It’s not that what we’ve been traditionally taught is wrong but our traditional reading of the text has been very incomplete. We’ve very nearly read the Jewish background out of the texts, forcing countless round texts into square holes.
The OT was written to the Jewish people. The NT was written to a church that was partly Jewish and partly Gentile, but it was largely written by Jews to address Jewish concerns derived from the Jews’ understanding of their place in God’s covenant history.
Therefore, to understand the text more fully, we have to put ourselves in the places of the First Century Jews who heard the preaching of Jesus, Peter, and Paul. And when we do that, we find some pretty cool things. For example,
* The Jews saw themselves are part of a grand narrative being written in history by God. And in the early First Century, they were in the Deuteronomy 30 part of the story. Well, this is what they believed if they accepted the teachings of Jesus, Peter, and Paul. It’s not surprising that they spoke in terms of God’s foreknowledge and predestination. They were alive to see the prophecies of their childhood synagogue training coming true. (It would have been like our seeing Jesus coming down from heaven with a trumpet sounding. Pretty exciting stuff for those who stayed awake in Bible class!)
* They believed the Exile was still ongoing. They believed that God would end the Exile by sending the Messiah to be King on the throne of David.
* They believed that the coming of the Messiah would bring the outpouring of the Spirit on all of Israel as well as the Kingdom — and all the blessings of Deu 30 as well as the end of the curses of Deu 28.
* They believed the end of the Exile would be a “restoration,” that is, a return to the better relationship with God that existed pre-Exile. But the restoration would be even better than restoration.
* A failure to return to God and be restored would be to share in the curses of Deu 30 and 32 — a crooked and perverse generation. A choice would come, and the wise Jew would recognize the fork in the road when it appears, choosing repentance over being part of a wicked generation — repeating the sins of the idolaters who worshiped a golden calf at the foot of Mt. Sinai.
* They believed that the path to restoration was repentance, that is, turning toward God.
* On the other hand, they disagreed as to just what “repentance” might require.
–The Essenes wanted a king descended from David and a priest descended from Zadok, but God sent a priest after the order of Melchizedek (and maybe now we begin to see why this mattered so much to the writer of Hebrews).
— The Sadducees were happy with the status quo. The Romans adopted the Maccabees’ decision to rule through the high priest, and this decision gave the privileges of power to the Levites — including the power to profit from a little corruption on the side. They found the status quo destroyed in a generation when the Temple was torn down by those same Romans.
— The Pharisees wanted to bring the Kingdom by being super-pure, assuming that God would be impressed that their legalism and strictness and rules. If the government couldn’t be purified, then maybe individual purity would persuade God to send his Messiah. But God chose to save by faith in Jesus, so that even Gentiles would qualify for the Kingdom, and most Pharisees rejected Jesus because he didn’t overthrow the Romans and was hung on a tree — making him cursed under the Torah. The Pharisees couldn’t see God in Jesus because they so misunderstood God.
* It turns out that the “repentance” required to return to God, to enjoy the restoration, to escape a perverse and wicked generation, was faith in Jesus — accepting him as Messiah and LORD, being faithful to him, and trusting him — imitating his covenant faithfulness most fully revealed on the cross. It turns out that repentance is being crucified! Therefore, when the rabbis and Pharisees sneer that Jesus was hung on a tree — and therefore cursed — the Christian smiled and said, “Of course.” To follow God is to follow Jesus is to be co-crucified. We must participate in the curse in order to be re-created and re-born as blessed. Jesus took the curse on himself for Israel and offered to let those who would follow him join in him the restoration among the penitent faithful of Israel.
* So there are three curses that converge here. First, there is the curse of Gen 3 on all of creation. Second, there is the curse of Deu 28, the curse of the Exile and separation from God for his covenant people. Third, there’s the curse for anyone hung on a tree. Jesus suffered all three, defeated all three, and shares his victory with all who follow him. To take away the curse from Israel, Jesus had to endure the entire weight of cursedness and prevail.
* And when God opened the door for the Jews to repent and be restored through Jesus, he also opened the door for Gentiles to do the same. But the Gentiles were only under the first curse. They were not in covenant relationship with God, and so they could not be under a curse for breaching their covenant. But they suffered from the curse on all creation of Gen 3. And God granted them repentance unto life, just as he did for the Jews. In fact, the Gentiles were, in a sense, less cursed than the Jews because they had fewer blessings to lose.
* God remains true to his covenant with the Jews even though, in a tragic irony, most Jews rejected Jesus as Messiah. This left them under the covenant’s curses, but does not end their relationship with God. But they cannot return to God unless they return to him as he has revealed himself through Jesus. If they don’t see God in Jesus, then they don’t see God.
* Therefore, Christianity is not moralism. It’s not about knowing and obeying the rules. Yes, God has certain expectations of us, but we cannot think in rule-keeping terms. That’s not the point. The point is to be like God — as he reveals himself in Jesus. All the rules point us in that direction, but they are means, not ends.