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Unit 3: THE OLD COVENANT,
THE TEN COMMANDMENTS,
SIN AND REDEMPTION

The Old Covenant

     “Covenant” means a solemn agreement between two parties. A very important theme throughout the Bible, “covenant” appears more than 200 times.

     When some Christians speak of the “Old” Covenant, they appear to dismiss the Old Testament agreement between God and his people; in their understanding it is outdated and no longer in effect.

     Other Christians, including most theologians, equate “Old” with “ancient” and view the “New” Covenant (the New Testament) as a development, not a replacement, of the Old.

     Needless to say, either Christian interpretation is different from Jewish views. For Jews, the Covenant made by God in ancient days is still very much alive and valid. (The Hebrew Bible, which Christians call the “Old Testament,” embodies Jesus own Covenant faith. It is essential to any adequate understanding of Jesus.)

     What is the Old Covenant? For reasons unknown to humanity the Creator invited (through various historical individuals and events) the Hebrew people to establish a Covenant relationship with him. Clearly, if God intended to establish a relationship with humanity without forcing it on them, he had to choose spokespersons through whom he could be known subtly and gently. But we do not know why the Hebrew people were selected; that reason remains known to God alone.

     The Old Covenant consists of an agreement between God and the Hebrew people that he is their God, their only God, and the Hebrew people are his human family, his community, his chosen people. This community is to show the rest of the world the real God along with his intentions and purposes for all mankind. The best way to accomplish this mission is to live righteously, to trust God, to be fair with everyone, to care for others, and “to walk humbly with God.”

The Ten Commandments

      The "Ten Commandments" or "Decalogue" (from the Greek, "Ten Words") "were designed to convey to the Israelites a representative sampling of the laws to be given subsequently but was in no sense to be a summary of them, much less an act of legislation in their own right. Thus it [the Decalogue] contains some of each of the two main types of religious law: those pertaining to the individual's obligations toward God and those pertaining to his relations with other people. It also contains both forms of command, positive and prohibitive. ... The Bible nowhere refers to the Decalogue as ten commandments. The text of the Decalogue does not even divide naturally into pronouncements; the number of commands (positive and negative) is more than ten, whereas the number of topics is nine. ... Yet the Bible refers to it as 'the ten words'...apparently using this round number as an expression of totality, as is found in other places in biblical and Talmudic literature. Various methods arose for dividing the passage into ten commandments. ... The two versions of the Decalogue (in Ex. and Dt.) differ in several particulars, all of which are stylistic and not substantive in nature." [from The Oxford Dictionary of the Jewish Religion (1997), pp.683f.] There are differences among Christians in the numbering of the Commandments.

      The practical application of the Commandments is another matter. Are they all equally binding laws with exceptions? Is there some degree of flexibility?

     Christians are not unanimous on the issue of practical application. However, they do agree that the Commandments are not mere suggestions that encourage people to “do their own thing.” No responsible spokesperson has advocated a morality wherein every individual can follow his own, private inclinations; in every relationship, in every group, certainly in every civilization, boundaries of acceptable behavior exist. Without some moral framework, without some limits on conduct, chaos would exist, whether between two people or among millions.

     The disagreement among Christians occurs on two basic issues: Is each Commandment equally binding and of absolute value? That is, is each Commandment an important as the other? And, are Commandments to be applied “by the book” or according to the situations?

     One view is that the Ten Commandments are all equally binding absolute laws which can never be broken. Human behavior is judged by obedience to these ten laws and any other laws they imply.

     Where did the Ten Commandments come from? Jews and Christians believe that somehow God revealed the Ten Commandments to Moses who in turn gave them to the Hebrew people. There are beautiful legends about this revelation, but they are not to be taken literally. Let’s just leave the question open as to how the Ten Commandments were revealed and be grateful that we have them. If you will look at them one by one, ask yourself this question: Do they make sense under most circumstances? What would life be like if each Commandment were written to imply the opposite, such as you shall murder? What are our relationships usually like when we disregard or ignore a commandment?

Sin and Redemption

     From a Christian (and Jewish) viewpoint, when an individual or group gives its highest loyalty to an idol, that is, a false god, sin results. Another word for sin is “idolatry.” (See “Idolatry” in the Cherbonnier subsite.) Anything or anyone can be an idol for anyone who regards that thing or person as the primary focus of life. Ordinary needs, day-to-day responsibilities, even people we love and admire, can become false gods.

     Here are some examples of things that can become idols: power, competition, money, success, doing good things for people, natural bodily desires, following rules, patriotism, work, hobbies, knowledge, and possessions. Even the Bible itself can become an idol, when it becomes an end in itself.

     Some examples of people that can become false gods are: parents, children, teachers, athletes, entertainers, clergy, government officials, authors, employers, and friends.

     Any potentially good thing, person, or relationship becomes a false god when it, he, she, or they become our ultimate concern for a moment or longer. Basically evil idols (such as tyrants) are easier to recognize.

     Because our ultimate choices affect our lives directly, the Christian religion cautions humanity about its fundamental allegiances. Commitment to the true God or to false gods determines, shapes, and sets borders on our feelings and relationships. Christians claim that loyalty to the Creator, as stated in the “Summary of the Law” (see Unit 5), provides the best forms of freedom, the most positive feelings, and the most significant relationships possible for human beings; allegiance to any sort of idol shackles true freedom, unduly limits and/or distorts many emotions, and cripples many relationships. False gods prevent our fullest abilities to love and be loved and can even generate hatefulness or indifference.

     One Christian theologian has suggested that loyalty to an idol results in the exact opposite of what is expected. For example, the worship of power results in one’s own enslavement and defeat; Hitler’s own idolatry is a good illustration of this commitment to power and its consequences for him. Yet, power used with an allegiance to the Creator can yield positive results. (This is not to say that loyalty to the true God provides a “bed of roses,” a trouble free life. Difficulties in life occur even when a person’s heart and mind are set ultimately on God, but the difficulties cannot crush an individual’s sense of meaning, purpose, and an essentially positive outlook.)

     “Redemption” means deliverance or being delivered. In Christian theology, the Creator offers redemption to humanity; he invites human beings to be delivered from the feelings and relationships caused by loyalties to idols. Human life within the “Summary of the Law” assumes a natural balance with appropriate priorities and is said to be “redeemed.”

     Christians accept Jesus as God’s Messiah. "Messiah" is based on the Hebrew masiah meaning "Anointed One" - equivalent to "Christ" (from the Greek christos). In the Christian recognition of Jesus as the Messiah, Christians modify the Jewish messianic expectation that to this day includes a military and political savior who would establish an observable reign of justice and peace. Many contemporary Jews still await a Messiah who will fulfill this expectation; other Jews await not a person, but a Messianic Age of justice and peace. Christians believe that comprehending Jesus as the Messiah is a profound deepening of the meaning of “Messiah” as God’s new agent of redemption.

     To conclude this unit, please read the section below from “An Outline of the Faith.”


The Old Covenant

Q. What is meant by a covenant with God?
A. covenant is a relationship initiated by God, to which a body of people responds in faith.

Q. What is the Old Covenant?
A. The Old Covenant is the one given by God to the Hebrew people.

Q. What did God promise them?
A. God promised that they would be his people to bring all the nations of the world to him.

Q. What response did God require from the chosen people?
A. God required the chosen people to be faithful; to love justice, to do mercy, and to walk humbly with their God.

Q. Where is this Old Covenant to be found?
A. The covenant with the Hebrew people is to be found in the books which we call the Old Testament.

Q. Where in the Old Testament is God's will for us shown most clearly?
A. God's will for us is shown most clearly in the Ten Commandments.

The Ten Commandments

Q. What are the Ten Commandments?
A. The Ten Commandments are the laws give to Moses and the people of Israel.

Q. What do we learn from these commandments?
A. We learn two things: our duty to God, and our duty to our neighbors.

Q. What is our duty to God?
A. Our duty is to believe and trust in God;
I To love and obey God and to bring others to know him;
II To put nothing in the place of God;
III To show God respect in thought, word, and deed; IV And to set aside regular times for worship, prayer, and the study of God's ways.

Q. What is our duty to our neighbors?
A. Our duty to our neighbors is to love them as ourselves, and to do to other people as we wish them to do to us;
V To love, honor, and help our parents and family; to honor those in authority, and to meet their just demands;
VI To show respect for the life God has given us; to work and pray for peace; to bear no malice, prejudice, or hatred in our hearts; and to be kind to all the creatures of God;
VII To use our bodily desires as God intended;
VIII To be honest and fair in our dealings; to seek justice, freedom, and the necessities of life for all people; and to use our talents and possessions as ones who must answer for them to God;
IX To speak the truth, and not to mislead others by our silence;
X To resist temptations to envy, greed, and jealousy; to rejoice in other people's gifts and graces; and to do our duty for the love of God, who has called us into fellowship with him.

Q. What is the purpose of the Ten Commandments?
A. The Ten Commandments were given to define our relationship with God and our neighbors.

Q. Since we do not fully obey them, are they useful at all?
A. Since we do not filly obey them, we see more clearly our sin and our need for redemption.

Sin and Redemption

Q. What is sin?
A. Sin is the seeking of our own will instead of the will of God, thus distorting our relationship with God, with other people, and with all creation.

Q. How does sin have power over us?
A. Sin has power over us because we lose our liberty when our relationship with God is distorted.

Q. What is redemption?
A. Redemption is the act of God which sets us free from the power of evil, sin, and death.

Q. How did God prepare us for redemption?
A. God sent the prophets to call us back to himself, to show us our need for redemption, and to announce the coming of the Messiah.

Q. What is meant by the Messiah?
A. The Messiah is one sent by God to free us from the power of sin, so that with the help of God we may live in harmony with God, within ourselves, with our neighbors, and with all creation.

Q. Who do we believe is the Messiah?
A. The Messiah, or Christ, is Jesus of Nazareth, the only Son of God.

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