From fading glory to surpassing glory

Book 2 Chapter 11 Section 1-14

During the last few chapters Calvin has been at pains to stress the unity and connection between the Old and New Testaments. However, now he focuses on how they are different. He concludes that the major differences lie principally in the mode of administration between the two covenants rather than the substance. Calvin groups these into five points:

  1. In the Old Testament the future inheritance is foreshadowed by earthly blessings, in the New it is more clearly revealed in the gospel and the physical evidences are no longer necessary. Calvin argues that although the Jews were encouraged to regard Canaan as their promised inheritance, the physical land was not the totality of their inheritance. Indeed, God was trying to build the concept of an eternal inheritance through the giving of a temporal land. “He promised them the land of Canaan for an inheritance, not that it might be the limit of their hopes, but that the view of it might train and confirm them in the hope of the true inheritance, which, as yet, appeared not.”
  2. Types are used in the Old Testament, whereas the reality is found in the New Testament.  The idea here is that the God introduced concepts through the Old Testament that were physical expressions of spiritual truths that were later explained and fully realised in the New Testament. An example would be the Scapegoat – where a goat would be symbolically portrayed as receiving the sins of the community and then being taken outside the camp. On one level this illustrated the removal of the sins from the community by God, but as a “type”, this law reveals something of the real scapegoat – the Lord Jesus, on whom our sin was placed and who received the judgement of God.
  3. The Old Testament is literal, the new is spiritual. The former relies on the letter of the law, the latter on the Spirit of the lawgiver. The Old brought death and condemnation, the New life and freedom. Calvin summarises the Old Testament this way: “it commands what is right, prohibits crimes, holds forth rewards to the cultivators of righteousness, and threatens transgressors with punishment, while at the same time it neither changes nor amends that depravity of heart which is naturally inherent in all.”
  4. The Old Testament brings bondage, the new freedom. The Old breeds fear, the New confidence and security. Indeed, the former “filled the conscience with fear and trembling” the latter “inspires it with gladness.”
  5. The Old Testament belongs to one people only, the new to all. Calvin is here referring to the bringing in of the Gentiles to God’s plan of salvation through the preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

In light of the significant differences between the two testaments, and the subsequent confusion that blights many believers when studying the Old Testament, in the final section Calvin considers why God bothered to use two testaments at all. Why didn’t God go straight to the New Testament without the introduction of the Old? Why bother with physical illustrations of types and figures rather than going straight to the reality and underlying spiritual truths? Indeed, some have become so confused that they claim that the God of the Old Testament was different to the God of the New Testament.

  • Firstly, because in His infinite wisdom God saw fit to use this means to glorify Himself and tutor His children in the depths of His grace and mercy. God was pleased to use earthly blessings to reflect spiritual blessings and physical punishments to reflect the horror of spiritual punishments.
  • Secondly, God should not be criticised because He adapts different forms to different ages. Calvin uses the methods employed by a father to instruct his children compared to those he uses when they have reached adulthood – different methods for different times.
  • Thirdly, as a wise and loving Creator, God is pleased to adopt the best method at the right moment in history. We should not wonder that God used a different set of signs to prepare for Christ’s first coming than He uses now that Jesus has been manifested to the world.

Response

It seems to me that many believers today are confused about the place and value of the Old Testament. Over the last few chapters we have thought about how the two testaments are similar and different. When Calvin draws the connections between the Old and New Testaments he draws out the beauty in the former and enables us to see the jewels scattered broadly throughout the law and the prophets. When he now turns to show us the greatness of the New in comparison to the Old he helps us to see that the beauty of the Old is like shiny copper compared to the sparkling emerald of the New.

“Now if the ministry that condemns men is glorious, how much more glorious is the ministry that brings righteousness! For what was glorious has no glory now in comparison with the surpassing glory. And if what was fading away came with glory, how much greater is the glory of that which lasts!” 2 Corinthians 3. 9-11

 

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