Christianity as an Upgrade

One of the trickiest subjects that Christians face when talking about their faith to Jews is the relationship between Judaism and Christianity.  If we’re the New Israel, what does that make them?  If we’re God’s elect, does that make Israel now ‘unelect’?

In seeking to resolve this question of relationship, two extremes tend to crop up, both extremely misleading (and arguably heretical).  One is Replacement Theology.  According to this view, the Church has utterly replaced Israel, and no vestiges of that Old Covenant need to be (or even ought to be) replicated in the New.  The Church is the New Israel, and that’s that.  At the other extreme is a form of Dispensationalism (I’m recognizing that dispensationalism can take multiple forms), wherein Christianity and Judaism are completely separate systems through which God works.  The Old Covenant was for a previous age, the New is for the current age, but when the Church Age is finished, God will follow up with the Old Covenant folks too.  Both of these approaches place a wide gulf between Israel and the Church, to an inappropriate extreme.

Additionally, a third wrong option has cropped up, though mainly just in the early days of the Church: Judaizing.  In this viewpoint, the Church needs to continue acting according to the Old Covenant as well as the New.  The Apostle Paul found this to be heretical, and condemned this teaching throughout his epistle to the Galatians.

The middle ground, wherein the right relationship between Old and New may be found, necessitates an understanding of both separation and continuity.  Yesterday I was reading from Mark 2, and found a couple teachings in here very pertinent to this topic.

First was the Pharisees’ question about fasting – they and their disciples did it, John the Baptist and his disciples were doing it, but Jesus and his disciples were not.  Why?  Jesus explained “Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast.”  This is a statement of something new going on – Jesus is a bridegroom for God’s people, playing on imagery from prophets such as Hosea & Ezekiel wherein Israel is an unfaithful wife to her husband, God.  What we see from this, then, is a fulfillment of Old Covenant theology.  Jesus is showing that Christianity is going to be Jewish with a new step forward.

Jesus also explained “The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day.”  Old Covenant practices aren’t completely abolished; Jesus expects Christians to fast.  It’s not an explicit command, it’s an assumption our Lord takes for granted.  However, the form and timing of our fasting should be different than the Jewish custom was.  Hence Jesus’ words:

No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. If he does, the patch tears away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made.  And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the wine will burst the skins—and the wine is destroyed, and so are the skins. But new wine is for fresh wineskins.

We still have garments and the wineskins, they’re not replaced with completely new things, but with better forms of the same things.  Stepping away from metaphors and looking at possibilities in reality, let’s look at what the Mark reports next:

Look,why are they doingwhat is not lawful on the Sabbath?” And Jesus said to them,“Have you never readwhat David did, when he was in need and was hungry, he and those who were with him:how he entered the house of God, in the time of Abiathar the high priest, and atethe bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those who were with him?”  And he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man,not man for the Sabbath.  So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.

This is a more concrete example of what we were looking at before.  The Sabbath is a very Jewish practice.  So uniquely Jewish, in fact, that over time they made it into this big thing that essentially enslaved them.  Jesus corrected this tendency, pointing out that the Sabbath was made for man, not the other way around.  In other words, this weekly day of rest and worship is for our benefit, not some duty that weighs us down and gives us excuses to ignore real life.

However, this does not mean that Jesus abolished the Sabbath, or expected Christians to do whatever they wanted with it.  Jesus simply meant that the Sabbath should be rightly observed according to the freedom of the New Covenant.  And with the example of David eating the bread of the presence, Jesus points out that there had already been exceptions to usual Sabbath and holiness laws.  Nevertheless we should be careful.  The Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath, not you and I.  Too often Christians act like the Sabbath is meaningless and once they’ve fulfilled their going-to-church-in-the-morning obligation, they can do whatever they want.

Collecting this together somewhat, one could say that Christianity is an upgrade to what came before.  Old Covenant markers like Circumcision and the Passover are replaced with New Covenant markers like Baptism and the Eucharist.  Stringent Sabbath & food laws are opened up to a greater amount of freedom.  The long detailed holiness code and collection of civil laws are boiled down their essential goal: love God and love your neighbors.  “Works of the law” is summarized in “faith in Christ,” but still, “faith without works is dead.”  We’ve not completely replaced the “old” Israel, neither are we a completely new work of God in the course of history; we’re the next step in Israel’s history.

About Fr. Brench

I'm an Anglican Priest and a sci-fi geek. Therefore, I write about liturgy & spiritual formation, theology & biblical studies, and Doctor Who. But I keep those blogs separate so I don't confuse too many people!
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8 Responses to Christianity as an Upgrade

  1. Ben says:

    I’m curious how you know that Jesus wants us to obey the Sabbath today?

    Can you say for certain that a Christian today who doesn’t observe a Sabbath day is sinning? I can’t… especially in light of Romans 14. Which is the brother of weaker faith – the one who considers no day more holy, or the one who considers some more holy?

    If believers can’t do “whatever they want” on the Sabbath, what do we have to do? How much time is enough? Can I take a nap or do I have to spend all day in devotions? Have you ever done “whatever you wanted” on Sunday? Were you sinning?

    • Specifically, the Mark passage makes it pretty clear that Jesus expects things like the Sabbath to continue into the New Covenant era; it’s given right alongside other explicit teachings about new forms for old things.

      More generally, though, you can’t appeal to one verse to “debunk” another. Remember in Genesis, God blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” We can’t simply write that off in light of Paul’s letter to the Romans; there’s some working out to do. Jesus, I think, gives us better insight into what things like the Sabbath really are supposed to be for God’s people: a time for rest and focusing upon Him, particularly in worship but also through doing good works if so moved. His ministry certainly attests to that approach too.

      The point about the Sabbath is that it’s no longer some big prescribed thing with tons of laws governing how we observe it anymore – so we have freedom to celebrate it according to our local necessities, customs, and preferences. In our New Covenant context, “What do we have to do?” is the wrong question to be asking, because that’s a question about Law. “What is right for us to do?” is more of a New Covenant question.

  2. Ben says:

    Jesus wasn’t talking about the Sabbath in that passage, but about fasting. Jesus broke a lot of Sabbath traditions but never said all his followers had to observe it. That’s why the verses I pointed out in Romans apply. There’s another one in Colossians:

    “Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day.”

    I think that telling Christians they have to observe any “holy” day, in light of these passages and our freedom, is judaizing. That was the old law, but there are new wineskins now – the new covenant.

    You are right when you say about the Sabbath, “…we have freedom to celebrate it according to our local necessities, customs, and preferences.” We also have the freedom NOT to celebrate it! Because to some brothers, there are no days more holy than another, and if they do so “to the Lord” then you have no cause to judge them.

    • The second half of the Mark passage is about the Sabbath, and if you read on to the beginning of Mark 3, there’s more about the freedom that we have with regards to the Sabbath. In freedom, early Christians moved their Sabbath to Sunday, because that was the day of the week Christ rose from the dead – because the point is that we’re not enslaved to some day that is inherently holy (as you love to point out in Romans 14, etc.), but because we’re free to take that Sabbath time regardless of Old Covenant direction.

      The idea of not celebrating any Sabbath (aka never resting and never worshiping God in community) is pretty ridiculous, though I don’t believe that’s what you were getting at. The point of the Sabbath, I’m sure you’ll agree, is to take a break from regular life’s work to 1) rest, and 2) worship God. It’s a matter of stewardship with time. Yes we have our own lives, jobs, projects, etc., but we need to sacrifice time (aka make some time holy) to keep our our identities as God-worshipers. It’s not that some arbitrary day of the week is inherently holy (that’s what Paul was telling us), but that we’re free to make time holy as necessary/customary/preferred. Hopefully you know what I mean now? This has been a rather strange tangent from the original post.

  3. Ben says:

    Well it’s not that strange a tangent, because you may sometimes take things too far in the direction of judaizing, and you cited the Sabbath as an example. This example is also a poignant one that Christians fight about (and divide over).

    “The idea of not celebrating any Sabbath (aka never resting and never worshiping God in community) is pretty ridiculous, though I don’t believe that’s what you were getting at.”

    That’s exactly what I’m getting at. Nor do I let anyone judge me in regards to my celebration of a Sabbath day, and I consider every day holy, no one more holy than another. This is defensible both with what Jesus said and did AND with the two passages I have already quoted. I don’t understand how you can read those two verses and not see my point of view!

    That said, of course meeting together is awesome (and commanded). But I don’t meet because it’s a holy Sabbath day (no days are more holy to me) but because it’s a common time that people are free. And weekly is great too, but frankly I’d prefer more often because I happen to like you all 🙂 And resting, well, I don’t need a command for that!

    I do heartily agree that the new covenant is better than the old (Hebrews 7:22 confirms that). One of the reasons it’s better is the freedom we have. I used to feel strongly about Sabbath rules and other such things, but lately in life I am trying to give others the grace to follow Jesus in their own way. That doesn’t mean shooting abortion doctors. But in many areas there’s a total freedom that is only subject to the laws of love.

  4. Becca says:

    Ben, it sounds like you’re saying that you never rest and never worship God in community, but I know you do! 😛
    The weird thing here is that I think you and Matt are saying very similar things in very different ways. Ben, you say “No day is a holy Sabbath where people can force me to worship- I am free worship God wherever and however I think is pleasing to Him”. Whereas Matt is saying “Every day that you worship God or rest with him (however you please)is a holy Sabbath for you- that is the definition of Sabbath.” It’s like the optimism and pessimism thing almost: the glass is both half empty and half full, depending on how you look at it. Matt’s point in this post, I believe, is to take the good things the Old Covenant commanded us to do (sabbath was just the one example) and use them within the framework of our New Covenant freedom. So to have your “holy Sabbath” during various times of the week when you feel so moved instead of on one certain day every week is awesome! The bad thing would be never to do it at all.
    Just my two cents.

  5. Ben says:

    Nice to see you chime in Becca!

    Indeed, I think we do this a lot; have very nearly the same things to say but have such different ways of saying it that it seems like the total opposite! It’s sort of funny sometimes.

    I guess I’d say that I don’t celebrate Sabbath days. I do meet with other believers, and I do rest. If you think I’m observing a Sabbath when I do these things, that’s great. You win 🙂 But I don’t call it that, I just call it “meeting” and “resting”. As you said, I don’t consider these days more holy.

    • You’re right Becca, in the second paragraph of my last comment I was trying to say that Ben does observe the Sabbath; I didn’t realize that he was refusing to use the label “Sabbath” even though that’s exactly what it is.

      Also, whether one thinks of it this way or not, we are making that time holy when we step back from ‘regular’ life and focus on God. That’s what I’ve been trying to say; the time isn’t holy on its own, we make it holy by setting it aside. (Remember, holy means ‘set aside’!)

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