Those of us who share the conviction that Christianity is actually true, believe that a reset button got pushed on the first Easter Sunday when the Old Covenant was replaced by the New Covenant through the atoning sacrifice of Jesus of Nazareth. No argument about that here.
But, as a result of that mindset, many Christians seem to take that view to mean that the Old Testament was therefore rendered invalid, overridden, or somehow not applicable to how we understand our faith. Beyond citing the creation story or the 10 Commandments once in a while, we seem to have disconnected the Old Testament from the New. But doing so strips the overarching story of the relationship between God and man of much of its meaning. The history we see in the Bible has always been leading somewhere. It’s all about the same God. It’s all one story — and it’s a rich story that gets even richer when you take the time to see the unmistakeable connection between Old and New.
Nowhere is that more apparent than in the life and mission of Abraham and the covenants God made with him that foreshadowed everything that would happen thousands of years later. In the story of Abraham we see all there is to understand about The Plan God put in place from the very beginning to save humanity. In Genesis 12:3 we get the biggy — “… all the peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”
All the peoples.
The nation of Israel was a “chosen people” only insofar as from that nation, and from the House of David within that nation, would come the Messiah for all the peoples. Israel was never meant to be the only nation God would save. It was simply the nation through which He would make a way to save Israel and everyone else.
The way He would do it was through a covenant relationship like nothing anyone had ever imagined before. It would be a covenant of law and love that was both conditional and unconditional simultaneously. If that sounds weird, it is. It is “weird” because the God who fashioned it is like no other God and the way in which He offered to save mankind was unlike what any other god could offer. He demonstrated it to Abraham in Genesis 15 when God showed Abraham the meaning of Easter.*
In covenant agreements between kings and peons of those days, it was customary for the great king to demand an animal offering from his peons. This was done by killing and cutting up the animals, then laying the pieces out on the ground. The king would promise to protect the peons if the peons would abide by the terms of their agreement with him. In such a case, the agreement was conditional on the part of the king. To “sign” the covenant, the servant who was promising to be loyal to the king would walk between the pieces while swearing an oath that in essence said, “If I do not live up to this agreement, may I be cut up in pieces like these animals.” (OK, that’s weird too. I’m not defending the practice, just relaying what it was).
And then came Abraham.
At first the ceremony commemorating his covenant relationship with God looked the same as it always had. He was instructed to prepare a heifer, a goat, a ram, a dove, and a pigeon. Abraham did as he was told, spread the pieces on the ground, and waited for further instruction; but no instruction ever came. What came instead was the “thick and dreadful darkness” of judgement. Abraham was overwhelmed and fell into a deep sleep. But when he awoke the most astonishing turn of events up to that point in human history occurred right before his eyes.
A pillar of smoke and fire just like the one that would later lead the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt appeared. It was the manifest presence of God himself. As Abraham watched, the pillar of fire and smoke moved between the pieces to guarantee the agreement. The God who created the universe — the King himself — passed through the pieces with a promise to bless the peon Abraham. This was exactly backwards from the way things were supposed to be, but it didn’t end there.
Just as startlingly, Abraham was never asked to walk through the pieces himself. He was never called to make an oath of loyalty.
What was going on?
What was going on was that God of Abraham was turning the world upside down. He was promising to take on Himself the curse that would result from a broken covenant. He was making a pledge to honor the covenant relationship for both parties. As Timothy Keller puts it, God was promising, “Not only will I be torn to pieces if I don’t fulfill the covenant, but I will be torn to pieces if you don’t fulfill the covenant.”
And we didn’t. And He was.
The Gospels record three hours when the darkness of judgement smothered the world from above a wooden torture post at Golgotha as Jesus, the promised Messiah (“Anointed One”), suffered for us because we had broken the covenant. In that act an immortal King submitted himself to the same kind of physical mortality that his peons had brought on themselves. The King of the universe fulfilled the promise made to Abraham in Genesis 15. Judgement for the sins of the peons had come and the Judge stepped down from the bench to take the peons’ sentence for them. A New Covenant — one that had been promised in Jeremiah 31 — was put in place. But the new covenant cannot be seen in isolation from the older ones. The overarching story of salvation is one story. The whole story leads to Easter. When you look backward, it all makes perfect sense.
To see the foreshadowing of Genesis 15 is to understand the story of Easter. It is the story of an infinite gap between an infinitely perfect God and His rebellious peons that could only be filled by the infinite sacrifice only God himself could provide. It is the story of the unconditional love of a God who abides by the conditions of a covenant He didn’t break. It is the story of a God who delivered on His promise to honor the covenant He made with Abraham for both parties.
If someone were to ask whether our covenant relationship with God is an unconditional or conditional covenant the answer is, “Yes.”
It is both.
Easter is the culmination of The Grand Story of the relationship between God and man being brought to its unanticipated, majestic conclusion. God fulfills all the terms of both sides of a covenant agreement by suffering the punishment we deserve, then overcomes a death He didn’t deserve three days later to verify to us that He is God … and that we are not.
The King walked through pieces with Abraham in anticipation of our being at peace with Him on Calvary. For all those who have rebelled against the King, this is very, very Good News. It is the central point of the Christian faith. It is what makes Christianity unique among the world religions. It is the reason we have hope.
* For an excellent treatment of this idea, listen to Timothy Keller’s podcast, “A Covenant Relationship,” of October 9, 2013. That sermon brought this all together for me in a way that nothing I had ever heard previously had done. I credit it with the central idea of this post.