How being in covenant should impact us as a church.
In a previous post, I wrote about what it means to be in the marriage covenant. In this post I want to explore being in covenant relationship with God and what that means to the church. When we realize what it means to be in covenant relationship to God, it changes our whole perspective. We learn to look at God differently. We look at Scripture differently. We look at the world differently.
It follows that when people who have learned to look at everything through the lens of covenant, come together as a church, that church will also see things differently than it did before. Imagine a church filled with people who are alive to what it means to be in covenant relationship.
Before talking about that, let’s explore the concept of covenant a little more.
Characteristics of God’s covenant with us
1) The heart of covenant is doing what is best for the other person. When I enter into a contract with somebody, I do so for my own self-interest. In contrast, if I offer to enter into a covenant with someone, it is for the benefit of the other person.
God has offered to bring us into covenant relationship with Himself. That means that He is looking out for our best interests. He’s working for our benefit. When we understand that, it changes our whole view of God.
Many people have the idea that they have to try to win God’s favor. But if you are in covenant with Him, you already have it. We don’t have to prove that we’re good enough – the truth is that we aren’t – but God still does what is best for us. We don’t have to act like we deserve God’s goodness – we don’t – but because of the covenant He showers His goodness on us regardless of how unworthy we are, or how many times we fail.
Trying to work your way into God’s good graces is as ridiculous as trying to earn an inheritance. You receive an inheritance because you’re part of the family, not because you earned it. It’s yours because of who you are, not because of what you’ve done. If we are in covenant relationship with God, we have an inheritance because we’ve been adopted into His family – we don’t have to earn it!
2) Grace is one of the key characteristics of the covenant God makes with us. You may have heard grace defined as the difference between our efforts and the perfection which God demands. That makes grace sound passive and inert. Even worse, a lot of people have the attitude that since God will make up the difference, grace gives them a license to do whatever they like.
But grace is not a stop-gap; it is not passive; it is not a license. In reality it is an aid to help us keep the covenant. It is the power God gives us to do what is right. For example, Acts 20:32 refers to the “word of grace” as something which builds us up. Titus 2:11-12 says, “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age,” (NIV)
Rules merely define what is right or wrong. Grace enables us to avoid what is wrong and to live right.
3) Entering into covenant always involves making a pledge. In Old Testament times, people entering into a covenant relationship would kill an animal. Then, they would split the carcass down the middle and walk between the two halves. By doing so, they were pledging to keep the terms of the covenant. They were saying, “May what was done to this animal happen to me, if I break this covenant.” For example, Jeremiah 34:18 says, “The men who have violated my covenant and have not fulfilled the terms of the covenant they made before me, I will treat like the calf they cut in two and then walked between its pieces.” (NIV)
4) There is an essential difference between the Old and the New Covenants. The Old Covenant was based on a written law. Keeping the covenant meant obeying the 613 rules that God gave Moses. It depended on human effort – and no one, except Jesus, was able to keep it.
In contrast, God describes the New Covenant this way: “...I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.” (Jeremiah 31:33, Hebrews 8:10 NIV) The Old Covenant was external, the New Covenant is internal. When we enter into the New Covenant, our old person dies, we are baptized into Christ’s death and we are raised as a new person. As party to the covenant, we are being transformed into the image of Christ. Keeping covenant no longer depends on our own effort, but on the work of the Holy Spirit who lives in us.
Under a rule-based system our focus is on the boundaries – where’s the edge? How close to the line can I get without crossing it? In the New Covenant, we’re not worried about boundaries. Our focus is on Christ and becoming like Him. We don’t have to wonder about where the line is because we know that the closer we get to Christ – the more we become like Him – the further away from the edge we are.
With those things in mind, here are four very practical ways in which being in the New Covenant affects us as a church.
I. The Covenant Meal
In Old Testament times, eating a meal together was part of the process of entering into a covenant relationship. For example, Isaac and Abimelech ate a meal when they made a covenant (Genesis 26:26-31). When Jacob and Laban entered into a covenant relationship, they also ate a meal (Genesis 31:44-54).
What many people do not know, and I certainly did not realize until recently, is that when God entered into the Old Covenant with the nation of Israel, the covenant was not only ratified by sacrifices, but with a meal. The account in Exodus 24 reads: “...they offered burnt offerings and sacrificed young bulls as fellowship offerings to the LORD. Moses took half of the blood and put it in bowls, and the other half he sprinkled on the altar. Then he took the Book of the Covenant and read it to the people. They responded, “We will do everything the LORD has said; we will obey.” Moses then took the blood, sprinkled it on the people and said, “This is the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words.” Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and the seventy elders of Israel went up and saw the God of Israel. ...they saw God, and they ate and drank.” (Exodus 24:5-11 NIV)
If you’ve been in church very long at all, those words probably sound similar to some you’ve heard from the New Testament. “...The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes.” (1 Corinthians 11:23-26 NIV)
Just as a meal was involved in enacting the Old Covenant, a meal was involved in enacting the New Covenant. What is the significance? I’m sure that all of you recognize the passage above from 1st Corinthians 11, refers to what we call the Lord’s Supper. Unfortunately, the words are so familiar; we’ve heard them so many times, that they lose their meaning. For example, has it ever struck you as a bit odd that Jesus would command us to remember something which we did not experience? If I were to say to you, “Remember the retreat last year?” How, could you, if you were not there? How can we remember Jesus when we haven’t seen Him; how can we remember the Last Supper since we weren’t there?
The key is to understand that for the Jewish people remembering meant something much more than merely recalling to mind. Malcolm Smith describes it this way: “...to the Greek and Hebrew mind of the first century, “remember” described something totally different. First, it was not only a mental activity, a “thinking about” a past event, but an activity of the whole person – spirit, mind emotion, and body. Second, it meant to do the past event, not merely think about it. To remember meant to re-create the past event, bringing it into the present moment by reenacting it, employing rituals and symbols to do so. Third, to remember meant that the persons remembering totally identified with and participated in all the powers and effects of the original event. Every year the people of God in the Old Testament “remembered” their deliverance from Egypt in exactly this fashion, reenacting it in the Passover meal.” (Malcolm Smith, The Power of the Blood Covenant, Harrison House Publisher, Tulsa, OK, 2002, p. 163)
The Lord’s Supper is a covenant meal. When we partake of it, we are reenacting the covenant. Here’s a very practical application of this: Do you remember what I wrote about people making a covenant pledge by walking between the halves of a sacrificed animal? Jesus took bread, and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you...” When He broke that bread, He was making the covenant pledge. When we break the bread during the Lord’s Supper we reenact the pledge Jesus made. When we take the bread and eat it, we renew our covenant pledge.
There are those who say that they can’t take the Lord’s Supper because they’ve really messed up during the past week. They’ve sinned and they’re not worthy to participate in it. My friend, when you feel that way, that is precisely when you need to participate! That’s exactly why you need to renew the covenant! We don’t partake because we are worthy, but because we are unworthy. If we were perfect, we wouldn’t need to renew the covenant. But even though we sin; even though we are unworthy, God, because of His grace, allows us to reenact the covenant; He allows us to renew the pledge and symbolically applies the blood of the covenant to our hearts again.
II. Unity – Discerning the Body
There is another aspect of the covenant meal. Paul not only refers to it as the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11:20), he also speaks of it as a participation or communion. “Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ?” (1 Corinthians 10:16 NIV)
Theologians endlessly debate exactly what those words mean. But one thing all can agree on is that when we participate in the Lord’s Supper, He is there. We eat and drink in the presence of Jesus. He is at the table with us. We are eating and drinking with Him.
However, there is not only a vertical dimension to this communion, there is also a horizontal dimension to it. In the very next verse Paul writes: “Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.” (1 Corinthians 10:17 NIV) In other words, the bread that we eat in the covenant meal not only symbolizes the physical body of Jesus but, also, the church.
John Marks Hicks describes the practical implications this way: “A second level of meaning is communion with the body of Christ, the church. Paul emphasizes the oneness of the church at the table. Though many, the church is one because it shares the one bread at the table. The unity of the church is rooted in the “common union” the church shares in Christ who has made the church one. When the church eats and drinks it shares the same body and blood. By visibly eating and drinking together the church exhibits the unity of the body in Christ. When we sit at the same table, we testify to our shared experience of the shared reality of Jesus Christ.” (John Mark Hicks, Come To The Table, Leafwood Publishers, 2002, pp. 111-112)
When we partake of the communion, we declare that the church is one; it is united. And this should be a powerful incentive to ensure that it really is. Are you out of sorts with one of your brothers in Christ? Have you wronged a brother? Has a brother wronged you? Then, go to him and get it resolved so that you can truly be united, and commune together as one at the Lord’s table.
The same author I quoted above says this about eating worthily: “...to eat and drink worthily is not about private introspection, but about public action. Paul is not stipulating a kind of meditative silence on the cross of Christ or an introspective assessment of our relative holiness. On the contrary, to eat in an “unworthy manner,” in this context, is to eat in a divisive manner like that which existed in Corinth. The church must examine itself about the manner in which the supper is conducted (1 Cor. 11:28). There may be many ways to eat the supper unworthily... but the specific unworthiness in 1 Corinthians 11 is a communal problem, not an individualistic one. The church eats worthily when it eats as a united community embodying the values for which Christ died.” (Hicks, op cit., p.124)
In the Supper, we not only renew our covenant relationship to God, but also our covenant relationship to each other.
III. Ministry – Table Fellowship
There is much more which could be said about the Lord’s Supper. However, I’ll mention just one more very practical application for the church:
Even though Jesus is the Lord of lords and King of kings, He came to serve. At the last supper He gave a very graphic illustration of this. Though He was the host of the supper, He acted as a servant and washed the disciple’s feet.
What does Jesus’ example mean for us? Here is one more passage from the author I quoted above: “The table is not about power, control or authority. It is not about clerical authority. It is not about gender prerogatives. It is about mutual service and ministry. The table is where we serve each other. The table embodies the mutual love and respect we have for each other as we sit at the table with the host who served us all...
“When disciples sit at the table together with Jesus as the host, they commit themselves to imitate him. They commit themselves to be servants. Just as Jesus served us, even to the extent of sacrificing his life, so disciples commit to serve each other as Jesus served them. We cannot sit at table with fellow disciples and then fail to serve them when they are in need. We cannot commune with each other at the table and then fail to commune with each other in the sharing of our possessions to meet each other’s needs. To sit at the table and deny ministry to another is to undermine the meaning of the gospel. The table must extend beyond the worship assembly as it shapes the ministry of God’s people throughout the week.” (Hicks, op cit., p. 79)
Each week, as we reenact the covenant and eat the covenant meal, let us renew our commitment to serve one another, as Jesus served us.
IV. Giving Grace
There’s a fourth area where having a good understanding of covenant, and looking at things through the lens of covenant, will have a dramatic impact on us as individuals and as a church.
Over the years, I’ve come to really appreciate the letter to the Ephesians. In the first three chapters, Paul describes what Christ has done for us. He contrasts what we were with what we are now in Christ. We were lost; we were dead; we were without hope. In Christ we’re saved; we’ve been made alive; we have an inheritance; we’ve been brought near to God; we’re members of God’s household.
In the middle part of the letter, Paul writes about the role of the church. And, in the last part, he talks about relationships.
In Ephesians 4, the Apostle Paul places a lot of emphasis on the kind of communication Christians should practice. In verse 15 he mentions “speaking the truth in love.” In verse 25 he writes that we are to “put off falsehood and speak truthfully.” And, in verse 29 he says, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” (NIV)
Unfortunately, the NIV translation obscures an important concept in that verse. The ESV puts it this way, “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.” In this verse Paul is contrasting talk which is unwholesome or which corrupts with talk which gives grace. In order to understand what he means by unwholesome or corrupting talk, we must first understand what he means by grace.
At the beginning of this essay I said that grace is an aid to help us keep covenant and the power God gives us to do what is right. Another way to define grace is the “blessings of the covenant.” It is the benefits which accrue to us because we are in covenant relationship. In addition, grace makes up for our shortcomings. When we are about to default on, or violate the covenant, it is grace which enables us to keep it.
In light of this, when Paul instructs us in Ephesians 4:29 to talk in such a way that it “gives grace to those who hear”, he could very well be saying that our speech should be such that it helps those to whom we are speaking, keep covenant. In contrast, then, ‘unwholesome’ or ‘corrupt talk’ is anything which would entice or encourage someone to break covenant, or make it harder for them to keep it. This idea can have a profound influence on how we talk.
Let’s apply this specifically to fellow brothers or sisters in Christ:
In verse 31, Paul says to get rid of slander. To slander someone is to make false accusations against him, or to misrepresent the facts about someone in a way which defames them or damages their reputation. You can see that slander and gossip go hand in hand.
We need to make sure that what we say about others is true; that we don’t go around spreading rumors. If we do, we’re guilty of unwholesome or corrupt talk. We are violating covenant by not extending grace either to the person we are talking about, or the person we are talking to. In contrast Peter writes, “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.” (1 Peter 4:8 NIV)
In Ephesians 5:4, Paul expands on the kind of speech which is inappropriate: “Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving.” (NIV)
Unfortunately, we often are guilty of talking about each other, or to each other, in the three ways of talking which Paul says are out of place.
1) Obscenity – This is using crude, coarse or suggestive language. When we use such language to talk to a brother or sister in the Lord, or to talk about them, we are treating them as objects rather than as persons with whom we have a covenant relationship.
2) Foolish talk – This is more than just stupid or pointless nattering. The Greek word from which this is translated includes the idea of sin. In other words, this is talk which encourages, whether intentionally or not, ungodly thinking, wrong attitudes and wrong actions. An example of such talk would be belittling a brother’s moral scruple.
3) Coarse joking – Though the word from which this is translated does indicate ribaldry, it originally included the concept of repartee, that is, a witty reply. Paul is not condemning being witty, or the quick come-back. He’s not against stimulating conversation. Where joking or repartee becomes wrong is a) When it becomes crude or coarse. b) When it is at the expense of someone else.
This can be a real problem. Someone will tell a funny story about another’s foible or make a joke at his expense. At first it may be in all innocence on the part of the one telling the story or joke. But a put-down is still a put-down even though intended in fun. The person who is the butt of the joke may feel unappreciated, demeaned or of less worth as a result – even though that was not the intention of the joke-teller. It also plants a subtle seed in the mind of the joke-teller. If you talk about someone in unflattering terms, it can turn into your actual perception of him or her. The problem with a joke with a barb, is that the barb remains even if the joke was intended in fun. What started out as an anecdote or joke can be the “thin edge of the wedge.” If allowed to build up over time, the barbs fester and the feelings can easily strain the relationship.
A related form of speech is deliberately telling jokes that the teller knows the other person will not understand, or will misunderstand, and then making fun of him or her for not understanding. This kind of thing can also take the form of deliberately saying things, as a joke, which will set the other person off or upset them. Whatever form it takes, when we indulge in this sort of thing we are telling the other person, “I’m better than you. You aren’t up to my level.” It is particularly harmful when it is done in public.
Is it wrong to tease? No. But make sure that whatever you say in public is something positive – something which will build him or her up in eyes of others, not tear down. Deal with problems in private, and not in the form of jokes.
If obscenity, foolish talk and coarse joking are out, what kind of speech should we practice?
The giving of thanks. Just as obscenity and jokes with a barb tear down, showing appreciation and saying “thank you,” builds up. When we thank someone it says that they have value. We appreciate not only what was done, but the person who did it. In addition, saying something positive about someone helps us to think positive thoughts about him or her. Positive thoughts lead to positive feelings. One way we can strengthen our churches is to always be on the lookout for positive things to say about others. Our tongues can be a powerful tool in helping others keep covenant.
1) What does the Lord’s Supper mean to you? Is it just an empty ritual that you go through every week, or do you take the time to renew your covenant relationship with the Lord and with your fellow believers when you partake?
2) Does participating in the Supper proclaim a unity that does not exist in your congregation? What will you do to heal the divisions in the body?
3) How well does the church serve the needs of those in the body? How can you improve the way you serve and minister to others?
4) What sort of talk is common in the church? Does it extend grace to people and help them to keep covenant, or does it tear down? Are you part of the problem? Do you slander or spread gossip? Think of a specific situation, or a specific person about whom you need to change the way you talk.