Covenants, old and new (Horizons 3)

Lesson 3: 2 Corinthians 3

When you were young, did you make a solemn promise with another child? What we did was swear friendship or agree not to tell a secret. Then we pricked our thumbs so they bled, and then held our thumbs together. It was a way of saying that the friend was like blood family to whom we were loyal. Such a promise was a covenant.

“Covenant” is not a word we use very much. We do talk about the covenant of marriage and the covenant of baptism. In the covenant of marriage, two people have come to love and trust each other so much that they make a covenant. They pledge to be loving and faithful, in plenty and in want, in joy and in sorrow, in sickness and in health, as long as they live. Out of love comes a covenant of mutual commitment that helps the couple when they hurt, frustrate or bug the heck out of each other.

In the covenant of baptism, we first acknowledge that God loves us before we can do anything to earn God’s love. God’s love is not conditional upon our good behavior. In “Discovering Our Spiritual Identity,” Trevor Hudson, a South African pastor, writes, “In my sixteenth year, I became a Christ follower. That gracious word of invitation, Follow me,’ rooted in a great love that had sought me from my very beginnings, burned its way into my heart and evoked both desire and response. Since that moment of new beginnings, I have been exploring how to live out within the context of my daily life my spiritual identity as God’s beloved.”

In response to the seeking, unconditional love of God, we make a covenant with God in baptism. An adult or parents make promises to God, and the congregation pledges to help the one being baptized to grow in faith, hope and love. In the baptismal vows below, we see that trusting the love of God enables us to make particular promises (italics added):

Trusting in the gracious mercy of God, do you turn from the ways of sin and renounce evil and its power in the world?

Do you turn to Jesus Christ, and accept him as your Lord and Savior, trusting in his grace and love? 

Reflecting on the examples of marriage and baptism, how would you define the word “covenant”?

The word “testament,” as in Old and New Testaments, actually means “covenant.” The word “old” in the phrase “Old Testament” does not refer to something that is worn-out and worthless, but rather to that which was the original or first. The apostle Paul makes it clear that God did not toss out the first covenant with Israel (see Romans 11). Rather, some Jewish hearts were hardened so that the full number of Gentiles could come into relationship with God (Romans 11:25).

The Old Testament has a series of covenants that God makes with the people of Israel beginning with Abraham. God’s promises to Abraham were unconditional. God promises to give Abraham and Sarah a son and through their descendants to bless all the families of the earth.

Some of the Old Testament covenants were conditional — that is, requiring certain actions. The giving of the law to Israel is understood as a covenant. Out of love, God gave the Ten Commandments, which are minimum requirements for building a faithful community. Blessings will flow from keeping the law, and hurt will come from breaking the commandments. Rewards and consequences are needed to help form the people’s character. It is like a parent saying to a child, “We love each other in this family. It is not loving to hit each other. If you hit your brother, you will lose time on the computer. If you go through the afternoon without fighting, I will give you some extra computer time.”

The New Testament could also be called the New Covenant. The reference to a new covenant came from Jeremiah 31:31-34. Jeremiah said that there will come a time when God will write God’s law upon Israel’s heart so that everyone will know God. God’s love will become the heartbeat of community life. The new heart will no longer need rewards and punishments to behave unselfishly. It willingly acts out of God’s love for us and our love for God.

Early Christians experienced the beginnings of the new covenant in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. With the giving of the Spirit of the Living God, they were given power to act out God’s love to become a new community committed to becoming the image of Jesus (2 Corinthians 3:3-6, 18). The Spirit gave strength and joy to proclaim Christ boldly and to live in such a way that their lives recommended Christ to others. Do we pray for the Holy Spirit’s power so that our lives recommend Christ?

rosalind-banburyROSALIND BANBURY is associate pastor for adult ministries at First Church in Richmond, Virginia.