Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Covenants Defined Part I - Noah and Abraham


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Not very long ago I decided that a covenant was "the set of rules that flow from a relationship." The definition had a lot going for it, particularly in that it moved my understanding of covenants away from a rigid, binding legal contract and towards an expression of love. My daughter helps me take out the garbage because she wants to, because she’s my daughter. My son wants to help me wash the car because he’s my son. The relationship drives the rules.

But as I considered it further I realized the definition implied the relationship existed before the rules were given, and I had inadvertently defined a covenant as merely the act of continuing in a relationship. Now if it had been a relationship existing beforehand that would’ve been okay, but what I’d done was assert that the relationship the covenant sought to form was already in place. And that was no good. A man can be engaged before being married, but he can’t be already married to the woman before he’s married to her. If that weren’t enough this definition also gave me the screwball conclusion that since a covenant was more or less rules, a man could be covenanting by obeying the rules. A man was married when he acted in a married manner.

“Well that can’t be right” I decided at last, “a new relationship is created by the forging of the covenant, so a man isn’t married until he takes his vows. Likewise the rules don’t make a peace treaty between warring nations, they uphold it.”
It seemed I’d mistaken a single component for the whole of it. And this mistake was confirmed to me when I read Ex 34:17, “With these words I have made a covenant with you.” It was evident I needed to start again. So what was a covenant? This time I'd gather up all 292 instances of the word covenant, throw out the 43 instances of “ark of the covenant”, and build a proper understanding from there.

THE COVENANT WITH NOAH


The first mention of the word is in Gen 6:18.
Background:
God saves Noah, his family, and the animals from a catastrophic flood that wipes out all other life on the Earth. Once everyone reaches dry ground Noah sacrifices some of the clean animals as a burnt offering to God.
The people entering into covenant:
God on one side and Noah (and his Seed, Gen 9:9) on the other.
God’s terms:
I promise not to flood the Earth again (9:11).
A sign for remembrance:
the rainbow in the clouds (9:13, 16).
What we learn from this:

A covenant is a pact or agreement between two people who represent two sides. Because this story takes place post-fall we know covenants are a kind of non-aggression pact, or peace treaty given to those who please God by faith.
Most of what makes up a covenant is promises, and these are exclusively one way—from God to man—sealed with a sign. And either because covenants are a headship deals or people are inherently organized by family, Noah’s agreement is also on behalf of his sons, their wives, and the animals.
Lastly, even though all his sons were under the covenant, Ham probably wasn’t saved, and so there’s a difference between being in the kingdom of God and being under covenant with God. A man can be in the kingdom and not under covenant (like perhaps Methuselah was), or under covenant but not saved, like Ham, or be both under covenant and in the Kingdom, like Noah. That means although covenant is a promise of salvation, it’s not salvation itself.

Working definition of covenant
: an agreement between God the Father and God the son, through a head of a human family, wherein God pledges to do good to rebellious humanity through explicit promises and demonstrates His goodwill with a sign. A sacrifice is required beforehand to signify faith on the part of man.

THE COVENANT WITH ABRAHAM


The next time the word appears is in Genesis 15:18. (See also Neh 9:8)

Background
:
God came to Abram to tell him He was going to bless him. In response, Abram believed God, left his home and headed for the land of Canaan. Sometime later God informed Abram He would grant him descendants and multiply them, and while Abram believes and is counted as righteous, he asks for assurance nonetheless. God responds by covenanting with him after he makes a sacrifice.
The heads
entering into covenant:
God on one side, and Abram (and his Seed) on the other.
God’s terms
:
I will give the land of Canaan to your Seed.
What we learn from this
:
T
here’s not always a sign given for assurance. The pattern of Abram as the head of the family is repeated, indicating headship is associated with all covenant agreements. There’s also a distinction between righteousness that comes by faith and being under the covenant, which means our suspicion that a covenant can’t be salvation itself is correct, it must therefore be something more like a revelation, or the unfolding mystery of the promised Messiah who would save us from sin.

Working definition of covenant
: an agreement between God the Father and God the son, through a head of a human family, given for assurance, wherein God pledges to do good to rebellious humanity and demonstrates His promise with a sign with specific promises, and through instructing them more completely on the details of His saving plan. A sacrifice is required beforehand to signify faith in Gods promise. Optionally a sign is given for remembrance.

THE COVENANT WITH ABRAHAM RENEWED


The third time we see the word is in Genesis 17, also spoken of later as the covenant of circumcision (Acts 7:8). Not surprisingly it expands on the revelation given previously about the Messiah.
Background
:
God commands Abram to be perfect so that He could make a covenant with him. Abram bows down and then God speaks.
The parties
:
God on the one side, and Abram (and His Seed, 17:7) on the other.
God’s terms:

I will be a God to you and to your offspring. I will give your offspring the land of Canaan. I will make kings come from you and your descendants will be numerous. Sara your wife will bear the son. From now on your name is Abraham (Gen 17:4, 7, 8, 16, 19).
Abraham’s terms
:
Circumcise every male in your house. Do this for all generations (17:10). Those who are not circumcised are to be banished for breaking the covenant (17:14).
Sign of remembrance
:
circumcision (17:11).
What we learn from this
:
The promise to the seed can have a partial fulfillment (Isaac) on the way to the actual fulfillment (Christ). Considering the case of Esau it’s evident that one can be under the covenant and not saved. Additionally this time it appears you can deliberately walk away from a covenant, and by that, the God who offered it.
Also, interestingly, the sign is spoken of as the covenant itself (v13).

Working definition of covenant
: an agreement between God the Father and God the Son, through a head of a human family, wherein God pledges to do good to rebellious humanity with specific promises, and instruct them more completely on the details of His saving plan. To continue receiving revelations men must obey God’s instructions when given. Optionally a sacrifice is required beforehand can be made to signify faith on the part of man or a sign is given for remembrance.

A COVENANT WITH ISAAC


Although it’s out of order, there are a number of places that indicate the covenant made with Abraham was also made with Isaac, Jacob (and perhaps Jacob again after his name was changed to Israel). See Lev 26:42, 2 Kings 13:23, Ps 105:8-10, 1 Chron 16:16-17.
Background
:
Isaac was being pushed out of places by Ablimilech. After a particularly upsetting episode God appears to Isaac in a dream to comfort him.
The Parties
:
God and Isaac
God’s terms
:
Fear not, for I am with you and will bless you and multiply your offspring for my servant Abraham’s sake. (Gen 26:24)
What we learn from this
: Covenants in their barest form look a lot like one sided promises, since the reciprocal element isn’t strictly necessary. Also when God establishes a covenant through all generations he confirms it to at least the second generation.

Working definition of a covenant
: same as before, our definition seems to be holding up pretty well.

THE COVENANT WITH JACOB

Background
:
Jacob is fleeing home to find security and a wife in his mother’s country.
The Parties:

God and Jacob (and Seed, Gen 28:13-15)
God’s terms
:
I will give the land to your descendants, whom I shall make numerous. In your Seed will all the families of the earth be blessed. I will keep you and I will bring you back to this land.
What we learn from this
:
A perpetual covenant is confirmed to the third generation. Once again because God gives the agreement without consideration of a human response, God is bound to be faithful to the terms and the human reciprocity is omitted as a don’t care.

Working definition of covenant
: no change


COVENANT WITH ISRAEL

Background:
Jacob returns to Bethel where God had covenanted with him, and he makes good on his vow to worship the Lord by building an altar.
The Parties:

God and Jacob (and Seed, Gen 35:12)
God’s terms
:
You will be fruitful and multiply. I will give you descendants, kings will come from you. The land I promised Abraham and Isaac I give to you.
What we learn from this
:
A perpetual covenant is confirmed to the third generation.

Working definition of covenant
: no change

REFLECTION


Let’s stop there and take stock. So far a covenant appears to be Jesus promising the heads of the families in His physical lineage to come through them into the land of Canaan one day—a promise so powerful that it makes the barren womb fruitful and bends all future free human actions around it. He also promises to bless those who blessed Him, and curse those who cursed Him, and through Him bless all the families of the earth. More importantly His presence would divert the catastrophic wrath of God from the Earth.
It’s also evident that God makes covenants with believers who have a genuine faith, for the sake of assuring and strengthening their faith. That is, these men believed the original promise to Adam that God would send a rescuer for their sin, so in response God reveals more about who that savior would be through the use of covenants. This is validated by Psalms 25:14 when it says, “The secret of the LORD is with them that fear Him; and He will show them His covenant.”

This next part is harder for me as an American Evangelical Baptist to wrap my head around, but it’s evident that covenants are given to the family head and the rest of the family are automatically included under them. That’s why it’s not only appropriate but mandatory for the family head to apply the covenant sign to all members of his household. Thus God commanded Abraham to circumcise everyone in his house, born or bought. But even so, because salvation is by grace alone through faith in Christ alone, you can be under a covenant with God and still not be saved. Going further, you can even appropriate for yourself the covenant sign, (and since that sign is the covenant) without believing it in a saving way. In a sense it doesn’t matter that circumcision is a way to demonstrate faith, it’s possible to do an outward action without putting your heart in it (and that doesn’t please God. Remember the anecdote of the parent who makes the kid sit down and the kid who responds by saying ‘I’m standing on the inside?’) So one can be under the covenant and outside the kingdom. That seems to be what Psalm 78 has in mind when it says, “For their heart was not right with Him, neither were they steadfast in His covenant.”

That feels like a solid start, so let’s continue on.


Continue to Part II –Levi

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