Biblical Theology for Wednesday, October 29 (’14)
“The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” — Matthew 1:1
A year after I graduated from college I decided I wanted to attend seminary. I wanted to teach the Bible for a living and figured, “Well, the best way for me to prepare to teach the Bible is to learn the Bible.” One of my first classes upon arriving at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson was covenant theology. It was in this class that I was exposed, for the first time, to the wonderful idea of God’s covenant.
So, what is a covenant and what does it have to do with Matthew’s genealogy?
What is a covenant?
O. Palmer Robertson defines covenant in his book Christ of the Covenants in the following manner,
A covenant is a bond in blood sovereignly administered. When God enters into a covenantal relationship with men, he sovereignly institutes a lifet-and-death bond. A covenant is a bond in blood, or a bond of life and death, sovereignly administered…A covenant is a “bond-in-blood,” committing the participants to loyalty on pain of death. Once the covenant relationship has been entered, nothing less than the shedding of blood may relieve the obligations incurred in the event of covenantal violation (4, 11).
This definition is full of fantastic information. Let’s break it down.
A covenant is administered by God
If you’ve ever purchased a home, a car, or signed an affidavit swearing you weren’t the one who ratted on Little Tony from Yonkers, then you’ve had to sign a contract. This is essentially an economic or personal agreement. You agree to payments, the bank gives you the car or home. You keep your mouth shut and Fat Tony doesn’t make you swim with the fishes. Both parties are benefiting from the arrangement and there are penalties if one or the other doesn’t keep the stipulations. If you fail to pay, the bank takes your car and/or home away. You end up ratting on Fat Tony? THIS guy visits…
A covenant in the Bible, however, doesn’t work this way.
A covenant is life-and-death
Generally speaking, when you sign a contract, no one dies. Think about it: if you signed a contract with a bank in order to buy a house and then they shot you, they would never get their money. And, generally speaking, if you end up breaking a contract (and let’s stick with the bank analogy) they won’t show up at your door step with a baseball bat. Well, maybe…
God is the grand initiator. He creates the stipulations of the covenant we are to keep, (and as will be important later, knows we will break them), and then takes a rather counter-contractual action. To be sure, there are two parties involved like a regular contract, but unlike a contract, a covenant has its source and power solely in the Lord.
When this ancient covenant is made, the two parties do something considered rather odd by modern-day standards. To signify that both parties have entered into a covenant with one another, they take an animal and divide it into two pieces. They will then walk in between those two pieces (cf. Genesis 15). What in the world is that all about?
By walking between both pieces of the slain animal, the parties are communicating to one another that if either one of them should violate the covenant stipulations, the covenant violater should be cut in two just as the animals have been.
What does the practice of covenant have to do with Matthew’s genealogy?
Last week we looked at Matthew’s purpose for connecting Jesus with Abraham. Jesus is not only in the lineage of Abraham, but Jesus fulfills all of the covenant promises that were given to Abraham by the Lord. It is through Jesus that believers from different tribes, tongues, and nations will be blessed. It is through Jesus that believers will find their long-awaited rest. And, most importantly, it is through Jesus that we receive the blessings of keeping the covenantal law.
When the Lord made his covenant with Abraham he knew that Abraham would not live up to the stipulations. The Lord knew that Abraham was sinful and therefore incapable of perfectly fulfilling the law. This is where the story intersects with amazing grace.
In Genesis 15, God comes to Abraham. He lays out the covenant law. Abraham then prepares the sacrificial animals. Just when you expect both parties to walk between the halved animals, something odd happens: Abraham falls asleep! Abraham’s snooze button doesn’t stop Yahweh (the Lord’s covenantal and personal name) however. God walks between the torn animals and takes all of the covenant stipulations upon Himself. God promises to bless Abraham knowing that he will not live up to the covenant stipulations. God is also saying that, in spite of Abraham’s failures, he will not punish Abraham. In fact, God is saying he’ll take the covenant curses upon himself. Sound familiar?
The Jesus Connection
It is in Jesus that believers receive the covenant blessings given to Abraham. It is also, and this is the crucial point, in Jesus that believers have their covenant curses implemented. We are like Abraham. We are sinful, broken people who cannot live up to the standard of righteousness that God commands. We are covenant breakers who deserve to be cut in two like the animals Abraham prepared. Yet, this does not happen for the Christian. Jesus, in his grace, has taken upon himself the punishment we deserve and given us all of the blessings we do not. It is in Jesus we are transformed from covenant breakers, who deserve to be cut off, to covenant keepers who receive all the benefits that God promised to Abraham so long ago.
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” –Matthew 27:46
It was for you and for me. Matthew’s beginning at Abraham is meant to remind us of this critical covenantal beginning fulfilled in Jesus, Abraham’s greatest son.