L.D. “Mick” Turner
Of late I have been exploring the issue of “Covenant” in general and the provisions of the New Covenant in particular. I think the theme of covenant is one which we Christians do not invest much thought in. As I explore the issue at more depth, I am increasingly aware of just how tragic this lack of awareness is.
As Christians, we are charged with being keepers of God’s great story of redemption, renewal, and restoration. It is our calling to keep the story pure and to, by the most effective means available, carry that great story to the ends of the earth. Perhaps more than anything else, God’s great story is grounded in the reality of a “covenant relationship.” In this article, and a few more to follow, we will look at this notion of “covenant” and explore just how it fits into God’s great story and also look at how covenantal relationship has far-reaching implications for how we conduct our lives.
Let’s start with an interesting happening, recorded in the 15th Chapter of Genesis.
I have always been fascinated by the story of God’s dealings with Abram, later to be named Abraham, as described in Genesis 15. It is precisely here that the reality of God’s covenant with humanity entered history. Although we often interpret this watershed event as God making a covenant with Abram, in a very real sense, God also made a covenant with himself.
In those ancient times, whenever two parties entered into a covenantal partnership they would take an animal, cut it in two, and place one half on each side of a designated path. After doing this, the partners would walk between the severed halves of the carcass, thereby pledging to honor the agreement they had entered into. This act was highly significant and highly symbolic. By walking through the designated path together, the two parties involved were promising to be faithful to the promise made, but also agreed to endure a harsh punishment should either one fail to keep the agreement. Basically, by walking between the halved carcass, they were in essence agreeing to undergo a like fate should they fail to honor their pledge. It was a serious business, indeed. One did not enter into a covenant lightly.
Now, let’s pay close attention to what happened on that fateful night between God and Abram. In Genesis 15:12 we discover that:
As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him.
While in this deep sleep, Abram was told by God about the future tribulations and blessings of the Hebrew people as well as the fact that God would be a righteous judge toward those who had oppressed Abrams’ descendents. Furthermore, Abram was told that he would live to a ripe old age and die in peace.
Then something quite unusual happened. After laying out for the slumbering Abram the boundaries of the land his descendents would possess, a firepot and a torch passed through between the severed animals. God, in essence, walked through the pathway for both himself and Abram. Tim King and Frank Martin, in their excellent book entitled, Furious Pursuit, vividly describe why God chose to seal the covenant in this unusual manner:
“God was so intent on seeing the promise fulfilled that he took no chances. He knew that his covenantal partner was fickle and skittish. When left to his own devices, Abram was driven by fear and shortsightedness, willing to pass off his wife as his sister or sire a son by his wife’s servant. Abram’s faith was like our faith – weak, undependable, and uncertain…..God knew that a covenant of this magnitude – an eternal covenant – had to be established on something much greater than human resolve. It required a level of faithfulness that only an all-powerful, all-loving, ever-faithful God could offer. So he walked alone between the halves of a bloody carcass. He pledged to carry the covenant on his own shoulders.”
Whenever I pause, slow down, and allow the Holy Spirit to really speak to me on this issue, I sometimes am overwhelmed by both the insight and the compassion of our Father of Lights. Knowing all too well the fickle aspects of the human heart and the all-encompassing magnitude of the results of the Fall, God took it upon himself to seal this eternal covenant relationship. And in his act of walking between the halves of the carcass, we also see a symbolic foreshadowing of the future incarnation and sacrifice of Christ. Just as God put the keeping of the covenant with Abram on his own shoulders, Christ opened the way for the New Covenant, by taking all sin and iniquity upon his shoulders. We can even see the connection between these two events, the covenant with Abram and the crucifixion of Christ, as Jesus was forced to carry his own cross on his shoulders.
The drama of that night is a chapter in God’s great story of restoration and renewal of his creation. The covenant implies that God seeks to deal with humankind through the parameters of “relationship.” The covenant has as its beating heart the honor and integrity of God the gracious giver and we the human receivers. Yet we also have responsibility in this partnership and we will discuss those responsibilities later. For now, let’s return to King and Martin, for they conclude with a powerful point:
“Don’t miss the magnitude of this act….God was so convinced of his ability to remain faithful and so determined in his plan to restore us to himself that he was willing to lay everything on the line. When God walked between the severed animal pieces, he was saying to us, ‘This has never been about your faithfulness; it’s about my faithfulness. It’s not about your strength, your ability to remain in covenant with me. It’s about my strength, my ability, my love, my resolve to save you. I pledge to fight for you, to stay in relationship with you, to walk with you no matter what, from now until eternity.’”
I have spent much of my life studying comparative religion and systems of spirituality. Exploring the various ways in which humankind has sought to find meaning, purpose, and ultimate understanding is, at least to me, one of the most fascinating undertakings a person can pursue. I say this to make a point that I firmly and passionately feel needs to be made. It is precisely this aspect of the Christian message that sets it apart from all the rest. This faith is not about working our way to God, but instead, about God emptying himself to pursue us in an act of sacrificial love. It is not about our spiritual achievements, no matter how splendid they might be. It is about God gathering us into a divine embrace and restoring us to our intended status.
David Foster, founding pastor of Bellevue Community Church in Nashville, eloquently and cogently describes God’s consistent pursuit of us, no matter what the circumstance might be.
“Jesus came to love you and give you life. He did not die to make your religious, but to give you a new heart. Because nothing changes until our hear changes, and the heart never changes by itself, we need help. Jesus’ death and resurrection is God’s promise fulfilled. “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” (Ezek. 36:26). And this new freed-up, joy-filled heart of flesh doesn’t tame, shame, limit, or lump easily. Instead, it sets the R4G in us free to be an agent of change with a message of hope for a world in pain….Our corporate mission is the fueling and funding of a global revolution aimed at the radical reclamation of the human heart. We are driven by a relentless, passionate pursuit of the divine scandal – namely – every life matters to God.”
The fact that God loves me enough to pursue me through the days of my life and down the many dark alleys I have chosen to stumble just absolutely boggles my mind. My only response, once I fully accept this reality, is utter amazement and radical wonder. And then, I am awash in sincere gratitude. In the above quotation, Foster is speaking of the same principle enunciated by the Master when he talked about the good shepherd leaving the 99 to go in search of the one that is lost. It is the same motivating ethic that caused the wealthy landowner to go out on the road every day and gaze longingly into the dry distance, hoping at last to catch a glimpse of his wandering prodigal.
Christianity, as revealed by scripture in general and in the person of Christ in particular, is not “religion,” although many have turned it into that. Christianity, as revealed in the act of God on that dark night with Abram and on that dark afternoon on Calvary, is “relationship.” In essence, Christianity is “Covenant.”
To be continued….
(c) L.D. Turner 2009/ All Rights Reserved