Transitioning to the New Covenant – Clay Peck

Some of you transitioned long ago.  Some of you transitioned more recently.  Some of you are still in the process of transitioning or will soon transition.  Some of you will never transition (and no one is going to make you!).  Some of you never had to transition—you grow up with it.

What am I talking about?  I’m referring to the computer and how computers have become more and more a part of our daily lives.

As much as I use a computer on a daily basis—to communicate, do research, study the Bible, write letters, and prepare sermons and other documents—it is hard for me to believe that I did not even own a computer during my college days in the early 1980s.  I remember some friends getting computers and they had to store all their information on large “floppy disks.”  Then one of my friends purchased a new computer with a hard disk drive.  I remember being amazed when he told me he could store a whole book on that new machine. Wow!

At that time I felt that a good electric typewriter was all I needed.  I guess I resisted changing over to computer dependence.  The old way served me fine.  Maybe some of you can relate to that.  Change is difficult for most of us humans.

It was difficult for me to transition into the computer age (sometimes it still is!). Of course, the change has been for the better—increased productivity, access to massive amounts of information, efficient communication via email, etc.— but change is not easy, even if it is for the better!

Early Christians coming out of Judaism faced a major transition: transitioning to the new covenant.  The New Testament has a lot to say about the stress, strain, controversy and adaptation—the plain, old-fashioned, painful change—that was necessary in order to transition from the old covenant to the new covenant.

When Jesus came, he ratified a new covenant of grace that was for any person, of any race, who entered through faith into his finished accomplishment.  The new covenant replaced the old covenant, which was a law-based covenant given at Sinai for the people of Israel. 

For Jews who became Christians a transition was necessary.  The change was not easy, even though it was for the better.  Some jumped right into the new covenant.  Others hung on tenaciously to the old.   Some tried to blend the two.  Discussions raged over how much of the old was still binding in the Christian era.  Some of those debates are still going 2000 some years later!

There is a classic example of how challenging this transition was in the first five verses of Galatians chapter two.  The apostle Paul wrote the book of Galatians to churches that he had earlier established encouraging them to stay loyal to the true gospel—the only gospel.  False teachers were bringing confusion teaching a Christ-plus-something gospel.  The so-called Judaizers gained a hearing by attacking the messenger, Paul, saying that he was not an official apostle, that he had gotten his message from Jerusalem, but was watering it down and not telling the whole thing.  They insisted that the new converts needed the whole message from Jerusalem. They needed Christ plus the law.

In the first chapter of Galatians, Paul asserts that his gospel was completely independent from the church in Jerusalem.  It was given to him directly from God.  He never even visited Jerusalem until three years after his conversion and then it was just a brief visit to meet Peter and James.

In chapter two, Paul goes on to show that although he received his gospel independently from the Jerusalem church, nevertheless it was an identical gospel to theirs, and his message was recognized and affirmed by the church leaders who endorsed his ministry.

“… I went up again to Jerusalem, this time with Barnabas. I took Titus along also.  I went in response to a revelation and set before them the gospel that I preach among the Gentiles. But I did this privately to those who seemed to be leaders, for fear that I was running or had run my race in vain.” (Gal. 2:1-2)

Barnabas was a respected Jewish Christian leader.  He must have been a great guy to be around.  In fact, his friends had given him a new name—“Son of Encouragement.”  Barnabas had been one of the early supporters of Paul after his conversion (See Acts 9:26,27; 11:22–25).  It was natural for Paul and Barnabas to go together to Jerusalem.  But Titus was a different story.  It was Paul’s idea to take Titus along too (Gal. 2:1).  Titus was a Gentile.  That meant he would be a controversial traveling partner.  He would not be allowed in the Jewish synagogues or the temple in Jerusalem because he was uncircumcised.

Titus apparently was one of Paul’s converts.  He became a fellow minister, missionary and close companion of Paul’s.  Paul wrote one of the New Testament letters to him.  Maybe Paul brought Titus as a trophy of grace and a test case.  As a trophy he would provide evidence of the genuine conversion and life transformation that was happening among the Gentiles.  As a test case he would provide opportunity for the attitude of the believers in Jerusalem to be displayed.

When Paul arrived, he set before the leaders “the gospel” that he “preached among the Gentiles.”  What was that gospel?  It was the simple message of salvation by grace alone, received through faith alone, because of Christ’s finished atonement alone.  It was a gospel of free grace, totally independent from human works.  It was a gospel which did not require conformity to the law and customs of the Jews—but simple faith in Christ.

The text says that Paul met privately with the leaders in Jerusalem “for fear that he had run the race in vain” (v. 2).  At first glance it looks like Paul was a bit insecure and worried, maybe wondering if he was preaching the right thing, as though he had doubts in his mind from old tapes and needed to be reassured by the church pillars.  Some people read it that way.  I do not, because this statement comes right after chapter one where Paul confidently established that his gospel came through divine revelation.  It was not from any men, but from Jesus, and no one could change it—not even an angel from heaven (1:8)!  I think what Paul is saying here is that he did not want all of his investment for the sake of the gospel to be in vain.  He did not want his work and preaching to be undermined by lack of support from Jerusalem.  So he met privately with the leaders to make sure they were on the same page and backing each other up.

Now notice what happens in the next verses: 

“Yet not even Titus, who was with me, was compelled to be circumcised, even though he was a Greek.  [This matter arose] because some false brothers had infiltrated our ranks to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus and to make us slaves.  We did not give in to them for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might remain with you.” (Gal 2:3–5)

If Paul brought Titus along as a test case, he ended up being just that!  Paul must have insisted that Titus be accepted as an equal believer just as he was—not after he conformed to the law.  Circumcision was the entry sign into the Old Covenant.  Circumcision itself was not the only issue.  It was a symbol of conformity to the law of Moses, the entire old covenant package delivered to the Israelites at Mount Sinai.  By bringing Titus along and insisting that he remain as he was, Paul was saying in essence:  “Deal with it!  We’re living in the new covenant now.  So let’s live like it and move away from mandating old covenant practices.”

I don’t think that Paul tried to pick a fight.  It seems that he was mainly wanting to speak with the leaders privately.  But legalists can be very aggressive with their agenda and their insistence on imposing their way on everyone else. Some “false brothers… infiltrated our ranks to spy,” Paul says.  Maybe that means they found out about the meetings Paul was having and crashed the party.  The language suggests that they kind of snuck in acting like they were supporters, but they had a hidden agenda which didn’t stay hidden for long.

They wanted to “spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus and to make us slaves.”  Please do not miss the beautiful phrase in the middle of that sentence—“the freedom we have in Christ Jesus.”  That is the theme of Galatians and the heart of the gospel. When you hide your life in Christ and rest secure in him and him alone you have freedom.  It is ever and only in Christ Jesus.  It is a wonderful freedom.  Not freedom to go out and sin and live according to the flesh and be irresponsible.  But freedom from bondage to sin, freedom from guilt, freedom from condemnation —and more than thatfreedom from the law, freedom from an obsession with lists, and regulations, and rules, and do’s and don’ts.

Galatians 5:18 says, “If you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.”  The Spirit leads you, not the law.  He writes the principles of God’s law on your heart.  2 Corinthians 3:17 says, “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.”  There is awesome freedom in letting the Spirit lead and guide you through his Word and through the inner compass of your conscience.

In Galatians 2:4 Paul says that the false brothers were spying on the freedom they had in Christ and trying to make them slaves. We need to realize as Christians that it is not the responsibility of believers to spy on other believers!  We each need to follow the Lord the way we are led and not worry about how God is leading someone else to express his or her freedom.  If you are not sure about that please read Romans 14.  Legalists seem to worry more about other people than themselves.

These guys were trying “to make us slaves” Paul says.  Slaves to what?  Slaves to the law; slaves to a Christ-plus-something gospel.  That’s why they were demanding that Titus be circumcised.  Freedom is a precious thing.  No one should have to go back into slavery after having tasted freedom.  Watch how Paul responded:

“We did not give in to them for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might remain with you.” (Gal. 2:5)

Paul was determined that whenever “the truth of the gospel” was at stake, he was ready to stand up for it!  He says “we did not give in to them for a moment.”  Does the fact that Paul talks like that mean that he was a bullheaded, argumentative guy who had to have his own way on everything?  No, not at all!

Paul took a totally different approach with weak brothers and false brothers.  These were “false brothers” (v.4).  Paul also took a totally different approach when dealing with different opinions versus different gospels.  Whenever someone started making a salvation issue out of anything and adding it to the gospel of grace, Paul immediately identified it as heresy and confronted it aggressively.

Let me show you how differently Paul could relate to the same issue depending on whether it was an issue of relating to weak or false brothers, and depending on whether it was an issue of different opinions or different gospels.  Let’s take the three main Jewish boundary marker issues: circumcision, food laws and holy days.

Circumcision

Sometime after the Jerusalem Council, after it had been clearly decided that circumcision was not a salvation issue and was not required of the Gentile converts, Paul nevertheless encouraged Timothy to be circumcised.

“Paul wanted to take him along on the journey, so he circumcised him because of the Jews who lived in that area, for they all knew that his father was a Greek.” (Acts 16:3)

Why did Paul do this?  Timothy was half Jew.  Apparently he had great potential to reach out effectively to Jews with the gospel.  But he would have to be able to enter their synagogues and be accepted by them before he could lead them to Christ.  So Paul did it “because of the Jews.”  It was not a salvation issue here.  It was a concession to weakness and for strategic ministry purposes.

But back in Jerusalem earlier with Titus, who was a full blooded Gentile with no potential or calling to a Jewish evangelistic mission, and with the Judaizers trying to make a salvation issue out of it, Paul “did not give in for one minute!”

Food Laws

In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul encouraged believers to limit their freedom if necessary because of weak believers:

“So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: We know that an idol is nothing at all in the world and that there is no God but one…  But not everyone knows this. Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat such food they think of it as having been sacrificed to an idol, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled.  But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do.  Be careful, however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak.” (1 Cor. 8:4, 7–9)

“Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience, for, ‘The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.’  If some unbeliever invites you to a meal and you want to go, eat whatever is put before you without raising questions of conscience.  But if anyone says to you, ‘This has been offered in sacrifice,’ then do not eat it, both for the sake of the man who told you and for conscience’ sake—the other man’s conscience, I mean, not yours. For why should my freedom be judged by another’s conscience?” (1 Cor. 10:25–29)

      Here Paul encourages believers to place certain limits on their liberty if a weak believer may be confused or discouraged by the exercise of freedom in some area.  This is not a salvation issue and some people have different opinions, so respect that.

Now notice how different his tone is about food rules in another setting: 

“The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons.  Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron.  They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth.  For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving.” (1 Tim. 4:1–4)

Apparently these teachers were mandating that certain foods were not to be eaten—making this a salvation issue.  Paul reacts completely different.  Instead of encouraging the believers to limit their liberty for the sake of those who hold these views, he calls their beliefs “things taught by demons.”

Holy Days

By holy days I mean the Jewish holy days listened in Leviticus 23, which included the weekly Sabbath, monthly new moons, and annual festivals.  Listen to Paul’s advice concerning Jewish holy days in the following two passages:

“Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day.  These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.” (Col 2:16,17)

“Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters…  One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.  He who regards one day as special, does so to the Lord. He who eats meat, eats to the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who abstains, does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God.” (Rom. 14:1,5,6)

      Paul clearly says in these verses, “Don’t judge!”  These verses were written regarding the weak and those who had different opinions but were not making salvation issues out of it. 

      Now notice the difference in tone on the same subject:

“You are observing special days and months and seasons and years!  I fear for you, that somehow I have wasted my efforts on you.” (Gal. 4:10–11)

      Notice that Paul does not say “don’t judge” or “let each of you be fully convinced in your own mind.”  Instead he says, “I fear for you, that somehow I have wasted my efforts on you.”  Wow, strong language!  Why?  Because the Judaizers had made the observance of Jewish holy days a salvation issue.

Back in Galatians 2:5 Paul says, regarding the legalists insistence that Titus be circumcised:

“We did not give in to them for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might remain with you.” (Gal. 2:5)

Does it make sense to you why Paul takes the approach he does here?  The issue was “the truth of the gospel.”  Whenever the truth of the gospel is at stake because of false teachers or legalistic beliefs it must be uncompromisingly defended.

It may be beneficial for us to pause here and raise the question:  Why was it so hard for many of the Jewish Christians to make the transition to the new covenant?

The answer is complex because people are complex.  Many issues combined to make change difficult.  No doubt many contributing factors were all wrapped up together: cultural, social, behavioral, psychological, theological and carnal.

Think about each one of these issues and how they impact change:

Cultural issues. When people grow up a certain way they find security in the way they have always done things.  They like knowing the rules, the boundaries, and doing the traditions.  We are creatures of habit.  That makes change hard. 

Social issues.  If you have family, friends, work associates or schoolmates who are putting pressure on you to conform to the old way it is hard to resist.  If you do not conform, it usually affects those relationships negatively and that is uncomfortable.

Behavioral issues.  Humans tend naturally to resist change and hang on to the familiar—some more than others.  We all have different personality styles.  Behavioral scientists have noted that within the general population there is a bell curve. 

·         2 % are innovative leaders—they like to take risks and are able to change quickly

·         14% are opinion leaders—they are pioneer types, early adopters

·         34% are the early majority—they are willing to change after the opinion leaders do

·         34% are the late majority—they are hesitant and skeptical and cautious, accepting change only after the early majority does

·         16% are the last adopters—they are traditional, resistant, suspicious and focused on the past

So, behaviorally speaking, some people are always going to be more resistant than others to change, at least at first.

Psychological issues.  Psychologists study the way the mind works and they often disagree.  But most all theorists agree concerning something called “cognitive consistency.”

“Cognitive consistency is a technical term used to describe the tendency within almost all of us to keep our attitudes, behaviors, and perceptions consistent.”[1]

If we feel that our beliefs are being significantly challenged or changed it throws us out of balance into an inconsistent state of mind called “cognitive dissonance.”

The theory of cognitive consistency holds that:

“…change produces psychological tension which we seek to reduce by either distorting the new message or by changing some other part of the system.  This response is motivated by our strong desire to regain a state of consistency.” [2]

Our desire for cognitive consistency also explains the phenomenon of “selective perception.”  People will often avoid or ignore new information if it causes cognitive dissonance. They prefer to only hear things that complement what they already believe.

 

“It is commonly recognized that people tend to avoid messages which contradict their views… the reason for this is that contrary messages tend to arouse the tension which stems from inconsistency.  Since the easiest way to deal with this tension is to prevent it from arising in the first place, people commonly listen only to those with whom they already agree.  In this way a comfortable balance can be maintained.  There are few postulates of modern psychology which are as widely accepted and as solidly based as this assertion: people desire mental consistency and strive to maintain it, often at the expense of the truth.”[3]

So there are some definite psychological issues that make a radical transition—like moving from the old covenant to the new—very difficult.

Theological issues.  When a group of people are convinced that they are the people of God and believe that they can back it up with Scripture, they tend to develop an “us-versus-them” mentality.  They are the “chosen ones,” the “remnant,” the “apple of God’s eye,” the “ones on the path of light,” the “right ship that will go through the storm to the very end,” etc.  Everyone else is on the outside.  Security comes from an easily recognizable set of boundaries—a detailed package of doable stuff that defines who is on the inside and who is on the outside.  It becomes impossible to imagine anyone being saved if they do not come onboard with the so-called remnant group.

Carnal issues.  Carnal means of the flesh or sinful.  All of us have a natural, sinful, internal pull toward selfishness and pride.  Legalism, like all false religion, appeals to the flesh because it is a human-centered approach motivated by human achievement.  Since much of the Jewish system had degenerated into legalism, there were carnal issues inhibiting the grace awakening as well.

Why was it so hard for many of the Jewish Christians to make the transition from the old covenant to the new covenant?  It’s a complex answer.  There were cultural, social, behavioral, psychological, theological and carnal issues all wrapped up together.

That was true for the Jewish Christians in first century Jerusalem, and it is true for some today as well.  But when false teachers tried to pull believers back into bondage Paul was adamant about the gospel of grace:

 We did not give in to them for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might remain with you.” (Gal. 2:5)

Whenever legalists try to add to the gospel or impose their way on others we should kindly, yet firmly respond like Paul.  Many of us have struggled to one degree or another with a painful transition from legalism to grace.  Once we understand and embrace the gospel, we do well to stand for it, defend it and cherish the precious freedom we have in Christ Jesus!


[1] Duane Litfin, Public Speaking, , Baker Books, 1992, p. 57

[2] Ibid., p. 58

[3] Ibid, p. 59