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The Transformational Gospel of Jesus #25: What difference does a covenant make?

And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.” -Luke 22:19-20

Most of you who will read this blog are not from a covenant making society. This lack of social context causes a lot of confusion about what Jesus is establishing with his disciples when he shares the Passover meal with them. Using some of the ingredients of this meal, he invites them to see the bread and wine in a fresh way—as the start of the new covenant God promised.

Believers lacking a covenant background tend to miss the astonishing moment this was. We think of this new covenant as transactional. God offers us salvation through Jesus’ death. We take it. Then we become obedient. This is the transaction. It is seen as sort of a contract between God and us with obligations to be fulfilled by us who agree to its terms.

But people who grew up in covenant making societies possess a richer understanding of this moment. Biblical covenants are about establishing deep relationships. The Hebrew word for covenant signifies that an unbreakable obligation between two parties has been sealed with a sacrifice and a sacred oath. Both parties have committed to look after each other’s concerns and keep each other’s back even to the death. From start to finish, the Bible reveals that God makes personal covenants with people. With Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, with all of Israel—with each, God made a covenant that made them His people and He their God.

What Jesus announced here was that the right time had come for a new covenantal relationship to be offered to all who would enter into it with the Father. Under this new covenant, God asks us for faith, not law-keeping. God promised to infuse His law into our hearts and minds in this new covenant instead of asking us to follow an externally written law. (Jeremiah 31:33-34)

Paul had a catchphrase for this—a righteousness that is by faith (Romans 1:17). Faith that God will display His glory in us and through us. Faith in the faithfulness of God to justify us through Jesus on the cross. Faith in the faithfulness of God to transform us within by the power of the Spirit. Behavioral change comes not by working hard at keeping the law but by keeping in step with the Spirit as he changes us inwardly to desire to obey the law. This is a transformative covenant instead of one that is transactional.

Yet ultimately, this covenant is about developing within us a deepening love for the exalted God, who loved His children first when we were still despicable. It is our growing love for Him that compels us to live the life for which He created us. In this night-before-the-cross moment, Jesus is saying that this covenantal relationship is now fully available to us. Not because we deserve it. Not because we have in ourselves the ability to keep up our end of the covenant. But because God is restoring us to the relationship He had with Adam and Eve in the Garden before the Fall. And not just the relationship. He is restoring us inwardly back to who we were created to be by His Spirit’s empowering work.

-Steve Smith