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Sometimes we think theology is supposed to answer the questions Who or what is G-d, and how can we have a happy afterlife? That’s actually not all that Biblical. The questions we should be asking if we’re going to do specifically Biblical theology are more along the lines of What has G-d done, what has He promised, and how will those promises be kept?
This is part of the reason Christian theology is so often misunderstood. Take this idea: If you do a lot of good in this life, you can have a happy afterlife! It seems a reasonable enough idea on its face. It shows up in Greek philosophy, but it’s not actually in the Bible.
Or this one: In the Old Testament we have a religion of law and punishment, but that didn’t work out very well, so the New Testament replaces the Old, and now we can have love instead of law, and grace instead of punishment. The Old Testament also talks about G-d’s love, and the New also talks about punishment. And the keyword for understanding what the New Testament does to the old is not replaced, but fulfill; the New Testament’s new covenant is explicitly tied into the covenants of the Old.
Then there’s this: If you accept and follow Jesus as your Lord and savior, you can go to heaven instead of hell when you die. This theology at least does turn up in the New Testament. But there is very little in the New Testament about a disembodied life after death in heaven–maybe two or three sentences. The real emphasis of life-after-death passages in the New Testament is on bodily resurrection.
What then is the Gospel about?
Here’s one of the standard formulas, often used by Protestants: Jesus/Yeshua died for our sins, and if we have faith in him (which includes repentance from sin and following him) we can have our sins forgiven and not fear the just punishment for our sins.
That’s not bad, but one of the more succinct summaries from the New Testament may sound a bit different. Paul states the Gospel in 1 Corinthians 15: “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared” to various witnesses.
Then there’s the shorter formula “Jesus, the crucified and risen Messiah, is Lord,” a summary from N. T. Wright.
But the New Testament must be understood in the context of the Old Testament. The OT covenants are particularly important. The covenant with Abraham leads to the covenant with Moses, which leads to a new covenant. Only in light of these covenants can Christian theology be fully understood.
Abraham and Moses: Two Covenants
Here are some of the key passages on the covenant with Abraham. (My default setting is to quote from the English Standard Version.)
Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:1-3)
And behold, the word of the Lord came to him: “This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir.” And he brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” And he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness. (Genesis 15:4-6)
And the angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven and said, “By myself I have sworn, declares the Lord, because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.” (Genesis 22:15-18)
I do not read these as separate and distinct covenants, although some do. I think it’s the same covenant in all three chapters–the same covenant renewed, reaffirmed, maybe expanded, and definitely elaborated on.
Some major points of the covenant are:
–G-d will give Abraham many descendants;
–G-d will make a great nation of the children of Abraham;
–and through Abraham G-d will bless all the peoples of the world.
Then, of course, we have the Mosaic covenant or the covenant at Sinai. (Again, I do not read different passages on this covenant as presenting distinct covenants, but as re-presenting the same covenant.)
There are many, many passages on this, but two of the major passages are Deuteronomy 11 and Deuteronomy 29. And, of course, the Ten Commandments given in Exodus 20 are really important. And–very important–note that this covenant can be broken by the people’s disobedience.
The Mosaic Covenant in Its Abrahamic Context
One of the key themes of Christian theology, as shown by Paul in Galatians 3, is that the Mosaic covenant was part of an older covenant with Abraham. It was a means to an end (which is not to say that it was only a means).
The Torah confirms that the Mosaic covenant is rooted in the covenant with Abraham. Consider the following passages about what happens in the Exodus:
From Genesis 13: The Lord said to Abram, after Lot had separated from him, “Lift up your eyes and look from the place where you are, northward and southward and eastward and westward, for all the land that you see I will give to you and to your offspring forever. I will make your offspring as the dust of the earth, so that if one can count the dust of the earth, your offspring also can be counted. Arise, walk through the length and the breadth of the land, for I will give it to you.”
From Genesis 15: Then the LORD said to Abram, “Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years. But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. As for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. And they shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.”
From Genesis 50: And Joseph said to his brothers, “I am about to die, but G-d will visit you and bring you up out of this land to the land that he swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.” Then Joseph made the sons of Israel swear, saying, “G-d will surely visit you, and you shall carry up my bones from here.” So Joseph died, being 110 years old. They embalmed him, and he was put in a coffin in Egypt.
From Exodus 3: And he said, “I am the G-d of your father, the G-d of Abraham, the G-d of Isaac, and the G-d of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at G-d. Then the Lord said, “I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the place of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. . . . “Go and gather the elders of Israel together and say to them, ‘The Lord, the G-d of your fathers, the G-d of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob, has appeared to me, saying, “I have observed you and what has been done to you in Egypt,and I promise that I will bring you up out of the affliction of Egypt to the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, a land flowing with milk and honey.” ’ “
From Exodus 6: G-d spoke to Moses and said to him, “I am the Lord. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as G-d Almighty, but by my name the Lord I did not make myself known to them. I also established my covenant with them to give them the land of Canaan, the land in which they lived as sojourners. Moreover, I have heard the groaning of the people of Israel whom the Egyptians hold as slaves, and I have remembered my covenant. Say therefore to the people of Israel, ‘I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from slavery to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great acts of judgment. I will take you to be my people, and I will be your G-d, and you shall know that I am the Lord your G-d, who has brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians. I will bring you into the land that I swore to give to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. I will give it to you for a possession. I am the Lord.’”
From Deuteronomy 29: “You are standing today, all of you, before the Lord your G-d: the heads of your tribes, your elders, and your officers, all the men of Israel, your little ones, your wives, and the sojourner who is in your camp, from the one who chops your wood to the one who draws your water, so that you may enter into the sworn covenant of the Lord your G-d, which the Lord your G-d is making with you today, that he may establish you today as his people, and that he may be your G-d, as he promised you, and as he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. It is not with you alone that I am making this sworn covenant, but with whoever is standing here with us today before the Lord our G-d, and with whoever is not here with us today.”
The repeated theme is that the Exodus from Egypt and the establishment of the people in the land of Canaan are promised as part of the covenant with Abraham. These things are not separate from the Mosaic covenant; they are part of it, or at least part of the process of completing it. G-d says (Ex. 6) that He will by his power and with “great acts” bring the people out of Egypt, making this people His people and establishing them in the land–all in fulfillment of the promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The covenant under Moses (Deut. 29) is “as he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.”
This latter covenant is part of the fulfillment of the earlier. But not the whole. Not yet–not until all the blessings come through Abraham’s seed to all the families of the earth.
A Third Covenant
In Deuteronomy 30, after predicting the Exile, G-d predicts the Return from Exile:
And when all these things come upon you, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before you, and you call them to mind among all the nations where the Lord your G-d has driven you, and return to the Lord your G-d, you and your children, and obey his voice in all that I command you today, with all your heart and with all your soul, then the Lord your G-d will restore your fortunes and have mercy on you, and he will gather you again from all the peoples where the Lord your G-d has scattered you.
G-d also says that the hearts of His people will be circumcised:
And he will make you more prosperous and numerous than your fathers. And the Lord your G-d will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the Lord your G-d with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.
The Return from Exile will be accompanied by a change: Instead of G-d commanding the people to obey and then circumcising their bodies as a sign of the covenant, G-d himself will circumcise them–not by a bodily sign of keeping the covenant, but a spiritual change to the לֵבָב/lebab/mind/heart/will to enable the people to keep the covenant.
The inability of the people to keep the covenant is clear from very early on. Joshua chapters 23-24 reviews the terms of the covenant and has Joshua reminding the people in 24:19 that they will not be able to keep the covenant. We need the heart’s circumcision.
Fast-forward to the later prophets.
Isiah 61:8: For I the Lord love justice; I hate robbery and wrong; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them.
From Jeremiah 31: “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. For 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 sin no more.”
From Ezekiel 36: And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.
Here we learn:
–that the circumcision of the heart involves G-d writing his law on our hearts,
–that it involves G-d’s Spirit living in us
–that it also involves a New Covenant,
–and that this covenant is eternal.
This covenant is thus, and explicitly, “not like the covenant” with Moses.
Note also that the Mosaic covenant can be broken and this one cannot. Indeed, with G-d’s Spirit in us and his law on our hearts, the occasion need not even arise.
Not that it necessarily replaces the old. We can see from Haggai 2:5-6 that the Mosaic covenant is still in place; Haggai ministers at the time of Zerubbabel–after the return from Babylon. In the New Testament, in Acts 6, we are told that it was a slanderous lie that Christians were preaching that Jesus/Yeshua was to destroy the temple and change the customs taught by Moses.
Not that this guarantees that the Mosaic covenant cannot ever be ended; the Torah establishes that it can. But we should be careful concluding that it’s the New Covenant that would do it.
What we can say for sure is that these three covenants are all linked together. The Abrahamic covenant establishes the Mosaic covenant, and the Mosaic covenant establishes the New Covenant. The Mosaic covenant is part of the fulfillment of the Abrahamic, and the New is, in turn, a fulfillment of the Mosaic Covenant’s prophecy from Deuteronomy 30. We could say that the Mosaic Covenant contains the New Covenant and that the Abrahamic Covenant contains them both–bearing in mind that spatial language like this is a bit metaphorical.
The New Covenant in Christian Theology
Christian theology is about these covenants. The New Testament teaches a direct link between the Abrahamic Covenant and the New Covenant.
Paul explains in Galatians and Romans that the Gospel is just the completion of the ancient, former, unconditional, and unbreakable covenant with Abraham.
One of the important questions in New Testament interpretation is whether the Moscaic covenant is canceled or whether it continues for Jews. (I don’t think anyone thinks it applies to Gentiles.) There are reasons to think it may still be in place, including the aforementioned passage in Acts 6, Paul’s practice of Jewish rituals in Acts, his circumcision of Timothy, and his consistent profession of his identity as a Pharisee.
There are reasons to think it might not be in place, including the linkage of this covenant to the land and to the sacrificial system. The New Testament book of Hebrews tells us that the sacrificial system is now obsolete, and the New Testament starting as early as its third chapter is written as a prophecy of the loss of the land (which happened with the Roman military action in A. D. 70).
I can’t promise I won’t sort this stuff out, but . . . don’t hold your breath. (Last time I didn’t even get as far as defining “supersessionism!”)
But one thing that is very clear in the New Testament is the relation of the New Covenant to the old ones. The Gospel is the good news that the New Covenant has begun, a covenant going back through Moses all the way to Abraham. According to the New Testament, Jesus/Yeshua, John, Paul, and Christians today are all part of Genesis 12 and Genesis 15.
And there’s this: Whatever the status of the Mosaic covenant, the Mosaic revelation stands. It finds in the Gospel its fulfillment–using a standard New Testament term for Old Testament revelation in relation to Christ, its being made full. It is not discontinued. It stands at least as long as heaven and earth shall stand.
There’s more to the covenants, of course. There’s the covenant with David. There’s Psalm 2, Psalm 110, and more.
Perhaps . . . another time.Published in