Old Testament Text: Hebrews 8.6-13 & Romans 7.7-13 September 3, 2017
New Testament Text: Hebrews 9.13-22
What is a Covenant God?
by Rev. Bill Jennings
Introduction: One of the things that Jesus warns us about in the Sermon on the Mount is against the use of vain repetitions in our prayers, and the ironic part of all this is that this warning comes immediately after the Lord’s Prayer, which we repeat every Sunday, often without even thinking about what those words mean – in other words: a vain repetition.
Now the same thing may happen in the Communion Service which we celebrate every month. We may even know the words by heart. And once we get the words down by heart, we can disengage our minds and start thinking about something else, like, “Did I lock the door of the house, or the car?” Or, “Are we going to get out of here in time to beat the crowd at the Chop House?
So, today, I would like to concentrate on just one of the phrases that Jesus used as part of the words of the Institution of the Last Supper: “This cup is the New Covenant in my blood.” The key words in this phrase are “Covenant” and “my Blood”.
First: The Covenant. What is a covenant? A Covenant is an agreement, a contract, an alliance, a pact between two parties based on a mutual commitment and promises made by both parties to that covenant. The most common covenant we know about is the marriage covenant between husband and wife, founded on their mutual commitment to each other, and on the promises they make to each other.
But also, any contract, such as an insurance contract, a mortgage, even Social Security is a covenant in which two parties agree to commit themselves to each other, making promises to each other.
Now, the Bible tells us that God is a God who frequently made covenants with people. He has done this all down through history, beginning with Adam and Eve. He did it with Noah. He did it with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He did it with Joshua for the conquest of Canaan. He did it with David and Solomon for the establishment of David’s “House” or Dynasty in Jerusalem.
But the the two most important covenants in the Bible, are so big that our entire Bibles are divided up into two parts between them, and they are called the “Old Covenant” or “Old Testament”, and the “New Covenant” or “New Testament”. In a moment we will be talking about the difference between the two. But right now, it is important to emphasize the similarity between the two words, “Covenant” and “Testament” or “Will” (like in “last will and testament”) because in the book of Hebrews, the Greek word rendered as “Covenant” and “Will” is the same, or διαθη’κη [diathe’ke].
But first, why do we find so many covenants in the Bible? Good question! And, the only answer I can give you is that this is simply the way God is! God is by his very nature a Covenant God. God likes to work with people. He loves people, and even when we may not like him, or we try to keep him at arm’s length or ignore him, He keeps on loving us, and pleads with us: “Come to me all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. (Matt. 11.28-30. And, listen to what Paul wrote about him in Ro. 5.7-8!:
“Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
Put that in your computer, this one, here between your ears. Take it home with you, and ask yourself: “What am I going to do with that truth from God’s word?”
God is a people-God. He used to come down to stroll in the Garden of Eden with Adam and Eve in the cool of the day (Gen. 3.8). One hot afternoon, he came to Abraham’s tent in the desert and had pancakes and cheese with him and Sarah (Gen 18.1=8). One time, he wrestled all night long with Jacob (Gen. 32.22-26)!
Then, he came in the person of Jesus to spend 30-some years with us, and in the words of the Message, he “moved into the neighborhood!” (John 1.14, [The Message]):
“The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood. We saw the glory with our own eyes, the one-of-a-kind glory, like Father, like Son, generous inside and out, true from start to finish.”
Now, listen how John described this very same experiences in a later letter he sent to a young church in I John 1.1-4 (also from The Message):
“From the very first day, we were there, taking it all in – we heard it with our own ears, saw it with our own eyes and verified it with our own hands. The Word of Life appeared right before our eyes, we saw it happen! And now we are telling you in most sober prose that what we witnessed was, incredibly this: The infinite Life of God himself took shape before us. We saw it, we heard it, and now we’re telling you so you can experience it along with us, the experience of communion with the Father and his Son Jesus Christ. Our motive for writing is simply this: We want you to enjoy this too. Your joy will double our joy.”
That is not the end of the story, as that same Apostle John shares with us his vision from the Island of Patmos, recorded in Revelation 21.3-4 of the end of all of human history,
at the tag end of the Bible, we read the final conclusion of the Bible, as the Apostle John again expresses it (in The Message):
“Look! Look! God has moved into the neighborhood, making his home with men and women! They’re his people, He’s their God! He’ll wipe every tear from their eyes. Death is gone for good – crying gone – pain gone. All the first order of things is now gone.”
Now, we have to deal with the Old Covenant. In the readings from Hebrews 8 and Romans 7 we heard of the failure of the First Covenant. The problem was that Israel failed to live up to its commitment in obeying the Law. The “Backbone” of the human response to the “Old Covenant” was the Ten Commandments. And failure in trying to obey the Ten Commandments was inevitable! Listen again to Paul as he wrote about the Law and sin in Rom. 7.7-13:
“What shall we say then? Is the Law sin? Certainly not! Indeed I would not have known what sin was except through the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, ‘Do not covet.’ But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of covetous desire. For apart from the law, sin is dead. Once I was alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died. I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death. So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good. Did that which is good bring death to me? By no means! But in order that sin might be recognized as sin, it produced death in me through what was good,, so that through the commandment sin might become utterly sinful.”
And in I Cor. 15.55 Paul adds: “The sting of death is sin and the power of sin is the law.”
Israel (and especially the Pharisees) thought that the purpose of the law was to provide a series of rules and regulations to achieve salvation. It simply did not work. Paul shows us that what the law did was to highlight the tenacity and evil of sin itself.
So the next step is to examine the superior Promises of the New Covenant. Remember that we said that all covenants of the Old Testament included promises? According to Heb. 8.6, the promises of the New Covenant are better than those of the Old Covenant. In the Old Covenant, God promised to Israel, first freedom from slavery. Built into the Ten Commandments was the day of rest from labor. Also, at the foot of Mt. Sinai, the LORD gave Israel the Laws that formed the foundation of a new National Identity. And finally, the LORD gave to Israel the Promised Land, to call their own as his part of the Covenant.
The Superior Promises of the New Covenant were, first of all from now on, God will be their God, and they will be his people so that it will no longer be necessary for a person to know the LORD by coercion, but that they will know Him from the LORD’s own initiative in the heart of the believer. That is what Jesus told Peter in Matt.16 when he asked Peter who he thought Jesus was. Peter answered that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the Living God. Jesus answered, “Blessed are you Simon, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven.”
The next superior promise was that the LORD would totally forgive and forget their sins. In the New Covenant the Holy Spirit convicts of our sins and witnesses to the LORD in our hearts. It may be relatively easy to forgive an offense you have suffered – maybe after some time has passed, but to forget (!) Almost impossible! It costs too much to my pride. If you think it costs us too much for a simple offense, how much do you think it costs for God to look down on his perfect Son in whom He has always been pleased, to suffer hour by hour on the cross?! At the Communion service, we learn how much it costs our Heavenly Father, because Jesus said, “This cup is the New Covenant in my blood which can be also expressed, “This is the New Covenant at the cost of my blood, or activated by my blood. God in Christ established the New Covenant, of infinite forgiveness, but in order to do it, the Testator, Jesus had to die costing him his own life-blood.
Finally, the third superior promise is that the LORD will put his laws in their minds and in their hearts. Why should we honor God’s laws? Paul answers that question in II Cor. 5.14-15:
“For Christ’s love compels us, for we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all that those who live should no longer live for themselves, but for him who died for them and was raised again.”
As the JB Phillips translation has it, “the very spring of our actions is the love of Christ.”
Christ’s love compels us. It constrains us. It is a love that in the words of George Matheson’s great hymn is a “love that will not let me go!”
There is a story behind that. When Matheson was a young seminary student in Scotland, he was engaged to be married when he discovered that he had an incurable disease that would leave him sightless in a matter of months. He confronted his fiancé with this grim news and she decided to break off their engagement. Later, as a pastor in Innelan, Scotland, he tells of his experience in his words:
“[This] hymn was composed in the manse in Inelan [in June of] 1882 when I was 40 years of age. I was alone in the manse and it was the night of my sister’s marriage [in Glasgow]…something happened to me which was known only to myself, and which caused me the most severe mental suffering. The hymn was the fruit of that suffering…I had the impression of having it dictated to me by some inward voice rather than having worked out myself. I am quite sure that the whole work was completed in five minutes and equally sure that it never received from my hand any retouching or correction… [It] came like a dayspring from on high.”
We can only imagine what that “mental suffering” George Matheson was trying to explain, but we know from the hymn that the love that he found in Jesus Christ was a “compelling”, “constraining” love that would not “let him go.”
And that, brothers and sisters, is what it means to have God’s law and love written on you mind and in your heart!
Listen again to Hebrews 9.15-17:
“For this reason Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised inheritance – now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant. In the case of a will, it is necessary to prove the death of the one who made it, because a will is in force only when somebody has died; it never takes effect while the one who made it is living.”
So, as we gather around this table, let us remember that God is a Covenant God, and that He crafted that New Covenant and confirmed that New Covenant with the life-blood of his Son Jesus, forgiving and forgetting our sins and writing his laws and love on our minds and hearts.