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Review of “What About the New Covenant,” Part 1

“I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah.”

Jeremiah 31:31

Does the New Covenant really replace the Old Covenant? Christian replacement theology is solidly based on a misunderstanding of the meaning of the new covenant. The church teaches that the new covenant cancels the Torah and God’s covenant with the Jewish people.

Messianic Judaism teaches that Yeshua did not abolish the Torah, but if that’s true, what about the new covenant? Doesn’t the new covenant of grace and faith replace the old covenant of works and law? In five engaging lectures, Torah Club author D. Thomas Lancaster digs into the Bible’s prophecies to dispel many of the common myths and misunderstandings about the new covenant.

-from the First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ) webpage for the
What About the New Covenant sermon series

Introduction to the Series

About eighteen months ago, I began my personal investigation of the covenants in an attempt to understand how Gentiles (including me) were able to have a covenantal relationship with God without converting to Judaism. This investigation resulted in an eleven (twelve, really) part blog series I euphemistically called “The Jesus Covenant” which I started here. It took over six months of study and anguish, but I finally arrived at a place where I could be at peace about where I fit in the New Covenant as a Gentile.

When I received the five-part audio CD lecture series called “What About the New Covenant” from FFOZ in the mail several days ago, I was interested in how my discoveries and conclusions map to those of theologian and teacher D. Thomas Lancaster. Was I completely off base or would Lancaster confirm that I am standing on solid, Biblical ground as far as my understanding of the covenants, and especially the New Covenant?

The material on this set of audio discs is repurposed from several sources, including parts of Lancaster’s Holy Epistle to the Hebrews sermon series, FFOZ’s Torah Club Volume 5: Depths of the Torah, and Lesson 3 from FFOZ’s HaYesod Program.

That said, organization and presentation of this information is completely new, and these teachings, once “trapped” within much larger tomes and recordings, have been “freed” so we can access specifically what Messianic Judaism teaches about the New Covenant. One caveat: this is Messianic Judaism as First Fruits of Zion sees, understands, and practices it. I should emphasize like any other Judaism or any other Christianity for that matter, Messianic Judaism isn’t a single, monolithic entity and opinions among the various groups may differ somewhat.

Session One: The Covenant Maker

The first session is nearly fifty minutes long and as you might imagine, is pregnant with both amount and depth of information. Here, Lancaster takes his listeners on a grand tour of all of the covenants God made with humanity and Israel (all of the covenants except the Noahide covenant were made with Israel) and attempts to answer the all important question, “What is a Covenant?”

A good question has a long afterlife.

-Ismar Schorsch
“What Do I Look at When I Pray?” (pg 382)
Commentary on Torah Portion Shemini
from his book Canon Without Closure: Torah Commentaries

It’s true, we don’t really understand what “covenant” means in our world today. The only covenant we have left in modern times is the marriage covenant, and even that one has been nearly destroyed by our lack of understanding of the binding nature of covenants. If we did understand, divorce wouldn’t be such an epidemic, at least among the faithful.

noah-rainbowI mentioned the Noahide covenant that God made with all life, including all of humanity. God created a set of obligations for humanity and in exchange for obedience, God promised not to destroy the world again by flood. The sign of this covenant is the rainbow we periodically see in the sky (see Genesis 9 for details).

But it’s not until Lancaster begins talking about the covenant God made with Abraham and all of Abraham’s descendants through Isaac and Jacob, the Jewish people, that we begin to understand the nature of this covenant and all the covenants to follow.

The first big point to get is that all subsequent covenants build on prior covenants rather than replacing them. In fact, this is really important for ancient and modern Israel because whenever Israel violated the covenant made with God at Sinai (such as the incident of the Golden Calf recorded in Exodus 32), it was God’s promises made in the Abrahamic covenant that allowed Him to repeatedly redeem Israel. You might want to review God’s promises to Abraham and his descendants by looking at Gen. 12:1-3, 7, and 22:18. You’ll also see this covenant being inherited by Abraham’s son Isaac in Gen. 22:18.

Interestingly enough, although it is commonly believed that Abraham had no obligations he had to fulfill apart from participating in the sign of this covenant, which was circumcision for himself and all the male members of his household, this is not actually true. Abraham was required to have a lived-out faith that God periodically tested. And the results of those tests really, really mattered.

The angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven, and said, “By myself I have sworn, says the Lord: Because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of their enemies, and by your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves, because you have obeyed my voice.”

Genesis 22:15-18 (NRSV)

Abraham and the starsGod said “Because you have done this…I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven.” These are conditions. You did this and in response, I will do that. Abraham had to demonstrate perpetual fidelity to God by faith, trust, and obedience, and doing so, God responded by fulfilling the covenant promises He made to Abraham and his descendants.

It is the same for us as James, the brother of the Master famously wrote in James 2:14-26. Lancaster says we are justified by faith and works, which is a rather radical thought in traditional Christianity, but as you’ll discover, his presentation of covenants including the New Covenant, is also not the “norm” from an Evangelical perspective.

As a side note relevant to justification and deeds, see Derek Leman’s blog post Our Deeds are Not Filthy Rags.

As far as the “duration” of the Abrahamic covenant, according to the Apostle Paul:

Brothers and sisters, I give an example from daily life: once a person’s will has been ratified, no one adds to it or annuls it. Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring; it does not say, “And to offsprings,” as of many; but it says, “And to your offspring,” that is, to one person, who is Christ. My point is this: the law, which came four hundred thirty years later, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to nullify the promise.

Galatians 3:15-17 (NRSV)

In other words, later covenants do not get rid of, annul, cancel, or make obsolete earlier covenants. In addressing the covenant God made with Abraham, Paul says it’s forever. A later covenant can only ratify an earlier one, not abolish it.

Lancaster spends some time on the Mosaic covenant, the covenant God made with the Children of Israel, that is, Abraham’s, Isaac’s, and Jacob’s descendants, at Sinai. One important point he makes is that this later covenant builds on the earlier one and in fact, the making of this covenant actually fulfills sections of the earlier, Abrahamic covenant. One example is the continuation of the promises that Abraham’s descendents would possess the Land of Israel, cementing this promise by establishing the laws specific to the Jewish people living in that Land.

Another important issue Lancaster brought up is the difference between the covenant and the Law. The Torah is not the Sinai covenant, it represents the conditions of the covenant, defining the responsibilities of each party: God and the Children of Israel. It also defines the sign of the covenant which is the Shabbat.

This sign is unique in that it is not a manifestation in nature, such as the rainbow, or a physical condition or procedure, such as circumcision. Shabbat is an “island in time” or, as Lancaster quotes Abraham Joshua Heschel, “a sanctuary in time.”

Therefore the Israelites shall keep the sabbath, observing the sabbath throughout their generations, as a perpetual covenant. It is a sign forever… (emph. mine)

Exodus 31:16-17 (NRSV)

Notice that the Sinai covenant and its sign are forever and perpetual. No exchanges or replacements allowed.

As I mention above, whenever Israel disobeyed the conditions of the Sinai covenant, according to those conditions, God punished Israel. There is no provision in the covenant for its annulment. All covenants God made with Israel are forever. Is that clear?

King DavidLancaster moved on to describe the Aaronic covenant, which is the promise that Aaron’s descendants will always be High Priests, and the Davidic covenant that states David’s descendants will be Kings over Israel. The conditions state that should a King disobey, he would be disciplined, but God would not remove his love from the Davidic dynasty (see 2 Samuel 7). The Davidic covenant is also the hope of the Messiah, for a sinless King must rule one day over Israel, that is, King Messiah.

So far, all of these covenants are built one on top of the other. Each later covenant expands upon the previous covenant in some way. But what about the New Covenant?

First, let me, thanks to Lancaster (though I knew this already), relieve you of a burden. The New Testament, that is the collection of scriptures from Matthew through Revelation, does not equal the New Covenant. I heard a highly intelligent, well-educated, and abundantly accomplished Pastor tell me once that the New Testament is the same thing as the New Covenant and I almost fell out of my chair.

According to Lancaster (and I agree with him), the New Testament is a collection of scriptures that record how Yeshua (Jesus) initiated some of the conditions of the New Covenant, but it is not the covenant itself. Lancaster (and again, I agree) says that the New Testament would be better named “The Apostolic Writings” or “The Apostolic Scriptures”. Just as the Torah is not the Sinai (or “Old”) Covenant, neither is the “New Testament” the New Covenant.

So where do we find the New Covenant? It’s all over the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings, but as you hopefully already know, the key scriptures are these:

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)

I will take you from the nations, and gather you from all the countries, and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances. Then you shall live in the land that I gave to your ancestors; and you shall be my people, and I will be your God.

Ezekiel 36:24-28 (NRSV)

Taking all this together, first notice that the New Covenant is made only with Judah and Israel. No mention is made of the Gentiles and particularly “the Church” at all. It seems that outside of the Jewish people, God has no covenant relationship with humanity and never will. Also notice that nothing in this language whatsoever changes, annuls, cancels, or abolishes anything in any of the previous covenants God made with Israel. That means, among other things, that the Torah is perpetual and that Jesus didn’t lie:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.”

Matthew 5:17-18 (NRSV)

CreationJesus never intended to come and abolish what God established in relationship with Israel, and the Torah will not change at all until Heaven and Earth pass away and until all is accomplished.

Well, Heaven and Earth are still here as far as I can tell. But what needs to be accomplished? I mean, didn’t Jesus say “It is finished” on the cross right before he died? (John 19:30) (Hint: If he said “It is finished” and then died, it’s very likely that what was finished was his suffering).

I said before, echoing Lancaster, that Jesus initiated the New Covenant by his death and resurrection. Jesus himself said that the bread and wine the Apostles ate at the last meal with the Master (and Lancaster taught that after a covenant was made in the ancient Near East, a meal was always eaten together by the participants of the covenant) were the New covenant in his body and blood (Luke 22:19-20), so the New Covenant started at that point. Jesus got the ball rolling. But what happened to the covenant after that?

Look at the passages from Jeremiah 31 and Ezekiel 36 again. Do you see all that happening? How can the Word of God be written on our hearts if we as believers still sin? How can the New Covenant be initiated but not completed?

For in him every one of God’s promises is a “Yes.” For this reason it is through him that we say the “Amen,” to the glory of God.

2 Corinthians 1:20 (NRSV)

He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.

2 Corinthians 5:5 (NRSV)

What is this promise and guarantee? It’s the sign of the New Covenant. Lancaster says that the New Covenant encompasses all of the previous signs (Shabbat, for instance) but also has its own sign. It’s also unique in that the sign functions as sort of a down-payment or promissory note that Messiah will return to complete what he started, that is to deliver on the rest of God’s promises outlined in the New Covenant language.

That’s why we as believers have the Holy Spirit but still don’t see evidence of the full arrival of the Messianic Kingdom, the Kingdom promised by the New Covenant. It is a promise of what is yet to come.

I said before that the New Covenant doesn’t annul or change any of the previous covenants but then why is it “New?” Look again at Jeremiah and Ezekiel. Judah and Israel are still obligated to obey God’s Torah but the big difference, the only real difference, is that this time, God will make it possible for man to obey.

Many Christians say that God gave Israel the Law to prove that they were incapable of obedience to God’s standards and, once He made that point, He replaced the Law (Torah) with the Grace of Jesus Christ, which doesn’t rely on man having to do anything, including, if you’re a Calvinist, exercising enough free will to accept that free gift of salvation. Lancaster says that God didn’t change His expectations of obedience, there has always been grace, and that knowing man cannot obey God consistently out of his own will, God places His Spirit in man and God writes His Torah on man’s heart, circumcising that heart, so that man will “naturally” obey God’s desires. That’s the “New” in “New Covenant.”

This is a beautiful way to dispense with the requirement in the Church that we retrofit modern Christian theology into the Old Testament and invent new interpretations to explain Christian doctrinal dissonance in trying to make the older and newer scriptures fit together. Lancaster creates a seemless progression across all scripture that doesn’t make it necessary for us to “jump the tracks” at Acts 2 and invent a never prophesied entity known as “the Church”.

But I mentioned before that the New Covenant, like all of the prior covenants except the one made with Noah, were made with Israel, that is the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This is really good news, the gospel message to the Jewish people, but what about the Gentiles? Have we been left out in the cold after all? Where is the gospel for us?

In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.

Ephesians 1:13-14 (NRSV)

New CovenantThe Apostle Paul (Romans 11:11-24) said that the God-fearing Gentiles are grafted into the Commonwealth of Israel through fidelity to the Jewish Messiah King, that is, to Jesus, and that by swearing such allegiance and in obedience to our King (which I speak of in this blog post), we are added in to that commonwealth alongside the born citizens of Israel, the Jewish people.

Lancaster was quick to point out that such “grafting in” does not make Gentile believers (i.e. Christians) Jewish nor does it obligate us to the Torah in the same manner as the Jews. Yes, we Gentile believers are obligated to some of the conditions in the Torah, but that obligation is unique to us as Gentiles, and many other conditions are only applied to Jewish people, whether believers or not.

Again, this does not mean there is one, identical application of the Torah mitzvot for both Jews and Christians, and it absolutely doesn’t mean that the Church, under the New Covenant, has replaced Israel and the Jewish people or anything in the Old(er) Covenant made at Sinai…or any of the other of God’s covenants.

…remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

Ephesians 2:12-13 (NRSV)

This particular doctrine on the New Covenant is certainly a lot easier to make sense of and follows the flow of the entire Bible much better than the traditional Christian understanding outlined, for instance, by gentlemen such as Dr. Thomas Schreiner in his book 40 Questions About Christians and Biblical Law which I reviewed a time or two.

I’m grateful to Lancaster and the other fine folks at First Fruits of Zion for producing this teaching and making it available to people like me. It certainly is a breath of fresh air and illuminates the Bible in a manner that we’ve gotten far away from in Christianity over the long centuries. It’s time to take back the lessons taught by the Apostles and to lead a new “reformation” of our own in the Church.

I strongly suggest that you acquire this audio series for yourself. I didn’t include everything Lancaster taught on disc one (though you must imagine I did given the length of this blog post) and he presents further information that solidifies his argument regarding the New Covenant.

I look forward to writing reviews on the rest of the series and having Lancaster show me just “how deep the rabbit hole goes” (with apologies to Morpheus, played by Laurence Fishburne).