Understanding Covenant, VI: Continuity in Covenant
The God of heaven has chosen to interact with mankind within the framework of covenants, agreements with mutual benefits and responsibilities. In days of old God established covenants with the creation in the days of Noah, with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, with Israel, and with David; in these days God has established a covenant with all mankind through His Son, Jesus of Nazareth.
Different covenants manifest distinctive characteristics, and thus, as Christians, we do well to recognize and honor covenant distinctions, especially between the new covenant in Christ and the old under the Law of Moses. Sadly many have departed from the faith delivered once for all in Christ because they incorporated aspects of the Law of Moses which were never bound upon Christians; the dangers of “Judaizing” have remained among the people of God ever since.
While we must respect the distinctiveness of the covenants God has established with people, we must also be on guard lest we overstate the level of discontinuity among the covenants; God is one, God does not change, and therefore the covenants God has established with mankind also maintain many forms of continuity throughout (Deuteronomy 6:4-6, Malachi 3:6, Ephesians 4:4-6, Hebrews 13:8). Within a century of the death of the Apostles many were led astray by Marcion and those like him: Gentiles who cast aspersions on the revelation of God to Israel and who sought to “de-Judaize” Christianity, suppressed the Old Testament, and carved up the New Testament to put a more palatable God on display. The dangers of Marcionism and anti-Semitism have remained among the people of God ever since.
The evidence of continuity in covenant is on display throughout the New Testament. At no point did Jesus or the Apostles abandon the God of Israel; they did not declare that God’s covenant to Israel was a mistake or a dead end. Instead, Jesus and the Apostles understood and proclaimed Jesus as the embodiment of God’s work in Israel brought to its fulfillment so God’s promises to Abraham would finally be satisfied.
In His life, death, resurrection, ascension, and promise of imminent return, Jesus demonstrated Himself to be the Servant whom God had promised to Israel (cf. Isaiah 42:1-53:12, Acts 3:13). Students of Isaiah, ancient and modern, have sought to understand who the servant represented, for at times it seemed to be Israel as a nation, and at other times an individual Israelite, perhaps the prophet himself (cf. Acts 8:34). Jesus proved to be the individual Israelite who represented the whole: as Israel was born in humble circumstances, sojourned in Egypt, wandered in the wilderness, entered the land, suffered exile, and was somewhat restored in a return, so Jesus was born in humble circumstances, sojourned in Egypt, was tempted in the wilderness, ministered in the land, suffered death, and was restored in His resurrection (cf. Matthew 2:14-15, 4:1-25, 1 Corinthians 15:1-7). Jesus continually framed all He did as the fulfillment of what God had promised Israel through the prophets (cf. Luke 4:16-21); such was no mere proof-texting, but a powerful display of God fulfilling His purposes for Israel in Jesus. Israel was liberated from bondage in Egypt to become the people of God, the means by which God would bestow blessings to the world; yet Israel did not hearken to God, and instead became like the nations of the world (cf. Romans 2:1-29). Jesus came in the flesh and did what Israel could not: He lived in the world but was not of the world, bore sin on the cross so as to defeat its power, and provided for the people of God a new Passover, liberation from the forces of sin and death (Romans 8:1-4, 1 Corinthians 5:7). Jesus, as the Word of God made flesh, embodied the Torah and the Temple, and through His life, death, and resurrection Jesus fulfilled the Torah, and brought heaven and earth together in His glorified, transformed resurrection body which ascended into the heavens (cf. John 1:1-18, 2:13-22, Hebrews 4:15).
In all of this God never abandoned Israel according to the flesh: God instead had proven faithful to His promises to Israel, and provided liberation from the forces of sin and death and full restoration from the exile of alienation on account of sin in Jesus. Those in Israel who had trusted in Jesus throughout had no need to “convert”; Paul himself would speak of his moment of transformation less as conversion and more as the recognition that God had fulfilled His promises (Acts 26:4-8). The welcoming of Gentiles among the people of God was always described in terms of incorporating Gentiles into the faith as Gentiles, as made fellow-citizens and fellow-heirs of the promise of God in Christ: all such language presumed the continued standing of Israelites who put their trust in Jesus among the people of God (cf. Romans 9:1-11:36, Ephesians 2:11-22). Paul would stress in Romans 9:1-11:36 that God’s promises were not revoked; it was not as if Israelites ceased being children of Abraham according to the flesh. Furthermore, the importance of being a child of Abraham was never denigrated: Paul argued that in Christ Gentiles could also become (spiritual) children of Abraham through faith (Romans 4:1-23, Galatians 3:1-27). In Christ God brought the Gentiles into the covenant people; they could now share in the blessing of Abraham.
For that matter, the people and name of Israel were not cast off. Paul repeatedly insisted that Christians should learn from what God had done among Israel, and welcomed Gentile Christians to look at Israel according to the flesh as their fathers in the faith (Romans 15:4, 1 Corinthians 10:1-12). The Scriptures, not just including, but especially the Old Testament, were profitable (2 Timothy 3:14-17). Peter and Paul would speak of Christians, even Gentile Christians, as the Israel of God, and associated the covenant terminology of Israel with Christians (Galatians 6:16, 1 Peter 1:1-2, 2:3-9).
It is right, good, and necessary to draw appropriate distinctions in the covenants between God and mankind, but never to the point of creating discontinuity where God maintained continuity. God did not seek to abolish Israel or His promises to Israel: He fulfilled those promises in Jesus, and welcomed both Israelites and Gentiles to jointly participate in the Kingdom of Christ (Ephesians 2:1-22). Much of what was expected under the Law would remain normative for Christians in the new covenant (e.g. Romans 13:8-13). Christians who would arrogantly consider themselves as superior to Israel would be wiser to own Israel according to the flesh as part of their heritage as the people of God and be willing to see how they could stray according to similar patterns of disobedience (cf. Romans 11:1-36, 1 Corinthians 10:1-12). If we refuse to recognize Jesus of Nazareth as a first century Israelite of the Second Temple Period, sent to save the lost sheep of Israel, we can never understand Him properly at all. May we seek to uphold the continuity among the covenants of the people of God while respecting the points of distinction, navigating between the Scylla of the “Judaizers” and the Charybdis of Marcionism, and glorify God for fulfilling all of His promises in Jesus and making us all one man through His Spirit in Him!
Ethan R. Longhenry