John (Part 26): Revelation of Messiah – Jesus to God (ch 8)
In verse 12, John mentions that Jesus spoke to them again. To whom does John refer? The scene just ended included Jesus speaking to the Pharisees, telling them that the one without sin should cast the first stone. And he could be calling to these Pharisees to give up their darkness and follow him. But the structure of this line seems to parallel Jesus’ invitation to the crowd in 7:38. There Jesus had called to the thirsty one. He said, “The one who believes in Me….” In 8:12, he says, “Anyone who follows Me....” These parallel statements indicate he has turned back to the crowd from the incident with the adulteress.
Notice that we see a pattern of response from the Pharisees. He taught in 7:14, and the Pharisees argued that he didn’t know the law. He called to the one that was thirsty in 7:37-38, and the Pharisees cursed the crowd, charging them with not knowing the law and then planned a legal trap to trip up Jesus. In 8:12, Jesus said he was the light of the world, and the Pharisees responded in 8:13 with a legal dismissal to Jesus’ claim. In all these cases, the Pharisees’ responses wielded the covenant as a legal hammer.
What made these Jews so uncomfortable with what Jesus was saying? They weren’t merely disagreeing. They wanted to kill him! The disagreement, then, was of vital, foundational importance to them. It rested on opposing views of their covenant relationship to God—the very heart of Jewish identity. Let’s examine these views.
God’s covenant plan began with Adam and Eve. Upon creation, God established his Covenant of Life with them (what we may also call the Adamic covenant). Of course, since we are created both as physical creatures and spiritual creatures, there are both physical and spiritual aspects to this Covenant of Life. God created for everlasting love relationship. And this spiritual purpose is shown in the sign of this covenant—the Garden. God had just made the earth. Everything was good. Why then establish a Garden for Adam and Eve? It was a sign to show them what kind of relationship they would have with him. The Garden showed God’s care and provision of truth, goodness, and beauty. They were told to trust in him for his provision. The Garden symbolized that community, security, and blessing given by God. But, of course, Adam and Even sinned. They withdrew their trust from God and placed it in themselves. They made themselves the adjudicators of truth, goodness, and beauty. They broke the covenant.
Life should be defined as relationship with God. As God made life, he made this relationship. And so, when Adam and Eve broke the Covenant of Life, they broke relationship. If relationship with God is life, breaking relationship results in death—separation from God. God knew this would happen, and immediately began a plan for the redemption of his image bearers.
This Redemption Plan included a series of covenants to return his image bearers to life—relationship with him. The first of the three dominant covenants of this plan was the Covenant of Prophecy—the Abrahamic Covenant. Prophecy is the word of God spoken through God’s messenger. We see that word provided in this covenant. God would renew relationship, and he would do so through his appointed messenger—the Messiah, the Word made flesh.
This covenant, like the Covenant of Life, also had a physical as well as spiritual sense to it. And God shows this in his two-fold establishment of the covenant. In Genesis 15, the covenant is first established with Abram (“exalted father”) and concentrates on physical characteristics of the covenant, while in Genesis 17, God changes his name to Abraham (“father of many nations”) to show the everlasting spiritual results of the covenant.
This covenant promises relationship. The blessings of the covenant—heritage, land, and blessing to the world—are seen in a physical sense through the offspring promised to Abram physically, and they are seen in a spiritual sense as the promised relationship will be effected through the Messiah (the seed of Abraham) who will make spiritual children of the world.
The obligations of this covenant were the same as those in the Covenant of Life. God obligated himself to provide and Abraham (as well as Abraham’s children) were to trust in God for that provision. In the physical sense, God would provide for the physical offspring of Abraham, and they would trust looking forward to the Messiah and to that relationship that would be established through the Messiah. The spiritual offspring would actually gain that relationship through the Messiah’s work.
The sign for this covenant was circumcision. The fact of having been circumcised showed that one did indeed belong to the covenant. But the very act, the cutting off of flesh, signified the spiritual sense of how the Messiah would accomplish redemption—by himself being cut off (Daniel 9:26) or, in other words, crucified in the flesh.
The next covenant in the Redemption Plan series was the Covenant of Priesthood—the Mosaic Covenant. At Sinai, God established this covenant through Moses, calling Israel to be a kingdom of priests, showing God to the world. The sign of this priestly covenant was the Law. In a spiritual sense, the Law was to show relationship. Every law that God gave spoke in an actual and/or figurative expression concerning aspects of relationship both with God and among his people. And return to relationship was the very point of the whole Redemption Plan. But pure, full relationship illustrated by the Law was not possible for the Israelites. As Paul said, God intended the Law to show them that pure relationship with him was still beyond them. They needed the promised Messiah to accomplish that relationship.
The third covenant of the Redemption Plan was the Covenant of Kingship—the Davidic Covenant. Israel had started out as a nation with no earthly king. Their king was God. And God the King’s interaction with Israel was through his messengers—his prophets. But during the time of the prophet Samuel, Israel began to clamor for an earthly king. Samuel was upset at this, but God told him that the people were not rejecting Samuel; they were rejecting God as king.
Saul became the first king, but God decided to remove Saul from that position for the important reason that Saul was not leading Israel as God directed. The important point there was that God’s idea of an earthly king for Israel would be a king that understood the ultimate reality of God being king. So the earthly king had to be a man “after God’s own heart.” David fit the bill. Although he was not perfect, his desire was to do and say what God wanted him to do and say as king. God promised him that one from David’s would reign on the throne of Israel forever. The one being from him was intended both in a physical sense (one from his line) and in a spiritual sense (one with the same heart desire). Of course, this looked forward to the Messiah. The Messiah would be king over God’s people while recognizing the true authority of God by doing and saying that which God told him to do and say (which is exactly what we see Jesus emphasizing in John’s Gospel).
These covenants of the Redemption Plan focus on the Messiah in their fulfillment because it would be the Messiah who would accomplish the purpose of the Redemption Plan—renewed relationship with God. By satisfying the death consequence for breaking the original Covenant of Life, Jesus made possible a New Covenant of Life in which those of faith could, in a sense, die with Jesus to their old broken heritage and be reborn (raised to newness of life) as his children. The sign of this New Covenant of Life in the physical sense is the bread and wine of communion, which we are told to practice in remembrance of this accomplished redemption of Christ. In a spiritual sense, the Holy Spirit fulfills this communion sign as he does the same reminding work of our redemption in Christ (Romans 8:16).
Here are the covenants as I’ve outlined:
COVENANT OF LIFE (ADAMIC)
Sign: Garden – (physical) food, land; (spiritual) community, security, blessing
Covenant of Prophet (Abrahamic)
Sign: Circumcision – (physical) belonging; (spiritual) cut flesh
Covenant of Priesthood (Mosaic)
Sign: Law – (physical) need for Messiah; (spiritual) relationship
Covenant of Kingship (Davidic)
Sign: Throne – (physical) Messiah’s Lord; (spiritual) Messiah is Lord
NEW COVENANT OF LIFE (MESSIANIC)
Sign: Communion – (physical) Bread & Wine; (spiritual) Holy Spirit
So, in Jesus’ earthly ministry, he taught of his fulfillment of the covenants, expressly for the purpose of bringing the people into this New Covenant of Life—this reestablishment of true relationship. But over the years, the Jews had gotten things mixed up. First of all, their concentration on the physical aspects of the covenant led to total ignoring and ignorance of the spiritual aspects. Secondly, they confused/merged the signs of the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants into the same sense, making both circumcision and the Law signs of belonging to the covenant community. In other words, circumcision and the Law were not means by which they got into relationship with God, but rather they were marks that they already were in relationship with God. Thus, while the Jews did look forward to the coming of the Messiah, they were not looking for a Messiah to rescue them and bring them into relationship with God since they thought through the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants they already possessed relationship with God. They looked for a Messiah only to rescue them from physical oppression.
This, then, was the conflict with Jesus. The Pharisees believed and taught that the Jews were already in covenant relationship with God. Jesus came saying no, they needed to follow him in order to come into true relationship with God.
But even this understanding has become distorted through the years. In the medieval Roman Church, while relationship with God (salvation) was understood as God’s gracious gift, the requirements that the Church put on people to receive this grace changed the flavor of a grace freely given according to faith to works required to receive grace. And it was to this that the reformers objected. They championed grace alone through faith alone. And that is quite true. However, in this objection to the Roman Church, they began to interpret Paul as meaning the same thing in his argument in his Romans epistle.
In other words, in Paul’s contrast of law and grace, the reformers decided that Paul meant for the Jews what they were thinking of the Catholic Church—that the Jews were trying to get to God through the Law rather than by faith alone. But as we learned in our run through of the covenants, the Jews mistake was not in trying to get into relationship with God by use of the Law, but rather that they thought they already had relationship with God, which the Law merely showed. But so prevalent was the reformers argument against the Church, citing proof texts in Paul, that reformed theology coming down through the years from that time has held on to the idea that Jews thought of the Law as a means to obtain grace rather than as a marking of already obtained grace.
Therefore, we need to spend a little time contrasting the ideas of Reformed Theology with the covenant review that I’ve given earlier that I call Kinship Theology.
As mentioned, Kinship Theology starts off with the Covenant of Life, which God made with Adam and Eve. God made this covenant for the purpose of developing and having a love relationship with his image bearers. The failure of Adam and Eve was in removing trust from God. As a result, instead of relationship with God (life) for keeping the covenant, their lack of continued faith in God brought about a breaking of relationship with God—separation from God—Death. In all aspects of this covenant, even in the nature of Adam & Eve’s failure and in the resultant consequence, we see the covenant purpose of love relationship highlighted. There is a relational aspect in all of this.
Reformed Theology (which traditionally encompasses Covenant Theology or Covenantism, aka Covenantalism) calls this first covenant the Covenant of Works. Although love relationship is not denied, immediately we see that some other type of relationship emerges as the dominant focus—that of a legal ruler-subordinate construct. The purpose of this Covenant of Works is a test of obedience, highlighting that legal focus. The failure emphasized here starts with the eating—the disobedience rather than the removing of trust. As a result, the legal penalty (rather than a failure of relationship) is emphasized. Again, while death, condemnation, and depravity are the results as understood in Kinship Theology as well, the focuses of the two systems are widely different. Kinship Theology (as the name implies) concentrates on the love relational aspect and sees purpose and consequence deriving from that. Reformed Theology sees a penalty assigned as a consequence of legal breakdown to a test of legal obedience.
We will continue with the comparison in the next installment.