God is a God of covenant.
How many of us really, truly understand that? It is such a vitally important notion to understanding who God is and how He operates, and it is one of the keys that helps me to understand the power of the Easter story.
In the ancient Eastern world, it was fairly commonplace for people to make covenants with one another. A covenant was simply an agreement between two parties. Some scholars believe a covenant was the most solemn, indissoluble oath taken between parties — the Hebrew root from which we get the word “covenant” literally means “to bind together” or “to fetter”.
There are even examples in the Hebrew Scriptures of covenants being made between two people: David and Jonathan, Abraham and Abimelech, and Jacob and Laban to name a few.
But God took this practice of covenant, filled it with absolute power and holiness, and then used it to define his relationship with his chosen people.
We see this in several major covenants God established with Israel, prior to Jesus being sent to earth: one with Noah (his first covenant), one with Abraham, and one with Moses (among others) — each of which, by extension, included the whole of the Jewish people.
In Genesis chapters 8 and 9, God makes a covenant with Noah that “Never again will I curse the ground because of man, even though every inclination of his heart is evil from childhood. And never again will I destroy all living creatures… Never again will all life be cut off by the waters of a flood; never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth.” God famously declares the rainbow a sign of this “everlasting” covenant, made for the “generations to come”. The amazing quality in this covenant is God’s mercy – even though we screw up (as we will see Noah do in a big way shortly after making this covenant with God!), God will withhold the judgment we deserve. God will shower us with mercy and patience. God and Noah mark this covenant with animal sacrifices.
God covenanted with Abraham in Genesis chapters 12-17 that he would, in part, “make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” The covenant goes on to establish the land that God will give to Abraham’s descendants and even a surprising promise: that Abraham’s offspring will be as numerous and difficult to count as the stars.
I say surprising because, if you know the story, Abraham and his wife Sarah were well “advanced in years” – to use the mild understatement the Jewish authors employed. They were past child bearing age, and yet here is God promising them, with an unbreakable oath, that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars. And not only that, that all nations would be blessed through his family. All nations.
God was going to bless Abraham so that he could be a blessing to others – and ultimately, the entire world. Crazy stuff.
In the short term, of course, God miraculously provides a son for Abraham and Sarah, and their family eventually expands to be the beginning of the entire nation of Israel. In the long term, the covenant came to take on an even bigger meaning, as we will see. And again, God and Abraham mark the sealing of this covenant with the sacrifice of a cow, a goat, a ram, a dove and a pigeon.
The next covenant God makes with his people is the Mosaic covenant, established through Moses on Mount Sinai. This covenant included not only the ten commandments, but all 613 commandments and regulations that would come to govern Jewish life. It included promises and warnings of blessings and curses depending on if Israel would decide to follow the spirit of these laws. And it established the ultimate end game of the agreement: that the nation of Israel was God’s chosen people and would be made into a holy nation in order to be a light to the nations. The sealing of this covenant was marked by the sacrificing of bulls and the sprinkling of blood on the altar and the people of Israel.
What does any of this have to do with Easter? It is important to understand that God is a God of covenant, because ultimately that’s what Easter (and the days leading up to it) is: the establishment of a new covenant from God to his Creation.
The ancient Jewish prophets looked forward to this new covenant for hundreds of years before it was made. Take, for example, the words of the prophet Jeremiah:
”The time is coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.”
Understanding the nature and importance of the covenants that were already in place with their ancestors helps you to feel the immense power of that declaration, and the anticipation and wonder the Jewish people must have felt. God continues:
It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,” declares the LORD. “This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time,” declares the LORD. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people… For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”
For 600 years after this proclamation, the Jewish people were looking forward to the establishment of that new covenant. And finally, in the fullness of time, Jesus came to finally establish the new covenant. He made this clear during the last meal he shared with his disciples, where he took the bread from the Passover meal and declared, “This is my body, broken for you” and the wine, saying, “This is my blood, poured out for you.”
But curiously, he expands on the meaning of the wine-as-blood analogy. Luke records that Jesus said, “This is the blood of the new covenant.”
Now stop for a moment and imagine the weight of that statement for his followers, devout Jews who have been looking forward to this prophesied new covenant for hundreds of years. Jesus declares it finally here. This is it. The beginning of the new beginning.
But why choose to make this announcement when talking about blood? Let’s go back and look at the three old covenants we talked about earlier. Each of them was sealed by the shedding of blood during a sacrifice. Noah, Abraham, and Moses all sacrificed animals to seal their covenants with God. And here, Jesus is offering his own blood as a sacrifice to seal this new covenant that God is establishing with his people.
And as Jeremiah prophesied, this covenant would not be like the old covenants, especially the one made with Moses. It would not be based on Law. It would be based on grace. As we’ll cover in my next post, the Law was powerless to remove sin and guilt. All it did was point out where we failed. But now, in Jesus, through this new covenant, the Law has reached its end (Romans 10:4) and has been destroyed (Colossians 2:13-14). Under this new covenant, the Law has been written on our hearts and God has done what the Law and what animal sacrifices never could accomplish: complete and utter forgiveness of our sins. He will remember them no more.
That’s part of the power of Jesus’ sacrifice – it ushered in the long-awaited New Covenant between God and his people, under which we can now live.