Transgressions Under the First Covenant
And for this reason He is the Mediator of the new covenant, by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions under the first covenant, that those who are called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance. (Hebrews 9:15, NKJV)
There is a prevailing understanding among many Bible students that, with Christ’s coming and ushering in the new covenant, the Law in the old covenant which God struck with ancient Israel is now all done away. After all, Hebrews 8:13 says that, when Christ ushered in the new covenant, “He has made the first [or the “old” covenant] obsolete. Now what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.”
And doesn’t Deuteronomy 4:13 clearly equate the old covenant with the Ten Commandments? It says (NKJV): “So He declared to you His covenant which He commanded you to perform, the Ten Commandments; and He wrote them on two tablets of stone.” Since the old covenant has become obsolete, then, goes this reasoning, the Ten Commandments have also become obsolete.
“Free from, the law!” exultantly declare a lot of people who misunderstand Paul’s enigmatic statement in Romans 8:2, “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death.” Following the previous chapter, where he had stated that “…the law is holy, and the commandment holy and just and good” (Romans 7:12), Paul refers to a different aspect of God’s “law” as the “law of sin and death” [see: Freed From Bondage].
But, if indeed the Law of God has been done away, then in the first place there is no longer anything to transgress, and therefore there is no need for a Redeemer from transgressions! No need for a Savior! There would be no need for grace as well.
As someone has pointed out, grace is only meaningful against the backdrop of law and the transgression of it, which is sin (1 John 3:4). “…I would not have known sin except through the law,” said Paul (Romans 7:7). “…sin is not imputed when there is no law” (Romans 5:13). “…the strength of sin is the law,” he adds (1 Corinthians 15:56).
If, as some teach, Jesus came to do away with the Law of the Old Testament (which He said He didn’t, Matthew 5:17), then there would be no more “sin” for Him to deal with, since sin is only meaningful in the context of law. If this, in the first place, were His intent in coming to earth, Christ wouldn’t have needed to die on the cross for the sins of mankind. He could just simply have declared, “Okay, sinners, now I’m abolishing the laws which God gave [actually that God of the Old Testament who gave His law to Israel was the same God who later became Jesus; see: The True Christ and The Law of Christ]. So, from now on there’s no more sin to speak of. You are now free to do anything you please.”
But that is not what Jesus meant. Contrary to the belief of some people who say there is now no such thing as sin anymore, there still is sin! Otherwise, what’s the sense in Christ telling sinners whom He healed and/or forgave: “Go, and sin no more” (John 5:14; 8:11)? [See: No Such Thing as Sin?]
The social model
It’s the same thing with any sensible human society today, as it has been over the past millennia of human history. Every nation has its own set of laws and statutes to govern the conduct of its citizens. A country’s laws define what conduct or behavior is “legal” or acceptable, and what is “illegal” or unacceptable – what the law would consider a crime. Nations elect a body of legislators or appoint (“anoint”) a sovereign ruler to frame up the laws, statutes and rules that would govern the (hopefully) orderly operation of a particular nation or community of nations. Tribal people have custom law handed down from their elders of long ago.
Social scientists call these “norms” the “mores” (singular, mos) of the society – a word related to the English word “moral” or “morals.” The Concise Oxford English Dictionary defines “moral” as: “concerned with the principles of right and wrong behaviour,” and “morals” as: “standards of behaviour, or principles of right and wrong.”
The cry “There ought to be a law!” has been heard for ages in mankind’s effort to control undesirable or unacceptable behavior (crimes) and criminals or “lawless” elements of society. But meanwhile, in a community where there is no law to declare a certain act a crime, a person cannot be legally arrested, prosecuted and penalized for that act. To do so would be a grave injustice that must somehow be addressed by the duly constituted authorities; otherwise the community would experience instability – even collapse.
A nation that has no clear and certain set of laws – or has conflicting laws – can expect nothing but chaos! When the children of Israel did not have a righteous leader, a leader who upheld the law of God, “everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25). The Book of Judges and the double books of Samuel, the Kings and the Chronicles bear abundant testimony to the troubles which the children of Israel underwent when everyone did what was right in his own eyes, instead of obeying God’s law. [See: "Your Eyes Will Be Opened!" No Walls, No Ceiling? and The Great Wall.]
Moral versus ceremonial
In reality most Christian-professing people qualify this matter of “transgressions” or “sins” to concern only the “moral” aspects of the Law, not the “ceremonial.” Only the moral aspects of the Law apply today, they say.
But who decides what is moral and what is ceremonial in the old covenant?
Psalm 25:14 promises: “The secret of the LORD is with those who fear Him, and He will show them His covenant.” To fear God is to depart from evil (Proverbs 3:7; 16:6) and to keep His commandments (Ecclesiastes 12:13). A person who believes that God’s commandments are no longer in force for Christians, has no right to claim that he understands the real teaching of God concerning His covenants. That includes the understanding of what is moral and what is ceremonial in God’s law.
In all fairness, many Bible students do indeed understand that under the new covenant there are moral standards which Christians are to observe. Thus, they concede that it is still a sin for Christians to kill, commit adultery, steal, lie, covet, dishonor parents, blaspheme God’s name, and worship idols – and other things mentioned in the New Testament. Many Bible students believe that, instead of the Old Testament laws, only “the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2) need be followed by a Christian. Thus, virtually all Christians agree that Christ has already fulfilled these ceremonial laws; therefore Christians need not observe them. [See: The Law of Christ.]
But just what, then, are the “ceremonial” laws?
Most readers of the Bible would agree that the requirement of physical circumcision is a “ceremonial law” that became unnecessary with Christ’s sacrifice on Calvary. Circumcision, particularly for Gentiles coming to faith in Christ, had been a divisive issue in the New Testament Church of God. Church leaders then held a conference to settle the issue, as we find recorded in Acts 15. A decision was reached — not by some democratic majority vote after much discussion, but by a Spirit-inspired declaration by one man, the chief apostle of Christ to the children of Israel, the apostle Peter — and endorsed, by the rest of the apostles and church elders, for compliance by the entire church membership. [See: Freed From Bondage.]
The same can be said of the various ordinances of washings, animal sacrifices and meal offerings — they were “ceremonial.” These ordinances were that part of the law which pointed to Jesus Christ, being the “Lamb of God,” as the true and effective sacrifice to cleanse sinners of their sins. Hebrews 7-9 explains this quite extensively. Christians are no longer to observe these ceremonial ordinances. Paul designates these ordinances as laws that were “added [to the Law that defines sin or unrighteousness – as contained in the “first” or “old” covenant!] because of [or as temporary remedies for] transgressions [not following that Law], till the Seed [Christ] should come…” (Galatians 3:19). These “added” laws were laws that concerned sacrifices and other rituals that foreshadowed Christ’s sacrifice. [See: Law Added to Law Transgressed and The Two Laws in Hebrews 10.]
However, there are others who believe that the “ceremonial” laws also include those commandments concerning the Sabbaths (both the weekly Sabbath and the annual Sabbaths held during God’s commanded festivals), clean and unclean food, tithing, etc. Thus, they teach that to not observe these commandments is not anymore a sin. They say that Jesus Christ came to fulfill these “ceremonial” commandments; therefore Christ’s disciples need not observe them, or else they will be making Christ’s sacrifice “without profit” (Galatians 5:2; 2:21) — of no effect, useless.
To understand what God means by “transgressions under the first covenant” from which we – both “Hebrews” (Israelite/Jew) and Gentile believers, as I will explain later – have been redeemed, we need to consider what God’s Word says about God’s law.
Categories in God’s law
Like in any study of human laws or jurisprudence, God’s laws fall under various categories. The overarching principle of God’s law, of course, is love – as strange as that may sound to ears that have been conditioned to believe that law and love are opposites.
Jesus said that the heart of the law is this: “‘…You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with your [entire] mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:37-40). Jesus here quoted Deuteronomy 6:4-5 (what the Jews call the “Shema”) and Leviticus 19:18. All the detailed law of God and the testimonies of the prophets of God are based on these two major commandments.
That love for God and for neighbor is then elaborated in the following major aspects of God’s law:
1. The Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17; Deuteronomy 5:6-21). The first four of these commandments show how we are to love God; the last six show how we are to love our neighbor.
To transgress any of these Ten Commandments is to sin against God and against one’s neighbor. In a broad sense, the rest of the categories of God’s law – laws or instructions elaborating on the Ten Commandments — can also be looked at as God’s “commandments,” since they also have been commanded by God. Transgressing them is also considered a sin.
2. The Statutes. Like the Ten Commandments, the statutes of God can be broken down into two major areas: a) statutes that elaborate on how to worship God and, b) statutes that elaborate on how to deal well with our neighbor and our environment.
a. Worship of God. Among the statutes in connection with the worship of God, we see the following:
• The appointed priesthood. Aaron and his descendants were appointed to be the priestly ministry in Israel (Exodus 28:1; 29; Leviticus 7:35-36, etc.). Several statutes define their priestly duties and privileges. The rest of the Levites were to assist the priests in their temple and teaching duties. Disobeying God’s instructions for or regarding the priesthood and the Levites was a sin for which God called people to accounting. [For more on the priesthood, see: The Two Laws in Hebrews 10 and The Temple in Ezekiel 40 - 48.]
• The festivals of God. Leviticus 23 lists the the weekly Sabbath and seven annual holy days of God which are to be observed as “a statute forever” throughout the generations of Israel. Leviticus 16 elaborates on the observance of the Day of Atonement, one of those holy days. Numbers 28:16-29:1-38 and Deuteronomy 16:1-17 also list those seven holy days. [See : What If the Sabbath Is Still Holy? and God’s Feasts in the Book of Acts: Mere Time Markers – or To Be Observed?]
• Personal holiness. Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14 detail the flesh foods God’s people are to eat in order to remain “holy” as God is holy. [See: Did Christ Cleanse All Meats?] In addition, God’s holiness statutes command certain hygienic practices, such as taking proper care of one’s excreta and other waste (Deuteronomy 23:9-14) and washings because of contact with possible disease-bearing contaminants (Leviticus 15; Deuteronomy 23:9-11, etc.). These statutes express love not only for God but also for oneself and for others resulting in good health for everyone. Communities that do not follow these statutes have a track record of squalor, poverty, disease epidemics, and early (often needless) death.
b. Dealing well with neighbors and the environment. True love for God results in love for one’s neighbor and one’s environment. “By this we know love, because He [Jesus Christ] laid down His life for us. And we also ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. But whoever has this world’s goods, and sees his brother in need, and shuts up his heart from him, how does the love of God abide in him? My little children, let us not love in word or in tongue, but in deed and in truth” (1 John 3:16-18).
Taking proper care of our environment shows not only our love for our Creator but also our love for ourselves and for our neighbors and all the other creatures with whom we share life on this our one and only planet earth where God has placed us.
• Dealing with family. After the first four of the Ten Commandments (which deal with how we are to worship God), the Fifth Commandment commands honoring our parents (Exodus 20:12). The Seventh Commandment (against committing adultery) is also a commandment about how to deal with our closest “neighbor” and family – our spouse. Several of God’s statutes elaborate on how we are to deal properly with parents and spouses, as well as other family members (Leviticus 18:7-18; 19:1-2, 29, etc.). The “wisdom” books (especially Proverbs) give added guidelines on how to deal well with parents, spouses and children.
• Dealing with other human beings. Many of God’s statutes elaborate on the rest of the Ten Commandments, showing in specific detail how we are to love our neighbor as ourselves (Leviticus 19:9-18, 31-37; 25:8-10, 23-55; Deuteronomy 15:1-18; 19:1 – 25:16, etc.). The “wisdom” writings of the Old Testament — particularly the Book of Proverbs — have been called the best “psychology” book or reference there is!
• Dealing with the environment. From the start, God created man to “have dominion… over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth” (Genesis 1:26) – to be the “manager” of the earth and everything in it. To start with, God placed man “…in the Garden of Eden to tend and keep it” (Genesis 2:15).
With that in mind, God gave His holy people statutes that would help mankind in the proper stewardship of the earth and its resources so it would maintain its “garden” quality. Outstanding among these statutes is that about the Sabbath of the land – letting the land rest for one year in a cycle of seven years (Leviticus 25:1-7). The sanitation laws that God gave Israel are also good environmental laws (Leviticus 14 and 15; Deuteronomy 23:9-11). Deuteronomy 22:6-7, 9 shows sensible laws that would guarantee the survival of species and the stability or integrity of the genetic pool of species. God has given man the mind to search more of similar principles that would ensure a safe and healthful environment.
3. The Judgments. Like the “penal code” formulated and put into effect the by the government of all nations, God gave Israel a set of judgments when certain violations of His law were committed by the people. Exodus 21:1-22:22 contains judgments that, for a people who have not been given the heart and the mind to willingly obey God (Deuteronomy 5:29), are described in the Bible as “true,” “righteous,” “good,” “right,” and “just” (Psalm 19:19; 119:7, 62, 106, 160, 164, 39, 75). The often harsh judgments were to cause the people to fear and, hopefully, not commit the same sin as did the person punished (Deuteronomy 13:1-11).
a. Capital punishment. For capital sins (such as idolatry, blasphemy, Sabbath-breaking, cursing or striking parents, murder, adultery, kidnapping, witchcraft, bestiality, etc.) the death penalty was imposed (Exodus 21:12-17, 28-29; 22:18-19; 31:12-17; Leviticus 20:2-16, 27; 24:10-17, 23, etc.).
b. Just compensation for damage to and loss of person or property. Exodus 21:18-22:1-17 details some of the various cases of transgressions which required the appropriate compensation.
Interestingly, the contrite publican (tax-collector) Zacchaeus told Jesus, “Look, Lord, I give half of my goods to the poor; and if I have taken anything from anyone by false accusation, I restore fourfold” (Luke 19:8) – reminiscent of the compensation prescribed in the Law of Moses. Jesus did not tell Zacchaeus that he would not need to do that since, as many Bible students mistakenly understand, Jesus came to do away with the Old Testament law. Instead, Jesus declared: “Today salvation has come to this house, because he also is a son of Abraham, for the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:9-10).
c. Divine curses. God pronounces certain curses for certain sinful acts. For example, childlessness for a type of incest (Leviticus 20:19-21). Of course, there are curses for disobedience to God’s law, listed in Leviticus 26:14-39 and Deuteronomy 28:15-68. The Israelites were also commanded to designate places where they would pronounce blessing or cursing (Deuteronomy 27:11-26) – according to how the people obeyed or disobeyed God.
4. Ordinances of Sacrifices and Washings. As explained above (under the section heading “Moral versus ceremonial”), there are ceremonial laws requiring various kinds of animal and meal sacrifices. These laws, we might say, were “remedial” laws for sins that were not capital and did not require the death penalty. But regardless as to degree of sin, all sin separates man from a holy and perfect God (Isaiah 59:2).
God commanded animal sacrifices to “consecrate” the Levitical priesthood and the sanctuary or temple of God because of man’s sinfulness and sin. As the Apostle Paul said, these are a part of the “law added” because of man’s transgression of (or sin against) God’s perfect moral law (Galatians 3:19, 24). These ordinances foreshadowed the perfect sacrifice of Christ which alone is effective in bringing us into oneness or unity with God and removing the curses for our sins (see: Freed From Bondage and Law Added to Law Transgressed).
5. The Testimonies. Isaiah 8:20 mentions the “law” and the “testimony” separately, and yet together as the basis for just what the truth of God is. So also do Deuteronomy 4:45; 6:17, 20; 1 Kings 2:3; 2 Kings 17:15; 23:3 and several other Old and New Testament verses. [You can just check a Bible Concordance to find where those Scriptures are.] A “testimony” is what God testifies (or declares) as to what He will do, or what will happen to people under various circumstances. Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28 are outstanding examples of God’s testimony to the children of Israel, as are the prophecies declared by servants (the prophets) God has sent to His people. Revelation 19:10 says that “the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.” In this regard Jesus’ testimony is related to Jesus’ judgment.
God’s laws – are they only for Israel?
Many believe and teach that the Old Testament laws were meant by God to be only for Israel (those under the old covenant) and not for Gentiles. True, there are certain commandments that God specifically gave to the Israelites based on their peculiar history (see, for example, Deuteronomy 25:17-19; 26:1-11). However, most of God’s laws apply both to Israel and to Gentiles.
God judges Israel and Gentiles on the same basis. He does not have one law for Israel and another for Gentiles (Exodus 12:9; Leviticus 24:22; Numbers 15:16) — especially those who live under Israel’s roof. Ephesians 2:11-22 shows how, in Christ, both Israelites and Gentiles are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God…” Being in the same “house” both Israelites and Gentiles would be subject to the same “house rules!” [See: No Walls, No Ceiling? and The Great Wall.]
It would be inconsistent with God’s character to punish Israel for certain sins, and then let Gentiles who commit the same sins go scot-free. Paul resonated this when he wrote:
“But to them that are contentious, and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, [the consequence:] indignation and wrath, tribulation and anguish, upon every soul of man that does evil, of the Jew first, and also of the Gentiles” (Romans 2:8-9).
God is not a respecter of race –“There is no partiality with God” (Romans 2:11). He includes both Jews/Israelites and Gentiles in punishing their “transgressions under the first covenant.” For their lack of knowledge, however, God may punish Gentiles less than Israelites who know – or should know — better (Luke 12:47-48). Paul cautions Gentile believers not to fall into the same unbelief that the Israelites of old did. “For if God did not spare the natural branches (Israelites, because of their unbelief and disobedience), He may not spare you (Gentile converts – compared to branches of a wild olive tree grafted into the olive tree of God’s planting, Israel) either” (Romans 11:17-23, 30).
Neither does God show partiality for race when it comes to redeeming people from such transgressions. Thus, as Paul wrote: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ; for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believes; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek” (Romans 1:16).
Both sinful Israelites and sinful Gentiles, through Christ, have been redeemed from the same “transgressions under the first [old] covenant!” Both have been redeemed from the curse of death for transgressing God’s law (sinning) which is stipulated under the first covenant. Both will instead “receive the promise of the eternal inheritance.”
God’s law the standard for all time
The new covenant that Jesus proclaimed, as prophesied long ago, does not do away with God’s law. Instead, God says: “For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my laws in their mind and write them on their hearts…” (Hebrews 8:10, quoted from Jeremiah 31:33). [See: Freed From Bondage.]
A nation of Israelites restored to where God wanted them in the first place – Israelites keeping the law of God – will be the vanguard in leading Gentiles to seek God and learn of His laws when Christ sets up God’s Kingdom on earth. “Now it shall come to pass in the latter days [after Christ will have come to establish God's kingdom on earth and restore Israel as God had originally intended her to be] that the mountain [symbolic of the kingdom] of the LORD’s house shall be established on the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow to it. Many people shall come and say, ‘Come, and let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob [Israel]; He will teach us His ways, and we shall walk in His paths.’ For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem” (Isaiah 2:2-3).
Like Israel, the Gentile nations will finally come to understand God’s law (as found in the “first” or old covenant), acknowledge that they have transgressed it, repent of it, and receive redemption from such transgression and forgiveness through the sacrifice of Christ. [See: God's Kingdom and Israel and The Great Wall.]
May God hasten that day!
Pedro R. Meléndez, Jr.