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The Gospels and the Covenants

by Roger Blackwelder

It has been observed that the traditional divisions we use to describe the Bible are inaccurate. Genesis through Malachi are called the Old Testament or Old Covenant. Matthew through Revelation are called the New Testament or New Covenant. The titles are problematic for at least two reasons: 1) The covenant between God and Israel was not instituted until Exodus 24. The majority of Exodus and the entirety of Genesis takes place prior to the establishment of the Old Covenant, yet we identify is as such. 2) The majority of the material in the Gospels, Matthew through John, take place during the life of Christ, prior to His death, burial and resurrection, prior to the establishment of the New Covenant.

The observation that Matthew through John are technically Old Testament books has given rise to some debate over their application. What is the relationship between the Gospels and the Covenants? How are we supposed to make use of the Gospels as members of the New Covenant?

The Old Law in the Gospels

The argument has been made that the discussions Jesus has with the Jews should be understood as explanation and commentary on the Old Covenant. Clearly, what Jesus discusses in certain passages is just that.

In Matthew 15, the Pharisees accused Jesus’ disciples of eating without washing their hands according to the traditions of the elders. In reply, Jesus condemned their faith in tradition which sometimes violated the Old Law. The tradition of Corban (Mark 7:11 ) stated that one’s belongings could be “dedicated to the temple,” relieving the person of the obligation of providing for his or her parents. According to Jesus, this tradition violated the fifth commandment — “Honor your father and honor your mother.” This discussion obviously relates to the proper observance of one of the 10 Commandments, an integral part of the Old Covenant.

Another passage of interest is Matthew 5:43, a text from the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies” (Matthew 5:43-44a). Who exactly said “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy”? The command to love one’s neighbor is found in Leviticus 19:18, but no command to hate your enemy can be found in the Old Testament. Once again, Jesus appears to be correcting the errant teachings of the elders. Some argue that Jesus is teaching the proper understanding of the Law of Moses and nothing more.

An Argued Application

Preachers who make this argument—that the Gospels are Old Testament literature and Jesus is teaching the proper understanding of the Old Law—often do so with a set agenda. The discussion invariably moves to the topic of marriage, divorce and remarriage. Such preachers argue that the teaching of Jesus on marriage, divorce and remarriage are merely Old Testament commentary; the words of Jesus in the Gospels on the topic are not binding upon Christians.

To discuss God’s law for Christians, they move to 1 Corinthians 7. Paul says, “Now to the married I command, yet not I but the Lord: A wife is not to depart from her husband.  But even if she does depart, let her remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband. And a husband is not to divorce his wife” (I Corinthians 7:10-11). In making this statement, Paul appeals to the authority of the Lord. The comments that follow begin with this statement: “But to the rest I, not the Lord, say:” (I Corinthians 7:12 ). His comments here are reduced to his opinion. The only authoritative statements are what are found in I Corinthians 7:10-11.

At this point, the preachers in question turn the discussion to Greek. The word translated “depart” in the text is “Choreo.” The word translated “divorce” or “put away” is “Aphiemi.” These words, the preachers state, are not words which mean divorce; the words denote separation without divorce. Their argument concludes with the assertion that only separation is wrong; under the New Law, couples may divorce as many times as they desire for any reasons they desire and remarry without sin.

What a conclusion!

Addressing The Error

The problem with this false doctrine is two-fold.

First, the argument that “Choreo” and “Aphiemi” mean separation but not divorce fails when the context of I Corinthians 7 is considered. Paul gives the woman who does depart/Choreo from her husband two options: she may 1) remain unmarried, or 2) be reconciled. One could harmonize the second option, being reconciled, with the argument; however, option one contradicts the argument completely. The word “unmarried” is “Agamos.” The word is simply the negative particle “a” joined to the word “gamos,”which is used 16 times in the New Testament, and in every one of the instances, it means “marriage” or “wedding.” If “depart” means a separation only, why is one of her two options to remain unmarried? The context makes the meaning of these words obvious; they refer to divorce, not to separation.

Second, the argument is built upon the idea that the words of Jesus are nothing more than Old Testament commentary without binding authority on Christians. This argument too is entirely false. Did Jesus make statements that explained the Old Law? Certainly. Does this mean that the words of Jesus have no authority upon Christians? Certainly not.

The Sermon on the Mount begins with the Beatitudes, the first of which says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). The Beatitudes themselves are an announcement of the coming of the kingdom. The first words of preaching attributed to Jesus by Matthew are “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17). Matthew 4:23a says, “And Jesus went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the gospel of the kingdom.”

Jesus does discuss His relationship with the Old Law in Matthew 5:17, saying, “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill.” But Jesus continues, making a statement considered to be the thesis of the Sermon on the Mount. He says, “For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20).

Jesus is not just commenting on the Old Law; He is teaching the principles of the kingdom of God. The Old Law condemned adultery; Jesus raised the bar, saying, “But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:28). Is this just commentary on the Old Law? Jesus continues, “If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell” (Matthew 5:29). The teaching of Jesus in this sermon is not just about proper observance of the Old Law; Jesus is teaching principles of the kingdom with eternal consequences for Christians.

Conclusion

We need to take to heart the warning that Paul gave the Colossians when he said, “Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ” (Colossians 2:8). Through philosophy, men of Paul’s day built complicated doctrines to justify immorality. Nothing has changed.

Peter warned against those who misused the writings of Paul “which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures” (II Peter 3:16).

Don’t be deceived by those who twist the Scriptures lest you come to the same end, destruction.