|THE MOSAIC COVENANT: The Covenant of Law - Part 2
O. Palmer Robertson
HIS GLORY REIGNS
Apr 11 2008
The covenant with Moses has provoked some of the greatest debates within Christendom's history. Modern as well as
ancient Marcionites who reject the authority of the Old Testament Scriptures habitually direct their criticism toward the
Mosaic administration of law. The precise relationship of the Mosaic covenant to the promises that preceded it and to the
fulfillments that followed has proven to be one of the most persistent problems of biblical interpretation.
THEOLOGICAL SIGNIFICANCE OF THE MOSAIC COVENANT
The Mosaic dispensation rests squarely on a covenantal rather than a legal relationship. While law plays an extremely
significant role both in the international treaty forms and in the Mosaic era, covenant always supersedes law.
Essential to the Hittite treaty form was the recognition of the historical context in which legal stipulations functioned. The
historical prologue of the documents set the current relation of conquering lord and conquered vassal in the light of past
Nothing could be more basic to a proper understanding of the Mosaic era. It is not law that is preeminent, but covenant.
Whatever concept of law may be advanced, it must remain at all times subservient to the broader concept of the covenant.
This point is made most obvious by a recognition of the historical context in which the covenant of law was revealed.
Historically, the nation of Israel already was in a covenantal relationship with the Lord through Abraham. The Exodus
narrative begins when God hears the groaning of Israel, and "remembers his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with
Jacob" (Exodus 2:24). After God has established Himself as Israel's Lord through the historical fact of the deliverance from
Egypt, the law-covenant of Sinai is administered. The Decalogue's "I am the Lord your God which brought you out of the
land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage," provides the essential historical framework in which the Sinaitic law-covenant
may be understood.
Covenant, therefore, is the larger concept, always taking precedence over law. Covenant binds persons; externalized legal
stipulations represent one mode of administration of the covenantal bond.
God renews an ancient commitment to his people by the covenant of Moses. The law serves only as a single mode of
administering the covenant of redemption. Originally established under Adam, confirmed under Noah and Abraham, the
covenantal relationship renewed under Moses cannot disturb God's ongoing commitment by its emphasis on the legal
dimension of the covenant relationship.
The Distinctiveness of the Mosaic Covenant
If the Mosaic covenant stands in a basic relation of unity with God's earlier covenantal administration, what then is its
distinctiveness? What particularly characterizes this covenantal administration? How does it stand apart from God's other
ways of dealing with his people?
The Mosaic covenant manifests its distinctiveness as an externalized summation of the will of God. The patriarchs certainly
were aware of God's will in general terms. On occasion, they received direct revelation concerning specific aspects of the
will of God. Under Moses, however, a full summary of God's will was made explicit through the physical inscripturation of
the law. This external-to-man, formally ordered summation of God's will, constitutes the distinctiveness of the Mosaic
The emphasis in the Pentateuch on the "ten words" and the explicit identification of these words with the covenant itself
clearly indicate that the distinctiveness of the Mosaic covenant resides in this externalized summation of God's law. Note in
particular the language of the following verses:
"...And he wrote upon the tables the words of the covenant, the ten commandments." Exodus 34:28.
"And he declared unto you his covenant which he commanded you to perform, even ten commandments; and he wrote
them upon two tables of stone." Deuteronomy 4:13.
"When I was gone up into the mount to receive the tables of stone, even the tables of the covenant which the LORD made
with you, then I abode in the mount forty days and forty nights, I neither did eat bread nor drink water...And it came to pass
at the end of forty days and forty nights, that the LORD gave me the two tables of stone, even the tables of the covenant."
These verses indicate the closeness of identification between the Mosaic covenant and the "ten words." These words
summarize the essence of the Mosaic covenant.
The same verses emphasize also the externalized character of the Mosaic law-administration. The stone-engraven
character of the Mosaic covenant does not reflect simply the manner by which covenantal documents were preserved in
the days of Moses. This stark, cold, externalized form in which the covenant stipulations appeared manifests eloquently a
most distinctive characteristic of the Mosaic covenant. A law has been written, a will has been decreed; but this law stands
outside man, demanding conformity. "Law" as it is used in relation to the Mosaic covenant should not be defined simply as
a revelation of the will of God. More specifically, law denotes an externalized summation of God's will.
In the case of the Mosaic covenant, the prominence of this external form of God's will provides ample justification for the
characterization of the Mosaic covenant as the covenant of law. This characterization has the full support of the New
Testament Scriptures. "For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ." John 1:17. In his
letter to the Galatians, Paul clearly characterizes the Mosaic period as the epoch of "law" (Galatians 3:17).
This phrase "covenant of law" must not be confused with the traditional terminology which speaks of a "covenant of works."
The phrase "covenant of works" customarily refers to the situations at creation in which man was required to obey God
perfectly in order to enter into a state of eternal blessedness. Contrary to this relation established with man in innocence,
the Mosaic covenant of law clearly addresses itself to man in sin. This latter covenant never intended to suggest that man
by perfect moral obedience could enter into a state of guaranteed covenantal blessedness. The integral role of a
substitutional sacrificial system within the legal provisions of the Mosaic covenant clearly indicates a sober awareness of
the distinction between God's dealings with man in innocence and with man in sin.
As already has been indicated, God's covenantal commitment to redeem from the state of sin a people to himself was in
effect prior to the giving of the law at Sinai. Israel assembled at Sinai only because God had redeemed them from Egypt.
For the covenant of law to function as a principle of salvation by works, the covenant of promise first would have to be
The concrete externalization of covenantal stipulations written on tables of stone never was intended to detract from the
gracious promise of the Abrahamic covenant, as Paul argues so aptly. The covenant of law, coming 400 years after
promise, could not possibly disannul the previous covenant (Galatians 3:17).
Not only did the covenant of law not disannul the covenant of promise; more specifically, it did not offer a temporary
alternative to the covenant of promise. This particular perspective is often overlooked. It is sometimes assumed that the
covenant of law temporarily replaced the covenant of promise, or somehow ran alongside it as an alternative method of
man's salvation. The covenant of law often has been considered as a self-contained unit which served as another basis
for determining the relation of Israel to God in the period between the Abrahamic covenant and the coming of Christ. In
this scheme, the covenant of promise is treated as though it had been set aside or made secondary for a period, although
However, the covenant of promise made with Abraham always has been in effect from the day of its inauguration until the
present. The coming of law did not suspend the Abrahamic covenant. The principle enunciated in Genesis 15:6
concerning the justification of Abraham by faith never has experienced interruption. Throughout the Mosaic period of law-
covenant, God considered as righteous everyone who believed in Him.
For this reason, the covenant of law as revealed at Sinai would best be divorced from "covenant of works" terminology.
The "covenant of works" refers to legal requirements laid on man at the time of his innocency in creation The "covenant of
law" refers to a new stage in the process of God's unfolding the richness of the covenant of redemption. As such, the law
which came through Moses did not in any way disannul or suspend the covenant of promise.
The Place of the Covenant of Law in the History of Redemption
Three aspects of the Mosaic covenant may be stressed in an effort to place this distinctive convenant in its proper biblical-
theological setting: The covenant of law is related organically to the totality of God's redemptive purposes; the covenant of
law is related progressively to the totality of God's redemptive purposes; the covenant of law finds its consummation in
First, the covenant of law is related organically to the totality of God's redemptive purposes. To speak of an organic
relationship is to suggest a living, vital inter-connection as over against an isolationistic compartmentalization. The clear
enunciation of the will of God at the time of Moses did not appear as something novel in the history of redemption. At the
same time, law did not disappear after Moses. Law functioned significantly in the period succeeding Moses. While the
summation of law in an externalized form may remain as the distinctive property of the Mosaic era, the presence of law
throughout the history of redemption must be recognized.
covenants. Adam, while receiving gratuitously the promise of a saving seed, must work in the sweat of his face to
sustain life until the seed should come (Genesis 3:19). Noah receives as an integral part of his mercy-filled
covenant the decree of God's will concerning the disposition of man-slayers: "Whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man
shall his blood be shed" (Genesis 9:6).
reference to the revealed will of God. The total allegiance to his Lord demanded of Abraham involves the whole of
his life (Genesis 12:1; 17:1). The patriarch must leave his father's house and walk before the Lord in whole-hearted
covenantal law, especially with regard to the sealing ordinance of circumcision. According to Genesis 17:14, "the
uncircumcised male...who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that soul shall be cut off from his people; he
hath broken my covenant." Quite a hair-raising incident in this very connection is recorded subsequently in
connection with the life of Moses. After having received his commission to deliver Israel in fulfillment of the promise
of the Abrahamic covenant. Moses begins the return trip to Egypt with his family:
sharp stone, and cut off the foreskin of her son, and cast it at his feet, and said, Surely a bloody husband art thou to
me. So he let him go; then she said, A bloody husband thou art, because of the circumcision." Exodus 4:24-26.
stipulations. Obviously law plays a vital role in this covenantal relationship.
codification under Moses. No other covenant could be characterized convincingly as "the covenant of law." No more
fitting designation could be applied to the Mosaic covenant. Yet the continuing presence of covenantal stipulations
in every earlier administration relates the covenant of Moses organically with that which precedes. Law simply
becomes predominant under Moses.
history. At the conclusion of the Mosaic epoch, Israel's history immediately begins the movement "toward a
kingship." The establishment of a permanent monarchy in Israel ultimately finds realization by the institution of the
Davidic covenant. The provisional dimension of God's covenant with David is expressed rather pointedly at the time
of covenant inauguration. Concerning the line of descendency from David, God says: "When he commits iniquity, I
will correct him with the rod of men..." The framework in which this potential punishment of iniquity is to be
understood is spelled out quite pointedly in David's subsequent death-bed charge to Solomon his son and
earth: be thou strong therefore, and shew thyself a man; And keep the charge of the LORD thy God, to walk in his
ways, to keep his statutes, and his commandments, and his judgments, and his testimonies, as it is written in the law
of Moses, that thou mayest prosper in all that thou doest, and whithersoever thou turnest thyself: That the Lord may
continue his word which he spake concerning me, saying, If thy children take heed to their way, to walk before me in
truth with all their heart and with all their soul, there shall not fail thee (said he) a man on the throne of Israel." I
concerning the kings of Israel may be regarded as one magnificent verification of the promise to David, together with
its accompanying threat of punishment based on the provisions of the Mosaic covenant of law.
my meditation all the day," sings the Psalmist (Psalm 119:97). "I wrote for him the things of my law; but they are
accounted as a strange thing," complains the prophet (Hosea 8:12). Quite obviously, the law functions significantly
in the period of Israel's history embraced by the Davidic covenant. The Davidic covenant cannot be regarded as
functioning as an entity to itself, isolated from the decrees of Sinai. The "ten words" continue to possess a primary
significance for God's people.
It is with respect to the new covenant that the greatest problems arise concerning the continuing role of law. Is the
covenant of law still significant for participants in the new covenant? Do legal prescriptions apply to Christians today? This
difficult question shall be treated first by noting some general considerations that need to kept in mind. Then positive
evidence from the New Testament confirming the role of law in the life of the Christian will be noted.
Confusion and debate on this particular issue arise in part from efforts to understand the seemingly contradictory
statements of the New Testament itself. On the one hand, a variety of new covenant Scriptures plainly assert:
"But before faith came, we were kept under the law, shut up unto the faith which should afterwards be revealed.
Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after that faith is
come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster." Galatians 3:23-25
On the other hand, Scripture equally asserts:
"Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. For verily I say unto
you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. Whosoever
therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the
kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven."
What then is the Christian's status? Does he have obligations relating to the Mosaic covenant of law? Or is he freed
altogether from law-covenant?
One complicating factor in this whole matter relates to the varied ways in which the term is used in the New Testament. In
the course of a few verses, the apostle Paul may use the same term in three or four different ways. According to Romans
3:21, the righteousness of faith has been witnessed by the "law and the prophets." The term "law" in this phrase refers to
the Pentateuch as a literary unit. But the first half of this same verse declares that the righteousness of God has appeared
"apart from law." The precise meaning of the term "law" in this phrase is difficult to determine. Most likely it represents a
"shorthand abbreviation" for the "works of the law" in terms of man's capacity to please God by this own deeds of
righteousness. But in any case, the meaning of "law" in the first half of Romans 3:21 is quite distinct from the meaning of
the same term in the second half of the same verse.
Reading a little further in the apostle's argument, a third use of the term appears. In Romans 3:27, Paul poses a question.
By what "law" is boasting excluded from the justified?
Now Paul uses the term "law" to refer to a general principle. It is by the "principle" of faith-justification that boasting over
righteousness is excluded.
Earlier Paul appears to used the term in still a fourth sense (Romans 2:21-23). First he cites three commandments of the
Decalogue. Then he accosts his readers: "You who boast in the law, through your breaking the law, do you dishonor
God?" Paul now appears to use "law" to refer more narrowly to the Ten Commandments. It is the "ten words" that his
contemporaries have broken.
At other points, context seems to demand that the term "law" be understood as referring specifically to law-keeping as a
means of justification. In these cases, the term "law" becomes the equivalent of the Judaizers' misapprehension of the
proper role of the law in the history of redemption.
In Galatians 4:21, Paul addresses himself to those who want to be "under law." He speaks to those who would attempt to
achieve righteousness before God by personal law-keeping. The apostle spells out a "formula of equivalencies" spanning
the history of redemption.
Two antithetical alternatives for realizing acceptance by God face the Galatians. The first alternative traces its lineage
back to Abraham's slave-son Ishmael, who was born out of the patriarch's efforts to assure the fulfillment of God's promises
on the basis of his own resources. This alternative for "justification" manifests itself again in the law-covenant of Sinai,
which corresponds to the "present Jerusalem."
It is essential to understand Paul's reference to Sinai in the context of the equivalencies which he has developed. The
covenant of "law" corresponds to the "present Jerusalem," the Jerusalem of the Judaizers. It is the legalistic
misapprehension of the Sinaitic law-covenant that is in the mind of the apostle. Slavery inevitably will result from resorting
to natural human resources as a means of pleasing God. Ishmael, the current Judaizers, and unbelieving Israel conjointly
find themselves to be slaves.
As this "formula of equivalencies" is considered, it must be stressed that the understanding of Mosaic law with which Paul is
contending cannot be viewed as the divinely intended purpose of the giving of the law at Sinai. Even though the middle
member of this first triad (Hagar-Sinai-Present Jerusalem) is identified as "Mount Sinai" (verse 25), it does not represent
the true purpose of Sinaitic law-giving.
This assertion rests on the clear purpose of law-giving as explicated by Paul in Galatians 3:24. The purpose of the law was
to lead to Christ, not to lead away from Christ. The effect of the law on the current Judaizers was not in accord with God's
purpose in the giving of the law. By reading the law in terms of an alternative way of salvation, current Judaism blinded
itself to the true intention of God in the giving of the law.
The true purpose of God's law-giving at Sinai did not find its proper manifestation in the Judaizers of the first century.
Their pride compelled them to pervert God's purpose in law-giving. Instead of serving to convict them of the absolute
impossibility of pleasing God by law-keeping, the law fostered in them a deeply entrenched determination to depend on
personal resources in order to please God. Thus the law did not serve the purposes of grace in leading the Judaizers to
Christ. Instead, it closed them off from Christ. "Law" and "Sinai" in this context refer to legalistic misapprehension of God's
purpose in law-giving rather than the proper apprehension of God's revelation of the law.
The contrary "formula of equivalencies" runs from the free-woman Sarah through the covenant of promise to the "above
Jerusalem." God's sovereign and gracious intervention in the life of sinful man invariably produces children that are free.
It may be acknowledged that something in the form of law-administration lent itself to an easy misapprehension of its proper
purpose in man's redemption. The externalized, codified form of law readily came to be understood as offering a way of life
other than the faith-principle crystallized under Abraham. It was possible to understand law properly as a schoolmaster
that would lead to Christ by increasing awareness of sin. Or it was possible to misunderstand law as a taskmaster that led
away from Christ by diverting concentration from faith-righteousness to works-righteousness. It is this latter perspective
that the apostle has in mind when he addresses himself to those who wish to be "under law." "Law" in this context points to
the misapprehension of the law's purpose as reflected in Abraham's misdirected efforts to provide a son for himself and in
the Judaizer's efforts to provide righteousness for themselves.
To this point, several different uses of "law" in Paul have been noted. Other more refined significances may be involved.
Clearly it is necessary to exercise extreme care in evaluating biblical statements about the role of the"law" in the life of the
Christian. When the New Testament affirms bluntly "you are not under law but under grace" (Romans 6:14), clearly it does
not mean "you are not under the Pentateuch." It does not mean "you are not under the Ten Commandments." Most
probably in the context of Romans 6, it means "you are not under the Mosaic covenant as a principle which would make
righteousness depend on the individual's personal resources as law-keeper."
One positive step toward solving the difficult question of the Christian's relation to the law may be taken by noting once
more the distinctiveness of law-administration emphasized under Moses. Under the Mosaic covenant, law appeared as an
externalized summation of the will of God. The Christian does not live under an externalized ministration of law engraved in
stone tablets. Instead he lives with the law written in his heart. While the Christian always stands obligated to reflect the
holiness and righteousness required in God's law, he no longer relates to that law as an impersonal code standing outside
himself. Instead, the Spirit of God constantly ministers the law within the heart of the believer.
This understanding of the question gives recognition to the fading form of law-administration under the Mosaic covenant,
while also treating seriously the continuing significance of the essence of that same law. While this explanation may not
satisfy all the problems arising from the Christian's relation to the law, it does provide one fruitful area for reflection.
In addition to these general considerations, it is important to present positive evidence from the New Testament which
affirms the continuing significance of the Mosaic covenant of law:
First of all, presumptive evidence favors the continuing significance of the essence if not the form of the Mosaic law-
covenant into the present day. It is obvious from Scripture that men today continue under the provisions of other
administrations of the covenant of redemption. Romans 16:20 refers to the ultimate bruising of the head of the serpent
under the Christian's feet. The language clearly indicates the continuing significance of God's covenant with Adam. II
Peter 3:5-7 notes the significance of God's judgment on the wicked in Noah's day, and appeals to the covenanting word
spoken to Noah which currently preserves the earth.
The designation of Abraham as "the father of us all" (Romans 4:16,17) indicates the significance today of the covenantal
promise concerning an innumerable seed. Even today, the "root of Jesse' rules as the hope of the Gentiles, in accord with
the covenant with David (Romans 15:22). These references to the continuing significance of the covenants with Adam,
Noah, Abraham, and David into the present could be expanded greatly.
Are we to conclude that all the various covenantal administrations of the Old Testament find continuing significance for
believers today with the single exception of the Mosaic covenant: Are we to presume that the covenant of law alone among
the divinely-initiated covenants has lost its binding significance?
To the contrary, presumption would favor the continuing significance of the Mosaic covenant for the believer today. These
other covenants play a vital role in the life of believers. Is the Mosaic law-covenant so materially different that it would not
also continue to play a significant role in the life of the new covenant believer? While an argument of this sort cannot be
conclusive in itself, it does have some bearing. Presumption would favor the continuing significance of the Mosaic
covenant of law.
Several other considerations establish more concretely the continuing significance of the provisions of the covenant of law
for the Christian. While the externalized form of the Mosaic covenant may be superseded by the inner realities of the new
covenant, the central essence of the covenant of law enters vitally into the life of the believer today. In particular, note the
Numerous exhortations in the letters of Paul presuppose the necessity of keeping God's commandments.
Even the promise of long life associated with the fifth commandment is held out as a promise of God to the
children of the new covenant. If they should fulfill the command to honor father and mother, they will receive
God's distinctive blessing (Ephesians 6:1-3). This same attitude is reflected quite emphatically by Christ as he
completes the sermon on the mount. Not the hearer, but the doer of Christ's words will be blessed by firmness
of foundation (Matthew 7:24-27). No reader can misunderstand the exhortation of James: "Be ye doers of the
word, and not hearers only, deluding your own selves." (James 1:22).
will of God. But the believer is responsible actively to make use of the means of grace available to him. If he
does not obey God's law, he will not live in the fullest state of God's blessing.
Old Testament admonition directly to New Testament believers: "Whom the Lord loves he disciplines, and he
scourges every son whom he receives" (Hebrews 12:6). Paul shocks the Corinthian Christians, cavorting
about the Lord's table. Many of them are weak and sickly, while others have been judged by death for their
sin (I Corinthians 11:30-32).
significance of the law for God's people. The reality of a chastening activity among Christians today serves as
indisputable proof that believers live under an abiding obligation to do the will of God.
point. While salvation comes by faith in the work of Christ alone, judgment will be dispensed according to a
man's own deeds, whether they be good or evil. Since the "ten words" of the Mosaic covenant provide a basic
summation of the will of God, their abiding significance in the life of the believer is assured.
regarded as an appendix to the unfolding redemptive revelation. To the contrary, law plays a significant role
in every phase of redemptive history.
major aspect of the Mosaic covenant must be noted if this distinctive administration of God's grace in salvation
is to be accorded its proper biblical-theological setting. The covenant of law not only relates organically, it
also relates progressively to the totality of God's redemptive purposes.
by any means intend to suggest that the revelation was deficient at any point. To the contrary, the
progressiveness of the biblical revelation gives appropriate recognition to the fuller manifestation of the truth
of God in each successive epoch.
must be established. First, it must be shown that the Mosaic covenant represents an advancement beyond all
of God's earlier dealings with his people. Secondly, it must be established that the era of Mosaic legislation
represents a less mature stage of the manifestation of God's purposes in redemption than the developments
This advancement does not relate to some incidental aspect of the Mosaic covenant. An advancement is not made
merely at the periphery of this covenant, affecting only its frills. Instead, the advancement relates to the very heart
and core of the distinctive element of Mosaism. By presenting an externalized summation of the will of God, the
Mosaic covenant advances positively the revelation of God's purposes in redemption.
promise than under the Mosaic covenant of law. Rather than rashly accepting the conditional covenant mediated
through Moses, Israel should have pled humbly for a "continued relationship of grace" at Sinai. Such suggestions
clearly imply that Israel was better off under the terms of the Abrahamic covenant rather than under the terms of the
movement of retrogression. Several points may be noted in particular which display the revelation of law under
Moses to be an obvious advancement over previous covenantal administrations:
God's dealing had been with a family. Now he covenants with a nation. Such a national covenant would be
impossible without externally codified law.
a nation to be God's people (Exodus 24:1). Twelve pillars are erected as representative of the 12 tribes of
Israel (Exodus 24:4). The effect of this formal ceremony already had been solemnized by God's earlier words
addressed to Israel through Moses:
unto me above all people; for all the earth is mine: And ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy
nation. These are the words which thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel." Exodus 19:5,6
God for the conduct of his people.
The "ten words" contain a complete summation of the will of God. By receiving this fuller revelation, Israel
stands in a much better relation to the God of the covenant.
be imagined. Sin always will be present in the life of God's people until the consummation. It is far better for
the people of God to be fully aware of the precise nature of their particular sin rather than continuing to sin in
ignorance. God's law serves as an essential tool in making his people understand the nature of their sin.
boon. The Christian should not look askance at the ancient Jew who regarded the law as the great ray of light
amidst the darkness of heathendom. Perhaps from at least one perspective the ancient saying stemming from
the school of Hillel has merit: "Where much flesh is, are many worms; where much treasure is, many cares;
where many women are, great superstition; and where much law is, there is much living."
preparing them for the riches of Christ's grace. The apostle Paul has emphasized soundly this significant role
of the law, which may be regarded as something of a "blessing-in-reverse." Paul notes that the law was added
"because of transgressions, until the seed should come..." Galatians 3:19. As a revealer of sin, the law
supplied a vital service to the Abrahamic covenant of promise. By exposing fully men's inadequacy to
establish righteousness by law-keeping, the Mosaic covenant has contributed to the cause of redemptive
the outline for the type of life expected for God's holy people. While Israel never achieved the full
potentialities of this holiness-type, the law nonetheless served to sketch the pattern of life desired for God's
people. They are to be characterized by a life that reflects the holiness of the God of the covenant.
covenant of promise. That which was the very essence of the Mosaic covenant represented a step of
progress in God's redemptive purposes.
throughout redemptive history. It may be admitted quite readily that the arrival of the full delineation of God's
will brought with it problems which had not previously existed. Ask any distraught parent of a modern teenager
if he regards the state of teenage as an advancement over infancy. The parent may hesitate to respond
immediately as he recalls the multiplication of problems involved in the abrupt arrival of teenaged years. But
in the end it cannot be denied that the gangly youth stands much closer to the full realization of manhood than
does the infant.
sometimes rowdy adventures of Israel under law. Yet the patient student of Scripture will detect a definite
progress toward the goal of Christ.
schoolmaster, an externalized disciplinarian, to bring us to Christ. As teenagers under a tutor, so was Israel
under the law. Yet their condition under the law was a vital step of advancement over the infancy that had
than all that follows. It unveils less of the truth of God than the Davidic or the new covenant.
permanent establishment of a representative king over Israel indicates an advancement in law-administration.
Moses himself may have embodied features of a kingly representative of the God of the covenant. But no abiding
principle for succession-maintenance was included in Mosaic legislation. At the end of Joshua's period of
leadership, Israel disintegrated into the tumultuous period of the judges. Not until God's covenanting word
concerning the house of David was there established some assurance of a maintained stability within the theocracy.
With the anointing of David, law began to be administered in Israel by the "man after God's own heart."
revelations of God's law in Israel. The mobile sanctuary of Moses was replaced by a more stabilized situation.
Under David, God's rule of righteousness was established in permanency.
manifestation of the role of God's law in the life of God's covenant people. Stress in Scripture emphasizes the new
mode by which God's law is administered under the new covenant. Under the old covenant, law came through tables
of stone. But now, the covenant is administered in a dramatically new fashion.
ministry of God's law:
my law in their inward parts, write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people."
shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the LORD: for I will forgive their iniquity, and
I will remember their sin no more." Jeremiah 31:33,34
administered externally, the law shall be administered from within the heart. The consequence, according to
Jeremiah, will be that no need will remain for an externalized propounding of God's law. All shall know him and all
shall conform naturally to his will. Quite obviously, the Mosaic covenant's writing on tables of stone cannot compare
with the glories of this new covenant.
How is this statement to be related to other passages associating the inward writing of the law with the ministry of the
Mosaic covenant itself? How does Jeremiah's assertion concerning the absence of the need of a teaching ministry
relate to the actual state of believers today under the new covenant?
of redemption and its historical diversity.
been made available to that point. The self-revelation of God throughout the ages may be regarded as the "raw
material" used by the Holy Spirit to apply the benefits of redemption to the life-experience of the believer. For this
reason, advancement in revelation, involves advancement in life-experience. The believer under the old covenant
may have experienced in essence the same realities of redemption experienced by believers under the new
covenant. But heightened revelation also involves a deeper and richer experience of deliverance from sin and its
Because the Christ now has come in incarnate fashion, the degree of revelational intensity has swollen far beyond
the circumstances prevalent in earlier historical epochs. The new covenant Scriptures now make available to the
church in permanent form a God-inspired interpretation of the magnificent benefits made available by the coming of
Christ. The fuller revelation available today brings with it a richer experience of redemption's grace.
over the Mosaic administration of law may be found in II Corinthians 3. In this portion of Scripture Paul clearly
indicates that the Mosaic covenant of law is less than the new covenant which has succeeded it.
institution of the Mosaic covenant. Each of these symbols embodies a primary truth concerning the old covenant,
and at the same time provides a basis of comparison with the new covenant. These three symbols are: (a) The
symbol of the glory of Moses' face; (b) the symbol of the fading of the glory of Moses' face; and (c) the symbol of
the veil which covered Moses' face.
could not stedfastly behold the face of Moses for the glory of his countenance; which glory was to be done
away: How shall not the ministration of the spirit be rather glorious? For if the ministration of condemnation
be glory, much more doth the ministration of righteousness exceed in glory."
greatness of the old covenant. Never does Paul treat the old covenant in a disparaging manner. Much to the
contrary, he attributes full honor to the Mosaic covenant as a dispensation instituted by God. Paul however,
does not stop with the recognition of the glory of the Mosaic covenant. He proceeds to point out that the glory
of the new covenant exceeds the glory of the old covenant. In fact, the old covenant's glory must be
recognized as having been paled into insignificance by the surpassing glory of the new covenant:
revelation from God that came in glory, the old covenant ministered "death" and "condemnation." Because of
the law's effectiveness in revealing sin, it subjected man to curse.
righteousness. Instead of bringing in its wake condemnation and death, the new covenant effects
righteousness and life. The superiority of this consummative covenant resides not merely in its having some
material characteristic of greater glory. Instead, that which the new covenant accomplishes declares to the
world its greater glory.
notes that the glory of Moses' face faded. His interpretation of the significance of this fading appears in verse
11, where the same term used to describe the entire Mosaic covenant of law, "For if that which is done away [i.
e., the ministration under Moses] was glorious, much more that which remaineth [i.e., the ministration of the
new covenant] is glorious." Not only was the glory of the old covenant symbolically represented at the time of
the giving of the law; the provisional and transitory character of the old covenant also received symbolic
representation. Moses' radiance faded, symbolically depicting the fading of the ministration of law.
new covenant excels the old covenant not only in the greatness of its glory; it excels also in the permanence of
that glory. The new covenant is "that which remains" (verse 11).
over his face, that the children of Israel could not stedfastly look to the end of that which is abolished: But
their minds were blinded: for until this day remaineth the same vail untaken away in the reading of the old
testament; which vail is done away in Christ." II Corinthians 3:12-15.
offers most profound interpretation of the symbolic value of the veil employed by Moses. Even further, Paul
asserts the continuing presence of this symbolic veil in the midst of current Judaism.
not being revealed that it is done away in Christ." Notice that it is the same veil that appeared in Moses' day
which continues to the present. Paul does not intend to suggest that some 1500 year old relic still exists. Nor
does he intend to conjure up some allegorical interpretation of Moses' veil. Instead, he desires only to exposit
the original significance of the "same" veil.
question explicitly in verse 14, "...the same vail untaken away in the reading of the old testament...is done
away in Christ." The tragic thing about Judaism in Paul's day was that it did not comprehend the transitory
character of the Mosaic dispensation. Judaism rightly understood the glory of the old covenant. But it did not
grasp the fading character of that glory. The veil therefore symbolized the blindness of Israel to the
transitoriness and fading character of the Mosaic covenant. They could not see the end of the law as it was to
be realized in Christ.
glory of Moses' face. This interpretation appears to conform to the statement in II Corinthians 3:7. In this
verse, Paul reminds the Corinthians that the old covenant came with glory, "so that the sons of Israel were not
able to gaze at the face of Moses because of the glory of his face (which glory was) fading."
was radiant indeed; but it was a fading radiance that marked his countenance.
discussion, Paul indicates Israel might not gaze to the end of that which was passing away" (verse 13).
Although the significance of this phrase has been disputed vigorously, the most convincing position seems to
be that Paul is saying that Moses donned his veil that the sons of Israel might not stare at Moses' face while
the glory was fading.
the fading character of Moses' glory rather than the excessive character of his glory.
29,30). This fear on the part of the people would not necessarily imply a glory so excessive that it could not
be endured. The very fact that rays of light emanated from Moses' face would have provided adequate basis
for arousing terror in their hearts. As a matter of fact, the people returned to Moses when he summoned
them, and they stood in his unveiled presence while he delivered to them the law ((verses 31,32).
after Moses had finished speaking with them did he put the veil on his face (verse 33).
installments (verses 34,35). Moses would return to the Lord's presence, remove his veil, and receive an
additional portion of the law's revelation. The text is quite explicit that the people (habitually) would see the
skin of Moses' face that it shone (verse 35). After delivering his message, Moses would replace the veil on his
face (verse 34).
character. How did he determine this fact? Nothing in the narrative of Exodus 34 explicitly mentions that the
glory of Moses' face ever faded.
veil in the narrative. Moses was repeatedly donning his veil, says Paul so that Israel might not gaze to the end
of that which was fading (II Corinthians 3:13).
Paul interprets the symbolism of the veil in terms of Israel's blindness to the transitory character of Mosaic law
respect to the significance of the veil. If Israel had apprehended the full significance of the veil, then their
apprehension would constitute a contradiction of the truth which the veil was intended to symbolize.
It would not be essential for the veil to conceal completely Moses' fading glory in order to function in a
symbolic manner. Still further, Israel must have seen Moses' face at a later time without the "horning"
phenomenon, unless it is to be posited that Moses wandered in the wilderness for the entire 40 years with his
openly in a symbolic manner before them. Yet even this self-portrayal could not awaken them to the
transitoriness of the Mosaic covenant.
Corinthians 3:15). They are so impressed with the glories of the revelation of God's law that they have
become blinded to the temporary character of the Mosaic administration of law.
does not fade. With "unveiled face" (verse 18) every new covenant believer stands in the immediate presence
of the Lord. He shares in the uniquely privileged position of Moses, rather than simply receiving from Moses
the report concerning God's revelation. Beholding constantly as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, he is
"metamorphasized" from glory to glory.
face radiate God's glory.
within the believer, this glory never fades. By the Lord, the Spirit, he is changed into the likeness of God's
new covenant. In every way, the new covenant excels that which preceded it.
The Mosaic covenant was glorious. But the new covenant is more glorious. The Mosaic covenant never was intended to
be the end of God's covenantal dealings with his people. Instead, at the very time of its institution, the Mosaic covenant
was represented as being progressively related to the totality of God's purposes. While constraining a clearer
manifestation of redemptive truth than that which preceded, it also contained much less truth than the consummation of the
covenant which was to follow.
The covenant of law consummates in Jesus Christ. According to Matthew 5:17, Christ indicated that he did not come to
destroy the law but to fulfill it. By his coming, he consummated all of God's purposes in the giving of the law.
In the sermon on the mount, Jesus manifested himself as the new lawgiver. His "I say unto you" (Matthew 5:22) displayed
his role in relation to the law as superior to that of Moses. Rather than reporting a revelation which he had received, Christ
propounded the law of the new covenant as its author himself.
On the mount of transfiguration, Jesus appeared in a glory greater than Moses. The brilliance of the sun radiated from him
as he manifested his true inner glory. Rather than merely reflecting the rays of God's brilliance, he himself originated his
own transfiguring glory (Matthew 17:2). Although Moses and Elijah appeared with him, in no wise were they equal to him.
Ultimately, the disciples saw "Jesus only," and heard the divine voice declare, "...This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well
pleased; hear ye him." Matthew 17:5
Moses the law-mediator ministered as a servant in God's house. But Christ the law-originator rules as Son over God's
house (Hebrews 3:5,6).
Paul the apostle indicates that Christ is the end of the law to all who believe (Romans 12:4). The convicting, condemning
power of the law exhausts its accusations in Christ.
In order to be that end, Christ fulfilled all righteousness. He kept the whole law perfectly, while at the same time bearing in
himself the curses of the law. From every perspective, the covenant of law consummates in Jesus Christ.
The Christ of the Covenants, by O. Palmer Robertson, Copyright 1980, Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing
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