Chapter 1 – God’s Working Through Covenant



(see written transcript below)

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Lesson 1 – Written Transcript

It is important to our quest for authentic Christianity for us to understand that, throughout history, whenever God has entered into a relationship with people, He has always based that relationship on a covenant. The reason for this is two-fold: first, so that the holiness of God is protected; and, second, so that people can be constantly reassured of their relationship with God.

God’s holiness is protected by covenant because every covenant comes with terms.  When we talk about the terms of a covenant we mean, “provisions that determine the nature and scope of an agreement” (Term, 2013). Another word for terms is the word, “conditions,” meaning: “a premise upon which the fulfillment of an agreement depends” (Condition, 2013).

Because God is altogether holy and righteous—“God is light, and in Him there is no darkness at all” (I John 1:5, NASB)—He cannot, will not, indiscriminately enter into a close, intimate, personal relationship with sinful beings. This is why the Bible teaches that “the wages of sin is death [spiritual separation from God] (Romans 6:23, NASB).  However, God, in His great wisdom, has set forth certain terms—conditions—in every covenant that He has ever made with humanity in order to ensure that His holiness will not be violated while, at the same time, allowing Him to express His love and enter into a loving relationship with His people.  To better understand how all this works, we need to consider a very important aspect of Bible teaching—God’s working through covenant—by taking a look at the three major covenants that God has employed over the course of Biblical history in order to accomplish His will with regard to the redemption of humanity.

The Abrahamic Covenant

God’s covenant with Abraham, sometimes called the Abrahamic Covenant, was first inaugurated back in that period of time that is often referred to as the Patriarchal Dispensation—that period of Bible history from Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden up until the great exodus of the Children of Israel from the land of Egypt and the giving of the Law of Moses on Mt. Sinai. However, as we shall see, certain aspects of the covenant God made with Abraham thousands of years ago are still very much in effect to this very day.

During that first period of Bible history, civilization developed rapidly.  Great cities and mighty nations emerged.  While God certainly had His prophets, and even His priests, scattered among the nations to reveal His will to humanity, He chose to deal more specifically with families and tribes through the heads of household, or patriarchs.  But of all the families on the earth, God chose one of the least likely individuals—an old man who had no children, and whose aged wife was barren—to become, arguably, the greatest patriarch in all of human history.  God’s call to Abraham can be found very early in scripture.  In Genesis Chapter 12 we read:

Go forth from your country, and from your relatives and from your father’s house, to the land which I will show you; and I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great; and so you shall be a blessing; and I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse. And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.

(Genesis 12:1-3, NASB)

In this passage of scripture, we can see that God’s covenant with Abraham was predicated on three great promises that God made to him.  God promised to make of Abraham a great nation.  God also promised to give to Abraham and his descendants all the land through which He would be leading him; including a new land to which He was leading him.  Sometimes, Bible scholars combine these two promises into one and refer to it as the “Nation-Land Promise.”  But then, of special note, God also declared His divine intention that it would be through Abraham that “all the families of the earth would be blessed.”  This promise is sometimes referred to as the “Family Blessing Promise,” or sometimes the “Spiritual Seed Promise,” and it is a promise that includes you and me.

But why would God choose this particular person to become the great patriarch through which He would work to bring about His plan for the redemption of humanity?  Well, thousands of years later, the writer of the book of Hebrews, in the New Testament, shares this insight with us:

By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going.  By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise.  For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.  And by faith even Sarah, who was past childbearing age, was enabled to bear children because she considered him faithful who had made the promise.  And so from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore.

(Hebrews 11:8-12, NIV)

According to this passage of scripture, God chose this beautiful old couple, who were physically incapable of having any children, to become the mother and father of innumerable children, and the progenitors of a mighty nation that continues to grow and flourish to this very day, not because they were in any way perfect or holy, but because of their heart for God—they were people of faith; people who considered God faithful to His promises.  God used the frailty of their bodies in their old age to demonstrate His sustaining power.  He kept Sarah’s womb barren until old age so that He could demonstrate that the child that would one day be born to her was no accident, it was not happenstance; it was due to the working of God—it was the fulfillment of a promise.  However, God didn’t want to make such promises to just anyone; He wanted to give His promises to people of faith.  He didn’t want to enter into a covenant relationship with just anyone; He wanted to enter into this personal and intimate relationship with people who had a heart for Him.

After making these incredible promises to Abraham, God went on to seal His promises with a formal, solemn, and binding covenant.  On one dark and mysterious night, the Lord held a very strange, and somewhat frightening, covenant inauguration ceremony for Abraham. We read:

So He [God] said to him, ‘Bring Me a three year old heifer, and a three year old female goat, and a three year old ram, and a turtledove, and a young pigeon.’ Then he brought all these to Him and cut them in two, and laid each half opposite the other; but he did not cut the birds. The birds of prey came down upon the carcasses, and Abram drove them away. Now when the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram; and behold, terror and great darkness fell upon him… It came about when the sun had set, that it was very dark, and behold, there appeared a smoking oven and a flaming torch which passed between these pieces. On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, ‘To your descendants I have given this land, from the river of Egypt as far as the great river, the river Euphrates.’

(Genesis 15:9-17, NASB)

As we can see, the initiation of the covenant that God made with Abraham was steeped in death; which, to us, might seem like a strange way to officially inaugurate or ratify a covenant.  But God had His reasons for doing it this way.

First, the ceremony was, likely, not particularly odd to Abraham because in the Chaldean culture of the Mesopotamian River Valley, it was a common practice for two parties to “cut a covenant” between them by slaying an animal, splitting it, and then walking together between the two halves.  It is believed that this practice reinforced both the solemn severity and the binding nature of the covenant by illustrating the concept that the fate of the slain animal would, or at least should, also be the fate of the one who would renege on the agreement and deliberately break the covenant (Melough, 2001).

But of even greater importance, is what the idea of “blood sacrifice” has always meant throughout Bible history.  Since the very beginning of recorded history, with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and the slaying of the animals whose skins were used to cover their nakedness, animals have been used for the atonement of humanities iniquity. In the New Testament book of Hebrews we read: “In fact, the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Hebrews 9:22, NIV).

While God is, indeed, the very essence of holy perfection, Abraham certainly was not; nor would his physical, fleshly descendants ever be.  And, as we have seen, God cannot, will not, arbitrarily enter into any close, binding, formal relationship with a sinful being—not even someone with a heart like Abraham’s.  God’s pure and unimaginable holiness, as well as His divine justice, simply will not permit that.  Therefore, in order to be able to enter into a covenant relationship with Abraham, it was first necessary to make provision for God’s holiness and for the satisfaction of God’s justice; which has always required that all sin, all wickedness, every act of iniquity be paid for with nothing less than a death.

Does that sound a bit severe to you?  Human beings, at least in our modern culture, seem to have difficulty comprehending and accepting such a degree of holiness; or appreciating the extreme demands of divine justice.  But we need to remember that humanity’s attempts at rationalizing sin do not change the nature of divinity, the character of God, or the demands of His holy law.

So animals were killed—blood was spilled—and their bodies were cut in half with each side of the carcass laying opposite the other; illustrating that the covenant represented both parties—God and Abraham.  The halves of the bodies that were lined up on one side symbolized God side of the covenant; and the fact that because these sacrifices had been offered, God’s justice was being satisfied and His holiness protected. He could therefore allow Himself to enter into a close and binding covenant relationship with Abraham.

The halves of the bodies lined up on the other side symbolized Abraham’s side of the covenant; and the fact that, because blood had been shed, atonement for sin was being made and Abraham could be considered, by God’s grace, righteous because he was faithful—even though he was, still, a sinful human being.

Of great significance to these matters, we must realize that the declaration of righteousness that God was willing to attribute to Abraham was not based on the animal sacrifices themselves, but rather, on what those animal sacrifices, and every sacrifice ever offered throughout Bible history, actually prophesied—the eventual coming of the Messiah.

You see, virtually everything that God did with, for, and through His people back in Old Testament days carried with it some aspect of Messianic prophecy.  Every animal sacrifice that was ever offered, from Adam up to the time of Christ, including these animal sacrifices required of Abraham for the inauguration of the covenant, symbolized and prophesied, either wholly or marginally, the coming sacrifice of Christ at the cross.  Animal sacrifices were never about simply appeasing the wrath of God with blood offerings; rather, they were all about celebrating the grace of God by foreshadowing the eventual coming of the Messiah who would, with His own blood, provide for the redemption of God’s faithful people everywhere and for all time.  It was important, therefore, that blood be spilled in the inauguration of the Abrahamic covenant because this covenant would find it’s ultimate fulfillment in the coming Messianic covenant; and the New Covenant in Christ would be deeply rooted in this covenant that God had made with Abraham.

The smoking oven and the flaming torch in Abraham’s night vision actually represent certain aspects of the divine nature and character of God.  The smoking oven, or cooking pot, which very likely consumed the carcasses of the sacrifices as it passed between them, signaled that God had, indeed, accepted the sacrifices and was, therefore, willing to formally ratify the covenant. However, the fact that it was a “smoking” oven also represented the all consuming fury of God’s justice in the relentless pursuit of the satisfaction of executing retribution for iniquity.  In the context of God’s divine power and great glory, the New Testament writer of the book of Hebrews says, Therefore, since we receive a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us show gratitude, by which we may offer to God an acceptable service with reverence and awe; for our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:28-29, NASB).

The flaming torch, or lamp, represents God’s guiding light through the truth of His word; as when in the Bible we read, Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Psalm 119:105, NASB), or when Jesus said, “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12).

But it is important for us to remember that God didn’t stop with just the inauguration ceremony and leave it at that. Rather, as with every covenant, He went on to institute a formal reminder, or token, of the covenant that He had made with Abraham; a token that neither Abraham nor his descendants would ever be able to easily forget. The Bible says:

God said further to Abraham, ‘Now as for you, you shall keep My covenant, you and your descendants after you throughout their generations. This is My covenant, which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: every male among you shall be circumcised. And you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin, and it shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you.’

(Genesis 17:9-11, NASB)

The Mosaic Covenant

Many years later, after they had become a great nation, God entered into another covenant with the descendants of Abraham when He sent His prophet, Moses, to lead the children of Israel out of Egypt and into the land that He had promised to give to Abraham.  This covenant corresponded to the second great dispensation of Bible history from the time of the giving of the Law of Moses on Mt. Sinai up until the death of Christ on the cross.  During this period of history, God no longer dealt with humanity through the heads of households, family by family.  Rather, God now made it His intention to covenant with an entire nation of people.  And the covenant to which He called them, like the one He made with Abraham two thousand years earlier, was predicated on some wonderful promises that God made to His people, Israel, if they would remain faithful to Him. We read:

Moses went up to God, and the Lord called to him from the mountain, saying, ‘Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob and tell the sons of Israel: ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings, and brought you to Myself. Now then, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you shall speak to the sons of Israel.”

(Exodus 19:3-6, NASB)

God’s promise to Israel was to make them a nation unlike any other that had ever existed anywhere else on earth.  He intended to claim them, the whole nation of them, as His very own possession; to make of them a holy nation—unique, set apart, consecrated to God—and to protect them and bless them accordingly.  And, just as He did with Abraham, God called Moses and all the children of Israel to participate together with Him in a beautiful and wondrous inauguration ceremony; a ceremony that was, again, steeped in blood. The Bible says:

Then Moses came and recounted to the people all the words of the Lord and all the ordinances; and all the people answered with one voice and said, ‘All the words which the Lord has spoken we will do!’ Moses wrote down all the words of the Lord. Then he arose early in the morning, and built an altar at the foot of the mountain with twelve pillars for the twelve tribes of Israel. He sent young men of the sons of Israel, and they offered burnt offerings and sacrificed young bulls as peace offerings to the Lord. Moses took half of the blood and put it in basins, and the other half of the blood he sprinkled on the altar. 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!’ So Moses took the blood and sprinkled it on the people, and said, ‘Behold the blood of the covenant, which the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words.’ Then Moses went up with Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel, and they saw the God of Israel; and under His feet there appeared to be a pavement of sapphire, as clear as the sky itself. Yet He did not stretch out His hand against the nobles of the sons of Israel; and they saw God, and they ate and drank.

(Exodus 24:3-11, NASB)

Just as with the inauguration of the Abrahamic covenant, the inauguration of God’s covenant with the nation of Israel was steeped in blood; for it also required animal sacrifices.  According to this passage of scripture, when the mighty bulls were slaughtered, Moses took half of the blood and put it in basins and the other half he sprinkled on an alter.  This represented both sides of the covenant that God and His people were entering into together.

The blood on the alter represented God’s side of the covenant and the fact that, because these deaths had taken place and blood had been spilled, God’s justice was being appeased and His holiness was being protected; thus allowing Him to enter into a formal and binding covenant relationship with these people.

The blood that had been put into the basins was sprinkled over all the people.  This represented Israel’s side of the covenant and the fact that atonement—payment for sin—was taking place because the blood, which represented and prophesied the eventual coming of their Messiah, had been shed on their behalf; thus allowing them to enter into an intimate covenant relationship with their Holy God.

We also need to note that, as with Abraham, God did not stop with just the inauguration ceremony. In order to continually remind the children of Israel of their covenant relationship with God, He gave them certain tokens, as well.  The Bible goes on to say:

Now the Lord said to Moses, ‘Come up to Me on the mountain and remain there, and I will give you the stone tablets with the law and the commandment which I have written for their instruction.’

(Exodus 24:12, NASB)

The Ten Commandments, miraculously engraved on tablets of stone by the very “finger” of God, and later placed inside the Ark of the Covenant, alongside Aaron’s rod and a jar of manna, served as a perpetual reminder of God’s covenant relationship with the nation of Israel.


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