Reading through the Old Testament several years ago, I remember being so confused by what felt like a bipolar God. In Exodus, He responded to the Israelites grumblings in the wilderness with grace over and over again. Then suddenly in Numbers, He responded to the exact same grumblings with curses and serpents. Did He just run out of patience with them? Did He decide after the golden calf that they weren’t good enough for His grace anymore? Did His grace for me also have limits? It left me with an impression that was incompatible with what I knew to be true about God.
Finally, a few years later, my husband and his parents led me through a study on the various covenants in the Old Testament and I was able to reconcile my view of the Old Testament God with the Heavenly Father I had fallen in love with. I was also able to create a solid foundation for my understanding of grace and God’s love.
To fully understand the foundation of grace, and what it means to live under grace, it’s important to look at a few of the covenants in the Old and New Testaments: specifically, the Abrahamic Covenant, the Mosaic Covenant, and the New Covenant.
COVENANT 1: ABRAHAMIC COVENANT
Covenant: cov·e·nant ˈkəv-nənt , a formal, solemn, and binding agreement or promise usually under seal between two or more parties, especially for the performance of some action.
The Abrahamic Covenant was established in Genesis 12: 1-3 and was cut by a blood sacrifice in Genesis 15. When establishing a blood covenant, it was typical for both parties to pass between the halved animals to signify the commitments each of them were making. In Genesis 15:17, only God passed through the center, while Abraham was in a deep sleep. This shows us that the covenant was unilateral, meaning its fulfillment was dependent on God and His sovereignty alone, not on Abraham.
Abraham and his descendants had only to believe and it was counted as righteous. When the Israelites came out of Egypt, this was the covenant they were under. It was a covenant of grace, as we see in Exodus. While traveling to Mt. Sinai, the Israelites doubted Him on the shores of the Red Sea and God delivered them (Exodus 14:12). They complained about the water at Marah and God provided for them (Exodus 15:24). They grumbled about hunger in the desert and God supplied them with abundant bread and meat (Exodus 16:2-3). This is what a covenant of grace looks like – its fulfillment is not based on the works or obedience of the people, but on God’s faithfulness alone.
However, at Sinai, everything changed. Under the first covenant, Israel became prideful, believing their salvation came from simply being God’s people and that they were wholly capable of doing everything He asked of them. They saw themselves as equal partners in God’s covenant, so they signed up for a new, law-based covenant where God’s blessings now hinged on their faithfulness. (Exodus 19:1-8). When the people responded to God that they could do everything He asked, they were saying, “Judge us based on our obedience instead of Your goodness.”
COVENANT 2: MOSAIC COVENANT
The Ten Commandments, along with the other laws, were given to the Israelites in Exodus 20. While the Abrahamic covenant was a unilateral covenant, the Mosaic Covenant was a bilateral covenant. Though its ultimate fulfillment was still dependent on God, there was now also an agreement that had to be fulfilled by the Israelites in order to experience the blessings. When establishing the covenant, the sacrificial blood was thrown both on the altar and also on the people (Exodus 24:6-8).
The law was good and holy, but the covenant was weak because it was dependent on human ability and not God’s ability. Hebrews 8:7-8 says the covenant was not faultless, but the fault was with the people, not the actual covenant. The Israelites couldn’t live up to the promise they had made to God. They immediately broke their end of the covenant when they created the golden calf, and it was only Moses’ prayer and God’s grace that kept them from being consumed by God’s wrath. Instead, scripture says that God plagued the people because of what they did with the calf (Exodus 32:35).
After this exchange, note how God reacted to the same sins of the Israelites. In Numbers 21:4-6, the people spoke against God and against Moses, and the Lord sent fiery serpents among them. Rather than the grace and provision they had seen before, their sin brought punishment upon them.
So what was the purpose of the law?
- To set a standard of righteousness.
The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple; the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes; the fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever; the rules of the Lord are true, and righteous altogether. – Psalm 19:7-9 (ESV)
- To reveal sin and knowledge of sin.
Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. – Romans 3:19-20 (ESV)
- To show that Christ was the only means of obtaining righteousness.
But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. – Romans 3:21-24 (ESV)
It’s important to note that this covenant did not nullify the Lord’s covenant with Abraham. He still planned to create an everlasting covenant, through Abraham’s offspring. Hebrews 8:8 shows that the Lord knew a new covenant was coming – one that would be perfect and faultless. “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah.”
COVENANT 3: THE NEW COVENANT
In the Old Testament, in order for someone to be cleansed of their sins, they were required to bring in a lamb that was without blemish. The sinner then laid their hands on the lamb’s head before it was killed, transferring his sins to the lamb. The lamb’s innocence was then transferred to the sinner making him righteous.
The New Covenant was established on the cross, when the Lamb of God took on all our sins: past, present, and future. The Cross brought us back to a permanent state of grace, giving us Christ’s righteousness. Jesus was the only one in the flesh who could perfectly satisfy the covenant God had created, nailing the law to the cross, and fulfilling it on our behalf. It is because of Christ’s finished work that believers now stand as forgiven, righteous, and blessed children of God.
Colossians 2:13-14 says, “And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.” (ESV)
Believers now live in the New Covenant, under the power of God’s grace by the Spirit. It doesn’t mean we have no moral law or standard, but that we are able to live righteously through a new source of life.
“For the law of the life-giving Spirit in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death. For God achieved what the law could not do because it was weakened through the flesh. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and concerning sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the righteous requirement of the law may be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” – Romans 8:2-4