A Better Covenant
We all like “better” don’t we? No, not butter, BETTER. We may or may not like butter, but we certainly like better. In fact, I think it may be in our DNA. We scramble over one another in a sale to get something better. We search the Internet for something better. We want a better product, a better deal, a better seat, a better home, a better job, a better anything. And, importantly, we know what makes our better “whatever-it-is”, better than the rest. We know our better in detail. It’s bigger, its quicker, it’s got more of this, or added that. It does that, yes, but it also does this! We know just how it’s better; and, if you give us half a chance, we’ll be able to bore you silly telling you, in graphic detail, just why it is so much better.
Well, this morning, Phil has given me that half a chance, so I’m going to seize the opportunity to tell you all about my better. However, I very much hope I’m not going to bore you, and I don’t think I will, because there’s a very good chance in fact, that we both already share that very same better.
So, you’re thinking, “What the Dickens are you talking about now Barry? How can I relax into my usual Sunday morning reverie with you deliberately stirring up my curiosity? Well, perhaps that’s my point really. So here goes.
But, before I come to my better, I do need to point out that the previous model was quite something itself. When I remind you about that, I think you’ll really begin to appreciate how superlative my better really is. So hold tight – here we go!
Squeezed between two horrendous lists of curses for those who fail to qualify, Deuteronomy 28 provides a package of Old Covenant blessings that frankly are mouth-wateringly desirable. You can read the full list for yourself in Deuteronomy 28:1-14, but for the sake of time and so as not to get you over-excited, I’ll just give you some of the highlights. “You will be blessed in the city and blessed in the country. The fruit of your womb will be blessed, and the crops of your land and the young of your livestock—the calves of your herds and the lambs of your flocks. Your basket and your kneading trough will be blessed. You will be blessed when you come in and blessed when you go out. The LORD will grant that the enemies who rise up against you will be defeated before you. They will come at you from one direction but flee from you in seven. The LORD will send a blessing on your barns (and here’s, my special favourite . . .) and on everything you put your hand to….” (Deuteronomy 28:3–8)
That’s pretty good isn’t it? For an OLD Covenant, that’s quite respectable, I think you’ll agree. If there wasn’t anything else, I don’t know about you, but I’d call that a good deal – a very good deal!
But of course, good as this Old Covenant undoubtedly is, I’m here to remind us all today that there IS something better. If you want proof, listen to Hebrews 7:22 “. . . Jesus has become the guarantee of a BETTER covenant.” And Hebrews 8:6 confirms that, it says: “But the ministry Jesus has received is as superior to theirs (that’s the Old Covenant High Priests) as the covenant of which he is mediator is SUPERIOR to the old one, and it is founded on BETTER promises. That’s game, set and match! The New Covenant is fundamentally BETTER than the Old Covenant.
Now of course to be better, I think we can take it as read that if something good is provided in the Old Covenant it has to be there or improved on in the New Covenant or we couldn’t really say it was better. So we can safely assume that the New Covenant, which is the basis on which you and I are admitted to God’s family, the basis on which we have been “redeemed” and have received “adoption to sonship” as Galatians 4:4-5 tells us, is distinctly and emphatically BETTER than the Old version. So you and I have definitely fallen on our feet, if we have come into God’s family on the basis of this better covenant. And, if you haven’t yet done that, don’t leave here today without first finding out how you can.
Now there is something vital for us to grasp about covenants and that is that covenants, and the two we’re considering today are no exception, are conditional. You have to do something; you have to do your part in order to benefit from them. Covenants are conditional – you do your bit and you get what’s promised. Don’t do your part and you’ll miss out on the benefits that the covenant offers.
In the case of the Old Covenant those brilliant blessings that I read earlier were prefixed by a very significant sentence. Deuteronomy 28:1 begins with the words: “If”, notice that, “IF” this covenant is conditional on us doing something, “If you fully obey the LORD your God and carefully follow all his commands I give you today, the LORD your God will set you high above all the nations on earth.” And then it goes on to detail the benefits that will follow. This Old Covenant is predicated then on us being obedient. IF we’re obedient we get the blessings promised. If we’re not obedient, we don’t get the blessings. Actually, it’s worse than that because Deuteronomy 28: 15 says: “However, if you do not obey the LORD your God and do not carefully follow all his commands and decrees I am giving you today, all these CURSES will come upon you and overtake you:” and then goes on to enumerate a whole bunch of very nasty consequences.
But notice too, that the BETTER New Covenant is also conditional. In Galatians 3:13-14 Paul says: “He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that BY FAITH we might receive the promise of the Spirit.” And Abraham’s blessing, which, of course, is righteousness by faith rather than works, is the essence of our New Covenant. So the blessings of this New Covenant are predicated, not on obedience but on the exercise of our faith in what Christ has done for us.
Now that’s not to say incidentally that obedience is not involved at all in the New Covenant, it clearly is. In fact, it is manifested in what’s called the “obedience of faith” – but that’s a sermon for another day.
So, let’s address the key question: Why is the New Covenant better than the Old Covenant?
Well the first thing to say is that this is a huge subject that we can’t hope to do justice to in just a few minutes this morning, especially as I want us also to look at how we can benefit personally as Christians from the New Covenant Jesus has provided for us. So let me just give you a flavour, a taste, a precis of just some of the ways in which the New Covenant trumps the Old Covenant.
1. Firstly, the Old Covenant is a works based covenant. We have to be “good enough” to deserve its blessings. It’s an “if you” covenant. If you perform, you will be blessed. “Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant,” says Exodus 19:5 “then . . . you will be my treasured possession.” But the New Covenant is a grace based covenant. It is based not on what we do or deserve but solely on our faith in what God has already done for us. God is not saying to us in the New Covenant, “if you”, He is saying “I will”, as in Hebrews 8:10 “This is the covenant I will make . . . declares the Lord. I WILL put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts. I WILL be their God, and they will be my people.”
2. Secondly, dutifully meeting all the requirements of the Old Covenant still leaves us at a distance from God and mediated by priests. But the New Covenant opens the door to a personal relationship with God for every one of us. Speaking of the New Covenant Hebrews 8:11 says: “No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.” Amazingly then, the New Covenant allows everyone who comes by faith, to come into an intimate and close personal relationship with God.
3. Then thirdly, the Old Covenant does nothing to really resolve our sin problem. The offerings and sacrifices of the Old Covenant had to be repeated year on year, didn’t they? They could not permanently deal with our sins. Why? Because as it says in Hebrews 10:4 “. . . it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. But the New Covenant provides a one-time, perfect, sinless sacrifice by Christ that deals with the punishment for ALL of our sins for ALL time. As Hebrews 10:14 says: “... by one sacrifice he has made perfect FOREVER those who are being made holy”.
So the New Covenant is clearly head and shoulders above the Old and its life transforming blessings are available to everyone and anyone prepared to receive them by faith.
The significant thing though, and key thing I want us to register and focus on today, is that while the Old Covenant is conditional on obedience and the New Covenant is conditional on faith in Christ’s perfect sacrifice, there is in fact another condition to receiving the blessings that are promised in these covenants.
In Deuteronomy 29:9 it says: “Carefully follow the terms of this covenant, so that you may prosper in everything you do.” Now, whilst this is speaking of the Old Covenant, it clearly applies in fact to any covenant, new, old or in-between! Covenants are conditional, and we need to meet the conditions - obedience, faith or whatever, if we are to benefit from them. I actually like the Message version of that verse, it puts it this way: “Diligently keep the words of this Covenant. DO what they say so that you will live well and wisely in every detail.” The “DO” word there is the clue to the missing ingredient to benefitting from covenant promises - because, whenever we “DO” something, our WILL is involved.
Before obedience can operate to unlock Old Covenant blessings, and before faith can operate to unleash the BETTER New Covenant blessings, our WILL must kick in. We have to say, “I will obey” to see the fruits of the Old Covenant. We have to say “I will believe, I will have faith in Christ” to taste the bounties of the New Covenant.
In a sense then, the real key to our part in seeing the blessings God promises us, is the operation of our will, not obedience alone or faith alone. It is our decision to obey or our decision to believe.
• Before an act of OBEDIENCE there must be, a commitment, of our WILL.
• Before the operation of our FAITH there must be, a commitment of our WILL.
Genesis 1:27 tells us “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” We are created like God, and one of God’s pre-eminent characteristics is His autonomous will. The creation account is full of the exercise of God’s will expressed through His creative word. “And God said, “Let there be light” and there was light.” says Genesis 1:3 and so on throughout the work of creation God’s word is expressing His autonomous and creative will. And we are made from the same blueprint. To activate and initiate God’s purposes in our lives; to step into the blessings of the better covenant that Jesus has guaranteed for us; we must exercise our will, or we’ll miss out.
There is a passage in Deuteronomy, chapter 30:11–20 that shows clearly that whatever we may think, whatever our personal experience has been thus far, and many of us really struggle in this area, God’s view is that we can use our will to establish His purposes in our lives. In that passage God says some vital things in relation to our will that we need to take to heart so that we can really enjoy the blessings of the faith based Better Covenant that we have been brought into.
Let me pick out just a few crucial elements from that passage.
• First, God knocks on the head the common self-deception that our lack of will-power makes meeting the conditions of God’s new covenant IMPOSSIBLE. In verse 11 he plainly declares: “Now what I am commanding you today is NOT too difficult for you or beyond your reach.”
• Secondly, in verse 14 God rejects our common complaint that His purposes are INACCESSIBLE to us because we don’t really know what we should be doing, by declaring: “No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it.”
• And finally, God brushes aside our claims that His purposes are INDECIPHERABLE, by telling us explicitly both what to do, saying in verse 16: “For I command you today to love the LORD your God, to walk in his ways, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws;” and then spelling out how we should do it, by saying in verse 19: “This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now CHOOSE life ...” – or, “use your WILL” to bring it about!
So, if God says that using our WILL in addition to our FAITH to see our lives transformed is not IMPOSSIBLE, not INACCESSIBLE and not INDECIPHERABLE, we really have no excuse at all for not using our will to “choose life”, and open the door to all the blessings of this New Covenant He has made with us.
But let me finish this morning by taking us into the New Testament and looking very briefly at one incident in Jesus’ ministry. We find it in John 5:2–9. “Now there is in Jerusalem near the Sheep Gate a pool, which in Aramaic is called Bethesda and which is surrounded by five covered colonnades. 3 Here a great number of disabled people used to lie—the blind, the lame, the paralyzed. 5 One who was there had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. 6 When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, he asked him, “Do you want to get well?” 7 “Sir,” the invalid replied, “I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. While I am trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me.” 8 Then Jesus said to him, “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.” 9 At once the man was cured; he picked up his mat and walked.”
Notice first, that this poor man had been an invalid for 38 years. That’s a very, very long time. All through that time he had again and again and again hoped to be healed, hoped to get out of his difficult and frustrating situation, hoped to get into the pool first and be healed. But each time he’d failed. Failure had become a permanent feature of his experience and he had now resigned himself to it.
Second, he spent his days continually surrounded by sickness; by his own failure; and by the failure of the others around him. No doubt, the daily conversations with those beside him just re-enforced the hopelessness of their situation. They were failing and he was failing, and whatever they wanted, whatever they did, failed to come to anything. A great cloud of negativity and doubt must have filled and consumed their waking lives.
Finally, think about this man’s personal testimony – it was a catalogue of hopelessness – it squeezed out ALL POSSIBILITY of an escape from his current hopeless state of failure (and some of us have been there!):
• “I’ve been a cripple, an invalid for 38 years”
• “I am helpless to get into the pool by myself”
• “There is no one to help me when the waters are stirred”
But just listen to what Jesus asks him in verse 6, he says: “Do you want to get well?” Or as the Authorised Version puts it, “Wilt thou be made whole? “ Jesus was establishing the position of this man’s WILL at this moment of time. Why? Because just as a lack of faith can stop God from working miracles in our lives – (remember how the Word tells us of Jesus that in his home town of Nazareth “. . . he did not do many miracles there because of their lack of faith. Matthew 13:58) – so too, we cannot receive from God if we refuse or fail to use our will as well as our faith to receive it. To come into all the riches of this better New Covenant, we must come with faith AND with a readiness to use our will. And clearly, the response of this man to his encounter with Jesus, was a response of both his FAITH and his WILL, and it transformed his life from despair to overwhelming joy in an instant.
• To receive salvation we must have faith, yes, but we must also exercise our will to receive it – think about your own experience of coming to Christ and I’m sure you’ll agree. We did take a step of faith and it was our will that made it happen.
• To receive the Holy Spirit baptism we must have faith, yes, but we must also exercise our will to receive it.
• To overcome besetting sins in our lives we must have faith but we must also exercise our will to see it come to pass.
• To share the gospel with others we must have faith but we must also exercise our will to make it happen.
• To develop a powerful personal prayer life we must have faith but we must also exercise our will to make it happen.
• To operate in the gifts of the Holy Spirit we must have faith but we must also exercise our will to make it happen.
The New Covenant that you and I have been brought into through Jesus is BETTER. It’s a great deal BETTER- it’s PHENOMENALLY BETTER than the Old one. It has more benefits and blessings than even Moses could shake a stick at! But the sad thing is that so often we treat our New Covenant like an unread insurance policy. The premium has been fully paid; we are comprehensively covered; but because we haven’t studied it carefully enough we don’t realise that to make a claim we must use both our faith and our will and so its benefits can be completely lost on us.
We can feel abandoned and separated from God but our New Covenant declares in Hebrews 13:5: “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.”
We can be consumed with our guilt and shame but in our New Covenant God tells us in Hebrews 8:12 “. . . I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”
We can make our lives miserable, with a slavish and self-imposed regime of rules and regulations but our New Covenant announces in Ephesians 2:5 “. . . it is by grace you have been saved.”, and in John 8:36 “. . . if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”
We can even doubt our calling from God because of our sin and failure, but our New Covenant tells us in 2 Corinthians 1:21–22 that “He anointed us, set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.
The message for every one of us this morning is that we need to read and really get to know and understand the small print of the BETTER New Covenant that God has made with each of us. And we also need to start not only to believe it but also to exercise our WILL and work with God to see it transform our lives.
This is the way, not only to benefit personally, but also it is the way to bring GLORY to the One who invites us to share and enjoy this BETTER COVENANT of GRACE.