We have seen one difference in apostasy under the old and new covenants – whether God will “heal” it. There is, however, a similarity that also needs to be understood, and one of the best places to see the parallel is in Matthew 21, where Jesus both draws a line between the two covenants and identifies a common thread that runs throughout the history of God’s dealing with his people.

Matthew 21:33-44 records a parable of a landowner who had a problem with a vineyard he had rented to some tenant farmers. It seems he wasn’t receiving the fruit he had a right to expect as the owner of the vineyard. Twice he sent servants to collect the harvest, and twice the tenants beat, stoned, even killed the servants. When he sent his own son to settle the accounts, those wicked people killed him too, thinking they could then keep the vineyard for themselves.

Jesus put the question to Israel’s religious leaders: “What do you think the landowner is going to do to those tenant farmers?” They answered the question without realizing they were pronouncing their own judgment: “He will put the wicked men to a horrible death and lease the vineyard to others who will give him his share of the crop after each harvest.” (v.41 NLT)

Jesus drew the line: “Therefore I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people, producing the fruit of it.” (v.43 NAS)

With that, the biological children of Abraham would no longer be the tenant farmers in God’s vineyard. However, God’s expectation of the new tenants – children of Abraham by faith – remained the same: They would produce the harvest of fruit he has a right to expect as the owner of the vineyard.

A Cornerstone has been laid, as Paul said, and the person who “faiths” (pisteuo) that stone will not be disappointed, but others will stumble and fall on it (skandalon). (Romans 9:33) Jesus was even more pointed: “And he who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; but on whomever it falls, it will scatter him like dust.” (Matthew 21:44 NAS)

Broken to pieces. Scattered like dust. How seriously does God take the matter of bearing fruit, rather than producing “thorns and thistles”?

The Old Covenant people of God are used as an analogy for the New Covenant people in the Letter to the Hebrews (which I believe also was written by Paul). The contrast between the old and new covenants is used to encourage persecuted Jewish Christians to keep faith with the better promise, better priest, and better sacrifice Jesus had become. But Paul also focuses on the common thread: God expects his people to trust and obey, and those who refuse should expect to experience his judgment.

Paul reminds his audience that the biological children of Abraham had rebelled against God in the wilderness, trying his patience and angering him to the point that he swore they would never enter his rest. (Hebrews 3:7-19)

Under the New Covenant, however, defying God’s expectations is even more dangerous, Paul says: “See to it that you do not refuse him who is speaking. For if those did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape who turn away from him who warns from heaven.” (Hebrews 12:25 NAS)

Because God has established this better kingdom – one in which his people are secure because it “cannot be shaken” – the tenant farmers under the New Contract ought to serve him gratefully, “in reverence and awe,” so their fruit-bearing will be accepted by the God who is a “consuming fire” to his enemies. (Hebrews 12:28-29)

In the wilderness of Paran, Abraham’s biological children stood at the edge of the Land of Promise. God’s plan was that they send in their fighting men and take possession of the land. Twelve spies were dispatched to assess the challenge. When they reported back, however, all but two said the gigantic people in the land were too strong, that the Israelites ought to turn back to Egypt. Only two challenged the people to trust God and attack the giants. Because the people refused to trust and obey, God condemned an entire generation to die in the wilderness.

Faithfulness means God’s people take the risk of trusting him, and those who refuse and turn back are destroyed, Paul said. God promises, “‘My righteous people … will believe and live,’” but he also warns, “If any of them turns back, I will not be pleased with them.’” And Paul adds: “We are not people who turn back and are lost. Instead, we have faith and are saved.” (Hebrews 10:38-39 TEV)

‘Lost’ in verse 39 translates apoleia, a word also used to describe the “broad way” to hell in Matthew 7:13, the fate of Judas Iscariot in John 17:12, the destiny of “vessels of wrath” in Romans 9:22, and the doom faced by “enemies of the cross” in Philippians 3:19. It is rooted in the word apollumi, translated ‘perish’ in John 3:16.

That’s the fate of any of God’s people who have “an evil and unbelieving (apistia) heart that falls away (aphistēmi) from the living God.” (Hebrews 3:12 NAS)

God’s people have a choice. The vineyard owner expects a harvest; the tenant farmers can honor the contract or be “put to a horrible death” and replaced. God’s people can trust the Lord and take the Promised Land – or turn back to the wilderness and be destroyed.

As terrifying as that message is, however, the most important point is not the danger of apostasy but the reward that awaits those who trust and obey:

“Dear friends, even though we are talking like this, we really don’t believe that it applies to you. We are confident that you are meant for better things, things that come with salvation. For God is not unfair. He will not forget how hard you have worked for him and how you have shown your love to him by caring for other Christians, as you still do. Our great desire is that you will keep right on loving others as long as life lasts, in order to make certain that what you hope for will come true. Then you will not become spiritually dull and indifferent. Instead, you will follow the example of those who are going to inherit God’s promises because of their faith and patience.” (Hebrews 6:9-12 NLT)

Next installment

Chapter 14
The apostasy of legalism

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