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Galatians--Part 13--Covenants and Testaments

Aug 20, 2010

In Galatians 3:15 Paul starts a new paragraph in his discussion of the two covenants.

(15) Brethren, I speak in terms of human relations: even though it is only a man's covenant, yet when it has been ratified, no one sets it aside or adds conditions to it.

Whenever men contract with each other, they cannot alter the contract that has been signed. They can only draw up a new one by agreement. However, if one violates the terms of a contract, the other party is not bound to fulfill his part of the contract either. For example, if I contract Joe to build me a house, but he builds a chicken coop instead, I am not bound to pay him the amount of money specified in the contract.

Paul was speaking here of a conditional contract, which is the most common type. This sets the stage for his discussion of the Old Covenant, which was a conditional contract. The Old Covenant (contract) specified that the people obey the Laws set forth through Moses. In return for their obedience, God would make them His "peculiar people" (Ex. 19:5). Other blessings are stated in Lev. 26:1-13 and Deut. 28:1-14.

Israel violated their agreement, of course, and so the Old Covenant was rendered null and void. God was not bound to bless them with salvation by that covenant. For this reason, an entirely new covenant was required in order to save them. God could not simply alter it by lowering its standards so that men might be able to meet its new conditions. This is why the New Covenant is not simply a revised Old Covenant. The Old Covenant has been made obsolete. The New Covenant is the unconditional Abrahamic Promise which came into effect when the Testator died on the cross.

Here too we see the distinction between a covenant and a testament, a distinction which has long been lost in the common language of the Church. A covenant is a contract between two people. Atestament (as in a "last will and testament") is a promise to bequeath a man's property to his heirs. Strictly speaking, Moses made a covenant with Israel, but God made a testament with Abraham and his seed, which came into effect when He died in the Person of Jesus Christ (Heb. 9:17). This is the connection between the Abrahamic Promise and the New Covenant established at the cross. I discussed this more fully in my book on Hebrews: Immigrating from the Old Covenant to the New.

Dr. George G. Findlay, professor of Biblical Literature, Exegesis and Classics at Headingly College in Leeds from 1881-1919, wrote this:

"The testament is a covenant--and something more. The testator designates his heir, and binds himself to grant to him at the predetermined time (iv, 2) the specified boon, which it remains for the beneficiary simply to accept. Such a Divine testament has come down from Abraham to his Gentile sons." [The Expositor's Bible, edited by W. Robertson Nicoll, 1940]

So who are the heirs of this promise to Abraham?

(16) Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. He does not say, "And to seeds," as referring to many, but rather to one, "and to your seed," that is, Christ.

There are at least two layers of meaning in this, though Paul does not explain this further. First of all, in Abraham's day there were two contenders for the inheritance: Ishmael and Isaac. This dispute was eventually settled in Gen. 21:12, when God said, "in Isaac shall thy seed be called."

The Hebrew word for "seed" is zera, which is a collective noun (as in English as well). The only way to know if it should be considered singular or plural is by the verb associated with it. In this case, the verb is singular, because it refers specifically to one man, Isaac himself. Isaac was also a type of Christ, and so this is also a reference to Christ Himself.

But the promise was also to the collective seed, because it was given to Isaac and to his seed, who would be as the stars of heaven and the sand of the sea in number. So it started with one seed, the Heir, and from him it continued to be passed down to his descendants.

So also with Christ, who is the Heir of all things. Though it is singular, the co-heirs of Christ are His children, His sons. Jesus was not married, and He had no physical children (though some try to say otherwise in order to place themselves as heirs on a physical basis). The only way to become a co-heir with Christ is to be one of His spiritual children.

When Paul says in Gal. 3:16, "and to your seed, that is Christ," he speaks on two levels. The wordchristos can be transliterated as "Christ," or it can be translated as "anointed." In this case, the word refers primarily to Jesus Christ who is the type of Isaac--the heir of the promise. Secondly, it refers to the seed which is anointed, the co-heirs with Christ--His children.

This verse establishes Isaac as the seed on a physical plane, with Ishmael excluded (and also his children through Kenturah in Gen. 25:1). Only Isaac and his heirs would be the physical inheritors of the promise in the Old Testament setting. But as we will see later in Galatians 4:22-31, Isaac had his counterpart in the New Testament, where Jesus Christ is set forth as the Heir, and all those of the New Jerusalem ("Sarah") are co-heirs with Him, excluding those who are of "Hagar" and "Ishmael." Paul equates Hagar to the Old Jerusalem, and Ishmael to the adherents of Judaism--and by extension the Judaizers as well.

Paul's epistle, after all, was designed to combat the Judaization of Christianity, with its national pride and its demand that the ethnos be circumcised and thus agree to the terms of the Old Covenant to perfect their Christian experience.

No doubt the Judaizers were telling the Galatians that God had seen fit to give the promise to Abraham, but that He also saw fit to give them Moses to complete and perfect the promise to Abraham. Paul reminded them in 3:2 that God had baptized them with the Holy Spirit, giving them "the promise of the fathers," without physical circumcision, as He did with Cornelius and the other Romans in Acts 10:47. Hence, to think that the Abrahamic Promise (testament) was conditional upon Moses was disproved by an act of God Himself.

(17) What I am saying is this: the Law, which came four hundred and thirty years later [after the Abrahamic Promise], does not invalidate a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to nullify the promise.

Here now we see more fully Paul's earlier point in verse 15 that the terms of a covenant, once ratified, cannot be altered. The Abrahamic Covenant had already been ratified in his day. One cannot say, then, that the terms were incomplete or that the Law of Moses must be added to it in order to complete it.

Likewise, the Mosaic Covenant cannot set aside the Abrahamic Covenant 430 years later. "When it has been ratified, no one sets it aside or adds conditions to it," Paul says in verse 15. Paul's logic is designed to refute the Judaizers' argument that the Mosaic Covenant either added something to the Abrahamic Covenant or replaced it altogether.

Paul was referring to the ratification in Gen. 15, as requested by Abraham in verse 8. The time frame of 400 years (vs. 13) dates from Abraham's seed being a stranger in a land that was not his. That seed was Isaac, who was born in Canaan as a stranger and pilgrim like his father. Isaac was born when his father was 100, precisely 400 years before the Exodus from Egypt. Thus, 430 years before the Exodus was when Abraham was 70 years old.

This is the thirteenth part of a series titled "Galatians." To view all parts, click the link below.


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Dr. Stephen Jones

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