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Dynamics of the Covenant

Dear Church Family,

On Sunday mornings at 9:15-10:15 am in the sanctuary, we have Sunday school for all ages. We are using a video series called “He Gave Us Prophets,” combined with teaching and discussion, in order to better understand, interpret, and apply the prophets of the Old Testament. If you’re interested in reviewing the video lessons that we are using for this class, you may find them online here: https://thirdmill.org/seminary/course.asp/vs/HGP. Also, if you’re interested in reviewing the summaries that I’ve been writing in these weekly emails, you may find those on the HCPCA church website here: https://www.hillcountrypca.org/pastors-blog/category/he-gave-us-prophets.

Continuing with these reviews, here is a summary of some of the things that we learned and covered in our most recent Sunday school class.

Overview of Lesson #4 – Dynamics of the Covenant

In a wedding, husbands and wives make vows, declaring their love and commitment to one another and promising to maintain certain responsibilities. Of course, in the natural course of life, as time goes on, sin affects the marital relationship. So, it is important for married couples to remember those initial vows and the ideals to which they pledged themselves. The covenant relationship between God and His people is similar. While the Lord never forgets His promises nor fails to maintain His commitment, His people do.

Covenant Ideals

Like the suzerain-vasal treaties of the Ancient Near East, there were two basic components of the covenant which God entered into with His people in the Old Testament. First, there is divine benevolence. God is love, and from His love flows His electing grace (Ephesians 1:4-6). Second, there is human responsibility. Because He has loved and redeemed His people, they are commanded to worship and obey Him (John 14:15).

A clear example of these two components of God’s covenant with His people may be found in Exodus 20. After redeeming and delivering the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, the Lord brings them to Mount Sinai. There, He reminds them of His saving work (or divine benevolence): Í am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exodus 20:2). Then, the Lord teaches them how they are to obey Him (human responsibility) by giving them the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:3ff).

The prophets of the Old Testament were sent by God as His emissaries to remind His people of these two components: the Lord loved them and promised to save them and He also commanded faith and fidelity from His people. To be clear, people did not earn their status as His covenant people through obedience. God redeemed and delivered His people, solely on the basis of His love and grace. At the same time, in this relationship, God required His people to abide by the terms of His covenant, to remain loyal to Him.

And so, the prophets reminded the people of God’s judgments and blessings.

Covenant Judgments

The Old Testament prophets relied upon the writings of Moses, and much of what they wrote was based on several key passages from the Pentateuch. Specifically, there are five main passages that informed the prophet’s descriptions of the kinds of judgments that God would send upon them, should they turn from the Lord and rebel against Him: Deuteronomy 4:25-28; 28:15-68; 29:16-29; 32:15-43, and Leviticus 26:14-39. In these passages, God promised that in the face of the persistent and unrepentant sin and rebellion on the part of the people, He would send judgments in the natural order (drought, pestilence, famine, disease, wild animals, and population loss) and through warfare or conflict with other nations (sieges, occupation, death, destruction, exile).

Leviticus 26:14-39 is a key passage in that it lays out the process of God’s judgments. In these verses, there are five sections, each of which begins with the statement in which the Lord says something like, “…if you do not obey Me” or “if you turn from Me.” And, after the initial warning, in each of the subsequent judgments, God promises to increase His punishment “seven times” for their sins.

Leviticus 26       Judgments

(vv 14-17)         consumption and fever, struck down by enemies

(vv 18-20)         (“seven times” increase) no rain, no agricultural produce

(vv 21-22)         (“seven times” increase) plague, wild animal attacks, children killed

(vv 23-26)         (“seven times” increase) enemy attacks, pestilence, famine

(vv 27-39)         (“seven times” increase) driven to cannibalism, desolation, exile

In examining this passage, we find three characteristics with regard to the Lord’s judgments of His people: (1) The Lord is patient and long-suffering with His people; (2) there is an increasing severity in these judgments; and (3) the final, climactic judgment is exile, removal from the land of promise.

Covenant Blessing

The Lord did not, of course, expect perfection from His people; however, He did expect them to worship Him alone and be faithful to Him. So, just as God’s judgments came in the natural order and warfare, so too did His promised blessings. In passages like Deuteronomy, chapters 4, 28, 30, and Leviticus 26, the Lord promised to bless the fidelity of His people in the natural order (agricultural plenty, livestock fertility, health, and population increase) and through warfare (defeat of enemies, end to warfare, relief from destruction, and return of captives from exile).

In examining these passages, we find three characteristics with regard to the Lord’s blessings of His people: (1) His blessings were not earned, but based solely on God’s grace (e.g., Hosea 14:1-2); (2) blessings came in varying degrees; and (3) the ultimate or climactic blessing entailed the survival of a remnant of God’s people and a return from exile: “Yet in spite of this, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not reject them, nor will I so abhor them as to destroy them, breaking My covenant with them; for I am the LORD their God. But I will remember for them the covenant with their ancestors, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt in the sight of the nations, that I might be their God. I am the LORD” (Leviticus 26:44-45).

Application

Understanding these dynamics of the covenant (ideals, judgments, and blessings) helps us to see how the prophets depended upon the writings of Moses, and to better understand their writings. And, as believers in the new covenant in Christ, it is important to remember at least two insights that we gain from the New Testament – two insights that help us to see how the new covenant church is similar and yet also different from that of the old.

First, we must recognize that the New Testament applies the lessons learned from the writings of the prophets mainly to the church of Jesus Christ and not to Israel or any other particular nation or political entity. For example, when debating whether or not it was necessary for Gentile believers to be circumcised, James applies the writings of the prophets to their present-day circumstances (Acts 15:13-20). James points out that the work of the Holy Spirit in saving Gentiles and bringing them into covenant with God is a fulfillment of the prophecy of Amos which spoke of how the Lord would rebuild and restore the Tabernacle of David (Amos 9:11-12).

Second, since the coming of Christ, God still sends general judgments and blessings in the natural order and warfare; however, His special ruling over the Church as Redeemer and Lord is distinct from His general providential rule over political nations and all humanity. Because the church of Jesus Christ is no longer confined to one nation, as before under the Law (WCF 25:2; Romans 15:9-12; Ephesians 2:14-22) – and because we no longer have inspired prophets to interpret history for us (Hebrews 1:1-2) – it is impossible to make a definitive one-to-one correlation between a specific sin (whether corporate or personal) and an illness, calamity, natural disaster, or element of warfare.

Conclusion

By His common grace to all people, the Lord causes His sun to rise on both the evil and the good and He sends the rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous (Matthew 5:45). So, when asked about whose sin caused a man to be born blind, Jesus did not assign blame to the man or his parents. Rather, He pointed out how the man’s blindness was for the purpose bringing glory to God, that the works of God might be displayed in Him (John 9:1-3). And, when seeing calamity befall others, Jesus taught that we ought to view those instances as reminders of personal repentance (Luke 13:1-5).

At the end of the day, the main lesson that we may learn from the dynamics of the covenants (ideals, judgments, and blessings) is that just as a loving father disciplines his son (Proverbs 13:24), the Lord disciplines those whom He loves (Hebrews 12:3-14). Therefore, let us be grateful and praise the Lord for the sanctifying work of His Spirit!

The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch