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We all know that sin stops us from inheriting the kind of world God the Creator envisaged for us—a world of peace, joy, righteousness, justice, and glory, not to mention communion with the Lord Himself.
God set the world in motion, permitting the Fall and the devastation that it has brought in its wake. He made covenants with man, signposts and promises to the better world that He still intends to bring about:
- The Noahic covenant establishes this post-flood world in perpetuity until the New Heavens and New Earth are made.
- The Abrahamic covenant ensures that the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob will always be a people before God, and that they will inherit a land (I tend to include the “Land covenant” here). It also makes provision for God’s blessing to be spread among the other nations of the world through Israel.
- The Priestly covenant promises the descendants of Phinehas (who would be Zadokites) that they would be granted an everlasting priesthood.
- The Davidic covenant promises that an heir of David will always sit upon his throne.
- The bi-lateral Mosaic covenant binds Israel to God in a theocratic relationship based on obedience.
We may grant that each of these covenants has elements which can be explored further, but for my purpose the descriptions above will do. I want to call attention to a startling fact. As they stand not one of these divine covenants can be entirely fulfilled! Their full realization is impossible. Granted, blessing has come to the nations in the Person of Christ, an Israelite, through the Abrahamic Covenant, but it has not come to them as nations. Furthermore, Israel is not in right relationship to God. The dynasty of David in Israel is absent a king, and nobody can claim that the pledge to Phinehas (however difficult it may be to comprehend) is being fulfilled. Yes, there will be no more global floods upon the earth. But when all is said and done, there can be no transition to the New Creation from this sin-cursed old one.
Within all these great covenants and their gracious promises there is nothing that can bring them to pass. They have no provision for salvation built into them. They stand as impotent in themselves as any prognostication from any false prophet in history.
Why so? What is the problem? The problem is and always has been “sin!” Sin gets in the way. Sin prevents the realization of God’s program for Creation. So how does God deal with sin?
We all know the answer. The answer is through faith in Jesus Christ. Good! Redemption is only through Him. Jesus Christ is the means of salvation for sinners. I might add here that the salvation of those saints who died before Christ is also wrought by or through Him, even if the content of their faith was not in a crucified Nazarene.
The New Covenant Deals with Sin
But there is a slight snag here. I have already shown, and will show again, that the New Covenant is particularly concerned with the question of sin and salvation. God can’t write his instruction on any mind and heart that has not first been changed (cf. Jer. 31:33). He will have to save men if He is to sanctify them (cf. Jer. 31:34). Further, we must ask what connection Christ’s sacrifice has to the covenants above? Since He has come and made the way of salvation plain, what is the hold-up? Why aren’t the unilateral covenants of God playing out now just as God promised?
Consider these verses which are usually identified with the New Covenant:
“The Redeemer will come to Zion,
And to those who turn from transgression in Jacob,”
Says the LORD.
“As for Me,” says the LORD, “this is My covenant with them: My Spirit who is upon you, and My words which I have put in your mouth, shall not depart from your mouth, nor from the mouth of your descendants, nor from the mouth of your descendants’ descendants,” says the LORD, “from this time and forevermore.” (Isa. 59:20-21)
They are aimed at Israel, just as Jeremiah 31 is. And the covenant mentioned in verse 21 has close affinities with Jeremiah 31:31-34. The wording is different but the sentiment is the same. But in Isaiah the Spirit is promised, exactly as He is in those accepted New covenant passages in Isaiah 32:15, Ezekiel 36:26-28, Joel 2:28f., and Zechariah 12:10.
Notice again that the covenant has to do with God’s Spirit, which also coincides with the arrival of the Redeemer to turn away transgression in Jacob. According to Paul, this passage awaits fulfillment (Rom. 11:26), so it cannot be connected with the first advent. The great promises of the other covenants are being held up, as it were, until the second advent. They depend upon it. When Israel receives the New Covenant the other covenants will be triggered.
An Initial Compilation
If we gather together the various elements of this passage and the work of Christ I have been discussing this is what we get:
- Israel as a nation needs to be saved
- Without Israel’s salvation the other divine covenants cannot go into full effect
- Salvation is wrought by Jesus Christ alone
- In order to receive Christ’s salvation one must believe in Him
- Believers receive the Holy Spirit
- When Israel’s sins are redeemed they receive the Spirit and are changed
- Christ’s salvation is connected with a covenant (e.g. Isa. 59:20-21)
- The salvation of Israel is connected to the New covenant (Jer. 31:31-34).
Alright, whatever the connection between Jesus Christ and the New covenant is, there is a great deal of overlap. I might even be so bold as to assert that Christ’s work is covenantal. But it’s all good. These passages are for Israel!
Isaiah 42 and Matthew 12
But we are not finished. We need to remind ourselves of what Isaiah has said in chapters 42 and 49, both of which concern Christ as “the Servant” of Yahweh. Matthew refers Isaiah 42:1-3 to Jesus.
that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Isaiah the prophet, saying:
“Behold! My Servant whom I have chosen,
My Beloved in whom My soul is well pleased!
I will put My Spirit upon Him,
And He will declare justice to the Gentiles,
A bruised reed He will not break,
And smoking flax He will not quench,
Till He sends forth justice to victory;
And in His name Gentiles will trust.” (Matt. 12:17-18, 20-21)
Matthew then adds, “And in His name Gentiles will trust,” which is not in the passage, at least directly. Yet it is what Isaiah is teaching. If we continue with Isaiah for a few more verses this will be seen:
He will not fail nor be discouraged,
Till He has established justice in the earth;
And the coastlands shall wait for His law.”
Thus says God the LORD,
Who created the heavens and stretched them out,
Who spread forth the earth and that which comes from it,
Who gives breath to the people on it,
And spirit to those who walk on it:
“I, the LORD, have called You in righteousness,
And will hold Your hand;
I will keep You and give You as a covenant to the people,
As a light to the Gentiles (Isa. 42:4-6)
The “coastlands” (‘iy) of verse 4 are almost certainly not the coast of Israel. The term refers to habitable land; to the islands and land masses. The “earth” (‘eretz) can and does refer to Israel, but not here. Its repetition in verse 5, where it is set in opposition to the heavens, together with the mention of the “peoples” (‘am), means that the context demands that the whole earth is being spoken of; and this provides the way for the explicit promise to the Gentiles in verse 6. Matthew sees this and summarizes it with “And in His name Gentiles will trust.”
The verses are about Jesus Christ. And they are about salvation being brought to the Gentiles. And they are about Christ being trusted by the Gentiles. And they are about Christ being called “a covenant.”
Which covenant could Christ be?
Paul Martin Henebury is a native of Manchester, England and a graduate of London Theological Seminary and Tyndale Theological Seminary (MDiv, PhD). He has been a Church-planter, pastor and a professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics. He was also editor of the Conservative Theological Journal (suggesting its new name, Journal of Dispensational Theology, prior to leaving that post). He is now the President of Telos School of Theology.