When the Son of God emptied Himself and took the form of a servant (Philippians 2:7), He limited himself to the knowledge and the language and the cultural framework of an individual in a certain time and place, first century Galilee. That has many implications, but one is that the concept of a ‘covenant’ between God and the Jewish nation was the vehicle available to Jesus to communicate His revelation of God’s character in its aspect of seeking something from His creation.
In the Jewish tradition, the covenant relationship is between God and the nation of Israel. But of course, nations cannot agree to or enter into contractual relations—only individuals can do that. So throughout the Old Testament, we find the basic covenant being enacted or renewed between God and some individual: Noah, Abram, David, etc. This in turn requires accepting some individual as effectively representing the rest of the people of the nation, in such a way that what is agreed to by that individual is binding on the other individuals represented.
In the Jewish tradition, therefore, every Jew, simply by virtue of being a Jew, was obligated to fulfill the terms of the covenant with God. The terms of that agreement, from the Jewish side, were obedience to God’s expressed will. In the early period of Covenant history, this was thought of largely in terms of ritual observance, with the prophetic period shifting the emphasis towards moral behavior. But the central truth never changed, that the whole nation – meaning every Jew – was duly obligated.
Understanding his own work in that sense, Jesus sought the responsibility of representing the Jewish nation as Messiah, the perfected Jew, sinless under the (properly interpreted) Law. But more than that, much more than that, Jesus Christ sought the responsibility, as Son of Man, of representing all of humanity, every single individual, of living the life of the perfect human being, sinless in never deviating from perfect Love.
This is the ‘eternal covenant’ between God the Father and God the Son referred to in Hebrews 13:20, that the Son of God might become representative of all humanity by entering into humanity, and leading the perfect human life, culminating in perfect human death.
The perfect life and death of Jesus was the achievement of that mission, his resurrection and glorification the proof of God’s accepting its success. At death, Jesus became representative of every individual, and the terms that God the Son agreed to with God the Father became binding on every human being.
But what were those terms? What are the terms of the new covenant?
Under the Jewish covenants, the terms were always reward of one kind of another on one side – God’s – for obedience of one kind or another on the part of every Jew.
In the covenant between the Father and the Son, the covenant sealed by the life and death of the incarnate Son, the reward on the Father’s side is forgiveness, and the qualification for the reward on the human side is the same: forgiveness.
This can be put in another way – though it still uses Galilean concepts – by saying that Jesus enabled reconciliation with God for everyone.
Under the Jewish covenants, such reconciliation was possible only in response to perfect obedience to the Law, and such perfect obedience was humanly impossible. That’s what Paul is lamenting throughout Chapter 7 of Romans.
Under the Eternal Covenant, the covenant sealed in Jesus’s blood, any and all are offered that reconciliation, and it does not require any action on their part. It only requires forgiveness, that is, absorbing the harm done to oneself without retaliation, without publicity, without rancor.
As we have noted on other occasions, forgiveness is the key to everything else. Both in parable and in direct discourse, Jesus makes the point again and again. Unless you forgive others, your Father will not forgive you.
Is that unfair? In a way, yes. Every Jew became obligated to obey the ceremonial law simply by virtue of being born a Jew. Every American becomes obligated to obey the laws of the United States by virtue of being born of American parents.
So also, every human being is obligated to forgive. This is what for most people makes Christianity hard, hard to accept and hard to live out. The difficulty of it lies at the heart of the reality that “Our God is a consuming fire”(Hebrews 12:19). In the fullness of time, our God will refine out of us every element that makes it hard to forgive.
But remember. This is only one way – the Galilean way – of inquiring after God.