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What are the Differences Between the OT and NT? (Lesson 7.1)

In the last lesson, we gave several reasons for why we take Sinai as being, in essence, a gracious covenant. It's hard to deny the fact that the Mosaic Covenant belongs to the Covenant of Grace. But there are also important objections that we need to deal with. There are certain Scriptures that seem to contradict the things we've been affirming. Some passages of Scripture seem to speak quite negatively about the Mosaic Covenant, making Sinai appear to be something entirely different than the Covenant of Grace. We read for instance in John 1:17: “For the Law was given through Moses; grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ.” And in 2 Corinthians 3, Paul refers to the Law as a letter that kills, a ministry of death, and a ministry of condemnation; where in contrast, the Spirit gives life and is a ministry of righteousness. And in Galatians 3:23, Paul writes that “before faith came, we were kept in custody under the law, being shut up to the faith which was later to be revealed.” If Sinai truly belongs to the Covenant of Grace, how do you explain what Scripture says about the NATURE of the Mosaic Covenant? Further, Scripture seems to tell us that what God requires under Moses is something very different than what He requires of us now in the gospel. Paul says in Romans 10:5: “For Moses writes that the man who practices the righteousness which is based on law shall live by that righteousness. But the righteousness based on faith speaks as follows. . .” And again, in Galatians 3:11-12, Paul says: “Now that no one is justified by the Law before God is evident, for, 'The righteous man shall live by faith.' However, the Law is not of faith; on the contrary, 'He who practices them shall live by them.'” If Sinai truly belongs to the Covenant of Grace, how do you explain what Scripture says about the REQUIREMENT of the Mosaic Covenant? There are also certain Scriptures that seem to teach that the Law is now null and void for us as Christians. For instance, Paul says in Romans 6:14, “For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law but under grace.” And he writes again a chapter later in Romans 7:4 that we “were made to die to the Law through the body of Christ” and that “we have been released from the Law, having died to that by which we were bound” (v6). Paul also testifies of himself in Galatians 2:19: “For through the Law I died to the Law, so that I might live to God.” If Sinai truly belongs to the Covenant of Grace, how do you explain what Scripture says about the AUTHORITY of the Mosaic Covenant as it relates to us now as believers? These are important questions that require thoughtful explanation. In fact, they're so important that we are going to devote the entirety of this lesson to answering these questions in detail:

So: First, if Sinai truly belongs to the Covenant of Grace, how do you explain what Scripture says about the nature of the Mosaic Covenant? Secondly, if Sinai truly belongs to the Covenant of Grace, how do you explain what Scripture says about the requirement of the Mosaic Covenant? And lastly, if Sinai truly belongs to the Covenant of Grace, how do you explain what Scripture says about the authority of the Mosaic Covenant?


So then, the first objection has to do with the nature of the Mosaic Covenant. If Sinai is part of the Covenant of Grace, how do you explain the ways that certain Scriptures seem to speak negatively about the Mosaic Covenant, contrasting it, and even seeming to oppose it to the grace of the gospel? This is an important question. What we're going to see is that many of these Scriptures can be understood in light of what the older writers referred to as differences in administration between the old and new covenants. That is, there are indeed differences between the way the Covenant of Grace was revealed in the Old Testament and the way it's revealed in the New Testament. Further, these differences seem to be most pronounced at Sinai. Still, these are not differences that have to do with the essence or core content of the covenant (its substance), but rather differences that relate to the outward form or application of the covenant (its administration). To give an example: Say that yesterday, you picked a delicious mango off the tree. Today, you peeled off the skin, cut the mango into bite-size pieces (yummy!), and then placed those pieces in a bowl. Is there a difference between the mango from yesterday and the one from today? Yes! Yesterday, the mango still had its skin; today it's been peeled, cut up, and ready to eat. But it's still the same mango. Well, just like that mango, there are differences between the old and new covenants, to be sure. Yet, those differences don't have to do with the nature of the covenant, but simply with the way that covenant is outwardly presented. Speaking of the Covenant of Grace, the Westminster Confession says: “This covenant was differently administered in the time of the law, and in the time of the gospel: Under the Law it was administered by promises, prophecies, sacrifices, circumcision, the paschal lamb, and other types and ordinances delivered to the people of the Jews, all fore-signifying Christ to come. . . Under the Gospel, when Christ, the substance, was exhibited. . .it is held forth in more fullness, evidence, and spiritual efficacy, to all nations, both Jews and Gentiles; and is called the New Testament.”1 So then, the old covenant no less belongs to the Covenant of Grace, but it was “administered” differently than the new. Just like the mango, it was the same Covenant of Grace—just presented in a different way. But how so, exactly? There are at least seven differences in administration between the old and new covenants:2

1. EMPHASIS: One of the contrasts of “administration” between the old and new covenants has to do with what seems to take center-stage. In the old covenant, the earthly and temporal are set forth most visibly, while it's the heavenly and eternal that are front and center in the new covenant. This can create confusion as we think about the old covenant. But what we have to realize is this: Gospel truths were no less present in the old covenant—it's just that those truths were set forth in and through earthly pictures. That is, the old covenant set forth earthly benefits in order to teach us about eternal ones. We see this in Hebrews 11:8-10: “By faith Abraham, when he was called, obeyed by going out to a place which he was to receive for an inheritance; and he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he lived as an alien in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, fellow heirs of the same promise; for he was looking for the city which has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” Verse 8 tells us that Abraham left his home in order to receive another land, which God was promising to give him as an inheritance. And as we read through the rest of Genesis, the focus is clearly on the geographical territory we know as the land of Canaan. But verses 9-10 clarify that the inheritance God was promising Abraham was never just a physical piece of property. Even as he dwelt in Canaan, Abraham lived as an alien, as in a foreign land; because his heart was set on inheriting the city that would last forever. So then, in the Old Testament, the focus was on the physical land of Canaan. But the New Testament helps to clarify that all along, it only served as a picture or type of the heavenly inheritance that God was promising His people. And so, though it was physical, temporal things (like Canaan) that were often emphasized in the Old Testament; still, those physical, temporal things were always meant to signify spiritual realities.3 Just as a kernel of rice is wrapped in an outer husk, so too, gospel truths were wrapped with an earthly husk in the old covenant.4 God was teaching His Old Testament people gospel truth—but He was doing it using things that were tangible and physical; much like we do with our children in Sunday school.5 As one writer explained: “the Lord dealt with [Israel] as with children in their infancy and under age, leading them on by the help of earthly things, to heavenly and spiritual, because they were but young and tender. . .their covenant did first and chiefly promise earthly blessings, and in and under these it did signify and promise all spiritual blessings and salvation. . .These, and some other circumstantial differences in regard to administration, there were betwixt their way of salvation, or covenant of grace, and ours. . . but in regard to substance, they were all one and the very same. . .in these covenants Jesus Christ is the subject matter of both, salvation the fruit of both, and faith the condition of both.”6

2. CLARITY: Because gospel truth in the old covenant was wrapped in the outer husk of the earthly and temporal, it was more hidden from view. In the old covenant, God spoke gospel realities to His people, but He did so indirectly, through pictures and types; whereas now in the new covenant He speaks to us directly, face to face. There is a measure of clarity in the new covenant that old covenant believers didn't get to experience.7 Perhaps this is why the author of Hebrews uses the imagery of shadows (rather than pictures or types) to describe the ministry of the old covenant (8:5; 10:1); there was an element of murkiness involved.8 The new covenant is at times contrasted with the old because, with the coming of Christ, the things that were formerly dark or obscure have now become crystal clear. Calvin likens it to the light of dawn compared to noonday.9 And another writer put it this way: “The revelation of faith before and under the Law was so small, imperfect, dim and obscure, in comparison of the clear, full and glorious manifestation of faith afterwards under the New Testament, that till then it seemed as [if] it were not. . .revealed at all.”10 This is what Paul is speaking of when he says in Ephesians 3:5 that the mystery of Christ “. . .in other generations was not made known to the sons of men, as it has now been revealed to His holy apostles and prophets in the Spirit. . .”11 The mystery that Paul is referring to is a certain aspect of gospel truth—that the Gentiles are also fellow inheritors of the promises to Abraham. And Paul is saying that this aspect of gospel truth, though present in the old covenant, had nevertheless been much less clear. But now it has been revealed to the apostles as clear as day.12 As Bridge puts it: “though the covenant of grace was made with the Jews that were saved, yet it was given more darkly and obscurely; there was a veil upon Moses. . .'But now we all with open face behold as in a glass the glory of the Lord,' says the apostle, as speaking of the difference between the one and the other (2 Corinthians 3:18).”13

3. CONSUMMATION: Your children can tell you there's all the difference in the world between looking at the sign of the ice-cream shop and actually going in and devouring two scoops of mint chocolate-chip. So too, when I was first getting to know my wife, it was a long-distance relationship. And though it was great talking over the phone and looking at her picture, there was a massive difference between that and finally seeing her face to face. Well, that's what it was like with the ushering in of the new covenant. When Christ came into the world, all the signs and pictures of the old covenant finally became a reality. Jesus had come. The signs gave way to the substance. Christ took on flesh and dwelt among us. In the old covenant the Covenant of Grace was fore-pictured, but in the new it was actually fulfilled. What was promised in the old was finally and actually performed in the new. Scripture often contrasts the old and new covenants in this way.14 The author of Hebrews tells us that under the old covenant, “both gifts and sacrifices are offered which cannot make the worshiper perfect in conscience, since they relate only to food and drink and various washings, regulations for the body imposed until a time of reformation.” (9:9). And again, he says, “the Law, since it has only a shadow of the good things to come and not the very form of things, can never, by the same sacrifices which they offer continually year by year, make perfect those who draw near.” (10:1).15 The author's point isn't to bash the sacrifices of the Old Testament (after all, it was God himself who commanded them). His point is rather to show us that those sacrifices, in and of themselves, could do nothing—considered apart from Christ whom they signified. The sacrifices were only the shadow—Christ himself is the substance to which all the Old Testament shadows had for so long been pointing. Think of it this way: If you are a man dying of thirst in a scorching desert, the shadow of a gushing river—in and of itself—won't do you any good. It's the actual gushing river you need. So too, the Old Testament sacrifices—in and of themselves, considered apart from Christ—could do nothing to take away sins. But they were meant to point us to the One who would. As Calvin put it: “in the absence of the reality, [the old covenant] showed but an image and shadow in place of the substance; the New Testament reveals the very substance of truth as present.”16

4. ABROGATION: Another way we can understand the contrasts in Scripture between the old and new covenants is through the principle of abrogation. Now, it's important to understand that when we speak here of abrogation, we're not saying that the Law as a whole is now abrogated for believers in Christ (we'll deal with this in more depth later). Rather, we're speaking of particular aspects of the Mosaic Law. As we saw in the last lesson, the Mosaic Law may be divided up into three sub-categories: the Moral, the Ceremonial, and the Civil (or Judicial) Law.17 The Moral Law is summarized in the 10 Commandments; it is the eternal expression of God's will for mankind, and thus perpetually binding for all men. But the Ceremonial and Civil Laws were never meant to be perpetually binding. The Ceremonial Laws had to do with Israel's worship; the Civil Laws had to do with Israel's civil State. And these were added as appendixes to the Moral Law.18 They were given to a particular people (the Jews) for a particular time (before the coming of Christ), and thus served a temporary purpose.19 In the words of the Confession (19:3): “Besides this law, commonly called moral, God was pleased to give to the people of Israel, as a church under age, ceremonial laws, containing several typical ordinances, partly of worship, prefiguring Christ, His graces, actions, sufferings, and benefits; and partly, holding forth diverse instructions of moral duties. All which ceremonial laws are now abrogated, under the New Testament.” And again (19:4): “To them also, as a body politic, He gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the State of that people; not obliging under any now, further than the general equity thereof may require.” This is why Jesus declared all foods to be clean in the new covenant. And it's what Paul was speaking of when he wrote in Colossians 2:16-17, “Therefore no one is to act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day—things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ.”20 If you've ever watched the launching of a space shuttle, you might have noticed that after a certain time, part of the shuttle disconnects and falls back to the earth. The piece that disconnects is the external fuel tank; it provides the fuel needed to get to space; but after it serves its purpose, it's no longer needed and disconnects from the shuttle. The Ceremonial and Civil Laws of Israel were like that external fuel tank. They served a temporary purpose, but now that Christ has come, they're no longer needed. Now that we have the kernel, we can do away with the husk.21

5. FREEDOM: Because the Ceremonial Laws have been abrogated and the Judicial Laws have expired, New Testament believers now in turn have a greater measure of freedom. It's this distinction that Paul seems to be referring to in Galatians 3:23, where he says, “But before faith came, we were kept in custody under the law, being shut up to the faith which was later to be revealed.” Most traditional commentators understand the phrase, before faith came, as referring not to the message of faith (IE, before the way of salvation was revealed), nor to the reception of faith (IE, before we put our trust in Christ), but rather to Christ, the object of faith (IE, before Jesus took on flesh and inaugurated the new covenant).22 And Paul is saying, before Christ came into the world, God's Old Testament people “were kept in custody under the law, being shut up to the faith which was later to be revealed.” Well, it sure doesn't sound very good, and it's a definite contrast, but this verse is not here putting the old covenant against the new. In the context of the passage, Paul has been describing how the Moral Law condemns us all for our sin (v22). We are guilty sinners, and the Moral Law is hunting us down to execute judgment against us. It's in this light that Paul begins to talk about the Ceremonial Law. For the Old Testament people of God, being under the Ceremonial Law was like being “in custody”—it was burdensome, to be sure—but it was a gracious custody. How so? As Calvin beautifully puts it: “They were besieged on every hand by the curse, but this siege was counteracted by an imprisonment which protected them from the curse; so that the imprisonment by the law is here proved to have been highly generous in its character.”23 Think about all those families in Germany during the reign of Hitler who risked their lives to hide Jewish people in their homes. Now, for those Jewish people hiding behind bookcases and in secret rooms, life for them was very much like an imprisonment. They were restricted and confined; it was unpleasant and burdensome—but it was this very imprisonment that actually served to protect them. Well, the Ceremonial Laws were just like this for God's people. They were burdensome, and yet also merciful, because it was those very laws that taught them of Christ, so that those pictures and sacrifices were the very means by which they were saved. After all, as one pointed out, “by the Law they were, not shut up from the faith, but shut up unto the faith, that after should be revealed.”24 The Ceremonies served to protect God's people until the coming of Christ. But in the new covenant we are set free from the bondage connected with them. Those Jews in hiding must have been grateful beyond words for those secret rooms; but after all, it was just a temporary arrangement. Once the country was liberated, they no longer needed to keep living “in custody.”25 And so it is for us as new covenant believers in Jesus.26

6. EFFECT: You may be familiar with the theologian Jonathan Edwards and the Great Awakening that became associated, in part, with his ministry. It was at the height of the Great Awakening, in July 1741, that Edwards preached a sermon called, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. God spoke to the listeners of this particular sermon in such a powerful way that Edwards was interrupted several times by people audibly moaning, and crying out, “What shall I do to be saved?” But not everyone knows that this was actually the second time Edwards preached this sermon. He preached the same sermon to his own congregation earlier, and as far as we know, there wasn't nearly the same effect. Sometimes God is pleased to work more powerfully than at other times. And this is another way that Scripture seems to contrast the old and new covenants. In Jeremiah 31:33, the Lord tells His people about the new covenant He would make with them, contrasting it with the covenant He had made with them at Sinai, saying: “But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,' declares the Lord, 'I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.'” This is truly an amazing promise; but it also leaves us wondering: Didn't God do the same thing in the Old Testament? Did God only begin to write His Law in the hearts of His people in the new covenant? Wasn't it David who wrote, “Your word I have treasured in my heart, that I may not sin against you” (Psalm 119:11)?27 How then are we to understand the prophecy in Jeremiah? I think in this way: God did write His Law on the hearts of His old covenant people. There were indeed many in the Old Testament, such as David,