What is the relationship between the Mosaic covenant and the new covenant?

Q. Your most recent post comparing the God of the OT and NT made me think of a question. What do you see as the relationship between the Mosaic covenants and the new covenant? As far as I can tell from Jeremiah, the new covenant has the same information, it is just that all the previous terms of the Biblical covenants were written on stone and scrolls, where in the new covenant, they will be written on one’s heart. Therefore the new covenant will be better, as we will want to do the stipulations in it.

I think this is basically right.  The covenant with Moses had some things that I believe were identity markers for God’s people at the time, such as keeping kosher, observing certain days, etc.  The New Testament makes clear that these are no longer obligations for followers of Jesus.

But certainly the ethical imperatives of the covenant, summed up by Jesus as “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and your neighbor as yourself,” remain.  As you say, under the new covenant, we now want to fulfill them, as we are given new hearts.  Our identity markers as covenant people are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control—the fruit of the Spirit.

As I believe you’re saying, when seen from the perspective of the character and actions that God wanted to produce all along in His people, there is more continuity than discontinuity between the Mosaic covenant and the new covenant.

Did God become more merciful after being human in Jesus?

Q. For years I’ve been struck by the stark contrast between how God’s judgment is portrayed in the Old Testament and how it is portrayed in the New Testament.  Even before Jesus’s death, God seems to have a gentler spirit with his people.  I pondered this for a long time but never came up with an explanation that seemed to make sense until the other day.

Let me run a hypothesis by you.  Do you think God changed after Jesus walked on the face of the earth, because he experienced first-hand some of the struggles we face?  This may seem like a pretentious suggestion, and I really don’t mean any disrespect to our sovereign God who created the universe and is all-knowing.  But I do see a an inexplicable difference between the Old and New Testaments. Would love to hear your thoughts.

I think you may actually be on to something here, but let me offer a couple of qualifiers first.

We should observe, for one thing, that God actually shows mercy as well as judgment towards people in the Old Testament, and judgment as well mercy to people in the New Testament.

For example, there’s a beautiful passage in Hosea that speaks of God’s love for the wayward nation of Israel:  “Therefore I am now going to allure her; I will lead her into the wilderness and speak tenderly to her. . . . I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you in righteousness and justice, in love and compassion.”  And then there are the words that open the second part of the book of Isaiah: “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem . . . He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.”  And so forth, in the Old Testament.

On the other hand, in the New Testament, along with all the grace and mercy, we find passages like this one in 2 Thessalonians: “God is just: He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you . . . This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels. He will punish those who do not know God . . . They will be punished with everlasting destruction.”  Even from the lips of Jesus himself we hear things like this, spoken to the Pharisees:  “You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?” (I won’t even get into all the plagues and destruction in the book of Revelation.)  So it seems there’s plenty of both mercy and wrath to go around in each testament.

Still, we have the impression that there’s more wrath in the Old Testament.  What creates that impression?  For one thing, in that period God was using the law to govern His relationship with His people. The New Testament itself says that the law has a positive purpose, to restrain and to teach.  But laws need to specify what the consequences will be if they’re broken.  That’s one reason why we hear so much about punishment in the Old Testament.

If teenagers found themselves constantly threatened with punishment, or actually being punished, they might marvel at how different their parents seemed from the days when they used to cuddle them and coo over them as babies.  But the parents haven’t necessarily changed.  The teenagers have actually moved into a life stage where they need the guidance and restraint of enforceable rules to help them become more mature and eventually independent adults.  In the Old Testament, that’s the stage the people of God are in.  Things do change in the New Testament, where God’s relationship with His people is governed instead by the Holy Spirit living in them.  “The law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”

One more consideration is that the Old Testament is the story of how the original chosen people kept disobeying the covenant through which they were supposed to be God’s instruments to reach the rest of the world, and how they needed to be corrected as a result.  Ultimately, a new kind of covenant was promised.  The New Testament is the story of how Jesus came to earth to live out perfect obedience, inaugurate that new covenant, and fulfill the intentions of the original covenant, to bring all peoples in.  So the story of disobedience in the Old Testament is going to feature a lot more judgment and punishment than the story of obedience in the New Testament.  It’s not so much God’s “learnings” as a human being that lead Him to be more merciful in the New Testament as the unfolding of a plan by which God, in Jesus, supplies the obedience that He was looking for from humans all along.

All of that said, however, let me return to your hypothesis and explain why I think you may still be on to something.  The book of Hebrews says, “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him.”  As a result, “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.”

This seems to suggest that there was some kind of “learning” as a human being on Jesus’ part that has resulted in Him being a more effective intercessor for us in heaven.  Should we therefore conclude that when Jesus intercedes for us, since God is talking to God (that is, God the Son is addressing God the Father), God is now more able to “sympathize with our weaknesses” in His own self-reflections?  If so, this would reflect no prior deficiency in objective knowledge on God’s part, but rather a gain in God’s subjective or experiential knowledge.  It makes sense to me, at least, that even if God knew everything from the beginning, He hadn’t necessarily experienced everything.  Something to think about, anyway!

This would not account for any difference in God’s dealings with us “before Jesus’s death,” however, because Jesus had not yet taken His place back in heaven as our intercessor at that point.  So I wouldn’t appeal to this to explain how justice and mercy work in the Old and New Testaments.  But I would still marvel, and worship, at the thought that Jesus came and shared our humanity to such an extent that He could bring an experiential appreciation of it back to share with the Father in heaven.

I don’t know that this has necessarily changed God’s character, to make Him more merciful.  Even as God is first giving the law through Moses, He describes compassion as His primary and outstanding characteristic, at length, before describing justice as well: “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished . . .”  Still, I recognize that God in His graciousness has identified with us in an amazing way through Jesus, and this must give a very special quality to His compassion.

“Christ in Gethsemane” by Michael D. O’Brien. “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears.”

If our sins are forgiven, why will we “receive the things done in the body, good or bad”?

John Martin, The Last Judgment, 1852 (Tate Gallery, London)

Q.  “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.”  How do we reconcile this statement with receiving forgiveness for our sins? I know many of the forgiveness verses but struggle with reconciling them with verses like this one.

The difficulty you’re feeling is a classic example of what happens when the Bible is presented to us as a collection of “verses.” There are some biblical statements that simply can’t be reconciled with others if we take them to mean what they appear to say in isolation from their contexts.  But when we do consider them in context, we typically realize that they’re not quite saying those things, and that they can be reconciled.

I think the statement you’re asking about, which Paul makes in Second Corinthians, cannot refer to us being punished for our sins, because only a little bit afterwards, he asserts once again that “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them.”  So then what does Paul mean by the statement you quote?

When we consider it in its context, we see that Paul is contrasting his own ministry with that of the rival teachers who had come to Corinth and who were trying to establish themselves by putting Paul down.  In the very next paragraph he says, “We are not commending ourselves to you again, but giving you cause to boast about us, so that you may be able to answer those who boast about outward appearance and not about what is in the heart.”

In other words, it will all be sorted out at “the judgment seat of Christ.”  Don’t listen to what those rival teachers are saying about me, Paul says; for that matter, don’t listen to what they’re saying about themselves.  Christ knows who the people are who are faithfully following him now, and he will acknowledge them before his heavenly throne.  And Christ also knows the people who are fakes, who are claiming to follow him but who are really only out for themselves, and he will expose them before his heavenly throne.

That isn’t our job here on earth.  We can take people at face value, at their word.  If they say they are sincerely following Christ, then we can work with them on that basis and trust that God will bring good fruit out of any ministry we have with them—so long as we pay careful attention to any “alarm bells” that warn us not to associate with a person who would be manipulative, exploitive, or abusive, to us or to others.  There is a certain discernment we are called to, but it stops short of guessing what’s in another person’s heart.

So the statement you’re asking about isn’t a threat or warning about punishment for our sins.  God no longer counts those against us, because we are reconciled to him in Christ.  Rather, it’s an encouragement to leave it to Christ to judge in the end the nature of anyone’s ministry, and to work in good faith with anyone who names the name of Christ and appears to be of honest and trustworthy character.  We can be confident that glory will ultimately go to that name, both now on earth as ministry is done, and later in heaven as everyone’s motives, good or bad, are shown for all to see.

Are names written in the Book of Life, or blotted out of it?

Q. I’m reading a book that says names are not added to the Book of Life, they are blotted out.  The book refers to the place in Exodus where Moses prays, “But now please forgive their sin, but if not, then blot me out of the book you have written,” and God replies, “Everyone who has sinned against me I will blot out of my book.”

I’d always thought our names were added to the Lamb’s Book of Life when we accept Christ as our Savior (as in the hymn, “There’s a New Name Written Down in Glory”).  However, if our names are already there, it seems to make more sense.  After all, it is not God’s will that any should perish.  Names would only be blotted out if a person refused forgiveness of their sins.  This would explain why infants who die and the mentally handicapped are able to enter heaven: they have not attained the capacity for accountability, therefore their names have not been removed.  It also explains why the whole human race is the beneficiary of what Jesus did.  Salvation is provided for all, but only becomes an individual reality when a person asks Him for it.

A. I find the idea very appealing that God writes everyone’s name in the Book of Life when they are born (or conceived), in the hopes that they will embrace salvation, and only blots people’s names out of the book if they definitively reject salvation.  Since none of us humans can ever really tell whether another person has done that, we can keep hoping and praying and reaching out friends and loved ones, patiently inviting them to embrace the love God has shown to them through Jesus.

In addition to the Scripture passage you mention in Exodus, the letter to Sardis in the book of Revelation seems to support the idea of names being blotted out, rather than written in, based on a person’s response. Speaking of those who do not deny Him in order to save their lives in this world, Jesus says, “I will never blot out the name of that person from the book of life, but will acknowledge that name before my Father and his angels.”

Moreover, in Psalm 69, speaking of those who are his “enemies without cause,” David prays, “Do not let them share in your salvation. May they be blotted out of the book of life and not be listed with the righteous.”  Interestingly, a couple of passages from this psalm are treated as Messianic in the New Testament.  John says that when Jesus cleansed the temple, “His disciples remembered that it is written: ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.'” And John later says, “So that Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, ‘I am thirsty,'” and he was given vinegar to drink.  This seems to be an allusion to another statement in Psalm 69, “They gave me vinegar for my thirst.”  All four gospels actually record this incident, and Luke specifies that the vinegar was given mockingly.  So if we see David as a type of the Messiah, then the enemies whose names he asks to be blotted out of the book of life can be associated with those who definitively choose to reject Jesus, to mock rather than accept the salvation he accomplished for us on the cross.

I would observe, however, that the case is not entirely clear-cut.  Some other Scriptures seem to suggest that names may be written into rather than blotted out of the Book of Life.  For example, there are a couple of different ways we might interpret Paul’s comment in Philippians about the co-workers whocontended at [his] side in the cause of the gospel,” that their “names are in the book of life.”  On the one hand, it doesn’t seem necessary for him to describe their genuineness this way if being written in were the default, and that nothing short of a definitive rejection of Christ would blot someone out.  On the other hand, he may be contrasting them with the people he has just described, who “live as enemies of the cross of Christ” and whose “destiny is destruction.”  In that case, Paul would be saying that his co-workers, by contrast, have not been blotted out like these people.

One more reference to consider is the one in Revelation that says the beast from the abyss will impress and terrify “the inhabitants of the earth whose names have not been written in the book of life from the creation of the world.”  This seems to suggest that not everyone’s name is written in from the start.

So how we might resolve this difference?  We should admit that it’s unlikely that there’s an actual physical book somewhere in the spiritual realm into which names are entered in ink, or blotted out with ink. Instead, we should perhaps understand the Book of Life as a metaphor that biblical writers use for salvation, speaking either of names blotted out (most commonly) or written in (in a few apparent cases).

Nevertheless, this metaphor represents a genuine spiritual reality.  As Paul put it in his second letter to Timothy, “God’s solid foundation stands firm, sealed with this inscription: “The Lord knows those who are his.'”  In other words, the Book of Life, however physically or spiritually we understand it, exists somewhere, somehow, as a representation of God’s sure knowledge of those who are His.

That may be one good takeaway from this investigation:  If we have genuinely trusted in Jesus, we never have to wonder whether He knows that and will honor it.  As He said to the people of Sardis, “I will acknowledge that name before my Father and his angels.”

And I do have to say that I personally come down on the side of your statement, “Salvation is provided for all.”  If pressed to choose one understanding or the other of the Book of Life, I’d say that all names were written in first, and they would only be blotted out in cases where a person understood but definitively rejected God’s offer of salvation through Jesus.

This page from an old hotel guest book suggests an interesting approach to the Book of Life idea. Once we do accept God's offer of salvation through Jesus, do we find that our names are written there in our own handwriting?
This page from an old hotel guest book suggests an interesting approach to the Book of Life idea. Once we do accept God’s offer of salvation, do we find that our names are written there in our own handwriting?

Does the NIV translation fail to reflect the “new perspective on Paul”?

I recently heard from a reader who became interested through this blog in The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that can be read without the distractions of chapter and verse numbers, etc.  However, he was initially concerned about the NIV translation, used in that edition, because, he said, “of an article I read which makes me worried that the translation of Paul’s epistles is too much in the Reformed tradition and ignores the last 50 years of Pauline scholarship.”  I think those concerns can be addressed.

At issue here is the so-called “new perspective on Paul,” which is a vast and complicated discussion, but which involves questions such as whether Paul was saying that our salvation comes to us from God completely apart from works (the Reformation emphasis), or whether Paul was saying only that distinctively Jewish observances such as the Sabbath are not required of Gentiles, but that God expects everyone to produce good works as a result of their salvation.  Since the real question here is about the NIV translation, I won’t go into the “new perspective” any further, except to observe its implications for some specific translation choices.

In a 2003 public lecture, N.T. Wright, a noted exponent of one version of the “new perspective,” called the NIV’s translation of a certain phrase in Romans “appalling.” He felt it described God’s own righteousness, but the NIV rendered it as “a righteousness from God,” that is, one that would be imputed to a human being.  In the same lecture, Wright noted that the NIV, also in Romans, left out the word “or” before the question “is God the God of the Jews only?” This seemed to have been done in order to soften the impact of what would be, from the Reformation perspective, a sudden and difficult-to-explain shift from a discussion of individual salvation to the topic of how Jews and Gentiles together form the community of faith.

I don’t know exactly what article about the NIV and the “new perspective on Paul” my reader was referring to, but I suspect it may have been written before the latest update to the NIV was released in 2011, and so it was based on the 1984 second edition.  This most recent update includes changes to many of the passages that likely caused the concerns expressed in the article.  (I’m grateful to this post by T.C. Robinson on his blog New Leaven for much of the information that follows.)

For example, the statement whose translation N.T. Wright found “appalling” formerly read this way:  “But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify.”  In the latest update to the NIV,
it now reads, “But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify.  The previously missing “or” has  been placed in front of the statement that follows shortly afterwards: “Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles too?”

Within this same passage in Romans, the NIV now refers to God’s “righteousness” in a couple of places where it previously spoke of God’s “justice.”  And where the translation formerly said of Christ, “God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood,” it now reads, “God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood–to be received by faith.”

Other material that’s present in the Greek but formerly missing in the NIV is also now reflected in that translation.  As the discussion continues, Paul asks, according to the 1984 edition, “What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather, discovered in this matter?”  This omits any representation of the phrase kata sarka, which follows the term propatēr (“forefather”).  The latest update to the NIV reads, “What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, discovered in this matter?”

It should be noted that some of these changes were actually made as early as the 2001 TNIV New Testament.  The TNIV was meant to be understood as the latest word from the NIV’s Committee on Bible Translation (CBT), and as such it was effectively the third edition of the NIV.  It would be folded into that translation as part of its 2011 update, which may be considered the fourth edition.  The TNIV NT changed “a righteousness from God” to “the righteousness of God,” for example, in the place we’ve been considering.

The TNIV also changed “through faith in his blood” to “through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith.”  And it referred to Abraham as “the forefather of us Jews,” not simply as “our forefather,” beginning to reflect the way that proponents of the “new perspective” see the Jew-Gentile dynamic running through the book of Romans.  These changes all followed the TNIV into the NIV in its most recent update (with of us Jews becoming according to the flesh, a more literal rending of kata sarka).

This is not a comprehensive survey, and I have no first-hand knowledge of the exact reasoning behind the changes, but it certainly appears to me that the CBT has been working, in every update it has issued since the “new perspective” came to prominence, to ensure that their translation does reflect the most up-to-date scholarly understanding of Paul’s writings.  So I see no need to avoid the NIV based on the belief that it ignores the “new perspective on Paul.”

[Disclosure: I was a consulting editor for The Books of the Bible, which appeared first in the TNIV in 2007 and was reissued in the NIV in 2011.  I have also consulted with the CBT on specific projects such as the visual formatting of material like genealogies, lists, etc. in the NIV.]

A mosaic depicting St. Paul, Ravenna, Italy, late 5th century

Does the Sermon on the Mount present impossible demands and harsh penalties?

Q. I’ve seen it written that the Sermon on the Mount can be thought of as a job description for Christians.  I’m thankful that God has given us one!  Yet I find some of its passages confusing at best and very difficult, if not impossible, to carry out.  It also seems that Jesus is outlining some harsh judgements for us when we fail, which it seems most of us will.  So I then question, “What about Gods grace?”

What’s known as the Sermon on the Mount is the first extended collection of Jesus’ teachings found in the gospel of Matthew.

Matthew divides his account of Jesus’ life into five thematic sections. Each one begins with a series of narrative episodes, followed by a discourse made up of Jesus’ collected teachings.  The narrative and the discourse explore a common theme in each case. The first section, whose discourse is the Sermon on the Mount, is about the foundations of the kingdom, which are in an inward righteousness, not in external conformity to the law.  The concept of “righteous/ness” is introduced in the preceding narrative episodes (“Joseph was a righteous man,” etc.), and the term appears in a key location in each section of the Sermon on the Mount:

“Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”
“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them.”
“Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”
And so forth.

Since this is a matter of inward character, rather than of outward conformity to rules of behavior, it’s something that we have to grow into.  Jesus is presenting the ideal to which we should constantly aspire.  We should be encouraged as we see ourselves making progress towards it.  We shouldn’t beat ourselves up about the extent to which we still fall short, but instead let that be a spur towards greater maturity.

The penalties Jesus describes are simply his way of saying that this is what the law is truly aiming at.  For example:

“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.”

This is, on one level, the rhetorical device of hyperbole or exaggeration, a favorite of rabbis and of Jesus himself.  No one is going to be sent to hell for speaking two particular words.  But we need to see the point behind this hyperbole. If we think of the law as something with stipulations and penalties, then we should let the penalties described help us recognize the stipulations that the law is really aiming at: love for others, rather than hatred for them.  You’re not okay with God just because you manage to avoid murdering someone whom you hate in your heart.

In the so-called “Beatitudes” at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, we see the positive character qualities whose cultivation will enable us to fulfill the deepest intent of the law.  If we are merciful and peacemakers, for example, we won’t hate.  So this opening section is something of a key to all that follows.

I hope this is helpful.  And I’m glad you’re meditating on this material as a “job description”!  It really is meant to have the practical effect you’re envisioning.

Fra Angelico, “The Sermon on the Mount,” fresco, Friary of San Marco, Florence, mid-1400s

Should the Bible be interpreted based on methods that apply to any text generally?

Q. It seems that one could end up with any number of Biblical interpretations depending on the prior choice of which hermeneutics (the interpretive axioms from which everything else is derived) to follow. So how does one decide which hermeneutical method to use when interpreting the Bible?  Are biblical hermeneutics largely based upon what the Bible says of itself?  Or are they chosen based on broadly accepted methods of textual criticism? If they are based on methods that apply to any text generally, how does one account for the unique status of the Bible in its interpretation and not essentially reduce it to merely human literature?

You’re absolutely right that the message we get out of the Bible is dependent on the method we use to understand it and apply it to our lives.  And nowhere in the Bible is there a specific set of instructions for what method we should use.  Nevertheless, people who believe that the Bible is divinely inspired generally agree about what the appropriate method is.

The character of the Bible is understood by such people according to a Christological analogy.  That is, just as Jesus was fully human and fully divine, so the Bible is the word of God coming to us through the writings of human authors.  The books of the Bible need to be fully human literature, or the Christological analogy does not hold.  This means that, as Rudolph Bultmann aptly put it in his essay on “The Problem of Hermeneutics,” “The interpretation of biblical writings is not subject to conditions different from those applying to all other kinds of literature.”  (Bultmann’s theory of inspiration was different from the one familiar to many of us today, but he still considered the Bible to be divinely inspired.)

And this view corresponds to the character of the biblical writings themselves.  They are composed in ordinary languages and follow the conventions of recognizable literary genres.  It is only by faith, strengthened by the testimony of the Christian community throughout the ages and our own experience of the Bible as “living and active” in our own lives, that we recognize it to be the word of God.

But if someone does accept the Bible as God’s word to us, coming through human words that are spoken about and even to God, then they can be confident in responsibly interpreting it “based on methods that apply to any text generally,” as you put it.  This is actually very freeing, because it means that we don’t have to worry about finding some secret code or esoteric method that will really disclose the Bible’s message to us.

If we learn how to read well, we will read the Bible well.