The Scriptures have emphasized the wickedness of mankind since the time of the flood. Humanity is no different than what it was prior to the flood. For instance, the line of Ham demonstrates great selfishness and evil, and a strident rebelliousness against God. At Babel, mankind even desired to storm the very gates of heaven and shun the commands of God. Such stories simply describe mankind’s attempt to sit on the throne of the universe.
God, however, cannot but succeed, and the book of Acts tells us “in past generations he allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways. Yet, he did not leave himself without witness” (14:16–17). Accordingly, we see that God began to prepare a new nation who would carry God’s revelation to mankind and through whom the promised seed of the woman would come (Gen. 3:15). For this purpose, God chose Abraham, a descendant of Shem, to be the father of this chosen people.
The form of God’s calling of a people to Himself is called a covenant. A covenant in ancient times is a binding agreement between two parties that includes obligations and sanctions. O. Palmer Robertson, in his book The Christ of the Covenants, defines it as “a bond in blood sovereignly administered.” The contract involves promises on God’s part and obligations on mankind’s part. Such a covenant relationship was in effect in the garden between God and humanity (see Hosea 6:7) and between God and Noah (Gen. 6).
The covenant between God and Abraham (and his descendants) included rich blessings. First, God promised that Abraham would have an abundant posterity (Gen. 15:4–5; 17:6); this is a scenario that appeared unlikely since Abraham and Sarah were advanced in age and beyond child bearing years. Second, Abraham would inherit the land of Canaan in which he was sojourning (Gen. 15:7–8). Third, God vows that He will be with Abraham and his descendants: “… to be God to you and to your offspring after you” (Gen. 17:7). This central tenet of the covenant is known as the “Emmanuel principle,” which means “God is with us.” And, finally, it ought to be underscored that God pledges that this covenant with Abraham is an “everlasting covenant” (Gen. 17:13) and that the promises of the covenant will be enduring (Gen. 17:8).
Every ancient covenant has a physical sign or seal attached to it. One cannot be part of the covenant and not carry the sign or seal of the covenant; they are inextricably bound. The sign and seal of the Abrahamic covenant is circumcision (Gen. 17). And circumcision is principally a sign, and a sign is a physical witness to a spiritual reality, which is the covenant relationship between God and His people. It is a sign that one belongs in the covenant and to the people of God.
As noted, the Abrahamic covenant was made with Abraham and his seed, and it is a pact that is still in effect today. It was not abrogated, but it is an everlasting covenant. To whom does the covenant and its stipulations and sanctions belong? Who is the seed of Abraham? The apostle Paul is crystal clear on this point: “If you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring [i.e., seed], heirs according to promise” (Gal. 3:29). It is the true church, those who are of faith (Gal. 3:9), who are the people of the covenant and the recipients of the promises of the Abrahamic treaty. It is not a question of blood lineage for one to be a member, but one of faith. As Paul says, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28).
In consequence, the wonderful blessings of the covenant belong to God’s people today. First, the promise of an abundant seed is coming to pass in the church throughout the ages. Christ commanded His people to “make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19), and those who come to faith in Christ are of the covenant of Abraham. Paul said, “So that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith” (Gal. 3:14). In addition, believers are recipients of the Promised Land as inheritors of the promise of God to Abraham. Peter remarks, “According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable and unfading, kept in heaven for you” (1 Peter 1:3–4). The true, eternal promised land is not some dusty tract in the Middle East, but it is the celestial city that has been reserved in heaven for the people of the covenant by the work of Christ!
Finally, the sign and seal of the covenant in the New Testament age is baptism. God’s people undergo this ritual as a visible sign that they belong to the covenant and that they will receive the blessings of being in the covenant community.
The final words of Genesis are “in Egypt.” And, indeed, that is where the people of the covenant find themselves for the next four hundred years. The seed of Abraham is now in slavery to the Egyptians, as God had prophesied to Abraham (Gen. 15:13). There, according to the book of Exodus, the descendants of Abraham “increased greatly” in numbers (1:7). This large increase is a beginning fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham that God would multiply His seed as the stars of heaven and the sand on the seashore (Gen. 22:17).
The primary theme of the exodus event is redemption/deliverance. The Hebrews were in abject slavery to Pharaoh and the Egyptians. This was an oppressive and intense servitude: Pharaoh enslaved the Israelites, then he ordered the Hebrew mid-wives to destroy the Hebrew children, and finally he commanded a direct holocaust (Ex. 1). Yet, God cannot but succeed, and His promises to Abraham will come to pass. Thus, God intervened into the situation by raising a deliverer who would rescue Israel — Moses. There are no surprises here. God is in control, guiding, directing, and working out all things for the good of His people. Thus, no matter how the ungodly seed of the serpent attempt to thwart God’s plan (Ex. 1), they cannot and will not succeed.
The means by which God rescues His people is by bringing judgment on the Egyptians through ten plagues. It is clear that God directed these plagues not only against the Egyptians but also against their gods (Ex. 12:12). For example, the opening disaster was directed against the Nile River, which in its inundation was deified as the Egyptian god Hapi (Ex. 7:15–25). Hapi was an important fertility god in Egypt, and when God changes the water to blood, Hapi cannot supply Egypt with what it needs. God does not make Hapi very happy! All of the plagues can be considered as polemics against Egyptian deities.
The record of God’s defeat of Egypt and her gods finds its climax in the tenth plague. It is a proclamation of the death of the first born in all Egypt (Ex. 11:1–12:36). Yet, God protected His people by instructing them to keep the first Passover. The people were to sacrifice one-year old unblemished lambs or goats, and then they were to take the blood of the animals and smear it on the doorposts of their houses. And as God passed through the land of Egypt to bring judgment, He would pass over the houses bearing the sign of blood. As a direct result of the killing of the Egyptian first-born, Pharaoh throws the Hebrews out of the land.
The institution of the Passover was not a one time event, but it is to be celebrated by the people of God from generation to generation. God said to Israel: “You shall observe this rite as a statute for you and for your sons forever” (Ex. 12:24). This continuous, binding character of the Passover raises a question for the people of God today, that is, for the church: How does the church keep this command? Do we celebrate Passover?
According to the New Testament, the Lord’s Supper is a Passover meal (Matt. 26:17–19). Every Passover meal includes two elements: unleavened bread and wine. The bread symbolizes the bread that the Hebrews carried on their backs when they left Egypt quickly (they did not have time to bake it). The wine symbolizes the blood of the Passover lamb that protected the Hebrews from the avenging angel who killed the first born in Egypt. In communion, Jesus reinterpreted these two elements as symbols of Himself and His ministry. In Matthew 26:26–28, Jesus said that the bread is a figure of Jesus’ body that is hung on the cross for sinners, and the wine is a figure of the blood of Jesus shed for the sins of his people. In short, Jesus proclaimed that He is the Passover lamb (1 Cor. 5:7), who by the shedding of His blood is a substitute for His people, protecting them from the wrath and judgment of God.
When Christians celebrate baptism and the Lord’s Supper they are keeping the rituals that God had commanded His people to keep in perpetuity. The Scots Confession of 1560 puts it this way: “As the fathers under the Law, besides the reality of the sacrifices, had two chief sacraments, that is, circumcision and the Passover, and those who rejected these were not reckoned among God’s people; so do we acknowledge and confess that now in the time of the gospel we have two chief sacraments, which alone were instituted by the Lord Jesus and commanded to be used by all who will be counted members of his body, that is, Baptism and the Supper or Table of the Lord Jesus, also called the Communion of His Body and Blood.”