Covenant: Keeping It Simple
BY STEVE M. SCHLISSEL
Minister, Messiah's -Congregation, Brooklyn, New York
Covenant is the key to life and Scripture, but some seem to have misplaced it. It is our hope to make a modest contribution toward covenant recovery in this article and that requires that we keep it simple.
1. Perhaps the most important thing we can do to uncomplicate this subject is to leave the election of individuals out of it. There are weighty reasons so to do. God has wonderfully, liberatingly said, "The secret things belong unto the Lord our God." It is only "those things which are revealed" which concern us.. The things revealed, not the things hidden, "belong unto us and to our children for ever, that we may do" them (Deuteronomy 29:29).
While it is true that God has revealed the fact of individual election, it is perhaps even more to the point that He has not provided us with a list of names revealing to us just who is or who is not elect. And when He has revealed names, we've sometimes found those names challenging our "systems." There are Old Testament individuals whom many have been surprised to find listed as elect saints in the New Testament Scriptures. And within our own experience we have all known individuals (tragically) to depart from the faith whom we (at some point) were quite sure were elect. On the flip side, we have seen people we'd never have imagined as "convert-able" becoming wonderfully converted, thereby providing apparent evidence of election.
H.C.G. Moule has summed it up best for us when he said that the doctrine of sovereign election "is a lamp, not a sun." It is revealed "as a truth not meant to explain everything, but to enforce this thing:" that a man who finds himself loving God has not himself to thank, but God. To make individual election the starting point and center of the theological enterprise ensures frustration, and that not surprisingly, since it is seeking to build a house on something which cannot be known in particulars, nor can it be "done,"as per Deuteronomy 29:29. As such, it all too easily becomes an abstract concept leading us away from Scriptural balance.
2. To further help us grasp the Scriptural truth of covenant let us think of covenant as a "defined relationship." Relationship really gets at the core of the idea, but a covenant, a relationship, is always defined in some way so we say "defined relationship."
God's relationship with Adam could be viewed as a Covenant of Creation (not "Works"), with Adam living as a covenant head for his posterity. God dwelt as a loving Father with Adam and he, in turn, was to live a life of gratitude as a prophet, a priest, and a king over creation and under God. Adam broke covenant with God and consequently, all who descend from him by ordinary generation cannot rely on that original covenant for a proper relationship with God.
However, at the Fall, God introduced a new covenant which we-following our instructor, Dr. Paul Szto of the Queens CRC-will call the Covenant of Redemption. Covenants define and distinguish. The Covenant of Creation guarded and nurtured the distinction between the Creator and the creation, the latter (creation) represented in Adam. Adam sought to obliterate that distinction by "becoming like God," contrary to His command. The Covenant of Redemption distinguishes between the church and the fallen world, the former represented in Christ, the Last Adam. At the return of Christ there will be an eternal distinction between the elect and the non-elect: this we can call (again, after Pastor Szto) the Covenant of Consummation.
The big deal, covenantally speaking, after the Fall was/is the Antithesis. In fact, the new covenant (relationship) between God and man through Christ is predicated upon the Antithesis: there is no covenant in this fallen world without it. Notice that after the Fall, God first established enmity between the serpent and the woman, between his seed and hers. Then He promised the Savior (Covenant Word) and provided coats of skin (Covenant sacrament). But from the entrance of sin forward redemption is a "from/to" matter. At creation man is brought from nothing to blessedness. In redemption he is brought from Satan to Christ.
3. Covenant runs in the line of generations. _ God is always calling out a people unto Himself. Remember that even in the Garden, the Lord spoke in terms of seed. As the covenant developed and grew throughout Scripture, this facet is ever present.
- God said to Noah and to his sons with him: "I now establish my covenant with you and with your descendants after you" (Genesis 9:8-9).
- In the call of Abraham, Abe's offspring are included, as they are in every reiteration of God's covenant with him, as in Gen. 17: "Then God said to Abraham, `As for you, you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you for the generations to come. This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep." And again in Chapter 18: "Then the LORD said '...I have chosen him, so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing what is right and just, so that the LORD will bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.'"
- In Numbers, "The Lord said to Moses, 'Phinehas son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron, the priest, has turned my anger away from the Israelites... Therefore tell him I am making My covenant of pace with him. He and his descendants will have a covenant of a lasting priesthood." Because Phinehas was zealous, his sons received a promise.
- God spoke to David: "I will establish your line forever and make your throne firm through all generations" (Ps. 89:3-4). To the Recabites God said, "Jonadab son of Recab will never fail to have a man to serve me" (Jeremiah 35:1819).
- The true God works no other way than in the line of generations: "The children of Your servants will live in Your presence; their descendants will be established before You" (Psalm 102:28). "Who, then, is the man that fears the Lord? He will instruct him in the way chosen for him. He will spend his days in prosperity, and his descendants will inherit the land" (Ps. 25:12-13). "I will pour out my Spirit on your offspring, and my blessing on your descendants" (Isaiah 44:3). "'As for Me, this is my covenant with them,' says the Lord. 'My Spirit, who is on you, and My words that I have put in your mouth will not depart from your mouth, or from the mouths of your children, or from the mouths of their descendants from this time on and forever,' says the Lord" (Isaiah 59:21). "As the new heavens and the new earth that I make will endure before Me," declares the Lord,"so will your name and descendants endure" (Isaiah 66:22). .
- Peter on Pentecost: "The promise is for you and your children" (Acts 2:38-39).The angel to Cornelius: "Send to Joppa for Simon who is called Peter. He will bring you a message through which you and all your household will be saved" (Acts 11:13-14). Paul and Silas to the jailer: "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house" (Acts 16:2933).
4. The Covenant of Redemption is bloodbased. From Adam's coat to Abel's goat, and on through to the end of the Book, the way to God is by blood, by the death of the Substitute: first in type, then in time. Israel was born in virtue of blood. The covenant was ratified with blood. The altar, the priests, their garments were consecrated by blood. They were set apart to render bloody service. "Bring the blood," "Sprinkle the blood," "Pour the blood," "Put the blood," "Take the blood," "Offer the blood," over and over and over. The single most important religious truth in the Tabernacle/Temple system: "The life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that makes atonement for the soul" (Leviticus 17:11).
The New Testament teaching on blood in the covenant is the realization, not the negation, of the Old. Truly, "apart from shedding of blood there is no remission" (Hebrews 9:22).
- · Atonement is had through faith in His blood (Romans 3:25).
- · We are bought with His blood (Acts 20:28).
- · We are justified by His blood (Romans 5:9).
- · We have redemption through His blood (Ephesians 1:7; 1 Peter 1:18-19).
- · God made peace through His blood (Colossians 1:19-20).
- · His blood speaks in and from heaven (Hebrews 12:22-24).
- · We are consecrated by His blood (Hebrews 13:11-12).
- · His blood purifies us from every sin (1 John 1:7).
- · We are set free by His blood (Revelation 1:5).
- · We are made into a people, a royal priesthood, by His blood (Revelation 5:9,10).
5. The Covenant is always "relational" and organic, living and active. Though it may have legal elements, it is never merely legal. The Covenant at Sinai, far from standing opposed to the covenant as realized in Christ, is revelatory of it. The redemption of Israel from Egypt is Old Testament Christianity in picture-perfect form.
- God came to fulfill His promise. He "heard the groaning" of Israel in bondage, was concerned about them (Exodus 2:25), and remembered His covenant (2:24; 6:5).
- Paul speaks of "the kindness and love of God our Savior" who "saved us ...because of His mercy." Listen to the grace of God revealed in the Exodus: "I am the Lord, and I will bring you out ...I will free you ...I will redeem you ...I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God" (6:67). Isaiah, reflecting on the Exodus, characterized it this way: "In all their distress he too was distressed, and the angel of his presence saved them. In his love and mercy he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old" (63:7).
- God spared His people the judgment of death solely in virtue of His mercy and the provision of a blood substitute. "When I see the blood, I will pass over you."
- God brought His people on eagles' wings to Himself (19:4). God had built the covenant from Eden, you will recall, upon the Antithesis: He rescued, He tore our parents from sin and Satan and reclaimed them as His own. So also at the Exodus God jealously took His own back from an enslaver.
The scene at Sinai is much more than a mere echo of a Suzerainty treaty: it is God's wedding covenant with Israel. There is a proposal (19:5-7), a response(v. 8), preparation (915), "music" (16, 19), and solemnity. The Bride comes under the chuppah (glory canopy) to be wedded to the Groom. The ketubah (marriage covenant) is publicly read. Israel becomes "Mrs. Jehovah" (I use the term in all earnestness). God gives instructions for the construction of their "honeymoon cottage" and moves in with His Bride in Exodus 40. That this is no flight of fancy is borne out when the prophets are consulted for their inspired "take" on the Sinai event. Jeremiah tells us of God's reminiscence, "I remember the devotion of your youth, how as a bride you loved Me and followed Me through the desert." And Ezekiel's bold figures of speech leave us no doubt concerning God's view of the Sinai covenant: it was a wedding day. "When I looked at you and saw that you were old enough for love, I spread the corner of my garment over you and covered your nakedness. I gave you my solemn oath and entered into a covenant with you, declares the Sovereign Lord, and you became Mine" (16:8).
We and our children form His Bride in Christ. There is no higher calling.
6. The covenant is conditional. We are graciously, actually and truly incorporated into a set apart people. But this status, though sovereignly conferred, requires the response of obedient faith.
God, in marrying Israel, predicates all upon grace. His very Name, chosen by Him to stand at the head of the covenant commandments, exudes grace: "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage." But such love and grace is never, never set forth as an occasion for presumptuousness on our part, but always as the basis for a life of gratitude, a life of obedient faith.
God's gracious love is promiscuously set forth in Deuteronomy as the rock upon which the covenant is erected; but just as promiscuous is the demand for us to return love to God. "The Lord did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But it was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath he swore to your forefathers that he brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the land of slavery, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt. Know therefore that the Lord your God is God; he is the faithful God, keeping his covenant of love to a thousand generations of those who love him and keep his commands. But those who hate him he will repay to their face by destruction; he will not be slow to repay to their face those who hate him. Therefore, take care to follow the commands, decrees and laws I give you today. If you pay attention to these laws and are careful to follow them, then the Lord your God will keep his covenant of love with you, as he swore to your forefathers" (7:712).
Our relationship with Him today is no different. Both administrations of the covenant were mediated by Christ, both require a response of faithful obedience. "I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers, that our forefathers were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ. Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them; their bodies were scattered over the desert. Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did. Do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written: `The people sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in pagan revelry.' We should not commit sexual immorality, as some of them did-and in one day twenty-three thousand of them died. We should not test the Lord, as some of them did-and were killed by snakes. And do not grumble, as some of them did and were killed by the destroying angel. These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come. So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don't fall!" (1 Corinthians 10:1-12).
7. The covenant is one and the same in both the Old and New Testaments. Yet, it is different. How can this be? The easiest figure by which the sameness and difference can be understood is puberty, maturity. When a boy becomes a man, he is the same person while at the same time he is radically different. He has abilities he did not have before the change. He has obligations he did not have before.
- The work of Christ in history, from His incarnation to ascension, matured the covenant in three principal ways.
- Jesus realized the types (taking up the entire Temple ministry in Himself).
- He concentrated the ordinances (administering Himself through His Word and two simple "sacraments").
- He expanded the membership. The passing of Jewish privilege and the incorporation of the Gentiles into Israel constitutes the most significant covenantal change moving from Old to New. This was the issue taken up repeatedly on the pages of the New Testament. Miss this fact and you'll miss all.
With the expansive details of the older administration realized, concentrated, and made portable, the Old Testament church was free to "leave home" and make these available to all nations. The Gospel was preached to Adam and Abraham, ornately attired at Sinai, and realized in Jesus. After Saul became Paul, he never left home without it.
"I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me in leading the Gentiles to obey God" (Romans 15:18).
"The mystery made known to me ...is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus" (Ephesians 3:3,6).
The covenant made simple:
1. Leave election to God.
2. Covenant is a defined relationship.
3. God's covenant always runs in the line of generations.
4. God's covenant has always been built around the blood He provides.
5. God's covenant is never merely "legal."
6. God's covenant is always given with conditions.
7. The New Covenant is the Old Covenant, all grown up.
Now to him who is able to establish you by my gospel. and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past, but now revealed and made known through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God, so that all nations might believe and obey him-to the only wise God be glory forever through Jesus Christ.! Amen.
STEVE M. SCHLISSEL