My husband and I have recently taken to reading and discussing the Psalms together each evening after dinner, one Psalm per night. Since doing this, I've noticed a common theme cropping up in our discussions: how are we supposed to understand this now that we are in Christ - under the New Covenant? There are some pretty sweeping promises in the Old Testament. What are we to do with them? What have they to do with us? I'm certain we're not alone in our wondering, or in any confusion we may feel, as I've seen God's promises widely abused in my personal church-going history. I've seen them named and claimed. I've seen them thrown at God as demands, "You promised, you have to fulfill." I've seen folks attempt to use the Word of God to hold Him hostage to their plans. I've heard people who fail to find their promises fulfilled, or their prayers answered, blamed for their lack of faith. Misunderstanding is rife in this area. So I'd like to pause here for a bit and reflect.
It also happens, as you've likely noticed, that I've been participating in a group reading of the Puritan classic, The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment these last few weeks. In our most recent reading we came upon a rather interesting assertion:
"...a gracious heart gets its supply of all things from the Covenant; and so comes to have contentment...that is, from the great covenant that God has made with him in Christ...the Covenant of Grace."To put it in modern speech, a Christian's heart finds everything it needs, all it's contentment from the New Covenant - the Covenant of Grace - and all that it entails. In addition to this, Burroughs asserts that the Christian also gains contentment from the "particular promises in the Covenant of grace" and that "the saints of God have an interest in all the promises that ever were made to our forefathers, from the beginning of the world they are their inheritance, and go on from one generation to another...they inherit all the promises made in all the book of God." If you think for a moment over "all the promises made in all the book of God," I think you may begin to see where some confusion might arise. God promised a host of temporal blessings under the Old Covenant, for those who would be obedient. It is clear from the teaching of Christ that such earthly rewards are not to be expected by His New Covenant people. (Matt. 8:19-20; Phil. 4:11-13; Rom. 8:35-39)
As Christians we often turn to the Old Testament and it's promises for our comfort - to help us regain contentment. We are often encouraged to do so by our Christian brothers and sisters, and in the hymns we sing. Haven't you ever wondered how it is that these promises spoken to the people of Israel, who lived under the Mosaic Covenant of works come to be applied to us as Christians? What right do we have to them, we who don't even subject ourselves to the Law, let alone obey it? It is profoundly important to our faith, our contentment, and our perseverance that we understand the grounds of the promises we cling to - and that we know with our hearts and minds that they are ours to cling to.
As I've noted before, Burroughs assumes a degree of theological sophistication from the readers of his day, which can not be assumed in our time. But if he's correct in saying that an understanding of the doctrine of Covenant is foundational to the virtue of contentment, I'd like to slow down for a bit to ensure it is true, and that the foundation is properly laid. I'll begin with a brief definition of "covenant": "Theologically (used of relations between God and man) it denotes a gracious undertaking entered into by God for the benefit and blessing of man, and specifically of those men who by faith receive the promises and commit themselves to the obligation which this undertaking involves." (from Baker's Dictionary of Theology)
"Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, 'Take, eat; this is my body.' And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, 'Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father's kingdom.'" (Matthew 26:26-29; see also Mark 14: 22-25)The covenant language Jesus used at this supper would have been rich with meaning for His disciples, all Jews, who would have hearkened immediately back to this Old Testament promise…
"Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people, And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, 'Know the LORD,' for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sins no more." Jeremiah 31:31-34 (see also Ezekiel 11:19-20)Notice that these Old Testament passages refer to Israel and Judah. Now Jesus sits before His Jewish disciples claiming to be instituting this “new Covenant” in His own blood. Now here we sit as Gentiles claiming this covenant for ourselves. Who do we think we are? What could be more important than to be assured we have a right to do that, to know that we are not being presumptuous, and to understand the reasons why? And to press the matter further, what about Israel? God made promises to Israel. It’s important to our faith that we know that God keeps His promises to Israel, because if He doesn’t keep them for Israel, how can we trust Him to keep them for us?
Well, this is exactly the problem Paul is tackling in Romans 9-11. What was happening with the Jews had not escaped his notice. The vast majority of them were rejecting their Messiah and His gospel of grace, even though the Law and the Prophets had predicted His coming. What about the promises God had made to Israel? This is the concern Paul is addressing when he says, “it is not as though the word of God has failed...” Clearly that’s what it seemed like (9:1-6). They were anticipating a revival in Israel, not wholesale rejection of the Messiah. And they were concerned that God had finally abandoned His people (Romans 11:1-2). So Paul goes on to explain further, all the way through Chapter 11, first, that all physical Israel never was spiritual Israel. There has always been a remnant, and this remnant was always maintained by the election of grace, so that it could not be based upon works, so that no would ever have grounds for boasting (Romans 11:3-6).
He then goes on to show why what was happening was not as strange as it at first seemed. It was foretold in Scripture, that God, according to His election of grace, would graft into His people a people who were not His people, a “spiritual” offspring of Abraham, a “spiritual Israel”, if you will. And he goes further to hint that a time will come for Paul’s kinsmen according to the flesh to be grafted once again into the people of God, once the “fullness of the Gentiles has come in.” And this grafting in is how we Gentile believers in Christ have become spiritual Israelites, and party to this New Covenant. We have, by the grace of God, been grafted into the people of God. Once we were not a people, and now we are a people. (You see, God’s people have always been chosen by grace from the sea of wicked humanity, and they have always been recognized by their faith in the righteousness that can only come from God.)
With this in mind let us turn back to our investigation of this Covenant of Grace, first how it can be a source of contentment for us in and of itself, and secondly, how it enables us to call the promises of the Old Testament our own. For this we will find most of our explanation in the book of Hebrews.
This Covenant brings contentment in ways the Old Covenant never could.
"For every high priest is appointed to offer gifts and sacrifices; thus it is necessary for this priest also to have something to offer. Now if he were on earth, he would not be a priest at all, since there are priests who offer gifts according to the law. They serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly things. For when Moses was about to erect the tent, he was instructed by God, saying, 'See that you make everything according to the pattern that was shown you on the mountain.' But as it is, Christ has obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises. For is that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion to look for a second. For he finds fault with them when he says:'Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt. For they did not continue in my covenant, and so I showed no concern for them', declares the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people, And they shall not teach each one his neighbor and each one saying, 'Know the Lord,' for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.'
In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away." (Heb. 8:3-13)
"For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near. Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, since the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have any consciousness of sins? But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year. For it impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.
Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said,'Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body have you prepared for me; in burnt offerings and sin offerings you have taken no pleasure. Then I said, "Behold, I have come to do your will, O God, as it is written of me in the scroll of the book."'
When he said above, 'You have neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings' (these are offered according to the law), then he added, 'Behold, I have come to do your will'. He does away with the first in order to establish the second. And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.
And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.
And the Holy Spirit also bears witness to us; for after saying,'This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws on their hearts, and write them on their minds,'
then he adds,'I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.'
Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin.
Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful." (Heb. 10:1-23)
"For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them. For they could not endure the order that was given. 'If even a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned.' Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, 'I tremble with fear.' But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel." (Heb. 12:18-24)
So this is the “great Covenant” God has made with us in Christ. No more terror and cowering as at Mount Sinai. No more constant reminder of sins. No more threat of impending doom. This is the covenant that brings us to Mt. Zion, where the angels gather in celebration, where Christ is our Mediator. This is a mount not to run from, in dread, but for the gracious heart to run to in any trouble or affliction and find delight. How can one not be satisfied on Mt. Zion? How can one not rejoice? How can one not be content? And it is the New Covenant which has taken us there.
So, what do we do with the Old Covenant, seeing as it is obsolete? What do we do with the Law, now that it has been fulfilled in Christ? What's left for us is its witness to the character of God, and it's promises. The promises remain to those of us who by faith are in Christ. The blessings of His obedience fall upon us. Again I will turn to Hebrews to see how the promises of old may be appropriated by the people of the New Covenant. But first, let's look at Joshua:
"No man shall be able to stand before you all the days of your life. Just as I was with Moses, so I will be with you. I will not leave you or forsake you." (Josh. 1:5)Here God was speaking to one Hebrew man, Joshua, the man who would lead his people into the promised land. But now look at what the inspired writer has to say to the Hebrews of the New Covenant:
"Keep your life free from love of money and be content with what you have, for he has said, 'I will never leave you nor forsake you.'"The promise originally made to Joshua is made into a new covenant promise for us, “spiritual Israel”. Notice that the Hebrews passage actually uses an Old Testament promise as the ground for our contentment. God has promised to care for us, and so we should be content with what He's given us.
I'd like to conclude with one more example of how Old Testament promises look as adapted to New Covenant usage.
"...no weapon that is fashioned against you shall succeed, and you shall confute every tongue that rises against you in judgment. This is the heritage of the servants of the LORD and their vindication from me, declares the LORD." (Is. 54:17)
"What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died - more than that, who was raised - who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written,And now I will ask, along with Jeremiah Burroughs, “… have you sucked this sweetness from the Covenant?…Just as a child, as soon as ever it is in danger, need not be told to go to his father or mother, for nature tells him so; so it is with a gracious heart; as soon as it is in any trouble or affliction there is a new nature which carries him to the Covenant immediately, where he finds ease and rest. If you find that your hearts work in this way, immediately running to the Covenant, it is an excellent sign of true grace...”'For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.'No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Rom. 8:31-39)