What Does the New Covenant Retain from the Old?

How much continuity and discontinuity is there between the New Covenant and the Sinai Covenant? This article is designed to answer the confusion between hyper-grace on the one side and legalism on the other.

To answer that question, let’s look at section of Scripture in the Gospel of Luke.

33 They said to him, “The disciples of John fast frequently and offer prayers, just like those of the Pharisees, but yours eat and drink!” 34 But Jesus said to them, “No one is able to make the wedding guests of the bridegroom to fast, while the bridegroom is with them, can they? 35 But the days will come when the bridegroom shall be taken from them; then they’ll fast in those days.” 36 He continued telling them an illustration: “No one, after he tears off a patch from the new garment, puts it on an old garment! If you don’t, the new one will also tear, and the patch from the new one will not match the old one. 37 And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; if you do, the new wine will burst the wineskins, it’ll spill out, and the wineskin will be ruined. 38 But new wine must be put into a new wineskin. 39 And no one who drinks the old wants the new. He says, ‘The old is better.’” (Luke 5:33-39, my translation)

In the previous section (Luke 5:30-32), the Pharisees and teachers of the law criticized Jesus’s behavior because he ate with tax collectors and sinners. Now the conversation is carried forward. They find fault with his behavior in other areas. They did not like Jesus’s free-wheeling and free-dealing license of living it up, while the disciples of John and the Pharisees don’t do such frivolous things. They fast and offer prayers.

In this section about the old and the new, from here on, Jesus will be the center of these illustrations. He will be the bridegroom and the new.

Three main points about that passage, above:

First, Jesus is the bridegroom. The kingdom of God has broken through, by his coming. While he is with the wedding guests (literally “sons”), it would be out of place for them to be severe and austere with fastings and offering prayers of pleading and begging. It is time to celebrate. In Greek the question is formulated to expect the answer, “No, no one can make them fast.”

So when will the bridegroom be taken? It is his death on the cross and burial in the tomb. The disciples were scared. Would they be arrested also, as revolutionaries? No doubt they fasted, though not ritually, and offered prayers. The point is that the celebrations were over.

Now what happens at the resurrection? Relief and celebrations. He even ate fish with them, after he cooked it. Then what happens at the ascension? They had to get on with the work of preaching Jesus and the kingdom of God. Now it is time for regular fasting and prayer. Jesus was not against regular prayer and fasting after his ascension. So why mention this issue at all?

Let’s take a step back. The image of the groom and wedding often comes in the context of messianic times (Is. 54:5-6; 62:4-5; Jer. 2:2; Ezek. 16; Hos. 2:14-23). Even in Judaism at the time of Jesus the association between the metaphor of wedding and the Messianic Age was known. Jesus is hinting—for those with enough biblical knowledge—that the Messiah is right here, in front of them. While he is, let’s celebrate. Luke and other NT authors use the “already” and “not yet” aspect of the kingdom through the wedding and marriage imagery. It is already here, but it is not here in its fulness: (Luke 12:35-36; Matt. 22:1; 25:1; Eph. 5:23-33; Rev. 19:7; 21:2). Those verses in the Revelation describe the kingdom that is here in its fulness.

Second, let’s look at the patches and repairs on the old and new garments.

In v. 36, the new and the old don’t fit or match. Jesus is the new, and the old is Judaism and the old law. The way of the Pharisees and the teacher of the law, with their interpretations and maintaining the traditions—one interpretation piled on top of another—had to be thrown out. Or at least the new garment cannot be used to repair the old. There’s a mismatch.

Third, wineskins were made of treated and groomed animal skins, and the neck of the animal was used for the opening of the large container. After a while, the skin became brittle. Putting new wine, which expanded with fermentation, would burst the old brittle skin and spill out.

Obvious parallel: Jesus is the new wine, and old Judaism is the brittle wineskin. God is doing a new thing. You have to imagine Pharisees and teachers of the law roaming the country and going into towns—sometimes living in them—dishing out rules and regulations on how to keep the law. They read their history in the Hebrew Bible. They knew that God had judged their nation because the ancient Israelites broke the laws of the covenant (the law of Moses). So the motives of the Pharisees were honorable. But things just got too complicated.

Now Jesus comes along, to take God’s way with man in a new direction. He is currently ushering in the new kingdom, the New Covenant. God is in the process of leaving behind the old. With the cross, the resurrection and the ascension, the departure from the old will be completed, and the new direction will go full force.

So what is retained from the Old in the New? Really only a few (very important) areas:

  • Moral law (e.g. some in the Torah)
  • Wisdom literature (e.g. Proverbs)
  • Devotional literature (Psalms)
  • Prophecies (Messianic or otherwise)
  • Stories and principles to teach life lessons (e.g. Genesis and parts of the Torah and the histories and the Prophets, and so on)
  • Universal revelations about who God is (e.g. he is loving and gracious and a judge)

Here are some sample areas that are not retained in the New:

  • Old Sinai Covenant (Heb. 8-10, all the next points come from it)
  • Harsh punishments for private sins (Jesus took the penalties of sins on the cross)
  • Rituals and ceremonies (yes, Sabbath is a ritual and we are free from it; Luke 6:5; Rom. 14:5-6; Col. 2:16-17)
  • Jesus fulfills Yom Kippur
  • Exclusive class of priests (we are all priests; 1 Pet. 2:5, 9)
  • Kosher food laws (Mark 7:19; Col. 2:16; 1 Tim. 4:3; Heb. 13:9-10)
  • Circumcision (Rom. 2:25-29; 1 Cor. 7:19; Gal. 5:2-3; Col. 2:11)
  • Theocratic religious taxes (e.g. the tithe. You don’t believe we don’t have to pay the tithe? Click here for more information: Why Tithing Does Not Apply to New Covenant Believers)
  • Animal sacrifices (Heb. 9-10)
  • Festivals (three were required yearly: Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles; see Exod. 23:14-19 (1 Cor. 5:8; Col. 2:16)
  • Natural disasters caused directly by God to judge nations: Click here: Does God Cause Natural Disasters to Punish People Today?

In those two lists, we see some continuity, but also discontinuity in major areas. The discarded areas in the second list are about an ancient cultural context and an old, obsolete legal agreement, called the Sinai Covenant, which emerged from that cultural context (see the post The Sinai Covenant). In contrast, the retained areas in the first list are about God’s way with man, his reaching out with his love and grace and mercy. It is about man seeking God with all his heart and living a moral life. They are about the God-human relationship. These are universal and timeless truths and moral laws.

Therefore, the good news is that even through the ancient cultural context God superintended the Bible to reveal who he was and who we are in relation to him.

How does this post help me grow in Christ?

In Luke 5:33-39, Jesus’s point is that old Judaism is on the way out. In the Gospel of Luke, when national Israel rejects its Messiah, God will place Judaism and the whole Levitical system and the religious establishment under judgment (Luke 19:41-45; 21:20-24; 23:26-31; cf. Matt. 21:33-45), though numerous individual priests (Acts 6:7) and thousands of Jews of Jerusalem and Judea converted to their true Messiah (Acts 2:41; 4:4; 21:20). God loves people, but he is not enamored with systems.

Let’s learn to read the Old Covenant Scripture properly, by filtering it through the New. As the old saying goes: the New is in the Old concealed, while the Old is in the New revealed.

And I add: the Old is in the New after much fine-mesh filtering.

Written by James Malcolm

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