Karath beriyth – to cut a covenant.
A covenant promise is a promise unlike any other. It is a binding agreement. It is an oath of life and death. It is a promise that involves not only words, but lives.
The ancient people understood that desperate times called for desperate measures. They understood that in certain extreme situations a conflict could only be resolved by the most solemn and irreversible means. In an age of brutality and lawlessness, primitive humanity came up with a plan to preserve life and honor. The solution was the covenant cut in blood.
The blood covenant was an essential part of every primitive culture and civilization. Used sparingly, this revered practice saved lives and preserved peace in the most impossible situations. The blood covenant trumped every other law.
The ancients knew blood represented life. The life was in the blood. Therefore, giving blood meant giving life, and receiving blood meant receiving life. Promises were sealed by the exchange of blood. In so doing two became one. Covenant partners. One in blood and one in life.
Covenant partners symbolically consumed the life of the other person, and now these lives were forever bound together. Nothing could interfere with promises made in blood. Nothing could separate a friendship sealed by blood.
God broke into history with His covenant of blood.
Before the Covenant
Everything good thrived in the garden. It was lush and alive, adorned with wildflowers, green grass sparkling with the dew of morning, every variety of butterfly and bird, tiny wonders and great beasts. Sunlight filled the garden, illuminating the dazzling display and filling every nook and cranny with warmth and light. The garden was a place to explore and a place to celebrate.
Wonderful as that created paradise must have been, the highlight of the garden was the Creator himself. This was His world and He lived in it and walked in it. His breath filled the air and His laughter rippled off mountain walls. His presence was the glory of this place, where waterfalls overflowed with His joy, the mighty lion declared His power, newborn fawns nursed on His love.
A man and a woman were invited to make their home in this garden – to walk on its hidden paths, to savor the sweetness of its crop, and enjoy the friendship of the beasts. They were invited to walk with Him there. To take His hand and hear His voice as He pointed out the wonders of His work. It was His delight to share every hidden treasure with His friends.
There was no end to this garden of discovery. Under every leaf, around every bend, new surprises were revealed. It was as if He had prepared each intricate detail to present as a gift to these cherished companions. Everything was good, created with purpose, given to nourish and sustain.
And everything had a name in this garden paradise. Some names were given by the Creator. Others He left to the imagination of the man himself. Even trees had names.
One day the Creator spoke the names of two particular trees. Intriguing names, with intriguing meaning. One tree he called the Tree of Life. Another he called the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Both of these trees had been created with purpose, both created to be good. And like everything else in the garden, each of the trees was given as a gift to the man and the woman.
The Creator of the trees had given special instructions about the purpose of each one. This one, He said, is for food. Eat and enjoy. The other, He told them, is to be guarded. Leave this one as it is. The two trees were gifts, and so were the instructions.
According to the perfect plan of the One who provided the trees, everything the man and the woman needed had been given – the garden and its creatures, food and water, sunlight and shade – and above everything else, the companionship of the Creator himself. And it was very good.
- What does the Garden of Eden show us about God’s original design?
- What significance do you see in the names of the two trees?
- How does God lavish you with His creative gifts, even today?
A Picture of Covenant
The Tree of Life was everything they needed. The man and the woman could have enjoyed its fruit forever. But there was an enemy in the garden. An evil one who hid in the bushes waiting for just the right moment. This adversary of God and man was dark and deceitful. He slithered his way through the shadows and he whispered his lie. You could be like Him.
So the people who had been created in the image of God believed a lie and ate the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil – the forbidden fruit of the forbidden tree. The first bite of that fruit opened the eyes of the man and the woman to things God meant to keep in the dark. The world of good and evil sprang forth in vivid detail. Fear and shame suddenly consumed them. But most devastating of all was that the One they feared, and the One in whose presence they felt the shame, was the One who had just hours ago held their hands and whispered their names and offered them life.
The man and the woman hid from God.
Sin changed everything. When the man and the woman chose their own way over God’s way, it drew a dark curtain over the innocence of the garden. It compelled these companions of God to run for cover, to hide.
But there’s more. The story of the garden doesn’t end with the man and woman hiding in shame. Instead something happens that’s completely unexpected. It’s the part of the story that is often missed in the telling.
God found the man and woman cowering behind bushes attempting to clothe themselves with pathetic coverings of fig leaves. "Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?" God questioned them. The two halfheartedly confessed their sins, and God responded with solemn consequences. But then He did something else, too.
God reached out and removed the fig leaves. And then, with overwhelming tenderness, He came near and He wrapped the two in new clothes. Clothes of His own making. Clothes that would protect them, and cover their shame.
And so the man and the woman said farewell to the garden, leaving behind the Tree of Life, but taking with them the knowledge of good and evil. That knowledge would become the lens through which they would now see life.
Although they were banned from the garden, the two were not banished from God Himself. Just as God cared for them during their last moments in Eden, He would now follow his children into their exile and remain with them throughout their journey.
But something else would follow, too. The consequence of eating of the fruit of the forbidden tree – the knowledge of good and evil. Before long the man and the woman would grieve when their own son murdered his brother. Evil penetrated the human soul like poison, igniting jealousy and rebellion, and the bitter results spread like the plague.
The Covenant Story appears in the midst of such evil.
The descendants of the first man and woman multiplied and began to populate the earth. But they did not know the God who created them. These were people who bore the consequences of sin in the very depths of their hearts.
Everywhere He looked, the eyes of God saw wickedness and evil, and it was more than He could bear. It grieved Him to His heart. How far this was from His original design. How far the people had wandered from the life of the garden. The evil that had once been hidden now had full reign.
And so it was time for God to set a plan in motion. His plan involved a family and a flood and a large boat. At first glance this might appear to be a story of revenge. A tale of disaster and unspeakable death.
But there’s something more. There’s a story within the story, and it’s not what you might think. God saw the wickedness of the people, that their hearts and their thoughts were bound by evil. Except there was one man who was different.
Noah walked with God.
So God chose this man, Noah – the man who walked with God – along with his family; and to this small community God began to unveil His plan. God told Noah to build a boat. He gave specific directions about wood and dimensions, rooms, a roof and a door. Then, in the midst of the instructions, there’s this:
Behold, I will bring a flood of waters upon the earth to destroy all flesh in which is the breath of life under heaven. Everything that is on the earth shall die. But I will establish my covenant with you, and you shall come into the ark, you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives with you. (Genesis 6:17-18)
No longer a story of destruction, this becomes a story of promise. The ark was built – immense and sturdy, indomitable – a place of protection. The door was shut on the wickedness of the world beyond. Evil raged in the tempest outside, slamming its fury upon the great boat; but inside was peace and safety. Once again God provided a covering for his people.
They were covered by the promise of Covenant.
When the flood was over God made his Covenant with Noah one more time. God promised to protect all people and animals for as long as there was life on the earth. God told Noah there would never again be a flood that would destroy His creation. And with His promise came a sign – the sign of the rainbow. Forever the appearance of a rainbow in the sky would point to God’s Covenant promise. God said to Noah, “When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature.”
The Bible is full of God’s promises, but not all of them are Covenant promises. Covenant promises are special. They tell a story.
The stage for this story is now set. Eden is a memory, a whisper of intimacy and beauty and something holy.
Sin, the great enemy of God, has cast a dark shadow on creation and humanity. God is angry. He is angry because of sin. He is angry because He knows what could have been. He is angry because he loves.
So while God unleashes the full fury of his anger against evil, He unleashes something else besides. Something equal in intensity and every bit as zealous.
The God of creation unleashes His compassion. His love.
It is time for the next chapter of this covenant story.
One of the ancients, a man called Abram, had his world turned upside down by a most unexpected Covenant-maker.
Raised in a land of many gods, Abram’s life was changed forever the day he heard the voice of the One True God calling out to him. This God was calling him to leave his home and to follow Him to a foreign land.
God made remarkable promises. He promised to make Abram into a great nation. He promised to bless Abram and to make Abram a blessing. God promised that through Abram all the families of the earth would be blessed.
Abram believed God’s promises. He believed enough to leave his family and the gods of the land to follow the One who spoke of a great nation and a blessing. Yet Abram wondered. He didn’t wonder if God would keep his promises, but he did wonder how. How would a nation be built without a family? How could a man possess a land so great?
God answered Abram in such a way that he would never have to wonder again.
God sealed His promise with a covenant of blood.
God directed Abram to prepare an animal sacrifice. This would not seem unusual. God had asked for animal sacrifices before. But it was what God did with this sacrifice that would change Abram’s view of God forever. As the night settled in and the fire and flame ignited the dark, Abram saw what God was doing. Through the blood of the sacrifice, God was becoming Abram’s covenant-partner.
Abram received the covenant promises, but he was not the one who made them. This would be important. Abram simply provided the sacrifice requested by God, and then he fell asleep. God did the rest. God was the covenant-maker, as well as the covenant-keeper.
The implications were overwhelming. God was making promises that could never be broken. The God of the Universe was binding His own life to the life of a mere man.
Abram encountered the covenant-making God again when he was ninety-nine years old. God repeated his promises to Abram, and Abram responded by falling on his face. But this time he didn’t sleep. When he fell facedown before the voice of God Almighty, it was with full realization of what was being asked of him. "I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless, that I may make my covenant between me and you...”
Abram was being invited to cut a covenant with his God.
If Abram had any doubt about the meaning of this exchange, what happened next confirmed it. “No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham...” God gave Abram a new name, and in exchange He Himself would forever be know as The God of Abraham.
This union was again sealed in blood, and this time it was Abraham’s blood that was required. “You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you.”
Why would Abraham agree to such an outrageous request? What would make him say yes? There is only one answer. He trusted his Covenant Partner. As Abraham willingly allowed the covenant to be cut in his own flesh, he was giving his life to his Covenant God.
Covenant partners trust each other absolutely. They share a bond that will outlast any crisis, any enemy, any obstacle. They are committed to each other until death.
God, more than anything else, wanted a relationship with Abraham. God wanted Abraham to know with unshakable confidence that He could be trusted. So God chose the language of the day to deliver this message.
Abraham, who is the most trustworthy person you know? Abraham knew the answer. No one is more trustworthy than a covenant partner. A blood-brother. This is the one you can trust with your life.
God responded by saying to Abraham – then that is who I will be to you.
But God didn’t stop there. He invited Abraham to be his covenant partner back. God invited Abraham into a relationship. And so Abraham would forever be known as the friend of God.
And God said to Abraham, "As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you...
So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant.” (Genesis 17:9-11; 13)
Covenant of the Righteous
"Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness"—and he was called a friend of God. (James 2:23)
There is a certain quality that seems to draw the favor of God. Those who possess it are given the wonderful distinction of being called God’s friends. Noah had it and so did Abraham. It is the trait of righteousness.
But what is this righteousness? What is this trait that makes the friends of God so special? Are they better than most? Do they obtain God’s favor by their own perfection?
Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.
Could it be?
Is it possible that righteousness is at its purest level simple belief in God?
Consider Noah…a righteous man, blameless in his generation. And when God told Noah to build the ark, Noah believed.
Abraham heard God’s voice and it caused him to uproot his family and leave his home for the wilderness. Abraham believed God.
When God made his covenant with Abraham, Abraham knew he could trust his Covenant Partner absolutely. God would keep His promises. Abraham believed.
But the greatest test of Abraham’s belief was still to come.
After these things God tested Abraham and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.” (Genesis 22:1-2)
So it was that early in the morning Abraham got up and loaded his donkey with the wood for a fire. He woke his boy, Isaac, and together the two started their journey. Father and son hiked side by side all the long way up the mountain to make the sacrifice. Two hearts pounding – not with exertion, but with awful awareness. This was not an ordinary journey. Both faced the mountain trusting a father’s wisdom. Both approached the altar believing God would provide.
Abraham knew God’s covenant promise had given him a son, and Abraham believed God would keep His promise.
By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son… (Hebrews 11:17)
Knife raised, son bound as a sacrifice, Abraham heard the familiar voice.
“Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am…” “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” (Genesis 22:11-12)
Abraham heard the voice, and he laid down the knife. And as he looked up, there in the bushes he saw a ram, caught and waiting. Abraham took the animal and he gave it up as an offering instead of his son. God had provided.
A three day walk. An only son. A sacrifice on a mountain. A lamb.
God will provide.
- How did God demonstrate His compassion when Adam and Eve sinned – and why does this matter?
- What do you learn about the nature of covenant promises from Noah’s story?
- What was the difference between the first time God made a covenant with Abraham, and the second?
- What comes to mind when you think of “righteousness”? How does the Covenant Story shine new light on this concept?
- What stands out to you as new or especially significant in the story so far?
But my steadfast love shall not depart from you, and my covenant of peace shall not be removed," says the LORD, who has compassion on you. (Isaiah 54:10)
There is a word that is crucial to this story. Steadfast lov is the Hebrew HESED.
Hesed is trustworthy. It is faithful.
Hesed is God’s passion, His perseverance, His persistence.
Hesed is Covenant Love.
Years passed and the offspring of Abraham multiplied as the covenant promises were passed on to Isaac, then Jacob and his twelve sons. One of the sons was despised by his brothers and sold as a slave to a strange land. What was meant for evil God meant for good, and this journey, too, became part of the covenant story and the covenant promises.
Abraham’s great-grandson was a young man named Joseph. Joseph was favored by his father, but hated by his brothers, and so they sold him as a slave to Egypt. First betrayed by his own family, and then by the wife of his Egyptian master, Joseph was eventually confined to a cell. A slave and a prisoner, one could hardly imagine being more alone.
Except for this.
Joseph’s master took him and put him into the prison, the place where the king’s prisoners were confined, and he was there in prison. But the LORD was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love… (Genesis 39:20-21)
There in that dark and forgotten dungeon, while Joseph waited and wondered, the God of Steadfast Love saw the prisoner and did not forget.
God’s purposes for Joseph were woven with the story of His covenant people, and the season of waiting was followed by a season of rescue. Once freed from bondage, Joseph’s journey would take him to the right hand of Pharaoh, to a position of favor and influence, and his story would come full circle when the family that betrayed him would journey to Egypt for food – and to Joseph for a blessing.
The first time God made a covenant with Abraham something very strange happened. Abraham fell into a deep sleep, a sleep that was thick with darkness, and while he was sleeping God talked to him. God told Abraham about a time far in the future, a time when his descendants would be enslaved and mistreated. And then God made a promise. He promised that after four hundred years, the people would return to their land – the land promised in the covenant.
The promises God made were not only for Abraham, but also for Abraham’s offspring. The words spoken to Abraham in his sleep might have seemed irrelevant at the time. This was a message for someday – a message to be passed on with the covenant story, one generation to the next, until the day when it would become a message of hope.
The brothers of Joseph would finish their days in the land of Egypt, and their descendants would multiply in this foreign place. Four hundred years later Joseph’s family remained in Egypt, where they waited in slavery, captives in a foreign land.
Four hundred years is a long time. It is time enough to forget. Time enough to forget a story and give up on promises. But God does not forget.
The people of Israel groaned because of their slavery and cried out for help. Their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God. And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. God saw the people of Israel—and God knew. (Exodus 2:23-25)
Finally it was time for the next chapter. This would be a chapter of miracles. A chapter of plagues and pleas, heroes and hard hearts. The Passover and the Exodus, the pillar of cloud, and the pillar of fire. The parting of the Red Sea and the song in the wilderness. This was a story of redemption, a story within a story that would be told and retold for all time.
The people of Israel were waiting in slavery. God heard their groaning and remembered his covenant to Abraham. He had promised deliverance and He would keep His promise.
God would send His rescue through a man named Moses.
The story of Moses was from the start a rescue story. Moses was born in Egypt during a dangerous time. Egypt’s Pharaoh had given a decree that every son born to Israel must die. But Moses lived. He lived because of a promise and a destiny, and he lived because of faith.
By faith Moses, when he was born, was hidden for three months by his parents, because they saw that the child was beautiful, and they were not afraid of the king's edict. (Hebrews 11:23)
Moses’ parents hid him first in their home and then in the Nile where he was rescued by the daughter of Pharaoh himself. Born to Israel and raised by Egypt, Moses’ true journey began when he chose faith over favor.
By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh's daughter, choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God... (Hebrews 11:24-25)
Forty more years passed as God prepared his servant Moses, and then came the day when a bush burned with no explanation. God spoke out of the bush, and it was time.
God spoke to Moses and said to him, “I am the Lord. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as God Almighty… I established my covenant with them to give them the land of Canaan... Moreover, I have heard the groaning of the people of Israel whom the Egyptians hold as slaves, and I have remembered my covenant. (Exodus 6:2-7)
Moses would take the words of God to the people of Israel and to the ruler of Egypt – but neither would be inclined to believe. The people were skeptical, and the ruler was hard of heart. It would take more than words to set these people free. It would take the mighty acts of the Covenant God.
Through miracles and plagues, the One True God battled the gods of a foreign people – and He battled the doubt of a covenant people – revealing His glory and unleashing His fury. Death and destruction, torment and terror overwhelmed the people of Egypt, who begged their Pharaoh to let God’s people go. But it was God Himself who hardened Pharaoh’s heart until the last act could take place.
The Lord said to Moses, “Yet one plague more I will bring upon Pharaoh and upon Egypt… About midnight I will go out in the midst of Egypt, and every firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die…” (Exodus 11:1, 4-5)
One from every household in all of Egypt would perish. But the children of Israel would live.
Moses gave the instructions. Choose a lamb without blemish for the sacrifice. Take the blood of the lamb for a sign. Every home marked with blood will be passed over.
“For the Lord will pass through to strike the Egyptians, and when he sees the blood on the two doorposts, the Lord will pass over the door and will not allow the destroyer to enter your houses to strike you.” (Exodus 12:23)
God’s people would live because of the blood of a lamb.
Exodus 19 & 24
All the people answered together and said, "All that the LORD has spoken we will do.” (Exodus 19:8)
We will do it. This was the promise of the people of God. We will obey. We will believe. We will do it.
These words were repeated by God’s people during a most incredible covenant ceremony. The people of Israel had set up camp in the wilderness near the base of Mount Sinai. Their leader Moses – God’s chosen servant – reminded the people of the covenant promises, and they agreed to do as God said. Now God instructed Moses to prepare the people for His holy presence.
On the morning of the third day there were thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud on the mountain and a very loud trumpet blast, so that all the people in the camp trembled. Then Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they took their stand at the foot of the mountain. Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke because the LORD had descended on it in fire. (Exodus 19:16-18)
This was God in all His splendor. He arrived with thunder, lightning, fire and trumpet. No one wondered who this was. It was God Almighty.
It was too dangerous for the people to get any closer, and so they waited while Moses went up the mountain. While he was there God spoke to Moses the Words of the Covenant. The Ten Commandments. Worship God only. Do not steal. Do not kill. Do not lie.
What happened next is truly amazing.
Moses wrote down all the words of the LORD. He rose early in the morning and built an altar at the foot of the mountain… Then he took the Book of the Covenant and read it in the hearing of the people. And they said, "All that the LORD has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient." And Moses took the blood and threw it on the people and said, "Behold the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words.” (Exodus 24:4, 7-8)
This was covenant-making at its best. Sacrifices were made, promises were spoken, and everything was covered with blood. The people knew without being told that this
was the covenant pledge of the people of God. A promise that could not be broken. A promise made in blood.
Following the ceremony, Moses and the men of Israel were given an astounding invitation. They were invited to the mountain by God Himself to partake of a covenant feast. Never in the history of mankind had there been such an invitation.
Then Moses and Aaron… and seventy of the elders of Israel went up, and they saw the God of Israel. There was under his feet as it were a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness. And he did not lay his hand on the chief men of the people of Israel; they beheld God, and ate and drank. (Exodus 24:9-11)
The significance of this was astonishing. These privileged people were allowed up on the mountain, into God’s presence where they ate and drank. God Himself had prepared the meal. A covenant feast with the Covenant God.
The Law of the Covenant
Now the appearance of the glory of the LORD was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel. Moses entered the cloud and went up on the mountain. And Moses was on the mountain forty days and forty nights. (Exodus 24:17-18)
The people of Israel had seen God’s glory. They had heard Him speak. They received His instructions and understood His promises. They ate with Him. Not since the garden had humanity been so close to the presence of God.
Now the people were asked to wait. God wasn’t finished. There was still more He wanted to give His people, and so He invited Moses to join Him again on the mountain. Moses would spend the next forty days and nights receiving from God detailed instructions for the covenant life.
While the people waited.
The people wandered back to the camp, away from the mountain and the fire of God’s presence. They went back to their tents and their daily lives. Several days passed. Then weeks.
It had been over a month since the Book of the Covenant had been read and the feast had been eaten. The God who had awed the people with His presence had begun to fade. The memories grew dim. Was it real? Did it matter?
But the question that pressed the hardest was the one that would determine their fate. Can we trust Him?
And then someone had an idea. A suggestion. Just in case. Just in case Moses never came back. Just in case they got it wrong. Just in case the waiting went on forever. Just in case they needed another god.
So Aaron, the brother of Moses...
And the seventy who ate the meal...
And the people who saw the fire of God...
All came together with their doubt – and their gold – to create a new god.
After forty days of being alone in the cloud of God’s presence Moses made his journey back to the camp where the people waited. His assistant Joshua journeyed with him. Moses carried a gift – the words of the covenant carved into stone by the finger of God. Reverently Moses cradled the gift in his arms and made his way down the mountain. But his heart was heavy. Unspeakably heavy. The stone in his arms was nearly forgotten compared to the weight of the burden Moses carried back to the camp.
God had prepared Moses well. He had prepared Moses to lead His people. And God had also prepared Moses for their failure.
Moses returned knowing about the god – the golden calf created by the people of the covenant. God saw and God knew, and so Moses knew too.
As Moses and Joshua approached the camp they detected singing. Forty days ago their journey began with a celebration – a covenant meal. Now they returned to people dancing and shouting. But this party held no joy.
The stone tablets dropped from Moses’ arms and lay shattered on the ground, symbolic of a broken heart – and a broken covenant.
The law, which came 430 years afterward, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to make the promise void…but God gave it to Abraham by a promise. (Galatians 3:17)
The law was not the promise.
The Words of the Covenant, the commandments of God, cannot be confused with the covenant promise.
So then, what was the promise?
To see the whole picture, we need to go back up on the mountain. Back to the moment when God told Moses about the golden calf and the sins of the people.
And the LORD said to Moses, "Go down, for your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves. They have turned aside quickly out of the way that I commanded them. They have made for themselves a golden calf and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it and said, 'These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!'" And the LORD said to Moses, "I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people. Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them in order that I may make a great nation of you.” (Exodus 32:7-10)
God was threatening to destroy the people. They had broken the covenant and He was angry. There on the mountain God declared that Moses alone would be spared from His anger. Moses alone would be left to live. But then Moses did something crazy. He argued with God. You see, Moses knew something very important. He remembered that God had made a covenant promise, and now Moses reminded God…
“Turn from your burning anger and relent from this disaster against your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, to whom you swore by your own self, and said to them, 'I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your offspring, and they shall inherit it forever.'” (Exodus 32:12b-13)
Remember. Remember your promise.
God in a demonstration of His anger suggested that perhaps He would be better off destroying this faithless people and building His nation through Moses. But Moses knew better. He knew the promise. Moses understood the covenant, and he knew it was impossible for God to break His promise. So Moses called God’s bluff.
Remember your promise. Remember your covenant. Remember your steadfast love.
And the LORD relented from the disaster that he had spoken of bringing on his people. (Exodus 32:14)
God spared his people, and He kept His promise. The story continued.
- What is the significance of hesed – or “covenant love”?
- Why do you think God included a reference to Israel’s slavery in His original covenant promise to Abraham?
- What are the implications of the Passover in light of the Covenant Story?
- Why does it matter that the Ten Commandments were called “The Words of the Covenant”?
- What did Moses “remind” God when the people broke the covenant?
1 Samuel 16
This is a story about a promise. It is also a story about the heart.
Years passed. The forty years in the desert had come and gone and the people had reached the land of milk and honey. They conquered nations and defeated enemies while God fought for his covenant people.
Now the people had a request. They wanted a king. Other nations had kings, and they thought it would be best if they did too.
What the people failed to see is that they already had a king. God had been their king. What could be better than this?
But God knew the hearts of the people. He knew they didn’t understand. He knew they would have to find out the hard way. And so He relented. He granted their request. He gave them a king.
The first king God chose for the nation of Israel was tall and handsome – and cowardly. King Saul had moments of greatness, moments when he was filled with the spirit of God. But in the end he became proof of what God had said from the first. A king is just a man, a man who chooses his own way.
Even in this God was faithful to His promises and devoted to His people. He rejected the first king and chose another, this time a king after His own heart.
“I have found in David the son of Jesse a man after my heart, who will do all my will.” (Acts 13:22)
God chose for His covenant people a king with a covenant heart. This king would set a standard for all who would follow. For generations to come every other king’s heart would be compared to this one.
Through King David God would demonstrate His steadfast love. He would shepherd His people and carry out His promises. And He would keep His covenant.
God’s covenant promises were woven into the stories and traditions of the people of Israel. Hebrews boys were raised on them. To some the promises were part of the story. But to David, they were the story.
Alone in the wilderness watching over his father’s sheep, David was confronted by a lion. The beast had come to carry off one of the lambs in his care. The boy knew the lion could as easily devour a small shepherd as a wandering sheep, but he did not run. He didn’t panic. Instead he attacked the lion and rescued the lamb from its mouth. When the lion turned its fury on him, David grabbed the savage by the beard and killed it. How could this be?
The LORD... delivered me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear… (1 Samuel 17:37)
Who thinks this way? One who trusts completely in his Covenant Partner.
Follow the stories of David and you will see the evidence everywhere. Every thought, every action, was infused with the covenant life. When he tackled the bear and he slayed the giant. When he fled from the enemy and he sought his rescue. When he went into battle and conquered the adversary. It was there in David’s rejoicing and in his cries for help. There in his weakness and in his sin. Every detail of David’s life pointed to this one thing. David knew his Covenant Partner.
1 Samuel 18
Jonathan was the son of Saul, Israel’s first king. David was the son of Jesse, the Bethlehemite. The two were unlikely friends. But young David had caught the eye of the king, and found himself in the service of Jonathan’s father. First he was commissioned as the king’s personal musician, and then promoted to armor-bearer. David had won royal favor.
What Saul and his son did not realize was that David had already been chosen by God to become the next king of Israel.
The day David returned from killing the giant, Goliath, was the day something stirred inside Jonathan’s heart.
As soon as he had finished speaking to Saul, the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul. (1 Samuel 18:1)
If God had wired David with a covenant heart, the same could certainly be said for Jonathan. This warrior prince was used to fighting battles with uncanny dependence upon his God. Now Jonathan watched as the young man David fought a giant with a sling and a stone. Unlike the cowardly soldiers of Israel’s army, David’s confidence revealed his heart. As David defeated the giant and stood before the king, Jonathan recognized in David the heart of a covenant-partner.
Then Jonathan made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul. And Jonathan stripped himself of the robe that was on him and gave it to David, and his armor, and even his sword and his bow and his belt. (1 Samuel 18:3-4)
Here in this covenant exchange, the son of the king pledged his loyalty and life to David.
I give you my robe – my identity. A symbol of the unity of our souls. We are one.
I give you my armor, my sword. Your enemies are my enemies. Your battles are my battles. Nothing but death can come between us. You are my covenant brother.
Jonathan remained true to the covenant. His loyalty to David was tested and proved. Jonathan’s own father became David’s fiercest enemy, but the bond of the covenant endured.
And Jonathan, Saul’s son…went to David... And he said to him, "Do not fear, for the hand of Saul my father shall not find you. You shall be king over Israel, and I shall be next to you. Saul my father also knows this." And the two of them made a covenant before the LORD. (1 Samuel 23:16-18)
By the binding oath of the covenant, Jonathan, the heir to the throne of Israel, gave his heart, his identity, his throne, and his very life to David – the king.
2 Samuel 12
For all of David’s good stories – stories of heroic deeds and unshakable faith – one of the stories most remembered about this king is one of regret. The story of David’s sin.
God had given David everything. He had given him the throne and a nation and victory over his enemies. He had given David wives and children and property and possessions. He had become David’s shepherd, leading him into green pastures, filling his cup until it overflowed, preparing feasts to spite his enemies. David lived in the steadfast love of his Covenant God, a God who never failed to keep his promise.
But – when David saw the woman Bathsheba bathing, and took her for himself, and then murdered her husband – David forgot. He forgot the promises. He forgot the victories. He lost sight of his overflowing cup and overflowing life. He lost sight of his enemy-destroying, feast-preparing, soul-delighting God. He only saw David.
God sent the prophet Nathan to jolt David back to remembering. He sent him with a story about a sheep, and a gut-wrenching question.
“I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you out of the hand of Saul. And I gave you… the house of Israel and of Judah. And if this were too little, I would add to you as much more. Why have you despised the word of the LORD, to do what is evil in his sight?” (2 Samuel 12:7-9)
Why David? Why? Didn’t you have everything already? And if this were too little, you could have had even more.
God had plans for David that were so much better. Plans that included everything and more. The prophet, Nathan, concluded his story and suddenly David remembered. The remorse that washed over David in that moment was regret for sin and the loss of life, but it was regret for something else, too. It was the awful realization that he had despised God’s promise. He had rejected God’s best and chosen something appalling.
So David cried out to his God:
Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin!
Although David’s eyes were opened and he saw the awfulness of his sin, he did not run. He did not hide. He did not try to cover his sin. He turned instead to the One who could.
David was a man after God’s own heart. A man with a covenant heart. David knew that the sacrifices of the covenant pointed to something greater. The steadfast love of his God. Hesed.
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love.
Cycle of a Covenant People
1 Kings 8
The throne passed from David to his son Solomon. God had anointed Solomon and equipped him to lead the people of the covenant. Solomon began his reign knowing the promises and understanding the conditions. God would keep his promises to David and David’s sons. If only…
Solomon stood before the altar of the LORD in the presence of all the assembly of Israel and spread out his hands toward heaven, and said, "O LORD, God of Israel, there is no God like you, in heaven above or on earth beneath, keeping covenant and showing steadfast love to your servants who walk before you with all their heart… Now therefore, O LORD, God of Israel, keep for your servant David my father what you have promised him, saying, 'You shall not lack a man to sit before me on the throne of Israel, if only your sons pay close attention to their way, to walk before me as you have walked before me. (1 Kings 8:22, 24-25)
The throne would belong to David’s sons if they paid close attention to their way. If they walked before God as David had walked before God – that is, with all of their heart.
God blessed Solomon with everything and more. He lavished the son of his servant David with wisdom and riches and honor. There was no one in all the earth like this King of Israel. Solomon prospered and built a kingdom that stretched from one land to the next. The covenant people multiplied like the sand of the sea, enjoying peace and plenty. God gave Solomon wisdom and understanding beyond measure so that people of every nation came to hear his counsel.
In time Solomon completed the task that began as his father’s greatest dream. He built a temple in the name of the God of Israel. A place for the Ark of the Covenant.
Solomon dedicated the temple and prayed for the people. He prayed that the Name of the God of Israel would dwell forever within the temple. He prayed that God would keep His promise to dwell among His covenant people.
Then, as Solomon finished offering his prayer, he stood before the altar of the LORD, and he blessed the people.
"Blessed be the LORD who has given rest to his people Israel, according to all that he promised. Not one word has failed of all his good promise, which he spoke by Moses his servant. The LORD our God be with us, as he was with our fathers. May he not leave us or forsake us, that he may incline our hearts to him, to walk in all his ways and to keep his commandments… Let your heart therefore be wholly true to the LORD our God, walking in his statutes and keeping his commandments, as at this day.” (1 Kings 8:56-58, 61)
Let your heart therefore be wholly true to the LORD our God, walking in his statutes and keeping his commandments. This is what Solomon prayed for the people. And yet it was the heart of the king himself that would eventually need to be tested. The heart of King Solomon started out true to God, but in time this great king of wisdom and riches and kingdoms would find out what it was he truly worshipped.
Now King Solomon loved many foreign women... from the nations concerning which the LORD had said to the people of Israel, "You shall not enter into marriage with them, neither shall they with you, for surely they will turn away your heart after their gods." Solomon clung to these in love. And when Solomon was old his wives turned away his heart after other gods, and his heart was not wholly true to the LORD his God, as was the heart of David his father… (1 Kings 11:1-4)
Solomon’s heart was not wholly true and even when God warned him Solomon turned away to the gods of his many foreign wives. Solomon chose false gods over the Covenant God, and in so doing he chose to forfeit the covenant life. He walked away from the promises that would have made him the father of a covenant people. Instead, beginning with Solomon – a king with a divided heart – the covenant nation would be divided as well.
Since this has been your practice and you have not kept my covenant and my statutes that I have commanded you, I will surely tear the kingdom from you… (1 Kings 11:11)
But even in this defining moment of broken covenant, we find a thread of hope, a hint of something, a promise that would endure.
Yet for the sake of David your father... I will not tear away all the kingdom, but I will give one tribe to your son, for the sake of David my servant and for the sake of Jerusalem that I have chosen. (1 Kings 11:12-13)
The divided heart of Solomon and the divided kingdom of Israel would become the storyline of the future. The ten tribes of Israel, torn from Solomon’s heritage, would abandon the covenant life for many generations. One king after another would reject the God of the Covenant and follow the gods of the nations, leading the people to do the same.
The tribe of Judah, preserved for the sake of David, would have moments of remembering. Kings like Asa and Jehoshaphat, Jotham, Hezekiah and Josiah would turn the hearts of the people to their Covenant God, and for a season they would enjoy the blessings of the life they were meant to live. But even the tribe of David would struggle to be wholly true.
The cycle that began in the wilderness would continue. People who said – We will – but quickly forgot. People who desired covenant blessings but broke the covenant promises. People caught in a cycle of sin and sacrifice, wandering and returning. People with divided hearts.
The binding oath of the covenant was based on the understanding that to keep it was to invite God’s favor; to break it was to expect His wrath. The covenant was a promise unto death.
When God made his first covenant with Abraham, it was rich in meaning. Abraham’s role was to provide the animals, and drive away the birds of the air that tried to eat the carcass. God’s role was to pass between the pieces of the sacrifice. Through this symbolic act God was saying to Abraham, “If I do not keep my promise to you, I will be like these animals – dead, and food for prey.” God Himself was accepting the conditions of the covenant.
Years later the prophet Jeremiah would refer to this ritual in a warning he gave to God’s people:
The men who did not keep the terms of the covenant that they made before me, I will make them like the calf that they cut in two and passed between its parts... And I will give them into the hand of their enemies and into the hand of those who seek their lives. Their dead bodies shall be food for the birds of the air and the beasts of the earth. (Jeremiah 34:18, 20)
The people were in serious trouble. They had broken the covenant. They would be like the calf cut in two. They had forsaken the protection of the covenant promises and made themselves prey for their enemies.
The words of the prophets were mostly words of warning. Solemn, bleak words. Words describing the terrible consequences of a broken covenant.
The covenant people had failed to keep their promises. They had not been faithful. Their hearts had been divided. They deserved every penalty and every curse detailed in the covenant conditions.
Even their sacrifices had ceased to be sufficient.
"What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?” says the LORD; “I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of well-fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats… Bring no more vain offerings… (Isaiah 1: 11 & 13)
So the prophets pronounced the verdict and delivered the sentence. No more would God accept vain apologies. No more would He endure this faithless people. No more would He fight on their behalf. The wrath of God had come for the people of the covenant.
Israel and then Judah were conquered by enemy nations and for a time they were taken into exile. Eventually they would come back to the land of the promise and attempt to rebuild and reestablish. But it would never be the same. The days of David were a distant memory.
But not quite. Not quite, because hidden in the solemn messages of the prophets there were hints.
Hints of another promise.
Hints of something that was coming.
"Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people… For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” (Jeremiah 31:31-33 & 34b)
- What evidence do you find in David’s story that he understood covenant?
- How does the “covenant exchange” between Jonathon and David illustrate God’s covenant with His people?
- How could David commit such awful sins and still be known as a “man after God’s heart”?
- What conditions of the covenant did Solomon mention in his prayer for the people – and why does it matter?
- What hints do you find in Jeremiah 31 about the future of God’s covenant?
"And now, O priests, this command is for you. If you will not listen, if you will not take it to heart to give honor to my name, says the LORD of hosts, then I will send the curse upon you and I will curse your blessings... My covenant was one of life and peace... But you have turned aside from the way. You have caused many to stumble by your instruction. You have corrupted the covenant...” (Malachi 2:1-2, 5, 8)
Malachi was the last of God’s prophets to bring a message to the covenant people. The people were back in the land of promise, returned from exile, worshipping again at their own temple. Malachi’s words were meant especially for the priests – those men given the honor and responsibility of caring for the covenant. But those who once stood in awe of this binding agreement, who knew it’s provision of life and peace – were now leading the people away from the covenant life. You have corrupted the covenant.
And then, silence.
Four hundred years would pass before God would send another message to his people. Four hundred years of silence, but also four hundred years of preparation.
When God spoke through Malachi his message contained more than a rebuke. It also carried a promise. A very significant promise that would be examined and pondered during the years of waiting. A promise that would ultimately bridge the gap of silence and much more besides.
Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts. (Malachi 3:1)
And then this...
Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes. (Malachi 4:5)
Malachi’s message was for Israel’s priests. Four hundred years later, a priest would have his world turned upside down when God at last broke his silence.
In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah. And he had a wife… and her name was Elizabeth. And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord. (Luke 1:5-6)
Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth were righteous before God. They walked blamelessly with him. And it was to them that God began to reveal an incredible promise.
Zechariah had been appointed to enter the temple of the Lord to burn incense, while the people outside waited and prayed. And there in that temple an angel was sent to deliver a message. Zechariah’s wife would deliver a baby in her old age – and not just any baby, but a child with a mission.
The angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great before the Lord… And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.” (Luke 1:13-17)
Zechariah questioned God’s message, and in answer to his question his lips were sealed. The people waiting outside the temple would be left to wonder. Four hundred years of silence had been broken, but it would take nine more months for the word to be revealed.
He is Here
He was there from the very beginning. He spoke the world into being. The garden was His pleasure, humanity His idea. When the first man and woman left the garden in exile He went with them. He covered their shame and endured their curse. He knew.
When the flood came and one righteous family found safety in the ark, He was there.
The animals cut in two, the fire and the smoke.
Do you see Him?
Abraham leading his only son up the mountain to become the sacrifice.
It could only be Him.
He was there in the circumcision, the shedding of blood, the mark in the flesh.
He was there in the blessing and there in the promise.
The Passover lamb. The blood on the doorpost. The unleavened bread. Slaves set free and people redeemed.
He was there.
There in the song of victory. There in the manna and the water flowing from the rock.
The bronze serpent begs us to see Him.
The law points to Him.
The ark embodies Him.
The temple is His dwelling.
The sacrifices and the blood scream – He is there!
Do you see Him?
His servant David sees.
He is there in David’s songs; there in David’s praise. He is there in David’s heritage, there in David’s future. And somehow David knows.
When the people are unfaithful and they break their promise, He is there.
He is the husband longing for His bride. He is the grieving covenant partner.
As prophets pronounce the curses, hidden within their message – He is there.
He is there, wrapped in the warnings. He is there, weathering the wrath.
He is the whisper of something more.
He is hope.
He is rescue.
He is the light on the horizon.
The day that is dawning.
The new heart.
The new Spirit.
The new covenant.
He is coming.
He is here!
"I am the LORD; I have called you in righteousness;
I will take you by the hand and keep you;
I will give you as a covenant for the people,
a light for the nations,
to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness.
Jesus was God’s plan from the very beginning. The entire story was written for him. Every episode included him, pointed to him.
There was no Plan B. This was not a chapter inserted to save the story. This was the story as it was always intended.
She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins." All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet… (Matthew 1:21-22)
And (Joseph) rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet… (Matthew 2:14-15)
And he went and lived in a city called Nazareth, that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled… (Matthew 2:23)
And leaving Nazareth he went and lived in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled… (Matthew 4:13-14)
They brought to him many who were oppressed by demons, and he cast out the spirits with a word and healed all who were sick. This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah… (Matthew 8:16-17)
And many followed him, and he healed them all and ordered them not to make him known. This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah… (Matthew 12:15-17)
"Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” (Matthew 5:17)
Jesus was born into the covenant family. The people of the covenant were his people. Their promises were his promises. Their history was his history. The words of the covenant – the law and the prophets, the blessings and the curses – were his heritage and his story.
The gospel of Matthew records the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.
Jesus was the son of the fathers of the covenant. Son of Abraham. Son of David – a covenant name that remembered a covenant heart.
I have made a covenant with my chosen one; I have sworn to David my servant: I will establish your offspring forever, and build your throne for all generations. (Psalm 89:3-4)
Jesus was Abraham’s seed and David’s offspring. He was the promise embodied in the covenant. The law and the prophets fulfilled.
Covenant of Peace
Everywhere he went he created a stir. He drew crowds. He attracted attention.
Love for Him was intense. As was hate. Few remained neutral.
He healed the sick and cleansed lepers. The lame walked. The blind received their sight.
He told stories. He made claims.
His claims brought hope. And anger.
I am the bread of life. (John 6:35)
I am the light of the world. (John 8:12)
I am the good shepherd. (John 10:11)
I am the resurrection and the life. (John 11:25)
I am the way and the truth and the life. (John 14:6)
I am the true vine. (John 15:1)
Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am. (John 8:58)
I am He. (John 18:5)
When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.
Jesus saw the people through the eyes Ezekiel, the prophet who once spoke for God. He saw the sheep – sick, wandering, confused and misled. He saw shepherds – neglecting, leading astray.
Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds 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… (Ezekiel 34:2, 4)
God’s anger burned against these careless shepherds. His love burned for His neglected sheep. Through his prophet God made promises. The promises included a shepherd and a covenant.
“Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and 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… (Ezekiel 34:11-12)
“I will make with them a covenant of peace…” (Ezekiel 34:25)
Jesus was the Shepherd. He had come to rescue His sheep.
I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. (John 10:15)
Curse of the Covenant
The Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, "This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me." In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” (1 Corinthians 11:23-25)
For three years twelve men were given the privilege of being Jesus’ closest companions. They heard His teaching, felt His embrace, walked in His footsteps. They were Jesus’ friends.
These were ordinary men. Men of Israel, but not men of great learning or remarkable fame.
His disciples knew Jesus was special. They believed in His miracles, believed in His teaching. They saw the signs and the miracles. They left everything to follow.
Now, after three years, this intimate group was gathered to celebrate the Passover. Instructed by Jesus they had made their preparations. They were looking forward to this sacred and familiar tradition. But this night there was a strange stirring among the friends of Jesus. They knew something was going on. Uncertainty made pulses race, brows sweat.
Lately He had said so many things. Things that confused. Things that made hearts ache with longing so deep it could hardly be mentioned out loud.
"Where I am going you cannot follow me now, but you will follow afterward."
"I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Yet a little while and the world will see me no more, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live.”
“It is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you.”
“Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice. You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy.”
Were His words meant to comfort – or terrify?
Now here He was washing their feet and breaking bread. Familiar mingled with mystery. What was He doing? What was He saying?
He said to them, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. For I tell you I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” (Luke 22:15-16)
And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” Likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” (Luke 22:19-20)
The disciples finished the Passover feast and followed the one they loved into the garden. The evening was quiet but the thoughts racing through their minds were noisy. Unsettled. Too much for mere men to comprehend.
Come, and pray.
Yes, pray. But how did one even know what to pray on a night like this?
And when he came to the place, he said to them, "Pray that you may not enter into temptation." And he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, and knelt down and prayed, saying, "Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” (Luke 22:40-42)
The disciples followed Him into the garden, intending to pray, but instead they slept.
And Jesus prayed.
There, in the garden, Jesus prayed the prayer that would change everything.
"Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me...”
In anguish He pleaded with the Father. Remove this cup.
What was the cup that haunted Jesus as He prayed in the garden? The cup He asked His Father to remove?
The agony was intense. Heart-wrenching. Excruciating. Jesus sweat until the sweat turned to blood.
“This cup is the new covenant in my blood.”
The new covenant.
Could it be? Could it be that this cup of misery was in some way tied to the covenant?
There is no other explanation. The cup Jesus willingly accepted was the cup of the Father’s wrath.
The cup that was meant for us.
Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.
A covenant required blood. The blood of animal sacrifice. The blood of circumcision. The blood of covenant partners. Life was in the blood. My life for yours.
Blood was symbolic of life shared. It was also the price demanded for a covenant broken.
The most remarkable event in history occurred when wrath and love collided, and God interceded for humanity and endured the curse of the broken covenant. Himself.
- What excites you about the comparison of Malachi’s prophecy and the birth story of John the Baptist?
- As you reflect on the “Interlude” – how do you see Jesus foreshadowed in the covenant stories of the Old Testament?
- Why is it important to note that Jesus was part of God’s covenant plan from the beginning?
- What do you understand about the “cup of the covenant” – and how does it impact you personally?
- Why did Jesus have to die?
Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith… (Hebrews 10:19-22)
The curtain had been torn in two. The body of Jesus ripped apart. Jesus had become the ultimate covenant partner.
God’s justice would never allow the covenant to be broken. God’s mercy would fight for the ones He loved. Jesus was the perfect solution. God in flesh died to save His covenant people.
The covenant made in blood was bought back in blood. The blood of Jesus. The blood that would change everything.
His people could never keep the covenant on their own. They tried and they failed absolutely. It could never be done.
But God in his incredible, persevering, fierce and furious steadfast love never intended to accept failure as the final answer.
God would keep His end of the covenant. And He would keep ours, too.
The cup of the new covenant began as a cup of wrath. But once that cup was poured out, its contents were renewed. The cup was replenished with life – the life of the new covenant.
When covenant partners exchange the cup it is symbolic of life shared. You are in me. I am in you. This is the essence of the new covenant.
Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. (John 6:53-56)
These were the words of Jesus, spoken to a crowd of listeners. They were puzzling words – words that once divided His followers. How could this man give his flesh to eat? Many stopped listening to Jesus because of His crazy words. Even His disciples were perplexed and grumbling.
When many of his disciples heard it, they said, "This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?" But Jesus, knowing in himself that his disciples were grumbling about this, said to them, "Do you take offense at this? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?” (John 6:60-63)
What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending?
Now the disciples reflected in wonder as the truth of everything He once said flooded back with significance and meaning.
Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.
Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.
There could be no other way. The life was in the blood – His blood. The promise was made in the flesh – His flesh. To consume Him was to consume life.
"This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” (1 Corinthians 11:25)
Acts 1 & 2
The aha moment for Jesus’ followers did not occur during the Passover meal when Jesus passed the cup and spoke of a new covenant. The disciples certainly knew this was important – a comment worth remembering, an event to be pondered. But still they remained confused.
The confusion would intensify in the hours that followed. Doubt, fear and cowardice would consume these once brave defenders of their beloved teacher.
The night Jesus was betrayed and arrested was a night of panic and chaos. His disciples fled in fear. Together they huddled in hiding, bewildered and afraid for their lives.
Did they remember any of his words? Were they comforted by the many ways He had tried to prepare them for this day? Did they recall Jesus telling them about the sorrow – and the joy that would follow?
When Jesus hung dying on the cross, did they remember anything? When day turned to night and the earth shook, did they wonder? When rumor of the temple curtain, split from top to bottom reached them in their hiding, did the light begin to dawn?
No. Even when three days passed and the grave was empty and news that He was alive was whispered, first to one and then to many – even then, they didn’t see. They didn’t understand. Not yet.
The aha moment for Jesus’ followers was still coming. The greatest revelation of history hinged on a promise yet to be fulfilled.
Three days passed and the rumors began. Wild, hope-giving claims were made by His closest friends. We were at his tomb. We were walking along the road. We were in hiding, the doors were locked. And then…
The impossible. Not what we expected. We never dared to hope. Never thought.
It was Him. Him.
Could it be?
On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” (John 20:19)
He reached out His arms and showed them His hands. His wounds. The scar in His side pierced through by the spear.
He said it again. Peace.
“As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.”
And then He did something that would change everything. He breathed on them. Breath, intimate and warm. Alive. So very alive.
“Receive the Holy Spirit.”
Then he said to them, "These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled." Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, "Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.” (Luke 24:44-49)
And while staying with them he ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, "You heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” (Acts 1:4-5)
“You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth." And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. (Acts 1:8-9)
When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit… (Acts 2:1-4)
The great aha.
Finally. The truth dawned. The light shone. The curtain was lifted. The story made sense.
And the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you… (John 14:26)
Mystery of the Covenant
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.” (Matthew 28:18-20)
Jesus left his disciples with an assignment, a mission that would change their lives and change the world. Go... and make disciples of all nations.
The new covenant was taken to the world primarily through one man. A man named Paul – an apostle chosen by God, met by Jesus, and instructed by the Spirit.
Paul began as Saul, and he was an Old Covenant defender through and through. Saul had been raised on scripture, taught the traditions, steeped in the law, and was proficient in the prophets. Saul understood the gravity of the covenant, and he had given his life to uphold it.
Now certain followers of a man called Jesus threatened Saul’s covenant, the binding agreement to which he had devoted his life. These people of “The Way” appeared to be challenging the sacred covenant oath. Righteous anger burned in the soul of this devoted defender, and Saul was determined to do whatever it took to protect the promise of his God.
Until an encounter with Jesus changed his life forever.
Paul’s spiritual eyes were opened when he met Jesus, and for the next decade God’s chosen apostle would be instructed by the Spirit who would reveal to him a mystery. A mystery saved in the heart of God for just the right time.
The mystery of the covenant.
This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel. (Ephesians 3:6)
The covenant was for everyone. Even “strangers” to the promises of God were now included in the binding agreement through the blood of Jesus. They were members of the same body, children of the same inheritance. God’s covenant that began with Abraham and the people of Israel would now include every nation. All people everywhere.
Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles... were separated from Christ, alienated from Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. (Ephesians 2:11-13)
Those who once had no hope were now welcome. The promise was offered to all. Everyone could come near because of the blood of Christ.
Strangers joined with the saints – covenant people all. Orphans became family, members of God’s household. All God’s people were invited to his holy temple. Together they would be the temple – a dwelling place for the Spirit of God.
Welcome to the covenant.
In the years that followed, the friends of Jesus would find their reality turned upside down. Nothing would be as it once was. Everything would be relearned. The New Covenant would become the new lens through which they would see all of it. Every story, every prophecy, every word of God and act of God. The blood of Jesus had opened a new and living way that would shake the world.
The old covenant was preparation. It was anticipation. A copy and shadow of something better that was coming.
When God initially chose to bind himself to humankind through a covenant oath, He alone made the promises. He was the sole covenant partner. He made an agreement that would last forever, a pledge that could never be broken.
When he invited His people into a covenant relationship, God knew this would be a temporary arrangement, an experiment of sorts. A season of preparation for a future unveiling of something so much better, it would make the first arrangement obsolete.
The law that is so often associated with the first covenant was not the promise, but the conditions of the promise. It was added when the second party joined the agreement. The law, too, was only a shadow of the good things to come.
But as it is, Christ has obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises. For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion to look for a second. For he finds fault with them when he says:
"Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord,
when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel
and with the house of Judah,
not like the covenant that I made with their fathers
on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt.
For they did not continue in my covenant,
and so I showed no concern for them, declares the Lord.
For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel
after those days, declares the Lord:
I will put my laws into their minds,
and write them on their hearts,
and I will be their God,
and they shall be my people.
And they shall not teach, each one his neighbor
and each one his brother, saying, 'Know the Lord,
' for they shall all know me,
from the least of them to the greatest.
For I will be merciful toward their iniquities,
and I will remember their sins no more."
In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away. (Hebrews 8:6-13)
A covenant is all or nothing. You are all in, or all out. There is no compromise, no covenant by halves. You make a promise with your life, you break it and you die. The law written on stone promised one thing and one thing only. It promised death.
The law written on the heart would be a different law in every way. This was the law of the Spirit. The law enabled by the Spirit and empowered by the Spirit. This was the law of life.
The conditions of the first covenant were carved in letters on stone and executed by man. The conditions of the second would be written on the human heart and executed by the Spirit. The difference would be radical.
I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20)
It is no longer I who live. It is Christ who lives in me.
This is the new covenant life.
It is Jesus living his life in me. It is His Spirit doing for me what I couldn’t do for myself. It is being in a perfect covenant relationship with God forever.
It is nothing short of a miracle.
When God made his covenant with Abraham He promised Abraham that he and his wife Sarah would have a son. And Abraham believed God.
But time passed and the child of the promise did not arrive, so Abraham came up with a plan. He would help God with His promise. He would attempt to conceive a child with his wife’s servant, a woman named Hagar. The plan worked, and at last a son was born to Abraham. A boy named Ishmael.
The only problem was that Abraham’s plan was not God’s plan. When God promised a son to Abraham and Sarah, it was to be a child of their own union. A child of the promise.
In God’s time this son was born. A boy named Isaac. Isaac was the child of God’s promise. Isaac was God’s plan.
Hagar’s son was born according to the flesh. Sarah’s son was born according to the promise. This is the difference between the Old Covenant and the New.
The old trusts in the flesh. The new trusts in the promise.
But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. (Galatians 5:16-18)
If we walk in the Spirit we are free of the flesh. If we are led by the Spirit we are free of the law. We can trade the law that condemns and leads to death for the Spirit that perfects and leads to life.
Never had such good news created so much confusion. Even the apostles struggled to figure it out.
Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? (Galatians 3:2-3)
The apostles knew the answer. They had been given the Spirit – The Helper who had revealed everything they needed to know. The law had been written on their hearts. Never before had obedience flowed so freely. Courage and zeal consumed their lives. This new way of the Spirit made all things possible.
Together these followers of Jesus, guided by the Spirit, would relearn the covenant. The law written on their hearts would become their way of life.
God promised a new covenant, and God always keeps his promises. Because of Jesus, the conditions of the old covenant were changed forever. But the Covenant God will never change.
God will always hate sin. He will always love righteousness.
God will always be for his people. He will always fight the enemy.
God will always share his life and his identity with his covenant partner.
The steadfast love of God will never change.
The only thing that changes is the heart of His covenant partner.
And that changes everything.
- How does the “cup” represent the exchange of the old covenant for the new?
- What is the amazing significance of taking communion – in light of the covenant story?
- What was necessary in order for the disciples to understand “the whole story”?
- What shifts in thinking were required for a Jewish believer like Paul?
- Why did God replace the old covenant with the new? What does the new covenant offer that the old never could?
- What difference does it make for you to know you are included in the new covenant – and not the old?
Ministers of the New Covenant
Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God, who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. (2 Corinthians 3:5-6)
This is our ministry. We are to take the New Covenant Life everywhere we go.
But not on our own. Not by our own effort. This is the ministry of the Spirit, entrusted to us.
We’re like a letter, written by Jesus with the ink of the Holy Spirit – a letter that is to be read by everyone.
We’re like a clay jar, filled with the Spirit. When the jar cracks, which clay jars are apt to do, the treasure that is inside will leak out.
We’re like a fragrance. The aroma of Jesus’ Spirit spreads wherever we go.
We are ministers of the Spirit. Ministers of the New Covenant.
We’re like Moses. Moses was a minister of the Old Covenant. Moses was responsible for taking God’s law to the people. Because Moses was a minister of the covenant, he was given the privilege of spending time in God’s presence. He encountered God’s glory. And God’s glory changed him. It made him radiant.
We are ministers of the New Covenant, the covenant of the Spirit. We are responsible for taking God’s Spirit to the people. Because we are ministers of the covenant, we are given the privilege of spending time in God’s presence. We encounter God’s glory. And God’s glory changes us. It makes us radiant.
The difference between our ministry and Moses’ is that his ministry ended. The glory that made him radiant faded. And his ministry led to death.
Our ministry is permanent. The glory that makes us radiant is always increasing. And our ministry leads to life.
There are people everywhere who are still living as though they are under the Old Covenant. They still struggle under the law that condemns. They are still trying to keep that law in their own strength. They are still trusting in their flesh to make them good enough. Paul says there is a veil that remains over their hearts and keeps them from living in the freedom of the New Covenant. Only Jesus can remove that veil.
We bring the Spirit of Jesus to them.
Covenant of Love
Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. (Ephesians 5:31-32)
One day there will be a covenant celebration unlike anything we have ever seen or imagined. It will be the marriage of Jesus and his Bride – Christ and the Church.
The prophecy that describes this great event is awesome.
Then I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the roar of many waters and like the sound of mighty peals of thunder, crying out,
"Hallelujah! For the Lord our God
the Almighty reigns.
Let us rejoice and exult
and give him the glory,
for the marriage of the Lamb has come,
and his Bride has made herself ready;
it was granted her to clothe herself
with fine linen, bright and pure"—
for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints.
And the angel said to me, "Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb." And he said to me, "These are the true words of God.” (Revelation 19:6-9)
The bride will be radiant, dressed in the white robe of pure linen given to her by her Beloved. All of creation will be in attendance, holding its breath in expectation. Suddenly a rumble, a sound like thunder in the distance, gaining in intensity until the atmosphere is filled with a roar like pounding ocean waves. Then an audible voice breaking through the din – Hallelujah! The heavens will part as He makes His appearance.
It is Him.
The Bridegroom. He rides a great white horse, majestic and powerful. The armies of heaven are His entourage, a great crowd of valiant defenders in perfect formation, soldiers dressed in white, mounted on white horses.
The Groom is magnificent. A mighty warrior, fierce and beautiful, resplendent in passion. He is clothed in a robe – a robe dipped in blood.
He is called The Lamb. Faithful and True. The Word of God. King of Kings. Lord of Lords.
This is the One who has conquered the enemy, destroyed the foe. He has fought to the death for his Bride, and now He reigns in victory.
The fierce and furious steadfast love of the Bridegroom has triumphed.
Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.
The Bride is the People of God – Jesus’ covenant partner for all of eternity. She is the mystery revealed – all who belong to the promise. The cherished recipient of his steadfast love.
And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. (Revelation 21:2)
The Bride is a city. The holy city, the new Jerusalem. She is radiant with His glory, adorned with jewels, the riches of His grace.
This Bride – this People – is the dwelling place of God. The two are one for all of eternity. He will dwell with her and she will be his. The Lamb is the temple; the Bride is His dwelling. You are in me, and I am in you.
The enemy has been conquered forever. The war is over. No more tears, no more death, no more pain. The former things have passed away. Everything is new.
And now this.
From the throne of the Lamb – a river.
Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. (Revelation 22:1-2)
The water of life, flowing from the throne, through the middle of the street of the city – the city who is the Bride.
And on either side of the river, the Tree of Life.
And the Spirit and the Bride say, “Come.” (Revelation 22:17)
- Paul uses several word pictures to illustrate the significance of being a “minister of the new covenant.” How do these pictures inspire you?
- Why do you think John’s vision of the future included wedding imagery?
- What have been your biggest “ahas” as you’ve read The Covenant Story from beginning to end?
- How will knowing you are Jesus’ covenant partner change the way you think and live?