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The Meaning of Covenant

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul
The Truth Network Radio
May 10, 2022 12:01 am

The Meaning of Covenant

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul

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May 10, 2022 12:01 am

The history of redemption is shaped by the covenants that God has made. But what is a covenant? Today, R.C. Sproul delves into the biblical meaning of this important term and what it reveals about the Lord's faithfulness to His promises.

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When God makes a promise, He fulfills it, and He does so in real time and space. When Paul announces the gospel in his letters or the preachings in the book of Acts, they talk about how Jesus was born according to the Scriptures in the fullness of time, that God had prepared that throughout all of history.

Everything in Old Testament history before the birth of Christ was moving towards that moment. God makes promises throughout the Bible. His covenant with Abraham, for example, establishes the nation of Israel. His covenant with Moses brings about the law, and the new covenant through Jesus brings salvation to all who believe. God's fulfillment of covenants is critical to the message of both the Old and New Testaments.

We're glad you joined us today for Renewing Your Mind as we continue Dr. R.C. Sproul's series, The Promise Keeper, The God of the Covenants. As we continue now with our study of the biblical covenants in our first session, I mention to you that the basic role of the covenant is that it is the structure of God's revelation in history. And I've used this term more than once, the history of redemption, or redemptive history, because history is the context in which God works out His plan of redemption. And that idea became very controversial in the middle of the 20th century, again with higher critical scholars, chiefly in Germany, people like Rudolf Bultmann, who made a distinction between what he called Hausgeschichte, or salvation history, and historie. And what he meant by Haus Geschichte was something that took place not on the horizontal plane of world history, but something that took place above history in sort of some super-temporal realm.

Bultmann, you know, embracing an existential form of philosophy, believed that salvation is not something that happens on this level, but it happens vertically, or what he said punctilierly, zenkrecht von oben, immediately and directly from above, sort of a mystical thing when a person has a crisis experience of faith. Now, at the same time, he said that the Bible is filled with both mythology and real history. But in order for the Bible to have any meaning for us today, it must be demythologized, to tear off the husk that holds that kernel of historical truth. And so anything that's smacked of the supernatural, like the virgin birth, the miracles of Jesus, the resurrection, that sort of thing, belongs to the realm of myth, not to the realm of history. But that's okay, see, because the whole point of that kind of existential thinking and theology that drove the German theologians in the 20th century was that salvation doesn't have to be rooted and grounded in history for it to be real. You can still have the Christ event, which is kind of an existential moment that people have, a moment of crisis and so on.

But that is so far removed from the biblical concept of redemption. Oskar Kuhlmann, the Swiss theologian and New Testament scholar, wrote a trilogy of books in the middle of the 20th century concerned with this matter of redemptive history. His first book was called Christ and Time, Christus und Zeit, Christ and Time, in which he examined the timeframe references of the Bible, like years, days, hours, and so on. And then his second book was on the person of Christ, the Christology of the New Testament. But his third book was entitled Salvation in History, which was a comprehensive rebuttal to Rudolf Bultmann, arguing that the Scripture itself sees God's revelation as inexorably tied and bound up with real history. And he said, there is such a thing as salvation history because the Bible does give us the history of redemption, the history of salvation. And he was seconded on that motion by the Dutch New Testament scholar Herman Ritterbos, who made this observation, yes, the Bible is not written like an ordinary history book. It's not simply a chronology of the actions of the Hebrew people.

It's more than that. It is indeed the unfolding of the drama of God's work of redemption, so it is appropriate to call the Bible redemptive history. But where the critics would say the Bible is not history, it's redemptive history, people like Kuhlmann and Ritterbos would respond and say, yes, it's redemptive history, but it's redemptive history. The fact that it is concerned with redemption is no excuse to rip it out of its construct and context of real history. The Bible is filled with allusions to real history. When we come to the New Testament documents, we come to the very birth of Christ, the famous Christmas story, and a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the roles should be enrolled, and that took place when Quirinius was governor of Syria. In other words, the setting for the birth of Christ is placed in real history, and people like Pontius Pilate and Caiaphas and so on are real historical personages.

The Pharaoh of Egypt, Cyrus and Belshazzar and Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, those are all real historical figures, and what the Bible talks about is God's working in and through the normal plane of history. Again, a distinction that Oscar Kuhlmann made in his first book in the trilogy, Christ in Time, was the distinction between two different words for time in the Greek. One is the word chronos, and the word chronos is the ordinary Greek word that refers to the moment-by-moment passing of time. I have on my wrist what we commonly call a wristwatch, and the more technical term for it is a chronometer. A chronometer is something that meters or measures chronos, that measures time, the simple passing of day to day, and we call this time of history.

But the other word in the New Testament that can be translated time is the word kairos, and kairos has a special meaning. It has to do not simply with history but with what we would call the historic. Everything that ever happens in time is historical, but not everything that happens in time is historic.

We use the term historic to refer to specific moments in time that are pregnant in their significance and meaning, because after that particular event, everything changes, and everything that happens before it, in a sense, leads up to it. You think of the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. That was a historic moment in American history. It changed our culture forever.

September 11, 2001 changed our national culture forever. It was a historic event, a historic moment. But both of these moments that were historic, these kairotic events, take place not in some never-never land of existential, gnostic thinking, but actually in the plane of history. At the heart of the biblical announcement of the coming of the Messiah is the statement that Jesus came in the fullness of time, the fullness of time. The word there is playroma, and it's translated fullness, but it's the kind of fullness that indicates satiation. If I take my glass and I put it under the water faucet at home and I say, I'm going to fill up this glass, if I filled it right up to the edge of the glass, that still wouldn't be playroma. I would have to leave the glass under the faucet so that the water is flowing over the top where it's at the bursting point.

That's playroma, fullness so full that there's not any more room for another ounce or another speck of anything to be added to it. And that's what the Bible says, in the plan of God, Christ came in the fullness of time. And that whole idea is inseparably related to the gospel itself, that when Paul announces the gospel in his letters or the preachings in the book of Acts, they talk about how Jesus was born according to the Scriptures in the fullness of time, that God had prepared that throughout all of history. Everything in Old Testament history before the birth of Christ was moving towards that kyrotic moment. And everything after the death and resurrection and ascension of Christ refers back to those kyrotic moments that shaped the whole future of the people of God.

But again and again and again, the context of covenant redemption is real history, not some spiritual realm that's outside the measurable views of the history as we know it. Alright, well let me talk briefly now about the meaning of the terms that we encounter in the Bible. In the Old Testament, the word that is translated by the English word covenant is the word birit. And we run into a little bit of problem when we come into the New Testament because you remember the Old Testament is written in Hebrew and the New Testament is written in Greek. Now we also have the Septuagint, which was produced by exilic Jews during the dispersion, or the diaspora, when the Jews at that time during the Hellenization process of the conquest of Alexander the Great had the subjugated nations and peoples speaking Greek. That's why the Jews were speaking Greek or writing in Greek in New Testament times. Well, during the time of the writing of the Septuagint, lest the sacred Scriptures of the Hebrews be lost to the Jewish people who were now speaking Greek, a team of seventy scholars, Jewish scholars, came together and translated the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek. And that's a very important event in the history of Judeo-Christianity because there we begin to see how the Old Testament concepts were rendered into the Greek language, a language that was not native to the people of the Old Covenant. And yet the New Testament is now written in Greek, and so having the Septuagint is almost like having a translating, code-breaking thing because we can compare how the Jews translated their own Scriptures into Greek and then compare with how the New Testament writers used the same language.

It's very important etymologically and so on. But in any case, one of the problems that the Jews who produced the Septuagint struggled with at the time of this translation is what Greek word can we use to render the Hebrew barit into the Greek language? Because the problem was, there wasn't any word that really matched the Hebrew term barit that is now translated by the English word covenant. Well, there were a couple of words that sort of competed, and the word that won the day was the Greek word diatheka, which is how the Septuagint translates barit and how for the most part diatheka is used in the New Testament to translate the Hebrew concept of covenant. And this is where we get some of that confusion between Old Covenant and Old Testament, New Covenant and New Testament, because the primary word for testament seems to be at least the word diatheka. But here's the problem. A testament in the Greek culture at least of that time had a couple of things that made it significantly different from the Old Testament concept of covenant.

The first thing was that in the Greek culture a diatheka, a testament, was something that could be changed at any time by the testator as long as the testator was still alive. The person could make up his last will and testament and get ticked off at his heirs and write them out of their will. I tell this to my kids all the time when they give me a hard time, you're out of the will. My son and I trade responsibilities for Pittsburgh Steeler games.

On one week I'm responsible for the Steelers to win, and then the next week he's responsible for the Steelers to win, and if the Steelers lose during his week, that's my customary response. There goes your inheritance, son. I mean, not much on the line here, just your inheritance, I've just written you out of the will. But we understand that, that that actually does happen, that people are disinherited, people are written out of people's will, but when God makes a covenant with His people, He can punish them for covenant breaking, but He never, ever destroys the covenant promises that He makes. That's why baptism is so important in the life of the church, because baptism is the covenant sign of the New Testament.

We'll get into that more later, but I mean, that is where the promises of God for those who believe are made, and they're without repentance. And so, in this sense, the term dea theca is inadequate to translate the term berit. The second way in which it's impoverished is that the benefits of the testament or the dea theca don't accrue until after the testator dies. Well, obviously when God enters into covenants with people, people don't have to wait for God to die to inherit the blessings from that covenant because He's incapable of dying. So, with those two great weaknesses, you wonder why the Septuagint translators in the New Testament church chose the Greek word dea theca to translate the Hebrew berit. I may be telling you more than you want to know about this, but I think it has some significant elements for us, and the covenant concept among the Hebrews is not simply an agreement.

The concept of berit is an agreement plus. There is a plus, something added to the agreement, and that something that added is the divine promise, the divine sanction that rests ultimately on the integrity of God and on His sovereignty and not on our weaknesses as covenant partners, which is very important for us to understand the covenant promises of God. Now, the other word that was considered was cynotheke, and it has the prefix s-y-n, and you know that's the word that we see with synonym, syncretism, synchronization, and all of that, and that simply means with. And the idea of a cynotheke in the Greek culture was an agreement between equal partners, and the Hebrews would have none of that. They didn't want to use that as a translation of the term berit because they wanted to clearly maintain that the covenants that God makes with His people are made between a superior and a subordinate, not between two equal parties. And so that word was rejected, and they came back to the word deotheke because in its original use, before it developed in the Greek culture and as a word for testament, as I've said, it had reference to what is called the disposition for one's self.

A deotheke, I mean we call it later a will or a testament, has to do with an individual's disposition of his goods or property for himself. That is, it refers to his sovereign determining of to whom his estate will be given. And so that is an element that blends well with the Hebrew concept because here God chooses to give promises to whom He will give those promises. He makes a covenant with Abraham that He doesn't make with Hammurabi. He chooses the Jews.

He doesn't choose the Philistines. He enters into a covenant relationship with them and says, I will be your God and you will be my people. And that's a choice not that the Jews make but that God makes, and that indicates again that plus. So even though in the Greek word deotheke there is some confusion about its content in the Greek culture, it more than any other word in the language carries this notion of the plus that is so important to our understanding of the Hebrew notion of covenant. Now again, I'm giving you that by way of introduction as we look at the various covenants of Scripture.

I hope that that will become more clear and how important that is for our understanding of this structure of divine revelation. Now one last thing in today's session, as I've mentioned, we use the language Old Testament, New Testament, Old Covenant, New Covenant. And I sometimes tease my students and I say, who's the most important prophet in the Old Testament? And they'll say Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, somebody like that. And I say, no, no, the greatest prophet in the Old Testament is John the Baptist.

And they say, what do you mean? He's in the New Testament. Well, see, I've been playing with them because, you know, Jesus said there's none greater of all those born of women, there's none greater than John the Baptist. Well, John the Baptist is born in the book, we read of his birth in the book that we call the New Testament. But in terms of the history of redemption or the economy of God's redemption, the New Covenant had not yet been established at the time of the birth of John the Baptist. We read about him in the book called the New Testament, but the period of redemptive history in which John is born is the Old Testament period.

He still belongs to that period of redemptive history. You know, there's endless debates about when the New Testament really begins or the New Covenant period. And people say it begins at Pentecost or it begins here, begins there. I'm persuaded that the New Covenant begins in the upper room the night before Jesus' death when He changes the significance of the Passover and declares the making of a new covenant in His blood, which covenant is then ratified the next day on the cross. And so I think that's when the period of redemptive history that we call the New Covenant really begins with that work of Christ.

However, see, see the confusion. Because in our most ordinary use of language, when we talk about Old Testament, New Testament, we're not talking about two covenants. We're talking about two books, the Old Testament Scriptures and the New Testament Scriptures. And so we're talking about two segments of the biblical canon, one that we call the Old Testament and the New Testament. And in that sense, the use of the word has nothing to do with the concept of testament, you know, or will. But when we talk about New Covenant and Old Covenant, as I say, we're not speaking exactly synonymously with the concept of testament. Now one other thing before I stop that I hope will incite you to come for the third lecture is that the Old Covenant period of redemption does not cover the whole history of the Old Testament because the Old Covenant doesn't start until the fall. The Old Covenant, when we refer to the Old Covenant, we're referring to what God promised after the fall. So now we have to make more distinctions when we distinguish between what we call the covenant of creation and the covenant of redemption, and we'll explore those distinctions in our next session. All true theology is based on some form of a divine covenant. Whether it was in the garden or after the entrance of sin into the world, God has chosen to relate to His people. As the prophet Ezekiel puts it, I will be your God, and you will be my people, and I will dwell among you. We can sum up all of God's covenants with this from Ezekiel. I will be your God, and you will be my people, and I will dwell among you.

All this week on Renewing Your Mind, we're airing a portion of Dr. R.C. 's Sproul series, The Promise Keeper, The God of the Covenants. In 14 messages, R.C. goes over the major biblical covenants, including the Abrahamic, Mosaic, and Davidic covenants. If you'd like to continue your study of this important topic, we'd be happy to send you the two-DVD set containing the full series. Just give a donation of any amount to Ligonier Ministries when you call us at 800-435-4343, or when you go online to renewingyourmind.org.

And on behalf of all of my colleagues here at Ligonier Ministries, thank you for your generous donation. The basic definition of a covenant is an agreement between two or more parties. Some covenants, like that between Jacob and Laban in Genesis 31, are between equals. If you enter into an agreement with, say, a business partner, that too is between equals. God's covenants, though, with mankind are always between unequals, and that's why they're so astounding when you consider them. Learn more about these amazing promises when you request R.C.

Sproul's series, The Promise Keeper, The God of the Covenants. Our number again is 800-435-4343. Our online address is renewingyourmind.org. We'd also appreciate it if you'd share this daily Renewing Your Mind program. Once you're at the website, look for the Share button in the middle of the page. You can post a link to Facebook or Twitter, or even email a link to your friends or family members.

Look for that Share button at renewingyourmind.org. Well, tomorrow Dr. Sproul will show us that in the fall Adam represented the entire human race. What that means is that all human beings who descend from Adam participate in the Adamic covenant. We are by nature, as the children of Adam, necessarily involved in a covenant relationship with God. That's Wednesday, here on Renewing Your Mind. I hope you'll make plans to join us.
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-04-21 11:20:47 / 2023-04-21 11:29:43 / 9

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