Covenants

The Covenantal Landscape of the Old Testament (5)

Part Four

This is the final installment of the excerpts from my book ‘The Words of the Covenant: Old Testament Expectation,’ which I hope to get published by the end of 2020.  I would be grateful for those readers of this blog who have derived some benefit from these posts if you would please pray for God’s blessing on the publication and reading of the book.

The Durability of God’s Covenant Oaths

     All of the above categories fit nicely within a biblical covenantal framework.  Yahweh has freely entered into binding covenantal obligations by which His character and attributes can be seen for what they are.  There is no reason for humans to try to get God off the hook that He has put Himself on.  God wants to be held to His oaths.  He wants to be believed. For when He is believed by His creature they glorify Him.  When one traces a particular covenant oath through time it is clear that the oath does not undergo change.  Thus, the Noahic covenant in Genesis 9:8-11 retains the same meaning for Isaiah many hundreds of years later (Isa. 54:9).  The three main parts of the Abrahamic covenant, of land (Gen. 12:7; 15:18-21), descendants (Gen. 15:4-5), and blessing on the nations (Gen. 12:3; 22:17-18) are interpreted to mean the same thing by Jeremiah (Jer. 32:36-41; 33:22, 25-26), Ezekiel (Ezek. 36:23-28; 37:12-14, 21, 26), Zechariah (Zech. 2:10-12; 8:1-7; 22-23), and Malachi (Mal. 1:11; 3:12).  There does not appear to be any wiggle room for reinterpreting or reapplying these promises, and the Hebrew Scriptures never indulge in it.

More than this, as I have documented above, Yahweh seems to have little or no patience with those who do not make good on their covenant vows.  He held Joshua and Israel to the words of the covenant that they foolishly made with the Gibeonites in Joshua 9, even sending a curse on Israel many years after because Saul had violated its commitments when he persecuted the Gibeonites (2 Sam. 21:1-2).  The prophet Jeremiah records a sentence of doom upon king Zedekiah and his nobles for not performing “the words of the covenant which they made before Me” in Jeremiah 34:18-20.  Ezekiel speaks similarly, although this time it involves a covenant that the king of Judah was forced to make with the king of Babylon (Ezek. 17:13), and which was reneged on.  The prophet then asks “Can he break a covenant and still be delivered?” (Ezek. 17:15).

The obvious conclusion one must draw from all this is that the Lord of the Universe despises covenant-breakers.  But this is instructive for us chiefly because Yahweh is Himself a covenant maker.  Unless we are going to become hopeless nominalists, we are faced with the inalterable truth that Yahweh intends to keep His covenants, understood by the normal canons of language, to the letter.

If this is what we are up against when it comes to the understanding of the divine covenants, then surely, we are justified in clinging to the oaths of God in faith, no matter how things appear to us in our times and places?  The burden of fulfillment falls on the oath taker; in this case God Himself.  It is the most sensible of all moves to believe that God means exactly what He says in these covenants and to leave the “problem” of fulfillment to Him.  This is all the more justified from an Old Testament perspective.  The question of whether the New Testament gives us a “new” meaning for God’s oaths will not be taken up here.  But on the face of things it needs to be said that any such assertion would have to be proven exegetically (and not just inferentially), and that anyone making such an assertion is duty bound to construct a theodicy which takes full account of what has been written above about oaths, oath-takers, and Yahweh’s attitude to those who do not perform “the words of the covenant.”

 The Future Kingdom of God in the Old Testament (What Are We Led to Expect?)

     There are many different parts to the big covenantal picture which gradually comes together on the large canvass of the Old Testament.  The basic elements are there: The descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (not just Abraham) have been made into the foremost nation on earth, and Jerusalem is the city of the great King.  The Gentile nations have for the most part joined themselves to Yahweh, although there are some rebels.  Jerusalem has been elevated, and the new expansive temple of God sits atop a great mountain, from which living waters flow down continually.  Yahweh Himself dwells in Zion.  The New covenant Law is known across the globe.  He will rule with absolute authority, but His reign will be just and merciful and happy.  There will be no need to search for God, for everyone will know Him.  All will behold the glory of Yahweh.

As to the effects of this, the primary thing is that shalom pervades every land; a sense of belonging to the world; of fitting in, because the world is made and blessed for us.  No one goes hungry because of the massive productivity of the ground.  Everyone feels safe.  The only people looking over their shoulders are those who oppose the Prince of Peace.  Peace will be felt in the city and in the countryside.  The animals of the wild will not harm each other, for rapacious and carnivorous beasts will no longer exist.  All will eat grass like the ox.  Transformations in nature and scenery will make the world delightful.

While sickness will need healing remedies will be on hand.  While deaths will still occur, they will only encroach upon a long life.  This is not heaven.  This is not the new heavens and the new earth.  This is the reign of the Branch, the Servant, the Stone that smote the unrighteous kingdoms of man.

The covenants of God, made mainly with Israel as the channel through whom Yahweh will realize His Creation Project, have an everlasting aspect to them that surely reaches beyond this blessed but not yet perfect environment into the eternal realm.  One writer sums it up well:

The story of Scripture is thoroughly Jewish.  To de-emphasize or omit this part of the story is to misunderstand the covenants and the manner in which God blesses all people through his Messiah…The line of Abraham, as seen in the nation of Israel, is the main earthly character in the entirety of the Old Testament.  It is their history throughout the Old Testament that we follow through times of judgment, yet with a constant reminder of the eternal, everlasting promises of God’s covenants.[1]

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[1] Mark Yarbrough, “Israel and the Story of the Bible,” in Israel, the Church, and the Middle East: A Biblical Response to the Current Conflict (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2018), edited by Darrell L. Bock and Mitch Glaser, 54.

The Covenantal Landscape of the Old Testament (4)

Part Three

g. The Rule of Righteousness, Justice, Peace, and Safety

When will this world know peace? When will things that could be fair actually be fair? When will justice stop being perverted? The answer to these questions is in the reign of the coming King (Isa. 32:1). He will judge righteously, “and decide with equity[1] for the meek of the earth.” (Isa 11:4). Only when His judgments are in the earth, will the inhabitants of the world learn righteousness. (Isa 26:9). Once this occurs there will exist the wholeness and tranquility that is shalom, for the King is Himself, “Yahweh our righteousness” (Jer. 23:5-6), “the Prince of Peace.” (Isa. 9:6).

In numerous places God has promised “peace and safety” to His people. In Hosea 2:18 “safety” is guaranteed because both human beings and the beasts of the earth become non-violent (cf. Ezek. 34:25).  Micah 4:4 declares “everyone shall sit under his vine and under his fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid.” Isaiah 26:12 reveals a wonderful theological truth:

LORD, You will establish peace for us,
For You have also done all our works in us.

The inner work of peace is wrought by Yahweh. Peace is His gift (cf. Jn. 14:27). The pervasiveness of justice coming from Jerusalem provides for “quiet resting places” (Isa. 32:18 cf. Zech.9:10). The settings are this-worldly[2] and always eschatological, because they can only be eschatological. The difference is made by the One on the Davidic throne in Jerusalem, and in the ministry of the Spirit.

h. The Promise of the Spirit

The Holy Spirit is not an unknown character in the Old Testament. He is there at the creation of the world (Gen. 1:2). The Spirit who superintended the beginning of the Creation Project is the One who will conclude it. His presence in the world insures this conclusion (cf. Psa. 139:7). The great change is to be brought about by the Spirit of God (Isa. 32:15). It is He who “adorned the heavens” (Job 26:13a). He will open the eyes of Israel (Zech. 12:10; Joel 2:28-32), and restore her (Ezek. 37:14 cf. Zech. 4:16). It is by the Spirit that the coming King will judge the earth (Isa. 11:2); that human nature will be changed so as to love righteousness and seek wisdom (Ezek. 36:27; Psa. 51:6). The Spirit of God is the one who will pour out the benefits of the New covenant, thus ensuring that the covenants with Abraham, Phinehas, and David are fulfilled to the letter (cf. Zech. 4:6).

i. The Blessing on the Nations

Zephaniah 2:10-11 says that the nations will one day worship Yahweh (cf. Psa. 87:4, 6; Am. 9:12; Isa. 19:19-25; Mal.1:11). Their salvation is guaranteed within one of the provisions of the Abrahamic covenant (Gen. 12:3c). In the days of the King the people of the nations will journey to Zion (Isa. 2:2; Zech. 14:16). This turning of the nations will in part be affected by the transformation and witness of Israel (Isa. 43:1-21). In short, “the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.” (Isa. 11:9). The Old Testament pictures independent nation-states upon earth governed in line with the great Ruler in Zion (cf. Dan. 7:13-14; Zech. 14:16).

The Compelling Force of Expectation

A crucial aspect of reading the Hebrew Bible that often escapes attention is the wave of expectation that its promises raised in the minds of believers before the New Testament era. Identifying that expectation is absolutely essential. I have done some of that in the examples given above.[3] Whatever a person may think about the priority of the New Testament in understanding the Bible, if one has not given thought to the subject of Old Testament expectation in the absence of the New Testament then I believe that he has not yet read the Old Testament truly. Whatismore, he is in no condition to comprehend the mind of a Jewish Apostle writing the New Testament. What God’s covenants do is to increase faith in certain outcomes. They raise expectations to another level. They become the firm basis for hope!

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[1] The word “equity” has been co-opted by critical race theorists (CRT) to mean “an assured equality of outcome” rather than a level playing field. In CRT “equity” is imposed based upon the decisions of those few in positions of power. It becomes rooted in man’s sinful nature rather than in a transcendental justice based on God’s character (Psa. 119:142). In the Bible equity is never equality of outcome, but universal conformity to God’s justice. Hence, the Messiah “shall not judge by the sight of His eyes, nor decide by the hearing of His ears.” (Isa 11:3).

[2] Many amillennialists are now promoting a this-worldly final state instead of eternity in heaven. This has required them to stop spiritualizing texts which point to a kingdom upon earth after the return of Christ. But it also forces them to exacerbate their use of dual hermeneutical methods, often in the same passage. Moreover, while they have become more literal in interpreting e.g. Mic. 4:1-5; Isa. 11:1-12; 60:1-14, 19-22, they persist in spiritualizing the covenantal land promise to Israel, often turning it into a type. A good study of this trend is Steven L. James, New Creation Eschatology and the Land: A Survey of Contemporary Perspectives (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2017).

[3] The reader would be well advised to study the Appendix in the book by J. Dwight Pentecost, Thy Kingdom Come, 325-336 for a more detailed list of prophecies designed to raise specific expectations in the hearts of Old Testament believers.

The Covenantal Landscape of the Old Testament (3)

Part Two

c. The Coming of the Great King

I have commented on this matter above, but here let us focus on the royalty of the Messiah. As far as the Old Testament is concerned this aspect of His person seems incompatible with His coming in humility as the suffering Servant (Psa. 22; Isa. 53). When He comes to reign, He comes with irresistible power (Dan. 2:44-45; Isa. 63:1-6). Much of the “Day of the Lord” language reflects His arrival (e.g. Isa. 34:8; Zeph. 3:8; Joel 3:9-16). Psalm 2:6, 9 has Him reigning on Yahweh’s holy hill (cf. Isa. 2:2). Isaiah 11:1-10 has David’s heir reigning in power and righteousness (cf. Am. 9:11; Mic. 2:12-13; Isa. 32:1a). Genesis 49:10 predicts this, as does Psalm 110:1-2 and Micah 5:2. The great prophecies of Jeremiah 23:5-6 and 33:14-16 set this reign in an era when Jerusalem is the great city of God; or as Ezekiel calls it, “Yahweh is there” (Ezek. 48:35). Zechariah 14 has the great King ruling in Israel and all the peoples worshipping Him.

There is no doubt that this Figure is the main character in God’s Creation Project. All creation’s hopes are wrapped up in Him. All the promises to Israel wait for Him. The calling of the nations, depends upon Him. And the defeat of the great Enemy can only be achieved by Him. And because, as I believe, He embodies the New covenant, the coming King is even essential to the fulfillment of all God’s covenants with man.

d. The Salvation of Israel through the New Covenant

Israel was established to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Exod. 19:6). They never attained their high calling. But when the King comes to rule the earth “the Gentiles will seek Him” (Isa. 11:10 cf. Isa. 2:2), in part because Yahweh has redeemed Israel (Zech. 8).

But while they languish under the strictures of the Mosaic covenant, Israel can never be what they ought to be. Israel needs salvation. In those Israelites designated as the “remnant” the covenants of Yahweh will find their eventual fulfillment. In Jeremiah God speaks positively to Israel as “Virgin of Israel” (Jer. 31:4).[1] This is the same chapter as the promise of the New covenant with all Israel (cf. Jer. 31:1, 31). This New covenant will change the remnant (Isa. 37:31-32; Jer. 31:7; Zeph. 3:13; Joel 2:32). It will make them godly and obedient from the heart (Jer. 31:31-34; Ezek. 36:24-30 cf. Isa. 46:13). They will want to go up to Zion to worship God (Jer. 31:6; Isa. 35:10).

In point of fact, God will make Israel a blessing to the nations:

And it shall come to pass
That just as you were a curse among the nations,
O house of Judah and house of Israel,
So I will save you, and you shall be a blessing. – Zechariah 8:13

This is when Israel can rightly act as “witnesses” for God (Isa. 43:9-12). In Micah 4:2 the nations decide to come to Yahweh. Isaiah tells us that the wonder of what Zion has become provokes this turning (Isa. 62:1-2). The New covenant is first and foremost the covenant of reconciliation of a lost humanity and a cursed earth to the Creator. It revitalizes the ground and redeems the elect of all ages. In so doing it clears the way for Yahweh to make good on what He has sworn to perform in His covenants to Noah, Abraham, Phinehas, and David. God’s covenants stand firm. They are to be trusted till the end. They cannot be changed out of recognition due to our impatience and near-sightedness. The New covenant is the key that will open them up in all their fullness and specificity.

e. Jerusalem, the City of Righteousness

There is little doubt that in the Prophets Jerusalem or Zion is beloved by Yahweh (see e.g. Isa. 62:1, 3; Zech. 1:17; 8:2). It is “the apple of His eye” (Zech. 2:7-8). Psalm 132:13 declares “the Lord has chosen Zion; He has desired it for His dwelling place.” After Yahweh purges away all of its dross, He will redeem it with justice, and shall call it “the city of righteousness” (Isa. 1:26-27; 4:2-5). Zechariah refers to the future Jerusalem as “the City of Truth” (Zech. 8:3). This will be the center of the Kingdom of God (Mic. 4:7-8). Jeremiah says it this way:

At that time Jerusalem shall be called the Throne of the LORD, and all the nations shall be gathered to it, to the name of the LORD, to Jerusalem. No more shall they follow the dictates of their evil hearts. – Jeremiah 3:17

Zion is to be comforted (Isa. 51:3), and favored as the dwelling-place of God on earth (Zech. 14:16). A capital city is to be expected in fulfillment of the Davidic covenant (Psa. 89:27, 34-37).

f. The Rebuilding of the Temple

Perhaps the most controversial teaching of the Old Testament is that the sanctuary of Yahweh, the temple at Jerusalem, will be rebuilt in the times of Messiah’s worldwide reign. From the perspective of many readers of the New Testament, particularly of the book of Hebrews, this is intolerable.

But I am not here concerning myself with the conclusions of those who “correct” the Old Testament picture with their understandings of the New Testament. Lord willing, at a later date I will be able to show that there is no contradiction between the covenant requirement of a new temple and the finished work of Christ at Calvary. But here we looking at the Old Testament and are allowing it to speak to us clearly in its own voice. Once this is permitted one runs into passages such as this:

Now it shall come to pass in the latter days
That the mountain of the LORD’s house
Shall be established on the top of the mountains,
And shall be exalted above the hills;
And all nations shall flow to it. – Isaiah 2:2

Moreover I will make a covenant of peace with them, and it shall be an everlasting covenant with them; I will establish them and multiply them, and I will set My sanctuary in their midst forevermore. – Ezekiel 37:26

Many will instinctively turn the House of Yahweh and the sanctuary into Christ and the Church, but that is not what a Jew of the 8th or 6th Century B.C. would do. No reader of Haggai 2:6-9 (let alone the prophetic author!) would do that. In fact, no one familiar with Numbers 25 would have expected anything else but a new temple in the Kingdom of the Branch, just as we see in Ezekiel 37; 40 – 48; Zechariah 6 and 14. A rebuilt kingdom-temple is covenantally assured. Any accurate account of Old Testament theology must admit this fact.

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[1] There are places where this term is used to show regret at what Israel has become (e.g. Am. 5:2; Jer. 18:13), but Jeremiah 31 is a crucial eschatological setting.

The Covenantal Landscape of the Old Testament (2)

The Old Testament gives us a picture of a coming great Deliverer who will one day defeat the serpent and break his power (Gen. 3:15). We have seen that this prophetic picture is quite extensive, providing one puts the pieces of the “Scepter,” the “Star,” the son of David, the despised substitute Sufferer, the Branch, the donkey Rider, the Messiah, etc. together in one person. This portrait of the coming King of the Earth, who reigns in Jerusalem, is there so that He can be identified when He appears. And when He is identified through these prophecies it will eventually be seen that the Old Testament was spot on. The only question in light of for example, Psalm 22, Isaiah 53, and Zechariah 12 would seem to be, when would His own people recognize Him? This problem deepens because of the perceived mismatch between the victorious Ruler and the suffering Servant referred to above.

In similar fashion, what the Prophets have to say about the divine covenants paints a vivid picture of the Kingdom that is to come. The Prophets develop the unilateral covenants; the Noahic, Abrahamic, Priestly, and Davidic, and weave them together. The instrument they use to do this is the New covenant, which does not alter a word of the oaths which Yahweh took in the other covenants, but instead revitalizes these great covenants as they pass through the redemptive grace within it. This revitalization guarantees the literal fulfillment of the oaths of Yahweh, there being no sin standing in the way of their full realization.

But the New covenant is not just a means, it is a Man. It is none other than the promised One, the coming King Himself. This amounts to saying that the entire Creation Project, propelled by the covenants of God, is dependent upon this Man! Our comprehension of the Creation Project depends a lot upon our reading of God’s covenants, not to mention the nature of those covenants.

What, therefore, is the picture drawn by the Prophets? I think it best if I break the prophetic picture down into basic categories.[1]

a. A Future Time of Intense Trouble for Israel

Amos in the 8th century B.C. says that Yahweh will sift Israel (Am. 9:9), but after that He will “raise up the tabernacle of David,” that is to say, the reinstitution of the Davidic monarchy that would fizzle out at the Babylonian Captivity with Zedekiah of Judah will be seen. This sifting is tied to the Mosaic covenant, especially its elucidation in Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy 30:1-6 is pertinent here, as is Leviticus 26.

Having said this, nothing is solid enough in Amos’s time for a reader to determine whether there will be an end-time tribulation upon the Jews. Hosea 2:9-13 indicates a punishment upon Israel followed by an era of kingdom blessing (Hos. 2:14ff.). If I am correct in placing the two acts of God together, this necessarily puts us in the last times. Hosea 5:15 and 6:1-3 could well be referring to this same situation.

The theme of a future intense affliction upon Israel is not to be found stated plainly until Jeremiah 30:5-7 where something called “the time of Jacob’s trouble” is mentioned. The difficulty in the “time” is that it is not dated, other than in relation to the raising up of David and Israel being told that she will have no cause to fear anymore (Jer. 30:9-10). Is this the Holocaust? That might reasonably qualify as the time of Jacob’s trouble (cf. Hos. 2:6-13; 5:15; Isa. 1:25). But no restoration of the Davidic monarchy followed World War II. The only way that David, whether personally or through his heir, could rule over Israel is in the resurrection era (Isa. 26:19? Ezek. 37:12?). Terrible as was the Holocaust, something worse yet awaits the people of Israel.

The book of Daniel furnishes more information on a future time of tribulation. As brought out in Daniel 7 and 11, a mighty foe will persecute Israel for three and a half years (“a time, times, and half a time” – Dan. 7:24-27), during which time Israel will have to endure it’s greatest travail (Dan. 12:1). Ezekiel 38 refers to distress brought upon God’s people by a person named Gog. And Zechariah 11:15-17 is an oracle about a careless shepherd who is to be recognized by certain marks upon his body. Whether all of these passages apply to the end time of trouble is uncertain, but a fair case can be made in the affirmative.

b. The Regathering of Israel to their Promised Land

Many times, the Old Testament predicts the restoration of the Jews to their land. The ten northern tribes were carried off by the Assyrians, and no leader ever issued a decree for their return. But many from the north would have been dwelling in Judah long before Tiglath-Pileser defeated Hoshea of Israel in 723 B.C.[2] Both Jeremiah and Ezekiel prophesy about the reunification of all the tribes in their books. Daniel’s reading of Jeremiah 25:11-12 persuaded him to expect the southern nation to return from Babylon, which led to him beseeching Yahweh on behalf of his people (Dan. 9).

Another Exile

But closer study of the Prophets reveals that another exile and a greater regathering is to come, and it is to be looked for at the close of history. For example, if the “little horn” of Daniel 7 persecutes the Jewish saints (Dan. 7:21) when they are in their land (cf. Dan. 11:39), and the limit of the persecution in Daniel 7:25 corresponds to Daniel 11:36 (cf. Dan. 9:26-27), this would entail that they are driven out of the land again before being regathered at the time of Messiah’s arrival to set up His Kingdom (Dan. 7:22). They will return in repentance (Jer. 50:4-5). Ezekiel 37:11-14 has God bringing Israel into the land and granting them the Spirit. Earlier, in the context of God’s blessing on their productivity, Amos 9:14-15 refers to the same thing. Zechariah 8:8 has a great promise of return and blessing. In Isaiah 11:11-16; Jeremiah 16:14-15, and Jeremiah 23:7-8 there is a second exodus promise that is non-figurative. (more…)

The Covenantal Landscape of the Old Testament (1)

From the forthcoming book ‘The Words of the Covenant: Old Testament Expectation’

If one surveys the contents of the Old Testament with both eyes upon the divine covenants, what one comes away with is a massive sense of expectation. The simply-worded Creation chapter (Gen. 1) displays a purpose and goal for the world which God is moving forward. The simplicity of the wording conveys an important hermeneutical truth; that what God does is directly in line with what He says (i.e. God’s words equal God’s actions). This can be tested in numerous points throughout the Old Testament (e.g. Gen. 1:3, 6-7, 11-12, 26-31; 6:7-13; 11:7-9; 2 Ki. 1:3-4, 16-17; 5:10, 14; Dan. 4:16, 25, 32-33).

This movement towards a goal is seemingly interrupted by the calamitous fall of our first parents and the autonomous thinking that it brought about. While seeming innocuous, this default of naive independence from the authority of God and His words has led mankind to every false notion and violent act in our bloody history. It has also caused God’s people to recalibrate what God has said by passing it through the apparatus of independent interpretation. In the long term this is what is chiefly responsible for the varied schools of thought in Christian theology. But in the Hebrew Bible it was a major cause, through reevaluation of God’s word, for Israel’s defection.

The covenants that Yahweh made were intended to counter man’s sinful default of independence by drawing attention to the grand motifs within the Creation Project that He is sustaining. These covenants may be seen as amplifications of God’s plain speech about central planks in His program of history. Because they express the outline of the Creation Project, which in turn is embedded in God’s decrees, the covenants that God made with Noah, Abraham, Phinehas, and David are unalterable, their oaths being unilaterally entered into by God alone. Although conditions were appended to the covenants, it is crucial to understand that these conditions were not included within the oaths. Therefore, although they could and did hinder the fulfillment of the covenants, they could never force their cancellation or their reallocation. The bilateral Mosaic covenant, being a covenant of law given to law-breakers, could only stem the tide of Israel’s sin and provide a sense of community and belonging which would sustain the Jewish race, although not forever.

Aside from Yahweh, there are two main protagonists in the Hebrew Bible; the nation of Israel and the coming King who would arise out of Israel. Israel was given the Mosaic covenant, but had to be rescued from its condemnation. The person of the King would do that by fulfilling its demands of righteousness, and suffering vicariously (Isa. 53:4-6; 10-12), and by ushering in a New covenant to replace the one made at Sinai (Jer. 31:31-34; Isa. 49:6-8).

The need to replace the Mosaic covenant with another “New” covenant can be found as far back as Deuteronomy 30:6, and is found repeated at several junctures, including Psalm 98:3; 130; Isaiah 25:8-9; 46:13; Ezekiel 36:24-28, and Zechariah 13:1. The outstanding promise is in Jeremiah 31:31-34. There it becomes clear that this New covenant will supersede the Mosaic covenant. The New covenant brings with it the essential ingredient of salvation which it alone possesses.

But there is a fascinating twist regarding the New covenant, for whereas the other covenants contain a divine pledge to a person or persons, and may have included animal sacrifice (certainly in regard to the Noahic, Abrahamic, and Mosaic covenants), the New covenant goes further by designating God’s Servant as the covenant itself (Isa. 42:6; 49:8)! As already said, this Servant is a person, not Israel, and this person must face death on behalf of others (Isa. 53). So, the extraordinary connection of the New covenant with the Servant becomes something to watch as revelation unfolds.

The Servant is the Branch is the Promised Seed

Since the temptation of Eve in the garden of Eden and the fall of Adam, God has promised to send a Conqueror who would destroy the Serpent (Gen. 3:16). This Conqueror is referred to as the Seed of the Woman in Genesis 3, but He appears in the prophecies of Jacob as a King from Judah (Gen. 49:10), as a “Star” out of Egypt who routs His enemies in Numbers 24:8-9, 17, and as the “Branch” who will subdue, judge and beautify the earth and exalt Jerusalem (Isa. 4:2-3; 11:1-10; Jer. 23:5-6; Zech. 3:8), seeing to it that the lines of David and Levi are maintained, although not in an unbroken succession[1] (Jer. 33:14-26). It is also He who will build the last temple (Zech. 6:12-13).

This man is also called Yahweh’s “Servant” in, for example, Isaiah 42:1-7 and 49:5-7, who will save the Gentile nations and redeem Israel,[2] restoring the entire earth. Amazingly, Isaiah 52:13-53:12 portray Him as reigning in justice, yet suffering the indignation of men and God. He suffers and dies innocently, yet as part of the plan of Yahweh (Isa. 53:10). And He will be rewarded and highly exalted. Daniel also speaks of His demise on behalf of others in Daniel 9:26, where He refers to Him as Messiah (anointed).

It is this coming King who as the Servant is said to be given “as a covenant to the people” (Isa. 42:6; 49:8). Once these passages are linked with the substitutionary nature of His suffering and its relation to securing pardon and justification “for many” (Isa. 53:11), it starts to appear that this great One is the pivot around which the whole Creation Project and its associated covenants turn. This King Messiah pulls every covenant hope into His orbit.

The coming of the Messiah is normally presented as Him vanquishing Israel’s enemies and bringing in justice and peace. Isaiah has Him coming in avenging might (Isa. 63). Daniel has Him smashing the kingdoms of man (Dan. 2). After crushing His enemies, He comes to rule from Jerusalem (Jer. 33:14-15; Zech. 1:17).

A “problem” arises between this unimpeded picture of His arrival and the occasional references to His suffering and death (Psa. 22; Isa. 53; Dan. 9:25; Zech. 13:6). How can He come in such irresistible power and yet be overpowered? The Old Testament does not tell us directly, though it provides us with clues which subsequent revelation will fit together. The closest thing to an outright explanation is perhaps Zechariah 12:10 where, in the common setting of God’s future judgment, we are suddenly told “they will look on Me who they pierced.” This implies that the people “pierced” Him previous to His coming in judgment and salvation. To step into a New Testament vantage-point for a moment, what we find is that the first and second comings of Christ are merged in the Old Testament, with the emphasis usually placed upon things that occur at the second coming.

One more vital consideration; we must never forget that according to Psalm 110:1, Micah 5:2 and Isaiah 9:6-7 the promised King is divine. Therefore, to the standard messianic passages we must add those texts which speak of Yahweh Himself as dwelling with men in the Kingdom of God. We must also not avoid the inclusion of passages like Ezekiel 43:1-7; 48:35; Joel 3:17, and Zechariah 1:16; 8:1-3; 14:9, 16-21 as pointing to Messiah. As one author has stated, “The Old Testament has its own messianic light.”[3] And it is a good deal brighter than many people realize.

——————————————————————————-

[1] The curse upon Jehoiachin (Coniah) in Jeremiah 22:28-30 essentially illustrates this. Although Jehoiachin lived on in captivity and had seven sons (1 Chron. 3:17-18), he was written as childless. This appeared to defeat the Davidic covenant, but God would find a way around the problem. Compare John Bright, Covenant and Promise, 180-181.

[2] Redeeming Israel, He cannot be Israel.

[3] John H. Sailhamer, The Meaning of the Pentateuch, 238.

My Take on the New Covenant (Pt. 10): In Summary

Part Nine

In this final part I want to gather things together and summarize what has gone before.  In the latter half of the full piece I interact with some other views.  I shall not concern myself with running over that ground here.  I shall only outline the major pillars of my position on the New Covenant:

  1. Jeremiah 31 is not to be thought about as definitive of the New Covenant.  There are many other passages which, although they don’t name the covenant as the NC, are rightly considered as important OT New Covenant passages (e.g. Deut. 30:1-6; Isa. 32:9-20; 42:1-7; 49:1-13; 52:10-53:12; 55:3; 59:15b-21; 61:8; Jer. 32:36:44; Ezek. 16:53-63; 36:22-38; 37:21-28; Hos. 2:18-20; Joel 2:28–3:8; Mic. 7:18-20; Zech. 9:10; 12:6-14.; 59:15-21).
  2. None of the great theistic covenants of the Bible (i.e. the Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, Priestly, Davidic covenants) have a provision of redemption set within them.  That means they can never be fulfilled!  Sin bars the way.
  3. However, the problem of unfulfillment is overcome by Jesus Christ in the New Covenant.
  4. Since it deals with sin and salvation, the NC deals with the promise of the Holy Spirit.
  5. Two key NC passages, Isaiah 42:1-6 and Isaiah 49:1-8, speak both to Israel and to the nations.  Isaiah 42:1-3 is quoted by Matthew 12:17-21, and is applied especially to “the Gentiles.”  He might have quoted Isa. 11:10; 42:15; 60:3; Jer. 16:19, and Mal. 1:11.
  6.  Further, Isaiah 42 and 49 identify a person as a covenant who will bring salvation to both Israel and the Gentile nations. The NC is the “salvation covenant.”
  7. The Apostle Paul uses NC terminology and applies it to Christian redemption in Colossians 2:11-14 and Philippians 3:3.
  8. Not only that, but Paul explicitly says that Christians taking the Lord’s Supper are celebrating “the blood of the New Covenant” (1 Cor. 11:25).  Paul also declares that his ministry is a ministry of the New Covenant in 2 Cor. 3.
  9. Jesus said that His blood was NC blood (e.g. Lk. 22).  His disciples partook of the symbolism of it, and they formed the foundation of the Church (Eph. 2:20).
  10. Hebrews 7 – 10 names Jesus as our High Priest, which He can only be on the basis of the New Covenant, since that is the covenant He mediates as High Priest.
  11. Jesus Christ and the New Covenant are One.  He is the covenant mentioned by Isaiah 42:6 and 49:8; as the Lamb of God (Jn. 1:29), He is the covenant “animal” that makes the NC with His own body and blood (Heb. 9:16-17).  There is (and never was) any salvation outside of Him.  Therefore, the NC is not to be viewed as an agreement external to Him Who made it.
  12. We must beware of impeding our own understanding of God’s Word by wandering away from Scripture to fragmentary pagan notions of treaty and covenant.  We will be in poor shape to “hear” the Scripture if we fail listen with both ears and read with both eyes.  This is all the more important when the matter under consideration is the oaths of God!

 

 

 

My Take on the New Covenant (Pt. 9)

Part Eight

Having come to a conclusion about the foremost question in the debate about the range of the New Covenant and its connection to Jesus Christ, I want to spread out before the reader my reasons for identifying Him with the NC.  These reasons are roughly, exegetical, theological, and devotional.  I see no need to go back over the arguments for Luke 22, 1 Corinthians 11, 2 Corinthians 3, and the the Book of Hebrews (although I shall look into Heb. 9:16-17).  However, I will provide a summary of the teaching of these passages as I interpret them, and add several further thoughts.

Some Exegetical Arguments

In Luke 22:19-20 our Lord first refers to His body:

This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me – Lk. 22:19

The body of Christ was broken for the disciples, but who believes that it was broken for them only?  As Paul says, it was broken also for all Christians.  It is not called “the body of the New Covenant,” so there is no division of His body between supposed NC saints and non-NC saints.  Then we come to the cup:

Likewise He also took the cup after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood, which is shed for you.” – Lk. 22:20

As regards the “cup,” Christ is not recorded as saying, “do this in remembrance of me.”  Interestingly, the Apostle Paul adds these words in 1 Corinthians 11:25.  In so doing he reinforces the connection between the body and the blood as a single sacrifice.  If the blood is directed partly to the NC and partly non-NC, then so is His body.  Also, if, as we are sometimes told, Paul wished to teach a separation of Christ’s blood into NC and non-NC blood, why did he add the note of remembrance which the Gospels leave out?  That at least would give the theory of divided blood a sporting chance.  By adding the remembrance clause Paul is tying the blood and body of Christ together as one sacrifice for all.

In addition, it should not go unnoticed that although there is plenty of opportunity for the inspired authors to teach a separation of Christ’s blood into NC and non-NC, all we find is NC blood in the Gospels (Lk. 22; Mk. 14; Matt. 26), and 1 Corinthians (1 Cor. 11) and Hebrews 12.

The author of Hebrews also combines the sacrifice of Christ’s body with the blood, making them one sacrifice; neither His body nor His blood is divided.

By that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. – Hebrews 10:10

Therefore, brethren, having boldness to enter the Holiest by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way which He consecrated for us, through the veil, that is, His flesh, and having a High Priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. – Hebrews 10:19-22 

In 2 Corinthians 3:6 Paul speaks of his ministry to the Corinthians as that “of the New Covenant,” which he then continues to contrast with the “first covenant.”  Some argue that Paul did not do this; that he was merely comparing his ministry to the Gentile Christians in Corinth, with the future ministry to Israel at the eschaton.  If a person wishes to believe such a thing I cannot stop them, but it has all the marks of skirting around an obvious conclusion, which one would prefer not to draw

The straightforward “normal” meaning is not difficult to see: Christ instituted the New Covenant with His disciples before His Passion, the disciples formed the foundation of the Church, with Christ (Eph. 2:20), and Paul’s NC ministry (2 Cor. 3) included the remembrance of the “blood of the New Covenant”  being part of the Lord’s Table for Christians (1 Cor. 11).  Christ is our High Priest (Heb. 4:14-15), because He has offered His blood at the altar in Heaven (Heb. 9:12-15).

This brings me to Hebrews 9:16-17.  As it reads in most of our Bibles this passage is an island of “testaments” sticking out of a sea of “covenants.”  The proposed temporary change from covenant to testament is due to the mention of “inheritance” in verse 15.  Here is the context:

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.  For where there is a testament, there must also of necessity be the death of the testator.  For a testament is in force after men are dead, since it has no power at all while the testator lives.  Therefore not even the first covenant was dedicated without blood. – Hebrews 9:15-18

The switch back to “covenant” is necessitated by the reasoning in verses 19 and 20, which are concerned with Moses’ involving the people in the covenant in Exodus 24.  In every instance the same word (diatheke) is being translated.  My intention here is not to prove that “testament/testator” is an unnecessary translation (I think it is!).  I shall just give a few reasons for my rejection of it.

Firstly, the uniform translation of diatheke as “covenant” in Hebrews, save for these two verses, makes them look suspicious.  George Guthrie writes:

Interpreters often have read 9:16-17 in terms of “will” or “testament,” but these verses should be read, in their context, as speaking of the establishment of a covenant… “The one arranging [diatithemi] it,” occurring in participial form, in 9:16-17, refers to the sacrificial animal that must die for a covenant to be established… This fits perfectly with the argument of 9:18-22, which deals with Moses’ inauguration of the Sinai covenant with the sprinkling of blood (Exod. 24:3-8). – in G. K. Beale & D. A. Carson, editors, Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old, 973.

Furthermore, there is good evidence that a testament in the ancient world did not require the death of the testator.  Think of the Parable of the Prodigal Son!  Hence, William Lane claims,

There is no evidence in classical papyriological sources to substantiate that a will or testament was legally valid only when the testator died. A will became operative as soon as it was properly drafted, witnessed, and notarized. Moreover, inheritance did not occur only after the death of the testator, since it was common legal practice for an inheritance, as parental distribution inter vivos (“among the survivors”), to take place before death. – Hebrews 9 – 13 WBC, 231

The assertion I am making then is that Jesus is Himself the “covenant animal” that ratifies the New Covenant.  Moreover, there is precedent for saying this.  Just recall John the Baptist’s reference to Christ as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” (Jn. 1:29).  Do notice this concerns the sin of the world and not only of the remnant of Israel!

I should add here that the OT (as far as I know) does not speak of “New Covenant blood.”  Only the NT does that.  This strongly implies that one cannot get a full understanding of the New Covenant from the OT alone!

Returning to Isaiah

We must revisit Isaiah 42, 49 and 52-53.  In both Isaiah 42:6 and 49:8 the Servant of Yahweh is called “a covenant to the people.”  So Christ (for He is in view) is a covenant.  This fact cannot be stressed too much.  Regardless of where one comes out on all this (and one does not have to agree with me), it is vital to address this question:

‘If Christ is to be given as a covenant, which covenant is He?’

I have answered the question by claiming that what is to believed (the central oath) concerns the person and work of Jesus Christ.  The covenant is about Him, it is wrought by Him, it is mediated by Him, His blood is the blood of the NC, and He is Himself referred to as a covenant of salvation, and the only covenant of salvation is the New Covenant.  Q.E.D.  For me at least.  (more…)

My Take on the New Covenant (Pt. 8)

Part Seven

So we turn to the last two options in Vlach’s list:

  1. The New Covenant will be fulfilled with Israel but the church is an added referent to the New Covenant promises so there is a sense in which the New Covenant is being fulfilled with the churchThe New Covenant has two referents—Israel and the church (some revised dispensationalists; Paul Feinberg)
  1. Since the New Covenant was given to Israel for the purpose of also blessing Gentiles there is literal fulfillment of the spiritual blessings of the New Covenant to all believing Jews and Gentiles in this present age, while the physical/national promises await fulfillment with Jesus’ second coming when national Israel is incorporated into the New Covenant (some revised and most progressive dispensationalists)

I have already stated that in my opinion it is a mistake to view the New Covenant as entailing physical promises.  Those are contained in the other covenants, but they require “releasing” upon their stated party (the nation of Israel), which release is secured by the New Covenant, especially at the mass conversion of Israel at the second advent (e.g. Isa. 66:8).  The New Covenant therefore is the salvific conduit or stream through which the other covenants mix as they pass through it to their literal fulfillment.  Hence, I agree with Option 6 apart from the inclusion of the word “physical.”  Having taken out the physical element, I think one can argue that the difference between Option 5 and Option 6 is a semantic one.  Asked to phrase Option 6 in another way it is easy to imagine someone coming up with something that sounds very like Option 5.  In fine, the New Covenant is given to Israel (although they will not enter into its provisions as a nation until Christ returns), but since “salvation is of the Jews” (Jn. 4:22) the Church becomes an added referent to the New Covenant in Christ’s blood.

The Apostle Paul as a Minister of Confusion or Clarity

I have already said that to understand Paul’s mention of “the New Covenant in My blood” in 1 Corinthians 11:25 as anything less than a clear indication that the Gentile Christians were seen by him as parties to the NC when they took “the cup,” makes him a pretty shabby communicator.  The same can be said of 2 Corinthians 3:6

who also made us sufficient as ministers of the new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.  

The word rendered “ministers” (diakonos) is used in verse 3 (and throughout the chapter).  Just look at the verse:

clearly you are an epistle of Christ, ministered by us, written not with ink but by the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of flesh, that is, of the heart.

Who cannot see the continuity and semblance of thought here?  If the apostle did not believe the New Covenant was for the Gentiles, then why on earth did he tell them he was ministering it?  And why did he draw so close a connection between his ministry to them and his supposed “other” ministry (i.e. of the New Covenant?), or even of some eschatological ministry of which he would not be a part?  One would only minister the New Covenant to the party involved.  With all due respect to those who demur this beggars belief!  What has happened to the “plain sense”?  Pray, what is the difference in the context between what Paul calls “the ministry of the Spirit” (see 2 Cor. 3:9) in verse 3 and “the ministry of the Spirit” in verse 6?  If Paul wished to create befuddlement in the minds of his Corinthian readers, he certainly went about it the right way.

But it could be argued (and has been) that all Paul is doing in 2 Corinthians 3:6 is drawing a kind of parallel.  The argument goes that “ministers of the new covenant” (diakonous kainēs diathēkēs) does not in fact mean that Paul and his companions are actually ministering the New Covenant, only that their ministry resembles the future New Covenant dispensation.  I struggle a bit here.  For the NC work of the Spirit at the second advent is a complete work resulting in complete obedience (e.g. Deut. 30:6; Ezek. 36:25-27; Zeph. 3:13), which is quite unlike what we experience today.  Still, if that is what Paul is doing one has to ask in interrogative tones, “Why even say such a thing?”  How is the argument helped by dropping a “by the way, our ministry is sort of like what the NC ministry will be like” in at verse 6?  Why make a comparison of covenants here at all?  It surely looks like Paul views “the ministry of the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:8) as synonymous with his present work “as [a] minister of the new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit” two verses earlier.  And even if the definite article is missing so that it actually reads “a new covenant” in verse 6, how far does that take us?  The contrast is between the Mosaic covenant and some covenant – a covenant involving the Spirit’s gift of new life.  Which covenant could that be?  The Abrahamic, Priestly, and Davidic covenants do not include the Spirit’s saving action in their terms.  The answer is staring us in the face: the New Covenant!

And what is all this about?

[T]hat at that time you were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.  But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. – Ephesians 2:12-13

Brought near to what?  It would take a long article to fully expound the passage, but for my purposes the key is in the phrase “without God in the world.”  The blood of Jesus Christ brings us near to God.  It also includes us in the strand of the Abrahamic Covenant reserved for Gentiles (“in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” – Gen. 12:3; cf. Gal. 3:13-16).  But wait, Paul here speaks of “covenants” plural.  Does he mean we are included in the Priestly Covenant with Phinehas (Num 25)?  Assuredly not.  What about the covenant with David?  Again no.  The Abrahamic then?  Yes, but we need another covenant.  and we have one:  “This cup is the new covenant in My blood. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.” – (1 Cor. 11:25).

Salvation Prior to the New Covenant

I have been asked the following question, which deserves an answer:

Both Noah and Abraham received the imputed righteousness of God BEFORE the promise of the New Covenant was made so their being redeemed was not dependent on the New Covenant. And I see no reason to believe that the redemption of the believers in the Body of Christ is dependent on the New Covenant since their redemption is also based on the imputed righteousness of God.  

I begin by simply pointing out that if anyone is going to be made right with God it is not going to be on the basis of their righteousness.  To assert such is to tacitly deny the doctrine of original sin, as well as its operations in a person’s life and thought.  No one merits salvation.  Righteousness must be imputed.  The only way for a sinner to be saved is by the merits of Christ.  Yes, Noah built a boat; Abraham believed what God said about his seed, but God reckoned their faith as righteousness in view of the coming sacrifice of His Son for mankind.  Nobody’s salvation is independent of “the imputed righteousness of God.”  This is how Job’s testimony in Job 19:25, for example, is to be understood. (more…)

My Take on the New Covenant (Pt. 7)

Part Six

Is Christ’s Blood Divided?

I want to begin with two more quotes from Beacham.  I should say first that I think his article is an excellent presentation of Option 1.  On page 22 of his paper he states:

The soteriological benefits that Israel experiences at the ratification of the New Covenant are not exclusive either to Israel or to the New Covenant. Many people,
throughout human history, have experienced spiritual blessings like those promised to Israel under the New Covenant. Their spiritual experience, however, neither originates in the New Covenant, nor places them under the New Covenant. Salvation is trans-historical and offered to all who believe. The New Covenant is eschatological and offered to Israel alone. – “The Church Has No Legal Relationship to or Participation in the New Covenant, 22

Every system has to account for the salvation of sinners before Christ, and who would disagree with the sentiment that “Salvation is trans-historical and offered to all who believe“?  The issue is concentrated on the form in which that salvation takes.  Beacham holds that “The New Covenant is eschatological and offered to Israel alone.”  He states:

God‘s promise that all Israel will be saved at the ratification of the New Covenant does not make the New Covenant God‘s eternal covenant of salvation with the church or with all of mankind, the elect, or anyone else. Salvation is judicially grounded in the person and work of Christ, not the New Covenant. – Ibid, FN. 66

Salvation certainly is judicially grounded in Christ, but on what basis?  The usual answer is, “the blood of Christ.”  But according to Christ Himself His blood is “My blood of the New Covenant.” (Matt. 26:28).  Salvation is “judicial” in the sense that it depends upon the judgment of God.  God’s judgment is grounded in His character, and its revelation to Israel is found in the Law of Moses.  Moses’ Law is one piece: moral, ceremonial and civil.  The discussion is quite involved, but covenantally-speaking, Gentiles are not under the Law.  However, the Law does give “the knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:20), and it does so by revealing the ethical requirements of God.  In that sense Gentiles are “under the law.”  Hence,

Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. – Rom. 3:19

Although it can be argued that in this context “law” is a reference to the Old Testament, not to the Mosaic Law per se (F. F. Bruce, Romans, 99), Paul’s use of the term here obviously shows that he is focusing on the moral aspects of law-keeping in relation to God (Alva J. McClain, Romans: The Gospel of God’s Grace, 99-100), i.e. as a means to justification.  As the Apostle writes above, this can only bring guilt.  This is where Jesus Christ comes in.  He is the One,

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. 3:25-26

We must recall also that there is a universal “moral law,” which although it is embedded within nine of the Ten Commandments, yet transcends them.  As such the law was “our tutor to bring us to Christ” (Gal 3:24).  This is not the same as “legal” code formalized in law.  Our salvation is not “law-based” because as I showed last time the New Covenant is not a legal document.

But I am getting ahead of myself.  Beacham avers that “Salvation is judicially grounded in the person and work of Christ, not the New Covenant.”  We see here that he distinguishes Christ from the New Covenant, in his case because he believes that covenants, (including the NC) are legal agreements. 

Before moving on to Options 4, 5 and 6, which are developed along a continuum, I want to notice how Beacham deals with the “New Covenant” passages in 1 Corinthians 11 and 2 Corinthians 3.  In short, he claims that Paul thinks that when Jesus spoke the words about the NC in His blood He made a distinction between Israel and the Gentiles/Church (42) by saying His covenant blood was “shed for many.”  This takes the word polys (“many”) and restricts it to future Israel.  But in Luke 22:20 He is recorded as saying to the disciples that it was shed for “you.”  This definitely doesn’t look like a proleptic “you”!  As I have said, the disciples became the foundation of the Church (Eph. 2:20).  So the normal way to understand this would be to view it as new revelation about the NC, not to split the blood of Christ into New Covenant blood and non-New Covenant blood!    

Beacham believes (rightly on his very well presented view) that the NC has not been ratified (43-44), and that it is purely eschatological.  Therefore, he believes that in 1 Corinthians 11:25 the Apostle, while referring to the New Covenant, is not actually concerned with it, but rather with the Lord’s Supper as a memorial.  At best this makes Paul look sloppy.  If the NC was only for future Israel why would he refer to it when teaching Gentiles?  And why would he not qualify his meaning? 

I could have missed it, but I could not find an interpretation of 2 Corinthians 3 on this view.  But when one takes these NT texts together it begins to look like someone putting a square peg in a round hole.  (more…)

My Take on the New Covenant (Pt. 6)

Part Five

Gentiles and Their Connection to the New Covenant

What has proven to be a thorny issue for Dispensationalists is the relation of the Church/Gentiles to the New Covenant.  Since the only explicit NC text in Jeremiah 31:31-34 (repeated in Hebrews 8) identifies Israel and Judah as parties to the NC with God, the contention is that the Church is associated with the NC in a less direct way, or perhaps not connected at all!  This brings us back to Mike Vlach’s list which we reproduced in Part One.

  1. The New Covenant will be fulfilled in the future with national Israel; the church has no relationship to the New Covenant (some classical dispensationalists)
  2. There are two New Covenants—one with Israel and another for the church (some traditional dispensationalists including John Walvoord)
  1. The New Covenant is completely fulfilled with the church; there is no future fulfillment with national Israel (Covenant Theology and some non-dispensational systems)
  1. The New Covenant will be fulfilled with Israel but the spiritual blessings of the covenant are applied to the church today (some traditional and revised dispensationalists)
  1. The New Covenant will be fulfilled with Israel but the church is an added referent to the New Covenant promises so there is a sense in which the New Covenant is being fulfilled with the churchThe New Covenant has two referents—Israel and the church (some revised dispensationalists; Paul Feinberg)
  1. Since the New Covenant was given to Israel for the purpose of also blessing Gentiles there is literal fulfillment of the spiritual blessings of the New Covenant to all believing Jews and Gentiles in this present age, while the physical/national promises await fulfillment with Jesus’ second coming when national Israel is incorporated into the New Covenant (some revised and most progressive dispensationalists)

I am not going to comment on Option 2 (Two New Covenants) other than to say it is not held by anyone today and always was a stretch.  Neither am I going to say much about Option 3 (the New Covenant is fulfilled in the Church) because being held by non-dispensationalists, it is irrelevant to my objective in these posts.

Looking now at Option 4 (the Church gets the “spiritual blessings” of the NC) I have to ask, “what on earth are these spiritual blessings?”  Is the answer salvation?!  And does stating this mean the NC is mainly about physical blessings upon Israel?  But those “physical” matters are taken up in the other covenants with Israel.  Let us remind ourselves of what Jeremiah 31 promises:

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

This is not a promise of land or throne or great productivity.  It is the promise of redemption.  The New Covenant is about redemption!  When redemption is mixed with the other covenants what you get is the coming Kingdom of God on earth – literally fulfilled in line with those covenants.  I will come back to Option 4.  Let us focus on Option 1 (The Church has no part in the NC).

Roy Beacham wrote a paper entitled “The Church Has No Legal Relationship
to or Participation in the New Covenant” which he presented under a different title at the Council for Dispensational Hermeneutics conference in 2009.  I think there are several problems with his thesis as well as its central concern.

Biblical Covenants Were Not “Legal Contracts”

It is simply incongruous to parallel ANE covenants with those in the Bible, particularly those which God made.  And it is wrong to claim that biblical covenants were contracts, and that therefore they were primarily legal in nature – they were not.  As for the first, several scholars have warned about equating the covenants of Scripture with those of the ANE (e.g.  Charles H.H. Scobie, The Ways of Our God: An Approach to Biblical Theology, 475).  To be fair, Beacham does note that John Walton is (surprisingly) against his view that covenants in the Bible are to be understood against the background of the legal practices of the ANE (see FN 6).  But he does spend much time “setting the scene” for his position by citing studies of non-biblical covenants.

As for the second assertion, the trouble is that even the Land or Royal Grant and Suzerain-Vassal Treaties of certain parts of the ANE (e.g. Egypt didn’t go in for them) were not like our contracts.  Referring to the New Covenant Jakob Jocz observed,

It is easy to misunderstand the situation if we take the concept of covenant in the legal sense to mean a juridical contract whereby God binds Himself constitutionally… The covenant is not a legal document by which God finds Himself committed… The covenant is the highest expression of His determination to be our God. – The Covenant, 240-241  

Covenants were not legally binding in the sense that there was some high court that could be appealed to.  Rather, they were sworn oaths, sometimes to a deity and sometimes to each other.  Furthermore, they were often (not always) imposed by the more powerful party.  In more garden variety situations, they were solemn oaths made between friends, or even enemies, with no judicial aspect at all. (more…)