Revisiting the Deep Things of God’s Covenants

I wrote a bunch of posts about covenants in spring of 2016. Those posts, especially “Inheriting Covenants,” make up a Bible study that I still think about on a weekly basis. I’ve considered revisiting my covenants study several times over the past five years. During Sukkot this year–a time filled with scripture-rich messages and Bible discussions–I felt the time was right for another study.

Covenants are the framework that God uses for His relationship with human beings, which means they’re a vital part of Christianity. If we want to be in a relationship with God, then we’d better make sure we understand the terms of that relationship. God loves everyone, but He isn’t in a loving, friendship-relationship with everyone; only with those who keep covenant with Him. The better we understand Biblical covenants, the better we understand how God relates to us and to all of humanity.

Covenants 101

As I wrote about five years ago in “Covenants 101: An Introduction to Relationship with God,” Hebraic understanding of covenants in the Old Testament forms the basis for covenants between God and man. We need to start in the Old Testament for this study because Jesus Christ’s covenanting work (and the way New Testament writers talk about that) grows out of the earlier covenants. The central covenant in the Old Testament–the one New Testament writers call “the Old Covenant”–is the one made at Sinai, but it’s not the only significant covenant in the Old Testament.

Noah

Though some describe God’s relationship with Adam and Eve as a covenant, the first time the Hebrew word bĕriyth is used is in relation to Noah (Gen. 6:18; 9:8-17). In this covenant, God establishes a promise not to flood the whole earth again. He describes this to Noah as “the covenant which I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for perpetual generations.” The sign, or token, of this covenant is a rainbow. Like other covenants, this one involved an established relationship, specific words and promises, and a sign to seal the covenant and remind both parties of its existence.

Abraham

In Genesis 15, the Lord Yahweh initiates a covenant with Abraham that forms the basis of the future religious covenants with His people. The key promises for this covenant were land inheritance and heirs. The covenant also establishes a relationship, which is maintained when both parties stay faithful to their covenant agreements. In this covenant, as in all others God makes with His people, He is unfailingly faithful. He sets the terms, binds Himself to them, and then invites people into a covenant relationship with Him based on those terms.

When a Bible translation says, “the Lord made a covenant,” a more literal version of the Hebrew phrase would be “Yahweh cut a covenant.” Covenants often involved blood sacrifices to show the seriousness of the covenant agreement. We see that here in Genesis 15, with God binding Himself to the covenant by walking between the blood sacrifices. Later in Genesis 17, when Abraham learns more about his role in the covenant, he binds himself to it with the sign God gave him of male circumcision.

Israel

In many ways, the Sinai or Mosaic covenant grows from the Abrahamic covenant. The children of Israel, those promised descendants of Abraham, just recently delivered from slavery in Egypt, arrive at Mount Sinai to find God giving them a covenant. This covenant involved blood (sprinkled on the people as they bound themselves to the covenant), promises from God to the people and from the people to God, and agreement from both parties. The words of this covenant agreement are briefly covered in Exodus 19 through 24, then expounded on through the remainder of Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy.

In addition to blood and male circumcision, salt was also a sign of the Sinai covenant (Lev. 2:13; Num. 18:19). This connects the Sinai covenant with friendship (we’ll talk most about that in a moment). In addition, Israel is described as being in a marriage covenant with God because they agreed to bind themselves to Him; this analogy is also used to describe the New Covenant (Jer. 31:32; 2 Cor. 11:2).

David

God’s covenant with King David also plays a key role in Biblical history. Oddly, there’s no mention of a sign for this covenant in 2 Samuel 7. It is, however, described as “a covenant of salt” in 2 Chronicles 13:5. We need to go outside the Bible to get more information on this type of covenant. Salt and covenant are traditionally linked, likely because of salt’s preservative qualities and because sharing salt at meals is a sign of established friendship (“What is a ‘covenant of salt’?”). The promises of the Davidic covenant focus on God providing loving kindness, relationship, and kingship for David and his descendants.

Covenants, Messiah, and Inheritance

Another important aspect of the Abraham, Mosaic, and Davidic covenants is the promise of the Messiah. Paul tells us the Abrahamic covenant pointed directly to Jesus Christ (Gal. 3:15-18). Jesus’s words, “all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me,” reveal the Mosaic covenant points to Him as well (Deut. 18:15-16; Luke 24:44). Jesus is also a fulfillment of God’s promises that David’s descendants would be established as rulers forever (2 Sam. 7:16; Jer. 33:14-22; Acts 2:25-36). Jesus’s role in these covenants is key to understanding what covenants mean and how they change between the Old Covenants and the New Covenant.

Defining “Covenant”

The words translated “covenant” in the Bible come from the Hebrew bĕriyth (H1285) and the Greek diatheke (G1242). These words have slightly different meanings that echo our slightly different relationships to covenants with God before and after the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

Bĕriyth is a binding agreement between two parties. As we saw in the examples discussed above, these covenants established a relationship defined by the covenant words and sealed with signs such as blood and salt. Diatheke is a little different. It can be translated “testament” (as in, “last will and testament”) and reflects the unilateral will of one person. Despite those differences, both words are translated “covenant” and the Biblical writers clearly connect their discussions of diatheke to the relationships God describes in the Old Testament as bĕriyth.

In The Complete WordStudy Dictionary of the New Testament, Spiros Zodhiates proposes a definition of covenant that covers both the unilateral enactment of diatheke and the established relationship of bĕriythHe writes that a covenant “is a divine order or agreement which is established without any human cooperation and springing from the choice of God Himself whose will and determination account for both its origin and its character” (entry G1242, section IV). As we look at Old and New Testament covenants, we always see God as the initiator. He makes promises that people did not ask for nor expect and which cannot be nullified by their descendants. Yet even though covenants are unilateral in some senses, they are also mutual because people can chose for themselves whether or not to keep the terms of the covenant. Covenants are initiated by God, but responding is our choice.

Jesus’s Covenant Inheritance

Covenants that God makes with people aren’t just for one individual, but most of the Old Testament covenants were limited to certain groups. The covenant made with Noah is for all living things on earth. Abraham’s and David’s covenants were made with that individual man and his descendants; no one else could join. The Sinai covenant was for all the children of Israel, their descendants, and anyone outside that group who wanted to follow Yahweh. Someone joining the covenant from the outside was rare, though prophesy pointed to a time when all nations would enter covenant with God (Is. 56:6-7).

Jesus came to this earth as a physical descendant of Abraham, an Israelite heir of the covenants with God, and a man in the lineage of David. Not only was He the promised Messiah pointed to by the covenants, but He was also born into the physical position of an heir to the covenants. As such, He inherited the covenants made with Abraham, the children of Israel, and David. The writer of Hebrews goes so far as to say that God appointed Jesus “heir of all things” (Heb. 1:2, NET). That position as heir to all the covenants put Him in a unique position for sharing those covenants with us.

Our Inheritance Through Jesus

Every human who tried to keep covenant with God failed to do so perfectly. We are fallible, and even though God is merciful and loving we deserved to inherit the curses contained in the covenanting words. The only one who perfectly kept God’s covenant was Jesus Christ, and so He’s the only one who truly deserved to inherit all the promises. Once He inherited, He died and “willed” those promises to us (Heb. 9:15-28). This washed our sins away and made it possible for all people–not just the descendants of certain individuals–to walk in covenant with God.

In the New Testament, Paul writes to Gentile believers that they were “aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” until the time of their conversion. They were not previously heirs to the covenants, “but now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (Eph. 2:12-13). In another letter, Paul extends this analogy to say, “if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to the promise” (Gal. 3:28-29). Jesus makes us part of the family and shares the inheritance with us.

If you’re in covenant with Christ, then you are counted an heir of all the covenanting promises made before. We’ll even inherit alongside those original heirs, who haven’t yet fully received the promises; they’re awaiting the resurrection when all the faithful will rise together and inherit the promises as members of God’s family (Heb. 11:8-13, 39-40).

Getting Into Covenant

How do we get into covenant with God? It seems like a serious thing, perhaps something that requires special steps. Really, though, understanding the importance of covenants doesn’t change much about our understanding for how someone enters a relationship with God. The same things needed to join yourself in relationship with God and become part of His church are what’s needed to enter this covenant with Him. At its most basic, this means we need to repent, believe in Jesus, and be baptized (Mark 1:15; Acts 2:38). Once that happens, God makes us part of His New Covenant people.

God offers salvation freely, but that salvation is also offered on His terms. He initiates the covenant and establishes its parameters, then gives us the opportunity to join that covenant. Paul’s letters reveal that all believers in Jesus become part of this covenant. In a letter to one of the churches, Paul talks about how God “made us sufficient as servants of a new covenant, not of the letter, but of the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:6). He also says that those who’ve been justified by Jesus’s sacrifice, follow Him faithfully, and love God are “heirs of God and also joint heirs with Christ” (Rom. 8:16-17; Titus 3:5-7; James 2:5). As followers of Jesus, we inherit covenant responsibilities and promises as part of joining a New Covenant with God.

To be clear, keeping covenants is not the same idea as us trying to “earn salvation” by keeping the law. Under the New Covenant, the law is written within the hearts of everyone who chooses to follow God. That’s what the phrase “not under the law” that Paul uses means—the law becomes internal, transforming our hearts so we have no desire to break it, rather than functioning as external rules. Salvation is a gift, and once we receive it we begin a process of change. Receiving grace means that we agree to live in a certain way as we walk in covenant with God. Even under grace we should still follow God’s way of life, refusing to jeopardize our inheritance for the momentary gratification of fleshy desires (Gal 5.19-21; Heb. 12:14-17).

Learning about covenants help us understand the implications of our belief in God the Father and Jesus the Messiah. It gives us a deeper understanding of the type of commitment we make to God as believers. It helps us fully appreciate and participate in the relationship that God offers us. And if you’re like me, it fills you with awe at the realization that God longs for a stable, faithful relationship with His people so much that He keeps making covenants with us over and over again, constantly inviting us closer to Him and opening up salvation to more and more people each time He makes a new covenant.

Featured image by Alyssa Marie from Lightstock

Finding Treasures, New and Old, in the Pages of Scripture

Have you ever been reading a familiar part of the Bible–one of the gospels, for example–and came across something you’d never noticed before? I don’t know how many dozens of times I’ve read Matthew, and just a few weeks ago I noticed a verse that I don’t think I’ve ever thought about before. It comes right after a collection of several parables about the kingdom of heaven, and Jesus says,

“Have you understood all these things?” They replied, “Yes.” Then he said to them, “Therefore every expert in the law who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his treasure what is new and old.”

Matthew 13:51-52, NET

As I’ve pondered this verse over the past few weeks while studying the kingdom of God, one thing that jumps out at me is the importance Jesus puts on the old and the new. Treasuring both seems like a different recommendation than what some other scriptures teach us about how to relate to the old and the new. But Jesus also makes this sound like something we’re supposed to do. An “expert in the law” (also translated “scribe” or “Torah scholar/teacher”) who is trained (or “discipled”) for the kingdom seems like someone who has paid close attention to Jesus’s teachings and understand them. So how can we imitate this disciple-scholar’s approach to the kingdom of God?

An Old and New Commandment

Describing someone who is trained or discipled for the kingdom as bringing out old and new treasures can seem strange in light of Jesus’s other teachings. The parables of the new patch on an old garment and new wine in old wineskins make it seem like the new and old is incompatible (Luke 5:36-39). Later, Paul writes about cleaning out the old so we can be new, and of the old passing away because we are new in Christ (1 Cor. 5:7; 2 Cor 5:17). Part of figuring out this puzzle involves asking the question, “Old and new what?” because not all these passages are talking about the same old and new things. In addition to keeping that in mind, I think the key to unlocking this mystery is found in John’s writings:

Dear friends, I am not writing a new commandment to you, but an old commandment which you have had from the beginning. The old commandment is the word that you have already heard. On the other hand, I am writing a new commandment to you which is true in him and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining.

1 John 2:7-8, NET

Jesus did not do away with the old commandments and words of God (Matt. 5:17-20). He did, however, bring something new to add to it, including a new covenant which would supersede the old (Heb. 8-9). Part of participating in this new covenant involves us cleaning old things that are incompatible with godliness out of our lives (that’s what Paul was talking about in the Corinthians passages). It also involves properly balancing and appreciating the new and old treasures of God’s word.

Called into the New, Founded on the Old

People often think of Christianity as something new that Jesus started. The way scripture talks about it, though, “Christian” is just a new name applied to believers who were continuing to follow the teachings of the one true God and align with His unfolding plan as Jesus revealed the next steps. Our faith’s roots aren’t found in the first century C.E.–they’re found “in the beginning” when God created the heavens and the earth. Jesus coming as the Messiah was the next step in the plan God had laid out even before He laid the foundations for the earth (Matt. 25:34; Eph. 1:4; 1 Pet. 1:20).

As part of His work here on earth, Jesus revealed more fully how to worship God and invited us to “serve in the new life of the Spirit and not under the old written code” (Rom. 7:6, NET). Now, is Paul saying here that the old has no value? “Absolutely not!” Rather, he argues that “we uphold the law” when we live by faith” (Rom. 3:31; 6:15; 7:7).

For God, who said “Let light shine out of darkness,” is the one who shined in our hearts to give us the light of the glorious knowledge of God in the face of Christ.

2 Corinthians 4:6-7, NET

The work God is doing in us and the knowledge He gives us are amazing treasures. Part of this treasure of understanding involves an appreciation of the value both of the new and old things that God has given His people. Through His extraordinary power and mercy, we are called into a new thing founded on very old truths.

Finding and Keeping Kingdom Treasures

If we go back to the kingdom of heaven parables that Jesus shared before making the statement where we started this post, we find that He talked about treasure there, too.

“The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in the field, which a man found and hid. And because of his joy, he goes out and sells all that he has and buys that field.

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant searching for fine pearls. Upon finding a pearl of great value, he went out and sold all that he had and bought it.” …

Then He said to them, “Therefore every Torah scholar discipled for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure both new things and old.”

Matthew 13:44-46, 52, TLV

God’s kingdom is a treasure so precious we should be willing–and even joyful–to give up whatever is needed to get the kingdom (Matt. 10:21; Luke 18:22). And we should be collecting and treasuring things related to the kingdom, such as the “treasures of wisdom and knowledge” hidden in Jesus (Col. 2:3, see also Matt. 6:19-21). As we continue to learn and grow, let’s appreciate the rich history of our faith and our own personal experiences, as well as the new things God teaches and the glorious future He has planned.

Featured image by Oliver Eyth from Pixabay

Guarding What God Has Put in Your Heart

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard messages on the importance of guarding our hearts. God wants relationships with people who are pure in heart and who are whole-heartedly devoted to Him. In order to be like that, we need to be careful what we let into our hearts. Guarding our hearts, we’re often told, is about not letting bad things in.

Though that aspect of guarding our hearts is of vital importance, there’s also another side to this. To quote a daily devotional I’ve been reading, “We are to keep things in –things like the Spirit of Jesus, the humility and gentleness, the servanthood and sacrifice, the worship and thankfulness” (Chris Tiegreen, 365 Pocket Devotions, p.23). We need to be careful that we’re not so focused on keeping bad things out that we forget to keep the good things in.

Keep Truth In Your Heart

When Samuel was sent to anoint David, Yahweh told him, “God does not view things the way people do. People look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Sam. 16:7, NET). What’s in our hearts is what matters most to God. We don’t want to let in things that would corrupt our hearts, but we’re also not evaluated based on what we’ve kept out. God looks at what we keep in.

My child, pay attention to my words;
listen attentively to my sayings.
Do not let them depart from your sight,
guard them within your heart;
for they are life to those who find them
and healing to one’s entire body.
Guard your heart with all vigilance,
for from it are the sources of life.

Proverbs 4:20-23, NET

This is the one Bible passage that clearly instructs us to guard our hearts. It starts out by telling us to put wise words inside us and then “keep them in the center of your heart” (v. 21, WEB). It’s about guarding the good things in our hearts because what’s inside us determines what comes out of our lives, for good or evil.

He said, “What comes out of a person defiles him. For from within, out of the human heart, come evil ideas, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, evil, deceit, debauchery, envy, slander, pride, and folly. All these evils come from within and defile a person.”

Mark 7:20-23, NET

If what’s inside our hearts is bad, the fruit our lives produce will be bad also, no matter how much we polish up the outside. We can, however, with God’s help, replace the bad things with good things. Change has to happen in our hearts as we internalize the words of God, and then we need to guard those good things that He gives us.

Attach Your Hearts to Good Things

Putting His law inside people’s hearts is one of the central aspects of God’s new covenant. When He prophesied the new covenant, He said, “I will put my law within them and write it on their hearts and minds. I will be their God and they will be my people” (Jer. 31:33, NET). That’s what’s happening as part of the covenant Jesus instituted with His sacrifice (Heb. 8:7-13; 10:14-18). In order to have good things come from our lives we need to have good things in our hearts, and that comes from entering this covenant with God. We also need to diligently guard what God is teaching and giving us.

“Don’t lay up treasures for yourselves on the earth, where moth and rust consume, and where thieves break through and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consume, and where thieves don’t break through and steal; for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Matthew 6:19-21, NET

Part of guarding our hearts involves being careful about what “treasure” we attach ourselves to. If the things that we care about most and pour our energy into are worldly, that’s where our hearts will be. But if we put our efforts, time, and affection into good and godly things, then that is what our hearts and souls will treasure.

Entrust God With Your Heart

There is one other verse that uses the phrase “guard your hearts.” This time, though, it’s not an instruction for us. It’s something God does for us when we trust Him with our hearts and minds.

Do not be anxious about anything. Instead, in every situation, through prayer and petition with thanksgiving, tell your requests to God. And the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

Philippians 4:6-7, NET

We talked about this type of peace at length just a couple weeks ago in a post called “Finding Peace On Earth Today.” The peace that God offers is a sort of peace that’s not dependent on external circumstances. Rather, it is a product of a heart that is committed to fully trusting God. True, lasting, godly peace comes when we trust God to take care of the things that threaten to take away our peace. When we pray in every situation, God shares His peace with us and it works to guard our hearts.

The task of guarding our hearts–keeping good things in and stopping bad things from taking over–is a life-long process. It’s something that God expects us to be actively involved in, and it’s something that He’s committed to helping us with.

Featured image by Photo Mix from Pixabay

Getting “Salty” for the Kingdom of God

Have you ever thought about the phrase “covenant of salt” or “salt of the covenant”? If you’re like me, you might not have even realized these phrases are in the Bible–I never noticed them until I heard a teaching on it a few years ago. I’ve come back to study salt again now because the grace book I talked about in last week’s post drew my attention to this verse:

Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned with salt, that you may know how you ought to answer each one.

Colossians 4:6, WEB

In Relational Grace, Brent Schmidt says that “in Greek usage,” a conversation described as “seasoned with salt” meant one that’s “enlivened with wisdom” (p. 94). He also mentions “cleansing and preservation” are associated with salt. He does not bring up the covenants of salt mentioned in the Old Testament, but Schmidt does write extensively on the covenanting aspects of grace, and that made me wonder if there might be a “covenants of salt” connection as well. And, as a larger question, what does it mean when God describes us as “salt of the earth” or when He says to “have salt in yourselves?”

Covenants of Salt

In the Torah, God instructed Israel to use salt in some very specific ways. Salt was an essential ingredient for holy incense (Ex. 30:34-35). It was also a vital part of sacrifices.

Moreover, you must season every one of your grain offerings with salt; you must not allow the salt of the covenant of your God to be missing from your grain offering—on every one of your grain offerings you must present salt.

Leviticus 2:13, NET

The phrasing here is such a strong instruction–you must include salt. And it’s repeated three times just in this one sentence! Clearly, the presence of covenant salt mattered deeply to God. The connection between salt and offerings continues throughout the Old Testament (Ezra 6:9; 7:22; Ezekiel 43:24). In addition, God described the portion of the offerings that were given to priests as “a covenant of salt” in Numbers 18:19. The NET footnote on this verse explains

Salt was used in all the offerings; its importance as a preservative made it a natural symbol for the covenant which was established by sacrifice. Even general agreements were attested by sacrifice, and the phrase “covenant of salt” speaks of such agreements as binding and irrevocable. Note the expression in Ezra 4:14, “we have been salted with the salt of the palace.”

NET study note on Num. 18:19

This last line refers to a phrase in a letter where the writers claim “we are loyal to the king,” which is translated from an Aramaic phrase that literally means “we eat the salt of the palace” (Ezra 4:14, NET). Though covenants are not mentioned explicitly in this verse, it adds another layer to our discussion because of the close connection between loyalty and salt.

In 2 Chronicles 13:5, a king of Judah challenged Israel, saying, “Don’t you realize that the Lord God of Israel has given David and his dynasty lasting dominion over Israel by a formal covenant?” or, in other words, “a covenant of salt?” (NET footnote). The covenants of salt were binding, formal, and intended to be long-lasting. They were something that God–and the people who care about Him–took very seriously.

You Are Salt

With that background, Jesus’s words “you are the salt of the earth” (Matt. 5:13) could possibly be read as “you are a sign of the covenants sprinkled throughout the earth,” or perhaps, “you are connected to the covenant and my sacrifice.” Of course, there is also the fact that “Salt was used as seasoning or fertilizer … or as a preservative” (NET footnote), and this may also be connected to Jesus’s words. Still, I think it’s safe to assume Jesus’s listeners–all of them Jews–would have been familiar with the strong covenant connection that salt had and would have assumed that was at least part of His meaning.

Adding further depth to the idea that we, as followers of Jesus, “are the salt of the earth” is the association of salt with incense. During one of the scenes in heaven that’s recounted in Revelation, “the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each one having a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints (Rev. 5:8). Like incense, our prayers are “seasoned with salt, pure and holy” (Ex. 30:35, WEB).

Everyone will be salted with fire [many manuscripts add “and every sacrifice will be salted with salt”]. Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can you make it salty again? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with each other.

Mark 9:49-50, NET (bracketed line from footnote)

If salt implies a covenant, then the instruction “have salt in yourselves and be at peace” is a covenant imperative. It doesn’t mean we ought to eat more salty foods, but rather that we’re meant to live in loyal covenant with God. It involves following “the God of peace,” who raised “our Lord Jesus” from the dead and equips us to do His will “by the blood of the eternal covenant” (Heb. 13:20-21, NET).

Speak Salty Words

Let’s go back now to the verse in Colossians that started this whole post, and read a little bit more of the context.

Conduct yourselves with wisdom toward outsiders, making the most of the opportunities. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you should answer everyone.

Colossians 4:5-6, NET

This part of Paul’s letter is talking about how we “conduct ourselves” or “walk”–“a common NT idiom for one’s lifestyle, behavior, or manner of conduct” (NET footnote). We’re to exercise wisdom when interacting with those outside the faith, use our time well, and be gracious and “seasoned with salt” in the way we speak.

In today’s world, being “salty” implies irritation or hostility. This verse is telling us to do the opposite in our dealings with others. We’re to interact with people in a grace-filled way that is seasoned with wisdom and influenced by an awareness of our covenant with God. As the salt of the earth, we’re meant to remember our covenant loyalty to God and show our faithfulness to Him as we interact with other people.

Featured image by andreas160578 from Pixabay

Learning More About Covenant Grace

There’s a fascinating relationship between God’s grace and the covenants He makes with people. Until the 5th century (when theologians brought Neo-Platonic philosophy into their interpretation of scriptures), Greek and Roman literature and early Judeo-Christian writings saw charis (grace) as something both relational and reciprocal (Schmidt, p. 201-202). The idea of “grace” as a free gift that God is obligated to give without having any expectations of the recipients was not originally part of the Greek language or of Christianity. Rather, there was a fuller, richer meaning to charis that Jesus, Paul, and other Bible writers used.

I’ve been reading a book on this topic by Brent J. Schmidt, who holds a PhD in classics, called Relational Grace: The Reciprocal and Binding Covenant of Charis (2015). His scholarship on the original meaning of charis is fascinating, but even without that background we can still see that grace comes with expectations. For example, Jesus said the one who “endures to the end will be saved” (Matt. 10:22, WEB) and that “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, there is no way you will enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:20, WEB). We’re saved by God’s grace, and then He expects us to act in a certain way (with His power supporting us, of course).

The Bible talks about Christian conversion as a process and tells us that relationships with God require continued faithfulness. Yet the popular definition of grace in many modern churches still says grace is unmerited favor that God gives without expectation of anything in return. Trying to make these two ideas fit together is confusing, and it’s a problem first-century Christians didn’t have to deal with because they had a different definition for grace.

Ancient Understandings of Charis

Several centuries before Christ’s first coming and until at least the 4th century after, charis was understood as something that involved obligation and reciprocity (Schmidt, ch. 2 and 3). This meaning infused Greek, Roman, Jewish, and later Christian society to the point that everyone knew “receiving charis implied entering into reciprocal covenantal relationships” (p. 63).

Jews knew about covenantal relationships from the Bible. Every commandment was a covenant with God. Several stories, including Joseph, Moses, and David, associate the concepts of grace and mercy with covenants. Greek-speaking Jews lived in a culture that depended heavily on reciprocal relationships and understood what charis meant. When Paul taught them using the words charis, they would have understood that by accepting God’s grace they were making covenantal obligations.

Brent Schmidt, Relational Grace, p. 64

When Jesus Christ came to earth, one of the things that He did was establish a New Covenant on better promises and with a different sort of sacrifice. The Old Covenant was “completely unable … to perfect those who come to worship” (Heb 10:1, NET). In contrast, Jesus took away sin completely, giving us an incredible gift for us that we could never deserve nor repay. When we accept this “charis,” we enter a covenant with Him and His Father.

For by one offering he has perfected for all time those who are made holy. And the Holy Spirit also witnesses to us, for after saying, “This is the covenant that I will establish with them after those days, says the Lord. I will put my laws on their hearts and I will inscribe them on their minds,” then he says, “Their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no longer.” Now where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin.

Hebrews 10:14-16, NET (OT quotes bolded in this translation)

Grace is so closely connected with covenants that treating “the blood of the covenant ” as “an unholy thing” means someone has “insulted the Spirit of grace” (Heb. 10:29). Covenants and laws don’t vanish after Christ’s sacrifice–they move to a heart and spirit level. We can see this in Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, where He talks about the deeper, spiritual, enduring applications of God’s law. Paul also talks about this shift from flesh-level to spirit-level in detail when he’s talking about law and covenants.

Grace in Paul’s Letter to the Romans

Shifting our definition of grace to align with the one Paul and his audience would have used gives us a better idea of how to properly interpret Paul’s letters. One of the best places to see that is in Romans 6. Here, Paul talks about how we are “not under law but under grace” (v. 14, NET). This verse and others like it are often read out of context, but if you read the surrounding text the reciprocal and obligatory aspects of charis are easy to see. This is a very long quote, but I think it’s important to look at the whole thing to get enough context to understand Paul’s words.

Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its desires, and do not present your members to sin as instruments to be used for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who are alive from the dead and your members to God as instruments to be used for righteousness. For sin will have no mastery over you, because you are not under law but under grace.

What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? Absolutely not! Do you not know that if you present yourselves as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey, either of sin resulting in death, or obedience resulting in righteousness? But thanks be to God that though you were slaves to sin, you obeyed from the heart that pattern of teaching you were entrusted to, and having been freed from sin, you became enslaved to righteousness. (I am speaking in human terms because of the weakness of your flesh.) For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification. For when you were slaves of sin, you were free with regard to righteousness.

So what benefit did you then reap from those things that you are now ashamed of? For the end of those things is death. But now, freed from sin and enslaved to God, you have your benefit leading to sanctification, and the end is eternal life. For the payoff of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Romans 6:12-23, NET

Many translations use the word “servant” instead of “slave,” but doulos is best translated either as “bondservant” or “slave.” Being bound to serve the Lord in this way was seen as an “honor and a privilege” in the Jewish mindset (NET footnote on Rom. 1:1). It’s a very different sort of thing than slavery in the modern sense. In fact, at the time Paul was writing, the “asymmetrical social relationships between patron and client and between master and salve were founded on the reciprocal notion of charis” (Schmidt, p. 95). When Paul talks of slavery, he’s talking about us being obligated to God for His gifts and bound in a covenant with Him that has expectations.

Living by God’s Spirit

When Jesus healed a man in Bethesda who’d been sick for 38 years, He told the man, “Behold you are made well. Sin no more, so that nothing worse happens to you” (John 5:1-14, WEB). It’s similar to what He told the woman caught in adultery (a story that’s not in the earliest manuscripts but is traditionally included with John’s gospel): “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way. From now on, sin no more” (John 8:11, WEB). In one case, Jesus provided physical healing and in the other He freed her from being condemned to death. After giving these gifts, He told both people that they should respond by doing something specific: stop living a life of sin.

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the life-giving Spirit in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death. For God achieved what the law could not do because it was weakened through the flesh. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and concerning sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the righteous requirement of the law may be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.

Romans 8:1-4, NET

The Father and Son have given us incredible gifts. They’ve saved us from sin, adopted us into their family “with full rights of inheritance” (NET footnote on 8:15), and offer continued forgiveness so long as we do our best to follow Them and repent when we miss the mark. In response, “we are under obligation” to live a life lead by God’s spirit (Rom 8:12-14, NET). Being in a reciprocal covenant of grace is not about earning salvation or trying to pay back an impossible debt. It’s about having the right response of thankfulness to the incredible things God has done for us by welcoming us into His family. The more we can learn about that, the deeper relationship we can have with Him.

Featured image by José Roberto Roquel via Lightstock

How the Lord Meets with Us: Examining Jesus Christ’s Role as Intercessor

After writing last week’s post about coming to the Father through Jesus, I started studying the words “intercessor” and “mediator.” Interestingly, I found that in Hebrew the word used for “intercession” also means to encounter, come between, and meet with. It’s used in a variety of contexts, but I focused on the ones that related to how God interacts with us here on earth.

There are multiple ways that God can interact with humans. Two of those interactions involve rewarding good and punishing evil. We see the word for “intercession” used in both these contexts. This confused me at first, but as I studied it I found something that is very exciting and encouraging about how the two meanings connect.

Meeting With Punishment

The Hebrew word paga (Strong’s H6293) means “to encounter, meet, reach, entreat, make intercession” (BDB definition). Here’s one place it’s used in Exodus, when Moses and Aaron were talking with Pharaoh.

They said, “The God of the Hebrews has met with us. Please let us go three days’ journey into the wilderness, and sacrifice to Yahweh, our God, lest he fall on us with pestilence, or with the sword.” (Ex. 5:3, WEB)

“Fall on us” is translated from the word paga. We might paraphrase, “Let us worship God, or He’ll meet us with punishment.” It seems strange to have the same word as “intercession” used for meeting someone with pestilence or sword. Intercession tends to be seen as a more positive thing. If we head over to Isaiah’s writings, though, this starts to make more sense.

Read more