Christ, the Law and the Covenants

Stephen Terry


Commentary for the June 7, 2014 Sabbath School Lesson


“This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the Lord. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the Lord. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” Jeremiah 31:33-34, NIV

When I look up into the sky on a rainy day after the sun has come out, and I see a rainbow, I marvel at the beauty of the separated colors of the spectrum as each suspended rain drop becomes a prism. My high school science education comes into play as I pick out the different colors according to the acronym, Roy G. Biv: Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, and Violet. The Bible tells us that this is the reminder of God’s promise to never again flood the Earth, no matter how evil things become.[i] The Bible calls such a promise a covenant. But is it?

A covenant is similar to a pact between two nations who make certain promises to one another and agree to be held accountable for failure to perform under the terms of the pact. Peace treaties are examples of covenants. When nations, even losers in time of war, are treated with dignity and respect, it is possible to have a meaningful covenant. However, when one party dominates or even coerces another to acquiesce to sign a punitive covenant, as the allies did with Germany after World War I at Versailles, it can assure that the covenant will soon be ignored. In that case it almost guaranteed a return to a state of war as happened when the same nations who signed the treaty ended up at one another’s throats only two decades later. When one party refuses or is unable to hold the other party or parties accountable, there is no working covenant, even though there may have been valid promises.

When we consider the idea of covenants in the Old Testament, an idea that very much influenced the New Testament view due to the prevalence of Judaic perspective on early Christianity, primarily through the book of Hebrews, it may seem strange to portray God in this light. After all, are we the created able to hold the Creator accountable for non-performance under the terms of the various biblical covenants? The idea that we can seems to fly in the face of the modern Christian understanding of God. In many places, the Old Testament does make it seem that our actions can placate an angry deity as with Abel’s offering as opposed to Cain’s.[ii] Yet, this is not a true covenant in the sense of a pact or treaty as it is very much one-sided. God is able to hold man accountable as He did with Cain, yet who is able to call God to account or bring Him to justice regarding perceived infractions? Job tried to plead his case against unfair treatment from God.[iii] God’s response was essentially to tell Job to shut up because he is not God.[iv] All the power is on God’s side; therefore there is no “covenant” that may hold Him accountable.

If mankind is told that a Moabite is not to enter the congregation of Israel for ten generations,[v] but God makes an exception for Ruth,[vi] who is able to challenge it? If God instructs mankind to execute adulterers,[vii] but God chooses to spare David and Bathsheba, again, who can challenge God over the exception? Not only does God grant notable exceptions in these situations, but the progeny of these exceptions ultimately bring us by direct descent to the Messiah, Jesus. This concept may have been so difficult to understand for those who saw the relationship with God as covenantal that Matthew had trouble even writing the name of Bathsheba in Christ’s genealogy, calling her instead the one who “had been Uriah’s wife.”[viii]

I do not write these examples to make the point that God is wrong in any way. Instead the problem seems to be with how we view our relationship to Him. When we cannot understand correctly that relationship, it creates all sorts of dissonances within our faith. Naturally if we see things covenantally, we will begin to feel that our righteous obedience will somehow bind God to perform according to our expectations, in spite of the examples I have just cited. As a result, we are tempted to continue to urge obedience as a holy grail of salvation. Grace may have little practical meaning for some in this camp, others may see it as simply a little extra sugar to add to our works to make up the difference and get us over the hump to be saved. For all of these, chapter nine of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans is problematic. Verses fourteen through sixteen are especially so as they completely negate any idea of expiatory obedience.[ix] Paul even goes so far as to echo the very sentiment presented to Job when he protested the injustice when he had been so faithful, writing, “But who are you, a human being, to talk back to God? “Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’””[x]

Perhaps, we should drop the whole idea of covenant as some sort of a contract, treaty or pact with God, and simply recognize these statements as promises of God with caveats. God is God so he gets to call the shots, even if we erroneously think His promises are in some way linked to our obedience. When we obey moral precepts, it is for our benefit not His. He gains nothing by our righteousness. However, we gain a better world to live in. A world where we don’t have to worry about being murdered, robbed, or even slandered is a much better world than what we have now and therefore worth striving for. Even our churches have those who have been injured by these things. In this sense, there is a moral covenant, not with God, but with our fellow man and too many are not living up to this social contract, and too few who are in breach of this contract are willing to be held accountable by the rest, notwithstanding efforts to do so from a personal level all the way up to immoral actions both nationally and internationally. Perhaps this is because we need to understand better how God deals with these things in order to more effectively deal with them ourselves.

So, how can the promises of God mean anything if He cannot be bound to perform them? They are meaningful because of His nature. That nature is ruled by mercy and compassion.[xi] This mercy and compassion are so integral to God that they overrule even the instructions He has given to us. This is why God made exceptions for Ruth, David and Bathsheba. Perhaps this is why John could so easily say “God is love.”[xii]  Maybe this is why He also is our example in dealing with moral failures to “err on the side of mercy.”[xiii]

Strangely, some, who freely acknowledge their dependence on God’s compassionate nature, can still fail to see the usefulness of that same quality in their natures when dealing with the stumblings of their friends, neighbors, and acquaintances. As I write this, of course, I acknowledge that I am guilty as well, for we all are sinners,[xiv] and I stand just as much in need of compassion and grace from my fellow man as they do of me.

The same grace that God extended to Ruth, David and Bathsheba, He extends to us. The same exceptions He granted them He grants to us each day, even when we are unaware of it, without regard to any worthiness on our part.[xv] Even if we act poorly to one another and to Him, He extends grace to us, so much grace that Jesus died to show us how far such grace could go.[xvi]

We might be tempted to ask, “If His grace abounds even when I am disobedient, then why should I be obedient?”[xvii] However, it is not a matter of obedience. It is a matter of grace. Because God extends His compassionate grace toward me, I should desire to do likewise toward others[xviii] in gratitude for what he has done for me. Jesus even went so far as to explain this in a parable about debt[xix] as a metaphor for the debt we owe God for His compassion toward us.

Some may justify their hard judgment of others by feeling that they are forgiving for sins against them but they are zealous for sins against God. Yet, every sin is against God, and we are not God’s keepers of that record of wrongs. Salvation is of God. Nonetheless, we sometimes act as though others need to confess to us or they cannot be saved. But all judgment has been given to Jesus, not to us.[xx] Perhaps this is because with our sinful natures, we find it difficult to extend Godlike grace to others. However, He knows that Jesus will judge others with perfect compassion and grace. How wonderful it is that our salvation is in the hands of such a loving, compassionate Savior and not in the hands of others like ourselves.

[i] Genesis 9:12-17

[ii] Genesis 4:1-16

[iii] Job 31

[iv] Job 38-40:2

[v] Deuteronomy 23:3

[vi] Ruth 1:22

[vii] Leviticus 20:10

[viii] Matthew 1:6

[ix] Romans 9:14-16

[x] Romans 9:20

[xi] Exodus 33:19

[xii] 1 John 4:8

[xiii] White, Ellen G., “Testimonies for the Church,” 1948, Pacific Press Publishing, Volume 4, page 63.

[xiv] Romans 3:10

[xv] Matthew 5:44-45

[xvi] Romans 5:10

[xvii] Romans 6:1

[xviii] Matthew 5:48

[xix] Matthew 18:23-35

[xx] John 5:22



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