Friday, November 20, 2015

Covenant Defined Part III -- Sinai

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A covenant is an agreement between two heads of families, where one or more freely pledges to do good to the other with specific promises.
Ongoing faithfulness is essential for continuing the relationship after it has been established.
Optionally: The blessings of continuing in or consequences for breaking these promises may be spelled out explicitly; a sacrifice signifying faith can be made; or a sign of remembrance can be given.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that a covenant is equivalent to an alliance. There’s a swearing of oaths by two houses, a requirement of fidelity, and an optional sign or a celebratory meal. So now that the stage is set, let's examine the covenant for which the bulk of the Bible is named. (For reference see also 1 Kings 8:9, Job 41:4.)


The parties: God on the one side, and Israel on the other (Ex 19:3, Deut 5:2, Hag 2:5)

Head of the First Family: God. Although Jesus is the one who speaks (Judg 2:1)

Head of the Second Family: Moses (as a Levite, speaking for the people and their descendants Deut 5:3)

The idea that the Levites are in the headship position really jumps off the page there doesn’t it? So let’s challenge it. Were the Levites already priests before the covenant was given and acting as the tribal head for all Israel as the model suggests, or were all the tribes priests, in which case the headship portion of the model crumbles?
After careful consideration I think the model is right and the Levites are the head of the family of Israel with respect to this covenant. Here’s why:
  1. Hebrews 7:11 says that, “under the Levitical priesthood the people received the law.” Which would mean that the people were already under the Levites when the law was given.
  2. Hebrews 7:12 says that when there is a change in priesthood there is necessarily a change of the law. If Israel covenanted together as a people without a head, then that verse would instead say, “when there is a change in the law, there’s a change in the priesthood.” But it doesn’t. The law didn’t establish the priesthood, the priesthood established the law. And that’s why the author of the book of Hebrews labors to prove that Jesus is a high priest in chapter 4-8, rather than laboring to show that Jesus brings in a new law or covenant. The new covenant is an afterthought in chapter 8, a necessary by-product of His priesthood.
  3. Jeremiah 33:20-21 says God made a covenant with the seasons that they should continue, a covenant with David that his descendent should sit on the throne, and a covenant with the Levites, His priests and ministers. Notice the covenant with Levi has no terms or promise associated with it. He doesn’t say “My covenant with the Levites, to be my priests and ministers” which would match up nicely with the covenant in Malachi. No, instead it’s blank, which indicates that group made a covenant with God, rather than receiving a covenant from God. That would mean Jeremiah has in mind Levi acting in headship at Sinai.
  4. Leviticus 24:8 says that the priests are to put showbread before the Lord on the Sabbath, and they are to get the materials from children of Israel because of their everlasting covenant with them. This seems to mean the Levites have a perpetual relationship with the other tribes, such that everyone else will give to them and they will in turn give to God. Without a doubt they are acting as the head of the nation.
  5. And lastly, this explains why the laws required for abiding in the covenant are recorded immediately following the regulations for tabernacle in Exodus—the book of Levite-icus. Because the Levites have the responsibility to making sure those under them are carrying out the laws established in the covenant.
For those reasons I think the Levites are in some sense the head of Israel, speaking, acting, and covenanting with God on behalf of the whole nation.

God’s promise: If you obey Me fully then I will make you a treasured possession, a holy nation, and a kingdom of priests (Ex 19:5-6).

Israel’s promise: we will obey everything You tell us (Ex 19:8). 
These requirements are summarized as/in the Ten Commandments (Ex 34:27-28), and a fuller set of terms is listed in Ex. 20-23. As a side note, these commands are given over the course of a few days.

Freely Pledged: I take this from the phrase “all the people answered together,” Ex 19:8, and the fact that they repeated their vows in Ex 24:3, 7 after hearing a more full expression of what God required of them.

Requirement of Continuing Fidelity: Present. See Lev 26:9, 1 Kings 8:23.

Optional Clauses of Blessings, Disobedience, Definitions: It’s written into the very first statement God makes that if you will obey, then I will bless. But beyond that there are a number of places that spell out explicitly what God has in mind. For example, trusting in things like false gods or foreign nations for deliverance counts as disobedience (Ex 23:32).

Optional Sacrifice: Immediately following the covenant Moses purifies of the book with all these instructions in it (Ex 24:6), the alter (26:4), and the people (Ex 24:8) with the blood of the sacrifices.

Optional Sign: Sabbath resting (Exodus 31:13). As with Noah, even the animals are under this sign (Deut 5:14). Also as before, the sign is spoken of as being the covenant itself (Ex 31:16). However the tablets which have the writing of the law (1 Kings 8:21, 2 Chron 6:11) are also called the covenant, which is why the box that holds them is called the Ark of the Covenant (see for example Num 10:33), and the scroll which has the laws is called the book of the covenant (Ex 24:7).

After the sacrifice there’s a meal between God, Moses, Aaron, Aarons sons, and the elders (Ex 24:11), which brings to mind how Isaac and Abimilech feasted after their covenant was made.

What else we learn about covenants: Two things: how new covenants interact with old ones, and what role a mediator plays in establishing a covenant.

Since it hasn't been in any of the previous covenants, it's evident that mediation is not a required component of covenants, but it nonetheless fits very well with the concept. It’s perfectly reasonable for two warring nations to appoint a third to help settle their dispute, or for two families to select a neutral third party to mediate their grievances. Likewise it makes sense that a holy and offended God would appoint a mediator for sinful men.
Moses, as a Levite, is that spokesman (Deut 5:5), which is why John says “the law came through Moses." Moses was the one who carried the response back to God (Ex 19:8) and ascending the mountain something like eight times.
The import is that Moses is no mere prophet but
a mediator of a covenant. So when he says God will raise up a prophet like me (Deut 18:15) he means that this next prophet will also act as an intermediary between Israel and God.

The other thing we learn is that new covenants can be built on old ones. At Sinai the Abrahamic covenant serves as the grounds, or a kind of historic preamble for the much grander Sinai. The new promises incorporates the old ones, but it doesn't nullify or swallow it.
That’s why although the people were banished into Babylon as per the consequences of breaking the Sinai covenant, God still brought them back to Canaan because of His promise to the patriarchs (see Lev 26:44-45, Judg 2:1,20). It’s this Scriptural principle which Paul appeals to in Gal 3:16-18 to prove that since salvation was established by faith in Christ to Abraham, the law cannot come along later and nullify it to allow us to be saved by works. The inherent properties of covenants being vehicles of faith in the hands of God must carry forward from Noah and Abraham. That means the law must be given to strengthen our faith in Christ. And indeed is this not what Paul had in mind in Rom 3:31, “Do we make the law void through faith? No, we establish the law.”

It would seem however that a subsequent covenant can envelop a previous one to a degree. In Acts 15 the debate at Jerusalem was over the possibility of someone being saved if they’ve not been circumcised after the manner of Moses. In Galatians 5:3 someone who is circumcised for salvation must keep the whole law, and Paul tells us in Rom 2:25-27 that circumcision, a thing given to Abraham, is profitable only as long as the person under it also keeps the Mosaic law. So in redemptive history you can’t go back, only forward. The unfolding revelation about Christ through covenants is just that, a single, unfolding revelation. One plan, revealed through an unfolding covenant promises. And seen in that light, of course it’s impossible to divide, pick and choose what accept when it comes to Jesus.


Let’s stop again and gather our thoughts. Does all this make sense? Do the patterns hold up? More importantly, did we miss anything important?
After some careful consideration I think the answer is no, this is going very well. Covenants are still by faith for those who look to Him, still principally about revelation of the coming Messiah. In fact more than ever the themes of sacrifice, oath, and meal which predate Sinai are given clarity and significance. We’re introduced to the type or shadow for tabernacle, lamp, altar, bread of presence, mercy seat, washings, high priest, judges, deliverers, prophets, mediators, firstborn, redemption, law, and pervasiveness of sin. We now have a Passover, a celebration of tabernacles, Sabbath rest, a day of atonement, a year of jubilee, Pentecost—all of which find their consummation in Christ and teach us something about Him. At Sinai the covenant with Abraham that makes the Jews His people is strengthened, not abolished, and given to the Levites.

In the previous iterations you could be under a covenant and still be damned. Does that still hold true? Yes, I think so, for if salvation is by faith and covenants are the mechanism by which God’s growing our faith by introducing His Son to the world then how could it be otherwise? This also seems to be validated by Scripture: “They are not all Israel who are Israel.” Logically then this would mean you could keep the law faithfully and still not be in the Kingdom, which… although it sounds strange would actually match up with how the rich young ruler kept the ten commandments thanks to the position of his birth and rigid adherence to the law and still felt that he’d missed something important (Mark 10:17-22). Or how Saul was zealous for Judaism and still unsaved. Perhaps that’s because it’s possible to love the law but not the God who gave the law. It’s to love the sign which points to the city rather than the city itself.
This would also means that you can be under covenant and not experience all the blessings available to you, a notion validated by Ps 44, where the psalmist complains that God’s sovereign hand was against him even when he’d not broken the covenant.

Let me wind down an already too long post with a personal admission: sorting out Sinai has proved tricky for me. Strictly speaking The Covenant seems to refer to the Ten Commandments, but broadly speaking it refers to the whole moral code, and I'm not sure why it's done that way. Oh the broad strokes are easy to see, I can readily grasp that the primary purpose of the law is to point us to Christ and get us to despair of trying to save ourselves. I can also see that as soon as the law does its job the need for a priest to make an atonement becomes evident, which is why those extra laws are also codified at Sinai. But the distinction between the priestly and the prophetic is blurred, so when you get right down to it there’s not a great deal of room to drive a wedge in and say “here the moral ends and here the civil or ceremonial begins.”

One more thing and then I'm done. It's easy to think of rules and laws as a mechanism for cruelty, intended to restrict our freedoms, but this is decidedly wrong when it comes to God. Ezekiel 16 pictures this covenant as a wedding scene (Ezek 16:8), describing Him as full of compassion and tenderness, marrying a destitute woman and promising to love and be faithful to her forever. Elsewhere God speaks of Himself carrying Israel as a father carries a child (Deut 1:31), and I know from experience that carrying a sick or sleeping child from somewhere they don’t belong (like the stairs) to their bed is one of the most tender moments there is. And that seems to me to be a very helpful insight in seeing into the heart of God.

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 first mention of the word is in Gen 6:18.
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 next time the word appears is in Genesis 15:18. (See also Neh 9:8)

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
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 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.
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.


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.
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.


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


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


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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