Post Title: Unfaithfulness: Ours and Theirs
The way we read Israel's story of God's faithfulness matters. The New Testament authors want us to make connections between the covenants, like this one.
Circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God (Rom 2:29). Paul's whole concept of circumcision of the heart was not something new to him; he gets it right from his Bible. Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn (Deut 10:12). Be a people who repent, a people who return to me, says the LORD.
His is a covenant relationship of love. It is because God is jealous for his people that he speaks of Israel's unfaithfulness (her roving eye towards other gods) as adultery. He is wounded; he is hurt when Israel rejects him because he loves her. He begs her in language that is powerful and idiomatic not to go "whoring" after other gods. Why? They/we are covenanted together with him.
Because the church has not understood the nature of this covenant of love, it has suffered a terrible misunderstanding of God. This results in a misunderstanding of our relationship with him, which affects many levels of our existence. Here is but one example, marriage.
We cannot calculate the damage done by considering marriage a contract rather than a biblical covenant.
We think that if the other doesn't perform properly or meet their obligations, we are free from our obligation to love them. Every covenant is conditional in the sense that it has mutual duties and responsibilities. But every covenant God makes in the Scripture is ultimately and fundamentally unconditional because it is his initiative of grace. He stays with you even when you won't stay with him.
He won't divorce you. But he may discipline you and correct you because he loves you. We tend to think that discipline and love are in opposition. When God punishes Israel, he punishes her out of his love for her and jealousy for his holy name. It is because the LORD set his heart in love on your fathers and chose their offspring after them, you above all peoples, as you are this day, that you are to keep the commandments and statutes of the LORD, which I am commanding you today for your good (Deut 10:15, 13).
You will never understand the covenant God cut with Israel at Sinai if you fail to see it as an extension and a renewal of the original covenant with Abraham.
God took the initiative to make an unconditional covenant with Abraham. It was his sovereign free will, his choice. Yet that is what many people find offensive. "Why," they ask, "did he choose this unworthy and, at times, stubborn, difficult people called the Jews?" Answer me this, why do you love? God so loved that he elected, covenanted, and bound himself to a people.
God's covenant faithfulness still impacts the world today. 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" (Gal 3:18). God so loved that while you were yet a sinner, he suffered for you so he could bring you to himself.
Many of us live in angst, thinking of God as a contractual deity who monitors and looks for every offense as a reason to punish and abandon us. However, Paul says nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Yes, our Father may discipline us. In fact, he will because he loves us. Rightly understood, it is the sign we are indeed his sons and daughters. But nothing can remove us from his covenant of love extended to us in Jesus—who renewed it by his suffering and death on the cross.
Our salvation began when the High and Holy One made an everlasting covenant with Abraham.
We are familiar with Jeremiah 31 because it contains the new covenant quoted in Hebrews 8. But when was the last time you pondered these powerful prophetic proclamations?
Thus says the LORD,
who gives the sun for light by day
and the fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night,
who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar—
the LORD of hosts is his name:
"If this fixed order departs
from before me, declares the LORD,
then shall the offspring of Israel cease
from being a nation before me forever."
Thus says the LORD:
"If the heavens above can be measured,
and the foundations of the earth below can be explored,
then I will cast off all the offspring of Israel
for all that they have done,
declares the LORD."
Are the heavens above you; is his word in your heart? Then God is in covenant with Israel (and, by extension, with those of us who are in the new covenant because of Israel's Messiah).
It is LOVE that covenanted, independent of what they had done or what they deserved. Paul expresses this wonderfully in Rom 11:28-32,
As regards election, they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers. For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. For just as you were at one time disobedient to God but now have received mercy because of their disobedience, so they too have now been disobedient in order that by the mercy shown to you they also may now receive mercy. For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all.
Beloved, the covenant is ...
not because of who Israel is but because of who God is.
not because of Israel's deeds but because of God's character.
not because of Israel's works but because of God's grace.
If this is the case, how is it that from the earliest centuries of Christendom—even 100 years after Jesus, beginning with Justin Martyr—the concept arose that the church is the new Israel? It is a concept called supersessionism in theology. The idea is the church superseded Israel. Said another way, God has set Israel aside, and now he is engaging in his purposes with the church.
This way of thinking leads to a Christian hermeneutic that effectually reads the Old Testament like this, all the blessings are ours (the church), and all the curses are yours (Israel). Because God loved us (the church), he is the Father of grace and truth to us, but to you (Israel), he is a law-giver, and you broke the law. Therefore the covenant is broken.
This pernicious distortion has permeated the church and persists even to this day.
Now, I have good and godly friends whom I admire and respect who hold to that view. But my conscience compels me to speak humbly yet boldly, to handle the entirety of God's Word with accuracy and integrity because it is his revelation to us. And I believe, as a Christian doctrine, it does not line up with the biblical witness.
I am passionate about God's holy nature, character, and faithfulness. If he can find sufficient grounds to remove his covenant commitment to Israel, then he doesn't have to look far to find sufficient grounds to remove himself from his promises to the church. Why? Because church history is tainted with innocent blood. Ours is a history of contempt, arrogance, and triumphalism in too many respects.
Yes, of course, there were obligations on Israel (as there are on us). But no, God's covenant is not conditional. It is not based on performance. Rather it is an expression of his loving initiative. As we see it reflected in Israel's history, disobedience has negative results, even calamitous consequences. But it is a judgment and a discipline that ultimately will bring about God's glory and our humbling.
You see, for all who disobey our Father, the result is separation from his presence (whether in the new or old covenant). That is a sobering thought. In your sinfulness and iniquity, you may separate yourself from the blessing and well-being he wants for you. But my friends, please hear me. You cannot separate yourself from his love.
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This study is from a professionally produced transcription of the audio recording. It was edited for readability by the team at JC Studies.
Dwight A. Pryor (1945-2011) was a gifted Bible teacher of exceptional clarity and depth who earned the friendship and admiration of both Christian and Jewish scholars—in the United States and Israel—as well as the respect and appreciation of followers of Jesus around the world. His expertise in the language, literature, and culture of Israel during the life and time of Jesus and the early church yield insights that nourish every area of faith and practice.
Dwight founded JC Studies in 1984 to edify the people of God. Click here to explore over fifty of his audio and video seminars.