The Present Truth : December 10, 1896
“Wherefore remember that ye being in time past Gentiles in the flesh, who are called uncircumcision by that which is called the circumcision in the flesh made by hands; that at that time ye were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world.” Ephesians 2.11, 12
An idea that prevails quite extensively is that God has one covenant for Jews and another for Gentiles; that there was a time when the covenant with the Jews utterly excluded the Gentiles, but that now a new covenant has been made which concerns chiefly, if not wholly, the Gentiles; in short that the Jews are, or were, under the old covenant, and the Gentiles under the new. That this idea is a great error may readily be seen from the passage just quoted.
As a matter of fact, Gentiles, as Gentiles, have no part whatever in God’s covenants of promise. In Christ is the yea. “For how many soever be the promises of God, in Him is the yea; wherefore also through Him is the Amen, unto the glory of God through us.” 2 Corinthians 1.20. The Gentiles are those who are without Christ, and so they are “strangers from the covenants of promise.” No Gentile has any part in any covenant of promise. But whosoever will may come to Christ, and may share in the promises; for Christ says, “Him that cometh to Me I will in no wise cast out.” John 6.37. But when the Gentile does that, no matter what his nationality may be, he ceases to be a Gentile, and becomes a member of “the commonwealth of Israel.”
But let it be noted also that the Jew, in the common acceptation of the term, that is, as a member of the Jewish nation, and a rejecter of Christ, has no more share in the promises of God, or the covenants of promise, than the Gentile has. That is only to say that nobody has any share in the promises, save those who accept them. Whoever is “without Christ,” whether he be called Jew or Gentile, is also “without God in the world,” and is a stranger from the covenants of promise, and an alien from the commonwealth of Israel. This text first quoted teaches us. One must be in Christ in order to share the benefits of “the covenants of promise,” and be a member of “the commonwealth of Israel.” To be “an Israelite indeed,” therefore, is simply to be a Christian. This is as true of the men who lived in the days of Moses, as of those who lived in the days of Paul, or those who live to day.
Some one will probably think to ask, “How about the covenant made at Sinai? Do you mean to say that it was the same as that under which Christians live, or that it was as good? Are we not told that it was faulty? And if it was faulty, how could life and salvation have come through it?”
Very pertinent questions, and ones that are easily answered. It is an undeniable fact that grace abounded at Sinai—“the grace of God which bringeth salvation”—because Christ was there with all His fullness of grace and truth. Mercy and truth were met together there, and righteousness and peace flowed as a river. But it was not by virtue of the covenant that was made at Sinai, that mercy and peace were there. That covenant brought the people nothing, although everything was there for them to enjoy.
The comparative value of the two covenants which stand related to each other as “the first” and “the second,” the “old” and the “new,” is thus set forth in the book of Hebrews, which presents Christ as High Priest, and contrasts His priesthood with that of men. Here are some of the points of superiority of our great High Priest over earthly high priests: —
1. “Those priests were made without an oath; but this with an oath by Him that said unto Him, The Lord swore, and will not repent, Thou art a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek.” Hebrews 7.21
2. They were priests but for a short time, because “they were not suffered to continue by reason of death;” therefore there was a continual change and succession. But Christ “ever liveth,” and therefore He has “an unchangeable priesthood.” Earthly priests continued to be priests as long as they lived, but they did not live long. Christ also continues to be priest as long as He lives, and He is “alive for evermore.”
3. The Levitical priests were made priests “after the law of a carnal commandment.” Their priesthood was only outward, in the flesh. They could deal with sin only in its outward manifestations, that is, actually not at all. But Christ is High Priest “after the power of an endless life”—a life that saves to the uttermost. He ministers the law in the Spirit.
4. They were ministers only of a worldly sanctuary, which man made. Christ “is set on the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens, a Minister of the sanctuary, and of the true tabernacle, which the Lord pitched, and not man.”
5. They were mere sinful men, as was shown by their mortality. Christ is “declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the Spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead” (Romans 1.4), and so He is “holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners, and made higher than the heavens.” Hebrews 7.26
Now “by so much was Jesus made surety of a better covenant.”11 Hebrews 7.22. The covenant of which Christ is Minister is as much better than that of which the Levitical priests were ministers, whose priesthood dated only from the making of the covenant at Sinai, as Christ and His priesthood are better than they and their priesthood. That is to say, the covenant of which Christ as High Priest is Minister, is as much better than the covenant that dates from Sinai, as Christ is better than man; as heaven is higher than earth; as the sanctuary in heaven is greater than the sanctuary on earth; as the works of God are better than the works of the flesh; as “the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus” is better than “the law of a carnal commandment;” as eternal life is better than a life that is but “a vapor that appeareth for a moment, and then vanisheth away;” as the oath of God is better than the word of man.
And now we may read wherein this vast difference consists: “But now hath He obtained a more excellent ministry, by how much also He is the Mediator of a better covenant, which was established upon better promises. For if that first covenant had been faultless, then should no place have been sought for the second. For finding fault with them, He saith, Behold, the days come, saith 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 continued not in My covenant, and I regarded them not, saith the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, saith the Lord; I will put My laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts; and I will be to them a God, and they shall be to me a people; and they shall not teach every man his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord; for all shall know Me, from the least to the greatest. For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness and their sins and their iniquities will I remember no more.” Hebrews 8.5-12
11 The reader will notice that the word “covenant” is used, as in the Revision, rather than “testament,’ as in the old version. The words “covenant’ and “testament,” as found in the common version of the Bible, are both from one and the same Greek word. Much confusion has resulted because the translators have arbitrarily rendered it “covenant” in some places, and “testament” in others. The rendering should be uniform; and since the reference is to that which in the translation from the Hebrew is always called “covenant,” that word should always be used. Let it be remembered that wherever in any translation of the Bible the word “testament” is found, “covenant” is the word that should be used. The rendering “testament” is utterly indefensible and is misleading.
The following facts must stand out very prominently to the thoughtful reader of this text: —
1. Both covenants are only with Israel. Gentiles, as we have already seen, are “strangers from the covenants of promise.” It is always admitted and even claimed that they have nothing to do with the old covenant; but they have even less connection with the new covenant.
2. Both covenants are made with “the house of Israel;” not with a few individuals, nor with a divided nation, but “with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah,” that is, with all the people of Israel. The first covenant was made with the whole house of Israel, before they were divided; the second covenant will be made when God shall have taken the children of Israel from among the heathen, and made them one nation, when “they shall be no more two nations, neither shall they be divided into two kingdoms any more at all.” Ezekiel 37.22, 26. But concerning this we shall have more further on.
3. Both covenants contain promises, and are founded upon them.
4. The “new covenant” is better than the one made at Sinai.
5. It is better, because the promises upon which it is founded are better.
6. Yet it will be seen by comparing the terms of the new with those of the old, that the end contemplated by each is the same. The old said, “If ye will obey My voice;” the new says, “I will put My laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts.” Each has reference to the law of God. Both have holiness, and all the rewards of holiness, as the object. In the covenant at Sinai it was said to Israel, “Ye shall be unto Me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation.” Exodus 19.6. That is just what God’s own people really are, “a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people.” 1 Peter 2.5, 9
But the promises of that covenant at Sinai were never realized, and for the very reason that they were faulty. The promises of that covenant all depended upon the people. They said, “All that the Lord hath spoken, we will do.” Exodus 19.8; 24.7. They promised to keep His commandments, although they had already demonstrated their inability to do anything themselves. Their promises to keep the law, like the law itself, were “weak through the flesh.” Romans 8.3. The strength of that covenant was therefore only the strength of the law, and that is death.
Why the Covenant at Sinai?
Why, then, was that covenant made? —For the very same reason that the law was spoken from Sinai; “because of transgression.” The Lord says it was “because they continued not in My covenant.” They had lightly esteemed the “everlasting covenant” which God had made with Abraham, and therefore He made this one with them, as a witness against them.
That “everlasting covenant” with Abraham was a covenant of faith. It was everlasting, and therefore the giving of the law could not disannul it. It was confirmed by the oath of God, and therefore the law could not add anything to it. Because the law added nothing to that covenant, and yet was not against its promises, it follows that the law was contained in its promises. The covenant of God with Abraham assured to him and his seed the righteousness of the law by faith. Not by works, but by faith.
The covenant with Abraham was so ample in its scope that it embraced all nations, even “all the families of the earth.” It is that covenant, backed by the oath of God, by which we now have confidence and hope in coming to Jesus, in whom it was confirmed. It is by virtue of that covenant, and that alone, that any man receives the blessing of God, for the cross of Christ simply brings the blessing of Abraham upon us.
That covenant was wholly of faith, and that is why it assures salvation, since “by grace are ye saved, through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not of works, lest any man should boast.” The history of Abraham makes very emphatic the fact that salvation is wholly of God, and not by the power of man. “Power belongeth unto God” (Psalm 62.11); and the Gospel is “the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth.” Romans 1.16. From the case of Abraham, as well as that of Isaac and of Jacob, we are made to know that only God Himself can fulfill the promises of God. They got nothing by their own wisdom or skill or power; everything was a gift from God. He led them, and He protected them.
This is the truth that had been made most prominent in the deliverance of the children of Israel from Egypt. God introduced Himself to them as “The Lord God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (Exodus 3.15); and He charged Moses to let them know that He was about to deliver them in fulfillment of His covenant with Abraham. God spake unto Moses, and said unto him:
“I am JEHOVAH; and I appeared unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob as God Almighty, but by My name Jehovah I was not known to them. And I have also established My covenant with them, to give them, to give them the land of Canaan, the land of their sojourning, wherein they sojourned. And moreover I have heard the groanings of the children of Israel, whom the Egyptians keep in bondage, and I have remembered My covenant. Wherefore say unto the children of Israel, I am Jehovah, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will rid you out of their bondage, and I will redeem you with a stretched out arm, and with great judgments; and I will take you to Me for a people, and I will be to you a God; and ye shall know that I am Jehovah your God, which bringeth you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians. And I will bring you in unto the land, concerning which I lifted up My hand to give it to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob; and I will give it you for an heritage; I am Jehovah.” Exodus 6.2-8, R.V.
Read now again the words of God just before the making of the covenant at Sinai: —
“Thus shalt thou say to the house of Jacob, and tell the children of Israel: Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians, and how I bare you on eagle’s wings, and brought you unto Myself. Now therefore, if ye will obey My voice indeed, and keep My covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto Me above all people; for all the earth is Mine; and ye shall be unto Me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation.” Exodus 19.4-6
Note how God dwelt upon the fact that He Himself had done all that had been done for them. He had delivered them from the Egyptians, and He had brought them to Himself. That was the thing, which they were continually forgetting, as indicated by their murmurings. They had even gone so far as to question whether the Lord was among them or not; and their murmurings always indicated the thought that they themselves could manage things better than God could. God had brought them by the mountain pass to the Red Sea, and into the desert where there was no food nor drink, and had miraculously supplied their wants in every instance, to make them understand that they could live only by His word.” Deuteronomy 8.3
The covenant, which God made with Abraham, was founded on faith and trust. “Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto Him for righteousness.” So when God, in fulfillment of that covenant, was delivering Israel from bondage, all His dealing with them was calculated to teach them trust in Him, so that they might in truth be the children of the covenant.
The Lesson of Trust
Their response of Israel was self-confidence. Read the record of their distrust in God in Psalm 106. He had proved them at the Red Sea, in the giving of the manna, and at the waters of Meribah. In every place they had failed to trust Him perfectly. Now he comes to prove them once more, in the giving of the law. As we have already learned, God never intended that men should try to get righteousness by the law, or that they should think such a thing possible. In the giving of the law, as shown by all the attendant circumstances, He designed that the children of Israel, and we also, should learn that the law is infinitely above the reach of all human effort, and to make it plain that, since the keeping of the commandments is essential to the salvation which He has promised, He Himself will fulfill the law in us. These are the words of God: “Hear, O My people, and I will testify unto thee; O Israel, if thou wilt hearken unto Me, there shall no strange God be in thee, neither shalt thou worship any strange god.” Psalm 81.8, 9. “Incline your ear, and come unto Me; hear, and your soul shall live.” Isaiah 55.3. His word transforms the soul from the death of sin to the life of righteousness, even as it brought forth Lazarus from the tomb.
A careful reading of Exodus 19.1-6 will show that there is no intimation that another covenant was then to be made. Indeed, the evidence is to the contrary. The Lord referred to His covenant, —the covenant long before given to Abraham, —and exhorted them to keep it, and told what would be the result of their keeping it. The covenant with Abraham was, as we have seen, a covenant of faith, and they could keep it simply by keeping the faith. God did not ask them to enter into another covenant with Him, but only to accept His covenant of peace, which he had long before given to the fathers.
The proper response of the people therefore would have been, “Amen, even so, O Lord, let it be done unto us according to Thy will.” On the contrary they said, “All that the Lord hath spoken we will do;” and they repeated their promise, with additional emphasis, even after they had heard the law spoken. It was the same self-confidence that led their descendants to say to Christ, “What shall we do, that we might work the works of God?” Think of mortal men presuming to be able to do God’s work! Christ answered, “This is the work of God, that ye believe on Him whom He hath sent.” Even so it was in the desert of Sinai, when the law was given and the covenant made.
They’re assuming the responsibility of working the works of God, showed lack of appreciation of His greatness and holiness. It is only when men are ignorant of God’s righteousness, that they go about to establish their own righteousness, and refuse to submit themselves to the righteousness of God. See Romans 10.3. Their promises were good for nothing, because they had not the power to fulfill them. The covenant, therefore, which was based on those promises was utterly worthless, so far as giving them life was concerned. All that they could get from that covenant was just what they could get from themselves, and that was death. To trust in it was to make a covenant with death, and to be in agreement with the grave. Their entering into that covenant was a virtual notification to the Lord that they could get along very well without Him; that they were able to fulfill any promise He could make.
But God did not give them up, “for He said, surely they are My people, children that will not lie; so He was their Saviour.” Isaiah 63.8. He knew that they were moved by impulse in making that promise, and that they did not realize what it meant. They had zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. He had brought them out of the land of Egypt, that He might teach them to know Him, and He did not become angry with them because they were so slow to learn the lesson. He had borne with Abraham when he thought that he could work out God’s plans, and He had been very patient with Jacob when he was so ignorant as to suppose that God’s promised inheritance could be gained by sharp bargains and fraud. So now He bore with their children’s ignorance and lack of faith, in order that He might afterwards bring them to the faith.
The Divine Compassion
God meets men just where they are. He has “compassion on the ignorant, and on them that are out of the way.” Hebrews 5.2. He is always and everywhere seeking to draw all men to Himself, no matter how depraved they are; and therefore when He discerns even the faintest glimmer of a willingness or desire to serve Him, He at once nourishes it, making the most of it He can to lead the soul to greater love and more perfect knowledge. So although the children of Israel had failed in this supreme test of their trust in Him, He took advantage of their expressed willingness to serve Him, even though it was only in “their own weak way.” Because of their unbelief they could not have all that He wished them to have; but that which they did get through their lack of faith was a continual reminder of what they might have if they fully believed. Because of their ignorance of the greatness of His holiness, which ignorance was expressed by their promise to do the law, God proceeded, by the proclamation of the law, to show them the greatness of His righteousness, and the utter impossibility of their working it out.