Yesterday, we began looking at the “Servant Songs” in Isaiah in an attempt to see how they might contribute to our understanding of the Apostle Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 15:3 that “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures.” I noted for the first servant song in Isaiah 42:1-7 that there were two statements in the passage that would indicate that this could have been one of the passages that Paul had in mind. We looked at the first statement yesterday; today we move on to the second statement.
In the first four verses of this passage the Lord talks about his servant in third person. But in verses 5-7 the Lord now addresses the servant directly. In verse 6 the Lord says to the servant,
6 “I, the LORD, have called you in righteousness; I will take hold of your hand. I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles.”
The interesting language in this verse comes when the Lord says that he will make the servant “to be a covenant for the people.” In order to better understand this enigmatic statement we need to spend a little bit of time looking at how covenants were ratified in the Old Testament and in the ancient Near East.
Today, when we conclude a contract or agreement, we have various ways of ratifying the agreement. We might simply do so with a handshake. We might do it by signing our names on a document. We might do so by simply accepting each other’s word. In the case of a wedding, we might do so by the exchange of rings and the signing of the registry. But these are all fairly innocuous ways of ratifying an agreement. When we look at how covenants were ratified in the Old Testament and in the ancient Near East, we see that the ratification of the covenant was performed in a much more dramatic and significant fashion. The covenants were ratified by a ceremony in which a sacrificial animal lost its life. As one Old Testament scholar, O. Palmer Robertson, puts it, a covenant in the Old Testament was a “bond in blood.” When people entered into a solemn covenant they would signal their intention to keep the covenant by making their promise over a sacrificial animal. In doing so, each party to the covenant was in effect saying, “If I don’t keep my promise, may what happened to this animal happen to me.” In Genesis 15, God enters into a covenant with Abraham by passing between the pieces of cut-up animals. In doing so he is saying that he is to be treated like those cut-up animals if he fails to keep his promise to Abraham (see also a similar passage in Jeremiah 34). In the account of the ratification of the covenant that God made with the nation of Israel in Exodus 24, young bulls are sacrificed. After the people make their promise, “We will do everything the Lord has said,” Moses then takes some of the blood from the sacrifice, sprinkles it on the people, and declares, “This is the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you.” The people are, in essence, declaring, “If we fail to perform what we said we would do, may what happened to these animals happen to us.”
As I said above, we ratify our covenants today in less dramatic and more innocuous fashion. But it wasn’t that long ago when people who made promises would follow them up by declaring, “Cross my heart, hope to die.” And this is more akin to what happened in Old Testament times.
The covenants that God made in the Old Testament were always made with one particular person, through whom the covenant was mediated to a larger group of people. We name these covenants after the mediators. So we refer to the covenant that God with Adam as the Adamic covenant. The covenant that God made with Noah we refer to as the Noahic covenant. We follow suit with this by referring to the Abrahamic, Mosaic, and Davidic covenants. In several passages in Jeremiah and Ezekiel there is also a reference to a “new covenant”; but there is no mention of who the mediator of that covenant would be. However, in Isaiah 42:6 we get a hint as to the mediator’s identity—the mediator of the new covenant will be the servant of the Lord.
But it is important to note that there is language used here that goes beyond the language of the other covenants. The Lord will not simply appoint the servant to be the mediator of the covenant—the servant will be the covenant. This was never said of any of the previous covenant mediators, of Adam, or Noah, or Abraham, or Moses, or David.
What does this mean? How can the servant be the covenant? Among other possibilities, I believe it means that, in a way that was not true of the other covenants, the mediator of the new covenant will embody the covenant in his own person. But what does this mean? I believe that at least one answer to that question is that, with regard to the sign of the covenant, the ratification of the covenant—that sign and that ratification will take place in the servant’s own person, in his own body. The servant will be the sacrifice over which the promises of the covenant are made.
As I mentioned earlier, when God made a covenant with the Israelites at Mount Sinai, Moses sprinkled the blood of the sacrificed animals on the people and said, “This is the blood of the covenant.” Fourteen hundred years later, in an upper room in a house in the city of Jerusalem, a man took a cup of wine, gave thanks for it, and offered it to a group of other men in the room with him. Then he said, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” Both Matthew and Mark record Jesus’ words as “This is my blood of the covenant.” Luke and Paul have Jesus saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood.” As both reported formulas make clear, the blood by which the new covenant would be ratified would not be the blood of cut up animals, as in Genesis 15; it would not be the blood of sacrificed bulls, as in Exodus 24. Rather, the covenant would be ratified with the blood of the Son of God. When, the next day, Jesus was crucified on the cross, it was his death, his blood, the giving of his life, that served to ratify the new covenant. Jesus embodied the covenant in his own person. The new covenant was ratified in his own flesh and in his own blood. Jesus was made to be the covenant for the people.
The Lord had told us about this already in Isaiah 42:6. Perhaps Paul had this passage in mind when he said, “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures.”
And how great should our devotion be to the one who embodied the new covenant in his own person, in his own flesh, in his own blood.
Praise be to you, O Christ.
March 7, 2014
Thanks for this series. I look forward to studying the Scriptures with you through Lent.
I have found that comparing Abraham’s sacrifice in Gen 15 to Jesus’ baptism is fruitful in giving shape to the sacrificial system (which is ultimately fulfilled in Jesus’ crucifixion, of course). Just as Abraham, a sinner in need of redemption, administers the death of the animals in Gen 15, so also John the Baptist (a sinner) administers baptism (a death) to Jesus. Notice that Jesus never baptizes anyone, his disciples do, because (a) it is always the sinner/offender that slays a sacrifice, and (b) Jesus’ role is to be “baptized into.” Jesus is the sacrifice that we pass through in our death and resurrection. Just as the Spirit passes through the death of the animals in Gen 15, so also the Spirit descends upon Jesus and brings him up from the water, “passing through” his death so to speak. Just as the Father reveals a promise to Abraham after the Spirit passes through the pieces, so also the Father reveals the promised Messiah to Israel after the Spirit brings Jesus out of the water. “This is my Son, in whom I am well pleased.” The sinner(s) slay the sacrifice, the Son dies as the sacrifice, the Spirit passes through the death and raises the Son from the dead, and the Father reveals His promise. This is exactly what happens at the cross, and it is the resurrection by which the Father ultimately reveals His promise, as Paul says in Acts 13:32, “we preach to you the good news of the promise made to the fathers, that God has fulfilled this promise to our children in that He raised up Jesus.” God’s covenantal promises, promises ultimately made based on the death of Jesus as the covenant sacrifice, are fulfilled in Jesus’ resurrection.
I had another thought on this: I am not sure to what extent the shedding of blood in a covenant has to do with punishment. The shedding of blood is necessary to form covenants where sin and punishment are not involved. The first major example of this is the marriage of Adam and Eve. God puts Adam into a deep sleep (just as He puts Abraham into a deep sleep in Gen 15) and sheds blood from Adam’s side when he removes a rib. I apologize for being a bit graphic, but Eve also sheds blood when they consummate their marriage. So there is the shedding of blood on behalf of both parties prior to any sin entering the world. Even prior to sin, covenants have a cost. It is necessary for the two to become one flesh (or one entity, in the case of non-marital covenants).
What is fascinating is to parallel the marriage of Adam and Eve to our union with Christ through his death and resurrection. Just as Adam enters a deep sleep, so also Jesus enters the deep sleep of death. Just as Adam is wounded in the side, so also Jesus is wounded in the side. Just as God fashions Eve from the wound of Adam, so also God fashions Jesus’ bride, the church, from his wounds. Just as Adam rises from sleep to be united to his bride, so also Jesus resurrects from death to be united with the church. Just as Eve must shed blood in order to be united to her husband, so also the church must participate in Jesus’ death and resurrection in order to be united to him.