracts. He is faithful. In particular the rainbow symbolises that God keeps His covenants/contracts. Many of the promises he made in the Old Testament have already been fulfilled. But not all of them.
We have seen that people don’t always accept what God offers to them. Some trust in them like Abraham, while others rebel against them like the Israelites. Do we live as though God is our master, our Suzerain, and we are His servant, His vassal?
Some may say the revival in the new covenant/contract only applies to Christians and that God is finished with the Jews. They are extinct as a separate entity in God’s plans for the future. But when he wrote Romans in AD 57, Paul predicted a Jewish revival and it hasn’t happened yet (Romans 11). Also in AD 55 he divided people into three categories, “Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God” (1 Cor. 10:32). The Greeks are unconverted Gentiles and the church includes believing Jews and Gentiles. Also Jews appear in John’s visions of the future in the book of Revelation (Rev. 7:4-8; 11:1-2; 14:1-5; 15:5-8). It includes 144,000 Jewish believers who are sealed for their protection. Although this was written in AD95, 25 years after the temple was destroyed, it hasn’t happened yet. So according to the Bible, God isn’t finished with the Jews. If He was, why has the Jewish nation returned to Israel of recent times after a gap of about 1,900 years?
We have seen how God’s grace and mercy flows through the Old Testament covenants/contracts into the New Testament and to us another 2,000 years later. In a world that has no time for God, and in the struggles of life, it’s good to know that He controls the big picture.
So let’s be like Abraham trusting that God keeps His covenants/contracts.
Because God keeps His contracts, we can rely on them.
Written, February 2014
Perseverance or backsliding?
The Bible records many of the words spoken and written by people in ancient times. In this article we look at what we can learn from some of the words spoken by six godly men near the end of their lives. The men are: Joseph, Moses and Joshua from the Old Testament and Jesus, Stephen and Paul from the New Testament.
Joseph was the 11th son of Jacob. As Jacob’s name was changed to Israel, Joseph was one of the original children of Israel! Jacob’s descendants were God’s special people in the Old Testament times. Joseph was sold as a slave in Egypt and rose to second in command under Pharaoh king of Egypt. God used him to save his family and the Egyptians from a 7-year drought – in this sense he was their savior. During this time his father’s household also moved to Egypt.
Final words. At the age of 110 years, “Joseph said to his brothers, ‘I am about to die. But God will surely come to your aid and take you up out of this land to the land He promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.’ And Joseph made the Israelites swear an oath and said, ‘God will surely come to your aid, and then you must carry my bones up from this place’” (Gen. 50:24-25NIV). As he knew that God had promised the land of Canaan to the Israelites and trusted that God would take them from Egypt to Canaan, he made them promise to take his mummy (embalmed body) with them so it could be buried in Canaan.
Lesson for us. Joseph’s faith is an example for us to follow, “By faith Joseph, when his end was near, spoke about the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt and gave instructions concerning the burial of his bones” (Heb. 11:22). “Faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see” (Heb. 1:1). So up to the end of his life Joseph trusted that God’s promises would be fulfilled. He didn’t backslide from when he trusted God in his youth.
Moses was an Israelite born in Egypt in the third generation after Joseph. God used him to rescue the Israelites from slavery in Egypt – in this sense He was their savior. In the exodus about 2 million Israelites miraculously crossed the Red Sea and travelled towards Canaan. He took Joseph’s mummy with him (Ex. 13:19).
Final words. Before his death at the age of 120 years Moses transferred leadership of the Israelites to Joshua and told him, “Be strong and courageous, for you must go with this people into the land that the LORD swore to their ancestors to give them, and you must divide it among them as their inheritance. The LORD Himself goes before you and will be with you; He will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged “(Dt. 31:7-8). He encouraged Joshua to continue leading the people by reminding him of God’s continual presence. Then he taught them a new song and gave a farewell message in which he assured them of God’s protection and support, “The eternal God is your refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms” (Dt. 33:27).
Lesson for us. Christians should appreciate God’s continual presence, protection and support via the indwelling Holy Spirit. We should be encouraged by this, whatever our role may be. This also helps us to be contented and avoid the love of money or possessions (Heb. 13:5). Also, are we training the next generation in God’s ways like Moses trained Joshua?
As one of the faithful spies, Joshua didn’t die in the desert like the rest of the Israelites who rebelled against God. After the death of Moses he led the Israelites into Canaan.
Final words. In a farewell message before he died at the age of 110 years Joshua said, “Now fear the LORD and serve Him with all faithfulness. Throw away the gods your ancestors worshiped beyond the Euphrates River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD. But if serving the LORD seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.” (Josh. 24:14-15). He urged them to worship God instead of idols. At this time they buried Joseph’s mummy in Canaan in accordance with his request (Josh. 24:32). The Israelites followed the Lord throughout the lifetime of Joshua, but turned to idolatry soon afterwards (Josh. 24:31; Judges 2:7, 10-13).
Lesson for us. Godly people like Joshua can have a great influence on others. They are faithful to the end of life and don’t backslide like the others who died before reaching Canaan and so didn’t enjoy their inheritance on earth.
According to Luke’s genealogy, Jesus Christ was in the 52rd generation after Joseph (Lk. 3:23-37). Jesus was unique as He was not only a person like us, but He was also the Son of God who made the universe (Lk. 1:35)! Because He was divine, Jesus lived a perfect life and did no wrong. But He was executed and then came back to life and later returned to heaven. When Jesus died He took all the punishment that we deserve so that we can go to heaven if we trust in Him. In this sense He is a Savior for all humanity.
Final words. At the age of about 33 years, after the three hours of darkness when He was suffering crucifixion, Jesus said “It is finished” (Jn. 19:30). This meant that he had finished what He came to do, which was to suffer and die on our behalf. The way had been provided for sinners like us to be saved from eternal punishment and go to heaven instead. Before His ascension into heaven, Jesus told His followers, “…you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8b). They would tell others living across the known world about Jesus.
Lesson for us. First, we need to accept Christ’s gift of salvation, because we can’t do anything else to deserve heaven. Second, once we follow Jesus we need to share the good news about Him to others.
Stephen was one of the seven men chosen to serve in the first church at Jerusalem. He was “full of faith and of the Holy Spirit”. Because Stephen preached powerfully about Jesus, the Jews made false accusations about him. In a long speech he listed the failures of the Jewish people, which made the Jews so furious that they stoned him to death.
Final words. “While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ Then he fell on his knees and cried out, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’” (Acts 7:59-60). Jesus made similar statements before He died (Lk. 23:34, 46).
Lesson for us. The more we focus on Jesus and what he has done for us, the more we become like Him.
Paul was a young Jewish leader who persecuted Christians and was associated with the stoning of Stephen. But God changed his life in a spectacular way and he became a follower of Jesus who spread across the Roman Empire the good news of Jesus had done.
Final words. In his last letter Paul wrote, “… The time for my departure is near. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for His appearing” (2 Tim. 4:6-8). He continued to trust God even though life had been difficult and the end of his service was near. He had obeyed the doctrines of the Christian faith and passed them on to others such as Timothy. Like the winner of a Greek athletic race was awarded a wreath (1 Cor. 9:25), his faithful service would be rewarded at the Judgment Seat of Christ.
Lesson for us. Godly people like Paul remain faithful to the end of life and don’t backslide like Demas who “loved this world” and deserted Paul (2 Tim. 4:10).
Until our final day, let’s imitate these godly men by having:
- The faith of Joseph that God keeps His promises
- The assurance of Moses that God is always with us as His Holy Spirit, who provides security and contentment.
- The godly influence of Joshua who didn’t backslide
- The message of reconciliation with God through Jesus Christ
- The Christ-like life of Stephen
- The perseverance of Paul who didn’t backslide
Because of the examples of these final words, “let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him He endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider Him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart” (Heb. 13:1-3). If we pay careful attention to these examples “we do not drift away” from an active faith in Christ (Heb. 2:1).
Written, December 2012
I’ve been told that Christians should keep the ten commandments as they were God’s law and not the law of Moses. Is this true?
Based on their interpretation of the Bible, some people believe that the ‘ten commandments’ and the ‘law of Moses’ are two completely separate laws; the latter being no longer applying today as it was temporary, but the former being God’s law that is eternal. One of the passages used to support this belief is part of Daniel’s prayer: “We have not obeyed the LORD our God or kept the laws He gave us through His servants the prophets. All Israel has transgressed Your law and turned away, refusing to obey You. Therefore the curses and sworn judgments written in the Law of Moses, the servant of God, have been poured out on us, because we have sinned against You” (Dan. 9:10-11NIV). Daniel says that God gave the Jews laws, including the ten commandments, through prophets such as Moses. Clearly, in this passage, “the laws He gave us through His servants the prophets”, “Your law” and the Law of Moses” are synonymous. The sins that Daniel was confessing included, “We have been wicked and have rebelled; we have turned away from Your commands and laws. We have not listened to Your servants the prophets” (Dan. 9:5b-6a). I can see no justification in claiming that “Your law” is restricted to the ten commandments and “the Law of Moses” does not include the ten commandments.
Because the people were terrified when God gave them the ten commandments at Mt Sinai, they asked if they could receive future messages via Moses (Dt. 5:23-31). As God granted this request, the other commandments were given to Moses and he taught them to the Israelites. So, all the commandments in the Pentateuch came from God.
Before the Israelites entered Canaan, Moses reminded them to “keep the commands of the LORD your God that I give you” (Dt. 4:2). They were especially instructed to remember the giving of the ten commandments (Dt. 4:9-13). Then in between two references to the ten commandments (Dt. 4:10-13; 5:1-22), the Bible says “This is the law Moses set before the Israelites” (Dt. 4:44). So the ten commandments are part of the law of Moses: Moses communicated the ten commandments to the Israelites (Dt. 5:4-5) and he recorded them in the Pentateuch.
When Jesus was asked which was the greatest commandment, He said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Deut. 6:5; Lev. 19:18; Mt. 22:37-40). This statement seems to be a summary of the ten commandments as duties towards God (Deut. 6:5 and the first 4 commandments) and towards people (Lev. 19:18 and the other 6 commandments). The ten commandments give the basic principles of Jewish law whereas their application to particular situations is given in the detailed laws in the Pentateuch.
Today the people of God comprise the church, which is made up of all true Christians. As the church commenced on the day of Pentecost, the part of the Bible that is specifically addressed to the church are the books from Acts to Revelation. Prior to this time (Genesis 12 to John); the Jews were God’s people on earth. What does Acts to Revelation of the Bible say about Christians keeping the ten commandments?
Christians are no longer under the Jewish law and are freed from its condemnation because Christ has fulfilled the law by paying the penalty of death (Mt. 5:17; Rom. 6:14-15; 7:1-6; Gal. 3:19, 24-25). The Mosaic Covenant under which the law was given is now obsolete (Heb. 8:13). Instead, God’s commandment to us is “to believe in the name of His Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another” (1 Jn 3:23). Our love for Christ will result in obeying His commands (Jn. 14:15; 1 Jn. 5:1-3; 2 Jn. 6)
Christians seek to live holy lives, not by following the ten commandments, but by allowing Christ to live through them (Gal. 2:19-20). They seek to please the Lord Jesus by following His teachings and those of the apostles (1 Cor. 9:21).
Paul doesn’t distinguish between the ten commandments and the other laws that were given to Moses: he says that the ten commandments, “which was engraved in letters on stone”, were transitory like the other laws (2 Cor. 3:7-11). They were not permanent, whereas the gospel is permanent. Since Christ’s death, the Jewish law has been replaced with the Christian faith and the Jews have been replaced by the church as God’s people on earth (Gal. 3:23-25).
Nine of the ten commandments are given between Acts to Revelation as God’s principles for holy living for Christians:
- Don’t worship any other god except the one true God (1 Cor. 8:4-6)
- Don’t worship idols (1 Cor. 10:7,14; 1 Jn. 5:21)
- Don’t misuse God’s name (Jas. 2:7)
- Keep the Sabbath day – This instruction is not mentioned in Acts to Revelation, and Christians shouldn’t be condemned for failing to keep it (Col. 2:16) – see separate post on this topic
- Honor your parents (Eph. 6:1-3)
- Don’t murder (Jas. 2:11)
- Don’t commit adultery (Jas. 2:11)
- Don’t steal (Eph.4:8)
- Don’t give false testimony (Col. 3:10)
- Don’t covet (Eph. 5:3)
The last six commandments have been summarized as “love your neighbour as yourself” (Rom. 13:8-10).
So, because Christians relate to God via Jesus Christ and not via keeping Jewish laws, they are under no obligation to keep the ten commandments. Instead, they seek to please the Lord by obeying the teachings of Christ and the apostles.
Written, October 2011
Also see: What about keeping the Sabbath day?
What does the New Testament say about the Sabbath?
I went to a church service that was held on Saturday instead of Sunday and was told that was when we should worship God. What does the Bible say about this topic?
The Sabbath day difference between Jesus and Paul
Why the new covenant is better
Is insistence on Sabbath-keeping legalism?