What’s ‘new’ about the New Testament? Part 2.

posted in: Bible 0

By Rob Lampard

Recap

This blog continues my series entitled What’s ‘new’ about the New Testament?  In part 1 we considered why this is an important question for us and looked briefly at how the New Testament itself answers our question.  In this part we’re going to take a more detailed look at the following topics: the new authority with which Jesus taught, the new covenant, and the new life which his ministry to people results in.

A New Teaching, A New Authority

Mark chapter 1 records for us an incident early in Jesus’s Galilean ministry:

 

21They went to Capernaum, and when the Sabbath came, Jesus went into the synagogue and began to teach. 22The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law. 23Just then a man in their synagogue who was possessed by an impure spirit cried out, 24‘What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are – the Holy One of God!’

25‘Be quiet!’ said Jesus sternly. ‘Come out of him!’ 26The impure spirit shook the man violently and came out of him with a shriek.  27The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, ‘What is this? A new teaching – and with authority! He even gives orders to impure spirits and they obey him.’

The first point to note here is the ordinary people’s surprise at the confidence with which Jesus taught.  The extended passage known as The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), contains a number of examples of such teaching.  The Old Testament prophets constantly used the introductory words, “This is what the LORD says”.  They spoke to the people in God’s name.  But in this sermon, Jesus repeatedly uses a different introductory formula: “I tell you”.[1]  Whilst fully aware that he only ever says what the Father has commanded him to say,[2] he nevertheless also consistently speaks on his own authority.  His hearers were fully aware that this was something new.

 

The second point is that this authority was demonstrated by the effect Jesus’s words had in the spiritual realm.  Not only did his words convey to his hearers his confidence in what he was saying.  They also had an observable spiritual impact.  Evil spirits obeyed his commands (v26).  And they also knew that he was somebody special, unique even, ‘the Holy One of God’ (v24).  More than a few commentators have noted that this was not imparted, second hand knowledge on the part of these spirits, but intuitive, first hand knowledge.  All this is certainly new.

The New Covenant

The topic of covenant in the Bible is a substantial one.  Simply put, a Biblical covenant between God and man can be defined as follows: God says, “I promise to do A for you; and in response I expect you to do B.”

 

The New Covenant is initiated by Jesus at the time of his arrest, execution, resurrection and ascension (Luke 22:20, 1Corinthians 11:25).  This covenant is first explicitly spoken of in Jeremiah 31:31-34:

 

31“The time is coming,” declares the LORD,  “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah.  32It will not be like the covenant which I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand and led them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, and I turned away from them,” declares the LORD.  33“This is the covenant I will make with them after that time,” declares the LORD.  “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts.  I will be their God and they will be my people.  34No longer will a man teach his neighbour or a man his brother saying, ‘Know the LORD’.  For they will all know me from the greatest to the least.  For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”

 

The first thing to notice here is that this covenant is declared to be ‘new’ in contrast to the one God made with the people of Israel (through Moses) when he ‘took them by the hand and led them out of Egypt’ (v32).  (See the entire book of Exodus and Hebrews 9:19-20.)  There is no suggestion that this ‘new covenant’ in any way replaces or supersedes the covenants God made with/through Noah, Abraham, or David, all of which are declared to be everlasting.[3] [4]  Hence, when Hebrews 8:13 says: ‘by calling this covenant ‘new’, he has made the first one obsolete,’ that can only be referring to the Mosaic covenant.

 

This contention is confirmed when it is noted that the first characteristic of this new covenant will be a new location for the law (v33).  No longer will it be written on tablets of stone as it was in the time of Moses.  Instead it will be written by the Holy Spirit in our minds and hearts.  For more on this, see Paul’s extended exposition in 2 Corinthians, chapter 3.

 

Its second characteristic will be fellowship with God.  This is expressed in the common covenantal statement, “I will be their God and they will be my people,” which in itself is nothing new.[5]  What is new is that all participants in the covenant will ‘know God’ (v34a; cf John 17:3).

 

The final characteristic will be total forgiveness of sins (v34b).  How this improves upon the forgiveness extended to sinners who employed the extensive sacrificial remedies detailed in Leviticus 1-7 is the subject of the lengthy passage in Hebrews 9:11-10:18.

New Birth, New Life, New Life-style, New Creation

Jesus’s conversation with the Pharisee Nicodemus is probably one of the more well known passages in the New Testament, especially so because it contains the famous John 3:16 verse, which reference has commonly been displayed on banners at football World Cup matches in the past few decades.  Earlier in the same conversation comes the saying, “You must be born again” (John 3:7b).  In the same context Jesus three times refers to this process as being ‘born of the Spirit’.  The new birth that he speaks about is a spiritual rather than physical birth.   In his first letter, Peter says that this new birth results in God’s elect receiving a living hope, a new inheritance and new joy (1Peter 1:3-8).  Further, since he directly connects this new birth with Jesus’s resurrection (v3), it would be reasonable for us to describe this new birth as a type of resurrection as well.  On this point, see also Romans 6:4.  Later, 1Peter adds that ‘the living and enduring word of God’ also plays an essential part in the bringing about of this new birth (1:23).  All this is a fulfilment of the prophecy of Ezekiel 36:25-27.

 

It is no surprise to find that this new birth results in new life.  An angel instructs the apostles, “Go and stand in the temple courts and tell the people the full message of this new life.” (Acts 5:20).

 

Nor is it a surprise to find that this new life must and does bring about a new life-style in the born again person. The New Testament writers spell out the details of this new life-style in considerable detail and such teaching occupies at least ⅙ of the entire New Testament.[6]  Detailed examination of this material is beyond the scope of this article.  The briefest summary is presented in the next paragraph.

This new life-style includes, but is not limited to, the following characteristics.  Sexual immorality is not to be tolerated in the church (1Corinthians 5:7).  Truthful speaking, not allowing anger to cause us to sin, abandonment of stealing, wholesome talk, kindness, compassion and forgiveness are all enjoined (Ephesians 4:21-29, 32); bitterness, rage, brawling, slander, and malice are all forbidden (4:31).

 

Such a life-style is possible because the new birth makes believers ‘a new creation’ (2Corinthians 5:17, Galatians 6:15).  And though applying at an individual level, this new creation also operates on a corporate level.  Those who were formerly hostile to one another become ‘one new man’ in Christ (Ephesians 2:15).

 

In its original context Ephesians 2:15 applied specifically to the breaking down of the centuries long divide between Jew and Gentile, the godly and the heathen.  At least 2000 years before the time of Jesus, God had promised to Abraham, “All peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” (Genesis 12:3).  More than a thousand years after the time of Abraham, God spoke several times through the prophet Isaiah about one he called his servant.  Here’s one of his statements:

 

“It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.”  (Isaiah 49:6)

 

So in itself, the idea that Jews and Gentiles alike and together would equally share in experiencing God’s salvation was nothing new.  The new thing was that, as a result of the ministry of Jesus, the things promised to Abraham and prophesied through Isaiah began to be seen to be happening in practice.  To the Jews of Jesus’s day, the meaning of these prophecies had become so veiled that they had no understanding of what their fulfilment would look like.  Hence Paul was able to observe later in Ephesians that this was a mystery (or secret) who’s meaning the Holy Spirit had not previously revealed:

 

‘This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.’ (3:6)

 

Further, in the new society God was establishing, the breaking down of barriers equally applied to other long standing divisions between peoples, whether racial, religious, gender-based, or societal-role-based (Galatians 3:28, Colossians 3:11).

[1] Matthew 5:18, 5:20, 5:22, 5:26, 5:28, 5:32, 5:34, 5:39, 5:44, 6:16, 6:25, and 6:29.

[2] John 12:49-50

[3] Genesis 9;6, 13:5, 17:7,48:4, 2Samuel 23:5, 1Chronicles 16:15-18.

[4] This fact calls into question the helpfulness of us dividing the Bible into only Old and New Testaments, since doing so suggests that the New Testament has replaced or superseded the whole of the Old.  Detailed exploration of this thought will need to wait until another document.

[5] This phrase, or variations thereon, occurs repeatedly throughout the Bible.  See, for example, Genesis 17:17-18, Exodus 6:7, 2Samuel 7:14, Jeremiah 7:23, 31:33, 32:38, Ezekiel 11:20, 14:11, 36:28, 37:23, 37:27, 2Corinthians 6:16, Revelation 21:3, 21:7.  As the last two examples, amongst others, show the exact word form in which this idea is expressed keeps changing so that it is not easy to identify the complete set of such references.

[6] The New Testament comprises 27 books: 5 historical books, 21 letters, and one prophetic book.  By word count, these three sections comprise approximately 60%, 33.5% and 6.5% of the total respectively.  (Detailed word counts for each book of the Bible are available at https://www.thelastdialogue.org/article/bible-statistics-and-facts/).  Using the assumption that about half of the material in the letters is instruction on how to live the Christian life gives us the ⅙ figure quoted.   This is of course only a rough figure.  And it excludes any such teaching in the other two sections.  Hence, my statement, ‘at least ⅙’.  This figure is, I submit, adequate for the purposes of this article.

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