The word covenant occurs 286 times in the
Old Testament and 33 times in the New Testament. This truth alone underscores
how vital understanding the covenant is to grasping the message of Scripture.
The great preacher Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834-1892) once wrote: "All
God's dealings with men have a covenant character: it hath so pleased Him
to arrange it, that He will not deal with us except through a covenant,
nor can we deal with Him except in the same manner."
The covenant, at its most basic root, refers
to a relationship or agreement between God and His people that is best
described with the word 'BOND.' The word 'bond' is fitting because
this agreement is legally 'binding.' There are legal implications,
in other words, for those who reject the stipulations of the covenant agreement,
as is evident in the periodic lawsuits God issued (through his prophets)
against such people (See, for example, Isa.1; cf. Deut.4:26; 30:10; 32:1).
This feature of the covenant, as a legal
agreement with legal implications, should not lead us to conceive of the
covenant as a business contract of some sort, however. The Dutch theologian
Klaas Schilder rightly argued that the covenant has a whole different character
than a contract. Whereas a contract presupposes distrust, insincerity and
default, a covenant presupposes trust, love and fidelity. And whereas a
contract is concerned with 'business,' a covenant is concerned with the
'heart.' The covenant, unlike a contract, is an agreement made in love.
Many Christians rightly speak of the covenant
of grace because what we have in view here is a gracious
bond God establishes with His people, a bond through which He extends his
wonderful grace and life-providing (sin-forgiving), undeserved, unmerited
favor to His people.
Here's our definition: The covenant is
the bond of union and communion which God sovereignly and graciously
establishes with believers and their children. There are three
elements to this bond:
Promise. The covenant is a covenant
of grace since God takes the initiative and comes to us with promises
that He will be our God, that we shall be His people and that He will provide
His people with life and eternal blessing (salvation). See, in the Old
Testament, for example, Lev.26:12; Jer.24:7; Ezek.11:19 and Ezek.36:26-27;
In the New Testament, see 2 Cor.6:16 and Rev.21:3. The promises of the
covenant are not offers (Arminianism) nor guarantees (Hyper-Calvinism).
Obligation. In order for these promises to be realized in your life, however, you must embrace them with faith and obedience, the obligations of the covenant. (Heb.6:15; 10:36-39). Faith and obedience are the very life-blood, the modus vivendi of covenantal living. See, for example, Gen.2:16-17; Gen.18:19; Matt.28:20; John 14:15; 1 Cor.10:11-12; Gal.2:20; Col.1:21-23
Threat. Should you reject these
promises and live in unbelief and disobedience, you will face God's threat
of punishment (death and cursing). See, for example, Lev.26:15; Deut.31:20;
Rom.11:28-30; Heb.6:8; Heb.10:26-31; Heb.12:25.
It works like this: God comes to us with
a promise: He will be our God and will do everything a God can do for His
people -- bless us, favor us, save us, etc. This promise, however, is conditional
upon faith and obedience, the obligations of the covenant. We need to embrace
this promise with faith and obedience in order to receive it. We need,
as the hymn writer expressed it, to 'trust and obey for there
is no other way to be happy in Jesus.' If we reject these promises, we
incur God's wrath and threats.
The Covenant with
Where do we first read about the covenant?
In the very first chapters of the Bible. It is true that we do not read
the word 'covenant' there but the word doesn't need to be mentioned for
the relationship to exist.
Yahweh, the covenant God. We can
see evidence of a covenant relationship in Genesis 1 and 2, in the first
place, in the use of God's covenant name YHWH (Yahweh [formerly called
Jehovah], LORD) in Gen.2:4ff. God did not introduce Himself with this name
till He appeared to Moses in the burning bush (Exodus 3). And Moses, who
is writing these chapters, is telling us that the God of the people Israel
is the same God as the God of Adam and Eve. Moses is teaching us to think
of Adam and Eve as in covenant with God in a comparable way to Israel.
Satan, by the way, does not use this covenant name (Gen.3:1) and neither
does Eve when she begins to listen to him. She is already breaking away
from the covenant.
Covenant features (1): union and communion.
What we see in this covenant with Adam are all the features of the
covenant, the central one being union and communion with God. This central
feature is expressed in Lev.26:12, where God says: I will walk among
you and be your God and you shall be my people. This very relationship
in which God dwells with His people and they with him is true already in
Eden. It is a relationship which is often expressed in the Bible through
familial (i.e., pertaining to the family) analogies. Let's look at them:
(1) the husband/wife analogy. The
Lord is a husband to his people (Jer.3:14; Jer.31:32, etc.). To go after
idols is to commit spiritual adultery. The church, in the New Testament
is called the bride of Christ;
(2) the father/child analogy. In
Luke 3:37 Adam is called the son of God. Israel is called the son of God
(Hos.11:1; cf. Deut.1:31; Rom.9:4; 2 Cor.6:18).
We must think of Adam and Eve with God
in terms of these very analogies and not differently. These familial analogies
help us understand the tie that binds the partners in the covenant: love
(1) Love. God is love. In love God binds
himself to his people. He repeatedly pledges his love to his people. In
Deut.7:8, we read that God chose Israel as his people because he loved
them. It is a covenant of love (see Deut.7:9, NIV). God so loved the world
that he sent his son (John 3:16). That love provokes the response of love
on our part (1 John 4:19) and the first and greatest commandment requires
us to love God.
(2) Faithfulness. Mutual fidelity is necessary
for a successful marriage and family. It is the same in the household of
faith. We are to trust the Lord, not idols, and love Him. In the covenant
relation, the faithfulness of God's people is a reflection of God's faithfulness
(read Deut.7:9; Psalm 105). He keeps his covenant of love to a thousand
generations to those who love him and keep his commands. Even our unfaithfulness
cannot nullify it (Rom.3:3).
Mutual love and faithfulness tie the covenant
partners together. This has always been true, already with Adam and Eve.
God placed man in the garden (Gen.2:8, 15), the place where he would walk
(Gen.3:8) to enjoy fellowship with man.
Covenant features (2): promise.
In the covenant, there was the promise of life which is symbolized in the
tree of life. The Bible doesn't say a whole lot about it. God created Adam
with life as a living creature. Yet there was more in store for him --
eternal life. Perhaps he would have been taken out of this life without
death, like Enoch. In this life, Adam could fall. But in the life promised,
he would be confirmed in righteousness and holiness. He would then be the
fullness of God's image. He was created in the image of God, but not in
its fullness. He could still sin.
Covenant features (3): obligation (demand).
Marriage is more than a honeymoon. There is work to do. God placed
man in the garden to work, to extend its borders, to rule over the creation,
to fill the earth and populate it. We call that the cultural mandate
(Gen.1:28). This work is to be a conscious loving response to God and His
word. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil was a perpetual reminder
that man was to respond to the love and faithfulness of God. The only reason
the tree was forbidden was because God said so. And Adam was to live by
every word which proceeds from the mouth of the Father. He had obligations
to God. If he fulfilled the obligations, he could thereby inherit the promise
of everlasting life.
Covenant features (4): threat. We
read in Gen.2:17b: for in the day that eat of it you shall surely die.
The covenant with Adam, just as the ones with Abraham, Noah and Moses,
involves a 'pledge-to-death.' The pledge is that if you break the
covenant, you will suffer death as the consequence.
Adam and Eve failed to keep the covenantal
obligations and consequently passed that very day from a state of life
to a state of death. This state of death has two implications: (1) physical
-- their bodies became susceptible to the forces of the fallen world, to
sickness and ultimately to death and (2) spiritual -- they became
'dead in sins and trespasses,' destined apart from God's grace for eternal
death (hell and damnation) (Eph.2:1).
A covenant of works? Some would
incorrectly call this covenant the covenant of works (see Westminster
Confession of Faith 7:2) because of a belief that the works-principle is
at work here. The works-principle is that life and salvation can be earned
through obedience. It is thought, in this view, that Adam was promised
life on the condition of perfect obedience. The promise of life, therefore,
was something which could be earned or merited through works. Before
the fall, man could earn eternal life. After the fall, life could be earned
only by Christ. Here the relationship between God and man is presented
as contractual, not familial. Man performs and receives a reward
as a matter of justice. This is incorrect.
Not a labor contract. When God created
man, he did not enter in a labor contract (wages for work), but
into a covenant with him. The enjoyment of the covenant is entirely
through God's grace. Eternal life is not a wage to be earned or a goal
to be achieved by human effort. No, it is a promise which God makes to
man. It was to be received by faith, not by works or merit. It is to be
received by faith that is living and vital. By faith and loyalty, Adam
is to inherit what is promised to him. By unbelief and disloyalty, he will
forfeit what is promised. Adam was to be just man who would live by faith,
not a wage earner who would live by merit.
Eternal life could never be merited. Even if Adam was perfectly obedient to God, he would have merely given God what he owed him. Nothing, even after perfect obedience, has yet been earned.
Covenant failure: Sin. Adam failed
to be this man. Rather than a just man who lived by faith, he turned out
to be a sinner who died through unbelief. Then God sent a second Adam.
Both Adams were sons of God (Luke 3), although obviously not in exactly
the same way. The second Adam fulfilled his calling. He is the just man
who lives by faith par excellence. He is obedient to the point of
death. He dies, but is raised again. He lives by faith: 'Father into your
hands, I commit my spirit.' He entrusted himself to a faithful judge who
judges justly. He fulfilled the demand side of the covenant. Obedience
is a manifestation of faith. And he inherited eternal life.
Jesus in faith served the Lord God without
sin. He was pre-eminently the faithful covenant partner and in this way
serves as our example because we are called to an analogous relationship--to
be faithful covenant partners with God. But he is more than an example.
Through his work of mediation, Christ restores us to covenant communion
Adam as representative head of humanity.
The covenant with Adam is somewhat unique because Adam stands in relationship
to God as the representative head of all humanity. When Adam broke
covenant and passed from the state of life to death, all humanity passed
with him. That's what Paul writes in 1 Cor.15:22, "In Adam, all die."
In Rom.5:12ff., he writes, "...sin entered the world through one man
and death through sin and in this way death came to all men, because all
sinned..." Read article 14 of the Belgic Confession.
Original sin. Adam's sin is imputed
and transferred to all of humanity such that all children are conceived
and born in sin (Ps.51:5). This is often called original sin. We believe
there are two dimensions to original sin: guilt and pollution.
Through Adam we are all legally guilty before God as judge. We have sinned
in Adam and are legally responsible for what we have done in him. Because
of Adam's sin we are also morally polluted. Everybody, therefore, is in
need of justification (God's declaration of righteousness -- vs. guilt)
and sanctification (God's work of cleansing -- vs. pollution). Read Lord's
Day 3 and 4 of the Heidelberg Catechism and article 15 of the Belgic Confession.
Covenant with Adam restored through
Christ. God was not pleased with the breach of the covenant and so
he returned to Adam to restore his covenant privileges. God wanted to have
a humanity in the world who would serve Him and his purposes would not
be frustrated. But there is a difference: whereas the first covenant was
established in the context of life, this second covenant (really a restoration
of the first) is established in the context of death. No longer is the
promise of life self-evident as in the first covenant. Because Adam is
in a state of death, the way of life had to be explicitly spelled out.
To the serpent God says this (Gen.3:15): And I will put enmity between
your seed and her Seed; He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise
The way of life would be through the Seed
of the woman. Adam had been graciously created with life. Because of sin,
he forfeited that privilege and passed through death. Now through faith
in the Seed of the woman, he could regain those privileges and be graciously
re-created with life (Eph.2:1-10). Read Belgic Confession, article 17.
The Covenant with
When sin peaked during the time of Noah (Gen.6:3-5),
the Lord's patience was exhausted and he sent a flood in judgment. But God graciously
and sovereignly confirmed His covenant with Noah to spare him and his household
(his wife, 3 sons and their wives) and give them life. We find the word 'covenant'
for the first time in Gen.6:18: But I will establish(1)
My covenant with you and you shall go into the ark-- you, your sons, your wife
and your sons' wives with you.
The Lord here renews his covenant. And
once again the three dimensions of God's covenant relationship surface.
We find obligation in vv.14-16 (make the ark), promise in
vv.18-21 (you will be spared), and threat in vv.13, 17 (those who
disbelieve will die; cf. pledge-to-death). Hebrews 11:7 says this: "By
faith Noah, being divinely warned of things not seen, moved with
godly fear, prepared an ark for the saving of his household, by which he
condemned the world and became heir of the righteousness which is
according to faith."This covenant is renewed in Genesis 8 and 9.
Noah and the waters of the flood. Noah
was able to pass through--to live in spite of--the waters of God's judgment.
How? Because God provided an ark for him. That ark was preview of our Lord
Jesus Christ. In Him, we too pass through the waters of judgment. In his
death, He took out death upon himself so we could pass through the waters
of judgment safely.
The apostle Peter presents the flood as
an allusion to baptism (see 1 Pet.3:18-22). Just as Noah was 'saved through
water' (v.20), so we are saved through the waters of baptism. Baptism is
a sign and seal of God's gracious favor to us, of God's covenant promise.
If we trust him and embrace his promises we too will be delivered from
the waters of judgment, just as Noah trusted and was saved.
Noah's salvation did not depend upon his
willingness to build the ark. Noah's salvation came to him through his
trust and faith in God. In the face of judgment, God provides a way of
salvation. Noah intrinsically deserves to die with the others. But God
provided salvation for him, salvation which he received by faith. That
faith is the epitome of a life which is lived in covenantal loyalty to
God. His righteousness was not meritorious. His righteousness did not earn
him anything. His righteousness was evidence of his trust in the salvation
to which he is not entitled, but which he receives through sovereign grace.
'By faith Noah ... became heir of the righteousness which is according
to faith (Heb.11:7). God saves the man who trusts in him.
For believers today in covenant with God,
the threats of judgment remain. But if we remain 'in Christ' who is our
ark, the threats will not be realized and we will not be cut off. (John
The Covenant with
We can read in Gen.15:18 that the Lord
'cut' a covenant with Abram and in Gen.17, how he ratified this covenant
and instituted circumcision. We will see that circumcision is a sign and
seal both of covenant promise (privilege) and covenant obligation (responsibility).
The covenant promise, first of all then, is three-fold.
Covenant promise (1): A people.
Circumcision seals the covenant promise of 'a people.' Verse 2 says that
the Lord "will greatly increase your numbers." Many nations are to come
from Abraham (v.4). Implicit in this ordinance is not simply the circumcision
of one nation, but that of the many nations of which Abraham is the father.
Envisioned here is the circumcision of a multitude of nations. This promise
is realized through the carrying out of the Great Commission -- to make
disciples of all nations (Matt.28:18-20). All these nations who believe
are spiritual descendants of Abraham, the children of Abraham according
to promise. What is mentioned in Matthew 28, however, is not circumcision,
but baptism. Baptism, therefore, comes in the place of circumcision.
Covenant promise (2): A land. Verse
8 indicates this promise. A people is promised, but also a place where
these people can live. And just as more than one nation is envisioned,
so there is more than one land in view. Ultimately, the land given to the
people is nothing less than the whole earth. The promise of Gen.12:3, "I
will bless those who bless you ... and all peoples on earth shall be blessed
through you." The whole earth comes into view as the dwelling place of
the multitude of nations.
The Lord Jesus Christ says in Matthew 5
that the meek will inherit the 'earth." Peter says that in keeping with
His promise, we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new 'earth' (2
Pet.3:13). We also read in Rom.4:13 of Abraham as 'heir of the world.'
In Isaiah 54, you read about the future glory of Zion. The tents must be
made bigger because of the number of children she will have. The land of
Canaan will no longer be able to contain all of them.
That expansion begins on the day of Pentecost
(Acts 2), where people come from different nations, multitudes are converted,
and the promise to Abraham takes on increasing fulfillment. When Peter
preached to the people at Pentecost, he called them to repentance because
'the promise is to you and to your children' (Acts 2:39), reminding them
of the privilege of the Abrahamic covenant. Precisely in terms of that
promise, both Jews and Gentiles are baptized.
Core covenant promise (3): Union and
communion. Verse 7 records the very heart of the covenant when God
says, "I will be God to you and to your descendants after you." The privilege
of the covenant is enjoyed both by adult and infant descendants. He makes
his claim upon believers and their children. Union and communion with God
is extended through time, as the promise goes out from believers to their
children and to their children's children. This union and communion is
also extended in space, from Canaan to the whole earth. The church extends
through time and space -- those are the two dimensions of our evangelistic
Covenant obligation (1): keep the covenant.
Since we are the people of God, we must be the people of God. Circumcision
is a pledge of allegiance to the Lord. Gen.17:9: As for you, you must keep
my covenant, you and your descendants after you for the generations to
come. Verse 10 lets us see that a primary obligation in keeping the covenant
is the practice of circumcision itself. Covenant keeping, however, may
not be reduced to circumcision. That was the error of the Judaizers during
the time of the apostle Paul (see Rom.2:28-29). Salvation is not determined
by circumcision simply. True circumcision begins with the heart and extends
to the whole of life. The Lord explains what is meant by covenant keeping
in Gen.17:1: Walk before me and be blameless. Covenant keeping cannot be
reduced merely to circumcision.
This covenant must be kept not only by
Abraham, but also by his children, the little ones. All who are circumcised
are obligated to keep covenant. That children do not understand circumcision
does not excuse them from the practice. So too, infants must be baptized,
even though they do not yet understand the meaning. The obligation is discharged
in accord with the level of maturity the children have obtained. All children
are obligated to obey their parents. Infants obviously cannot do that like
older children can. But are infants excused from the fifth commandment?
Certainly not! But you certainly would expect more of a fifteen year old
than of a five year old.
Covenant obligation (2): teach the children.
In Gen.18:18-19, we read that Abraham will become a powerful nation
and God has chosen him 'to direct his children' so that he can obtain what
the Lord has promised. Abraham's children must also keep the covenant so
that Lord may bring about what He has promised. The Lord's mercy rest on
those who keep his covenant (Ps.103:18). The promise is realized through
The same pattern is found in the Great
Commission. Those who have been baptized are to be taught to observe all
that the Lord has commanded. Baptized infants are to be taught the gospel
of Jesus Christ and faith in Him. Faith has to be communicated to children,
because we are saved by faith. So that the Lord may bring to pass all that
he has promised to Abraham and to us.
Covenant threat. The covenant with
Abram resulted from the dividing of the animals, coupled with the passing
between the pieces (Gen.15:17). By dividing animals and passing between
the pieces, the participants in a covenant pledged themselves to life and
death. If they should break the covenant, they were asking that their own
bodies be torn in pieces just as the animals had been divided ceremonially.
Disobedience would invoke the covenant threat/curse.
The significance of this covenant ceremony
continued throughout history without being diminished. In Jeremiah 34,
there is a double reference to the "passing between the parts of the calf"
(vv.18, 19) and the detailed description of the devouring of the covenantally-cursed
bodies by birds of prey (v.20) reflect unmistakably the language describing
the inauguration of God's covenant with Abraham. And there is no fear on
the prophet's part that this description of covenant renewal will appear
irrelevant or incomprehensible to his audience.
But there is more than just an allusion
to the Abrahamic covenant here. Rather, it is a very real description of
an actual covenant-renewal ceremony just enacted by Zedekiah and his people.
Something the people did in Jeremiah's day corresponded to the pledge-to-death
involved in the Abrahamic covenant.
The pledge-to-death is also alluded to
in Abraham's vision in which he had to drive away birds of prey which gathered
about the ceremonial carcasses (Gen.15:11). This portion of his vision
symbolized the ultimate fate of the covenant-breaker. Not only would his
body be slain; it would be devoured by wild birds of heaven. Woe to the
covenant-breaker who once pledged himself to death. This very curse is
repeated in the Mosaic covenant (Deut.28:26) and results in numerous cases
of covenant violation (see 1 Kings 14:11; 1 Kings 16:4; 1 Kings 21:24;
2 Kings 9:10; Jer.7:33; Jer.16:4; Jer.19:7). A later reference to this
curse appears in the Psalmist's lament over fallen Jerusalem (Ps.79:2-3).
All of these judgments can be understood
only in terms of the original pledge to life and death at Sinai, which
in turn reflected the covenantal form employed by God in binding himself
Circumcision as a sign of God's sovereign
grace. It would be a misunderstanding if we thought that meeting the
covenant obligations somehow merited salvation. God's promises to Abraham
of a people and a land to dwell in were seeming impossibilities. Abraham,
at 99 years old, was as good as dead, perhaps even impotent (Rom.4:18-19).
And when Sarah died, he did not even own enough land to have her buried
somewhere. He had to secure land from the heathens.
How are these promises to be fulfilled?
Circumcision was a powerful reminder that promises would come to pass only
through God's grace. God Himself will see to it that Israel, and eventually,
the church, keeps covenant with Him. The Lord not only commands, he also
gives what he commands.
Circumcision was not unique to Israel.
Most of the nations practiced circumcision. The Philistines, uncircumcised,
were a major exception. The Egyptians had it, as is evident from the mummies,
and it was used primarily for hygienic purposes. Normally circumcision
was performed at puberty to mark the passageway from boyhood to adulthood.
It pointed to the removal of the obstacle to fertility and fruitfulness.
The foreskin is viewed as blocking the passage of the seminal fluid. With
the foreskin removed the way is open now to having children. Boys are developing
the natural power to beget children and circumcision will enhance the development
of these natural powers.
This sort of idea finds an analog in Scripture
in the way that circumcision appears in Scripture. Look at Exod.6:12, where
we read of Moses claiming 'uncircumcised lips.' The words cannot pass through.
Look at Jer.6:10, where we read of 'uncircumcised lips.' The words cannot
enter the ears. Look at Lev.19:23-25, where we read that fruit is to be
regarded as uncircumcised. The access to the fruit is blocked.
Sin blocks the union and communion we are
to have with God. Israel could not do that and would not do that. Israel
would not circumcise their hearts and remove the obstacle of sin. Through
the wonder of God's grace, the obstacle will be removed and the way will
opened. God will provide a believing seed for Abraham when Abraham could
not do this himself. Circumcision is performed on the eighth day Deut.10:16.
It is not a sign of what we are able to do (Arminian understanding), to
complement natural powers. No, the circumcision takes place while the child
is an infant.
The Lord will circumcise the hearts, so
that you may love Him with all your heart and soul and live (Deut.30:6).
God will remove the obstacle which separates us from Him and He will be
our God and we His people. The Lord circumcises the heart as he regenerates
and saves, but that is because of what he has done once for all in Jesus
Christ. In the death of Jesus Christ, we see the great circumcision of
the people of God (Col.2:11). The obstacle of sin is removed by this bloody
rite, the cutting off of the flesh of Jesus Christ. Through his circumcision
the path of reconciliation to God is opened up and we receive access to
Him. He is the way, the truth and life.
The Covenant with
God's covenant with Moses, which we find
in Exodus 19ff., should really be called the covenant with Israel because
Moses was the mediator and representative of Israel. It must be noted that
this covenant is not an innovation, but a direct continuation
of the Lord's covenants with the patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob).
In Psalm 105:7-11 we read: He is the LORD our God; His judgments are
in all the earth. He is mindful of His covenant forever, of the word that
He commanded, for a thousand generations, the covenant which he made with
Abraham, His sworn promise to Isaac, which He confirmed to Jacob as a statue,
to Israel as an everlasting covenant.
Promise (1). God's promise that
He would be God to His people was an everlasting promise. It was not introduced
to the people of Israel on Mt. Sinai but was confirmed to them. In Exodus
19:5-6 the Lord says to His people: Now therefore, if you will indeed
obey My voice and keep my covenant, then you shall be a special treasure
to Me above all people; for all the earth is Mine. And you shall be to
Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.
This promise is repeated in the New Testament.
In 1 Peter 2:5, we read: You also, as living stones, are being built
up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices
acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.
Promise (2). With the privilege
of being the covenant people of God came many promises of blessing. We
find two such promises in the ten commandments: (1) God will show mercy
to thousands, to those who love him and keep his commandments and; (2)
It will go well with children who obey their parents.
You find many other blessings throughout
the laws of Moses (look at Deuteronomy 28-30. Deuteronomy 28 begins like
this: Now it shall come to pass, if you diligently obey the voice of
the LORD your God, to observe carefully all His commandments which I command
you today, that the Lord will set you high above all nations of the earth.
And all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, because you
obey the voice of the LORD your God.
Obligation. The obligations of God's
covenant with Moses are quite obvious. The people of Israel were to obey
the laws God gave to Moses, all of which were summarized in the ten commandments,
which are called elsewhere 'the ten words of God's covenant.
Obligations: The Provisional. With
the coming of Christ, aspects of the Mosaic law passed away, but much has
remained permanent. Among the things that have passed away are the laws
regarding the sacrifices and the priesthood. Christ is our High Priest
and our sacrifice. His death on the cross was the ultimate sacrifice for
In Hebrews 9:12ff we read: Not with
the blood of goats and calves, but His own blood, He entered the Most Holy
Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption ... For this reason
He is the Mediator of the new covenant, by means of death, for the redemption
of the transgressions under the first covenant, that those who are called
may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance.
The laws regarding the priesthood and sacrifices
have obviously passed away (Read Article 21 of the Belgic Confession).
The same is true of the dietary laws (i.e. no pork). Those laws were originally
given to separate the people of Israel from Gentiles. To eat of the forbidden
meat was to defile oneself by disregarding the boundary he had placed around
his holy people (see Lev.11:44-45). In the New Testament, however, the
boundary surrounding Israel was widened to include the Gentiles. There
was no longer need to have laws separating Jews from Gentiles. The Gentiles
were now welcome in God's family.
That's why in Peter's vision in Acts 10,
he is told by the Lord to eat the 'unclean' animals. God told him not to
call anything 'impure' that God has made 'clean' (Acts 10:15; 11:9). Peter
had rightly understood the vision when he said to Cornelius, regarding
the Gentiles, "But God has shown me that I should not call any man impure
or unclean (Acts 10:28).
The clean and unclean foods, the Old Testament
feasts (Passover, Feast of booths, Feast of weeks) are 'a shadow of things
to come, but the substance is in Christ' (Gal.2:16-17). When Christ came,
his shadows passed away (Read Belgic Confession, article 25).
Obligation: The Permanent. Obviously
the ten commandments are permanent commandments. Each of them is repeated
in the New Testament. The fourth commandment has a provisional character
to it, since we no longer worship on the Sabbath, but on Sunday. But Christ
did not abolish the Sabbath. He is Lord of the Sabbath. And as Lord of
the Sabbath, he arose on the first day of the week, called by John 'the
Lord's day' (Rev.1:10). This is now our day of worship and commemoration.
Threat (1). You find a pledge-to-death
ceremony in the Mosaic covenant similar to the Abrahamic pledge-to-death
in Exodus 24:7-8. Moses sprinkled blood on the people symbolizing not only
a cleansing, but a consecration, by which all the people were to keep the
covenant on pain of death. This ceremony functions much the same way the
passing between the animals did in the Abrahamic covenant.
Threat (2). The laws themselves
contained many threats for disobedience. Deuteronomy 27-28 are full of
curses for those transgress the law of God. We read in Deuteronomy 28:15:
But it shall come to pass, if you do not obey the voice of the Lord your
God to observe carefully all His commandments and His statutes which I
command you, that all these curses will come upon you and overtake you.
The Covenant with
We find an interesting reference to the
covenant with Moses in the New Testament, in 1 Corinthians 10:1-4.
Here the waters of the Red Sea are called a 'baptism' for the people of
Israel in much the same way that the waters of the flood were called a
'baptism' for Noah and his family in 1 Peter 3.
Covenant promise and obligation.
In the context of these four verses, the apostle Paul is speaking of the
promise (privilege) and obligation (responsibility) of believers. We see
that, for example, in verse 12: Therefore let him who thinks he stands
take heed lest he fall. To stand before the Lord as His redeemed people
is obviously a great privilege. You can't fall unless you are standing.
That was the privilege Israel enjoyed as the Lord brought them out of Egypt,
as He redeemed them from the bondage of Egypt. It's the same great privilege
we have today to stand before God as his redeemed sons and daughters.
Every covenant has these two parts: promise
and obligation, privilege and responsibility. That's found in the formulary
for baptism in the Psalter Hymnal. The covenant is much more than the bestowing
of God's grace. If you limit the covenant simply to the bestowal of God's
grace, you will not be able to make sense of the covenant warnings (see
v.11). The presence of warnings presuppose some sort of obligation. We
must not transform our doctrine of election into a doctrine of fatalism.
These warnings are not hypothetical, they are real, genuine warnings.
Everything we have, we have by God's sovereign
grace. And that grace puts us into a covenant relationship of responsibility.
Grace is the foundation for the expression of covenant responsibility.
You can see that in Col.1:21-23. Paul does not say (hyper-Calvinism): You
have reconciled and how you respond makes little difference. He does not
say (Arminianism): if you continue in the faith, then you will be reconciled.
He says this: you have been reconciled, if you continue in the faith. You
have the promise and you enjoy the privilege. Now you must continue in
faith or you will be cut off. Without faith, you cannot be saved.
Privilege brings responsibility. Privilege
is never automatic. It's not like having blue eyes. It's not like joining
the Masonic order: "Once a mason, always a mason." In 1 Cor.9:24, Paul
provides the analogy of running the race. In order to obtain the prize,
you must keep running the race. Christians have an obligation.
Covenant threat. Paul's teaching
here in 1 Corinthians 10 appears in the context of exhortation, just like
in 1 Peter 3, where there was the exhortation to persevere. The exhortation
here is motivated by a threat or warning. We see that word mentioned in
verse 11. The warning is that we will lose out or be destroyed if we do
not remain steadfast.
Israel had been the beneficiary of great
benefits. She had been delivered from Egypt and she had been cared for
in the desert (Deut.1:30). In spite of this great privilege, however, Israel
did not 'run hard' to use Paul's language, God was not pleased with most
of them and they perished in the wilderness (see v.5). And these things
are recorded for us, to keep us from doing evil things (see v.6).
What makes the example so relevant for
us is that the privilege is very similar to our privilege. Israel was 'baptized'
in the sea. He intends the Corinthians to reflect on their baptism. That's
why he used to the word. He could have used another word. The two covenants
(with Moses and with Jesus) do not differ in substance, but in administrations.
Consider the following four points Paul makes in this passage:
1. Passing through the sea.
Paul says all our forefathers passed through the sea. These Israelites
were not immersed, but they passed through dry land. The waters served
to threaten the further existence of Israel. God held them back, so Israel
could walk through. He did not hold back when Pharoah and his hosts passed
through. And the destruction which came upon Pharoah and his army is comparable
to the destruction which came upon the world at the flood: judgment by
water. Like Noah and his family, so Moses and the children of Israel were
saved through the water, which meant destruction for others.
Baptism is not dependent upon the quantity
of water, nor by the mode -- the point is that the waters symbolizes the
impending judgment of God. Baptism is sign and seal of his saving grace,
in spite of deserved judgment. It is the sign and seal of God's pledge
that he will take us through the waters of his judgment.
2. Baptized in the cloud. Our
forefathers, says Paul, were all under the cloud and baptized in the cloud.
The reference here is to the cloud which led by day and the pillar of fire
which led by night. This was likely the same cloud.
What is the meaning of baptism in the cloud?
The cloud served to lead and guide the people (Psa.78:14). It also served
to cover and protect the people (Psa.105:39) from the Egyptians who pursuing
them (Exod.14:19-20). But most of all, the cloud was indicative of the
presence of the Lord (Exod.13:21-22; Num.14:14). Here we have a picture
of the Lord Himself as the leader and protector his people. The cloud represents
the presence of God as Spirit (Isaiah 4:4ff.), for cleansing and purification,
as a judge for the ungodly. The Spirit of God is present at the Red Sea
to lead and protect Israel, but also as purifier and cleanser, by destroying
the ungodly. The Spirit of God also serves as a Spirit of judgment in the
New Testament (see story of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5). The church
is saved by being purified of its unclean elements and being led by the
Spirit. At the Red Sea there is a baptism by water and in the spirit, which
corresponds to Christian baptism.
3. Baptized into Moses.
Paul says that they were all baptized into Moses. Moses was the man chosen
by God to be the leader of the people. He is the Savior of Israel. People
looked to him as their leader (see Exod.3:10). Moses brings the people
out of Egypt. He is the mediator between God and the people (Gal.3:19).
Moses address the people on behalf of God and he elicits from them a response
of faith and obedience. The people of Israel are to follow him. Baptism
in the Red sea will forever separate Israel from Egypt (Exod.14:13). Here
Israel is definitively committed to the leadership as Moses and definitively
marked as the people of God. They must now follow Moses to enter the promised
land. That's what it means to be baptized in Moses. It's a trust in Moses
and pledge of allegiance to Moses. It's a sign and seal of union and communion
This obviously corresponds to our baptism
'in Christ' (Rom.9:3). We are baptized into the 'name of Christ' (see 1
Cor.1:15 and many other places). Union with Moses meant salvation for Israel.
Union with Christ means salvation for us. The analogy between the two baptisms
does not lie in getting wet. Israel stayed dry. Israel shared in the destiny
of its leader, just as we do. As Moses goes, so goes the nation. We are
baptized into Christ and we share in the destiny of Christ.
When Israel became alienated from her leader
Moses, that alienation expresses itself in unbelief and disobedience (see
Heb.3:18-19). The people of God did not accept God's work for them in Moses
and God was not pleased with them and they perished in the wilderness just
as Pharoah had perished.
We are reminded here of God's grace in
Christ. We are also reminded of our responsibility to remain in Christ,
to remain with him (see John 15:4). So baptism is a sign and seal of God's
promise of salvation to those who are in, and who remain, in Christ. Only
in Christ are the promises in Christ 'yes' and 'amen.' By faith in Christ,
we stand firm (2 Cor.1:24; Matt.24:13). Just as Israel had to stick with
Moses, so we have to stick with Christ.
4. All were baptized. All
the people of Israel participate in the privilege and the responsibility.
We see the word 'all' repeated 3 times in verses 1-2 and 5 times in verse
1-4 in 1 Cor.10. That repetition is for a purpose. The forefathers are
'spiritual forefathers' since Gentiles are part of the assumed audience.
Notice how Paul does not distinguish between
believers and unbelievers. The people of God as a people faithfully reach
the other side of the Sea. That is not to say that there was no difference
between believers and unbelievers but that the difference doesn't come
into play. Moses does not stand on the Egyptian side of the Sea to take
the spiritual temperature of each individual before crossing the Sea. He
simply calls the people as a covenant whole to step ahead in faith. The
people as a whole move together into baptism. Now the hypocrites in the
midst of Israel will make themselves known and God will judge them. It
should not surprise us that there are among those called to baptism and
who commit themselves to baptism those who manifest themselves as hypocrites.
Including children. This caravan
which passed through the sea is made up of all kinds of people, fat and
thin, large and small, old and young -- even infants. The infants were
not left behind. They were ALL baptized, even the infants in arms. If infants
were not to be baptized, it would have been very cruel of Paul to designate
this event a 'baptism.' When Israel was 'baptized' it included the infants.
That there were infants who passed through the Sea is explicitly attested
to in Scripture (Exod.10:9-11, 24, "women and children (lit. 'small children');"
This exodus occurred because God "remembered
His holy promise, and Abraham His servant" (Ps.105:42). The promise is
not fulfilled if infants are excluded. Just like the adults, so the children
must remain in Moses. They belong to the Lord Jesus Christ and therefore
we teach them to trust in Jesus, to look to Jesus and to remain faithful
to Jesus, to remain in Jesus.
God did not give his law on Sinai so Israel
could gain the right to go through the Red Sea. No, the law is given afterwards.
He brought them out of Egypt, "that they might observe His statutes and
keep His laws" (Ps.105:45). If the right to salvation had to be earned,
all infants would be lost. God first of all saves us and claims us and
promises us eternal life and then elicits the response of loving gratitude
in faith and obedience. First the exodus occurs and then Sinai. The same
is true in the Great Commission. First we baptize and then we teach them
to observe what is commanded. Baptism signifies and seals union with Christ
and that privilege carries the obligation to remain faithful.
Training children. We must train
our children to be what they are. Our children must thank Jesus for salvation.
Children must obey their parents 'in the Lord' not outside of the Lord
(Eph.6:1). The Lord blesses faithful instruction within a covenant context.
If we as Christian parents neglect to train our children as belonging to
Jesus than they are cut off from the word of promise and they begin to
think of themselves in a different way than the Lord thinks of them. When
they are cut off from the promise, faith has nothing to lay hold of. It
should not surprise us when such children leave Jesus and his church.
Evangelizing covenant children. Children
of the covenant must be evangelized. If discipling and teaching is the
essence of evangelism (Matt.28:18-20) then certainly they must evangelized.
Children must bey are evangelized, however, not as strangers to the grace
of God, not as His enemies, not as second class citizens, not as the potential
people of God, not as good prospects, but as those who have been baptized
into Jesus and their baptism can become a ground of appeal to them.
Baptism is not a dead letter, but a constant
reminder of the privileged status we have as the people of God. If we despise
that privilege, we will perish. The Israelites certainly did not see their
passage through the Red Sea as a dead letter.
The New Covenant
The coming of Christ marks the beginning
of the new covenant. Often when the Scriptures speak of the 'new' covenant,
they are distinguishing it from the 'old' covenant -- namely, the Mosaic
covenant (i.e. the covenant with Moses). The Mosaic covenant was a beautiful
covenant which gave direction and provided a perspective for living pleasingly
before the face of God.
Shadow versus substance. The Mosaic
covenant, however, was an inferior covenant because it served merely as
a shadow of the greater truth and greater substance and greater glory which
would come with Christ (Gal.2:16-17). The sacrifices were shadows of the
cross. All the prophets, priests and kings were shadows of Christ, our
prophet, priest and king. Old Testament believers could see Christ, but
only his shadow. They could see him in obscurity, not with clarity. This
made the 'old' covenant an inferior covenant.
Promise of a new covenant. God had
never intended his people to live with Him in an inferior covenant forever,
however. He had planned for there to be a new covenant, something Jeremiah
prophesied of in chapter 31:31ff: Behold the days are coming, says the
LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with
the house of Judah -- not according to the covenant that I made with their
fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the
land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, though I was a husband to
them, says the LORD. But this covenant that I will make with the house
of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put My law in their minds
and write it on their hearts and I will be their God and they shall be
My people. It is quite clear from this that the new covenant would be a
The same covenant. We should understand
that the new covenant, is not a different covenant, but the same covenant
with a different administration. You can easily see for yourself
that the promise of the covenant remains the same (Jer.31): "I will
be their God and they shall be my people" (see also 2 Cor.6:16 and Rev.21:3).
We shall see in a moment how the promise is the same, but deeper and richer.
The obligation of the covenant remains the same: faith and obedience.
We are called to live by faith (Rom.4:13ff.) and by the law. The law of
God is not abolished (Matt.5:17)--the 10 commandments are repeated (Matt.5-7)
and the summary of the law remains the same (cf. Matt.22:37-40 with Deut.6:5).
And the threats of the covenant are still in tact too, although
with greater severity (See Matt.5:13; 7:19; 7:27; Heb.6:8; Heb.10:26-31).
The same covenant, but better. How
would the new covenant with Christ be a better covenant? The new covenant
would be a better covenant because God's blessings would be available
im-mediately (with mediation and intervention and go-betweens).
Better: the immediate law. Look
at the law for example. The law in the new covenant would be much the same
as it was in the old. In both old and new covenants, God expected a change
of heart. The summary of the law remains the same in both covenants: You
shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and
with all your mind ... and you shall love your neighbor as yourself (Matt.22:37-40;
In the new covenant, the law would no longer
be found on tablets of stone from which the priests would read and instruct
the people. In the new covenant the will of God will be communicated im-mediately,
i.e. without mediators. Jeremiah says (31:34): No more shall every man
teach his neighbor and every man his brother saying, 'Know the Lord, for
they shall all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them.
In the New covenant the bond between God and His people would grow closer.
Covenantal oneness was always impeded in the old covenant by mediators.
Christ is now the 'only' mediator between God and man (1 Tim.2:5). Through
Christ we can experience and know God immediately.
In the new covenant, the law functions
more effectively and immediately through the Spirit. Through His Spirit,
God enables an obedience to the law which was not possible before. The
Spirit certainly was active among the people in the old covenant, but now
He is active within the people. The law of God is not merely 'set before
them' (see Jer.9:12; Deut.4:8; 11:32; 1 Kings 9:2), but put 'on their minds'
and 'in their hearts.'
The old covenant ministry of the law was
good because it commanded good things, but the new covenant ministry of
the Spirit is better because it confers good things. The law was good because
it made a hearer of God's will. The Spirit is better because it made a
doer of God's will. In 2 Cor.3:6, Paul says: For the letter kills, but
the Spirit makes alive.
Better: the immediate gospel. Not
only would the law be communicated immediately, the gospel (i.e. forgiveness)
would also be communicated immediately. Jeremiah says (31:34): For I will
forgive their iniquity and their sin I will remember no more. In the old
covenant, sacrifices were held constantly, indicating that sins were being
passed over, but not removed. The blood of bulls and goats has no power
to remove sin in the framework of God's just administration of the world
(see Lord's Day 6). Only in the Christ, can sins be truly forgiven. It
was through the blood of Christ, that the new covenant was brought about.
At the last supper, therefore, He spoke of "the new covenant in my blood"
(Luke 22:20). The old covenant was dedicated by the blood of animals (Exod.24:5ff.).
and the new covenant by the blood of our great High Priest (Heb.7:22; 8:6ff;
Relationship between old and new covenants.
The relationship between the old and new covenants is often expressed
in this way: There is one covenant with two administrations. The relationship
between God and man does not change. The promise of the covenant remains
the same: I will be your God and you shall be my people. But the way in
which this covenant is administered does change.
In the old covenant, the law was predominant.
For that reason Paul calls the ministry of the old covenant a ministry
of death and a ministry of condemnation (2 Cor.3:7-8). In the new covenant,
the gospel is predominant. For that reason Paul calls the ministry of the
new covenant a ministry of life and a ministry of righteousness. The old
covenant was 'glorious,' but the new covenant is much 'more glorious'
The beauty of the old covenant fades in the surpassing beauty of the new one. The great Princeton theologian Charles Hodge put it this way: "Just as the moon loses its brightness in the presence of the sun, so the law, though glorious in itself, ceased to be glorious in the presence of the gospel." In 2 Cor.3:10 we read: "For even what was made glorious had no glory in this respect, because of the glory that excels."
1.<RETURN> The Koehler-Baumgartner lexicon does not render verb 'to establish' but 'to carry out.' The covenant was not, strictly speaking, established with these words. The covenant is presupposed in, for example, Gen.6:9: Noah walked with God.
The material which follows was first presented
in 1997 at a weekly membership class at the Covenant Reformed Church in
Grande Prairie. It is derived from the instruction I received from professors
at Mid-America Reformed Seminary and from other theological mentors I have--some
alive, some not--whose names include, in alphabetical order: Dr. O. Palmer
Robertson, Dr. Klaas Schilder and Dr. Cornelius Vander Waal. I must acknowledge
that I am most indebted for the material above to Rev. Norman Shepherd,
former professor of systematic theology at Westminster Theological Seminary
in Philadelphia and current pastor at the Cottage Grove Christian Reformed
Church in South Holland, Illinois.
Rev. William DeJong E-mail
Covenant Reformed Church