Harry Houdiniis arguably the greatest magician to ever live. One reason for his great success was the fact that he was a phenomenal escape artist. According to legend, he once bragged that there wasn’t a jail cell in the world from which he couldn’t escape, provided that he could go into the cell dressed in his street clothes and work in complete privacy. A small town in England had built a new jail that they believed to be escape-proof, so they invited Houdini to come and try to break out. Houdini accepted their invitation, and, on the day of the challenge, they put him in the cell, closed the door, and left him alone.Once inside the cell, Houdini took off his belt and from it procured a tough, flexible steel rod. With the rod in hand, he went to work on the lock. He worked longer than it had ever taken him before, and he still couldn’t get the lock open! As time passed, he grew exhausted, frustrated, and even confused. Finally, after hours of work, Houdini collapsed from exhaustion on the floor and fell against the door to the cell, and when he did, the door swung open. It had been unlocked the whole time.
This story reminds us that often times we operate as though we are imprisoned when, in all actuality, we’ve already been set free. In particular, Scripture asserts that “in Christ,” we have been “set…free from the law of sin and death” (Romans 8:2). To what law is Paul referring? “In verse 3, Paul linked this ‘law’ with the law of Moses, which was tied to the flesh as well as to sin and death.” Elsewhere Paul referred to Mosaic Law as a “yoke of slavery” from which “Christ has set us free” (Galatians 5:1). This begs the question: why is freedom from Mosaic Law a blessing? Freedom, in one sense, refers to a lack of oppression. In other words, being oppressed is the opposite of being free, and oppression exists where unnecessary requirements are enforced. Such is the basis for referring to Mosaic law as “a yoke of slavery” from which we have been set free.
This freedom from Mosaic Law becomes most evident in Acts 15 when the issue regarding Gentile circumcision is addressed. Conflict had arisen in the first century church when some Jewish members of the Jerusalem congregation went to Antioch and tried to force Gentile Christians in that congregation to adopt the requirements of Mosaic Law, particularly circumcision. In response to this situation, a meeting was held in Jerusalem between representatives of the church in Antioch (i.e. Paul and Barnabas) and the elders of the church in Jerusalem. The apostles, who served as the authoritative representatives of God’s will at that time, were present to determine whether or not Gentile converts should be required to keep the Law of Moses. Based on the experience of Peter with Cornelius’ household (Acts 15:7-11, 14) and an understanding of the prophets (Acts 15:15-18), the apostles along with the elders of the Jerusalem congregation came to the conclusion that they “should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who [were] turning to God” (Acts 15:19). In other words, they recognized that forcing Mosaic Law on the Gentiles would have been oppressive and wrong since God had clearly indicated that it was no longer necessary to keep Mosaic Law. As a result, the only commands they enforced were for Gentile converts “to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood” (Acts 15:20). The reason they enforced these policies was because all of these activities could be associated with idolatry. Thus, at the conclusion of this meeting, it became apparent to the church that Jesus was “the guarantor of a better covenant,” and, as a result, “He [made] the first one obsolete” (Hebrews 7:22; 8:13).
What makes Christ’s covenant better than the old covenant? Though many benefits can be identified, for the sake of this article, we will just consider one, which is the fact that the New Covenant’s sacrifice is far superior. The Old Covenant required participation in the complex sacrificial system, which consisted of different sacrifices for different purposes. There were five basic sacrifices under Mosaic Law: burnt offerings (Leviticus 1; 6:8-13), grain offerings (Leviticus 2; 6:14-23), fellowship offerings (Leviticus 3; 7:11-21), sin offerings (Leviticus 4-5; 6:24-30), and guilt offerings (Leviticus 5:14-6:7; 7:1-10). Some were utilized when you needed to seek God’s forgiveness, others were utilized when you simply wanted to worship God, and still others were utilized when you needed to be pronounced clean. The problem with this sacrificial system is that it could not forgive sins. As the author of Hebrews points out, “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Hebrews 10:4). So, the sacrificial system though useful was inadequate when it came to salvation.
Meanwhile, the New Covenant is built on a single sacrifice that is more than adequate to resolve our sin problem. The sacrifice was Jesus, who as our “Passover Lamb” (1 Corinthians 5:7) “died for us” so that we might be “justified by his blood,” and “saved…from the wrath of God” (Romans 5:8-9). And, it should be noted, that unlike the animal sacrifices under the Old Covenant, Jesus’ sacrifice was adequate for dealing with our sins. Hebrews 10:12 says that “Christ…offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins.” In other words, Jesus’ sacrificial death serves as a permanent sacrifice for our sins and eliminates the need for a sacrificial system. As a result, we don’t have to return to the temple and offer animals on the altar every time we sin, and we don’t have to enlist the services of a scapegoat to escort our sins away. Through the sacrifice of Jesus, our sins can be forgiven once and for all, and that is the greatest blessing of all.
Paul Pollard, Romans: An Exegetical Study, Truth for Today Commentary (Searcy, AR: Resource Publications, 2018), 263.