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Sunday, November 11, 2012

The "Covenant Relationship" Class


The Covenant Relationship

The covenant relationship is as vital and central to Christianity as it was to Judaism.  It is the same relational form that exists between husband and wife in marriage. 

The following lessons are the course-notes I used to teach a church class on the “relational dynamics” of the covenant relationship.  I offer it here to make this material available to a larger audience.

Unfortunately, uploading the material to this blog failed to bring across some of the graphics, photos, and charts.  Some of these are entirely missing; others have lost their original format.  When I taught this course, I prepared Power-Point slides that greatly enhance the material.  These, unfortunately, also cannot be brought to the blog.

Even with these technical shortcomings, the essence of the material offers something of great value to husband, wife, and Christian.  May God richly bless you as your understanding of covenant-relating deepens.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Covenant Class, Lesson 1


The Covenant Relationship
Lesson One


What is a covenant?   For now, let’s just say that a covenant is a specially designed relationship that:

--joins partners together from the heart

--binds them together in unending faithfulness

--and gives them joy, fulfillment, and security

Why is the covenant relationship important?  First, some very important relationships take the form of covenants:

--the relationship between God and Jewish people (in the Old Testament)

--the relationship between God and Christian people (in the New Testament)

--the relationship between husband and wife (in marriage)

Understanding covenant helps us understand the Bible.  Mont W. Smith writes, “The idea of covenant is inseparably connected to every major idea in the Bible.”  Covenant is often the “hidden connector” that ties Bible concepts together.  Walther Eichrodt wrote a major, two-volume theology of the Old Testament.  He used the concept of “covenant” as the organizing feature that made sense of the OT approach to God.  Much of the uniquely “religious” language that we find in the Bible (such as faithfulness, righteousness, judgment, curses, blessings, and sin) is actually language that is descriptive of covenantal relating. 

Covenant helps solve the “puzzle” of the Bible.  We might suggest three areas of study that can dramatically increase our Biblical understanding:
1. The Bible Story-line.  When we understand the plot that drives the overall story told by the Bible, it gives us the “puzzle frame” into which we can fit the smaller pieces of Bible knowledge.  We can use a rough chronology to understand the sequence to discern God’s logic and strategy.

2. The Covenant Relationship.  The Bible’s main topic is not God; nor is it humanity.  Rather, it is the relationship between God and people.  The inner workings of covenant relationships go a long way to explaining why God reacts and responds differently to different people under different circumstances.  This understanding helps to connect the “inner puzzle pieces.”

3. Church History.  As history unfolds, it drives people to different concerns.  And these concerns serve to illuminate certain truths from God’s Word.  Sometimes we are driven to deeper understanding, and other times we are driven to misunderstanding.  Only by understanding the past can we realize how our own understanding of the Bible has been influenced.  Church history often helps us solve the dilemmas we face when “puzzle pieces just don’t fit.”

Covenant makes both people and God more understandable and predictable.  Relationships are hard to hold together without external restraints (police, legal system, etc.).  A covenant brings internal stability and predictability to relationships.  Partners in covenant treat each other in ways that few others can expect—love, faithfulness, devotion, and undivided loyalty. 

This is also true for those who share a covenant with God.  The most common characteristics of false gods are their unpredictability, capriciousness, and chaotic reactions.  By binding Himself to covenants with people, God made Himself very predictable and reliable.  The most common description of God in the Old Testament is “covenant keeper” (Ex. 34:6; Deut. 7:7-9; Neh. 9:16-21).

A covenant thus brings security unrivaled by any other form of relationship.  Marriage is remarkably stable and enduring.  If it seems to be failing in the modern day, it is because spouses are not honoring God and are failing their covenants.  Covenants also have been very successful in creating “covenant communities”, such as the theocratic nation of Israel and the global church of Christ. 

Covenant helps us make sense of history.  Apart from the idea of “covenant”, history is only a series of meaningless cycles.  Instead of this circular pattern, the idea of covenant draws a line that measures progress or regress relative to the relationship of people with God.  This allows a “linear” understanding of history that flows through many centuries of time.  The idea of “Old Covenant (or Testament)” and “New Covenant” marks out not only blocks of Scripture, but different eras of history.

Covenant Class, Lesson 2


The Covenant Relationship
Lesson Two

Discovering the meaning of “covenant”.


John Bright makes an important observation:    “Apart from the Old Testament, indeed, it is impossible to understand the significance of our Lord’s work as the New Testament writers saw it.  Likewise, the New Testament tells of the making of the new covenant and understands the relationship of the believer to his Lord and to his fellow believers as a covenantal one; yet it nowhere troubles to explain what a covenant is.  But, again, why should it?  Is it not sufficiently clear from the Old Testament?”

Our primary source must be the OT.  However, there is no one passage that defines covenant, nor are there many “proof-texts” which can be strung together.  Walther Eichrodt insists instead that the OT contains “the characteristic description of a living process.”  In other words, we have to fashion our understanding by observing what partners (both human and Divine) do when they relate covenantally and synthesize the results into a working definition.  We can also use observations from other ancient cultures (such as Syrian and Hittite) to strengthen the limited OT material.

Stronger than blood!

In future lessons, we will look closely at the OT.  For now, notice that the powerful effect of covenant is its ability to bring strangers into a relationship that is as strong—or even stronger—than blood kinship!  Covenant partners become brothers or sisters.  To achieve this, the covenant combines legal requirements (expressed in laws, obligations, or vows) with Divine oversight. 

Levels of formality.

Whether very informal or highly formal, the inner workings of covenants are the same.  Even basic human interactions are somewhat covenantal.  We share an understanding of “common courtesy” that binds one and all in expectations of social behavior.  Thus, we frown on line-cutters and tellers of lies, even when we are complete strangers with no formal relationship.  We expect faithfulness in honesty and fair play, and this is also part of covenant relating.  Notice this chart:

Type of Relationship
Level of formality
Means of expression
 
Basic human interaction
 
Low
 
Implicit, unspoken
 
Ordinary covenants
 
Medium
 
Spoken to partner
 
Formal treaties
 
High
 
Written, oath and witnesses

 

 

The most basic human relationships have expectations that are unspoken.  These are the least formal.  Ordinary covenants between people are more formal in that the mutual obligations are declared verbally, and often in private.  The most formal covenants are legal treaties and the covenants by which God designates His people.  These are put down in writing in a public record.  When looking at how covenants work, the level of formality is unimportant.

Here are the essential features of the covenant relationship:

·        a bilateral partnership:  essentially two-sided.  It is a joining of partners in a relationship that fully intends mutual benefit and so requires mutual participation.  Walther Eichrodt writes, “…[covenant]…was always regarded as a bilateral relationship; for even though the burden is most unequally distributed between the two contracting parties, this makes no difference to the fact that the relationship is still essentially two-sided.  The idea that in ancient Israel the [covenant] was always and only thought of as Yahweh’s pledging of himself, to which human effort was required to make no kind of response…, can therefore be proved to be erroneous.”

·        often unequal:  equal or unequal obligations.  In parity (equality) partnerships, partners would mutually agree to the same obligations.  In a suzerainty/vassal arrangement, the “lord” (or “suzerain”) would set down the list of obligations (similar to terms of surrender) and his “servant” (or “vassal”) would swear an oath to abide by them.  The issue of equality may be thought of as part of the “outer structure”, while the inner dynamics of relating (such as love and faithfulness) would be essentially the same in both equal and unequal relationships.

·        religious:  God is witness and enforcer, and perhaps actual covenant partner.  Even in covenants in which God (or gods) was not an actual partner, God (or gods) served as witness and enforcer who brought about the blessings or curses.  The text of a formal covenant, or treaty, was often stored in a temple.

·        legal:  obligations in laws or vows.  It is understood that each partner must accept obligations if the covenant is to achieve the success of mutual benefit.  Eichrodt writes, “The covenant becomes an expression of the fact that God and the people have been thrown together and that neither can well survive without the other.”  Often these obligations are formally expressed through “vows” which are sworn-to with an “oath”.

·        requires total personal commitment and faithfulness.  Eichrodt writes, “The covenant lays claim to the whole man and calls him to surrender with no reservations.”  The solemn nature is shown in the association with animal sacrifice with its implicit threat to the partners.  In ancient Mari, the phrase “to kill an ass” is equivalent to “make a covenant” (and, to “kill an ass of peace” the equivalent of the Biblical “make a covenant of peace”).

·        specific.  The obligations attached to a covenant pertain only to those bound by the covenant.

·        often exclusive towards competing interests.  One covenant partner is often forbidden to allow a third party to acquire a portion of the benefit that might be a rightful expectation of the other partner.  Thus, a husband and wife can share sexuality only with each other, and sharing with others is a breach of covenant.  A failure in covenant is called “sin.”

·        conditional:  may result either in blessings or curses.  When one partner honors the other and their relationship, the appropriate response is “blessings.”  Otherwise, the response is punitive through “curses.”

·        remedial:  After a partner sins, the covenant is often “gracious” and makes reasonable opportunity for a remedial course of action.  Some failures or sins are understood to not undermine the essential love and faithfulness required of partners; that foundation can still sustain the partnership.  Other failures are so egregious and damaging that the foundation is understood to have been broken, and forgiveness becomes impossible.

Covenant Class, Lesson 3


The Covenant Relationship
Lesson Three



“Relational dynamics” of the covenant relationship.

In physics, “dynamics” are the branch of mechanics that deals with motion and the way in which forces produce motion. Another definition is “the forces that tend to produce activity and change in any situation or sphere of existence.” We are now considering the forces that make for success or failure in a covenant relationship.

Just how serious is a covenant?

When the ancients made a covenant, they sometimes killed an animal (or split it in two, see Gen. 15:8-11, 17-18; Jer. 34:18-19).  The implied meaning was:  “if I should fail to honor you by meeting my obligations (laws, vows, etc.), then may something happen to ME that was AT LEAST AS BAD as what happened to this animal” (see, for example, Ruth 1:17; 1 Sam. 20:13; 2 Sam. 3:9)!  One ancient treaty reads this way:  “This head is not the head of the ram, but the head of Mati’-ilu of Agusi, his sons, his nobles, and the people of his land.  If Mati’-ilu violates this oath, as the head of this ram is struck off…so will the head of Mati’-ilu be struck off.”  In fact, from this custom, the language the Hebrews used for making a covenant was “to cut a covenant”!  It is not clear if the dire consequence was left entirely up to God to enforce, or if the offended party had the right himself.  Over time, the actual slaughter was not included in making some covenants, but the serious nature of the relationship was retained. 

From the rites, linking the death of an animal with the formation of a covenant, came the association of the covenant with blood (Ex. 24:8; Matt. 26:28).  The “blood of the covenant” becomes the link between partners.  Covenants are deadly serious! 

Two ways with covenant obligations…

The following flow-chart shows that covenants are inherently conditional, depending on whether partners honor or fail to honor their obligations:
 
Covenant Obligations (laws, vows, etc.)
Faithfulness ("chesed")                       Unfaithfulness ("sin")
Reward:  Blessings            Punishment:  Curses

Relational Dynamics at work…

Peace (Hebrew, “shalom”) is “the ideal state of fellowship in every relationship” and so the goal of covenant relating.  Peace is the enjoyable state of relationship when partners honor the covenant and love one another.  It feels so good!  It is the place where the good fruit of a healthy relationship may be enjoyed by all.  God sets His partner in a “shalom” status.  In covenant, we are at peace with God and are duty-bound to keep peace with other members of the “covenant community” (church, see Eph. 4:3).

The way partners achieve “shalom” is through love and faithfulness.  Love is the foundation of every covenant.  Partners expect love of one another, beyond the stated legal obligations of the covenant.  Therefore partners continually scrutinize one another’s behavior for signs showing whether this love is real, or a fraud.  In this, covenant partners have eyes like hawks!  The crucial indicator is diligence in keeping the terms of the covenant.  This is faithfulness (or its absence), and it is the surest sign of love (or its absence).  Later we will look at the Hebrew word “chesed”, which expresses covenant loyalty

God is the perfect covenant partner, since His love and faithfulness are demonstrably flawless.  But every human partner fails the obligations of covenants, and the word for this failure is “sin.”  Sin is more than just the breaking of a religious taboo; it is even more than breaking God’s law or commandment.  Sin is the relational failure resulting from an unmet obligation.  Thus, the reason disobeying God is a “sin” is because it violates one’s relationship with God.  And, sin also takes place in relationships with people.  We can sin against God, or against other people.

God’s love is unconditional, but human success or failure in a covenant with God is very conditional!  God loves partners who succeed; and He loves those who fail.  Yet, His love will not guarantee your success or mine, nor will it prevent our failure.  Paul put this forward as a “trustworthy saying” (2 Tim. 2:11-13):

“If we died with him, we will also live with him;

if we endure, we will also reign with him.

  If we disown him, he will also disown us;

if we are faithless, he will remain faithful, for he cannot disown himself.”

 

The outcome of a covenant, depending on faithfulness or unfaithfulness, is either blessings or curses.  God first witnesses the vows, then He guarantees the fitting consequence will overtake each covenant partner.  After meeting God at Mt. Sinai and entering the covenant, Israel had these consequences visibly associated with two different mountains—Gerizim and Ebal (Deut. 11:26-29; chs. 27-28).  Blessings may include health, prosperity, victory in war, or peace.  Curses may include natural calamity, defeat in war, sickness and plague, exile, death, sterility, misery, poverty, or famine.  Ultimately, of course, we should think here of Heaven and Hell.

Can you see that much of what we call “religious language” is really the language of covenant?  Peace, love, faithfulness, sin, etc….  While we are on this, we should include righteousness.  Righteousness does not exist apart from a relationship.  A righteous person is measured not against a code of moral standards, but against his responsible handling of relational obligations.  It is a useful translation of the Hebrew word, “chesed” (lovingkindness or covenant-loyalty).  James D.G. Dunn writes:  “…the righteousness of God can be defined quite accurately as ‘God’s covenant-faithfulness.”

In the next lesson we will consider how any human can succeed in covenant.

Covenant Class, Lesson 4


The Covenant Relationship
Lesson Four
 

Marriage as a Covenant

This is truly an exciting part of this study.  We will see that what we can learn from Christianity will help us better understand marriage, and the reverse is just as true!  And the reason is that both are covenants.


Biblical passages on the marriage covenant

In the Bible, marriage is declared to be a covenant relationship.  In two OT passages, spouses are chastised for violating their marriage covenants.  In Prov. 2:17, adultery is condemned because it is a wife’s violation of the covenant with “the partner of her youth.”  In Malachi 2:10-16, God is both “witness” to the covenant and its “enforcer”, bringing curses after sins.  After flooding His altar with tears and asking why He has treated them so, God declares that the cause is husbands marrying of pagan women at the expense of the covenant with “the wife of your youth.” 

In Ezekiel 16:8, God speaks of His covenant relationship with Israel metaphorically in terms of marriage:  “Later I passed by, and when I looked at you and saw that you were old enough for love, I spread the corner of my garment over you and covered your nakedness.  I gave you my solemn oath and entered into a covenant with you, declares the Sovereign LORD, and you became mine.”  We see interesting parallels in Ex. 6:4-6 and Ruth 3:9.  In Exodus, we see that covenant partners have possession of each other:  “you became mine.”  And in Ruth, the same idiom for taking a wife is used, “I spread my garment over you.”  Marriage is a covenant.

Unequally yoked weddings

Sometimes when two unbelievers are married, one of them becomes a Christian.  They are not to divorce although they are now “unequally yoked” (1 Cor. 7:12-14).  However, Paul does command Christians not to become “unequally yoked” to unbelievers (2 Cor. 6:14).  In the first situation, a conversion led to the unequal yoking; in the second, it would be a wedding or, perhaps, another covenant. 

Paul did not specify marriage/wedding in this passage.  Likely he had broader concerns over the mixing of Christianity with paganism.  But in his Jewish background Paul found God’s wisdom prohibiting spiritually-mixed marriages (Deut. 7:2-3; Mal. 2:11).  The metaphor of “unequally yoked” suggests the folly of harnessing together two incompatible animals who would only wind up working against each other.  The same happens when true and false spiritualities attempt an alliance.  And our understanding of covenant relating helps us here.  The primary enforcer of a covenant is one’s deity and, when two partners answer to two different divine authorities, the result must be confusion and disorder.  The covenant is designed to provide a relational foundation that produces stability.  An unequal yoke sets the stage for the opposite.

Covenants are “mutually instructive”

As Ezekiel (and Hosea) drew comparison between the “old covenant” and marriage, Paul did the same with the “new covenant” and marriage in Ephesians 5:21-33.  Paul makes it clear that his fundamental topic is Christianity, and the point here is that it works just like marriage!  Since both are covenants, the same dynamics—the same relational “nuts and bolts”—work in each.  So, the covenants are mutually instructive!

Marriage and forgiveness

Paul’s specific application is that the “authority issue” (between a husband’s leadership and a wife’s submission) can be made workable by the covenantal model used between Christ and the church on the same issue.  Here, we will try a different issue by seeing if we may gain special understanding for the way forgiveness works in Christianity when we see how it works in a healthy, functional marriage. 

All human partners fail one another and their relationships.  And spouses usually are very alert to what a partner’s words and deeds signify for the quality of love he or she brings to the covenant.  Sometimes a failure is so monstrous that is signifies a total absence of love, and therefore spells the end of the relationship.  The covenant may be considered “broken.”  For example, Jesus allowed a divorce (a breaking of the covenant) when one spouse commits fornication (Matt. 19:9)—and this is quite telling since we know that “[God] hates divorce” (Mal. 2:16).  Likewise, there are some sins huge enough to make void the covenant a Christian has with God (e.g. Gal. 5:4). 

Smaller sins may, perhaps, be forgiven more easily.  However, we must keep sight of the way sins signify love, or the lack of love.  Sometimes even a “huge” sin may be forgiven, if the offended spouse considers the offender’s love still valid.  Still, his or her every action henceforth will, no doubt, be scrutinized all the more intensely.  Sometimes, even the “little things” may be taken to signify a lack of love, and this can break a covenant.  In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus considered “smaller sins” (like lust) to be as serious as the “bigger” sins (like adultery), probably because both are equally negative signifiers of covenant love.

The evaluation of love is flawless, when performed by God.  Humans, however, can sometimes misinterpret and cautions apply (like warnings against wrongful judgmentalism).  Still, this is normal and required covenant behavior.

Forgiveness and repentance

“Nobody can be perfect or sinless.  However, anyone can relate responsibly.”
 Since we all fail, it is essential for those who want to succeed in covenant to be responsible for their failings (sins).  The most responsible answer to any relational failure is repentance.  It is more than saying “I’m sorry”, and even more than actually being sorry.  Repentance means a thorough confrontation of self that leads to a sincere rejection of the wrong and of whatever motivated it.  Sin evidences the devaluation of one’s partner; repentance restores his or her value.  Sincere repentance can—and should be—taken as a sign that the offender still loves the victim, in spite of it all.  Testing that sincerity afterward is basic survival for covenant relators.  Conversely, a refusal to repent may be taken to signify the presence of a hard, unloving heart that simply does not value the covenant partner.


Repentance, as a signifier of true love, leads to forgiveness and restoration of a stressed—or even broken—relationship.  The covenant is gracious, and responds to the apparent love of a repentant offender with its own love for him or her.  It is strong enough to endure even repeat offenses (Matt. 18:21ff.).

Can failure-prone humans succeed in a covenant?

When we sin, we are pained that our partner may be offended, angry, and perhaps of a mind to end the relationship.  As noted above, “Nobody can be perfect or sinless.  However, any of us can relate responsibly.”  If we truly love our covenant partner (whether spouse or God), we can put on humility and sincerity as we offer repentance.  We make it known that, in spite of our failure seeming to indicate otherwise, we have love for the one we hurt.  Still, it may leave us feeling totally unworthy of being forgiven. 

This seems to be what John was trying to alleviate, “Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.  This then is how we know that we belong to the truth, and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence whenever our hearts condemn us.  For God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything” (1 John 3:18-20).  Sometimes we simply have to let go of feelings of unworthiness, and trust our relationship and our partner.  The feeling is natural, because no one ever owes us forgiveness after we wrong them.  Truly, we owe a debt we cannot repay, and we would feel a lot better if we could!  But covenants dispense grace, which by definition means treating better than is deserved.  Out of love, partners will forgive each other.  When every effort to relieve guilty feelings fails, sometimes the only thing left is to take the advice of the old preacher:  “You just have to take it and bury it in blood!”

The final hope, for we who are failures, can rest only in the knowledge of God.  Our hope finally rests only in His faithfulness, love, mercy, and readiness to forgive.  As Brian A. Wren so delicately phrased it,

Great God, in Christ you call our name    Then take the towel, and break the bread,

and then receive us as your own,               and humble us, and call us friends.

not through some merit, right or claim,    Suffer and serve till all are fed,

but by your gracious love alone.                And show how grandly love intends

We strain to glimpse your mercy seat       to work till all creation sings,

and find you kneeling at our feet.            to fill all worlds, to crown all things.

God wants you to succeed, and He proved that at the Cross.