Summary: The Covenant means that: 1. God is relational. 2. God is faithful. 3. God is on the move.
In the song of Zechariah (father of John the Baptist) the Scripture says he was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied: “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come and has redeemed his people. He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David (as he said through his holy prophets of long ago). . . to show mercy to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant, the oath he swore to our father Abraham” (Luke 1:67-73). Zechariah, in this song called “The Benedictus,” correctly saw that what God was doing, was not an isolated incident in the history of the world, but wonderfully connected to a process and plan which God had been carrying out from the beginning. It was not something new, but a continuation of what God had always been up to in the world. God’s plan in the beginning was always to create for himself a people with whom he could share his life. We begin to see this most clearly in God’s relationship with Abraham. God comes to Abraham and does something with him that becomes the norm for God establishing a relationship with someone — he establishes a covenant.
A covenant is not just a mutual agreement between two people; it is not like a legal contract. It was a binding agreement where the parties involved committed themselves to each other and the terms of the covenant under pain of death. It created a binding relationship between them. The covenant was based on the character of the persons involved. God’s part of the promise was that he would fulfill the covenant and redeem his people by bringing his Messiah into the world, and this Messiah would bring God’s people back to him and give them new hearts. As he said, “This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time, declares the Lord. I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people” (Jeremiah 31:33).
Christmas was the fulfillment of God’s covenant with his people. He was bringing to pass what Zechariah now understood: God had come to redeem his people, raise up the horn of salvation and fulfill his holy covenant with Abraham. There are several surprising things about a covenant. And the first is: This means that God is relational. Sometimes we think that since God is God, he does not need anybody. I would suggest to you that because God is God, because he is perfect, he needs people. So the closer to God and the more like him we become, the more we need other people. It’s the nature of a perfect and holy God to be in relationship — so should it be with us. This is why God longs for us. It’s why he puts up with us. The Bible assures us: “As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust” (Psalm 103:13-14). If our relationship with God depended on us, there would be no relationship, for we tend to run and hide from God. We are sinful and unfaithful, and want to avoid relationships. We fail to keep our commitments. But God makes himself vulnerable, and opens himself up to a relationship with us. This is why he says over and over again that he wants to be our God, and wants us to be his people.
But over and over again God’s people reject him, and want to be independent of a relationship with him. You will remember that Jesus grieved over Jerusalem, saying, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing” (Matthew 23:37). This kind of God was seen as strange by the people who worshiped other gods and goddesses. Their gods delighted in dominating people. They were full of intrigue and cruelty. They loved to punish their subjects. They had to be appeased. The better ones were merely distant and aloof. But here is a God who is in constant pursuit of his creation. Jesus said, “The Father himself loves you because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God. I came from the Father and entered the world” (John 16:27-28). What this means is that God is not content to stay in his world and leave us alone. He was not willing, as some like to say, to wind the world up like a clock and walk away. This is not an impersonal god, this is a God who is intensely personal and relational. Solomon was overwhelmed by the intimate love of God when he prayed, “O Lord, God of Israel, there is no God like you in heaven above or on earth below — you who keep your covenant of love with your servants who continue wholeheartedly in your way” (1 Kings 8:23).