The God Who Keeps Covenant
THE GOD WHO KEEPS COVENANT
A Midweek Lesson
By Pastor Brian Wilbur
Date: January 24, 2019
Note: Scripture quotations are from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
In this evening’s lesson I want us to consider the way that God relates to His people. The concept that I will be highlighting is the word covenant. Thus the title of our lesson: “The God Who Keeps Covenant.”
To say that God keeps covenant means more than simply saying that God keeps His promises. They are related, of course, because when God makes a covenant with His people, the covenant is full of promises. And God is faithful: He will keep His covenant promises!
That said, too often we think individualistically about God’s promises. Each believer regards God’s promises as promises to me individually, without respect to what He has done or is doing with the people around me. It is all good and well to understand that God’s promises include me as an individual believer, but it is not good at all to think only in individualistic terms.
So what I want to do in this short lesson is to move the ball up the field about 15 yards. Other lessons and sermons will be required if we are to advance to a touchdown of covenantal wisdom. But one first down is the right place to start.
GOD’S COVENANT WITH HIS PEOPLE: THE BASIC IDEA
The basic idea of God covenanting with His people goes like this. As I mentioned in the recent sermon “Kingdoms in Conflict,” there are only two groups of people in the world: those who belong to the kingdom of darkness under the tyranny of the serpent, and those who belong to the kingdom of light under the gracious rule of the Savior Jesus Christ. Those who belong to Christ are God’s saints, the holy and set-apart ones, and are members of God’s household. God doesn’t view His people as a long line of disconnected individuals, but as a unified body whose members are bound together in covenant with God and with one another. Many members, yes, but one body, one family, one people.
This covenantal uniting of God’s people to God and to one another is not an afterthought, but foundational to the establishing and forming of God’s people in the first place. God makes a covenant – He forms a binding relationship – with certain people and He promises to them, ‘I am going to build my people through you – through you and your seed, through you and your descendants.’ And the whole thing takes time, hundreds of years and then thousands of years, because God is building a multi-generational family. If one generation is forty years, then we are about 95 generations downstream from father Abraham!
As we think about our own place at the table – our own membership in God’s family – we shouldn’t think of it in terms like: after God created the universe in Genesis 1, the next big thing He did was save me in 1995. Yes, God is directly involved in the regeneration of every sinner, but the grace flowing to that sinner is flowing downstream from the mountain peaks of eternal covenant love that were set in motion in history in Genesis 3, and in Genesis 12, and in Genesis 26, and in Genesis 35, and in Exodus 20, and all throughout the Old Testament and the New Testament and the two-thousand year history of the New Testament church.
SPEAKING OF EXODUS 20
Speaking of Exodus 20, the reason why I’m talking about ‘covenant’ in this midweek lesson is because I am developing these midweek lessons from what I am learning as I prepare for and lead my Sunday School Class through “The Ten Commandments.” And Exodus 20 is the impetus for our covenantal reflections. Before God uttered the first commandment (Exodus 20:3) He identified Himself as the God of covenant:
“And God spoke all these words, saying,
“I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”” (Exodus 20:1-2)
Now I know that the word covenant isn’t used in verse 2, but the concept is very present. So let’s think about “the LORD your God” who delivered His people from their enslavement in Egypt.
Before the deliverance took place, the Israelites were in a real fix. The Egyptians “ruthlessly” (Exodus 1:13, 14) subjected the Israelites to slave labor and persecuted the Israelites by demanding that every Israelite baby boy be “cast into the Nile” (Exodus 1:22). The Pharaohs and Herods of this world are always wanting to kill the sons of the covenant.
In any case, the suffering of the Israelites was great, and what did they do? They “groaned because of their slavery and cried out for help.” (Exodus 2:23) Then what? “Their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God.” (Exodus 2:23) Now since God is omniscient and knows everything, He is always aware of any people’s groaning and cry, but that is hardly the main point here. The main point here, as the next verse makes clear, is that their cry got His attention precisely because they were related by covenant to the patriarchs. “And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham [Genesis 12, 15, 22], with Isaac [Genesis 26], and with Jacob [Genesis 35]. God saw the people of Israel–and God knew.” (Genesis 2:24-25) Yes, “God saw the people of Israel,” but He didn’t see that current generation of people as a stand-alone group. He saw them in relationship to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He saw them as the proper beneficiaries of the promises made upstream, hundreds of years before they were born. He saw them as sons and daughters of the covenant, and He related to them on that basis. Hear the promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob:
“Now the LORD said to Abram [Abram=Abraham, same guy!], “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”” (Genesis 12:1-3)
Later the Lord said to Abraham: “To your offspring I give this land” (Genesis 15:18) and “in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed” (Genesis 22:18).
Later the Lord said to Isaac: “I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and will give to your offspring all these lands. And in your offspring all the nations of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 26:4-5).
Later the Lord said to Jacob: “The land that I gave to Abraham and Isaac I will give to you, and I will give the land to your offspring after you.” (Genesis 35:12)
When so many years later the multiplied descendants of Jacob cried out because of their bondage in Egypt, they were heard precisely because they were the heirs of these promises. The Lord God had promised that He would form a great nation out of Abraham, that this great nation would inherit the land of Canaan, and that this great nation would a blessing to the whole world. When we turn to the pages of the New Testament, we learn that our Lord – “Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matthew 1:1) – is the ultimate fulfillment of these promises. He is the promised offspring (Galatians 3:16) – the promised seed – who crushes the serpent, saves His people, and commissions His church to take the good news of God’s gracious salvation to every tribe on earth. But getting into all that would involve a bit more than the 15 yards that I promised, so back to Exodus.
The end of Exodus 2 tells us, the readers, that “God remembered his covenant” with the patriarchs. But in Exodus 3 it becomes clear that God wanted His people to know that this is what was going on – He wanted His people to know that He was relating to them on the basis of His covenant with their forefathers. Exodus 3 tells us about God’s call upon Moses – and most of us have some familiarity with the burning bush and the “holy ground” (Exodus 3:1-5). But let us not forget how God introduced Himself to Moses: “And he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”” (Exodus 3:6) As the covenant-keeping God and the reluctant Moses proceed to have a conversation, Moses asks God a question: “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” (Exodus 3:13) Now listen to God’s answer:
“God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I am has sent me to you.’” God also said to Moses, Say this to the people of Israel, ‘The LORD, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations. Go and gather the elders of Israel together and say to them, ‘The LORD, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob, has appeared to me, saying, “I have observed you and what has been done to you in Egypt, and I promise that I will bring you up out of the affliction of Egypt to the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, a land flowing with milk and honey.”’” (Exodus 3:14-17)
So when God says in Exodus 20:2, “I am the LORD your God,” He is speaking the language of covenant. The reason that the LORD, the great ‘I AM’, is “your God” is because He established a covenantal relationship with the patriarchs, your forefathers in the covenant. The LORD is “your God” (Exodus 20:2) because He is “the God of your fathers” (Exodus 3:16). Because you are their descendants, the promises made to them flow down to you.
COVENANTAL GRACE FLOWS TO AND THROUGH THOSE WHO TRUST GOD
Those who are unfaithful bring a legacy of judgment upon their descendants, but those who are faithful like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob bring a legacy of covenant love upon their descendants who join them in their love for God. God says in Exodus 20:5-6, “You shall not bow down to them [carved images] or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands [or to the thousandth generation, see ESV footnote on verse 5] of those who love me and keep my commandments.” (Exodus 20:5-6) Psalm 103 says, “But the steadfast love of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him, and his righteousness to children’s children, to those who keep his covenant and remember to do his commandments.” (Psalm 103:17-18)
Of course, it is not a person’s physical lineage that makes him or her a saved member of God’s covenant family, but rather trust in God’s promise and its fulfillment in Jesus Christ:
“Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.” (Galatians 3:7-9)
And again: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us… so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.” (Galatians 3:13-14).
And again: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.” (Galatians 3:28-29)
So the beautiful reality is that through the redeeming work of Jesus Christ, God’s promises to Abraham flow down to those of us who believe. These blessings didn’t drop out of the sky, but they originated in the mountain peaks of covenant promises to the patriarchs, and they were ratified in the valley of the shadow of death where Jesus died as a sacrifice for the sins of His people, and so it is that we have come to drink deeply from the wellspring of God’s everlasting grace.
Therefore, remember the covenant. Remember the multi-generational legacy. Remember that you are a beneficiary of promises that were spoken to the fathers and sealed in the Savior’s blood. Be grateful to “the LORD your God,” and live in such a way that covenantal graces are passed on through you to others.