Something better for us
And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect. — Hebrews 11:39-40
In my previous post I wrote that Paul’s argument in Ephesians 2 is both more subtle and more profound than it seems at first glance. We’ve established that Paul was not saying that either Gentile or Jew had no possibility of salvation before Jesus. So what was Paul saying? I suggest that there are two main categories for understanding what Paul is saying Jesus accomplished in the new covenant: the quality and quantity of salvation.
But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. — 1 Corinthians 15:23-26
Jesus is presently reigning as king over the whole earth (Rev. 1:5). Everything is presently in subjection to him though we do not yet see it fully realized (Heb. 2:8). Thus, theologians speak of the “already” and the “not yet” of Jesus’s kingdom. In this framework, we may speak of the old covenants as being a time of essential “not-yet-ness,” a time of promise and not fulfillment. Equally, we may speak of the new covenant as a time of essential “already-ness.” We are not now waiting for the promises to be fulfilled, only for them to be experienced in their fullness. We have presently “come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem” (Heb. 12:22). We are presently seated with Jesus in the heavenly places (Eph. 2:6). There are certainly ways in which this characterization does not capture everything perfectly — Israel truly tasted God’s goodness (Ps. 34:8), and even today we see in a mirror dimly compared to what we anticipate in the resurrection (1 Cor. 13:12). Yet this does capture the essential difference between the old covenants and the new.
This is the culmination of a pattern that God repeated in each new covenant. Adam seized the promised judicial authority before his time, but God freely gave this authority to Noah (Gen. 9:1-7). Abraham is promised that kings will come from him (Gen. 17:6), and this is fulfilled in God’s covenant with David. Ezekiel and Jeremiah promise the exiles that the Spirit will be poured out on them in more powerful ways when they return from exile (Ezek. 37, Jer. 31). In one sense these promises were fulfilled in each new covenant, but in another sense they are not truly fulfilled until Jesus establishes his church. Perhaps the best way to understand this is that the old covenants were powerless in themselves to accomplish anything. What power they had was borrowed against the hope of the new covenant, so that all blessings enjoyed before Jesus were enjoyed in Jesus, foretastes of future life breaking through the chinks of time into the distant past. It is only through Jesus the promised seed that Adam and Eve were preserved.
In terms of Jew and Gentile, Paul is emphasizing two things: first, that both Jew and Gentile now have the same access to God, and second, that Jew and Gentile have a degree of access to God that far exceeds anything available in the old covenant.
Again this is a matter of degrees. We have seen that Gentiles did have access to God before Jesus. God heard the prayers of all old-covenant believers. And yet, by comparison, Gentiles were largely kept farther away from God’s house. In order to approach God’s house to offer a sacrifice, a Gentile had to follow the laws of cleanness and thus in a small symbolic way repudiate his Gentile-ness. Jews themselves were kept apart from God by degrees — most Jews could not enter the tabernacle or temple, only priests could enter the holy of holies, and only the high priest could enter God’s earthly throne room once a year on the day of atonement. We, too, have direct access to God at any time in prayer. But by contrast, in our weekly worship, we do not stand outside God’s house to offer our sacrifices, but rather enter all the way in to stand before his throne.
Peter Leithart points out that “the movement [between covenants] . . . is from rituals and signs of distance and exclusion . . . to signs and rituals of inclusion and incorporation.” You might even say that, while the old covenant was a time in which uncleanness and death were contagious, in the new covenant it is holiness and life that is contagious (consider Matt. 9:20-22). What this means is that we are all made priests, we are all made clean once and for all by our baptisms. Salvation and priesthood are collapsed into one in the new covenant, and there are no longer any degrees of holiness and separation in God’s house.
It should have been no surprise to Israel that Gentiles would be saved. This is pointed to in so many ways — by the inclusion of unclean animals on the ark, by the seventy representative elders who ate with God on the mountain (Ex. 24), by the seventy weeks of Daniel’s vision (Dan. 9). What was less clear, the “mystery” that Paul refers to in Eph. 3, is that the Gentiles would receive salvation by being made priests, but not by being made Jews. Jesus’s circumcision counts for all, so that we only need to be baptized into Jesus but not circumcised into Israel (Col. 2:11-12). While the seventy elders could not go all the way up the mountain, the seventy nations may now stand face to face with Jesus. While Gentiles could not partake of Passover without first becoming Jews, all Gentiles may now freely partake of the church’s weekly Passover feast.
Both Gentiles and Jews are now fully priests, kings and prophets. The new Adam has brought us into everything the first Adam should have attained, and more. He is a priest after the order of Melchizedek.
But there is an additional dimension here. Paul is not saying that some small number of Jews and Gentiles will now truly experience God’s nearness. He is saying that the Jews and the Gentiles — the nations — as such, will experience this. So while David spoke of the nations opposing God (Ps. 2), we may now speak of the nations themselves being discipled (Matt. 28:19-20), and of the nations themselves becoming “fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (Eph 3:6). At present, we do not yet see it, but Jesus intends to save Jew and Gentile wholesale, and that by bringing them into one united body, his church. Now we are all priests, ministering to the remaining strongholds of unbelief.
The one who was born king of the Jews (Matt. 2:2) died and ascended to become king of the nations (Rev. 1:4, 15:3-4). He passed the test of Adam, being unwilling to seize his inheritance (Matt. 4:8-10) but waiting for it in patient faith.
God is not content to save a few.
“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
to raise up the tribes of Jacob
and to bring back the preserved of Israel;
I will make you as a light for the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” — Isaiah 49:6