Wednesday, September 14, 2016
Why God used covenants in the Bible
2 Corinthians 3:4-6 "Such confidence we have through Christ toward God. 5 Not that we are adequate in ourselves to consider anything as coming from ourselves, but our adequacy is from God, 6 who also made us adequate as servants of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life."
Yesterday we began considering how God's covenant-keeping-relationship with His people guarantees our adequacy in Him. I thought we would dive a little deeper into what the Bible has to teach us about the nature of covenant, how we see various covenants expressed in the scripture, and how they relate to us today with respect to finding our adequacy in God.
The nature of covenants
In the Old Testament we see examples of covenants made between people like Jacob and his uncle Laban in Genesis 31:43-55. In a typical covenant, there would first be some sort of preamble or rehearsing of the prior history of relationship between the two people (Genesis 31:43-44). Next we would see a visible sign to indicate that the relationship and exchange of promises were being made (Genesis 31:45-47,51). Thirdly, oaths, promises and sanctions were verbalized to express blessings and curses associated with the keeping of or the breaking of the covenant (Genesis 31:48-50, 53-54). In the oath-making part of the covenant, it was common for the parties to evoke the name of God so as to communicate the binding nature of the relationship. Then finally, there was the reaffirmation of the covenantal agreement, with both parties agreeing to the terms (Genesis 31:51-55).
How we see various covenants expressed in the Bible
Such a covenantal arrangement like the one we see in Genesis 31:43-55 was common in the ancient world. Such a covenant was called a "conditional-covenant", meaning "I do my part, you do your part". The one major example of a "conditional covenant" we see God making with Israel is in terms of the blessings and cursings He issued forth in the covenant at Sinai at Exodus 19-23. For the people to enjoy the relationship of which God was prepared to have with them, there needed to be a response on their part. As theologian Michael Horton notes on page 543 of his systematic theology:
"Conditioned as it was on Israel's faithfulness, the theocratic kingdom was shakable, as the exile - and the destruction of the temple - testified."
We do find of course that the Mosaic Covenant was not just strictly a pure conditional covenant. The blessings and cursings were connected to the wider backdrop of what God unconditionally pledged to their forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Such promises were initially to be fulfilled by Israel, ultimately fulfilled in Jesus, inaugurated in the life of the church today and will at Christ's return be expressed when Israel is restored as a nation. The person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ is the key to fulfilling all the promises and covenants God made with His people. Michael Horton again notes:
"However, the kingdom has been inaugurated in Christ's death and resurrection is inviolable. It has come, is coming, and will one day come in all its fulness".
There were of course covenants which entailed a superior party agreeing to provide both the basis and means of fulfillment in the covenant. In other words, whenever a weaker party had no way of bringing about the goals of the relationship, the stronger party would pledge to bring about the outcomes desired in the covenant upon pains of great cost to them. In most extreme cases, the greater party would pledge themselves to suffer the curses if in the event they broke the covenant. These types of covenants were deemed "unconditional covenants".
Usually such a covenant would be symbolized by the stronger of the two people walking through slaughtered animals as proof of their commitment. In Genesis 15 we find God making such an "unconditional covenant" with Abraham. The prophet Jeremiah also makes mention of such a ritual in Jeremiah 34. The Reformation Study Bible notes:
"As other Ancient Near Eastern texts and Jeremiah 34:18 indicate, by passing between the torn animals (signifying the punishment due those who break the covenant) God invokes a self-maledictory oath or curse upon Himself should He fail to keep His covenant. Because He could swear by no higher authority, God swears by Himself to keep the covenant terms."
How the New Covenant replaced the Old Covenant and how it guarantees our adequacy in God
Thus when God made His covenant with Abraham and His descendants, He was making an unconditional covenant. Certainly the Mosaic Covenant at Sinai was designed to regulate the terms of the relationship between God and His people. In as much as the Mosaic Covenant (called later in scripture "The Law" and in the New Testament "The Old Covenant") served to spell out what kind of life the people of God were to live in relationship to God, it could not grant the power to live such a life. Such a covenant was designed to show the people how inadequate they were to pull-off the promises given to them by God.
In short, the point of the Old Covenant was that the people of God needed God - since He is their adequacy! The Old Covenant could only demand that people find their adequacy in God, but could never deliver the desire to pursue Him as such.
Closing thoughts: How the New Covenant connects us to Jesus, Who is our adequacy in God (since He Himself is God in human flesh)
Thus when we come to later passages like Isaiah 12; Jeremiah 31-33; Ezekiel 20; 36-37 and Joel 2:28-31, we find God had intended all along to issue forth a second covenant, a new covenant, that would provide the power needed to live for Him! Hebrews 8-9 explain why there was a need for the New Covenant, since the Old Covenant could not empower the people to see their adequacy in God. Instead, all the Old Covenant could do was point and demand the people to find in God their sufficiency and completion. This is why Paul makes such a big deal of his calling (and really every Christian's calling) to be sharers and ministers in the New Covenant. Our adequacy in God results from what Jesus achieved on our behalf. Remarkably, all who follow Him in saving faith have the opportunity to participate in the blessings of the New Covenant which He won for them and to find their adequacy in God.