Let me give you a heads up regarding the preaching schedule for January. Many of you will remember that sometime in the first month of the year it has been our custom to corporately reaffirm our commitment to the church covenant. Usually that means that under the leadership of the elders we stand together and read it through. The whole procedure takes five or six minutes, and there is a risk that the significance of our commitment never registers in either our hearts or our minds. So this year, our elders felt that it would be useful to spend a little more time refreshing our knowledge of the covenant before we reaffirm it.
Here’s the plan. Today I will preach on the subject of covenant generally. Then, over the last four Sundays of January, I will bring a message on each of the four major divisions of our particular church covenant. Here’s what the schedule looks like so far. As you can see, the general title for the series is Covenant Life. That’s because our life in God is guided by the covenants He has made with His people, especially the New Covenant. And, it’s because our life in Christ and with each other ought to be guided by the covenant we’re committed to as members of this church.
Btw, for the record, since this series is still a work in progress, I reserve the right to change the texts and the individual titles as further reflection refines my thinking. But the first half of the titles won’t change, and the coverage of the four sections of the covenant won’t change either.
January 8, 2017
Text: Ephesians 4:11-16
Title: Covenant Life: Organic Unity
January 15, 2017
Text: I Thessalonians 1:1-8a
Title: Covenant Life: Kingdom Responsibility
January 22, 2017
Text: Ephesians 2:8-10
Title: Covenant Life: Spiritual Ministry
January 29, 2017
Text: Ephesians 5:6-14
Title: Covenant Life: Living Testimonies
Three neglected central truths: God-centred faith, Covenant, and Kingdom
Now let’s get into today’s text. If you are familiar with Luke you know already that the first chapter describes the events leading up to the birth of Jesus in Luke 2. But sometimes, in reading through the events that take place in chapter 1, we forget its purpose. In this introduction to the rest of his gospel, Luke not only underlines the reality of the virgin birth, He also highlights the birth of Jesus as the fulfilment of all the promises contained in the Old Testament, and especially the God’s oft-repeated promise to send the world a Saviour Who would redeem us from our sins. But the thing I especially hope you will see is that God is fulfilling these promises because of the covenants He made with His people from the beginning of the world.
67 Then his (John’s) father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied:
The Benedictus (from the Latin version that begins with “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel.”)
68 Praise the Lord, the God of Israel, because He has visited and provided redemption for His people. 69 He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of His servant David, 70 just as He spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets in ancient times; 71 salvation from our enemies and from the clutches of those who hate us. 72 He has dealt mercifully with our fathers and remembered His holy covenant—73 the oath that He swore to our father Abraham. He has given us the privilege, 74 since we have been rescued from our enemies’ clutches, to serve Him without fear 75 in holiness and righteousness in His presence all our days.
76 And child, you will be called a prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare His ways, 77 to give His people knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins. 78 Because of our God’s merciful compassion, the Dawn from on high will visit us 79 to shine on those who live in darkness and the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.
The text unpacked
V.67 We must not miss that Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit when he prophesied. What comes forth from his mouth is much more than the overflow of his heart. This is the Word of God.
Notice further the spiritual emphasis throughout this passage. From the beginning Jesus came to establish a spiritual kingdom, the border of which runs through the heart of every person who belongs to Him.
V. 68 “provided redemption for His people” To redeem something originally meant to buy it back. But by the time of the New Testament, God’s people understood that redemption meant paying the price to redeem us from the enslavement of sin and the penalty of death. Christ’s death frees us from sin’s hold on us and makes it possible for God to bless us with the greatest gift of all, His indwelling presence by the Holy Spirit.
V.69 “raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of His servant David”
V.70 “just as He (God) spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets in ancient times”
V.71 “salvation from our enemies” and “the clutches of those who hate us”
At first glance these verses seem to be talking about what today we would call politics, or statecraft, or even warcraft. But a glance at verses 76-77 shows that Zechariah’s words had a spiritual meaning all along.
Luke 1:76 And child, you (John) will be called a prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare His ways, 77 to give His people knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins.
There is no doubt in my mind that the Holy Spirit had spiritual truths in mind, and not civil truths, when He inspired Zechariah to speak of “salvation from our enemies” and “those who hate us.” If you need further proof, just turn to Luke 3 and listen to Zechariah’s son, whom today we call John the Baptist, as he preached to the crowds and laid the groundwork for Christ’s first coming.
“Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Therefore produce fruit consistent with repentance” (Luke 3:7-8). John was not preparing people to conquer Rome. He was preparing them to stand before God! In other words, the promises of God often sound like they are about this world, and I’m not saying that none of them have a “this world” application. But ultimately the Old Testament promises, are about Spiritual realities, about our relationship to God, about personal salvation.
Context is king
Remember, the first rule of Biblical interpretation is that context is the most important clue to understanding the meaning of words. The question is not, what does “salvation” mean, but what does it mean in the gospel of Luke? How does Luke use this word?
- In Luke, salvation is personal and individual. Luke 9:24 “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of Me will save it.”
- In Luke, salvation comes by faith and means salvation from sin. Listen to what happens when Jesus forgives the woman who bathed his feet with fragrance and tears and wiped them with her hair. Luke 7:48-50 “Then he said to her, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’ Those who were at the table with Him began to say among themselves, ‘Who is this man who even forgives sins?’ And He said to the woman, ‘Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.’”
- In Luke, Zacchaeus is not even called a son of Abraham until he believes and is saved. Remember how Jesus finished His evaluation of what happened to Zacchaeus? “For the Son of man has come to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10). Jesus did not come to turn Zacchaeus from a Roman tax collector into a Jewish Zealot. He was there to turn this particular Jew into a Christian, a true son of Abraham.
The New Testament interprets the Old Testament
The principle we must follow for the proper interpretation of Zechariah’s song is the New Testament’s right to explain the ultimate meaning, or the true meaning, of everything in the Old Testament. There are preachers and writers who try to impose upon the New Testament a Jewish interpretation of God’s ways, an interpretation, btw, that was born from a misunderstanding of the Old Testament in the first place.
For example, Zechariah uses language from the Old Testament that makes it appear as if he was expecting the Messiah to redeem the Jewish nation from Rome, just as God had redeemed his people from Egypt 1,500 years earlier. This is what most Jews in Jesus’ day believed. They wanted another Moses who would come in and strike the Romans with plagues like those that afflicted Egypt, and then drive them out of Palestine. They never understood that throughout the Old Testament God was using earthly figures to explain spiritual truth—that the truly spiritual men and women in the Old Testament immediately interpreted His promises as primarily having a heavenly meaning.
Abraham gave God’s promises a Spiritual meaning
Heb. 11:10 For he (Abraham) was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.
Heb. 11:13 These all (Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham and Sarah) died in faith without having received the promises, but they saw them from a distance, greeted them, and confessed that they were foreigners and temporary residents on the earth. 14 Now those who say such things make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. 15 If they were thinking about where they came from, they would have had an opportunity to return. 16 But they now desire a better place—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them.
Back to today’s text
V.72 “He has dealt mercifully with our fathers and remembered His holy covenant— 73 the oath that He swore to our father Abraham.” In this verse Zechariah ascribes the coming of the Messiah as God keeping His covenant and fulfilling a promise He made to Abraham.
Genesis 15:17 When the sun had set and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch appeared and passed between the divided animals. 18 On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram
Genesis 17:3 Then Abram fell face down and God spoke with him: 4 “As for Me, My covenant is with you: you will become the father of many nations. 5 Your name will no longer be Abram, but your name will be Abraham, for I will make you the father of many nations.
Genesis 22:15 Then the Angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven 16 and said, “By Myself I have sworn,” this is the Lord’s declaration: “Because you have done this thing and have not withheld your only son, 17 I will indeed bless you and make your offspring as numerous as the stars of the sky and the sand on the seashore. Your offspring will possess the gates of their enemies. 18 And all the nations of the earth will be blessed by your offspring because you have obeyed My command.”
Through the shedding of blood a covenant binds together two or more parties for specific purposes. The Hebrew word for covenant (Berith) literally means to cut a covenant. The Bible does not know of a covenant without blood. The blood is shed for the purpose of underlining the serious purpose of a covenant (blood represents the pledge of a life), as well as the deadly serious consequences should either party fail to keep their part.) God’s covenants with man are distinguished by His setting all the stipulations and requirements for both parties, not to mention His readiness to bear ultimate responsibility for seeing that His covenants are kept.
God made covenants with Adam (Gen. 3:14-19), Noah (Gen. 9:1-17), Abraham (15:1-21; 17:3-5; 22:15-18), Moses/Israel (Ex. 19ff), David (II Sam. 7:1-17, and finally the New Covenant through Christ (Jeremiah 31:31-37, Mat. 26:28).
Attributes of Biblical covenants
- define His relationship with the world. (God sets the terms and makes the promises necessary to see that the covenants are kept.)
- Each covenant maintains the essence of the previous covenants.
- Each builds on the preceding covenants (deepens, widens, sharpens).
- All are ultimately Spiritual in nature and focus.
- All testify to God’s increasingly personal relationship with mankind.
- All are summed up in the New Covenant established in Jesus’ blood. In His death on the cross Jesus paid the penalty for all our covenant breaking and established the New Covenant by which God promises His Holy Spirit (salvation) to all who believe in Christ.
The church covenant is like many previous covenants that God’s people have made, in that it is a secondary means for us to commit to help one another live up to the high calling of God’s New Covenant established in Christ.
The concept of a secondary covenant is well-established in Scripture.
– Jonathan and David made three covenants together (I Sam.18:3; I Sam. 20:16; I Sam. 23:18)
– David made a covenant with Israel when they made him king (II Sam. 5:3)
– When King Josiah of Judah led the people into spiritual revival, they made a covenant together to serve the Lord (II Kings 23:3).
Purposes of Secondary Covenants
- Each is built upon God’s covenant purposes (response and reflection).
- Each is an additional way for believers to indicate their readiness to keep faith with God and their covenant partners.
- Like the Lord’s Supper, these extra covenants signify a renewal of covenant commitment under the New Covenant!
- These covenants are a way to apply God’s overall covenant commands and promises to specific needs in real time. (For HBC we’re talking about Life in Christ’s body, which requires Unity, Responsibility, Ministry, Public Confession)
Where Covenant touches your life
- Are you in the New Covenant?
- Is your faith man-centred or God-centred?
- Do you need to strengthen your commitment to Christ’s body?