The Covenants of Promise

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Before we deal with our subject "The Covenants of Promise" mentioned in verse 12 of Ephesians chapter 2, let us take a general look at the whole chapter. Broadly, it is a survey of the plight of the world outside Jesus Christ and outside the covenants given to Israel; it proceeds to relate the saving action of the Lord God showing the rich mercy by which He extends His grace to the Gentiles. "By grace are ye saved" verse 5, and in verse 4, "for His great love wherewith He loved us, even when we were dead in sins," He then called us unto good works, not for justification but as a consequence of the new life in the Lord Jesus Christ. Verse 15 speaks of the enmity; it is a fact of human nature that any group, or individual who claim superior knowledge, or a superior position, or privileges causes envy jealousy or even anger. The Jews boasted Abraham as their father implying, that they had God on their side. This caused enmity to grow, first by Ishmael, then Esau, which, over the generations has spread to nearly fifty nations and related tribes in the Middle East, and then, with the crucifixion of the Lord Jesus Christ this animosity spread into the world of Christendom causing much hostility outside the true ecclesias. Its presence indicated a lack of understanding and humility on both sides, and has, down the ages been responsible for much persecution.

The centre of discussion is in verse 14 - "He is our peace who hath made us both one." The enmity between Jew and Gentile has been cancelled, the two being called together in one harmonious fellowship in Jesus Christ. Both Jew and Gentile have lost their ethnic and cultural identity and gain something much better - a place in the One Body of Christ, which is the ecclesia; the new race privileged to enjoy a degree of access to the Lord their God, which they could never have known in their previous state "having no hope and without God in the world."

In verse 12 the Gentile position is shown in three ways:-

(1) as outside the covenants of God, having no Messianic hope (in fact, the Jews saw the Gentiles as being brought into subjection to themselves in their hope of a Messiah);

(2) as one of deprivation in that they did not share in the privileges and advantages of belonging to the most favoured nation;

(3) by the saddest of all misfortunes, an ignorance of God which denied the hope that could only come from a knowledge of the Lord God and His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. But now, with Christ's coming, a new era had opened to them. See how the Gentile position changed with their inclusion in the New Covenant of Grace, once afar off, now brought nigh by the blood of Christ, which is His death.

This sacrifice of Jesus Christ transformed radically the state of both Jews and Gentiles and transformed their mutual relations, thereby making peace. By the redemption of both, the Jew specifically from under the law, the Gentile out of Adam into Christ, removed the middle wall of partition. It no longer separates. There is now one new man in the place of the two. One ecclesia, not two strangers of Jew and Gentile. One body, so making peace. "For He is our peace, who hath made both one, and hath broken down the middle wall of partition between us; having abolished in His flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances; for to make in Himself of twain one new man, so making peace: and that He might reconcile both unto God in one body by the cross, having slain the enmity thereby: and came and preached peace to you which were afar off, and to them that were nigh."

Making peace reminds us of His name "Prince of Peace." The word "shalom" means much more than the absence of hostility, it denotes material well being, security and concord with overtones of spiritual well being as in its context as a quality of the Lord God, "The God of Peace." Verse 19, "Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and of the household of God; and are built upon the foundations of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief corner stone."

One church. One foundation. The promise here is not second class status within the covenant community but a full fellowship as fellow citizens with the saints. A single entity, the household of God, members with equal rights and privileges.

This new "building" has now taken over Israel's vocation as God's Holy Temple, with a new foundation, Jesus Christ the chief corner-stone. Architecturally it is understood the chief corner-stone is the datum, or fixed point or principle from which all other foundation stones take their positions. It governs the whole lie of the building. From it is measured all the dimensions, and it forms the basis of all calculations during construction, ensuring it is correctly built. Verse 21, "In whom all the building fitly framed together groweth unto a holy temple in the Lord; in whom, ye also are builded together for an habitation of God through the Spirit."

Going back to verse 12 we now see what it was that had been withheld from the Gentiles, "the covenants of promise." There is in the word promise, as we use it, an acceptance of the possibility of it not being fulfilled. A promise is usually given to assure to the best of our ability, our doing something; not a guarantee of something being done, but it can be the expression of our sincere intention. In the Hebrew language there is not an equivalent word, the Hebrew term "amer dabor" simply states that someone said or spoke some word with future references, so a promise is a word that goes forward into time. It reaches ahead of the speaker and its recipient, to make an appointment between them, in the future. Of course, there are many instances in Scripture when the word promise is not used, but the concept of promise is there. Promise is in all that God has said He will do.

The Scriptures abound in references to the immutable will of the Lord God being fulfilled. Promise is the basis of all the proclamations of the Lord. Even the name sometimes rendered "I will be whom I will be," is a promise. Unlike men, all that the Lord has promised He can and will perform. His word does not return unto Him void.

The apostle Paul comments on Abraham's faith in God's word in Romans chapter 5, "Abraham staggered not at the promise of God through unbelief, but was strong in faith, giving glory to God, being fully persuaded what He had promised He was able to perform." The Lord God not only knows, but commands the future. Throughout the Old Testament there is a pattern of promise and fulfilment. Solomon referred to God's promise to his father, David. In 1 Kings 8:15, "and Solomon said, Blessed be the Lord God of Israel which spake with His mouth unto David my father and hath with His hand fulfilled it."

It was the experience of all the prophets that God could and would keep His promises. It was part of their credentials to be able to show fulfilment of His word, as seen for example in Jeremiah 28:9, "When the word of the prophet shall come to pass, then shall the prophet be known, that the Lord hath truly sent him."

When we use the word "covenant" it is possible we may think of an agreement between two parties, perhaps looking for a shared responsibility or at least, a degree of mutual benefit, but in the Scriptures, God's covenants are nearly all the action of a sovereign God bestowing on His people a measure of grace according to their need. The word is first used in Genesis 6:18 where God says to Noah, "With thee I establish my covenant, and thou shalt come into the ark, thou and thy sons, and thy wife and thy son's wives with thee." In the previous verse we read "I, even I, do bring a flood of waters upon all the earth to destroy all flesh wherein there is the breath of life."

God had chosen Noah and his family and He, in His purpose, provided for their need. Here we see a dispensation of Grace, not a reciprocal agreement. God provided. What Noah had to do was to act on God's commandment, or invitation, to build the ark and accept God's instructions to bring into it the specified number of animals, but there was no conflict of interest; the covenant itself was unilateral. After the flood had abated the Lord made another covenant with Noah and his posterity. This we read of in Genesis 9:9-17, "And I, behold, I establish my covenant with you, and with your seed after you; and with every living creature that is with you, of the fowl, of the cattle, and of every beast of the earth with you; from all that go out of the ark, to every beast of the earth. And I will establish my covenant with you; neither shall all flesh be cut off any more by the waters of a flood; neither shall there any more be a flood to destroy the earth. And God said, This is the token of the covenant which I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for perpetual generations: I do set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between me and the earth. And it shall came to pass, when I bring a cloud over the earth, that the bow shall be seen in the cloud: and I will remember my covenant, which is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall no more become a flood to destroy all flesh. And the bow shall be in the cloud; and I will look upon it, that I may remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is upon the earth. And God said to Noah, This is the token of the covenant, which I will establish between me and all flesh that is upon the earth."

This shows more clearly than any other instance, the essential motive of a covenant. The thought of a bilateral agreement is wholly excluded, the keynote here is "behold I am establishing my covenant with you and with your seed after you..." That is, that the Lord God conceived it. He established it, and it was to be universal; i.e. to embrace not only Noah, his family and his seed after him, but every living creature too. It was not subject to acceptance but was unconditional and everlasting. Here we see God as the Saviour of all men - and not for the first time!

The next covenant in Genesis is that made to Abraham. The same principles apply but there are new features as well. Three express promises are made; the possession of the land, the increase of his seed, and the promise that God would be a God unto him and his seed after him, and of course, we cannot leave out the promise made earlier to him that "in thee shall all the families of the earth be blessed."

First the land. Genesis 15:18, "In the same day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, Unto thy seed have I given this land, from the river of Egypt unto the great river Euphrates," and in chapter 17 God confirms that His covenant will be through Sarah's son Isaac, and not through Ishmael. This covenant with Abraham had the additional requirements of acceptance in a formal way. Verse 17. "This is my covenant, which ye shall keep, between me and you and thy seed after thee, every manchild among you shall be circumcised, and it shall be a token of the covenant between me and you." In verse 14 we see that the uncircumcised would be excluded from the covenant and would be as a Gentile, estranged from the covenants of promise. Keeping the covenant in this way was a condition of continuing in God's grace and the fulfilment of its promise. It had to be reciprocal for there to be any communion with their God. After all, it was a response to His grace by obedience that was required to bring it into effect.

The Mosaic covenant extended this principle much further. Here God looks to Israel for a bigger commitment from His redeemed people. He offers more blessings and shows how they may be obtained. God had chosen His people in love; He had adopted them to extend His love to them for the sake of Abraham and because He loved them. These covenants made under Moses were in pursuance and fulfilment of those made to Abraham. They did not conflict or contrast with the Abrahamic covenants; they contained the same principle of the sovereign dispensation of grace; the spiritual relationship which is at the centre of the covenants with Abraham is also at the centre of the Mosaic covenants, for God said "I will take you to me for a people and I will be to you a God and ye shall know that I am the Lord your God."

Since this covenant contemplated an intimate relationship with the Lord God as being His redeemed and adopted people, so God's demands of obedience in governing and regulating this fellowship are to be seen as conditions of their continuing enjoyment of its privileges. The holiness demanded by the covenant fellowship is to be expressed in obedience to God's commandments. Holiness was an essential aspect of covenant blessing. Israel had been redeemed to be a holy people, separated to serve their God.

In the keeping of the covenant and in obeying God's voice the covenant is seen to be dispensed, in operation and as constituting a sure relationship. What is dependent on obedience is the enjoyment of the blessings that the covenant brings and the promise of the people to obey was the only proper response to the grace which the covenant disclosed.

David as God's chosen king over Israel, enjoyed a renewal and confirmation of a covenant relationship on a more personal basis. In Psalm 89:3 God says, "I have made a covenant with my chosen, I have sworn to David, my servant. Thy seed will I establish for ever, and build thy throne to all generations." And in verse 27, "Also I will make him my first-born higher than the kings of the earth." Here, too, we see the idea of the sovereign dispensation of grace. The security, the determination and the immutability of the promise given. David's faithful response is seen in some of his last words. After his song of thanksgiving and after the recognition of a degree of failure, he could still say "Although my house be not so with God, yet He hath made me an everlasting covenant, ordained in all things, and sure. For this is all my salvation, and all my desire, although He make it not to grow."

Here David sees the consummation of God's covenant with him taken from the present into the future Messianic age, the age of the New Covenant. From the Psalms we know David understood that the covenants with him were principally Messianic, and they were further developed by the prophets, Isaiah wrote, in chapter 42, verse 6, "I, the Lord, give thee for a covenant of the people," and in this chapter we see that the servant of the Lord is given, given to be a covenant of the people and to be the embodiment of all the blessings of God. The richness of covenant grace is to be seen by the gift of God's only begotten Son; its security, its assurance and its provision all come from a God who provides all that man could possibly desire.

This is the covenant of the fullness of time; of the consummation of the ages. In Galatians 4:4 we read "When the fullness of time was come God sent forth His Son," and in Hebrews 9:26, "But now once, in the end of the world (age) hath He appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself." It is this reason it is the everlasting covenant. It is everlasting because it cannot be displaced by any other more complete realization of what covenant grace embodies. The giving of His Son and His Son's manifestation of His Father's sacrificial love are revealed in its final glory. In Hebrews 9 we see the New Covenant as referring to the grace secured, and the relationship established by the life which He gave on the Cross. Verse 14, "How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal spirit offered Himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? And for this cause He is the mediator of the New Covenant, that by means of death for the redemption of the transgressions that were under the first covenant they which are called might receive the promise of eternal inheritance. For where a covenant is, there must also of necessity be the death of the testator, for a covenant is of force after men are dead; otherwise it is of no strength at all while the testator liveth."

In this quotation the writer uses the notation of a last will. This is an exceptional use of the term covenant but it is introduced at this point for the purpose of emphasizing the definitive effectiveness of the death of our Lord in securing and ensuring the benefits of the covenant. There is no possibility of its failing to achieve its purpose in bringing the covenants of God to their ultimate purpose than there is in making void the provision of a last will and testament after the testator has died. This shows again that we have the most express witness to the fact that the New Covenant is to be understood as a unilateral disposition and totally foreign to the idea of a mutual contract.

From the time of Abraham the covenants are redemptive in content and purpose, but this does not mean that redemptive grace began with Abraham, for if we see the word covenant as an undertaking by the Lord whereby He provides all our needs, both materially and spiritually, we see also a redemptive covenant in the action He took with Adam and Eve when they tried and failed to provide a covering for sin by themselves. The Lord God immediately covered their sin to protect them from His just Law. He shed blood, or gave a life, albeit that of an animal, to provide a covering of skins so that they could stand before Him in a covenant of atonement, for if they had not been covered they would have been put to death. God knew their need so provided the means to enable them to continue before Him in faith. Obedience had failed, and they were wholly dependent on God's mercy and provision. It is here, for the first time, that "God was the Saviour of all men."

When the Lamb of God came, He revealed to His disciples in that upper room as He offered them the cup to drink, saying "This is my blood of the New Covenant shed for the remission of sins," a relationship established by the blood which He was to shed, the life of which He gave on the Cross to purchase us, or redeem us, unto His Father; a relationship by redemption in which as His sons and daughters, we can come before Him through our Mediator, the Lord Jesus Christ, for the forgiveness of sins day by day.

At the centre, the very heart of all these covenants of grace and redemption was the promise "I will be your God and ye shall be my people" and the New Covenant brings this relationship to its highest level of achievement. Now we can take to ourselves, by faith, the word of our Lord "He that believeth on me and Him that sent me, hath everlasting life."

Throughout Israel's history they were encouraged to have faith in their redemption by the Lord God. By being taken from among the Gentiles and separated unto their God by His covenants of grace, they were assured of a present state of redemption and favour which could in the course of time, give them a hope of eternal life through faith, as Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, the prophets and many other devout and God-fearing Jews down the ages, believed God would provide.

We are doubly blessed; not only do we see all the covenants of promise made to the fathers, we have seen the fulfilment of the New Covenant - the Lamb of God slain from the foundation of the world, and heard His words. We do not have the experience of hoping God will provide, for we have seen it come to pass. The covenant promises are largely fulfilled and we see why our Lord Jesus pleaded with His followers "Believe me that I am in the Father, and the Father in me, or else believe me for the very works sake." (John 14:11) We are told repeatedly that our present covenant relationship with our Lord God through the sacrifices of our Lord Jesus Christ brings us before Him as His sons and daughters. This adoption which we now enjoy was given to us when we entered into this relationship through the waters of baptism. Our birth through those waters was when we accepted the covenant through His blood in the which He purchased us from sin and brought us to our Lord God as His sons and daughters.

As we approach the last days we are surely aware of the many warnings given us by our Lord. Perhaps some of them are warnings given to Christendom in general, for most would claim to teach Him and do many mighty works in His Name, but we must not be too complacent and point the finger without taking heed to what the Lord said, for many will appear to claim works as proof of fidelity, to whom Jesus will say "Depart from me, I never knew you" which is almost the same as saying "you do not know me," and as we know "this is life eternal, to know thee, the only true God and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent."

Some believe that the messages given by our Lord to John while on the Isle of Patmos had a dual application; firstly for the seven churches in Asia and secondly, as suggested by Dr. Thomas, a prophetic application to seven ages, or stages, in the life history of the church. If this were the case then the words of counsel from our Lord would apply to us, but not to Christendom in general, for these ecclesias where were Jesus walked. His counsel then was to buy of Him gold tried in the fire, that we might be rich, white raiment that we might be clothed, and to anoint our eyes with eye salve that we might see.

Concerning the "counsel of the Spirit" here are some words of Dr. Thomas relating to the church at Laodicea:-

"Gold refined by fire is the symbol of a tried faith, this appears from the comparison in 1 Peter 1 where the faithful are said for a season to be in heaviness through manifold persecutions, that the trial of their faith being more precious than of gold which perisheth though it be tried with fire, might be found unto praise and honour and glory, at the appearing of Jesus anointed. A tried faith comes forth of tribulation. The spirit thereof counselled them to buy a tried faith, which could only be purchased at the cost of much tribulation, which worketh patience and patience, experience, and experience hope, and hope maketh not ashamed. To become subject to the tribulation they had only to contend earnestly for the faith once delivered to the saints, to buy a tried faith then, would be the fruit of zeal, and a change of mind, the cause of their Justification, or investment with the white garments of righteousness. But to arrive at this most desirable state it was necessary that the eyes of their understanding be anointed with the unction of the Spirit, that they might perceive what with all their piety they were perfectly blind to. The Spirit's eye-salve is the word of the testimony contained in the writings of the prophets and apostles."

Jesus said "Buy of me." The buying had to be from the Lord and if we can see in His words a challenge to our faith surely it is to Him we must go. He said "the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit and they are life." The outcome of this faith and perception enables us to overcome, from within and without, and it is to be hoped that through His covenanted grace we may sup with Him and He with us. Revelation 3:19 reads, "As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten; be zealous therefore and repent. Behold I stand at the door and knock; if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come into him and sup with him and he with me. To him that overcometh will I grant to sit down with me in my throne, even as I overcame, and am sat down with my Father in His throne. He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches."

In conclusion let us read some selected verses from the third chapter of Paul's letter to the Ephesians:-

"Ye have heard of the dispensation of the grace of God which in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men, as it is now revealed unto His holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit, that the Gentiles should be fellow heirs and of the same body, and partakers of His promise in Christ, by the Gospel, to make all men see what is the fellowship of the mystery, which from the beginning of the world hath been hid in God, who created all things by Jesus Christ; to the intent that now unto the principalities and power in heavenly places might be known by the church the manifold wisdom of God; according to the eternal purpose which He purposed in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have boldness and access with confidence by the faith of Him of whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named, that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with might by His Spirit in the inner man: that Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith, that ye, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and depth and height, and to know the love of Christ which passeth knowledge, that ye might be filled with all the fullness of God. Now unto Him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that worketh in us, unto Him be glory in the church, by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end. Amen."

Ray Gregory.
December 1988

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