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Considering the covenants

May 2016 | by Stanley Jebb

Have you ever become so familiar with a building that, though you pass it many times, you don’t notice it? Some years ago, I was looking for a particular church in a small town. I went into a shop and asked if they could direct me. ‘No. Sorry, we’ve never heard of it’, was their reply.

Walking a few paces away, I suddenly spotted the church on the opposite side of the road, although set well back. It had been there for 150 years or more, but the shop people had never heard of nor noticed it.

How often, in the communion service, have we heard or read the words, ‘This is my blood of the new covenant’? And how much thought, attention or study have we ever given to that phrase ‘the new covenant’?

Theologies

But first, let us consider what we mean by theology. Theology refers to what has been thought or written about God. A systematic theology attempts to present in systematic form the whole range of teaching about God, his works and ways.

Other theologies are written with a more limited aim. So we have Pauline, historical and biblical theology, and so on.

Then, in connection with this article, there is new covenant, covenant and dispensational theology. These last three theologies are all post-Reformation. A brief summary of their respective origins may be helpful.

Covenant theology

Covenant theology was first suggested by Ulrich Zwingli, a Swiss Reformer (1484-1531), as he grappled with the question of infant baptism. He argued that there was only one overarching covenant, of which the various covenants in Scripture were different aspects.

This meant that, just as (male) babies were circumcised in the old covenant, so they should be baptised in the new covenant. The analogy between circumcision and baptism had been employed before, but Zwingli brought in the idea of a covenantal basis. This explanation was further developed by Heinrich Bullinger (1504-75) and John Calvin (1509-64).

Dispensational theology

Dispensationalism teaches that the history of the world is divided into seven periods or dispensations, during each of which God related to man in a different way. J. N. Darby (1800-1882) was the chief architect of this teaching, followed by C. I. Scofield (1843-1921) of Scofield Reference Bible fame.

Dispensationalism is known for strong adherence to premillennialism and for distinguishing God’s programme for Israel from his programme for the church. In recent years, some dispensational scholars have modified the teaching of Darby and Scofield to produce so-called neo-dispensationalism.

Old Testament covenants

But now let us consider some of the covenants of Scripture. In the Old Testament, God made three major covenants with man.

Noah

He made a covenant with Noah, promising never again to destroy the earth with a flood (Genesis 9:8-17). This covenant was universal in its scope and affects all living creatures to this day. Its sign is the rainbow.

It is important to notice two things about the sign. First, it is not the covenant, but points to the covenant as a reminder of God’s promise. Second, it is closely connected with the covenant’s subject. When it rained and the sun shone, the sign would appear.

Abraham

In his covenant with Abraham, God promised him that he would have a multitude of descendants who would inherit the land. The covenant sign was circumcision, which also pointed to, and was connected to the content of, the covenant.

Israel

When Jacob’s family went down into Egypt, they were just that, a family. But, during 430 years in Egypt, they multiplied greatly; so much so, that the Egyptians began to be wary of them (Exodus 1:8-10).

This means there are moral laws outside the decalogue. When the Lord Jesus was asked, ‘Which is the greatest commandment?’ he did not quote one of the Ten Commandments. Instead he cited one from Deuteronomy and one from Leviticus (Matthew 22:37-40; Deuteronomy 6:5; 10:12; Leviticus 19:18).

The Lord made clear that the sign of the Mosaic covenant was the sabbath (Exodus 31:12-17). Notice again, how the sign was connected to God’s promise. Israel had been slaves for over 400 years, and wandered wearily through the wilderness. Now,however, God was going to give them rest in the Promised Land (Deuteronomy 12:9; cf. Psalm 95:7-11). Every time the sabbath was celebrated, they would be reminded how God had given their ancestors rest in the land of Canaan.

The covenant with Noah was universal, that with Abraham racial, and that with Israel national.

New covenant

In Jeremiah, God gives a promise that he will make a new covenant (Jeremiah 31:31-34). This covenant will be ‘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’.

‘New’ surely means new. If a husband promised to buy his wife a new pair of shoes, she would be disappointed if they turned out to be second-hand. But there were other differences expressed in this prophecy. God’s law, instead of being external on tablets of stone, is to be written on the hearts of his people. They will not need priestly intermediaries, but will all know God personally.

Moreover, there will be no more need of continuing sacrifices, for their sins will be forgiven and remembered no more. The first announcement of this new covenant in the New Testament comes from the lips of Christ himself, when he institutes the Lord’s Supper (Luke 22:20; cf. 1 Corinthians 11:25).

He makes the cup, representing his shed blood, the sign of the covenant. It is very obvious that this sign is pointing to the new covenant. There is a marked contrast implied at once between the three Old Testament covenants and the new covenant. In the former, the blood of animals was shed, but now it is the blood of the Son of God (Hebrews 9:12-14).

Apart from his reference to the new covenant in connection with the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians 11, Paul takes up the theme again in 2 Corinthians 3. He refers to himself and his colleagues as ‘ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life’ (v.6).

He refers to the old covenant as ‘the ministry of death, carved in letters on stone’ and a ‘ministry of condemnation’, acknowledging that the old covenant came with glory, but declaring that the ministry of the Spirit, the ministry of righteousness (new covenant) far exceeds it in glory (vv. 7-11). He then states that, when the Israelites read the old covenant, a veil covers their minds, but in Christ the veil is taken away (vv. 12-16).

Better covenant

Paul takes up the theme of the new covenant in Galatians 4. Here he uses Abraham’s wife, Sarah, and her slave, Hagar, as an allegory representing ‘two covenants’ (v.24). Hagar, the slave girl, represents Mount Sinai, the old covenant, but Sarah, the free woman, represents ‘the Jerusalem above’, illustrating freedom from the law.

The most complete teaching on the new covenant is found in Hebrews, spread over several chapters. In chapter 7, Jesus is compared to Melchizedek and declared to be ‘the guarantor of a better covenant’. In chapter 8, he is declared to be the High Priest of a ‘better’ covenant, ‘since it is enacted on better promises. For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion to look for a second’ (vv. 6-7).

The writer then cites the complete section on the new covenant from Jeremiah 31:31-34, and closes the chapter with these telling words, ‘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’ (v.13).

In chapter 9, the worship in the tabernacle is contrasted with the sacrifice of Christ, and his blood with that of the blood of animals, since ‘he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgression committed under the first covenant’ (v.15, cf. vv. 18, 20).

Neglect?

There remains much scope for developing further a balanced, biblical theology of the new covenant — one that is not antinomian and yet highlights the finality, freedom and distinctiveness of the new covenant above all previous God-given covenants.

The question that remains is, why has this surpassing covenant not received more attention and focus in theology?

Stanley Jebb has pastored Baptist churches in Bristol, Porthcawl, Cradley and Dunstable. He has retired from full time ministry and continues to preach, lecture and write.