A better covenant

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THE centenary celebrations marking 100 years from the signing of the ‘Ulster Covenant’ have passed amid relative tranquillity.

Were we time travellers we might be able to enter into a deeper understanding of the temper of those times, but so much has happened in the intervening years that so much of it smacks of, as Wordsworth said, “old, unhappy, far off things, and battles long ago.”

If reports of breaches of the Parades Commission determination, particularly with reference to St. Matthew’s church at the lower end of Belfast’s Newtownards Road are true, then the good name of an organisation pledged to ensure “civil and religious liberty” is besmirched by its own supporters.

The word ‘covenant’ has a peculiarly religious ring. Indeed, the word ‘testament’, as in the Old and New Testaments, is an English translation of a Greek word which also means ‘covenant.’

It refers to an agreement between two people; an agreement that if one party performs certain deeds, then the other will respond in a certain way. God made a covenant with Moses, and Moses led the people in pledging obedience, saying, “We will do everything the Lord has said; we will obey” (Exodus 24;7).

That ‘covenant of works’ failed, because no human being can fully keep God’s law. And it is precisely because of this that a new covenant is called for. Jesus came and inaugurated a ‘better covenant’, (Hebrews 7;2), a covenant of grace.

The writer of the New Testament book, the epistle to the Hebrews, was striving to strength the sinews of Jewish converts to Christianity who were tempted to revert to their former faith.

“The covenant Jesus made,’ he contends, “is better than that covenant with Moses, for which you appear to hanker”. He went on to highlight some of its superior qualities.

First, the better covenant was voluntary, and spontaneous. The animal slain in Jewish sacrificial routing had no choice in the matter; but out of love Jesus offered up his life freely and voluntarily. “No one takes my life from me,” he told his disciples, “I lay it down of myself” (John 10;18).

Second, the better covenant was rational. Animals about to be sacrificed had no idea of what was ahead, but Jesus knew understood what lay ahead.

When John describes the evening before his crucifixion, when Jesus stooped in service to wash the feet of his disciples, he notes, “Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God” (John 13;3).

Jesus’s death was not the result of a sudden twist of events, but rather of a conscious redeeming decision.

Third, the better covenant secured by Jesus is effective. “Not all the blood of bulls on Jewish altars slain, could give the guilty conscience peace, or take away the stain”, runs a familiar item of praise.

But Christ’s sacrifice was effective. “Christ appeared once for all at the end of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Hebrews 9; 26).

That’s a covenant that deserves the allegiance of all.