God’s Covenant, Part 12 – Covenant Promise(s)

IV. The Covenant Promise(s)

Having completed the first three parts of an ongoing series of essays on God’s Covenant, we now consider the fourth one which is His covenant promise. Immediately, clarification of what is meant by the singular term promise should be made. The Bible is full of promises which God has made to men, from the beginning to the end of it. When the singular term promise is stated here, it is done so in order to convey the idea that all promises of God culminate in one single, overarching purpose, hence, the use of the word promise in the singular form. Over the course of several more essays we hope to bring forth this promise of God in its many manifestations, all in conjunction with a consideration of His Covenant.

Well then, what is this promise, and what does it consist of? The promise of God concerning His Covenant is the salvation of His people, the people He has determined beforehand should be the heirs and recipients of His kingdom. This consists of forgiveness of sin and eternal life, which includes regeneration, justification, adoption, sanctification, and glorification. And, we might add, all of this is promised within the context of a paradisaical existence in total fellowship with Himself.

Up too now, we have really just danced around the subject of God’s Covenant, looking at various aspects of it as it relates first, to God Himself, and second, to us as His creatures in the world. But here is where we get more to the heart of the matter, for the promise of God is the main issue which surrounds His covenant decree. We have deliberately avoided starting with the promise of the covenant first, as most people tend to do. The customary approach to the subject of God’s covenant is to start with the promise, or, promises God makes to man first. The reason for this should be obvious. Man is forever thinking of himself first as the center of all things. This mind set tends to skew the direction that is taken concerning the subject right away. And, we might add, it tends to take the subject away from God as the starting point and central focus of all that follow in thinking about the matter of His covenant.

So before going any further, let us state for the record what the covenant promise actually is. God’s promise is the declaration of His will to His creatures. People often confuse the revealed will of God with His eternal decree. God does reveal part of His eternal decree in His word. But His will, which comes in the form of propositional declarations, requirements, and threatening, also comes with stated promises. These promises are given as inducements toward a single-revealed end. But here is the difference between God’s decree and His revealed will, one is what He has eternally predetermined to do, while the other is His command to the creature. One may be resisted, and the other not. One is unalterably fixed in terms of what actually happens in the world, the other appears to be contingent on many circumstances, in which cause and effects are evident.

So the covenant of God is to decree the salvation of His people, the promise of it is the inducement for them to believe in it. There are two things that work together in this, the promise and the end for which it is given. It should be further stated that the covenant of God implies a relationship. God purposes a relationship with His redeemed creature. So the promise is covenant language which establishes it between them. It should also be added, God’s covenant is not like any other covenant given between men, even if the word is used in the Bible, and there is a certain resemblance that can be seen in it. This is because God and man are not equals in any respect. Covenants between men are based on equal ground, even if there is one who is greater in respect of the other, both are still but men. So God’s covenant promise to men must of necessity be something that is quite different from that which is made between creatures of like nature, if for no other reason than that. Much shallow religion today thinks almost in that vein, supposing that God stoops to us, in the hope we might cooperate with Him in His plan and purpose. So He gives a promise to this effect, one within the power of man to comply with. This is not so with God or His covenant. It is completely one sided in every respect. God needs nothing from man, and everything required for its fulfillment is in His province. But nevertheless, God does condescend to consider our hopeless estate, and take all manners of effort necessary to insure His covenant decree will stand.

We like the way the Puritan John Robinson put the matter. “The promises of God are a kind of middle thing between his purpose, and performance of good unto them, whom he loveth.”[1] This is exactly the way to view God’s promises, they are the bridge between His eternal decree, and the performance of it in creation.

So taking this explanation of God’s promise provided by John Robinson as true, several things must be noted about it. First, since the promise occupies a middle place between God’s purpose and its performance, it is not the promise that is the ground of it, but the intention of God. If that were not so, then man would be the effective cause in salvation by appropriating the promise to himself. Second, since it is a matter of a decree, then it is not open to all, but only to them for whom it is intended. And who might this be, but none other than the elect, that is, those for whom Christ came and died to save. Third, since the promise is the middle place between the purpose and the performance of God’s decree, providence plays a certain, fundamental role in its application. In other words, those who receive the promise of God do so within the limits of space of time, subject to all of its exigencies. It is something historically performed. In that sense, it is not something that happens automatically. So its performance requires, divine activity, effectual power, and compliance on the part of its subject, as well as numerous other aspects all related to it. This, on the part of God first, and then second, on the part of men so ordained to the blessing.

The promise of God is that knowledge upon which the covenant relationship between God and His people is established. So having stated it thus, let us consider the essential elements of the covenant of which the promise is comprised, keeping in mind the covenant of God is not exactly like that which exists between men. But nevertheless, it still has certain qualities that establish it as a covenant. We like the way another writer puts it, stating those qualities in four distinct things.

Let us now remind ourselves of the essential elements of a covenant. Briefly stated, any covenant is a mutual agreement entered into by two or more parties, whereby they stand solemnly bound to each other to perform the conditions contracted for. Amplifying that definition, it may be pointed out that the terms of a covenant are (1) there is a stipulation of something to be done or given by that party proposing the covenant; (2) there is a re-stipulation by the other party of something to be done or given in consideration; (3) those stipulations must be lawful and right, for it can never be right to engage to do wrong; (4) there is a penalty included in the terms of agreement, some evil consequence to result to the party who may or shall violate his agreement—that penalty being added as a security.[2]

No such contract such as this between men has ever been “offered” by God to His creature, in exchange for salvation. However, these four elements mentioned by the writer are all present in the covenant relationship redeemed creatures have with Him in Christ. In God’s covenant promise there is something to be performed, something given by Him to the creature. Then there is agreement to it by the creature. It is acknowledged and received with approbation. Next, it must conform to a righteous standard in order for it to be legal. And last there is a certain penalty attached to its non performance. We do not mean the non performance of Christ, of whose death is the objective ground of the promised salvation. For if salvation is of God and not of man, then only He can accomplish its requirements. None other than the God who promises salvation is the One who is able to perform it. Rather, what is meant is the non performance of submission to it by the unbelieving reprobate. These four things set the matter of the promise of salvation resulting in a covenant relationship to God in order, and, in lofty heights.

So this is exactly where we wish to begin in unfolding the promise of God to His people. We start with the central theme of the Bible, Jesus Christ. Then we consider Bible history in terms of before and after the cross, Old and New Testament.

A-The History of Redemption

The history of redemption, or the historia salutis as it is called in Latin, is the story of God’s promise applied. This is what is contained in the pages of the Bible, the history of God’s redemptive purpose being fulfilled. With Jesus Christ and His death and resurrection the central focus of redemptive history, everything else in the Bible pertains to it. There is no extraneous information to be found in Scripture. There are no unimportant, irrelevant statements or occurrences that we must sift through in order to arrive at the truth. And certainly, there is no error of any kind in the sacred narrative to determine. Everything it contains is the inerrant, infallible, authoritative, revelation God has given of His will to the creature.

The Bible as the history of redemption starts at the beginning of time and the world with the first two people made in God’s image (Gen. 1:1-2:8). From there it develops into a world populated with people. And there is an end in view as to its course being the appearance of the Son of God upon it “when the fullness of the time had come” (Gal. 4:4). The world being lost to the sin of its first inhabitants, the promise of redemption looked to Him to make it right. The events surrounding the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, by design happened at the very central point of world history. And since that time, everything that has happened, has been as a result of that incredible moment of time in history. What had been promised, was fulfilled by God. All that awaits now is the appearance of God’s kingdom here on earth in its fullest manifestation.

Now all of what the Bible contains is the development of the promise of Jesus Christ and His work at the cross for sinners. This promise revealed in Scripture, has been fulfilled in the real life circumstances and events recorded in Scripture. It has been accomplished through many various means that include on the one hand, the miraculous activities of God, as well as on the other hand, the more mundane activities of men. In both, God is the first and effectual cause in the matter, working through all things to accomplish His will. This applies to all the people recorded in Scripture. The Bible is made up of two types of people. Some of them are devoted to God, while others are not. There are both villains and saints in its history too. We read about wars, about conquests, and about the advancement of God’s earthly kingdom of Israel. But then we read about its apostasy from Him as well, in the division that took place, and the subsequent overthrow of both the northern and the southern kingdoms in due time. In the Bible, we read about evil nations that rise up, and then they are overthrown by God. There are prophets who come along and tell the people of their day what God’s will is for them. And of course, when something has been brought to pass in Scripture narrative, we know it was the perfect will of God that it should happen.

Unless someone understands that everything in the Bible put into story form is the history of God’s redemptive purpose fulfilled providentially, they are totally lost at the outset of their endeavor to understand it. This is because most of the Old Testament, and a large part of the New Testament are given in narrative form. And where we read the more didactic portions of the Bible, we can still see they fit into the historical narratives of other places quite nicely. There is univocality throughout the Bible, shown by the interconnectedness of its history, as well as by its doctrines. So how do we look at the Bible concerning the history of redemption and see a discernible pattern in it, an outline that will help to understand God’s covenant promise? First of all, the coming of the second Person of the Trinity in the Person of Jesus Christ is the central theme of redemptive history, as we have already stated, and examined in a previous place.[3] The Son of God became the Son of man, then accomplished redemption. He did this by living a perfect life of obedience to God, then He died on the cross as a malefactor. This makes no sense by itself, so Scripture explains that Christ became a vicarious substitute for sinners (Is. 53:9-11; II Cor. 5:21). The gospel is the message of this blessing to God’s beloved. They hear it and believe. That belief is based on a historical reality, the fact that God entered the world in our humanity and accomplished redemption at the cross for His people.

We see the announcement of this impending historical event appear in the gospel narrative concerning the shepherds in the field (Luke 2:8-14). The announcement of the coming Messiah in Bethlehem was the fulfillment of God’s promise of the past. Now this is often taken as some sort of blanket declaration of God’s good will toward all men in the world, by the words spoken in this passage by the angel. “Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!” (Verse 14). That God was about to show good will to the world in a general sense is true, but that is not what these words say exactly. No, rather they imply that God is glorified by instituting peace on earth toward men who are the special objects of His good will. And who are these men, but God’s elect, those for whom the Son of God came to save. These are men having been brought into a saving relationship with God through the gospel. They have been turned from being the enemies of God and others, to being at peace with him and their neighbors. So the gospel is good news to God’s people.

The gospel grew in its content from that moment on until Jesus actually and historically fulfilled redemption on the cross. Today, the message of the gospel is often distorted in its preaching to say it is a message from God that He intends to save all men. In other words, there is a promise held out to all who hear the gospel that Christ died for them. But this is not the message, nor the purpose of the gospel. For starters, how is there “Glory to God in the highest” if it is based on a promise that fails to accomplish what it promises? And certainly, the presence of the gospel over the last two thousand years has not accomplished peace on earth either. So obviously, the gospel is not some general promise God makes that might not come to pass if not heeded by those who hear it. The gospel is good news to those for whom it is intended.

What is the message of the gospel then? In its simplest presentation it is put like this by the apostle Paul when he speaks about it in reference to himself. “Paul, a bondservant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, separated to the gospel of God which He promised before through His prophets in the Holy Scriptures, concerning His Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who was born of the seed of David according to the flesh, and declared to be the Son of God with power according to the Spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead.” (Rom. 1:1-4). It is a set of propositions which informs faith as to the good will of God toward its object, the elect sinner who receives it this way. This is not a message that presses people to respond in the present to it a certain way, although that is part of God’s intention by it in terms of its ultimate fruit. No, it is a message that looks back in time to what the Son of God accomplished on the cross for His people. That is good news to them here and now!

Now this begs the question, what about God’s people before the cross, how were they saved? If Jesus had not accomplished redemption until it historically happened two thousand years ago, what was the nature of the covenant relationship then, and what was the promise based on? Scripture is clear on this question. All people are saved in the same way no matter where they stand in time in reference to the cross (John 3:1-10). Salvation also is by faith in the promise of redemption by God, which He accomplishes for them (II Cor. 4:13; Ps. 116:8-10). The difference then between them is not one of substance, though it was different in terms of the exact content of the message. The saints of the Old Testament were looking ahead in their faith to the coming of the Messiah. The saints in the New Testament, look back to the Messiah who has come. So with the difference of the content of the message, there was out of necessity a difference to everything related to its revelation and propagation. So it is that difference we seek to examine here at this time.

1-The Old Covenant administration of God’s eternal promise

There are two terms that are familiar to Christians regarding this division of time in the Bible and history. These are called the Old and the New Covenants.[4] Now, the Bible does not use the phrase Old Covenant, but it does use the phrase New Covenant several times (Ex. Matt. 26:28; II Cor. 3:6; Heb. 8:8). And when it does it is used in reference to a previous Covenant called the first (Heb. 8:13, 9:1). Paul specifically says there are two Covenants, meaning Old and New (Gal. 4:24). The fact that Scripture puts it this way leads many to suppose there is a difference between them concerning the nature of salvation.

Some would even go further in asserting that since there are several Covenants revealed in Scripture, and with them, there are several ways of salvation. And what is this based this on, but the fact that the word appears several times in several contexts in the Old Testament. For instance, the word Covenant appears for the first time in Scripture concerning Noah and the flood (Gen. 6:18). It appears again several times after the flood in reference to God’s perpetual preservation of the earth and mankind (Gen. 9:9-17). Scripture records a Covenant made by God to Abram and his descendants (Gen. 15:18). This Covenant is more or less restated to Moses (Ex. 6:4) before the Exodus as “His covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob” (Ex. 2:24). God made a Covenant to David concerning his sons and his kingdom too (II Sam. 23:5).

Whatever these Covenant statements mean, they do not mean anything different from what comes under the head of the Old Covenant, as distinct from the New. Otherwise, Jesus, Paul and the other apostles would have taught in the New Testament there are multiple modes of salvation, which they don’t. Even when they do refer to plural covenants in the context of Israel, it is done in the complete absence of any sort of distinction regarding the nature of salvation (Rom. 9:4; Eph. 2:12). Paul does join the word covenant with the word promise in these two texts. This suggests to us there were several promises made by God to His people under the Old Covenant. So that being the case then, Paul brings them together in Jesus Christ as one in nature (II Cor. 1:20).

God’s people in the Old Testament were saved by faith in Jesus Christ, the same as they are now. But since Jesus had not come until He did two thousand years ago, their faith was far less informed than ours is now. Nevertheless, it did have the substance of knowledge to it, for faith is knowledge assented too in lieu of the actual object (Heb. 11:1,2). The writer of Hebrews says the first principle of knowledge the Old Testament saints had as part of their saving faith, was that of creation (verse 3). They believed in God as the Creator of all things. Indeed, this should be true of anyone who embraces Christ now.

Believers in the Old Testament were well aware that salvation was by grace according to the sovereignty of God, and not according to works they have done (Ex. 33:12-19). They knew about it as a matter of particular redemption too (Mal. 1:2). Ezra the Scribe made an exuberant declaration of his faith by acknowledging the grace of God among His people (Ezra 9:8). Knowledge of God’s grace is also clearly expressed in the Psalms (Ps. 45:2, 84:11). Because of this knowledge of grace, believers in the Old Testament had a personal knowledge of sin and righteousness. For instance, they all knew of Adam’s fall through disobedience (Job 31:33). They knew that Adam was a transgressor of the law (Hos. 6:7).[5] Old Testament saints acknowledged the righteousness of God, while disavowing their own (Is. 64:6). And they viewed their salvation as coming from the Lord, and that He is their righteousness (Is. 61:10; Jer. 23:5,6). Though not as clearly understood as today, nevertheless, Old Testament believers had a certain knowledge of God’s righteousness imputed to them (Ps. 32:1:2). They knew the presence of God’s Spirit in their lives, both for assurance of salvation and empowerment for service (Ps. 51:11,12).

Perhaps the most astounding statement of saving knowledge to come out of the Old Testament is that which is recorded by Job. Job, just like the other saints in the Old Testament, looked ahead in his faith to a coming Messiah. This was the promise of redemption made to God’s people in the garden of Eden (Gen. 3:15). So Job by faith, testifies to this knowledge he had with these words. “For I know that my Redeemer lives, And He shall stand at last on the earth; And after my skin is destroyed, this I know, That in my flesh I shall see God, Whom I shall see for myself, And my eyes shall behold, and not another. How my heart yearns within me!” (Job 19:25-27). Job knew that just as his Redeemer lived, he did also. And, that there was a resurrection unto a glorification for him awaiting someday because of it. All of these things about salvation were what the writer of Hebrews called the substance of the faith of the elders (Heb. 11:1,2).

Even though the Messiah’s coming was yet future to them, certain things about Him were known to the saints. Jacob prophesied about His coming in the last days (Gen. 49:1,10-12). He was to be the son of Judah, both a King and a Lawgiver (verse 10). Reference is made to His triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and His death on the cross (verse 11).

Isaiah knew the Messiah would be the Lord incarnate, born of a virgin (7:14; 9:6,7). Also, that He would die as the satisfaction for the sins of His people (Is. 53). Here, Isaiah reveals that the death is on account of a rejection of His Messiahship by the people (verse 3). And that in spite of this, His sufferings were for His people (verses 4,5). Also, His death was vicarious and propitiatory in nature (verses 10,11). The prophet Micah knew several specific things about the Messiah (Mic. 5:2). He knew the place of the Messiah’s birth that it was Bethlehem. And he knew that Messiah was God incarnate. Now, we know there was mystery attached to this knowledge that they and the other Old Testament saints had. Perhaps it was like a puzzle put before their eyes with some of the pieces seemingly missing. Nevertheless, the faith of those saints was filled with propositional, revelatory knowledge.

This brings us to the question first proposed, what is the difference between the Old and New Testament in reference to the covenant promise, and why? The answer is the coming Redeemer Jesus Christ who was yet to come (Gal. 4:4). Until He came and accomplished redemption historically, the missing pieces of the puzzle must remain. But when Christ had accomplished redemption, and ascended to the Father, sending the Holy Spirit to His people in His place, a full and complete picture emerged. So the difference between the Testaments was not essential, but merely outward, conforming to the circumstances of the situation.

The idea that salvation was by works because people offered animal sacrifices then is without foundation. The animal sacrifices served as a picture to the faith of an Old Testament believer. In fact, it was offered as an act of worship, in obedience to God’s command, rather than as an actual payment for sin. The message of the gospel was certainly contained in this act. We are told that Abraham had the gospel preached to him (Gal. 3:7-9). Yet, it was contained in the message of an earthly inheritance for his children. Why was this? Because the Redeemer was intimately connected to the promise, He was Abraham’s seed, coming from that land and people.

So the sacrificial offerings were made in lieu of the actual offering to be made by Christ who was to come. It was the faith of the worshiper that justified them, not the sacrifice (Rom. 4:13). It was the offering of Christ that paid for their sins, not their works of obedience. And the system of offerings is called the Old Covenant, because it is the first part of the everlasting Covenant, that God instituted and preceded Christ who ratified it by His blood in the New (Matt. 26:28). Justification before God is based on the ground of Jesus’ blood sacrifice. Therefore Paul says we (all believers) are “being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed, to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:24-26).

The term Old Covenant then, is made in reference to the form of worship and the content of faith that preceded Christ’s redemption. The ceremonial law was typical in nature, it foreshadowed the doctrinal realities that would be revealed in the last days, which we understand now as the New Covenant (Heb. 9:1-15).

There are two things to be noted about this from the Scripture. First, that there was a consistency of practice seen among God’s people from the beginning of the Old Covenant era in Adam’s day, to the end of it in Jesus’ day (Gen. 3:21, 4:4, 8:20; Luke 2:24; Mark 9:49). We say its end in Jesus’ day because when He died on the cross, what it foreshadowed as a type was fulfilled, and therefore, was over in terms of its use as an ordinance of faith. That consistency we speak of was in reference to the sacrificial offering of animals to God, as worship upon an altar, being ordained and practiced by all the saints throughout the Old Testament. This was done as God’s prescribed way to worship Him. The fact that unregenerate men mistook this for a justifying act was no reflection upon its being suitable to the saint’s faith, according to God’s revealed will. We know this from what He said about it in opposition to false worshipers (I Sam. 15:22,23; Is. 1:11-13; Hos. 6:6; Mic. 6:6-8; Matt. 9:13, 12:7).

Second, there was a progressive development of revelation which attended the sacrificial system of religion. With Adam, nothing more is said about the first sacrifice other than God did it to provide clothing for him and his wife (Gen. 3:21). The sacrificial system of religion, was developed, more fully in reference to Israel, first as tent worship in the wilderness, then as temple worship in Jerusalem. Previous to this, animal sacrifices were offered wherever the worshiper happened to reside at the moment (Gen. 8:20, 12:7,8, 13:18, 26:25, 33:20, 35:1,3; Ex. 17:15).

So the Old Testament had a system of worship surrounding its devotion and faith. This is what we call the Old Covenant dispensation or administration. It was that period of time beginning with Adam and ending with Jesus that preceded His redemption accomplished at the cross. It was the governmental structure of religion, divinely ordained of God, whereby, the saints who believed in Him, were able to express their faith and love toward Him, in outward acts of devotion and obedience. The fact that the animal was slain, burnt and offered upon an altar symbolized the sacrificial death of Jesus. It was for them a picture that served as an aid to their understanding of the promise of redemption.

By faith, they knew God would provide an acceptable sacrifice for them. The animal merely symbolized the promise their faith rested upon. We see a clear statement to this effect made by Abraham concerning God’s command for him to offer his son Isaac (Gen. 22:1-19). Abraham must have been vexed by this command, to offer his only son to God, in the same manner as the burnt sacrifice. This was especially true considering Isaac was the promised son from God in his old age. Abraham knew the fulfillment of his own redemption depended at least in part, providentially on this son, if indeed, he was the son of promise. And it goes without saying, the bond of love he felt for this only son, was such, that to slay him and offer him as a sacrifice must have been incredibly distressful. Yet, Abraham’s faith in that promise, the very gospel to him, was confident in God’s ability to provide, and in His veracity in bringing the promise to pass, regardless of the command.

This was his consolation spoken in the words he gave to his son when God stopped him in his tracks. “And Abraham stretched out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. But the Angel of the LORD called to him from heaven and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” So he said, “Here I am.” And He said, “Do not lay your hand on the lad, or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me.” Then Abraham lifted his eyes and looked, and there behind him was a ram caught in a thicket by its horns. So Abraham went and took the ram, and offered it up for a burnt offering instead of his son. And Abraham called the name of the place, The-LORD-Will-Provide; as it is said to this day, “In the Mount of the LORD it shall be provided.” (Verses 10-14).

The promise God had made to Abraham was nothing less than the promise of salvation. It was the promise of His own Son, Jesus Christ sacrificed upon the altar of the cross. It was the covenant promise that God made to Him and all other saints before the cross. Everything, in every place of the Old Testament, which speaks of promise culminates in this one thing, that God has people He has purposed to save. And that salvation, is accomplished through the life, death and resurrection of His own Son Jesus Christ.

What we have here regarding Abraham is that he played a providential part of God’s redemptive purpose in the historical fulfillment of the covenant. It was not a separate covenant from the New, but the first part of it as we are told in the book of Hebrews. “But Christ came as High Priest of the good things to come, with the greater and more perfect tabernacle not made with hands, that is, not of this creation. Not with the blood of goats and calves, but with His own blood He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption. For if the blood of bulls and goats and the ashes of a heifer, sprinkling the unclean, sanctifies for the purifying of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? And 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.” (Heb. 9:11-15). Jesus Christ is the Mediator of the Old Covenant as well as the New, bringing them together as essentially one and the same thing.

The Old and New Covenant is founded on the same promise and it was God’s infallible purpose to perform it. “For when God made a promise to Abraham, because He could swear by no one greater, He swore by Himself, saying, “Surely blessing I will bless you, and multiplying I will multiply you.” And so, after he had patiently endured, he obtained the promise. For men indeed swear by the greater, and an oath for confirmation is for them an end of all dispute. Thus God, determining to show more abundantly to the heirs of promise the immutability of His counsel, confirmed it by an oath, that by two immutable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we might have strong consolation, who have fled for refuge to lay hold of the hope set before us. This hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and steadfast, and which enters the Presence behind the veil, where the forerunner has entered for us, even Jesus, having become High Priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.” (Heb. 6:13-20).

The administration of the first covenant was based upon the types and shadows which portrayed Christ as the great High Priest of God’s people. The temple foreshadowed the heavenly place of His abode, the kingdom by which all will reside in the end. The sacrifices pointed to Jesus Christ Himself as the one, great, all sufficient offering unto God by which His people find acceptance. The writer is clear that those sacrifices under the first covenant did not take away sin. But unless there was justification declared to them through the imputation of Christ’s death and righteousness, there would have been no acceptance with God whatsoever, on any other ground.

2-The New Covenant administration of God’s eternal promise

Until the Messiah, who is Jesus Christ, came to perform redemption for God’s people, the Old Covenant dispensation was held under a great deal of mystery. All the pieces of the puzzle were there, but the exact arrangement of it wasn’t completely clear. What was clear was that it and its promises looked ahead to the Messiah’s coming. For that coming and what He would do for the people of God by way of their salvation, was what the promise entailed from the beginning (Gen. 3:15; Rom. 16:20). This would be a time of restoration (Acts 3:21). This was a marvelous but intriguing concept for the Old Testament saints. Held under the limitations of the theocratic ideal associated with Israel, the saints before the cross imagined that restoration meant that of the old kingdom (Acts 1:6). Indeed, this New Covenant was a restoration, but not in the sense they imagined, for Jesus answered the question His disciples asked about it this way. “And He said to to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has put in His own authority. But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Verses 7,8). It was His intention to remove the mystery of this that prevailed before the cross. This, He would do through the outpouring of His Spirit among them, making them His prophets in the world.

Indeed, the New Covenant is the inauguration of that restored kingdom of the Old Testament, made known by the prophet Jeremiah (Jer. 31:31-34; Heb. 8:7-13). Notice what the primary characteristic of it was to be. “But this is the 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. No more shall every man teach his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them, says the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.” (Jer. 31:33,34). In the New Covenant, God will put His law on the minds and hearts of His people. Now this begs the question, didn’t He do that for them then, for isn’t what is being said in this text that He will regenerate them? The answer is of course, yes, he did do that then (John 3:3,6). The difference between the two covenants in this respect however is twofold. The second Covenant would be larger in scope than the first, and it would be spiritually higher in its administration.

First, consider the scope. The Old Testament shows there are two divisions to it, before and after Israel. However, most of the Old Testament is taken up with the latter. After the advent of Israel as a nation and kingdom, there was no salvation to be found in the world outside of it. That is, except for several individual circumstances recorded here and there. Each one of these instances, show those believers being drawn toward the covenant people (Gen. 46:13; Job 1:1; I Chron. 7:1; Josh. 2:1-14; Ruth 1:16; Matt. 1:5; II Kings 5:20; Luke 4:27).[6] The scope of God’s work in the world in terms of salvation increased dramatically after the cross. Contrary to some popular Arminian notions about the meaning of John 3:16, it points to this matter of the scope of the New Covenant in a general way. The point made by John is reiterated by the apostle Paul (Rom. 1:8, 10:18; Col. 1:6; I Tim. 1:18, 3:16). In fact, it should be obvious to the reader of the New Testament that the seeming failure of Israel in terms of its own exclusive claim to the promised kingdom, has in reality worked toward the expansion of it throughout the world through the gospel (Rom. 4:13, 11:12,15; II Cor. 5:19; Eph. 2:12).

Second, consider the higher spiritual plane. The outward differences between the Old and New Testament administration of God’s Covenant are too numerous to mention. However, they can be summed up quite easily this way. The Old Covenant form of religion was extremely aesthetic in nature, filled with what can be termed the smells and bells of temple worship. In it there was a priest, a temple, the sacrifices, the service, along with the miscellaneous items of the temple. These were all prescribed “According to the pattern which the LORD had shown Moses” (Num. 8:4). Furthermore, Israel was constituted, a theocratic earthly kingdom with a civil code that was intimately connected to the moral and ceremonial law. None of this is true of the New Testament church, with the exception of course, of it “having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone” (Eph. 2:20).

There are only two ordinances of a ceremonial nature commanded in the New Covenant, Baptism and the Lord’s supper. The New Testament church is commanded to conduct its affairs and service in the world in an orderly manner (I Cor. 14:40). And it is not without certain specific components of worship that are also prescribed, albeit they are more in the area of spiritual principles rather than in duties of a more legal nature (I Tim. 3:15). Of course, there is a physical requirement to collect offerings made by God’s people in order to support the ministry, as well as to perform other benevolent functions associated with the churches membership (Acts 6:1-3; II Cor. 8:4; I Tim. 5:19). But the main function of the New Testament church is the ministry of the word of God through the preaching of the gospel (Acts 6:4; II Tim. 4:2). Everything foreshadowed under types has been fulfilled by Christ. So the preaching of the gospel is, the way God’s people are effectually called into the blessing and benefit of covenant relationship to God. This is the central feature of New Testament worship. It also sets this covenant and its worship upon a much higher spiritual plane than the previous one.

God’s people are brought together now in the context of the Christian church as the visible community of believers before the world. Under the first covenant, the community of visible people, made up primarily of those who were not believers, was under the constant danger of apostasy and the disintegration of its society. Israel had to war against other nations to take and hold its territory. No such thing exists in the second covenant. Prolonged persecutions by pagan empires have not been successful in the last two thousand years in eradicating the Christian church. Of course, they did not eradicate the remnant believers under the first covenant, but they did succeed according to providence, to destroy the earthly theocracy. The higher spiritual plane upon which Christians now live is exempt from the need to dominate a piece of real estate, and to have a temple for its existence.

The spiritual nature of the present kingdom guarantees the perpetuity of the church until the Lord returns. Jesus Christ abides with His people through the Holy Spirit, drawing them together in various parts of the world for worship and fellowship. Jesus told His disciples this. “For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them.” (Matt. 18:20). As few as three people meeting in a single location has the promise of His presence and fellowship among them. This means that no one organization can be rightly called the official church, even if some have tried to make that claim. No, instead the church is known by its testimony (Matt. 16:16-20), its ordinances (Acts 2:46; I Cor. 11:23-26), and its power in the world (Matt. 28:18-20), against all opposition to it.

The reason for this is the vast difference that exists between the Old and New Covenant in terms of power for service. This is due to the witness and empowerment of the Holy Spirit enjoyed by Christians today that was not true of believers under the Old Covenant. While it is true that many amazing miracles were performed by Old Testament saints, there was still something lacking and fundamentally different about their situation in its design. There are three main offices that Jesus Christ fills in His Person, that of Prophet, Priest, and King. These were divided up among a number of different people in the Old Testament. The Holy Spirit was given to them primarily for special service unto God. And these offices filled by these men were typical in nature too. They portrayed something of that spiritual ministry Jesus Christ fulfills and now exercises in the kingdom. Now, in the New Covenant all of God’s people enjoy the empowerment of the Holy Spirit in their lives, for service unto God. Therefore, all Christians now under the New Covenant are called prophets, priests, and kings to God (Rev. 1:6, 22:9).

By comparison, not only did all believers in the first covenant not enjoy this privilege of empowerment, but even among those who did possess it, not all of them turned out to be believers, in anything more than a superficial sense. A case in point is Israel’s first king, Saul. As king, he was given power from God, at least in his official capacity, to perform the function of a king (I Sam. 10:11). However, at some point in the historical narrative, it becomes evident that not only did Saul lose this power, he did so because he was rejected by God for his sin (I Sam. 16:14). Now, the Scripture does not say it explicitly, but it certainly implies he was not a member of the true household of God. One way this is set forth is how he is portrayed in contrast to Israel’s true king, David. When he sinned, unlike Saul he repented and sought the Lord to not take His Spirit from him (Ps. 51:10,11). Saul on the other hand, only cared about his position and name in Israel. Once he lost this, he never had peace from God again. It would appear that Saul was little more than a nominal believer.

In fact, many people within the nation of Israel were not believers in the true spiritual sense of the word. Paul makes this point abundantly clear in his epistle to the Romans (Rom. 2:28,29, 9:6). An honest examination of the Old Testament should lead anyone to this conclusion. There were very few believers at all in Israel. Throughout its history, Israel appears to be a story of conflict between unfaithful citizens against God, and their rejection of true believers among themselves. Now this is not to say, that everyone who is called a Christian in the New Covenant, is necessarily a true believer either. But one huge difference between these two covenants is that belief in the gospel of Christ is supposed to be the standard of admittance into its communion (I Cor. 11:23-26). In other words, no one is born a Christian simply by natural generation (John 1:13). This is not said to denigrate the position of natural born children to believers who are members of the Christian church. These have an external relationship to God through an earthly relationship to the church. But the status of any child in the eternal kingdom, born into a Christian family, must be determined by whether or not they have true faith in God and the gospel.

Under the Old Covenant, faith was certainly a matter of prime importance, indeed, it was the only way of salvation. But temporal obedience to the law rather than saving faith was emphasized as the condition of God’s blessing to the nation (Deut. 30:15,16). The temporal language employed in this text is used alongside that of spiritual language, in reference to those who were of true faith (verses 11-14). Hence, there were many good Israelites who were not necessarily true believers in anything more than the earthly kingdom. Temporal blessing was lifted many times from the nation for its unfaithfulness to the law, until it was permanently lost. This is not true of the Christian church. Not having any sort of earthly theocratic civil society like that of Israel, the church is nevertheless, under the permanent abiding spiritual blessing of God. The exception of course, is when the institutional church in any given place ceases to be an organization of true believers. Then we are told that Christ removes His spiritual presence from there (Rev. 2:5). Of course, even if that happens in one or more particular place, His blessing is never suspended from the overall church whose members are covenantally joined to God through Christ (Heb. 13:5).

In the New Covenant, believers are tied to Christ through His abiding spiritual presence in them. This is covenantal union (Rom. 6:5). This covenantal union is twofold in nature. It is first and foremost legal. The imputation of Jesus’ righteousness to the believer is a legal declaration from God that they are both forgiven of sin and have a right standing before Him. The union of which we speak is relational, through the covenant. God’s people are adopted into His family (John 1:11-13). This is quite different from the relationship of Israel to God. John said that Jesus came to His own, meaning His countrymen after the flesh (verse 11). But they did not receive Him. Why was this? Because they were by and large, not His brethren after the Spirit. Those who received Him however, though they are but Gentiles in the world, these are children of God (verse 12). And what makes them children when others in Israel were not? It is a matter of the promise of redemption contained within the eternal covenant. This is a relationship based on free and sovereign grace from God, rather than on the civil and ceremonial code of Israel, including the moral law too. So, says John, these children are born of the Spirit, not of the flesh (verse 13).

Do not misunderstand the point. When its said God’s children are not His according to the moral law it is not implied that it is shunned in any way, as though it had been abrogated by grace. No, the imputation of righteousness is the very life of Jesus, perfectly obedient to the law, granted to the believer. “For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” (II Cor. 5:21).

Now all those who were saved under the Old Covenant had a relationship to Christ too, of this there is no doubt (I Cor. 10:1-4). The nation of Israel was under the direction of Moses, but those who were saved in it, were under the spiritual direction of Christ. Although He had not been revealed at that time, it was still Him who guided them through the wilderness. And it was for the sake of His true people He did so. But the second covenant surpasses the first. Jesus is now known and loved as the Messiah. This is why Jesus is said to be the Mediator of a better covenant, one which was established on better promises (Heb. 10:8:6b). There is nothing to be lost when this covenant administration ends. The only thing a New Covenant believer will lose is this sinful life and fallen world, which is said to be “passing away,” along with its “lust.” (I John 2:17). This is because the promises of this present covenant are established in regard to eternal life, in the new heaven and new earth, rather than in some reconstituted earthly kingdom.

Notes:

[1] The Works of John Robinson, vol. 1, Chapter III. Of God’s Promises, p51.

[2] The Divine Covenants, by A.W. Pink, Part 2: The Adamic Covenant, p25.

[3] God’s Covenant, C-The Purpose of God in Providence, by Mark A. Peterson.

[4] There are several terms which may be used interchangeably to indicate the Old and New Covenants. These are Covenant, Testament and Dispensation. Formally, the word Covenant means relationship. The word Testament is the will of God concerning His heirs. And the word Dispensation means the governmental administration of the two.

[5] The word translated men in this verse is actually the word Adam in Hebrew.

[6] There doesn’t seem to be any obvious connection in the Old Testament between Job and Israel. However, it is possible that the Job of the book of the same name is actually the son of Issachar, who departed for Uz where the events surrounding the book are recorded. It is often asserted that Job was a contemporary of Abraham, but this is hard to prove without any connection to him shown in Scripture. The Job recorded in Genesis was close to being a contemporary of Abraham, certainly if he was a great grandson of his. The name Job means “persecuted, hated” in Hebrew. This certainly fits the person and circumstances of the man recorded in the book of Job. Ezra made a deliberate change of the name of Job, to the name Jashub when transcribing the genealogical account of the family of Issachar from Genesis. The name Jashub in Hebrew means “he will return.” Keep in mind that Ezra was an inspired writer of several Old Testament books. He was ordained of God to write the last extant manuscript of the Hebrew Bible before Christ. If this was the same person in both Genesis and Chronicles, then a picture emerges from it. Job left his family at some point and journeyed to Uz, which was located adjacent to the land of Canaan. Later he returned to his people, thus the name given to him by Ezra.

 

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