Monday, November 17, 2008

Covenant of Grace

This year I am teaching two home-school history classes. One is a continuation of the class that I have been teaching for the last 4 years. This class is for older kids and both of my boys attend this class. The second class is for younger kids, fourth grade and under. Hannah, my daughter, attends this one. In the younger class we have literally gone back to the very beginning of history. The first event in history that we studied with the younger class was Creation. From there we move through Biblical and world history and see how and when they overlap. It has been a good reminder for me to go back and revisit some things that I haven't looked at or considered in four years.

About a week ago we studied God's covenant with Abram as recorded in Genesis 15. It was such a powerful story and is so applicable to us today as believers that I wanted to share it in a post, so here we go. (Warning; this may be lengthy.)

The first thing we must understand in examining the covenant process is to realize that this process was common place in the ancient middle east. A covenant is simply a promise between two parties to agree to follow through on a set of conditions or circumstances. These were very solemn agreements and were not to be taken lightly. Often times a covenant would extend past those who made the promise to all of their descendants.

The example that I used in the class was to imagine two neighbors who were both farmers shared a watering hole for their sheep. These two neighbors would promise each other through a covenant to allow each other access to the watering hole. They would both agree to enter into a covenant with each other and would then arrange the covenant process.

The act of making a covenant often involved cattle or sheep for sacrifice. The two parties involved would kill the animals by severing them into two pieces, the front half and the back half. They would then separate the pieces of their sacrifice by placing them a certain distance apart. This would create a pathway between the halves of their sacrifice. It also left a significant amount of blood that connected the two halves. The two farmers in our illustration would then walk on the path of blood between the severed halves of the animal. This act was a declaration of promise to hold to the terms of the agreement. This act also stated to the other who was involved that if they did not uphold their end of the covenant that there would be a penalty. They were literally stating as they walked through the sacrifice that if they violated the terms of the covenant that the other party could then do to them what they had just done to the animals. So, the making of a covenant was literally an oath of death.

That takes us to Genesis 15. I will assume that you can read the text yourself, but I will summarize the story for you. God tells Abram to gather a cow, a goat, a ram, and some birds to prepare them for the covenant process. Abram obeys and sacrifices the animals and then severs
all but the birds into two pieces, separating them and leaving the trail of blood in the middle between them. As nightfall comes, God places Abram into a deep sleep. In a vision, while sleeping, Abram sees a smoking oven and a burning torch pass between the animal halves. God then speaks to Abram and promises again to fulfill His covenant with him.

A simple reading of this narrative provides us with a glimpse one of the seemingly odd stories that make up the Old Testament. It is easy to skim over stories like this and miss what is going on within the text. However there are some important things to draw out of this passage. One of the most important is not what we read in the text, but rather what we don't read. If you read the text you will notice that the only things that walk between the halved sacrifices were a smoking oven and a burning torch. These two items are representative of God. It was a burning bush that revealed the I AM to Moses. By smoke and flame God would lead His children, Israel, out of Egypt. Mount Sinai became a smoking mountain as the most holy God handed down His law to His people in Exodus 20. So the interesting thing in this covenant between God and Abram is that God alone agrees to the covenant. This is the oddest of all covenants because it is completely one-sided. Abram does not walk through. He can't because there is nothing he can do to uphold his end of the covenant. Abram is simply left to trust by faith that God will grant through His grace what God has sworn to do.

There is only one term that is placed on the covenant for Abram and his descendants. That requirement is simply obedience to God. If Abram cannot obey God, he violates the terms of the covenant. But that is where the imagery of this covenant gets so powerful. Because God was the only one who walked through the sacrifice, He is the only one who upholds it. The statement that God makes as He alone passes through the blood is that if either party violates the covenant, then He alone will take the punishment. God cannot violate His terms of the covenant because they rest on the very promise of who He is. There is no way Abram can keep his one condition of the covenant for he is sinful and can only fail. Yet God declares as He walks in the blood that should either party fail to keep the covenant that He will pay the penalty.

For me, this is such a powerful picture of grace and mercy. For it was in this ceremony 2000 years before He would send His own son into the world that He had already promised the sacrifice. As the God the Father passed through the bloody path He was declaring that He was the sacrifice. It is as if God said, "Abram, what you have done to these animals, I will do to myself. So that I may pour the riches of my love and mercy upon you, I will send my own Son, God of very God, to fulfill this covenant promise."

So we see the covenant and the cross tied together in scripture. It adds a new dimension or another facet cut on the jewel of God's grace when we read a passage like Isaiah 53 and realize that this had been His divine purpose since before that desert night in the middle of Canaan.

4 Surely He has borne our griefs
And carried our sorrows;
Yet we esteemed Him stricken,
Smitten by God, and afflicted.
5 But He was wounded for our transgressions,
He was bruised for our iniquities;
The chastisement for our peace was upon Him,
And by His stripes we are healed.
7 He was oppressed and He was afflicted,
Yet He opened not His mouth;
He was led as a lamb to the slaughter,
And as a sheep before its shearers is silent,
So He opened not His mouth.
10 Yet it pleased the LORD to bruise Him;
He has put Him to grief.
When You make His soul an offering for sin,
He shall see His seed, He shall prolong His days,
And the pleasure of the LORD shall prosper in His hand.

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