Commentary on "The Two Covenants"
Day 5: Wednesday, November 30, 2011 - Hagar and Mount Sinai
The author moves on to the Sinatic or Old Covenant which is represented by the slave woman Hagar in Galatians 4. The author suggests that the Sinatic Old Covenant was similar to the Abrahamic covenant and makes the astonishing statement, "In both cases, God emphasizes what He will do for His people. He does not ask the Israelites to promise to do anything to earn His blessings; instead, they are to obey as a response to those blessings." In dealing with how Sinai is portrayed in Galatians 4, he goes on to state, "Paul is not claiming that the law given at Sinai was evil or abolished. He is concerned with the Galatians' legalistic misapprehension of the law."
First let us deal with the authors contention that the Sinatic Old Covenant was similar to the Abrahamic covenant and that the promises of Old Covenant were not conditioned on obedience. In doing so, it is worth taking the time to fully understand the Old Covenant from Sinai. This is the most prominent covenant in the Old Testament. In fact, when we use the term "Old Testament" we are referring primarily to the Mosaic/Old Covenant.
The Greek word "diatheke" can be translated into English as either "covenant" or "testament". The English words "covenant" and "testament" are used almost interchangeably in the KJV, e.g. the KJV in one place translates as "Ark of the Covenant (diatheke)" and at another place translates as "Ark of the Testament (diatheke)". So when we are talking about "Testaments" we're really talking about "Covenants". We have divided our Bibles in reference to the two most prominent Covenants in the scriptures.
Contrary to the assertion of the lesson's author, the Sinatic/Old Covenant is in fact a conditional covenant. Let's take a look at the Sinatic/Old Covenant and see if we can distinguish the promise, condition, and sign.
"Moses went up to God, and the LORD called to him from the mountain, saying, 'Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob and tell the sons of Israel: You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles' wings, and brought you to Myself. Now then, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the sons of Israel.'" Exodus 19:3-6 (NASB)
"The LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 'But as for you, speak to the sons of Israel, saying, You shall surely observe My sabbaths; for this is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I am the LORD who sanctifies you. Therefore you are to observe the sabbath, for it is holy to you. Everyone who profanes it shall surely be put to death; for whoever does any work on it, that person shall be cut off from among his people. For six days work may be done, but on the seventh day there is a sabbath of complete rest, holy to the LORD; whoever does any work on the sabbath day shall surely be put to death. So the sons of Israel shall observe the sabbath, to celebrate the sabbath throughout their generations as a perpetual covenant. It is a sign between Me and the sons of Israel forever; for in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, but on the seventh day He ceased from labor,and was refreshed.' When He had finished speaking with him upon Mount Sinai, He gave Moses the two tablets of the testimony, tablets of stone, written by the finger of God." Exodus 31:12-18 (NASB)
So we see that the promise of the Old Covenant was that the descendants of Jacob would be God's special people, a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation. The condition of the covenant was obedience. Conversely, we see at many points in the Old Testament that if the Israelites disobey they will lose the promise of the covenant and be driven out of the Land. Deuteronomy chapters 27 -28 lay out a long list of promised blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience. Clearly the promises of this covenant were conditioned upon obedience. It is difficult to understand the author's assertion to the contrary given the weight of biblical evidence contradicting his position. Lastly, we see that the sign of the covenant is Sabbath observance. To summarize:
So what specifically was the covenant? What were the very words of the covenant? Read the following text and ask yourself what the text says the covenant was.
"So He declared to you His covenant which He commanded you to perform, that is, the Ten Commandments; and He wrote them on two tablets of stone." Deuteronomy 4:13 (NASB)
This text clearly states the covenant was specifically the "Ten Commandments". Unfortunately, our English invention of "Ten Commandments" confuses the fact that the Hebrew Old Testament never uses that terminology. Our English phrase masks the fact that the Hebrew term "eser dabar" (full form isaseret haddebarim) is legal language for a covenant document. Therefore, throughout the rest of this commentary I will attempt to use more biblical language by referring to the Old Covenant document as either "The Ten Words" or the Latin form of the phrase "The Decalogue" (Deca = ten & logue = word). Let's look at another text. As you read it ask yourself again what the text says the covenant was.
"The LORD gave me the two tablets of stone written by the finger of God; and on them were all the words which the LORD had spoken with you at the mountain from the midst of the fire on the day of the assembly. It came about at the end of forty days and nights that the LORD gave me the two tablets of stone, the tablets of the covenant." Deuteronomy 9:10-11 (NASB)
This text also confirms that the words on the stone tablets of the Decalogue (ten words) were the covenant. Let's look at another text for further confirmation.
"So I turned and came down from the mountain while the mountain was burning with fire, and the two tablets of the covenant were in my two hands." Deuteronomy 9:15 (NASB)
Again we see that the Decalogue was the covenant. I believe we could cite several more texts yet, but let's just look at one last one.
"Then Moses turned and went down from the mountain with the two tablets of the testimony in his hand, tablets which were written on both sides; they were written on one side and the other." Exodus 32:15 (NASB)
Here we get an interesting fact.
Unlike the artist renderings we are used to seeing, the tablets of the Decalogue were not just written on one side, but on front and back. This is consistent with what we know of ancient near east covenant documents. These documents were often written on the front and back of tablets with two identical copies produced. One copy would go in the temple of the suzerain while the other copy would go in the temple of the vassal. Many biblical scholars believe that the two tablets of the Decalogue were actually two copies of the same "Ten Words" written front and back. In this case, because God (the suzerain) dwelt in the temple in the midst of His people (the vassals), both copies went into one temple. In addition, we know that the sign of the covenant was usually inscribed in the very center of the covenant document. This is also consistent with the order of the Decalogue.
We can highly agree when the author states that "Paul is not claiming that the law given at Sinai was evil.." Indeed, the Law was holy, righteous, and good. We can also agree that the law was not "abolished" in the sense of being destroyed or overthrown, but it was fulfilled in Christ and was only in place for a given time period and a specific purpose. We would disagree with the author's contention that Paul is merely "concerned with the Galatians' legalistic misapprehension of the law." In fact, Paul is concerned that the Galatians are going back to the Old Covenant Law at all (living by the flesh) as opposed to living by the Spirit. In order to make this point we need to step back and revisit ground covered in commentaries for Weeks 5-8. Those who have read all the commentaries for those weeks may wish to skip the following, but it seems prudent to provide a single fairly concise synopsis in order to deal with the author's desire to put New Covenant Christians under the Old Covenant Law. Let's begin by examining the purpose of the law as explained by Paul in Galatians chapter 3.
"You foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified? This is the only thing I want to find out from you: did you receive the Spirit by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? Did you suffer so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain? So then, does He who provides you with the Spirit and works miracles among you, do it by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith?" Galatians 3:1-5 (NASB)
The believers in Galatia had been bewitched by false teachers who were telling them that they were obligated to keep parts of the Old Covenant, including holy days (see Gal. 4:8-11). Paul tells them that everything they have gone through for the faith is in vain if they now turn back to the law instead of continuing in the Spirit. In fact, he calls them foolish for turning back to the law. He now turns to Abraham, who lived under a covenant of faith not works, as an example.
"Even so Abraham BELIEVED GOD, AND IT WAS RECKONED TO HIM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS. Therefore, be sure that it is those who are of faith who are sons of Abraham. The Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, 'ALL THE NATIONS WILL BE BLESSED IN YOU.'" Galatians 3:6-9 (NASB)
So then those who are of faith are blessed with Abraham, the believer. Gentile Christians, like those in Galatia, had something in common with Abraham; they were never under the Old Covenant. They were never required to observe holy days or any other part of the Old Covenant. Paul makes the point that those who are of faith are the true heirs of the Abrahamic promise, not those who are living by law. We are all justified in the same way as Abraham, through faith. We do not receive the blessings of God through the law, but by faith. Paul goes on to give a dire warning to those who want to be under the law.
"For as many as are of the works of the Law are under a curse; for it is written, 'CURSED IS EVERYONE WHO DOES NOT ABIDE BY ALL THINGS WRITTEN IN THE BOOK OF THE LAW, TO PERFORM THEM.' Now that no one is justified by the Law before God is evident; for, 'THE RIGHTEOUS MAN SHALL LIVE BY FAITH.' However, the Law is not of faith; on the contrary, 'HE WHO PRACTICES THEM SHALL LIVE BY THEM.' Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us—for it is written, 'CURSED IS EVERYONE WHO HANGS ON A TREE'— in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we would receive the promise of the Spirit through faith." Galatians 3:10-14 (NASB)
Unless a person is able to keep the entire law perfectly, every bit of it from day one till death, they are cursed and are under the wrath of God. So obviously no one is going to be able to stand righteous before God through law-keeping. In fact, that is the exact antithesis of faith. The law is not of faith. But the Good News, the Gospel, is that Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law and from the wrath of God. Christ took the curse upon Himself and entirely fulfilled the law in His life and death. This made it possible for Gentiles to enter the blessings of Abraham even though they never received circumcision (entry sign of the Abrahamic Covenant) or kept Sabbath (repeatable sign of the Old Covenant). Christ fulfilled both covenants. He fulfilled the promises of both and accepted the curse of the latter. The gentiles were never under the Old Covenant. They entered a New Covenant and received the promise of the Spirit through faith alone.
"Brethren, I speak in terms of human relations: even though it is only a man's covenant, yet when it has been ratified, no one sets it aside or adds conditions to it. Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. He does not say, 'And to seeds,' as referring to many, but rather to one, 'And to your seed,' that is, Christ. What I am saying is this: the Law, which came four hundred and thirty years later, does not invalidate a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to nullify the promise. For if the inheritance is based on law, it is no longer based on a promise; but God has granted it to Abraham by means of a promise." Galatians 3:15-18 (NASB)
Notice here that the true objects of the promises made to Abraham are Abraham and the coming Messiah. They were not necessarily promises to ethnic Israel per se. The fact that ethnic Israel was given the Old Covenant 430 years after Abraham doesn't invalidate the promise made to Abraham and his seed (singular). The promise was not based on law or works. The law was only a temporary covenant that was added later. It had a beginning 430 years after Abraham and, for those of faith, an ENDING when the Messiah came and fulfilled the promise.
"Why the Law then? It was added because of transgressions, having been ordained through angels by the agency of a mediator, until the seed would come to whom the promise had been made. Now a mediator is not for one party only; whereas God is only one. Is the Law then contrary to the promises of God? May it never be! For if a law had been given which was able to impart life, then righteousness would indeed have been based on law. But the Scripture has shut up everyone under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe." Galatians 3:19-22 (NASB)
So here we finally see the purpose of the law. It wasn't given to invalidate previous promises, but to condemn us in sin and to vividly point out the need for a savior. As stated above, any failure at all puts us under the wrath of the righteous God of the universe. The law points out that no human mediator could ever save us from that wrath. Only God Himself can sovereignly save. The law illustrates like nothing else that we are dead in sin and there is absolutely no way we could ever be declared righteous by our own merit or works. The law proves beyond any shadow of a doubt that salvation must be by grace alone, through faith alone, in Jesus Christ alone. The law drives us to Christ and to His cross. But notice, it was only added UNTIL Christ. When we are in Christ we are no longer under the law.
"But before faith came, we were kept in custody under the law, being shut up to the faith which was later to be revealed. Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor. For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's descendants, heirs according to promise." Galatians 3:23-29 (NASB)
The Greek word "paidagogos", which is translated as "tutor", means "child-conductor". It originally referred to the slave who conducted the boys from home to school. That was the purpose of the law. The law shows our need for a savior, drives us to Christ, and then ceases to have a function in the life of New Covenant Spirit-filled believers. We are no longer under a tutor! Let me say that again, WE ARE NO LONGER UNDER A TUTOR! The Bible could not be clearer on this. If we are of faith we no longer need the tutor. The law is not of faith and returning to the law is antithetical to life in the Spirit. It is a bewitchment! It is a foolish thing to return to the law.
This passage is also quite powerful proof that the law was only in effect for believers from the exodus to Christ (see verses 17 – 19). This passage should forever put to rest the idea that the law preexisted the exodus or that it continues to be a tutor or teacher for those who are living life in the Spirit.
Copyright 2011 BibleStudiesForAdventists.com. All rights reserved. Revised November 6, 2011. This website is published by Life Assurance Ministries, Glendale, Arizona, USA, the publisher of Proclamation! Magazine. Contact email: BibleStudiesForAdventists@gmail.com.
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