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Covenant

If you have not studied the page on God's Will (click here), please do so before reading this page as it deals with the search many are experiencing or questioning regarding what God wants for humanity. 

 

Covenant. God will or purpose was to covenant with humanity through Jesus Christ to establish an elect nation who will then win others to his beloved kingdom. The covenant is a people-oriented concept. Any study on the nature of God and covenants brings to light that covenant is about relationship—God to His creation. Covenant is designed for us to know God as well as knowing others who are in covenant with Him. “The result of a covenant commitment is the establishment of a relationship ‘in connection with,’ ‘with,’ or ‘between’ people.” (1) The New Covenant declares the same in the calling of a people to be God’s elect in the world. “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Peter 2:9).

 

As we discovered in the last chapter, the covenant was at the very heart and soul of the Hebrew culture, religious practice, and expectations. Because Israel’s God was unique and uniquely qualified to do as he promised, Israel clung desperately to the covenant. In covenant, we find the best explanation of God’s divine purpose. Whether it is the covenant with Noah that saves him and his family from a flood or the covenant with Abraham that leads to the culture that gives us Jesus, God’s purpose is always understood.

 

Self-limitation. To clarify the primary concept of the covenant, consider this question: Which is the greater attribute: power or restraint of power? I believe most would agree that restraint of power is the greater of the two. The Greek gods are examples of unrestrained power. Fate was interwoven into their culture with their mythology. Their gods were whimsical and intent on forcing their will on humanity. Moses was the far greater philosopher than Plato in that he understood that God’s self-limitation for the benefit of humanity brought the greater good. God restrained himself by the covenants he made. He chose to work within those covenants, which he initiated. Their initiation was a work of grace. With Noah, Abraham, and Israel, God’s election provided great benefit to each of these. In the same way, God has covenanted with Christ to benefit those who remain in him, faithful to the covenant. As we have tried to argue, forcing us into that covenant by God’s mysterious wisdom is not a demonstration of restraint. Even if we classified it as mysterious, it still appears whimsical and forceful.

When I would deal with the subject in class, I would tell each student that I will give them a number. I then assign either a 1 or 2 to each of the students. I try to make it very obvious that there are far more 2’s than 1’s. After assigning the numbers, I ask all of the 2’s to raise their hand. After these are identified, I very confidently announced, “all 2’s are going to hell!” The responses that I get is what I consider to be the natural response of humanity to the idea that someone would impose eternal destruction on someone based purely on what appears to be their random choice. Even when it is justified as mysterious, that does not relinquish the human concept of injustice. If we truly are in the image of God and have the knowledge of good and evil as the Hebrew Scriptures tell us, then we have the reasonable ability to understand God’s actions. Again, in fear of beating a dead horse, Paul has said there is no mystery. The reason there is no mystery is because God has chosen (self-limitation) to work within a covenant. For the elect, it is a new covenant, written on the heart. Mankind can respond positively or negatively to God’s opportunity.

 

Covenant concept. It will serve us well to make sure that we are on the same page regarding the concept of the covenant. It is typically used as “the convenient shorthand to draw attention to, and indeed to give a certain priority to, Paul’s belief that the events concerning Jesus of Nazareth were indeed the fulfillment of ancient covenant promises" (2). That said, it is important to consider the fact that the Greek word for covenant is seldom used in the New Testament (3). There are several reasons why this concept may not have been frequently used. It may be that the readers were expected to understand the concept, and so there was no need to reiterate it. However, since many of the readers were Gentiles, they may not have known the Hebrew history and, therefore, the place of his covenant in their history. Another reason is that the Greek concept was more legal in nature and emphasized the death of the one making the covenant (4). While the Hebrew covenant emphasized the faithfulness of God as its primary characteristic, in Christ, the issue of the death to activate the covenant (new covenant) was vital. Therefore, the use of the Greek supported the gospel message and the necessity of the death of Christ. At this point, we’re in a bit of a quandary as to why the term was not often used, especially in Paul and the Gospels. It is my contention that the gospel writers included the covenant history by the presentation of Jesus as a faithful Jew. For the Jewish members of the church, it would be a reiteration of how Jesus fully satisfies the covenant. For the Gentile audience, the rehearsal of the covenant concept would fall within their understanding and be demonstrated by the Jewish emphasis on covenant. The Greek culture would be attentive to the sacrificial aspect of the covenant (legal), which Jesus satisfied completely. It is appropriate at this time to move to a definition of covenant based on the Hebrew heritage that feeds the New Testament.

Endnotes

 

(1) Robertson, O Palmer, The Christ of the Covenants (Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, Phillipsburg, 1980), p. 6.

(2) N. T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013), 40.

(3) With one exception and Luke, the word covenant in the Synoptics is used only in context to the institution of the Eucharist (the Lord's Supper). In Acts, it is used in reference to Israel's history. Paul uses the expression only six times in his epistles and John in the Revelation uses it only wants. The book of Hebrews uses it the most with 18 occurrences dealing with both the old and the new covenants.

(4) This type of covenant is comparable to our idea of a will that someone would prepare to protect their assets after their death

* This page is an excerpt from is my book Non-Negotiable: Focusing on the Essentials of the Faith. The book goes into more detail on many of these issues.

 

Click here to purchase the book

Last update: 6 September 2015

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