God's Magnificent Series of Covenants

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What is the central message of Jesus Christ's gospel? It is the promise that God plans to transform all people to be like Him, starting with their hearts and minds. Proclamation of that message continues through the Church He built (Matthew 16:18). But the full impact of that message will not be felt by all people until after He returns.

Eventually, as a result of His direct supervision, the whole "earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea" (Isaiah 11:9). Christ's first coming was only the beginning of His personal involvement in transforming the spiritual nature of mankind.

God's visionary plan

Through special covenants made with Noah, Abraham, Moses and David, God long ago began to reveal important details of His plan to produce for Himself an enduring holy people (Leviticus 20:26; Leviticus 26:12; Hebrews 8:10). The promised New Covenant—the basis of Christ's gospel—is the capstone of that revelation process.

Through the pen of the prophet Jeremiah, God summarized what He intends to accomplish through Jesus Christ: "I will make an everlasting covenant with them, that I will not turn away from doing them good; but I will put My fear in their hearts so that they will not depart from Me" (Jeremiah 32:40).

"I will give them a heart to know me, that I am the Lord. They will be my people, and I will be their God, for they will return to me with all their heart" (Jeremiah 24:7, New International Version).

The impact of that promise was only hinted at—through symbolic ceremonies—at the time ancient Israel became a nation under the Sinai Covenant. For example, the temple worship of ancient Israel anticipated Christ's sacrifice with figurative rituals and ceremonies.

Those rituals symbolized—for those living in that era—that a lasting, permanent solution to the problem of humanity's spiritual inadequacies was needed. But the sacrifices and rituals given to Israel at that time did not provide that solution.

The reason was that "the gifts and sacrifices being offered were not able to clear the conscience of the worshiper" (Hebrews 9:9, NIV). Only by forgiveness of sin through the sacrifice of Christ and receiving the spiritual power provided by the gift of the Holy Spirit is that possible.

Righteous laws, but no righteous heart

Since most of the people of ancient Israel did not receive God's Spirit, they were unable to live or apply God's teachings from the heart as a truly holy people. As Moses told them, "The Lord has not given you a heart to perceive and eyes to see and ears to hear" (Deuteronomy 29:4).

But God already had a clear plan in mind to give them that "new heart" in the future. Even when speaking to Moses, God expressed His eager longing for the time when that change of heart could happen. He exclaimed to Moses, "Oh, that they had such a heart in them that they would fear Me and always keep all My commandments, that it might be well with them and with their children forever!" (Deuteronomy 5:29).

But the time was not yet right for God to make His Spirit available to the masses of humanity—not even to most of the people of Israel. Except for Israel's prophets and a few other specially chosen servants of God, Israel's history describes a people who had righteous laws but lacked righteous hearts.

Like most people today, they did not have the ability to live by the full spiritual intent of the instructions God reveals in the Scriptures. Something was missing.

Therefore, "God found fault with the people [notice that the fault was not with the laws He gave them] and said: 'The time is coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new[revised] covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they did not remain faithful to My covenant, and I turned away from them, declares the Lord.

"This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time, declares the Lord. I will put My laws in their minds and write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be My people'" (Hebrews 8:8-10, NIV).

A changed heart offered to mankind

Most people assume that the New Covenant abolishes the laws of God as enumerated under the Sinai Covenant (also known as the Old Covenant). But notice that no indication is given in this promise that God's laws are to be ignored or abolished.

On the contrary, they are to be engraved into the minds and hearts of the recipients of the promised New Covenant—to be made a part of their very being! This New Covenant is a vital revision in how God interacts with His people.

God has fully committed Himself to changing the hearts of all people who choose to serve Him willingly. Since "there is no partiality with God" (Romans 2:11), He has extended this promise to all nations.

As Paul explained, "And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel to Abraham beforehand, saying, 'In you all the nations shall be blessed'" (Galatians 3:8).

From the beginning, God's plan has been that all peoples are to receive an opportunity to repent—to turn from doing things their own way to wholeheartedly embracing God's way—and have their hearts changed so they can live as He intended. He decided to begin with one family—faithful Abraham and his descendants through his grandson Jacob.

God changed Jacob's name to Israel. From his 12 sons came the tribes of the ancient nation of Israel. To these physical descendants of Jacob, God began to reveal the essential details of His plan to make a holy people for Himself.

What is a covenant?

Inherent in any covenant is the concept of a lasting commitment to a clearly defined relationship. Generally speaking, a covenant is a long-term agreement between two or more parties that formalizes a binding relationship between them. It defines their essential obligations and commitments to each other.

In ancient times, major covenants were ratified and kept alive through symbolic rituals that reflected each party's commitment to, and acceptance of, the covenant's binding requirements. However, covenant rituals are not the same as covenant commitments and obligations.

Rituals in divine covenants serve primarily as symbolic reminders and are intentionally given only a figurative value. The real value is in the substance of the commitments made! Through the substance of His covenants—His divine commitments—God binds Himself to perform all of the promises He makes.

In a divine covenant, God defines the basic obligations that He imposes on Himself and, usually, on the other participants. Thus a dominant feature of a covenant is a list of blessings that God promises to give to those who honor their covenant commitments.

A divine covenant can be compared to a sacred constitution established to regulate human relationships with God. It is a formal declaration of God's will and purpose. It typically expresses His deep love for humanity and reveals one or more major aspects of His plan for humanity's salvation.

Covenant discussions in the New Testament

Two covenants, the Sinai or Old Covenant and the New Covenant (mediated by Jesus Christ), are the focus of considerable discussion in the New Testament. Both are based on God's earlier covenant with Abraham that promises the inheritance of a global kingdom to Abraham's special "seed" or descendant—Jesus Christ (Romans 4:13; Galatians 3:16).

The covenant made at Mount Sinai established the ancient national kingdom of Israel. The New Covenant promises that the Messiah, Jesus Christ, will establish the much more inclusive Kingdom of God that will rule over the whole earth (Isaiah 9:7; Matthew 25:34; Luke 22:29-30; Revelation 11:15).

Jesus made that coming Kingdom, and the repentance required for us to participate in it, the central feature of His gospel (Mark 1:14-15). To qualify as an heir of that Kingdom, one has to meet the terms defined in God's covenants. Jesus Christ alone has met all of those terms perfectly.

So He alone is the qualified heir of all the promises made to Abraham. And only through Him may other human beings—including such men of faith as Abel, Noah, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Hebrews 11)—share in that promised inheritance. As Paul explained, "If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise" (Galatians 3:29, NIV).

Peter confirmed this central role of Jesus, saying, "There is no salvation through anyone else; in all the world no other name has been granted to mankind by which we can be saved" (Acts 4:12, Revised English Bible).

This is why Jesus Christ's role in God's covenants is so vital. Those covenants contain the promise of salvation that He alone, as the Messiah, can make a reality.

Each covenant points to specific aspects of God's ultimate solution to the problem of sin and evil. And the New Covenant deals explicitly with the "heart" aspect of that solution.

The character of covenant recipients

God carefully chose special individuals to convey some of His covenant commitments to the rest of humanity. Each of these special covenant recipients had already been serving God from the heart. Each had a personal relationship with God and was already living a righteous life to the best of his ability and knowledge.

Noah is the first person mentioned specifically in the Bible as entering into a covenant relationship with God. This occurred at a time when all human beings—except for Noah (and apparently his immediate family)—had become completely engrossed in an evil way of life (Genesis 6:5-8; Genesis 9:8-11).

The second individual recorded in the Bible with whom God made a personal covenant was Abraham (Genesis 15:18; Genesis 17:1-2).

Abraham shared Noah's key character traits. Just as God chose to have a covenant with Noah, a righteous man (Genesis 6:8-9), so He chose Abraham, a man of faith and obedience (Genesis 15:6; Genesis 26:5), for this second covenant. From these two examples it becomes clear that God initiated covenants with individuals only if the persons receiving those covenants had already demonstrated that they were willing to obey Him.

These traits of faithfulness and obedience were also present in Moses (Numbers 12:3; Hebrews 11:24-28) and David—as well as in the other prophets who participated in writing the Old Testament scriptures. Concerning David, God says: "I have made a covenant with My chosen, I have sworn to My servant David: 'Your seed [Jesus Christ] I will establish forever, and build up your throne to all generations'" (Psalm 89:3-4).

Paul mentions, concerning the people of Israel, that God "raised up for them David as king, to whom also He gave testimony and said, 'I have found David the son of Jesse, a man after My own heart, who will do all My will.' From this man's seed, according to the promise, God raised up for Israel a Savior—Jesus" (Acts 13:22-23).

Abraham and David are especially significant to the divine promises and covenants most necessary for humanity's salvation. That is why the very first words in the New Testament are: "The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham" (Matthew 1:1).

This opening sentence links Christ's mission directly to the promises made to Abraham and David. The covenants with these men contain the basic promises related to God's plan to offer salvation to all mankind through Jesus Christ.

The covenant with Abraham

To Abraham God promised: "I will make you a great nation; I will bless you and make your name great; and you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed"(Genesis 12:2-3).

Here God declares His intention to offer salvation not only to the physical descendants of Abraham but also to "all the families of the earth." But Abraham's descendants were to play a special and vital role in this process—especially the unique descendant of David who would come as the Messiah.

Peter explained to his fellow Jews what Jesus Christ's most challenging role would be: "You are sons of the prophets, and of the covenant which God made with our fathers, saying to Abraham, 'And in your seed all the families of the earth shall be blessed.' To you first, God, having raised up His Servant Jesus, sent Him to bless you, in turning away every one of you from your iniquities" (Acts 3:25-26).

This is what the whole world needs most. Only when all of humankind has received a "new heart"—through Christ's active involvement in turning all peoples away from their sins —will God's plan be complete. Peter explained that full reconciliation, as planned by God, requires "every one of you" to turn away "from your iniquities."

That is God's goal. And He has promised to achieve it! His covenants contain His commitments to fulfill that goal.

More details revealed about God's plan

In His covenant with Abraham, God first began to give clear details of His plan. He told Abraham: "I will make My covenant between Me and you, and will multiply you exceedingly . . . and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. And I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you in their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and your descendants after you" (Genesis 17:2-7).

This covenant anticipated the following key elements of God's plan: God's special relationship with Abraham's descendants, the institution of the kingdom of Israel , the birth and reign of the Messiah over the Kingdom of God and the ultimate salvation of all nations.

Abraham's faith—his implicit trust in and loyalty to God—is ascribed to him as righteousness (Genesis 15:6). His full confidence in God was the foundation of his character. His trust in God was demonstrated through his obedience (James 2:21-24). Abraham not only believed God, he also understood and faithfully obeyed God's laws as a result of his faith (Genesis 26:5).

Abraham's pattern of faith—demonstrated by his obedience to God—is the model of living faith that Paul describes in the book of Romans, where he makes the point that even obedient Abraham still needed forgiveness. Speaking of Abraham and his faith, Paul says: "Blessed are they whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will never count against him" (Romans 4:7-8, NIV).

Abraham's manner of life was that of obeying God from the heart. But even he was not without sin. He still needed forgiveness for the sins he committed—just as do all of us.

That forgiveness is possible only through faith in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. But once forgiven, we all are expected to follow Abraham's example in demonstrating our faith by putting our full effort into pleasing God through obedience to Him. That is the righteous response our faith should produce in us.

God's covenant with David

The next covenant to consider between God and a specific person is His covenant with King David.

In it God promises that David's dynasty will last forever and that the Messiah— David's special descendant—is to be the everlasting King of that dynasty. "I have made a covenant with My chosen, I have sworn to My servant David: 'Your seed I will establish forever, and build up your throne to all generations'" (Psalm 89:3-4).

God declares that this covenant will be irrevocable. "Thus says the Lord: 'If you can break My covenant with the day and My covenant with the night, so that there will not be day and night in their season, then My covenant may also be broken with David My servant, so that he shall not have a son to reign on his throne'" (Jeremiah 33:20-21).

When the time came for the Messiah to be born, notice what the angel announced to the woman chosen to be His mother: "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end" (Luke 1:30-33).

The apostle Peter also commented on the importance of God's covenant with David: "Brothers, I can tell you confidently that the patriarch David died and was buried, and his tomb is here to this day. But he was a prophet and knew that God had promised him on oath that he would place one of his descendants on his throne.

"Seeing what was ahead, he spoke of the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to the grave, nor did his body see decay. God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact. Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear.

"For David did not ascend to heaven, and yet he said, 'The Lord said to my Lord: "Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet."' Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ" (Acts 2:29-36, NIV).

From the beginning of man's existence, God has been putting into place the details of His great plan for humanity's salvation. Crucial to that plan was the birth and mission of the Messiah—the promised descendant of David and Abraham. To assure us of the irrevocability of that plan, He confirmed it with a series of covenants.

The temporary Sinai Covenant

Understanding the purpose and temporary nature of the covenant that God made with ancient Israel at Mt. Sinai is critical for comprehending the New Testament scriptures correctly. The contents of this covenant became, in effect, Israel's national constitution.

With God as its King, Israel became a theocratic state—essentially a temporary, earthly kingdom of God. Its people accepted all the covenantal conditions God laid out for them, saying, "All that the Lord has spoken we will do" (Exodus 19:8).

Amid the thunder, lightning, smoke and fire atop Mt. Sinai, God spoke the Ten Commandments to the entire nation (Exodus 20:1-18).

How did the people respond to Moses? "Surely the Lord our God has shown us His glory and His greatness, and we have heard His voice from the midst of the fire. We have seen this day that God speaks with man; yet he still lives. Now therefore, why should we die? For this great fire will consume us; if we hear the voice of the Lord our God anymore, then we shall die.

"For who is there of all flesh who has heard the voice of the living God speaking from the midst of the fire, as we have, and lived? You go near and hear all that the Lord our God may say, and tell us all that the Lord our God says to you, and we will hear and do it" (Deuteronomy 5:24-27).

The prophets' words as the "voice of the Lord"

They requested, from sheer terror of the awesome power that God manifested to them, that never again would He speak to them directly with His own voice.

From that time forward the inspired words of God's prophets were regarded as carrying the same authority as if God were speaking to the people directly. For example, Moses included—for being obedient to the "voice of the LORD"—"statutes which are written in this Book of Law," statutes given to Israel some 40 years after God spoke at Mt. Sinai (Deuteronomy 30:10-11).

That the writings of the prophets represent accurately the instructions and teachings of God is confirmed in the New Testament: "But first note this: no prophetic writing is a matter for private interpretation. It was not on any human initiative that prophecy [the writings of the prophets] came; rather, it was under the compulsion of the Holy Spirit that people spoke as messengers of God" (2 Peter 1:20-21, REB).

In Deuteronomy 5:28-31, Moses recounts how God accepted the Israelites' request at Mt. Sinai that He would speak to them in the future only though His prophets: "And the Lord heard the voice of your words when you spoke to me, and the Lord said to me, 'I have heard the voice of the words of this people which they have spoken to you. They have done well in all that they have spoken.

"'Oh that they had such a heart in them, that they would fear Me, and keep all My commandments always, that it may be well with them and with their sons forever! Go, say to them, "Return to your tents." But as for you [Moses], stand here by Me, that I may speak to you all the commandments and the statutes and the judgments which you shall teach them, that they may observe them in the land which I give them to possess'" (New American Standard Bible).

The people had said all the right words. They had agreed to God's conditions. They had committed themselves to live by all the words that God would speak to them through Moses and the prophets that would come later. But God knew it would take more than their promises to produce the results He desired.

It would require a change in their hearts through the gift of the Holy Spirit. And for the vast majority of them that would become possible only after the Messiah had come to pay the penalty for their sins. Prior to that time God gave His Holy Spirit to only a relatively small number of selected individuals such as Noah, Abraham, David and other prophets and servants as recorded in the Old Testament.

The people of ancient Israel have provided the lesson, through their example, that having righteous laws without a righteous heart is not enough. Their centuries-long example illustrates vividly that receiving knowledge of truth does not by itself produce full and lasting obedience (Romans 3:9-12).

Revealing and defining righteous behavior

The five books written by Moses—Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy—define the righteous way of life that God desires all peoples and nations to embrace (see Deuteronomy 4:6; Deuteronomy 6:4-6; Deuteronomy 8:2-3).

The books containing His instructions to them became ancient Israel's supreme religious and legal code. They contained not only the guidelines, laws and procedures by which its citizens were to be judged but also rituals and ceremonies that represented symbolically the kind of relationship God wanted them to have with Him.

They are called in the Hebrew language the Torah (meaning "the teaching" or, more commonly today, "the law"). As Moses explained: "And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all His ways and to love Him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments of the Lord and His statutes which I command you today for your good?" (Deuteronomy 10:12-13).

It was in this Torah that "all His ways" were first committed to writing. These books reveal and define, as the voice of the Lord, the righteous behavior that is the foundation of a godly way of life.

Therefore, at least four decades after the giving of the Sinai Covenant, Moses explained again that what He wrote had indeed come from God: "The Lord your God will make you abound . . . For the Lord will again rejoice over you for good as He rejoiced over your fathers, if you obey the voice of the Lord your God, to keep His commandments and His statutes which are written in this Book of the Law . . ."(Deuteronomy 30:9-10).

The point is that the covenant that God made with ancient Israel was not limited to only the words He spoke at Mt. Sinai. Whatever He would command them—then or in the future—they agreed to do. They asked that from that time forward God would not speak to them personally with His own voice, but through His prophets. Their agreement with God was that they would do all that He would command them—even through the words of the prophets that would follow Moses.

The prophets became God's spokesmen. The messages they received from God, often written in books for later generations, were to be obeyed as "the word of the Lord" (see Isaiah 38:4; Jeremiah 1:4-5; Ezekiel 6:1-3). This same authority was later given to Christ's apostles (Acts 4:29-31).

Today the entire Bible claims authority as the written Word of God. And God promises to bless those who obey it as His Word.

The covenant that offered only temporary benefits

Near the end of Leviticus we find a long declaration of blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience (Leviticus 26:3-45). These blessings and curses gave warning to the ancient Israelites not to take their covenantal relationship and responsibilities lightly.

If they obeyed God, they would enjoy bountiful harvests, good health, prosperity and national security (verses 4-10). These benefits, however, were mostly physical.

A comparison of the material blessings of Leviticus 26:3-13 with those cited in Deuteronomy 28:1-14 reveals a crucial omission in both lists. God agrees to be their God and regard them as His people (Leviticus 26:11-13; Deuteronomy 28:9). But no promise of eternal life is included in this covenant. Its blessings related mostly to what people could enjoy in this present physical life.

Exceptions were made for those servants and prophets of God who were given the Holy Spirit during that time. This is confirmed by Peter who explains: "Of which salvation the prophets have enquired and searched diligently, who prophesied of the grace that should come unto you: Searching what, or what manner of time the Spirit of Christ which was in them did signify, when it testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ, and the glory that should follow" (1 Peter 1:10-11, KJV).

That is significant for a major reason! In the New Testament explanation of covenants and law, it is made very clear that eternal life is available only though faith in Jesus Christ as the promised Messiah (Acts 4:12). The prophets of old looked forward in faith to the day when the Messiah, Jesus Christ, would make that sacrifice for them.

At the time of the Sinai Covenant, the Messiah had not yet come. So eternal life was not offered to the people in that covenant, with the exception of those special servants who led and taught the people in God's ways. The Holy Spirit was not made available to the rest of the people.

But far from the Sinai Covenant and God's law being a burden, as they now are often represented, they bestowed on all the people of Israel an amazing array of blessings and benefits.

Blessings for obedience

Though the Sinai Covenant sealed a unique relationship between the Israelites and God, it contained one essential condition. The benefits of that relationship were—for their own good—available to them only if they did their part by following His instructions! They had to faithfully put into practice all that they had agreed to do. And they had agreed to follow all the instructions God was giving them—to, in effect, become a "holy people."

Had they diligently kept their part of that agreement, they would have become the envy of the world, an incredibly blessed nation. No other nation on earth would have enjoyed the degree of blessings and benefits that God would have given them. They would have become the showcase of righteousness for all nations around them.

As God explained to them through Moses: "See, I have taught you statutes and judgments just as the Lord my God commanded me, that you should do thus in the land where you are entering to possess it. So keep and do them, for that is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples who will hear all these statutes and say, 'Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people'" (Deuteronomy 4:5-7, NASB).

God's laws define behavior that naturally results in peace, safety and prosperity. If the people of Israel had obeyed God, to the best of their natural ability, they would have reaped His promised blessings to the extent that neighboring nations could have noticed that they also might enjoy the same wonderful benefits if only they would also adopt the same laws.

Therefore, in the next verse Moses challenged the Israelites to ask themselves, "What great nation is there that has statutes and judgments as righteous as this whole law which I am setting before you today?" (Deuteronomy 4:8, NASB).

Not only were they promised abundant physical blessings, they also had received from God the world's most fair and righteous system of governance!

The limits of physical blessings

One major limitation is present in this rosy picture—the selfish, stubborn inclinations of all human beings. Moses explained to the Israelites: "Know, then, that the Lord your God is not giving you this good land to occupy because of your righteousness; for you are a stubborn people . . . you have been rebellious against the Lord from the day you came out of the land of Egypt" (Deuteronomy 9:6-7, NRSV).

God knew in advance that without the gift of His Holy Spirit the people of Israel, like all other peoples, would not be able to fully live up to their promise to obey Him. However, they could have obeyed what they were taught much better than most of them did. This is evident in their history. During some limited periods the entire nation was mostly observant of God's instructions (Joshua 24:31; 2 Chronicles 32:26).

Significantly, the Israelites were given every natural advantage any people could desire—lacking only the super natural help of God's Holy Spirit, which would have enabled them to have a consistently righteous heart. Without a divinely changed heart, it is impossible for any people to consistently live a fully obedient life.

Though some individuals are more law abiding than others, none has succeeded in living without sin. That problem has been present in all peoples of all nationalities and cultures throughout human history. Only by receiving God's Spirit can that problem be eliminated. And not until Christ returns to rule all nations will it finally be resolved worldwide.

As Paul observed of mankind, quoting Psalm 14:3, "They have all turned aside; they have together become unprofitable; there is none who does good [consistently], no, not one" (Romans 3:12). This is the lesson we must learn so we will never be tempted to think that the Sinai Covenant was a failure. It accomplished precisely what God intended it to accomplish.

An interim arrangement

The Sinai Covenant is not the complete, final model for our relationship with God. Though it contained many permanent, eternal principles, many of its figurative benefits, instructive as they were, represented only symbolically the far better benefits included in the New Covenant relationship with God that was established later by Jesus Christ, the promised Messiah.

As Hebrews 9:9-10 explains, the ritualism of the covenant at Sinai "was symbolic for the present time in which both gifts and sacrifices are offered which cannot make him who performed the service perfect in regard to the conscience—concerned only with foods and drinks, various washings, and fleshly ordinances imposed until the time of reformation."

A future revision of that covenant—particularly in those features linked to the death and mission of the coming Messiah—was promised. God announced through His prophets that with this "better covenant" He would put His laws in the minds of humanity and He would write them on their hearts. He promised to provide—at the individual level—direct access to Him (Hebrews 8:6; Jeremiah 31:31-34).

It should now be made eminently clear that God was not blindsided by Israel's failures. He anticipated them. From the beginning He revealed hints of a "better" solution to the sinfulness of mankind that could be made available only through the coming Messiah. Those "hints," in the form of various ceremonies, symbols and rituals, are woven throughout the instructions given under the Sinai Covenant.

God's permanent solution to humanity's unrighteousness

The problems caused by human weaknesses and desires (see James 1:14-15) extended far beyond the boundaries of ancient Israel. They cause problems for all peoples. Thus, in crafting a permanent solution, God has taken into consideration much more than merely the welfare of the Israelites. His solution applies to all peoples in all nations.

As He promised Abraham, "In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed" (Genesis 12:3). Before that permanent solution is made available to more than the present "little flock" of truly obedient Christians who are given God's Spirit in this "present evil age" (see Luke 12:32; Galatians 1:4), all of humanity must learn some essential lessons.

God uses the experiences of ancient Israel, as recorded in Scripture, to help all of mankind, including the Israelites themselves, learn how easily we succumb to sin. Eventually all nations are destined to comprehend why sin is so terrible and why so much more than human effort is required to erase it from the heart.

In the Sinai Covenant with ancient Israel, God comprehensively and permanently defined the fundamentals of righteous behavior. But giving them the knowledge of God's laws did not automatically put righteousness in their hearts and minds.

The needed transformation occurs only in those who receive additional spiritual help through the gift of the Holy Spirit. To receive God's Spirit, one first must be called of God (John 6:44-65) and genuinely repent of, or turn from, sin (Acts 2:38). God did not make His Spirit generally available until after Jesus Christ was crucified and resurrected so that He could serve as the Mediator of the New Covenant.

Once sin entered the picture in the Garden of Eden, God chose to delay making His Spirit available to mankind—except to the few He used as His special servants and prophets—until after Jesus Christ's death, at which time He became mankind's Redeemer.

That is why understanding Christ's sacrificial and priestly roles in a "better covenant" that provides the means for receiving forgiveness of sin and the precious gift of the Holy Spirit is so vital.

These additions are the vitally important enhancements to the Old Covenant that God made with the people of ancient Israel. They will enable their descendants, who are to be gathered back to the Holy Land by Jesus Christ at His return (Jeremiah 23:5-8), to have a personal relationship with God that only a few of their forefathers ever experienced.

God promises for that time: "'This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws in their minds, and write them on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And they shall not teach one another or say to each other, "Know the Lord," for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.' In speaking of 'a new covenant,' he has made the first one obsolete. And what is obsolete and growing old will soon disappear" (Hebrews 8:10-13, NRSV).

This passage is quoting God's promise of a New Covenant as given in Jeremiah 31:31-34. Only a few decades after Jesus Christ was crucified, and not long after these words were written, the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in A.D. 70 and the entire ceremonial and sacrificial system attached to it came to an end. It truly became obsolete.

Once the sacrifice of Christ was in place, those temple ceremonies and rituals were simply no longer needed. But as Hebrews 8:10-13 clearly tells us, the spiritual laws that God had included in the Sinai Covenant were not disbanded. With the Spirit of God now available, the principles of love that the law so eloquently expressed can finally be written in the hearts of all who repent of breaking them.

That is the central promise of the New Covenant.