“Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Heb 13:8).

Continued from The Torah, Foundation of Covenant Continuity: The Torah Within Ancient Israel.

The meaning and role of the Pentateuch in view of the canon of Scripture is critical when accounting for how OT law is to be understood not only in the event space of ancient Israel, but in the NT church era as well. Moreover, this understanding is central to the argument that covenant continuity exists between the Old and the New. Paul, for example, interprets the Torah in a broader context than many of his Jewish contemporaries, even independent from his own Christocentric gospel. While the fundamentals of the law remain constant, Craig Keener observes of Paul that obedience looks differently in different times since God gave the law in a distinct cultural context and for a particular set of circumstances in the history of salvation.[1] Consider Paul’s contribution to the decision of the Jerusalem Council concerning matters in dispute: “For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell” (Acts 15:28,29, ESV).[2] Though not a referendum on all sin, the Council’s decision, which “seemed good to the Holy Spirit,” acknowledges that observance of the law is no longer practiced as it had been previously, or perhaps, a better way of interpreting the decision is in terms of fulfillment and clarification.

Norman Geisler argues that different testaments present a potential partition and stumbling block; thereby, neither should be seen apart from Christ who provides canonical continuity: “The Old Testament views Christ by way of anticipation; the New Testament views him by way of realization.”[3] The seventeenth-century “father” of contemporary covenant theology, Johann Coccejus, views the Decalogue[4] to be an original part of a covenant of grace, with the subsequent laws given after Israel is unfaithful by worshiping the golden calf: “The legal covenant of the ceremonial service was instituted as a stricter and harsher dispensation of the covenant of grace. Thus the revelation of grace is found particularly in the Decalogue, and that of servitude in the ceremonial law.”[5] Like Coccejus, John Sailhamer, questions whether the brevity of the law was God’s original intent for Israel.  Sailhamer sees a fundamental celebration of “YHWH’s grace” in their history (Deut 26:5–9) and responding to that grace with ethical righteousness (Deut 16:20); thus living out their mission as priestly agents of “praise to YHWH” and “blessing to the world” (Deut 26:19).[6] This theme of redemption found throughout biblical theology is grounded in the law, which reveals, at least in part, how the Torah fits within the canon of Scripture as the foundation for everything that follows. 

With the idea of “covenant continuity” maintaining such a strong presence within the literature, it would be a gross oversight not to address potential polemics. “In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away” (Heb 8:13). In reminding his readers of Jesus, the great high priest, the author of Hebrews speaks of the New Covenant as a better covenant. As the author states in verse 7, “For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion to look for a second.” But the context of this sentiment of a “better covenant” does not unilaterally negate the contention of continuity, but rather, the comparison being made here is one of legality verses grace, not a denunciation of Old verses New. Scripture illustrates the difference between following God legalistically and following Him from the heart long before the New Covenant era, and Jewish sages widely accepted the principle, even if they failed to uphold it in practice.[7] Keener supports his position by recounting the episode in 2 Chronicles in which God forgives the fact that many of the people seeking Him are unable to consecrate themselves ritually beforehand and valuing a wider participation over the keeping of a specific date. Therefore, grace is “fulfilled” in the NT through Jesus, the great high priest, though grace had already been “actualized” in the OT.[8]Commended for their faith, the author of Hebrews speaks of the patriarchs: “And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect” (Heb11:39,40). Though waiting for its fulfillment, the patriarchs did actualize the promise as Jesus attests in the Gospel of John, “Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad” (8:58).

Even a conservative survey of the literature yields an apparent “already but not yet” motif view of covenantal continuity and the Pentateuch of which scholars like Sailhamer, Gane, and Block would seemingly be in agreement. Similarly, reformers as John Calvin and Martin Luther affirm that God’s covenant faithfulness is observed in the law, and both view a single covenant of which the OT is the means for which to communicate hope of everlasting life and assurance of adoption into the family of God.[9] Sailhamer references this messianic hope in both Deuteronomy 18 and 34 as the “prophet” who was yet to come, and Sailhamer points to Malachi 4 in which proclaims this “prophet like Moses” whose way would be prepared by Elijah.[10] Sailhamer observes that Matthew’s gospel, which follows the final OT book canonically, opens reminiscent of the Chronicler with the genealogy of Jesus in order to authenticate Him as the Messiah;[11] this genealogy is commonly regarded among theologians as a bridge from Old to New.[12]

Among scholars who prescribe to a continuity view, it must be acknowledged that there is some diversity; however, agreement is found within the overarching theme. In contrast, it must also be acknowledged that not all scholars perceive continuity between the covenants; for example, ones such as Herman Bavinck[13] recognize the same covenant of grace but in light of different dispensations. Covenant theologians and dispensationalists alike generally agree on the essentiality of Mosaic law in the Sinai covenant. Sailhamer points out that whereas in covenant theology, “the legal aspects of the covenant are seen as the basis for an emphasis on the role of the law in the life of the Christian,” dispensationalists say, “the legal aspects of the covenant are seen as the basis for their separation of the Sinai covenant, with its laws, from the life of the Christian.”[14] However, Gane asserts that dispensationalists fail to adequately account several alternative interpretations of key proof texts substantiating the understanding that the Mosaic law is completely rescinded for Christians.[15] Paul was not the only early Christian writer to recognize, for example, that Ezekiel promised that God would wash the hearts of the people and give them new hearts and spirits and fulfill His laws by putting His Spirit in them (Ezek 36:25-27). Likewise, when John refers to being born of water and of the Spirit, the apostle too calls to mind Ezekiel (John 3:5-6).[16] The contrast between the OT God of wrath and the NT God of love, which has definite dispensationalist overtones, owes its existence more to Marcion[17] than to any principles articulated by the Torah.[18]Indeed, there are obvious contextual differences between the Old and New; however, to state that the two covenants are separate and unattached is to miss the broader redemptive story that Scripture tries to tell. 

“Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness” (Eph 6:13,14). Recognizing and making use of the armor God reflects being Christlike, but Paul’s direction to the believers of Ephesus is a reference to the very same armament prophesized of Christ by Isaiah: “He put on righteousness as a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation on his head; he put on garments of vengeance for clothing, and wrapped himself in zeal as a cloak” (59:17). Paul’s reference to Isaiah and application to the Ephesians demonstrates a continuity grounded in the character of God, which Gane sees as operating in view of Mosaic Law: “First, the new covenant, under which the law of Christ operates, is in direct continuity with the Old Testament covenant’s phases, including the covenant at Sinai, under which the so-called Mosaic Law functioned.”[19] Canonically, there is but one overarching covenant of grace grounded in the Torah, grounded in faith, flowing through the pages of the OT to its ultimate fulfillment in Christ. 

“Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Heb 13:8).

[1] Craig S. Keener, “Reading the Torah as the Law of Faith.” Southwestern Journal of Theology 64, no. 1 (Fall 2021): 81.

[2] Unless otherwise noted, all biblical passages referenced are in the English Standard Version.

[3] Norman L. Geisler, A Popular Survey of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 20.

[4] Decalogue refers to the Ten Commandments. 

[5] John H. Sailhamer, The Meaning of the Pentateuch: Revelation, Composition, and Interpretation (Grand Rapids, MI: Intervarsity Press Academic, 2009), 545.

[6] Ibid., 545.

[7] Keener, 82.

[8] Sailhamer, 433.

[9] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2009), 274; Martin Luther, Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, Edited by Timothy F Lull, & William R. Russel. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2012), 111.

[10] Sailhamer, 224.

[11] Ibid., 237.

[12] Walter A. Elwell and Robert W, Yarbrough, Encountering the New Testament: A Historical and Theological Survey (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005), 67.

[13] See Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: Sin and Salvation in Christ. Vol. Three (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006).

[14] Sailhamer, 351.

[15] Roy E. Gane, Old Testament Law for Christians: Original Context and Enduring Application (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2017), 170.

[16] Keener, 83.

[17] Marcion refers to the second century Christian dualistic belief system that originated with the teachings of Marcion of Sinope in Rome.

[18] Ibid., 90.

[19] Gane, 170.

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