Summary: The covenant of law through Moses did not alter the covenant of promise with Abraham. The New Covenant fulfills the promise to bring blessing to all nations through Abraham's Offspring, Jesus Christ.
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THREE COVENANTS BETWEEN GOD AND MAN
ILLUSTRATION: Letter from Public Works and Government Services, promising me a flag flown on Parliament Hill in approximately 16 years.
“A covenant is an unchangeable, divinely imposed legal agreement between God and man that stipulates the conditions of their relationship.”
• “Agreement”: Two parties are represented, God and man.
• “Divinely imposed”: Man can never negotiate with God or change the terms of the covenant. He can only accept or reject the terms of the covenant. Probably for this reason, the NT authors do not use the ordinary Greek word for contracts or agreements in which both parties were equal (syntheke), but rather chose a less common word, diatheke, which emphasizes that the provisions of the covenant were laid down by one of the parties only. (In fact, the word diatheke was often used to refer to a “testament” or “will” that a person would leave to assign the distribution of his or her goods after death.)
• “Unchangeable”: The covenants between God and man may be superseded or replaced by a different covenant, but they may not be changed once they are established.
In this passage, we see three of God’s covenants with man:
1. The ABRAHAMIC Covenant
This covenant was a covenant of PROMISE.
• It would bring blessing to all NATIONS through Abraham.
“All peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Genesis 12:3).
• It was dependent on God ALONE.
As the sun was setting, Abram fell into a deep sleep.... When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking firepot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces. On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram (Genesis 15:12, 17-18).
In Abraham’s day an oath was sometimes confirmed by a ceremony in which animals were cut into two parts along the backbone and placed in two rows, the rows facing each other across a space marked off between them. The two parties to the oath walked together into the space between the parts and spoke their promises there. This oath would especially be sacred because of the shed blood. It was this ceremony God enacted with Abraham (Gen. 15). But it had this exception: In the case of God’s covenant with Abraham, God alone passed between the pieces of the slain animals, thereby signifying that he alone stood behind the promises.
• It would be fulfilled by Abraham’s ultimate OFFSPRING.
The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. The Scripture does not say “and to seeds,” meaning many people, but “and to your seed,” meaning one person, who is Christ (v. 16; cf. Genesis 12:7; 13:15; 24:7).
The singular form has a collective significance and does, in fact, generally denote more than one person. The nearest English equivalent is the word “offspring.” The best explanation is that Paul is simply pointing out that the singular word—“seed” rather than “children,” “descendants,” or “some such plural word—is appropriate, inasmuch as Israel had always believed that the ultimate blessing would come through a single individual.
The promise was BELIEVED by Abraham, resulting in his JUSTIFICATION.
2. The MOSAIC/OLD Covenant
This covenant was a covenant of LAW.
• It did not CHANGE the Abrahamic Covenant.
What I mean is this: The law, introduced 430 years later, does not set aside the covenant previously established by God and thus do away with the promise (v. 17).
• It was INFERIOR to the Abrahamic Covenant.
(1) It was TEMPORARY.
Until the Seed to whom the promise referred had come (v. 19b).
The phrase “put in charge” (v. 24) is translated from the Greek word paidagogos. Other versions translate this word as “schoolmaster” (KJV), “tutor” (NKJV, NASB), and “guardian” (NLT). “Pedagogue” is derived from paidagogos. A pedagogue was a slave employed by wealthy Greeks and Romans to take care of one of the children of the family. This job began when the child turned six and lasted until his sixteenth birthday. A pedagogue was responsible for watching over the child’s behavior wherever he went and for leading him to and from school. Paul’s point is that this responsibility ceased when the child reached maturity. The law was like a pedagogue. It had a temporary job. So, the law did not give life to Israel; it regulated life. The slave was not the child’s father; he was the child’s guardian and disciplinarian.
(2) It was given through a MEDIATOR.
The law was put into effect through angels by a mediator (v. 19c).
• It showed man his SINFULNESS.
What, then, was the purpose of the law? It was added because of transgressions (v. 19a).