The Church’s Relationship to the New Covenan
Bibliotheca Sacra 152 (July-September 1995): 290-305
Rodney J. Decker
The church’s relationship to the New Covenant has stimulated considerable discussion in dispensationalism. Despite numerous studies a consensus on the question has not emerged. Three major positions are evident, one of which may claim a majority of followers, though the other views are still represented. This series of two articles seeks to explain the significance of the issue, summarize the Old Testament data, note the key questions to be resolved, synthesize various positions, and suggest a viable conclusion.
The question of the New Covenant addresses the relationship between Israel and the church--a crucial issue in dispensational hermeneutics. Since the New Covenant is set forth in the Old Testament and is related there to the nation Israel, any involvement of the church raises significant questions for dispensationalists. For covenant and other nondispensational theologians the church’s relationship to the New Covenant is hardly an issue because they view the church as the New Testament Israel. For them the New Covenant belongs to the church by intent and inheritance.
Traditionally dispensationalism has distinguished the church as a mystery--an entity not revealed in the Old Testament. Therefore if the church does relate to the New Covenant in some way, an explanation must be provided.
The New Testament citations of Old Testament passages on the New Covenant are involved. Are they cited as fulfillment passages? Or do these quotations illustrate another use of the Old Testament? Is it permissible for the church to fulfill or otherwise receive the benefits of the New Covenant promised to Israel in the Old Testament?
The standard of life for believers is another issue to be addressed. Should the New Covenant be viewed as the rule of life for believers in the body of Christ--a replacement for the Mosaic Covenant, which was the rule of life for believers in Israel?
Related to the question of the believer’s rule of life is the relationship of the Old Covenant to the New Covenant. Was the Mosaic Covenant one of several manifestations of what covenant theologians call the covenant of grace? Or is the Old Covenant fully replaced by the New Covenant?
Six New Testament verses refer specifically to the New Covenant: Luke 22:20; 1 Corinthians 11:25; 2 Corinthians 3:6; Hebrews 8:8; 9:15; and 12:24.
The Lord’s Supper, which is celebrated by the church, refers specifically to the New Covenant as part of the symbolism of the table (Luke 22:19-21; 1 Cor. 11:23-26). Jesus’ inaugural statement identifies the cup as ’the cup of the New Covenant.’ With no additional explanation, the disciples would naturally have assumed that this was the same New Covenant promised in Jeremiah 31. Both Luke 22:20 and 1 Corinthians 11:25 use the definite article; the Lord referred to the New Covenant, not a New Covenant.
The blessings received as part of salvation today parallel those promised to Israel in the New Covenant. This raises the question of identity (or at least relationship) in the provisions. The following list sets forth the principal parallels. The New Testament list is only representative, not exhaustive.
Internalization of the Word of God; indwelling of the Spirit
Jer. 31:33; Ezek. 36:27
John 16:13; 1 Cor. 6:19; 2 Cor. 3:3
Personal relationship with God
John 14:23: Ezek. 36:28
Comprehensive knowledge of God
Gal. 4:9; 1 John 5:20
Forgiveness of sin
Eph. 1:7; Ezek. 36:25
Motivation and ability for obedience
Rom. 8; 2 Cor. 3:6, 17-18
Second Corinthians 3:6 refers to Paul and (perhaps) the other apostles as ’ministers of a new covenant’--and this covenant is in direct contrast to the Old Covenant (’the letter’). ’Allowing Paul to define his own terms, the ’new covenant’ (which his preaching of the gospel was promoting) was the same New Covenant which Jesus announced in the upper room and which his death secured for believers.’ If the apostles (or even an apostle) were connected with the New Covenant, it would be logical to consider the relationship of the church to the New Covenant since apostleship was an office in the early church.
The Old Testament Perspective on the New Covenant
Detailed studies of the Old Testament material regarding the New Covenant have been provided elsewhere. Since this series of two articles focuses on the New Covenant in the New Testament, this section will only summarize several key areas of the Old Testament data.
Texts Relevant to the New Covenant
Only Jeremiah 31:31 explicitly refers to the New Covenant. However, the concept is much more common, though expressed in different terminology. Kaiser suggests that ’based on similar content and contexts, the following expressions can be equated with the new covenant: the ’everlasting covenant’ in seven passages, a ’new heart’ or a ’new spirit’ in three or four passages, the ’covenant of peace’ in three passages, and ’a covenant’ or ’my covenant’ which is placed ’in that day’ in three passages--making a grand total of sixteen or seventeen major passages on the new covenant.’ This suggests that the New Covenant is not a minor concept in the Old Testament.
Parties to the New covenant
As prophesied in the verses noted above, the parties of the New Covenant are God and Israel. ’I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah’ (Jer. 31:31). The promise speaks of one covenant and one people, even though the nation was divided and the Northern Kingdom was exiled at the time of this prophecy. The covenant anticipates a reunited and restored Israel as a national entity. This same theme is reiterated in verse 33: ’they will be my people’ (singular). The covenant is not promised to any other group or nation. The Old Testament is unanimous in stating that the New Covenant will be made with Israel.
Provisions of the New Covenant
The specific provisions of the New Covenant could be discussed at length. Only a summary list of the provisions noted in the two major Old Testament passages on the New Covenant will be given. Those provisions include the internalization of the Word of God (Jer. 31:33), a personal relationship with God (31:33), a comprehensive knowledge of God (31:34), final forgiveness of sin (31:34), the continued national existence of Israel (31:35-37), Jerusalem to be rebuilt, never again to be demolished (31:38-40), restoration to the land (Ezek. 36:24, 28, 33), cleansing from sin (36:25), a responsive heart guaranteed (36:26), indwelling of the Spirit (36:27), motivation and ability for obedience (36:27), personal relationship with God (36:28), material prosperity and fruitfulness of the land (36:29-30, 34-35), and a large population in the restored land (36:37-38).
Issues regarding the New Covenant
Gentile Inclusion in the New Covenant
Several questions regarding the inclusion of Gentiles in the New Covenant need to be addressed.
First, do the covenants recorded in the Old Testament relate to any others besides Israel? Lincoln argues on the basis of Romans 9:4 that the covenants pertain strictly to ’the nation Israel composed of the natural descendants of Abraham.’ This seems to suggest that neither Gentiles nor the church could have any direct relationship to the Old Testament covenants. There are two problems with this view, however. Although Gentile Christians were at one time ’excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise’ (Eph. 2:12), Paul argued that on the basis of the Cross ’they had been ’made one’ with the Israelites in terms of the covenants (2:13-18).’ In addition, the conclusion often drawn from Romans 9:4 is a non sequitur. The verse says that the Old Testament covenants pertain to Israel. However, that does not mean they cannot relate to anyone else. Such a conclusion could be drawn only if the statement specified that the covenants were exclusively Israelite.
Second, does the Old Testament picture of the New Covenant include Gentiles? Some Old Testament references to the New Covenant do anticipate the involvement of Gentiles. Isaiah 55:5 says that Israel ’will summon nations’ and those Gentiles ’will hasten to you [Israel] because of the Lord your God’ (v. 5). This is in the context of the everlasting (’new’) covenant being made (ht*r=k=a#w^) with Israel (v. 3). Ezekiel also described the response of the nations (37:28) when a covenant of peace is made (v. 26) with ’my people’ (v. 27). The major New Covenant passage in Ezekiel is in chapter 36. It too mentions the response of the Gentiles when the covenant is implemented (v. 36). These references are not numerous and the promises contained in them are not extensive. They are peripheral notes that speak of the Gentiles more as onlookers than as participants in the covenant. Possibly they could be described as beneficiaries of the covenant made with Israel, though evidence for specific benefit is rather indirect in the Old Testament. Although from an Old Testament perspective it is clear that the Gentiles are not pictured as parties of the covenant, it is probably acceptable to conclude that the New Covenant ’includes a host of Gentile participants’ if this is understood as ’spillage’ or as the results of Israel’s benefits and blessings. This would not be much different from speaking of the participation of the Gentiles in the Abrahamic Covenant. The nations are not partners of that covenant; yet they are blessed through Abraham, the covenant partner (Gen. 12:3).
Third, if the theocratic covenants are viewed as closely related to each other rather than divided into separate compartments, it seems consistent to see Gentiles included under the New Covenant. The Abrahamic Covenant explicitly includes Gentile blessings. If the New Covenant is essentially an administrative implementation of the Abrahamic (replacing the Mosaic Covenant in the progressive outworking of God’s kingdom purposes ), then it is legitimate to see the New Covenant as the vehicle through which the promised blessings on Gentiles are administered in a post-Mosaic Covenant era. If the New Testament evidence (yet to be considered) is adequate to suggest that the church participates in New Covenant blessings in some way, this would seem to be compatible with Old Testament evidence even though the church is not included in the Old Testament. It would be no more inconsistent to allow the church to receive benefits this way than it is to allow the church to benefit from the Abrahamic Covenant through Christ, the seed of Abraham through whom all nations have been and are being blessed (Gal. 3:14).
Fourth, that only Israel is addressed in the Old Testament passages on the New Covenant does not mean that others are excluded. That conclusion could only be drawn logically if the text specifies that Israel’s status under the New Covenant is exclusive. All that can be said is that the Old Testament speaks only of Israel’s inclusion.
The question of a ’complementary hermeneutic’ also needs to be considered. The term refers to the principle that God can do more than He promised, but He cannot do less.
Some themes and texts have a complementary relationship. The additional inclusion of some in the promise does not mean that the original recipients are thereby excluded. The expansion of promise need not mean the cancellation of earlier commitments God has made. The realization of new covenant hope today for Gentiles does not mean that the promise made to Israel in Jeremiah 31 has been jettisoned.
If God were not to do what He promised to do, He would violate His character and His unconditional, oath-bound covenant. If God does not fulfill the promises of the New Covenant with Israel exactly as He promised, then He will have failed. But God can enlarge the promise and do more than He has promised. If God has seen fit to apply some aspects of that covenant to the church, it does not change the promises of the covenant to Israel--they will still be fulfilled.
If a father promises to take his son to a baseball game, but when he goes, takes both his son and his daughter to the game, he has not violated his promise. He has done more than he promised, not less. There is a problem only if he promised his son that just the two of them would go to the game and spend the day together. If he then takes his daughter along, he has broken his promise. Or the same would be true if he took his daughter instead of his son.
An example of an invalid use of a similar principle may be helpful. Waltke attempts to avoid the necessity of Old Testament land promise fulfillment by arguing that these physical promises have been ’Christified’--’the images of the old dispensation were resignified to represent the heavenly reality of which they always spoke.’ He argues that ’for old Israel the land was a gift, accepted by faith, where one met God, and in which one remained through persevering faith; for new Israel it is a type of Jesus Christ.’ His query sounds much like a complementary hermeneutic: ’If God promised the fathers $5 and he rewards them with $5,000, is he unfaithful?’ The answer is no; but God is unfaithful if He gives them, for example, five lollipops instead (or if He gives them to someone else). The original prophecy must be fulfilled unchanged. In some instances it may be legitimate to suggest that He can do more, but the analogy then would have to be that He gives both five dollars and five thousand lollipops. In relation to the land promises, God could (at least theoretically) do more, but He must give Israel the land as promised lest He be judged unfaithful.
The principle of a complementary hermeneutic seems to be legitimate, but it must be employed carefully and only with specific biblical support. It is not valid to apply this principle without explicit biblical evidence that God is indeed doing more than He promised. If the New Testament indicates that God is extending a covenant relationship given to Israel to the church, only then may this principle be applied. There is a biblical basis for extending at least some aspects of the Abrahamic Covenant and possibly the New Covenant. Exactly how God will do that remains to be considered.
Division of Blessings
Can covenant blessings or provisions be divided up or administered differently to various groups of recipients? This question arises in discussing the New Covenant when it is suggested that the spiritual blessings of the covenant are in force in some way today, but that the physical aspects await a future fulfillment. Ware’s argument assumes this division.
Biblical teaching best supports (1) the view that the New Testament envisions the same new covenant as spoken of in Jeremiah 31 as applied to the church, and (2) the view that God will one day fulfill his promise of the national restoration of Israel as part of the new covenant promise as not applicable to the church. How can these be reconciled? They are reconciled when we permit the fulfillment of such eschatological promises to take both a preliminary and partial (’already’) fulfillment as well as a later full and complete (’not yet’) realization. . . . Only the spiritual aspects of new-covenant promise are now inaugurated in this age; the territorial and political aspects, though part of God’s new-covenant promise, await future fulfillment.
Without at this point attempting to resolve the question of the church’s relationship to the New Covenant, the principle of division of blessings may still be addressed. This may be done by examining the Abrahamic Covenant. The Abrahamic provisions include a land, seed, and blessing. Abraham was blessed historically (Gen. 24:1), but God’s blessing on others had only begun to be seen in his lifetime. The ultimate fulfillment of that blessing through the Seed (Christ) was yet many centuries removed. Abraham’s seed was not at all numerous in his own lifetime, though they had become very numerous by the end of the Old Testament era (Neh. 9:23). Neither had the land promises been fulfilled. In the New Testament the church is never related to any Abrahamic Covenant provisions except that of universal blessing. Even the reference to believers as the seed of Abraham is linked not to the promise of a great nation but to the promise of blessing (Gal. 3:7-9).
These blessings promised to Israel are nowhere reinterpreted as presently belonging to the church. The fact that the promises remain in force anticipates their future fulfillment. Thus, while there is in the present salvation in Christ a partial fulfillment of the spiritual blessing promised to all people through Abraham and his seed, many aspects of the promise remain to be fulfilled, especially those dealing with the ’great nation,’ seed, and the ’land,’ but also the final inheritance of spiritual salvation.
Covenant provisions, then, can be divided in reference to the time of their fulfillment and in reference to the parties who are recipients of the provisions.
Ratification of the New Covenant
In the Old Testament the New Covenant was only prophesied. It was not ratifiedor inaugurated at the time of Jeremiah or any subsequent Old Testament prophet. Israel looked forward to the New Covenant, but did not enjoy its provisions; she still lived under the Old Covenant. When is or was the New Covenant ratified? Two possibilities exist. The covenant may have been ratified at the time of Jesus’ death, or the ratification may yet await a future implementation in the millennial kingdom.
The Old Testament information is inconclusive. Six of the New Covenant verses cited above refer to ’making’ (tr^K*, ’to cut’) a covenant. Usually these provide only general, indefinite references to the future (Isa. 55:3; Jer. 31:31; Ezek. 37:26). One passage (Ezek. 34:25) allows for the conclusion that the covenant must be made before the millennial reign. Presumably Isaiah 61:8 refers to the millennial era. The preceding context does refer to that period, but Jesus cited 61:1-2a as fulfilled in His day. In light of the lack of clear distinction between the two advents in many Old Testament passages it would be precarious to assume that verse 8 must be millennial. Jeremiah 32:40 comes closest to fixing the ratification of the New Covenant at the beginning of the King’s millennial reign. In this case the context argues strongly that the covenant will be made at the time of the future restoration of the nation Israel. Even this, however, does not demand that interpretation.
The New Testament provides more specific information as to the time of the New Covenant’s ratification. Hebrews 8 introduces Jesus as the believers’ great High Priest and demonstrates that His priesthood is superior to the priesthood of the Old Covenant. His mediatorship and high priesthood are based on the New Covenant (v. 6). Since both of those ministries are currently in force, it would seem logical to affirm that the covenant on which they are based is also in force. The same argument can be made from Hebrews 9. After speaking of Jesus’ work on the cross (vv. 12-14) the author of Hebrews discussed the present work of the Savior (vv. 15-28). He drew explicit contrasts with the Old Covenant (vv. 15, 18-28), showing that Jesus’ present ministry is superior because it is based on the New Covenant. Likewise Hebrews 10 carries the argument forward in describing Jesus’ once-for-all sacrifice for sin and the forgiveness that results from His death. The writer then substantiated his argument by citing Jeremiah 31:33. The contextual setting of this quotation, particularly the concluding summary in Hebrews 10:18, makes any conclusion difficult if the New Covenant is not presently in force. The book concludes with a benediction that connects Jesus’ death (’the blood of the eternal covenant’ ) with both the resurrection and Jesus’ present ministry in the lives of believers (13:20-21). It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the Book of Hebrews views the New Covenant as having been ratified at the Cross.
Other New Testament passages corroborate this conclusion. The references in the Gospels specifically connect the New Covenant with Jesus’ death (Luke 22:20 explicitly; cf. Matt. 26:28; Mark 14:24). The cup, representing the New Covenant, was made on the basis of (ejn) the blood of Christ. In 1 Corinthians 11:25 Paul reiterated the formula for the instruction of the church. The statement is practically verbatim: the cup, representing the New Covenant, was made on the basis of (ejn) the blood of Christ. If one had only these references, he might simply conclude that the basis had been established for a future New Covenant. However, when these texts are combined with the portrait of Hebrews, such an explanation is inadequate.
If Paul’s portrait of his ministry in 2 Corinthians 3:6-18 relates directly to the New Covenant (rather than to a ’new-covenant-like’ ministry), then his description there sounds remarkably like that in Hebrews: an already-ratified, now-in-effect New Covenant. Paul claimed that he was a New Covenant minister (v. 6), contrasting the fading glory of the Old Covenant with the present glory of the ministry that brings righteousness (vv. 7-11).
The conclusion that best accords with this data is that the New Covenant was actually ratified at the Cross, with Jesus’ death providing the blood that sealed the bond of the covenant and brought the provisions of the covenant into effect. Such a conclusion need not require that all aspects of the covenant be presently in force for Israel, the Gentiles, or the church. It suggests instead that God’s theocratic administrative covenant for the old era--the old or Mosaic Covenant--has been superseded by a new arrangement. The data also seems to require that the national promises of the covenant not be fulfilled for Israel until the Messiah’s future reign. Exactly how that relates to the church is yet to be considered.
Expansion of New covenant Provisions before Its Ratification
If a covenant has not yet been ratified or inaugurated, can additional provisions be added to older promises of the covenant? This can be best approached by comparing the New Covenant with the Abrahamic Covenant. The relevant data from Genesis is represented in the table on the following page.
Genesis 12 records God’s promise that He would establish a covenant with Abraham. At that point the promises were not yet formal covenant obligations. An additional promise was given when Abram eventually reached Shechem: ’To your offspring I will give this land’ (Gen. 12:7). This promise was probably given at least five years after the initial promises given in Ur. At that time Abram had separated from his father. (Not until Genesis 13 did he finally separate from Lot.) Having finally met the condition specified in Genesis 12:1, Abram was finally ready for the first formal covenant ratification. That ceremony is described in chapter 15. Before the ratification of the covenant God gave additional promises: Abram’s offspring will be as numerous as the stars (15:5). God then ratified the covenant with Abram, including both a blood ceremony (15:10) and an oath (15:13-16; cf. Heb. 6:13-15). The only promise included in this ratification was God’s promise of the land (Gen. 15:18).
Additional promises were made to Abraham in Genesis 17. Some promises are repeated, others are new or expanded. ’I will greatly increase your numbers’ (v. 2); ’you will be the father of many nations’ (v. 4); ’I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant’ (v. 7); and ’the whole land of Canaan . . . I will give as an everlasting possession’ (v. 8). Abraham was to ’walk before me and be blameless’ (v. 1) and to ’keep my covenant’ (v. 9).
The second ratification of the covenant is found in Genesis 22, which records the sacrifice of Isaac, one of the most dramatic moments recorded in the Old Testament. Abraham had been commanded in Genesis 17:1 to walk before God and be blameless. But now would he obey God in this awesome command of the Lord? Abraham did obey, and then he heard the Lord’s words,
’I know that you fear God’ (22:12). Then God ratified the remaining promises He had previously made to Abraham (recorded in chaps. 12, 13, 15, and 17). Accompanied by a blood ceremony (the sacrifice in 22:13) and a formal oath (’I swear by myself,’ 22:16), the promises of blessings, seed, and land were reiterated (22:17-18). The specifics listed are these: ’I will surely bless you, [I will surely] make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed.’
To: Condition Land Summary
Abram Promise Seed
Seed Oath Blessing
Gen. 12:1 A C Leave country/people/
family; go to the land
12:2-3 A P S Make you a great nation
A P B Bless you; make your name
great; you will be a bles- sing; bless/curse those who bless/curse you; all peoples blessed through you
12:7 S P L To your offspring I will give this land
13:15 A & S P L+ All the land I will give you
and your offspring
13:16 A P S+ I will make your offspring
15:4-5 A P S A son; offspring like the stars
15:18 S O & B L+ To your offspring I will give
this land, from . . . to . . . .
17:1 A C Walk before Me and be blameless
17:2 A P (L+) S Confirm My covenant;
greatly increase your numbers
17:4-6 A P S+ Father of many nations;
very fruitful; nations and kings
17:7-8 A & S P L+ Whole land of Canaan . . .
an everlasting possession
17:9-12 A C You must keep My covenant
(circumcision = the sign
of the covenant)
22:1-2 A C Sacrifice Isaac
22:15-18 A & S O & B B, S, L I will surely bless you; des-
cendants numerous as the
stars and sands; your off-
spring will take posses- sion of cities; all nations will be blessed
[+ = additional information or provisions related to this aspect of the covenant] If this understanding of the Abrahamic Covenant is correct, it would seem that covenant provisions may be expanded or enlarged progressively over a lengthy period of time. The Abrahamic provisions build through chapters 12, 13, and 15 before an initial ratification in chapter 15. Additional provisions are added in chapter 17 before the final ratification in chapter 22. This parallels the New Covenant historically in the Old Testament corpus. Numerous passages relate to the New Covenant--passages found in at least four prophetic books that span more than 150 years. None of the passages, not even the locus classicus, Jeremiah 31, mentions all the elements of the covenant. This suggests that, though any deletion or lessening of the promised provisions would challenge the veracity of God, the addition of other elements is theoretically possible until the final ratification of the covenant.
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