Monday, April 11, 2011

What is the New Covenant? The Concept of the Covenant of Peace in Ezekiel 34

Disoriented, distressed, and perhaps even depressed. Exiled to Babylon, Ezekiel and his countrymen would have been wondering: How did this happen to us? What’s gone wrong? Why have we lost our land? Why have we been exiled?

When things go wrong, when tragedy strikes, it’s natural to ask the question why. But often when we ask that question, sadly there isn’t a clear or satisfactory answer. Like when a child is born with some kind of defect, or when people lose their lives in accidents. The scientists or the police can often explain how, but the question of why still remains. Why? Sometimes we don’t know why. But for Israel, the situation was different. For them, the why of their situation was very clear … because God wanted it to be clear. God sent prophets to the people to clearly point out why. And the answer that the Old Testament prophets gave was crystal clear. Israel was in exile because Israel hadn’t been living in accordance with her obligations under the covenant.

Ezekiel 34 explores an important aspect of this covenant failure. Israel is pictured in this chapter as a flock of sheep. Her leaders are pictured as shepherds. Shepherds are supposed to look after the sheep, but that is not how the majority of the leaders of Israel had acted. Instead of taking care of the sheep, the leaders of Israel had been using the sheep for their own benefit. Instead of feeding the sheep, they had been feeding off them.

In Ezek 34:3–5 God indicts the shepherds of Israel:
You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep. The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd, and they becme food for all the wild beasts. My sheep were scattered; they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. My sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with none to search or seek for them.
That is, except for God. The kings of Israel might have led the people astray; but if an important part of the failure of Israel could be linked to ungodly shepherds, then the solution was for God himself to be Israel’s shepherd. This solution is found in Ezek 34:11–15 where God says:
I, I myself will search for my sheep, and I will seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered … And I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land. And I will feed them on the mountains of Israel … I will feed them with good pasture, and on the mountain heights of Israel shall be their grazing land. There they shall lie down in good grazing land, and on rich pasture they shall feed on the mountains of Israel. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep.
Here we have God promising that he personally would come to take over the role of leadership in Israel. And this is connected in Ezek 34:23 with God establishing over Israel “one shepherd, [his] servant David,” who would feed the sheep, and be their shepherd.

In the light of Ezek 34:23 it is clear that when Jesus came proclaiming himself as the Good Shepherd, he wasn’t just picturing himself as a shepherd because he liked sheep, or because he thought that it was a good metaphor. Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd” because he wanted his opponents and the Jewish people to understand that he was the fulfillment of Ezek 34. He was the shepherd king, of the line of King David, who has come to bring God’s people back.

And it is significant that this time of God himself coming to seek and to save his lost sheep is connected in Ezek 34:25 with the idea of “a covenant of peace.”

Covenant is a concept that is very important for an understanding of our relationship with God, and for understanding the overall message of the Bible; but sadly the idea of covenant isn’t heard very often in churches today. In fact, the word covenant isn’t used much at all in the whole of the English language these days, except perhaps in the fields of law and theology. But when we read the Bible and want to understand God’s plan for the world, we have to deal with the term covenant. The word occurs some 301 times in the ESV translation. The Hebrew word for covenant (ברית) occurs 286 times in the Old Testament. So if you’re reading the Bible, you’re bound to encounter the idea of covenant.

But what is a covenant? The history of this word in English goes back to the Old French word convenant which means coming together. In biblical usage, a covenant is basically an arrangement between two parties wherein one or both of the parties solemnly bind themselves to act in a certain way within a relationship. The word translated as covenant in our Bibles can also be translated as treaty, alliance, pact, or compact. In the ancient world covenants were often legally-binding, written agreements that spelled out the privileges and obligations of each party in the relationship. And usually, as part of such an agreement, the parties committed themselves to faithfully keep their obligations to each other by placing themselves under the threat of a penalty, in the form of an oath or curse, and this would often be symbolized by the slaughter and cutting up of a sacrificial animal.

And this is exactly the kind of relationship that Israel had with God. God and Israel had entered into an agreement with each other about the nature of their relationship at Mount Sinai, after God had rescued Israel out of slavery in Egypt. God and Israel entered into a covenant with each other. The ceremony that took place at that time is recorded in Exod 24. This covenant was renewed on the plains of Moab before Israel entered the promised land after the forty years wandering in the wilderness. This renewal and expansion of the covenant on the plains of Moab is recorded in the book of Deuteronomy.

This covenant, which the New Testament calls the old covenant (2 Cor 3:14), was a legally-binding written agreement between God and Israel in which God promised to bless Israel on condition of Israel’s obedience and to punish her on condition of disobedience. Moses makes this clear in the book of Deuteronomy. At the conclusion of the final sermon that he ever preached, Moses called out to the people:
Look, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil. If you obey the commandments of Yahweh your God that I am commanding you today, by loving Yahweh 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 Yahweh your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of. 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 (Deut 30:15–18).
The book of Deuteronomy testifies that obedience would lead to life and blessing, but disobedience would lead to the fulfilment of the curses of exile and death. If Israel kept God’s commandments, that is, if they were committed to following God’s word in their life, then they would experience the blessing of being God’s people living in the Holy Land.

Now some Christians think that it was impossible for Israel to keep this covenant with God, but this is to forget how God provided a means for the forgiveness of sin as part of the covenant itself. The different animal sacrifices that could be offered at the temple (the burnt offering, the sin offering, and the guilt offering) all had atonement or reconciliation as a significant part of their function. The old covenant made provision for the forgiveness of sin. It was a covenant of grace. But despite this, the old covenant still proved to be a catastrophic failure on a national level. Because of Israel’s lack of commitment to God and his way, being led astray (as we see in Ezek 34) by ungodly leaders, the curses of the covenant came down upon Israel, the climax of which was exile to a foreign land. Because Israel was not holy as God is holy, they lost the privilege of living in the Holy Land.

The consequences were tragic. Famine, death, destruction, exile. Yet, in the midst of this awful tragedy, God never gave up on his people. In a quite wonderful way, at the lowest ebb of Israel’s relationship with God, God continued to send prophets to his people to announce a period in the future when Israel would be restored to life in a perfect and permanent relationship of obedience to God. God would not abandon his people to the punishment they deserved. He would come to bring them back. This time of restoration of the old covenant relationship between God and Israel is what the Old Testament calls the new covenant.

The phrase new covenant only occurs once in the Old Testament, in Jer 31:31; but both Ezekiel and Isaiah speak of the new covenant three times as a covenant of peace (Isa 54:10; Ezek 34:25; 37:26). Even more popular than covenant of peace is the phrase everlasting covenant, which occurs six times altogether as a reference to the new covenant (see Isa 55:3; 61:8; Jer 32:40; 50:5; Ezek 16:60; 37:26).

It is difficult to understand God’s purposes for the world without understanding the concept of covenant, and perhaps the best illustration for us today about what a covenant is all about is the concept of marriage.

Marriage is a covenant, and God’s relationship with Israel is like a marriage. The wedding ceremony took place at Mount Sinai. There both parties promised to love each other exclusively. Sadly, however, from when the honeymoon was not yet even finished and for over 600 years onwards, the marriage between God and Israel was on the rocks. Like many bad marriages, it ended up in separation, when the northern kingdom of Israel was exiled by the Assyrians, and then over 100 years later when the southern kingdom of Judah was defeated by the Babylonians. But in the midst of this period of separation, God kept sending letters to his sweetheart, Israel, saying that he wanted her back. Indeed, he promised that he would arrange things so that Israel would come back. The problem that led to the breakdown of the marriage was Israel’s unwillingness to obey God, but God promised that he would act to make Israel willing to obey him, so that in the end Israel would experience wonderful blessing in a restored relationship with God.

This new stage in the marriage, this time of blessing and peace within the relationship, is what the Bible calls the new covenant. And this is why the New Testament is called the New Testament, where testament is just an alternate word for covenant. The New Testament is simply the collection of books and letters that proclaims and explains the arrival of the new covenant. The New Testament is the historical record of the beginning of this wonderful, new stage in God’s marriage not just with Israel, but with all the nations of the world.

The new covenant is the fulfillment of God’s positive purposes for his creation. This is indicated in Ezek 34:25–31, where various positive consequences of the new covenant are delineated. The result of the covenant of peace is security, prosperity, blessing, and intimacy with God:
I will make with them a covenant of peace and banish wild beasts from the land, so that they may dwell securely in the wilderness and sleep in the woods. And I will make them and the places all around my hill a blessing, and I will send down the showers in their season; they shall be showers of blessing. And the trees of the field shall yield their fruit, and the earth shall yield its increase, and they shall be secure in their land. And they shall know that I am Yahweh, when I break the bars of their yoke, and deliver them from the hand of those who enslaved them. They shall no more be a prey to the nations, nor shall the beasts of the land devour them. They shall dwell securely, and none shall make them afraid. And I will provide for them renowned plantations so that they shall no more be consumed with hunger in the land, and no longer suffer the reproach of the nations. And they shall know that I am Yahweh their God with them, and that they, the house of Israel, are my people, declares Lord Yahweh. And you are my sheep, human sheep of my pasture, and I am your God, declares Lord Yahweh.
When you think about it, the Bible, with this movement from the old covenant to the new covenant, is telling us that the history of the world is basically one big, fantastic love story! It’s a story that moves from love rejected to love rekindled. And the exciting thing for Christians is that we, like Israel, are in this covenant relationship with God. We are part of this love story!

The New Testament teaches that Christians are in a covenant relationship with God; but we relate to God no longer on the basis of the old covenant, but on the basis of the new covenant. There has been a change from the old relationship characterized by unfaithfulness and disobedience on the part of Israel to a new relationship where the church has the power of Christ’s new life working in us to lead us back to God and to love him. Jesus is the one who has made the difference. He’s the one who’s saved the marriage, so that God’s original promise of blessing might be fulfilled. The overarching purpose of what God is doing in the world is breathtaking in its scope. It is something for which we ought always to thank God.

But, at the same time, understanding the concept of covenant can also help us better understand, not only the place of Jesus in God’s plan, but also the nature of our relationship with God, and what God desires to see in us. Think about it. If the church is like the wife in the divine marriage covenant, then what is our role in this relationship? What is required of us, and how are we to live? Well, like a wife loves her husband (or at least is supposed to), the job of each individual Christian is to love God, to be faithful to him, and (like women used to pledge as part of their marriage vows in earlier times) to be obedient.

Jesus picks up this idea in John 15 when he said to his disciples: “as the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love ... These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (John 15:9–11).

At the heart of the new covenant for the believer is the constant discipline of striving to love Jesus and to live in obedience to him. As we love God, we experience more of his love for us, and we have joy in our hearts. But the key on our part, as always, is faithfully following the Lord Jesus and his way of life in the context of the grace of the cross.

This is a key part of what the new covenant is all about: God’s people loving and obeying God as he has revealed himself to the world in the person of Jesus, and the resultant benefit of experiencing great blessing in intimate relationship with God. Jesus is the one who has saved the marriage. He died on the cross to atone for our rebellion, and through his resurrection he has brought new life into this relationship. But to benefit from this, we need to be participating in the new covenant in a positive way. If you’re not a follower of Jesus yet, you need to become one. And if you’re a follower already, you need to keep on following. Christians need to be committed to the covenant with God, and to find joy in being faith-full rather than faith-less, in being covenant keepers rather than covenant breakers. This is our responsibility and privilege within the new covenant of peace and blessing that Jesus died to achieve. Christians, honor Jesus’ death on your behalf by honoring him as your Shepherd King. This is what Jesus has come to achieve.


Anonymous said...

just curious if you're aware that you've named your christian site after hell's head archivist, a second level demon.

it's a rather odd choice if you're not. you may wish to see to that.

if you ARE:

umm... what exactly is it you think you're up to then?

Steven Coxhead said...

Thank you, Anonymous, for your comment.

Yes, I am aware that some people belive in the existence of a demon called Baal-Berith, who is also known as Berith.

Whether such a demon exists or not, I am not sure; but the word berith, which is a transliteration of the Hebrew word ברית, occurs many times in the Hebrew Old Testament with the positive meaning of covenant or treaty, and that is the sense in which I am using the word berith on this website.

It is interesting that the expression baal berith בעל ברית occurs in the Old Testament on no less than three occasions. Twice it appears as the name of a false god worshipped by the Israelites during the time of the judges (Jdg 8:33; 9:4), most likely as a result of Canaanite influence; but in Gen 14:13 the expression baals of the berith is used as a Hebrew idiom for parties to a covenant.

So I have no ulterior motives in using the term berith on this website. All I am doing is reflecting the primary biblical use of the word berith. With berith used so often as a nice positive concept in the Bible, I can’t see any problem with me using the word berith in a similar way.

But thanks for your comment. I understand that the term berith can have negative connotations for those who are more familiar with berith as a demon rather than berith as covenant, but the meaning of berith as covenant strongly dominates in the Bible.