How do biblical covenants bear on that extremely important question today? Does the New Covenant cancel the Abrahamic covenants? What does the remnant mean in the Bible?
Dispensationalism is a man-made template imposed on the Bible, while covenants are thoroughly Scriptural. This post does not assume Reformed theology or Calvinism or dispensationalism. Instead, covenants are simply biblical.
To answer the titled question, let’s leave behind dispensationalism and look at the Abrahamic covenants, particularly the first one, and then the Sinai covenant. (Scholars divide God’s covenant with Abraham into two parts.) Then we examine the very important biblical concept of the remnant.
Ten points in a Q & A format, for clarity and conciseness.
1.. What are the Abrahamic covenants?
The first part was a royal grant of land, an everlasting promise to possess Canaan (Gen. 15:7). It was to belong to Abraham and his descendants forever, but under the Lord’s ownership. The second part was the same.
In the second part, Abraham and his descendants were to be totally dedicated, loyal, and obedient to their sovereign Lord (Gen. 17). If they were not, then the covenant is violated (see nos. 3 and 4).
2.. How were the two covenants ratified?
The first part was by Abraham’s faith (v. 6) and then his faith was confirmed by his cutting up animals and laying them out in two parallel rows (Gen. 15:9-11, 17-18). A flaming torch and smoking firepot passed between the dismembered animal parts. This was the presence of God ratifying the covenant.
The second part was confirmed by circumcision (Gen. 17:11-14).
The Abrahamic covenants together were repeated to Abraham (Gen. 22:17-18), Isaac (Gen. 26:3-5), Jacob (Gen. 28:13-15), and to Moses (Exod. 6:2-4); it was celebrated by the psalmist (Ps. 105:7-11) and the exiles who had returned (Neh. 9:7-8). This gives us a hint that in spite of violating the Sinai covenant for centuries, the Abrahamic land grant is not canceled.
3.. How do the first and second parts differ?
In the first part, Abraham was to have the land by God’s everlasting promise (Gen. 15:17).
In the second part, the terms were conditional. In Gen. 17:4, the phrase “as for me” and in v. 9 “as for you” signify the conditions. For God’s part, he would ensure that Abraham would have many descendants, and he reinforced the land grant established in the first part (Gen. 17:8). For Abraham’s part he and his descendants were to be totally consecrated to the Lord.
4.. Therefore, didn’t the violation of the Sinai covenant permanently cancel the Abrahamic land grant?
If the people broke the Sinai covenant, then the land would vomit them out because it was God’s land, not theirs (Lev. 18:22; 20:22). And the land did vomit them out when the northern and southern kingdoms repeatedly and egregiously violated this covenant (2 Kings 17-18; 2 Chron. 36:15-23).
However, the Abrahamic covenants, particularly the first one, are different from the Sinai covenant. The Abrahamic covenants are related to and interdependent with the Sinai covenant, but violating the Sinai did not permanently cancel the first part of Abrahamic covenant, as we shall see at no. 6.
5.. But doesn’t Christ’s fulfillment of all the Old Testament covenants permanently cancel the Abrahamic land grant?
It is the clearest teaching of Scripture that Christ fulfills all OT covenants through the New, which he initiated at the Lord’s Supper and ratified at his death and resurrection. He fulfills even the two-part covenant given to Abraham. Specifically, Paul says that in Abraham’s “seed” all the nations will be blessed. Who is the “seed”? Christ alone is the seed (singular) of Abraham (Gal. 3:15-18), and salvation goes through him and only him. Now the church inherits the whole world by salvation through Christ (Rom. 4:13). Now through him the whole world is being blessed as his gospel is spread. We can be like Abraham the believer, but our faith is now directed towards and put wholly in Christ. This is Paul’s main emphasis throughout his writings, particularly in Rom. 9-11 and Gal. 3-4.
The sign of the second Abrahamic covenant was circumcision. Today, believers are not circumcised except in their hearts (Rom. 2:25-29; 1 Cor. 7:19). So the sign of the covenant and therefore the second part of the covenant are obsolete. The nation of Israel rejected the Messiah, about four decades before the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in A.D. 70. That rejection, however, opened the door to Gentiles to receive salvation offered through the Messiah (Gal. 3:15-18).
As noted, now the church inherits the world (Rom. 4:13), while the Jews can inherit Israel. They are on two parallel tracks globally and geographically, but salvation is through Christ alone.
As I have asked before, is it possible that the land aspect of the first covenant is still in force? Did the Israelites’ breaking the Sinai covenant cancel the Abrahamic land grant? Does the New Covenant cancel the land grant also? Many interpreters say yes: both the Sinai covenant and the New Covenant canceled the specific aspect of the Abrahamic covenant that promised the land.
Let’s now explore this issue more thoroughly.
6.. Is the one aspect of the first part of the Abrahamic covenant—the land grant (Gen. 15)—still in effect throughout history, including today?
This gets complicated so let me letter the main points for clarity and conciseness.
A.. As noted under point no. 4, if the people broke the Sinai covenant, then the land would vomit them out.
B.. God indeed judged the people of Israel because of their repeated violations, and he evicted them from the land (Jeremiah preached nonstop about this).
C.. However, a remnant was promised that they could return (2 Kings 19:30-31; Ezra 9:15-16; Jer. 23:3; 40:11; Zeph. 3:9, 12). Because God moved on Cyrus’s heart, this return happened (2 Chron. 36:22-22; Ezra 1:2).
D.. Moses and the prophets promised a return to the land based on the covenant he made with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob (Lev. 26:40-45; Jer. 33:25-26; Mic. 7:18-20).
These most important verses are found all the way back in Leviticus:
40 “‘But if they will confess their sins and the sins of their ancestors—their unfaithfulness and their hostility toward me, 41 which made me hostile toward them so that I sent them into the land of their enemies—then when their uncircumcised hearts are humbled and they pay for their sin, 42 I will remember my covenant with Jacob and my covenant with Isaac and my covenant with Abraham, and I will remember the land. 43 For the land will be deserted by them and will enjoy its sabbaths while it lies desolate without them. They will pay for their sins because they rejected my laws and abhorred my decrees. 44 Yet in spite of this, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not reject them or abhor them so as to destroy them completely, breaking my covenant with them. I am the Lord their God. 45 But for their sake I will remember the covenant with their ancestors whom I brought out of Egypt in the sight of the nations to be their God. I am the Lord.’” (Leviticus 26:40-45, NIV, emphasis added)
So when the Israelites broke the Sinai covenant, God still remembered his land-grant covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The centuries-long violations did not permanently cancel the land grant. These verses in the above excerpt are crucial (43-44): “They will pay for their sins because they rejected my laws and abhorred my decrees. Yet in spite of this, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not reject them or abhor them so as to destroy them completely, breaking my covenant with them.”
E.. However, God was about to make a new covenant (Jer. 31:31-34). Will the New Covenant cancel the Abrahamic land grant? Not necessarily, for going beyond Israel, as the church is called to do, is not the same as canceling God’s land grant—a narrow focus—to Abraham and his descendants. In any case, the land grant aspect is everlasting. As the next point, Letter F, says, this “everlastingness” is historically expressed and fulfilled in the return of the Jews to their land promised to Abraham in Gen. 15, despite centuries of violating the Sinai covenant.
F.. After seventy years (Jer. 25:11-12; 29:10), when the remnant returned to the Holy Land, they rebuilt the temple (Ezra 1:2-3; Zech. 6:12-15). They lived there even under later Greek and Roman occupations.
G.. They were ejected from Jerusalem after the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70. The New Testament teaches that the destruction of temple was God’s judgment on national Israel for rejecting its Messiah (Luke 19:41-44; 20:9-19; 21:20-24; Matt. 21:43-46), though individual priests and thousands of other Jews of Jerusalem and Judea believed in and converted to the Messiah (Acts 2:41; 4:4; 6:7; 21:20).
H.. At this point interpreters can differ: restrictive and freer.
The more restrictive interpreters say that promise to the remnant was fulfilled when the Jews returned to their land during the administration of Nehemiah and Ezra. And that’s true. The promise was fulfilled back then. But the restrictive interpreters add that there is no more possibility of further fulfillment. (These interpreters are preterists, which means fulfilled, but let’s not get bogged down with terms.)
The freer interpreters say that the remnant returned back then, and this fulfilled the promise, but the promise has the multi-fulfillment principle built into it: The original promise also applies to remnants located far into the future, even to the return of the Jews today. (Let’s call this interpretation the partial preterist and partial futurist, which says the prophecies were fulfilled–preterist–but they can also apply to the future–futurist, but let’s not get bogged down in the discussion over terms.)
This post assumes the partial preterist and partial futurist interpretive grid, based on the covenant of Abraham. Even though each covenant in the Old Testament is fulfilled in Christ, all fulfilled covenants still retain a few everlasting quality to specific aspects of them, particularly the land grant aspect.
I.. From the destruction in A.D. 70 until 1948, Jews were absent from the land except for a remnant. A remnant is important in the history and promises to the ancient Israelites (Gen. 45:6; 1 Kings 19:18; 2 Kings 19:30-31; Is. 10:20-21; 11:10-13, 16; Jer. 23:3; 42:2, 15, 19; 42:19; Ezek. 11:13-21; Amos 5:15; Mic. 2:12-13; 4-5; 7:18-20; Zeph. 2:7, 9; 3:9-20; Hag. 1:12-14; 2:2-9; Zech. 8, 10; all of the books of Nehemiah and Ezra). This remnant theology is rooted in the everlasting and unconditional land grant contained the Abrahamic covenant.
J.. After the holocaust, yet another remnant formed the nation of Israel in 1948. The government was secular, but many people believed in God and returned.
K.. What explains this constant drawing back to Israel and not to some other nation, like Kenya or Bhutan? Personally, I believe that the promise of a land grant in Gen. 15 was everlasting and unconditional, and God is leading the Jews to reestablish their ancient homeland. No one can revoke the faith of Abraham expressed in the everlasting and unconditional first covenant (Gen. 15:6). The remnant is important.
L.. Let’s build on the previous point. God made the promise of land to Abraham, and the patriarch believed the Lord, and it was accounted or credited to him as righteousness (Gen. 15:6). Faith is needed to trigger the promise of land. A remnant of Jewish patriots, whether knowing God or not, was simply following the royal land grant covenant.
M.. When Paul wrote about the complex topic of the salvation of his fellow Jews in Rom. 9-11, they were still living in Israel, the religious language was still Hebrew and Aramaic, the sacrifices were still going on in the temple, teachers of the law and Pharisees still walked throughout the land enforcing Jewish kosher laws and the Sabbath (and other things), and the highest Jewish court or council, the Sanhedrin, was still their governing body (under Roman occupation).
N.. Therefore, it is not likely that Paul believed God abandoned his chosen people completely, historically and politically speaking, but God still had a plan for them (Rom. 11:1-5; 11-12, 28-32), writing at a time when his nation was still existing and going strong (under occupation). But his concern was for their salvation, not their ancient homeland or political Israel. So truth be told, he was silent on their right to return because they were already there. Further and revealingly, he never wrote that the Jews should vacate all the land. Surely such a thought would seem absurd to him. Now the door is wide open to interpret the NT as allowing a return.
O.. When the author of Hebrews wrote his epistle, the temple was still going strong, and it had not been sacked. If it had been, he would have brought it up, since his central thesis is that temple religion and the Levitical system were obsolete. Since Jews lived in Israel at the time he wrote, he must have never thought they should vacate the entire land. As Paul did, he assumed that his fellow Jews should be there because they already were there. It would have been absurd for him to write that his fellow Jews should vacate all of the land. Therefore the question is wide open as to whether the Israel belongs to Jews today in Paul’s theology.
Incidentally, if the author of Hebrews or Paul heard through circulating stories that Jesus had predicted the destruction of the temple, then it doesn’t follow that they would have concluded that their fellow Jews should should vacate all of their historic homeland. This vacating would not have made sense to them, since they knew their Hebrew Bible and saw how long Israel had lived there–for centuries.
7.. What is the summary so far?
The first everlasting part of the Abrahamic covenant is historical and national and geographic and still ongoing because it is premised on the faith of Abraham. It was an everlasting land grant.
The second part of the Abrahamic covenant is conditional and obsolete because of national Israel’s disbelief in their Messiah. This rejection opened the way of salvation to all of the planet. Circumcision is no longer the sign of any covenant, particularly the New Covenant, but circumcision of the heart is (Rom. 2:25-19; 1 Cor. 7:19; Gal. 5:6; 6:15; Eph. 2:11; Col. 2:11). The NT does not discuss the right of Jews to return to their land, because the Jews were already there, though Jesus predicted the temple would be destroyed (Luke 21:6). The NT authors did not see two thousand years into the future, but were focused on the events of their day (despite what Bible prophecy teachers say to the contrary).
Therefore what happens today in Israel is wide open, since the NT is silent about Jews living there two thousand years later.
And therefore neither violating the obsolete Sinai covenant (and then repenting afterwards) nor the arrival of New Covenant permanently cancels the narrow promise of land to Abraham and his descendants in a small geographical area. I believe for covenantal and historical reasons that the land is theirs; the land belongs to a remnant that believes.
8.. But don’t you make too much of the dual-part of God’s covenant with Abraham? What if both parts are true and Israel lost its right to the land?
In sum and substance, the land grant, whether in one part or two, is everlasting, even when Christ fulfilled all Old Testament covenants. That’s the main point, even for those who do not separate the Abrahamic covenant into two parts. But for those who do separate them, I presented a case for the everlasting quality through the first part. Either way, God always preserves a remnant despite the majority violating any part of the Abrahamic or Sinai covenants. That’s the main point.
One more time, here are the key Scriptures, as proof, about how important a remnant is to God, so he can honor his covenant with Abraham, whether in two parts or just one: Gen. 45:6; 1 Kings 19:18; 2 Kings 19:30-31; Is. 10:20-21; 11:10-13, 16; Jer. 23:3; 42:2, 15, 19; 42:19; Ezek. 11:13-21; Amos 5:15; Mic. 2:12-13; 4-5; 7:18-20; Zeph. 2:7, 9; 3:9-20; Hag. 1:12-14; 2:2-9; Zech. 8, 10; all of the books of Nehemiah and Ezra.
Further, after the psalmist goes over the history of Israel’s disobedience and transgression of the Sinai covenant, even to the point of sacrificing children to false gods (Ps. 106:37-39), the remnant will still return:
when he heard their cry;
45 for their sake he remembered his covenant
and out of his great love he relented.
46 He caused all who held them captive
to show them mercy.
and gather us from the nations,
that we may give thanks to your holy name
and glory in your praise. (Ps. 106:44-47)
All of those Scriptures confirm the everlasting aspect of the land grant to Abraham when God sees a remnant.
9.. So does this post teach replacement theology?
The term “replacement” is much too vague. Stated clearly: the Sinai covenant has absolutely been replaced. If you doubt it, read Heb. 8, 9, 10.
However, some elements are everlasting in the Sinai covenant, such as these points that are retained in the New:
- Moral law (e.g. some in the Torah)
- Stories and principles to teach life lessons (e.g. Genesis and parts of the Torah and the histories and the Prophets, and so on)
- Universal revelations about who God is (e.g. he is loving and gracious and a judge)
For more information see this post:
Dispensationalists have had the run of popular Christianity in America, and we need to return to the clearly biblical theology of covenants and leave aside nonbiblical dispensations. Covenant is how God chose to relate to humanity. It is his commitment to people.
But the purpose of this post has not been to ask or answer the question of replacement in detail. Instead, this post asks the more focused question: does repeatedly violating the obsolete Sinai covenant of the past and the appearance of the New Covenant permanently cancel the specific land grant contained in the first part of the Abrahamic covenant? The answer is no. So only in that narrow and focused sense does replacement theology go too far, if it says yes. The universal land grant has not been replaced, because the New Covenant doesn’t even really deal with the issue (see point no. 6 and letters O-P).
Just because Christ has fulfilled all the covenants laid out in the Old Testament does not mean every element is thrown out. My thesis in this post is that the one element in the Abrahamic covenant, particularly the first one, retains the land grant. I believe this grant is everlasting.
10.. So does the Abrahamic covenant and the New Covenant mean there are two tracks to eternal salvation?
No. The focus in this post has been narrow—the land grant aspect of the Abrahamic covenant, not eternal salvation. Jesus is the only way. That’s the main point of the New Covenant, so it has replaced any other way of salvation in any other old covenant.
However, let us now explore the salvational aspect for Jews more deeply. The Hebrew Bible is full of prophecies about the Messiah. Is. 53 is extremely clear, in referring to the death of the Messiah four decades before the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70. Surely Isaiah was given a vision or special knowledge of Yeshua / Jesus going through that ordeal.
See this post for a table of them:
As Peter proclaimed before the Jewish Sanhedrin (high court and council) in Jerusalem, now salvation is only through faith in Jesus Christ, Yeshua ha-Meshiach (Acts 4:12). I for one will never abandon him in his bold stance and declaration before an august assembly of Jewish leaders.
Returning to the Land ≠ Salvation in Christ
Jews today need their Messiah. Please don’t accept the theology of the two-track covenants: one salvation for Jews through the covenants with Abraham and Moses, and the other one for Gentiles (and a few “wayward” Messianic Jews) through Jesus Christ. Two tracks of history are not the same as the one way to salvation through the New Covenant and Christ. Yes, Jesus is the only way of salvation for everyone on the planet, Jew and Gentile.
God is bringing his people back to the land, for the purpose of evangelizing them. People gathered together in one location and speaking one main language are more easily reached than otherwise. And reports coming out of Israel say that the Messianic movement is growing stronger.
A very important point: it could be argued that Messianic Jews are the true remnant, so it is vital that they move there and witness to the Messiahship of Jesus to their fellow Jews.
So how does this post help me grow in my knowledge of God?
God’s whole plan for humanity is to break down the dividing wall between a small number of Jews and the rest of the seven billion people on the planet (cf. Eph. 2:14). This was important in Paul’s day because for him Israel was a major player in the first-century Roman Empire. He knew nothing of India and China and North and South Americas, for example. But despite his limited perspective, he was infallibly inspired as he wrote, and his main message is to break down any wall anywhere for any religious or ethnic reason.
Now for us today, the church must reach out to everyone, including Jews, and keep an eye on any anti-Semitism that rears its ugly head. The church goes global, and this is God’s main focus. Despite what American and Israeli Messianic Jews and American Christians seem to claim about Israel being God’s main focus, he wants his message of the gospel of Christ and his kingdom to reach everyone, far, far outside the small borders of Israel. And the church is the only living organism that can accomplish this mission, by his grace. Therefore, the church, not Israel, is the center of his attention, the apple of his eye—but that is not to say God does not care about this small nation. He does. But he has gone and is going global. Therefore, we should have his perspective and mission.
Nonetheless, Christians (and Muslims and anyone else) who deny Jews the right to live in their promised land seem churlish and ungenerous. It’s a done deal, a fait accompli, so they must stop denying it now. I believe there is a deep “God reason” for this return so many centuries later, and the mystery is embedded in the everlasting land-grant aspect of God’s covenant to Abraham. This mystery is expressed in the remnant.
We can support the Jewish state of Israel and still call for the salvation of the Jews everywhere through their true Messiah. In fact, the best way to support Israel is to issue this call of salvation.
And the Israeli government must allow Messianic Jews to move to Israel, for these Jews are the ultimate fulfillment of the remnant theology. Paul himself, who always was concerned with the converted brothers and sisters in Jerusalem and Israel (Acts 21; 26:20; Rom. 15:31; 2 Cor. 1:16; 8-9), would say a hearty amen!
Written by James Malcolm