Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Lord of the Covenant

Texts: Deuteronomy 27:9-13, 28:1-14; Matthew 5:1-12

A FEW YEARS AGO, WHEN I WAS a full time pastor, I got a strange call one day from a man who wanted to know about our church. I got the definite feeling that he wasn't really interested in attending, rather, he was checking to see if our doctrine and practices were orthodox; at least, from his point of view. He seemed more or less satisfied with the answers I gave, until he asked, "What Bible do you have in your pews?"

"The New International Version," I told him.

"What?" he cried, "You don't use the King James Version!?"

"No," I replied. "The King James Version was good for its time, but now we have so many other better translations that are more faithful to the original Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic."

"What do Hebrew and Greek have to do with the Scriptures!?" my caller challenged me.

I said, "Sir, the Bible was originally written in those languages. Jesus Himself preached and taught in Aramaic and maybe in Greek. The Apostles and Evangelists all wrote in Greek."

The man had his back up now. He said, "Well, my Bible has nothing to do with Greek and Hebrew. Those are the languages of unbelievers. The only true Bible is the King James Bible. Jesus had nothing to do with any Greek or Hebrew or any pagan languages like that! And if you and your church believe otherwise, you're a false church and a false minister!"

Well, if he had no concept of history, we were at a stalemate. I told him I had to go and rung off. And no, I never heard from this King-James-only crusader again. But I tell you this story to illustrate how easy it is for us 21st century Americans to imagine that the customs and practices of our Biblical era spiritual ancestors were just like ours and what we're used to. When we open our Bibles, if something in there sounds like something we do today, we often take it for granted that it's the same thing we do, and we interpret the word according to what is familiar to us.

Our passage from the Gospel According to St. Matthew is an example of this. The scripture begins, "Now when he [that is, Jesus] saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them."

So, looking through our modern eyes, we think, "Here's Jesus giving a open-air sermon, and his disciples are listening." Right? We all know what preaching is. You hear it every Sunday. You're hearing it right now, today. Maybe the sermon will have something to apply to your life, maybe not, but in the end it's just a sermon. You don't expect it to radically change your whole relationship with God.

But listen with the ears of the disciples who heard Jesus' words that day, and you'll realize there was a lot more going on on that mountainside that just words from a rabbi preacher's mouth. What Jesus proclaimed that day was nothing less than the inauguration of New Covenant with His people, promised for centuries by the prophets of old. And those who are bound under that covenant, both then and now, will never be the same.

To understand this, we need to know something about the Old Covenant that the Lord God made with Israel through Moses back in the days when He brought them out of Egypt with an outstretched hand and mighty arm and made them His own, the covenant that Israel ratified when God led them into the Promised Land under Joshua.

Everything about our God is wonderful, but one of the most wonderful, to my mind, is the way He chose to manifest Himself through the everyday customs and practices of His chosen people and of the world around them. Around the time Jehovah God was freeing the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, some nations in the ancient Near East were using a covenant form called a suzerainty treaty. If you were a minor king or nation was threatened with destruction by some more powerful enemy, a greater king and lord might send his forces to rescue you and your people. The fact that you needed to be saved proved that you couldn't survive and thrive on your own, and now that the great king had delivered you, he made a treaty with you to be your suzerain, your overlord, and you agreed to be his vassal. In the treaty he'd agree to keep on protecting and helping your nation, in return for good behavior and just tribute from you..

So our God chose to use this suzerainty treaty form when He made His old covenant through Moses with His newborn people Israel. There are elements of this treaty form displayed in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers, but the most complete setting out of the treaty between God and Israel is the entire book of Deuteronomy. In Deuteronomy we have all the articles and stipulations that were typical in the treaties between human suzerains and their vassals. God first identifies Himself as the Maker, Initiator, and Lord of the covenant, promising to be Israel's God and to have them as His people. Then He reminds Israel of everything He has done for them to save them. Next He sets out His laws and requirements for their conduct as His people, which they are expected to ratify. God the covenant Lord then lays down blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience, and concludes with rules for the administration, preservation, and perpetuation of the covenant. This all was for Israel's good and for God's glory.

We see God as the Lord of the covenant in Deuteronomy chapter 27, verse 9, where it says:

"Then Moses and the priests, who are Levites, said to all Israel, ‘Be silent, O Israel, and listen! You have now become the people of the LORD your God. Obey the LORD your God and follow his commands and decrees that I give you today.'"

Moses then commands the people to reaffirm and re-ratify the covenant when they have crossed the Jordan. The tribes are to remind themselves and each other of the blessings for obedience and of the curses for disobedience. We did not read verses 14 through 26, where the ratification curses are laid out, because today I wanted us to focus on the Old Covenant blessings and compare them with the blessings of the New Covenant that Jesus pronounces in the Sermon on the Mount.

Deuteronomy 28 begins, "If you fully obey the LORD your God and carefully follow all his commands I give you today, the LORD your God will set you high above all the nations on earth. All these blessings will come upon you and accompany you if you obey the LORD your God." If you obey, you will get these blessings. As it says in Leviticus 18:5, "Keep my decrees and laws, for the man who obeys them will live by them." Which is not to say, "he will conduct his life according to them." Rather, by keeping God's decrees and laws the obedient person will inherit life and health and material prosperity. The blessings of the Old Covenant are conditional on the people's obedience. If you do this, God will do that.

Moreover, the blessings of the Old Covenant usually were material. Successful childbearing for mothers and fertility for the domestic beasts. Plentiful food. Safety at home and on the road. Protection from and conquest of Israel's enemies. Success in farming and business. Respect and fear from the other nations of the earth. This was God's will for Israel in their day. These material blessings were how they could learn what a gracious, loving Lord Jehovah was. They would demonstrate to other nations the greatness of Israel's God, and show that He was supreme over all the earth.

Now that we know what we're dealing with, the New Covenant that Jesus inaugurates in His sermon on the Mount at first seems like the same sort of thing. Matthew records that Jesus said, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." And, "Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted." Those aren't material blessings, exactly, but they're blessings in our everyday lives! Isn't Jesus promising that when we're feeling down or when we've lost a loved one, everything will be all right? And when He says, "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled" and "Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy," doesn't that depend on our obedience? Isn't He telling us to try harder to be good, so we'll get the promised blessings?

But look again. There is a definite and radical difference in the blessings of the Old Covenant and the blessings of the New. The Old Covenant says, "If you fully obey . . . you will be blessed." But the New Covenant says, "Blessed are those who are" poor in spirit, who mourn, who are meek, who hunger and thirst for righteousness, who are merciful, and so on. The New Covenant assumes that those included within it already are keeping it and so they are already blessed.

But look again at the picture of blessedness! See who it is whom Jesus describes as blessed. The humble, the lowly. Those who don't insist on justice to themselves, but instead show mercy. Those who are persecuted for standing up for the righteousness of God. Look at the rewards the New Covenant promises! Hardly a material advantage on the list. Who can say they truly desire these blessings? Who of us can truly aspire to this state of godly humility, or say we've come anywhere close to achieving it? "Blessed are those who are poor in spirit, mourning, meek, peacemakers, persecuted," preaches our Lord. But we are proud, boastful, mindless of what is right, often merciless, quick to argue, and we prefer to avoid danger and persecution. We say we want comfort, righteousness, the sight of God, the kingdom of heaven, and all the other covenant advantages, but we want them on our own terms and according to our own definition.

There is only one Man who ever lived who can join with God in this New Covenant, and that Man is Jesus Christ Himself. He made Himself a servant, a vassal for our sakes. He identified Himself with our helpless state when we were besieged by sin, death, and the devil. He enters into covenant fellowship with God for us, and through Him and in Him, we enter into the blessings of the New Covenant as well.

But at the same time, our Lord Jesus is our sovereign covenant Lord. He says in verse 11, "Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me." As He preaches the rest of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus goes on to lay out the covenant requirements, even to lay out covenant curses, and again and again we hear, "But I tell you . . . " At the conclusion, the people are amazed, because He spoke out of His own authority, not citing others as the rabbis did. Jesus had and has every right to do this, because He is our covenant Lord.

The Sermon on the Mount is not just another religious talk and Jesus of Nazareth was not just another rabbi. The Beatitudes are not words to live by; rather, they point us to Jesus, who is both the perfect humble covenant vassal and the mighty covenant Lord. He ratified this everlasting treaty in the blood of His cross, where He rescued us from destruction and raised us up with Him to reign with Him in His kingdom. By the waters of baptism we are brought into His covenant, and by the bread and wine of Holy Communion He reaffirms it to us every time we partake of the sacred meal.

So, blessed is Jesus, the poor in spirit, for His is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed is Jesus, who mourned over our sin, for He has been comforted.

Blessed is Jesus the meek, for He has inherited the earth.

Blessed is Jesus, who hungers and thirsts for righteousness, for He will be satisfied.

Blessed is Jesus the merciful, for God showed Him mercy by raising Him from the dead.

Blessed is Jesus the pure in heart, for He beholds the face of God.

Blessed is Jesus the peacemaker, for by His obedience He has shown Himself to be the son of God.

Blessed is Jesus, who was persecuted and killed because of righteousness, for His is the kingdom of heaven.

And blessed are you in Him, for He gives all these blessings to you. Blessed are you who rely not on your own goodness and good works, but who trust in the perfect obedience of your crucified and risen Lord. Blessed are you who seek His righteousness, His mercy, His peace, even in the midst of trouble and persecution. Rejoice and be glad, for great is the reward He has won for you in heaven. For one greater than all the prophets speaks here; Jesus Christ, our covenant Lord. He has made you His people, He wraps you in His blessedness, and His promises are faithful and sure.

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