A couple of weeks ago I referred to God reaffirming his covenant relationship with the whole of creation following the Flood. The concept of ‘covenant’ is a foundational theological understanding in both Hebrew and Christian scriptures. The Hebrew word has the core meaning of ‘bond’ or ‘fetter’ while the Greek word points more to an obligatory or legal aspect.
Covenants are not something which we often encounter in our everyday lives (unless you happened to be a property lawyer!), but our obligations may be considered akin to a covenant. They are oaths, sworn and sealed, affirmations which we make of our own free will and accord, for no consideration and not directly in return for anything although they are a necessary pre-requisite for a greater revelation. Unilateral promises which bind us for as long as we shall live. The concept of covenant is therefore perhaps more readily accessible to Freemasons than to the rest of the world.
The word ‘covenant’ appears almost 300 times in the Holy Bible and while it is difficult to generalise it speaks of a relationship based on commitment which includes both promises and obligations which are reliable and durable. Again you will note comparable with an obligation.
When David is made king of all Israel we read:
“So all the elders of Israel came to the king at Hebron; and David made a covenant with them at Hebron before the LORD, and they anointed David king over Israel, according to the word of the LORD by Samuel.” (1 Chron. 11.3)
This was a secular covenant entered in to by David but in the presence of God, and implicitly with the blessing and oversight of God.
Covenant also underpins the relationship between God the people of Israel. In a world which believed in many gods, Israel was unique in being bound to one God who claimed exclusively their loyalty in worship and social life. The primary foundation for this derives from God’s promises to Abram “And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing” (Gen. 12.2), and reaffirmed when God re-names him Abraham “Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations.” (Gen 17.4).
This covenant forms the backdrop to everything which we read in the Old Testament – the exodus, the giving of the Law to Moses on Mount Sinai, the years in the wilderness, the construction of King Solomon’s Temple, exile in Babylon, the construction of the second Temple. We do encounter supplemental covenants within the narrative, such as that with King David as he contemplates building a house for the Lord. As God instructs him that his son Solomon is the one who will build the house he says:
“And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure before me; your throne shall be established for ever.” (2 Sam. 7.16).
Why then do we have all of this, and why is it relevant to us? Because this covenant demonstrates God’s faithfulness to his people, the strength of the covenant, the fact that God does not break his covenant, that we can rely on God’s promises. God enters the covenant of his own free will, it isn’t asked for, and with the principal covenant nothing is asked for in return. It is a generous and gracious gift of the one true God to his chosen people. This is the foundation of the relationship between God and the tribe of Israel which endures to this very day.
The covenant is directly with the Jewish race but St Paul in his writings makes clear that God’s promises are extended beyond the children of Abraham in the flesh, to the children of Abraham in by faith. Those who are children of God by adoption through Jesus Christ; the Son of God taught us to call his father our Father and so we share in the promises made to Abraham and his descendants.
However in the New Testament the Letter to the Hebrews we read:
“But as it is, Christ has obtained a ministry which is as much more excellent than the old, as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises.” (Heb. 8.6)
The author is comparing the ministry of the priests of the old covenant with Jesus’ High Priestly ministry and reasoning not so much the deficiencies of the old covenant but rather the excellencies of the new covenant. One of the greater gifts of the new covenant is to extend the old covenant to the whole of humanity:
“… that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come upon the Gentiles, that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.” (Gal. 3.14).
By gaining an insight in to the relevance and significance of God’s covenant there is revealed to us a clearer vision of the goodness of God, and his care for all that he has created. God’s covenant is a pure act of selfless love, manifested perfectly in the death of Jesus on the Cross, for us and all humanity. God’s unbroken promise to be the God of our ancestors, our God, and the God of our successors for generations unending. He invites each and everyone of us to live our lives exploring and developing our relationship with him, and our proper response is to covenant ourselves to him.
This is the Methodist Church Covenant Prayer – our response to God’s covenant:
I am no longer my own but yours.
Put me to what you will,
rank me with whom you will;
put me to doing,
put me to suffering;
let me be employed for you,
or laid aside for you,
exalted for you,
or brought low for you;
let me be full,
let me be empty,
let me have all things,
let me have nothing:
I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things
to your pleasure and disposal.
And now, glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
you are mine and I am yours. So be it.
And the covenant now made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven.
So mote it be.