God’s sovereign and gracious dealings with His people through all the ages have often been subsumed under the term “covenant.” The Bible itself is divided into two testaments, which is a concept that is closely related to that of “covenant” and is an aspect of it. While the Bible contains several covenants, they all can be seen properly as developing stages of one great “covenant of grace.” Under this covenant, God sovereignly creates a people in His own image for fellowship with Himself, thereby also providing a bride for His Son (cf. Eph. 5:23–32; Rev. 19:7–10).
In the Old Testament economy, the covenant of grace can be thought of as having had two “sacraments”: circumcision (which was instituted in the time of Abraham) and Passover (which was instituted in the time of Moses). These are fulfilled in the New Testament in baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
The central symbol of the older phase of the covenant of grace was the ark of the covenant. This rectangular box contained the two tables of the Law. It had golden cherubim at each end, with their wings covering their faces. As its lid, it had a “mercy seat” for the sprinkling of blood to atone for the sins of the covenant people. This ark was the central piece of furniture hidden in the holiest space.
The epistle to the Hebrews wonderfully traces out how the ark (and, in fact, the whole tabernacle that contained it) was deliberately designed to portray the incarnate Christ. He fulfilled the Law summarized in the ark, and paid its supreme penalty for His people’s violation of it, as on Calvary’s cross He becomes our “propitiation” (which can be almost literally translated as “mercy seat;” cf. Rom. 3:25; 1 John 2:2).
God’s character (brought to expression in the 10 words of the law enshrined in the ark) must be honored to the fullest if one is to be in fellowship with Him. Since God is infinitely holy, His finite image-bearers could never undo their own sinful guilt, and so had to remain separate from the one who made them—unless God Himself were to intervene, and do for them what they could never do for themselves. This sovereignly effective intervention was set forth in that mercy seat, picturing the action by which He who knew no sin was made to be sin for us, “that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor. 5:21). Christ delighted to do the will of the Father who sent Him (cf. Ps. 40:8; Heb. 10:7–10), carrying out the law contained within the ark on behalf of all who would ever become united with Him by faith. He made final, full, and “once-for-all” atonement for His people’s sins, as He was “delivered up because of our offenses, and … raised because of our justification” (Rom. 4:25)—thus shedding His blood, long since pointed to by the animal blood sprinkled by the Jewish high priests onto the mercy seat of the ark of the covenant.
God, therefore, enters into a gracious covenant with His people; a covenant that cannot fail (unlike the earlier arrangement with Adam), for He keeps its stipulations, both from His side and from theirs (through their divinely appointed Mediator, Christ; 1 Tim. 2:5). And His sovereign grace effectually transforms those chosen to be in covenant with Him, reckoning them to be righteous through faith (Gen. 15:6; Rom. 3:22) and then inwardly changing them more and more into His holy image by the power of His indwelling Spirit (Jer. 31:33–34; Rom. 8:9–15) and Word of Truth (John 17:17). The fiery, cloudy pillar of glory that at times rested upon the ark, whether in the tabernacle or temple, showed how God’s presence was to be the life and transformation of His people (cf. 2 Cor. 3:15).
We see the wonderful dynamics of this at work in the experience of King David in chapters 6 to 10 of 2 Samuel. David, now established in his kingdom, gave much thought to the God who had graciously brought him thus far. He decided to move the ark from far outside Jerusalem to the capital city. So far, so good. But he did a good thing in a wrong way. Instead of consulting the Law, which prescribed that the ark must be moved on the shoulders of the Levites (Num. 4:4–15), David had it placed on a cart drawn by oxen. The oxen stumbled, and Uzzah touched the ark and was struck dead (2 Sam. 6:6–7). The shocked David was “angry” and “afraid,” and left the ark in the house of one Obed-Edom. But over time, Obed-Edom and his household were blessed by the very presence of this sacred object (2 Sam. 6:11). So David repented of his miscarriage (1 Chron. 15:13), and then conveyed the ark in God’s appointed way, not omitting blood sacrifices (2 Sam. 6:13).
How greatly he and his faithful company rejoiced to see this symbol of God’s covenant grace come into Jerusalem! Many commentators believe that he composed Psalm 24 on this occasion, with its exhortation to the very gates of Jerusalem: “Lift up your heads, O you gates! And be lifted up, you everlasting doors! And the King of glory shall come in” (v. 7). And many also believe that the final fulfillment of this exhortation came when the ascended Christ triumphantly passed through the portals of heaven! That Christ, whose power, grace, and glory were so clearly portrayed in the ark, chose David, forgave him of his sins, established his kingdom, and opened the gates of heaven to him and to all who believe.