The Bible’s Covenant Story. 6. The Covenant at Sinai
The Israelites during the Exodus were the most ungrateful people imaginable. No matter what God did for them, they always found another problem. Yet these were God’s chosen people, chosen by him. He had made a promise to Abraham centuries before that he would continue his covenant with Abraham’s seed (Genesis 17:7). When Israel reaches Sinai, God renews his covenant, adapted to the circumstances of his people at that time. In The Bible’s Covenant Story, we consider 6. Exodus 19:3-6 The Covenant at Sinai.
1. Covenant grace
All covenanting must begin with the grace of God. In ourselves we have no hope (Romans 3:23). It was made clear to Israel that God’s choice did not depend on anything in them (Deuteronomy 7:7). The choice of these people to be his covenant partners was based solely on grace. He could have chosen whomever he wished – ‘all the earth is mine’ (v5). At the Exodus God acted when Israel was helpless. He laid waste a powerful nation, Egypt, for the sake of these miserable slaves. He brought them into a personal, loving relationship – ‘I brought you to myself’. Although there is a national aspect to this covenant, it is the same Covenant of Grace to which every believer is a party. The Lord provided salvation ‘when we were still sinners’ (Romans 5:8). Apart from an experience of grace, (v4 ‘you yourselves have seen…’) our covenanting is meaningless.
2. Covenant responsibilities
Note v5 ‘if you obey me fully and keep my covenant’. An obligation rests on God’s people to give willing, joyful obedience to all that he commands. God’s law shows in practical details what it means to be his covenant people. Does this not make salvation depend on our obedience, in contrast to Paul’s emphasis on grace alone (Ephesians 2:8)? Can we lose salvation and our place in the Covenant of Grace? Our obedience is in fact a proof of the genuineness of our profession to belong to the covenant. Note James 2:19 ‘I will show you my faith by what I do’. As the Lord sates, ‘If you love me, you will obey what I command’ (John 14:15). A genuine believer will often fail, but graciously the Lord will bring him back in repentance – we will not be content to remain in sin.
3. Covenant privileges
The privileges of faithful covenant people are great – v5-6. These are not confined to the Old Testament, as 1 Peter 2:9 shows. There is one Covenant of Grace.
(i). ‘my treasured possession’ – we belong to the Lord in a special way. The Lord sets great value upon us, so great that the Son came to die for us.
(ii). ‘a kingdom of priests’ – united to Christ, our great High Priest (Hebrews 8), we are all priests, offering spiritual sacrifices (1 Peter 2:5), dedicating all of life (Romans 12:1).
(iii). ‘a holy nation’ – we are not just a collection of individuals, but a covenant community, living a corporate life, supporting one another. The most basic characteristic of God’s people is holiness, reflecting his likeness (1 Peter 1:16). Holiness indicates separation from everything sinful, separation to God, depending entirely on his grace and strength.
Psalm 91 The shadow of the Almighty
The Bible’s Covenant Story. 5. Genesis 17:1-8 The Covenant with Abraham
The ways of the Lord often surprise and even puzzle us. His great covenant plan, established in eternity, has been to redeem a people to live in loving fellowship with him. To begin with, his covenant community embraced a multitude of people, but at a certain point the line of the covenant narrowed to a single individual and his family, drawn from Ur far to the east of the land of Canaan. In The Bible’s Covenant Story, we consider 5. Genesis 17:1-8 The Covenant with Abraham.
1. The God of the covenant
God reveals something of his nature through the names that he uses:
The Lord (v1): especially associated with the covenant. It speaks of God in relation to his people, and particularly of his unchanging nature (see Malachi 3:6). He is constant in his love and grace and faithful to his promises.
God Almighty (v1): used especially in the sphere of salvation. Only the saving power of God can overcome sin and Satan, as is supremely evident at the cross, in the person of the Son of God incarnate. God establishes his covenant in a work of sovereign grace.
God (v3): thinking especially of God as Creator, who brings life out of nothing and who is able to give Abraham an heir at his very advanced age. He gives spiritual life to those ‘dead in transgressions and sins (Ephesians 2:1).
2. The terms of the covenant
In v7 the Lord states ‘I will establish…’, stressing his sovereignty. He provides the covenant on his terms, with sovereign authority. It is ‘an everlasting covenant…to be your God’ – taking sinners into a saving relationship with himself. To be saved is to be in covenant with him. The covenant relationship (Leviticus 26:12) will last eternally (Revelation 21:3). It all flows from the grace of God, not our deserving. Promises are made to Abraham. ‘I will make nations of you’ (v6), a spiritual seed, with a glorious fulfilment in the multitude saved through the work of Christ (Galatians 3:29). There is also the promise of the land (v8), pointing to the glorious inheritance of the believer (1 Pater 1:4).
3. The beneficiaries of the covenant
It is vital to see that those brought into the covenant are sinners like Abraham. This is evident in 16:1ff with his mistreatment of Hagar and her son. Like Abraham, we are all ‘children of wrath’ (Ephesians 2:3). It is with people like us, in our sin and failure, that God deals in his covenant, not the self-righteous or those trying to earn his favour. Note however that Abraham responds in faith – 15:6, as we too must trust entirely in the covenant Lord.
4. The responsibilities of the covenant
Entrance into the covenant has life-changing implications – ‘walk before me and be blameless (AV ‘perfect’)’. We are called to live in obedience to our covenant King, being holy as he is holy (1 Peter 1:16). We are to be a ‘living sacrific’ (Romans 12:1), holding nothing back.
Psalm 2 The Righteous King
Psalm 1 The Righteous Man
1 Kings 11:14-43 The Lord in control
The Bible’s Covenant Story. 4. Genesis 9:1-17 The Covenant with Noah
Many, even with little Bible knowledge, have heard of Noah and the ark, but they probably relegate it to the realms of myth, a story fit only for children. This record, however, is presented in the Bible as historical fact (see Hebrews 11:7). How does this episode fit into the unfolding of God’s saving purpose? It seems to relate more to the material creation. In The Bible’s Covenant Story, we consider 4. Genesis 9:1-17 The Covenant with Noah.
1. The Lord shows grace
The context of the flood is clear – the pervasive sinfulness of the human race (6:5). In response the Lord wipes out most of the human race in cataclysmic judgment. The crucial verse is 6:8 ‘But Noah found favour (or ‘grace’) in the eyes of the Lord’. It is not suggesting that Noah earned God’s favour. In 6:9 we have the description of a godly life that is the result of grace. Noah was the recipient of the undeserved favour/grace of the Lord. It is the fruit of God’s gracious election and as a consequence, ‘By faith Noah…in holy fear built an ark’ (Hebrews 11:7). Noah stood in the line of believers in the covenant promise (Genesis 3:15).
2. The Lord preserves life
By means of the ark the Lord preserves the covenant line that will lead ultimately to the Messiah. Sin and judgment do not frustrate God’s plan to save a covenant people for himself. The Lord preserves the covenant seed through the flood, indeed by means of the flood that bears the ark aloft. Peter speaks of this in 1 Peter 3:20-21 – it is God’s grace, not the water, that saves. The Lord also preserves creation through the catastrophe to provide a suitable dwelling for Noah and his descendants. The Lord is faithful, as 8:22 shows us.
3. The Lord confers dominion
In 9:1 the Lord repeats the mandate given to Adam and Eve (1:28). The call to exercise dominion to God’s glory has not been silenced. In the Covenant of Works Adam was to demonstrate covenant love for the Lord by obediently carrying out that mandate. Now in the Covenant of Grace Noah and his descendants are again called to such obedience. Sin and judgment have not destroyed the covenant and the dominion. This is post-fall, however, and so there is ‘fear and dread’ on the part of the animals, and they are given now as food (v9). The penalty for murder is also spelled out (v6). The Lord continues to work out his covenant purpose through imperfect people like Noah, and all the glory is his.
4. The Lord makes covenant
Note v9 ‘I now establish my covenant…’. The Lord is repeating his covenant in the particular circumstances of Noah’s day. That is the pattern in the biblical covenants – the details may differ, but the fundamental provisions are the same. In the covenant with Noah, all of life is mentioned (v10). Provision is made for the preservation of creation, an aspect of God’s common grace. The focus, however, is the covenant line through Noah, with the rainbow now designated as ‘the sign of the covenant’ (v12), indicating his gracious work.
Psalm 133 The precious unity of God’s people
Psalm 130 The riches of God’s grace
Once Martin Luther was asked what are the best psalms. He replied ‘the psalms of Paul’, meaning psalms which set out most clearly the themes emphasised in Paul’s writings, the heart of the gospel. Among them Luther included Psalm 130, one of the ‘Songs of Ascents’. It is not a surprise to find the psalmists speaking of such things since there has only ever been one way of salvation. Consider Psalm 130 The riches of God’s grace.
1. The psalmist’s cry (v1-3)
The psalm begins with a heart-rending cry (v1), the vivid language of a man about to be overwhelmed in a sea of distress. Like Psalm 69:2 it conveys his sense of helplessness. Self-help will be no answer to these depths. Since the ‘depths’ are not specified, the reader can make this cry his own whenever he passes through deep waters. The only way to respond is to look away from self to the Lord – ‘O Lord, hear my voice’. Whatever the distress, it brings home to the psalmist in a powerful way his own sinfulness (v3). None can stand before a holy God. We all must confess the truth of Romans 3:23 ‘all have sinned’. We ought to be distressed when we realise our natural spiritual condition.
2. The psalmist’s hope (v4)
Recognition of sin does not drive the psalmist to despair. He has no hope in himself, but he has a sure hope in God – ‘with you there is forgiveness’. He is a gracious God. There is only one way of salvation, the one God has provided. All Scripture testifies that salvation is through ‘the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’ (John 1:29). He has taken the burden of his people’s sin and has paid the price. It is essential to ‘believe in the Lord Jesus’ (Acts 16:31). He is the unique way of salvation. The ultimate goal is ‘that you may be feared’ – reverent living in fellowship with the Lord.
3. The psalmist’s confidence (v5-6)
The depth of the psalmist’s faith is evident in v5. It is God himself that he seeks. We are to wait for God patiently (Psalm 40:1), even if the answer does not come as quickly as desired. The reason for his confidence – ‘in his word I put my hope’, the word of God’s promise. We know he will never leave or forsake us (Hebrews 13:5). The ‘watchman’ (v6) eagerly scans the horizon. In such a spirit the psalmist waits for God. However long the night, the dawn will come. God’s answer is similarly certain.
4. The psalmist’s exhortation (v7-8)
The psalmist does not want to keep this wonderful news to himself – his earnest desire is that others would likewise look to the Lord. He gives two powerful reasons:
(i). ‘with the Lord is unfailing love’, the special covenant love that can never fail. He is worthy of our entire trust. This love is rooted in eternity.
(ii). ‘with him is full redemption’ – a rich, full, complete salvation that deals with all our sins. His grace is always sufficient (Romans 5:20). It is joyful news.