Friday, July 9, 2010

The Importance of the Concept of Covenant in Biblical Hermeneutics

The concept of covenant is very important for coming to an accurate understanding of the message of the Bible. The Bible has developed as the written record of God’s relationship with his people through history. The Old Testament is the written testimony to God’s relationship with Israel based on the Sinaitic covenant, also known as the old covenant. The Old Testament is simply old covenant revelation, and the covenant theology of this revelation is the theological foundation upon which the New Testament is built.

It is significant that the New Testament teaches that Christians, in a manner similar to the people of Israel, are in a covenant relationship with God. Jesus came to establish the new covenant, and Jesus’ disciples participate in the blood of the covenant (Luke 22:14–20). Paul viewed himself as being a minister of the new covenant (2 Cor 3:6). Paul says that non-Jewish Christians were once “strangers to the covenants of promise,” but have now been brought near in Christ (Eph 2:12–13). The writer of Hebrews teaches that Christians are sanctified by the blood of the covenant (Heb 10:29); and have come “to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks more graciously than the blood of Abel” (Heb 12:24). Christians, therefore, relate to God on the basis of a covenant. This covenant, however, is not the Sinaitic or Mosaic covenant, but the new covenant in Christ.

The new covenant exhibits the same basic relational dynamics as the old covenant, but the key difference between the old and new covenants is the medium of revelation. Under the old covenant, the medium of revelation was, first and foremostly, Moses; but with the coming of Jesus Christ (who is the fulfillment of the prophecy of Deut 18:15, 19 concerning the second and greater Moses) a new revelation has been given. Because Christ is the second and greater Moses, the revelation mediated through Jesus (and his apostles) takes priority.

Understanding the covenant structure of Old and New Testament revelation, and how the old and new covenants relate together, is of great importance in interpreting the overall meaning of the Bible. In fact, from a Christian point of view, if it is acknowledged that the new covenant is built upon the foundation of the old covenant and exhibits the same basic relational dynamics as those already established in the old, it follows that having a good understanding of the old covenant can greatly assist us in understanding the nature of the new covenant and what it means to be a Christian. Indeed, it can be argued that a deficient understanding of the nature of the old covenant tends to go hand in hand with a deficient understanding of the new covenant. If the Old Testament describes the basic human problem, then it makes sense to conclude that the more we understand the problem, the more we can understand and appreciate the solution that is provided through the new covenant in Christ. It is important, therefore, to come to a clear understanding of the nature of the old covenant and its purposes in God’s plan of salvation history. Doing so will greatly elucidate our understanding of the gospel.


Colwyn said...

Dear Steven,
Thank you for revealing your wisdom about the covenants of the Old and Jesus' testament.
You have worked hard and that work has given me much direction for contemplation.
Colwyn Scheepers,

Anonymous said...

Another great post, much appreciated.

Steven Coxhead said...

Hello Colwyn and Jeff,

Thanks for your encouragement.

It's interesting how the concept of covenant helps to clarify the nature of God's relationship with his people. I have found reflecting on that very helpful myself personally.

God bless!

sujomo said...

Hullo Steven,

Would you like to make a comment on the "eternal covenant" referred to in Hebrews 13:20?

Is it the case that 'eternal' means that God's covenant endures for ever (ie forward in time) and also refers to it being in operation since the beginning (ie back to the beginning of time)?

cheers, sujomo

Steven Coxhead said...

Thanks for your question, Sujomo.

Please see my response: The Eternal Nature of the Eternal Covenant in Hebrews.

Matt said...

I stumbled across your blog and have found it quite helpful. Thank you.

I have a question, if you have the time to answer it (I'm sure you're a busy man).
I was reading something by R. Scott Clark (WTS) where he said "the new covenant is new with respect to the Mosaic covenant, but not with respect to the Abrahamic covenant."
I can see why he says this, but I am wondering how it dovetails with the idea that the 'eternal covenant' is new. If the New Covenant is absolutely new - does this mean that Clark is wrong?
How can the New Covenant be completely new if it stands (at least in part) as the full realisation of the Abrahamic Covenant?

thanks again!

Steven Coxhead said...

Hi Matt,

Thanks for dropping by. Your question is a good one.

It is helpful the consider where the idea of the newness of the new covenant emerges. The only place where the phrase new covenant appears in the Old Testament is in Jer 31:31. It is clear from the very next verse (i.e, Jer 31:32) that the new covenant contrasts in some way with the “old” covenant, which is the covenant that was associated with the exodus from Egypt, i.e., the Sinaitic covenant. The contrast as far as Jeremiah is concerned in Jer 31 is the contrast of externalized law resulting in covenant rebellion verses internalized law (which results in covenant obedience and blessing). So, I agree with R. Scott Clark that the newness of the new covenant is defined in the Bible (particularly in Jer 31) supremely in relation to the Mosaic covenant; but that is not to say that the other covenants recorded in the Old Testament do not also become “old” as a result of the coming of the new covenant.

Nevertheless, I don’t think we should say that the new covenant is totally new in the sense that it has no legal or theological connections with the earlier covenants. In fact, the way the Old Testament prophets often talk about it, the new covenant is viewed as being the full and final fruition of the Mosaic covenant. Because all of the previous covenants find their fulfillment in the new covenant, it is helpful to think that, as these covenants find their fulfillment in Christ, they morph into the new covenant. The previous covenants are not scrapped, but they live on in the new covenant, having undergone a christological transformation.

As Jesus said to his Jewish opponents: “if you believed Moses, you would also believe me” (John 5:46). In other words, obedience to Moses becomes obedience to Messiah in the new covenant age, “for he [Moses] wrote of me [Messiah].” In Deut 18:15 Moses commands obedience to the second Moses when he is “raised up.” Moses himself prophesied that obedience to Mosaic law would morph into obedience to Messianic law. The old covenant lives on in the new, but undergoes a christological transformation.

We can say that the older covenants are replaced or superseded by the new (discontinuity); but at the same time we must also say that the older covenants are fulfilled and live on in the new (continuity).

Hope that helps!