THE TWO COVENANTS:
THE OLD COVENANT OF THE LAW
THE NEW COVENANT OF GRACE
In the beginning God created the most perfect Garden in which lived two loving, unblemished creatures. “He [God] walked in the garden in the cool of the day with them” and conversed with them (Genesis 3:8). Life was serene, peaceful, uncomplicated. There was only one requirement for this scenario to continue forever: the man and woman must do as God said. He had made His desires clearly known to them. It was all so simple. But in the garden was an interloper, one who was “more subtle and crafty than any living creature of the field” (Genesis 3:1). All he needed to do was let one little lie enter the man and woman’s hearts. The lie went rather like this: “hath God said, hath God really said they couldn’t eat that one little thing?”. What difference would one little piece of fruit make? Think of the benefits: they could have the same wisdom as God, be on His level, be like God. But it didn’t work out the way they planned, did it? When they traded God’s wisdom and holiness for their own, look what they got instead – separation from the One they loved, their Creator! And they got shame! Now they had to cover that shame with inadequate fig leaves and sadly, horribly, God showed them that inanimate fig leaves would not do. A blood offering would be required – something once alive, now bleeding and dead was the only acceptable offering. So it began – man rebelling and then God forgiving and providing another chance. Even sending a flood did not suffice. So God began again with a man named Abraham. In His mercy and love, even before Jesus came, there was a foretaste of a covenant based on faith and grace.
The Call of Abram
The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.
“I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you;
I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing.
God repeatedly mentions this Covenant in Genesis 13:14-17; and in chapters 15, 17, 18, 21:12; 22:16-19. God would give Abraham the land of Palestine and a legacy more numerous than the grains of sand on the seashore.
Most importantly, He promised him a son, Isaac. Through that son another Son would come (yes, that “S” is capitalized) from Whom all blessings would flow. See Luke chapter 3 for the genealogical link between Abraham, his son, Isaac, and Jesus, the Son of God. Abraham believed God and it was counted unto him for righteousness.
It sounds so simple in black and white print, doesn’t it? We think we’ve heard it all before. “Just believe, have faith.” Yet why is it so hard to do? Is there something we’re missing? Maybe not something but Someone.
Bear with me as I introduce you to a study you may not be that familiar with. It’s called “cutting the covenant” and it refers to the phenomenal covenant of total grace that the Lord made with Abraham and his descendants – and that means you and me. Read it and open your heart and spirit to the incredible surety we have in Christ in a way you might never have realized before. As you begin to read, two of the verses you can begin to store in your heart are ones you have heard many times
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.
– Ephesians 2:8-9 NKJV
So often in our good-intentioned zeal for God we will read how-to books to learn how to have a closer walk with Him. We’ll try the methods listed. They seem to work for a little while but eventually we are disappointed once again. We failed. Just as God knew we would. And that is why He gave us the New Covenant.
In the Old Covenant there were two parties – man who would always fail to totally obey – and God. In the New Covenant there are two parties also – God and God, neither of Whom can ever fail. Yes, I typed that right. I want you to read this next section very carefully because your spiritual peace hinges upon it. The entire remainder of the lessons to follow will be explanations of one Scripture after another so that you will feel you are on solid ground. These will not be my thoughts; these lessons will be the building blocks of Scripture.
For no other foundation can any one lay than that which is already laid, which is Jesus Christ, the Messiah, the Anointed One.
CUTTING A COVENANT
The Lord told him[Abram], “Bring me a three-year-old heifer, a three-year-old female goat, a three-year-old ram, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” So Abram presented all these to him and killed them. Then he cut each animal down the middle and laid the halves side by side; he did not, however, cut the birds in half. Some vultures swooped down to eat the carcasses, but Abram chased them away.
As the sun was going down, Abram fell into a deep sleep, and a terrifying darkness*came down over him. Then the Lord said to Abram, “You can be sure that your descendants will be strangers in a foreign land, where they will be oppressed as slaves for 400 years. But I will punish the nation that enslaves them, and in the end they will come away with great wealth. (As for you, you will die in peace and be buried at a ripe old age.) After four generations your descendants will return here to this land, for the sins of the Amorites do not yet warrant their destruction.” After the sun went down and darkness fell, Abram saw a smoking firepot and a flaming torch pass between the halves of the carcasses. So the Lord made a covenant with Abram that day…
– Genesis 15:9-18
*Matthew Poole’s Commentary in 1 Kings 8:12 interprets this terrifying darkness as a token of God’s special presence describing what took place at the building of the temple:
So the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud, for the glory of the Lord had filled the Lord’s house. Then Solomon said, The Lord said that He would dwell in the thick darkness.
– 1 Kings 8:11-12
To understand the enormous significance of the covenant that God made with Abraham, we need to look closer at this covenant and its meaning. Read slowly. This is something to savor. Remember also how often throughout the Bible the Lord is called the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. For those of you who like to do “extra credit” read Galatians 3 for a fuller explanation of how we are the descendants of Abraham.
Unger’s Bible Dictionary states: “The word “covenant” means cutting and is a term applied to various transactions between God and man and man and his fellow-man”…Covenants were concluded with an oath”. For instance, there was God’s promise to Abraham: “God took an oath in His own name, since there was no one greater to swear by, that He would bless Abraham again and again, and give him a son and make him the father of a great nation of people.”(Hebrews 6:13) And, after an ancient custom, a covenant between men was confirmed by slaughtering and cutting an animal into two halves, between which the parties passed, to indicate that if either of the men broke the covenant what would happen to him would be the same as what happened to the slain and divided animal of sacrifice – [the man] would die.
In the covenant that God made with Abraham we notice that a “smoking firepot with torch appeared and passed between the pieces.” (v.17) What significance do these objects have?
This “smoking firepot and flaming torch” represented Yahweh HIMSELF passing between the halves of the victims and so concluding the covenant. [God] appeared in the burning bush (Exodus 3: 2-6) and on Mount Sinai in a consuming fire (Ex 19:18) and throughout the time of the wilderness wanderings in a pillar of fire (Ex 13:21), and now appears [to Abraham] as a fire. (Barnes: Commentary Gen. 15:17).
And so, the question must be asked – who were the two parties who passed through the cut animals when God made the covenant with Abraham? A careful reading of the verses will show that Abraham did not pass through the animals at all. Abraham was in a deep sleep and off to the side. Some commentaries liken this deep sleep to the one God placed Adam into when He created Eve.
In Joni Eareckson Tada’s book When God Weeps: Why Our Sufferings Matter to the Almighty this powerful explanation is given:
The sun is setting. A blackness thicker than night settles upon [Abraham] and a deep dread. It is God come close. This time the Lord repeats His promise with words more solemn than before. Still, they are only words. But look! A little stove appears. A burning torch rises from inside the stove. Abraham shudders – he senses that God is inside the stove and torch. The Lord is about to “cut a covenant.” Having promised Abraham something, He will now bind Himself to it with chains that cannot snap. The stove and torch rise by themselves and move toward the carcasses. Abraham cannot believe what he sees. The Dreadful One, so great that He has never even told Abraham His name, passes between the bloody pieces. He is speaking by His actions. “If I fail to keep My word to you and your descendants,” He is saying, I will make Myself like these animals – I will saw Myself in two.” (Eareckson and Estes, Page 42)
The Bible uses a word “Selah” which means “pause, and calmly think on that.” So, SELAH.
And so, Abraham has been given a promise and God has cut a covenant with him. God forms a relationship with Abraham that places him in living fellowship with Himself. Can you grasp the magnitude of what God is speaking to you? He is making a blood covenant with you that He will kill Himself rather than lie to you or break a promise to you. Again, Selah. Yet even more can be seen from this magnificent chapter:
Considered in the abstract, a covenant is unnecessary. God’s word is so sure that no special guarantees are needed to confirm it. That word has been given to Abraham. But in order to make Abraham sure and give him all the support his faith needs during the time of severe trial, God employs means that men might use to make assurances doubly sure. For, as time drags on, Abraham’s faith in reference to the promised seed and heir is being tried always more severely.
In the nature of the case, here are not two parties who stand on an equal footing. In fact, in the instance under consideration God binds Himself to the fulfillment of certain obligations: Abraham is bound to no obligations whatsoever. (Barnes: Commentary)
So we have the first covenant – the covenant of grace where He, Who is All in All, will do all Abraham believed Him for. So, too, can we believe as Abraham believed. God is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow.
Whenever we find ourselves in situations where our faith is sorely tried, we can go back to the utter faithfulness of a God so sure, so tried and true that He bears the weight of the promise He makes on His shoulders. We do not bear it on ours.
The One who makes the promise is the same One who fulfills the promise. He is “the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. ” (Genesis 21:6)
So shall My word be that goes forth from My mouth;
It shall not return to Me void,
But it shall accomplish what I please,
And it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it.
– Isaiah 55: 11
Can you not look back through your life where this Almighty, All-Loving, All-Faithful God has Himself given you promises and then He alone has fulfilled them? Not Ishmael promises where you helped Him, but Isaac promises where you, like Sarah, laughed in joy and amazement at their fulfillment. The promises were not ones you picked out of the Bible for how then could you be sure they would be fulfilled. They were promises that came after surrender to His will and intimate, humble fellowship with Him Who would quicken His Word to you through His Spirit. All this done by Him – begun by Him, fulfilled by Him and with that deep, tender knowing inside you that only the Holy Spirit of God brings.
And, yes, Abraham waited 25 years for the fulfillment of that promise and his one slip of impatience gave us Ishmael. But he learned from that. Through it all God was faithful.
UNTIL NEXT WEEK…
This is the 1st lesson in our 5 week study of “Cutting A Covenant” in Genesis 15. I encourage you to respond to the Life Application questions by clicking this link. If you have any general comments or questions, please click here to send me a message.
Featured Image: Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld. Woodcut for “Die Bibel in Bildern”, 1860. Holzschnitt aus “Die Bibel in Bildern”, 1860. Wikimedia.org. Accessed 12 December, 2017
The Bible. New International Version. http://biblehub.com/. Accessed 11 November 2017
Poole, Matthew. “Matthew Poole’s Commentary”. http://biblehub.com. /commentaries/poole/. Accessed 11 November 2017
Joni Eareckson Tada and Steven Estes, “When God Weeps: Why Our Sufferings Matter to The Almighty”. Zondervan Publishing, 1997. pg. 45