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If you sat down and read the entire Bible from cover to cover, you would notice that one theme surfaces repeatedly: covenant. A covenant is a binding relationship between parties that involves both blessings and obligations, and throughout Scripture, one finds God working to gather a people to Himself through these covenantal relationships. This understanding of Scripture is called covenant theology.

In Genesis 3:15, God first announces His intention to save His people through His covenant of grace. Working through this covenant, God would raise up a messianic Seed who would destroy the serpent and win God’s people to Himself. In advancing this covenant of grace throughout history, God entered into a covenant with Noah (Gen. 6–9), with Abraham (Gen. 12; 15; 17), with Moses (Ex. 20–24), and with David (2 Sam. 7), all the while pointing forward to a new covenant inaugurated by Jesus Christ (Luke 22:20). In each of these covenantal administrations, God was incrementally accomplishing His purpose to gather a people to Himself. In fact, Revelation pictures all redemptive history in precisely this way, as the entire course of redemption is symbolized by a dragon who is pursuing the child of a woman (Rev. 12). All redemptive history has been the fulfillment of God’s promise of the covenant of grace in Genesis 3:15.

As God has brought this covenant of grace to progressive fulfillment, He has used what Hebrews 8:5 calls a “copy” and a “shadow” to teach His people and prepare them for Christ. A “copy” or a “shadow,” in this sense, is an act, an institution, or even a person that, while it has its own meaning, has its ultimate significance in fore­shadowing how God will save His people. For example, in the judgment and deliverance of the Noahic covenant, God was pointing to His ability, at the appointed time, to bring His covenantal purposes to their perfect completion (2 Peter 3:6–7). In His covenant with Abraham, God was showing His people that, by their faith in Him, He would gather them into an eternal city (Heb. 11:8–16). In the Mosaic covenant, God made clear the holiness that He desired in this redeemed people and showed what would be required to take away their guilt (Lev. 19:2; 17:11). In the Davidic covenant, God showed His people that His Messiah would be a righteous King who would reign over them (Ezek. 34:23–24). Finally, as the prophets foretold the new covenant, they revealed that this Messiah would change, from the inside out (Ezek. 36:26), a people from every nation (Isa. 9:2).

All these copies and shadows inject tremendous continuity into Scripture. In Romans 4, Paul uses Abraham as an example of the faith that Christians are to have (vv. 1–5). In Galatians, Paul refers to Christians as “Abraham’s offspring” (3:29); he writes that God’s promises to Abraham envisioned Christ (v. 16); and he refers to the Galatian Christians as “the Israel of God” (6:16). Repeatedly, Paul simply assumes that God is doing in the New Testament precisely what He was doing in the Old Testament.

A covenant is a binding relationship between parties that involves both blessings and obligations, and throughout Scripture, one finds God working to gather a people to Himself through these covenantal relationships.

Other New Testament authors make this same assumption. Peter suggests that God’s work in the Noahic covenant anticipated the coming fulfillment of the covenant of grace (2 Peter 3:5–7), and he uses Old Testament descriptions of Israel to describe the Christian church (1 Peter 2:9–10). In Hebrews, the faith of God’s people in every generation is surveyed so that “so great a cloud of witnesses” might encourage Christians to persevere in the faith (Heb. 12:1; see 11:1–12:2). God has one people, and He saves them through a shared faith; hence, the “cloud of witnesses” is relevant for Christians. Again, continuity within God’s covenant of grace is assumed.

Strangely, this intentional continuity of God’s covenantal work creates a specific kind of discontinuity. For example, the sacrificial system instituted in the Mosaic covenant is dismissed in the new covenant (Heb. 10:1–10), even as the temple and its priests have passed away (7:11–28), dietary laws have been removed (Acts 10:9–16), and gentiles have been brought into the people of the Jewish Messiah (Rom. 11:11–24). These discontinuities are instructive. Why is the sacrificial system gone? Because it has been fulfilled in Christ (1 Cor. 5:7). Why is the temple no more? Because through Jesus’ accomplished work, God now dwells in His people by His Spirit (6:19–20). Jesus is the High Priest of His people (Heb. 4:14–16), He makes all things clean (Rom. 14:14–19), and He destroys all the barriers that separated Jews and gentiles (Eph. 2:11–22). The discontinuities in the covenant of grace are of a very specific sort. They all are discontinuities of progressive fulfillment. Something that God had been doing in the covenant of grace comes to its perfect fulfillment in Jesus Christ, and in light of that fulfillment, God sets aside older, more elementary ways of interacting with His people.

Paradoxically, Jesus is both the great continuity and the great discontinuity of the covenant of grace. He provides continuity, since all the trappings of God’s covenant with His people are pointing to Christ. And He also provides discontinuity, for the fulfillment of covenantal purposes in Him means that older ways of preparing for Him are set aside. The discontinuity of the covenant of grace is specifically a discontinuity of progressive fulfillment; fulfilled in Christ, older “copies” and “shadows” are no longer needed.

In dealing with the seeming discontinuity of the covenant of grace, we must address two specific passages. The first is Jeremiah 31:31–34. There, God declares that He will make a “new covenant” with Israel that is “not like the covenant that I made with their fathers.” In this new covenant, God’s law will be written on the hearts of His people, they all will know Him, and all their sin will be forgiven. Certainly, there is discontinuity here, but it is a discontinuity of progressive fulfillment. God had long called for His people to be changed internally by His covenant dealings with them (Deut. 10:12–17), and they had known that change (Ps. 51:10–12). Jesus, who inaugurates the new covenant, both secures and guarantees that heart renovation (2 Cor. 5:17). God had always made Himself known to Israel (Ps. 103:7), but in Jesus, God would be known with such clarity that old shadows would depart (2 Cor. 4:6). God had instituted the sacrificial system to show His people that they needed blood to cleanse their sin (Heb. 10:3), and in Jesus, that blood is provided (v. 10). Much would change under the new covenant. But that discontinuity was a discontinuity of progressive fulfillment, wherein God, by bringing His unfolding covenant of grace to greater fulfillment in Christ, set aside the former ways of pointing forward to what He, in the new covenant, had accomplished.

Until Jesus returns in judgment, God’s unfolding covenant of grace remains in a state of imperfect completion. We anticipate much even today.

The second passage that seems to speak strongly of discontinuity is Hebrews 8:1–13. There, Scripture declares that the old covenant was not “faultless” (v. 7) and that the new covenant of Jeremiah 31:31–34 makes the old covenant “obsolete” (Heb. 8:13). The discontinuity within the covenant of grace could not be more strongly stated. Yet again, it is a discontinuity of progressive fulfillment. Until Jesus returns in judgment, God’s unfolding covenant of grace remains in a state of imperfect completion. We anticipate much even today. So certainly, the old covenant was not “faultless”; at that stage of redemptive history, the covenant of grace only pointed to certain things that, in Christ, were accomplished. And when these promised things were accomplished, the former “copies” and “shadows” that only anticipated them instantly became “obsolete.”  Having been fulfilled in Christ, certain paraphernalia of God’s covenant dealings with His people were set aside, but they were set aside because God’s redemptive work had been progressively accomplished, not because it had changed.

While certain types and shadows have been set aside, that does not mean that they were unimportant in their time. At every point in redemptive history, being part of God’s “covenant of grace people” has required that an individual participate in the specific covenantal administration of that day. For example, for one living under the Mosaic covenant, his hope always was in the blood of Christ toward which the sacrificial system pointed (Heb. 9:11–28), but it was also necessary to participate in that sacrificial system (Lev. 17:11). At each stage of increasing clarity, God’s covenantal administration has been His covenant of grace.

Why has God’s covenantal work been marked by this dynamic of progressing clarity? As God tells Israel, it is through covenant that He has been shaping them—and us—into His people (Deut. 29:12–13). Notice how often the New Testament assumes categories or ideas from the Old Testament as it instructs Christians how to live as God’s people. We are to have faith like Abraham (Rom. 4:16), live like a royal priesthood (1 Peter 2:9), and walk in faithful witness as older saints have done (Heb. 11). All of God’s covenantal work has unfolded and has been written down to reveal Jesus (Luke 24:27–32) and to instruct us how we are to live as we await His return (1 Cor. 10:11). The God with whom a thousand years are as a day has worked, throughout the generations of His people, to shape that people into His own, His beloved Israel (Gal. 6:16), the bride of the glorious Bridegroom (Eph. 5:23–32).

Covenant is woven throughout Scripture. Why? Because in God’s covenantal work, He has been working to bring His people to Himself and He has made them His own.

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