Two perennial questions that most Christians will ask focus on the meaning and message of the Bible as a whole. They might be expressed as follows: How do I gain […]
Two perennial questions that most Christians will ask focus on the meaning and message of the Bible as a whole. They might be expressed as follows:
How do I gain an integrated understanding of the huge number of stories and teachings contained in the Old and New Testaments?; and
Is there an underlying narrative that binds together both sections of Holy Scripture to form a single coherent theological message?
The answer to the first question lies in paying close attention to the meaning and significance of the divine covenant, revealed in two eras, beginning with the Old and concluding with the New. The answer to the second question is an unequivocal “Yes!”. However, in order to justify this claim, we need to examine how that coherent message may be deduced from the content of Scripture. By doing this, we shall hopefully arrive at some reliable and accurate answers to the questions that form the title of this article.
From the outset, we must first understand what is meant by the biblical divine covenant. The following summary definition will serve as a starting-point for our discussion: The biblical covenant is an intimate personal relationship between God and man, sovereignly initiated, maintained and fulfilled by God alone, and involves a commitment to life and death from both God and man.
Underlying this definition are two very significant convictions. First of all, when we come to study the Word of God and seek to understand its impact on our lives, we must always remember that it is the divinely inspired, God-given record of his relationship with his creation. That record is essentially an historical one, which sets out to reveal to us the nature of God and his words and actions in seeking to redeem and rescue humankind from its dreadful moral and spiritual condition. The essence of this history is the theme of God’s relationship with humankind throughout the ages.
The second of these convictions follows on from the first, namely, that the history that has been given to us in the Bible is precisely a covenantal historical record. Put another way, we might say that the Bible is essentially the account of an intimate bond between God and his chosen people Israel. ‘Covenant’, as a socio-historical phenomenon, is intimately bound up with relationship, and so far the Bible is concerned, it is an affiliation grounded in the divine promise of redemption that involves a mandatory response of obedient submission to the terms of that covenant from God’s chosen people.
At the heart of this covenant narrative of Scripture is the theme of redemptive history, that is, the record of God’s actions in history in bringing salvation to his people. The culmination of this historical narrative is the coming of Jesus Christ to earth – the Son of God, Messiah, and Redeemer. The New Testament makes it very clear that Jesus is the fulfilment of all God’s promises in the Old Covenant – promises that find their consummation in his person and work via his substitutionary sacrifice on the cross for the sins of the world, his resurrection from the dead, and his return to heaven to reign as King of kings with God his Father for all eternity. All the redeemed people of God the world over, from all time, will be gathered into the new heavens and the new earth to reign with him forever.
Another key element of this redemptive history is its progressively unfolding nature, beginning at creation and concluding with the unveiling of the New Covenant era, revealed in the incarnation of Christ and the ensuing age of the Holy Spirit. The mode of this “progression” manifests itself in a series of covenant “stages” that embrace the entire body of Scriptural revelation from beginning to end.
These covenant stages may be summarised as follows.
- The first of these is the stage of creation. This is God’s foundational covenant with Adam and Eve, laying down the ultimate demand of submission to God’s command, encapsulated by the prohibition against eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. If they obeyed, they would enjoy life forever with their Creator in the Garden of Eden. However, if they disobeyed, then death was inevitable – not only physical death, but also separation from God and all that is good. Adam and Eve’s rebellion against God led to the tragedy of the divine curse being enacted against all of humanity. But at the outset of this covenantal redemptive history, there is a remarkable demonstration of divine grace. In spite of man’s violation of the covenant, God does not abandon the human race in an absolute sense, but promises to redeem him by guaranteeing that one of Eve’s offspring will “crush the head of the serpent” (Genesis 3:15). Even though Adam and Eve breached the divine covenant and brought the curse of sin and death upon the whole of humanity, God never broke his covenant promises, and the salvation he guaranteed was accomplished through the person of his Son, Jesus Christ. The entire body of biblical revelation that follows the seismic events of Genesis 1-3 spells out the progressive unfolding of that glorious promise.
- The stage of creation is followed by the stage of preservation, which is God’s covenant with Noah. The sin of mankind brings down the divine judgment of the universal flood; but universal destruction is ruled out by the grace of God, who spares Noah, his family, and the animals in the ark, in order to grant the human race a second start. And so, the covenant promises of God continue unabated.
- God then enters into a covenant with Abraham – the stage of promise – pledging to grant him a land to dwell in, along with an incalculable number of descendants. These descendants would eventually constitute the nation of Israel.
- This is followed by the stage of law, the covenant with Moses, where God reveals the all-embracing legislative details of the Old Covenant to his prophetic servant on Mt Sinai. Here, God spells out the details of how he requires his people to live. The entire basis of the Mosaic Law Covenant is grounded in the deliverance of the Israelite people from 400 years of slavery in Egypt. Because God had shown them such grace and mercy, they were now obligated to bind themselves solemnly to him in obedient submission to his laws and exclusive worship if they were to enjoy the blessings of the covenant. Scripture records that Israel failed to keep the Mosaic Law Covenant. But despite punishing them severely for their disobedience, God never reneged on his overarching promise to deliver them, both physically and spiritually.
- Next comes the kingdom stage, where God solemnly promises King David that one of his royal descendants will establish an everlasting throne – a kingdom of absolute justice and righteousness over God’s people. That descendant is, of course, Jesus Christ, David’s greatest son.
What follows then, in the prophetic books of the Old Testament, is the repeated indictment of the people of Israel for their constant sinful rejection of their covenant God. But despite the people’s constant rebellion against God and the violations of the divine covenant, God never abandons his promise to purge the people of their rebellious spirit. This will involve them having to suffer a severe process of discipline and punishment, but after that, God promises to forgive their sins and create a new spirit of worship and devotion within them.
- This takes the form of the promise of a new covenant – the New Covenant stage – which will fulfill the stipulations of the Old Covenant administration. The marvellous consequence for all of God’s people – past, present, and future – will be the permanent, everlasting deliverance from, and forgiveness of their sin, and an eternal relationship with God in glory, made possible solely through the person and work of Jesus Christ, God’s Son.
This then, is why covenant theology is so important to affirm as the key feature of the entire body of Scriptural revelation. It is also critically important to maintain that the benefits associated with the revelation of this divine covenant amount to nothing less than the total eradication of sin and its disastrous effects upon our lives, if we confess our sin and put our faith and trust in what Jesus has done on our behalf. There is then the certain prospect of life eternal in heaven in the company of believers from the world over, worshiping God and his Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, who alone makes all of this possible.
Stephen Renn has taught at SMBC.