Divine Covenants by A.W. Pink
Part Seven-The Messianic Covenant
We have designated this final covenant "the Messianic" rather than "the Christian" or "the New" covenant, partly for the sake of alliteration and partly for the sake of emphasis. Before we consider its special nature and contents, we must first bridge the interval that elapsed between the making of the Davidic covenant and the commencement of the Christian era—an interval of approximately one thousand years. From the times of David a special feature gradually became more prominent in the history of the covenant people. The gift of prophecy, enjoyed by the psalmist, was now more widely diffused than it had been previously, and was conferred in greater fullness and upon a larger number of individuals, who in succession were raised up and in different degrees exercised a most important influence upon the nation of Israel.
This gift of prophecy was by no means a new one. Moses possessed it in a large measure, yet under conditions which separated him from all who followed up to the coming of Christ. With him God spake "mouth to mouth, even apparently, and not in dark speeches, and the similitude of the Lord did he behold" (Num. 12:8). In this respect he was an eminent type of Him that was to come, on whom the prophetic influence rested in unlimited measure: of this God, through Moses, gave intimation when He said, "I will raise them up a prophet from among their brethren, like unto thee, and will put my words in his mouth; and he shall speak unto them all that I shall command him. And it shall come to pass, that whosoever will not hearken unto my words, which he shall speak in my name, I will require it of him" (Deut. 18:18,19). To others, during the life of Moses, the gift was communicated, if only for a season. The most striking case was that of Balaam, a worthless character, who, against his own intentions, was constrained to pronounce blessings on Israel.
In the period that followed we find traces of its bestowment, though only occasionally, and after considerable intervals, until the last of the judges. That eminent person, Samuel, was not only a prophet himself, but on him was conferred the honor of founding schools for young men for the prophetic office. The object of those institutions, so far as we can gather, seems to have been to impart a knowledge of the law to men suitably endowed, fitting them to teach and influence the nation. From what little is recorded of them, we may conclude that those sons of the prophets enjoyed, as circumstances required, special assistance from God in the work to which they were devoted. On David, however, the gift was conferred in unusual measure, the fruit of which appears in his inspired psalms. Several of his contemporaries were similarly endowed. From this period the prophetic element, with some brief intervals, became more prominent and influential in Israel, increasing in the copiousness of its communications till the depression of the house of David during the captivity.
The peculiar work of the prophet has not always been correctly understood. That element in some of them which had respect to the foretelling of future events has attracted undue attention and been magnified out of all proper proportions. This may be accounted for from its striking uniqueness, and the use to which it has been put as an important department of Christian evidence—drawing from it an invincible argument for the divine inspiration of Scripture. Yet this concentration upon the predictive aspect of prophecy has served to create a widespread misconception concerning the nature of the gift itself and the chief design in its exercise. The main purpose of the prophetic office has almost been lost sight of. By many today it is unknown that its leading object contemplated the practical spiritual interests of the people: that the prophets were principally employed in imparting instruction to them, exposing their sins, calling them to repent, setting before them the paths of duty, and in various ways seeking to promote their religious improvement.
Prediction, in the strict sense of the term, occupies a very inconspicuous place in the ministry of Moses, the chief of all the prophets. Some of the more prominent among them—as Samuel, Elijah, and Elisha—seem hardly to have uttered any predictions at all. Their business consisted mainly in denouncing the idolatrous practices of the people and in vindicating the claims of God to their homage and service. It is true that in the writings of two or three, predictions largely abound; nevertheless, if they are examined with care it will quickly be seen that their ministry had largely to do with the existing spiritual conditions of those among whom they labored. Take for example Isaiah, who of all the prophets was perhaps most honored with revelations of the future. A cursory investigation will show that foretelling constituted only one portion of the message he delivered. The true idea of the prophet is that of a man raised up to witness for God, His mouthpiece to the people—to rebuke sin, counsel in perplexity, and instruct them in the ways of the Lord.
Even the positive predictions delivered by the prophets, while contemplating the benefit of future generations (by which alone, on their fulfillment they could be fully understood), were subservient to the immediate purposes of their ministry, by affording encouragement and hope unto those who feared God amidst the general disorders and declension of the times in which they lived. This plain view of the case, which numerous and obvious facts support, must be understood in order to gain a correct conception of the prophetical Scriptures in their general structure. On the subject of the covenants, the predictive portions of their writings, as would naturally be expected, have the more direct bearing; yet the practical parts, which deal with the sins and duties of the people, make their own contribution—the practical sections furnishing many striking illustrations of the previous revelations and giving definiteness to the meaning of many particulars embraced in the covenants.
The didactic and the practical are often strangely mingled. Statements which at first bear on present duty, sometimes insensibly, and at other times more abruptly, pass into representations of the future which startle us, not less by the suddenness of their introduction, than by the vividness of their coloring. All, however, is made strictly subservient to the immediate purpose which the prophets had in view. The intimate blending of these different elements makes it far from easy to separate them in all instances, nor is it necessary to attempt it. As they now stand, they more effectually promoted the end in view in the spiritual improvement of the people. The glowing prospects of the future either supplied an incentive to the discharge of present duty, or ministered to their support under present trial. Still, to the predictions, strictly so called, we must look as the chief means of furnishing the fullest light on the prospective covenant transactions of God with His people.
The nature and extent of the help we shall derive from these intimations of the future will turn, to a large extent, on the mode in which we deal with them. The interpretation of prophecy, in all its principles and results, is a large subject, but a few words are called for here so as to prevent misconception. A slight examination of the prophetical Scriptures is enough to show that their language is not infrequently taken—leaving out of consideration the figures which natural scenery supply—either from past events in the history of Israel or from the sacred institutions and arrangements with which they had long been familiar. And of course this is quite natural when we bear in mind the typical character impressed on the Old Testament dispensation throughout; yea, probably it was necessary as the best means of imparting to the Jewish people an intelligible representation of the future.
The creation of an entirely new nomenclature in literal adaptation to the better things to come, instead of being understood, would only have occasioned perplexity and defeated the object for which the revelation was given. Be this as it may, the fact is certain that in terms peculiar to the theocracy, or descriptive of theocratic events, the revelation of future things was made. In other words, the language of the type is familiarly employed in delineation of the antitype. Thus, for example, "Israel" is the term used in reference to the spiritual seed; "visions and dreams" (the current mode of the divine communications in those times describe the future operations of the Holy Spirit under the gospel dispensation; "David," in like manner, is the name applied again and again to the Messiah, the true Shepherd of Israel; and the events of the future are represented in terms derived from the dispensation then existing. Occasionally express statements are made affirming that the order of things then in being was destined to pass away—as in Jeremiah 3:16; at other times the change impending was as plainly implied.
On this principle, then, these predictions are constructed almost throughout, and on no other can they be correctly interpreted. It was thus that the apostles dealt with them, yet it is sadly overlooked by many of our moderns. A slavish adherence to a literal interpretation which is the survival of a Jewish error—if consistently carried out, necessarily leads to consequences which few are prepared to face, opposed as they are to both the letter and the spirit of the gospel. It is certainly a humiliating proof of human infirmity, even in good men, that at this late date, the principle on which so large a part of the Word is to be interpreted has yet to be settled, and that from the same prophetical statements the most diverse conclusions are derived. Surely it should be apparent that since the literal cannot be fairly applied without eliciting conclusions contradicting apostolic testimony, we are bound to abide by the typical and figurative as the only safe principle.
There is one other misconception against which we must guard. It must not be concluded that because the Messianic predictions are for the most part plain to us, acquainted as we are with the events in which they found their fulfillment, that therefore they must have been equally plain unto those to whom they were first delivered, but from whose times these events were far distant. In dealing with those Scriptures for our own edification, it is our privilege to take advantage of all the light furnished by the New Testament, but in so doing we must not forget that our position is vastly different from that of those amongst whom the prophets exercised their ministry. Take, for instance, the predictions respecting the Messiah—the great subject of the covenant promises. Consider the many references to His lowly condition, His sufferings and death, and then to the triumphant strain in which His exaltation and glory are so largely set forth. Some passages represent Him as a man amongst His fellowmen; others as the mighty God. How perplexing must those representations—apparently so much at variance with each other—have been to the Jews!
Keeping these things in mind, we may now observe that the ministry of the prophets, commencing with David, and, after a break, continuing from Joel onwards, was of considerable value in filling up the truth which, in brief outline, the covenants exhibited, yet leaving much to be still supplied by the actual fulfillment of the promises they contained. No one contributed more to this result than Isaiah. On the one hand, he furnishes the most vivid portrayals of the treatment which the Messiah would receive from His countrymen, and of the nature and severity of the sufferings He was to endure, both at the hands of God and of men, in the accomplishment of His work. On the other hand, he supplies the most blessed testimony to the essential dignity of His person, and the most animating assurances of the extent and glory of His kingdom; and, under highly figurative language, describes the beneficent and peaceful effects of His government and the spiritual results of His reign.
With few exceptions, the rest of the prophets corroborated and supplemented the testimony of Isaiah. The person and work of the Messiah are represented from various angles, the stupendous results of His undertaking depicted under striking imagery, and divine wisdom is clearly evidenced in the phraseology—derived from the religious institutions of the Jews or from events of their history—which is employed to give vividness to their representations. The effects of this must have been to impart to the mass of the people a new and deeper realization of the magnitude of the results involved in the covenants under which they were placed, however perverted their views of the nature of these results may have been; and to awaken in the godly remnant of them expectations of a future immensely surpassing anything yet realized in their history—a future with which, in some mysterious way, their own spiritual life was bound up.
As the earthly prospects of Israel became darker, through the growing corruption of the nation, hastening toward that catastrophe which destroyed their temple, and for a time removed them as captives into a strange land, those prophets who then exercised their ministry were far more explicit in regard to the nature of the great alteration which the appearing of the Messiah would produce and of the blessings which He would dispense. In their hands the future assumed a more precise shape, and the expectations warranted by their language exhibited an expansion far in advance of anything to be found in Scripture. This was just what the circumstances of the time required. One can readily conceive the despondency with which the pious Jews must have looked on the course which events were taking. The idolatrous propensities of the masses, the general immorality which was encouraged by idol worship, the common contempt with which God’s servants were treated, the wickedness of their kings, and the frequent invasion of their land by hostile forces, all presaged the dissolution of their state.
When assured that the divine patience was at last exhausted, that the infliction of the oft-threatened punishment was nigh at hand, and that the triumph of their enemies was certain, at what conclusion could they arrive than that for their sins they were forsaken of God, that the covenant was about to be made void, and that all their hopes would soon be buried in the ruin of their country? They might not unreasonably have supposed that the stability of the covenant was dependent upon their obedience, and since that obedience had been withheld, and all the gracious measures taken to reclaim them had failed—since, in the review of their past history, no lesson was so impressively taught as their incurable tendency to sin—they might have concluded that God was absolved from His promise, and that even His righteousness demanded the people should be cut off and left to the ruin which they had so persistently courted, the near approach of which everything seemed to indicate.
Such a despondent condition required special encouragement, and the form which that encouragement assumed deserves particular attention. It consisted in the assurance of a thorough change in the dispensation under which Israel had hitherto been placed, and of the establishment of a new covenant under the immediate administration of the Messiah, the purely spiritual character of which is described in language far more explicit than had hitherto been given. This more glorious constitution of things they were taught was the designed issue of all God’s dealings toward them, and to it their hopes were henceforth to be confined. Notwithstanding their present calamities, the continuance of their national existence was assured to them until in due time the new order of things was inaugurated. Could anything be conceived better fitted to kindle the hopes and communicate the richest consolation to the devout portion of the Jews than such an assurance?
In the preceding chapter it was pointed out that, following the times of David, the prophets occupied a more and more prominent place in Israel, and that the primary purpose of their office was a practical one, designed for the good of those to whom they immediately ministered. As the spiritual life of the nation degenerated, the voice of the prophets was heard more frequently—pressing the claims of God, rebuking the people for their sins, and affording comfort to the faithful. It was this third item that we enlarged upon in the closing paragraphs of our last chapter, calling particular attention to the large place given in the communications of the "major" prophets unto things to come. Where sin abounded, grace did much more abound; for as things went from bad to worse in the earthly kingdom of Israel, God was pleased to grant much fuller revelations concerning the heavenly kingdom of the Messiah.
What has just been pointed out reveals a principle which is of great practical value for our own souls today. The further Israel’s religious apostasy advanced and wickedness increased, the more were the godly handful among them taught to look away from the present to the future, to walk by faith and not by sight, to regale their desponding hearts with those covenant blessings which the Messiah would obtain for all His people. It is not necessary to suppose that they fully understood the import of what the prophets set before them; yea, they were far from comprehending the entire truth which they contained. Nevertheless, they must have gathered sufficient from them to relieve their minds from that distressing anxiety which their present circumstances had awakened. Those predictions which more particularly dealt with the new order of things which God promised should yet be ushered in, supply the real key to the interpretation of the numerous predictions regarding the Messiah’s work with which they had long been familiar.
Here, then, is the grand lesson for us to heed. Though the present state of Christendom be so deplorable and saddening; though the enemy has come in like a flood, threatening to carry everything before him; though the voice of the true servant of God be no more heeded today than was the prophets’ before the captivity, yet God still has a remnant of His people upon the earth. Heavy indeed are their hearts at the dishonor done to the name of their Lord, at the low state of His cause on earth, at their own spiritual leanness. Yet, while it is meet they should sigh and cry for the abominations in the churches, deplore the wickedness abounding in the world, and penitently confess their own sad failures, nevertheless it is their privilege to look forward unto the grand future which lies before them, to the sure accomplishment of all God’s covenant promises. Nor is it necessary that they should understand the order of coming events, or the details of unfulfilled prophecy: sufficient for them that Christ will yet see of the travail of His soul and be satisfied, reign till every enemy be placed under His feet, and come again to receive His people unto Himself.
Both the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel, who exercised their ministry about the same time among different portions of the covenant people, spoke the same language and gave the same assurances, in close connection with the promise of their future reestablishment in their own land. That particular promise was partly accomplished in their return from Babylon, but is fully understood only when viewed in the light of the typical import of the language used. The grand statement found in Jeremiah 31:31-34 is repeated with equal definiteness in chapter 32: "Behold, I will gather them out of all countries, whither I have driven them in mine anger, and in my fury, and in great wrath: and I will bring them again unto this place, and I will cause them to dwell safely, And they shall be my people, and I will be their God. And I will give them one heart, and one way, that they may fear me forever, for the good of them, and of their children after them. And I will make an everlasting covenant with them, that I will not turn away from them, to do them good; but I will put my fear in their hearts, that they shall not depart from me." So again in 33:14-16.
In a similar strain and in terms equally explicit, Ezekiel addresses that portion of the Jews amongst whom he exercised his ministry. "I will set up one shepherd over them, and he shall feed them, even my servant David: he shall feed them, and he shall be their shepherd. And I the Lord will be their God, and my servant David a prince amongst them: I the Lord have spoken it. And I will make with them a covenant of peace, and will cause the wild beasts to cease out of the land: and they shall dwell safely in the wilderness, and sleep in the woods. And I will make them and the places round about my hill a blessing; and I will cause the shower to come down in his season; there shall be showers of blessing" (34:23-26). And again: "Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean: from all your filthiness and from all your idols will I cleanse you. A new heart also will I give you and a new spirit will I put within you. . . and cause you to walk in my statutes" (36:25-27).
But the clearest of all of these later communications by the prophets is that furnished in Jeremiah 31:31-34: "Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah: Not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers, in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt: which my covenant they brake, although I was a husband unto them, saith the Lord. But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel: after those days, saith the Lord, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people. And they shall teach no more every man his neighbor, and , every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: for they shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the Lord: for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more." On the two main points adverted to by us, namely, the change of the then existing dispensation, and the spiritual nature of that which was to succeed, its testimony is most decisive.
First, we must seek to remove a radical misconception which obtains in certain quarters as to the ones with whom God here promised to make this "new covenant," namely, "with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah." Modem dispensationalists insist that this says just what it means, and means just what it says; and with this I am in hearty accord. Nevertheless, we would point out that it is entirely a matter of interpretation if we are to rightly understand what is said; and this can only be accomplished as the Spirit Himself enlightens our minds. Any method of Bible study, or any system of interpretation (if such it could be called) that renders us self-sufficient, independent of the Holy Spirit, is self-condemned. An unregenerate man, by diligent application and the use of a good concordance, may soon familiarize himself with the letter of Scripture, and persuade himself that because he takes its letter at its face value, he has a good understanding of it; but that is a vastly different thing from a spiritual insight into spiritual things.
The first time the name "Israel" occurs upon the sacred page is in Genesis 32:28, where it was given to Jacob: "And he said, Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel: for as a prince hast thou it power with God and with men, and hast prevailed." This is most suggestive and significant: it was not his name by nature, but by grace! In other words, "Israel" stamped Jacob as a regenerate man, thereby intimating that this name primarily pertains to the spiritual seed of Abraham and not to his natural descendants. That this term "Israel" would henceforth possess this double significance (primary and secondary) was more than hinted at here in Genesis 32, for from this point onward the one to whom it was originally given became the man with the double name: sometimes he is referred to as "Jacob," at other times he is designated "Israel," and this according as the flesh or the spirit was uppermost in him.
In what has just been before us there was most accurately anticipated the subsequent usage of the term, for while in many passages "Israel" has reference to the natural descendants through Jacob, in many others it is applied to his mystical seed. Take for example: "Truly God is good to Israel, even to such as are of a clean heart" (Ps. 73:1). Who are the ones referred to under the name "Israel" in this verse? Obviously it does not refer to the nation of Israel, to all the fleshly descendants of Jacob who were alive at the time Asaph wrote this psalm, for most certainly it could not be said of by far the greater part of them that they were "of a clean heart" (cf. Ps. 12:1). A clean heart is one which has been cleansed by the sanctifying operations of divine grace (Titus 3:5), by the sprinkling of the blood of Jesus on the conscience (Heb. 10:22), and by a God—communicated faith (Acts 15:9). Thus, the second clause of Psalm 73:1 obliges us to understand the Israel of the first clause as the spiritual Israel—God’s chosen, redeemed, and regenerated people.
Again: when the Lord Jesus exclaimed concerning Nathanael, "Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile" (John 1:47), exactly what did He mean? Was nothing more signified than, "Behold a fleshly descendant of Jacob"? Assuredly it was this: Christ’s language here was discriminating, as discriminating as when He said, "If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed" (John 8:31). When the Savior declared that they were "disciples indeed," He intimated they were such not only in name, but in fact; not only by profession, but in reality. And in like manner, when He affirmed that Nathanael was "an Israelite indeed," He meant that he was a genuine son of Israel, a man of faith and prayer, honest and upright. The added description "in whom is no guile" supplies still further confirmation that a spiritual and saved character is there in view: compare "Blessed is the man unto whom the Lord imputeth not iniquity and in whose spirit there is no guile" (Ps. 32:2.).
"Behold Israel after the flesh" (1 Cor. 10:18). Here again discriminating language is used; why speak of "Israel after the flesh" unless it be for the express purpose of distinguishing them from Israel after the Spirit—that is, the regenerated and spiritual Israel. Israel "after the flesh" were the natural descendants of Abraham, but spiritual Israel, whether Jews or Gentiles, are those who are born again and who worship God in spirit and in truth. Surely it must now be plain to every unbiased reader that the term Israel is used in Scripture in more senses than one, and that it is only by noting the qualifying terms which are added, that we are able to identify which Israel is in view in any given passage. Equally clear should it be that to talk of Israel being an "earthly people" is very loose and misleading language, and badly needs modifying and defining.
Admittedly it is easier to determine which Israel is in view in some passages than in others—the natural or the spiritual; yet in the great majority of instances, the context furnishes a definite guide. When Christ said, "I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel" (Matthew 15:24), He certainly could not intend the fleshly descendants of Jacob; for, as many Scriptures plainly state, He was equally sent unto the Gentiles. No, "the lost sheep of the house of Israel" there means the whole election of grace. "Of this man’s seed hath God, according to his promise, raised unto Israel a Saviour, Jesus" (Acts 13:23). Here too it is the spiritual Israel which is meant, for He did not save the nation at large. So too when the apostle declared, "For the hope of Israel I am bound with this chain" (Acts 28:20), he must have had in view the antitypical Israel. "And as many as walk according to this rule, peace be on them, and mercy, and upon the Israel of God" (Gal. 6:16). This could not possibly refer to the nation, for God’s curse was on that. It is the Israel chosen by the Father, redeemed by the Son, regenerated by the Spirit.
"Not as though the word of God hath taken none effect. For they are not all Israel, which are of Israel" (Rom. 9:6). In this verse the apostle begins his discussion of the. rejection of the Jews and the calling of the Gentiles, and shows that God had predetermined to cast off the nation as such and extend the gospel call to all men indiscriminately. He does this by showing God was free to act thus (vv. 6-24), that He had announced through His prophets He would do so (vv. 25-33). This was a particularly sore point with the Jew, who erroneously imagined that the promises which God had made to Abraham and his seed included all his natural descendants, that those promises were sealed unto all such by the rite of circumcision, and that those inherited all the patriarchal blessings: hence their claim, "We have Abraham to our father" (Matthew 3:9). It was to refute this error, common among the Jews (and now revived by the dispensationalists), that the apostle here writes.
First, he affirms that God’s Word was not being annulled by his teaching (v. 6, first clause), no indeed; his doctrine did not contravene the divine promises, for they had never been given to men in the flesh, but rather to men in the spirit—regenerate. Second, he insisted upon an important distinction (v. 6, second clause), which we are now seeking to explain and press upon our readers. He points out there are two kinds of Israelites: those who are such only by carnal descent from Jacob, and others who are so spiritually, these latter being alone the "children of the promise" (v. 8) (cf. Galatians 4:23, where "born after the flesh" is opposed to born "by promise"). God’s promises were made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as believers; and they are the spiritual food and property of none but believers (Rom. 4:13,16). Until this fact be clearly grasped, we shall be all at sea in understanding scores of the Old Testament promises.
When the apostle here affirms that "they are not all Israel, which are of Israel" (Rom. 9:6), he means that not all the lineal descendants of Jacob belonged unto "the Israel of God" (Gal. 6:16)—those who were God’s people in the highest sense. So far from that being the case, many of the Jews were not God’s children at all (see John 8:42,44), while many who were Gentiles by nature, have (by grace) been made "fellow-citizens with the [Old Testaments saints" (Eph. 2:19) and "blessed with faithful Abraham" (Gal. 3:9). Thus the apostle’s language in the second clause of Romans 9:6 has the force of: Not all who are members of the (ancient) visible church are members of the true church. The same thought is repeated in Romans 9:7, "Neither because they are the [natural] seed of Abraham, are they all children" —that is, the "children [or inheritors] of the promise," as verse 8 explains—but "in Isaac the line of God’s election and sovereign grace] shall thy true and spirituals seed be called." God’s promises were made to the spiritual seed of Abraham, and not to his natural descendants as such.
This same principle of double application holds equally good of many other terms used of the covenant people. For example, Christ said to His spouse, "Thou art beautiful, O my love, as Tirzah, comely as Jerusalem, terrible as an army with banners" (Song of Sol. 6:4). Now the church goes under this name of "Jerusalem" in both the Old Testament and the New. "Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem" (Isa. 40:2). Obviously this did not mean the literal city, nor even its inhabitants in general, for the great majority of them were unregenerate idolaters, and God sends no message of comfort to those who despise and oppose Him. No, it was the godly remnant. "For this Agar is mount Sinai in Arabia, and answereth to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children. But Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us all" (Gal. 4:25, 26). One of Christ’s promises to the overcomes is "I will write upon him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God—new Jerusalem" (Rev. 3:12)!
In the second half of the last chapter it was shown that the name Israel has a twofold application, both in the Old Testament and in the New, being given to the natural descendants of Jacob and also to all believers. Nor should this in anywise surprise or stumble us, seeing that the one whom God first denominated "Israel" was henceforth the man with the double name, according as he was viewed naturally or spiritually. It should also be duly noted that God’s giving this name unto Jacob is recorded twice in Genesis: "And he said, Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel: for as a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed" (32:28); "And God said unto him, Thy name is Jacob: thy name shall not be called any more Jacob, but Israel shall be thy name" (35:10). Is there not here something more than bare emphasis—namely, a divine intimation to us of the dual application or usage of the name?
This double significance of the word Israel holds good for other similar terms. For example, to the "seed of Abraham": "Know ye therefore that they which are of faith, the same are the children of Abraham" (Gal. 3:7). The "children of Abraham" are of two kinds, physical and spiritual, those who are his by nature and those who are connected with him by grace. "To be the children of a person in a figurative sense, is equivalent to ‘resemble him, and to be involved in his fate, good or bad.’ The idea is of similarity both in character and in circumstances. To be ‘the children of God,’ is to be like God; and also, as the apostle states, it is to be ‘heirs of God.’ To be ‘the children of Abraham’ is to resemble Abraham, to imitate his conduct, and to share his blessedness" (John Brown). To which we may add, to be "the children of the wicked one" (Matthew 13:38) is to be conformed to his vile image, both in character and in conduct (John 8:44), and to share his dreadful portion (Matthew 25:41).
The carnal Jews of Christ’s day boasted that "Abraham is our father," to which He made answer, "If ye were Abraham’s children, ye would do the works of Abraham" (John 8:39). Ali, the spiritual children of Abraham "walk in the steps of that faith" which he had (Rom. 4:12). Those who are his spiritual children are "blessed with faithful Abraham" (Gal. 3:9). The apostle was there combating the error which the Judaizers were seeking to foist upon the Gentiles namely, that none but Jews, or Gentiles proselyted by circumcision, were the "children of Abraham," and that none but those could be partakers of his blessing. But so far from that being the case, all unbelieving Jews shut heaven against themselves, while all who believed from the heart, being united to Christ—who is "the son of Abraham" (Matthew 1:1) —enter into all the blessings which God covenanted unto Abraham.
The double significance pertaining to the expression "children" or "seed" of Abraham was very plainly intimated at the beginning, when Jehovah said unto the patriarch, "In blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heavens, and as the sand which is upon the seashore" (Gen. 22:17). What anointed eye can fail to see in the likening of Abraham’s seed unto the stars of heaven a reference to his spiritual children, who are partakers of the heavenly calling (Heb. 3:1); and in the likening of his seed unto the sand which is upon the seashore a reference to his natural descendants, who occupied the land of Palestine.
Again, the same is true of the word "Jew." "For he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision which is outward in the flesh: But he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God" (Rom. 2:28, 29). What could be plainer than that? In the light of such a Scripture, is it not passing strange that there are today those—boasting loudly of their orthodoxy and bitterly condemning all who differ—who insist that the name "Jew" belongs only to the natural descendants of Jacob, and ridicule the idea that there is any such thing as spiritual Jews. When the Holy Spirit here tells us "he is a Jew, who is one inwardly," He manifestly signifies that the true Jew, the antitypical Jew is a regenerate person, who enjoys the "praise" or approbation of God Himself.
Here, then, is the reply to the childish prattle of those who declare that "Israel" means Israel, and "Jew" means Jew, and that when Scripture speaks of "Jerusalem" or "Zion" nothing else is referred to than those actual places. But this is nothing more than a deceiving of ourselves by the mere sound of words: as well argue that "flesh" signifies nothing more than the physical body, that "water" (John 4:14) refers only to that material element, and that "death" (John 5:24) means naught but physical dissolution. There is an end to all interpretation when such a foolish attitude is adopted. Each passage calls for careful and prayerful study, and it has to be fairly ascertained which the Spirit has in view; whether the carnal Israel or the spiritual, the literal seed of Abraham or the mystical, the natural Jew or the regenerate, the earthly Jerusalem or the heavenly, the typical Zion or the antitypical. God has not written His Word so that the ordinary reader is made independent of that help which He deigns to give through His accredited teachers.
It may seem to some of our readers that we have wandered a considerable distance away from the subject of the Messianic covenant. Not so: that covenant is made with "the house of Israel and with the house of Judah"; and it is impossible to understand those terms aright until we can determine which Israel is meant. So many, assuming that there is but one Israel in Scripture, namely, the Hebrew nation, have insisted that the promise of Jeremiah 31:31 is entirely future, receiving its accomplishment in "the millennium." To make good their contention, they must show: first, that it does not and cannot refer to the mystical Israel; second, that it has not already been made good; third, that it will be accomplished in connection with the literal nation in a day to come—concerning which we ask, Where is there one word in the New Testament which declares God will yet make a new covenant with national Israel?
What, then, does Jeremiah 31:31 signify? Has that divine promise already received its fulfillment, or is it now in course of receiving its fulfillment, or does it yet await fulfillment? This is far more than a technical question devoid of practical interest. It raises the issue, Has the Christian a personal interest therein? If the older commentators be consulted—the ablest teachers God has granted to His people since the Reformation—it will be found that they unanimously taught that Jeremiah 31:31 receives its accomplishment in this present dispensation. While we freely grant this is not conclusive proof that they were right, and while we must call no man (or set of men) "father," yet the writer for one is today very slow in allowing that the godly Puritans were all wrong on this matter, and slower still to turn away from those luminaries which God granted in the brightest period of the church’s history since the time of the apostles, in order to espouse the theories of our moderns. Then let us seek to "Prove all things: hold fast that which is good" (1 Thess. 5:21).
In his comments on Jeremiah 31:31-33 Matthew Henry said, "This refers to Gospel times . . . for of Gospel times the apostle understands it (Heb. 8:8, 9), where the whole passage is quoted, as a summary of the covenant of grace made with believers in Jesus Christ." "The first solemn promulgation of this new covenant, made, ratified and established, was on the day of Pentecost, seven weeks after the resurrection of Christ. It answered to the promulgation of the Law on mount Sinai, the same space of time after the deliverance of the people out of Egypt. From this day forward the ordinances of worship and the institutions of the new covenant became obligatory upon all believers" (John Owen). To which we may also add that C. H. Spurgeon throughout his sermon on Jeremiah 31:32 speaks of that covenant as the Messianic one: "In the covenant of grace God conveys Himself to you and becomes yours."
But we are not dependent upon human authorities. Each one may see for himself that the New Testament makes it unmistakably plain that the promises contained in Jeremiah 31:31-33 are made good in the Christian economy. In the Epistle to the Hebrews—which supplies an infallible key to the interpretation of Old Testament Scripture—Paul quotes this very passage for the express purpose of showing that its terms provided an accurate description of gospel blessings. The apostle’s argument in Hebrews 8 would be entirely meaningless did not Jeremiah’s prediction supply a vivid portrayal of that order of things which Christ has established. First, he declares, "But now [and not in some future "millennium!"] hath he obtained a more excellent ministry, by how much also He is [not "will be!"] the mediator of a better covenant, which was established upon better promises" (v. 6); and what is added is in confirmation of this statement.
Before turning to the light which the New Testament casts upon Jeremiah 31, it should be noted that at the time God announced His purpose and promise through the prophet, the fleshly descendants of Abraham were divided into two hostile groups. They had separate kings and separate centers of worship, and were at enmity one with another. As such they fitly adumbrated the great division between God’s elect among the Jews and the Gentiles in their natural and dispensational state. There was between these a "middle wall of partition" (Eph. 2:14); yea, there was actual "enmity" between them (Eph. 2:16). But just as God announced through Ezekiel that Judah and the Gentiles are now one in Christ (Gal. 3:28; Eph. 2:14-18); and therefore all born-again believers are designated the "children" and "seed" of Abraham, and blessed with him (Gal. 3:7, 9, 29).
It is pertinent to raise the point, if the principal reference in Jeremiah’s prophecy was unto the gospel church of this era, wherein Gentiles so largely predominate, why is the covenant there said to be made with "the house of Israel and the house of Judah"? Several answers may be given to this question. First, to make it clear that this covenant is not made with all the fallen descendants of Adam, but only with God’s chosen people. Second, because during Old Testament times the great majority of God’s elect were taken out of the Hebrew nation. Third, to signify that the Jewish theocracy has given place to the Christian church: "He taketh away the first [covenant that he may establish the second" (Heb. 10:9; cf. Matthew 21:43). Fourth, to intimate that the Old Testament saints and the New Testament saints form one body, being the same church of God in different dispensations. Fifth, because it is a common thing to call the antitype by that designation which belongs to its type.
Returning now to Hebrews 8. The grand design of the apostle in this epistle was to demonstrate that the Lord Christ is the mediator and surety of a vastly superior covenant (or economy) than that wherein the worship and service of God obtained under the old covenant or economy of the law. From which it necessarily followed that His priesthood was far more excellent than the Aaronic, and to this end he not only gives Scriptural proof that God had promised to make a new covenant, but he declares the very nature and properties of it in the words of the prophet. In particular, from this Old Testament citation, the imperfections of the old covenant (the Sinaitic) is evident by its issues: it did not effectually secure peace and fellowship between God and the people, for being broken by them, they were cast off by Him, and this rendered all its other benefits and advantages useless. This demonstrated the need for a new and better covenant, which would infallibly secure the obedience of the people forever.
"For if that first covenant had been faultless, then should no place have been sought for the second" (Heb. 8:7). The reference is to that solemn transaction which took place at Sinai. That was not the "first" covenant absolutely, but the first entered into with Israel nationally. Previously, God made a covenant with Adam (Hosea 6:6), which in some respects the Sinaitic adumbrated, for it was chiefly one of works. So too He had made a covenant with Abraham, which shadowed out the everlasting covenant, inasmuch as grace predominated in it. The "faultiness" of the Sinaitic covenant was due to the fact that it was wholly external, being accompanied by no internal efficacy: it set before Israel an objective standard, but it communicated no power for them to measure up to it. It treated with natural Israel, and therefore the law was impotent "through the weakness of the flesh" (Rom. 8:3). It provided sacrifices for sin; yet their value was only ceremonial and transient. Because of its inadequacy a new and better covenant was needed.
"For finding fault with them, He said, Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah" (Heb. 8:8). The opening "For" intimates that the apostle was now confirming what he had declared in verses 6,7. The "finding fault" may refer either to the covenant or the covenantees— "with it" or "with them." In view of what is said in verse 9, the translation of the Authorized Version is to be preferred: it was against the people God complained, for their having broken His covenant. The word "Behold" announces the deep importance of what follows, calling our diligent and admiring attention to the same. The time fixed for the making of this new covenant is defined in "the days [to] come." In the Old Testament the season of Christ’s appearing was called "the world to come" (Heb. 2:5), and it was a periphrasis of Him that He was "he that should come" (Matthew 11:3). The faith of the Old Testament church was principally exercised in the expectation of His advent.
The subject matter of what Jeremiah specially announced was a "covenant." "The new covenant, as collecting into one all the promises of grace given from the foundation of the world, accomplished in the actual exhibiting of Christ, and confirmed in His death, and by the sacrifice of His blood, thereby became the sole rule of new spiritual ordinances of worship suited thereunto, being the great object of the faith of the saints of the O.T., and is the great foundation of all our present mercies. ‘Whereof the Holy Spirit also is witness to us: for after that He had said before, this is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, saith the Lord:’ Heb. 10:15, 16—yes, ‘is witness to us,’ and not to those who live in some future ‘millennium.’ A. W.P. ]
"There was in it a recapitulation of all promises of grace. God had not made any promise, any intimation of His love or grace unto the Church in general, nor unto any particular believer, but He brought it all into this covenant, so as that they should be esteemed, all and every one of them, to be given and spoken unto every individual person that hath an interest in this covenant. Hence all the promises made unto Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, with all the other patriarchs, and the oath of God whereby they were confirmed, are all of them made unto us, and do belong unto us, no less than they did unto them to whom they were first given, if we are made partakers of this covenant. The apostle gives an instance of this in the singular promise made unto Joshua, which he applies unto Christians: 13:5" (John Owen).
The apostle’s design in Hebrews 8 is to evidence the immeasurable superiority of Christ’s priesthood above the Aaronic, and he does so by showing the far greater excellency of that covenant or dispensation of grace of which the Lord Jesus is the mediator. When mentioning the "first covenant," he refers to that economy or order of things under which the Hebrew people were placed at Sinai, and of which the Levitical priests were the mediators, interposing between God and the people. The "second" or "new covenant" is that grand economy or order of things which has been introduced and established by Christ, of which He is the sole mediator. In proof of this Paul quoted Jeremiah 31:31-33, and it is quite obvious that the passage would have no relevancy whatever to his argument, if the prophet was there referring to God’s dealings with carnal Israel in a period which is yet future. That covenant is made with the gospel church, the "Israel of God" (Gal. 6:14), on which peace rests forever.
Let us next point out that this "new covenant," the Messianic, has assumed a form which no other covenant ever did or could, due to the death of its covenanter, namely, a "testament." The same Greek term does duty for both English words, being rendered "covenant" in Hebrews 8:6,8,9, and "testament" in 9:15-17. No word is more familiar to the reader of Scripture, for the second main division is rightly termed "The New Testament," yet it had been just as accurate to designate it "The New Covenant." But let it be clearly understood that it is called "New" not because its contents differ from the Old, for it is simply a fulfillment and confirmation of all that went before, everything in the Old Testament containing the shadow and type of the substance of the New Testament. The peculiar reason for naming it the New Testament is because it was newly accomplished and sealed by the precious blood of Christ just before it was written.
The second grand division of God’s Word sets forth the gospel in all its unveiled fullness, and the gospel (in contrast to the law, the predominant revelation of the Old Testament) was called "the New Testament" because it contains those legacies and testamentary effects which Christ has bequeathed His people. How inexpressibly blessed, then, should be the very name of the New Testament unto every one of the Lord’s people, who by the regenerating operations of the Holy Spirit can establish his own personal interest in the contents of it. "This is my blood of the new testament" (Matthew 26:28). By His death Christ has ratified the new covenant and turned it into a "testament," making .all its riches and legacies secure and payable to His people: "For a testament is of force after men are dead: otherwise it is of no strength at all while the testator liveth" (Heb. 9:17). What has Christ left? to whom has He bequeathed His vast property? The answer is, every conceivable blessing: temporal, spiritual, eternal—the most durable treasure of all; unto "His own," whom He loved with an unquenchable love.
Before His departure, Christ expressed Himself to His disciples on this blessed subject when He said, "Peace I leave with you, my peace 1 give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you" (John 14:27). Thus we see that the Savior’s legacies are to His dear people, His beloved spouse. As men before they die make their wills, and give their property to their relatives and friends, so did the Redeemer: "Father, I will, that they also whom thou hast given me, be with me where I am" (John 17:24). Oh, for grace to "prove" the Savior’s will, to personally lay claim to all the rich legacies it contains! Have I been brought out of nature’s darkness and become a new creature in Christ? Has the Lord given me a new heart and mind? Then I have an interest in Christ’s will, and He died to make His testament valid, and ever liveth to be the executor and administrator of it.
The covenant (the "new," the "second," the Messianic) to which the apostle alludes so often in his writings, particularly in the Hebrews Epistle, is ratified by the death of Him who makes it, and therefore it is a testament as well. This covenant was confirmed by Christ, both as that His death was the death of the testator and as was accompanied by the blood of sacrifice. Hence it is such a covenant as that in it the Covenanter bequeaths His goods in the way of a legacy, and thus we find Him calling this very covenant "the new testament in my blood." It is in full accord with this that the believer’s portion is designed an "inheritance" (Rom. 8:16, 17; Eph. 1:18; I Peter 1:4), for in a will or testament there is an absolute grant made of what is bequeathed. The title which the believer has to his portion is not in himself: it has been made over to him by the death of Christ, and nothing can possibly rob him of it.
We must next consider the substance or contents of the Messianic covenant. Broadly speaking, it is distinctly a covenant of promise, which gives security by pure grace for the sanctification of God’s people and their preservation in a state and course of holiness, to their final salvation. In other words, their right of inheritance is not by the law or their own works: "For if they which are of the law be heirs, faith is made void, and the promise made of none effect . . . therefore it is of faith, that it might be by grace; to the end the promise might be sure to all the seed" (Rom. 4:14, 16). But is it not true that if the Christian should wholly and finally depart from God, that this would deprive him of all the benefits of grace? This hypothetical supposition
The Messianic Covenant is undoubted truth, yea, it is presupposed in the promise itself, which is likewise of certain and infallible truth: "I will make an everlasting covenant with them, that I will not turn away from them to do them good: but I will put my fear in their hearts, that they shall not depart from me" (Jer. 32:40).
Considering the contents of this covenant, we are fully in accord with John Owen that there is in it "a recapitulation and confirmation of all the promises of grace that have been given unto the Church from the beginning, even all that was spoken by the mouth of the holy prophets that had been since the world began (Luke 1:70)." The original promise (Gen. 3:15) contained in germ form the whole essence and substance of the new covenant: all promises given unto the church afterward being but expositions and confirmations of it. In the whole of them there was a full declaration of the wisdom and love of God in the sending of His Son, and of His grace unto men thereby. God solemnly confirmed those promises with an oath that they should be accomplished in their season. Thus the covenant promised by Jeremiah included the sending of Christ for the accomplishment thereof, all promises being there gathered together in one glorious constellation.
"For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, with the Lord; I will put my laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts: and I will be to them a God, and they shall be to me a people" (Heb. 8:10). In passing, be it duly noted that God did not here promise He would establish the nation in any earthly land, or bestow upon them any material inheritance. No, indeed; the blessings of this covenant immeasurably transcend any mundane or fleshly portion. Briefly, its contents may be summed up in four words: regeneration, reconciliation, sanctification, and justification. We will explain and amplify in what follows.
"I will put my laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts." The "law" here signifies that which enjoins supreme love to God, and, flowing out of it, love to our neighbor. Of this grand principle the whole round of duty is to be the fruit and expression, and from it each duty it to take its character. If love be not the animating spring, then our obedience is little worth. When it is said God will put His law in our inmost parts and write it in our hearts, it signifies that preparation of soul which is effected by divine power so that the law is cordially received into our affections. Elsewhere this miracle of grace is spoken of as "I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you a heart of flesh" (Ezek. 36:26). It implies an inward spiritual appreciation of its goodness and equity—the result of divine illumination; an assimilation of the tastes or inclinations of the heart to it, and the conformity of the will to its righteous requirements.
There must be a true delight in the purity which the law inculcates, for this is the only effectual preparation for obedience. So long as the law of God utters its voice to us from without only, so long as there is no sympathy in the soul with its demands, so long as the heart is alienated from its spirituality, there can be no obedience. worthy of the name. We may be awed by its peremptory utterances, alarmed at the consequences of its transgression, and driven to attempt what it requires, but the effort will be cold, partial, and insincere. We shall feel it a hard bondage, the pressure of which will certainly irritate, and against the restraints of which we shall inwardly rebel. Such is the real character of all graceless obedience, however it may be disguised. How can it be otherwise when "the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be" (Rom. 8:7) —as true today as nineteen centuries ago, as the modern hatred of and outcry against the law clearly manifests.
Concerning the Hebrew nation at Sinai, who had stoutly affirmed, "All that the Lord hath said, will we do," God declared, "Oh, that there were such a heart in them, that they would fear me, and keep all my commandments always" (Deut. 5:29). Ah, that explains their wilderness perverseness, and the whole of their subsequent history: they had no heart to serve God, their affections were divorced from Him. And it is just at this point that the new covenant differs so radically from the old. God has given no new law, but He has bestowed upon His people a heart—a heart in harmony with its holiness and righteous requirements. This enables them to render unto Him that obedience, which, through the mediation of Christ, is accepted by Him. Each of them can say with the apostle, "I delight in the law of God after the inward man" (Rom. 7:22).
Once the law in all its spirituality and extent is not only intellectually apprehended but wrought into the affections, once our inmost inclinations and tendencies are molded by it and brought into unison with it, genuine obedience will be the natural and necessary result. This is the import of the first great blessing here enumerated in the Messianic covenant. It necessarily comes first; for the miracle of regeneration is the foundation of reconciliation, justification, and sanctification. The one in whom this divine work of grace is wrought finds enlargement of heart to run in the way of God’s commandments. He now serves in "newness of spirit." What was before regarded as bondage is now found to be the truest liberty. What was before an irksome task is now a delight. Love for God inspires a desire to please Him: love for its Author produces a love for His law.
"I will put my laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts." The terms in which this blessing is expressed indicate a designed contrast between the old and new covenants. Under the former, the law was written upon tables of stone—not only to denote its abiding character, but also to symbolize the hardheartedness of those to whom it was then given; and publicly exhibited as a rule which they were under solemn obligations to observe. But it contained no provision to secure obedience. By the vast majority of the people its design was misunderstood and its requirements practically disregarded, proving to them the ministration of condemnation and death. Under the Messianic covenant, the law is written on the heart—incorporated with the living springs of action in the inward parts, thus bringing the whole man into harmony with the will of God.
A further contrast is implied in the second blessing here specified: "I will be to them a God, and they shall be to me a people" (Heb. 8:10). While the Hebrews were yet in Egypt the Lord announced, "I will take you to me for a people and I will be to you a God" (Ex. 6:7). Later He declared, "I will set my tabernacle among you, and my soul shall not abhor you; and I will walk among you, and will be your God, and ye shall be my people" (Lev. 26:11,12). But that was a vastly different thing from what now obtains under the new covenant: that was a natural relationship, this a spiritual; that was external, this internal; that was national, this is individual; that was temporal, this is eternal. Under the theocracy all of Abraham’s natural descendants were true subjects and properly qualified members of the Jewish church—such only excepted as had not been circumcised according to the order of God, or were guilty of some capital crime. To be an obedient subject of the civil government and a full member of the ecclesiastical state was manifestly the same thing; because by treating Jehovah as their political Sovereign, they owned Him as the true God and were entitled to all the blessings of the national covenant.
Under the Sinaitic economy Jehovah acknowledged all those to be "His people" and Himself to be "their God" who performed an external obedience to His commands, even though their hearts were disaffected to Himself (Judg. 8:23; I Sam. 8:6, 7; etc.). Those prerogatives were enjoyed irrespective of sanctifying grace, or of any pretension to fit. But the state of things under the Christian economy is entirely different. God will not now acknowledge any as "His people" who do not know and revere Him, love and obey Him, worship Him in spirit and in truth. Only those are now owned as His people who have His law written on their hearts, and He is their God in a far higher and grander sense than ever He was of the nation of Israel: He is their enduring and satisfying portion. They are His people not by outward designation only, but by actual surrender of their hearts to Him. To be "their God" necessarily denotes they have been reconciled to Him, and have voluntarily accepted Him as such.
"I will be to them a God, and they shall be to me a people." This is a distinct promise which comprises and comprehends all the blessings and privileges of the covenant. It is placed in the center of the whole as that from whence all the grace of it doth issue, wherein all the blessedness of it doth consist, and whereby it is secured. This relationship necessarily implies mutual acquiescence in each other, for it could not exist if the hearts and minds of those who are taken into it were not renewed. God could not approve of, still less rest in His love toward them, —while they were at enmity against Him; nor could they find satisfaction in Himself so long as they neither knew nor loved Him. Because they still have sin in them, this relationship is made possible through the infinite merits of the Mediator.
The substance of the Christian covenant is, broadly speaking, divine promises which pledged the sanctification of God’s people and their effectual preservation in a state and course of holiness to their final salvation. Those promises are summarized in Hebrews 8:10-12, and are four in number. First, is the declaration that the Lord would write His laws in the hearts of those for whom Christ died, which signifies such a change being wrought in them that the divine statutes are cordially received in their affections. Second, is the assurance that the Lord will be the God of His people, giving Himself to them in all His perfections and relationships, so that the supply of their every need is absolutely guaranteed: "They shall call on my name, and I will hear them: I will say, It is my people; and they shall say, The Lord is my God" (Zech. 13:9). He is the God of His people in a spiritual and everlasting sense, through the meritorious mediation of Christ.
"And they shall not teach every man his neighbour and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: for all shall know me, from the least to the greatest" (Heb. 8:11). This is the third promise, and like the two preceding it points a marked and blessed contrast from that which obtained under the regime of the old covenant, and that in connection with the knowledge of God. During the Mosaic dispensation, God granted many revelations of Himself, discovering various aspects of His character, and these were augmented by frequent descriptions of His perfections and dealings through the prophets, all of which placed the Jews in a condition of privilege immeasurably superior to the rest of the nations. Nevertheless, there were difficulties connected with those divine discoveries which even the most spiritual of Israel could not remove, while the great majority of them knew not God in the real sense of the word. The truth about God was apprehended but dimly and feebly by most, and by the great mass of them it was not rightly apprehended at all.
So far as the nation at large was concerned, the revelation God granted them of Himself was wholly external, and for the most part given through symbols and shadows. Many of them trusted in the letter of Scripture, and rested in human teaching—often partial and imperfect at the best. They had no idea of their need of anything higher. Complaints of their ignorance are common throughout the Old Testament: "The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master’s crib; but Israel doth not know"(Isa. 1:2); "They know not the way of the Lord nor the judgment of their God .... They proceed from evil to evil, and they know not me, saith the Lord" (Jer. 5:4; 9:3). Ignorance of God, notwithstanding all their advantages, was their sin and their ruin. Ultimately, their teachers became divided into schools and sects: Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, and so forth, until the last of their prophets declared: "The Lord will cut off the man that doeth this: the master and the scholar out of the tabernacles of Jacob" (Mal. 2:12).
"For all shall know me, from the least to the greatest" —that is, all who belong to the true Israel of God. God has now given not only a fuller, yea, a perfect revelation of Himself, in the person of His incarnate Son (John 1:18; Heb. 1:2), but the Holy Spirit is given to guide us into all truth; and it is at this point the vast superiority of the new covenant again appears. Those for whom Christ is the mediator receive something more than an external revelation from God, namely, an internal: "For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, bath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ" (II Cor. 4:6). They have something far better than human teachers to explain the law to them, even the Holy Spirit to effectually apply it unto their consciences and wills. It was to this Christ referred when He said, "They shall all be taught of God" (John 6:45): "taught" so that they know Him truly and savingly.
It is to this individual, inward, and saving knowledge of God that the apostle referred: "Ye have an unction from the Holy One and ye shall know all things . . . the anointing which ye have received of him abideth in you, and ye need not that any man teach you: but as the same anointing teacheth you of all things, and is truth, and is no lie, and even as it hath taught you, ye shall abide in him" (I John 2:20, 27). That unction operates on their souls with an ever quickening power. Nor is this some special blessing reserved for a select few of the redeemed: all interested in the covenant are given a sanctifying knowledge of God. It is far more than a correct intellectual conception of God which was promised, namely, such a transforming revelation of Him that they will fear, love, and serve Him. It is an obediental knowledge of God which is here in view. It was the absence of that kind of knowledge in Israel of old that God complained of: "The Lord hath a controversy with the inhabitants of the land, because there is no truth, nor mercy, nor knowledge of God" (Hos. 4:1). The external method of teaching under the old economy was ineffectual, for the Spirit taught not the nation inwardly as He does the church.
"For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their iniquities will I remember no more" (v. 12). This is the fourth promise, and embraces in its blessed arms the pardon of all their sins, the forgiveness of all their iniquities, and declares that these shall be so completely blotted out that their very remembrance, so to speak, shall be removed from the mind of God. Once more we would ask the reader to pay careful attention to the order of these promises, for it is almost universally disregarded, nay, contradicted in modern preaching. Three times over in this verse occurs the pronoun their, emphasizing the particularity of those persons whose sins alone are pardoned—namely, those who have been regenerated, reconciled, and given a sanctifying knowledge of God. God forgives none save those who are in covenant relation with Him.
Nothing could be plainer than what has been just pointed out, for the coherence of our passage is unmistakable. "I will be merciful to their unrighteousness": to whose unrighteousness? Why, to those with whom God makes this new covenant, namely, the members of the spiritual house of Israel (v. 10). And of what does this covenant consist? First, God declares, "I will put my laws into their minds and write them in their hearts," which is accomplished at their regeneration, and that lays a necessary foundation for what follows. Second, God affirms, "And I will be to them a God and they shall be to me a people," which denotes a mutual reconciliation, after a mutual alienation. Third, He promises, "All shall know me, from the least to the greatest," which signifies their sanctification, for it is such a knowledge that produces love, trust, submission. Finally, "For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness," and so forth, which at once disposes of the figment of a general atonement and universal forgiveness: as the mediator of the covenant (Heb. 8:6) Christ acts only for the covenantees.
"For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and iniquities will I remember no more." Once again we may perceive how greatly the new covenant excels the old. Under the Levitical economy there was forgiveness, but with limitations, and with a degree of obscurity resting upon it which testified to the defectiveness of the existing order of things. For certain sins no atonement was provided; though on sincere repentance, such sins were forgiven, as the case of David shows. At no point were the imperfections of the Mosaic economy more evident than in this vital matter of remission: as the Epistle of Hebrews reminds us: "But in those sacrifices there is a remembrance again made of sins every year" (10:3). Thus were the Jews impressively taught that they had to do with "the shadow" of good things to come, which could not make the comers thereunto perfect as pertaining to the conscience (Heb. 10:1). In blessed contrast therefrom, the forgiveness bestowed under the new covenant is free, full, perfect, and everlasting.
"For I will be merciful unto their unrighteousness." The word which is here rendered "merciful" is "propitious," emphasizing the fact that it is not absolute mercy without any satisfaction having been made to justice, but rather grace exercised on the ground of propitiation (Rom. 3:24, 25; 5:21). Christ died to render God propitious toward sinners (Heb. 2:17), and in and through Him alone is God merciful toward the sins of His people. So long as Christ is rejected, is the sinner under the curse. Therein the glory of the covenant shines forth, for the unsearchable wisdom of God is displayed and the perfect harmony of His attributes evidenced. No finite intelligence had ever found a solution to the problem: how can justice be inexorably enforced and yet mercy shown to the guilty? how can sinners be freely pardoned without the claims of righteousness being flouted? Christ is the solution, for He is "the surety" of the covenant (Heb. 7:22).
It is to be duly noted that no less than three terms are used in verse 12 to describe the fearful evils of which the sinner is guilty, thus emphasizing his obnoxiousness to the holy God, and magnifying the amazing grace which saves him. First, "unrighteousness": as God is the supreme Lord and governor of all, as He is our benefactor and rewarder, and as all His laws are just and good, the first notion of righteousness in us is the rendering to God that which is His due, namely, universal obedience to all His commands; hence, unrighteousness signifies a wrong done unto God. Second, "sin" is a missing of the mark, an erring from that end at which it is ever our duty to aim, namely, the glory of God. Third, "iniquity" has the force of lawlessness, a setting up of my will against that of the Almighty’s, a determination to please myself and go my own way. How marvelous, then, is the propitious favor of God toward those who are guilty of such multiplied enormities. How great and how grand the contrast between the covenants: under the Sinaitic, a regime of justice was supreme; under the Christian economy, grace reigns through righteousness.
Such, then, are the particulars of the remarkable prophecy made through Jeremiah, anticipating—in fact, giving a grand description of—the gospel. They disclose beyond the possibility of mistake, the spiritual character of this covenant. The Messianic covenant, unlike the Sinaitic, effectually accomplished the eternal salvation of all who are interested in it. The blessings conferred upon them, as here enumerated, are the "things which accompany salvation" (Heb. 6:9), yea, they are the constituent elements of salvation itself. It therefore has respect to the antitypical Israel, the spiritual seed, and to them alone. The mere possession of external privileges, however valuable they may be in themselves, and the correct observance of religious worship, however consistently maintained, avails nothing in proof of being within the bounds of this covenant. Nothing can afford sure evidence that this covenant has been made with us, save a living faith uniting the soul to Christ and producing conformity to Him in one’s life.
What has been last said ought never to be overlooked, for it is one main feature distinguishing this covenant from the Sinaitic. The new covenant actually does for those who are in it what the old one failed to do for the Jewish people. To them God gave a revelation, but it came to them in letter only; to the New Testament saints His revelation comes in power also (I Cor. 4:20; I Thess. 1:5). To them God gave the law as written upon tables of stone; to the New Testament saints God also gives the law, but writes it upon their hearts. Consequently, they chafed at the law, whereas we (after the inward man) delight in it (Rom. 7:22). Hence, too, they walked not in God’s statutes, but continually transgressed them; whereas of His New Testament people it is written, "Ye have obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine which was delivered you" (Rom. 6:17). That which makes all the difference is that the Holy Spirit is given to indwell and energize the latter, which He was not in those who were in the Sinaitic covenant as such—we say "as such," for there was ever a godly remnant who were indwelt by the Spirit on the ground of the everlasting covenant.
Again, we may observe that this covenant is a display of rich and unmerited grace: such are all its arrangements and provisions. The very circumstances under which the Christian covenant was formally introduced furnishes clear proof of this: succeeding, as it did, an economy set aside on account of its unprofitableness—an economy inherently weak for spiritual ends, and perverted by the people who enjoyed its privileges. The abuse of the Sinaitic covenant deserved not higher favors, but merited summary judgment; yet it was among the Jews that God’s Son tabernacled and performed His works of mercy. The application of the blessings of the Messianic covenant does, in every instance, also bear witness: to those blessings no man can lay claim. If conferred at all, they come as free gifts of undeserved grace. Its blessings are the bestowment of sovereign goodness. They who are brought within the covenant are the objects of God’s electing love. To grace alone they owe all they become, the service they are enabled to perform, and all the blessedness they shall enjoy in heaven hereafter.
The stability and perpetuity of the new covenant are plainly involved in the statement made by Jeremiah (31:31-35). The very nature of its blessings is a proof of this. They effectually secured the great end which God has in view in His dealings with men, namely, the formation of a holy people for His everlasting praise. This end once attained, there is no room for any improvement. But that could not be said of the Sinaitic covenant: as it regarded this result it failed, and that almost continuously throughout the long history of the Jews. But so far from being unexpected, that failure was distinctly foreseen. From the first the Levitical economy partook of the nature of a preparation for something better. Its perceptible unprofitableness for those higher ends should have taught the people that it could not have been intended for permanency. Ultimately, they were plainly informed (Jer. 31) that their economy was to be superseded by another covenant, the blessings of which, in their very nature, securing what the existing arrangement had never attained unto. Here, too, its surpassing excellency appears.
"Jesus the mediator of the new covenant" (Heb. 12:24). From the contents or blessings of the covenant we turn now to consider the measures and means which were to give effect unto their actual communication. First and foremost among these is the Mediator—a word denoting one who goes between two parties, to arrange any matters of importance in which they may have a common interest, or to settle any differences with a view to their permanent reconciliation.
It is in the latter sense the term is used in such connections as the present. What the precise work of the Mediator is, what He does to make his intervention efficient, depends of course on the relation of the parties toward each other and the matters of disagreement which have separated them. Now the character of that covenant of which Christ is the mediator enables us to form a definite conception of the nature and extent of His mediation.
The Messianic covenant is a dispensation of free promises of grace and mercy to guilty and condemned sinners. Should it be asked, Wherein lay the need for a mediator in connection with such gracious promises? Might they not have been given and fulfilled without requiring the intervention of a middle party? It would be sufficient answer to say that this question relates to the realm of fact and not of supposition. It is not at all a matter of what God might or might not, could or could not do, but what He has done; it has pleased Him to appoint a mediator. It has seemed most meet unto God, out of a regard to what is due unto Himself, to determine that His blessings shall be dispensed under certain definite conditions; and therefore it is for us to humbly acquiesce and gratefully accept what is graciously offered us, on the terms on which that offer is made. Nevertheless, it has pleased God to intimate sufficiently as to demonstrate unto us His matchless wisdom in such a constitution of things as the mediatorship of Christ discloses.
First, sin is an evil so offensive and malignant, and attended with consequences so sweeping and disastrous, as to necessitate (under the regime divinely appointed) a separation between God and those who commit it—a separation which can only be removed by means which shall leave the character and government of God uncompromised, and shall effectually stay the ravages of so fearful a plague. To represent the Most High as simply a loving Father to His creatures is not only extremely partial, but altogether an erroneous view of His relations to us. His love is indeed the originating impulse of all the blessings of the covenant. But God is also a moral Governor, a righteous King, whose character is reflected in the government which He exercises; and therefore does He manifest His holy hatred of sin and justly punishes it. Hence it is that when He seeks the return of sinners unto Himself it is by a system of mediation which vindicates His perfections and magnifies His law.
Second, sinners themselves need a mediator. They are enemies: not such as those who have indeed wandered from God, but are still influenced by some lingering affection for Him and would be glad to return if they only knew how; they are sinners not through inadvertence, but transgressors of settled purpose and from the heart. The holiness of God, just in proportion as they obtain glimpses of it, is hated by them. They choose the evil and loathe the good: they love darkness rather than light. They do not like to retain the knowledge of God in their minds, but do all they can to dismiss Him from their thoughts. It is neither carelessness nor involuntary ignorance which occasions this feeling, but positive hostility: the carnal mind is enmity against God. When confronted with the truth and made to feel they are under the divine condemnation, they regard God as their worst enemy, committed to their punishment, and are conscious of feelings of aversion, which nothing can allay but such views of God as mediation unfolds.
Nor is this all. We require someone to undertake for us who shall not only have power to bring us to a state of subjection and obedience, but to take care of our interests: to tend us and bear with us under our manifold infirmities. Our very consciousness testifies to the need of this. Our helplessness is painfully felt from the moment we are awakened to perceive the reality of our awful condition. And even though provision has been made for our access to God, and we are freely invited to avail ourselves of the same, yet so awe-inspiring are the views we must have of the divine character that we instinctively shrink from His ineffable purity. We are unmistakably aware that even in our sincerest approach to the thrice holy God we have need of someone to intervene between us: some "Daysman" (as job expressed it) who can lay His hand upon us both.
Third, Christ Himself is thereby greatly glorified. This is the supreme end in the divine administration, for He is the Alpha and the Omega in all the counsels of God. It is entirely useless to speculate as to what might have been the particular status of Christ or what office He had filled, if sin had never defiled the universe. Evil has entered, entered by the permission of God, and that for His own wise reasons. That the entrance of sin into our world has provided opportunity for God to display His incomparable wisdom, and that it has been overruled to the magnifying of His dear Son, needs no labored effort of ours to show. The perfect love of Christ to the Father, evidenced by His voluntary self-abasement and obedience unto death, shines forth in meridian splendor. The grand reward He has received for His stupendous undertaking, and the revenue of praise which He receives from those on whose behalf He suffered, affords full compensation. On His head are "many crowns" (Rev. 19:12) —in virtue of His mediatorial office.
No formal mention of mediation was contained in the earliest covenants, though by implication they involved the idea of it. The covenants made during the infancy of our race were but partial disclosures of the scheme of mercy, bringing to light particular features of God’s gracious purposes, adapted to the times when they were respectively given. Yet the germ of the truth respecting mediation was in both the Noahic and Abrahamic covenants, for the sacrifices which accompanied them bespoke a special intervention as the appointed means of ratifying the promises they contained. The promise (to Abraham) of a Seed in whom all the nations of the earth should be blessed, and (to David) of a righteous King under whose government the people of God should dwell in safety, only needed that expansion of meaning which was subsequently given, to realize all that the most effective mediation comprehends.
In the Sinaitic covenant, though, this grand truth came out much more distinctly. When on the mount God drew near to the people and spake to them out of the thick cloud, they said to Moses, "Behold, the Lord our God hath showed us his glory and his greatness, and we have heard his voice out of the midst of the fire: we have seen this day that God doth talk with man, and he liveth. Now therefore why should we die? For this great fire will consume us; if we hear the voice of the Lord our God any more, then shall we die. For who is there of all flesh, that hath heard the voice of the living God, speaking out of the midst of the fire, as we have, and lived? Go thou near, and hear all that the Lord our God shall say; and speak thou unto us all that the Lord our God shall speak unto thee; and we will hear and do it" (Dent. 5:24-27). Thus, at the request of the people, Moses became their mediator: an arrangement which the Lord approved of as wise and beneficial (v. 28).
It is quite apparent that the visible manifestation of God amidst the fire of Sinai and the awful utterances which struck upon their ears, were the things which influenced the great majority of the people in preferring their request: they were too destitute of spiritual apprehension to be capable of looking beyond what met their physical senses. Yet who can doubt that there were some, at least, of the people, sufficiently enlightened to feel most painfully their unfitness for any direct intercourse with God, and to whom the intervention of a mediator was a matter of felt necessity in order for them to feel confident in their worship. To elicit that very feeling on the part of the godly remnant was one end of the divine manifestation at Horeb, for the divine statement in reply to their request involved the assurance that they were right in entertaining this conviction, and accordingly God promised to raise up a prophet from amongst them like unto Moses, through whom all future intercourse with God should be conducted (Deut. 18:15-18).
It is apparent, then, that the appointment of a mediator is indispensable to the existence of any spiritual intercourse between a holy God and sinful men. The true reason for this springs from the nature of sin, viewed in connection with the relation which the Most High sustains to our guilty race. Accurate conceptions of what that relation involves, and of what sin is in itself and in its effects, will go far to determine the character of the Mediator’s work as made known in Scripture, on the complete accomplishment of which the success of His mediation depends. Mistakes on these points vitiate our entire views of the gospel. The terms on which divine intercourse with sinners is possible is a matter of vital importance. That awful breach could not be healed by anything done by the offenders: the righteousness of God’s character and government must by vindicated and the law honored before grace is conferred and true fellowship with God established. To effect this was the object of the work committed to Christ.
When Scripture refers to Christ as the mediator that term is comprehensive of the entire work of mediation in all its departments, which, as the spiritual deliverer of His people, He voluntarily undertook. We may dwell upon the different offices He sustains; we may delineate and illustrate the character and results of His actings in those offices separately; but His mediation embraces them all. Mediation is not something additional to what He does in the several capacities in which He is held forth in Scripture, but rather is it a term which, in the fullness of its meaning, includes them all; His prophetical, priestly, and regal offices are all essential to His mediation. Thus, in giving a brief exposition of His mediation, all that is necessary to our present design is to present a mere outline of the particulars. We cannot continue indefinitely this already lengthy study, so must now content ourselves with a succinct statement, which will afford a comprehensive view of the true state of the case.
First, Christ, as mediator, is the supreme prophet. Although in one aspect, His priestly work is the foundation of all His other dealings as mediator, yet since it is with His prophetical office that we first come into contact, we begin here. As prophet, Christ is the great revealer of the character and will of God. In His earliest instruction—the Sermon on the Mount—He explained and vindicated the revelation previously given, but which through the errors of blind guides had been perverted. In addition, He furnished in His own mission the supreme manifestation of God’s love and grace. He revealed, too, the true nature of that salvation which fallen men needed, the character of that change which the Holy Spirit must effect in them, the certainty of a future life of bliss or woe according to present character, and the solemnities of that judgment with which the present order of things shall close. To His apostles He assigned the duty, under His own superintendence, of amplifying what He had in substance taught.
Christ, too, is the source of all inward illumination, whereby the truth is, in any case, practically apprehended and savingly believed. "No man knoweth . . . who the Father is, but the Son, and he to whom the Son will reveal him" (Luke 10:22) is His own statement. A clear and Scriptural knowledge of the truth is obtained only by divine teaching. Nor does this arise from any deficiency in the truth itself; the hindrance lies in the mind and heart of the sinner. There is a moral blindness, an aversion to holy truth, which no means—be they perfectly adapted to the object in view—can ever remove. The fallen sinner is so utterly depraved, so opposed to the divine requirements, that he has neither will nor desire to apprehend what is holy; and none but the Spirit of Christ can effect a cure. It is the province of Christ, as the great prophet of the church, to heal this diseased state. He enables the mind to understand and the heart to receive the truth.
Second, Christ, as mediator, is the great high priest, an office which involved the making of expiation and intercession. To these two particulars the Levitical dispensation bore a continuous and ample testimony: the numerous sacrifices, and the annual intervention of the high priest under the law were types—dim figures of what was to be realized in Him who was to come. The true meaning of those sacrifices may be gathered from the distinct explanations which accompanied them. They were substitutionary satisfactions for the soul that sinned, for it is "the blood that maketh an atonement for the soul." They were designed to teach the people the idea of the necessity for expiation for sin; and the intercession for them before God, founded on these sacrifices, completed the truth intended to be taught: they clearly intimated the arrangement by which alone their sins could be remitted, and the blessings which they needed obtained. And Christ, by His life and death, provided the substance or reality.
The views of the priestly work of Christ supplied by the types under the old economy, receive full confirmation in the testimony of the apostles. In their teaching there is no uncertain sound on this subject. As samples we cite the following: "A merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people"; "But this man, because he continueth ever, hath an unchangeable priesthood. Wherefore he is able also to save them to the uttermost that come unto God by him, seeing he ever liveth to make intercession for them" (Heb. 2:17; 7:24, 25; cf. Rev. 1:5, 6). As the personally sinless One, Christ was (legally) made sin for His people, that they might be made the righteousness of God in Him. Such is the very essence of the gospel; and they who deny it, place themselves outside the pale of divine mercy.
Third, Christ, as mediator, is the King of Zion. Under the Davidic covenant not only was this prefigured in the sovereignty conferred upon the man after God’s own heart, but definite promises were given of the raising up of a righteous King, under whose government truth and peace should abound; and it is in Christ that they receive their perfect fulfillment. The New Testament represents His exaltation and the authority with which He is now invested as the designed recompense of the work which He accomplished (see Eph. 1:19-23; Phil. 2:8-11).
It was part of the divine arrangement that the administration of the economy of grace should be committed to Him by whose sufferings and death the foundation has been laid for a true intercourse between God and sinful men. The supreme object for conferring the regal dignity upon the Messiah was His own vindication and glory, but the subordinate design was that He should give practical effect to the divine purpose in the actual saving of all God’s elect. The very nature of that purpose serves to determine the character and extent of the work committed to Him. That purpose respects the spiritual deliverance of God’s people, scattered throughout the world, and therefore is it a work effected against every conceivable opposition. The rule of the Messiah is supreme and universal, for nothing short of that is adequate to the occasion. "Who is gone into heaven, and is on the right hand of God: angels and authorities and powers being made subject unto him" (I Peter 3:22). It is by the discharge of these three offices Christ effectually performs His work of mediation.
First and foremost among the means ordained by God for the actual communication of the blessings of the covenant was the appointing of His Son to the mediatorial office, involving of course His becoming man. The covenant itself is a dispensation of free promises of grace to guilty and condemned sinners; the measures to give effect unto these promises are the terms on which the divine intercourse with sinners is alone possible; and the means are that by which true fellowship with God is established and maintained. As we have said, first among these measures and means was the ordination of Christ to the mediatorial office; and to equip Him for the discharge thereof during the days of His humiliation, He was anointed with the Holy Spirit (Luke 4:18; Acts 10:38). Thus was He furnished for all the exigencies of the stupendous undertaking upon which He entered, an undertaking that is executed by the exercise of His prophetic, priestly, and royal functions.
By the successful conclusion of His earthly mission and work, Christ laid a sure foundation for the recovery of God’s fallen people and for their true fellowship with Him; yet more was still needed for the actualizing of the divine purpose of grace. As it is through Christ all its blessings are conveyed, so it is by Him the covenant is administered. Consequently, upon His exaltation to the right hand of God, He received a further and higher anointing, obtaining the promise of the Father in the gift of the Spirit, to be by Him dispensed to His church at His will (see Acts 2:33; Heb. 1:9; Rev. 3:1). Thus is He effectually equipped to secure the salvation of all His people. He has been exalted to be "a Prince and a Saviour, for to give repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins" (Acts 5:31). He is endowed with "all power in heaven and in earth" (Matthew 28:18). He "must reign till he hath put all enemies under his feet" (1 Cor. 15:25). God has assured Him that "he shall see of the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied" (Isa. 53:11).
The administration of the covenant in the actual application of its blessings, and in securing, beyond the possibility of the slightest failure, its ordained results, is an essential part of the mediatorial work of Christ. Therefore was he exalted to the right hand of the Majesty on high, to exercise sovereign power. His cross was but the prelude to His crown. The latter was not only the appointed and appropriate reward of the former, but having begun the work of salvation by His death, to Him was reserved the honor of completing it by His reigning power. "God raised him from the dead and set him at his own right hand . . . and hath put all things under his feet, and gave him to be the head over all things to the church which is his body" (Eph. 1:19). The salvation of the church, and the unlimited power and authority with which the Redeemer is now entrusted, are indispensable to its successful attainment.
The administration of the covenant by the Mediator as bearing on the salvation of sinners is a subject of vast importance. Christ now reigns, and nothing is more consoling and stabilizing than a deep conviction of this fact. His rule is not an imaginary one, but a reality; His reign is not figurative, but personal. He is now on the throne, and is exercising the power and authority committed to Him as the Messiah, in the complex constitution of His person, for the accomplishment of His people’s salvation. But not only is this now denied by those who imagine that Christ’s personal reign is as yet entirely future, it is most feebly grasped by many of those who profess to believe that the Savior is already on the mediatorial throne. It is one thing to admit it in words, and another to act thereon and enjoy the living power of it. It is the holy privilege of the Christian to have personal dealings with One who is invested with supreme sovereignty, and yet at the same time ever has his best interests at heart.
From the period of His ascension, the royal supremacy of Christ was distinctly recognized and frankly owned by all the apostles. They steadfastly believed in Him as their King and their God—ever accessible, ever near to them. They sought His direction in duty, and under His authority they acted. They relied upon His grace for the performance of their work, and to Him they ascribed their success. The assurance of His presence was a vital consideration with them: it strengthened their faith, energized their service, sustained them in their afflictions, and gave them victory over their enemies. Of this, their writings afford abundant evidence. It is impossible to peruse them attentively without perceiving that a living, ever-present Savior, invested with mediatorial power and glory, was their life and strength and joy. And with this, all healthy Christian experience, ever since their day, thoroughly coincides.
The government of Christ is administered by a wisely adapted system of means, appointed and directed by Himself. Chief among these means, in the matter of salvation, are His Word and His Spirit, the former containing all that it is necessary for us to know for our spiritual deliverance. It reveals the character of the Lord God, the nature of the relation He sustains to us, the things He requires of us, and the principles on which He will deliver us. It depicts what we are as fallen creatures, what sin is, and what are its wages. It unfolds the divine method of salvation through the sacrifice and mediation of the Son, His all-sufficiency for the work assigned Him, the way in which we become interested in its blessings, and the character of that obedience which, as the subjects of His grace, we must render to Him.
As a means, the Word is perfect for its purpose: it is fully and admirably fitted to produce the most practical effect on all who are brought to understand it. But Scripture declares, and innumerable facts echo its testimony, that this body of truth meets with such resistance from sinful men that no mere means can ever remove: that plain as are its statements, and satisfactory and conclusive its evidence, sinners naturally have not eyes to see nor hearts to receive. Fallen men are so utterly depraved, there is such an aversion in their hearts to all that is holy, that had they been left to themselves, revelation with all its merciful disclosures must have been given in vain. It is here that the work of the Spirit comes in: a gracious provision of Christ’s to meet man’s otherwise hopeless malady. By His power, the Spirit of Christ dispels the darkness of the understanding and subdues the enmity of the heart. This He does by regenerating us, which imparts a capacity for receiving and loving the truth.
When a sinner, after a career of heedless insensibility to the claims of God, is awakened to a consciousness of his guilt and danger, brought under deep and painful conviction, and after exercise of heart more or less protracted, is led to accept the mercy of the gospel and to find peace in Christ, it is in every instance a work of divine grace, the fruit of the Spirit’s operation. True, every conviction is not the proof of a saving work, for some proceed from natural conscience or are aroused by some special providence: it is the result and not the degree of suffering attending them, which is the only sure criterion of their saving nature. Those convictions alone are gracious which truly humble the sinner, leading to the renunciation of all self-righteous dependence, inducing him to justify God in his condemnation and take the blame of his sins upon himself, and leave him a conscious suppliant for undeserved mercy. This is a state of heart which the Spirit of God alone can produce.
The actual reception of Christ in order that salvation may be a conscious possession and enjoyment is by faith, and that faith is obviously the consequence of the spiritual and radical change which has passed on the heart. We say "obvious," for an unhumbled and impentient heart cannot savingly believe (Matthew 21:32), any more than one who is yet a rebel can surrender to the Lordship of Christ and take His yoke upon him. There can be no communion between light and darkness, no fellowship between Christ and Belial. While the heart remains hard and unbroken the Word obtains no entrance therein, as our Lord’s parable of the sower makes unmistakably plain. The faith which saves is one that receives Christ as He is presented in the Word, namely, as one who abhors self-righteousness, hates sin, yet is full of compassion to those who are sick of sin and long to be healed by Him. Of such faith the Holy Spirit is the author in every instance.
In His administration of the covenant, then, Christ fulfils its promises by means of the ministry of the Word, under the agency of the Spirit. God’s people are effectually called by His grace: by faith they accept His mercy and surrender to His will. The effectual call concerns their salvation, for it is a call to His kingdom and glory, this being its specific design. From the moment that spiritual principles and gracious affections exist in the heart, in however feeble a form, salvation commences; and we may rest fully assured that everyone in whom this good work is begun by the Spirit will continue and persevere in the course on which they have entered, until their salvation is completed and present grace passes into future glory. Between the first incipient manifestation of grace in the heart and finished redemption in the everlasting blessedness of heaven, there is an intimate, and by divine appointment, a necessary and sure connection. The very nature of the covenant insures this, for its blessings are entirely spiritual, providing for permanent relations with God.
Between the condition of Adam in a state of innocence and renewed and believing saints, there is a vast difference. The former stood in his own righteousness, and there was no guarantee against his defection. He did fall, even when placed in the most favorable circumstance, from continued obedience. If, then, believers now, with indwelling sin and all the infirmities which still cleave to them, amidst the manifold forms of temptation surrounding them—things which Adam in his purity never knew—have no higher security than he had, what could prevent their inevitable apostasy and destruction? But the effects of divine grace and the faithfulness of the Redeemer are pledged for their safety. He who pitied them when they were dead in trespasses and sins, and brought them to know and love Himself, will never leave nor forsake them. The grace which first blessed them will continue to bless them unto the end. To render their salvation certain is the immediate purpose of the Mediator’s government.
"The gifts and calling of God are without repentance" (Rom. 11:29). Of this the covenant itself supplies an express assurance, not only by its general statements, from which an inference to this effect might be fairly drawn, but in distinct terms. In one remarkable passage we find it thus stated: "They shall be my people, and I will be their God. And I will give them one heart, and one way; that they may fear me forever, for the good of them and of their children after them. And I will make an everlasting covenant with them, that I will not turn away from them to do them good; but I will put my fear in their hearts, that they shall not depart from me" (Jer. 32:38-40). The covenant does not provide a pardon for sinners, and then leave them in their sins. It is no licenser of ungodliness, or shelterer of the libertine. There is nothing in it which to the least degree encourages those embraced by it to sin that grace may abound.
The "fear" which God puts into the hearts of renewed souls is the divine antidote against indwelling sin, for as Proverbs 8:13 tells us, "The fear of the Lord is to hate evil"; and as we again read, "By the fear of the Lord men depart from evil" (Prov. 16:6). Therefore, until the sinner has by grace been brought to hate evil and depart from it, he is a stranger to the covenants of promise. Mark well, dear reader, God does not promise to place His doctrine in our heads—many have that, and nothing more—but His fear in our hearts. A merely intellectual knowledge of doctrine puffs up with pride and presumption; but His fear in the heart humbles and produces a godly walk. "I will not turn away from them to do them good." True, says the Arminian; but they may turn from Him to do evil. Not wholly, constantly, and finally so, as we are here positively assured: "I will put my fear in their hearts that they shall not depart from me."
Thus far we have dwelt exclusively on the divine side of this aspect of our subject: the measures God has taken and the means He has appointed for fulfilling His purpose of grace in the covenant. Now we must turn to the human side, and consider what God requires from us before the blessings of the covenant can be bestowed upon us. Alas that in the few pulpits where the divine side is clearly enunciated, most of them are silent on the human, or vehemently assert there is no human side to it. It is another example of the woeful lack of balance which now obtains so widely in Christendom. Those to whom we are alluding are very, very fond of quoting, "He hath made with me an everlasting covenant, ordered in all things, and sure" (II Sam. 23:5), but one never, never hears them cite, still less expound, "Incline your ear, and come unto me; hear, and your soul shall live: and I will make an everlasting covenant with you, even the sure mercies of David" (Isa. 55:3).
In the passage last quoted we learn just who are the characters with whom God proposes to make this covenant, and the terms with which they must comply if He is to do so. First, it is with those who had hitherto closed their ears against Him, refusing to heed His requirements, and steeling themselves against His warnings and admonitions. To "incline your ear" signifies cease your rebellious attitude, submit yourselves to My righteous demands. Second, it is with those who are separated and alienated, at a guilty distance from Him. "Come unto me" means throw down the weapons of your warfare, and cast yourselves on My mercy. Third, it is with those who are destitute of spiritual life, as the "hear and your souls shall live" clearly enough denotes. It is human responsibility which is here being enforced. Comply with these terms, says God, and I will make this covenant with you.
This enforcing of our responsibility is most meet for the honor of God; and as the honor of His Father lies nearer to the heart of Christ than anything else, He will not dispense the blessings of His grace except in that way which is most becoming to God’s perfections. There is a perfect consonance between the impetration of God’s favor and the application of it. As the justice of God deemed it meet that His wrath should be appeased and His law vindicated by the satisfaction made by His Son, so His wisdom determined that the sinner must be converted before pardon is bestowed upon him (Acts 3:19). We must be on our guard here, as everywhere, against extolling one of God’s perfections above another. True, the covenant is entirely of grace—pure, free, sovereign grace—nevertheless, here too, grace reigns through righteousness, and not at the expense of it.
God will not disgrace His grace by entering into covenant with those who are impenitent and openly defy Him. It is not that the sinner must do something to earn the grand blessings of the covenant. No, no, he contributes not a mite toward the procuring of them. That price—and infinitely costly it was—was fully paid by Christ Himself. But though God requires naught from us in the way of purchasing or meriting these blessings, He does in the matter of our actual receiving of them. "The honor of God would fall to the ground if we should be pardoned without submission, without confession of past sin, or resolution of future obedience; for till then we neither know our true misery, nor are we willing to come out of it; for they that securely continue in their sins, they despise both the curse of the Law and the grace of the Gospel" (T. Manton).
The assertion that there is a human side to our becoming the recipients of God’s spiritual blessings, that there are certain terms which He requires us to first comply with, should occasion no difficulty. For as we have pointed out so frequently in this study, a covenant is a mutual compact, the second party agreeing to do or bestow certain things in return for what has been done or agreed upon by the first party to it. Before the sinner can enter into the actual benefits of Christ’s atonement, he must consent to return to the duty of the law and live in obedience to God; for He never pardons any while they are in their rebellion and live under the full dominion of sin. This is clear from many passages: see, for example, Isaiah 1:16-18; 55:7; Acts 3:19. Therefore, till there be a genuine repentance (which is not only a sorrow for past offenses, but also a sincere purpose to live henceforth according to the will of God) we have no interest in the grace of the new covenant.
First, we are required to enter into solemn covenant with God, yielding ourselves unreservedly up to Him (2 Cor. 8:5), henceforth to live for His glory: "Gather my saints together unto me: those that have made a covenant with me by sacrifice" (Ps. 50:5). Second, we are required to keep this solemn covenant, to live in a course of universal holiness: "All the paths of the Lord are mercy and truth unto such as keep his covenant and his testimonies" (Ps. 25:10). Only those who endure unto the end shall be saved, and for that there must be a diligent practicing of God’s precepts and a constant taking to heart of His warnings and admonitions. "Perseverance in their course is not promoted by a blind confidence and easy security: but by watchfulness, by self-jealousy, by a salutary fear of coming short of the promised rest, prompting them to earnest effort and habitual self-denial. Perseverance does not suppose the certainty of salvation however careless a Christian may be, but implies a steady continuance in holiness and conformity to the will of Christ in order to that end" (John Kelly, to whom we are indebted for much in these articles).
"Though there are no conditions properly so called of the whole grace of the covenant, yet there are conditions in the covenant, taking that term in a large sense, for that which by the order of Divine constitution precedeth some other things, and hath an influence to their existence. For God requireth many things of them whom He actually takes into covenant, and makes partakers of the promises and benefits of it. Of this nature is that whole obedience which is prescribed unto us in the Gospel, in our walking before God in uprightness; and there being an order in the things that belong hereunto, some acts, duties and parts of our gracious obedience, being appointed to be means of the further additional supplies of the grace and mercies of the covenant, they may be called conditions required of us in the covenant, as well as duties prescribed unto us" (John Owen).
It will be evident from this last quotation that we are not advocating any strange doctrine when we insist that the terms of the covenant must be met if its privileges are to be enjoyed. None was clearer and more definite than Owen in his magnifying of the free grace of God; yet none saw more clearly than he did that God treats with men throughout as moral agents. (We can readily repeat the same teaching from others of the Puritans.) Let it be pointed out, that the first blessing of the covenant—regeneration or God’s putting His laws in our hearts—depends on no condition on our part: that is purely a sovereign and gratuitous act on the part of God. But to a full or complete interest in all the promises of the covenant, faith on our part (with which evangelical repentance is inseparable) is required. Here, too, we insist that if on the one hand there can be no justification without believing, yet on the other hand that very faith is given to us and wrought in us.
In further corroboration of the point we are now laboring is the usage of the term "earnest" in the New Testament. In both 2 Corinthians 1:22 and 5:5 we read of "the earnest of the Spirit," while in Ephesians 1:13,14 we are told that He is "the earnest of our inheritance." Now an earnest is a token payment or installment of what has been agreed upon between two or more parties, being a guaranty of the full and final discharge. This figurative expression is used because the right which the believer has to eternal life and glory is by compact or covenant. On the one side, the sinner agrees to the terms stipulated (the forsaking of sin and his serving of the Lord), and yields himself to God by repentance and faith. On the other side, God binds Himself to give the believer forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among the sanctified; and the gift of the Spirit clinches the matter. When we consent to the terms of the gospel, God engages Himself to bestow the inestimable blessings purchased for us by Christ.
Under the new covenant God requires the same perfect obedience from the Christian as He did from unfallen Adam. "Although God in them (His commands) requireth universal holiness of us, yet He doth not do it in that strict and rigorous way as by the Law (i.e. as given to Adam), so as that if we fail in any thing either as to the matter or manner of its performance, and in the substance of it or as to the degrees of its perfection, that thereon both that and all we do besides should be rejected. But He doth it with a contemperation of grace and mercy, so as that if there be a universal sincerity in respect unto all His commands, He both pardoneth many sins and accepts of what we do, though it come short of legal perfection; and both on the account of the mediation of Christ. Yet this hindereth not but that the command of the Gospel doth still require universal holiness of us, and a perfection therein, which we are to do our utmost endeavor to comply withal, though we have a relief provided in sincerity on the one hand, and mercy on the other. For the commands of the Gospel do still declare what God approves and what He doth condemn, which is no less than all holiness on the one hand, and all sin on the other; as exactly and extensively as under the Law. For this the very nature of God requireth, and the Gospel is not the ministry of sin, so as to give an allowance unto the least, although in it pardon be provided for a multitude of sins by Jesus Christ.
"The obligation on us unto holiness is equal as unto what it was under the Law, though a relief be provided where unavoidably we come short of it. There is, therefore, nothing more certain, than that there is no relaxation given us as unto any duty of holiness by the Gospel, nor any indulgence unto the least sin. But yet upon the supposition of the acceptance of sincerity, and a perfection of parts instead of degrees, with the mercy provided for our failings and sins; there is an argument to be taken from the command of it unto an indispensable necessity of holiness, including in it the highest encouragement to endeavor after it. For, together with the command, there is also grace administered enabling us unto that obedience which God will accept. Nothing, therefore, can avoid or evacuate the power of this command and argument from it, but a stubborn contempt of God arising from the love of sin" (J. Owen).
A threefold contrast may be pointed out in connection with the obedience required by God under the Adamic and under the Messianic covenants. First, the design of it is entirely different. Under the covenant of works man was obliged to render obedience to the law in order for his justification; but not so under the covenant of grace, for there the believing sinner is justified on the ground of Christ’s obedience being imputed to him, and the obedience of the Christian afterwards is necessary only that God might be honored thereby as an expression of his gratitude.
Second, the enablement to it, for under the new covenant God works in us both to will and to do of His good pleasure. Under the covenant of works man was left to his own natural and created strength. Under the one, God gave the bare command; under the other, He furnished His grace and Spirit so that we are empowered unto that sincere and evangelical obedience which He accepts of us. When God bids us come to Him, He doth likewise draw us to Him.
Third, in the acceptance of it. Under the covenant of works no provision was made for any failure, for it had neither sacrifice nor mediator; consequently, the only obedience which God would accept under it was a perfect and perpetual one. While God requires the same flawless obedience under the new covenant, yet provision has been made for failure, and if our efforts be genuine, God accepts an imperfect obedience from us because its defects are fully compensated for by the infinite merits of Christ which are reckoned to the believer’s account. This sincere obedience (called by many writers "new obedience" and by others "evangelical obedience") is required from us as the means whereby we show our subjection to God, our dependence upon Him, our thankfulness unto Him, and as the only way of converse and communion with Him.
We must now consider the time when this covenant came into operation. This cannot be restricted to any one moment absolutely, as though all that is included in God’s making of it did consist in any single act. If we revert for a moment to the original promise it will be found that God said, "Not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers, in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt" (Jer. 31:32). Now that was not a literal day of twenty-four hours, but a season into which much was crowded: many things happened between Israel’s Exodus from the house of bondage and their actual encamping before Sinai, things which were preparatory to the making and solemn establishment of the old covenant. So was it also in connection with the making and establishing of the new covenant: it was gradually made and established by sundry acts both preparatory and confirmatory. In his able discussion of this point, Owen mentioned six degrees: we here condense his remarks, adding a few observations of our own.
The first entrance into the making of the new covenant was made by the mission of John the Baptist, who was sent to prepare the way of the Messiah, and therefore is his mission called "the beginning of the gospel" (Mark 1:1,2). Until his appearing, the Jews were bound absolutely and universally by the Sinaitic covenant, without alteration or addition in any ordinance of worship. But his ministry was designed to prepare them, and cause them to look unto the accomplishment of God’s promise to make a new covenant. He therefore called the people off from resting in and trusting upon the privileges of the old covenant, preaching unto them the doctrine of repentance and instituting a new ordinance of worship—baptism—whereby they might be initiated into a new condition and relationship with God; pointing them to the predicted Lamb. This was the beginning of the fulfillment of Jeremiah 31:31-33; compare to Luke 16:16.
Second, the incarnation and personal ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ Himself was an eminent advance and degree thereof. True, the dispensation of the old covenant yet continued, for He Himself, as made of a woman, was made under the law (Gal. 4:4), yielded obedience to it, observing all its precepts and institutions. Nevertheless, His appearing in flesh laid an axe to the root of that whole dispensation. Hence, upon His birth the substance of the new covenant was proclaimed from heaven as that which was on the eve of taking place (Luke 2:13,14). But it was made more evident later on by His public ministry, the whole doctrine whereof was preparatory unto the immediate introduction of this covenant. The proofs He gave of His messiahship, the fulfillment He provided of the prophecies concerning Him, were so many signs that He was the appointed mediator of that covenant.
Third, the way for the introduction of this covenant being thus prepared, it was solemnly enacted and confirmed in and by His death, for therein He offered that sacrifice to God by which it was established, and hereby the promise properly became a "testament" (Heb. 9:14-16). There the apostle shows how the shedding of Christ’s blood answered to those sacrifices whose blood was sprinkled on the people and the book of the law in confirmation of the first covenant. The cross, then, was the center whence all the promises of grace did meet, and from whence they derive all their efficacy. Henceforth the old covenant, and its administration, having received their full accomplishment, no longer had any binding force (Eph. 2:14-16; Col. 2:14,15) and only abode by the patience of God, to be taken away in His own good time and manner.
Fourth, this new covenant had the complement of its making and establishment in the resurrection of Christ. God did not make the first covenant simply that it should continue for a season, die of itself, and be arbitrarily removed. No, the Levitical economy had a special end to be accomplished, and nothing in it could be removed until God’s design was realized. That design was twofold: the perfect fulfilling of that righteousness which the law enjoined, and the undergoing of its curse. The one was accomplished in the perfect obedience of Christ, the surety of the covenant, in the stead of those with whom the covenant was made; the other was endured by Him in His sufferings; and His resurrection was the public proof that He was discharged from the claims of the law. The old covenant then expired, and the worship pertaining to it was continued for a few years longer only by the forbearance of God toward the Jews.
Fifth, the first formal promulgation of the new covenant, as made and ratified, was on the day of Pentecost, seven weeks after the resurrection of Christ. Remarkably did this answer to the promulgation of the law on Mount Sinai, for that too occurred the same space of time after the deliverance of the people of God out of Egypt. From the day of Pentecost onward, the ordinances of worship and all the institutions of the new covenant became obligatory unto all believers. Then was the whole church absolved from any duty with respect to the old covenant and its worship, although it was not manifest as yet in their consciences. When Peter said to those of his hearers who were pricked in the heart that "the promise is unto you and to your children," he was announcing the new covenant unto members of the house of Judah, and his "and to them that are afar off" (compare Dan. 9:7) extended it to the dispersion of Israel; and when he added "save yourselves from this untoward generation" (Acts 2:39,40) he intimated the old covenant had waxed old and was about to vanish away. Sixth, this was confirmed in Acts 15:23-29.
It only remains for us to say a few words on the relation between the original and final covenants. It is important that we should distinguish clearly between the everlasting covenant which God made before the foundation of the world, and the Christian covenant which He has instituted in the last days of the world’s history. First, the one was made in a past eternity; the other is made in time. Second, the one was made with Christ alone; the other is made with all His people. Third, the one is without any conditions so far as we are concerned; the other prescribes certain terms which we must meet. Fourth, under the one Christ inherits; under the other Christians are heirs: in other words, the inheritance Christ purchased by His fulfilling the terms of the everlasting covenant is now administered by Him in the form of a "testament."
Should a reader ask, Does my getting to heaven depend upon the everlasting covenant or the new one? The answer is upon both. First upon what Christ did for me in executing the terms of the former; second, upon my compliance with the conditions of the latter. Many are very confused at this very point. They who repudiate man’s responsibility will not allow that there are any "ifs" or "buts," restricting their attention to God’s "wills" and "shalls"; but this is not dealing honestly with the Word. Instead of confining ourselves to favorite passages, we must impartially compare Scripture with Scripture, and over against God’s "I will" of Hebrews 8:10-12 must be placed the "But Christ as a Son over his own house: whose house are we if we hold fast the confidence and the rejoicing of the hope firm unto the end . . . for we are made partakers of Christ, if we hold the beginning of our confidence steadfast unto the end" of Hebrews 3:6, 14! Does this render such a vital matter uncertain, and place my eternal interests in jeopardy? By no means: if I have turned "from transgression" God has made an everlasting covenant with me and has given to me the same Spirit which abode—without measure—on the Mediator (Isa. 59:20,21). Nevertheless, I can have Scriptural assurance of this only so long as I tread the path of obedience.