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The PROMISES of GOD
DISCOVERING THE ONE WHO KEEPS HIS WORD
By R.C. SPROUL
David C. CookCopyright © 2013 R. C. Sproul
All rights reserved.
THE MEANING OF COVENANT
The concept of covenant is integral and foundational to the divine revelation. We could even say that God reveals His Word and His plan biblically through the structure of various covenants. The covenants are prominent in the Old Testament and play a significant role in the teaching of the New Testament.
Despite the prominence of this structure, there is much confusion over the meaning of the term covenant. For example, we speak frequently about the difference between the old covenant and the new covenant, but we also speak of the Old Testament and the New Testament, and we have a tendency to use those terms interchangeably, seeing "Old Testament" as a synonym for "old covenant" and "New Testament" as a synonym for "new covenant." Of course, these terms are closely related, but they are not really synonyms. They do not mean exactly the same thing.
There is also confusion because of the ways in which the idea of covenant is handled in twenty-first-century cultures. For instance, covenants were quite foundational for the United States as a nation. The political theory that was implemented in the grand experiment that is the United States relied heavily on John Locke's idea of the social contract. This concept held that there is a relationship between the rulers and those who are ruled, between the government and the people, whereby the leaders are selected or elected by the people and are empowered to rule only by the consent of the people. In essence, there is an agreement, a mutual promise of fidelity, between the people, who pledge their allegiance to their government, and the government officials, who take oaths of office to uphold the Constitution. There is a contract or a pact, an agreement binding these two sides to each other.
In addition, we often talk about the industrial contract, which comes in many forms. When a person goes to work for a company, he may sign a contract wherein the employer promises him certain remuneration, benefits, and so on, and wherein the employee promises to give so much of his time in working for the company. We see this kind of covenant in labor agreements. Also, on a more popular level, every time we buy something with a credit card or on an installment basis, we enter into a contract or an agreement to pay the full amount for the merchandise or the service over time. Even more significant is the marriage contract, an agreement that involves oaths and vows, sanctions and promises, between two people. All of these agreements are covenants.
Now, all of these covenants have elements of similarity to the biblical covenants, but they are not identical. Though the biblical covenants have elements of promise, one thing makes them different from these other kinds of agreements—biblical covenants are established on the basis of a divine sanction. That is, they are established not on the foundation of promises made by equal parties, but on the foundation of the divine promise of God. In the biblical covenants, it is God who declares the terms and makes the promises.
THE STRUCTURE OF REVELATION
The covenants provide the structure of redemptive history, the context in which God works out His plan of redemption. This fundamental idea was upheld for many centuries, but it became the focus of controversy in the middle of the twentieth century. Rudolf Bultmann (1884–1976), a higher-critical scholar in Germany, made a distinction between what he called heilsgeschichte, or "salvation history," and history itself. When he spoke of heilsgeschichte, he meant something that took place not on the horizontal plane of world history but above history, in some sort of supratemporal realm. Bultmann embraced an existential form of philosophy and believed that salvation happens not on this level but vertically—as he put it, immediately and directly from above. He saw salvation as a mystical thing that happens when a person has a crisis experience of faith.
At the same time, he said that the Bible is filled with both mythology and real history, but in order for the Bible to have any meaning for us today, it must be demythologized. That is, we have to tear off the husk of myth that holds that kernel of historical truth. So, he consigned anything that smacked of the supernatural—such as the virgin birth, the miracles of Jesus, the resurrection, and so on—to the realm of myth, not the realm of history.
The whole point of that kind of existential thinking and theology that drove the German theologians in the twentieth century was that salvation does not have to be rooted and grounded in history in order to be real. We can still have the "Christ-event," which is an existential moment that people experience, a moment of crisis. But that idea is far removed from the biblical concept of redemption.
Oscar Cullman (1902–1999), the Swiss theologian and New Testament scholar, wrote a trilogy of books in the middle of the twentieth century concerning this matter of redemptive history. The first book was called Christ and Time. In it he examined the time-frame references of the Bible, such as years, days, hours, and so on. The second book was on the person of Christ. The third book was titled Salvation in History, which was a comprehensive rebuttal of Bultmann, arguing that the Scriptures see God's revelation as inexorably bound up with real history. The Dutch New Testament scholar Herman Ridderbos (1909–2007) seconded that motion and argued that the Bible is not written like an ordinary history book. It is not simply a chronology of the actions of the Hebrew people. It's more than that. It is indeed the unfolding of the drama of God's work of redemption— so it is appropriate to call the Bible redemptive history. Whereas the critics were saying, "The Bible's not history; it's redemptive history," Cullman, Ridderbos, and others were saying, "Yes, it's redemptive history, but it's redemptive history." The fact that the Bible is concerned with redemption is no excuse to rip it out of the context of real history.
The Bible is filled with allusions to real history. When we come to the New Testament documents, we come first to the accounts of the birth of Christ, the famous Christmas story. We read: "And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This census first took place while Quirinius was governing Syria" (Luke 2:1–2). In other words, Luke placed the setting for the birth of Christ in real history. People such as Pontius Pilate, Caiaphas, and others were real historical personages. The pharaoh of Egypt, Cyrus, Belshazzar, and Nebuchadnezzar were all real historical figures. So, the Bible talks about God's working in and through the normal plane of history.
In the first book of his trilogy, Christ and Time, Cullmann made a distinction between two Greek words for "time." Chronos is the ordinary Greek word that refers to the moment-by-moment passing of time. I wear what we commonly call a wristwatch, but the more technical term for it is a chronometer. A chronometer is something that measures chronos, the passing of seconds, minutes, and hours.
The other word, kairos, has a special meaning. It has to do not simply with history but with what we would call the historic. Everything that happens in time is historical, but not everything that happens is historic. We use the term historic to refer to specific moments in time that are pregnant in their significance and meaning, moments that change everything. The attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, was a historic moment in American history. It changed our culture forever. September 11, 2001, also changed our national culture forever. It, too, was a historic moment. But both of these moments, these kairotic events, took place not in some "never-never land" of existential, gnostic thinking, but in the actual plane of history.
At the heart of the biblical announcement of the coming of the Messiah is the statement that Jesus came in "the fullness of time" (Gal. 4:4). The Greek word used there is pleroma; it has to do with a kind of fullness that indicates satiation. If I put a glass under a faucet and filled it to the rim with water, that glass's state of fullness would not equal pleroma. I would have to leave the glass under the faucet until one more drop would cause the water in the glass to spill out; that would be pleroma. It is fullness so full that there is no room for another ounce or another speck of anything to be added. That helps us understand what the Bible means when it says that in the plan of God, Christ came in the "fullness of time."
That idea is inseparably related to the gospel itself. When the Apostles addressed the gospel in their preaching in the book of Acts or in their letters, they talked about how God had prepared history for the coming of His Son. Everything in Old Testament history, before the birth of Christ, moved toward that kairotic moment. Everything after the death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ refers back to those kairotic moments that shaped the whole future of the people of God. But the context of redemption is real history, not some spiritual realm that is outside the measurable views of history as we know it.
THE HEBREW CONCEPT OF COVENANT
In the Old Testament, the word that is translated by the English word covenant is the word berîyth. The New Testament, however, is written in Greek. The Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, was produced by exilic Jews during the Hellenization process of Alexander the Great, which had the subjugated nations and peoples speaking Greek. Lest the sacred Scriptures of the Hebrews be lost to the Jewish people who were being forced to speak Greek, a team of seventy Jewish scholars came together and translated the Hebrew scriptures into Greek. That was a very important event in the history of Judeo-Christianity, because there we begin to see how Old Testament concepts were rendered into the Greek language, a language that was not native to the people of the old covenant. The Septuagint, then, is almost like a key to a code, because by it we can see how the Jews translated their own scriptures into Greek, and then compare how the New Testament writers used the same language.
One of the problems that the Jews who produced the Septuagint struggled with was choosing a Greek word to render the Hebrew berîyth into the Greek language. There were no words that really matched the Hebrew term berîyth, which is now translated by the English word covenant. The choice came down to a couple of words, and the one that won the day was diatheke. For the most part, diatheke is used in the New Testament to translate the Hebrew word berîyth or the Hebrew concept of covenant.
This word, diatheke, is the source of some of the confusion between "old covenant" and "Old Testament," and "new covenant" and "New Testament." The reason is that diatheke can be translated not only as "covenant," but also as "testament." However, at the time of the Septuagint, a testament in the Greek culture had a couple of things that made it significantly different from the Old Testament concept of covenant. First, in the Greek culture, a testament was something that could be changed at any time by the testator, as long as the testator was alive. A person could make up his last will and testament, become angry with his designated heirs, and write them out of his will. I say this to my children: "You're out of the will!" Of course, I am just joking when I say that, but it actually does happen that people are disinherited, written out of people's wills. But when God makes a covenant with His people, He can punish them for breaking His covenant, but He never abandons the covenant promises that He makes.
The second reason why diatheke was a poor choice is that the benefits of a testament do not accrue until after the testator dies. But when God enters into covenant with people, they do not have to wait for Him to die to inherit the blessings from that covenant, because He's incapable of dying. So, with those two great weaknesses, we wonder why the Septuagint translators chose the Greek word diatheke to translate the Hebrew berîyth.
This is significant for us because the Hebrews conceived of a covenant not simply as an agreement, but as an agreement plus the divine promise, which rests ultimately on the integrity of God, not on us as weak covenant partners. This is very important for our understanding of the covenant promises of God.
The other Greek word that was considered to translate berîyth in the Septuagint was sunkatathesis. It has the prefix sun- or syn-, which we encounter in the English words synonym, syncretism, synchronization, and the like; it simply means "with." The idea of sunkatathesis in the Greek culture was an agreement between equal partners. But the Hebrews would have none of that. They did not want to use that as the translation of the berîyth because they wanted to clearly maintain that the covenants God makes with His people are made between a superior and a subordinate, not between two equal parties. So, that word was rejected.
They came back to the word diatheke because in its original use, before it developed in the Greek culture as a word for "testament," it had reference to what is called "the disposition for one's self." A diatheke had to do with an individual's disposition of his goods or property for himself; that is, it referred to his sovereign right to determine to whom his estate would be given. That was an element that blended well with the Hebrew concept, because God chooses to give promises to whomever He will give those promises. He made a covenant with Abraham that He did not make with Hammurabi. He chose the Jews; He did not choose the Philistines. He entered a covenant relationship with them and said, "I will walk among you and be your God, and you shall be My people" (Lev. 26:12). That was not a choice the Israelites made, but one that God made. So, even though in the Greek word diatheke there is some confusion about its content in the Greek culture, it, more than any word in the language, carries the notion of something beyond an agreement that is so important to our understanding of the Hebrew notion of covenant. As we look at the various covenants of Scripture, I hope that it will become clearer how important this is for our understanding of the structure of divine revelation.
DISTINGUISHING THE COVENANTS
As I mentioned, we use the language "Old Testament" and "New Testament," and "old covenant" and "new covenant." I used to tease my students and ask, "Who's the most important prophet in the Old Testament?" They would say, "Elijah," "Isaiah," "Jeremiah," "Ezekiel," or "Daniel." Then I would say, "No, no, the greatest prophet in the Old Testament is John the Baptist." They were always outraged. They would respond, "What do you mean? He's in the New Testament!" That was the point I wanted to get across. Jesus said, "Assuredly, I say to you, among those born of women there has not risen one greater than John the Baptist" (Matt. 11:11). Yes, we read of the birth of John the Baptist in the book that we call the New Testament. But in terms of the history of redemption, or the economy of God's redemption, the new covenant had not yet been established at the time of John's birth. We read about him in the New Testament, but the period of redemptive history in which John was born was the old covenant. He belonged to that period of redemptive history.
There are endless debates about when the new covenant period really began. Some people say it began at the time of Jesus' resurrection, and others point to the day of Pentecost. I'm persuaded that the new covenant began in the upper room on the night before Jesus' death, when He changed the significance of the Passover and declared the making of a new covenant in His blood—which He ratified the next day on the cross. So, that's when I think the period of redemptive history that we call the new covenant really began.
However, we can see the confusion, because in our most ordinary use of language, when we talk about the Old Testament and the New Testament, we're not talking about two covenants; we're talking about two collections of books: the Old Testament scriptures and the New Testament scriptures. We're talking about two segments of the biblical canon. In canon. In that sense, the use of the word has nothing to do with the concept of a testament or will. When we talk about the old covenant or the new covenant, we're not speaking about the concept of a testament but about a period of time.
Excerpted from The PROMISES of GOD by R.C. SPROUL. Copyright © 2013 R. C. Sproul. Excerpted by permission of David C. Cook.
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Table of Contents
1 The Meaning of Covenant 11
Chapter 1 Study Guide 22
2 The Covenant of Redemption 29
Chapter 2 Study Guide 35
3 The Creation Covenant (Part 1) 43
Chapter 3 Study Guide 52
4 The Creation Covenant (Part 2) 61
Chapter 4 Study Guide 70
5 The Creation Covenant (Part 3) 79
Chapter 5 Study Guide 88
6 The Noahic Covenant 95
Chapter 6 Study Guide 107
7 The Abrahamic Covenant (Part 1) 115
Chapter 7 Study Guide 125
8 The Abrahamic Covenant (Part 2) 133
Chapter 8 Study Guide 142
9 The Mosaic Covenant (Part 1) 153
Chapter 9 Study Guide 161
10 The Mosaic Covenant (Part 2) 169
Chapter 10 Study Guide 182
11 The Davidic Covenant 191
Chapter 11 Study Guide 201
12 The New Covenant (Part 1) 209
Chapter 12 Study Guide 219
13 The New Covenant (Part 2) 227
Chapter 13 Study Guide 238
14 The Christ of the Covenant 245
Chapter 14 Study Guide 256
About the Author 265
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
In The Promises of God, Dr. R. C. Sproul shows how God—the one true Promise Keeper—always keeps His promises. Drawing from his expansive theological background, Dr. Sproul addresses questions such as these: • How do we know that God will fulfill His promises to us? • What can we learn about God’s faithfulness as we wait for His promises to be fulfilled? • What was the agreement God the Father had with Jesus before the beginning of the world? • What does God’s covenant with Adam mean for us today? • What common covenant do atheists and other non-Christians participate in with God? • What does God’s covenant have to do with His forgiveness of our sins today? • Why did Jesus have to die to complete God’s covenant with us? God’s promises throughout history are the foundation for your relationship with Him. Here you will see how and why He keeps His promises to you, from now through eternity. Sproul goes on to define the different covenants God makes throughout redemptive history: the Covenant of Redemption, the Creation Covenant, the Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic Covenants, and finally the New Covenant. Faith has an expansive horizon. It is not merely about believing the right things. Instead, it inhabits every dimension of our personhood--how we think, how we behave, how we deal with our emotions and how we relate to others. We owe R.C. Sproul a great debt of gratitude for expanding the faith horizon in a way that will encourage many to actively grow their faith, their confidence in God. Christians who read this book will definitely be edified and encouraged. Intellectually solid reading. Full of lots of great examples and left me wanting more. Reminds us that God is very active in our lives and in the world. Great insights on what faith is and what it's not. I was given this book by Christian Review of Books.
I was really glad I came across this book. In a time of feeling beat down and o one caring it really lifted me up and gave me hope.
R. C. Sproul in his new book, “The Promises Of God” published by David C. Cook shows us Discovering the One Who Keeps His Word . From the Back Cover: What Promises Can You Believe? We hear a lot these days about promises. Most of the time, we focus on promises to each other, rather than on God’s promises. But as we all know, human promises fail time and again. In The Promises of God, Dr. R. C. Sproul shows how God—the one true Promise Keeper—always keeps His promises. Drawing from his expansive theological background, Dr. Sproul addresses questions such as these: · How do we know that God will fulfill His promises to us? · What can we learn about God’s faithfulness as we wait for His promises to be fulfilled? · What was the agreement God the Father had with Jesus before the beginning of the world? · What does God’s covenant with Adam mean for us today? · What common covenant do atheists and other non-Christians participate in with God? · What does God’s covenant have to do with His forgiveness of our sins today? · Why did Jesus have to die to complete God’s covenant with us? God’s promises throughout history are the foundation for your relationship with Him. Here you will see how and why He keeps His promises to you, from now through eternity. We make promises to each other however there are times when we cannot fulfill these promises. Most of us try to fulfill as many as possible while others fail miserably at keeping just a few. When God makes a promise it is to every person for all time only He calls it a covenant. In fourteen chapters, beginning with, “The Meaning Of Covenant” Dr. Sproul walks us through every covenant, what it meant when it was first made and what it means to us today. In Chapter Fourteen, “The Christ Of The Covenant” Dr. Sproul finishes by highlighting how the covenants all point directly to Christ. Each chapter is set up with a built-in study guide at the end. It is time we rooted ourselves firmly on the promises God has made. Not only will it give us a sense of security it will also provide us with the ability to reach out to others to give them the same security. ”The Promises Of God” is a must have book. It is a must have for you because you will read it once, stash it on your bookshelf and come back to it again and again for refreshing. It is a must have for your friends and family so that they can do the exact same thing. We all need to learn and understand and who better than Dr. Sproul to help us with that understanding. I recommend this book highly! Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book for free from David C. Cook for this review. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”