The first and second covenants
But their minds were made dull, for to this day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read. It has not been removed, because only in Christ is it taken away. Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts. (2 Corinthians 3:14-15)
Let’s get something straight about the old and new covenants before we move on.
The old covenant is not the same as the Old Testament, just as the new covenant isn’t related just to the New Testament. The old covenant isn’t before Christ, and the new covenant after. Actually both old and new covenants have been in operation all along because they are primarily two different ways of going about a relationship with God.
When Jews — or anyone else for that matter — try to follow the law, that is old covenant. When Abraham — or anyone else — was declared righteous by faith, as Paul talks about in Romans 5, that is new covenant.
We all experience the lure of the old covenant; we all try to better ourselves based on some external standard. We all try to please God by our actions and beliefs. At some point, hopefully, we discover the freedom of the new covenant: that everything comes to us by faith, because then it is brought about in our lives by the Holy Spirit.
At the same time, it’s not “once new covenant; always new covenant.” Since these are two ways of approaching God, we can go back and forth between them. As Paul once pointed out to the church in Galatia, “Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh?” (Galatians 3:3)
So when Paul talks about consequences of the old covenant related to Moses and the children of Israel, that does not apply only to Jews; it applies to anyone who, at any time, is operating on the basis of the old covenant.
In a way, we could call the old covenant, the “first” covenant, because it is where we all start with God. The “first” covenant is the one that comes most naturally to us. That’s because we all grow up under a performance basis. We all start out fulfilling (or refusing to fulfill, if we are rebellious) the expectations of those in authority like our parents, teachers, coaches, etc.
Left to our own devices, we would actually all prefer the “first” covenant, even though it ultimately condemns us to death. We prefer it because it spells things out in black and white and keeps us in charge. We like being the judge of things. We like knowing where we are on the ladder of success. We like judging and comparing, and manipulating the standard so that we can follow it but others can’t. We love the “first” covenant because we can hide behind it.
The new, or “second” covenant may set us free, but it also leaves us vulnerable. It’s honest. It’s risky, because we’re trusting the Holy Spirit, not ourselves, and we never quite know what’s going to happen next.
The old or “first” covenant is all about control, and that is why Paul points out in our verses for today that the same veil that covered the face of Moses covers the face of anyone who tries to please God on the basis of the old way.
It’s pretty easy to figure out why. The old covenant requires us to follow all the laws laid out by God. However, because of sin in our lives, none of us is capable of doing this. Failing in one small thing makes you guilty of breaking the whole law. That’s the way it’s set up. No one actually believes they can do that, but the popular way to get around this is to tweak the law, as the Pharisees did, into something doable, albeit meticulous, but doable. Either way, the old covenant requires covering up the fact that we are not doing what we know is actually required of us.
Herein lies the beauty of the old covenant. We aren’t supposed to follow it! It was never intended to make us righteous. It was intended to show our unrighteousness and force us to throw ourselves on the mercy of God, which is exactly where He wants us. Paul says the law is the schoolmaster to lead us to Christ. The first covenant sets us up for the second.
As long as someone thinks they can obey all the law, they disqualify themselves for grace. The Pharisees short-circuit the process. The Pharisees turn out people who believe they don’t need the new covenant, and that is a terribly dangerous place to be. That’s why Jesus disliked the Pharisees so much. They were keeping people from the grace of God.
Lose the veil. Lose the thought that you might actually be able to please God with your actions or your good behavior. That kind of stuff will kill you. Give yourself up. Turn yourself in. Come clean with God, and those around you, and let God do His work in your life. That’s the new covenant. That’s the second covenant that you can find only when you fail the first one. Let’s get busy and fail so we can start to know the freedom and the power of God’s grace in our lives!
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Day 10 Challenge:
Paul is using Moses and Israel as an illustration of something that is true for Christians.
- When you became a Christian did you receive the gift of salvation by faith?
- Was there great thanksgiving?
- When did you begin to believe that, if you tried hard enough, you could keep yourself from evil and so live a life pleasing to God?
- Have you ever been open and honest before others about your inadequacy, because you are aware the Spirit is working through you, only to moments later snatch an evangelical veil to hide behind because you needed to protect your Christian reputation, even though you knew the glory was fading? What happens when you succeed? How do you feel (weakness, dullness, pointless, censure, guilt and any other phenomena we are familiar with in mediocre church life) today? How does this manifest itself outwardly?
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