“…the women represent two covenants. One covenant is from Mount Sinai and bears children who are to be slaves…” Galatians 4:24, NIV
So much has been written and said about two covenants in Christendom that it has become trite. However, this week’s lesson compels us to revisit the dichotomy, albeit with oft repeated assumptions and interpretive constraints framed by extra-Biblical sources. Nonetheless, we shall try to inject some fresh perspectives into this topic.
While Paul writes of two covenants in Galatians, many today speak of an “old” covenant and a “new” covenant. Unfortunately, this nomenclature creates confusion for many believers who conflate old and new covenants with the Old and New Testaments from the Bible. The two are not the same, yet people often speak of those in the Old Testament as living under the Old Covenant, and identify the New Testament, which more clearly focuses on Jesus, as being synonymous with the New Covenant.
Since the Old Testament repeatedly presents a message of obedience, it and the Old Covenant are identified with a God who offers salvation based on the righteousness of the obedient supplicant. The epitome of this contract or covenant with God is held by some to be expressed in the Ten Commandments carried down from Mt Sinai by Moses. But is it?
In Paul’s letter to the Galatians, he identifies one covenant with Hagar and the other with Sarah. The two co-exist. They are not old and new. They are simultaneous. When we make one old and the other new, we imply that God made a covenant that man could never keep and then realizing His mistake, He made a new one. This might work for a Greek or Roman demigod, but this cannot be for one true God who has created all things. If He is flawed, has made mistakes, then He is less than perfect and by definition not God.
In fact, both covenants are the same; only the understanding is different. The covenant that is associated with Hagar is simply the contract man offers God based on his understanding of God’s will. Since man’s understanding of God can never be complete, the covenant is necessarily flawed and cannot produce salvation. This covenant is associated with a “checklist” theology. Its adherents love to make lists of rules that they can peruse to determine their level of righteousness.
Those checklists can be in the form of creedal or doctrinal statements, liturgies, ceremonial rules or even the Ten Commandments. The more items that can be checked off on the list, the closer the practitioner is to God’s will and therefore also closer to righteousness and salvation. Unfortunately, the more a person can check off on the list, the more self-righteous they become as well. They begin to compare themselves to others based on the checklists. They justify this judgmentalism by referring to Jesus talking about knowing others “by their fruits.” These self-styled “fruit inspectors” feel justified in looking down their noses at those who do not have the ability to check off as many things on the “highway to righteousness” as they have.
Such people become slaves to their own self-righteousness. It is as difficult for these to see the covenant of Sarah, as it is for the “camel to go through the eye of the needle.” Nevertheless, Jesus extends hope for these people as He assures them that what for man is impossible, for God is still possible. He assures us this in the parable of the rich, young ruler who came to Him wanting a checklist faith. (See Mark 10:17-27) Like this young man, those who practice such a faith will go away disappointed, realizing that all they have enslaved themselves to do was without profit.
The covenant of Sarah is the better way. While Hagar’s covenant is based on what man can do with a divine checklist, Sarah’s is based on what God can do when man steps aside. Some following Hagar’s way would disparagingly consider Sarah’s way “do nothing” righteousness. In a sense they are right. Moses put it like this: “The LORD will fight for you; you need only to be still.” Exodus 14:14, NIV Instead of running about waving checklists in one another’s faces, we “need only to be still.”
Abraham was following the way of Hagar when he fathered her son Ishmael. But since this was doing God’s will according to Abraham’s understanding, it was doomed to fail. God had promised an heir to Abraham. He was going to provide that heir. Abraham’s part was “only to be still.” But like many today that follow the way of Hagar, he could not understand that he was to do nothing to fulfill the promise. In fact, doing anything was to demonstrate a lack of faith, a lack of trust in God to complete what He promised. It is a failure to understand that the covenant is fulfilled not by what we bring to it, but by what God brings.
Abraham demonstrated that, yes, he could produce offspring in his old age, but he could not do God’s will in fathering Ishmael. God’s will does not originate from the human heart. It can blossom there, but only if we can “be still.” It is not based on what we do, but what we don’t do.
Some have called this “cheap grace.” Nothing could be farther from the truth. Most of us can remember a time when we have watched someone doing a task that we were intimately familiar with. When they did something differently from how we would have done it, it was all we could do to keep from interfering and re-directing their efforts aright. It is not easy to set aside those feelings and let things take their course. We know that can be a risk when dealing with other people, and we are often afraid to take that risk. But when we apply those feelings to our relationship with God, we run a greater risk.
While we may get away with telling other people how to do things, we cannot do this with God. We cannot expect God to live by checklists, even if we think they originated with Him. We cannot apply those checklists to Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, or Bathsheba. According to the checklists, Tamar played the prostitute and should have been stoned. Rahab was not only a prostitute but a Canaanite, a people condemned to destruction. She was forbidden to marry an Israelite according to the checklist. She not only was allowed to live but married Salmon. Ruth was a Moabitess. Moabites were excluded from the congregation of Israel for ten generations, yet she was King David’s grandmother. Bathsheba participated in adultery with King David and the checklist says she should have been stoned. Instead, she was mother to King Solomon.
Had any one of these been handled according to the checklist, the line of descent would have been broken. Why would that matter? It was this line that God chose to bring Jesus into the world. He obviously did not base this decision on the self-righteousness of these individuals. The Bible tells us why He did it. In John 3:16, we are told that it was for one reason – His love. You see the problem with the checklists of Hagar’s covenant is that they get in the way of the love of Sarah’s covenant. God simply wants to love us, but we want to feel worthy of that love, and we tell ourselves that there is something we can do to win God’s love. We already have that love.
The Bible tells us “…God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Romans 5:8, NIV God extended His love toward us in our disobedience. His love is not dependent on our obedience. It cannot be. The Bible tells us “…God is love.” 1 John 4:8, NIV If we condition that love on our obedience then we attempt to assert control over God’s love. We imagine we can turn it on or off by our obedience or disobedience. But we cannot so cavalierly dismiss God’s love by our disobedience. This universe is God’s creation, not ours. It beats to his heart of love. It does not march to our control no matter how holy or righteous we feel our purpose to be.
God invites each of us to abandon the enslaving, hard work of attempting to control our faith through the checklists of the covenant of Hagar. Instead, He asks us “only to be still” and live in the covenant of Sarah. We can lay all the burdens of Hagar at the foot of the cross. There in the stillness of our surrender, Jesus will enter our hearts replacing our struggle with the greatest peace and joy we have ever known. Wouldn’t you like to have that for your life? I would.