Practising a New Covenant Life in an Old Covenant World
David Johnson, Queensland Regional Meeting
George Fox and the first Friends had a vivid appreciation of the difference between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant, not as theological constructs, but as markedly different paths for the soul and in ways of living in the world.[i]
In the Old Covenant:
- Violence was acceptable to maintain wealth, acquire worldly possession and power, to protect these assets and to ensure personal safety. The Hebrew history books of the Old Testament in the Bible recount many stories of conquest, killing, and slavery as justifiable in the sight of God.
- Priests were external and distinguished by special clothing, with worldly status, and often with the roles of judge and punisher. The priests, especially the Chief Priests of the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem had great social status and power.
- The law was written on tablets of stone or scrolls of parchment. The Torah contained Ten Commandments as a framework for living together in community. There was also a complex set of social disciplines, with specified payments for personal and community transgressions of the law, and stoning to death for sins including murder, adultery or violating the Sabbath. An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth was the prescribed revenge (Exodus 21:24), which limited community restitution; it was ignored at a national level where massacres, burning of cities and looting were the norm.
- Community worship was primarily external with approved rituals and words, responding to the priest’s instructions, and in ancient times included animal sacrifices. This did not preclude heartfelt personal prayers, as recorded in the Psalms and in the individual prophetic writings, such as David, Hezekiah and Daniel.[ii]
- Prophets who responded to an inward calling to reprove the people for evil behaviours were typically hounded, imprisoned and even murdered to silence them
In the New Covenant:
- Violence is unacceptable. Love your enemies, do good to them that hate you and pray for them that persecute you. The last words Jesus spoke to his disciples before his arrest, trial and crucifixion were “put up your sword in its scabbard”, no violence.[iii]
- The priestly office is internal, is spiritual, and with no worldly trappings. It is easily overlooked, for the voice is typically low, small and humble.
- Worship is inward, in Spirit and in Truth, responding only to the Divine spirit moving within.
- The law is written on our hearts, available moment by moment, and manifested by the Light in the conscience.
- Equality of all people before God, regardless of gender, social class, ethnicity or tribe.
It is true that there were voices of the New Covenant in Old Testament times, which called people to account, such as the prophet Micah 6:8 who put the matter so plainly: “to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God”. Two prophets in particular knew the inward guidance of God, and foretold the coming of a new Way.
Moses who had led the Israelites out of captivity and slavery in Egypt, is credited with leaving the Tablets of Ten Commandments, and the detailed laws of religious practice and community enforcement. Yet he also knew the true guide within himself, as recorded in Deuteronomy 30:11-14.
11For this commandment which I command thee this day, it is not hidden from thee, neither is it far off.
12It is not in heaven, that thou shouldest say, Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it unto us, that we may hear it, and do it?
13Neither is it beyond the sea, that thou shouldest say, Who shall go over the sea for us, and bring it unto us, that we may hear it, and do it?
14But the word is very nigh unto thee, in thy mouth, and in thy heart, that thou mayest do it.
Jeremiah was the first to predict the coming of a new covenant between God and people (Jeremiah 31:31,33,34).
Behold the days are coming, says YHWH, when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah … I will put my law in their minds and on their hearts. I will be their God and they will be my people. No longer will they need to teach one another or remind one another to listen to YHWH. All of them, high and low alike, will listen to me, says YHWH, for I will forgive their misdeeds, and will remember their sins no more.
Early Christians recognised this ancient witness (Hebrews 10:16), and it was a text of deep succour to the first Quakers who often quoted it. For example, Richard Farnsworth wrote: “God did fulfil his promises given forth by Jeremiah the Prophet of the Lord in the new Covenant, when it is said he would teach them himself . . . Christ was the Covenant and they found him revealed and manifested in them.”[iv]
George Fox regarded the established Churches of his time, and much of the culture around him as in apostasy, in darkness, and spoke out repeatedly with a strong prophetic voice. He could see the continuation of Old Covenant behaviours in the both Roman Catholic and Protestant Christian churches. Priests were distinguished by special clothing according to rank. Parish communities were taxed and tithed to maintain worldly buildings and possessions, often a burden for poor people, which was regarded by Quakers as an extension of ancient Hebrew behaviours. Payment of tithes and worship at church was mandatory and could be enforced though both judicial and ecclesiastical courts, with fines and gaol terms.
Violence was widespread, with the sanction of churches, for religious wars at both local and national level, a practice contrary to the teachings of the new Covenant. The Quaker response evolved gradually, with the final statements by Margaret Fell to the King, Governors and Parliament in mid 1660, and the Peace Declaration in early 1661. The words “All wars and strife we utterly deny, …. Never to fight… with outward weapons, neither for the kingdom of Christ nor for the kingdoms of this world” are plain and uncompromising.[v] The Quakers were not the first or only religious groups to assert this nonviolence. It was the testimony of the first Christians in the 200 years after Jesus’ earthly ministry, and there had been several groups in medieval Europe.[vi]
It was in the adherence to an inward worship, with the laying aside of all ‘man-made’ words and rituals which distinguished the early Quakers. It was their experience that sitting in contemplative silence, waiting patiently for the rising of the Spirit of God within them, was the most profitable way to feel God’s presence and guidance. Their own experiences were supported by the words of Jesus to the woman at the Well in Samaria (John 4:23-24): But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship him. God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.
John Bowater, recorded their experience in 1694:
God that commanded the Light to shine out of darkness, shined into our hearts, whereby a discovery was made of that which is good and of that which is evil. This the Lord discovered [uncovered] to us, by the shining of His Divine Light and Grace in our inward parts, so that we need not look abroad. We retired inward. We saw that we had business enough at home. We saw that when we had grieved the good Spirit of God, we had trouble for it and when we had breathings of the Spirit, we had peace within us – so we must distinguish between that which gave acceptance with God and that whereby the Spirit of God was grieved from day to day.[vii]
For practising true worship, for refusing to swear in court, for refusing to pay tithes, in declining to mimic the fashions of the day and class inequalities – that is by entering spiritually and practically into the New Covenant – the first Quakers were harshly treated by the prevailing English Old Covenant culture, being a despised people, fined, imprisoned and in some cases executed. They practised an unwavering and uncompromising dependence on the guidance of the Spirit of God within them, and found a continuing inner fountain of love and life and energy to do so.
The modern cultures prevailing globally, and in many cases within ourselves, are still in the Old Covenant. The great witness and gift of the first Quakers is that only by steadfastly practising the New Covenant, so clearly enunciated by Jesus’ ministry, and which is available spiritually to all, are we individually changed and can we change the world around us.
[i] George Fox, A clear Distinction between the Old Covenant, or Old Testament, and the New Covenant, or New Testament; and how that Christ hath abolished and taken away the First Covenant and Testament, and established the Second. By G. F., in Works, Volume 6, 1831, p.38-73. See also James Nayler A Discovery of the First Wisdom from Below and the Second Wisdom from Above, 1660, in which he describes the political, economic and ecological implications.
[ii] 1 Chronicles 29:10-20; 2 Kings 20:1-11; Daniel 9:4-19
[iii] Matthew 5:43-44; John 18:11.
[iv] Richard Farnsworth, Moses Message to Pharoah, 1653.
[v] Journal of George Fox, edited by John Nickalls, 1975, p.399,400.
[vi] Dale Hess, A Brief Background to the Quaker Peace Testimony. Victoria Regional Meeting, The Religious Society of Friends, 1992.
[vii] John Bowater, 1694, He Is A Compleat Savior..., in Burns, Patrick J., and T. H. S. Wallace, eds. The Concurrence and Unanimity of The People Called Quakers As Evidenced By Some of Their Sermons . Camp Hill, PA: Foundation Publications, 2010. See p.78-81, p.88-89.
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