“God is a covenant God” is a saying I’ve heard from time to time. “God keeps His promises” is another. There is a song by Shannon Wexelberg that I like titled, “All Your Promises Are True”. I liked it so much I purchased the CD, in fact.
The question I have is: Do you believe these statements? Do you really believe that God is a covenant God? One Who keeps all of His promises?
We traditionally think of only two covenants in the Bible, but God made a few covenants throughout time. When we say the Old Covenant is obsolete, which covenant are we referring to? Are there portions in Scripture that are unconditional? More importantly, is the OT Law bound up with the Old Covenant, or did the Law already exist?
That’s an important question. It radically determines how you interpret the Bible. Some of God’s covenants were indeed conditional. If you did thus-and-such, then God would respond in a certain manner. Some covenants, though, were unconditional. God simply said He would do it.
Take the nation of Israel. What we traditionally refer to as the “Old Covenant” was a system of do’s and don’ts to be followed by a nation God had rescued from slavery. If Israel obeyed God’s commands, then God would bless them like no other nation on earth. If Israel disobeyed, the penalties were just as severe as the blessings. They would be slaughtered by their enemies in wars, their cities sieged until people starved to death and eventually (perhaps the lucky ones) would be taken captive and carted away to a foreign land. This covenant was conditional.
However, take the case of Noah. After the Flood, God made an unconditional covenant.
8And God spake unto Noah, and to his sons with him, saying,
9And I, behold, I establish my covenant with you, and with your seed after you;
10And with every living creature that is with you, of the fowl, of the cattle, and of every beast of the earth with you; from all that go out of the ark, to every beast of the earth.
11And I will establish my covenant with you, neither shall all flesh be cut off any more by the waters of a flood; neither shall there any more be a flood to destroy the earth.
12And God said, This is the token of the covenant which I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for perpetual generations:
Notice there is nothing for Noah or his sons to do in this covenant. God simply says “I will” without any conditions.
What of the Abrahamic covenant? Was it conditional or unconditional? Careful now! You need to recall that God made several promises to Abraham over a course of time, expanding upon them each time.
1Now the LORD had said unto Abram, Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto a land that I will shew thee:
2And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing:
This sounds to me like a conditional covenant. There is the command, then there is the “and I will” part. Even though there is no explicit “if”, it is heavily implied that were Abram not to leave then there would be no blessings.
However, what follows is interesting.
There seems to be no “if” clause here! God simply states what He will do. The reason, of course, is that Abram already fulfilled his part of the previous bargain by leaving Ur and going to Canaan. Here, God is reinforcing His promise that He must perform because Abram already did his part. However, Abram continued to obey God and have faith in God, and that led to much greater promises.
After a number of years, Lot’s and Abram’s livestock herds grow so large that their workers squabbled over the land. So, they separate. Afterwards, God again repeats His end of the bargain but adds another detail.
14And the LORD said unto Abram, after that Lot was separated from him, Lift up now thine eyes, and look from the place where thou art northward, and southward, and eastward, and westward:
15For all the land which thou seest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed for ever.
16And I will make thy seed as the dust of the earth: so that if a man can number the dust of the earth, then shall thy seed also be numbered.
Now we see the added promise of a huge number of descendants. Not only would his descendants inherit the land, but they would be numerous. In addition, we see that the boundaries were literally as far as the eye could see.
That last point about boundaries is particularly interesting, as it could be taken to be literally the entire earth at some point. There really is so much that could be said about that if space permitted, but for now just read Romans 4:13 and 11:16-24.
We now come to a signficant point in Abram’s life.
5And he brought him forth abroad, and said, Look now toward heaven, and tell the stars, if thou be able to number them: and he said unto him, So shall thy seed be.
6And he believed in the LORD; and he counted it to him for righteousness.
This well known verse points to the fact that Abraham not only was obedient, but Abraham was faithful. He became known as the “Father of the Faithful” because of this passage.
This is the beginning of where people get tripped up. Abraham was already obedient. He proved that by moving out of the land of Ur. He proved that by building altars to YHWH and worshipping only Him. What does God say about his obedience?
18Seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him?
19For I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the LORD, to do justice and judgment; that the LORD may bring upon Abraham that which he hath spoken of him. (Genesis 18:18-19, King James Version)
God Himself nailed it down even further when addressing Isaac after a famine struck Canaan:
3Sojourn in this land, and I will be with thee, and will bless thee; for unto thee, and unto thy seed, I will give all these countries, and I will perform the oath which I sware unto Abraham thy father;
4And I will make thy seed to multiply as the stars of heaven, and will give unto thy seed all these countries; and in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed;
Obviously, God’s Law and more already existed prior to the time of Moses! Abraham was already obedient. Abraham already obeyed God. However, Abraham took it one step further by believing God.
And, it is a sad fact that what people call “faith” today really isn’t. It is mere belief. Sure, people believe in God. People believe on Jesus. However, most of them don’t believe Jesus! Again, it is like the letters are red in some Bibles so you conveniently know which ones to ignore.
Belief in God or belief on Jesus isn’t enough! You must believe God, and you must believe Jesus!
However, living faith goes even beyond that. You must be like Abraham and believe God and trust in Him wholeheartedly.
Yet, even Abraham was human. He asked, “How shall I know I shall inherit it?” God’s answer is interesting.
9And he said unto him, Take me an heifer of three years old, and a she goat of three years old, and a ram of three years old, and a turtledove, and a young pigeon.
This is a reflection of an ancient tradition where animals would be split apart and placed on either side of a pathway. The parties to a covenant would then walk up and down the pathway committing to the contract. In effect, they were saying to one another that if either side breaks the agreement, then may they be torn in half as these animals were.
However, something even more interesting happens.
Only God goes up and down the pathway! Abraham does not! This, then, is another example of the unconditional covenant that God had with Abraham.
God bestowed great blessings upon Abraham. As a result of Abraham’s obedience and faith, his descendants were also richly blessed by God. It was unconditional.
Now, I see a problem. If the covenant, commonly called the “Old Covenant”, with Israel was made obsolete, then what about the covenants made with Noah and Abraham? Are they now obsolete? Of course not!
And, yet, in effect, what many are truly saying is that the Law, which existed at the time of Noah and Abraham, must also be done away with because the Old Covenant is obsolete. Yet, the Bible itself calls Noah “a just man and perfect” (Ge 6:9). God Himself called Noah “righteous” (7:1). How could Noah be “right” unless there was a standard of right and wrong?
And, this really gets to the heart of the matter, doesn’t it? What is right? What is wrong? Where does the Bible spell it out? Why, in the Law! That is exactly what the Law does: It teaches us right from wrong!
How do we know what is right and wrong in our particular society today? We refer to the law, don’t we? In most societies, the law is written down. In that sense, God’s Law is no different. It spells out right and wrong. It even incorporates a lot of case law showing how the law is to be applied.
Of course, there is one major difference. Man’s laws are written by men. God’s Law is written by God.
It was disobedience to God that got Adam and Eve kicked out of the Garden of Eden in the first place. Unfortunately, mankind has been determined to make the same mistake ever since. Israel was split into two nations because of disobedience of the king. Eventually, both nations went into captivity because of their continued disobedience.
The Old Covenant was replaced by the New Covenant. However, covenants existed prior to Mt Sinai. God blessed righteous people before Mt Sinai. They could not have been righteous unless they were “right” rather than wrong, and you cannot be upright unless there is a standard.
One of the definitions of sin is transgression against the Law (1Jn 3:4). No Law, no sin (cf Ro 5:13). That’s why you cannot repent if there is no Law. If there is no law to break, then you cannot be a criminal. It really is that simple, folks.
I’ve already pointed out examples of how the holy days and especially the Sabbath existed since creation. Adam and Eve were married. Do you think adultery was OK up until Mt Sinai? Of course not! Notice what Joseph told Potiphar’s wife when she wanted to sleep with him:
9There is none greater in this house than I; neither hath he kept back any thing from me but thee, because thou art his wife: how then can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God? (Genesis 39:9, King James Version)
No law = no sin! Therefore, the only logical conclusion we can come to is that Joseph knew God’s Law. Therefore, God’s Law existed before Mt Sinai.
Getting back to the unjust manager and unjust supervisor, what sort of leaders change their minds about the rules all the time? Just leaders? Principled leaders? Fair leaders? No way!
Why do people then seem so willing to believe that God would institute such an unfair and unjust system that in effect punishes those who really did try to obey Him throughout the history of Israel? Well, for starters, He didn’t. Even in OT times, God granted some few the faith and forgiveness to be able to carry them into the first resurrection, and we see more than a handful of examples in the Bible of this.
However, it cannot be a “welcome Jesus into your heart” form of faith. It must be real, life changing faith. It must be a faith that says, “I will obey You, God, no matter what everyone else does.” It must be a faith that doesn’t follow society, the media or popular opinion for its standards. It must be one that looks to the pages of the Bible instead.
God gave a few covenants in the pages of the Bible. Some were conditional. The “Old Covenant” given to Israel was indeed a conditional covenant that Israel broke time and time again.
However, there were some unconditional ones given as well. They were unconditional because God trusted those individuals to carry out His will already. They had already proven themselves. They had proven they were willing to obey Him no matter the cost.
They were deemed righteous. How? Because they did their best to please God. That included keeping His moral Law which had always existed. It included the Sabbath and holy days. However, since all fall short, then the only way they could be justified was an anticipation of a coming Messiah. They had to trust God to cover their failings.
Allowing and trusting God to cover our failings is a long way from saying that the Law has been done away. If there is no Law, there is no need for repentance. If there is no need for repentance, then there is no need for a Savior. Period.