Covenant Connections in Paul (3)

This series is from the first draft of my book ‘The Words of the Covenant: New Testament Continuation.

Volume One on Old Testament Expectation is already available.

Part Two

Another Pauline New Covenant Text

We then, as workers together with Him also plead with you not to receive the grace of God in vain.  For He says:

“In an acceptable time I have heard you,
And in the day of salvation I have helped you.”

Behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation. – 2 Corinthians 6:1-2.

            The OT passage that Paul is quoting is Isaiah 49:8.  Here is the original passage:

Thus says the LORD:

“In an acceptable time I have heard You,
And in the day of salvation I have helped You;
I will preserve You and give You
As a covenant to the people,
To restore the earth,
To cause them to inherit the desolate heritages…”

            This passage is of a similar nature to 2 Corinthians 3:6.  Paul refers to himself and his coworkers with a New covenant reference.  Isaiah 49:8 is a familiar verse to readers of Volume One.  It includes a reference to the Servant (Messiah) as “a covenant to the people.”  The apostle does not quote the phrase, but it is safe to say he was aware of it.  Is this a mere coincidence?  Hardly.  Schnabel has drawn attention to Paul’s habit of reaching for Isaiah’s Servant Songs for his self-understanding of his mission.  In fact, I believe Schnabel is right when he says that the apostle saw himself as fulfilling the work of the Servant of the Lord.[1]  This can be seen in Paul’s speech in Pisidian Antioch in Acts 13:46-47 where he quotes from Isaiah 49:6 and applies it to his ongoing work among the Gentiles.  As envoys of Jesus Paul and his coworkers are extending the Servant’s mission.  We can readily appreciate the link if we allow that Jesus the Servant is made a covenant of salvation (Isa. 49:8) and we connect this with Paul’s declaration in 2 Corinthians 3:6 that they were “ministers of the new covenant.” 

Again, in Acts 26:16-18 Schnabel points to the allusion to Isaiah 42:6-7 and 21.[2]  As Isaiah 42:6 also refers to the Servant as “a covenant to the people” the evidence that Paul saw his work in strongly covenantal ways is beginning to stack up.  If Isaiah 42 and 49 portray Messiah as the covenant Servant of Yahweh and Paul is himself seeing his ministry as an extension of the Servant’s work then the “Apostle to the Gentiles” is doing covenant work in the Church! 

It takes just a little fitting of the pieces together to arrive at the conclusion that Paul clearly understood his mission to the Gentiles in New covenant terms.  Hence, in 2 Corinthians 6:1-2 we can infer his meaning as “Today is salvation offered to you Gentiles through Christ the Servant, through whom God has made the [New] covenant with those who believe in Him.”[3]  What ought not be missed here, as in all Paul’s letters, is how covernance lies behind his thought.                  

Paul’s Allegory in Galatians 4

            Paul’s teaching at the end of Galatians 4 is one of the more tricky parts of his correspondence.  It is well to print the text in full:

Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not hear the law?  For it is written that Abraham had two sons: the one by a bondwoman, the other by a freewoman.  But he who was of the bondwoman was born according to the flesh, and he of the freewoman through promise, which things are symbolic. For these are the two covenants: the one from Mount Sinai which gives birth to bondage, which is Hagar—for this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia, and corresponds to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children—but the Jerusalem above is free, which is the mother of us all. 

For it is written:

“Rejoice, O barren,
You who do not bear!
Break forth and shout,
You who are not in labor!
For the desolate has many more children
Than she who has a husband.”

Now we, brethren, as Isaac was, are children of promise.  But, as he who was born according to the flesh then persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, even so it is now.  Nevertheless what does the Scripture say? “Cast out the bondwoman and her son, for the son of the bondwoman shall not be heir with the son of the freewoman.”  So then, brethren, we are not children of the bondwoman but of the free. – Galatians 4:21-31.

            The fact that Paul wrote this to a group of churches so early on in his ministry demonstrates the level of theological instruction within these churches.  Here the apostle resorts to allegory (which is unusual) to get across a point about the “two covenants”, namely the Mosaic covenant and the New covenant that we saw in 2 Corinthians 3.  He begins with a question: “Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not hear the law?”  The point here then is whether or not it is wise to “desire to be under the law (i.e., the old covenant).  The allegory is about Ishmael and Isaac, sons of Abraham by Hagar and Sarah respectively.  Paul then links the first to the Law at Sinai, which is then connected to “Jerusalem which now is,” and on the other hand is Isaac, who is related to the New covenant in Christ, that is, “the Jerusalem above.”  Paul says we Christians “are children of promise” and are free (from the old covenant).  His whole argument is how the New covenant of which he is a minister, and in which we are parties, has dispensed life and freedom to us in Christ.[4] 


[1] See Eckhard J. Schnabel, Early Christian Mission: Paul and the Early Church, Volume Two, 942-944. 

[2] Ibid, 943.

[3] Schnabel does not make the connection with the New covenant that I am making.  Nevertheless, I think it is hard to evade once it is pointed out.  Indeed, I am sure that he would hold the view that Paul was a New covenant emissary to the Gentiles.

[4] I fully realize that some good people will claim that I have run off the rails in saying that Christians are parties to the New covenant, but this does look exactly like what Paul is saying, and I must also say that the counter explanations that I have come across look like excruciating circumlocutions of the plain arguments Paul is presenting, both in these passages and elsewhere.  

4 thoughts on “Covenant Connections in Paul (3)”

  1. Does my memory serve me that at some point the title of your NT book would be “New Testament Fulfillment”?

    Incidentally I read a piece by James Hamilton on GK Beale’s NT Biblical Theology, referencing it as “The Transformation of the Old in the New” rather than “The Unfolding”. Maybe Dr. Hamilton pulled a Freudian slip or Beale actually changed the title to be a bit more politically correct

    Bottom of page 1

    Click to access MBTS.HamiltonResponsetoBeale.pdf

    1. Timothy,
      I may have said “New Testament Fulfillment” but I would be surprised if I did because I don’t actually see the NT as the complete (or even half) fulfillment of the OT. I think I have settled for “New Testament Continuation” which stresses continuity while reaching out to the eschaton.

      Hamilton is nearly as bad as Beale when it comes to “transformation”!

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