Thursday, May 25, 2006

Two Covenants - Two Kingdoms

"Is the New Covenant essentially different from the Old? Are we not still to carry a sword AND a trowel?"
--Handiwork (see discussion under previous post)

The Old Covenant

As a continuation of the discussion under the previous post, and also to address the principles involved in the issue of Christians in politics, let's take a relatively brief look at the two Covenants in the Bible--namely, the Old Covenant (or Testament) and the New Covenant (or Testament)--and the Kingdoms they represent.

There are actually several different covenants in the Old Testament, each of which builds on the other, adding more details and information as time goes on. The first such covenant, though it is more of a promise than an agreement, is recorded in Genesis 3:14-15:
And the LORD God said unto the serpent,...I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.
In context, this statement is actually a curse pronounced on Satan by God at the Fall of Man, but included is a promise to the first two humans that one of their descendents would at some point in the future defeat the serpent. This "covenant" was universal in nature, since it included all of mankind, and had both literal and spiritual fulfillments in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, when he defeated death and the devil (crushing the serpent's head) at the expense of His own life (bruising the Seed's heel).

The second covenant, as recorded in Genesis 9: 8-11, was made to Noah and his sons after they left the ark:
And God spake unto Noah, and to his sons with him, saying, And I, behold, I establish my covenant with you, and with your seed after you; And with every living creature that is with you, of the fowl, of the cattle, and of every beast of the earth with you; from all that go out of the ark, to every beast of the earth. And I will establish my covenant with you; neither shall all flesh be cut off any more by the waters of a flood; neither shall there any more be a flood to destroy the earth.

The reason for this covenant is given in Genesis 8:21-22.

And the LORD smelled a sweet savour; and the LORD said in his heart, I will not again curse the ground any more for man's sake; for the imagination of man's heart is evil from his youth; neither will I again smite any more every thing living, as I have done. While the earth remaineth, seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease.

This might seem a little odd, since this is the very reason God had sent the Flood in the first place :

And GOD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And it repented the LORD that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart. And the LORD said, I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth; both man, and beast, and the creeping thing, and the fowls of the air; for it repenteth me that I have made them.
Genesis 6:5 - 7

While it is not stated outright, I believe that included in this covenant is the promise of a Redeemer. Man's sinfulness before the Flood had reached a point beyond which the holiness and justice of God could allow, and He therefore destroyed them. But even after the Flood, man's heart had not changed. It wouldn't be very long before God again brought judgement (at the Tower of Babel) on a people who were already well on their way to the level of wickedness of their ancestors who were destroyed in the Flood. But rather than there being an endless cycle of increasing wickedness followed by universal judgement, God promised that this would be the only universal judgement, at least by water. Did that mean that God would overlook sin from now on? Absolutely not. It is not in the nature of God to overlook sin. So if it is a given that man will increase in sinfulness, that God cannot overlook sin, but that He will also not carry out periodic universal judgement, then it must mean that God will deal with man's sin in a different way.

The initiation of that new and better way occurred not too long afterward with the institution of the third major covenant between God and man in the Bible--God's covenant with Abraham. Whereas the previous two covenants were universal in nature, this covenant was to one individual and his descendents. Included in this covenant were promises of a son, numerous descendents, a certain section of land, present blessing, and future blessing through him to all the world.

Genesis 12:1-3

Now the LORD had said unto Abram, Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father's house, unto a land that I will shew thee: And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing: And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed.

Genesis 13:14 - 17  

And the LORD said unto Abram,...Lift up now thine eyes, and look from the place where thou art northward, and southward, and eastward, and westward: For all the land which thou seest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed for ever. And I will make thy seed as the dust of the earth: so that if a man can number the dust of the earth, then shall thy seed also be numbered. Arise, walk through the land in the length of it and in the breadth of it; for I will give it unto thee.

Genesis 15:5 - 7  

And he brought him forth abroad, and said, Look now toward heaven, and tell the stars, if thou be able to number them: and he said unto him, So shall thy seed be. And he believed in the LORD; and he counted it to him for righteousness. And he said unto him, I am the LORD that brought thee out of Ur of the Chaldees, to give thee this land to inherit it.

Genesis 17:1 - 8  

And when Abram was ninety years old and nine, the LORD appeared to Abram, and said unto him, I am the Almighty God; walk before me, and be thou perfect. And I will make my covenant between me and thee, and will multiply thee exceedingly. And Abram fell on his face: and God talked with him, saying, As for me, behold, my covenant is with thee, and thou shalt be a father of many nations....And I will make thee exceeding fruitful, and I will make nations of thee, and kings shall come out of thee. And I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee. And I will give unto thee, and to thy seed after thee, the land wherein thou art a stranger, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God. (If you have time and access to a Bible, read also verses 9 - 14)

Genesis 22:16 - 18  

By myself have I sworn, saith the LORD, for because thou hast done this thing, and hast not withheld thy son, thine only son: That in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea shore; and thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies; And in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because thou hast obeyed my voice.

If you skipped or skimmed over those verses, please go back and read them carefully--they are important for our discussion, and we will talk more about them later. For now, let's notice a few things about these promises. First, they are made to a physical individual, a real, historical person. Second, most of what was promised was also physical--physical descendents through a physical son, a specific geographical territory to be physically occupied, and other physical blessings. Third, the descendents would be innumerable, and the land would be their's forever. Notice also the differences between this covenant and the previous ones. As we mentioned before, this one is to an individual, versus to all people. Also, this covenant had certain requirements that the individual needed to fulfill, and was based in part on the obedience and cooperation of Abraham with God's commands and desires; whereas the previous two were made by God freely, with no requirements of the recipients or conditions on them.

This covenant was renewed with each of Abraham's descendents in the "line of promise" as time went on and each became the head of the family. This produced a narrowing effect, as far as which descendents God was talking about, since some of Abraham's descendents branched off in succeeding generations, and were not included in the promise. The result was that only the descendents of Jacob were counted as the "children of the promise", though Abraham had many other descendents still living. [As an interesting side note, Jacob was the first Jew rather than Abraham, since all of Jacob's descendents were Jews, while Abraham was also the (ancestral) father of the Ishmaelites, Edomites, and various other people groups.]

It was with Jacob's descendents that the next covenant was made, the major covenant of the Old Testament in many respects--the covenant made with the nation of Israel through the spokesperson Moses. To give all the details of this covenant, I would have to paste in the books of Exodus through Deuteronomy. Instead, I'll just list a few places that give a general overview of the covenant, and encourage you to read through those books on your own.

Exodus 19:3 - 8  

And Moses went up unto God, and the LORD called unto him out of the mountain, saying, Thus shalt thou say to the house of Jacob, and tell the children of Israel; Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians, and how I bare you on eagles' wings, and brought you unto myself. Now therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people: for all the earth is mine: And ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation. These are the words which thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel.

And Moses came and called for the elders of the people, and laid before their faces all these words which the LORD commanded him.And all the people answered together, and said, All that the LORD hath spoken we will do. And Moses returned the words of the people unto the LORD.

Deuteronomy 26:16 - 19  

This day the LORD thy God hath commanded thee to do these statutes and judgments: thou shalt therefore keep and do them with all thine heart, and with all thy soul. Thou hast avouched the LORD this day to be thy God, and to walk in his ways, and to keep his statutes, and his commandments, and his judgments, and to hearken unto his voice: And the LORD hath avouched thee this day to be his peculiar people, as he hath promised thee, and that thou shouldest keep all his commandments; And to make thee high above all nations which he hath made, in praise, and in name, and in honour; and that thou mayest be an holy people unto the LORD thy God, as he hath spoken.

Deuteronomy 30:15 - 20  

See, I have set before thee this day life and good, and death and evil; In that I command thee this day to love the LORD thy God, to walk in his ways, and to keep his commandments and his statutes and his judgments, that thou mayest live and multiply: and the LORD thy God shall bless thee in the land whither thou goest to possess it. But if thine heart turn away, so that thou wilt not hear, but shalt be drawn away, and worship other gods, and serve them; I denounce unto you this day, that ye shall surely perish, and that ye shall not prolong your days upon the land, whither thou passest over Jordan to go to possess it. I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live: That thou mayest love the LORD thy God, and that thou mayest obey his voice, and that thou mayest cleave unto him: for he is thy life, and the length of thy days: that thou mayest dwell in the land which the LORD sware unto thy fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them.

Read also Deuteronomy 28.

While the details of this covenant were many and varied, the substance of it is given in the words of Jeremiah 7:23, " I will be your God, and ye shall be my people." Here God was expanding His covenant with Abraham, and filling in the details of the people's part. Notice the marked difference between this and all the previous covenants, in regards to the requirements and conditions involved. Not only were there numerous responsibilities given to the people as part of this covenant, there were also severe punishments for failing to fulfill those requirements. At the same time, the blessings for obedience were also numerous. In addition, the way was made open for man to come to God in a much closer way than ever before.

As we look back on the Mosaic covenant, we tend to get depressed at all the details of sacrifice and ceremony, while forgetting that it was through those physical means that man was able to approach Almighty God and obtain redemption and pardon for his sin. Note that those who were not born Jews could also become a part of this covenant, with equal standing before God. Here was a way for all men to be re-united with the Creator they were separated from at the Fall and the Flood. It was a way very much tied to physical rituals and a specific geographical location, but it was a way nevertheless.

Yet even this system, with all its detail and rigidity, was only temporary, a pre-cursor to a new and better covenant, one that would truly be universal and eventually restore mankind fully in their relationship with their Creator.

Before we look at that New Covenant, there is one final covenant in the Old Testament that we must take note of--God's covenant with the house of David. In David's time, the Mosaic covenant had long been established, and the nation of Israel had gone through numerous cycles of obedience/blessing and rebellion/punishment. God's promise to Abraham concerning the land of Canaan had been fulfilled, and Israel was now a prosperous nation. Now, God was promising the throne of Israel to David, and to his house forever.

2 Samuel 7:8, 11 - 16 

Now therefore so shalt thou say unto my servant David,...the LORD telleth thee that he will make thee an house. And when thy days be fulfilled, and thou shalt sleep with thy fathers, I will set up thy seed after thee, which shall proceed out of thy bowels, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build an house for my name, and I will stablish the throne of his kingdom for ever. I will be his father, and he shall be my son. If he commit iniquity, I will chasten him with the rod of men, and with the stripes of the children of men: But my mercy shall not depart away from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away before thee. And thine house and thy kingdom shall be established for ever before thee: thy throne shall be established for ever.

That promise was renewed to David's son Solomon:

1 Kings 9:3 - 9 

And the LORD said unto [Solomon], I have heard thy prayer and thy supplication, that thou hast made before me: I have hallowed this house, which thou hast built, to put my name there for ever; and mine eyes and mine heart shall be there perpetually. And if thou wilt walk before me, as David thy father walked, in integrity of heart, and in uprightness, to do according to all that I have commanded thee, and wilt keep my statutes and my judgments: Then I will establish the throne of thy kingdom upon Israel for ever, as I promised to David thy father, saying, There shall not fail thee a man upon the throne of Israel. But if ye shall at all turn from following me, ye or your children, and will not keep my commandments and my statutes which I have set before you, but go and serve other gods, and worship them: Then will I cut off Israel out of the land which I have given them; and this house, which I have hallowed for my name, will I cast out of my sight; and Israel shall be a proverb and a byword among all people: And at this house, which is high, every one that passeth by it shall be astonished, and shall hiss; and they shall say, Why hath the LORD done thus unto this land, and to this house? And they shall answer, Because they forsook the LORD their God, who brought forth their fathers out of the land of Egypt, and have taken hold upon other gods, and have worshipped them, and served them: therefore hath the LORD brought upon them all this evil.

As with the other covenants, the immediate application dealt with the physical: a physical son to sit on a physical throne over a physical kingdom. Included in the covenant, however, was a far greater future fulfillment: a Son on the throne forever. The immediate application was conditional on obedience. The final promise was based on God's grace.

In fact, the same could be said for at least the last three covenants discussed. Each dealt first with the physical, but inherent in each was a promise of something better in the future. Man's obedience appropriated the physical blessing. God's grace ensured the spiritual promise.

So rather than a single Old Covenant, we find an unbroken chain of covenants, stretching from Adam to David, and ultimately pointing to Jesus. Each successive covenant narrowed the field--the Seed must be the son of Adam, Abraham, Jacob, David--and raised the bar--complete perfection was absolutely necessary--until the field was so narrow that only Jesus could fill it and the bar so high that only Jesus could reach it. If we could describe all of these covenants in one way, it would be as an arrow pointing forward to Jesus and the new and better way, the living way.

We'll talk about the New Covenant in the next post.