Covenant, Part II

As we all know, the whole concept of covenant was so changed or became so obsolete that in most places of the occurrence of the word in the New Testament the word is translated as “testament”, a secondary meaning of the word in any language.  “Testament” is a legal enough arrangement or document, but one in which the Party of the First Part does all the “work” – even to the point of to make the covenant, and the Party of the Second Part doesn’t do a thing except receive and enjoy the benefits of the contract.  So abolished is the covenant idea and arrangement now that not only is the “new covenant” known by the name of “will” or “testament”, but the Old, as well, (which was undeniably a very law-full arrangement, with duties and responsibilities assigned to bother parties) has been given the name “testament”.  (It is entitled to the new term not only because, despite its different nature – law versus grace – it anticipated or prepared for the grace era, but itself was plenty gracious on the score of God even entering contract, including amongst the human responsibilities numerous pictures of forgiveness, and in the fact that God did not inflict the penalties of repeated violations; the “covenant of grace”, let it be said again, began after the fall.  What we call the Old Testament is only one, old, now obsolete dispensation or era in the history of covenant, dispensation or testament of grace.

The clearest indication of the termination of any Abraham covenant today is found in Galatians generally, especially 3:16, where Abraham’s “seed” is said to be Christ, and “covenant” becomes “promise”.  Abandonment or conversion of the word “covenant” finds clear statement in 3:20,26-29, which says that covenant calls for 2 parties and a mediator, but the present arrangement is such that the two parties (and the mediator) have become one!  (Cf John 17:20-24)

That brings us to the question as to what “covenant” – the word and the notion of – (in the “old” covenant) symbolized.  As was already said, the gracious relationship which undeserving Israel enjoyed with God is a picture of the church; “a royal nation, a holy priesthood”, a spiritual “body-politic” without any racial, national, sexual or other distinctions, but all one in Christ Jesus.  To expect any literal, physical future for Israel as a political/religious entity is really as irrelevant as expecting the restoration, say, of the now extinct nations who are mentioned in some of those “millenarian” prophecies, and ignores the numberless places in the New Testament in which the all-nation body of Christ is called the Israel of God, the “Twelve tribes”, the house of David, etc.

On the individual level, covenant in the Old Testament symbolizes the intimate, indissoluble, “one-person” union that we have in Christ, which is symbolized in the New Testament by the picture (type) of marriage.  The Bible has many other types to depict it, such as body, building, flock, tree, etc., but marriage is the most apt metaphor for the simple reason that a Christian couple in themselves constitute a church, a tiny congregation of “2 or 3” who are in Christ; see Ephesians 6.

Notice the parallels; marriage is undeniably a covenant, a contract.  The thing that makes two people legally one is the civil document; where does a divorcing couple go to annul their union?  To the court.  So no one denies that we are in a covenant with God, as regards ourselves and our children (the product of a marriage).  BUT, what happily married person ever thinks of their union as primarily a civil, legal, contractual affair?  What successful marriage was ever built upon a spelled-out arrangement of responsibilities and duties, with consequent benefits and penalties?  If some one says about type-fulfillment that Israel was “married” to God in the Old Testament, the answer is that indeed she was, but only in the legal sense outlined here.  The marriage customs of those days, in which a person could be legally, officially “married” to some one for seven years or longer, the severing of which was “divorce” (cf. Jacob and Jesus’ own parents) and still not be “one flesh” in the sense of living together and establishing a new home and family, was itself a providential “sign” of Israel’s relation to God prior to the coming of the Bridegroom and his union with his bride as symbolized in Jesus’ repeated parables about those ceremonies.  Cf also Jesus’ strange choice of miracle and situation in which to launch his public ministry. (John 2)

Perhaps the reason why “covenant” is exploited as a term and a concept in some Christian traditions is because their conception of both the nature of salvation and of Christian marriage is grossly deficient.  If salvation is little more than the legal, objective, external forgiveness of sins, then the idea of “covenant” fits it quite well – a quid pro quo (as lawyers would put it) arrangement in which justice is satisfied, an inherently guilty person is declared innocent or at least is acquitted on what the court regards as sufficient grounds, etc.  If, however, salvation is nothing less than the creation of a new person (like physical birth) and an eternal, perfect union of the believer with Christ, it is totally inadequate to describe it as a legal arrangement, a mutual “understanding”, a covenant.

In turn, the high divorce rate within the Christian church (as an organization: the Bible indicates it as unthinkable between true members of Christ’s Body) is clear evidence of a low conception of marriage and even lower conception of one’s relationship to God.  The former is indicated, as said, by the fact that Christian couples will go to court to become divorced, contrary to the clear admonition of I Cor. 6:1-11.  (This alone is grounds for church discipline, apart form the divorce itself.  Such couples should be asked, “Why don’t you go, in order to sunder your marriage, to the place and person where your marriage was performed?”)  As regards the latter, in almost every instance of failure of a “Christian” marriage, either one or both is not “married” to God, in Christ.  Both may stoutly claim “church membership”, and their parents may make loud protests about “covenant” membership, but all that is something else.

Next time I’ll address Children (Minors) in Covenant.  

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