Law and Grace in Sharp Contrast

The Old and New Covenants

Muslims often ask why Christians have an Old and New Testament in their Bible. What was wrong with the Old Testament that you had to have a New? Isn’t the new a corrupted version of the Old which was the original scripture? Why do you have to have two testaments at all? When these questions are asked Christians have a wonderful opportunity to witness to Muslims of God’s saving grace in Jesus Christ.

There is a simple answer to these questions, of course. The Qur’an talks about two books in the possession of the Jews and Christians, namely at-Tawraat (the Law) and al-Injil (the Gospel) respectively (Surah 5:69, 7:157). The former is said to have been delivered to Moses, the latter to Jesus. Christians need only explain that there were two different scriptures, as the Qur’an testifies, which date from the time of two different religious leaders, Moses and Jesus.

Yet the essential distinction between the two books is the foundation for a very positive witness, namely the old and new covenants. The first covenant, given to Moses, was one based on a series of laws, rituals and regulations. It placed the responsibility for observing these rules squarely on the shoulders of the Israelites who received them. These quotes help to make the point:

You shall not kill. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour. Exodus 20:13-16

You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason with your neighbour, lest you bear sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself. You shall keep my statutes. Leviticus 19:17-19

Throughout the books of Moses, where the original terms of the old covenant are set out, the commands are the same. "You shall, you shall not" introduces each one. It was up to the Israelites exclusively to keep these laws, either by fulfilling the acts of obedience that were commanded, or by refraining from actions that were prohibited. The important issue here is the response of the whole nation to these laws. When Moses went up Mount Sinai to receive the two tablets of the law (Exodus 24:12) and stayed there many days, the Israelites rebelled and ordered Aaron to create golden images as gods to go before them rather than the Lord. They made a golden calf and worshipped and sacrificed to it (Exodus 32:8). They indulged themselves in what we today would call an orgy (Exodus 32:6).

In one fell swoop they broke virtually every one of the ten commandments they had received, especially the cardinal laws commanding them to worship God alone and not to make graven images and go after them. This expression of hostility to God’s laws characterised their relationship with him throughout the Exodus and symbolises the inner animosity in the heart of every man towards God’s holy statutes (Jeremiah 17:9). As a result of their rebellion 3000 men of Israel who had spearheaded the rebellion were put to the sword and destroyed for their transgression.

God’s patience with Israel was sustained for many centuries to come but by the time of Jeremiah he concluded that they would never bow to his holy laws and would always disobey him. He told them their hurt was incurable and that there was no one who would uphold their cause (Jeremiah 30:12). He had dealt them the blow of a enemy because their guilt was great (v.14). He warned them that Jerusalem would become a heap of ruins (Jeremiah 26:18), yet in his love for them he promised he would not make a full end of them (Jeremiah 30:11). While he was satisfied that they had forsaken his covenant to the point where it had finally been abrogated, yet he would press on with them. He gave his reason in this famous passage:

I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you. Again I will build you, and you shall be built, O virgin Israel! Jeremiah 31:3-4

Only a few verses later in the same chapter we read God’s promise that he would make a new covenant with them unlike the covenant he had made with their forefathers through Moses. This was the covenant he would make:

I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people ... I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more. Jeremiah 31:33-34

Note the shift in emphasis. The new covenant was not based on a "You shall, you shall not" foundation but rather on God’s promise "I will put, I will write, I will forgive." God was electing to take the responsibility for the successful outworking of the relationship between him and them on himself! He was binding himself to them in an eternal covenant, holding himself responsible for their faithfulness. By no longer writing his laws on tablets of stone but rather on human hearts, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God (2 Corinthians 3:3), he would assure their obedience. Much the same theme is found in this passage where the promised new covenant is again canvassed:

I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses and from all your idols I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you. Ezekiel 37:25-26

Here is a glorious opportunity to witness to Muslims of the real reason why Jesus Christ came to earth. He came to fulfil the new covenant which, he said, would be done through the giving of his shed blood for the forgiveness of our sins (1 Corinthians 11:25). Through his death and resurrection our sins were paid for and the doors of heaven were opened for the very Spirit of God himself to enter into the heart of every true believer and unite him to God. It is not coincidental that when the Holy Spirit was poured out on the Day of Pentecost, 3000 of those who heard the word believed and were baptised (Acts 2:41). It was exactly the same number of those who had defied the Lord when the first covenant was introduced, and who perished for their rebellion. The law given through Moses brought death to 3000, the grace of God brought the Spirit and eternal life to the same number who heard’s Peter’s message of salvation in Jesus Christ. You have much material for witness here through the God "who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not in a written code, but in the Spirit, for the written code kills, but the Spirit gives life" (2 Corinthians 2:6).

Jesus Christ Mediates a Greater Covenant

From other passages of scripture, especially the Book of Hebrews, you can strengthen the case for the new covenant, especially the fact that it is a far superior one to the old, not least because the one who mediates it is far superior to Moses. The difference is defined in this text:

Jesus has been counted worthy of as much more glory than Moses as the builder of a house has more honour than the house. Hebrews 3:3

The passage goes on to explain the difference Moses was faithful in all God’s house as a servant but Christ was faithful over God’s house as a Son (Hebrews 3:5-6). Moses was no more than the spokesman for God’s first covenant and could not cleanse the Israelites of their transgressions against it. But Jesus, through his death and resurrection, opened the way for men to be directly forgiven by God and, being both God and man, was able to reconcile man to God and unite true believers through the Holy Spirit who was now free to enter their hearts. The effect of this is summed up in these words:

But as it is, Christ has obtained a ministry which is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises. Hebrews 8:6

The important thing is to show that we, as Christians, have a far greater hope in this awesome covenant which is far superior to the old, especially as Muslims are taught that all the prophets were the same and that Jesus and Muhammad merely confirmed the first covenant of the law which God gave to Moses. It is useful always to bear in mind that Islam views the whole religious course of history as a level playing field. The religion of Moses is said to be identical to the religion of Muhammad a set of moral laws, ceremonial rituals and other observances. Yet our faith is based on a rising crescendo to a climax: God’s glorious revelation of himself in Jesus, his salvation through the cross, and our potential to live for ever and become the sons and daughters of God through his resurrection to life. It is also important to emphasise the futility of the partial observance of God’s laws when our sins separate us inevitably from God. All the rites and sacrifices in the world cannot remedy this malady.

According to this arrangement, gifts and sacrifices are offered which cannot perfect the conscience of the worshipper, but deal only with food and drink and various ablutions, regulations for the body imposed until the time for reformation. Hebrews 9:9-10

This is the shortcoming of Islam also. It is filled with specific laws about fasting, the times and direction of the five daily prayers, the observance of the Hajj pilgrimage, the acceptability (halaal) or otherwise (haraam) of various foods, and the like. All these cannot redeem the seared consciences and paralysed souls of men and women who have sinned against God and live in complete separation from him. Only Jesus can do this. Only he can secure our forgiveness and impart the Spirit of God to us so that we become alive to God again in our hearts and live in eternal communion with him.

Moses and Jesus in John’s Gospel

There is another source for showing the superiority of Jesus over Moses and it is the Gospel of John. Here deliberate comparisons are drawn between them to bring out not only the greater glory of Jesus, the mediator of God’s greater covenant, but also the difference between the law and grace as seen in the ministries of these two men. John introduces this subject with these words:

For the law was given through Moses, grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. John 1:17

1. The Brass Serpent

Proving the superiority of Jesus over the former patriarchs is a favourite theme in John’s Gospel. He demonstrates the superiority of Jesus over Abraham (John 8:58), over Jacob (John 4:12-14) and over John the Baptist (John 3:28-29), but most of his attention, understandably, is given to the greatest of all the Old Testament figureheads, Moses, the mediator of the first covenant. The first example appears in this text where Jesus Christ is the speaker:

And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. John 3:14-15

Jesus is referring to an incident recorded in the book of Numbers. As the people of Israel retraced their passage through the Sinai wilderness and had to go back towards the Red Sea to get around the land of Edom, they became impatient and accused Moses of bringing them out only to die in the desert for lack of water and food. Once again God’s anger was kindled against them:

Then the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many of the people of Israel died. Numbers 21:6

In anguish, the people confessed their rebellion to Moses and acknowledged their guilt, pleading with Moses to beseech the Lord to remove the serpents from among them. God, however, ordered Moses to make a brass serpent and to nail it to a pole in the midst of the camp so that, whenever anyone was bitten, they could look at the brass serpent and be healed.

The comparison Jesus draws between his own destiny and the serpent is a useful basis for witness by itself. Jesus too would be lifted up, publicly portrayed as crucified, and salvation is found for all who turn and believe in him. Just as the brass serpent was made in the image of the fiery serpents biting the Israelites, but did not possess the deadly venom that was killing them, so Jesus became sin for us (2 Corinthians 5:21), the deadly affliction that destroys all men, but did not have any sin of his own (2 Peter 2:22). There is a beautiful stained glass window at the west end of Norwich Cathedral in England which contains a portrayal of the brass serpent to which Moses points for the renewal of the stricken Israelites below a representation of the crucifixion of Jesus for the salvation of all mankind.

The important point here, however, is the superiority of Jesus over Moses. The brass serpent served for the temporary healing of the Israelites struck down by the venom of the fiery serpents, but Jesus was to be lifted up so that all who believe in him might have eternal life. The miracle done through Moses did not stop the stricken Israelites from dying another day in the wilderness, yet the death and miraculous resurrection of Jesus would guarantee life from the dead for evermore for all who look to him. We will see this comparison in another context shortly.

Another feature, which we will also see in the next example, is the fact that Moses was only the guide to the healing object, which in this case was the brass serpent. But Jesus himself is the source of salvation to all who obey him. He was the one lifted up on the cross as the healing source for all sinners bound in their transgressions. The effective instrument was the brass serpent which is a type of Christ. Moses was only God’s agent for directing the Israelites towards it.

2. The Bread of Life

The next example is found in the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel. The chapter begins with the miracle of Jesus in feeding five thousand men, besides women and children, from only five barley loaves and two fish (John 6:9). The crowds were astonished and sought to make Jesus their king, but he withdrew from them (v.15). The next day they sought for Jesus and finally found him on the other side of the Sea of Galilee. Jesus was aware that they were only seeking him because of the miracle he had performed and warned them "not to labour for the food which perishes but for the food which endures to eternal life" which he, the Son of man, would give to them (v.27). They replied:

Then what sign do you do, that we may see, and believe you? What work do you perform? Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, He gave them bread from heaven to eat. John 6:30-31

Jesus responded that it was not Moses who gives the true bread from heaven but his Father who is in heaven, bread which comes down from heaven to give life to the world. When they appealed to him to give them this bread always, he answered:

I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst. John 6:35

Once again John draws out a sharp contrast between Jesus and Moses. Moses, again, was only God’s agent to bring down the manna from heaven that fed the Israelites for forty years, but Jesus himself is the true bread of life which comes down from heaven. It’s the same contrast that we saw in the comparison with the brass serpent. So also is the comparison Jesus brings between the temporal nature of Moses’ miracle and the eternal effects of his own provision of himself as the bread of life. When the Jews alluded to the miracle of Moses in the desert, what they were doing was to throw down the gauntlet to Jesus. He had fed more than five thousand of them with just a few loaves. Sure, that was an incredible miracle, but how did he compare with Moses who had done the same thing for forty years? Jesus had also had something to work with, five loaves and two fish, but Moses had brought the manna down to earth from heaven with nothing in his hands. Could Jesus perform similar miracles?

The Jews appeared to have conveniently forgotten what their forefathers’ impression was of the manna. "We loathe this worthless food," they declared (Numbers 21:5). Nonetheless what Jesus proceeded to do was not to claim that his bread was of a better quality than Moses’ manna. It was the ultimate effect of them both that was the issue. He said to them:

I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness and they died. This is the bread which comes down from heaven that a man may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if anyone eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh. John 6:48-51

Here again we see the superiority of Jesus over Moses. He himself is the bread of life and, unlike the Israelites who perished in the wilderness despite eating the manna for forty years, whoever feeds on this bread will live for ever. These are powerful sources for witness to Muslims of the glory of Jesus over Moses and his supreme purpose for coming to earth to bring eternal salvation to all who come to him and believe in him.

3. Healing a Man’s Whole Body

The third example is found in the next chapter. The Jews in Judea had been looking for Jesus, wondering if he would come up to the feast of Tabernacles. Many opposed his teaching, especially because he had been known to heal people on the sabbath day which, to their knowledge, was a contravention of the law of Moses. So Jesus said to them:

If on the sabbath a man receives circumcision, so that the law of Moses may not be broken, are you angry with me because on the sabbath I made a man’s whole body well? John 7:23

The Jews did not believe they were breaking the sabbath when they applied the covenantal law of circumcision. Yet that is all that it was, merely a ritual to bind an Israelite male child to the national covenant God had made with them through Moses. Jesus, however, had done far more. During his previous trip to Jerusalem he had healed a man who had been lame and paralysed for thirty-eight years (John 5:9). Here, once again, we see the superiority of Jesus over Moses. Circumcision affected only an organ of the body. Jesus had made the lame man’s whole body well.

4. The Woman Caught in Adultery

Our fourth example is the occasion where the Jews brought to Jesus a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery. They charged him: "Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such. What do you say about her?" (John 8:5) They aimed to catch him however he answered. If he showed his customary compassion to the woman, they would accuse him of undermining the law of Moses. If he agreed with them, however, they would have handed him a stone and told him, as the one who had pronounced judgment on her, to cast the first stone. Jesus answered them:

Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her. John 8:7

They went out, one by one, till Jesus was left with the woman standing alone before him. Under the law of Moses she stood condemned as a sinner for her specific breach of the seventh commandment. Under the light of Christ, however, they all went out convicted of their sin. After pardoning the woman Jesus said to them: "I am the light of the world, he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life" (v.12). He was the true light, which enlightens every man, who had come into the world. His influence was more universal than the law of Moses.

5. The Blind Man

The last example is the man who was blind from his birth whom Jesus healed on another sabbath day (John 9:14). As usual the Pharisees murmured against him because they did not believe people should be healed on the sabbath. When they challenged the man who had formerly been blind he simply recounted how Jesus had anointed his eyes with clay and, when he had washed them, received his sight. They pressed their case on him, declaring that they knew Jesus to be a sinner. He replied that he could not answer whether he was a sinner or not. Once he was blind, and now he could see. When he asked the Pharisees whether they also wanted to become disciples of Jesus, they replied:

You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from. John 9:28-29

The man answered that this was a marvel. Jesus had opened his eyes no sinner could do this. He concluded with these significant words:

Never since the world began has it been heard that any one opened the eyes of a man born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing. John 9:32-33

Here again John points out the superiority of Jesus over Moses. No one, not even Moses, had ever given sight to a man blind from his birth. These miracles were unsurpassed in Israelite history. They pointed to Jesus as a much greater man than all the prophets who came before him. He was not just a messenger, he was the message itself the one through whom God’s saving grace for all mankind would be achieved.

Christians have important material in all these comparisons in their witness to Muslims to show that Jesus was not just an ordinary prophet. He came as the saviour, the promised Messiah, the Son of God, to complete God’s final work on earth the reconciliation of all men, Muslims included, to God through his death and resurrection.

Sharing the Gospel with Muslims [Table of Contents]
Materials by John Gilchrist
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