New and Old Covenants Luke 22:20

Discussion opener for a gathering of Diocese of Toronto Cursillo groups, at St. Andrew's Church, Scarborough, Saturday October 13, 2001 by Robert Brow (

A covenant means an agreement, and the events of September 11, 2001 highlighted two very different kinds of agreement between God and his servants. The highjackers who crashed themselves and other passengers into the Manhattan towers did so because they were assured that any man dying in battle for God (jihad) was immediately guaranteed all the joys of heaven. What is the meaning of the covenant that Jesus made with his disciples at the last supper? "This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood" (Luke 22:20).

Jesus was referring to a contrast Jeremiah the prophet made between the old covenant and Jesus' new covenant. "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. 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" (Jeremiah 31:31-33).

The old covenant was solemnly sealed in blood at the foot of Mount Sinai. "Moses took the book of the covenant, and read it in the hearing of the people; and they said, 'All that the LORD has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.' Moses took the blood (from the sacrifices he had offered, Exodus 24:4-6) and dashed it on the people, and said, 'See the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words'" (Exodus 24:7-8). This was not the giving of the moral law of the ten commandments (Exodus 20:1-17) which were "written with the finger of God" (Exodus 31:18 - these are wrongly translated as "covenant" - the Hebrew is "tablets of witness"). The covenant that Moses sealed was more like the constitution that the people agreed to live by.

The content of this covenant is given as "ordinances that you shall set before them" (Exodus 21:1-23:33). And it is obvious that these ordinances for their life in the desert and in the promised land do not apply to us. There are rules about buying and selling slaves (Exodus 21:1-11, 20-27), pre-marital sex (Exodus 22:16), and the death penalty for striking or cursing one's parents (21:15-17). Some of the ordinances are similar to our civil law for manslaughter (Exodus21:12-14), and there are rules for liability and restitution (Exodus 21:28-22:1, 5-15). The instructions about the annual feasts to be observed (Exodus 23:14-21) lost their relevance with the weekly communion service that Jesus instituted.

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus quoted six items of Old Testament civil law, and in each case said "But I say to you" (Matthew 5:21, 27, 31, 33, 38, 43). The point is that the civil law that constituted the Jewish people in the Old Testament is not in any way binding on us. Christians obey the laws of whichever country they live in (Romans 13:1-7). But in contrast to the civil and criminal law of any country, the new covenant works in a totally different way. As Jeremiah saw so clearly, "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 (obviously referring to the Holy Spirit), and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people" (Jeremiah 31:33).

The Old Testament moral law is quite different from a nation's civil and criminal law. It gives us ten categories of moral judgment (which have very little specific content) which are found among all nations. Jesus said they could be summed up in the call to love God with all our heart and love our neighbor as ourselves. But these two requirements are not rules with penalties for non-compliance as found in any government civil and criminal law.

What was so new about the new covenant was that Jesus told us we could look to the Holy Spirit to work in our hearts what we could never do by self-effort. We would be changed from the inside rather than by burdensome Pharisaic rules. This was why Paul was so upset when the Church in Galatia was persuaded to go back into legalism. "You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? (as if a witch had cast a spell on them). Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? Having started with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh?" So he pleads with them to continue in their freedom from rules. "For freedom the Messiah has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery" (Galatians 5:1).

Jesus's new covenant is an agreement whereby the Holy Spirit is guaranteed to give us all the wisdom, and inspiration, and moral change, and love for God and our neighbor that we need and cannot work up by our own efforts. Which is why John remembers that at the last supper the main topic that Jesus taught was the work of the Spirit (John 13:34, 14:12, 16-17, 26, 15:1-11 where the Spirit is the sap in the Vine, 15:26, 16:7-15).

Does this suggest that in the new covenant life in the Spirit there are no rules? The only rules are the rules that we need for our freedom. If we want to be free to enjoy hockey or bridge, football or yacht racing, we need rules for the game. If we want to be free and safe to engage in mountain climbing there are very strict rules to abide by. But these are not universal rules for all others to live by. I have type 2 Diabetes, which is easily controlled with a small pill a day, and I need the rule not to eat sugar. But I don't tell others to keep off desserts.

Jesus gave no rules for the conduct of the communion service. But we can make rules for how the bread and wine is to be served. People can kneel or stand, or sit in their pews. Anglicans use special vestments, and with a common cup the wine must be at least 16% to be safe from passing germs and viruses. But none of these rules are universal. Their only purpose is to make possible our freedom as a community to hear and obey the Word of God. As Jesus said "If you continue in my Word, you are truly my disciples, and the truth will make you free" (John 8:31).

This immense freedom ("the freedom of the glory of the children of God" - the old translation was better "the glorious liberty of the children of God", Romans 8:21) means that we must watch what rules we make for ourselves, and what rules people make for us. Some people bind themselves by rules that destroy their freedom rather than make it possible. And in the past some churches have added all sorts of rules to the communion service that bring people into bondage.

So for our discussion I would like you to share and work at two questions:

1. What rules do I live by for my freedom?

2. What rules does my denomination make for my freedom?

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