“A Law with Faults?”Categories: Iron sharpens iron
But as it is, Christ has obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises. For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion to look for a second. (Hebrews 8.6-7)
How could God’s workmanship have faults? That picture doesn’t seem to be consistent with what we read in the rest of the Bible, and it strains our core assumption about God’s perfection. We take for granted that he is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good, and so the idea of him failing in anything is immediately suspect. But we haven’t read far enough!
For he finds fault with them when he says: “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah…” (Hebrews 8.8)
It’s not a case of man finding fault with God; rather, God finds fault with his people, who are the other party to the covenant in question. As a result, the covenant itself is flawed, but not because of any failure on God’s part!
At this point, perhaps some would be keen to condemn Israel—and certainly, Israel deserves it! But that’s not the whole story. When Paul discussed the different paths Jews and Gentiles took to Christ, he wrote,
For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. (Romans 2.12)
It’s not just the Israelites who failed here. Sin is everyone’s problem, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Ro 3.23). The flaw in the first covenant wasn’t in God’s work—that was perfect! The trouble was that we all sin. No matter the covenant, humanity will transgress. Of course, the Law of Moses built that into the system, with a means of dealing with sin through an elaborate scheme of sacrifices, especially animals killed and offered as something of a substitute for the life of the offerer, as God himself said:
“For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life.” (Leviticus 17.11)
But while God accepted this as a means to continually push back the deserved judgment, we all know that it isn’t good enough. It was never really intended to be.
For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near. Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, since the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have any consciousness of sins? But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. (Hebrews 10.1-4)
Every year, it was the same old thing, the same old sacrifices, the same reminder of sins; which was just as well, because they kept committing them. But God planned all along to enact a better covenant:
“For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel
after those days, declares the Lord:
I will put my laws into their minds,
and write them on their hearts,
and I will be their God,
and they shall be my people.
And they shall not teach, each one his neighbor
and each one his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’
for they shall all know me,
from the least of them to the greatest.
For I will be merciful toward their iniquities,
and I will remember their sins no more.” (Hebrews 8.10-12)
The author of Hebrews is quoting from Jeremiah 31, who foretold this more than 600 years before it came to pass. It’s not that God instituted the Jewish system, then discovered to his surprise that, despite his best efforts, none of them were fully adhering to the agreement. God knew that from the start. It was part of the plan! Centuries before the covenant with Israel was inaugurated at Mount Sinai, God told Abraham, “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Ge 12.3). It was always about more than just the nation of Israel.
But that leaves us wondering, why impose the Law of Moses at all, then? And God provides an answer:
Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made… (Galatians 3.19)
The Law of Moses did many things, but chief among them was to convict those living under it, and teach them, from above, what righteousness was. Israel stood in as a representative of all humanity, and so it convicts all of us, too. That’s the bad news; but it helps us to make sense of the good news, as a result. The same people who constantly transgressed their covenant with God and were punished for it with increasing severity, were then used as a vessel to bring God’s Son into the world for our redemption!
And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pains and the agony of giving birth. …She gave birth to a male child, one who is to rule all the nations… (Revelation 12.1-5)
The Law of Moses was a failure—if you think the goal was to make humans fit to dwell in God’s presence for eternity. But instead, its purpose was to demonstrate our brokenness, and bring the one and only Savior into the world. For that task it was, indeed, perfect.