Christians can get a bit confused when we talk about the old and new testaments in the Bible. Why do we even have an old one? Is it completely irrelevant? We can talk about sin and redemption – how, under the old covenant (the old agreement/testament), there was no way to become permanently free from sin (all the stuff that separates us from God). To be one of God’s people you had to live according to His law as best you could and temporarily clear up your mistakes with an animal sacrifice.
Redemption – being made right – was not so much about individuals as about a nation: the Israelites. God promised that He would give them their promised land as a people. Because of this, the collective is emphasised under the old covenant. Parents’ sins matter for their children, a priest makes a sacrifice for all the people, and so on.
I want to illustrate this through a book in the Bible that you may not have read or even heard of: Obadiah. It’s not even long enough to be divided into chapters, only verses. Verses 19-21 talk about the Israelites inheriting the Promised Land; before that the prophet talks about the judgement of all the nations. The final verse (21) mentions ‘deliverers’ and ends with the declaration, ‘And the kingdom will be the Lord’s’.
This sums up the old covenant pretty well. Like Christians, the Israelites anticipated a time of universal judgement, where God would judge people according to the standards set by His law. Furthermore, they believed that, if they stayed in God’s favour (the prophets essentially tried to call them back into this favour time and time again) He would give to them the land promised to their ancestors in the Near East, and He would rule over them in that land. We can see all of this from the end of Obadiah, and these themes run through the entirety of the Old Testament.
But it doesn’t stop there with Christians. We have a new testament, and a clue to why this is can be found in Jesus’ statement that he has come to ‘fulfil the law’, but not to ‘abolish it’ (Matthew 5:17-20). Jesus makes it very clear that the old law/covenant/testament is not wrong, but in the context of Matthew 5, the first chapter of His famous Sermon on the Mount, He is expanding our understanding of the law and God’s expectations.
With this expansion of understanding (e.g. adultery includes lust, not just sleeping with a married woman) comes an expansion of purpose. What do I mean by this? From Obadiah we can see that God will judge all nations and restore the Israelites to their promised land. Under the new covenant, we understand that God will still judge all the nations, but that gentiles (non-Jews) have been grafted into the vine that symbolises the people of God. In Christ there is no Jew or Gentile (Colossians 3:11) and both Jew and gentile have access to God’s righteousness (Romans 9:30-32). Not only this, but under the new covenant God has revealed clearly what was only hinted at in the old, that there will be a time and place for Jews and gentiles, where all can worship Him (John 4:32) and the end of Revelation makes it clear that this will be eternity in the new creation.
What we see with Jesus, and then with the apostles, is that the scope of God’s redemptive power goes beyond one people, one place and one time. He has not abolished what is foreseen in Obadiah and elsewhere in the old testament, but He has expanded our understanding of it. Part of this involves shrinking our thought in some areas; though community is important, we are justified as individuals before God, and every single person can worship God in their own spirit. But in that shrinking I see what is really an expansion in our conception of God’s power and His grace. What it comes down to is that in Jesus we see God’s heart for all of humanity; a new covenant that means that the invitation to redemption is open for everyone, and the promise of the kingdom of God (remember Obadiah 21) is open to all.