"Tradition!” sings Tevye. “Without our traditions, our lives would be as unstable as a fiddler on the roof.” As the drama unfolds, this analogy turns from affirmation to lament: Tevye’s daughters marry suitors disapproved by tradition, and in the end his family and their fellow-Jews trudge away from their village, exiled by the growing anti-Semitism of Czarist Russia.
Although Sholom Aleichem’s original story was set in 1905, the marvelous musical derived from it is a child of the sixties. Tradition-bound Tevye is challenged over and over to accept the new “reality” that the individual heart’s longings for romance and self-fulfillment always trump archaic rules and communal expectations. Yet the glorious freedom from shopworn societal restraints that still influence Western societies today has its downside: Where now can we find firmer footing for our lives and relationships than the precarious perch of a fiddler on the roof?
We can find it in an institution (yes, institution!) so alien to our self-consumed culture that its very name sounds foreign in our ears — covenant. It is not merely the type of covenant that binds a homeowner’s association into a loose agreement not to repaint one’s house luminescent chartreuse. Not the marital covenant that binds a bride and groom, although this comes closer (when they actually hold their vows for life). Not even the covenantal bond of promise and obligation imposed by the Lord upon His weak, unworthy, wayward people in Scripture. But, ultimately, we can find our firm foundation in a covenant contracted among the three persons of the triune God, even before time began. This plan to rescue and re-create damaged and guilty bearers of the divine image was initiated by the Father, to be executed by the Son, and to be applied by the Spirit to those very persons on whose behalf the Son would keep covenant.
It sounds strange in our free-wheeling, feeling-driven setting to speak of a solemn agreement — promises made, responsibilities undertaken — among the three persons of the Trinity whose unity in love and essence is so perfect that it baffles our creaturely categories and leaves us mystified, catching only glimpses through the windows opened by God’s self-disclosure in Scripture. Surely, we might say, the three persons of the Godhead, are complete in knowledge, love, and power, need no contract to secure one another’s compliance! Why so legal, so formal an arrangement among Father, Son, and Spirit? Theologians speak of this covenant of redemption, this compact of rescue and renewal, among the persons of the Trinity as the “eternal foundation” of the historical covenant of grace that our Lord has initiated toward us, His unworthy servants. In the covenant of grace, God calls us to trust Jesus to be our covenant-keeper, and He promises acquittal, vindication, and eternal life in Him. God’s promises to you in Christ stand on the firmest of all possible footings — on the promises that the triune persons exchanged with each other before they set the world in motion. Since covenant is anchored in the very character of the Creator, we must see that fidelity to commitments, far from being at cross-purposes with interpersonal intimacy, is foundational to intimacy.
Created into covenant with God at history’s dawn, our first parents violated the conditions of the covenant of works, forfeiting its eternal blessing and incurring its eternal curse. But the Father’s purpose to grant His beloved Son a kingdom of loving, loyal human subjects (Luke 22:29) could not be thwarted by Adam’s sin. In fact, Adam’s treachery could only serve God’s agenda, to display the greater glory of divine grace. The Son would stand among the many children whom God gave Him (Heb. 2:13) as their Liberator from fear and death through His own death (Heb. 2:14–15). The Son would shepherd the sheep given to Him by the Father — sheep whom He calls by name (names inscribed in his Book of Life from eternity past, Rev. 17:8), who are safe in His and the Father’s strong hands. For He, their Shepherd, would lay down His life for them and take it up again, in keeping with the Father’s command (John 10:2, 14–18, 28–29). The Son would finally report His mission accomplished — the mission to glorify the Father by revealing Him to those whom the Father had given Him and by protecting them through the Father’s name (John 17:4, 6, 12). As a result, the Son would lay claim to well-earned glory, and He would entrust His people to the Father and the Spirit for protection and perfection (John 17: 5, 11, 15–19).
Whereas the Father’s commitment in the covenant of redemption was to give to the Son a people, a family, a flock, the Son’s willing commitment was to fulfill the covenant obligations of His people. Here is where the wonder of divine grace and the awesome achievement of Christ shine so brightly, and here is where the covenant of redemption seems most foreign in our commitment-skittish age. Scripture extols the person who “swears to his own hurt and does not change” (Ps. 15:4), who does not look for loopholes when a vow’s balance sheet shifts from profit to loss. In an environment of skyrocketing divorce, corporate scandals, burgeoning bankruptcy, and broken promises — often justified by the trump cards of romance, personal fulfillment, or simple avoidance of pain or inconvenience — the costly role embraced by the Son in the covenant of redemption seems insanely masochistic (as it did in the first century, 1 Cor. 1:18). Why would He keep this promise at such great price? Simply because it was necessary to please the Father and procure His people (Luke 24:26).
If Adam had persisted in fidelity to the covenant of works, God’s commitment was to confer the blessing of confirmed righteousness and the life of the age to come not only on Adam but on us all, for whom he was covenant head. This is the tacit promise of the tree of life. In order for the Son’s “children” to receive vindication and eternal life, He would need to succeed where Adam failed, maintaining lifelong faithfulness as God’s covenant servant, not only in outward action but also in inward motivation — and to do so not in a pristine garden but in a world turned raging wilderness. But the Son would need to do much more.
Adam not only forfeited life for us all; he also incurred the death that traitors deserve, not only for himself but also for us. Therefore to win us as His prize, the Son plunged into history, into real, full human nature, not only to obey in our place, securing our eternal blessing, but also to die in our place, deflecting eternal cursing from us by absorbing in Himself the inferno of the righteous wrath that should, by rights, have been ours. The epistle to the Hebrews, interpreting Psalm 40, allows us to “listen in” to the Son’s joyful, loyal words to the Father as He undertook this mission in the Incarnation: “Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said, ‘Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body have you prepared for me; in burnt offerings and sin offerings you have taken no pleasure. Then I said, “Behold, I have come to do your will, O God, as it is written of me in the scroll of the book.’” … And by that will we have been sanctified by the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Heb. 10:5–7, 10).
The Son entered the world, assuming the human body that the Father prepared for Him, to accomplish God’s will. This divine will of course included keeping all the commands of the covenant (Christ’s active obedience), for Hebrews affirms Jesus’ utter sinlessness (4:15; 7:26). Yet Hebrews 10:10 makes explicit that the focal point of the divine “will” spoken of here is the offering of His body in death to cleanse His people (his passive obedience). In this text we glimpse that world-shaking moment when the eternal Son stood in the doorway between heaven and earth, about to step from eternity into history, looked back to the throne, and reaffirmed to His Father that He would embrace the agonizing mission before Him.
In such texts we are privileged to “overhear” in time the incarnate Son’s allusions to an eternal conversation, a compact that lies beyond our earshot and eyesight in the mysterious depths of the triune God. Addressing the Father in His disciples’ presence, Jesus lets such reminders of The Redemptive Agreement “slip out,” as it were, for our comfort and joy: “But now I am coming to you, and these things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves” (John 17:13).
God’s promises to you rest on His promises to Jesus, and on Jesus’ utter fidelity to the Father in the covenant of redemption — uniting us to Himself as our covenant Head, keeping on our behalf the covenant obligation of utter obedience that we could not and would not fulfill, enduring the covenant punishment that we deserve but could never survive, and imparting to us by His Spirit the covenant blessing of eternal life. For this reason, Hebrews applies to Jesus a rare term — unknown in biblical Greek and infrequent outside of Scripture — to describe the security that Jesus provides: “This makes Jesus the guarantor of a better covenant” (Heb. 7:22). Elsewhere Jesus is called the Mediator of the new covenant (Heb. 8:6; 9:15; 12:24), expressing the wonderful truth that the incarnate Son establishes the bond between us and the Father. But Moses too was a mediator of God’s covenant (Gal. 3:19), only to watch helplessly as Israel broke faith with their Lord, incurring His curse. We, however, have not only a Mediator but also a Guarantor, who eternally secured the blessings of justification and life for us by keeping covenant faithfulness in our place, delighting the Father by executing their covenant of redemption in wholehearted devotion and impeccable obedience, at a cost beyond our imagining.
First published in Tabletalk, February 2004.
© Westminster Seminary California All rights reserved
Permissions: You are permitted to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do NOT alter the wording in any way and you do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction. For web posting, a link to this document on our website is preferred.