The Covenant of Preservation
Noah and Abram
If you have your Bibles, turn with me to the book of Genesis chapter 6. Genesis 6, beginning in verse 9.
These are the records of the generations of Noah. Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his time; Noah walked with God. And Noah became the father of three sons: Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Now the earth was corrupt in the sight of God, and the earth was filled with violence. And God looked on the earth, and behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted their way upon the earth. Then God said to Noah, “The end of all flesh has come before Me; for the earth is filled with violence because of them; and behold, I am about to destroy them with the earth. Make for yourself an ark of gopher wood; you shall make the ark with rooms, and shall cover it inside and out with pitch. And this is how you shall make it: the length of the ark three hundred cubits, its breadth fifty cubits, and its height thirty cubits. You shall make a window for the ark, and finish it to a cubit from the top; and set the door of the ark in the side of it; you shall make it with lower, second, and third decks. And behold, I, even I am bringing the flood of water upon the earth, to destroy all flesh in which is the breath of life, from under heaven; everything that is on the earth shall perish. But I will establish My covenant with you; and you shall enter the ark-- you and your sons and your wife, and your sons' wives with you. And of every living thing of all flesh, you shall bring two of every kind into the ark, to keep them alive with you; they shall be male and female. Of the birds after their kind, and of the animals after their kind, of every creeping thing of the ground after its kind, two of every kind shall come to you to keep them alive. And as for you, take for yourself some of all food which is edible, and gather it to yourself; and it shall be for food for you and for them.” Thus Noah did; according to all that God had commanded him, so he did.
Thus ends this reading of God’s holy Word, may He add His blessing to it. Let’s pray together.
“Our Lord and our God, we thank You for Your covenant initiatives which structure the progress of history and especially of redemptive history. We pray that as we consider Your initiative even in the midst of judgment in the time of Noah, pray that our minds would again be flooded with an apprehension of Your mercy. We ask these things in Jesus’ name. Amen.”
I want to talk with you today about the Covenant of Preservation, as Robertson calls it. That is the Covenant which God entered into with Noah. And you may want to open your copies of Christ of the Covenants to that chapter in which he deals with the Covenant of Preservation. If you have your Hebrew text, you may want to go ahead and open it to Genesis 6, because there is a section in there that I want to take a look at. If you have your Greek testaments with you, there is a passage later on today in Hebrews that I want to look at very specifically and you may want to have your text already poised at Hebrews so that we can take a look at that.
I want to do two things today. I want to show you a little bit of the covenant context of Genesis 6 itself, so that you appreciate what is going on here in terms of the flow of biblical history. And then I want you to see the themes in the covenant with Noah that Robertson himself highlights in his book, Christ of the Covenants. I want to go over those themes with you.
You may know that there is somewhat of a debate over the place of the covenant with Noah in redemptive history. Some people have approached the Covenant of Noah as if it were an entirely Common Grace Covenant, as if it were, in some senses, not part of the flow of the Covenant of Grace. That is, a Covenant of Grace would not necessarily have a saving focus, but more of a focus on the preservation of the normal order of the world. A common grace covenant. Others have disagreed with that. And I want you to see that there are both common and special aspects of grace displayed in the Covenant of Noah. It is indeed part of the Covenant of Grace, though it does have common grace significance as well as special redeeming or saving grace significance.
So, first let’s look at Genesis 6 and especially verses 9-22. In Genesis 6 verses 1-8, what you get is basically a summarization of the results of sin in the old Adamic world, and when I say the old Adamic world, I am simply talking about the world as it existed prior to the flood. We see at least three stages of history in the first six chapters of Genesis. We have the pristine unfallen world of the Garden of Eden. Then we have the world after the fall of Adam, the old Adamic world. And then, beginning with the flood, we enter into a new world as it were. So you have these two great barriers, you have the barrier of the fall and the barrier of the flood, before you could even get back to that pristine state.
I would suggest that is one reason why it is very, very difficult to interpret some aspects of Genesis 1 and 2, because we don’t simply have one blinder, the fall, but we have two blinders on us. Because biblical history presents twin cataclysmic events in the first the first seven chapters of Genesis. Not only is there the fall in Genesis 3, there is the flood in Genesis 7 and it is presented as a cataclysmic event, as catastrophic as the creation of the world. And the linguistic evidence for that is replete. But let me just give you one example of that. Do you remember that one of the main points in the Genesis 1 narrative about God’s creation was God’s bringing order to the world and especially His separating day from night, light from darkness, land from sea, the upper waters from the lower waters. That is a theme that is repeated. You have studied Genesis 1 a little, you know what I am talking about. In Genesis 7 as the flood proceeds, we are told explicitly by Moses that the upper waters and the lower waters came back together again. That is a way that Moses is hinting to you that there was a cataclysm so great that the whole order of creation, as it stood, was stood on its head and some of those things that God had brought order to are now brought back together. God had separated the upper waters and the lower waters. Now in the flood they are brought together again. Chaos rules everywhere except inside that ark. That is a way that Moses is hinting to you how incredibly unparalleled this flood is which God is bringing.
So you have these three stages of human existence. You have Adam before the fall, you’ve got Adam after the fall. And then you have got the world after Noah and his flood. And so when I refer to Genesis 6:1-8, as giving you a picture of the culmination of sin in the old Adamic world, I am talking about that second aspect, that second stage in world history, prior to the time after the flood, after the fall itself. We have seen from Genesis 3 on, a record of how sin plays out in the world of Adam after the fall. And in Genesis 6:1-8, you get a picture of the culmination of that sin and God’s reaction to that sin. And, of course, His reaction is the immediate recognition that justice and righteousness demands that judgment be brought against that world. So the very first thing that we have in Genesis 6 is a recognition of the sinfulness of the world in the time of Noah and its deserving of judgment.
Now, remember that Genesis 6:1-8 is not part of the book of Noah. The book of Noah begins in Genesis 6:9. You remember from Dr. Currid or Dr. Davis or one of your other professors teaching you the various chapter headings that Moses gives you, and they all begin with that repeated phrase, “This is the book of the generation of Adam” or “This is the book of the generation of Noah.” And so Moses himself gives you his chapter breakdown. He does not enter into the book of Noah until Genesis 6:9. So what we are really seeing, when you pick up Genesis 6:1-8, are the concluding statements, this is sort of the final word of God about that world that existed prior to the flood.
Why is that God’s final word? Because the judgment that He is going to bring to anyone with any sensitivity at all is going to be so overwhelmed by the spectacle of what is going to unfold in Genesis 6:9, all the way to Genesis 9. They are going to be so overwhelmed by that extent and the severity and the brutality of that judgment that unless they understand the extensiveness of sin, the ugliness of sin, the rebelliousness of sin, they are not going to be able to appreciate that what God is doing in the story of the flood is absolutely right.
You know, we all recoil from justice when we see it swiftly and severely meted out. That is a hard thing to see. It is a hard thing to see because we all know enough of our own culpability that we know that that could be us when justice is meted out. We also have certain kindred bonds of human affection for everyone. I mean, unless you are a twisted person, you don’t enjoy seeing anyone endure suffering even if it is judicial suffering. Most normal people don’t get a kick out of going to watch executions. It is not a sport that you do. You don’t enjoy that type of activity and God knows that there is a temptation for us to look at His judgments and think, “Lord, aren’t you being a little severe here? Aren’t you being a little unfair? Isn’t this a little too much?” And Genesis 6:1-8 is His final word on the way the world was, and He is saying, “You need to look at this world through My eyes and see what I see. And when you look at this world through My eyes and see what I see, then you will be able to appreciate that what I am doing is not more than what is deserved or less than what is deserved. It is precisely what is deserved.” And you really haven’t gotten to the point of accepting God’s justice until you can say, “What God in His providence has done is exactly what should have been done, neither more nor less.” And so if you are a person wrestling sometimes with the justice of God in your own experience, that is something really to pray towards. “Lord, help me get to the point where I recognize that what You do in Your justice is exactly what is required. It is not more, it is not less. It is exactly appropriate, the punishment that You have chosen, the penalty that You have chosen is exactly coordinate with the crime that has been committed.” And so when we see God’s display of wrath in Genesis 6 and 7 and 8, you are seeing God mete out exactly what was deserved.
And that is one reason why God not only closes the book of Adam, but opens the book of Noah, with another description of the wickedness of the world. And if you look for instance in verses 9 and 10, of Noah, Noah is introduced there in Genesis 6—Noah is introduced as a righteous man in contrast to his contemporaries. So the book of Noah opens up with God’s declaration that Noah is a man who is righteous in his generation. Notice the words, “these are the record of the generations of Noah,” “Noah is a righteous man,” “blameless in his time,” “Noah walked with God,” and “Noah became the father of three sons.” So Noah’s character was that he was a man who was right with God. And he was right with man. The words that are used to describe him righteous and blameless indicate that his relationship with God and man was a relationship of integrity. And it indicates when it speaks of him as being blameless we could translate that very legitimately as “whole-hearted.” That is not a claim of perfection for Noah. That is not an argument that Noah had never done anything wrong. It is a claim that Noah was whole-hearted; that is, that his heart was not divided, partly loving the world and partly loving the God that had made him and entered into fellowship and relationship with him. No, he was a man who was whole-hearted in his commitment to God. So he was a man whose actions were just. That was apparent to those around him and he was also a man who was whole-heartedly devoted to the Lord. And then, that third thing that is said about him is that he was a man who walked with God in verse 9. He was a man who was in living communion with God. That phrase is only used of Enoch. That is the only other person where that phrase is used here in the early chapters of Genesis.
This is a significant marker that Moses is giving you about the character of this man Noah. So Noah was a man of God both inwardly and outwardly. He was a man of integrity, of blamelessness internally. And he was a man of justice and righteousness externally. There was a coordination between his inner man and his actions. You could see his inner man very clearly in his actions. He was a man who walked with the Lord. Derek Kidner translates this verse, Noah walked with God, he translates it this way: “It was with God that Noah walked.” So, though Noah was out of step and out of character with his contemporaries, he was not out of step with the Lord. So that is the opening picture of the book of Noah—a picture of this man who was righteous even after God has described this unrighteous world in Genesis 6:1-8.
The second picture that we have in the book of Noah, you find in chapter 6, verses 11-12. There again, God repeats what He has previously said about the condition of the old Adamic world. God sees the judgment, or sees the wickedness and He brings judgment against it. Notice verse 11. “The earth was corrupt in the sight of God, the earth was filled with violence. God looked on the earth, and behold it was corrupt for all flesh had corrupted their way upon the earth. And then God said to Noah, ‘The end of all flesh had come before me, for the earth is filled with violence because of them. Behold, I am about to destroy them with the earth.’” So God sees the wickedness and He determines to punish it. And Noah stands in total contrast to the picture that the world describes here in Genesis 6:11-12. And in that context, Noah is given instructions for building an ark. Now, as far as we know, just from what we are given in the text, God has not even explained to Noah at this point how He is going to bring destruction. He has only told Noah that He is going to bring destruction. And He tells them, He tells Noah to make an ark of gopher wood at this time. So God gives instructions to Noah but apparently no detailed explanation about the function of this ark of gopher wood at this time.
You see those instructions given in verses 14-17. That is the third section of the book of Noah. The first section of the book of Noah opens up with the description of the man; the second section with a description of the world; the third section with a description of the instrument which God has chosen to be the instrument of salvation for Noah and his family, but without apparently having explained to Noah how it will function yet. Because He hasn’t explained to him the nature of the destruction yet.
And then in verses 18-21, we see this very important passage where the Covenant of Grace is inaugurated with Noah. Now, it is this passage that I want you to look at very closely with me for a few minutes, particularly zeroing in on Genesis 6:18. “I will establish my covenant with you and you shall enter the ark. You and your sons and your wife and your sons’ wives with you.” Now again in this passage, berith is the term for covenant used. This is the berith because it is my covenant and the Lord establishes the covenant with you, singular. He is establishing His covenant we are told with Noah here. As we have said, the very language that is used to explain this covenant which is being established with Noah indicates that this relationship is a relationship already in existence. It is confirming this relationship rather than initiating this relationship. Let me give you an example of this from W.J. Dumbrell's book, Covenant and Creation, An Old Testament Covenant Theology. “In the three Genesis accounts, this aspect is not given particular prominence and the issues are left somewhat open, though as we might have expected in each case, each of the three cases, the respective patriarchs appears to have occupied the more elevated position. Moreover since in the ancient world, covenants were regulative of affairs between man and man and nation and nation, we should most naturally expect that the nature of the parties concerned would be a variable. So in the Old Testament, the reported covenant arrangements included parity, master-servant, and suzerainty types.” So he is saying you had all those kind of relationships. You have some that are between equals, you have some that are between master-servant, you have some which where the lord comes in and lays down stipulations. As McCarthy has pointed out, “what is of extreme importance to know, is the function that the actual covenant conclusion, the making of a formal agreement performs in each episode. The very evident fact in each case is that the role of the agreement is not to initiate a set of relationships. What the covenant does is formalize and give concrete expression to a set of existing relationships,” and that is of course precisely what happens here in Genesis chapter 6. The Lord confirms the covenant with Noah.
And let me quote to you another passage from Dumbrell's book, where he addresses this. The heading of this section, by the way, is called, Is the Covenant with Noah Established or Confirmed? “Outside the book of Genesis, the terminology of covenant entry appears to be consistently maintained. Such a consistency may cause us to reflect whether by the use of heckeem, with berith,” and you will want to look at your Hebrew text at this moment, in Genesis 6:18, the use of heckeem with berith in the context of Genesis 6:18 and then if you want to flip over to Genesis 9:18, you will see heckeem used again with berith, all of which refer to covenants as established or given, ”the beginning of a new covenant relationship is being referred to, whether in each case the continuation of some prior understanding is in mind. A decision here is bound up with the way in which the Hebrew word, heckeem, is to be taken in these references.” The evidence of this character makes it more than likely that in the context where heckeem berith stand, and that is Genesis 6:18, Genesis 9:9, Genesis 9:11, 9:17, Genesis 17:7 and the Covenant of Circumcision there, Genesis 17:9 and 21 also Exodus 6:4 and I could give you other references as well. But the evidence of this character makes it more than likely that in context where heckeem berith as opposed, you remember we said the other language was karat berith, to cut a covenant. This is to establish or to make firm or to confirm a covenant depending upon your Bible translation at that point.
What is the difference now? All we are talking about is what is the difference between heckeem berith and karat berith. Here is what he says. “Evidence of this character makes it more than likely that in contexts where heckeem berith stands, the institute of a covenant is not being referred to, the institution of a covenant is not being referred to but rather, its perpetuation.” So what he is saying, when you see heckeem berith, it is not saying that for the first time, a covenant relationship is being established. It is saying that it is being preserved. It is being confirmed.
Now that goes right along with the idea that we argued on the very first day of class that a covenant functions in Scripture to do what? To assure the believer of the certainty of the promises of God to him or to her. And that is what he argues here. We must now probably surmise that what is being referred to in Genesis 6:18 is some existing arrangement, presumably imposed by God without human concurrence, since it is referred to as “My covenant.” I will establish my covenant with you. So the point, and by the way, if you want those pages from Dumbrell, I don’t agree with everything that Dumbrell does in this book, but it is a very, very helpful treatment of the early chapters of Genesis and the concept of covenant and if you want the pages in which he discusses this, he begins it on page 16 and he runs with this discussion all the way through verse 24. Actually beyond that, to page 26. So from 16 to 26, the book is covenant and creation. Subtitled, An Old Testament Covenantal Theology, it is published by Paternoster Press. Dumbrell is Professor of Old Testament at Regent College in Vancouver where Packer was for many years. He taught at Moore College in Sidney, Australia for a number of years. And I think Dr. McIntosh may have taught at Moore College in the past as well.
Well, at any rate, that is Dumbrell’s argument, that what we see here in Genesis 6:18 is not the inauguration of a covenant which had not existed before, but it is the confirmation of a covenant. It is the making firm of a covenant. It is the perpetuation of a covenant relationship.
Now what is the significance of that? There are just two things that I am wanting to press home to you about that. The first thing is to see that a covenant exists prior to Genesis 6:18. Maybe the first time that the term covenant is used, the covenant already exists. Secondly to recognize God’s initiative in this covenant. Noah doesn’t come to the Lord and say, “Lord, things are pretty bad, maybe You could do something for me here.” Noah doesn’t initiate either the perpetuation or the establishment of the relationship. God takes the initiative here in grace. God reaches out to Noah. And I think that Dumbrell is probably right. That one of the reasons why God says, “I will establish My covenant with you,” you see that nice little pronoun stuck on the end of berith there in 6:18. “And I will establish My covenant with you” is to stress that this is the Lord’s covenant. He is taking the initiative in this relationship. He has established the boundaries of the relationship.
So we see sin in Noah’s world. And we see God confirming the special relationship of grace and favor that He has with Noah and we see Him doing it right in the context in which He has given a command to Noah to do certain things, in this case to build an ark and to prepare to stock it with food and to wait to the animals come to you.
I want you to see that this covenant, though God initiates, Noah has a part to play. There is bilaterality even to this covenant because Noah has what? He has responsibility. God’s grace initiates, but Noah has responsibility. Noah must respond to God’s favor by what? By obedience. His obedience does not purchase him God’s favor. And it is not obedience which got God to notice Noah in the first place.
One of the first things that people will do is they will look at Genesis 6, and you may want to scan it with your eyes, they will look at Genesis 6:8-9 and seeing them back to back, they will basically in their minds reverse the order of the logic of those two verses. And they will say the reason Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord is because he was a righteous man blameless in his time. Now I don’t want to be too picky about that because there is no question that the Lord was pleased in the righteousness of Noah, but that is not the chronological order and it is not the literary order of those passages. Because one is the last verse of the book of Adam, one is the first verse of the book of Noah. So if you argue that God’s grace in verse 8 of Genesis 6 was caused by Noah’s righteousness or blamelessness in verse 9, for one thing you are ignoring the book divisions that Moses has given you. One is the last verse of the book of Adam. One is the first verse of the book of Noah. Secondly, you are ignoring the order in which God has given you the information. The last word in the book of Adam is that God’s favor fell upon Noah. No explanation other than that is given. It is just that God’s favor fell upon Noah. And then, you’re told in verse 9 that Noah was a righteous man. He was a man of integrity. He was a man who walked with God. Now to say that the reason that God favored him was because of his righteousness is both to ignore the chapter division and to ignore the flow of the logic of the verses themselves. And so I think it is important for us to recognize that there is no indication that God’s grace relationship was caused by anything in Noah. That is the nature of God’s grace. It falls upon those who do not deserve it. Now is a person shaped by God’s grace, so that their character is affected? Absolutely. Every time? Absolutely, every time. Why? Paul tells you. Because grace reigns in righteousness. Grace can make you righteous, but righteousness on your part can’t make God give you grace.
First of all, because you can’t be righteous apart from God’s grace in a fallen world. Second of all, because we are all in sin as we are born into this world, we are in rebellion against God and there is no way that we can initiate righteousness in order to purchase or to obtain grace. So, recognize the significance of the relationship between grace and righteousness even here in the story of Noah.
Now, one last thing that I would like to point to, and that is in verse 22. The response of Noah to God’s commands is obedience. Verse 22: “Thus Noah did; according to all that God had commanded him so he did.” Now that is the same phraseology that is used over and over in book of Exodus of Moses. “And Moses did all that the Lord had commanded him.” And Noah’s response to the command of the Lord here is clearly obedience.
Now do you see already the elements of a covenant relationship here in Genesis 6, even apart from Genesis 6:18 in the use of the word covenant? You have got sin, judgment, grace, blessings, commands, and obedience. Those are the first verses of the book of Noah. You get sin, grace, blessing, commands, obedience. Noah in a world of sin. God’s favor has fallen upon him. God blesses him by sparing him from the judgment that is to come. Noah responds in obedience to Him. You have all the elements of a covenantal relationship in which there is both blessing and responsibility. And it is all right there for you in Genesis 6. Even if the word covenant weren’t there in Genesis 6:18, you would again, just like we saw in Genesis 2, see the pattern of a covenant relationship between God and His man, in this case Noah.
There is a connection between God’s covenant with Noah and the Covenant of Creation. How do we see that connection between the original covenant of God in the Garden with Adam (the Covenant of Works) and this covenant with Noah? Well, first of all, we see it in the very phraseology of Genesis 6:18, which indicates a covenant relationship already exists. This idea of relating to God in this way is not a new thing. It preexists Noah. But there are also interesting parallels. For instance, in Genesis chapter 9:1, Noah is explicitly told to be fruitful and multiply. Now what is that echoing? It is echoing in the exact words the creation ordinance that had originally been given to Adam. So, the creation ordinance, which had been established in the Covenant of Works with Adam in Genesis 1 and Genesis 2, is confirmed in the relationship with Noah in Genesis chapter 9 verse 1. In the same fashion, we are told in Genesis chapter 9 verse 2, that the fear and dread of man will fall upon all creation. Now that echoes the language of dominion in Genesis chapter 1, where it says that man would be given to rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the sky and of the cattle and creeping things. Over everything, basically. Over the whole of the animal and the inanimate creation. And so the language of Genesis 9:2 echoes that. That’s dominion language. And so that plays a part in man’s subduing of the earth.
Let me also mention that in Genesis chapter 5:28-29, that Noah’s very name reflects the Sabbath ordinance. You remember Lamech named his son, Noah, for a specific reason. Genesis 5:29. He called his name Noah saying this one shall give us rest from our work and from the toil of our hands arising from the ground which the Lord has cursed. Now it is important for you to know that the word rest there is not the same word that is used for Sabbath. Okay. It is not the same word. But the concept is the same. The idea is that Noah is going to be the one who gives them the rest from the wickedness and sin which is being perpetrated in the world and so that very idea hearkens back to the Sabbath rest given in Genesis chapter 2. So we see all sorts of connections in the covenant with Noah and the Covenant of Works. We see God reestablishing His creation ordinances in the Covenant of Noah. It is part of the Covenant of Grace but the creation ordinances are still maintained. That is very important for us to recognize. The creation ordinances are perpetual. They are perpetual for every culture for every time, for every people, for every nation. The creation ordinances are perpetual.
The second thing I would like you to see that Robertson talks about is the particularity of God’s redemptive grace in the Covenant with Noah. From this mass of depraved humanity, God shows grace towards Noah and his family. Out of thousands and thousands and tens and hundreds of thousand and millions of people perhaps. Who knows what the population count was. But out of this mass of humanity, depraved, in sin, under judgment, God saves one man and his family. They experience the blessing of salvation while others continued in their hardened ways.
Now, I think that is one of the points in the story of Noah that makes God want to take so much care to explain to you how wicked the world was. Because, a natural human reaction to this spectacle of this massive humanity on the one side and Noah and his family on the other side is to say, that is not fair. I mean, one little family over here and God saves them and all these other people, and God doesn’t save them. That is not fair. He is being too particular.
But what Genesis 6 verses 1-8 sets you up for is to understand that there is no one there who deserves this. So if you have got to complain about fairness, you have to complain that God shows any mercy because His judgment is absolutely just. So, towards this particular man, among the mass of undeserving humanity, God shows the richness of His unmerited favor. His particularity, the particularity is absolutely striking here. Derek Kidner says, “If as few as eight souls are saved, seven of these owe it to a single one, and this minority inherits the new earth.” And Kidner goes on to say that the first full scale judgment demonstrates that with God, the truth of a situation prevails, regardless of majorities and minorities. God didn’t look out there and take a count and say, “Well, the majority are wicked, I guess I am just going to have to forgive them.” God brings the judgment upon the majority.
I think the care with which Moses recounts the wickedness (and let me just say a pastoral aside here) is very important when you are struggling or wrestling with a friend who is struggling with the fairness of God in judgment. Now we Calvinists usually face that in two ways. On the one hand, we may be talking to our multi-cultural postmodern friends who don’t think that it is fair for anybody to be sent to hell under any circumstance. And then on the other hand, sometimes we are talking with non-Calvinistic friends who think that our God is extraordinarily mean because He actually chooses some people to go to heaven and He decrees to pass by others. Whatever you say, that is not fair. That is what is said. So in whichever situation of fairness you are dealing with, what is the pastoral hint that Moses tells you to never to forget when you talk to them? Don’t get into a discussion about fairness unless you talk about sin first. Because until a person understands the culpability that is attached with sin, they cannot understand justice. See, if a person has a fundamental disagreement with you about the deserving of judgment of all mankind, then as a Christian, and by the way, not just as a Calvinistic Christian, but as any kind of Christian, you have no answer for them. If a person fundamentally does not believe that people are deserving of judgment, a Christian does not have an answer to their concerns about the justice of God. Only a person that comes to grips with the nature of sin and that sin inherently deserves judgment is able to cope with what the Bible says about how God handles sin.
So that is where you start. Don’t get hung up in the decrees of God. Don’t get hung up in predestination or election. You’ve got to make a beeline for sin. That is right where Moses goes. He knows somebody is going to pick up this book and say, “Wait a minute, this is not fair.” And so he builds a case like a lawyer (I won’t draw any parallels with Washington right now). Like a lawyer he begins to give you overkill about what was going on in that world. Why is he doing that? Because he wants you to understand that sin brings judgment by its very nature. And that what is going on here, no matter how particular are God’s dealings with this one family, you cannot say, “It is not fair, God, You shouldn’t have only shown Your favor to them, You should have shown it to more people.” You can’t make that complaint, having truly listened to what Moses has said.
Now if a person wants to say, ”Well, I hear what Moses said, but I disagree with him,” where do you go from there? If a person truly wants to listen to what Moses is telling you (and, of course he is speaking under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit; he is speaking the very word of God; this is God’s word, ultimately, even more than Moses word; you are getting God’s perspective on that situation), there is your pastoral advice. When someone is wrestling with fairness, you make a beeline to sin. Because the issue of fairness, anytime someone says that God is not doing something fair, you may be assured that they do not have an adequate understanding of sin.
Now it is interesting that in Anselm’s dialogue with his student, Bozo, you remember Bozo, aptly named Bozo in “Why Did God Become Man?” In that book, he has Bozo asking him, “You know, how can this be, you know, it is not fair.” And the response of Anselm is, “Ah, I see that you have not rightly understood sin.” So we are lost as Christians in terms of explaining the issue of fairness if we attempt to do it apart from addressing the issue of sin. So fundamental to the Christian answer to objections to the fairness and justice of God is a right apprehension of biblical teaching about sin. So that is the first place you make a start in terms of explaining to those who are making objections to a Christian doctrine of justice in God’s judgment.
The third thing that we see in the Covenant with Noah is that He zeroes in on this one family and really, He zeroes more in on the one man, and for his sake, brings in the family. Now we have looked at the interconnection between the Covenant of Works and the Covenant with Noah. We have looked at the particularity of God’s grace. It is extreme particularity. Then we see, thirdly, that God deals with families in the Covenant with Noah. So we see the familial structure of God’s covenant with Noah. God deals with family via a representative head, and over and over, the text of Genesis 6-9 indicates God’s commitment to deal with Noah and his house. “You and your sons and your wife and your sons wives with you” becomes a repeated theme. It is repeated, you first heard it in Genesis 6:18, but it is repeated in Genesis 7:1, 7:7, 7:13, 7:23, 8:16, 8:18, 9:9, 9:12, and you get the point that God is wanting to drive a truth home here. He is building a theme, a thematic argument here. Noah is set apart as the head of the family. “My covenant with you.” He has a unique position in the eyes of God. Genesis 7:1, for instance, “Go into the ark, you and your whole family because I have found you,” not ya’ll, “you Noah, righteous in this generation.” The you is singular, it refers to Noah alone, because the head of the house is found righteous. His house goes into the ark. That is why Hebrews 11:7 says it was by faith that Noah built an ark to save his family. So we see the basic construction of creation’s order again finding its counterpart in redemption.
As God said that it was not good for Adam to be alone in the original Covenant of Works, guess what, it is not good to be alone in the Covenant of Grace either. God continues to operate on a family principle. By the way, this is foundational for your understanding of the Church. The Church is not incidental to God’s plan. God’s plan does not save individuals and, oh by the way, we might do a church as well. The Church is fundamental, it is central to what God is doing in redemption and, of course, this cuts directly against the kind of intense individualism that continues to characterize the western world today.
Fourth, this covenant with Noah concentrates on preservation. Preservation. This is the common grace element in the covenant with Noah. It concentrates on preservation. God commits Himself to preserve the present order of the world so that the work of redemption can be accomplished. You see it in the language of Genesis 8:22, seed time and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease as long as the earth endures. So regularity and order will be preserved in the creation, God says. Regularity and order will be preserved in the creation. And we also see elements of human government in the covenant with Noah which supports this theme of preservation.
Apparently to this point, God has reserved to Himself alone the right of capital punishment, but now in Genesis chapter 9:3, if you will turn with me there, we read this. “Every moving thing that is alive shall be food for you. I give all to you as I gave the green plant, only you shall not eat flesh with its life. That is its blood.” Now we will talk about that passage later in the context of Acts chapter 15. It is interesting that when resolution is brought to the situation about whether believers who are non-Jews, that is Gentiles, whether Gentile converts to Christianity must obey the ceremonial law of Moses, in Acts chapter 15, the deliberation that is handed down by the apostles and the elders basically says, “No, they do not have to obey the ceremonial law of Moses. They only have to abstain from food which has been strangled or cooked in its own blood.” And they are going right back to the provisions of the covenant with Noah. Isn’t it interesting that they bounce immediately back to a common non-Jewish covenant expression of the Covenant of Grace. They move beyond the Covenant of Abraham, one step back to a covenant which existed prior to the existence of the Hebrew people. It is an amazing piece of biblical theology being done there. And I won’t say anymore, we’ll come back to it later.
But then He goes on and He says this: “Surely I will require your lifeblood; from every beast I will require it. And from every man, from every man’s brother, I will require the life of man. Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed, for in the image of God He made man. And as for you, be fruitful and multiply; populate the earth abundantly and multiply in it.” So we see again that repetition of “be fruitful and multiply,” but here see a direct command for capital punishment.
And notice the
parallelism there in verse 6 and you can see the little diagram. It is an
a. He who sheds
b. the blood of
c. by man
b. his blood
a. shall be shed.
So you see a nice little Hebrew parallelism here. He who sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed, in that first phrase of Genesis 9:6. So this is not a statement of what will just inevitably happen, that when people kill, other people will kill them. This verse is explaining how God will demand an accounting for the manslayer, whether he is human or beast. He is saying that life is so precious, human life is so precious. And notice he gives you the reason for it in the second half of verse 6: “for in the image of God He made man,” because we are image-bearers of God, therefore those who take the lives of others have just inherited the inalienable right to give their lives in exchange because they have made such an extreme violation on the image of God. They, too, must now be punished in a capital way.
So these self-restraining principles in the Covenant of Noah are of course picked up on with the legislation of Moses, but capital punishment begins here in the Covenant of Noah. That is quite important because a lot of times you will have Christians argue that capital punishment is a provision of Mosaic legislation and we have moved beyond that now and that is part of the Mosaic legislation that we need to drop and we need to drop capital punishment, too. But like so many other principles, capital punishment existed prior to the Mosaic legislation as we see in Genesis chapter 9.
A fifth dimension of the Noahic covenant, of God’s covenant with Noah is the universalistic dimension. The universalistic dimension. Now, this is important because it balances that emphasis on particular grace that we had seen in the covenant in terms of God’s relating to Noah and to his family. The universalistic dimension of God’s covenant tells you what to expect in the future. It doesn’t mean that every single soul will be saved in the end. The destruction of all the wicked in the flood waters of Noah makes that very clear. This universalistic dimension does not mean universalism, it doesn’t mean universal salvation, but it does mean that a fallen universe can expect a complete restitution in the redemptive plan that God is setting forth, so that God’s redemptive work in the Covenant of Grace has cosmic consequences.
Not only will it impact every tribe and tongue and nation, it will also involve a renovation of the world itself. The inanimate creation as a whole will benefit from God’s redemptive work in the Covenant of Grace and Paul makes this clear in Romans chapter 8:19-21. The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed for the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. It is another connection with the Covenant of Works, the Covenant of Creation. Just as the creation suffered because of Adam’s sin, under the Covenant of Works, so also under the Covenant of Grace, creation itself will benefit from God’s redemptive work. There will be restoration from that decay and bondage to it. The resurrection of the bodies of believers we know will entail a drastic change for us. And this universalistic element also provides for us the foundation for a worldwide proclamation of the Gospel. Because God has commissioned day and night and sun and moon to proclaim His message of grace everywhere (Psalm 19) and in the bow in the clouds that He places, so also everyone ought to hear the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. The Gentiles ought to hear since both Moses and Isaiah prophesied of the salvation of those who never sought God. Paul picks up on that in Romans chapter 10.
One last thing as we close: The gracious character of this covenant with Noah, this covenant is gracious. God’s bow in the cloud reminds us of the judgment that even Noah deserved. And that bow, you remember, reappears in Revelation chapter 4:3, around the throne of glory in heaven. The emerald rainbow is there to remind you of God’s gracious preservation.
Now the LORD said to Abram,
“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 shall be blessed.”
I want you to note several elements of this particular relationship between Abram and the Lord. You will note, first of all, that the terminology of covenant is not present here in Genesis 12:1-3, but that what we have here is most certainly the specific establishment of covenant relations between God and Abram. And the very language that is used in Genesis 15:18, as Dumbrell argues, when it speaks of making or confirming a covenant, indicates the relationship has already existed. So here we have the inauguration of the covenant with God and Abram.
Notice that the first thing that is called upon in this relationship, or the first things that are mentioned, are the directives. These are the four responsibilities that Abram has. He is first to leave his country. He is second to leave the predominant company of his family relations. Apparently Abraham is not in violation of this agreement by taking along Lot, his nephew. But you will remember that the presence of Lot gets Abraham into some, at least adventures, if not troubles. Okay. But he is apparently not in direct violation, so we can take this phrase to refer he is going to move away from the environment, from the surrounding, from the predominant company of his relatives. Thirdly, he is told to leave his father’s house. And again that has less geographical significance than it does have authority significance. He is coming out from under the influence and control of his father’s domain and household. And, finally, he is to go to the land which the Lord will show him. And so all those four directives are given immediately in this relationship.
Again, it is the Lord who comes to Abram. Abram doesn’t go looking for the Lord. The Lord goes to him. So the Lord is doing what? The Lord is taking initiative in this covenant. But immediately in this covenant we see responsibilities. Abram has responsibilities. And these are listed before him.
Why do I mention that? Again to stress to you that the Covenant of Grace involves God’s initiative in salvation. But that does not mean that there is no responsibility on our part. So there is both the grace of God and human responsibility involved in this covenant relationship. And that is very important for us to understand. We have to watch out on the one side for those Christians who want to make salvation something that is obtained by obedience. And on the other hand, we have to watch out for those Christians who want to think that obedience has nothing to do with salvation. On the one hand, there are those who want to make salvation a matter of something that we individually earn. And so they confuse the nature of the way God’s favor is obtained. And on the other hand, there are those Christians who think that any time you talk about obedience, your are somehow bringing works righteousness into the relationship that we have with God. And so they are afraid to ever talk about obedience. Because, “Oooh, that is not grace. You know you can’t talk about obedience.”
That is an appalling misunderstanding not only of the relationship between grace and works, but it is a misunderstanding of the covenantal view of the relationship between grace and works. God clearly takes initiative with Abram. God’s favor falls upon Abram and it is not Abram’s fault. But Abram has responsibilities in this relationship. Every relationship, by definition, is bilateral. There are responsibilities in any significant relationship in life. There are responsibilities on the part of both parties and Abram’s are frankly spelled out first here in Genesis 12.
Then you have the blessings mentioned in verse 2. “I will make you a great nation, I will bless you and I will make your name great.” So again, three things are spoken here. He will be made a great nation. What is the significance of that? Isn’t it interesting that the very first thing that is said in the Abrahamic covenant is that Abraham will not be the sole recipient of the blessings that God is going to pour out on him. You know, at the very heart of what God is going to do in Abraham’s life is something that extends far beyond Abraham, it extends to his descendants. He is going to be made a great nation. I mean Abraham can’t be made a great nation on his own. Do you see yet another hint of the doctrine of the church here? Salvation by its design is meant to be experienced corporately in the context of the fellowship of the family of God. And so the promise from the very outset to Abram is I will make you a great nation, I will bless you, though that blessing is not specified here. The general blessing and favor of God is going to come upon him and “I will make your name great” we are told. I will make your name great.
Now that is so significant because if you turn back to Genesis chapter 11 and you see the words of the men in the Plain of Shinar, they say this, in Genesis 11:3, “Come let us make bricks and burn them thoroughly and they used brick for stone and they used tar for mortar and they said, come let us build for ourselves a city and a tower whose top will reach into heaven and let us make for ourselves a name, lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.” Now, there are all sorts of things going on there. For one thing they say that they want to build a city. They are wanting to establish this permanent place for there power and for their influence to be exercised in and they want to make a name for themselves. They want to have renown, they want to be famous, and of course we know what happens to their plans. You know, the Lord utterly rebukes them and refutes their plans. But isn’t it interesting, these men sought to make a name for themselves.
And what is said to Abram? “I will make your name great.” Abram had not sought to make his own name great, but as part of God’s blessing upon him, God said, “Abram, I will make your name great.” When man seeks to increase his own name, God will rebuke him. But God in His goodness gives us a name as His children. And so this blessing is poured out upon Abram.
But even by the end of verse 2 in Genesis 12, it is clear that Abram’s blessing again is not merely something that he is to enjoy individually. Notice what is said. “And so you shall be a blessing.” So Abram is blessed in order to be a blessing. That is always the way it is with believers. We do not receive the gift of God to hoard it to ourselves, but we receive the gift of God in order to be a blessing to others. And in this passage we are going to find out that that means being a blessing to the nations.
And so we go on in verse three, “I will bless those who bless you and the one who curses you, I will curse.” We see here a recognition that the dividing point in the human family for the blessing of God or for the cursing of God is in their relationship to the family of Abraham. If they are for Abraham, they are blessed, if they are against him, they are cursed. Now this, I think needs to be understood in more than an ethnic, in more than a political or national or even familial sense.
I think this needs to be understood in a religious sense. Let me give you the parallel. Do you remember in the cursing of Noah against Canaan, that Shem is blessed and Japheth is blessed to dwell in the tents of Shem, but Canaan, son of Ham is cursed to dwell away from the tents of Shem. Shem is the line of blessing. Japheth is blessed as he dwells within the tents of Shem. The family of Ham through the line of Canaan is cursed because of Ham’s sin and so dwells away from or in the face of the tents of Shem. The point there being not that there is something magical about living in the household of Shem, but recognizing that Shem is going to be the line of godliness. That is the line of the seed of woman. So if you dwell in harmony with the line of Shem, you are in the way of salvation. But if you dwell in opposition to the line of Shem, you are in the way of cursing. The same thing is happening here. You bless Abraham, you are blessed because in blessing Abraham, it says that you understand the covenant of the God of Abraham. God’s blessing is on Abraham. That is why he is a blessed man. You bless him, you are blessed. You curse him, you are cursed. So this is not just about protection for Abraham, this is telling us something about the way of salvation.
And then finally we are told in verse 3, “and in you, all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” Now again, this universalistic dimension to God’s covenant relationship with Abram is stressed. God’s design in the Covenant of Grace with Abraham is no less than that that all the families of the earth would be blessed. Here is the foundation for our commission to go to the ends of the earth. The Great Commission of Matthew is not new news. It is simply a repetition of a principal already set forth in Genesis 12:3: that the purposes of God in the Covenant of Grace is to bring spiritual blessing to all the families of the earth. So from the beginning, Abraham is to be blessed and to be a blessing.
Now, you know the story, and we are not going to go through the details of the two incidents, both with Abimilech and with the Pharaoh. But you know that Abram and Sara, his wife, wait many years for the fulfillment of this covenant promise to be made and if you will turn over with me to Genesis 15:1, and after who knows how long, after many decades, the Word of the Lord comes to Abram in a vision saying, “do not fear Abram, I am a shield to you. Your reward shall be very great.” So notice again what is said, “do not fear Abram.” The Lord speaks. He knows that Abram’s faith is being tested by this waiting. Secondly, “I am a shield to you.” He repeats His protective providence, just like when He had said back in Genesis 12, “I will curse those who curse you,” He repeats to him, “I will be a shield to you.” I am there to be your protector. My providence will protect you. And your reward shall be very great. So He repeats His purposes to bless Abram.
And what is Abram’s response? Verse 2. “Oh, Lord God, what will you give me since I am childless and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” So Abram’s response is, “Lord it doesn’t matter what you give me; my servant Eliezer is going to inherit it. It doesn’t matter how much riches you dump on me, it doesn’t matter what blessing you give to me, I don’t have a son to pass it on to myself.” And so by legal arrangement (and by the way, we have evidence of legal arrangements in the third millennium in the near east, we have examples of this from other cultures), where if the head of a household is childless, he may declare a servant within his household to be the legal recipient of all his wealth upon death, and to be the executor of the estate, etc. And that is exactly what has been done here with this gentleman, Eliezer of Damascus. And again, his location lets you know that this is a Canaanite. This is someone living from within the land. Okay. And so Abram is upset.
He goes on to say in verse 3, “Since you have given no offspring to me, one born in my house is my heir.” So he is reiterating, “This slave was born in my own household, and not born to me, but born into the sphere of my authority and he is going to be my heir, Lord, so it doesn’t matter what You give to me.” Notice that Abram is not interested in experiencing the blessings of salvation in isolation. Abram is not satisfied until the blessings of salvation had been visited upon his family and he had been made a great nation. What a difference in an individualistic attitude which is so often represented in our culture today which basically says, it is me and Jesus and who cares about anybody else—sort of the Lone Ranger Christianity. Abram is not satisfied until he sees the blessing of God fall upon his heirs, his descendants and the covenant is established.
And the so the Word of the Lord comes to him a second time and God says to him in verse 4, “This man will not be your heir, but one who shall come forth from your own body, he shall be your heir.” So the Lord contradicts Abram. He says, “Abram, you will have an heir, you will have an heir from your own body, this servant will not be your heir.” And then he takes him outside, verse 5, tells him to look toward the heaven, tells him to count the stars, and then He says “if you are able to count them, so shall your descendants be.” He says, Abram look at the night sky, perhaps you can see 1500, maybe 2000 stars with the naked eye. If you are able to count them, that gives you an indication of how prolific I am going to make you. I am going to make your descendants as the stars of the sky. He is giving you an idea of the extent of the blessing that He is going to pour out on Abram as a way of strengthening his faith.
And then we are told in response to that, in Genesis 15 verse 6, in that very important verse that Paul goes back to over and over, “then he believed in the Lord and He,” that is the Lord, “reckoned it to him as righteousness.” Abram’s faith is bolstered by what God says. He believes the Lord and the Lord accepts Abram’s faith as righteousness. He reckons it to Him as if he were perfectly righteous and upright man.
Notice again, it is not that Abram is perfect. God has already made clear in Genesis 13 that Abram is not perfect, in his cowardly conduct with Sara. Abram is not a perfect man. But Abram is a man who believes what the Lord says to him, and as the Lord confirms His promise to Him, Abram believes and God reckons him as righteous.
And then we read this. The Lord goes on and says, “I am the Lord who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldees to give you this land to possess it.” So God has settled him on the issue of descendants and he believes that the Lord is going to fulfill His promise. But Abram is still wondering after many years, he still has no heir and he has no land that he owns. Then the Lord says what, “I am the Lord who brought you out of the Ur of the Chaldees to give you this land.” And so immediately another question pops up into Abram’s mind. “Yeah, and by the way Lord, how will I know that I am going to posses this land?” So the Lord raises this question, and it is because the Lord is already in Abram’s heart. He raises another question. And Abram responds, “How may I know that I may possess it? Lord, I don’t have it yet. You told me that you were going to show me a land. And you were going to give me a land. How may I know that I will possess it?”
So beginning in Genesis 15:9, we have this interesting scenario. We have read it before but let’s read it again.
So He 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.” And 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. And 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. And God said to Abram, ”Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, where they will be enslaved and oppressed for four hundred years. But I will also judge the nation whom they will serve; and afterward they will come out with many possessions. And as for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried at a good old age. Then in the fourth generation they shall return here, for the iniquity of the Amorite is not yet complete.” And 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. And 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: The Kenite and the Kenizzite and the Kadmonite and the Hittite and the Perizzite and the Rephaim and the Amorite and the Canaanite and the Girgashite and the Jebusite.”
And so in that context, the Lord, in order to reinforce Abram’s assurance of the promise that He was indeed going to give him the blessing of the possession of this land, God enters into this covenant making ceremony.
Now as we have said, the symbolism is fairly straightforward. The animals are slaughtered to indicate the sanction of the covenant. That is how serious the covenant is. It is a life and death matter. The slaughtered animals remind us of the consequences of not obeying the covenant. Now be it done to me, as we have done to these animals is what the covenant-maker is saying as he walks between the pieces. This is reiterated, by the way, in Jeremiah chapter 34. Now we have looked at that passage as well. But we need to turn there quickly. Look at verse 18: “And I will give the men who have transgressed My covenant, who have not fulfilled the words of the covenant which they made before Me, when they cut the calf in two and passed between its parts—” then verse 20: “and I will give them into the hand of their enemies….” He says in verse 20, “Okay, I will give the men who have transgressed my covenant, who have not fulfilled the word of the covenant which they made before me when they cut the calf into and passed between its parts, I will give them into the hand of their enemies.”
So they will be dealt with even as the animals were ritually slaughtered and notice the words of verse 20: “and I will give them into the hand of their enemies and into the hand of those who seek their life. And their dead bodies shall be food for the birds of the sky and the beasts of the earth.”
Now, get the image again. What is part of the essence of the promise that God has made both to Noah and to Abraham? Blessing for the family. He will be brought into a family. There is going to be a family of blessing. You are not going to be saved in isolation. You are going to be part of a people. In a covenant-making ceremony, animals are slaughtered. In this passage here in Jeremiah 34:20, we are told their dead bodies shall be food for the birds of the sky and the beasts of the earth. What is the point? The point is God is saying, “I am going to cut you off from your people. And there is not even going to be anyone to bury your body when you die. You are going to drop down where you die and the birds of the sky are going to pick the flesh off of your body. That is how much I am going to cut you off from your people.” Now that is the greatest curse that there can be, to cut off from the people of God because it is with the people of God where the blessing of God dwells.
So, in the language of the covenant, that ritual of the slaughter of the animals reminds us of the consequences of violating the covenant, not just in death, but being cut off from the people of God. It is severe language. You see the seriousness of what is going on.
Notice that in this passage, the birds of prey are present there in Genesis 15 as well. You remember in Genesis 15:11, Abram spends his time driving away the birds of prey from the carcasses. So they are there, symbolically representing what happens to covenant breakers. But when the sun goes down, Abram falls asleep and God repeats to him, His promise about the land in verse 13: “know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, but where they will be enslaved and oppressed for four hundred years, but I will bring them out in the fourth generation. They will return here.” He is telling Abram ahead of time exactly the plan that He has for Abram’s descendants: to sojourn in Egypt, to come out of Egypt, to reestablish the land that the Lord had given to Abram.
And then we are told in verse 17, a smoking oven and a flaming torch passed between the pieces. That is a theophany, God is manifesting Himself in the form of a smoking oven and a flaming torch, not unlike the way He manifest Himself in the pillar of cloud and the pillar of fire in the Exodus. It is a visible representation, a visible manifestation of the presence of the Lord. And we are told that the Lord Himself passes between the pieces. Now, this is so striking, because Abram is the servant. Abram is the beneficiary of the covenant, and yet it is the One who has made the covenant, it is the One who has ordered the covenant, is the One who is the Lord of the covenant, who passes between the pieces. This is signifying again to Abram, “Abram, if I am unfaithful to My covenant promises to you, be it done to Me as we have done to these animals.” So you see God’s complete devotion to making sure that Abram receives the fullness of the salvation which He has been promised. For that, Abram does not make a contribution. For that, God does on His own. So the gracious element of what God is doing here in salvation is overwhelming.
We have said several things here that are striking. In the Near East, there is no example in comparative religion of a god entering into covenant with his people. There is no example in comparative religion. So you have already got in Genesis 2, in Genesis 6, and Genesis 12 and 15, something that you don’t find in any other religion. A God entering into covenant with His people.
Now, you have the God taking the role of the vassal, and saying, “Abram, let me confirm to you that I will fulfill My responsibilities in the covenant. And let me do it by taking upon Myself, a self-maladictory oath. Let me do it by calling down curses upon Myself if I do not fulfill My obligations to you in the covenant.” So we see a picture of just how far God is ready to go in assuring His people of the blessings which He has already promised them.
Now there is an important New Testament passage which addresses this as well. And if you have your Greek text, I would like you to turn to Hebrews chapter 9 and we’ll begin in verse 11. Here, the author of Hebrews proceeds to demonstrate the supremacy of the New Covenant. He is wanting to show why the New Covenant is more effective than the Old Covenant. He tells us in Hebrews 9:11 that Christ is the high priest of the temple not made with hands. So He is the high priest of a heavenly temple, not an earthly temple. The temple that Christ is the high priest of was not constructed by human hands, however talented, in the wilderness. He is the high priest of a heavenly temple. Secondly, we are told in Hebrews 9:12 that “He enters into a holy place not by the blood of animals, but by His own blood.” In other words, He, unlike the high priest of old, did not have to offer a sacrifice for Himself because of His sin before He offered a sacrifice for the people, because He was the sacrifice for the people. He was perfect. He was sinlessly perfect and therefore He did not have to offer a sacrifice. He entered by His own blood. That is covenantal language there, by the way. So His sacrifice then, we are told, in verse 12 was not repetitious. It didn’t have to be offered year after year after year on the Day of Atonement. It was once for all. And His sacrifice, we are told in verse 12, obtains eternal redemption. Then, we are told in verse 13 that if the blood of bulls and goats was effective for ceremonial cleansing, how much more will the blood of Christ cleanse the conscience. So that is His argument in verses 13 and 14. He is piling up ways in which the New Covenant is superior to the Old Covenant, ways in which Christ is a superior high priest. So, in contrast to this symbolic and ineffective and temporary Old Covenant ritual, Christ’s priestly work is actual, effective, and eternal.
And then He comes to verse 15, and says something very, very strange. Look at it with me:
“And for this reason, He is mediator of a New Covenant”
He is the mediator of a New Covenant. That is, the basis of Christ’s mediatorship of the New Covenant is His sacrificial death. Through His mediation, the better promises of the New Covenant have been effected. So Christ’s effectiveness in the offering of the sacrifice is why He is understood as the mediator of the New Covenant.
Furthermore, in the inauguration of this New Covenant, the mediator’s death, we are told, in the second half of verse 15, has taken place for the redemption of the transgressions that were committed under what? Under the first covenant. So His death has taken place in order to bring redemption for sins committed under the first covenant. He has died as a ransom for sins in connection with the first covenant.
And as you know, the normal way that the author of Hebrews uses the term First Covenant is to refer to the covenant with Moses. He is speaking of the Mosaic Covenant. Why would He speak of First Covenant there? He knows about the Abrahamic Covenant, because He talks about it. Why is he talking about the First Covenant? Because the author of Hebrews is writing to whom? Hebrew Christians. And he is contrasting the Old Covenant which they see optimized in what? In Moses. He is contrasting that with Christ. So throughout the book of Hebrews, you have this contrast between Moses and Christ. The Old Covenant ritual was established in the time of Moses and the New Covenant reality established under Christ. Okay. This is why he refers to it as First Covenant. He is contrasting the Second Covenant or the New Covenant to that Mosaic Covenant.
Now, the translation of the word, diatheke here in verses 16 and 17 has been widely debated. It is a very, very difficult passage:. If you look at your English translations, I bet you get two or three different translations of this, if you have the NIV, or NASV, or King James, or New King James or some of the other translations represented in here. They are translated different ways and there is a wide debate over that. The authors precise line of argumentation from Hebrews 9:15 down to verse 18 is problematic, however you render diatheke in verses 16 and 17, and so I want to give a brief consideration of this passage because I am going to argue that this passage uses the language of diatheke and that this passage actually elucidates what we have just read in Genesis chapter 15.
The RSV reads this way: “therefore He is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance” and by the way, the language kleronomias is used there for that inheritance which is another word that can either be taken as a last will and testament or of a covenant, since a death has occurred which redeems them from the transgressions under the first covenant, diatheke.
Now here is how the RSV renders it: “for where a will is involved,” that is how they have translated diatheke, where a will is involved, the death of the one who made it must be established. And the word there for established is pheresthai. For a will, diatheke , that is the second time they have translated diatheke that way, for a will takes effect only at death since it is not enforced as long as they one who made it is alive. “And hence, even the first covenant…” and covenant isn’t repeated there, but it is implied. Even the first was not ratified without blood.
Now, at least two aspects of the context favor rendering your translation of diatheke in verses 16 and 17 as a last will and testament. Now let me, for those of you who are working out of your English, just look for a moment, let me get the English open here. For those of you who are working out of your English, just for a moment, let me point to you what to be looking for. It will help you as you work through this. The problem is, how do you translate covenant in that first clause, in verse 16 and covenant in that first clause in verse 17? Some Bibles translate everything leading up to verse 16 as covenant. Every time diatheke appears up to that point, they will translate covenant. Then in verse 16 and 17, they will translate it as will or last will and testament and then they will switch back to covenant again. So that he is talking about covenant, covenant, covenant, and then last will and testament, last will and testament, and then covenant.
Other Bibles will translate this consistently covenant all the way
through. If you have a New American Standard Version, you will see covenant is
translated consistently all the way through. I am going to argue that that is
the correct translation at this point but I want you to understand why people
have translated it in different ways. It is very hard to understand the
language or the way the language is being used here. Here are the reasons why
some people favor translating diatheke
as last will and testament here.
First, they argue that the mention of an inheritance, the kleronomias in verse 15 can be easily correlated with the idea of a last will. I mean, we are familiar with that. Last will and testaments usually mean inheritance, you know. If you are fortunate enough to have family and a little bit of money left over when it was all said and done, there is usually an inheritance along in there.
Secondly, the idea of a diatheke being activated upon its maker’s death, and notice that language, in the RSV, the second verse is translated this way. For diatheke take effect only at death. Now that is not true of a covenant. But it is true of a testament. A testament is effected at death. And so that kind of language strongly suggests that this means testament, and not covenant. And so the usage of diatheke by those who argue that it needs to be translated as testament here and covenant elsewhere is something like this: You are saying it is like an ad hominem argument. The argument is, he is speaking in Greek, these people are familiar with contemporary Greek usage of diatheke to refer to last will and testament and it is kind of an ad hominem argument. It is saying, this is why the New Covenant is superior to the Old Covenant but it is a play on words because diatheke means both covenant in the Bible, and it means testament in secular Greek, and so what he is doing is switching the word meanings and saying, this covenant is almost parallel to the way we do a contemporary testament. So that is the argument that is put forward by people who want to translate it as testament. It is an ad hominem argument designed to capitalize on the common legal meaning of the terms. And it is argued that you can find testamentary analogy to the work of Christ in some early Christian writings. Nevertheless, there are a number of difficulties involved in translating diatheke as testament in verses 16 and 17.
First, verse 15, views Christ as a covenantal mediator. He is explicitly called mesites. And testaments do not have mediators. They may have executors, but they don’t have mediators. Second, the introduction of verses 16 and 17 comes with the Greek, omou gar For, you know the idea is that suggests that the covenants that are being talked about in verses 16 and 17 are the same things that are being talked about in verse 15. It is a “therefore” kind of argument.
So how can you switch from one to the other when you are doing a “therefore” kind of argument? Verse 15 is manifestly talking about a covenant. He is the mediator of the New Covenant.
Third problem with translating this as testament: The whole of Hebrews 9 verse 15-20 is concerned with a covenant inauguration ceremony. And verse 18 draws the conclusion from verses 16 and 17, “Hence, even the first covenant was not ratified without blood.” So you have these two verses captioned by linking phrases. With omou gar you have got the for on the front end and then you have in verse 18, the othen oude. You have the connecting language, so the whole argument is connected and that fact argues against connecting covenant in 15, testament in 16 and 17, and then coming back to a covenant again in verse 18.
Fourth, if the singular diatheke means a testament in verse 17--see it there: diatheke gar epi nekrois. Now think about that phrase for a minute, Greek scholars. And think about the tense of that. Look at it. diatheke gar for the covenant, singular, epi nekrois bebaia. If diatheke means testament there, why is the plural phrase epi nekrois used? One covenant, many bodies. In favor of covenant in verses 16 and 17, we can argue that by rendering diatheke here consistently throughout the passage, each of these difficulties is resolved.
And in response to the contextual argument that inheritance in verse 15 implies that we are talking about a last will and testament, we can point out that the idea of inheritance does not rule out the meaning of covenant, because the Bible makes it clear that the covenant entails an inheritance.
What is Paul talking about in Galatians 3? I know that is another disputed passage, but the idea of inheritance is linked to the concept of covenant in the scripture. The real challenge for us making sense out of this passage and translating it covenant in verses 16 and 17 is to relate covenant to death, particularly with regard to its role in the activation of a covenant, since a covenant inauguration does not require the death of the covenant-maker. And that would be the end of the covenant. The covenant inauguration doesn’t require the covenant-maker to die. It is easy to understand how a last will and testament relates to a death. It is effected by the death of the one who has made the last will and testament. It is harder to understand how the covenant relates to the death spoken here in verses 16 and 17.
Now there are two ways in which a covenant may be linked with death. First of all, there is the symbolic representation of the death of the covenant-maker in the slaying of the animals in the covenant ritual ratification. Okay. Those slain animals symbolically remind the covenant-maker of the consequences of breaking the covenants. That is one way that death relates to a covenant inauguration ceremony. The other way, of course, is the death penalty that in fact results from a person breaking the covenant stipulations. And those are the two ways that death relates to covenant.
Now bearing that in mind, covenant fits well with at least two features of verse 16 and 17. First of all, look at verse 16 and the word, established, or pheresthai. That word can bear the meaning represented. It can mean represented. Listen to what B.F. Wescott said: “It is not said that he who makes a covenant must die, but that his death must be brought forward or presented or introduced upon the scene or set in evidence, so to speak.” So the point of this is that we would then render instead of saying, in verse 16, something like this: “For where a covenant is there must of necessity be the death of the one who made it.” We would say, we would render it this way: “Where a covenant is there must of necessity be represented the death of him who made it.” The author’s point here would be to draw attention to the symbolizing of the oath of self-malediction, which was of course the sine qua non of the covenant-making ritual.
Second, using or translating diatheke as covenant makes sense of the phrase epi nekrois in the first half of verse 17. epi nekrois, how should we translate that? Over dead bodies. Look again at your English translations for a moment. For a covenant is valid, and here is how the NASV tries to wrestle with it, the covenant is valid only when men are dead. But the literal translation is the covenant is valid only over deaths. You know, supply “the body.” The covenant is only valid over dead bodies.
So why a covenant valid over dead bodies? That phrase, if so translated, “a covenant is made firm over dead bodies,” would be an allusion to the slain animals of the covenant ceremony, not to the person making the covenant, but to the animals that are slain in the covenant ceremony. It is made firm over dead bodies. Whose dead bodies? The dead body of the covenant maker? No, of the animals in the covenant-making ritual. And so this phrase would serve as a further elaboration on verse 16, reminding the reader of the precise symbolism of the pledge to death involved in ratifying the covenant.
Whereas, if you translate this passage, testament, in 16 and 17, then verse 17 ends up being more or less redundant. I mean it just says the same thing again as has been said in verse 16. So, there are good reasons for consistently translating diatheke as covenant in Genesis, in Hebrews 9 verses 15 through 18.
The one difficulty, the one difficulty that remains is what in the world do you do with verse 17b, the second half of that verse. Which reads, “for it is not in force,” or “it is never in force while the one who made it lives.” What do you do with that? For the meaning covenant to be sustained in this context, the reference to death here would have to be taken as having in view the symbolic death involved in ratifying the covenant. This is what Robertson says, you will find this on page 144, note 13 in Christ of the Covenants. “The greatest difficulty with this interpretation of verse 17b is that it requires the reference to the death of the covenant-maker to be interpreted as a symbolic rather than an actual death. This problem could be resolved by suggesting that the writer has assumed a violated covenant. Given the situation in which the stipulations have been violated, a covenant is not made strong so long as the covenant-maker lives. In this case, the death envisioned would be actual rather than symbolical. This line of interpretation contains some commendable features, but the strong contextual emphasis on the covenant inauguration points in the direction of the symbolic rather than the actual death.”
So however we take diatheke in this passage, and I think we have a better argument for covenant than for testament here—however it is taken, one point emerges clearly from the author’s argument: the connection between the inauguration of the covenant at Sinai by Moses and the inauguration of the New Covenant by Christ. The first covenant’s mediator, Moses, inaugurated his covenant how? By the sprinkling of the blood of calves and goats. That is what is spoken of in verses 18-20 here in Hebrews 9. The New Covenant’s mediator inaugurated this covenant by the shedding of His own blood. That is stressed in verse 12, verse 15, and in verse 26. So the superiority of the New Covenant sacrifice of Christ is manifest in that it brings cleansing from sin, which the sacrifices of the first covenant could not, as the author will later argue in Hebrews chapter 10 verse 4. And its effect is permanent in duration. You remember he uses the phrase over and over, once for all, once for all. It is permanent in duration. It does not have to be repeated. The author reiterates this in his next usage of diatheke in Hebrews 10:16. And again there, he quotes from Jeremiah 31 verses 33 and 34, emphasizing the covenantal promise of the law written on the heart and the forgiveness of sins.
And he concludes, Hebrews 10:18, “now where there is forgiveness of these things, there is no longer any offering for sin.” Now that the forgiveness of sins has been realized in the New Covenant, there is no longer any need for the sacrifices of the Old Covenant in the termination of the repeated sin offerings. The finality of the sacrifice of Christ, and the New Covenant which it inaugurated, is confirmed.
Now, why look at that ceremony, why look at that passage? Because it confirms along with Jeremiah 34 that the people of God understood precisely what that weird ritual in Genesis 15 meant. You see it referred to again in Jeremiah 34. The understanding of those slain animals is perfectly clear to everyone who reads that passage and you see it again right here in Hebrews chapter 9. But even by the time you have gotten to the New Covenant in the context of a Greek-speaking culture, still there is an understanding of the significance of the slaughter of those animals. And when we come back next time, we are going to pick up with the covenant with Abraham, and we are going to continue on through with its confirmation in the Covenant of the Circumcision in Genesis 17.