New names for old covenants?

New names for old covenants?

Just yesterday, I preached about the New Covenant. Some church traditions celebrate Covenant Thursday on the day before Good Friday, which would be 09 April this year. I chose to hold our celebration before Palm Sunday, to kick off the Easter season. This way, before the Palm Sunday, Good Friday, and Easter services … we remind ourselves what’s so special about the New Covenant.

If you come from a dispensational tradition, the New Covenant may not be important in your church tradition. It wasn’t a focus in my own seminary training. Instead, Dr. Larry Oats organized his systematic theology lectures around the dispensations. This is fine; Maranatha Seminary is a dispensationalist school. I personally think the biblical covenants are a surer foundation to form a framework for understanding God’s plan.

I decided to tackle the subject in two parts; (1) the roadmap that leads us to the New Covenant, then (2) what’s “new” about this new covenant. This sermon was one of the harder one’s I’ve ever prepared. It’s a sermon based on systematic theology, not a passage. Even worse, it’s a really big area of systematic theology. Perhaps worse still, I’m a very mild dispensationalist who believes in Old Covenant regeneration[1] and that the church is a full participant in the New Covenant, so many dispensationalist resources are of little use to me in this area.  

This brings me to the point of this little article. I believe the names of the biblical covenants are very bad. Useless. They communicate nothing. We should drop them. We should change them. These covenant names are largely theological conventions; not inspired. We don’t have to stick with them. Instead of labeling the covenants by the immediate recipient, we should label them according to their purpose.

Let me explain. I’ll briefly discuss the Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic and New covenants in turn.

The covenant of preservation (Noahic)

God didn’t make a covenant with Noah. He said, “I establish my covenant with you and your offspring after you,” (Gen 9:9). In fact, the covenant was with all living creatures on the earth (Gen 9:9-10). So, if we want to label covenants by immediate recipient, we should call it the “covenant with the world.”

But, even this isn’t good enough.

In this covenant, God promised to preserve the world and His creatures intact. He promised to withhold judgment, even though after the flood He acknowledged “the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth,” (Gen 8:21-22; 9:9-11). This covenant is the basis for common grace and the reason why a people even existed for Jesus to save.[2]

God started over knowing it would end badly (cf. Gen 9-10), and promised to withhold similar judgment indefinitely so His grace and judgment would be known for all time. He did it so Jesus could come one day and save His people from their sins (Mt 1:21).

I suggest we can communicate better with our congregations if we call this the “covenant of preservation.”

The covenant with His people (Abrahamic)

After promising to preserve the world, God then promised to save it through a very special people – the Jewish people. Along with the first, this covenant is the fountainhead for all of God’s promises.

It’s true that God did establish a covenant with Abraham. But, it isn’t really about Abraham. The covenant marks out the Jewish people as His special people. They’re the vehicle that brings forth the Messiah, who will bless all the nations of the earth with His gospel (Gen 12:3). The Jewish people are the ones who will evangelize the world during the Millennium (Zech 8:20-23). This covenant is the basis for Mary’s hope (Lk 1:55), for Zechariah’s hope (Lk 1:72-75), and for God’s grace even as He foretold the failure of the next covenant (Lev 26:42).

This covenant is with Abraham, but it’s not about Abraham. It’s about choosing a special people to be the conduit for divine blessings upon the whole world. This is why we have a Jewish Messiah.

It should be called “the covenant with His people.”

The covenant of holy living (Mosaic)

After choosing His people, God tells them how to live holy lives while they wait for the promises to Abraham to come true. Like an airplane orbiting, waiting for permission to land, God’s people were in a holding pattern waiting for Jesus to come. So, God tells them how to live holy lives while they’re waiting.

This is a conditional covenant; “if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant,” (Ex 19:5). Like an arrangement with a troubled teenage son, it established rules and boundaries. Breaking the laws, in and of themselves, did not get you kicked out of the family but disciplined within it.

This covenant taught people about themselves – they were sinful. It taught people about God – that He is holy and righteous and punishes sin. The ceremonial laws were object lessons to teach us about Christ. The civil laws were general principles of righteousness applied to a specific context. The moral law was a mirror to show us our true nature, a general restraint on sin, and a vehicle for nudging His people towards greater holiness.

This covenant taught God’s people how to live and love Him while they waited for the promises of the previous covenant to come true. Their failure is ours, because we’d do no better. It tells us we’re not good people. It tells us that, even given divine promises with evidence, we still won’t obey. It tells us we need a permanent solution to our criminal nature. We need a divine intervention in our lives to make this happen.

Jesus is the one who came to do this.

Labeling it “the Mosaic covenant” tells Christians nothing. It ought to be called “the covenant of holy living.”

The covenant of the king (Davidic)

While they waited for God’s covenant promises to be fulfilled, God gave His people a king to rule over them. He established a dynastic line through a boy named David. He said a man from this line would rule over His people and be His royal representative on earth.

God promised David He’d subdue all his enemies (1 Chr 17:9-10), but this never happened.  But, Jesus (the “Son of David;” Mt 1:1) will do it (Ps 2, 110). He said He’d establish this dynasty through David (1 Chr 17:10), and this dynasty would last forever (1 Chr 17:11-12). But, the throne sits vacant. Jesus will fill it.

God said this king would be like a son to Him, and He’d be like a father to the king. There would be a familial closeness. Again, David’s throne is vacant and David committed many sins. His descendants were worse. Jesus is the “son of David” (Mt 1:1) who will fulfill this prophesy. Jesus isn’t God’s literal son; the “Father” and “Son” language expresses a closeness of relationship, not physical derivation.

This covenant isn’t about David. It’s about the promise of a good, perfect, eternal king descended from David who will be God’s perfect representative on earth for all eternity. That person is Jesus.

To call this the “Davidic covenant” is misleading. It’s really the “covenant of the king.”

Mile markers on the road to Jesus

In my sermon, I expressed these covenants as four, individual mile markers leading the Bible reader to Jesus of Nazareth. The fifth mile marker is Jesus.

  • preservation: it didn’t solve the sin problem, but instead God preserved the world so He could solve it through His Son
  • His people: God chose the Jewish people to be the vehicle for this new and permanent solution. Jesus is the descendant from Abraham who will bless people from all over the world, make it happen, and form a new family.  
  • holy living: God told His people how to hold the fort, love Him, live holy lives, and maintain relationship with Him through the priests and the sacrificial system until the new solution arrives. They failed; that’s why Jesus came to fulfill the terms of that covenant by being perfect for His people.
  • king: God chose a dynasty to represent Him, love Him, and lead people to do the same. Jesus is that king.

This all leads to Jesus, who enacts a new and better covenant based on better promises (Heb 8:6). These “better promises” are summed up with one word; peace! In the New Covenant, Jesus (1) gives His people a new and better relationship with Him, (2) has a pure covenant membership, and (3) permanently blots out their sins.[3]

For these reasons, while the “new covenant” term is biblical language, perhaps it’s best to call it “the covenant of perfect peace.”

I believe these name changes communicate better. They focus on the covenant’s purpose, rather than the immediate recipient. In this way, the new names mean something. They teach the reader. They tell a story.

The old names … not so much.

Here is the sermon. Note: I made a terrible mistake by moving the camera four feet from it’s normal spot and lost about 75% of the lighting. I moved it back now. Sorry for the poor lighting:


[1] But, then again, so did Rolland McCune (A Systematic Theology of Biblical Christianity, 3 vols. [Detroit: DBTS, 2006-2009], 2: 267-280). Heh, heh …

[2] Robert Letham, Systematic Theology (Wheaton: Crossway, 2019), 442-443.

[3] I am generally following F.F. Bruce here, while re-phrasing the first two points: “This new relationship would involve three things in particular: (a) the implanting of God’s law in their hearts; (b) the knowledge of God as a matter of personal experience; (c) the blotting out of their sins,” (Epistle to the Hebrews, rev. ed.,in NICNT [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990; Kindle ed.], KL 2170 – 2171).

Why They Followed the Law (Pt. 1)

lawThe entire book of Galatians is consumed with the problem of what to do with the Old Covenant law. What does “following the law” have to do with personal salvation through repentance and faith in Jesus Christ?

A large party of Jewish Christians, most of them likely from Jerusalem and former Pharisees, believed you had to follow the Old Covenant law and repent and believe in Christ (Acts 15:1-5). Luke, in a very understated fashion, observes “Paul and Barnabas had no small discussion and debate with them.” The Apostle has little time for this kind of terrible error. He calls this teaching “a different Gospel,” (Gal 1:6). He speaks of the Galatians “deserting Him who called you,” (Gal 1:5). He said this is a perversion of the Gospel of Christ (Gal 1:7).

Did these Pharisees actually understand the message of the Old Covenant scriptures? Why did God’s people follow the law, anyway?

This series of short articles has one simple purpose – to explain what the real impetus was for following God’s law, both then and now. In Galatians, Paul was not arguing against the Old Covenant. He was arguing against the twisted, warped version of the Old Covenant the scribes and Pharisees had been pushing for so long.

Some dispensationalists disagree. In any movement, there is a spectrum. A man might say, “I’m a Republican!” That’s fine and dandy, but what kind of Republican is he? That’s the real question, and we all know it – because there’s always a spectrum, isn’t there? It’s the same with theological systems. Some dispensationalists look at the Bible, and see a very, very sharp discontinuity between the Old and New Covenants. These folks are usually called “classical dispensationalists.”

Their position is still usually close to what C.I. Scofield wrote in his study bible, way back in 1909. In his study notes, Scofield explained the Mosaic law this way (note on Gen 12:1):

The Dispensation of Promise ended when Israel rashly accepted the law (Exodus 19:8). Grace had prepared a deliverer (Moses), provided a sacrifice for the guilty, and by divine power brought them out of bondage (Exodus 19:4) but at Sinai they exchanged grace for law.

Lewis S. Chafer, the ground-breaking theologian and first President of Dallas Theological Seminary, agreed with Scofield. He built on Scofield’s study notes and eventually produced an 8-volume systematic theology text. It’s still used by many students today. I have a copy, and I’ll always treasure Chafer’s discussion of the doctrine of salvation. It’s still the best thing I’ve ever read on the subject. In his text, Chafer echoed Scofield’s comments:

When the Law was proposed, the children of Israel deliberately forsook their position under the grace of God which had been their relationship to God until that day, and placed themselves under the Law.[1]

I disagree with this reading of Exodus 19:1-8, but I won’t get into the reasons here. It’s enough for you to understand that this presupposition, that Israel voluntarily exchanged God’s grace for a system of works righteousness under the Mosaic Law, is a core tenant of classical dispensationalism. They view the Mosaic Law completely different than other Christians do. This is why they’ll often paint the law as a system of works righteousness. Chafer continued:

They were called upon to face a concrete choice between the mercy of God which had followed them, and a new and hopeless covenant of works. They fell from grace. The experience of the nation is true of every individual who falls from grace at the present time. Every blessing from God that has ever been experienced came only from the loving mercy of God; yet with that same blasting self-trust, people turn to a dependence upon their works. It is far more reasonable and honoring to God to fall helpless into His everlasting arms, and to acknowledge that reliance is on His grace alone.[2]

Dispensationalism has gradually edged further to the center in the past 60 years. Most theologians don’t emphasize such a sharp discontinuity between covenants. In other words, don’t expect John MacArthur and Charles Ryrie to sound like this! But, make no mistake, this perspective is still alive and well in some seminary classrooms. It’s even more common in many churches with a dispensationalist framework, because its pastors were likely taught by Chafer’s students.

Be that as it may, many Christians are confused about why Israelites followed the law. I’ll repeat something I mentioned earlier in this article:

In Galatians, Paul was not arguing against the Old Covenant. He was arguing against the twisted, warped version of the Old Covenant the scribes and Pharisees had been pushing for so long.

Classical dispensationalists would vehemently disagree. They’d likely believe Paul was arguing against the Old Covenant. They’d probably think Paul was describing what the Old Covenant taught. I wrote this series of short articles to combat this error, and to set the record straight. If we don’t get this point, we’ll never understand the Old Covenant, we’ll never understand the book of Galatians and we’ll never understand a good bit of the Gospels, either.

Why do people follow God’s law, both then and now? We do it because we love God, and we want to serve Him with our lives. It has always been that way, and it will always be that way.

Let’s look at what Jesus has to say … in the next article.

Notes

[1] Lewis S. Chafer, Systematic Theology, 8 vols. (Dallas, TX: DTS, 1948; reprint, 1976), 4:162.

[2] Ibid, 4:163.

Approaching the Throne of Grace

numUnder the Old Covenant, the covenant community had to stay away from God. He lived in their midst, first in the tabernacle and later in the temple. He dwelt in the inner compartment, the Holy of Holies. Yet, only certain chosen men had very limited and prescribed access to Him:

  • Only the High Priest could enter the Holy of Holies, and then only once per year (Leviticus 16).
  • Only the Levites could enter into the outer compartment to trim the lamps, arrange the bread of the presence, and perform other duties

The rest of the community could not enter at all. In fact, they were commanded to stay away from the tabernacle altogether:

Numbers 18:22 No longer may the Israelites approach the tent of meeting, or else they will bear their sin and die.

Think about this. Under the Old Covenant, God was kept at arms-length. He lived among His chosen people, but could not be approached directly. He made Himself known through intermediaries. Yahweh was personally unapproachable. A believer could not dare to even approach Him in His dwelling-place.

We could draw a whole lot of implications here, but one thing is particularly clear – God is holy, and in our sinful and criminal state, we are not fit to approach Him. Under the temporary arrangements of the Old Covenant, God’s people had to come to Him through intermediaries, expressing their thankfulness, love, repentance and worship through a series of sacrificial offerings, via an ordained priesthood.

Is this the way it was meant to be forever? Being promised certain death if you dared to draw near to God in reverent worship? Being kept at arms-length by God Almighty? Only offering praise, thanksgiving, repentance and worship through an intermediary? Not at all! Today, all who are “partakers of the heavenly calling” (Heb 3:1), who have repented and believed the Gospel, enjoy the blessings of Jesus’ superior ministry, based on a better covenant complete with better promises.

What a change from this dire warning

Numbers 18:22 No longer may the Israelites approach the tent of meeting, or else they will bear their sin and die.

to this glorious exhortation?

Hebrews 4:14-16 Therefore since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest incapable of sympathizing with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in every way just as we are, yet without sin. Therefore let us confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and find grace whenever we need help.

Instead of being warned to stay far away from Yahweh, Christians are now commanded to confidently approach the very throne of grace! Figuratively speaking, Christians are invited to march right up to the heavenly tabernacle, walk right through the first compartment, fling the veil to the Holy of Holies aside, and kneel before the very mercy seat on the ark of the covenant itself. There is no need for a censer of incense to mask yourself from the divine presence. There is no command to “stay back!” Instead, there is a warm invitation to “confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and find grace whenever we need help.”

The New Covenant is better. The New Covenant is what the object lessons of the Old were always pointing to. The New Covenant is ours now, and will be Israel’s later. Perhaps now, this bit from the Book of Hebrews begins to make a little more sense:

Hebrews 10:19-22: Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the fresh and living way that he inaugurated for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God,  let us draw near with a sincere heart in the assurance that faith brings, because we have had our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed in pure water.

If you have repented of your sins and believed the Gospel message, then you will join the angels in heaven as they sing praises to Jesus the Christ. If you continue in criminal rebellion against Him, Jesus will break you with His iron scepter and smash you like a potter’s jar (cf. Ps 2:9). I pray you’ll join God’s family, so you, too, can have access to the throne of grace to find mercy and help in time of need.