Friday, March 18, 2016

The First Covenant

Before the universe existed, before there was time, space, or matter, the triune God existed in perfect happiness and contentment. Although He didn’t need to do it, being in fully pleased in Himself, He nonetheless decided out of His abundant love to create beings with which to share His joy. To this end He formulated a plan that would go on for all eternity, “declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times the things that are not yet done” (Is 46:10). As a consequence, everything that’s ever happened since God said “let there be light” has merely been “whatsoever Thy hand and Thy counsel determined before to be done” (Acts 4: 28). Every person born, every human decision made, every plant, star, rock, cloud, every tiny atom was known and placed and planned for an infinite amount of time before a single one came into being.

Why did He do this? The answer in a single word is revelation. God orchestrated everything in the universe to happen as it does in order to manifest His nature, His attributes, and His concerns. Desiring to show us who He is, He came up with the perfect way to progressively reveal more and more of Himself to creation. Or as the Bible says, glorify Himself.

The first part of Gods plan involved creating matter and energy, things which display “His eternal power and Godhead” (Rom 1:20b). As it is written, “the heavens declare the glory of God” (Ps 19:1a) and “the heavens declare his righteousness, and all the people see His glory” (Ps 97:6). The inanimate universe continually pours forth revelation about Him—which is why even if everyone were to cease acknowledging it, “the stones would immediately cry out” (Luke 19:40a).
Next God created the angels as servants (Heb 1:14), beings who would show His might (2 Peter 2:4), and be near Him to witness His works (Job 38:7). That’s why Isaiah records the angels nearest to God are continually “crying to another, ‘Holy, holy, holy, is the LORD of hosts: the whole earth is full of His glory’” (Is 6:3). Yet even as they watched the eternal plan of God unfolding before their eyes, even though they participate in bringing it to pass, they too do not fully understand it, though they long to (1 Peter 1:12).
Lastly, God made men so He could manifest His patience and mercy to all creation. Unlike the angels who are given no second chance, men enjoy the possibility of redemption, so that all can see how forgiving God is. As it is written, “God has concluded all in unbelief, that He might have mercy upon all” (Rom 11:32), and “There is forgiveness with Thee, that Thou may be feared” (Ps 130:4). God ordained (and in some sense desired) our disobedience because it was only after our fall that He could send His Son to the cross to demonstrate His glorious attributes of justice, holiness, loving-kindness, wrath, mercy, and unlimited grace together. Only once we became rebellious could we become humble, and only the humble can understand and appreciate who God is, which was His purpose from the beginning. This is why in speaking to believers Paul says in Ephesians 2:6-7, “He has raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus, that in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us through Christ Jesus.” We have ruined much, and have been forgiven much, that we may love much.

So before the foundation of the world God planned to reveal Himself to His creation. The plan first called for revelation through matter, then angels, then men. As Paul says, Gods goal was “to make all men see what is the fellowship of the mystery, which from the beginning of the world has been hidden in God who created all things by Jesus Christ, to the intent that now to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places might be known by the church the manifold wisdom of God” (Eph 3:9-10).

When speaking of God’s purpose for men, Reformed theologians like to use the phrase The Covenant of Redemption to emphasize how God the Father and God the Son agreed to save some chosen among mankind. The terms of this covenant were that the Father would send the Son to save all those He’d predestined and the Son would willingly go and complete the task given to Him. John 8:42 for example testifies that Jesus was sent: “Jesus said unto them, If God were your Father, ye would love Me: for I proceeded forth and came from God; neither came I of Myself, but He sent Me.”

And John 6:37-40 says that the elect will certainly be saved, “All who the Father gives Me shall come to Me; and him who comes to Me I will in no way cast out. For I came down from heaven not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me. And this is the Father's will which has sent Me, that of all He has given Me I should lose nothing, but should raise up again at the last day. And this is the will of Him who sent Me, that everyone who sees the Son, and believes in Him may have everlasting life, and I will raise him up at the last day.”
Put the two together and you have evidence that the first covenant God ever made was with Himself, to save us. As it says elsewhere, “He has saved us and called us with a holy calling—not according to our works—but according to His own purpose and grace, which was given us in Christ Jesus before the world began” (2 Tim 1:9).

But the problem with this classic formulation is that it makes it too easy to take the ego-centric, subjective part of God’s work for the whole. It can, and often does, result in the assertion that God’s purpose in sending Christ was no larger than saving the elect, and thus ignores the objective Godward component of the plan. Not that it’s untrue to say God will save His electon the contrary, it’s undoubtedly true He’ll do so—but this isn’t the whole truth. (Indeed, the classic definition of the covenant of redemption doesn’t even include the Holy Spirit but instead presents the covenant as an arrangement only between the Father and Son.)
We must therefore be careful to maintain that God’s plan is first and foremost to reveal His manifold perfections to all creation before addressing part of which involves saving elect mankind out of eternal ruin and misery. Otherwise we’ll lose sight of the forest for the trees. Our understanding must always go from the objective to subjective, from the universal to the particular, because going back the other way is both impossible and ineffectual. It’s God’s plan, not ours.

Now admittedly, using the mundane and generic word plan to speak of God’s glorious ongoing revelation of Himself which brings joy to creation doesn’t appropriately capture the majesty of the idea. Perhaps that’s why Paul calls it a “dispensation of the fullness of times” to emphasize the vastness and consistency of it, or why later theologians would call it a covenant to remind us that Gods plan is personal, relateable, and accomplished through the work of Christ. But call it however you please, it’s first and foremost an objective scheme; it begins with God, is about God, and finds its fulfillment in revealing God.

It goes without saying then that the history of our universe is merely the outworking of God’s eternal covenant of revelation. Our story, stretching all the way back to the beginning, is about the hidden council of God coming to light. And nowhere is this more plainly expressed than in the Bible, a book given to show us firstly who God is and then secondarily who we are.

Although much could be said about how this plan traces a bright line through the Scriptures, in the coming chapters we’ll confine our examination to the critical moments in the Biblical narrative when God reveals the work of Christ to us. We’ll keep a narrow focus on covenants, those moments when the light comes on and our understanding of God’s eternal plan leaps forward because that sets the stage for the book of Hebrews where Christ is seen to be the fulfillment of all Israel’s history. We begin therefore where the Scriptures begins, in the book of Genesis.

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