October 18, 2016.
I apologize for posting this week’s lesson a little late. I was unable to write about it before the class because of some scheduling conflicts. The previous two weeks we talked about seeing God as Creator and then the fall. This week we are moving on to chapter 12 of Genesis that introduces the Abrahamic covenant that will play a crucial role in both Jewish and Christian theology. Before we jump in, however, it may be beneficial to define some terms.
The word ‘covenant’ is not a term that is used heavily in today’s English. Perhaps the most well known circumstance for the word is when we talk about the ‘covenant of marriage’. This is actually a good place to start to begin to understand what the word means. The word for covenant is perhaps close to the English word ‘contract’, but it conveys much more than that. A covenant is an agreement between two or more parties, which forms a relationship among the parties, establishing a personal bond. ‘Contract’ has a impersonal connotation, whereas covenant implies much more of a personal relationship. We see this in the covenant that God made with Abram when he called him out of his father’s land (Gen. 12) to be the father of the people that God would have a bond with, revealing special revelation to them as opposed to the general revelation of His divine nature that was revealed to all other nations (Rom. 1:18-20).
When talking about covenants, sometimes a distinction is made between ‘unilateral’ and ‘bilateral’ covenants. In ‘unilateral’ covenants, the covenant is initiated and fulfilled by one party, with no real conditions for the other party to keep in order for the covenant to be established. You might say that this type of covenant is one of promise. We see an example of this type of covenant in Genesis 8 when God makes a covenant with Noah (and creation itself) after the flood subsides:
“Then Noah built an altar to the Lord and took some of every clean animal and some of every clean bird and offered burnt offerings on the altar. And when the Lord smelled the pleasing aroma, the Lord said in his heart, ‘I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth. Neither will I ever again strike down every living creature as I have done. While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.'”
There are no stipulations on this covenant, the Lord just promises that He will keep it. A bilateral covenant, on the other hand, is one that is much more like a contract. There are obligations to be met by both parties, and is conditional on these obligations. An example of a bilateral covenant in the bible is the Mosaic covenant (the Law), as we see from Deuteronomy 30:
“See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you today, by loving the Lord your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his rules, then you shall live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it. But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them, I declare to you today, that you shall surely perish. You shall not live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to enter and possess. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice and holding fast to him, for he is your life and length of days, that you may dwell in the land that the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them.”
The covenant that God made with the people of Israel at Mt. Sinai in giving the Law clearly had conditions to be met by the Israelites, conditions that were not well kept eventually, leading to captivity and scattering as punishment.
Whereas these delineations can be beneficial, and may indeed play a role in understanding the Abrahamic covenant, I don’t think that every covenant is completely black or which in the sense of it being completely unilateral or bilateral. We will get to this point later.
The Abrahamic Covenant.
There are several well known covenants found throughout scripture, such as the ‘Adamic’ covenant found in Genesis 3:14-10, the ‘Noahic’ covenant in Genesis 9:1-17), the ‘Mosaic’ covenant in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 11, and the ‘Davidic’ covenant found in II Samuel 7:8-16). However, the Abrahamic is arguably one of the most important covenants that God has made with man. There are several reasons for this. To begin, the covenant was one of the first steps in starting the movement that would ultimately reconcile man to God after the fall of man. The covenant is based on a promise by God that Abraham’s offspring would bless all the nations of the world. Thus the covenant, in a sense, extending to all mankind. This covenant also established Abram’s line, through which the Creator would reveal Himself to mankind. Here, the Israelite nation was instituted, though it would be quite some time before they were large enough to be considered an entity. Finally, this covenant is in a sense extended to the Gentiles, as Paul makes the case in Galatians 3, when Jesus goes to the cross to bear the sins of all mankind, making it possible for anyone of faith to be the sons of Abraham.
For the most part, I would say this covenant is unilateral. We see in Genesis 12 that God chooses Abram, with no real implication from the text that this choice was based on merit, to become a great nation that would bless the world. The New Testament indeed sees this covenant as one that was based on promise (Romans 9:6-13, Galatians 3:15-29). Certainly Abraham was expected to, and indeed did have faith (Heb. 11:8-12), and circumcision was given a sign of the covenant (Gen. 17, but for the most part, this was a unilateral covenant in that it was still executed even with the lack of faith or obedience (see Romans 3-5, specifically 5:8).
Though God only has to say it once for the covenant to be established and stand firm, The covenant is reiterated time and again with Abraham (Genesis 12:1-3, 13:14-17, 15:1-21, 17:1-21, 22:15-18) and even throughout the generations of Abraham (see Genesis 24:7, 60, 26:1-5, 27:28-29, 28:1-15, 50:24). I think it’s important to see here that though God is unchanging, we as humans need reminders. We often forget about the promises of God, especially when it seems that none of them are coming to pass. It would take a great number of years for the promise given here to Abraham to come to pass, and even more years for it to find it’s ultimate fulfillment in Jesus. God is faithful. And He also understands our need for reminders. This is just one of the many places that we can see Him reminding His people of the covenant that He has made with them.
The covenant relationship.
As we mentioned in the beginning, a covenant binds the two parties into a personal relationship. When God chose Israel, He made a special relationship with them, revealing truths to them that the gentiles did not receive. There is a lot we can learn from the relationship that God developed with a people to whom He chose to reveal Himself.
Before Abraham, there was no Israel. Actually, before Abraham was called by God, he grew up worshiping other gods. Though this can be inferred from Abram being called by God from a pagan land, we are told this explicitly when Joshua is speaking to all the tribes of Israel in his farewell address:
“Joshua gathered all the tribes of Israel to Shechem and summoned the elders, the heads, the judges, and the officers of Israel. And they presented themselves before God. And Joshua said to all the people, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘Long ago, your fathers lived beyond the Euphrates, Terah, the father of Abraham and of Nahor; and they served other gods. Then I took your father Abraham from beyond the River and led him through all the land of Canaan, and made his offspring many. I gave him Isaac.”
God called Abram out of idolatry, not because of any works that he had done, but because of the covenant that God was going to make with and through Abraham. I see a parallel here to how we were called. This is what Paul writes to the church in Rome:
“For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.”
The price for our sins and our original calling was made when we were still in our sins. Just as Abraham was called out of the worship of other gods into a covenant relationship with the one true God, so are we called out of our sins in to a covenant relationship with Him. This is a key thing that we should remember when we are spreading the good news to the lost. We should not see the world as dirty sinners, but rather just as what we were before we were covered with the blood of the Lamb. In all honesty, we too still sin. There is not much difference between us and the world, save for one key: Jesus Christ. And He died for the world just as much as he died for us. Perhaps we can dwell on the call of Abram to change our own perspective about those who are not yet in a covenant relationship with the one true God.
But perhaps before we even get to that point, we should ask ourselves- do we have a relationship with God? For some Christians, their religion is just an intellectual thing. They believe in Jesus, logically have faith and know to keep the commands, but don’t really have a personal connection to God. God is distant, not really involved in their lives. For others, Christianity is just a box they check. There’s no real depth to their religion or relationship with God. I’m sure we could all fall into some of these categories from time to time, but I think it is important to see the personal relationship that was formed between God and Abraham when this covenant was made. God was with Abraham throughout the rest of his life, and then with his decedents for generations to come. He had a relationship with them like no other nation had, all because of this covenant. We too are in a covenant relationship with God if we are followers of Christ. I implore you to take advantage of the relationship that comes with the covenant. It is truly like nothing else in this world.
The blessing of the covenant.
Finally, I want to talk a little about who was to be blessed in the covenant that God makes with Abraham. Let’s go back to the very beginning:
“Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
So, who was to be blessed? All the families of the earth. Further down the line we see a similar statement when God reaffirms the covenant with Isaac
“Now there was a famine in the land, besides the former famine that was in the days of Abraham. And Isaac went to Gerar to Abimelech king of the Philistines. And the Lord appeared to him and said, “Do not go down to Egypt; dwell in the land of which I shall tell you. Sojourn in this land, and I will be with you and will bless you, for to you and to your offspring I will give all these lands, and I will establish the oath that I swore to Abraham your father. I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and will give to your offspring all these lands. And in your offspring all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws.”
We see that through Abraham’s offspring, all the nations of the earth would be blessed. (Side note: this is also another place where we see the blurring of the line between the ‘unilateral’ and ‘bilateral’ nature of this covenant, as the comment is made “because Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws”). We know from Paul that this was ultimately a prophecy about Jesus, and how He would bless the world through His sacrifice (see Galatians 3). However, I think we should ask the question: Were the Israelites supposed to bless the world by being lights to the world?
Track with me for a minute. There is an interesting section in the book of Romans that is quite difficult to nail down its exact meaning. The section encompasses chapters 9-11 where Paul is discussing the status of physical Israel and his Jewish kinsmen who would not accept Jesus as the Messiah. You get to see into Paul’s heart through these chapters, as he desperately wants them to be saved, to the point where he would even be willing to give up his own soul if that were possible (Rom. 9:3). There is a verse in chapter 10 that we often quote, but I’m not sure we really know the context of the verse:
“ So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.”
That’s a nice verse to put on a coffee mug or something, but there is a larger narrative that it fits into. I could be wrong about this interpretation, but stick with me to see if my thinking makes sense. What ‘hearing’ is Paul talking about? It would seem at first glance that he is talking specifically about the gospel of Christ, but I’m not so sure if that is the full story. Before this verse, Paul is talking about the idea that there is no longer any difference between Jew and Gentile. Then he asks, “how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? (v. 14). Who had never heard? The Jews had had revelation of God since the call of Abraham. Would it not be the Gentiles who had never heard? In the very next verse after 10:17, he says:
“But I ask, have they not heard? Indeed they have, for
“Their voice has gone out to all the earth,
and their words to the ends of the world.”
Who is the ‘they’ that Paul is referencing at the beginning of this verse? Remember, we are in the larger section of 9-11 where Paul is talking about physical Israel in comparison to the gentile nations. Israel had heard the word of God. We have seen here that they were in a covenant relationship with God, which gave them special revelation of God and His character. So who needed to hear? The gentiles. This is backed up with the quotation that Paul pulls from Psalm 19 here in this verse.
“The heavens declare the glory of God,
and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours out speech,
and night to night reveals knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words,
whose voice is not heard.
Their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.”
When Paul asks “have ‘they’ not heard?”, I believe he is referencing the Gentiles, because this Psalm that he quotes from speaks of the heavens declaring the glory of God to all the earth, not just Israel. Further, Israel wouldn’t need the heavens to declare the glory of God, for God Himself had revealed His glory to them. In the next two verses, Paul then turns his attention to Israel:
“But I ask, did Israel not understand? First Moses says,
“I will make you jealous of those who are not a nation;
with a foolish nation I will make you angry.
Then Isaiah is so bold as to say,
“I have been found by those who did not seek me;
I have shown myself to those who did not ask for me.”
(Romans 10: 19-20)
What didn’t Israel understand? Paul quotes from Deuteronomy and Isaiah to show that the plan was always to reconcile the gentiles to God. Yet:
“But of Israel he says, ‘All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people.’”
It would seem that Israel didn’t understand the plan- they didn’t understand their role in being a blessing and a light to the world to point the nations to the one true God (see also Gen 12:1-3, Is. 9:1-2, 56:6-8, Ps. 86:9, Hos. 2:23). They had a mission, but they had failed in that mission. What does that teach us?
I don’t know if this is actually what Paul is trying to say here, but regardless, our mission still remains:
“And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of 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.’”
I do believe that Israel had missed at least part of the point as to why they were called by God to be a special people- a people through whom God would bless the world. What I know is that we have that same mission- to be a light to the world to bring whoever will to Christ. We too are in a covenant relationship with God, even a better covenant than the one made at Mt. Sinai, based on better promises (see Hebrews 8-9), offered to all mankind. How much more of an imperative then that we tell the world of the offer to be reconciled with the Creator of everything? How much more can it be said, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” We truly are blessed in Christ, probably much more than many of us even realize. We would be missing the whole point if we didn’t share this blessing with the world.
In the new covenant, the blessing promised in the Abrahamic covenant has come to complete fruition, and the blessing is offered to any and all who will accept it. Have you taken advantage of the good news?
Suggested Reading: Genesis 12, 15, 17, 22, Galatians 3.
Will you not become a member of the Kingdom today?
1. What do you think about when you hear the term ‘covenant’?
2. To whom was this covenant made?
3. What blessing did it carry with it?
4. Why did God need to remind His people of His promises? Do we need to be reminded today?
5. In what sense is this covenant unilateral/bilateral?
6. How does this relate to how we are called today? (Romans 5:6-11) Does this change our perspective on the lost?
7. The covenant that God made with Abraham came with a sign (Genesis 17). Do we have a sign today? (Col. 2)
8. How does this sign bring us into relationship with Christ?
9. Do you have a relationship with God?
10. Who was to be blessed in the Abrahamic covenant?
11. Were the Israelites supposed to be lights to the world? Romans 10 (Isaiah 42:5-9)
12. What is the new covenant? (Hebrews 8-9) To whom is it offered? (Galatians 3)
13. What should we do? (Matthew 28:18-20)
14. In what ways do we succeed in sharing the gospel, and in what ways do we fail? Why?