Today, I want to talk about the new covenant. Whenever we observe the Lord’s Supper on the first Sunday of every month, we recite the lines from 1 Cor 11 – This cup is the new covenant established by My blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me. What is this new covenant? Paul explains what this new covenant is in 2 Cor 3.
There are 3 sections for this sermon. In the first part, I will talk about commendation and competence as defined by the false apostles vs. Paul, the true apostle of Christ. In the second part, I want to compare and contrast the old covenant and the new covenant. Lastly, as those under the new covenant, I want to end with a discussion on gospel fruit.
First part – commendation and competence. These concepts are defined quite differently by the false apostles and Apostle Paul.
2 Cor 3
1 Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, like some, letters of recommendation to you or from you?
Paul writes this letter to address those within the church who are questioning his apostleship. In Paul’s previous letter to the Corinthian church, 1 Corinthians, Paul writes to them in response to how the Corinthian leaders were leading the sheep away from the core of the gospel and toward fringe teachings. Instead of remaining on the gospel, Jesus’s death, burial and resurrection, they began to stray toward the pursuit of the charismatic spiritual gifts such as speaking in tongues and prophecies and healings to the neglect of the core teaching of the gospel. As a result of this shift in emphasis, various sins such as sexual immorality and lawsuits and idol worship began infiltrating the community.
You may wonder, why did this shift lead to sin? It’s because they emphasized the supernatural–tongues, prophecies, healings–to such an extent that they gave themselves a pass in terms of ethics and behavior. That’s why Paul reminds them in 1 Cor 15 of the bodily resurrection.
The point being–our spiritual life and our physical life has to match. We find many people in churches today who look all holy and pious on Sundays, but then Monday through Saturday, they are having affairs and cheating on their taxes and neglecting their families. Or they say, God loves me, isn’t God good, I am thankful for his grace, but the very next moment they are gossiping and slandering and tearing others down. Or they agree that there is God in heaven and our final destination is to reign with Christ in the new heaven and the new earth and that in light of this truth, this life is like a drop in the ocean, yet they lack peace and joy and hope and a sense of security and instead they are stressed over 101 things. Why is that? It’s because we are emphasizing the spiritual realm and neglecting the physical–our choices, how we invest our time and resources, what comes out of our mouth, our speech, our day to day life. This disconnect occurs when we create a false dichotomy between the spiritual and the physical, or we divorce our spiritual lives from our physical lives. We only have one life and it contains both spiritual and physical elements. It’s all rolled up into one and you can’t separate the two.
Paul began calling out sin for what it is. He called various people to repent of very specific, highly scandalous sins. And many at Corinth probably thought, man, this guy Paul is too much. When it comes to black and white sin, I pray that we, as a community of faith, would have the courage to say it like it is when it comes to black and white sin. Not beat around the bush, but call people to repentance. So that we can keep each other accountable and not be blind, like the Corinthians were. They thought they were so super spiritual because they were gifted, but they were spiritually blind because look at how they were acting. When it comes to gray areas, I pray that we can be a community of grace. Calling out sin when it is clear, when it’s black and white, but being gracious and patient in the many gray areas of life.
In this letter, 2 Corinthians, the issue is a bit different than in 1 Corinthians. With the arrival of certain Jewish self-proclaimed apostles called Judaizers, the church began to turn against Paul as these newcomers were successfully persuading the church that Paul’s theology was in error. What was their main beef with Paul? The false apostles believed, basically, that the old covenant of Moses was still in effect. As a result of their belief that the Mosaic covenant was still in effect, they disagreed with what they thought Paul was preaching, namely that we should abandon Moses.
Is that true? Should we abandon Moses and the old covenant? Well, yes and No. Moses represented the old covenant. It includes the Ten Commandments, or the Law, the sacrificial system, shedding the blood of animals to atone for sin, and various Jewish traditions like circumcision. Does the new covenant introduced by Jesus abolish the old covenant? Well, kind of, but not really. The easiest way to explain it is to say that the new covenant is a fulfillment of the old covenant. The old covenant is abolished in the sense that it is not a final destination defining what faith looks like.
The point of Moses receiving the Law on Mt Sinai was never simply to set apart a single nation of Israel who have been freed from slavery in Egypt so that their very Jewish-specific faith could be forged in the wilderness as they struggle to live by God’s rules. In other words, Israel’s salvation as a chosen people of God was not the final aim of God’s redemption plan. Those practices and beliefs which comprise the old covenant were not meant to be ends in themselves for the blessing of one nation. All of that, the freedom from slavery, the Law, the killing of animals, the wilderness, the promised land was a foreshadowing, a pointer to Jesus and the life in the Spirit.
Jesus, who is the Lamb of God, the one true, eternal sacrifice for sin. Jesus, He fulfills the Law. He fulfills the sacrificial system. He satisfies perfectly the justice and holiness of God. And through Jesus, not just Israel, but all nations will be blessed as people from every tongue and every people group on the face of the earth have a chance to turn to Jesus and be saved.
There is no denying that Christianity has Jewish roots. There is much about the new covenant that has its origins in the old covenant. We can gain a much deeper understanding about Christ and the new covenant by studying the old. In that sense, the old covenant was an important preparation period for Jesus and we are amazed at how centuries of tradition can be fulfilled in a single Person. There is nothing wrong with Jewish tradition, or any tradition for that matter, if the tradition causes you to remember and worship Christ.
It makes sense that only 2 ordinances or 2 traditions are commanded by Jesus: the Lord’s Supper and baptism. In my opinion, nothing else is absolutely necessary to keep as part of our church tradition. If some tradition was important to keep, don’t you think Jesus would have mentioned it? Jesus makes no command to observe a certain kind of worship and make that part of our tradition. It’s not essential what kind of music or worship style we have, or what discipleship program we run, but only 2 traditions are binding for every generation until Christ returns. Only the Lord’s Supper and baptism. Why only these two? Because both the Lord’s Supper and baptism are direct reenactments of what God accomplished for us in Christ and we are to observe them in order to remember and worship Jesus.
Traditions can be helpful, but in my opinion, many are unnecessary. Worse yet, some traditions are downright damning because it takes our focus away from Christ. This is what happened at Corinth. These false teachers, or Judaizers, crossed the line. They wanted to fit Christianity under Judaism, Christ under Moses, instead of the other way around. They emphasized Jewish practices like circumcision and Jewish leaders like Moses and elevated them to the level of tier 1 gospel importance. Almost making these traditions matters of salvation, like you need to observe them or participate in these traditions in order to be saved.
Certain traditions are in place at various churches and those traditions seem so important to each church, but if there is no direct link to Christ, it’s just a human tradition. What’s the big deal about having human traditions? Why is it so dangerous? Because, if you are part of a church with these strong human traditions, you feel incredible pressure to observe these traditions when it does nothing for you spiritually except to make you feel like you are part of the group. You end up going through the motions to observe traditions so that you can be considered part of the “in” crowd within that community. And those who don’t participate in these traditions are shunned. The shunning can be so severe that it makes you wonder, am I saved? Why am I being treated like a second class citizen? I’m speaking mostly to the staff and the elders here–let’s be careful what we make a tradition at the Hill. Jesus gave us 2. I’m not sure what other traditions need to rise to that level.
Moving on. For these false apostles, what is the basis for their confidence in their teaching? They have letters of recommendation in hand. At that time such letters were common, and Paul himself used letters to introduce people to new congregations. So who wrote these letters commending the Judaizers to the Corinthians?
Paul sheds some insight into the origin of these letters.
2 Cor 3
4 We have this kind of confidence toward God through Christ. 5 It is not that we are competent in ourselves to consider anything as coming from ourselves, but our competence is from God.
This phrase is a bit confusing. Competent in ourselves to consider anything as coming from ourselves. Paul elaborate in 2 Cor 10:12–
2 Cor 10
12 For we don’t dare classify or compare ourselves with some who commend themselves. But in measuring themselves by themselves and comparing themselves to themselves, they lack understanding.
This verse seems to point to the possibility that the senders of the letter and the recipients of the letter or senders and the messengers possessing the letters belong to the same group. That means, there was no higher commending authority in whose name they came.
It is likely that these false teachers at Corinth had received letters of rec from other false teachers at churches like the Jerusalem church. Because with a high percentage of Jewish converts at places like Jerusalem, you would expect the presence of many Judaizers who would want to retain their Jewishness. Makes sense, right? In fact, during Paul’s ministry, the main theological opposition he faced came from Judaizers. These were Jewish converts to Christianity who were unwilling to let go of their glory days from the past. If you read other letters, like Galatians for example, Paul faces a similar threat from Judaizers who are trying to distort the gospel at the church in Galatia.
Whenever God is at work, Satan is also at work. It is not surprising that Paul, the servant of God, would be opposed by workers of Satan. Scholars believe that these letters did in fact come from extreme Jews who had converted to Christianity in Jerusalem whose emissaries had embarked on a program of capturing Paul’s churches for their own brand of Jewish Christianity. Satan is clever. He won’t trick Christians by giving us a completely new religion and telling us to worship evil things. He will deceive the most number of people by slightly distorting the gospel.
Certainly, in the first century, there seems to be some kind of organized movement of Judaizers whose plan was to derail Paul and the pure gospel message he was preaching by distorting it into a teaching that might have had a gospel center but it was wrapped in layer upon layer of Jewish tradition so that Christ and the gospel was obscured. Jesus became hard to see as the message was distorted.
It’s funny if you think about this situation. The false teachers were confident because they possessed letters of recommendations from other false teachers and their basis for their confidence was finding other like-minded people. Cult leaders can brainwash you with a false teaching, but if you are surrounded by a strong community of like-minded people who believe the wrong thing yet see things the exact same way, it’s really hard to stay objective. The false teachers were confident because the group sending out the letters of rec were from the same group as the ones receiving the letters at Corinth.
That’s a conflict of interest, wouldn’t you say? That’s like LinkedIn, which recently introduced a new feature where you can endorse the skills of someone who is connected to you. So of course, you have friends endorsing their friends. Am I right? Anyone do that here? My friend knows Unix, Linux and is a security expert. Yeah, right. It’s like if my mom endorsed me on LinkedIn and said, Ray is a great preacher. A little biased, wouldn’t you say?
It’s dangerous for a spiritual leader to surround himself or herself with only people who agree with them all the time. Because if the leaders get derailed, the whole church is going down with him. We should never overly depend on a human leader. The Judaizers picked a pretty safe choice to be their leader because they aligned themselves with the great Moses. Yet, these Judaizers missed everything because they lost sight of Christ being the Head of the church. He is the Good Shepherd. All of us must hear his voice and follow Jesus and none other.