The Ten Commandments from the story of the Exodus are represented as the cornerstone of the ancient Law. The first four commandments spell out the human responsibility in our relationship with the God who has created and called us. The last six commandments spell out our human responsibility to one another.
It’s sometimes helpful for me to think of the ancient Law of Israel as training wheels that – over the centuries – helped mature the people of God and bring them into a larger, deeper relationship with the God of love who yearns for the love of humanity. The rules and regulations, the do’s and don’ts of the Law were set in place to help form Israel into the people God had created and called them to be.
But the Law is not the Covenant. There is an important difference in the way the Bible talks about the Law and how it describes the Covenant. There is a crucial difference in meaning and function.
When we read through Exodus, after we read about the giving of the Law, we come to a passage in chapter 34 with a remarkable little story picturing an intersection between heaven and earth; a mysterious “thin place” where the God in Cloud and Fire comes to meet Moses and the leaders of Israel.
In this story, God is the one who is coming, God is the one inviting, God is the one initiating covenant with a people who did nothing whatsoever to cause or deserve this relationship.
56 times throughout the Old Testament, God says this is “my covenant.” The language never talks about “our covenant;” rather covenant is what God has done, breaking into the human experience and creating relationship.
M. Eugene Boring says:
In the Bible, the divine covenant is an event, not an ideal or principle. The covenant is the gracious act of God, taken at the divine initiative for the benefit of humanity. It is often associated with deliverance, validation of life and security, total well-being and peace, shalom; it is a saving act.
Here is the self-giving God who is merciful, (the story recites), who is gracious, who is faithful; the God who keeps steadfast love to the thousandth generation (in other words – forever.)
This covenant, this event, this saving, redeeming, transforming love is the covenant to which Israel understood itself to be called.
And this is the same basic covenant to which we also are invited.
When the apostle Paul wrote to the church at Corinth, he did not use much “covenant” language. Perhaps this is because that may not have been common vocabulary in first century Corinth much as it is not a common word for us modern day Americans. But Paul’s understanding of covenant is clear:
God’s saving, redeeming, transforming act of love has been, once and for all, definitively accomplished in the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
When Paul talks about the covenant, he calls it the gospel.
To the Corinthians, Paul recites the words he was taught from the tradition he had received; words that have continued around the Table even to this day: “Jesus took the cup after supper saying: ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me’” (1 Corinthians 11:25).
“The new covenant in my blood,” the Christ claims.
“The blood” – through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the life of the eternal God who is merciful, gracious, faithful and abounding in steadfast love has now been transfused into the life of the covenant people.
“The new covenant in my blood,” the Christ proclaims.
“New” – in the sense that the “old” has been Re-Newed.
“New” in the sense that “what-was” now is what it was always intended to be.
And the new covenant – this event, this saving, redeeming, transforming love that has broken into our world by the gracious act of God for the benefit of humanity – this once and for all divine intersection has birthed a new creation in the covenant people of God.
“There is a new creation,” Paul says (2 Corinthians 5:17).
And so now, all of us who have been brought into this new covenant by the grace and mercy of the faithful God who keeps covenant, we are made into the covenant people God had intended from the beginning.
We know all too well the “already and not yet” character of this new creation. The new covenant IS and at the same time is not yet.
Those of us who say “yes” to this covenant mystery still have much growing and maturing and becoming yet to do. We know full well we are in process as we are being transformed into the image of this Christ by whose life we live. Just as Israel stumbled repeatedly in their journey with God, just as the Corinthians struggled to live faithfully, so we too recognize our own inability to keep covenant and be the people we are intended to be.
We realize we too need training wheels.
Even so – the covenant remains. Even so – the gospel, this event, this gracious act of God has been accomplished and now endures to all generations. Even so – this gracious act of God will find its ultimate accomplishment when all creation is brought to final culmination.
Again, Dr. Boring says:
God’s covenant cannot be nullified from the human side…This can be done only by the covenant’s Maker.
The covenant people can ignore the covenant or refuse to live by the responsibilities to which it calls them, but they cannot “break” the covenant in the sense of revoking or annulling it…
The faithfulness of God calls for a human response, but is not conditional on it.
We might refuse or resist living in relationship with this God of mercy and grace and faithful love. We might – like Israel and the Corinthians sometimes did – keep on trying to live by our own rules, our own law, but whenever we choose to live that way, we perpetuate the ancient cycles of “the sins of the fathers…”
This phrase from Exodus is used to describe how our own fallen human character and behavior tends to reproduce itself in society’s children and children’s children. But even in the face of this social reality of inter-generational brokenness, the promise of the God who keeps Covenant – the promise that is proclaimed as far back as Exodus is that God’s steadfast love continues far beyond the “third and fourth generation” on to the “thousandth generation.”
In other words – forever.
An important part of our maturing and growing is learning how to expose these patterns of brokenness within us that sometimes can be invisible to us. An important part of growing is finding the courage and wisdom to change those patterns and to stop the cycles of brokenness that continue to damage future generations.
This is why the words from Paul in 1 Corinthians 13 are so crucial, because here Paul gives us the key to breaking those crippling cycles and thus living into the new creation God has implanted within us. That’s why it is so crucial to stay connected to a covenant community – because as a people who are covenanted together within God’s covenant of love, we can lovingly help each other break those vicious cycles and better live into the transformed image of Christ.
The God who is merciful, patient, gracious; the God who “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things…” causes us to become like this as well. Not because we try hard, but because we have been incorporated into the very life of the God; because we become participants in the life of God whose love never ends.
The divine covenant, the gospel, is an event, the gracious act of God; it is a saving act, taken at the divine initiative for the benefit of all humanity. The God who keeps covenant has accomplished covenant once and for all.
And – at the same time – it is an ever-present, ongoing, continuous event in the lives of God’s covenant people. Every moment of every day, God’s steadfast love is at work transforming hearts, clearing vision, opening minds and permeating lives.
Living in The Story reflections for Week 10: Covenant
Exodus 25-34; Psalms 81, 106, 114; Matthew 8-13; 1 Corinthians 10-16
M. Eugene Boring, An Introduction to the New Testament (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012).