Quartz Hill School of Theology

Ecclesiology: The Relation of the Old and New Testaments

I. Introduction to the Problem:

The difficulty of relating the Old and New Testaments is an old theological problem, perhaps one of the oldest of all. The difficulties can be summarized with the following sets of questions:

1. What is the relationship between the Church and Israel? Has the Church completely supplanted Israel, as covenant theology would suggest? Or is the dispensational view of the "Church Age", with Israel and the Church as two distinct entities more in keeping with the biblical reality? Or is it that both are wrong and a third solution would be better?

2. What place does the ceremonial law have today in the lives of Christians? Why? Related to this, which laws (ceremonial or not) are still applicable today?

II. Relation of Israel and the Church:

An old theological question has revolved around the issue of how to relate the Church and Israel. Some relevant biblical passages for our study of the Church and Israel follow below:

By calling this covenant "new", he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and aging will soon disappear. (Hebrews 8:13)
"The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming - not the realities themselves. For this reason, it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. (Hebrews 10:1)
The Holy Spirit was showing by this that the way into the Most Holy Place had not yet been disclosed as long as the first tabernacle was still standing. This is an illustration for the present time, indicating that the gifts and sacrifices being offered were not able to clear the conscience of the worshiper. They are only a matter of food and drink and various ceremonial washings - external regulations applying until the time of the new order. (Hebrews 9:8-10)
    About noon the following day as they were approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. He became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while the meal was being prepared, he fell into a trance. He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles of the earth and birds of the air. Then a voice told him, "Get up, Peter. Kill and eat."
   "Surely not, Lord!" Peter replied. "I have never eaten anything impure or unclean."
   The voice spoke to him a second time, "Do not call anything impure that God has made clean."
   This happened three times, and immediately the sheet was taken back to heaven." (Acts 10:9-16)

The reader is directed to take a look at the following additional passages which seem to indicate the Old Covenant with Israel has been brought to a close: 2 Corinthians 3:11; Ephesians 2:15; Colossians 2:14; Galatians 4:1-5; 3:19-25; Romans 6:14; 7:4-6; 8:3-4; and 10:4.

Obviously, if the passages quoted or mentioned thus far were all that the New Testament had to say about the Old, then the job of relating the Old Testament to the New would be remarkably simple. And as a matter of fact, many theologians and commentators have explained the Old Testament on the basis of just these verses alone. Unfortunately, their so doing has perpetuated a skewed picture, little different than the heresy asserted by Marcion.

Therefore, before the final verdict is rendered, a few other relevant passages have to be studied:

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:17-20)
Do we, then, nullify the law by this faith? Not at all! Rather, we uphold the law. (Romans 3:31)
    So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good.
    Did that which is good, then, become death to me? By no means! But in order that sin might be recognized as sin, it produced death in me through what was good, so that through the commandment sin might become utterly sinful.
    We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin.... (Romans 7:12-14)
All Scripture [the reference is specifically to the Old Testament] is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16-17)

These passages, of course, create a bit of a problem. Elsewhere writers of the New Testament have apparently condemned the law, or at least have spoken of it ceasing; but these passages say just the opposite. What's going on?

Really, it's quite simple - equivalent to what Jesus did in the Sermon on the Mount. Nothing that Christ said in that sermon was new: all of it was good, Old Testament teaching. What he did was attack the interpretation of the Old Testament as understood by certain Pharisees and other Jews of the first century AD. Likewise, the condemnation of the law in the New Testament should be understood as a condemnation of the first century interpretation of that law: that is, it is a condemnation of legalism - a repudiation of the externalization of that law. Judaism of the first century had turned God's intentions upside down. In the Old Testament, keeping the law was an outward expression of an inward change. One was not saved by keeping the law, but by the grace of God which then made one desire to keep the law out of love (notice Paul's reasoning along these lines in Romans 3-11). But first century Judaism had made the keeping of the law the sum of religion. If one obeyed the commandments, one would be saved. First century Judaism, like the Catholicism existing at the time of Luther, taught a salvation by works. Christianity was the Reformation of the first century. Jesus and the apostles, therefore, acted as the Luther and Calvin of their time.

So, in contrast to the teaching of some, Israel is not cast aside because of the new covenant. Romans 11 makes this absolutely clear. Note 11:28-29: As far as the gospel is concerned, they are loved on account of the patriarchs, for God's gifts and his call are irrevocable.

The covenant God made with Israel in the time of the patriarchs and later in the time of Moses did not end because of the Church. The Church has not replaced Israel. In some sense, though, the Church can be called a New Israel. Paul writes in Ephesians 3:6:

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 of Christ Jesus.

Look also at the following passages:

For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body - whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free - and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. (1 Corinthians 12:13)
They were pleased to do it, and indeed they owe it to them. For if the Gentiles have shared in the Jews' spiritual blessings, they owe it to the Jews to share with them their material blessings. (Romans 15:27)
Remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ. (Ephesians 2:12-13)
But Israel, who pursued a law of righteousness, has not attained it. Why not? Because they pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works. They stumbled over the "stumbling stone." (Romans 9:31-32)

This last passage is critical, because in Romans 9:31-32 Paul points out the problem of the old covenant: the tendency to imagine that keeping the law would make one acceptable before God. Instead, as Paul argues in the book of Romans, faith in the Son, and accepting his grace, leads one to keep the law in response to a transformed heart. Just as it is today, it is easy for people to get the cart before the horse and imagine that salvation is the consequence of doing good things. Instead, doing good things is the consequence of salvation.

Therefore what has been done away with the New Covenant is not the Old Covenant, but rather the false notion too often associated with it: legalism. When the New Testament criticizes the law, what is being criticized is the legalistic idea that salvation can be gained by keeping the law - as Paul so clearly has stated in Romans 9:31-32 above.

Also consider Paul's argument in Galatians 3:14-18, that covenants cannot be broken or set aside:

    He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit.
    Brothers, let me take an example from everyday life. Just as no one can set aside or add to a human covenant that has been duly established, so it is in this case. The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. The Scripture does not say "and to seeds," meaning many people, but "and to your seed," meaning one person, who is Christ. What I mean is this: The law, introduced 430 years later, does not set aside the covenant previously established by God and thus do away with the promise. For if the inheritance depends on the law, then it no longer depends on a promise; but God in his grace gave it to Abraham through a promise.

Clearly, then, the New Covenant merely adds to the Old Covenant and transforms it, just as the Patriarchal Covenant (with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) added to the earlier covenant God had made with Noah, without doing away with it (after all, the fact of the covenant with Abraham does not mean that now God can flood the Earth with a universal flood). Likewise, the Mosaic covenant did not do away with the covenant with Abraham and the covenant with David did not do away with the covenant with Moses.

Dispensationalism vs. Covenant Theology

The relationship between the Old and New Testaments has spawned two schools of thought: dispensationalism and covenant theology. Dispensationalism is a recent development, associated with J. N. Darby (1800-1882) and made popular in both the Scofield Reference Bible and the Ryrie Study Bible. Two well known schools of higher learning, Moody Bible Institute and Dallas Theological Seminary are well known for their dispensational stance. Dispensationalists distinguish seven periods in biblical history: Innocence (before the fall); Conscience (from the fall to Noah); Human Government (Noah to Abraham); Promise (Abraham to Moses); Law (Moses to Christ); Grace (the Church Age); and the Kingdom (the Millennium). Dispensationalists make a very sharp distinction between Israel and the Church, and believe in the literal fulfillment of Old Testament prophesies.

Covenant theology is much older than dispensationalism; it was developed by the Reformed theologians Olevianus (1536-1587), Ursinus (1534-1583) and William Ames (1576-1633) and popularized by the Princeton theologians Charles and A.A. Hodge in the nineteenth century. This school of thought emphasizes the covenants in God's relationships with humanity and stresses the unity of the Old and New Testaments.

The center of the controversy between dispensationalism and covenant theology lies in their respective interpretations of Jeremiah 31:31-34 and its corresponding usage in Hebrews 8:6-10:22. Dispensationalists stress that the predicted new covenant is to be made "with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah.", and claim, therefore, that Jeremiah's "new covenant" cannot be fulfilled in the Church. Furthermore, they argue that the letter to the Hebrews quotes Jeremiah's words as descriptive, not of God's present relationship with the Church, but of his future relationship with Israel. Dispensationalists do admit that the "better covenant" of which Christ is the Mediator and which supersedes the older testament of Moses (Hebrews 8:6) refers to the Church. But still, this better covenant, so they contend, must be sharply distinguished from the "second covenant", the new covenant with Israel which is described in the verse that follows (Hebrews 8:7).

The explanation of the passage is then this: Jeremiah's quotation is introduced in Hebrews eight, not to prove that the superseding of the older covenant had been predicted by the prophet and now had been accomplished in the new covenant of the Church, but rather, that Jeremiah's statement is quoted so as to prove that since, in the millennium, there will be a superseding of the old covenant by the new covenant then to be made with the nation of Israel, so now, by analogy, it is not impossible to think of superseding the old by the better testament of the Church!

Covenant theologians reply that there are at least three contextual objections to the distinctions drawn by traditional dispensationalism. J. Barton Payne writes:

a. Hebrews 8:13 states that it is by means of Jeremiah's new testament that God makes the first testament old. Yet the period of Moses' first testament was limited to the pre-Christian era (9:8). Furthermore, as dispensationalists admit, the passage "goes on to show in Hebrews 9 how the Christian order superseded the sacraments of the Mosaic covenant" (9:11). It follows, therefore that the Christian order must itself be Jeremiah's new testament.
b. In 9:14 the purging of "your" (contemporary New Testament church) consciences is the equivalent to the forgiveness promised by the new testament in 8:12; and this forgiveness is accomplished through Christ's death as He mediates the new testament (9:15). Ryrie concedes that the new testament of 9:15 was established by Christ's death; but since he is obligated to maintain the new testament of 8:12 as one that is distinct from the Church, he is forced to the conclusion that there must be two "new testaments" in Hebrews, the future one in chapter 8 and the present one in chapter 9. As if further to complicate dispensational exegesis.
c. Hebrews 10:16, 18 again quotes Jeremiah's new testament. So this also must be claimed to be the future new testament. Yet because of the remission of sins that will result from this "future" new testament, the writer says to the Church, "Having therefore, brethren, boldness..."! (v. 19). The conclusion to be drawn from these contexts is clear. The testament is one; but it is in two stages: the older, represented by Moses; and the newer, predicted by Jeremiah and mediated by Christ to the Church, the Israel of God. Within the framework, moreover, of these two dispensations, a progression of testaments (plural) (Rom. 9:4)...

I believe that the traditional dispensational interpretation is in error, but I believe that the position of covenant theology is even more in error, as the strange leap in logic toward the end of Payne's argument illustrates. What I propose should be labeled as the "rapprochement" model.

The error of covenant theology could be summarized as the failure to recognize a distinction between the Old Covenant and the New. For some odd reason, J. Barton Payne - along with most covenant theologians - sees the two covenants as simply two aspects of one covenant.

However, dispensationalism is wrong in failing to recognize that the Church is a New or a Spiritual Israel. The gentiles have been grafted in to the tree of Jacob, becoming heirs of the "spiritual" blessings of God's chosen people. Those spiritual blessings are, to summarize, salvation and a right relationship to God (Ephesians 2:12-13 and Romans 15:27). However, the Gentiles, though made one in Christ with Israel, are not forced to continue the Jewish practices (Acts 21:25; 15:24-29). Furthermore, Romans 11 makes it absolutely clear that the Jewish people have not lost out completely forever. Some day, "all Israel will be saved." (Romans 11:26-27). A time is coming when the entire nation of Israel will be saved and thereby receive the blessings promised in both the Patriarchal and Mosaic covenants (Zechariah 12). So at that time, Israel will become a part of "the Church" (or vice-versa).

But today's Church has not taken Israel's place, nor can the promises given to Israel be said to apply to the Church. There can be no allegorizing of the Old Testament to make it fit the current Church. For the most part today, Israel is in a state of rebellion against God; they are currently in a period of dispersion. But even now, we see that beginning to change; we know that some time after the Jews are back in their land they will be redeemed. They will recognize their rebellion, they will see who their Messiah is, and they will repent and be saved (Zech. 12:7-14). Only at that time will there truly be an end to the distinction between "Church" and "Israel".

The New Covenant of Jeremiah 31 has been fulfilled in the current Church.

The Law and the Christian

What of the ethics of the Old Testament? Must Christians today obey the Law of Moses? Is there a yes or no answer to this question, or is the problem more complicated than that? This is what we will try to determine in the following discussion.


As we have already seen, the condemnation of "the Law" as found in the writings of Paul are in reality simply condemnations of legalism, the position first century Jews held concerning Mosaic law. However, we must not believe that all the laws of the Old Testament are therefore applicable to the gentile believer, and that obedience (though not salvation) should force us to cease working on Saturday, circumcise our male children, and begin sacrificing cute animals on an altar.

How Can We Determine Which Laws Must Still Be Obeyed?

All the laws must be obeyed.

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:17-20)


All the laws must be obeyed, THOUGH NOT NECESSARILY IN THE SAME WAY they were obeyed in Old Testament times. Certain laws are said to be "fulfilled" in Christ; such laws are then obeyed when one accepts the new covenant in Christ Jesus. Note the following New Testament passages:

1. The Fulfillment of The Sacrificial System.

a. the priesthood: Hebrews 7:11-28

Jesus belongs to the new order of priesthood, the "order of Melchizedek", which takes the place of the old Aaronic priesthood. Note too, 1 Peter 2:5-9, where all believers are described as members of the priesthood.

b. the sacrifices: Hebrews 10:1-18

Because of Christ's sacrificial death, the offering of animals is no longer necessary. However, this raises a very interesting question. Why is it that these sacrifices are no longer necessary, if the sacrifice of animals was always simply symbolic (see Chapter Thirteen), and in and of themselves never saved anyone? Perhaps, because when the symbolic became reality, the symbolic picture ceased to serve any purpose. Why does one need a picture of a person when that person stands before you? We do have a new symbol, though, in what is variously titled the Lord's Supper, the Lord's Table, or the Eucharist. The breaking of bread and the drinking of wine signifies what Christ has done, and pictures our current fellowship and future fellowship with him (see 1 Corinthians 11:17-34; Luke 22:14-20, etc.). But when Christ comes this symbol will cease to be performed, as the reality will obtain.

Therefore, the ceremonial aspects of the law no longer need to be followed by Christians, as they have been fulfilled in Christ's first coming.

2. Some Laws Were for the Proper Functioning of a National Government.

Laws that were a part of ancient Israel's national government may not have modern applicability, except as reiterated in the New Testament, or to serve as "examples" for us (see 1 Corinthians 10:6, 11).

3. The Principle Established by the Council of Jerusalem Should Be Binding.

At the Council of Jerusalem it was determined that Gentile converts to Christianity were not responsible for keeping the Mosaic law. The order to the Gentiles is as follows:

    The apostles and elders, your brothers, To the Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia: Greetings:
    We have heard that some went out from us without our authorization and disturbed you, troubling your minds by what they said. So we all agreed to choose some men and send them to you with our dear friends Barnabas and Paul - men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore we are sending Judas and Silas to confirm by word of mouth what we are writing. It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things.
    Farewell. (Acts 15:23b-29)

In the final analysis it must be said that the Old Testament laws and regulations were given specifically to the nation Israel. As the Church, these regulations do not apply, since the Church is under the New Covenant. This was the stress of Paul, and the conclusion of the Council of Jerusalem. We are to be righteous, and the Old Testament serves as an example of righteousness and right doctrine. But the regulations are no longer obligatory, and will not function until the distinction between Church and Israel ceases in the Millennial Kingdom.

Note the following passages:

    Now these things occurred as examples, to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did. Do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written: "The people sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in pagan revelry." We should not commit sexual immorality as some of them did - and in one day twenty-three thousand of them died. We should not test the Lord as some of them did - and were killed by snakes. And do not grumble, as some of them did - and were killed by the destroying angel.
    These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come. (1 Cor. 10:6-11)
Brothers, as an example of patience in the face of suffering, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. As you know, we consider blessed those who have persevered. You have heard of Job's perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy. (James 5:10)

4. The Law Served to Make People Aware of What Sin Is

The Law of Moses explains for us what was displeasing to God, and what He does not want to find in his people. Look at what Paul wrote in Romans 7:7-14:

    What shall we say, then? Is the law sin? Certainly not! Indeed I would not have known what sin was except through the law. For I would not have known what it was to covet if the law had not said, "Do not covet." But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of covetous desire. For apart from the law, sin is dead. Once I was alive apart from the law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died. I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death. For sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, deceived me, and through the commandment put me to death. So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good.
    Did that which is good, then, become death to me? By no means! But in order that sin might be recognized as sin, it produced death in me through what is good, so that through the commandment sin might become utterly sinful.

So then, how is it that we "keep the law" as Christians? By believing in Jesus, and then, after salvation, living righteously. Look at 1 John 3:16-24:

This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and truth. This is how we know that we belong to the truth, and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence whenever our hearts condemn us. For God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God and receive from him anything we ask, because we obey his commands and do what pleases him. And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us. Those who obey his commands live in him, and he in them. And this is how we know that he lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us.

5. The Law is Written on the Hearts of Christians

According to Hebrews 8:10 and 10:15-16, Christians now have the law written on their hearts. (Also notice Peter's words, quoting Joel, in Acts 2:17-21. Likewise Paul in 1 Cor. 3:3-6). Christians are no longer under the law, nor are they dependent on external standards of righteousness, because the Holy Spirit dwells within them; such permanent indwelling was unknown prior to Pentecost (see the chapter on the Holy Spirit).

Where before Pentecost, the one who believed in God had to concern himself or herself with obeying laws written on tablets of stone, today the believer has the same law written on his or her heart. Thus, for the Christian, reading the Bible is like looking in a mirror (James 1:22-25).

Under the old covenant, there were regulations concerning every aspect of a person's life: the kind of clothing to wear, the sort of food to eat; they constantly, from morning until evening were forced by the various commandments, to remind themselves of God and their relationship to him in the ordinary tasks of their day. But now with the indwelling Holy Spirit, such reminders are no longer needed. This is at least part of the reason why such things as the kosher laws and other restrictions are "fulfilled" in Christ. With the Spirit inside us, with the law written on our hearts, we don't need external reminders of our God and our relationship to him. He is always with us.

From the theology book by R.P. Nettelhorst, Does God Have a Long Nose?

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