Passing on the torch

Covenant renewal sustains the faith of the individual and the community.

Ralph Neall, Ph.D., and Beatrice Neall, Ed.D., retired professors of religion at Union College, Lincoln, Nebraska, now teach pastors in Cambodia.

"You have lost your first love!" So what else is new? Faith, if not sustained and nurtured, naturally runs downhill.

Consider how a sect is formed. Someone concerned with worldliness or lack of vision in an existing church chooses to do something about it. That person is poor, unpopular, and usually persecuted, but he or she has definite beliefs that they are willing to live and die for. Those who decide to follow the new leader count the cost, weigh the consequences, accept the dream, and make it their own.

As time goes on, the second generation cannot make the commitment of the first. They do not have to decide whether they will be members of an unpopular group, because they are born into it. The cost is less for them, the consequences less far-reaching, the commitment slightly reduced. In fact the despised sect is becoming an accepted church. The parents have the challenge of passing their vision on to their children, who ask why they have to be so different from everyone else. They question the beliefs and lifestyle of their forebears.

Beginning with Moses and Joshua, many situations exemplify this scenario. It's one thing to eat angels' food and walk through the sea, but another simply to hear your parents talk about it. The vision of Jesus and the apostles held true for one or two generations, and then, "thou hast left thy first love." Martin Luther protested the deadness and corruption of the Roman Catholic Church at the risk of becoming a martyr. His vision was clear, but one or two generations brought deadness and formality among his own followers.

Joseph Bates and James and Ellen White had a dream and burden that laid the foundations of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Everyone who joined them in those early years knew what the cost would be. But their children, born in the Advent movement, did not face the same pressures from unfriendly neighbors. In a significant sense they were taught, rather than caught, the faith of their fathers.

The role of covenant

This is not to say that faith must run down. There are answers. God foresaw the problem and made provision for it.

His plan involved making a covenant with His people and renewing it periodically. Its main features are recorded in Exodus and Deuteronomy.

God stated His name, the Lord your God, in Exodus 20:2 (NIV), and referred to His bringing Israel out of Egypt as the basis of the covenant. Then He spoke the requirements, the Ten Commandments, stating first of all, "You shall have no other gods before me." Deuteronomy 27 and 28 record the blessings and curses of God's covenant. The witnesses to the covenant were there: "I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses" (Deut. 30:19; see also Deut. 31:28, NIV). Then Moses put the Ten Commandments and the book of the covenant in the ark (verse 26, NIV), and commanded Israel to read it every seven years during the Feast of Tabernacles (see verse 11, NIV).

The original, inaugural initiation of that covenant was a dramatic event. God led the people to Mount Sinai and commanded them to prepare themselves and their camp for three days. Then He gathered them at the foot of the mountain with an awesome display of thunder, lightning, and a loud trumpet call, and spoke the terms of the covenant. Obe dience would show their gratitude. Salvation preceded law and was a gift of grace in itself (Ex. 20:2). It was God's gift to show the way to life.

When the Lord asked for their response, they answered, "All that the Lord hath spoken we will do" (Ex. 19:8). The covenant was ratified with animal blood, which pointed forward to the blood of Christ. The Lord promised that if they would keep His covenant, He would be their God and they would be His people.

Forty years later a new generation arose that had not seen the Lord's mighty acts at the Exodus and at Sinai. They had to decide for themselves whether they would serve the God of their fathers. For them Moses conducted the first of Israel's covenant renewal ceremonies. His four powerful orations on this occasion make up the book of Deuteronomy.

First he reviewed the history of God's kindness (Deut. 1 -4). Then he repeated the Ten Commandments (Deut. 5) and called them to teach these things diligently to their children (Deut. 6:7 and 11:18-21). In Deuteronomy 27 and 28 he listed the blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience. In Deuteronomy 30:19,20 he appealed for a new commitment. Finally he commanded them to read these teachings to the people publicly for new covenant renewals every seven years (Deut. 31:10- 13). They should have observed this command, for whenever it was read, the book of Deuteronomy brought revival, but it was lost for centuries.

Covenant renewal

A few weeks after Moses' death Joshua gathered the 12 tribes to renew their commitment at Mounts Ebal and Gerizim, near Shechem (Joshua 8:30-35), one of the most impressive sites in the land. As he reviewed the blessings, the tribes standing on Gerizim answered, "Amen," and when he read the curses, the tribes on Ebal said, "Amen." Their commitment lasted during Joshua's life, and the Lord gave them victory over their enemies.

Shortly before he died, Joshua called for one more covenant renewal at Shechem (Joshua 23 and 24). He reviewed the history of God's kindness, updating it to his own time (Joshua 23:14 and 24:1-13). Then he called for a new commitment (Joshua 24:14-27), and wrote it on a large stone for a memorial (verses 26, 27).

True to the norm, that renewal lasted for only one generation, however. Those who had themselves experienced the Lord's mighty acts were faithful, but their children forsook the Lord and followed other gods (verse 31). This is the sad story of the judges.

Hundreds of years later there were other covenant renewals. Hezekiah said, "I intend to make a covenant with the Lord, the God of Israel, so that his fierce anger will turn away from us" (2 Chron. 29:10, NTV). He called the people together for the greatest Passover they had held for hundreds of years a memorial of the Exodus.

Nearly 100 years later King Josiah, conscience-smitten by hearing of the discovery of the book of Deuteronomy in the Temple, conducted a covenant renewal ceremony at another great Passover service (2 Chron. 34:31).

After the exile, Ezra and Nehemiah reviewed their history again and called for a new response (Neh. 8:6 and 9:38). Once again the reading of Deuteronomy had a powerful effect.

The new covenant

The last thing Jesus did for His disciples before His death was to give them the new covenant (see Matt. 26:27, 28 and 1 Cor. 11:25, 26). For this intimate celebration He chose the seclusion of the upper room.

His covenant differs from the previous ones in that it was confirmed at a covenant meal. If that entire evening is seen in a covenant setting, then these insights emerge:

1. The foot-washing ceremony was a preparation for entering into the covenant, like the washing at Sinai (Ex. 19:10).

2. Judas's act of receiving the covenant meal from the hand of Christ and then betraying Him was a shocking breach of covenant.

3. The law of the covenant was "that you love one another, even as I have loved you" (John 13:34, NASB).

4. The blessings of the new covenant were: the peace of Christ (John 14:27); the friendship of Christ (John 15:15); the gift of the Holy Spirit (John 14:16, 17); and union with God more intimate than under the old covenant: "that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us" (John 17:21).

The point of the supper as a whole was not only to renew, but to reveal and express graphically the ultimate essentials of God's covenant relationship with His people.

The need for covenant renewal

We need covenant renewals just as much as the Israelites did. Like them we also forget. Our children also need to be taught, and specifically what needs to be communicated to them. We, as Christians and as Seventh-day Adventists, have a pivotal need right now to know what the light is all about, and to pass the torch on.

Fortunately we do have such covenant renewal ceremonies, although perhaps we do not realize what we are doing and do not have them as often as we should.

Centennials in our churches are times for covenant renewals.

The meeting at the William Miller farm in October 1994 was a covenant renewal.

General Conference sessions are covenant renewals. Sermons at these gatherings review our history and call us to new commitment. Faith is strengthened in fellowship with other believers.

Conference camp meetings are covenant renewals, although in many places they are no longer well attended. We need to find other ways of gathering ourselves as ministers and of gathering our people for deeper renewals of our faith, even the distinctive elements of that faith.

Rural churches have district meetings that function as covenant renewals. Members of small churches are encouraged as they meet with larger groups.

Covenant renewal: how?

How should a covenant renewal be conducted?

Someone must be the leader. For a church, the pastor would be the leader; for an institution, the manager, chair, or chaplain; for the family, a parent.

In Scripture, the leader played a vital role. Israel's great covenant renewals began with spiritual leaders who made their own covenants with God and felt a burning desire to lead the nation with them. Whoever leads the renewal, a covenant revival must begin with a totally committed man or woman whose soul thrills with the high resolve to be true to God.

To prepare the members of a church or institution for a covenant service, the leader should study the subject of covenant and present it to his or her people in several special sermons or talks.

There is a wealth of Scripture material, with inspired commentary from the Spirit of Prophecy. If presented in the context of genuine spiritual power, it will stir the souls of people with the realization that God is present there, that He makes agreements with human beings, that He is utterly trustworthy, and that He honors those who honor Him. So let us preach from the mighty covenant Scriptures, making a special study of Deuteronomy.

As God's covenants in ancient times were based on His law, so God has instructions for His institutions today purposes, plans, and methods that He presented in a special way to His messenger to guide in the establishment and growth of His work in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. These are chronicled in the works of Ellen White and in the histories of the church.

But many times, as generations pass and as past generations have done, we become preoccupied with the machinery and keeping the organizational engine purring, not noticing where we are going in the vehicle. We have the vague satisfaction of being a part of the "Lord's work," yet have an uneasy feeling that we are not really accomplishing what God requires of us. How can we find out?

There is no better way than to study the history of the institution and the purpose for which it was founded, and then to take up the search under God for ways to take those purposes and apply them in the here and now. Covenants of the Bible always contained a review of the goodness of God toward His people.

In planning a renewal service, the leader will want to include a history of God's direction in the founding and growth of the congregation, church, or institution. It is possible for us to forget the essentials of our past and the direction in which our destiny truly lies where we came from and where we are going. A review of the vision of the founders, their sacrifices and struggles, and the providence of God that overcame formidable obstacles, helps build the faith and dedication of present-day workers. This study should go not only as far back as our Adventist heritage, but always farther back to the original biblical and Christological essentials.

In ancient covenant renewals it is crucial to note that the leaders reviewed not only God's mercies but also Israel's failures. We know that our founders sometimes made serious errors and that God corrected these by drastic measures, such as the Battle Creek fires. A review of such failures would help us to learn the lessons of history and to look at the present struggles of our congregations or of the church at large in a more thoughtful biblical and historical light.

Then a covenant document should be drafted. Leaders could do it themselves, presenting their findings to the people as a sermon or paper. But the people will grasp, believe, and retain best what they have studied out for themselves.

So in the work of drafting a covenant, a large group should be involved. Perhaps a series of prayer meetings or study sessions could be conducted on the raison d'etre of the congregation's or institution's existence. Afterward, a smaller group should write up the text of the document and submit it to the larger group for approval.

Covenant renewals in Bible times were great outdoor convocations, Passover feasts, or even an intimate gathering in an upper room. The setting should be chosen to suit the type of covenant needed. We have attended some most inspiring outdoor services constructed after Bible models, such as "The Sermon on the Mount," "Feeding the Five Thousand," and "Preaching From a Boat." How would it be to reenact "the blessings and the curses" at Shechem, Ezra preaching from a wooden plat form in a street setting, or a supper scene around a table? Natural scenes are most inspiring. God has come close to His people in majestic mountain settings, beside the lakeshore, in flowering meadows, and even among haystacks. With prayer and planning, the covenant service can be made a never-to-be-forgotten event.

After the reading of the history and purpose of the church or institution, there should be a call to commitment.

And then there should be a memorial of some kind to remind the group of what they have done. In times gone by the people erected a stone pillar or a heap of stones. Today we might put our document in a special book, with signatures of the faith community's leaders, repeated from time to time. And the ancient idea of erecting an altar may be different, but could be quite effective, even today. We might even design and hang a banner to represent the unique mission and history of the church. We were inspired once when we heard a sermon on banners in a Presbyterian church that represented eight of the great historical creeds of the Christian church.

If we prayerfully plan periodic but momentous covenant renewals, they can be memorable events that will bring lifealtering revival and renewal to us and to our people.

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Ralph Neall, Ph.D., and Beatrice Neall, Ed.D., retired professors of religion at Union College, Lincoln, Nebraska, now teach pastors in Cambodia.

February 1997

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