The curses of the covenant (Deut 27)

The following is the concluding excerpt from this sermon on Deut 27:

Brothers and sisters, can you imagine being these poor Israelites on the plains of Moab.  That pebble in sandal they picked up at the Exodus must have felt like a deadly scorpion by now.  What must Israel do with this “works principle”, the “do this and live” character of the covenant at Sinai?  Does Israel have sufficient credit in the bank of self-righteousness to fulfill the conditions of the covenant?  Can Israel do better than Adam?  Who will bear the curse sanctions of the covenant if Israel fails?  The future of humanity depended upon the future of Israel.

The reality is that Israel never stood a chance under the backbreaking demands of the Sinai covenant.  (And we would have done no better either.)  It would have been easier for God to ask them to jump into a volcano and swim!  Or climb up Niagra Falls!  Why?  Because Paul says in Rom 3, “none is righteous, no, not one… all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

You see, Israel turned out to be no better than Adam.  Like Adam, she too failed her testing under the law – this time in the garden of Canaan.  Beloved, this is why Paul, in Gal 4, distinguishes between two covenants – one from Mt. Sinai bearing children for slavery and the other from the Jerusalem producing freedom.  And in 2 Cor 3 he makes the distinction between the ministry of death under Moses and life under the new covenant: death by the letter of the law and life by the Spirit.

You see, that puzzle piece of the Sinai covenant, with its principle of works, does indeed fit (ironically) into the administration of the covenant of grace defined by unconditional promise, when we understand it was Israel’s tutor to lead to her to Messiah (Gal 3.24): to be saved by faith and not by works.  The pebble, the rock, the scorpion of the law set forth in the Sinai covenant was meant to drive Israel to look for rest in God and not themselves!

Beloved, our predicament is no different from that of Israel in that we too have no hope of eternal life under the demands of the law.

Paul brings this out in the book of Galatians, which is a NT commentary on Deut with instruction to us today.  In Gal 3.10, Paul quotes Deut 27.26 (“Cursed be anyone who does not confirm [abide by all] the words of this law by doing them…”) and adds the word “all” to emphasize the curse that hangs over the head of everyone, Jew or Gentile, who does not keep the entire law.  For Paul, it is evident in Gal 3.11 that “no one is justified before God by the law”, but rather the righteous shall live by faithTherefore, Paul can say, v12, the law – the works principle operative in the Mosaic covenant, the moral law that continues today, the pebble in the shoe, the odd puzzle piece – is not of faith.  In other words, the law does not save.  It is not the basis for our justification before God.

In the end, the Sinai covenant, that administration of the COG overlaid upon the Abrahamic covenant of promise became obsolete with coming of Jesus Christ.  Why?  Because Christ has come as the final obedient Son of Israel and he kept the Old covenant.  Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s self-maledictory oath made to Abraham in Gn 12.  Back then, God acted in a way unheard of in the ANE: where it was always the vassals of the king who always swore to their own hurt.  Nevertheless, in the graphic ritual recorded in Genesis God passed through the severed animal halves signifying that he would be cursed if he did not keep his oath.  But the rite also signified that God would suffer the curse of sin in order to make the promise of eternal life under the covenant of grace unbreakable.

Brothers and sisters, children, according to Gal 3.13 Jesus bore the curses of the covenant by being crucified at Calvary for sinners: for you and I.

Jesus took upon himself the conditions of the covenant and fulfilled them unto perfection.  Jesus passed the probation/test that neither Adam nor Israel could, so that the blessing of Abraham might not only come to the Jews, but also to the Gentiles, to us.  And Jesus also suffered the penalty for Adam’s failure, Israel’s failure and our failure to keep the law.

Beloved, although the judicial and ceremonial laws of the Mosaic covenant have passed away, its essence, the moral law still lingers in our conscience as a testimony to the curse due to those who try to live by it.  Let us learn the lesson from Israel – under a covenant defined by the law – that justification does not come by works, but by faith in Jesus Christ.  Only then can we have peace with God, peace from an accusing conscience, peace from the haunting memory of all our sins, even the secret ones.

For a diagram on covenant theology, go here.

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