Covenant: God Pursues
December 23, 2012 | Brian Bill
What are you hoping to receive this Christmas? American Express did a survey recently and found that 31% of people said that receiving a “fruitcake” would be the worst gift of all. In fact, more people indicated that given a choice between a fruitcake and receiving nothing at all, they would choose “nothing.” The survey then went on to find out how people get rid of a gift that they don’t want.
- 30% hide it in a closet
- 21% return it
- 19% re-gift the item
One of the best ways to get rid of a gift you don’t want is to have a white elephant exchange. That’s what we did at our staff Christmas party a week ago. Many were speechless when they opened their gifts. It was fun to be able to give away the junk that we had stored in our basement. The only problem is that we went home with other people’s trash!
Well, not everyone went home with their gifts. James and Angie received about 10 ugly green metal trays with flowers from the 70s etched into them (they came from our basement). When we were getting ready to leave I noticed that they had shoved them under Pastor Andy and Corinne’s couch. Their son Asher joined us for the celebration and when his parents received a piece of ugly carpeting from the 70s that actually came out of the South Room upstairs, I told Asher to take it to his bedroom. He happily did so. I found out later that he actually put it on top of his bed, which made his comforter smell for several days. That’s probably the last time they offer to host the staff party.
We’ve been learning in our Advent series that it’s helpful to see the whole story of Scripture as God’s unfolding gift of redemption. One could make the case that the Bible is the story of God pursuing people who have been running from Him and ruining their lives in the process. During this month we’ve moved from the creation of the world to the creation of Adam and Eve. We learned last week that because of their sinful choices, the entire human race was plunged into catastrophe. But God continues to reach out, asking a similar question that he asked of Adam, “Where are you?”
Today I want to retell God’s salvation story, utilizing the major covenants to do so. After all, properly understood, the Bible is not about you, or about me, it’s all about God. He’s the hero in the story. In 2 Kings 23:2, the Bible is called the “Book of the Covenant.” Properly understood, the Old and New Testaments are really Old and New Covenants. In fact, the word “testament” is Latin for Covenant.
God’s response to our rebellion is to make covenants. Covenants address the catastrophe of the Fall, and they all point to Christmas and the Cross. One pastor defines a covenant as a “life-and-death relationship with God on His terms.” There’s no bargaining or negotiating. God conceives the covenant and He confirms it. The story begins with harmony in creation and ends with a restored creation . The unfolding story of redemption plays out between these two bookends and the covenants are the major acts in the drama.
Covenant love is described in various terms but the most common is the Hebrew word hesed. I have heard this referred to as “God’s lovingkindness — the consistent, ever-faithful, relentless, constantly pursuing, lavish, extravagant, unrestrained, one-way love of God. It is often translated as covenant love, lovingkindness, mercy, steadfast love, loyal love, devotion, commitment, or reliability.”
I really like how the Jesus Storybook Bible says it: “God loves us with a Never Stopping, Never Giving Up, Unbreaking, Always and Forever Love.”
Our culture is more familiar with contracts than with covenants. While there are some similarities, there are at least three differences. Covenants are:
- Permanent. A covenant is a permanent arrangement; contracts have an end date.
- Total. A contract generally involves only one aspect or skill or task, while a covenant covers a person’s total being. A covenant is a close relationship where God can be thought of as binding or tying himself to people.
- Costly. More about this later.
When God makes a covenant, He keeps it. When He makes a promise, you can count on Him to come through. Psalm 105:42: “For he remembered his holy promise given to his servant Abraham.”
The Covenant with Noah
As we continue in the Genesis narrative, we see that Cain kills Abel. Sin is exploding in the world and multiplying among men and women. Genesis 6:5 gives us a description of what’s going on: “The Lord saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time. The Lord was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain.” Because sin is so out of control, God decides to wipe the world out with a flood. Genesis 6:11 sounds a bit like the situation in our society today: “Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight and was full of violence.”
By the way, Christmas only makes sense against the backdrop of how corrupt we are. Advent is filled with meaning precisely because of the evil in human hearts. The Savior was sent to save sinners. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
God sends a worldwide flood but Noah and his family members are saved because they entered the Ark. The first lesson here is that God’s patience does run out eventually. Sure, he saved Noah’s family and the animals but the truth is that He destroyed unrepentant sinners. Noah is given the same mission in Genesis 9:1 that was communicated to Adam in Genesis 1:28: “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth.” He’s given rights over the animals and is told how to restrain murder in society. The story of the flood shows God as a righteous judge and a gracious redeemer.
I see Christmas and the Cross nestled in Genesis 8:20: “Then Noah built an altar to the Lord and, taking some of all the clean animals and clean birds, he sacrificed burnt offerings on it.” In response to this blood sacrifice, which is a foreshadowing of the blood of the final sacrifice made by Jesus, God makes a covenant with Noah. Noah can now know that the Lord will never again send a flood to destroy the entire earth. Genesis 9:11: “I establish my covenant with you: Never again will all life be cut off by the waters of a flood; never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth.”
Most of us are familiar with why the rainbow is so significant in God’s salvation story: “Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth” (Genesis 9:16).
The Covenant with Abraham
It is amazing to me that God, who has everything and needs nothing, pursues a man named Abraham and moves him from a pagan land to a new location. At the age of 75, Abraham is told that he and his descendants would become a great nation. We see this in Genesis 12:1-3: “The Lord had said to Abram, ‘Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”
This covenant is reaffirmed in chapter 15, where God enters into an irreversible relationship with Abraham. Let’s look at this amazing agreement called a covenant a little more closely because it’s really at the heart of the Bible, mentioned almost 300 times. In the Hebrew the phrase “making a covenant” can be translated “to cut a covenant.” John Ortberg defines it this way: “A covenant is a means to establish a binding relationship where none existed before, based on faithfulness to a solemn vow.” The background to this is both gripping and a bit gross.
In response to Abraham’s question, “How can I know?” God tells Abraham to gather a heifer, a goat, and a ram, along with a dove and a young pigeon. Here’s where we see how costly a covenant is. He then cuts the three animals in two and leans the two halves against the walls of a trench he had earlier dug. The blood from the animals pools on the path between the carcasses.
Abraham would have understood from this that God was getting a contract ready for signing. This was their way to “cut a deal.” Typically two parties would take a covenant walk through the blood, symbolizing that if either one broke it, they would end up just like the animals. Jeremiah 34:18 tells us that this was more than just a contract; it was very serious: “The men who have violated my covenant and have not fulfilled the terms of the covenant they made before me, I will treat like the calf they cut in two and then walked between its pieces.”
Abraham may have been waiting to take this walk with God but amazingly God puts him to sleep and a “thick and dreadful darkness came over him” in verse 12. God tells Abraham that hardships are ahead for his people and then when it was dark, “a smoking firepot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces.”
God took the blood walk alone, showing that He signed it for both of them
Let me ask you a question. What part did Abraham have in this covenant? What did he have to do? Nothing; because he was asleep! God took the blood walk alone, showing that He signed it for both of them. The message is clear. God’s covenant with Abraham is based on who God is, not what Abraham is or what Abraham does.
This covenant with Abraham is repeated and passed along to his son Isaac in Genesis 17:19: “Then God said, ‘Yes, but your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you will call him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him.’” We can follow God’s covenant promise from Noah to Abraham to Isaac and then to his son Jacob, who had 12 sons, one of whom is Joseph.
The Covenant with Moses
During the time of Joseph, the Israelites move to Egypt to escape the ravages of a famine. A different Pharaoh comes to power and ends up enslaving the Israelites. After being in bondage for 400 years, the people cry out to the Lord and we hear how God responds in Exodus 2:24-25: “God heard their groaning and he remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob. So God looked on the Israelites and was concerned about them.”
In Exodus 19, God lays out the general terms of a covenant with Moses and the people heartily agree to abide by it. The 10 Commandments are given in chapter 20 and the people express their eagerness to obey. In chapter 24, Moses builds an altar and sacrifices several oxen, sealing the covenant with blood. He then splatters some blood on the altar, reads the covenant to the people and throws some blood on them. The implication is that if they break the covenant then their blood will be shed like the oxen’s.
As you may know from reading the Old Testament, God’s people don’t keep their part of the deal as they continuously break covenant with Him. I love the promise that God makes in Leviticus 26:44-45: “Yet in spite of this, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not reject them or abhor them so as to destroy them completely, breaking my covenant with them. I am the Lord their God. But for their sake I will remember the covenant with their ancestors whom I brought out of Egypt in the sight of the nations to be their God. I am the Lord.’”
As a result of God’s covenant with Noah sinners got another chance to multiply and fill the earth. Through His covenant with Abraham, his descendants became a nation. In God’s covenant with Moses, God’s people were planted in the Promised Land. This set the stage for the establishment of God’s covenant with David.
The Covenant with David
He pursues us even when we’re hiding or when we’re headed as far away from Him as we can
One encouraging truth to hold onto as we see how God establishes and keeps His covenants is that no matter how messed up we are, no matter how sinful and rebellious and stiff-necked we become, God is a covenant-keeper. He pursues us even when we’re hiding or when we’re headed as far away from Him as we can.
Many years later, King David is on the throne and God makes a promise to Him in 2 Samuel 7 that is startling. David is told that after he dies, his throne will continue forever. Listen to these words in verses 12-13: “When your days are over and you rest with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, who will come from your own body, and I will establish his kingdom. He is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.”
After David dies, Solomon’s sins trip him up. If you read through the books of Kings and Chronicles, you see that the covenant promise remains front and center but king after king disobeys and disqualifies himself. Because of this there developed a longing for a king who could fulfill all the conditions of the covenant and sit on David’s throne, where he will rule and reign forever. The problem was that no earthly king could do it.
Psalm 89:3 says it so clearly, “I have made a covenant with my chosen one, I have sworn to David my servant, ‘I will establish your line forever and make your throne firm through all generations.’” This is highlighted in verse 28: “I will maintain my love to him forever, and my covenant with him will never fail. I will establish his line forever, his throne as long as the heavens endure.”
Here’s the cool thing. Isaiah somehow knew that God Himself would enter His own story as the Son of David. We see this in the famous passage found in 9:6-7: “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this.”
The New Covenant
Before we leave the Old Testament, let’s look at the storyline found in Jeremiah 31:31-33: “‘The time is coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,’ declares the Lord. ‘This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time,’ declares the Lord. ‘I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.’”
Isaiah 64:1 captures the longing people have always had for God to enter into our world: “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down…” It’s hard for us to fully comprehend this because we live on this side of Christmas.
The prophets predicted His coming but nothing was happening. Almost 1,000 years had passed since King David ruled and it was four centuries after Malachi’s last message. While some had lost hope, others held on, longing for a visitation from God. Surely God would keep His covenant, wouldn’t He?
As Zechariah looks down at his baby boy named John, he knows that help is on the way. Somehow his son would help prepare the way for the One who is the Way. The long wait is now over! The Benedictus is all about God’s coming to earth. Nearly every phrase in this Christmas Chorus is filled with biblical references, especially from the Prophets. Check out how Zechariah links the coming of his son and the coming of Christ to the whole idea of covenant in Luke 1:72-73 – “To show mercy to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant, the oath he swore to our father Abraham.”
When the angel Gabriel gave God’s message to Mary he called on the covenant with David in Luke 1:31-33: “You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.”
As Mary contemplates all that the angel said to her, she breaks out into song, linking Christmas to the fulfillment of covenant in Luke 1:54-55: “He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, even as he said to our fathers.”
Check out how the opening verse of the Gospel of Matthew links the coming of Christ to the covenant with Abraham and the covenant with David: “A record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ the son of David, the son of Abraham.” David is listed five times in the family tree of Jesus found in Matthew 1. Why is that? Because first and foremost, Jesus Christ is a direct descendant of David and therefore qualified to be the eternal king. In Matthew 22:41, Jesus asked His enemies a question so that they would state clearly what was becoming very evident: “What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?’ ‘The son of David,’ they replied.” Jesus Christ is the supreme sovereign in the line of David.
After Jesus healed someone who was blind and mute, Matthew 12:23 says, “All the people were astonished and said, ‘Could this be the Son of David?’” And, remember what the crowds shouted on Palm Sunday? Matthew 21:9: “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
This new covenant is a new agreement, inaugurated by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This new covenant accomplishes what the old one never could. When Jesus ate the final Passover meal with His closest followers, He referred to the cup and said in Matthew 26:28, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” Luke speaks of the cup as symbolizing, “The new covenant in my blood, which is shed for you” (Luke 22:20). Later, in 1 Corinthians 11:20, Paul quotes the words of Jesus as he gives communion instructions and when mentioning the cup says, “the new covenant in my blood.”
In the Book of Hebrews the entire passage from Jeremiah is quoted in 8:8-12. Jesus is called the “Mediator of the new covenant” in Hebrews 9:15. In Hebrews 7:22 He is called the “guarantee of a better covenant.” It’s better because it does what the old one could not — it removes sin and cleanses the conscience (Hebrews 10:2, 22).
I want to draw out three commitments from a study on the word covenant.
1. Keep the covenant of marriage.
If you are married, you are in a covenant commitment with not only your spouse, but with God Himself. Don’t enter it lightly and don’t break it flippantly. Malachi 2:14: “…Because the Lord is acting as the witness between you and the wife of your youth, because you have broken faith with her, though she is your partner, the wife of your marriage covenant.”
2. Renew your covenant commitment with the Lord.
If you’ve been drifting, it’s time to come back and recommit to the covenant. In 2 Kings 23:2-3 we read that after Josiah heard from the Bible, he made some huge changes: “Then the king called together all the elders of Judah and Jerusalem. He went up to the temple of the Lord with the men of Judah, the people of Jerusalem, the priests and the prophets – all the people from the least to the greatest. He read in their hearing all the words of the Book of the Covenant, which had been found in the temple of the Lord. The king stood by the pillar and renewed the covenant in the presence of the Lord – to follow the Lord and keep his commands, regulations and decrees with all his heart and all his soul, thus confirming the words of the covenant written in this book. Then all the people pledged themselves to the covenant.”
I go back to God’s question of Adam, “Where are you?” Do you need to repent from the way you’ve been living? What kind of recommitment do you need to make?
3. Share the message of Christmas as a minister of the New Covenant.
2 Corinthians 3:6: “He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant.” Every one of us is a minister of the new covenant. With whom will you share that message between now and Christmas? Think about someone that God wants you to invite to our Christmas Eve service. Give the gift of Jesus.
The all-time best gift that has ever been given is Jesus Christ. And, once you open this gift, you will never want to return it, and you will never be the same! The Apostle Paul, when gazing at the gift that was given to him, said in 2 Corinthians 9:15: “Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!” Paul, who was never at a loss for words as one of the best communicators of all time, when pondering the present he had received, could only say, “I can’t describe Him. All I can do is fall on my knees and thank God for His inexpressible gift.”
I close with this Benediction from Hebrews 13:20: “May the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.”