Archive for the ‘Covenant’ Category
There’s a lot of material in the Bible on covenant, the vast majority of which focuses on God’s covenants with his people. But there are human relationships in the Bible also described as covenants, such as Abraham and Abimelech (Gen. 21:27, 32), and Jacob and Laban (Gen. 31:44). Importantly, marriages are named as covenants. God explicitly calls human marriage a covenant (Malachi 2:14). God also describes his own covenant with his people as a marriage (Ezek. 16), and this is surely one of the aspects of God’s marriage that is mirrored in our own (Eph. 5:32).
There are some dimensions of God’s covenant with his people that are not mirrored in all human marriages, except in rare cases such as Hosea. But there are still many insights into covenant from biblical theology that we can apply to our own marriage covenants. Here, in no particular order, are twelve reflections on marriage as a covenant:
Architecture. Covenants are relational-structural bonds. As a bond, a covenant establishes a sort of structure or architecture for the relationship. Like the architecture of a house, the covenant is not the purpose of marriage, but reflecting on the covenant can help us to understand the purpose and pattern of marriage. The covenant is sort of the hub or lattice on which all of the pieces of marriage can be arranged.
Complementarity. All covenants are asymmetric or complementary relationships in some way. Complementarity, the differing roles and responsibilities of husband and wife in the dance of marriage, is built into the fabric of covenant. For example, God calls the husband and wife together by the name of the husband (Gen. 5:2), and the first husband named the first wife. God, who establishes the marriage covenant (Matt. 19:6) has different exhortations and requirements for husbands and wives (Eph. 5:22, 25).
Particularity. Covenants are particular and exclusive: God is God and savior to these people; this man cleaves to this woman and no other.
Death. Covenants are not mere contracts that exchange goods and services for mutual benefit. Contracts have their place, but a covenant is a promise and a giving of oneself. Theologians speak of the “self-maledictory oath” in a covenant: covenant promises are a sort of “cross my heart and hope to die.”
Blessing and curse. There are always both blessings and curses attached to a covenant. God calls us to a standard of fidelity and sacrifice, but in this he equally intends to give us great gifts and happiness and joy. In fact, death and sacrifice are the very soil in which happiness and joy flourish.
Adoption. A good picture of a covenant is what happens in adoption: you leave an old world-situation-family and enter into a new one; you become responsible for and to one another. In fact, in marriage, husband and wife do adopt one another as brother and sister in a way (consider the sister-bride in the Song of Solomon).
New creation. Every covenant establishes a new creation, a new order of things. This involves a rejection and separation and death to what came before: what came before was good in its time, but it is no longer adequate for the current situation. Out of this death, every covenant brings a kind of new life or resurrection into a new world-creation.
Union. This new creation involves a new union: union with Jesus in one case, or union with one another in marriage. This is the husband and wife becoming one flesh, leaving and cleaving; it is an incorporation of the other into oneself. Sex is a part of this but it does not exhaust the meaning of it.
Signs. Covenants have covenant signs that mark their establishment and renewal. The old covenants were marked or renewed with rainbow, circumcision, offering, and sacrifice-feast. The new covenant is marked in baptism and renewed in the Lord’s Supper. Our marriage covenants are marked (often) by the exchange of rings, and renewed in sex.
Fellowship. These unions and covenant signs often include meals. The meals are an expression of fellowship, a high point of the entire covenant. Consider that God’s covenants are broken by false eating (Genesis 3, 1 Cor. 10) and in the end are summed up in a feast (Revelation 19). Even the most reluctant of covenants (Jacob and Laban) is an expression of equality through a meal (Gen. 31:54). Likewise there is an experience of equal footing and deep fellowship that we are to enjoy in our marriages.
Administration. Covenants make provision for their administration: they are not private agreements, but public ones. Our marriages are administered by God (Matt. 19:6, Mk. 10:9) through the help of his body that also serves as a witness.
Succession. All covenants make provision for their future and succession. God’s covenants include promises and instruction for future generations. God intends for our own marriage covenants normally to produce worshipers (Mal. 2). We also see that God intends to preserve Christian marriages (Mt. 19:6, Mk. 10:9), and this is not a mere platitude: he will give grace to us to accomplish this.
A marriage which does not constantly crucify its own selfishness and self-sufficiency, which does not “die to itself” that it may point beyond itself, is not a Christian marriage. The real sin of marriage today is not adultery or lack of “adjustment” or “mental cruelty.” It is the idolization of the family itself, the refusal to understand marriage as directed toward the Kingdom of God. This is expressed in the sentiment that one would “do anything” for his family, even steal. The family has here ceased to be for the glory of God; it has ceased to be a sacramental entrance into His presence. It is not the lack of respect for the family, it is the idolization of the family that breaks the modern family so easily, making divorce its almost natural shadow. It is the identification of marriage with happiness and the refusal to accept the cross in it. In a Christian marriage, in fact, three are married; and the united loyalty of the two toward the third, who is God, keeps the two in an active unity with each other as well as with God. Yet it is the presence of God which is the death of the marriage as something only “natural.” It is the cross of Christ that brings the self-sufficiency of nature to its end. But “by the cross joy [and not ‘happiness!’] entered the whole world.” Its presence is thus the real joy of marriage. It is the joyful certitude that the marriage vow, in the perspective of the eternal Kingdom, is not taken “until death parts,” but until death unites us completely. (Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World, 90-91)
In movies and magazines the “icon” of marriage is always a youthful couple. But once, in the light and warmth of an autumn afternoon, this writer saw on the bench of a public square, in a poor Parisian suburb, an old and poor couple. They were sitting hand in hand, in silence, enjoying the pale light, the last warmth of the season. In silence: all words had been said, all passion exhausted, all storms at peace. The whole life was behind—yet all of it was now present, in this silence, in this light, in this warmth, in this silent unity of hands. Present—and ready for eternity, ripe for joy. This to me remains the vision of marriage, of its heavenly beauty. (Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World, 90)
While we have considered several models of Lord’s-day worship such as a tryst or the gathering of a military host, the primary model for corporate worship presented to us in scripture is that of covenant renewal. This is presented to us more by way of model and repetition than by way of explicit instruction, but it is one of those things that you begin to see everywhere once you realize it is there.
God’s people live and worship in covenant with him. Consistently, when God’s people assemble before him, there is a structure to that assembly that we call covenant renewal. This structure is repeated time and time again: in some of the great covenant renewals such as those of Deuteronomy and Ezra-Nehemiah, in the order of sacrifices prescribed for tabernacle and temple worship, and even in the heavenly pattern of worship laid out in Revelation. We see this in much of the language used to describe worship: worship is sacrificial (Rom. 12:1, Heb. 13:15), a drawing near to God (Heb. 4:16, 10:22), a visit to the new Jerusalem (Heb. 12:22), an eating at an altar-table (Mal. 1:7, Heb. 13:10), a going to Jesus (Heb. 13:13), an ascending to be with God (Ps. 24:3) that often symbolically takes place in an upper room (Acts 1:13, 20:8).
The consistent structure of covenant renewal is this:
- God calls his people into his presence
- God’s people respond by consecrating themselves: confessing sin
- God’s people ascend in song to meet with him, he speaks his word to them, and his people give tribute-gifts to him
- God fellowships and feasts with his people by serving them a covenant meal
- God commissions his people to go back into the world as his ambassadors and army
All of these elements are properly aspects of every covenant renewal, and the renewal is really incomplete if they are missing. For example, we ought to bring tithe-tribute to God every time we meet with him (Deut. 16:16). Likewise, to call worship a sacrifice is in fact to identify it essentially as a covenant meal: the one old-covenant offering that is called a sacrifice is the peace offering, which was the one offering that all worshippers were to eat with God in his presence. Similarly, Israel’s worship at Sinai was equated with a feast (Exodus 5:1,3; 10:7,9), and the worship-service of Revelation culminates in a feast (Rev. 19:9).
Thus, weekly communion; because we have weekly worship, and to worship is to renew covenant is to feast.
E. J. Hutchinson analyzes the grammar of Matthew 28:19:
“The nations” are in the accusative: they themselves, and not some group of people from them, are the direct object of the imperative “disciple” or “teach.” Whatever the phrase means, therefore, it is “the nations” themselves, considered as such, that are to be acted upon.
Brad Littlejohn writes the following about the objective existence of the church in history:
The most crucial and insightful work on [the question of church history] to come out of Mercersburg was Philip Schaff’s What is Church History? published in 1846. . . . At the outset, unsurprisingly, he insists on the intimate connection between ecclesiology and Church history:
In proportion, however, as the Church is thus brought into prominent and principal view, her History must also become for theologians an object of attention and inquiry. Church and History altogether, since the introduction of Christianity, are so closely united, that respect and love towards the first, may be said to be essentially the same with a proper sense of what is comprised in the other. The Christian Church is itself the greatest fact in the history of the world, by which the ancient order of life both Jewish and heathen has been overturned, and the way opened for a new course of existence altogether. Almost nothing has since occurred that can be counted great and important, which is not found to stand in nearer or more remote, friendly or hostile, connexion with the Church, and to acquire its true historical significance precisely from this relation. History, on the other hand, is the bearer of the Church; by whose means this last is made to possess a real existence, whereas, under any other form it could be nothing better than a baseless, fantastic abstraction, which for us who are ourselves the product of history, and draw from it all the vigour of our lives, would have no meaning or value whatever. (Schaff, What is Church History? 25-26)
In this quote, Schaff argues that the Church is, by its nature, visible and historical, and comes to maturity in history. Moreover, history, by its nature, is oriented by the Church. Therefore, not only is a proper understanding of Church history essential to any true idea of the nature of the Church, but it is necessary to give meaning to the lives of Christians today. The study of Church history, then, is as important as any area of doctrine, and those who neglect or abuse it endanger the project of Christian theology as a whole.
The inseparable relationship between Church and history follows directly from the Mercersburg view of the visible/invisible church distinction, discussed above. For Nevin and Schaff, the visible, historical Church is inseparable from the invisible, timeless Church—it is indeed its necessary manifestation. There is no concept of a true Church existing in a transcendent realm beyond time and space, of which the Church we see is merely some vague corollary. No, if the Church is to have reality at all, it must be a reality which actualizes itself in space and time. And of course, we will remember that this is so because the Church springs out of the Incarnation, in which God declared that His saving power must be something which was actualized in space and time. But more importantly, the Church must be historical because God has a historical plan for His creation. Creation, Fall, Redemption, Consummation—the whole order of the world’s life flows forward, first as a degeneration toward death and separation from God, then after the Incarnation and Resurrection, as an eternal regeneration towards life and union with God. God has willed neither that the glorification of mankind take place in an instant, nor that man be divorced from time and the world to be clothed with his glorified state. For it is not just man who is to be redeemed; the God-man came for the life of the world, and through His saving power in the Church, the whole world must be transformed into a new creation, to the glory of God the Father. This story of transformation is the story of History, and it is thus through history that the Church becomes the Church and accomplishes her God-given task to disciple the nations.
This idea comes out in Schaff’s fondness for the scriptural image of the Church as the “kingdom of Christ on earth.” Just as any kingdom, it has citizens, it has a history, and it accomplishes its conquests in history, until it completes those conquests and history as we know it shall cease: “The church is in part a pedagogic institution, to train men for heaven, and as such is destined to pass away in its present form, when the salvation shall be completed.” Moreover, the Church is “the continuation of the life and work of Christ upon earth.” Therefore, because it is alive, animated by the life of Christ, “the church is not to be viewed as a thing at once finished and perfect, but as a historical fact, as a human society, subject to the laws of history, to genesis, growth, development. Only the dead is done and stagnant. All created life . . . is essentially motion, process, constant change.” Again, however the distinction between ideal and actual plays a key role in this concept of development: “the church, in its idea, or viewed subjectively in Christ, in whom dwelleth all the fullness of the Godhead bodily, who is the same yesterday, to-day, and for ever, is from the first complete and unchangeable.” However, he says, we must distinguish from the idea of the Church its “actual manifestation on earth; from the objective revelation itself we must discriminate the subjective apprehension and appropriation of it in the mind of humanity at a given time.” This latter is necessarily gradual and progressive; the Church slowly grows to maturity through history. (The Mercersburg Theology and the Quest for Reformed Catholicity, 77-79)
[Jesus] ascended into heaven,
and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty;
from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead. (Apostles’ Creed)
When will this coming of Jesus be? We cannot know for sure, but the Bible gives us some helpful clues.
One clue is a prophecy made by David:
Yahweh says to my Lord:
“Sit at my right hand,
until I make your enemies your footstool.” (Psalm 110:1)
Jesus will remain seated until his enemies become his footstool. This is an ambiguous image—they may become his footstool either in repentance or in judgment. Closely related to this, we have the great commission that Jesus gives to his church:
Go therefore and disciple all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age. (Matthew 28:19-20)
This has echoes of God’s promise to Abraham that “in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed” (Gen. 22:18). This promise was partially fulfilled at times in the Bible. For example, Joseph became a father to Pharaoh (Gen. 45:8) and ministered to “all the earth” (Gen. 41:56). Much later, through Esther, God’s supremacy was proclaimed “in every province and in every city” of a global empire, so that many peoples were converted (Esther 8:17).
There is no reason to doubt that the gospel of Jesus (the greater Ahasuerus) will be successful in accomplishing the great commission, as the church (the greater Esther) offers her own life for the world. God declares that it is too small a thing for him to save few people or nations:
“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
to raise up the tribes of Jacob
and to bring back the preserved of Israel;
I will make you as a light for the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” (Isaiah 49:6)
But so far we have no indication of timing, only of context. In Joseph’s case, the entire world came to Joseph in fourteen years. In Esther’s case, many nations were converted in nine months. God made David’s and Solomon’s enemies to be at peace with them in a matter of decades.
However, the Bible gives us a time-related clue in another one of God’s promises:
Know therefore that Yahweh your God is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations.(Deuteronomy 7:9)
If we take a generation to be 40 years (the time Israel spent in the wilderness, the reign of a king), then God promises to show faithfulness for 40,000 years. There is some elegance to taking this number, because it makes the old covenant, which spanned 4,000 years, to be a tithe of all of history. However, in other places God speaks of plural thousands of generations (Exodus 20:5-6, 34:6-7, Deut. 5:9-10, Jer. 32:18). And in another case when God lays claim to thousands, we take it to be an understatement, not an overstatement:
For every beast of the forest is mine,
the cattle on a thousand hills. (Psalm 50:10)
So it seems that 40,000 years may be a bare minimum.
Perhaps it is not just the earth, but the universe, that God intends for us subdue.
See also: The future of Jesus