Is the Law Temporal?
Paul writes, “The law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith. Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law” (Gal. 3:24, 25).3 Many commentators believe the law is merely temporal. A sampling of these commentators indicates that a historical interpretation is given to the passage, stating that the period before Christ had several disadvantages compared to the period after Christ. The period before Christ was a period under the law, and is considered inferior, and less free, for those under the law since Sinai needed to be emancipated from it when the period of Christ came. After the coming of Christ, there is no further need of the Law.
If Paul were presenting a sequential view of salvation-history, with (1) a disadvantage to those who lived before Christ, and a great advantage to those who live after Christ, and (2) submission to the law before Christ contrasting with freedom from the law after Christ, then there is a problem. This would mean that the Sinai covenant and the new covenant are different, the first a burden and the second freedom.
If God dealt so differently with people in different historical periods, this calls into question Scripture that says God does not change (Mal. 3:6) and that “God is love” (1 John 4:8). How can God give bondage to some people and freedom to others merely on the basis of when they were born? This seems like a new kind of predestination (salvation for some and reprobation for others). Both ideas call into question the justice and love of God, and are sufficient for Satan to make his case against God in the cosmic controversy. If this historical interpretation is pressed, then God cannot be seen to be just and loving, and hence the cosmic controversy charges against Him are shown to be valid, which means there will never be resolution to the cosmic controversy.
Furthermore, if the eternal gospel is available in both covenants, then God’s grace is available in both, which means He is a Savior in both. It doesn’t make sense for a God of love to place people under bondage. Salvation and bondage are mutually exclusive. The fact of an everlasting covenant and an everlasting gospel is consistent with the fact that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Heb. 13:8).
So the comparison between the Sinai and new covenants has nothing to do with God, but has everything to do with humans. Human response to the Sinai covenant was a self-centered attempt to earn salvation, which is bondage. The new covenant experience is entered into when humans cling to Christ alone for salvation and no longer try to save themselves, which is freedom. A historical comparison of the two covenants calls into question the character of God, but an experience comparison reveals the foundational difference between the two human responses to the covenants that are both given to humans by the unchanging God (Mal. 3:6).
It is the same unchanging God of love who loves humans, and relates to them in the everlasting covenant as it unfolds through Sinai and through Christ. Throughout the unfolding of the everlasting covenant, it is the same everlasting God, the same everlasting gospel, and the same everlasting law that are involved in calling humans into a saving relationship with their only Savior. Therefore, Paul was speaking about the experience of God’s people. The law leads them to Christ, and then becomes a means to express their joy for salvation received from Christ. The law and the gospel are inseparable in the everlasting covenant experience. So in passages like this one in Paul’s writings, the covenant experiences are more the focus; whereas, in the Book of Hebrews, the covenant historical periods are more the focus.
When it is understood that Paul is saying that the proper function of the law was/is (1) to convince people of sin and their need for a Savior, and thus lead them to Christ (Gal. 3:24, 25), then this is compatible with John’s statement that (2) law-keeping is a loving response to Christ for His salvation (John 14:15). Both are ongoing experiences at any moment in the unfolding of the everlasting covenant, in the sense that persons are advancing from the first to the second level, so that the same law and gospel are available to each person, irrespective of when he or she lives.
As G. Walter Hansen put it, the Mosaic law is “a permanent standard for all humanity.”4 The law still functions as a standard of salvation, but was never intended to be a means of salvation. When Paul says, “Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law” (Gal. 3:25), it needs to be kept in mind that those in covenant relationship with Christ in the old covenant historical era were persons of faith (Hebrews 1). To them the law was never a means of salvation.
Continuance of the Law
The new covenant speaks of writing the law in the minds and hearts (Jer. 31:31-34) of those in a saving relationship with God (Eze. 36:24-28; 37:23). It is important to analyze Jeremiah 31:31-34 and grasp God’s intent.
The new covenant will be made with Israel and Judah.
The new covenant will be better than the covenant at Sinai
(a) not because it was different, for God was a husband to them (faithful to them)
(b) but because the Sinai covenant was broken by the people (unfaithful to God).
The new covenant is God writing the law in the heart.
The new covenant is God being their God and they being His people.
The same God who made a covenant with Israel at Sinai will make a new covenant with Israel and Judah. The problem with the covenant at Sinai was not with the covenant, but with the people’s wrong response to the covenant (Heb. 8:9). Most people in Israel did not enter into a heart relationship with God, responding to His heart-relationship with them. So the law was merely external because God was merely external to them. There is no covenant without a reciprocal heart-response. God was like a faithful husband to them, but they were unfaithful to Him, as illustrated by Hosea and his unfaithful wife. So the new covenant was God’s attempt to renew the covenant of Sinai with His people, with the hope that He could write the law in their hearts (8:7-13; 10:15-17).
This new covenant was not gospel without the law, but gospel with the law experienced as a reciprocal love response to the Lawgiver. This was what God longed for at Sinai (Deut. 5:29). Christ stated that the law will remain as long as heaven and earth remain (Matt. 5:18). It should be remembered, “God does not speak of a new law, but of a new covenant.”5 In fact He states clearly, “‘I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts’” (Jer. 31:33).
A number of commentators stress that the law in the Sinai covenant is the same law that is written on minds and hearts in the new covenant (vs. 31), so there is a continuance of the law, though they also believe that grace is greater in the new covenant).
● John Calvin wrote, “God does not say here, ‘I will give you another Law,’ but I will write my Law, that is, the same Law, which had formerly been delivered to the Fathers.”6
● C. F. Keil says the “law of the Lord thus forms, in the old as well as in the new covenant, the kernel and essence of the relation between the Lord and His people.”7
● Gerhard von Rad said, “This Torah is also to stand in the center of the new covenant which Jahweh is going to make with Israel ‘in these days,’ Thus, as far as the content of Jahweh’s self revelation is concerned, the new covenant will make no change. Jeremiah neither says that the revelation given at Sinai is to be nullified in whole or in part, . . . nor does he in any sense suggest alteration or expansion of its content in the new covenant.”8
The continuance of the law should serve as a caution to those who over-emphasize the new covenant as grace (this even needs to be remembered by the three cited above), without allowing for the fact that grace was present in the Sinai covenant, for the same God of grace issued both covenants. Scholars should focus more on the continuity of the two covenants because they are given by the same God of love (1 John 4:8).
Is Sinai Different From the New Covenant?
Beyond the obvious difference of Sinai being in the time of promise, and the new covenant being in the time of fulfillment (see the Book of Hebrews), are there other essential differences between the two covenants? Many commentators think so, and give a negative evaluation of the Sinai covenant. Examples:
● K. Seybold says of the new covenant in Jeremiah 31:31: “The massive ‘new thing’ of this passage is the interiorization of religion.”9
● John Calvin, with reference to the new covenant of Jeremiah 31:31-34, made several comments: (1) God will manifest mercy toward Israel “in a new and unusual manner,”10 (2) “the ancient people were like children, and hence God kept them in the rudiments of knowledge: now, as we are grown up, he favours us with a fuller doctrine, and he comes, as it were, nearer to us.”11 (3) “God, under the Law, did not so perfectly teach his people as he does us at this day.”12 (4) “God would be propitious to his people in a different and more perfect way than he had been in former times,”13 and “God promised salvation to his ancient people, and also regenerated his chosen, and illuminated them by his Spirit. This he did not do so freely and extensively as now.”14
● C. F. Keil notes that God’s people broke the covenant, but blames the Sinai covenant for this: “It was a defect connected with the covenant made with Israel at Sinai, that it could be broken on their part. This defect is not to exist in the new covenant which God will make in after times. . . the difference between the two consists merely in this, that the will of God as expressed in the law under the old covenant was presented externally to the people, while under the new covenant it is to become an internal principle of life. . . . In the old covenant, the law with its requirements is the impelling force; in the new covenant, the grace shown in the forgiveness of sins in the aiding power by which man attains that common life with God which the law sets before him as the great problem of life. It is in this that the qualitative difference between the old and the new covenants consists. The object which both set before men for attainment is the same, but the means of attaining it are different in each. In the old covenant are found commandment and requirement; in the new grace and giving.”15
As stated above, the distinction between the Sinai and new covenants is due to God, rather than due to humans. God is blamed for the Sinai covenant being defective, expecting what was impossible (perfect law keeping). This makes the God of Sinai different from the God of the new covenant. But how could this be so if God does not change (Mal. 4:6)? How is this possible when God is a God of love (1 John 4:8)? We must look beyond commentators of Scripture. We must look to Scripture itself. What does internal evidence in Scripture say about the God of Sinai? Is the God of Scripture the same as the God of the New Covenant?
Sinai God Same as New Covenant God
The biblical record is clear that the God of Abraham is the same as the God at Sinai. Note what it says about God in relation to His people in captivity, and how Sinai is linked to the covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, indicating continuity between the covenants. Scripture also reveals the same love of God with reference to Sinai as in the New Covenant.
1. With reference to His people in Egyptian slavery: “God heard their groaning and he remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob. So God looked on the Israelites and was concerned about them” (Ex. 2:24, 25).
2. “The Lord said, ‘I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians” (Ex. 3:7, 8).
3. God said to Moses, “ ‘I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob as God Almighty, but by my name the Lord I did not make myself known to them’” (Ex. 6:3). What does God mean by this, as His name Yahweh was not unknown to them? In the Creation Covenant God was referred to as Elohiym Yahweh; and referred to as Yahweh in the covenants with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But He was not introduced as Yahweh to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Isaac spoke to Jacob of the promised blessings from Ēl shadday (Gen. 28:3).
But now God (Heb. Yahweh) reveals that He hears the groaning of His people in Egypt (Ex. 3:7, 8; cf. 2:24 where Elohiym is used). He announces to them, “‘I am the Lord’” (Heb. Yahweh; Ex. 6:6). “‘I will free you from being slaves’” (Ex. 6:6); “‘I will redeem you’” (vs. 6); “‘I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God’” (Heb., Yahweh Elohiym; vs. 7); “‘I will bring you to the land’” and “‘give it to you as a possession. I am the Lord’” (Yahweh; vs. 8). So in Exodus 6:6 to 8, God announces Himself as Yahweh three times, and reveals Himself as a caring, compassionate covenant partner who will fulfill the promises made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. So we read in Haggai: “‘Be strong, all you people of the land,’” declares the Lord (Heb. Yahweh) “‘and work. For I am with you,’” declares the Lord Almighty (Hebrew is not Ēl shadday, but Yahweh of hosts). “‘This is what I covenanted with you when you came out of Egypt. And my Spirit remains among you. Do not fear’” (Haggai 2:5).
I concur with Keil and Delitzsch: “It was in His attributes as El Shaddai that God had revealed His nature to the patriarchs; but now He was about to reveal Himself to Israel as JEHOVAH, as the absolute Being working with unbounded freedom in the performance of His promises. . . Jehovah was now about to redeem Israel from its suffering and make it His own nation. This assurance, which God would carry out by the manifestation of His nature expressed in the name Jehovah, contained three distinct elements: (a) the deliverance of Israel from the bondage of Egypt . . . (b) the adoption of Israel as the nation of God; (c) the guidance of Israel into the land promised to the fathers.”16
As Walter Kaiser put it, “The heat of God’s response to Moses and the people was a fresh revelation of God’s character and nature.”17 How appropriate that Yahweh’s love as Redeemer is associated with the Exodus deliverance and the Ten Commandments. The first is His redemption in action and the second is a transcript of Him as Redeemer. The song of Moses’ celebration of the Red Sea deliverance looks to the future (including God’s Ten Commandments for Israel) and says, “‘In your unfailing love you will lead the people you have redeemed’” (Ex. 15:13). Gerhard von Rad correctly stated, “When Israel became numerous in Egypt, God led the people through the wilderness with wonderful demonstration of grace; then after their lengthy wandering he gave them under Joshua the Promised Land.”18
4. The gospel and law belong together. In their Anchor Bible Dictionary article on the covenant, George Mendenhall and Gary Herion refer to the Ancient Near Eastern suzerainty treaties (as in ancient Hittite culture), which include a prologue stating what the Sovereign had done for a vassal, and the “reciprocity” of the vassal in grateful obedience to some stipulations. Then a little later they point out the following about the Ten Commandments: “The Ten Words are not commands, nor are they couched in command (i.e., imperative) language. They are simple future indicative verbs that indicate the future action that is the expected consequence of the preceding prologue: ‘I am Yahweh your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt . . . (and therefore) you will have no other gods before me.’”19
Sinai was not a contract but a covenant. It was not an external agreement but a relationship. Far from being a formal document (with potential to legalism), Sinai was a covenant of love (which is true of God’s everlasting covenant in its unfolding through various covenants). We would expect this from a God of love (1 John 4:8). God invited His people, weary and worm from Egyptian slavery, to come to Him in just as warm and loving embrace as Christ’s later invitation: “‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest’” (Matt. 11:28). He offered them the same relationship in the Sinai covenant as He offers in the gospel. For in both God longs to be their God (with all that brings) and for them to be His special, precious people “‘who love me and keep my commandments’” (Ex. 20:6). To disconnect the law at Sinai from the deliverance in the Red Sea overlooks the introduction to the Ten Commandments, in which covenant God says He delivered them through the Red Sea (Ex. 20:1, 2).
The gospel was present in the Old Testament. That’s why the great heroes of faith are recorded in Hebrews 11. They had a faith-heart relationship with Christ rather than a works orientation with the law. They had discernment, because “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for” (Heb. 11:1, 2). These persons of faith included all the prophets (vs. 32). This spiritual heart-relationship with God was available to Israel during its desert wandering.
5. God’s act of deliverance (redemption) preceded His act of entering into a covenant with His people. Note the intimate love context: “‘You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself’” (Ex. 19:4). “Now if [note the condition] you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession’” (vs. 5).
The Red Sea deliverance and the Ten Commandments are two acts of redemption, one from physical slavery, the other from spiritual slavery. God’s intent was for His people to realize their helplessness as much at Sinai as at the Red Sea, and depend solely on Him for spiritual redemption as they had for physical redemption. The tabernacle and later temple services and sacrifices were intended to point the people to Christ as their only Redeemer, so that they would no more look to their own law-keeping to save themselves than anything they did to be redeemed at the Red Sea. The essence of the Sinai covenant, like the other covenants, is relationship—not going it alone. The covenant calls for a dependent relationship of the redeemed upon the Redeemer.
6. God promises Israel: “‘I will bring you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. I will free you from being slaves to them, and . . . redeem you with . . . mighty acts of judgment. I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God’” (vss. 6, 7).
The emphasis is on what God will do, His promises to His people as their Redeemer. God’s love is shown in setting Israel apart as a special “‘treasured possession’” (19:5), saying, “‘You will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation’” (Ex. 19:6).
7. Such amazing love showered upon Israel should have resulted in a grateful response of willingly keeping His commandments, not because they were commanded, but because they loved their Redeemer who was also their Lawgiver. Yahweh (twice in verse 25) said to them, “‘If you listen carefully to the voice of the Lord [Hebrew Yahweh] your God and do what is right in his eyes, if you pay attention to his commands and keep all his decrees, I will not bring on you any of the diseases I brought on the Egyptians, for I am the LORD, who heals you’” (15:26).
8. At Sinai God said, “‘Oh, that their hearts would be inclined to fear me and keep all my commands always, so that it might go well with them and their children forever!’” (Deut. 5:29). Moses said to Israel before they crossed over the Jordan to possess the Promised Land, “‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts’” (6:4-6). God told His people that they would be scattered to the nations, and promised, “‘If from there you seek the Lord your God, you will find him if you look for him with all your heart and with all your soul’” (4:29). It was God’s purpose that the law be written on their hearts even during the old covenant historical period, for that’s what the covenant relationship is all about. “Christ is the end of the law [to earn salvation] so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes” (Rom. 10:4). “For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified” (vs. 10).
Law keeping within a covenant relationship with Christ is a heart experience. This is why Paul said, “love is the fulfillment of the law” (13:10) or “The entire law is summed up in a single command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Gal. 5:14).
Christ 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”’” (Matt. 22:37-40). Note that Christ quoted twice from the Old Testament, and then said all the Old Testament (Law and Prophets) hang on these two commandments. Here Christ tells us that a heart relationship with God and humans summarizes the law, the Old Testament, and so is the very essence of the old covenant as God intended it to be. There is no difference between the heart-relationship of the Sinai covenant and the new heart-relationship of the new covenant.
9. At Sinai God is revealed as a caring, loving God, in the wilderness experience with His people: “‘The Lord your God has blessed you in all the work of your hands. He has watched over your journey through this vast desert. These forty years the Lord your God has been with you, and you have not lacked anything’” (Deut. 2:7). In the desert “‘Your clothes did not wear out and your feet did not swell during these forty years’” (8:4). “‘He led you through the vast and dreadful desert, that thirsty and waterless land, with its venomous snakes and scorpions. He brought you water out of hard rock. He gave you manna to eat in the desert’” (8:15, 16). Note the intimacy of God’s love for Israel. “‘In a desert land he found him, in a barren and howling waste. He shielded him and cared for him; he guarded him as the apple of his eye, like an eagle that stirs up its nest and hovers over its young, that spreads its wings to catch them and carries them on its pinions. The Lord alone led him; no foreign god was with him’” (32:10-12).
10. At Sinai, atonement took place. In answer to the pleading of Moses after the golden calf sin, “God’s response was one of covenant renewal, ‘Behold, I make a covenant’ (34:40), and thus Israel was once again God’s people, with the covenant promise re-established: ‘I will dwell among you.’ Sinai had now become the place of atonement when estrangement had occurred.”20 Thus, Sinai not only had redemption preceding it, but atonement in its midst.
11. Laws (plural) were given at Sinai. They include the Decalogue, the holiness code, and the Deuteronomic code. The context for all of them is God’s covenant. With reference to the Decalogue Daniel I. Block says: “Contrary to modern practice, the Scriptures never refer to the Decalogue as the ‘Ten Commandments.’ The genre of the document is identified in both contexts as ‘all these words,’ . . . that Yahweh ‘spoke,’ . . . than ‘these commandments that Yahweh commanded.’ In fact, wherever this document is identified by title, it is always referred to as ‘the Ten Words,’ . . . and never ‘the Ten Commandments.’ We would do well to follow the Septuagint in referring to this document as the Decalogue (literally ‘Ten Words’). Or, since the Hebrew word . . . is capable of a broad range of meaning, the Ten Principles of covenant relationship.”21
It is crucial that the Decalogue be understood within a covenant context, for the Decalogue stipulations were given to preserve the love relationship between God’s people and the God who loved them enough to redeem them from Egyptian slavery, and have them build a sanctuary so that He could come and dwell with them. This is a revelation of what God is like, a manifestation of the gospel, and has nothing to do with legalism and bondage as so many Christians assume. We must not read back into the historical record more than is intended by the pre-incarnate Christ who gave the Ten Words, other laws, and sanctuary instructions to a people He loved so dearly.
The Old Testament revelation must be allowed to speak for itself, for God is speaking through it, and He is well able to speak for Himself, and doesn’t need our help, for He is well able to reveal the truth about His Ten Words. It doesn’t matter if church tradition says there’s a distinction between law and grace, for after all the heretic Marcion thought there was a difference between the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament, and at least that’s a logical conclusion if there is a radical distinction between law and grace. To distinguish between law and grace is no different in kind from Marcion’s distinction between the God of the Old and New Testaments, for any such distinction calls into question the love of God who does not change.
12. The Book of Hosea is in the Sinai covenant period. It presents both the love of God for wayward covenant breakers and the fact that the hardship of God’s people was due to their being outside of a covenant relationship with God. It was not a case of the Sinai covenant being external, but the Sinai covenant people being external to the covenant, and therefore, external to a heart-relationship with their covenant-God. The non-forgiveness of deliberate sins in the Sinai Covenant (Num. 15:30) still exists in the new covenant (Heb. 6:4-6), so there is no distinction between the covenants over such sins, as claimed by some commentators.
God’s Self-Description at Sinai
In the second giving of the Ten Commandments, God declared that He was the Lord: “‘The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished’” (Ex. 34:6, 7).
This self-description of God gives us the context for understanding the Ten Commandments as compatible with the everlasting gospel, and the everlasting covenant of love. These commandments, with their love to God and love to others are compatible with the inner-Trinitarian relationship of God in their eternal covenant with each other.
The second commandment reveals God’s love: He is a God “‘showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments’” (Ex. 20:6). To disconnect the law at Sinai from the deliverance at the Red Sea, overlooks the introduction to the Ten Commandments where the covenant God says He delivered them through the Red Sea (vss. 1, 2).
David’s Sinai Covenant Experience
David was a believer under the Sinai covenant. His psalms reveal the reality of the Sinai covenant. Through them we can see a God of “unfailing love,” and a “heart-relationship” that caused law keeping to be a “delight.” All the love of the new covenant was available to true believers in the Sinai covenant. David’s testimony refutes the exegetes who place an unnecessary distinction between the Sinai covenant and the new covenant.
Robert L. Dabney opposed the view that Old Testament religion was less free and tended to bondage. According to expositions of New Testament passages (Gal. 3, 4; 2 Cor. 3; Heb. 7–12), Dabney wrote: “I am persuaded that the strong representations which these writers . . . give of the bondage, terror, literalness, and intolerable weight of the institutions under which Old Testament saints lives, will strike the attentive reader as incorrect. The experience, as recorded of those saints, does not answer to this theory; but shows them in the enjoyment of a dispensation free, spiritual, gracious, consoling. I ask emphatically: does not the New Testament Christian of all ages, go to the recorded experiences of those very Old Testament saints, for the most happy and glowing expressions in which to utter his hope, gratitude, spiritual joy?”22
The psalms of David are perhaps the most read parts of the Old Testament for those seeking encouragement.
Implications of Sinai as a Works-Covenant
Apparently, most scholars consider the Sinai covenant as a covenant of works (no heart-relationship). The law was given to be obeyed, and so the sign of true covenant relationship was works or obedience, in contrast to the sign being faith in the Abrahamic and new covenants. In other words, God dealt differently with His people at Sinai than He did previously, and subsequently. But what are the implications of this view?
● God would be responsible for all the legalism of Israel-Judah. Yet Christ spoke His most scathing rebuke against the legalism of the teachers of the law, and cleansed the temple twice of their money-making human rules to merchandise the free gift of grace. There is an inconsistency here. It is logical to ask, as Gerhard and Michael Hasel did, “If the Sinai covenant is indeed one of works, then why would Jesus have condemned the Jews for legalism?”23
● A charge of inconsistency would discount biblical revelation, for God said, “‘I the Lord do not change’” (Mal. 3:6).
● A charge of inconsistency would be sufficient reason for Satan to claim that His accusation against God is legitimate, and would be sufficient to carry His case against God’s love and justice, and hence the resolution of the cosmic controversy would be impossible.
God always takes the initiative to invite persons or a nation to enter into a covenant with Him. Relationship is the essence and purpose of the covenant invitation, and so any self-works to win the favor of God is totally misplaced, because He has already shown His favor by the invitation. In this covenant context God’s law is not contrary to the gospel.
Law as Bondage: A Human Problem
Nothing was wrong with God’s covenant at Sinai. It was not God’s intent that the law be bondage to His people, for that is mutually exclusive to the covenant relationship that He had intended to have with them. John Oswalt is correct to state that “bondage” was “the result of their drift from one false lover to another.”24 The first commandment was to save them from such bondage: “‘You shall have no other gods before me’” (Ex. 20:3). The preamble reminded them that God redeemed them through the Red Sea (vs. 2). With such a God, they didn’t need other gods. The Law was to keep them from bondage, and not to enslave them. When Christ said, “‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest’” (Matt. 11:28), He uttered the covenant invitation to a relationship with Him. Those in relationship with God love to keep His law (John 14:15).
It was the human response to God’s covenant at Sinai that was wrong: “God found fault with the people and said: ‘The time is coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they did not remain faithful to my covenant’” (Heb. 8:8, 9). God’s covenant was not at fault, but the human response to it was at fault.
From God’s perspective, the law at Sinai was preceded by a release of Israel from slavery and God’s leading of Israel “to Sinai as the redeemed and set-apart people of God.”25 The law was given at Sinai after Israel had been saved from Egypt. So law keeping was not a condition for salvation at Sinai. Hence, legalism is not an issue at Sinai. Rayburn rightly says, “From the treaty parallels it is now beyond question that covenant and law belong together.”26 Israel-Judah’s attempt to earn salvation by keeping the law totally reverses God’s intent at Sinai.
Sadly, Israel didn’t respond appropriately to God’s Sinai covenant. Moses said of Israel, “‘You have been rebellious against the Lord ever since I have known you’” (Deut. 9:24). This “‘people abandoned the covenant of the Lord, the God of their fathers, the covenant he made with them when he brought them out of Egypt. They went off and worshiped other gods’” (29:25, 26). The Sinai covenant is rightly described as God’s “covenant of love” (7:12). Yet, Israel rejected the covenant because they rejected the God of love.
The New Testament reflection on Sinai rejects the useless keeping of law to gain salvation (Rom. 3:20-28), but doesn’t reject the law as intended by God (6:15). Human response to the law and not God’s revelation of the law was in error. As Edward Heppenstall rightly argued: “It is incredible to believe that God could be held responsible for laying the groundwork at Sinai for what followed in Jewish history. It is equally monstrous to believe that God would stoop at Sinai to betray the people He had delivered from Egypt into a hopeless covenant of works, that He had freed from one bondage in Egypt only to lead them into another bondage of the spirit that finally deprived them of the last vestiges of freedom and brought about their destruction as a nation.27
The introduction to the Ten Commandments refers to God’s amazing deliverance at the Red Sea (Ex. 20:2). Only God could do that, and only God could help Israel keep His commandments. They should have realized this, but didn’t. Only in the covenant relationship can the law be kept. The essence of all covenants, including Sinai, is God’s invitation to enter a dependent relationship with Him their Redeemer, the only One who saves. This is the God who gave them His law at Sinai. No wonder it is called “the perfect law of liberty” (James 1:25, KJV), “the law that gives freedom” (2:12). Deliverance at the Red Sea was a type of the gospel, and is fully compatible with the Ten Commandments given by God on Mt. Sinai, which provide the parameters of the covenant relationship, so the covenant God, the Deliverer, can keep them in the freedom of the gospel. For “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Cor. 3:17).
One Plan of Salvation
“God so loved the world” (John 3:16) embraces all humans throughout history, so God’s love is not superior in the new covenant over His love in the old covenant, nor is His relationship with believers in the old covenant less than His relationship with believers in the new covenant.
Foundation for God’s Covenant
All covenants were an invitation to a relationship with the same God, and because God does not change (Mal. 3:6), and because “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Heb. 13:8), we would expect all covenants to be compatible. God is more than one Person. Even the Old Testament Shema (God is one, Deut. 6:4), stressing the uniqueness of God (compared to polytheism), didn’t use the word one as “unique” but one as “united,” thereby indicating unity of persons. God is love, and this is only possible if God is more than one solitary Person, for there was an eternity before God began to create intelligent beings.
The three Persons of the Trinity are in an everlasting relationship of love. This means that the everlasting gospel and the everlasting covenant reveal the everlasting love that flows from the Trinity to humans. It was God’s intent that the covenants between Himself and humans reflect the reciprocal love within the inner-Trinitarian Being of God. On God’s part, love for humans has never changed, but humans have for the most part failed to respond to this love. It is only within the context of God’s everlasting love manifest in His everlasting covenant that we can best understand the old and the new covenants (or see the compatibility between the Sinai and new covenants).
On the horizontal/historical level, the old and new covenants are two eras, one pointing to the coming Christ and the other proclaiming the Christ who came. On this level there is a type/antitype typology, which expresses the differences between anticipation (old covenant) and fulfillment (new covenant). On the vertical/historical level, the God of the covenants is the same God throughout the old and new covenant eras. “‘I the Lord do not change’” (Mal. 3:6).
The unchanging God (in character and consistency) is not to be confused with the unchanging God of philosophy (immutable and impassible), rooted in the timeless god of philosophy. Gradually this unchanging, timeless God of Parmenides, Plato, Aristotle, Plutarch, and later Neoplatonism, replaced the God of Scripture in Christian theology. He is an aloof God, removed from humans, unaffected by them, remaining confined within timelessness (no sequential experience of time, because all eternity, past and future, is eternally present to Him). Logically, such a God cannot enter into human time/history as a covenant God seeking a relationship with humans, which calls for a sequential experience (past, present, future), and hence temporality. Contemporary views of God (Process and Openness), attempting to correct the classical view of God, end up with other problems. Only the covenant understanding of God can provide the needed biblical perspective.
The unchanging God of Scripture is not only unchanging in nature and character, He is unchanging in His salvation provided throughout covenant-history. Hence, the Old Testament prophet can say “The Lord is our judge, the Lord is our lawgiver, the Lord is our king; it is he who will save us” (Isa. 33:22). God is the same covenant God throughout all covenant history, so He offers the same salvation to humans along the entire old to new covenant continuum, for the everlasting gospel and the everlasting covenant come from the everlasting God.
God’s Everlasting Covenant: Law and Grace
Just as there is only one God of all covenants, and one plan of salvation for all humans, there is one covenant with many renewals, and one relationship including law and grace.
The relational Trinity created relational humans, with equality of husband and wife to image the equality among the Trinity. Husbands and wives are to be “one flesh” as the Trinity are “one God.” The Genesis Creation record differentiates between God as Elohiym (transcendent, omnipotent), who creates by speaking things into existence, from the added name Yahweh (imminent, covenant) God who forms humans. Yahweh Elohiym is introduced in Genesis 2:4; He is always Yahweh Elohiym (11 times) in the rest of the Creation record. Here is God-up-close creating humans in a distinct way to His creation of all the rest of created reality, indicating a special covenant relationship purpose.
After receiving the gift of life, Adam and Eve were given a law to guide them in the maintenance of life (put positively: “Don’t eat the forbidden fruit, and you won’t die” [Gen. 2:16, 17]). They didn’t need to eat the forbidden fruit, because they had the tree of life and many other trees for sustenance. Christ created all the beasts of the ground and all the birds of the air and brought them to Adam to name them (vs. 19), a great insight into a relationship already at work between the two. Christ “blessed the seventh day and made it holy” (vs. 3).
The sola scriptura hermeneutic, in which Scripture interprets Scripture, indicates that: (1) “‘the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God’” (Ex. 20:10); for (2) “‘the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath’” (Mark 2:28), and (3) the “‘Sabbath was made for man’” (for his benefit, Mark 2:27). Here the Creator Christ gives humans a Sabbath for their benefit. That Sabbath was their first full day of life, and one can assume that they spent the whole day with Christ their Creator in covenant communion. Sabbath was made holy by the Creator Christ as a time to celebrate a finished work of Christ. It is foundationally Christian.
The creation covenant (so named in Hosea 6:7) embraces pre-Fall and post-Fall reality for Adam and Eve. The covenant included blessings (Gen. 1:26-30) and curses (3:16-19). The blessings included clothing nakedness with skins from slain animals, representing salvation through Calvary. In this first covenant the everlasting gospel and the everlasting covenant reveal God’s steadfast Love, His boundless love, and His unchanging commitment to humans.
The word covenant first appears in Scripture when God said to Noah, prior to the Flood, “‘I will establish my covenant with you’” (Gen. 6:18). The Hebrew word for “covenant” means “establish” (Eze. 16:62), “fulfill” (Jer. 11:5), or “confirm” (Gen. 6:18, NLT), and is decided by the context.
Since there is a prior covenant at Creation, it seems that God is saying to Noah, “‘I will confirm and renew my covenant with you’” (Gen. 6:18). These words were spoken to Noah before the Flood. After the world was destroyed by the global flood, the world had a new beginning, as it had in Creation; and God’s covenant was renewed (9:8-17). The context for this covenant is Creation: (1) God blessed Noah and his sons, saying to them, “‘Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth’” (vs. 1) just as God blessed (Adam and Eve) and said to them, “‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth’” (1:28). (2) Reference to God making humankind in His image (9:6) is a clear verbal connection with the Creation record (1:26, 27).
Gordon McConville correctly finds in these verbal connections with the Creation story evidence for the covenant at Creation. Furthermore, Gordon McConville says Genesis 6:18 “suggests the reestablishment of something already in place, namely . . . ‘a divine relationship established by the fact of creation itself.’”28 McConville goes on to speak of various covenant renewals. God entered into an everlasting covenant with humans at Creation, which was renewed with humans after the Flood.
As John Sailhamer points out, the building of Noah’s altar and Moses’ altar at Mount Sinai have verbal and thematic similarities; some of which are: (1) the altar building follows acts of salvation (from Egypt and from the Flood); (2) the altar and the offering establish a covenant, (3) in both covenants, God blesses covenant partners, (4) covenant gives protection from wild animals and enemies, (5) both covenants have stipulations for the people to be obedient.
Sailhamer then says: “What these observations suggest is that the author is intentionally drawing out the similarities between God’s covenant with Noah and the covenant at Sinai. Why? The answer that best fits with the author’s purposes is that he wants to show that God’s covenant at Sinai is not a new act of God. The covenant is rather a return to God’s original promises. Once again at Sinai, as he had done in the past, God is at work restoring his fellowship with man and bringing man back to himself. The covenant with Noah plays an important role in the author’s development of God’s restoration of blessing. It lies midway between God’s original blessing of all mankind ([Gen.] 1:28) and God’s promise to bless ‘all peoples on earth’ through Abraham (12:1-3).”29
When God said to Noah, “‘I will establish my covenant with you’” (Gen. 6:18), the Hebrew word translated “establish” can also mean “confirm.” Gordon Wenham compares “cutting a covenant” with “confirming a covenant.” He says, “Whereas, ‘to cut’ describes the point of entry to a covenant, ‘to confirm’ is used of ratifying pre-existing ‘words’ (Deut. 9:5), ‘promises’ (2 Sam. 7:25), ‘threats’ (Jer. 30:24), ‘oaths’ (Gen. 26:3), ‘vows’ (Num. 30:14), as well as ‘covenants.’” So he translates the word as confirming the covenant.30
Likewise, Hans LaRondelle notes that “the Hebrew term for ‘establish’ . . . indicates the ‘maintaining’ of a commitment to which God had pledged Himself earlier, implying that God had previously made a covenant with human beings.”31 God speaks of a new covenant. “‘The time is coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah’” (Jer. 31:31).
When God stated that He would make a new covenant, He referred to renewing the covenant already in place, for He was the same God, the covenant partners were the same Israel and Judah, and the intended heart-relationship was the same also. The relationship of God being their God, and they being His people was the same, and God speaks of the covenant with them (both times) as “my covenant” (Ex. 6:4; Jer. 31:32).
God said the reason for the renewal was that the covenant partners “‘broke my covenant’” (Jer. 31:32). If God could have written the law in the hearts of His covenant partners at Sinai, a new covenant to do the same would have been unnecessary. It is only because Israel at Sinai failed to enter into a heart relationship with God that He had to renew this invitation later in their history. So the word new in the new covenant, with reference to experience, is to “renew” the heart-relationship invitation that He gave at Sinai. So one can speak of a renewal of the covenant and a renewed people of God.
Christ Kept the Sinai Covenant
Imagine Christ with His heart of infinite love having to deal with people who claimed to be His, yet were so unlike Him. Jesus came to speak to them about covenant blessings: “‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy’” (Matt. 5:6, 7). These are conditional covenant promises, which most of His contemporaries never experienced. Christ’s purpose in Matthew 5 was not to destroy the law, but to counteract the superficial law keeping of the religious leaders and penetrate to God’s meaning, by opposing superficial legalism, and drawing out the ultimate meaning of the Law.
In His Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5–7) the Yahweh covenant-Maker and Law-Giver Christ penetrated to the covenant-heart-relationship level of law keeping. Murder is not merely an outward act but also heart anger (5:21-26), and adultery is not merely an outward act but a lusting of the heart (vss. 27-30), and one should love his or her enemies, and thus be like the Father, who lets the sun shine and the rain pour on the righteous and unrighteous (vss. 33-38). Christ demonstrated this on the cross when He said “‘Father, forgive them’” (Luke 23:34).
Christ elevates law keeping to its place in covenant-relationship. For law keeping outside of a covenant relationship with the Lawgiver is legalism. Christ rejected legalism, but not the law. In other words, Christ rejected the wrong use of the law and not its proper use. It was the Rabbinic Sabbath keeping that turned a day of delight into a day of drudgery. Because Christ corrected wrong views of the Law, it might be expected that He would correct the day from the seventh to the first for Christians, but there isn’t a word from Him, or from any biblical writer, concerning a change of His holy law. If God gave the Ten Commandments at Sinai with such an unforgettable public way, we would expect Him to do the same if He changed one of its precepts.
Christ was the very embodiment of the covenant. Within His incarnate being is the union of the divine and the human. These are not two persons as if the human Jesus were supported in His human life by the divine God within Him. No. He was God and humanity united together in such a way that He lived on earth as a human, not as God, and was therefore totally dependent upon His Father in heaven for the ability to live as a human in perfect covenant relationship with His Father. In His human-dependent relationship with the Father and the Holy Ghost, He came to reveal what a covenant relationship is like.
Christ also came as the representative and Redeemer of humans and took their place in the covenant relationship of humans with God. It is on the basis of His lifelong perfect faithfulness in covenant relationship with the Father that He can be a substitute for all humans who respond to Him for salvation, no matter when they live. His perfect covenant-keeping life covers their unfaithful covenant-keeping lives if they repent and cling to Him as their only Savior. His covenant-keeping human life drew Him relentlessly to the Cross, where He willingly became the substitute for humans. He died to give them life. No wonder He said hours before that sacrifice, “‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood’” (Luke 22:20).
So where the seeds of Abraham (Israel) failed, the seed Christ succeeded. Their failed mission to bless the world was accomplished by Christ. In Christ’s history He recapitulated the history of Israel. Indeed He was the new Israel (as the head of His body the church). He came out of Egypt and spent 40 days in the desert. Realizing the type/antitype correspondence, Christ three times quoted Scripture in answer to Satan’s wilderness temptations, and all three quotations came from Deuteronomy and Israel’s wilderness experience. His betrayal was typified by David’s betrayal. His death and resurrection after three days was typified by Israel’s restoration after three days. Christ is now on David’s throne, from where He guides in the present building of the temple made up of Jew and Gentile Christians.
Implications for Ecclesiology
Christ, as Head of the church, is the Redeemer/Lawgiver. It was through Israel that He worked to bless the world, and in the new covenant it is through spiritual Israel, comprised of believing Jews and Gentiles, that He reaches out to bless the world. The church does not replace Israel, for believing Gentiles are grafted into the one Olive Tree, and also Jews who come to believe in Christ are also grafted into the one Olive Tree. The fact that there is only one Olive Tree represents the continuity between the old and new covenants.
Jews and Gentiles are reconciled to one another because they are reconciled to God through the death of Christ Jesus. This reconciliation is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit” (Eph. 2:20-22). This language defines the essence of the church. As in the Old Testament sanctuary/temple, the church is the dwelling place of God, and thus a “holy temple in the Lord” (vs. 21). God reached out in covenant heart-relationship that was as fully evident in the Sinai covenant as in the New Covenant.
The church is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, not just on the apostles. The formation of the ancient church took place at Sinai (“assembly” at Sinai), and the formation of the Christian Church took place at Pentecost. Christ gave to the church the law at Sinai, and the Spirit at Pentecost. Christ is the Cornerstone, that which holds the rest of the building in place, and that building includes ancient prophets as well as later apostles. In other words, Christ holds together the Sinai covenant and the new covenant. The foundation is one consistent relationship of God with humans, the everlasting covenant revealing the everlasting gospel, which is the one plan of salvation of the one everlasting God. There is no essential distinction between God’s covenant love (Heb. hesed) in the Sinai covenant and His covenant love in the new covenant, because God does not change.
It was God’s intent that the covenants between Himself and humans reflect the reciprocal love within the inner-Trinitarian Being of God. On God’s part, love for humans has never changed, but humans have for the most part failed to respond to God’s love. It is only within the context of God’s everlasting covenant that we can best understand the old and the new covenants and see the compatibility between the Sinai and new covenants. On linguistic and theological grounds, subsequent covenants are a renewal of the original covenant of God with humans. The new covenant is a renewal of the Sinai covenant, which is itself a renewal of the covenant with Abraham, and all covenants are a renewal of the original creation covenant. Just as the creation covenant unites law and grace, so every renewal of that covenant does the same. It is the Creator/Redeemer/Lawgiver who invites His people into a covenant heart-relationship with Him.
The seventh-day Sabbath is a significant part of the law, and it reveals the essence of the gospel. It was made for the benefit of humans. The pre-incarnate Christ gave humans the Sabbath in Eden. This is why “‘the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath’” (Mark 2:28). In other words the Sabbath is Christian; it is compatible with Christ and His gospel. The Christ who made the Sabbath holy makes humans holy, and to be made holy is to be set apart, which is covenant language; set apart to be with God and God to be with them.
Yahweh calls the Sabbath a “lasting covenant” (Ex. 31:16). In other words, the Seventh-day Sabbath is an everlasting covenant—as enduring as the everlasting covenant (cf. Isa. 66:22, 23). The Sabbath is an invitation to rest in God. It is an invitation to a heart-relationship with Christ. It is a weekly reminder of Christ’s words: “‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest’” (Matt. 11:28). Ratzlaff and most evangelical scholars haven’t penetrated to the true meaning of the Sabbath in the context of the covenants.
The word church comes from two Greek words meaning “to call” and “out.” “Called out” people are those who respond to the everlasting covenant invitation to allow God to be their God, and they to be His people. The church is made up of those who have entered into a covenant relationship with God that is based upon the apostles and prophets. In other words, the church is built upon a foundation that includes the original covenant and every renewal of it throughout history. The church is made up of those who throughout human history have entered into a heart-relationship with God, love to keep His law, and reflect the reciprocal love of the Trinity.
Just as there is an unchanging reciprocal love relationship within the inner history of the Trinity, so there is a revelation of that love through covenant human history as God’s everlasting covenant renews the invitation to enter into a reciprocal relationship of love with God. This is renewed each Sabbath as covenant partners enter into a special rest with God. Christ prays to His Father for the church, “May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:23). What a staggering thought! The Father has loved the Son for eternity, and He loves His church just as much. It is this awesome, all-encompassing love that was present at Sinai and is present in the New Covenant.
The radical distinction between the Sinai covenant and the new covenant, which rejects the seventh-day Sabbath of Sinai, is based on faulty hermeneutics imposed on Scripture, from a false view of God. Biblical commentators need to allow internal linguistic and contextual evidence to provide a corrective through biblical hermeneutics.
Norman R. Gulley, Ph.D., is Research Professor of Systematic Theology at Southern Adventist University, Collegedale, Tennessee.
NOTES AND REFERENCES