In part 1 we began to look at the sort of kingdom Jesus brought.
Rather, Jesus came not to build an earthly Jewish kingdom now or later, but always and only his intention was to redeem all his people by his death on the cross, and to rule the nations with a rod of iron in his ascension until his return in judgment.
It is my contention that God’s chief purpose in history has been to glorify himself through the redemption of a people in all times, places and out of all races, which grace he has administered since the fall, in history in a visible, institutional church, under Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David and now Christ. Therefore, the premise that God’s intent has been to establish a permanent or millennial, national, Jewish people has it exactly backward. Our Dispensationalist brothers confuse what is temporary with what is permanent, and what is permanent with what is temporary.
It is the teaching of God’s Word that Jesus is the true Israel of God, that his incarnation, obedience, death and resurrection was not a by-product of Israel’s rejection of the offer of an earthly kingdom, but the fulfillment of God’s plan from all eternity. This is what Jesus told the disciples on the road to Emmaus. One of them said, “we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.” In response our Lord said,
“How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself (Luke 24:25–7).
The Apostle Paul summarized this same teaching when he told the Corinthians that ” For no matter how many promises God has made, they are “Yes” in Christ” (2 Cor 1:20).
We cannot understand what God is doing in history apart from understanding one of the most important terms in Scripture: covenant. This is a very frequent word in the Bible (294 times). Covenant describes the way God relates to creatures. It is a mutually binding oath in which there are stipulations, blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience as well as signs and seals of the oath.
Law and Gospel: Covenants of Works and Grace
God made the first covenant in human history, a covenant of works with the first man in the garden. The promised blessing for covenant keeping was that Adam and all humanity would enter into glory (“eat…and live forever,” Gen 3.22); the threatened curse for covenant breaking was death (“you shall surely die,” Gen. 2:17). The stipulation of the covenant was that Adam should refrain from eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen 2:17). The signs of the covenant were the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and the tree of life (Gen 2:9).
As you know, Adam failed that test, and Paul says that “sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned” (Romans 5:12). So we are all now born under this covenant of works.
The second covenant in human history was also made by our God with our father Adam. This covenant, however, was not a law-covenant; rather it was a gospel covenant. In the covenant of grace, God promised on oath a coming Savior (“seed of the woman”) who would crush the head of the seed of the serpent when the serpent struck his heel (Gen. 3:14–16). The blessing of this covenant is eternal life (the tree of life) and the curse for covenant breaking remains death. The Gospel of this covenant is that there is a Savior who will keep the terms of the covenant of works and sinners will benefit from it.
There are four things to be said about conditions relative to the covenant of grace.
- Relative to the cause of our justification, the covenant of grace is unconditional. God does not accept sinners for any other reason than that he graciously imputes to them Christ’s justice.
- Relative to the instrument of our justification, saving faith, itself God’s gift (Eph 2:8–10), is the sole, passive (receiving) Christward-looking instrument or condition of the covenant. This is what the Protestant Reformers meant by sola fide.
- Relative to the administration of the covenant of grace, there can be said to be instruments, i.e., the means of grace by which God ordinarily raises sinners from death to life, namely the preaching of the Holy Gospel, and those means of grace by which he confirms his promises and strengthens our faith: the holy sacraments.
- As a consequence of God’s grace to us believers gratefully accept certain consequent conditions, not in order to be accepted with God and not to remain in his favor but because we have received his favor for Christ’s sake alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. Christian obedience is neither ground nor instrument of our justice before God, but the fruit and demonstration of Christ’s work for us and in us.
In the history of salvation, this same Gospel covenant which God made with Adam was renewed with Abraham, but the promise was re-stated, “I will be your God, and to your children.” The sign in Genesis 15 was the cutting of animals and the stipulation remained faith. For this reason Scripture says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness” (Gen 15:6).
In Gen 17:10–14, circumcision became the sign of initiation into the covenant of grace. The covenant and the sign are so closely identified that the Lord calls the sign of circumcision, “My covenant.”
The covenant of works did not simply disappear in the history of salvation. Rather, the covenant of works is repeated throughout the Scriptures, every time the Law is read and God demands perfect righteousness from sinners, e.g., “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law” (Gal 3:10). When Jesus said to the rich young ruler, “do this and live” (Luke 10:28) he was repeating the covenant of works.
Likewise, the covenant of grace is repeated throughout the history of redemption, whenever God says, “I will be your God, you will be my people” he is repeating the promise he made to Adam. He repeated this gospel promise to Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, Moses and finally fulfilled it in Christ and then repeats it to us through the Apostles, as in Acts 2:39.
These two covenants unify all of Scripture. All humans are born dead in sins and trespasses and all those who are saved are in the covenant of grace.
The Old (Mosaic) Covenant
Many Bible believers assume that every event which occurred in the history of salvation before the incarnation and death of Christ belongs to the Old Testament and many of them assume that since the incarnation, the Old Covenant Scriptures do not speak or apply to Christians. Indeed, some Dispensationalists even consider that some books in the NT do not apply to Christians today, because they were intended for those who are ethnically Jewish. Only a few years ago, I heard a Dispensationalist pastor say at Christmas, “The problem with the Gospels is that the Gospel is not in the Gospels. ”
The Scriptures themselves, however, refute such notions. The Apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 3:12–18 defines the “Old Covenant” as Moses, i.e., broadly the books of Moses and most particularly the Mosaic laws (vv.14–15). In Hebrews 7:22, Jesus is the guarantee of a better covenant than that which was given to the Israelites. In 8.6–13 in contrasting the New Covenant with the Old, restricts the Old Covenant to the Mosaic epoch of salvation history. He makes the same distinction in 9:15–20 also. Thus, speaking strictly, the Old Covenant describes the covenant which God made with Israel at Sinai. Therefore, not everything which occurred in the history of salvation, before the incarnation, belongs to the Old Covenant. This is important, because the Old Covenant is described in the New Testament as “inferior” (Hebrews 8:7), “obsolete,” “aging” (8:13) and its glory “fading.”
In this connection, the other important fact to note about the Old Covenant is that it was intentionally temporary and typical. Colossians 2:17 describes the Mosaic (Old Covenant) ceremonial laws as a “shadow” of things to come. Hebrews 8:5 describes the earthly Temple as a “type and shadow” of the heavenly temple. The Mosaic Law itself, was only a “shadow” of the fulfillment which came with Christ.
Next time: The New Covenant.