Monday, January 29, 2007

Setting the Stage By Mike Horton

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I sometimes think that today's church will toss the Abrahamic Covenant aside because "that is in the Old Testament". But, this is the promise of God. We ALL need to understand and appreciate what God has done throughout all of redemptive history and how He has been faithful to complete it. God said to Abraham... "This I will Do..." So it was a covenant that would come to pass no matter what man does. Un-conditionally, God's covenant to Abraham will come to pass, and can ONLY come to pass no matter how well we mess things up.

Setting the Stage

Imagine the worship service as a magnificent theater of divine action. There is the pulpit, lofty and grand - this is God's balcony from which He conducts the drama. Beneath it is the baptismal font, where the announcement, "the promise is for you and for your children" is ful-filled. Also prominent is the communion table, where weak and dis-turbed consciences "taste and see that the Lord is good." That which God has done to, for, and within his people in the past eras of biblical history he is doing here, now, for us, sweeping us into the tide of his gracious plan.

This chapter briefly sketches the backdrop or stage for this divine production, taking the covenant renewal theme in Scripture as the start-ing point. What are we doing on the Lord's Day, especially when we are gathered as God's people in church? How do we understand Christian growth and discipleship - as chiefly corporate or individual, as nour-ished by the preached Word and the divinely instituted sacraments or by self-approved "means of grace"? Would an outsider coming into our worship services be immediately impressed with the centrality of preach-ing, baptism, and the Supper, or would he or she be more likely to notice the importance given to other performances, whatever the style?

The Covenant Renewal Ceremony

Central to a biblical understanding of worship is the notion of covenant. As biblical scholarship has shown in recent decades, the Old Testament is largely in the form of a treaty, with the great king or emperor promising to protect smaller nations that could not generate their own standing army. In exchange, the great king would receive loyalty from his vassals. They would not turn to other kings for security but would uphold the treaty. A covenant always involved three things: a historical prologue that gave the narrative rationale for the covenant, a list of commands and prohibitions, and a list of sanctions - the bene-fits for those who fulfill the treaty's terms, the penalty for violating them. To understand the context of worship, we need to do a bit of spadework with respect to this covenant motif.

In Eden, Adam was created by God to be the federal head of the human race. In him, humanity would either be confirmed in righ-teousness if Adam fully obeyed and endured the time of testing, or humanity would be judged in Adam, should he violate the terms of the covenant of works, also called the covenant of creation. "Do this and you shall live" was (and remains) the principle of this covenant. But this is, happily, not the only covenant in Scripture. There is the covenant of grace. We can trace the steps of this covenant of grace in the following brief summary.

Even after the fall, God promised Eve a son who would crush the ser-pent's head, and although Cain murdered Abel, God provided another son, Seth. While Cain's descendants were building their own proud city of rebellion (Gen. 4:15 - 24), "Seth also had a son, and he named him Enosh. At that time men began to call on the name of the LORD" (v. 26). Thus, the two cities (God's kingdom and the world's cultures), fully inte-grated in creation, were now divided, and they pursued two separate ends through distinct means. Jesus' warning that the world will hate his disciples and Paul's contrast between the wisdom of this world (works-righteousness) and the wisdom of God (the righteousness that comes by faith) are not born out of any hostility toward the world per se. Rather, it is the world in its sinful rebellion that the biblical writers have in mind.

After calling Abram out of Ur, God commanded a ritual sacrifice as a way of making the covenant. In fact, the Hebrew phrase is to cut a covenant. In ancient Near Eastern politics and law, a suzerain (i.e., great king or emperor) would enter into a treaty with a vassal (i.e., the king or ruler of a smaller territory) by cutting various animals in half. Then, walking together between the halves, both partners agreed to perform all the conditions of the treaty with the following sanction: If I should be unfaithful for my part, may the same end befall me as has befallen these animals.

In Genesis 15, when God makes his covenant with Abraham and his descendants, this ancient Near Eastern treaty is the pattern:

But Abram said, "O Sovereign LORD, how can I know that I will gain pos-session of it?" So the LORD said to him, "Bring me a heifer, a goat and a ram, each three years old, along with a dove and a young pigeon." Abram brought all these to him, cut them in two and arranged the halves oppo-site each other. As the sun was setting, Abram fell into a deep sleep, and a thick and dreadful darkness came over him. Then the LORD said to him, "Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a coun-try not their own, and they will be enslaved and mistreated four hundred years. But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions.". . . When the sun had set and dark-ness had fallen, a smoking firepot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces. On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram. verses 8 - 10, 12 - 14, 17 - 18

Two sorts of things are promised by God in this covenant: a holy land (Canaan, the earthly Jerusalem) and everlasting life (the heavenly Jeru-salem). What especially distinguishes this treaty is the fact that although God and Abram are covenant partners, the Lord (appearing as a smok-ing firepot with a blazing torch) walks alone through this path, placing on his own head all the sanctions and assuming on his own shoulders the curses that he himself has imposed should the treaty be violated. Then in chapter 17 there is another cutting ceremony:

Abram fell facedown, and God said to him, "As for me, this is my covenant with you. . . I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you.... This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you."verses 3 - 4, 7, 10 - 11

Signifying the cutting away of uncleanness, especially of original sin, which is passed on from Adam through every subsequent father, circumcision was a bloody rite of consecration. But here, instead of the knife being plunged into the body to bring down the curses of the transgressors, it is used to cut away the sin so that the recipient may live.

Taken from A Better Way by Dr. Mike Horton. Used by permission of Baker Books, a division of Baker Book House Company, copyright 2002. All rights to this material are reserved. Materials are not to be distributed to other web locations for retrieval, published in other media, or mirrored at other sites without written permission from Baker Book House Company. You can purchase A Better Way for a total of $20 by calling the Issues, Etc. resource line at 1-800-737-0172.
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