Monday, August 1, 2011

Covenant Commitment

One of the key ideas for understanding the biblical concept of covenant is the idea of commitment. The Jewish understanding of the need for commitment to the Mosaic covenant can be illustrated via the example of Mattathias, the father of Judas Maccabeus. In 168 B.C. the Greek king Antiochus IV instituted a large-scale persecution of the Jewish people who were under his control. He forbade the Jews from following the law of Moses, and ordered anyone who had a copy of any books of the Hebrew Bible to be put to death. He replaced the temple sacrifices with pagan sacrifices, and allowed prostitutes to operate in the temple.

On one occasion when the officers who had been sent out into the cities and towns to force the Jews to participate in pagan sacrifices came to the town of Modein, about 27 km north-west of Jerusalem, the king’s officers said to the elderly Mattathias, “You are a ruler and an honorable and great man in this city … Now therefore you come first and fulfill the king’s commandment … and you and your children will be honored with silver and gold and many rewards” (1 Macc 2:17–18); but Mattathias answered them, “Though all the nations that are under the king’s dominion obey him and every one fall away from the religion of their fathers … yet will I and my sons and my brothers walk in the covenant of our fathers. God forbid that we should forsake the law and the ordinances. We will not obey the king’s words to leave our religion” (1 Macc 2:19–22). When Mattathias had finished saying this, a Jew stepped out “in the sight of all” to offer a sacrifice on the altar “according to the king’s commandment” (1 Macc 2:23). When Mattathias saw this, “he was inflamed with zeal” and ran and slaughtered the apostate Jew and the king’s commissioner, and pulled down the altar (1 Macc 2:24–25). Then he went throughout the city, crying out, “Whosoever is zealous for the law and keeps the covenant, let him follow me!” (1 Macc 2:27). Thus Mattathias and his sons fled into the mountains, and conducted guerrilla warfare against the Greeks until they retook Jerusalem and re-established the proper worship of God at the temple.

Killing two people, destroying an altar, and instigating a rebellion may seem a little extreme; but we cannot fault Mattathias’s commitment. But what was he committed to? According to 1 Macc 2:27, Mattathias was committed to the law and the covenant. The covenant was important for Mattathias, because it is one of the key concepts in the Bible.

The word covenant occurs some 300 times in the NIV translation, which is a relatively high figure. This means that anyone who has read through large sections of the Bible will have had to encounter the concept of covenant. It is a cause for worry, therefore, that many Christians are unaware of the existence and importance of this concept. This is all the more ironic considering that every time people speak of the Old Testament and the New Testament, the concept of covenant is effectively being invoked. The term testament in English is simply derived from the Latin term testamentum, which was used to translate the Hebrew and Greek words that usually mean covenant.

The concept of covenant is also important for understanding the significance of the Lord’s Supper. If we do not understand the concept of covenant, then we will not really be clear about what Jesus meant when he took the cup of wine during the supper and said, “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20).

What then is a covenant? A covenant is basically an arrangement between two parties wherein one or both of the parties solemnly bind themselves to act in a positive way within a relationship. In the ancient world these covenants were generally speaking legally-binding, written agreements that spelled out the privileges and obligations of each party in the relationship. 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.

This is exactly the kind of relationship that Israel had with God. God and Israel entered into an agreement concerning the nature of their relationship at Mount Sinai, after God had rescued Israel out of slavery in Egypt (Exod 24). This covenant was renewed on the plains of Moab before Israel entered the promised land after the period of forty years wandering in the wilderness.

This covenant, which the New Testament calls the old covenant, was a legally-binding written agreement between God and Israel in which God promised to bless Israel on condition of her obedience and to punish her on condition of disobedience. This can be seen very clearly in the conclusion to Moses’ final sermon (the fourth sermon recorded in the book of Deuteronomy):
“See, 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. 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 Yahweh 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 Yahweh swore to give to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob” (Deut 30:15–20).
According to Moses, obedience would lead to life and blessing, but disobedience would lead to the fulfillment of the curses of exile and death. If Israel kept God’s commandments, then they would experience the blessing of being God’s people living in the Holy Land. But what is meant by obedience at this point?

It is a popular view in Christian circles to say that the obedience that God required of Israel under the old covenant was absolute, nothing short of perfection. But this is to overlook the covenantal context in which this call was made. The fact of the matter is that the Old Testament speaks of the Mosaic covenant as something that Israel was potentially able to keep. In other words, the obedience that God required of Israel under that covenant was theoretically attainable. The writer of Ps 119, for example, claimed to be someone who kept God’s law: “This blessing has fallen to me, that I have kept your precepts” (Ps 119:56). The writer of Ps 119 clearly claimed to be someone who had kept God’s law. He was able to say this, not because he had obeyed God’s law perfectly, but because built within the Mosaic law itself was the provision of all the temple sacrifices for the forgiveness of sins, which means that God did not require Israel to be perfect in order for the blessings of the covenant to come. God in his grace had already made provision for their sin in giving them the temple sacrifices (the burnt offering, the sin offering, and the guilt offering, all of which had atonement or reconciliation as a significant part of their function); but in order to benefit from the sacrifice for sin, it was necessary for Israel to obey God in the sense of being committed to the relationship with God as defined by the covenant.

So when God called Israel to obedience, we are not meant to understand by that absolute perfection but rather covenant commitment. God wanted Israel to be committed to him, to be faithful to him, like a husband and wife within their marriage.

Indeed, the best illustration that we have today of a covenant relationship is marriage. Marriage is a covenant, a relationship between two parties based on the promise of ongoing commitment and faithfulness. When a man and a woman get married, they promise to live in an exclusive relationship as husband and wife. This is expressed in the marriage vows: “I, X, take you, Y, to be my wife, to have and to hold from this day forth, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do us part.” In the vows, the husband and the wife promise to commit themselves to each other, and to be faithful to each other, for the rest of their lives.

Marriage is a covenant, and this is one of the reasons that the Bible often uses marriage as an illustration of God’s relationship with Israel. God is often pictured in the Old Testament as the husband and Israel the wife. But where and when did they get married? At Mount Sinai! This is where God entered formally into a new stage in his special relationship with the people of Israel. As part of this relationship, God spelled out for his people very clearly how they needed to be committed to him.

God spoke of this commitment (through Moses) in terms of obedience:
“Now this is the commandment, the statutes and the rules, that Yahweh your God commanded me to teach you, that you may do them in the land to which you are going over to possess, that you may fear Yahweh your God, you and your son and your son’s son, by keeping all his statutes and his commandments, which I command you, all the days of your life, and that your days may be long. Hear therefore, O Israel, and be careful to do them, that it may go well with you, and that you may multiply greatly, as Yahweh, the God of your fathers, has promised you, in a land flowing with milk and honey” (Deut 6:1–3).
The law of Moses spelled out what commitment to God looks like. And as the people of Israel lived out their commitment to God, great blessing would result.

God also spoke of commitment to him in terms of love: “Hear, O Israel: Yahweh our God, Yahweh is one. So you shall love Yahweh your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deut 6:4–5).

And what was the source of such love? “And these words that I am commanding you today shall be on your heart” (Deut 6:6).

Loving God requires God’s law (i.e., God’s word) being in your heart; and for God’s law to be in the heart, there needs to be teaching and learning:
”You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates” (Deut 6:7–9).
The important thing for Christians in all of this is that the old covenant concepts of covenant privilege, covenant instruction, and covenant commitment also apply to Christians, because Christians are also in a covenant relationship with God. Christians are in a special relationship with God, just like the people of Israel. The formal beginning and sign of being in this special relationship with God is baptism. If at least one of your ancestors were Christians, then perhaps you baptized as a child. Or perhaps you were baptized as an adult upon the profession of faith in Christ. Whatever the case, being baptized means that you are formally a part of the church, which is the bride of Christ. It is like baptism is the marriage ceremony between yourself and Christ. And if it is true that all who are baptized are married to Christ, then we learn how to love and be faithful to Jesus by listening to God’s word.

Why is it that we read and study the Bible when we come to church? Historically Christians do this not just because that is our tradition. No, in church (and hopefully outside of church too) Christians study God’s word in order to understand more and more what it means to be in a covenant relationship with God. We study God’s word in order to know what being committed to Jesus looks like, so that each day our commitment to him might be stronger and stronger, that our love for God might be greater and greater, so that we might prove to be faithful followers of the Lord Jesus.

It is appropriate for every Christian to ask himself or herself every day: “Have I been concerned to keep my covenant vows with God that I entered into with him at the time of my baptism? Have I been concerned to be a faithful disciple or student of the Lord Jesus?”

Commitment means being prepared to give up one’s life for the cause of Christ. As Jesus said: “greater love has no one than this, that a person lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Real commitment means allowing Jesus’ teaching to transform the way that we live our lives. It means always being ready to give of ourselves for God and for others. True disciples are always keen to take the Master’s teaching to heart so as to know what he would have us do. As Jesus also said: “if you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). Jesus was not speaking of perfection here, otherwise no one could love him, for no one can obey him absolutely perfectly! Not perfection per se, but covenant commitment! That is what Jesus is calling us to. If you love Jesus, then you will be committed to doing his will rather than your own, no matter what the cost.

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