Forever in Scripture and Covenant Language

Jonah 2:4-6: Then I said, I am cast out of thy sight; yet I will look again toward thy holy temple. 5 The waters compassed me about, even to the soul: the depth closed me round about, the weeds were wrapped about my head. 6 I went down to the bottoms of the mountains; the earth with her bars was about me for ever: yet hast thou brought up my life from corruption, O Lord my God. (Jonah 2:4-6 – KJV)

There are those in our catholic communion who make much of the word “forever,” whether it is used in the Old Testament or New Testament. I have chosen one example of the use of the word “forever” (rendered with a preposition and a noun in the Hebrew), to show that the use of the word, even in instances where, grammatically and lexically, it holds the meaning of “always,” must be understood in the context of that wherein it occurs, as well as the greater context of the book it occurs within and, ultimately, the overall context of Scripture.

Notice how Jonah uses this word, and the theological significance of it; from a purely human perspective, Johan saw his plight as being without reprieve, never ending, insurmountable.

However, in the very same prayer – in fact, immediately following this observation of a situation without remedy (by finite, human standards), Jonah declares and celebrates his being saved from that which no man could save him from, and that salvation is by the very God whom he was running from.

This is one of the uses of forever in Scripture, with its cognates and synonyms (eternal, everlasting, etc.).

Thus, when we read of the everlasting covenant made with Abraham, or of the never ending covenant of the Sabbath made with the children of Israel, other things must enter into the record; in the case of Abraham, we must recognize the duality of the covenant, not in terms of who would be part of it, but in terms of who would be of the spiritual seed, and those who, decidedly not being of the seed of the promise, although circumcised, were expressly not the spiritual seed (these things are spoken of particularly in Galatians in the New Testament, where the apostle Paul is given the apostolic understanding of these promises).

In the case of the Sabbath for the children of Israel, we must go back to the beginning of the Scriptural record in Genesis, and see the purpose for which God created the Sabbath, then import that into the Mosaic Sabbath, and later, into the Christian Sabbath as defined in the New Testament (in other words, the Sabbath is a creation covenant, not limited to the Mosaic economy, but preceding it and existing after it).

Obviously, if the Mosaic economy ended, as stated in the book of Hebrews and other places, the Sabbath, as practiced therein, is not extant any longer; this does not mean the moral requirement of the creation Sabbath has ceased, but that God redirected it to be that sign of the New Creation, of which our Lord Jesus Christ is the beginning.

Please understand this: Our Lord Jesus Christ is the beginning of the New Creation, and as the Old Covenant is spoken of, in Hebrews, as passing away, so we know, from Scripture, that that which was first created is replaced in that which was the beginning of God’s new creation.

Since the Sabbath, as stated by God in the creation account in Genesis, was a day of rest made for Him (not that God’s activity of sustaining His creation ever ceases, or that He, being God, actually needs to rest, as if He were tired), yet as also stated by our Lord Jesus Christ as being made for man, we must ascertain exactly what is the common meeting point of these two things, and by comparing Scripture with Scripture, we understand that the Sabbath was created by God to be an eternal rest, yet is the specific day that man is to enter into God’s glorious presence for special worship of His creator – this is the sense that the Sabbath was made for man, then, to worship His Creator.

How does this tie into covenant language?

Well, some of the answer to the above question has already been explained, both implicitly and explicitly, in our discussion of Jonah 2:4-6, and the cessation of the Old Covenant – however, we will endeavor to explain just a tad bit more, noting that this is a brief blog post, and not intended to be a theological treatise.

All creation ordinances are covenantal – one example would be the marriage union between a man and a woman (at least, the most easily understood example, although even this has deeper theological significance in being a continuing type and shadow of Christ and His union with His church during this present age – at least, in the marriage union as our Lord and the apostle Paul define it).

Therefore, where some covenants are said to be eternal, everlasting, or forever in Scripture, God qualified what that meant, in every case, both in relation to Himself and His people. When we see that which is said to be forever in an economy that no longer exists, we understand that it is tied into obedience on man’s part, to the covenant conditions which God has stipulated. If the covenant conditions have ceased, at that point, what is termed forever or eternal is seen to be conditional.

Another example can be put forward: The covenant with Noah is said to be “the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” (Genesis 9:16) Now, it should be evident that this covenant will not be in place when the eschaton has been ushered in – it is a covenant, primarily, to not cease God’s goodness to mankind regardless of man’s estate (cf. Psalm 145:9; Matthew 5:44-45), particularly as defined in Genesis 8:22 on through 9:17. Therefore, everlasting (synonymous with “forever,” “eternal,” and such Scriptural words), in this context, cannot mean continuing without end, for God’s special grace to those He saves will find its complete fulfillment when Christ comes again and they gain that entrance into His glory in their gloried bodies in His new creation, where there will not be any suffering, death, or sin. This Noahic Covenant is, consequently, meant to convey God’s general providence to all mankind regardless of estate until the end of this present world only, and not as an eternal benefit to all man (saved, or reprobate, according to His eternal decree per the Covenant of Redemption He purposed within Himself [Ephesians 1:4; Titus 1:1-3; cf. Romans 9:10-24] )up to the point of the perfection of the state of glory of all His elect, when even the elements of the heavens and the earth shall be reconstituted perfect (cf. the word “dissolved” in 2 Peter 3:10, especially in the Greek).

The next example of this we will look at has to do with what is called an eternal covenant between God and Abraham’s offspring; obviously, this has far reaching implications in federal (covenant) theology.

Genesis 17:7: And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. (ESV)

The first thing that must be looked at is the substance of this covenant promise of our God to Abraham: It must be asserted that what is promised to Abraham in the covenant God made with him pertains to national (which would be ethnic) Israel, so if the nation ceased to be God’s special covenant people to proclaim His goodness, mercy, faithfulness, love, righteousness and power to the world, and this came about by God’s working, it must also be asserted that the promise of this covenant to national Israel had ceased, and therefore could not be considered everlasting (in the sense of going on forever without ceasing). In fact, it must be insisted upon that, although the covenant God made with Abraham contained, in a less revealing manner (in regards to the promise concerning that Seed from Genesis 3:15), that promise to the Seed of the woman (Genesis 3:8,16; cf. Galatians 3:16 with Genesis 12:3), that this promise was not the primary substance of the Abrahamic Covenant (that substance being to give him a people which would be a nation from which that seed would come, regarding being a blessing to all mankind); the primary substance of the Abrahamic Covenant having to do with the realized national covenant which would issue from the Abrahamic in the Sinaitic Covenant – it must be insisted upon and understood that the primary substance of the covenant with Abraham was to propagate that elect people who would form the nation which, in turn, God would use to create that Kingship – again, chosen, or elect – from which would come His Son, the Messiah, the final and eternal Son of David, whom the apostle understood, by the Holy Spirit, to be the spiritual seed of Abraham, in whom also all the promises regarding all peoples of the earth, regardless of ethnicity, nation, culture, language, “… will be blessed.”[1]

Therefore, in the sense of the covenant being everlasting, it must be understood that there is only one part of it which consistently holds forth this meaning, and that this part is not the original substance of the covenant with Abraham, nor is the administration of the covenant with Abraham unto eternal life (though containing the substance of the promise of the Messiah in budding, progressive form; that is, in greater and brighter revelatory form than the seed-form it had in the protoevangelium [literally, first gospelGenesis 3:15], although not in the fullness of the Covenant of Grace established in the life, death, resurrection and glorification of our Lord Jesus Christ, which is to say, the Covenant of Grace that was historically established in the New Covenant of our Lord Jesus Christ, per the Covenant of Redemption agreed upon within historic Covenant Theology of all stripes, other than heterodoxy –cf. Jeremiah 31:31-34 with Hebrews 8:6-13).  In regards to the primary substance of the covenant, and the administration of said covenant, the term everlasting is a temporal definition of how long the covenant with Abraham’s offspring, pertaining to the flesh, would enjoy the covenant promises of God to His national people which concerned the land and benefits thereof, and so could only last so long as the conditions of the covenant were abided by, which conditions were later set forth in the multiplied natural seed of Abraham which became Israel, yet abrogated in the national disobedience to the coming of the Messiah (which even the natural seed of the flesh [of Abraham] was forced to acknowledge in the argumentation of our Saviorcf. Matthew 21:42-44 with Matthew 21:41).

Thus, the Mosaic Covenant is seen in seed-form in such statements as Genesis 18:17-18:The LORD said, ‘Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him?’” The portion of this passage to concentrate upon has to do with Abraham’s seed becom(ing) a great and mighty nation, whereas the latter portion of the passage has to do with the promise of those who will be comprehended in the Messiah to be revealed at the time of the historical institution of the Covenant of Grace (New Covenant). This is further delineated in the subsequent v. 19, “For I have chosen him, that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice, so that the LORD may bring to Abraham what he has promised him.” Here, great and mighty nation is directly connected with command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice, so that the LORD may bring to Abraham what he has promised him. The faithfulness of the nation to keep the way of the LORD, the nation which is to be born out of Abraham, is directly tied to their becoming a mighty nation, and, as we shall see, their continued faithfulness (or lack thereof) is the condition upon which they will remain or fail to remain such a nation of the LORD.

So, at what point does this national covenant to Abraham become nil? In other words, at what point does this covenant made with Abraham end, concerning the seed out of which the nation will continue in order to give birth to the promised Messiah from Genesis 3:15 onwards, and at what point does the national covenant (hereafter called the Mosaic, or Sinaitic Covenant) out of which the covenant Messiah, and the seed that proceeds out of He who is the covenant Seed to bless all the nations of the world, end? (Notice we are positing the end of covenant with ethic Israel, not the promised Covenant of Grace which is realized and ratified in the historical fulfillment of those promises in our Lord Jesus Christ’s birth, life, death and resurrection.)

The answer to the above question concerns the question with reference to the actual substance of the Abrahamic Covenant, regarding the administration of that substance, and if such substance has to do with the actuation of the nation, kingdom, and King of eschatological significance in Scripture. If, in regards to the establishment of the nation and kingdom, it can be answered in the positive, yet not so regarding the eschatological King, we must admit that the substance of the covenant was to bring forth the nation and the kingdom, without comprehending, as an immediate (and so, eternal, or everlasting) function and historical reality, the very King of that nation and kingdom (as already put forth in footnote 1).

There is very real typological significance of the realized Covenant of Grace in the promises and life events of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, with the inherent understanding of the reality of the substance of that Covenant our Messiah would fulfill, but this is not the primary substance of the Abrahamic Covenant, therefore, the administration of this covenant could not be that of the promises – yet unfulfilled, at this time, as to the creation of the New Covenant – but rather, this administration must have to do with the realization of the nation from which the Savior would come – the type, or types, or promises and life events are not the substance of the Abrahamic Covenant and the subsequent Mosaic Covenant which was birthed by it, otherwise there would be no need for the historic fulfillment of these promises in the actuality of the New Covenant. So, while we affirm the substance of the COG contained in the promises of these life experiences, we insist, with the apostle, that these promises were types and shadows – an allegorical use (symbolic) of that substance which would be realized completely in Christ, our Lord, and subsequently, in greater and greater degree in the church, in its members individually and, especially, collectively, until that great day when He perfects us (Colossians 2:17; cf. Romans 5:14 with Galatians 4:22-31; 2 Corinthians 3:10-18; 1 Corinthians 13:12 with 1 John 3:2).

From the Scripture citations just given above, it is plain to see that the Old Testament (and with reference to the historic covenants, the Old Covenant, as already defined) was – and is – set to be read with reference to looking at it through the lens of the New Testament/New Covenant (the fulfillment of the promises, and the completion of the types and shadows in Christ, fully, and in us – His church – progressively), and this is a driving hermeneutic which must never be forgotten when studying Scripture (which has largely been lost due to various aberrant false hermeneutics, but is, thankfully, being preserved and again recovered by our Lord’s faithful providence and grace). Not everything is symbolic or typical, but when it comes to the elements of the historic covenants, it is purposely so, much of the time, which accounts for that substance inherent but not realized in those covenants that we, in these last days, are in the privileged and gracious position of having much of what was historically realized in our Lord’s fulfillment of those promises (and we have the down-payment of His Spirit indwelling us as that sure promise of our full realization of that which He so dearly bought for usEphesians 1:13-14).

In this lengthy manner, we get back to the meaning of eternal, as spoken to Abraham, and in a non-typical manner, we are again given light as to the meaning of this term when we look at that which the Abrahamic Covenant is called in the New Testament, which is the covenant of circumcision (Acts 7:8).

We have already looked at how a covenant could be called everlasting, yet is actually finite – which is to say, not lasting forever – in the terminus of the Noahic Covenant; here (in the Abrahamic), we find that the terminus is before the end of this present age, and in fact, that this terminus has already happened, for circumcision was a sign and seal of the Abrahamic and Mosaic Covenant, particular to national Israel, which was itself a type of that work that the Holy Spirit would do for believers in the realized COG (Colossians 2:11). In this, our paedobaptist brethren are right to indentify the words “having been buried with Him in baptism” from v. 12 with our present verse’s “circumcision made without hands,” but are wrong to infer that baptism is actually that circumcision made without hands, instead of seeing it as a symbol of that internal reality that takes place when one confesses Christ and is sealed with the Holy Spirit. Seeking for continuity between the Old Covenant sign of circumcision which was for national Israel with the new Israel of the New Covenant (all believers, regardless of ethnicity, status or gender – unlike the Old Covenant – are comprehended by the unique sign of the New Covenant which symbolizes the universal aspect of that New CovenantGalatians  3:27-29) brings forth a wrong analogical affirmation, which actually cannot be validated from Scripture, whether through “good and necessary inference,” or exegetical veracity. There is a vital relationship between the sign and the seal of the covenant which has been largely lost in the modern atmosphere of evangelicalism, due to the reasons we mentioned above, but that relationship does not make the sign the seal, but the sign of the seal, which is accomplished, as the Scripture stated, “without hands;” that is, God the Spirit circumcises our hearts (Ezekiel 36:26-27; cf. Deuteronomy  30:6). We could say much about the typical references to this in the Old Testament, but it is beyond the scope of this paper, so we will leave it with the little we have said, and get back to our defining of forever in the Abrahamic Covenant.

We have already inferred, from the language and Scripture citations given, that that which was old was passing away (and indeed, has passed away), therefore, our premise is now that, like the terminus of the Noahic Covenant, the final boundary of the Abrahamic Covenant (and so, the Old Covenant as an entire economy) was reached at the time of our Lord’s giving birth to His church (Israel, as a national covenant people, having been terminated [unlike the Dispensational hermeneutic which has so invaded modern evangelicalism, Covenant Theology does not hold that it is Biblical to posit the current nation of Israel as a restored theocracy, per our Lord and the apostles teachings]).

If the covenant of circumcision has ceased, it is because it accomplished that for which God brought it into being to accomplish, and we have already contended it was to bring a people, that would become a nation, which would birth a kingdom from which the final King and Messiah would come. Since that occurred, and that which was old and was fading away has faded away, at this time (long ago, during the first century church’s time, for that matterHebrews 7:16-22, 8:13), the word everlasting, regarding the covenant made with Abraham, in the sense of dealing with those who became the people, nation, and kingdom from which our Messiah would come, has reference to that people, nation and kingdom; it cannot have reference to the Messiah (except in promissory form, which is that pre-extant substance of the COG yet to come inherent in the promises and types of the historic covenants, not the substance and administration of those historic covenants in and of themselves), for He ever lives. With the covenant terminated, there is no longer a need for the covenant sign, therefore everlasting references not eternity, but the duration of the covenant of which the sign signified was in place; being abrogated by a better covenant made by an oath of God the Father to the Son (Hebrews 7:20-22), and containing better promises of that covenant which is made obsolete (Hebrews 8:6). The terminus of the Abrahamic Covenant (and so, all that came from it, regarding the flesh) was begun at the birth of our Lord, subsequently brought closer and closer to that end which it was decreed to reach (and which our Lord spoke ofMatthew 21:43-46and even those who were declared to be out of the Kingdom of God partially understood), brought even closer in His death and resurrection, and ultimately became obsolete with the birth and growth of the new Israel, the New Covenant Church of peoples from all nations, Jews and Gentiles. That which was exclusive, regarding the national representation of God by one nation – Israel – was taken away from them – as an ethnic group (Matthew 21:43) – and became universal in scope, not confined to any one nation, in Jesus Christ and His universal church. We have listed Scripture citations to this effect already; much more could have been cited, but that which has been is sufficient to the purpose of this article.

Since the function of the Abrahamic Covenant was to bring into being the people, and subsequently the nation and the monarchy of that kingdom (i.e. the Hebrew people, the nation of Israel, the Davidic kingly line), and, with the coming of the greater Son of David (Matthew 1:1ff; Matthew 21:9-16; Matthew 9:27; 12:23 [even ethnic Jews pondered this fact]; Matthew 15:22 [understood by various Gentiles]; Matthew 22:41-46 [Jesus not only knew Himself to be the greater son of David, but used this argument to silence His opponents], etc.), with the coming of Jesus Christ, the function of the Abrahamic, Mosaic and Davidic Covenants was realized, the church was birthed, and the national Old Covenant was abrogated in the substance of the promises these historic covenants contained being historically realized (which the Scripture references cited plainly show). Therefore, the covenant of circumcision given in Abraham and continued throughout the Old Covenant was eternal in relation to its purpose, not in relation to its function as a temporary type which reality is realized spiritually, within each believer (Romans 2:28-29). That which was temporary was not intended to continue, as we have seen from Hebrews 7 and 8, therefore it is necessary to understand the word eternal, in relation to the Old Covenant, as it developed in redemptive history until the coming of the Messiah, in exactly the same sense as having an end in union with its purpose as the Mosaic does, with the knowledge that that end has been realized in this age, and the reality, or antitype, has replaced the type (a circumcised heart is always what the type of circumcision anticipated, even while physical circumcision was the covenant signDeuteronomy 30:6).

Again, it is shown that one must interpret the use of Biblical language within the context of Scripture not only in its immediate context, but within the greater context of the Scriptures as a whole, and that both contexts help us to determine the meaning of words in relation to the covenants wherein they occurred. It is wrong to think that a type is to be understood as going beyond that function wherein the elements of the covenant it occurs within are administered, or to think the promises within the historic covenants, relating to the yet-unfulfilled (within those historic covenants) COG, are the substance of those historic covenants as they were administered. That which was temporary has been replaced by that which was intended to replace it; as to the administration of those promises within the historic covenants that looked forward to the COG, they relied on the fact that the COG would be fulfilled in Christ, not that it was fulfilled during their time. When this current age ends, the gracious provision of God to all mankind given in the Mosaic Covenant will end (Genesis 8:21-22; Psalm 145:9; Matthew 5:45); when the purpose of each historic covenant was realized in Christ Jesus and, subsequently, His church, the signs in the administration of those historic covenants ended, and this is the meaning of eternal with its related terms regarding those particular economies.

In conclusion of this short treatment, eternal, as related to each historic covenant before the redemptive-historical fulfillment of the promises and types in each of those historic covenants in the COG by our Lord Jesus Christ, had a limited scope, as to their primary substance and application of the same. As with the types and promises, which were shades of that substance that was realized in our Lord Jesus Christ and, subsequently, His church (though we yet have to realize the final culmination of that covenant He brought to completion), so it is with the terms forever, eternal, etc; this is to say that the true meaning of these terms are completely realized in the One who brought the COG to fruition and completion. One can readily discern the difference of such words as applied to the historic covenants, and as applied to the New Covenant (i.e., Matthew 19:29; 25:46; John 3:15, 36; 4:14; 5:24; 6:40; 10:28; 17:3; Acts 13:48; Romans 6:23; 2 Corinthians 5:1; 1 Timothy 1:16; 6:12; Titus 1:1-3; Hebrews 5:9; 9:15; 1 John 2:25, etc.). The substance is that the words, as used in the New Covenant (the historically established COG) apply and reference that reality that actually is eternal, which is to say without end. This cannot, as we have seen, be the meaning that the terms so used within the prior historic covenants had reference to (although the promises which were the yet-unrealized substance of the COG hinted at the completion of these same promises with the coming of the Messiah), for those covenant economies had a definite terminus, or do have a definite terminus, within this age, before the eternal state of all who have believed in Christ comes to the same fruition for those believers as it has for He who established it (being the firstfruits1 Corinthians 15:20-22). There is a context for the meaning of these words, and that context is always contained within the respective historic covenants they are attached too – the last covenant to be established historically is the substance of the types and promises of the former covenants, whereas they were established to bring about our Lord and Savior’s coming, life, death and resurrection, to cement that final covenant as the true everlasting covenant. The shadows have passed away; the fulness of that which they portended has come.

Soli Deo gloria ~ Bill H.

[1] See Micah and Samuel Renihan, pg. 3, point (sub heading) 4. “The Old Covenant is theocratic Israel, defined by the Abrahamic, conditioned by the Mosaic, and focused by the Davidic covenants. The Old Covenant, and thus each of these three covenants, differs from the New Covenant not merely in administration, but also in substance.”

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