Session Two: The Breit Chadashah
D. Thomas Lancaster started this second lecture in the series by taking me more than a few years back into my own history in the Hebrew Roots movement. He said that when he first became involved in Messianic Judaism, even though most people in his group didn’t know Hebrew, there were a few “Hebrewisms” that everyone was expected to observe.
Never say “Jesus”. Always say “Yeshua”. Say “Messiah” instead of “Christ”. Say “Torah” instead of “Law”. Really remember to say “Rav Shaul” rather than “Paul.” Also, say “Breit Chadashah” instead of “New Testament.”
Although some of my readers are scrupulous to use these “Hebrewisms” when emailing me or commenting, even though they may not be well-versed in Hebrew (though a few are quite proficient), some of them probably feel they have to follow this sort of “Messianic Political Correctness speak” in order to be acceptable or perhaps they feel they’re correcting past wrongs and, after all, Messianic Gentiles and Hebrew Roots Christians don’t want to sound too “church-y”.
But there’s a fundamental misunderstanding that most people in the Church and many in the Hebrew Roots and Messianic movements have, that the “New Testament,” that is the books in our Bibles that start with Matthew and end with Revelation, is the same thing as the “New Covenant.”
But to understand that point, we have to understand what the Old Covenant is and that the Old Covenant is not the same as the Torah or what Christians call “the Law.”
I covered some of this territory in last week’s review but Lancaster adds more detail in today’s sermon.
Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the Israelites.”
So Moses came, summoned the elders of the people, and set before them all these words that the Lord had commanded him. The people all answered as one: “Everything that the Lord has spoken we will do.” Moses reported the words of the people to the Lord.
–Exodus 19:5-8 (NRSV)
This is the Old Covenant in a nutshell. It’s an agreement and a rather simple one at that. God says, if you, Israel, obey me, then I, God, will make you a ”priestly kingdom and a holy nation.” More simply put, God agrees that if Israel obeys Him ”Then I will take you for My people, and I will be your God.” (Exodus 6:7)
Once the people agreed to the Covenant, then Moses initiated it.
Moses came and told the people all the words of the Lord and all the ordinances; and all the people answered with one voice, and said, “All the words that the Lord has spoken we will do.” And Moses wrote down all the words of the Lord. He rose early in the morning, and built an altar at the foot of the mountain, and set up twelve pillars, corresponding to the twelve tribes of Israel. He sent young men of the people of Israel, who offered burnt offerings and sacrificed oxen as offerings of well-being to the Lord. Moses took half of the blood and put it in basins, and half of the blood he dashed against the altar. Then he took the book of the covenant, and read it in the hearing of the people; and they said, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.” Moses took the blood and dashed it on the people, and said, “See the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words.”
–Exodus 24:3-8 (NRSV)
This formally sealed the Covenant relationship between Israel and God. If you look at verses 9 through 11, you’ll see representatives of Israel having a meal in the presence of God since, in last week’s lecture, Lancaster said it was traditional behavior among two human parties, such as a great King and a vassal nation, to share a meal after a treaty had been settled.
The actual Covenant was the agreement between God and Israel, and Israel, for their part, were responsible to obey God in order to hold up their end of the bargain. But how? That’s where the Torah comes in. It defines the specific conditions and stipulations that Israel must obey.
However, there’s a problem. Israel’s obedience was rather poor. In fact, the first time they disobeyed was very soon after their initial agreement by building the Golden Calf (see Exodus 32). After that, the Covenant had to be renewed and it was renewed many times. But Israel, sadly, fell into a pattern of disobedience and sin. As part of the Covenant conditions, if the people obeyed, then God would be their God and they would be His people, but when they disobeyed, He ceased to be their God and they ceased to be His people. Then God sent an army and great destruction usually happened, sometimes with the people going into exile. Once they cried out to God and repented, God would send a rescuer, defeat Israel’s enemies, and restore the people to their Land.
And this happened over and over again. The Book of Judges is a good chronicle of this but the pattern is recorded in much of the Tanakh (Old Testament).
I mentioned that a lot of New Covenant language is found in Jeremiah 31 and Lancaster said that we need to understand the context of Jeremiah to get this.
In Jeremiah 3:1-5 we see Israel depicted as an unfaithful wife, and in spite of many calls to repentance, such as in verses 6 though 25, Israel remains uncaring and God sends the armies of Babylon to destroy Jerusalem.
But amid this tragic tale, Jeremiah introduces hope in the form of a future redemption, but one like Israel had never seen before.
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.
–Jeremiah 31:31-34 (NRSV)
Now remember, the conditions of the Covenant are not the Covenant itself. The conditions of the Old Covenant are the Torah, but Jeremiah isn’t saying that the conditions are what’s new, it’s the Covenant that’s new.
In the Old Covenant, God spoke the words of the Covenant to Moses who spoke them to Israel. Israel agreed and everything was written down on scrolls or tablets and the people were to refer to those conditions to, first understand what they had agreed to, and then to actually do what they’d agreed to do by performing the mitzvot.
In the New Covenant, instead of doing all that, God writes the conditions of the Covenant on the hearts and puts them in the minds of the people of Israel and then it becomes second nature for them to obey. The Torah conditions are internalized rather than being externally referenced.
The Old Covenant was written on scrolls and the New Covenant will be, or is in the process of being, written on human hearts and human natures.
But the conditions are the same.
I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking if Gentiles are also benefiting to the New Covenant through faith in Jesus (Yeshua), then are those same conditions being written on our hearts as well?
Yes and no.
In the Torah is there a condition for Gentiles to circumcise their males on the eighth day of life? No, that requirement is only for the physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Gentiles are exempt. I’ve said before that the Acts 15 decision formally spelled out the conditions that Gentiles are responsible for carrying out, and it’s only through the blessings of one part of the Abrahamic covenant that the nations are attached to the New Covenant at all. Jews already knew the conditions that applied to them because they were the same ones established by the Sinai (Old) Covenant and they never changed.
But what about this?
But Jesus has now obtained a more excellent ministry, and to that degree he is the mediator of a better covenant, which has been enacted through better promises. For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no need to look for a second one.
God finds fault with them when he says: “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah…
–Hebrews 8:6-8 (NRSV)
It’s scriptures such as this that Christians use to prove that the Old Covenant was replaced by the New, but look at what the writer of Hebrews is actually saying. As he is about to quote from Jeremiah 31, he says, ”God finds fault with them (emph. mine)…” He doesn’t say God found fault with it, that is, the Old Covenant, but with them, with Israel, with the people, because they didn’t obey the conditions of the Covenant because of sin.
The solution wasn’t to change the Covenant but instead, to change the people, so it would be possible to fulfill the conditions of the Old Covenant originally spelled out at Sinai. The New Covenant (and not renewed) is a new method of delivery and institution so Israel will be obedient by design.
So how did we get into the mess we’re in as Christians today? How did this get screwed up?
According to Lancaster, the Church Fathers in the second and third centuries CE knew that they didn’t have to keep the conditions of the Old Covenant as did the Jews but they didn’t know why. The Apostles taught that Gentiles had a different (and somewhat overlapping) set of conditions but once the last of the Apostles died, the Gentiles made a few assumptions (or perhaps a few deliberate errors to serve a specific purpose, but that’s my opinion). Lancaster said these Gentile Christians assumed that everyone, Jew and Gentile in Jesus, kept the Gentile standards of obedience, and the Gentile Christians actually criticized (and later persecuted) Jews for not abandoning the “Old Covenant” conditions.
The other shocker for some Christians is that we aren’t really living in New Covenant times right now. Sure, the death and resurrection of Jesus started a process by which the New Covenant era began to arrive but it’s not fully with us yet. Otherwise, we wouldn’t sin. Otherwise the conditions of the New Covenant would be written on our hearts rather than in the Bible and we would all just naturally obey God.
Sadly, I must confess that I do not naturally obey God. I have to struggle with obedience. Chances are, you do, too. It will only be when the New Covenant Era fully arrives that we really will be “new creatures” and “new creations”. We aren’t there yet. We’re a work in progress.
That doesn’t stop you and me from repenting now. Why wait? Messiah is coming.
If my reviews are piquing your interest, you can find the complete, five-disc set of Lancaster’s New Covenant lectures at First Fruits of Zion. I’ll review the third lecture next week.
For more on this topic and how historical and modern Christianity has misunderstood the New Covenant, see my blog post The Two-Thousand Year Old Christian Mistake.