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Two Covenants with Different Purposes

Feb 25, 2010

Ishmael was the son of Hagar, the Egyptian, who represents the Old Covenant. The sign of the Old Covenant was physical circumcision, and so Gen. 17:26 says,

"In the very same day Abraham was circumcised, and Ishmael his son."

There are two very different prophetic types represented by Abraham and Ishmael. Abraham was a type of the New Covenant, even though he lived in the context of the Old Covenant. This is because he had received by faith the promise of God many years before his physical circumcision, which indicates that Abraham was justified by faith apart from circumcision (Rom. 4:9-12). Paul says that true righteousness is reckoned by faith apart from "works," which in this case is connected to physical circumcision.

But in the case of Ishmael, the prophetic type is very different. He is to be contrasted with Isaac to show us allegorically two kinds of people--those who are products of the Old Covenant and those who are products of the New Covenant. Only one is the heir of the promise. One cannot inherit as a spiritual Ishmaelite. Paul tells us clearly that those who adhered to the old form of worship (i.e., Judaism), rejecting Jesus Christ as their Sacrifice for sin, were Ishmaelites. And these people continued to abide by the sign of that Old Covenant--physical circumcision.

Anyone who takes physical circumcision as a sign of the covenant is subjecting himself to the Old Covenant and will have to abide also by its consequences. Many, of course, are circumcised, not as a religious rite, but for other reasons, and this carries no spiritual effect. But it has become somewhat popular for Christians to become Jews in recent decades, and one requirement of this is that they subject themselves to physical circumcision. Of such people, Paul says in Gal. 5:3 and 4,

(3) And I testify again to every man who receives circumcision, that he is under obligation to keep the whole law. (4) You have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace.

This verse is often misapplied to those who seek to be obedient to God. It is actually referring to those who receive physical circumcision as an act of "faith" in the Old Covenant with the hope of becoming an heir of the promises of God. This religious rite puts people under the vow that Israel made at Mount Sinai in Exodus 19:8, "all that the Lord has spoken, we will do."

That vow sounds good--and indeed, it is a good thing to be obedient--but it was a response to what God had said earlier in verse 5,

(5) IF indeed you will obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine, (6) and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.

Note the first word, "IF." This makes it a conditional covenant. It was conditional upon their obedience to God. Israel was not "chosen," nor were they "a kingdom of priests" apart from their obedience to God. The problem with this is that it linked their "chosenness" to obedience, and so every time they sinned, they fell from grace. In fact, their death-ridden nature itself, inherited from Adam, prevented them from fulfilling their vow of obedience, for they were in a continual position of failure.

Thus, the moment Israel vowed obedience as a condition of receiving the blessings of God, they broke the covenant, for all had fallen short of the glory of God. Anyone who depended upon the Old Covenant for salvation (or justification) fell from grace the moment he made the vow.

So also with all those who receive the sign of the Old Covenant--physical circumcision. Paul's words were as applicable in his own day as they are to the Christian converts to Judaism in our own day. They have returned to the "yoke of slavery" (Gal. 5:1) as children of Hagar.

Do we then put away the law by faith? Paul answers this question in Rom. 3:31,

"Do we then nullify the Law through faith? May it never be! On the contrary, we establish the Law."

The Law is not the problem. The problem is the Covenant which defines the purpose of the Law. The Old Covenant links the law to Justification; the New Covenant links it to Sanctification. The Old Covenant imposes the law upon the carnal mind in the attempt to make men righteous by its commands and our acts of obedience. The New Covenant writes the same Law upon our hearts to make men righteous by changing the heart.

The Old Covenant puts the responsibility upon man to change himself by his vows and his self-discipline. The New Covenant puts the responsibility upon God and the Holy Spirit working within our hearts.

The New Covenant works in two phases. First, we are made positionally righteous by faith in Jesus Christ. This gives us an imputed righteousness, so that we do not have to wallow around in guilt during our training period. This training period takes us experientially through the feast days, beginning with Passover (justification by faith), followed by Pentecost (sanctification by obedience), and culminating with Tabernacles (glorification of the body and final perfection).

The final phase, then, comes with the fulfillment of the feast of Tabernacles, when our imputedrighteousness gives way to "infused" righteousness (if I may use a theological term). Paul discusses this fully in Romans 4, where he says that Abraham was imputed righteous by his confession of faith (4:3).

Paul's definition of imputation is found in verse 17, where God calls what is NOT as though it were. The example is that God imputed a multitude of children to Abraham though at the time he had no children at all. God was calling what was NOT as though it were. So also is it with righteousness by faith. Though we are not ACTUALLY righteous, God calls what is NOT as though it were and gives us righteous standing before the law.

Yet Paul also asks in Romans 6:1, "Are we to continue in sin that grace might increase?" Of course not, he says. Sin is the violation of the law, and no true believer willfully violates the law. Jesus Christ redeemed us from the debt to the law which we could not pay. He paid that debt with a horrible death on the cross. When we see the awful consequences of sin by looking at the cross, how could anyone even contemplate the wish to sin further?

His payment to redeem us took us out from under the law (that is, its decree of slavery in payment for the sin that we could not pay--Exodus 22:3). We came to be "under grace," which means that the Law has been satisfied and no longer looks upon us as lawbreakers (sinners). But this is no excuse to sin again, and Paul makes it clear that we should NOT take advantage of grace by indulging in continual sin.

This is the provision of the New Covenant, under which the children of Sarah live. Meanwhile, the children of Hagar remain in bondage, having rejected the idea that the Messiah came to pay the penalty for their sin. Ishmaelites continue to have confidence that they can be justified and receive the promises of God by trying to fulfill the Old Covenant vow of Israel that was made at Mount Sinai.

Anyone who has tried to attain righteousness by self-discipline knows the weight of bondage that this brings. One can never be good enough to have the assurance of salvation--even during our Pentecostal training period, where we enjoy the earnest of the Spirit.

God chose donkeys as a primary symbol of Pentecost because donkeys are stiff-necked servants-in-training. As their training progresses, they become oxen, the powerful servants that prepare the field (the world) to receive the seed of the Gospel.


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Dr. Stephen Jones


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