The Covenants

J. N. Darby.

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The covenant is a word common in the language of a large class of Christian professors, and also of many true Christians; but in its development and detail, as to its unfolded principles, much obscurity appears to me to have arisen from a want of simple attention to Scripture.

The giving of the Church to Christ before the worlds, and the consequent giving to us of the blessings therein involved, seem to me indeed to be most clearly declared in Scripture, as in 2 Timothy 1:9-10. But little heed seems to have been given to that which is really contained in this covenant, as administered in dispensation, in its connection with the character and hope of the Church. Without weakening, then, the foundation whereon all rests, or pulling stones out of it to polish or carve for less needful and appropriate uses, while that whereon they should rest is gone, let us see the plain revelation afforded by the blessed word, on what, in their great branches, the covenants are founded.

The mystery of God's will, according to His good pleasure, which He hath purposed in Himself, He hath made known unto us; even that He should gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth, even in Him. This (however consistent everything was with it, or even typical of it) was hidden from ages and from generations. In fact, however progressive the intimations might be (better hopes sustaining believers in greater darkness, as was the case in prophecy), the limits of the actual dealings of God, as to dispensation, were narrowed, and the terms of them lowered with the falling condition of man and that growing darkness.

The promise that the seed of the woman should bruise the serpent's head, had a wider scope and was a more comprehensive promise, than was any subsequent revelation of resulting details, in the sphere subject to his power; it took the character of the work higher up. "For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that he might destroy the works of the devil." The call and the promise to Abram again had a wider and a fuller meaning and purpose than any dealings with the Jews, not only at Mount Sinai, but even the previous deliverances which constituted them a nation — a people marked by God as the favoured subjects of His strong hand and mighty arm, however more immediate and manifest the hand of God might be. It had therefore a more immediate and determinate object; not the out-reaching prospect of faith, but the visible actings towards the subjects of present deliverance. The law, given from Mount Sinai, took entirely another ground; and whatever was contained in it (as a figure for the time then present) was based upon the obedience of man, as to its terms of promise and blessing, and not in the supremacy of God, however flowing from it.

45 If we turn to the song of Moses, and the song of the Lamb, we shall see at once the characteristic difference (even in the subjects of praise) in the dispensations. The whole song of Moses, most beautiful as it is, is about the hand and power of God doing wonders. "Thy right hand, O Lord, is become glorious in power." So in Revelation 15, "Great and marvellous are thy works, O Lord God Almighty." The song of the Lamb is, "Just and true are thy ways, thou King of saints."* We have the mind of Christ; and as Christ is the wisdom of God, and the power of God, so is made known by the Church the manifold wisdom of God; and so in the resurrection, when the Lord returns, shall in the Church also be manifested the power of God in Christ, "according to the working of his mighty power, whereby he is able to subdue even all things unto himself." And then, in fact (as now known by faith) being indeed quickened, shall be manifested "the exceeding greatness of his power to usward who believe; according to the working of his mighty power which he wrought in Christ, when he raised him from the dead, and set him at his own right hand in heavenly places."

{*[It is well known that for "saints" the best authorities read "nations," though some have "ages." — Ed.]

But now let the Church learn, and let the saint learn that, if it looks with marvel and admiration at the deliverance wrought by the right hand of the Lord at the Red Sea, it too shall ere long sing even in higher and more blessed strains; but now it has a more intimate and distinct lesson to learn — a peculiar, a privileged lesson — the ways of God, the mind of God; and therefore it must be content to suffer. It is not the time, properly speaking, for power to be exercised in its behalf, but for "being renewed in knowledge after the image of him that created him." Now in this there is often found in us that which savours not of the wisdom of the holy and graceful ways of God; there must be suffering; this must be wrought out in the understanding of His mind. Often we have so to learn it. For the rest, the sufferings are the occasions of the perfect display of this grace in a spirit and character altogether beyond the wisdom of man. He, who through death destroyed him that had the power of death, is the pattern of the wisdom in which the Church is led forth into beauty. So we find in Psalm 139, in which the wisdom and knowledge of God, shewn in power manifested in weakness, is illustrated in the fashioning of the members of Christ* out of the lower parts of the earth, and in "awaking still with thee": the wicked are afterward to perish. Hence, in leading forth the people which He had redeemed, He led them not in the triumph of power, altogether above the circumstances through which they passed, as was the case in the deliverance from Egypt (even the present destruction of their enemies by power entirely above them, which they knew only in effect); but, "when he putteth forth his own sheep, he goeth before them and they follow him." "It became him for whom are all things, and by whom are all things, in bringing many sons to glory, to make the captain of their salvation perfect through sufferings; for both he that sanctifieth and they who are sanctified are all of one; for which cause he is not ashamed to call them brethren, saying, I will declare thy name unto my brethren, in the midst of the church will I sing praise unto thee." I mean our fellowship with the Father and with His Son Jesus, having the quickening of that eternal life which was with the Father; a place, not merely of effects in deliverance, but fellowship with Him who so delivers. Hence, I say, Jesus having led the way in grace, and the grace being thus fully manifested, let us not shrink from the sufferings in which we are formed inwardly; for it is communion with, and being conformed to, the image of the Son.

{*[Striking as this analogy of the language may be, it is certain that neither type nor prophecy revealed the mystery of Christ and the Church. This I add to cut off any wrong use of these words. — ED.]}

46 But in looking at the Church's introduction into the knowledge of this image, and fellowship with it, I have, perhaps, wandered too far from the simple question of the covenants. Now I say that this fellowship with the Head triumphant formed no part of the revelation of the covenants, though clearly purposed and formed before the world was, before the ages or dispensations which came in meanwhile, but was reserved for the revelation of the Holy Ghost, sent down upon the exaltation of the Head into the place, according to the character and glory of which the fellowship itself was to be. And this was manifestly necessary; for until the glorification of the suffering Man, there was not that to which the Spirit could testify as existent; nor that accomplished by reason of which the sinner could righteously apprehend fellowship with the glory of the holiest. Indeed this glory was consequent upon the wages of sin, as it was acquired by the exceeding excellency of that by which sin was put away. It was not the perfecting of the creature, but his change into that which by nature he could not inherit, for flesh and blood could not inherit the kingdom of God. It was not the fashioning of creature glory, but the result through death of redemption and higher glory. It was not blessings of creature things conferred on the creature, but the communion of the creature with the Creator: a new and clearly an infinite truth; not casual, nor medial, but infinite and supreme; the knowledge of which is the Church's present portion by the Holy Ghost; known in Jesus, known in communion with Him; the highest link of the supreme glory; a new, a very glorious truth, in which God is revealed (as not otherwise), manifest in the flesh, revealed without in personality.

47 Now I would enquire in how far the covenants unfold these things. The Abrahamic covenants (though wider in the scope and testimony, as we have seen, than the local blessings and promises to Israel, as the apostle also so fully argues) contained none of these things. They proposed the person of the Redeemer, the promised Seed; they proposed the blessing of all nations, but they went not beyond Abraham's being the heir of the world. This may disclose brighter things now that the veil is rent; but in the promises and covenants given to Abraham, he did not outstep as yet in expression the limits of what belonged to the first Adam, because the second Adam (who was also the Lord from heaven) was not revealed, and was simply testified of as the seed of Abraham in whom this blessing should come, whatever it was.

These promises and covenants are in Genesis 12 and 15, and confirmed in chapters 17 and 22. The first promise runs thus: "And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing; and I will bless him that blesseth thee, and curse him that curseth thee; and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed." Afterward the Lord appeared unto Abram and said, "To thy seed will I give this land": here we have nothing beyond the earth and the families by whom it has been divided.

48 In chapter 15 we have the promise of a seed, numerous as the stars of heaven, and (after stating the circumstances in which they would be intermediately placed) the giving of the land to them, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, confirmed by the covenant of the Lord passing between the pieces of the victims.

In chapter 17 this is established as an everlasting covenant with Abraham (his name being changed), and with his seed after him, throughout their generations — that God would be a God to him, and to his seed after him; and that He would give to him, and to his seed after him, all the land wherein he was a stranger, for an everlasting possession; and that He would be their God. And circumcision was given to Abraham as a seal.

In chapter 22 we have the confirmation of the promise to the seed. "In blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of heaven and as the sand which is by the sea shore; and thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies; and in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed." In the latter part of this promise we have the confirmation of the blessing of the families of the earth to the seed, that is Christ; which was (in chap. 12) made originally to Abram. Still (whatever be the manner of its accomplishment), it reaches not beyond the original promise to the families of the earth; nor is He, in whom it was to be fulfilled, revealed otherwise than as the seed of Abraham. The other promises, and the formal covenant, are all of the land, and of a seed numerous and prosperous, who should inherit it, and be a blessing. In all this (however unconditionally it establishes that) we have nothing beyond that which is earthly. The promises and covenants in Abraham are established upon grounds which cannot be shaken — not the stability of a professed obedience, but the stability of the declared promise of God — two immutable things in which it was impossible for God to lie, His promise, and His oath. Whatever intimations of circumstances or gathering of hope there might be, the covenants themselves expressed no more. They were confirmed to Isaac, chapter 26, and to Jacob, chapter 28; but no particular remark is called for as to the terms of the covenants in them.

49 We then come to Mount Sinai — the first covenant made with Israel as a nation. And here, as the covenant was of course confined to the nation or literal seed recently delivered, so the subject matter of the promises was honour and blessing before that God whose all the earth was. This was the old covenant, as we afterwards read of the new covenant, which latter implies (as expressed in its terms) that it was made with the same people: both (whatever their character) dealing with them as a people — i.e., in reference to earth, although putting them as on earth into relationship to God. The new covenant (however its terms then might introduce new principles applicable to strangers) could not be said to be "not according to the covenant I made with their fathers, in the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt," were it not a covenant made with Israel — the same people with whom the former covenant was made at Mount Sinai. Whoever will but examine Jeremiah 31, from which this very important testimony is quoted, will at once see that the new covenant is to, and with, Israel; as moreover it is not quoted by the apostle in any epistle except that to the Hebrews.

The first covenant, then, was a covenant made with Israel; the second covenant is a covenant made with Israel, but not yet accomplished in its effects. The use which the apostle makes of it is to shew that the old covenant was faulty, and they should not rest in it — that it was ready to vanish away, thus leading them on to the Mediator of the new, in the manner which I shall now just attempt to set forth; but without in any way speaking of the covenant, as made with the nation, being brought in as to the effect therein described, or that they had come under it, although God's part in it was sealed.

We have, then (passing by, at present, the wider Abrahamic covenants) two covenants with the house of Israel on distinct and different terms: the first, at Mount Sinai; the second, with Christ as its Mediator and its seal.

Now, as to the covenant made with Israel on Mount Sinai, its terms were these: the people undertook to obey all that the Lord should command. "Now, therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people: for all the earth is mine; and ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests and an holy nation … And all the people answered together, and said, All that the Lord hath spoken we will do. And Moses returned the words of the people unto the Lord." Nothing could be more distinct and express than was this condition, "If ye will obey my voice, and keep my covenant, ye shall be," etc.; and the people undertook the terms explicitly. Now it is remarkable that the previous condition of the people had been unfolded as resting entirely upon grace. As such it was manifested in their deliverance from the power and prince of this world; in the healing of the water which they had to drink; in the giving of the sabbath in which the manna would be an abiding portion — bread given daily otherwise, the needful and surely apportioned supply of grace; in the waters given in the time of their need, though they murmured and tempted the Lord, yet freely given to them from the stony rock; in the power of mediatorial intercession against their enemies, with their discomfiture, the Lord being their banner, and Joshua their leader; in the ordering of needful government in the household of God, though this was not of principle but from a stranger.

50 But though the real ground on which they were the people of God, and were known and shewn to be such, was thus of grace before the terms of Mount Sinai and its covenants came in at all, yet for God's sure and wise purposes, and the sure (I do not say the whole) wisdom of which we can see in the exhibition of man's failure and the progressive unfolding of dispensation — in this wisdom the conditional obedience is proposed to Israel; and on that stipulation they take all the promises. How long it lasted was displayed by the noise of those who sang. The first principle and foundation of the whole system was broken and laid low before the mediator returned with the order of that obedience which was pledged in it. The covenant was gone. So much for the covenant of works of man's undertaken obedience. "These be thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee out of the land of Egypt." But the Lord was not only shewing the failure of man in obedience, and the characteristics of the perfection required under the law, but there was also, however narrowed the scene in which they were displayed, the progress therein of unfolding dispensations. The first covenant had ordinances of divine service, a holy order. It is remarkable to observe here that, coincident with the failure of man under natural principles, there arose the testimony of another foundation, and other and gracious ordinances of divine life. When I say coincident with the failure, I mean rather with the exhibition and evidence of the failure; and then is seen the evidence of the scheme of grace. Progressively had the character of the connection between God and man lowered, and progressively had man sunk to the hopeless state of having a broken law, a rejected God of glory, whose hand had been itself shewn in their favour as a covenant God. But as the natural portion of man was thus evidenced to be hopeless, the dawn immediately arose with coincident and answering clearness of that work and order of grace on which the divine purpose and mercy could stand.

51 The covenant of Israel at Mount Sinai at once contained the proof that the obedience of man was a hopeless ground, under any circumstances, for relationship with God to rest upon; and it also contained the complete typical development of that on which it surely would and could rest — on which comfort and peace and divine blessing could refresh the heart of man, weary with his own way; and this is the use which the apostle makes of it. It is not, Behold here the effects of the new covenant on earth; but the old covenant is a defective, faulty covenant. But the foundation of the new has been laid in the blood of the Mediator. It is not to us that the terms of the covenant, quoted from Jeremiah by the apostle, have been fulfilled, or that we are Israel and Judah; but that while the covenant is founded, not upon the obedience of a living people (to whom the blessing thereupon was to come, and the blood of a victim shed by a living mediator) but upon the obedience unto death of the Mediator Himself, on which (as its secure, unalterable foundation of grace) the covenant is founded.

But, as we have seen, in the very act of forming the covenant, that the obedience of sinful man as its foundation was evinced to come to failure, and that therefore it carried with it, in the good mercy of our God, the testimony of another and a stable foundation; so did it also of the place into which we were to be brought by it. The holy order which accompanied the covenant (or which the covenant had) was the type of heavenly things. It was not "the days come in the which I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and Judah"; but a hope which entereth into that within the veil; and to this, I repeat, the apostle immediately turns. I am not, of course, denying that practical righteousness will accompany this through the love of it in the heart: surely it will; but the manner in which we are associated with the bringing in of the new covenant is the revelation of that of which its holy order was the pattern and type. That is just this — we have seen the covenant sealed in the death of the Mediator, and therefore the end to us now of all hope from any earthly association with Him, or any blessing on earth; the Mediator's own death to this world being the foundation of our entrance into, or portion in, the place we hold with God. On this, in Hebrews 9, the apostle laboriously insists, and it is indeed a distinctive characteristic of the dispensation. Then, if we turn from the Mediator, as the foundation in giving or sealing the covenant to us, to consider Him as maintaining it for us toward God, we shall again find in the pattern of the heavenlies (introduced in connection with the old covenant) the place belonging to us by virtue of our connection with the Mediator. The high priest enters, by virtue of the blood of the mediatorial victim (which in accomplishment we know to be Himself), into the holiest of all; hence, in the antitype, necessarily in resurrection and ascension life. This is His special place of high priesthood, that in which He exercised it as distinctively such, where Christ is now entered for us, even into heaven itself.

52 This, then, is our portion in the new covenant, so far as we have any ordered interest in its being sealed in the blood of the Mediator. That Mediator, being gone into the heavens, into the holiest of all, has not accomplished the actual new covenant formally with Israel and Judah, as it shall surely be fully and distinctly accomplished. But as the patterns of the things in the heavens were given when the old covenant, dependent on their own obedience, was given from Mount Sinai; so now, when the new covenant has been founded in the blood of the Mediator (not yet accepted or owned in grace by the nation), the heavenly things themselves are disclosed to faith by the entering in of the Mediator into the holiest through resurrection. The veil being rent in His flesh, and the Mediator Himself dying (the exercise of His priesthood, and the offering of His blood in the holiest, by which we have access there, being necessarily a resurrection and ascension work), we have boldness to enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way through the veil (that is to say His flesh). During the first, this way was not yet made manifest; nor, moreover, was the conscience so purged once for all as to have a portion there. Both these blessings are now the portion of the children of God; and the whole of our portion now is not in the formal accomplishment of the new covenant with Israel and Judah, but entirely in the heavenlies with Christ, according to the pattern of the then tabernacle, with this only added — that the veil is rent from the top to the bottom.

53 It is, then, the annexed circumstances of the covenant with which we have to do, not the formal blessings which in terms have taken the place of the conditions of the old, though some of them may, in a sense, be accomplished in us. Thus the heavenly and distinct character of the dispensation is most plainly brought out; and we find that our place is to be identified with the Mediator, as gone within the veil, not in the blessings which result to Israel in consequence of His title and power to bless in grace therefrom resulting. It is generally stated that the high priest came forth and blessed the people on the day of atonement, when he came out of the most holy place; but there is nothing of the kind in the account of it in Scripture; and to me it seems rather to involve mistake, for his place on that day formed no part of his kingly office; but on that day it was either humiliation or ascension to glory, or offices purely priestly — death, confession, intercession, and the like.

There is a passage in Leviticus 9, which (being of a more comprehensive character) seems to embrace this part of the subject more distinctly. This chapter embraces the offerings of the high priest on entering on his office. Then Aaron offers his offerings, and, having gone through each several kind, he blesses, and then comes down. This was a priestly blessing after the offering, but before he came down from the offering; and then Moses and Aaron (who shew forth the union of the kingly and priestly office) went into the tabernacle of the congregation (not necessarily implying the holiest of all, but the house, including the holy place and holiest), and came out and blessed the people; and then the glory of the Lord appeared unto all the people; and then was the complete and public witness of the complete acceptance of the burnt sacrifice by the Lord. This, as it is a more general statement of all connected with the institution of the priesthood, seems more definitely to set before us both the priestly blessings from the offered sacrifice; and then (after the return from that) the royal and priestly blessing of the people; whereupon the full glory came in public witness. This, however, I remark by the way, for, though to me it is a deeply interesting type of the order of these things, that which I now desire to rest on, and to present in its brief heads for the consideration of others, is that the place into which the founding of the new covenant in the blood of Christ has brought us is, not that of the terms of; the covenant made with Israel and Judah, nor yet of the covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, for that the sphere of their ministration was the earth; but it is into the revelation consequent upon the death of the Mediator, and His assumption of the high priesthood in resurrection and ascension glory — a heavenly state of things, a place in the heavenlies, in which we have fellowship with Him gone within the veil, previously unrevealed, though founded in the death of Him that was promised and typified by the ordinances given with the old covenant as to the constitution of the tabernacle of the congregation — the veil only being as yet unrent, and the way into the holiest not yet made manifest, nor the communion of a purged conscience with it established (the identity of the body of Christ with their Head, and their privilege there to sit, as now represented in their Head, being as yet unknown); thus confirming in the distinctest way, in the ordering of dispensations, many principles often alluded to in previous papers. There are many subjects and principles of the deepest importance connected with the covenants, which are here barely or not at all alluded to (such as the difference of the very nature and terms of the two, whatever their application, on which in fact all our practical peace rests; the unconditional character of those made with Abraham, as the ground of the infallible warrant of Jewish hopes, not dependent on that in which to their own present sorrow and the instruction of mankind they have so entirely failed). All this, though I would not pass it without allusion thereto, I do not lengthen this paper by entering into substantively, having very briefly, and I fear superficially, endeavoured to touch upon those heads which bring out the covenants into their proper place, and which shew our position as connected with them.

55 There is one passage connected with this subject which I have omitted, to which I would allude. In the statement of restored blessings to Israel, in Ezekiel 36 the detail of earthly things is most distinct; it is, all of it, restored Israelitish blessing. Amongst them, however, we find a work to be done in them to qualify them for the holding and enjoying of those blessings before God. "I will bring you into your own land. Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean: from all your filthiness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you. A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you; and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments and do them. And ye shall dwell in the land which I gave to your fathers, and ye shall be my people, and I will be your God."

This is not expressly the new covenant, but it is in fact a more explicit statement of the manner of the blessings contained in it, and connected with it. Hence the reproach of Nicodemus by the Lord, when (stating in terms tantamount to these, what was needful for a man to see, to enter into, the kingdom of God) He was met by the uninstructed question "How can these things be?" The Lord indeed shews the universal character of the operation: "So is every one that is born of the Spirit." But its application in the conversation is Jewish; it was that which was necessary for the enjoyment of the earthly things of the kingdom of God, of which the promises and the covenants with Israel and their forefathers were the pledges and assurance from God. Hence does our Lord add the observation, "If I have told you earthly things and ye believe not, how shall ye believe if I tell you of heavenly things?" — even of these other and higher things, which belong to the kingdom entered into by the new and living way: and hence our Lord, though not then revealing these things at once, introduces His death — the death of the Mediator, the Son of man, in whom the earthly things were expected, which was the door that opened the way into any heavenly things whatever (as yet undisclosed), and ordered by the rejection of the Son of man (then beginning to shew itself) by those to whom He came in present earthly blessing: "As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up"; but founding every hope of eternal life then on this lifting up, and its opening to the world. For as sent on an errand of mercy had He come; and thus was the distinction between the earthlies and the heavenlies.

56 I scarcely feel it necessary to add that I take the whole of Hebrews 9 as having one uniform subject, the covenant; and that the terms testament and testator are but accommodations to the English reader which obscure or destroy the sense.*

{*[This is true of all the epistle, and indeed of the New Testament as a whole, save in the parenthesis of Hebrews 9:16-17, where "testament" and "testator" appear to be called for, and naturally flow out of the last clause of the preceding verse (that is to say, "the promise of eternal inheritance"). One insuperable objection to taking these two verses as maintaining, like the rest, the reference to "covenant" is that the Greek work cannot mean covenanting victim, but one who disposed things (i.e. a "testator"). The death of the covenanter is in no way an axiomatic necessity; whereas the condition of men being dead is essential to bring a testament into operation. Such, too, is the judgment of the author in his German, French, and English versions of the New Testament, as well as in the "Synopsis of the Books of the Bible" (in loc.). — ED,]}