The covenants: a developmental approach

The ongoing nature of the biblical covenants as the kingdom of God emerges.

Smuts van Rooyen, Ph.D., is senior pastor of the Vallejo Drive Seventh-day Adventist Church, Duarte, California.

For centuries Protestants have had an ongoing disagreement over the covenants and particularly the concomitant implications for the law. Jonathan Edwards observed, "There is perhaps no part of divinity attended with so much intricacy, and wherein orthodox divines do so much differ as stating the precise agreement and difference between the two dispensations of Moses and Christ."1That this is still the case is evident from the survey of scholars and their positions on the law made by Brice L. Martin.2 He indicates that scholars who argue that the law is no longer valid for believers include such heavyweights as Albert Schweitzer, H. J. Schoeps, Ernst Kasemann, F. F. Brace, and Walter Gutbrod.

Scholars taking the opposing view, namely, that the law is still valid for believers, include C. E. B. Cranfield, George E. Howard, Hans Conzelmann, George Eldon Ladd, and Richard Longenecker. This divergence of opinion between such astute scholars gives a schoolboy like me pause, but on this keystone issue a thinking minister cannot avoid an opinion. Here is mine.

What is a covenant and its role?

First, a brief word about what a covenant does. A covenant brings security to a project or relationship by calling on two parties to make a commitment.

As I see it, an unmarried couple living together does not have the security in their relationship that a married couple has. Sometimes affection falters, and vows must then take over.

That God would have any relationship with us, even a loose one, would be astounding enough. That He would commit to a covenant relationship with us is truly astonishing.

What is a covenant? A covenant is a formal, solemn, and binding agreement between parties for the performance of some specific mutual, interrelated action. In other words it's a compact to start a project and see it through to the end. We'll get this bridge built, we'll form this company, or we'll stay married as long as we live.

A covenant attempts to accomplish some thing. It is a mutual agreement that makes such an accomplishment likely to succeed. This is important to understand because sometimes the discussion on the covenants in Scripture degenerates into a discussion about stipulations, about commandments, as if they are in and of themselves a covenant. Of course, a covenant does spell out the stipulations to be honored, but they are there to protect the project.

Finally, a sign of some sort, such as shaking hands, circumcision, communion emblems, or a rainbow thrown across the sky, gives out ward expression to the inner resolve that the parties have made. The sign says "I'm serious about this thing. You've got a deal."

God's great undertaking

What precisely is the great undertaking God has covenanted with us to accomplish? It is nothing less than the establishment of a kingdom, the creation of a relational place where He can put down roots with His people and we can together be His family.

A simple, on-the-face-of-it reading of the story of Abraham (Gen. 12; 15; 17) confirms this. Abraham is called to leave his home and to venture forth to a foreign land for God, where he is to create a kingdom.

God said to Abram: "This is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations ... I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you. I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you. The whole land of Canaan, where you are now an alien, I will give as an everlasting possession to your descendants after you; I will be their God" (Gen. 17:4-8, NIV, italics supplied).

What a saga! God determines to open a brand new frontier, where Abraham's heart can connect with His and be at rest. True, the technical term "kingdom of God" is not used here or anywhere in the Old Testament, but the idea is patently obvious.

John Bright was right when he said, "It is at once apparent that the idea [of the kingdom] is broader than the term, and we must look for the idea where the term is not present."3

The fabulous kingdom dream of a place of togetherness drives the ever lasting covenant in all of its phases. This holds true for the covenant made with Abraham in the adobe settlements of Ur (Gen. 12). It holds true for the old covenant made with Israel beneath the rim rocks of Sinai (Exod. 23:20, 31; 25:8; 33; 34; Deut. 7). It holds true for the new covenant made with the disciples at the scrubbed table (Matt. 26:27-29; John 14:1-3). It holds true for the twelve tribes of Israel, the redeemed of all ages who stand awestruck as the New Jerusalem floats gently down from heaven (Rev. 21:1-5, 9, 10).

These covenant experiences are nothing less than the unfolding of the developmental stages of the one ever lasting covenant made with Abraham.

Changes in the covenant?

Which brings us to the question, What is the paradigm of change used in Scripture to describe the change in the covenant? Is it a revolutionary paradigm of change that overthrows the status quo and establishes a wholly new order? (Remember the American Revolution in which the colonists throw off the yoke of British rule and establish their own government.)

Or is it an evolutionary paradigm of change in which the new emerges developmentally from the old? (Think here of an egg becoming a larva, the larva a pupa, and finally, the pupa a butterfly.)

The Scriptures teach the kingdom unfolds developmentally, first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel (Mark 4:24-29), and the covenant and law keep pace.

Jesus tied the kingdom and the law together (Luke 16:16, 17). Further more, the predicted evolutionary change was built in to the very fabric of the covenant made with Abraham (Gal. 3:8). The promised blessing was to evolve, from Abraham's family to a nation, to an international community, and then come to full fruition in heaven, in a city Abraham longed for.

Continuity and discontinuity

At each stage of development the everlasting covenant is reaffirmed, and the process moved forward. At each stage something passes away and something new happens. The process involves both continuity and discontinuity, the oak is in the acorn, and the acorn is in the oak, yet the tree is not the acorn.

If the evolutionary or developmental paradigm of covenant change is correct, a number of important observations follow. First, we may not pit a lower stage of development against a higher as if they are inherently antagonistic. The fact is that lower stages produce the higher stages, and pass their dynamic, their DNA on.

We may not therefore pit the Sinaitic covenant made with Moses against either the everlasting covenant made with Abraham, or the new covenant made with the disciples. All of the covenants thrive on promise and grace. Individuals were not saved by grace in Abraham's day and by law in Moses' day. Nor were people saved by grace in Paul's day and by law in Moses' day, as some assert.

That the era of Moses was an era of grace is clear from the following:

1. God did not choose Israel as His treasured possession because of any merit they possessed. He chose them because He loved them and had sworn an oath to their forefathers. God calls the Sinaitic covenant "my covenant of love" (Deut. 7:7-9; 4:32-39).

2. The prologue to the Ten Commandments reminds Israel that the One giving the law is the God who redeemed them by means of the Passover (Exod. 20). Israel was saved by grace before they were given the law (Gal. 3:15-18). Even the stipulations of the covenant were a gracious reminder to Israel of their redemption (Deut. 6:20-25).

3. The relation of the law to grace was depicted by means of the ark of the covenant. There the law was placed beneath the golden lid of the mercy seat (Exod. 31:7).

4. It is nothing less than the Passover meal that Jesus transforms into the symbol of the new covenant (Matt. 26:17-30). Grace unfolds into fuller grace as one covenant informs the next; as it comes into maturity.

5. According to Hebrews, Israel did not enter God's rest because they opted for works and refused to live by faith (Heb. 4:1-11). They were saved by faith as we are, they lived by faith as we do (Heb. 11; Rom. 9:31, 32; Isa. 45:25).

6. Moses is not the antithesis of Jesus. Scripture says Moses was faith ful as a servant in all God's house and testified to what would come (Heb. 3:1-6). Jesus said, "If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me. But since you do not believe what he wrote, how are you going to believe what I say?" (John 5:46, 47, NIV).

7. Paul praised the covenant experience of Israel as essential to the story of salvation. It was by means of Israel, he said, that the incarnation of Jesus occurred. He found splendor in Israel's history under the old covenant. "Theirs is the adoption as sons, theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple wor ship and the promises. Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of Christ, who is God over all, forever praised! Amen" (Rom. 9:1-5). Salvation is of the Jews. The Jews not only brought us to Christ (Gal. 3:24) but gave us Christ.

8. The covenant at Sinai was not one of salvation by law; i.e., legalism. God would never design a covenant based on salvation by works. Legalism is always as filthy rags. But Paul labels the Old Covenant glorious. When Moses received the law his face shone with the glory of God (2 Cor. 3:7-11; Exod. 34:29-35). True, the glory faded as that stage of development faded, but it was glory while it lasted. Only by comparison to the glory of Jesus is the glory of Moses less impressive. But it was impressive.

9. The lives of scores of Old Testament characters testify to salvation by grace alone. Think of Jacob, David, Mephiboseth, and Gomer, to name a few. Read the sequential pro cession of the faithful in Hebrews 11.

Problems in developmental process

Developmental processes, however, are not necessarily free of problems. There is always the real danger of an arrest in development. When an arrest occurs, a normal, earlier developmental stage may sabotage a later stage with drastic consequences. This clearly was the situation in much of the early church when Paul wrote his epistle to the Galatians.

What happened was that Jewish Christians attempted to freeze the kingdom within the framework of Judaism and covenantal nomism. They threw up a developmental road block that prevented the eschatological era of the Spirit from proceeding. Thus they created an unnatural tension between the era of Moses and the era of the Spirit, between grace and law, between law and Jesus. This tension was created, not inherently there.

Toddling around with out stretched arms to maintain balance is natural in small children but tragic behavior in adults. What form did the Galatian developmental roadblock take? The Jewish Christians insisted that the Gentiles could be justified but only if they first became Jews by submitting to circumcision, dietary restrictions, and observance of the Jewish holy days. The preservation of a national identity is the central issue in the struggles of the Galatians.

A red-hot Paul seeks to crash through this roadblock. It is crucial to understand that Paul is not writing an objective, theological treatise on the relation of law to grace in this epistle. Rather his arguments address an unnatural arrested development. He therefore points out to the Galatians that they have opted out of the eschatological age of the Spirit and regressed back in to the age of covenantal nomism and Jewish nationalism (Gal. 3:1-5).

Then he reminds them that God planned all along for the Gentiles to be part of His unfolding kingdom, for He told Abraham that all nations of the earth would be blessed through him (3:6-9). Moreover, He warns them that if they insist in remaining where they are, they will remain under the curse of the law, for Israel had not obeyed God (3:10-14).

Furthermore, the law did not annul or undo the promise made to Abraham, which means that the promise is still present in the covenant made with Moses (3:15-18). The acorn is in the sapling and must be allowed to become a tree.

He argues that the law never was the means to righteousness. If it were possible for the law to have saved humanity, God would have made such a law. God never did so because it was not supposed to be so (3:21).

The era of the law, of covenantal nomism, was intended to lead us to the era of Christ (3:24); it was not to be the end point, so let history progress. Let the promise that is inherent in both Abraham and Moses bring us to Christ.

The status of the Law

Here we must ask what exactly it is that passes away as the covenant at Sinai progresses into the Christian era? Paul's basic purpose in Galatians is to declare that national Israel no longer stands alone as God's special people. The era of their exclusive identity is over, and the international, multiethnic, Spirit identity replaces it. The blessing of exclusion (Exod. 19:5, 6) has become the blessing of embrace (Gal. 3:26-29).

All who have faith, even Gentiles (what a shocker), are now whole hearted candidates for covenantal relationship with God. Moreover, the spiritual life of believers is no longer expressed through a gracious system of law but through a relationship with Jesus (5:1-6). The legitimate love of law in the heart of the Israelite (Deut. 6:4-9) no longer animates the spiritual life of the believer (Rom. 7:1- 6). Jesus has come, and He is now the animator of his covenantal people!

What about the Ten Commandments?

But if the era of a gracious covenantal nomism is passed, what are the implications for the Ten Commandments today? Do they continue to have moral authority?

Yes, they do, for they are specifically adapted to fit the age of the Spirit. In the era of the New Covenant the law is universalized; applied to Christ and the Spirit; stripped of its national, Jewish flavor; summarized as love; and preserved until the kingdom of God is inaugurated. Let us look at these adaptations.

That the law is universalized and denationalized may be seen in the way Paul tailors the fifth command ment (honor your parents) to fit the new situation of a multinational church. In Ephesians 6:1-3, the apostle quotes the command but not accurately. He tweaks one phrase, namely, the promise of longevity.

As restated, the command no longer promises longevity "in the land the Lord is giving you" (Exod. 20:12, NIV), but promises longevity in the earth or the world. The command is universalized to include obedient Gentile children living beyond the borders of Israel. The benefit of longevity is for everyone everywhere.

Thielman has shown us a dramatic example of the law continuing to function in the eschatological age of the Spirit.4 He saw it in Paul's injunction to the Thessalonians to break with their past. The boundary markers that were to set these believers apart were a complete break with idolatry, and a turning away from sexual impurity (1 Thess. 1:1-10; 4:1-8).

If they did not obey these commandments, they would do nothing less than reject the Spirit. Paul applied the new covenant prophecy of Ezekiel to their situation. Ezekiel foresaw a time when God's people would be cleansed from impurity (akatharsia) and not serve idols when the Spirit would move upon them, when their stony hearts would be exchanged for hearts of flesh, and they would keep God's decrees (Ezek. 36:24-27).

This prophecy is strikingly similar to the new covenant prophecies of Jeremiah and Isaiah (Jer. 31:31-34; Isa. 59:20, 21). Paul brings Ezekiel to Thessalonica. Clearly the commandments were still morally operative for Gentiles in the New Covenant era.

The commandments are stripped of their national jurisdictional status under the new covenant. This was necessary because in the Old Testament the commandments functioned as laws of governance for a nation, as the law of the land. To dis obey them was therefore not only immoral but also illegal. Gross infractions of the law were punished by the death penalty. An incorrigible child, a woman caught in adultery, a Sabbath breaker could all be stoned until dead.

As national Israel passes, the local, jurisdictional, penal aspect of the law also passes. When the Pharisees brought a woman caught in adultery to Jesus, while not denying their Mosaic-driven arguments to stone her, He recognized her moral infraction but rejected the death penalty 0ohn 8:3-11).

Furthermore, the New Testament adapts the commandments to the new era by summarizing them into one simple principle, namely, love your neighbor as yourself (Rom. 13:9, 10). The effect of this is to remotivate obedience from obedience as duty to obedience as positive desire. This sum mary does not abolish the commandments, simply because a summary never destroys what it summarizes. It distills but does not destroy.

Thus the law is preserved. Not one jot or tittle of the law passes away until all is fulfilled (Luke 16:16, 17). When is all fulfilled? Not until the inaugurated kingdom is consummated at the coming of Jesus.5

The commandments recast in the image of Jesus

Finally, the New Testament recasts the commandments in the image of Jesus. They lose the thunder of Sinai and become relational principles that reveal where we are with Christ. Our bodies, for example, are extensions of the body of Christ and therefore are not to be united with prostitutes (1 Cor. 6:12-19). Sexual immorality is thus much more than a legal infraction; it is a sin against our relationship with Jesus.

The Sabbath command also is "Christianized." In the new age, Sabbath rest focuses on entering the heavenly temple with Jesus where we find the throne of grace, and then rest in our Savior's finished work (Heb. 4; 6:16-20). Sabbath rest is "entering in" not merely "refraining from." Jesus has become the center of Christian obedience: He is first, and last, and best in everything, even in—or especially in—the matter of the law.

How shall we then live? Although the law is still morally authoritative and needed, we do not live for the law, but for Jesus. We understand that we cannot keep the law unless we live in the grace of God, are constrained by the love of Jesus, and are empowered by the Holy Spirit.

The commandments may function as boundary markers demarcating our separation to God. But boundary markers are only fences. They are not the farm itself; the land is the farm. Jesus is our land. Our souls flourish on and in Him. We grow our wheat on Him. We know it is impossible to grow anything on a fence.

At the deepest level of our being we know that the law is not our glory. "For God, who said, 'Let light shine out of darkness,' made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ" (2 Cor. 4:6, NIV). This is our glory.

1 Cited by W. A. VanGemeren in Greg L. Bahnsen, et. al. Five Views on Law and Gospel (Grand Rapids, Midi.: Zondervan, 1993), 14.

2 Brice L. Martin, Christ and the Law in Paul (Leiden: Brill, 1989), 21-68.

3 John Bright, The Kingdom of God (New York: Ahingdon Press, 1953), 18.

4 Frank Thielman, Paul and the Law (Downers Grove, 111.: Intervarsity Press, 1994). See chapter 3.

5 G. E. Ladd, The Theology of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1974), 495-510.

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Smuts van Rooyen, Ph.D., is senior pastor of the Vallejo Drive Seventh-day Adventist Church, Duarte, California.

February 2004

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