Christ, the Covenantal Savior

Christ from the Old Testament

When we think of the amazing grace of God in sending His divine Son into the world as a human being who would save us from our sins, most of us are well aware that there are dozens of prophecies in the Old Testament that are fulfilled in every aspect of His life on earth. All we have to do is read the New Testament books of Matthew and Luke to know that Christ was fulfilling Old Testament prophecy from the beginning to the end of His life, and that He Himself was very aware of that and considered it a necessity that He should fulfill these prophecies.

The Gospel of Matthew opens right up by proclaiming that Christ is the promised Messiah of the Old Testament who was variously titled as the “Son of David” and the “Son of Abraham.” The Old Testament prophecies about Christ, of course, go right back to the beginning of time, when in Genesis 3:15 Satan is told that the “Seed of the woman will bruise your head, and you will bruise His heel.” These prophecies and many others like them show not only the fact that the Messiah (“Anointed One,” meaning the same as “Christos,” in Greek) was coming, but also that His work would be to “bear the sins of many” (Isa. 53:12ff.). Even on the cross, Christ quotes the Old Testament, saying, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” which is from Psalm 22.

With these many prophecies in mind, we must go on to recognize that these promises are part of God’s covenant of grace that He made expressly with Abraham, but which also extends back to Adam after the Fall, and forward to its fulfillment in eternal life. When John in Revelation 21:3 describes the blessings of eternal life, he does so in language that exactly matches God’s covenant word to Abraham, “and He (God) will dwell with them, and they shall be His people and God Himself will be with them and be their God” (see especially Gen. 17:7).

What this means is that the prophecies about Christ in the Old Testament are not individual plants growing at random, but are the well–planned garden of hope that God has planted for His people in the Old Testament, and that bears fruit in the New Testament. This means that the typical American evangelical treatment of the Old and New Testaments as almost separate Bibles is totally illegitimate and actually obscures the meaning of both Testaments. King Solomon was very aware of the unity of God’s dealing with His people when, at the dedication of the temple, he points out that “there has not failed one word of all the good promise which he promised through His servant Moses” (1 Kgs. 8:56). Solomon’s grasp of covenant theology is shown to be profound by his observation at this same dedication of the temple, that “God does not dwell in temples made with hands, for the heavens, and heaven of heavens cannot contain you” (1 Kgs. 8:27), but that the temple was a “house for God’s name,” in fulfillment of Deuteronomy 12:5,11.

Finally, these words of Solomon in 1 Kings 8:56 clearly state the infallibility and inerrancy of Scripture in the Old Testament, since not one word of God’s promise has failed. This view of Scripture is echoed in the New Testament in 2 Timothy 3:16 and 2 Peter 1:21. This view of Scripture is not just a theory that may or may not be true; it is an absolute necessity if we are going to deal honestly with God. Those who do not submit themselves to God’s Word will always find themselves in trouble. As Samuel said to King Saul, “To obey is better than sacrifice” (1 Sam. 15:22). On the other hand, those who hear and do indeed obey God’s Word in faith and action have the key to life, not just in this world but in eternity as well. You and I can say we believe in the infallibility of the Bible, as many do falsely, but when we actually believe and live that doctrine, the Scriptures are literally the bread of life for us. As Moses says in Deuteronomy 8:3, “So He humbled you, allowed you to hunger, and fed you with manna that you did not know nor did your fathers know, that He might make you to know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.”

The Importance of the Covenant Connection

One of the most arresting and important characteristics of Scripture is its perfect unity in teaching, prophecies, and principles. This is because God Himself is not only unchanging, He is a covenant God who keeps His covenant perfectly. A covenant is a relationship established by words of authority, and thus the words themselves are often called the “covenant.” God relates Himself with His people by a covenant, a relationship that carries out God’s love and grace for human beings “which were not a people but now are the people of God, which had not obtained mercy, but now have obtained mercy” (1 Pet. 2:10). It is important to see that while Peter speaks these words to Christians dispersed over the world, they originate in Hosea 2:23, where the prophet says, “And I will sow her to me in the earth. and I will have mercy upon her that had not obtained mercy, and I will say to them who were not my people, You are my people; and they shall say, You are my God.” The words that end this verse are the central expression of God’s covenant relationship with His people—“You are my people, and I will be your God.” Thus the covenant is one of ownership. God owns us, and we own (confess) Him to be our God. This is expressed initially in Heidelberg Catechism Q1, “That I with body and soul, both in life and in death, am not my own, but belong to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ. . . .”

All of the teachings, prophecies, and principles of Scripture agree perfectly because they are elements of the one and only covenant that God has made with His people. This unity of God’s covenant was expressed by John Calvin to be so complete that he declares that the differences between the Old and New Testament expression of the covenant “all belong to the mode of administration rather than to the substance” (Institutes bk. 2, chap. 1). Writing several years before Calvin, Heinrich Bullinger already expresses this same idea of the unity of the covenant of grace in his 1534 treatise, “The One and Eternal Testament (or covenant) of God,” which is a rather complete covenant theology. (The reader can also consult my own brief booklet entitled The Nature and Administration of the Covenant.)

The Christ of the Covenant

When we think of celebrating the birth of Christ, which, incidentally, we are invited to do by God sending angels to include the shepherds abiding in the fields in this celebration, we must see, confess, and rejoice in the fact that God sends Christ to be the “surety of a better covenant” (Heb. 7:22). In comparing the fulfillment of the covenant in Christ with the legal administration of the covenant under Moses, the writer of Hebrews repeatedly points out the superiority of this fulfillment in Christ. In so doing he points out that the Mosaic administration was only preparation and did not really save people from sin. The Mosaic administration “could not make him who did the service perfect, as pertaining to the conscience” (Heb. 9:9), while Christ “who . . . offered Himself without spot to God purge(d) your conscience from dead works to serve the living God” (Heb. 9:14). At the same time we need to understand that true believers under the Old Testament also did participate in Christ and His fulfillment of the covenant promise of eternal salvation. Calvin states this clearly, and we can see it on the basis of Paul’s comment in Romans 3:25, “because in His forbearance God passed over the sins that were previously committed.”

As we look at God’s successive revelations of the covenant of salvation throughout the Old Testament we notice two great themes. The first of these is that the covenant is always generational. The covenant is never just to one person or group in their own particular generation, rather it is always also for generations to come. Abraham’s seed would also be part of God’s covenant people; David’s descendants would rule over God’s people forever; and even in the case of Eve, it would be her descendant that would bruise the head of Satan.

The second great theme is that the covenant is always the revelation of God’s saving grace through a promised person, who Himself would be the seed, or descendant, of the covenant people. In the end, this person is always Jesus Christ, no matter how His identity is expressed in the revelation of a particular covenant administration where He is often represented by types, such as Moses, or David, etc. Thus, the various Old Testament covenant administrations all point to the Savior who will truly save His people from their sins, as the angel of God informs Joseph in Matthew 1:21.

A final important aspect of covenant administrations is that the subsequent administrations of God’s covenant of grace all build upon and contain the previous ones. As Jesus Himself said concerning the whole Old Testament, “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets, I did not come to destroy but to fulfill.” On that basis He says a few verses later (Matt. 5:19), “Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven.” In the same way, while God renewed His commandment for men to be fruitful and multiply after the flood, He said nothing about marriage, a law already in force since the Creation.

When we thus view Christ and His coming into the world as the fruit of the covenant of grace God began to reveal in the Garden of Eden after the Fall, we find a wealth of information about Christ already written down, but we also find a unity and power in God’s Word given over several thousand years that speaks volumes about God’s covenant faithfulness to His chosen people. The history of the world centers not in the great physical accomplishments of the great pagan societies of Egypt, Mesopotamia, or South America, but in the promises and dealings of God with His covenant people. Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of this covenant of grace. And so His life from birth to second coming is what history is all about, and this is the reason for a really merry Christmas. It would be hard to improve upon the words of Zacharias, the father of John the Baptist on the day of his son’s circumcision. He said,

“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel; for He hath visited and redeemed His people, and hath raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of His servant David; as He spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets, which have been since the world began: that we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all that hate us; to perform the mercy promised to our fathers, and to remember His holy covenant, the oath which He swore to our father Abraham, that He would grant unto us, that we being delivered out of the hand of our enemies might serve Him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before Him, all the days of our life” (Luke 1:68–75).

Rev. Robert Grossmann
Vermillion, SD

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