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Discovering the Covenant in Scripture

July 30, 2013

I am convinced that the doctrine of the covenant is the backbone of God’s dealing with His people.  My take on this doctrine is called “Reformed” and some are suspicious of a Reformed version of this doctrine.  Perhaps it seems like going beyond Scripture’s actual teaching, taking a minor theme found in a few texts and extrapolating it into a grand scheme.  The result is like building a skyscraper with a foundation that will only support a humble cottage.  Sooner or later it’s got to come crashing down, so let’s not go near it.  But my conviction is that the doctrine of the covenant is actually just such a skyscraper, and that its foundation is sunk deep and wide in the bedrock of God’s Word.

However, I must explain that I am not about simply giving a “Reformed” understanding of this doctrine.  I want to give the best reading of Scripture that I can, one that pays careful attention to the text, that does not ignore any text, one that often shakes up my current understanding and pushes me to a clearer grasp of what the Spirit is saying to the Church.  I have identified with the Reformed tradition because it helps me clarify what Scripture says and insists that I stay faithful to Scripture as the only infallible standard for truth and life.

First, some general thoughts on covenants.  Covenants are mentioned in the first book of the Bible, defining epochal moments in the LORD’s dealing with man.  They are the foundation of God’s dealings with Israel and define the nature of His dealings with all nations in Christ.  That is why covenants and their dynamic are found throughout the pages of Scripture.  Indeed, the gospel is a fulfillment of the LORD’s promises to Abraham.  In order to demonstrate these claims, I have to start where the LORD did: the beginning.

In Genesis 6 through 9 we read about a covenant the LORD made with Noah and all flesh, one that continues today.  There were several elements to it:

The LORD’s sovereign establishment of the covenant. (8:21; 9:1; 9:8-12, 17)

The covenant representative: Noah (9:1, etc.)

The subjects of the covenant: all flesh = man, all living creatures. (9:11, 12)

The nature of the covenant: perpetual. (8:22; 9:11-12, 16)

Promises made by the LORD to the subjects of the covenant:

to remember his covenant; (9:15-16)

to never to cut off all flesh by a flood. (9:11, 15)

[ Perhaps we may include the following:

       to provide seedtime and harvest perpetually; (8:22)

       to bless the offspring of Noah with fruitfulness(9:1,7);

       freedom to eat animals as well as plants. (9:3) ]

Obligations for man:

to not eat blood; (9:4)

capital punishment for men who murder other men. (9:5-6)

A sign of his covenant: the rainbow. (9:12-17)

These elements are identified simply as an attempt to understand the nature of this covenant.  Others may sort the details a little differently.  However, I think this analysis covers the basics.

Surely the LORD expected Noah and his descendants to consider this covenant in the light of what the LORD had done in the flood, and then identify what the LORD promised and then what he expected of them.  Some such analysis would have emerged in their minds, especially in the light of their knowledge of later covenants.

The next mention of a covenant is in conjunction with the LORD’s dealings with Abram.  First the LORD called Abram to go to the land He would show (Genesis 12:1-3), promising to make make his name great, to make his descendants into a great nation and to ultimately bless “all the families of the earth.”  Some time later the LORD made a covenant with Abram, promising that his descendants would be numerous like the stars and would be given the land of Canaan.  “Abram believed the LORD, and He counted it to him as righteousness,” an epochal moment in God’s dealings with all mankind.  The LORD pledged His faithfulness to this covenant as Abram sacrificed a heifer, a goat, a ram, a turtledove and a pigeon.  Passing through them in a theophany (a visible manifestation of God’s presence), the LORD pledged that if He failed in his promises, He would be unmade like these animals.  Of course, it was impossible for God to be unfaithful; nevertheless, He gave Abram a visible sign of His commitment to keep His covenant.

The LORD elaborated on His covenant with Abraham and his offspring at a later time (Genesis 17:1-14).  Since I want to deal with this stage of the covenant in a following post, I’ll just note here that the LORD promised to make Abram the father of many nations, changing his name to “Abraham” which means “father of a multitude.”  This development is very important for the gospel.  The gospel is the fulfilling of the LORD’s promises to Abraham.  Indeed, only those who have faith like Abraham’s will be his true children, and then inherit the blessings promised to Abraham’s offspring.  Even those who are physical descendants of Abraham have no hope of salvation unless they become his true children by faith in the promises.

So much more could be said, but for now I’ll offer some final observations.  The prophets promised that one day the LORD would establish a new covenant with his people (Example: Jeremiah 31:31ff;   ).  The New Testament writings make it clear that this new covenant is fulfilled in the person and work of Jesus Christ.  Luke’s Gospel opens with multiple references to Old Covenant promises.   Furthermore, we celebrate our place in the new covenant by the Lord’s Supper where we are told: “This cup is the new covenant in Christ’s blood.”  That this central act of Christian worship is centered in the covenant is itself enough to lead us to examine all of the New Testament and look for what place the covenant has in the gospel of the kingdom of God.

Lord willing, I will continue next with a closer look at Genesis 17.  That passage is very helpful for understanding what was involved in the LORD’s covenant with Israel and how the New Covenant in Christ works out today.

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Covenant Children

March 21, 2013

In my reading through Ezekiel I have come across a couple of interesting references to children. Now children are mentioned in Ezekiel frequently and in several contexts. The particular passages I have in mind address the idolatry of the nation of Judah and how it involved their children. Pay particular attention to the underlined words:

“And you took your sons and your daughters, whom you had borne to me, and these you sacrificed to them to be devoured. Were your whorings so small a matter that you slaughtered my children and delivered them up as an offering by fire to them?” Ezekiel 16:20-21

“With their idols they have committed adultery, and they have even offered up to them for food the children whom they had borne to me.” Ezekiel 23:37c-d

The LORD claims the children of the nation of Judah as his own. They had been borne to him and were his. In order to understand the LORD’s ownership of these children, we must realize the covenantal nature of this language. As offspring of Abraham, the nation of Judah was the LORD’s covenant people. In establishing his covenant with Abraham and his seed, the LORD said to Abraham:

“And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.” Genesis 17:7

Abraham and all subsequent generations of Israelites were to show that they believed God to be their God and the God of their offspring by circumcising their male children. Faithful follow-through involved trusting in the LORD and following his ways, and teaching their children to trust the LORD and follow his ways. What was so abominable in Ezekiel’s day is that these descendants of Abraham were not acknowledging the LORD to be their God or the God of their children. That being the case, they offered their children to the gods at hand. These children who already had a God, the LORD God of Israel, were being sacrificed, offered in worship to idols.

Parents must realize that if they don’t acknowledge the true and living God to be their God and the God of their children, they will offer up themselves and their children to the false gods of our culture. There is no escaping this.

But if we are in the New Covenant established in Christ, there is really good news. Our heavenly Father claims our children as his own! Though he has given them to us, from conception they belong to him. They have a God…our God. We recognize this by baptizing them, this being the New Covenant sacrament instituted by Christ as a replacement of circumcision. This means that as we nurture them in the faith, our heavenly Father is involved from day one. He is at work through his Word and by the Spirit to bless our little ones as they grow in faith and faithfulness.

“For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” (Acts 2:39)

The Importance of Making Distinctions

March 20, 2013

Have you ever wondered why the LORD gave his people so many detailed statutes about sacrifices, food, marriage, agriculture, warfare, financial transactions and the rest?  Developing a holy nation in the midst of unholy nations meant making some very basic distinctions about holiness and then carrying them out through all of life.  If God’s people failed to distinguish the LORD as holy and his Law as clean, they would call other gods as holy and their laws as clean (see Ezekiel 20:25).  This idolatry would spread, like leaven, through every aspect of their culture.  On the other hand, making these distinctions would demonstrate the holiness of God in the life of his people, bring great blessing to them and glorifying his name before a watching world of idolaters.

This came to my attention in my reading through the book of Ezekiel.  I have been following the prophet’s stunning descriptions of both the glory of the LORD and the inglorious behavior of his people.  Rather than worship the LORD, Judah worshipped the gods of the nations.  She turned from her faithful covenant head and “played the whore” (16:15) with false gods.  As the words of twenty chapters take hold of your heart, you begin to understand something of the LORD’s fiery wrath that was kindled against Judah.  You come to realize that the LORD is serious about his people worshipping him and serving him in every dimension of their lives.  You get a taste of what they were missing by not serving him.

The root of Judah’s spiritual adultery was their failure to set the LORD apart as holy.  It was a matter of failing to distinguish the holy from the common, the clean from the unclean.  Ezekiel records the LORD’s words in this matter:

“Her priests have done violence to my law and have profaned my holy things.  They have made no distinction between the holy and the common, neither have they taught the difference between the unclean and the clean, and they have disregarded my Sabbaths, so that I am profaned among them.”  (22:26)

Failing to distinguish between the holy and the common meant that the priests did not lead the people toward proper reverence for the LORD in their behavior.  This spiritual confusion led to social injustice: the princes ruled like wolves tearing their prey, the prophets divined lies and the people oppressed the poor.  (22:27-29)

But God is gracious and has given us a perfect and holy priest, Jesus Christ.  He was faithful to the Law, properly distinguishing holy and unholy, clean and unclean.  As a result, his ministry has not led to injustice but righteousness.  He has given himself as the perfect sacrifice, fulfilling the Law, and sanctifying his people by his blood.  (Hebrews 10:12, 29)  We who were once sinners and unholy have been made his saints.  His gracious act has made a distinction in us: we are his holy people.  Furthermore, he has given us the Holy Spirit and is teaching us to distinguish between the holy and common: we learn to put to death that which is unclean and put on Christ, or that which is clean.  His primary teaching tool is his law, pure and clean, “making wise the simple.”  (Psalm 19:7)  This law is the moral law and certain principles in the judicial law, the rest having been abrogated in Christ’s work.  But this is another subject and will have a wait for later blogs.

Patrick, A Man for All Christians

March 16, 2013

Though Patrick has been canonized by the Roman Catholic Church, he does not belong to it alone.  He is a father in the faith to all Christians. Whether one marks the beginning of church history from Abraham’s call or the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, Magonius Sucatus Patricius is part of that history. His missionary work in Ireland is a story of godliness for all Christians to know and learn from.  And since the good news that Patrick announced is for all people, his story is a divine gift for those outside the Church.

In his “Confession” he tells us about himself:

I am Patrick, a sinner, most unlearned, the least of all the faithful, and utterly despised by many.  My father was Calpornius, a deacon, son  of Potitus, a priest, of the village Bannavem Taburniae; he had a country seat nearby, and there I was taken captive. 

I was then about sixteen years of age.  I did not know the true God.  I was taken into captivity to Ireland with many thousands of people –and deservedly so, because we turned away from God, and did not keep His commandments, and did not obey our priests, who used to remind us of our salvation.  And the Lord brought over us the wrath of His anger and scattered us among many nations, even unto the utmost part of the earth, where now my littleness is placed among strangers.

 And there the Lord opened the sense of my unbelief that I might at last remember my sins and be converted with all my heart to the Lord my God, who had regard for my abjection, and mercy on my youth and ignorance, and watched over me before I knew Him, and before I was able to distinguish between good and evil, and guarded me, and comforted me as would a father his son.

Hence I cannot be silent – nor, indeed, is it expedient – about the great benefits and the great grace which the Lord has deigned to bestow upon me in the land of my captivity; for this we can give to God in return after having been chastened by Him, to exalt and praise His wonders before every nation that is anywhere under the heaven.* 

When Patrick wrote these words, he was looking back over his life’s work of exalting and praising God’s wonders before the Irish.  This was no small task.  He and his companions trekked across Ireland, taking the gospel to territories claimed by powerful chieftains and Druid  priests.

Copy of Details_Roman_Road_Santa_Agueda cropped for blog

Steadfast throughout his life and trusting to God’s gracious providence, the very people who had enslaved him for six years were freed from spiritual bondage and came to know the true and living God.  Patrick gave God the glory.

One way to understand Patrick is to read (or sing as my church will do tomorrow) the poem that has been attributed to him, St. Patrick’s Breastplate.  Though it is not certain that he wrote it, its language is believed to be at least as early as the 6th century, reflecting the spirit of his Bible-driven commitment to Christ.  Prepare to be drenched in a downpour of truth.

ST. PATRICK’S BREASTPLATE **

I bind to myself today
The strong virtue of the Invocation of the Trinity:
I believe the Trinity in the Unity
The Creator of the Universe.

I bind to myself today
The virtue of the Incarnation of Christ with His Baptism,
The virtue of His crucifixion with His burial,
The virtue of His Resurrection with His Ascension,
The virtue of His coming on the Judgment Day.

I bind to myself today
The virtue of the love of seraphim,
In the obedience of angels,
In the hope of resurrection unto reward,
In prayers of Patriarchs,
In predictions of Prophets,
In preaching of Apostles,
In faith of Confessors,
In purity of holyVirgins,
In deeds of righteous men.

I bind to myself today
The power of Heaven,
The light of the sun,
The brightness of the moon,
The splendour of fire,
The flashing of lightning,
The swiftness of wind,
The depth of sea,
The stability of earth,
The compactness of rocks.

I bind to myself today
God’s Power to guide me,
God’s Might to uphold me,
God’s Wisdom to teach me,
God’s Eye to watch over me,
God’s Ear to hear me,
God’s Word to give me speech,
God’s Hand to guide me,
God’s Way to lie before me,
God’s Shield to shelter me,
God’s Host to secure me,
Against the snares of demons,
Against the seductions of vices,
Against the lusts of nature,
Against everyone who meditates injury to me,
Whether far or near,
Whether few or with many.

I invoke today all these virtues
Against every hostile merciless power
Which may assail my body and my soul,
Against the incantations of false prophets,
Against the black laws of heathenism,
Against the false laws of heresy,
Against the deceits of idolatry,
Against the spells of women, and smiths, and druids,
Against every knowledge that binds the soul of man.

Christ, protect me today
Against every poison, against burning,
Against drowning, against death-wound,
That I may receive abundant reward.

Christ with me, Christ before me,
Christ behind me, Christ within me,
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ at my right, Christ at my left,
Christ in the fort,
Christ in the chariot seat,
Christ in the poop [deck],
Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks to me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.

I bind to myself today
The strong virtue of an invocation of the Trinity,
I believe the Trinity in the Unity
The Creator of the Universe.

While you or I might not agree with everything Patrick says, still here is a worldview that integrates the reality of the Triune God as Creator,  Christ’s  lordship over all things and a humble trust in Christ’s protection in all situations.   In other words, Patrick didn’t just think great and essential truths about God; he trusted in the living God about whom these things were true.  His example is worth following.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

* Gallico, Paul.  “Confession.” The Steadfast Man.  New York: Doubleday and Company,1958. 203.

** Moran, Patrick Francis Cardinal. “St. Patrick.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 11. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. 16 Mar. 2013 <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/11554a.htm&gt;.

The Good News Is Better Than We Imagine

January 15, 2013

The Gospel

It is not about you and I *                                            

going to heaven when we die.

It is about the risen King 

ruling over everything.

Christians have broken up the gospel and distributed the fragments throughout the Church at large. Some are clinging tightly to the fragment about having a personal relationship with God. Others are clinging just as tightly to this personal fragment, but have wrapped it in careful language drawn from their denominational heritage. Still others have taken this Jesus-in-my-heart fragment in one hand and with the other have picked up the social-justice fragment, calling it “Jesus in my neighbor.”  Liberal Christians have been holding onto this social-justice fragment for a long time; but they seem to have forgotten how justice comes, so their fragment is breaking up into sand. One could go on, but you get the idea.

Why can’t we take hold of the whole gospel? The answer is a long, sad tale of being seduced by the Spirit of the Age rather than listening carefully to the Spirit of the Living God. The inspired Scriptures tell us that Jesus Christ came to be a King who would rule over the universe. This rule would be focused on delivering man from sin and misery, and restoring a ruined Creation to glory.

It seems that Christians are so often satisfied with pieces of the gospel. Given the bigness of the gospel and the smallness of our minds, that is somewhat to be expected. But it cannot be tolerated. The Creator is not about to save a few souls and let the Devil have the rest of mankind, with the cosmos to boot. Jesus Christ has been given all authority in heaven and earth. He has told us to make disciples of all nations…Nations! This means that our Lord, who rules over all things at the right hand of the father, is extending his rule over the whole earth, teaching the nations to love and serve him. Isaiah the prophet tells us that one day the nations will flow to the house of the LORD and walk in his ways. (Isaiah 2:1-5) God will renew the universe and put his redeemed people on a new earth to live there forever.

So let’s no longer pick up pieces of the gospel. Let’s take the whole thing! Surely it is this whole gospel that is truly good news for us and worth announcing to our neighbors.

~    ~    ~    ~    ~    ~    ~    ~    ~    ~    ~    ~    ~    ~    ~    ~    ~    ~    ~    ~    ~    ~    ~    ~    ~    ~   ~    ~   ~   ~   ~     * Of course, this first-person pronoun is supposed to be in the objective case; but it’s the only way I could make my little poem rhyme.

The Real Immanuel

December 26, 2012

All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the
prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,      
and they shall call his name “Immanuel” (which means “God                                               with us”).                                                                       Matthew 1:22-23

In the past weeks many of us have sung “O Come, O Come, Immanuel.” What kind of coming have we had in mind? Probably we have thought of a wonderful, humble and gracious coming. True, as far as it goes. But did we envision a coming with terror? Yes, I did say “terror.” While the name “Immanuel” points to a wonderful and gracious salvation, it also points to a mighty and terrible destruction. This is because God saves his people by destroying their enemies. All of the great saving events of the Old and New Testaments include salvation for the humble and destruction of the proud. Think of Noah’s flood, Israel’s exodus and conquest of Canaan, and Jesus’ Second Advent. God’s people are not saved unless he destroys their enemies. The prophet Isaiah had this reality in mind when he introduced the name “Immanuel” into biblical literature.

While King Ahaz of Judah was facing an attack by Syria and Israel, Isaiah called him to trust in the LORD. Ahaz refused. Upon that unbelief the LORD gave him a sign: Immanuel. A son would be born and called by that name, indicating that the LORD had come to be with his people.

“The LORD will bring upon you and upon your people and upon your father’s house such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah – the king of Assyria.” (Isaiah 7:17)

Make no mistake: God being with his people meant  he would destroy, by means of Assyria, the proud who trusted in man and deliver the humble who trusted in him.

“Because this people have refused the waters of Shiloh that flow gently, and rejoice over Rezin and the son of Remaliah, therefore, behold, the Lord is bringing up against them the waters of the River, mighty and many, the king of Assyria and all his glory.” (Isaiah 8:6-7)

This coming would bring both “destruction” and “overflowing righteousness”; destruction of the proud unbelievers who oppressed the poor and overflowing righteousness for the humble who looked to the LORD. (You may read more about this in Isaiah 9 & 10)

While Isaiah’s words had a near fulfillment in his own day, they pointed ultimately to a Son who would come to bring final salvation to his people. This Immanuel would be like the first; he would save his people from their enemies. That salvation could only happen by destroying those enemies which included not only sin, death and the Devil, but also their human oppressors. In 70 A.D. Immanuel destroyed the proud and wicked generation of Jews. His remnant survived and spread the good news around the Roman Empire. Destruction…overflowing with righteousness.

As we celebrate the coming of the King of Kings, it is right for us to sing “O Come, O Come, Immanuel.” But let us remember that his coming was both wonderful and terrible. There is no other way the One and only, holy God could come and save his people from their sins.

Christmas Day, 2012