I started out by speaking of the Covenant with Abraham. Put simply, that was the moment when a new phase of God’s kingdom programme was brought in. Not the first, but new. It drew a distinction between what had gone before and what was now to be. God works in history; His moves have a sequence.
Before Abraham there was no Israel, but there had always been believers. We would regard them as gentile believers I suppose, but the distinction means nothing, since there were no descendants of Abraham to be distinct from. But with Abraham’s two-fold promise of seed and land, the distinction became very real. There would continue to be gentiles, but now they would approach God through the mediating witness of Israel. In this way Abraham would be a blessing to the nations (Genesis 12:3)
Jeremy suggests that the New Testament knows nothing of such a distinction, and should be the filter through which we re-interpret the Old Testament.
Investigating the evidence
1. Was The Eternal Promise to Abram Unconditional?
Jeremy provided some examples of statements that certainly are conditional (Exodus 19:5; Leviticus 25:23). The problem is that they don’t refer to the Abrahamic covenant. They refer to the covenant with Moses, enacted around six centuries later. It was through Moses (not Abraham) that “the Law” was brought in, grace and truth through Jesus Christ (John 1:17). The distinction is clear if we read on from one of Jeremy’s suggested texts, Deuteronomy 4:25. Moses warns the next generation of Israelites about the penalties for disregarding the Law. But as we read on from verse 30:
When you are in tribulation, and all these things come upon you in the latter days, you will return to the Lord your God and obey his voice. For the Lord your God is a merciful God. He will not leave you or destroy you or forget the covenant with your fathers that he swore to them. (Deuteronomy 4:30-31; note also Deuteronomy 34:4)
The covenant that God swore to their fathers was the covenant with Abram, reiterated to Isaac and Jacob. That covenant is conditioned only on God’s faithfulness to keep a promise. That is the grounds for the restoration of a faithful remnant to the land even after seasons of rebellion. God gave His word.
On the other hand, under Moses it was the other way around. The people swore the Law back to God:
Moses came and told the people all the words of the Lord and all the rules. And all the people answered with one voice and said, “All the words that the Lord has spoken we will do.” (Exodus 24:3).
The people gave their word. This covenant under Moses was subject to the faithfulness of the people. It did have conditions to it, but it isn’t the covenant with Abraham. The Law of Moses is a far better candidate for the “old wineskin” label, since it is expressly rendered fulfilled and obsolete in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (Matthew 5:17; Romans 10:4).
2. Is the Distinction Evident in the New Testament?
In addition to those in my previous entry I offer a few New Testament passages suggesting that in the mind of Christ Himself and of Paul, there was indeed a distinction.
- Jesus received a desperate plea from a Canaanite woman:
…He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” And he answered, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs. (Matthew 15:24-26)
We might wince at the image, but Jesus is clear there is a line of distinction. In grace, on account of her faith, Jesus healed her daughter, but His own words express His understanding of two different groups. This illustrates the mystery of the Church. By faith, gentiles can share the blessings that were established in Israel (Romans 11:17-20; 15:27). It was unexpected and new, as was Israel through Abraham. But it didn’t remove the distinction.
2. Paul says in Romans:
For I tell you that Christ became a servant to the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. (Romans 15:8-9)
Two separate results in Christ: to the Jews to confirm the promises given to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. That is, to establish them as binding and still in effect. And also that the gentiles would find God’s mercy and praise Him for it. As expressed to the Canaanite woman, Jesus came to the Jews, and grace to the gentiles was added, but not the same.
3. And at the end of Galatians:
For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation. And as for all who walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God. (Galatians 6:15-16)
Yes, gentiles (“those who walk by this rule”) experience the grace of God, Paul invokes peace and mercy on them. But he refers to the “Israel of God” as a distinct group.
Dr Terry Boyle servers as Pastor for Insight for Living UK. Although he began his professional life as a biochemist, Terry holds a Th.M. in Pastoral Ministry and a Ph.D. in Biblical Studies from Dallas Theological Seminary in Dallas, Texas.
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