The Covenant KeeperRev. Philip Miller | December 6, 2020
Selected highlights from this sermon
At the end of John 5, Jesus told the religious leaders that they would be held accountable by Moses for “he wrote of me…But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?”
In this message, Pastor Miller looks at what Moses wrote about. He takes us back 4,000 years to the ancient Near East where God appeared to a man named Abram and entered into a covenant with him—changing the course of human history. Pastor Miller answers three questions, which were applicable during the time Jesus walked on Earth, and which are just as essential to us today: Who made the covenant? Who is to keep the covenant? And who inherits the covenant?
The Covenant Keeper
At the end of John, chapter 5, Jesus told the religious leaders that they would be held accountable because Moses wrote of Jesus. So Moses himself will be the one to hold them accountable because “Moses wrote of me,” Jesus said. He said this, “But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?”
And so for Advent this year what we’re doing is we are looking at five ways that Moses was holding out hope for the coming of Jesus, who is The Curse Breaker,The Covenant Keeper, The Law Mediator, The Sin Atoner, and The Promise Fulfiller.
And last week Pastor Bill led us in a wonderful sermon on The Curse Breaker. Didn’t he do a good job? Wherever you are, let’s just give him a little hand there. (claps) And you can say, “Amen” in the comments if you like. So grateful to Pastor Bill and his opening of God’s Word for us together.
This week we come to The Covenant Keeper. I want to take us back 4,000 years to the ancient Near East where God appears to a man by the name of Abram, and enters into a covenant with him that will change the course of human history. Now, in order to get our heads around this Abrahamic Covenant, we need to look at a wide swath of texts this morning, but we’re going to begin with Genesis, chapter 12, and as we go through this study together this morning, I’m going to use three questions to kind of guide us along the way.
The first question is, “Who makes the covenant?”
The second question is “Who keeps the covenant?”
And the third question is, “Who inherits the covenant?”
Okay? So here we go this morning. Let’s open God’s Word together, but before we do that would you bow your head? Let’s pray together.
Father, we ask you now as we open your Word to show us more of Jesus. Help us see Him in His glory, His splendor, that He is the Faithful One. Help us to trust Him today. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen. Amen.
So the first question is “Who makes the covenant?” It all begins for us here in Genesis, chapter 12. If you’ll open your Bibles to Genesis, chapter 12, we find a guy by the name of Abram. He was an idol worshiper from Ur. Ur is an ancient Samarian coastal city, built where the Euphrates River meets the Persian Gulf. It was now ruled at this time by the Chaldeans. And one day as Abram is minding his own business, in Genesis 12:1–3, this is what we read: “Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’”
So God calls Abram here to leave everything and everyone that he knows in pursuit of a promise of a blessing that God is extending to him. And there’s sort of three concentric circles of blessing here that I want to show you. The first circle of blessing is that God is offering a unique relationship to Abraham, a unique relationship. God is offering Abraham a special relationship with Him. Like all ancient Near-Eastern peoples, Abram had certainly made offerings in the shrines and temples around, sacrifices to the gods. But this was a different moment. This was direct. This was personal. This was real, that God in heaven had reached down to Earth in initiating a real relationship with Abram, that God is offering here to be his provider, his protector, his blesser, his keeper, his deity, and his destiny. It’s as if God is saying, “Listen, Abram, I will be your God. And I will look after you, and give you a land and ensure that you are blessed both now and for the generations who come after you.”
The second circle of blessing here, a little wider, is that Abram will have a great posterity. These blessings aren’t just for Abram, but they are also for his children. In fact, the promises center around these statements: “I will make of you a great family, a great nation, and it’s by implication this land that I am giving you will be yours and your family’s forever, this land that I will show you.” And it’s as if God is saying, “Listen, as I am your God, Abram, now I will also be God of your children after you. I will be their provider and protector. I will be their blesser and keeper. I will be their deity and their destiny. So I will make your name great, and I will make your posterity great, as well. And I will bless you, Abram, in order that you might be a blessing.”
Because the third circle of blessing, even wider still, is a worldwide blessing. A worldwide blessing. This ends with this curious phrase, “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed,” that these blessings are intended by God to start with Abram, and then ripple out into his family, and then extend ultimately to all the families of the earth who would be blessed in him. And God is saying, “Abram, I’m beginning this thing with you, but it’s bigger than you. It’s about your family which will be a great nation, but it’s bigger than your family. It’s about the families of the earth, the nations. Abram, I am about to change the whole world, but I’m going to start with you.”
And Abram (At this time his name has not been changed yet.) responds and believes. He gets up and he goes. Eventually he makes it to the land that is promised, that God has shown to him in chapter 13. And God says, “Listen, all the land that you can see I will give to you and your offspring forever. And I will multiple your offspring. They’ll be like the dust of the earth so that nobody can count the dust. They won’t be able to count your children. Go ahead, Abram. Walk through the length and breadth. I will give it to you.” And again we see a great land for a great posterity, this promise to Abram.
And Abram grows here in wealth and consequence, but there’s a fly in the ointment, and that is, he does not have any children yet, so in Genesis, chapter 15 we pick it up there in verse 1 to 6. This is what is says: “After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision: ‘Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.’ But Abram said, ‘O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?’ And Abram said, ‘Behold, you have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir.’” He was saying, “Look, I appreciate all the blessings, God. You’ve been very generous to me, but there’s no one to inherit. I have no one to pass this along to. It’s all going to go to my next of kin.”
Verse 4: “And behold, the word of the Lord came to him: ‘This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir.’ And he brought him outside and said, ‘Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your offspring be.’ And he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness.”
He says, “Your very own son will be your heir, and your offspring will be as numerous as the stars in the sky.” And here’s this key phrase: “Abram believed the Lord, and He counted it to him as righteousness.” This is one of the most important verses in all of the Bible. Abram believed God and God counted it to him as righteousness.
Now, of course, this doesn’t mean that Abram will never sin again. He does plenty of that in the subsequent chapters. But it does mean that God so esteems and values Abram’s faith that He counts it as if Abram was righteous in every way before Him, which means, friends, that God is one-hundred percent for Abram He’s never against him; He will always move with power and authority on Abram’s behalf; and that Abram is secure in the covenant love of the Lord God forever. And don’t you see the relationship between Abram and God is getting closer. It’s getting more intimate, more trustful. And so God responds in this moment with a covenant.
The rest of Genesis 15 describes how Abram, at God’s direction, gathers some sacrificial animals and cuts them in half, lays them opposite of each other with a little path down the middle. It’s very strange to us, but this was an ancient Near-Eastern way of making a covenant. There was a solemn covenantal ceremony, and basically as they tore the animals apart, they were saying, “May I too, be torn apart if I break the terms of this covenant.”
Now, what we would expect in terms of ancient Near-Eastern customs is for Abram and God to together then walk through the pieces and make this covenant together, each pledging themselves one to the other. But when the time comes to walk through the pieces, Abram is asleep. He’s taking a long deep nap. And God alone passes through the pieces, His presence symbolized by a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch. Now the meaning of this is abundantly clear to an ancient Near-Eastern person, that God Himself, alone, is taking responsibility for the fulfillment of the terms of the covenant. God is saying, “May I be torn apart if I fail to uphold the terms of this covenant. I am taking full responsibility for this covenant.”
Then, in Genesis 17, God reaffirms His covenant again. Let’s look at this. Genesis 17:3–8, “And God said to him (Abram), ‘Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations. (Am in Hebrew means people or nations, so we add that to Abram. Abram-am: People, nations coming from Abraham.) I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you. And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God.’”
So this covenant with Abram is now an everlasting covenant, not just with Abraham, but with his children. And notice the promises:
- I have made you.
- I will make you.
- I will establish.
- I will give to you.
- I will be their God.
In all of these passages, friends, it is abundantly clear that God is the guarantor of the covenant. God is the guarantor of the covenant. These are His pledges. These are His promises. These are His guarantees. God has taken full responsibility for the fulfillment of these covenant promises. He says, “I will do it.”
So you ask the question, “Who makes the covenant?” It is God. He alone walks through the pieces. He takes full responsibility for its fulfillment. Now the second question then is, “Who keeps the covenant?”
Who keeps the covenant? Now, we might be tempted to conclude that since God alone walks through the pieces, and since He takes full responsibility for the fulfillment of the covenant, that Abraham is a totally passive party in this covenant arrangement, that He has no responsibilities whatsoever. But that assumption would be incorrect.
Abraham, it is clear as we read these passages, also has his part to do. In chapter 12, for example, he has to go. God makes all the promises, but Abram has to get up and leave his family and step out into the promises of God. In chapter 15 he has to believe. He believes and God credits it to him as righteousness. In chapter 17, which we just read, as God is about to give him the name Abraham, along with all these great covenant promises we just read, listen to how it starts.
We didn’t read these verses but we’re going to catch it up now. This is how he leads into those promises. Genesis 17, verses 1 to 3: “‘I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless, that I may make my covenant between me and you, and may multiply you greatly.’ Then Abram fell on his face.” Notice with me the language here. “Walk before me and be blameless (That’s a pretty high standard, right?) that I may make my covenant between me and you, and may multiply you greatly.”
Now it’s interesting. He already made the covenant back in chapter 15, didn’t He? And now He says, “I need you to walk before me and be blameless so that I may make this covenant with you.” That’s very interesting. And then Abram, of course, falls on his face because he feels the weight of the responsibility in this covenant.
Look with me at Genesis 22. We haven’t looked at this yet, but Abraham here has just offered Isaac on the altar. God has stayed His hand. Isaac will live. Genesis 22, verses 16 to 18, use some similar language. Verse 16: “By myself I have sworn, declares the Lord, because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.”
Do you see, friends, the language of causation here? “Because you have done this, I will surely bless you. I will surely multiply your offspring. In your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed because you have obeyed my voice.”
Friends, it seems that the surety of the covenant promises grows because of Abraham’s faithful obedience, doesn’t it? That’s what God is saying.
Now, another very important verse in this regard is in Genesis 18:19. Let me read that for us now. “For I have chosen him (Abraham; God speaking), that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice, so that the Lord may bring to Abraham what he has promised him.”
So Abraham, here, is to teach his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice so that the Lord may bring to Abraham and his children all the things that he has promised him. They must keep the way of the Lord. They must do righteousness and justice in order to receive the promises, and if they don’t, it’s not going to happen.
So, in other words, what we’re seeing is that Abraham must walk worthy of the covenant. Abraham must walk worthy of the covenant. He is called here to be blameless and righteous and just in order that he might inherit the covenant promises. But of course, here lies the problem, doesn’t it? Because Abraham is not blameless, righteous, and just, at least not all the time.
Just within these few chapters we see him lying and manipulating and acting out of fear rather than faith in God. Yes, it is true that Abraham is the father of faith, but not everything he did was faithful. But this creates, friends, a theological conundrum. (laughs)
If God on one hand has taken full responsibility for the fulfillment of the covenant, it is one hundred percent guaranteed. Right? But if, on the other hand, Abraham must work worthy of the covenant in order to receive its blessings, then the covenant promises are one hundred percent doomed because Abraham here clearly falls short of the standard of being blameless, righteous, and just. How do you get out of this mess? Well, the only way out is in a verse we just read, Genesis 15, verse 6: “And he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness.”
Friends, God counted Abraham, unrighteous as he was, yet believing, as righteous before Him. God decided to overlook the gap, to bestow His covenant upon Abram who was undeserving, a covenant by grace through faith. And it’s not like Abraham’s kids did any better than he did. None of them came along and walked in blamelessness and righteousness and justice before the Lord. No, the rest of the Old Testament is a long line of people with good intentions and failed execution. There is no one righteous, no not one. All we like sheep have gone astray. Each of us has turned to our own way. We all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. That is, until Jesus, until Jesus. This Son of Abraham, this Son of the covenant promises comes upon the scene, and is blameless in all of His ways, righteous before His God, just in all of His dealings. And for the first time ever, friends, a son of Abraham lived up to the stipulations of the covenant.
And friends, Jesus alone is the truly worthy one. He alone is truly worthy of the covenant. And don’t you see how Jesus is the solution to the theological conundrum we saw in the Old Testament? This covenant was guaranteed by God, but it must be upheld by man. So God must do it, and man must do it, and along comes Jesus who is both God and man. Do you see the brilliance of this? Jesus, as the God-man, who keeps both sides of the covenant, comes along and upholds God’s guarantee and fulfills Abraham’s obligations.
The reason, friends, Abraham sleeps as the covenant is cut in Genesis 15 is not because Abraham is not party to the terms of the covenant, but because his side of the covenant will be fulfilled by someone else as he is sleeping. Two thousand years later, as Abraham sleeps in death, another son of Abraham will come, and will fulfill the terms of the covenant. Friends, He will be torn apart for the covenant failures of His people. And He will rise again in resurrection to secure all the covenant blessings that are due His name. He will cover the gap. He will bestow a covenant, on an undeserving people by grace to unrighteous, yet believing people by faith. Jesus alone is the truly worthy recipient of the covenant.
Now, third question: Who inherits the covenant? Who inherits the covenant? Now, what is very clear from the passages that we’ve read in Genesis is that God’s intention is that these covenant blessings would be inherited by Abraham and his descendants. In chapter 12, He said, “I will bless you and make you into a great nation.” In chapter 15, He said, “Look to the heavens. So shall your offspring be, like the stars.” In chapter 22, He said, “I will bless you and multiply your offspring.”
So the intentions of God are for Abraham and his children to inherit these promises. But all along we also saw something else. We saw that God’s intentions are that these covenant blessings would somehow cascade to the nations. In chapter 12, He said, “All the families of the earth will be blessed in you.” In chapter 22, He said, “In your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed.”
But there’s no real explanation as to how this will happen. Chapter 17, verse 4, though, gives us a hint. An interesting verse here, “Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations.” “Abraham, my covenant is with you. Okay? But you will be the father of a multitude of nations, plural.”Now, this is interesting because genetically Abraham can only be the father of one covenant nation. Right? Through his son, Isaac, his only son, this is the son of the covenant. There’s only one line, and yet somehow the language here says, “You will be the father of a multitude of nations.” Many nations will look to Abraham as their father. Well, what’s that all about?
Well, let’s fast forward to Galatians, chapter 3. Paul is writing here about Gentiles, non-Jewish people of the nations, if you will, who have come to place their faith in Jesus Christ.
Galatians 3:7: “Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, ‘In you shall all the nations be blessed.’ So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.”
Skip down to verse 13: “Christ redeemed us…so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.” Verse 28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.”
Now, this is very interesting. Listen, how did Abraham receive the blessings of the covenant? How did he get them? By grace, through faith, credited with the righteousness of someone other than himself. How do the Gentiles receive the blessings of the covenant, as Paul writes here? By grace, through faith, credited with the righteousness that belongs to someone else, that’s not their own.
Here is Paul’s logic: There is only one worthy son of Abraham, and that is Jesus. There is only one true inheritor of the covenant, and it is Jesus. And everyone else, including Abraham, Father Abraham, inherits the covenant blessings by grace, through faith, credited with the righteousness that is not their own, the righteousness of Christ Himself, so that the Lord Jesus Christ here, friends, is the only true and worthy inheritor of the covenant promises. And all who call upon the name of the Lord are not only saved, but also share in the promised covenant blessings that He bestows.
Now, the irony, of course, is that historically what happens is that the Gentiles embrace Jesus as their Savior and Lord, and receive the covenant blessings ahead of the Jewish people, who in general, rejected Jesus. And this creates an unexpected moment in history, Gentiles receiving the covenant blessings of Abraham before the Jewish people do. What’s going on?
That’s why Paul writes in Romans 9:6–8, these words: “But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but ‘Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.’ This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring.”
Paul says, “Look, Abraham’s true legacy lies, not in following after his DNA and genetic material, but in following after his faith in God, in the promises of God. It is those who believe in God and His saving work who are children of the promise.”
Paul goes on in Romans, chapter 11, to explain that the Gentiles being included in the covenant blessings of God does not mean that God is finished with Israel. In fact, he says one day all of Israel will be saved as they turn and embrace Jesus as their Messiah, so that Abraham, in the end, is father not only of Israel, but is father of a multitude of nations, a great multitude that no one can number, from every nation, and all tribes, and peoples, and languages, who by grace, through faith, credited with the righteousness that is not their own, a righteousness that belongs to Jesus, have now come into the covenant blessings of God. And friends, Jesus, and all those who are in Him, are beneficiaries of the covenant. Jesus, and all those who are in Him are beneficiaries of the covenant.
Do you realize what this means for you and for me? It means that in Christ, God is one hundred percent for us. He is never against us. It means that He always moves with power on behalf of His people, that we are secure in the covenant love of God forever, that there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. In Him, we are chosen. We are adopted. We are rescued. We are redeemed. We are forgiven and set free. We are justified freely by His grace. We are indwelt by His Holy Spirit. We are righteous in Christ alone. We have Christ in us, the hope of glory. We are loved to the skies, crowned with glory and honor. We are inheritors of an eternal covenant, and an eternal life, and an eternal home, in new heavens and a new Earth.
We are at home forever in the everlasting love of our God. “For who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger of sword? No. In all of these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor heights, nor depths, nor anything else in creation will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus, our Lord.”
Friends, in Him, all the promises are yes and amen. Yes, and amen!
So, what’s the takeaway for us? Friends, we are far more sinful than we ever dared realize, yet in Jesus Christ we are far more loved than we could ever dare hope. We are far more sinful than we ever dared realize, yet in Christ Jesus we are far more loved than we ever dared hope.
Friends, this is the paradox of the Gospel, that although we are unworthy, unfaithful, undeserving sinners—no exceptions, in Jesus Christ, by faith, by grace through faith, we are credited with the righteousness that is not our own, a righteousness that belongs to Jesus. And so we are loved to the skies, perfectly, infinitely, lavishly, incomprehensibly. And beloved, we are loved more than we know. We are loved more than we know all because of the Covenant Keeper, all because of Jesus.
Nothing can separate you from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus, our life. Amen? Amen!
Father, we thank you that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us, that we bring our unfaithfulness, our unstableness, our brokenness, our guilt, our shame, our nothingness. We bring it all, and yet in Christ, we are covered. We are righteous, credited with righteousness not our own. We have received the covenant we don’t deserve. We stand in love we do not merit. We rest in grace.
Father, thank you for justifying us freely by grace through faith in Christ alone. He is our only hope, and in Him we have everything and more forever. We rejoice today in Jesus’ name, Amen. Amen.