An Everlasting Covenant

It is good if we are able to  see the Old and New Testaments as one book given to the church by God. If we do not already grasp this, then we must seek to rectify it. The fundamental thing is that God does not change. There are differences in the clarity of revelation: the New Testament is clearer than the Old, but both have one message, and that is the great provision that God has made for the salvation of His people. This provision is promised in  the Old Testament, and actually provided in the New. The best link between the Old Testament and the New  is the book of Hebrews. A key phrase is found in Hebrews 10:1, which tells us that the law has a “shadow of  good things to come, and not the very image of the things”. We must keep that word ‘shadow’ before us continually as we read the Old Testament, because there are in it many shadows, or foreshadowings of the Gospel, and especially of Christ. We sometimes call these shadows, ‘types’, but it is simpler for us, to begin with anyway, to think in terms  of shadows, or foreshadowings.

In Isaiah 55 verse 3, we have the wonderful gospel invitation: “Incline your ear, and come unto  me: hear, and your soul shall live: and I will make an everlasting covenant with you, even the  sure mercies of David”. The word “covenant” appears in the bible over 230 times, and yet the word and concept of ‘covenant’ has almost disappeared from the vocabulary and preaching of the church. This is a great loss. We hear much about God’s promises, but little about ‘covenant’. Some think that promise and covenant are the same thing. They certainly are related, but ‘covenant’ takes assurance  of salvation much further than promise. In Hebrews 6:17 we read of God’s desire to show His beloved people, the unchangableness of His purpose, which he confirmed to them by an oath. When God makes a covenant He is taking an oath: He is swearing by Himself because He cannot swear by any greater. We shall, in a moment, look more closely  at  the procedure involved in the making of a covenant, but first of all let us continue to consider God’s reason for giving His people more than a promise of the security of their salvation.

In Hebrews 6:18 we have the reason for covenant as well as promise: “That by two immutable things in which it was impossible for God to lie, we might have a strong consolation, who have fled for refuge to lay hold upon the hope set before us”. This shows us God’s loving concern that His people would feel doubly secure in their salvation. It is not that God’s promise was not in itself secure,  but that God in His love, and His understanding of human weakness,  goes, as it were, the second mile to assure them that their salvation is secure.

So when did this covenant oath come into being? In Genesis 15, we have one of the most awesome passages in the whole of scripture. Covenants were common in the ancient world. When two people entered into a contract where absolute trust was required, the ritual was that they slew some animals, cut them into pieces,  and divided the pieces into two heaps. Each of the participants then stood at opposite ends of the space between the two heaps, and at the climactic moment, they each walked in opposite directions through the space. They were each taking an oath that if either broke the covenant, they would be divided as the animals were, in other words, they would be killed. Now the amazing thing about what happened in Genesis 15 is that only God, made visible as a “smoking furnace and a burning lamp”,  passed between the pieces, and Abraham did not. God was saying, ‘If I break My covenant, I will cease to exist! I stake not just My honour, but My very existence on the keeping of this covenant’. How secure is the child of God? He is as secure as the very being of God Himself.

So to return to the wonderful invitation of Isaiah 55:3, the promise to all who come to God to receive His great salvation is “I will make an everlasting covenant with you”. God is saying to every sinner that comes to him,  ‘I bind myself to you in an eternal bond and I will stake my honour on securing your salvation’. God makes exactly the same promise to all who, in New Testament  times, receive God’s provision for their salvation in Jesus Christ. God does not change. All who were saved in Old Testament times were saved through faith in the coming Saviour. There is, never was, and never will be, any other way for a sinner to get RightWithGod.

 

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My Yoke

Our title comes from the well-known and greatly loved  text in Matthew 11: 28-30, “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and  learn of  me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” The phrase, “My yoke”, appears twice in these verses. A yoke usually speaks of the hard labour of pulling, a heavy load, but the Lord Himself tells us that His yoke is different. In verse 30, He tells us, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light”, and every one who has experienced Christ’s yoke has found this to be true.

It is very important to notice that He does not say in verse 20, ‘I will lay my yoke upon you’, but ‘take my yoke upon you’, which is a very different thing. The gracious call in verse 28 is to all those  who ‘labour and are heavy laden’. They are already by nature under a heavy, sapping yoke. What yoke is that? It is the yoke of sin, with its guilt and enslavement; and the irresistible ‘pull’ of the world, which promises so much, but delivers nothing. God, in His grace, sometimes makes that yoke very heavy to bear, and makes the sinner feel weary and heavy laden with it all. In this, God is preparing the way for the sinner to receive God’s remedy  in Christ.

The  strange thing about the remedy is that it involves exchanging one yoke for another. Christ promises to all that  come to Him that He will give them rest from the yoke which was upon them by nature, and which had become unbearably heavy; and He calls them to take His yoke in its place. Is there an intermediate space, or period, during which there is no yoke on the sinner at all? No, there is not, there must not be, there cannot be such a space. At any point, you have one yoke or the other. The moment of change is not exactly known to us, but there is  such a moment, when the new birth takes place. This moment is exactly known only to God, but it will not be long until we do know, because our affections and inclinations are different.

The change is a miracle, brought about by God, and yet it is something  in  which we are in full agreement with God. There is no coercion. The Westminster Confession puts this matter beautifully: they come to Christ, “most freely, being made willing by His grace” (Chapter 10, end of Paragraph 1). He calls us to take His yoke upon us, and we do so freely, gladly and joyfully.

Taking Christ’s yoke upon ourselves is the beginning of a wonderful journey of learning: verse 20, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn of Me”. What  will we learn? That He is “meek and lowly in heart”. But surely that will not take us long? My dear friend, it will take us not only the time we have in this life,  but the endless ages of eternity to explore it. How can that be? It can be, and is so, because Jesus Christ is God and man in one glorious person. This learning will have its effect on us in this life, in that we will become  progressively like Him, meek and lowly in heart.

In conclusion, let us remember that  the rest He promises and gives is not rest from the trials and afflictions of this life, but rest of soul. There will necessarily be some trials and afflictions for us in this life, but the rest which Jesus gives is the very real rest and peace of those who are RightWithGod through Jesus Christ.

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The Joy of being a Christian.

In John 15 and verse 11, Jesus says to His disciples, “These things have I spoken unto you, that my joy might remain in you, and that your joy might be full”. These are cheering words to those who are true believers, RightWithGod, and vitally connected to Him like the branches of a vine. As the branches in a vine gain their life from the vine because the ‘sap’ in the vine runs into them, and permeates them, so those who are true disciples of Christ gain their spiritual life from Him, because they are joined to Him, and His  life permeates the totality of their persons, soul and body.  They are true branches in the Vine which is Christ. They may, and do, still struggle with indwelling sin, which sometimes overcomes them, causing them great grief and misery, but even in these dark times they remain branches ‘in Him’, and over the whole piece of their lives they bring forth ‘much fruit’. Every true believer produces fruit.

But what is the ‘fruit’ that Jesus is speaking about? Many say that it is converts, people that they have been able to ‘lead to Christ’. Certainly it is an inestimable privilege if Christ uses us in this way, but it would surely be wrong to call it ‘fruit’ which we  had produced. It is surely His fruit, the fruit of His ‘travail’ (Isaiah 53:11): fruit which is the outflow from His suffering and death on the cross of Calvary. Let Him have  the glory, and let us be jealous for His glory, not for our own.

In that case, what is the ‘fruit’ that we bring forth as believers? It is surely progress in holiness. In Galatians 5:22,23, we are given the very  useful list of the ‘fruit of the Spirit’. Although it is a list of nine things, it is worth noting that the subject and verb in the introductory phrase are in the singular. The list itself is: “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance (self-control)”. This list is like a character sketch of Christ Himself. In Him all these things were gathered together to perfection. Should these things not also be developing in His people, although they will not reach perfection until they get to their eternal home in heaven, and are separated from all sin forever? Then they will be made perfectly holy as Christ Himself is holy.

In Ephesians 1:4, we are told that the aim of our salvation is that we should be holy: “According as He has chosen us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love”. Also, in Romans 6:22, we read about ‘fruit unto holiness’: “But now being made free from sin, and become servants to God, ye have your fruit unto holiness, and the end everlasting life”.  Surely this all points to holiness as the fruit that Christ desires to see in His children.

As we would expect, Satan has his cannons ready simed at any believer who sets his or her mind to progressing in  holiness. Satan’s strategy which he has used with great effect is to  convince  believers that a holy life is a dull life; but that  is a lie.  Pursuing holiness is the happiest life possible to man on this earth. In Jesus’ sermon in John 15:1-11, He  tells His disciples what should be the driving principle in their lives, and that is, that they should bear much fruit. That fruit is surely progress in holiness which, far from leading to a dull,  is the way to the most joyous existence we can have here. Jesus did not speak these words to His disciples to take away their joy, but to give them the greatest possible joy.   ” These things have I spoken unto you, that my joy might remain in you, and that your joy might be full”          ( John 15: 11).  It is in the pursuit of holiness that we really experience the joy of being a Christian. Note that He calls it ‘My joy’.  Not just ‘joy,’ but the joy that is in Christ Himself. Surely there can be no greater joy.

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“Without Natural Affection”

This phrase is found in Romans, chapter 1, verse 31. The chapter deals with ‘the  wrath of God revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness (verse 18)’. The chapter shows  how decadence does not just result in God’s judgement, but that the decadence itself is God’s judgement on those who intellectually reject the one true God: “They did not like to retain God  in their knowledge (verse 28)”. The decadence that resulted is quite simply frightening,  but it did not require positive action by God, but simply the removal of His restraint on their natural sinful tendencies. Nothing more  was required for the awful picture we have in the chapter to develop, and the picture is exactly what we now have in our western nations: extreme moral decadence. But let us not forget that it all resulted from the  intellectual rejection of God. We have come to ‘call evil good and good evil’, like those Isaiah describes in chapter 5, verse  20.

There is one phrase, however, that I would like to focus on is verse 31 in Romans 1: “Without natural affection”. It highlights something which we all come up against in our necessary  interactions with the world as we go about the routines of life. Many years ago, an unbeliever asked me the question, “Why are people the way they are?” She went on to describe some of the cold, uncaring attitudes that she encountered from day to day. I sympathised with her, and explained that the reason for these attitudes is laid out for us in the bible. I referred her to this chapter. I was thankful for the opportunity to do this, but it also made me realise that even unbelievers were troubled by the changes taking place  in society.  Let us take a  closer look at this very important phrase.

Firstly, the phrase itself tells us that there is in fallen man, even in his natural state, a precious thing called here, ‘natural affection’. How did such a lovely characteristic survive the fall? The reason is that, although the fall was catastrophic, it was controlled and restricted by God. Yes, man became depraved in all his properties and faculties, but not completely evil. This is what we call God’s ‘common grace’ towards the whole world. The result is that we live, not in a world of total evil, but of controlled evil, where even Satan cannot do all the evil he would like, but only what God allows.  Why would a righteous God be so kind to a world that had turned its back on Him? It is so that the situation that we find ourselves in, at least in the western world,  is one where the gospel can be preached, and christians are able to  live out their lives in holiness and service to their Master. This is something we must never take for granted, and we do not know when these freedoms will be restricted or even denied.

Secondly, more and more we see that this natural affection is disappearing from society. This disappearance is in parallel with the rapidly increasing intellectual rejection of God. This rejection may seem to be morally a side issue compared with  the practical decadence that we see, but it is not so. The root cause is the intellectual rejection of God, which is promoted by the media and even by the state.

 

 

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