Summary: The second in a series of messages on the complete sufficiency of the Gospel.
If you were to pull a "prodigal son" routine on a parent, how do you think they would react? You may recall that the prodigal son asked for his inheritance early so he could enjoy life in the fast lane: "Dad, I was wondering if I might cash in on your will before you die?"
Good luck with that one today, right? It’s just not done. You may end up with some cash in your hand, but it wouldn’t be from the will. The attorneys would nip that in the bud. It’s not legal to cash in on a will unless the author of the will is believed to be dead. Interestingly, this is a point made in Hebrews: In the case of a will, it is necessary to prove the death of the one who made it, because a will is in force only when somebody has died; it never takes effect while the one who made it is living. (Hebrews 9:16--17)
Why all this talk about wills, the legal system, and inheritance? Here the writer is drawing an analogy between a will going into effect and a covenant taking effect. In fact, the terms will, covenant, and testament are translations of the same Greek word.
The writer’s analogy and play on words serves to make an important point. Just as a will isn’t in effect without a death, a covenant doesn’t go into effect without a death. Hence, the New Covenant (or New Testament era) does not begin at Jesus’ birth but at his death.
As you may imagine, this point carries radical implications. First, the New Testament doesn’t actually begin in Matthew 1. In fact, it doesn’t begin at any page in the Bible. It begins at the point in history when Jesus’ blood was shed.
No blood was shed in the first chapter of Matthew, and no sacrificial death was carried out in the manger. It was not our Savior’s birth that changed everything. It was his death that inspired the apostles to declare the message of "out with the old, and in with the new."
As Paul puts it, Jesus was "born under the law, to redeem those under the law" (Galatians 4:4--5). So Jesus lived for thirty-three years on planet Earth while those around him still operated under the Old, not the New.
Where should we look, then, to see the New? The first effects of the New are evidenced in the book of Acts at Pentecost. The apostles’ letters to the church instruct us about life under the New. Although the entirety of the Bible is God’s Word, only some of it is intended as a system to live under today.
When we attempt to mix Old with New, we end up with a contradictory covenant of our own invention. This is where I lived for years. Since there were a few elements of the New in my imaginary covenant, it didn’t kill me right away. Instead, it afforded me a slower death.
I had adopted a belief system that was essentially a balance of Old and New. I neither suffered under the stringency of the entire law nor enjoyed the bliss of unconditional favor. For that reason, it would be years before my framework for relating to God would finally take its toll.
As you read this, you may be thinking, "Well, that’s not my problem. I have never struggled with whether or not I am under the law. I’ve always known better." That may be true, but that was true for me too! I would never have said that I needed to adhere to the Jewish law--far from it. It wasn’t the law of Moses that was holding me hostage; it was my own modern-day form of law that I was trying to live out.
Having raised my antennae toward the Christian world around me, I intercepted the subtle message that there are requirements to remain in God’s favor. This collection of "Thou shalts"--read your Bible, share your faith, participate in a lot of "church"--was a measuring stick by which I determined my worth and standing. These criteria served as a concrete way of determining whether or not I was in right relationship with God.
I had already accepted the work of Christ as the means to heaven. But it was my approach to daily living that was beating me up. Law as an everyday operating system was doing its work.
If we’re under a New Covenant, then what about the Old one? Is there still a place for it in our lives? The Scriptures shout a definitive No concerning the Old in the lives of believers today. Hebrews dismisses the notion of mingling the two: He sets aside the first to establish the second. And by that will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. (Hebrews 10:9b--10)