The Covenant of Care

The theological paper "Covenant of Grace/Covenant of Care" provides a biblical foundation for the work of the Board of Benefits Services.

It states why, in place of individualism and special interests, the church's covenantal stewardship requires that the board make available a medical insurance plan in which all may participate in order to best meet the needs of each servant of the church.

Covenant of Grace/Covenant of Care

A church whose faith and life are drawn from the word of God finds every form of its ministry in that word. The several assemblies of the Reformed Church in America--consistory, classis, regional synod, and General Synod--are not administrative or legislative gatherings based on civic or corporate models without biblical or theological foundation. Rather, each of their meetings belongs to a tradition reaching back to the Jerusalem Council of the first century. Now as then, representatives of the church equipped by the Holy Spirit, discuss and determine how the church can best carry out its life and mission.

Similarly, the evangelistic outreach of the Reformed Church, from local congregations to world mission, is not motivated by models of corporate growth or marketing techniques, but rather by the Spirit-filled words of Jesus: "As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world"; by his post-resurrection commission: "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations"; and by his pre-ascension promise: "But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth."

The often lower-profile "inreach" of the Board of Pensions, now the Board of Benefits Services, is also rooted in the word of God. Its mandate is drawn not from the occasional New Testament text but from the very centerpiece of God's self-revelation that spans the testaments, namely, the covenant. Its perspective views the Scriptures as the story of God's remarkable love affair with the human race. It recognizes that what really made Eden Eden in the beginning was that on any given day, the first man and woman could hear the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze. When the sin of Adam and Eve replaced that mutual affection with alienation, the couple and their descendents learned that God loved them with a love that would not let them go. And so God came again, this time walking in the fields of Haran. There God made a covenant with Abram and Sarai that began with the promise to be God to them and to their children, and ended with the assurance that in them all the families of the earth would be blessed!

From there, the long story of God's people that culminates in the renewal of the covenant through the coming of Jesus is the story of how God's enduring love makes us one with God and with each other. God's loving, persistent concern to be in relationship with us is always expressed in the covenant of grace that not only binds the Old and New Testaments into one, but also makes those testaments God's gracious invitation to covenant life. This covenant life is from first to last a gift of God's unmerited love.

I. THE COVENANT OF GRACE

As the apostle Paul reminded his Jewish and Gentile Christian readers at Rome, Abraham is the father of all who trust God as Abraham did. With a single stroke of his pen, Paul takes us back to Genesis, the book of beginnings, where God's covenant with Abraham is hinted at in chapter 12, clarified in chapter 15 ("On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abraham"), and had its heart laid bare in chapter 17: "I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to your offspring after you." And centuries later when God assured Moses that there was an exodus and a destiny in his people's future, it was because God was remembering the covenant made with Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, and Jacob and Rachel--the covenant to take them as his people and be their God.

Throughout the unfolding drama of Old Testament history, God's people broke the covenant from their side with tragic regularity. Appropriate discipline followed, but the covenant itself was never broken from God's side! In fact, the Old Testament moves to a hope-filled close with Jeremiah's bright word for the future, a text that focuses on covenant renewal:

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt-a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they 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, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more (Jer. 31:31-34).

For Christians, that promised covenant renewal was realized in the coming of Jesus. Although the New Testament does not complete any of Jesus' "I am" sayings with the words, "a new" or "renewed" covenant, it does make clear connections between Jesus and the covenant of grace. Paul's witness to the institution of the Lord's Supper in 1 Corinthians--the earliest record in the New Testament--is a shining example. There the bread saying is followed by this significant word about the cup: "This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me." The letter to the Hebrews makes the point again, for what is implicit in the comparison made in chapter 8:

But Jesus has now obtained a more excellent ministry, and to that degree he is the mediator of a better covenant, which has been enacted through better promises (v.6).

becomes explicit in the next chapter:

For this reason he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, because a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions under the first covenant (9:15).

Both of these texts bring Jesus and the new covenant together in the context of his death, his promises, and his deliverance from sin, without explicitly identifying him as the new covenant. That identification is made by attending to the Old Testament witness to what was essential to the old covenant, and then observing how those essentials are effectively incarnated in Jesus, the new covenant.

As we have seen, the heart of the covenant is the gift of God's self in a relationship of enduring love. In Jeremiah's splendid vision, even the promise of land, historically significant as it was, merits no mention. With unerring insight, the prophet points to the inner life where the heart of the covenant is laid bare: "But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: ...I will be their God, and they shall be my people" (Jer. 31:33). Above all else, then, covenant means a personal relationship with God!

That a gracious renewal of the covenant is precisely what God is about in Jesus received definitive confirmation in the prologue of John's Gospel: "And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of the Father's only Son, full of grace and truth" (1:14). That the incarnation is the full and final enactment of God's declared desire, "I will be your God, and you shall be my people" (Jer. 31:33), is plain enough. But how is the testimony that Jesus was "full of grace and truth" to be understood? Once again, this new covenant language about Jesus points us to the old. Behind John's words "grace and truth" stands a pair of Hebrew words. "Grace" translates the first one well enough, but to translate the second one as "truth" invites misunderstanding. It can lead us to think that Jesus champions some abstract truth over against falsehood or that Jesus is above all else the repository of all true knowledge and right thinking. But the Hebrew word used is a covenant word, a relational word that means truth in the sense of fidelity. It means being true or faithful to the covenant partner. The evangelist John, therefore, is not witnessing to Jesus as the embodiment of every kind of objective truth, but as the incarnation of God's covenant of grace and covenant fidelity. Israel's long experience of divine grace and faithfulness under the old covenant was now fully and finally manifested in Jesus, the new covenant. Jesus Christ is overflowing with God's enduring love. In him, the new covenant, we reach the supreme good of the old: "See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them" (Revelation 21:3).

This is the covenant of grace celebrated repeatedly in Reformed Church worship. Setting out the meaning of the sacrament of baptism our liturgy declares:

In baptism, God reveals and seals to us his covenant of salvation, given first to Noah and his whole family whom God saved from the waters of the flood, and renewed time after time through the patriarchs and prophets until it reached perfection in the person of Jesus Christ our Lord. We participate in this covenant through faith in Christ, and in him become a new creation.

At the heart of the meaning of the Lord's Supper lies this thrilling confession about the work of the Lord Jesus Christ: "By his death, resurrection, and ascension he established a new and eternal covenant of grace and reconciliation that we might be accepted of God and never be forsaken by him."

And the language of covenant runs like a refrain through the order of worship for Christian marriage, underlining the enduring joy of this most intimate human relationship. The minister declares that the wedding party and their guests

are gathered here to praise God for the covenant of grace and reconciliation made with us through Jesus Christ, to hear it proclaimed anew, and to respond to it as we witness the covenant of marriage [the man and woman] make with each other in Christ's name. Christian marriage is a joyful covenanting between a man and a woman in which they proclaim, before God and human witnesses, their commitment to live together in spiritual, physical, and material unity. In this covenant they acknowledge that the great love God has shown for each of them enables them to love each other.

Nor is it surprising, given this order's powerful witness to the covenant of grace, that the ceremony climaxes in vows to live together in a covenant of care: The man and woman take each other

to have and to hold from this day forward,
for better, for worse
for richer, for poorer,
in sickness and in health
to love and to cherish
as long as they both shall live.

Not surprising, indeed, for God's covenant of grace always carried within itself a covenant of care!

II. THE COVENANT OF CARE

Primary as the vertical relationship with God was in the old covenant, it was never separated from the horizontal relationship with other members of the covenant community. The Book of Exodus records God's strong covenant care for his people suffering as slaves in Egypt. In response to their groaning God remembered the covenant made with the patriarchs, looked down upon the Israelites, and took notice of them. That notice in turn motivated God to appear to Moses at the burning bush, complete with a full explanation:

Then the Lord said, "I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt" (Exodus 3:7-10).

Exodus also specifically names the widow and the orphan as of special concern to the covenant community (22:22). In fact, these fatherless and unprotected members of the community could rest in the knowledge that "Father of orphans and protector of widows is God in his habitation" (Psalm 68:5).

More than any other Old Testament witness, the Book of Deuteronomy declares that God's own care and compassion for the covenant people were to be mirrored in their covenant care and compassion for one another. Sample instances from that book alone serve to demonstrate that that care was both concrete and personal. No one was to be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward needy members of the community. Their needs were to be met liberally and ungrudgingly (15:7-11). When a bondman or bondwoman was set free, they were not to be sent out empty-handed but were to be provided for liberally from the harvest or flock, thus giving to them some of the bounty with which God had blessed their masters (15:12-14). (Israel was to remember how good it was to leave Egypt with the gifts of their masters.) During the harvest festivals, the slaves, the orphans, and the widows were to share in the joy and the abundance of food of the prosperous (16:11, 14).

Throughout these expressions of covenant care, God showed great concern for the rights and the dignity of those whose poverty had forced them into borrowing. Witness these remarkable Torah lines:

When you make your neighbor a loan of any kind, you shall not go into the house to take the pledge. You shall wait outside, while the person to whom you are making the loan brings the pledge out to you. If the person is poor, you shall not sleep in the garment given you as the pledge. You shall give the pledge back by sunset so that your neighbor may sleep in the cloak and bless you; and it will be to your credit before the Lord your God (Deut. 24:10-13).

The lender, said God, is not to invade the poor man's house and help himself to whatever pleased him as collateral. Rather, the poor man is to decide which of his things to offer as a pledge, and the lender is to wait on the porch until the poor man brings it out to him. And if the borrower is so destitute that his only collateral is his cloak, the lender must return it when the day's temperature goes down with the sun, so he can use it as his blanket through the night. Thus does the covenant God who inhabits eternity and dwells in the high and holy place make it a matter of personal concern to be sure a poor man sleeps warmly!

No wonder then that covenant privileges with God were always joined to covenant responsibilities toward covenant partners. Old covenant law and prophets were at one in demanding care for the needy, justice for the oppressed, and love for the stranger. In this way too, our Lord Jesus Christ is the embodiment of the new covenant. Jesus promised the blessing of God and inheritance in God's realm to all who care for the physical and material well-being of the needy. To care for the least of those who are members of my family, he said, is to care for me (Matthew 25). And to the covenant commandment, "Love your neighbor as yourself," Jesus not only added the parable of the Good Samaritan but also his own concern for covenant care: "This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you" (John 15:12).

The book of Acts testifies that the covenant of care was close to the heart of the church from its inception. All who believed were not only together but had all things in common. They sold their possessions and distributed the proceeds to all according to need (chap. 2). The apostle Paul laid his understanding of the gospel before the leaders of the Jerusalem church, and when those church pillars had recognized the grace that had been given to him, they offered him and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship and blessed their gentile mission asking only one thing: that they remember the poor (Galatians 2). And when the apostle John needed to remind his readers that the covenant of grace and the covenant of care are a seamless whole he simply raised the inescapable question for every Christian then and now: "How does God's love abide in anyone who has the world's goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help?" (1 John 3:17).

Texts like those remind us of the moment in Jesus' earthly ministry when a Pharisee asked him which commandment in the law, the Torah-God's instruction for covenant life-is the greatest (Matthew 22). Remarkably, although the request was for one ("which commandment"), Jesus gave him two ("and a second is like it")! Apparently, Jesus thought it impossible to say the one without the other. Love of God is inseparable from love of neighbor. This suggests that like the seamless wholes--covenant of grace/covenant of care and love God above all/love your neighbor as yourself--the second commandment may also be a seamless whole: love your neighbor as yourself/care for your neighbor as yourself.

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