By Wade Burleson
Andy Stanley, in his excellent new book Deep and Wide, writes "People who go to church are not on a truth quest. They are interested in what works." By "what works"Andy means "what makes people happy,' or "what makes life work better.'
I agree. People want what works. Yet, in my opinion, what actually works--what actually brings people real happiness and a fully functioning life worth living--is 'truth!' Jesus said to His followers, "You shall know the truth, and the truth will set you free" (John 8:32).
Imagine! An addict wishes to be free from addiction - 'know the truth.' A worrier wishes to be free from paralyzing anxiety - 'know the truth.' A divorcee wishes to be free from feelings of rejection and abandonment - 'know the truth.' A man or woman who has failed morally wishes to be free from guilt - 'know the truth.'
The reason churches often seem lifeless is because we go down wrong roads in our quest for happiness and functional living. It isn't performance that works. It isn't tithing that works. It isn't promises to be better that works. It isn't moral behavior and religious character that works. It isn't personal discipline that works. It's truth. People need truth and simply don't know it. Worse, Christian leaders called to guide people into truth are often ignorant of it themselves. We become 'the blind leading the blind' (Matthew 15:14).
For example, when Jesus said, "Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away" (Matthew 24:35), Jesus was not predicting the destruction of 'the earth' on which we live or the disappearance of 'the starry heavens' above our heads. Likewise, when Jesus said, "For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished" (Matthew 5:18), Jesus was not prophesying the end of the earth. Many Christians miss the powerful and freeing truth behind Christ's words about "heaven and earth" because they assume this phrase in the Bible refers to the global sphere that orbits the sun (the earth) and the atmospheric heavens above. Not even close.
Jesus uses the phrase "heaven and earth" to describe God's covenant with Israel (the Old Covenant). With this definition of 'heaven and earth' in mind (and in a moment I'll prove it), a summary of what Jesus was saying in Matthew 24:35 and Matthew 5:18 would be:
"The Old Covenant ('heaven and earth') will be fulfilled by Me and then it (i.e. 'heaven and earth') will disappear, but My words will abide forever."
That's exactly what Jesus did in His first advent. He came to fulfill the Law, and then He 'abolished' it. He came in order to institute a New Covenant (the 'new heaven and the 'new earth'). He caused the old "heaven and earth" to pass away. The covenant with Israel is now gone. It has actually disappeared (Hebrews 8:13). The New Covenant is here.
Nobody argues that we no longer bring animals for sacrifice, celebrate the festivals, or follow the dietary restrictions found in the Old Testament. But many miss the most powerful impact of Christ causing 'heaven and earth' to disappear. Any sinner from any nation can now fully and personally experience God's blessings via faith in Christ.
Under the New Covenant in which we live, God no longer says, "Obedience to my Law brings you blessings" as He did in the former covenant with Israel. Now He says, "Faith in my Son, regardless of your nationality or ethnicity, brings you all My eternal blessings. I will credit to you the perfect righteousness of My Son in exchange for your faith and trust in Him."
Jesus perfect obedience to the Law merited complete and personal blessings from the Father. Yet, God graciously promises all those same blessings to those who embrace His Son. Jesus fulfilled it; we faith it.
This truth changes the game of life. But before I show you how the game changes, let me prove the phrase "heaven and earth" refers to God's covenant with Israel and "a new heaven and a new earth" refers to the New Covenant He has in Christ.
'Heaven and Earth' and the Choosing of Israel
When God describes how He chose Israel 'among all the nations of the earth" He says, ""I have put My words in your mouth and have covered you with the shadow of My hand, to establish the heavens, to found the earth, and to say to Zion, 'You are My people.'" (Isaiah 51:16 NAS). God calls choosing Israel as His people 'establishing the heavens' and 'founding the earth." Thus the covenant with Israel itself is called by God 'heaven and earth.'
When Moses, Israel's Lawgiver, assembled the covenant people of God (Deuteronomy 31:30), he speaks to Israel and says, "Listen, you heavens, and I will speak. Hear, you earth, the words of my mouth" (Deuteronomy 32:1). Moses spoke to the people of Israel, not the literal heavens and earth.
When Israel broke their covenant with God, the Lord sent judgment to Israel through the Babylonians and said "(the earth) is utterly broken down, the earth is clean dissolved, the earth is moved exceedingly...the earth shall reel to and fro like a drunkard, and shall be removed like a cottage; and the transgression thereof shall be heavy upon it; and it shall fall, and not rise again" (Isaiah 24: 1,3,4,19,20). Israel, again, is called "the earth."
God's choosing of Israel as a favored nation, God giving His Law to Israel for their obedience, and everything else associated with God's covenant with Israel is labeled throughout the Bible as God forming "heaven and earth." It would therefore make sense, that if God was going to end this conditional covenant with Israel and institute a New Covenant with the entire world through faith in His Son, then God would speak of the destruction and abolishment of this first covenant as the "destruction of heaven and earth." This is exactly what He does.
The writer of Hebrews, anticipating the fall of Jerusalem, the destruction of the Temple, and the official end of the Old Covenant system of worship uses this precise language. He writes in Hebrews 12:26-28:
"And His voice shook the earth then (the giving of the Law), but now He has promised, saying, “YET ONCE MORE I WILL SHAKE NOT ONLY THE EARTH, BUT ALSO THE HEAVEN.” This expression, “Yet once more,” denotes the removing of those things which can be shaken (the Old Covenant), as of created things, so that those things which cannot be shaken (the eternal New Covenant) may remain. Therefore, since we receive a kingdom which cannot be shaken (Christ's eternal kingdom), let us show gratitude."
Likewise, when John anticipated God's judgment against Israel through the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, bringing to an official 'end' the covenantal system of worship we read about in the Old Testament, he wrote of God dissolving the old 'heaven and earth' (Revelation 21:1) and establishing "a new heaven" and "a new earth" (the New Covenant). In this new agreement between God and the people of the world, God takes a new Bride (people from every nation, not just Jews), forms a new priesthood (every believer, both male and female, not just a tribe of men), establishes a new nation (all believers in Christ are called God's 'holy nation' in I Peter 2:9), and institutes an eternal and unshakable kingdom!
Daniel, John and the other biblical prophets, including Jesus Himself, wrote mostly about the end of God's covenant with Israel and the establishment of the unshakable kingdom of Christ. You and I have received this kingdom. It is within us. It's advancing all around us. One of these days, every enemy of the eternal kingdom will be made Christ's footstool (Hebrews 10:13).
Jesus Christ will return at the end of this New Covenant age of grace (Acts 1:11). He will raise the dead, both the righteous (those who believe in Him) and the unrighteous (John 5:28). Jesus Christ will then call on the unrighteous to give an account for everything they've done in this life (Romans 2:6). The judgment He dispenses for their sins will be personal, equitable and proportional (Romans 12:19). Those who are 'in Christ' by faith had their sins judged at the cross and will not give an account to God for their sins at the general judgment. Rather, those 'in Christ' are made 'co-heirs' with Christ and inherit a universe where the curse has been finally and fully reversed by the redemption in Christ (i.e. heaven). These end of age things are all true and good, but they are little discussed in the Bible.
Most of the Bible is about God destroying 'heaven and earth' (His covenant with Israel) and establishing a 'new heaven and new earth' (the New Covenant with the world). When we miss the impact of Jesus Christ coming to "fulfill the covenant of Law" and then causing it to "pass away," by misinterpreting the phrase "heaven and earth" we remain in bondage to Law and our performance to it. The only thing that 'works' and brings 'real happiness' is the Truth that Jesus Christ came to set captives free! He came to destroy 'heaven and earth' and to establish the New Covenant, that is 'a new heaven and a new earth' (Revelation 21).
As Charles Spurgeon said:
"Did you ever regret the absence of the burnt-offering, or the red heifer, of any one of the sacrifices and rites of the Jews? Did you ever pine for the feast of tabernacles, or the dedication? No, because, though these were like the old heavens and earth to the Jewish believers, they have passed away, and we now live under a new heaven and earth, so far as the dispensation of divine teaching is concerned. The substance is come, and the shadow has gone: and we do not remember it." (Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, vol. xxxvii, p. 354).
It is an unfortunate occurrence when evangelical church leaders take the principles of the Old Covenant (which have been abolished), slap Christian terms on them, and then try to bind people to full obedience to church laws, promising God's blessings if they obey them and God's curses if they do not. That's not the good news Jesus Christ brings. The truth--the good news--that brings life, happiness and freedom to anyone with confidence and trust in the Person and work of Jesus Christ is as follows:
(1). Jesus Christ has fulfilled the Law in my stead, and as a result, I am considered by God to be perfectly righteous "not because I have a righteousness that comes from my obedience to any law, but because I have a righteousness that comes from God and is found by faith in His Son" (Philippians 3:9). The truth is God sees no sin in me.
(2). Jesus Christ has fulfilled the Law in my stead, and as a result, all the blessings of God are mine, not because of my obedience to any law, but because "He shall supply all my needs according to His riches," not mine (Philippians 4:19). The idea that God blesses me 'when' I give to the church, or 'when I bless Him,' or 'when I (fill in the blank)' is no more the good news of the gospel than Islam, Buddhism, or any other 'ism' built on man's alleged attempts to appease God. The truth is God needs no gift from me.
(3). Jesus Christ has fulfilled the Law in my stead, and as a result, everything in my life that I need will be freely given to me by God. "For if God did not spare giving us His Son, how shall He not freely and graciously give us all things we need?" (Romans 8:32). Sometimes God will allow me to hit rock bottom in order for me to see that He is the Rock. Unlike the Old Covenant where there were conditions on God hearing my prayers (II Chronicles 7:14), petitions for what I need now are always heard by God because the Holy Spirit is always interceding for me during my times of weakness (Romans 8:26). God never ceases loving me and works all things for my good (Romans 8:28). The truth is God always works good for me.
(4). Jesus Christ has fulfilled the Law in my stead, and as I begin to grow deeper in my trust and confidence that Jesus is who He says He is and He does what He says He will do, then I can't help but go out and love people in the same manner He has loved me! This is the Royal Law of Jesus. The words of Jesus, which endure forever, clarify the Royal Law. This is my New Covenant law - "To love other people in the same manner He's loved me" (John 13:35). The truth is God sends His love through me.
The way I live as a New Covenant believer in this world:
(a). I accept people in sin as if they had no sin, for Jesus sees no sin in me.
(b). I freely give what others need, expecting nothing in return, for all I need I have in Jesus and I receive it via simple faith in Him, not by my performance or obedience to Him.
(c). I will love others and do good, for my God and Savior Jesus Christ is all the time loving me and working all things for my good.
The way I would live if I failed to see Jesus bringing an end to the Old Covenant way of life::
(a). I would always point out the sin and failure of others in conforming to God's laws (however those laws may be defined), because God always judges my failures of obedience.
(b). I would do for others what I could, but I would expect others to do something good in return, for God's blessings to me are in proportion to my obedience to Him.
(c). Though I would say I loved people unconditionally, I would really only love people based upon their abilities to keep the expectations I have for them, for though God truly loves me, He is only pleased with me when I perform as He expects.
Old Covenant living wears people out. It is lifeless and requires a great deal of guilt and shame for people to continue in it. Jesus came to destroy the Old Covenant way of life.
It is only when we begin to see the truth of who Jesus is and what Jesus has done that we begin to experience true freedom. Jesus is the Truth (John 14:6). Jesus came that we might live life to its fullest (John 10:10). Andy Stanley may be right; nobody is on a quest for truth, for everybody is looking for what works. However, ultimately, the only thing that works is Truth.
To whatever extent you are looking forward to the Second Advent of Jesus as an escape from this life, you have missed the impact and power of Jesus's coming in His First Advent. He came to put an end to the Old Agreement of God's blessings based on a sinner's obedience to Law. He came to destroy "heaven and earth."
And now the good news. "If anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come. The old has passed away, the new is here!" (II Corinthians 5:17). It's a new way to live. It's a new way to love. It's a new way to enjoy life to its absolute fullest!
Thank God the 'new heaven and new earth' has come. As it is written, "By faith, the just shall live!" (Hebrews 10:38).