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I have been told in the past that there is no difference between the Law and the Old Covenant, and that when the Old Covenant became obsolete, so did the Law itself. I'm sure it is plain to most of you that I disagree with that assessment.
The Law is the sum total of all that expresses the mind, will, and character of God, whether written or spoken. Anything God says to do, whether in His Word or by His Spirit, is a law. It is also the righteous standard of perfection that He has prepared for us and which will be ours when the divine plan has been completed.
The manner in which we must attain to that perfection is the subject of the Covenants. The Old Covenant set forth the path in terms of man's vow and determination to conform his actions to the law's righteous standard. It was based upon man's will and man's ability to fulfill his good intentions as expressed by his vow to be obedient and conform to God's will (Ex. 19:8).
The problem is that man was unable to fulfill his vow, regardless of how good his intention was. This is because since Adam, death (or mortality) has been infused into us, and this spiritual disease is an inherent weakness that causes us to sin. Hence, Romans 5:12 says (literal transl.), "and so death passed into all men, ON WHICH all sin."
For this reason, Paul says also, "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Rom. 3:23).
We sin because we are mortal. Our determination NOT to sin is all well and good, and certainly we should all do what we can to buffet our bodies and restrain them from carrying out the works and intents of the flesh. However, such human effort cannot succeed in the end. It can go far in causing us to do good, but it can never perfect the flesh.
In other words, the flesh can never be perfected by means of human effort. Many well-meaning people have tried, and many have been pronounced "saints" for their efforts. I applaud them as well. But if you were able to ask any of them at the end of their lives if they had been perfected, they would have cried on your shoulder.
The Old Covenant is the first way by which we attempt to come into perfection. God ordained it in the days of Moses, not because it would succeed, but so that we would finally see that this was an impossibility. Israel as a nation shows us the example of failure throughout the Old Testament time.
But the law also spoke of a New Covenant, and the prophet Jeremiah defined it more fully than any other in Jer. 31. Under this Covenant, the responsibility to bring us into perfection would rest upon God's shoulders, and not be dependent upon man's will and ability. God would work from the inside and write His law upon our hearts. He would work by His Spirit to change our nature, our being, our character. This was in direct contrast to the conditions of the Old Covenant, whereby the law was given on external tablets of stone and imposed upon man to discipline him from the outside.
These Covenants, then, are the two ways to perfection. One works, the other does not. The primary difference between these Covenants is WHO is responsible to bring us into perfection. Is it God or is it man? Is perfection dependent upon the will of man, or upon the will of God? Is it dependent upon man's ability to perform his vow to God, or is it dependent upon God's ability to perform His own will in us?
The Law itself remains the same in both cases, because the Law is the righteous standard that expresses the mind and character of God. The two covenants treat the law differently, however. The Old Covenant writes the law on stone tablets and is given to us externally. We read it, try to understand it, and then conform our lives to it to the best of our ability. The Old Covenant method attempts to change inner character by outward actions.
The New Covenant writes the law on the tablets of our hearts, working inwardly to change our character. As our character is changed, so is our behavior (or actions). The New Covenant method changes our outward actions by altering our hearts by the power of the Spirit.
In either case, the law itself is not the problem. The problem is man's inability to conform to the character and will of God by his own strength.
Moses was given the law twice in order to show us by types and shadows how these two covenants function. The first time the law was given in Exodus 20-31. This passage ends with Ex. 31:18,
"And he gave unto Moses, when he had made an end of communing with him upon mount Sinai, two tables of testimony, tables of stone, written with the finger of God."
Moses then went down from the mount and found the people worshiping the golden calf. Exodus 32:19 says that Moses "cast the tables out of his hands and broke them beneath the mount."
Moses established the prophetic type for Israel under the Old Covenant, for the rest of the nation also broke the law and thereby nullified the Old Covenant (Heb. 8:13).
Moses then returned to the mount in order to receive the second law, which is a type of the New Covenant, even though it was given in the time of the Old Covenant. (There are many New Covenant types recorded throughout the Old Testament.) Exodus 34:1 says,
"And the Lord said unto Moses, Hew thee two tables of stone like unto the first, and I will write upon those tables the words that were in the first tables, which you broke."
Moses thus went on his 8th trip up the mount and returned, I believe, on the day thereafter celebrated as the 8th day of Tabernacles. The fulfillment of this feast day occurs when the law is fully written on our hearts. In fact, the feast of Tabernacles was the ONLY feast day where the people specifically read the law--specifically, the book of Deuteronomy. Why? To portray the fact that the second law was being written in our hearts. (Deuteronomy means "the second law.")
Take note that the second law was the same as the first law, insofar as its moral content was concerned. In the New Testament we have further revelation of the various alterations in FORM that took place out of necessity. The form of the feast days changed from external to internal, the priesthood changed from Levi to Melchizedek, the sacrifices changed from literal animals to the true Lamb of God, etc. Forms changed, but the principles remained the same.
My main point here is to say that the law is the expressed character of God, while the Covenants show the manner in which that character of God is imparted to mankind. Both Covenants involve the law, but the New Covenant is the only way in which the goal can be achieved.