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The Biblical Covenants, Part 6b: New Covenant Execution

The prophets’ expectations of the NC clearly identify the fulfillment of the NC as the climax of everything. A fulfilled NC fulfills all the unconditional covenants made to Noah, Abraham, Phinehas, and David. Because the NC also promises to cleanse Israel from their sin (Ezek. 36), there becomes a tight connection between the NC and the Davidic servant/king who will suffer as a substitution for Israel and be crushed for Israel’s iniquities (Is. 53). In other words, the promised seed of David will be the one who inaugurates and fulfills the NC, or at least this aspect of it. Finally, the prophets expect a completed and fulfilled MC before the establishment of the NC (Deut. 30:1; Jer. 31:32-33). Therefore, the NC cannot be established, much less fulfilled, until all the curses for disobedience come upon Israel. Simply put, Israel must die before the NC can be established. These observations lead to two obvious questions: (1) When was the MC fulfilled? And (2) when was the NC established?


There are two events that most theologians point to as an indication of MC fulfillment in the sense that they depict the climax of Yhwh’s judgment on Israel, (1) the sacking of Jerusalem and destruction of Solomon’s Temple by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BC and (2) the sacking of Jerusalem and the destruction of Herod’s Temple by Roman general Titus in 70 AD. While it is true that both of these events were divine judgment upon Jerusalem and Israel and predicted in biblical prophecy, it is incorrect to identify either one of these events as the fulfillment of the MC. Plainly stated, the reasons why we can speak so decidedly on this matter is because scripture states that Israel remained under the MC after 586 BC and that the MC was concluded before 70 AD.


The MC Continued After 586 BC

The evidence to support the claim that the MC continued after Babylon destroyed Jerusalem and the temple in 586 BC is too voluminous to present in detail. Therefore, we will content ourselves with only three passages which together will trace a continuation of the MC from 586 BC into the first century AD.


Ezra 9-10: The events of Ezra chapters 7-10 take place during the reign of Artaxerxes king of Persia (7:1) who was the husband of Esther and reigned over the Persian Empire from 464-423 BC. These events are over 100 years after Nebuchadnezzar’s destruction of Jerusalem. After arriving in Jerusalem from Babylon, Ezra was made aware of a problem, the people and the remaining priests had broken the implicit command not to intermarry with the inhabitants of the land (Ezra 9:1-2; Lev. 18:24-30; Deut. 7:1-6). If the MC had already been fulfilled, then there shouldn’t be much of a problem here. Yet, Ezra is deeply grieved because the people have forsaken God’s commandments (Ezra 9:10) as recorded in the MC (Deut. 7:3). Even in the act of repentance, the people who chose to repent accompanied their actions of faith with the prescribed sacrifice of the MC (Ezra 10;19; Lev. 5:15; 6:6). Clearly, Ezra did not believe that the MC came to a conclusion in 586 BC.


Malachi: The prophet Malachi ministered between 435-415 BC, that is between 151-171 years after Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Jerusalem in 586 BC. Like Ezra, Malachi considers the MC in full effect and condemns the people who remain in Jerusalem or have returned from exile for their continued disobedience of the MC while hiding behind a façade of feigned piety. The book closes with (1) an exhortation to remember the Law of Moses (4:4) and (2) a promise to send Elijah before the great and terrible day of Yhwh (4:5-6). This coming Elijah will be the one to restore the hearts of Israel so that blessing will come instead of a curse. In other words, the NC has not yet arrived nor has the MC been fulfilled.


Matthew 5-7: The first major discourse recorded of Jesus is what we refer to as the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). The year is somewhere around 30 AD and over 600 years have gone by since Nebuchadnezzar has laid waste to Jerusalem. In Matt. 5:17 Jesus explicitly says that He has not come to abolish the Law but to fulfill it. This provides two crucial points for our present discussion. First, if Jesus is not about to abolish the Law (torah, the MC) then it remains in effect at the time of His speaking. This fact is confirmed in v. 18 where Jesus demands that all will remain in effect until all is accomplished. In other words, Jesus considered the MC still in effect and thus unfulfilled when He preached the Sermon on the Mount. Second, Jesus provided such a huge hint that it almost doesn’t count regarding the fulfillment of the MC. He did not come to abolish the MC, but to fulfill it. Thus, we now know that the MC’s fulfillment has something to do with Jesus.


The MC Fulfilled Before 70 AD

Ruling out 586 BC as the fulfillment of MC curses and thus the completion of the MC itself does not necessarily rule out the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD as the climax of MC cursing. Yet, two New Testament texts written 20-30 years before the siege of Jerusalem under Titus make it clear that the MC had already been fulfilled and thus could not linger for several more decades to come to completion in 70 AD.


Acts 15: The fifteenth chapter of Acts records what is known as the Jerusalem Council. In short, after Paul and Barnabas returned to Antioch after an intense church planting/preaching trip through Cyprus and the region of Galatia whereby many Gentiles believed the gospel and were saved, false teachers from Judea infiltrated the church at Antioch teaching that one must be circumcised as commanded by Moses (Acts 15:1) in order to be saved. The distinction of Moses is important because this links circumcision not to the AC (Gen. 17) but to the MC (Lev. 12). These men were teaching that one had to take on the physical sign of a descendent of Abraham and then live under the MC laws before one could be saved. The issue at stake is what are Gentiles who trust in Jesus as God’s Messiah (and all things included with it) to do upon conversion? Are they to live as Jews or remain as Gentiles? These false teachers were hotly opposed by Paul and Barnabas and so they brought the matter before the apostles in Jerusalem. Their conclusion and encouragement was written down and sent to the Gentile churches of Galatia: “For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these essentials: that you abstain from things sacrificed to idols and from blood and from things strangled and from fornication; if you keep yourselves free from such things, you will do well. Farewell” (Acts 15:28-29 NASB).

The apostles deemed it necessary to only place three prohibitions on the Gentile believers: (1) separation from idolatry, (2) don’t eat what still has blood in it, and (3) refrain from fornication. While these commands are echoed in the MC, all three find their roots in much earlier revelation than the MC. First, not eating what is sacrificed to idols is not a dietary command so much as it is a command to completely separate from idolatry. That God’s people have nothing to do with idols predates the Decalogue by 500 years (Gen. 35:2). Likewise, the root of refraining from eating meat with blood still in it[1] goes all the way back to the Noahic Covenant (Gen. 9:1-7). To eat the blood of an animal is to deny God His due. Blood is life, and life belongs to God. The stability promised in the Noahic Covenant until the final rest comes demands that mankind live in subjection to God. It is necessary for these Gentile believers to trust in the Noahic Covenant. As for fornication, the foundation for sexual purity is laid down in Genesis 2, not Leviticus 18. If God created one man and one woman and joined them together, it is a mockery for man (or woman) to fornicate outside the bounds of marriage. In other words, the apostles did not bind Gentile believers to the MC, but demanded that they live according to God’s original good design of creation, the Noahic Covenant promise of rest, and strict holiness where they are bound to God and no other deity. If the MC was not already fulfilled, then the apostles at least make no move to bind Gentile believers to it.


Galatians 3:15-29: The same Judaizers that attempted to oppress the disciples of Antioch tried again with the disciples of Galatia some years after the Jerusalem Council (early 50’s AD). Paul’s letter to the Galatians makes it clear that the MC is no longer in effect and is therefore no longer a tutor for those who follow Jesus. There must be no confusion about the relationship between the AC and the MC, for the MC is not an addition or condition foisted upon the promises of the AC (vv. 15-18). Rather, the MC revealed the glory of God and the transgression of Israel so that it became clear that no man was able to meet the conditions of the MC, much less the nation (vv. 19-22). The MC was a tutor, or a picture of something better to come, namely Christ and the NC. “But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor” (Gal. 3:25 NASB). In the plainest of terms, Paul stated that the MC was no longer in effect and has thus been completed. While we strongly suspected that this was the case of the Jerusalem Council in 49 AD, we now know that by the mid 50’s the MC has already been fulfilled. This means, among other things, that the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70, while significant, is not the event that concluded or fulfilled the MC.


The MC Fulfilled at Calvary

When tracing the continuation of the MC, the Scriptures lead well into the first century AD during the life and ministry of Jesus. Yet, by the early apostolic age, the MC is no longer in effect and is considered fulfilled and complete. Therefore, we are looking for a much narrower window between the beginning of Jesus’ ministry (c. 30 AD) and the Jerusalem Council (c. 49 AD). The following three passages not only indicate, but demand that the MC found its fulfillment in Jesus’ vicarious, penal, substitutionary, atoning death upon the cross.


Matthew 27:50-54: Matthew records the death of Jesus as the catalyst for several extraordinary events. After crying aloud and yielding up His spirit (v. 50), (1) the veil separating the holy of holies where the ark of the covenant once stood from the rest of the temple was torn from top to bottom, (2) the earth shook, (3) and many believers who had died awoke as if only asleep and came out of their tombs. These events surely signify something grand has happened. 

Taking these events one at a time, we must note that the veil separating the holy place from the holy of holies was an important element of the tabernacle (Ex. 26:31) and later the temple. This was a partition between man and God, separating sinful man from the holy God. The tearing of this veil is an indication that such a separation is no longer necessary. This in turn seems to indicate that the old system is no longer necessary.

From this we turn to the earthquake, always a sign of judgment (Amos 1:1) and often accompanies the presence of God (Ex. 19:18; 1 Kings 19:9-18). Therefore, we have both an indication of something ending as well as an indication of divine judgment.

To this we add the dead coming out of their graves. It is impossible not to think of such passages like Daniel 12:2 and Ezekiel 37:12 that describe just such events, the latter of which is associated with the NC. It seems that the death of Jesus on the cross brought an end to something, but what? If only we knew what it was Jesus cried out as His final words.


John 19:30: Of all the gospel writers, only John records Jesus’ final words: “It is finished!” But what was finished? Some suggest that this was Jesus’ victory cry signaling the completion of God’s first gospel proclamation in Gen. 3:15, that the serpent has been crushed. This of course cannot be the case, for there is still sin running rampant in the world, the kingdom has not yet arrived, Israel has not been recalled, restored, or redeemed, and in short, the curse has not been undone or reversed. Others say that what was finished is specifically a reference to the atonement, that Jesus had completed bearing the wrath of God for sin and as such had completed His mission for His first advent. This is certainly accurate but does not go far enough. Because Jesus is the son of David, Messiah, and Yhwh’s Servant, He is also the singular head of Israel.[2] When Jesus died, He died in place of all Israel. To put it simply, Israel died on the cross. If Israel has died, then what is finished is the MC. All the curses have now been completed in Christ’s death. 


Galatians 3:10-14: Paul confirms these suspicions when he corrected and rebuked the Galatians for going back to the MC rather than clinging to the NC. Here, Paul reminds his readers that forgiveness and salvation cannot be earned by obeying the MC and yet there is a curse for all who fail to do so. Therefore, righteousness comes by faith, or by trusting in the One who became a curse on our behalf (v. 13). Thus, Paul confirms that Jesus’ death was the death of an Israelite under the MC curses. In addition to this, the death of Jesus unlocked AC blessings for both Israel and the Gentiles (v. 14). To put it simply, the death of Jesus signals the conclusion and fulfillment of the MC and paved the way for the establishment of the NC.

[1] If an animal is strangled, it has not bled out. Thus, the animal’s blood remains within it.

[2] Because Jesus is also the descendent of Adam, Jesus died as a representative head for humanity. Thus, salvation has been made possible for all men who trust in His atonement and not only for Israel.


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