Monday, December 23, 2019

Christmas and the Covenant

When we consider the birth of Jesus Christ at Christmas time, it is natural to wonder what it means and what practical significance it has for our lives. Preachers all over the world seek to answer this question as people gather in the hope to discover some deeper meaning behind their traditions and celebrations. And indeed, the incarnation of the Son of God gives preachers plenty of material - many things can be said about this pivotal event. Today I want to make the point that to fully understand and properly respond to the birth of Jesus, you must understand how this birth is connected with God's covenant with his people.

The prophetic song of Zechariah the priest in Luke 1:67-79 places the birth of Jesus in this covenantal context. While the occasion for the song is the birth of his son John, the song (like John) is primarily focused on the coming of the Lord. And Zechariah states that the incarnation of the Lord is an expression of "the mercy promised to our fathers" and "his holy covenant" (Luke 1:72).

What is this covenant? Zechariah says that in this covenant, made with Abraham and his offspring, God promised "to grant us that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days" (Luke 1:73-75). This is a summery of the covenant promises God gave to Abraham in Genesis 12, 15, 17, and 22.

God continued to renew this covenant with Abraham's descendants, with Isaac (Gen. 26:2-5) and Jacob/Israel (Gen. 28:13-15). Most dramatically, God renewed this covenant with the children of Israel in the days of Moses. In those days, according to his covenant promise, God delivered Israel from the hand of their enemies (i.e. Pharaoh) so that they  serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all their days (Exod. 4:22-23, 6:2-8, Deut. 7:7-11). This covenant was formally renewed with the children of Israel at Mount Sinai (20:1-17) and again in the promised land under Joshua at the beginning and end of the conquest (Joshua 8:30-35, 24:1-28).

After Israel had settled down in the promised land, God continued to renew his covenant with them and made it clear that a greater fulfillment of this covenant would be brought about through the king of Israel, specifically, through King David and his heirs (2 Sam. 7, Ps. 72, 89, Is. 9:1-7). It would be through the line of David that would arise the promised one who would deliver God's people from their enemies and lead them in righteousness and peace, bringing all the nations under his blessed reign.

A thousand years after King David, God had not forgotten his covenant, nor had his promised mercy come to an end. In order to keep his holy covenant and to practice his promised mercy, God took on human nature and was born as the promised heir of David. Just as God had visited his people in Egypt and delivered them from bondage (Gen. 50:24, Ex. 3:7-8, 16-17), so now God "visited and redeemed his people" (Luke 1:68). Just as God had delivered Israel from Egypt because of his covenant promise to their fathers, so now he delivered his people through the birth of Jesus for the same reason (Luke 1:72). God acted in the incarnation because of his oath to Abraham (Luke 1:73). And God had fulfilled this oath by raising up "a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David" (Luke 1:69), that is, a Davidic king who would powerfully save his people. This king would deliver them by giving them the forgiveness of their sins and by guiding their feet into the way of peace (Luke 1:77-79).

This means that Jesus was born to confirm the covenant, to fulfill God's oath "to grant us that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days" (Luke 1:73-75). The birth of Jesus was the first act of the final battle against the ancient foe. Jesus came as an atonement for his people's sins so that he might transfer them from the domain of the evil one into the kingdom of God (Heb. 2:14-15, Col. 1:13). As John Milton wrote of Christ's nativity,
    "And then at last our bliss
    Full and perfect is,
But now begins; for from this happy day
    The old dragon under ground
    In straiter limits bound,
    Not half so far casts his usurped sway,
And wrath to see his kingdom fail,
Swinges the scaly horror of his folded tail."
What does this mean for our part? How should we respond? My point is that if Jesus was born to confirm God's covenant, then we should respond by embracing this covenant and living accordingly. Jesus sets believers free from the dominion of sin and Satan, enabling them to keep covenant and grow in holiness. The proper response to the Christmas story is, through faith in Christ, to cast aside our fearful bondage to the fallen world, our sinful passions, and the devil, and to serve God in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.

God sent redemption to earth to bring people into covenant with him. Jesus was born to free all those who trust in him that they might walk in his ways in fellowship with him. Do not be as the generation who experienced the exodus but perished in the wilderness because they broke the covenant by rebelling against the Lord. Do not despise the work of the incarnation and turn back to bondage and death. Remember the works of the Lord, trust in his mercy and faithfulness, and follow the Lord as his loyal servants. Forsake the darkness, and walk in his light, for he will guide our feet into the way of peace.

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