Friday, June 16, 2006

The Covenants of Promise

Therefore remember that you, once Gentiles in the flesh — who are called Uncircumcision by what is called the Circumcision made in the flesh by hands — that at that time you 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. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. (Ephesians 2:11-13)
Paul is speaking to believers who had once been Gentiles — that is, they were not of the Hebrews, but of the nations that surrounded the Hebrews, and considered pagans. They were called “uncircumcised.” Circumcision was the sign of the covenant God made with the descendents of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the Old Testament.

Remember when David asked, concerning Goliath, “Who is this uncircumcised Philistine?” He was not engaging in pre-battle trash-talk. He was properly assessing the situation: Goliath was uncircumcised; he had no covenant relationship with God, no right to expect any help from the Almighty.

Israel, on the other hand, did have such a covenant relationship. They knew God as Yahweh (a name expressed in our English Bibles by the name LORD in all or small caps). Elohim is the name by which God expressed Himself in creation; Yahweh is the name by which He revealed Himself in covenant. Israel have every right to look to God to rescue and provide for them in every way — though they often failed to exercise that right by putting their trust in Him.

But David remembered and asked his countrymen, “Who is the uncircumcised Philistine, that he should defy the armies of the Living God?” (1 Samuel 17:26). Then he proceeded to take Goliath’s head off — literally! He knew, because of the covenant and because he bore the covenant sign of circumcision — that God was on his side.

Now back to the uncircumcised Gentiles, which Paul’s readers once were. They were without Christ. The word “Christ” is a title, not a name. It is the New Testament equivalent of the Old Testament Messiah. In English we would say “Anointed One.” Jesus is the One who was anointed by the God of Israel to deliver His people. In Isaiah 10:27, we discover that the function of the anointing is to completely remove burdens and obliterate yokes and bondages. That is what Jesus the Anointed One came to do.

But the Ephesian Christians were once Gentiles and were without Christ. The Greek word generally translated “without” is a bit more intensive: they were apart from Christ, outside of Messiah, separated from the Anointed One and the anointings that could set them free from every burden and yoke.

Not only that, they were alienated, excluded from the commonwealth God had established with Israel. They had no rights of citizenship with Yahweh. They were strangers to the covenants of promise. They had no reason to hope in God and expect anything from Him. God was not on their side.

However, Paul goes on to write that little three-letter word that reverses all that has gone before, the word but.
But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
Gentiles were outsiders to the covenant Israel enjoyed under the Old Testament. But now in Jesus the Anointed One there is a New Covenant, just as God promised his people in the Old Testament:
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 I the day that I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, though I was a husband to them, says the LORD. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. (Jeremiah 31:31-33)
This is a new and better covenant and it is mediated to us by the Anointed One: “But now He has obtained a more excellent ministry, inasmuch as He is also Mediator of a better covenant, which was established on better promises” (Hebrews 8:6).

The old covenant was established by the blood of bulls and goats. But the New Covenant was established by the blood of Jesus, Lord and Messiah. On the Passover night before He was crucified, Jesus took the ceremonial bread and cup, saying,
This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me … This cup is the new covenant in My blood, which is shed for you. (Luke 22:19-20)
It is by this blood, shed for us, that we who were once far off from God and strangers to the covenants of promise have been brought near. That is, we now have a place and a promise and a citizenship with God, and it is found in the Lord Jesus Christ. In Him we have received a circumcision of the heart, by which God now says of all those who receive Jesus the Anointed One, “This is My people.”