'When is a covenant not a covenant?'
The covenant that God gave through Moses, signified by the ten words given on Mount Sinai, was doubtless a conditional covenant. God commanded His people; 'Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long upon the land which the Lord your God is giving you', which, Paul told the Church in Ephesus, is 'the first commandment with promise'. There was always the condition of 'if', 'then' as in Deuteronomy 28: 'if you diligently obey the voice of the Lord your God', 'that the Lord your God will set you high above all nations of the earth', but 'if you do not obey the voice of the Lord your God', then 'all these curses will come upon you and overtake you'. You may say, 'well, that was the Old Covenant; we're in the New Covenant era now, there is no more 'if'', 'then', but you would be greatly, even gravely mistaken!
Jesus told those Jews who had believed in Him, 'If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed' ( John 8:31 ); doesn't that sound kind of like what God told His people in the Promised Land? You could say that Jesus was telling them that they would have proof that they were His disciples if they kept His word, but 'then', the opposite is true as well; if they did not keep His word, they were not His disciples. This statement that Jesus made, came directly before that famous phrase, 'you shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free'. If they remember the 'you shall know the truth' part, they're doing better than most, because most commonly, Christians love to spout, 'the truth shall set you free'! This is actually a very correct statement; the Truth HAS set us free ( in fact, not too long ago; I wrote an article by that title )! When we quote this statement, though, we must remember that it is conditional as well; Jesus said 'If you abide in My word'. Knowing the truth, and the truth setting you free was conditional on abiding in His word, in Him!
The old, or as the writer to the Hebrews put it, 'that first [ covenant ]' ( 8:7 ) could almost, in that sense, be said to have been contractual, but, as Paul had written before, to the Church in Galatia, 'Therefore the law was our tutor [ to bring us ] to Christ, that we might be justified by faith' ( 3:24 ).
There is much talk today, especially with the rise of preterism, but not relegated to the realm of fulfilled eschatology, with antinomians crying 'no more Law!', but I believe we can see, with careful ( as opposed to careless ) study that, first, it was not the Law, which James calls the 'royal law', which was 'passing away', but rather , 'the world', and 'darkness' ( I John 2:8 & 17 ( I Corinthians 7:31 ), or, that 'first' ( covenant? ), which was 'ready to vanish away'.
'Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will by no means pass away.'
If indeed, and those antinomians are correct here; if indeed the ( Mosaic ) covenant, or the Law, had been merely a contract; it would necessarily have passed away with its fulfillment. Contracts, as a rule, DO have an end, but a covenant, on the other hand, implies a relationship! Sure, a relationship, of sorts, may be found, or formed, within the bonds of a contract, but a covenant is based on relationship, and not just upon a legally drafted agreement. When a contract is fulfilled between two ( or more ) consenting parties, though, that relationship is terminated. If the parties involved have formed a relationship through that contract, or within the limits of their agreement, then that relationship, as long as both are agreeable to the covenant that they have made together, may continue, but then it is no longer just a contract.
A contract, when it is broken by either party, most often ends, not with just a bad relationship, but usually with no relationship at all. As long as the offended party is satisfied, they usually go their separate ways, never pursuing any kind of relationship again. When a contract between two 'friends' is broken, this most often causes much grief and heartache ( or relief )! On the other hand, when a covenant is broken, as the covenant that God formed with His people Israel; because it is based on relationship, on love, it did not come to an end, but rather was re-formed, renewed, and finally revealed in the person of Jesus the Christ, the Son of God!
In a recent article, and actually, several past articles, we saw that, not only was Jesus prophesied to be given 'as a covenant' to the people ( Isaiah 42:6, 49:8 ), but that He was, in effect, the personification of the Law!
The Law itself, either as God gave it to Moses on Sinai, or it's summation, as Jesus gave in Matthew 22:34-40, was never meant to, and indeed, did not 'pass away'!
There is question, especially among those who have done much careful study of contract law and such ( I have not! ), as to whether the differences between contract and covenant are such as I have laid forth above, but I believe that I have given the gist of it; that covenant is based upon relationship, or friendship, whereas a contract is more stringently an agreement between two parties, whether a relationship existed before or not, wherein one party agrees to do this and the other agrees to do that.
A good way to put it is that a covenant is based in grace, whereas a contract is based solely in law!
This is not to say, as many Christians have wrongly assumed, that grace is antithetical, or opposed, to law. A good friend of mine has recently reminded us, in a series of sermons he is currently preaching on the subject of 'Covenant', that, beginning with the covenant with Adam, grace comes first. Even when it came to the Mosaic Covenant, the so-called 'covenant of works'; we must acknowledge that God showed grace first, in hearkening to the cries of His oppressed people, and secondly, in setting them free, liberating them from the bondage in which they had labored. After He had raised them from their chains; He gave them His Law, to guide them in how they ought to keep the covenant He had made with their fathers. We have already noted how Jesus, the Son of God, summed up His Father's words, telling His people how to live: love God, and your neighbor!
'For if that first [ covenant ] had been faultless, then no place would have been sought for a second. Because finding fault with them, He says: “Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt; because they broke My covenant, and I disregarded them, says the Lord.' ( Hebrews 8:7-9 )
The writer to the Hebrews, quoting what is written in Jeremiah 31:31-34, revealed to his readers that God did not grant a new Covenant because the covenant He first gave was faulty, but because the people to whom He gave it 'did not continue in' His covenant, so He promised a new Covenant that would be written, not on tablets of stone, as that 'first' covenant, which Paul called 'a tutor', but, God said, 'I will put My laws in their mind and write them on their hearts'. Jesus was and is the Covenant, as we have seen, that was written on the hearts of His people, and enthroned into their minds, or consciences!
By the Grace of the Covenant,
Charles Haddon Shank