The Coming of the Head of the Covenant
by Prof. David J. EngelsmaProfessor David J. Engelsma is Editor of The Standard Bearer, a Reformed, simi-mothly magazine. This article is a reprint from the Vol. 75; No. 6; December 15, 1998 issue of The Standard Bearer
How many of us will celebrate Christmas as the coming of God's Christ for the covenant?
The non-Reformed churches certainly will not. The worst of them will rejoice that Jesus came to free the poor, blacks, women, and homosexuals. The best will herald Jesus' birth as simply God's gift of a Savior for sinful men and women. All ignore the covenant.
But what of us who are Reformed? Do we see the birth of Jesus in light of the covenant, indeed as fulfillment of the covenant promise? Do we embrace Him who was born of the virgin as the Christ of the covenant? Is the benefit of His birth, over which we make merry, enjoyment of the covenant? Do we proclaim the baby born in Bethlehem as head of the covenant of grace?
Is this our proclamation of Him, not only within the congregations but also to the whole, wide world in missions? Surely, sound preaching of the misery of men and women, which makes the Savior necessary, tells the people of the covenantal nature of their guilt and depravity. "By one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned" (Rom. 5:12). Likewise, faithful preaching of the Savior and His salvation must set forth their covenantal nature: "by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous" (Rom. 5:19).
If the note of covenant is missing from our Christmas song, our celebration is weak, if not false.
What kind of celebration of a husband's birthday is it, that is oblivious to the unique relationship in which he stands to the celebrating wife? Even though she is thankful for his gifts-food, clothing, a house, perhaps jewels and trips-who would praise a wife's celebration, if she ignored the marriage itself whence the gifts spring and which they are intended to strengthen?
As gift of the triune God, Jesus was sent into the world on behalf of God's covenant. What accounts for His birth is God's remembrance of His "holy covenant" (Luke 1:72). What brings the conception about is the covenant promise: "the oath which he sware to our father Abraham" (Luke 1:73). Isaiah 42:6 prophesies Him as God's gift "for a covenant of the people." From this passage Simeon drew his inspired welcome of the Christ-Child in Luke 2:32: "A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel."
Covenant defines Jesus Christ and describes His mission. One can no more explain Jesus Christ apart from covenant than he can understand Charles de Gaulle apart from the glory of France.
Jesus' birth is the coming of the "messenger of the covenant" (Mal. 3:1). Lying in the manger in Bethlehem was no merely private person, nor a highly gifted individual who would captivate many, nor even simply the one who was to save sinners in God's name. But He was the Servant of Jehovah in history-the Servant of Jehovah. And His service would be that of the "mediator of the new covenant" (Heb. 12:24). By Him, the triune, true, and living God would make a new covenant with the human race of election ( Heb. 8).
The eternal Son of God came into the world in the incarnation in order to restore friendship between fallen, guilty, corrupt, and hostile people and God. This is salvation. This is life. This is bliss. This is glory.
He will mediate between God and the elect race that has faithlessly deserted Him and that hatefully opposes Him. His mediation will consist of the redemption of the cross, that obtains the right to fellowship with the blessed God, and of the renewing of the Holy Spirit, that unites these men and women with God by faith.
In this way, Jesus Christ will reveal to the covenant people the eternal friendship of God towards them.
The friendship of the covenant is of the highest order. It is that of family: adopted sons and daughters living with God. It is that of children who know and enjoy God as the God of goodness in Jesus Christ.
What love permeates this life!
What intimacy characterizes it!
What benefits of salvation are part of it!
What a disclosure to them of the being and counsel of the Father is the privilege of the children! Adam and Eve never knew God so!
What a glorious work is the calling of every child: service of the heavenly Father. The Christian life of holiness and good works is covenant life.
This is the truth about the birth of Jesus. This must be our celebration. Our singing of the Psalms is such a celebration.
For him My mercy shall endure,
My covenant made with him is sure,
His throne and race I will maintain
Forever, while the heavens remain
( Psalm 89).
Jesus Christ is more than the servant of God, to realize the covenant. In His two natures, divine and human, united in His one (divine) person, Jesus is the covenant. He is Himself the covenant between God and man. For the covenant is the union and communion of God with man, and Jesus is in Himself this union and communion.
The Word of God names Him "Emmanuel," that is, "With-Us, God" (Matt. 1:23; cf. Is. 7:14). The name does not merely reveal what He will do. But it reveals who He is: God-taking-us-humans-into-fellowship-with-Himself.
Or, simply, Covenant.
What remains is that He make His human nature spiritual and glorious through the crucifixion and resurrection and that He unite all of His own to Himself by the gospel and the Spirit.
Celebration of the birth of Jesus, therefore, magnifies God, God only, and extols grace, grace only. Mary magnified the Lord (Luke 1:46). Zacharias blessed God, attributing the Savior and His salvation to the work of God (Luke 1:67-80). The angels praised God (Luke 2:13, 14).
God realizes His covenant with His people. God realizes His covenant by the wonder of incarnation.
Where is man?
What slightest role does his work or his will play?
How does the covenant-let us say, Covenant-depend on man's worth?
Who dares to stand before the pregnant womb of the virgin with his, "Yes, but there are conditions that we must fulfill," and, "Yes, but we must accept the well-meant offer," and, "Yes, but we must bargain and contract with the covenanting God as a real, though perhaps lesser, party to the transaction," and, "Yes, but we must cooperate"?
Christmas, that is to say Covenant, is grace, all grace, only grace. Whoever will not see this cannot celebrate. Celebration of grace, by mouth and by hand, is the real work in the covenant, and this too is of grace.
Singing the Psalms directs us rightly in this aspect
of the celebration of the birth of Christ also.
Who is there like to Thee, throughout this vast creation,
Jehovah, Lord of hosts, the God of our salvation,
Arrayed like Thee with power and faithfulness astounding,
Constraining saints to praise Thy wondrous grace abounding?
( Psalm 89)
All of this depends upon God's sending of the Christ as the head of the covenant.
The covenant of grace is not headless. God forbid! In this case, all the members are so many unrelated individuals. At best, God brings each person into the covenant purely as an individual, on his own, altogether apart from any head. Since membership in the covenant is salvation, in this case salvation is a purely individualistic matter.
At worst, each member of the covenant comes in as a head unto himself. He himself earns for himself the right to the covenant and its blessings. He himself works up in himself the life that befits the covenant.
That "holy thing" that was conceived by the Holy Spirit was the "federal (that is, 'covenant') head" of the new human race. He came into the world as the legal representative of the people of the covenant. His obedience will be imputed to them for righteousness. Accordingly, He will be the living source of their spiritual life. With Him, with Him personally in the human nature, God has established the covenant (Psalm 89:3, 4, 28). To Him, to Him personally in the human nature, God has made the promise of the covenant (Gal. 3:16, 29).
The man whom God the Creator formed from the dust was the "figure" of the man formed from David's daughter (Rom 5:14). Just as the first Adam was created as the legal representative of others in the covenant of creation, so that his disobedience would be imputed to the others as their guilt, so the second Adam was given by God the Redeemer as the legal representative of others in the covenant of grace, so that His obedience would be imputed to the others as their righteousness. And just as the first Adam justly transmitted the depravity of his nature to all whose representative he is, so also the second Adam shares His own holiness and life with those whom He represents (Rom. 5:12ff.).
Made with Christ as head, the covenant extends to all those, but those only, who are in Him by sovereign, eternal, divine election.
Thus the covenant is sure, to the comfort of every
one who believes in Christ. This too is our Christmas celebration
in the Psalter.
Ye seed from Abraham descended,
To whom His favors were extended,
And Jacob's children, whom the Lord
Has chosen, hearken to His word.
He is the Lord, our Judge divine;
In all the earth His glories shine.
Jehovah's truth will stand forever,
His covenant-bonds He will not sever;
The word of grace which He commands
To thousand generations stands;
The covenant made in days of old
With Abraham He doth uphold
( Psalm 105).