When I was a kid I loved playing the game Telephone. Remember that game? You sit in a line and one person says something, it travels down the entire line of people and the message is completely different. “Click here to read the last post (no seriously)” passed down 10 people inevitably turns into “Kyle picks his nose.” To figure out the original message all we need to do is ask the person who started it.
You see the point right? Today, people believe a lot of things about how God relates to us: God is found in everything, God is a spirit, God created the world but is no longer at work in the world. It is an extensive list, and some of those are partially true. But to fully understand how God relates with us today, we have to go back to his word to figure out what God said to start the “telephone game”. What we hear him say loud and clear is this – I relate with you through covenants!
“Covenant” (berith in Hebrew) is found all over the Old Testament – 286 times to be exact. Before the flood, God says He will establish His covenant with Noah (Gen 6:18). At Mount Sinai he tells Israel that if they keep his covenant they’ll be his treasured possession in all the earth (Ex 19:5). The last words of King David were how God made a covenant with him (2 Sam 23:5). Not only did God make covenants with his people, other people made covenants with one another.
But what does a covenant actually mean? Well that’s tricky. Because there were several different types used in different contexts it is hard to nail down an exact definition that captures the breadth of the meaning of the word. In his book Far as the Curse is Found, Mike Williams provides a rough description of covenant:
A covenant is a relationship between persons, begun by the sovereign determination of the greater party in which the greater commits himself to the lesser in the context of mutual loyalty, and in which mutual obligations serve as illustrations of that loyalty.” (46)
To say it another way, it is a sort of business deal, but more intimate and personal than the business deals we think of.
Two important things to note from Williams’ definition:
1) God is the one who initiates this relationship (Gen 1:28, 6:13). The sovereign, omniscient, all-powerful Creator of the universe comes to his creatures first. There is nothing you or I did for God to enter into a relationship with us. This leaves no room for us to be proud of anything we do (because God is the one who allowed us to do it), and no room for us to worry and wonder if God is out there (because God is living and active in this world).
2) God expects his people to act (Gen 1:28, Ex 20:1-17). As God’s people we are always expected to respond in obedience (note: this does not mean that our works earn us any good standing with God). Mark Twain’s famous quote, “It is my job to sin and God’s job to forgive,” shows that he hasn’t understood the terms of God’s covenant. If you or I think we can do whatever we want because we are “free in Christ,” we have not understood the terms of God’s covenant.
The framework of the covenant is set: God acts and we respond. All of our lives are a response to God’s gracious action. In the next post we will zoom in on specific covenants God made and see how that illuminates what He is specifically up to in the world.