The old old commandment(s)
The distinctive, emphatic insistence that is New Covenant Theology says that we must understand the revelation given before Christ in the light of that given through the Son of God Himself. To do otherwise is to read your Bible ‘upside-down’. If you try to project the understanding of the old onto the new, you will be attempting what the Lord Himself declared to be illogical and stupid – to try to force new wine into old wineskins. Resulting in burst skins and spilled wine. In short, that approach is ruinous, both to the ‘shape’ of the church and to the life it is supposed to promote. We are told in Hebrews:
“The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves.” (Hebrews 10 vs 1)
… and again, of the old covenant priests:
“They serve at a sanctuary that is a copy and shadow of what is in heaven.”
Paul puts it like this:
“These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.” (Colossians 2 vs 17)
And this is what New Covenant Theology is all about. We must insist that we will only truly understand the ‘shadows’ if we look long and hard at the ‘substance’ – the coming of Christ from the right hand of God. So let us begin to examine the single commandment that Jesus sees fit to give at the institution of the new covenant in His blood. But we will begin (though not be confined to) what had already been established. Jesus was asked, on one occasion, “which is the greatest commandment”. Here is the account from Matthew 22 vs 35 – 40:
Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
Let us leave aside the dubious motives of the questioner. The answer he receives is transparent, vividly clear and extremely informative. In essence, Jesus says that there are only two commandments:
- Love God with your whole being
- Love your neighbour as you love yourself
And Jesus says that all of the rest of the revelation God gives in all of the old covenant is, in essence, an expansion and application of these two fundamental commandments. Take those two away and you remove the ‘peg’ from which all of the rest are suspended, and they will all fall down. So what God has done in His covenant with Old Testament Israel is to expound these, His base commandments, in the context of the nation’s life within the boundaries of the land He had promised to give to the descendants of Abraham, through Isaac. But this older, Mosaic covenant was not designed to endure. Galatians 2 vs 16:
“Why, then, was the law given at all? It was added because of transgressions until the Seed to whom the promise referred had come. “
The biggest word in that sentence is ‘until’. You see, that IS New Covenant Theology. With the coming of the Son of God, it is surpassed. The shadow that it was, however elaborate and extensive, has been replaced by the realities it was designed to point to.
When I was younger, and we could not afford anything much more than an ‘old banger’ as a car, I taught myself how to maintain the vehicle. Running to the garage every time there was a problem was out of the question – we simply could not afford it. I made extensive use of a car manual – the Hayes series were usually my ‘car Bible’. So, as you needed to dismantle the malfunctioning component to correct the fault, the manual would give you an ‘exploded diagram’, labelled in great detail so that you could understand what went where and how it all fit together. In a way, this is what God did with the old covenant. He ‘laid out’, for example, all that was involved in priesthood, so that we could see the meticulous requirements necessary for sinners to stand before a holy God. Thousands of priests, served in an earthly Temple, over thousands of years, presenting literally millions of sacrifices. And all of it just shadow! For what is being painted here, and laid out so carefully, is a hint of the immense and profound priestly work which Christ would accomplish in a few short hours as He hung suspended on a Roman gibbet atoning for our sins. Without that ‘laid out’ picture, our understanding of what He has done for us would be minimised. And as extensive as that old covenant picture was, it only began to explain what He, in this infinite fulfilment, actually did.
In Christ, and the new covenant He brings into being, we see the full picture. This is not just about one physical nation in a world of other nations. This is about God’s people in every nation – throughout the whole world. And for that to work the ‘nation identity’ of the old covenant people, as the people of God, has to be exploded outwards in extent and in glory, so that it can be seen that the whole earth is the Lord’s.
The new ‘old’ commandment
Now, then, we come to this magnificent and central new covenant – indeed, this is what the whole Bible and all of ‘redemption history’ is about. All of time circles around the coming of the Son of God into our world. He is the ‘hub of history’. All that God has revealed to every prophet of old has been to prepare for Him. All that He has offered to every sinful soul in all of creation, to call them to Himself and deal with their wayward hearts and make them His – all of it is by Christ. Nothing God has ever done in all of time, anywhere in the universe, is not about Him.
And on this night of nights, when God, in the person of His own only Son pledges Himself in eternal covenant to each one of His children, past, present, future, and as He insists that the sacrifice that seals this covenant will be no mere animal sacrifice, but rather the eternal blood which He Himself will shed, we should listen up. He has prepared His disciples for what is being laid as the strong and sure, immovable foundations of what He is about to do. And now, here is the ‘new decalogue’, the new ‘ten commandments’. The former covenant has prefigured it, but only in vague from – shadow. Those things were too visible to be real. Hebrews 12 vs 18 tells us:
“You have not come to a mountain that can be touched …”
… and verse 22 goes on:
“… but you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem … to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the Judge of all, to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.”
These, then, are the realities of which those former things were simply a ‘snapshot’. How far greater is the glory of the realities themselves
Those who are included in this great treatise, by which not only has God become man, but sorrowful, pitiful sinners are redeemed, and not only redeemed, but transformed into His likeness, are now given ‘law’ which is written on their hearts, just as Jeremiah had said. Except in this ‘set’, there is but one commandment, not ten. One mighty law by which God’s children must and will live, with all of the power His Spirit supplies.
““A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.””
(John 13 vs 35, 36)
But wait – there’s one missing!
Before we look at it in more detail, we have an apparent omission to contend with If Jesus has said that there are two great ‘pillar commandments’ upon which the whole house rests, and that they are, as we have already said:
- Love God with your whole being
- Love your neighbour as you love yourself
… then what has become of the first one? Is not that majorly important? Ah, but this is precisely the wonder of the covenant of grace. We need to note something here, and it is vital to our understanding of what Jesus does. In the first covenant –
- God gave commandments
- To His chosen people
- Contingent upon their obedience and adherence
But in the new covenant –
- Christ gives commandment(s)
- To His disciples
- Contingent upon HIS obedience and adherence
We see immediately that Christ does in the new what ‘God’ did in the old – this does not surprise us, for we are convinced that the Son of God is Himself God (if He were not, what arrogant presumption to give commandment at all!). For a moment, cast your eyes back to the opening verses of John ch 13:
“Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power.”
There could be a note of heartstring-plucking sentimentality in this last, poignant meal that Jesus shares with His forlorn disciples – His big and fond ‘farewell’ before He goes to the cross, betrayed by the dastardly deed of Judas. John will have nothing of it! Throbbing below the surface of this whole night is the power that is in the hands and in the heart of this great Saviour. He knows all, sees all, controls all. There is not one moment that is out of His hand. Everything that transpires, He has planned, and for a reason. He is founding His church – the one which He promised Peter that the gates of hell would not prevail against. Such an edifice requires not only strong building, but unmoveable foundations. This is what the Second Person of the three-in-one God does here. In these last hours there are no accidents, and not one word is mis-spoken.
But back to our point. In place of that all-important first commandment, we have the simple truth that the disciples of this Christ will love God from the heart and from the start. Such as these, with new-created being, will enthrone Him in their souls. “He who has seen Me has seen the Father”, Jesus says. If we love Him, we love God. And the definition of real discipleship is just this – we love Christ, and thus we love His Father too. John – this same John was later to write:
“This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” (1 John 4 vs 9,10)
So this immense first commandment is ‘automatically’ ours, is fulfilled in total, not because we choose to obey it (although we do), but because of the ‘heart transplant’ which is the work of God’s Spirit in regeneration. And the ongoing work of ‘mind renewal’ which He effects in the life of each believer.
What remains, then, is the second. And this is all that remains, for the second is ‘like’ the first – an outcome of it. If we love this Christ, we will be keepers of His commandments and also lovers of our brethren. John’s letter again:
“Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.” (1 John 4 vs 11, 12)
The Law of (the) Christ
So here we have it. At the summit of this new covenant Sinai, these new covenant people of God are charged with God’s new law – the law of the Christ. It has been prepared for – they have been prepared for it – with all that has preceded. They have been cleansed in whole, in completion, by the washing of water with His word, and by His own hands on their feet, with fresh water. They have witnessed and have participated in the covenant ‘cut’ – the confirming sacrifice is to be in the body and blood of the crucified Son. It is delivered to them with as much authority and power as ever the Decalogue was delivered to Moses, even if it is not attended with noise and smoke. In the sweet, commanding voice of God the Son it comes – and repeats down through the ages, direct from the binding word of God to our ears.
“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
(John 13 vs 35, 36)
- Love His disciples
- As He has loved us
- So that the world will know we are His disciples
So just as in that old covenant, the world would know that this nation was ‘a peculiar people’, and set apart for and by their God, because they kept His Law, so here, in this non-ethnic, non-geographical, spiritual entity all men will know that we are His because we keep His commandment – to love one another. Here is the ‘badge’ of the Christian, and of the church. It is what Francis Schaeffer called ‘the hallmark of the Christian’. That first letter of John expounds this and hammers it home; John certainly got the message:
“We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love each other. Anyone who does not love remains in death.” (1 John 3 vs 14)
Now, we must – must – challenge ourselves with this again and again, must we not? Is it clearly apparent to those around me, whoever is ‘viewing’ and however they may be ‘seeing’ me, that I love my brothers and sisters in Christ? Because by this, he will be revealed to them. They will know we are His, and they will know that He is in us – if we love each other. Indeed, John goes on to say that ‘we’ will know that we are His in the same way – by the evidence of our love for each other. If we do not, we obscure that truth; we cloud the vision; we muddy the water. If we do not, we disobey His direct command – His only command at the institution of His covenant. How could we knowingly do that? If we love Him?
‘Commandment’ or ‘commandments’?
As Jesus continues on this last night before the cross, we must note one more thing, and it draws our attention to it because of its rather unusual structure. In His reference to obedience to Him, here, the Lord seems to move freely from the plural – commandments – to the singular – commandment. A selection to bring together like verses from these chapters in John:
“If you love me, keep my commands.”
“Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me.”
“If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command.”
“You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. This is my command: Love each other.”
What is going on here?
Firstly, there can be no doubt that in this last discourse, Christ wants His disciples to know that they are to value, and to obey all He has taught them. Speaking of the Spirit, whom He will send, He says:
“All this I have spoken while still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.”
A mark of true discipleship is that the followers of Christ ‘have’ and ‘obey’ what He teaches. And also the teaching of His Apostles (“If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also.”). But it also seems that He is intent on ‘funnelling’ their (and our) attention down to this one, instituted covenant command:
“If you keep my commands … My command is this …”
And, once again, this is why I am convinced that what He is saying to them (and us) is along the lines of –
- “If you love me, you will be My commandment-keepers”
- “… and there is only one covenant commandment – to love one another as I have loved you.”
Where does this leave us? Is it concurrent with the rest of the New Testament? Does it all line up?
What we arrive at with the understanding that the ‘law of Christ’ is the single commandment, given by the Lord Jesus Christ, at the point where He institutes the new covenant, can be summarised as follows:
- We have a clear and distinct, ‘law-like’ law, which is
- Announced as a specific commandment
- Declared (published) to Jesus’ disciples
- Declared authoritatively as a ‘given’ commandment
- Succinct and concise – thus easily recognised
- Transmittable to others
- It is spoken by Christ Himself, thus easily seen as the law ‘of Christ’.
- It is given as a ‘new’ commandment to differentiate it from the ‘old’ commandments. Thus it is specific to the ‘new’ covenant
- It is given at the point of covenant-institution, thus demonstrating type-fulfillment of its ‘shadow’ on Sinai, and indicating that it is the ‘mono-logue’ rather than the ‘deca-logue’ of the new covenant
- It is clearly stated to be the means by which the character and nature of the new people of God – the church – will be recognisable, again, directly showing its fulfillment of the preceding, old covenant ‘shadow’
I would add one final observation. The ‘yoke’ of the old covenant law was said to be a burden that was intolerable to those under it. Jesus, on the other hand, indicates that His ‘yoke’ would be easy and His burden light. A one-commandment ‘law’ rather nicely fits that description, even if the outworkings of that command are vast and deep. But then, the rest of the New Testament exegetes and expounds it.
Well, I must leave you to search the Scriptures to decide for yourself. I have laid out the case. When I began this journey, I had little idea what this little phrase from Galatians 6 vs 2 might mean. On the road, I have become aware of what others say it is – but as I have explained, the idea that it is an ill-determined, unpublished ‘awareness’ of the collected commands (imperatives) of Christ, or the Apostles, or both, to my mind is unsatisfactory; it does not ‘fit’. But if the ‘law of Christ’ is that single imperative, instituted in its prime covenantal position, from the mouth of Jesus Himself, that I can quite see is what quickly became known as His law. And it would seem to me to be wholely logical that in Galatians 6, after arguing so strongly that no converted Jew, or anyone else, is under the Law of Moses, Paul would (almost slyly) throw in at the end that we ARE able to ‘fulfill the law of Christ’ by ultimate love for our brothers and sisters in Him.
As for me – I want to examine the New Testament in this new light, and with this immense ‘spotlight’ of the Spirit. The journey has led me to this conclusion – before I set out upon it, I had no opinion. I am persuaded from God’s word.
Preacher & Teacher
Studied Theology at London Bible College
Lives in Northampton, Northamptonshire UK
Serves a moderator for the New Covenant Grace Facebook group.