Sabbath School Lesson for August 26-September 1, 2017
Many Christians, including long-standing Adventists, are often not very confident of their understanding of God’s covenants. There have been so many different viewpoints and interpretations proclaimed by “those who should know”, that it is no wonder we are left puzzled about whether our understanding of this doctrine is correct or not.
Reading about the new covenant in the Bible, as opposed to an old one, certainly sounds like there are two covenants. Paul’s letter to the Galatians, however, helps us understand the true difference between the old and new covenants. Galatians 4:21-31 is thought to be the most difficult passage in Paul’s letter. But we find its study will help us determine what really changed about the covenants, causing even God to refer to them as old and new.
Most of Christianity has taught a distinct historical difference between salvation in the Old and New Testaments, which has really fueled much of our confusion over the covenants. Some church denominations have gone so far as to say that Old Testament believers were saved by their works, but believers after Christ are saved by grace. They say we are now in a period of grace, as opposed to the legalistic obedience that was typical and expected from those before the time of Jesus, those who were under the old covenant.
Paul presents us with a refreshingly simple explanation of God’s covenants, however, by reminding us of the story of Abraham and his attempt to obey God by marrying Sarah’s handmaid Hagar. We are left with the question, “Who is our mother: Sarah or Hagar?”
Memory Text: “But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother.” Galatians 4:26 NIV
Jerusalem on earth is represented as in bondage (like the maidservant Hagar), but the New Jerusalem, the one above, is described as free (as Sarah was). We are invited to be children of promise, like Isaac, the promised child miraculously born to Abraham and Sarah later in life. As opposed to Ishmael, who was the result of Abraham’s attempt to fulfill God’s promise on his own with Hagar.
Sunday: Covenant Basics
First, we must broaden our view of the covenants beyond the one most often referred to that was given to Abraham. Adam and Eve also heard from God about one of their descendants (the Promised Seed), who would crush the head of Satan. God’s pronouncements to them, before and after they sinned, amounted to a covenant, a statement revealing God’s will for mankind.
Three things were instituted in God’s covenant, or agreement, with Adam and Eve, both before and after their sin…
- marriage (God married the first couple as equals, but later outlined some basic differences that would exist between man and woman due to sin)
- work (they were to “dress” the Garden, but surviving the elements would be more difficult after sin)
- Sabbath (they would no longer see Him face-to-face as they did before sin, as they came together with God on that holy day)
At various times in history, such as when Moses and the Hebrews were fleeing slavery in Egypt, God renewed (reminded) us of this original covenant He made with humans. This covenant would redeem our planet and make us His people again through the death of a Messiah, which turned out to be God’s own Son.
(An interesting side note about covenants was that for thousands of years in the Near East, covenants involved the slaughter of animals. The cutting of the animal symbolized what would happen to a party who did not fulfill his end of the bargain. We still use an expression, “cutting a deal”, perhaps referring to this practice. Of course, God’s requirement of animal sacrifices contained much more symbolism and meaning, alluding to the sacrificial death of God’s dear Son.)
Discussion Questions: Read Genesis 3:15. Why is this considered the first gospel covenant promise in the Bible? What hope did it give Adam and Eve for their future existence?
Read Genesis 1:28, 2:2, 3, 15-17. Describe the three institutions (marriage, work, and Sabbath rest) God established in the Garden of Eden. How did they amount to a covenant with this first family, and how was it changed after sin?
Read Isaiah 11:1, 2 and Isaiah 53:2, 3. Why do you think David, the son of Jesse, was included in God’s covenant to send a promised Redeemer? Abraham had great faith, Moses had humility…what was so special about David?
Monday: The Abrahamic Covenant
Before Abraham, there was a covenant with Adam and Eve, as we’ve already mentioned. But what about Noah? After the flood, he was told by God also to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.” (Genesis 9:1)
This covenant renewal, which was symbolized by a rainbow in the sky, also indicated to Noah and his descendants that they would not have to worry about another flood that would destroy the earth. (Genesis 9:12-13)
Just as many of the people after Noah lost faith in God’s covenant and started building the Tower of Babel, so Abram, after many years with no son of his own, began to question God’s intentions. God tenderly reaffirmed His relationship with Abram, however, changing his name to Abraham to indicate the renewed relationship.
In addition, the story of Job has taught us that we can question God and still remain in His care. Our continued faith, though frayed and worn, keeps our connection with Him alive, even when times are dark and fearful. God understands our need for “a more sure word.” And He gives it in various forms.
Discussion Questions: Read Genesis 12:1-5. Did Abram make any promises to God? What motivated him then to obey God?
Read Genesis 15:1-6. Why did Abram need God’s reassurance that God would fulfill His covenant with him? Do you think Abram’s lying about his wife, and other lapses in faith along the way, might have made him more insecure about God’s promised blessing?
Read Genesis 1:28 and 9:1. How were these covenant promises related? What do we find similar in the experience of Adam and Eve, and Noah?
Tuesday: Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar
Without coming from the same culture as Abraham, it’s difficult for the modern mind to understand Abram’s agreement to take Sarai’s handmaiden as his concubine, when Sarai had proven barren of childbearing. But evidently, this was a standard custom, and was not seen as unusual for them back then.
The couple was so anxious for a promised heir to be born, that they finally took it upon themselves to “help God” by utilizing this drastic measure to have children. We believe Hagar to be a slave given to Abram back in Egypt for the exchange of Sarai, whom Abram had lied about, in order to pass through Pharaoh’s land.
So, at least twice we hear of Abram losing faith in God’s ability to keep His covenant:
- In lying about Sarai’s identity, and
- in agreeing to use her servant as his concubine to have an heir.
It seems God would be done with him. But, no, as Abram laments his situation and questions why things aren’t happening as he hoped they would, God once again covenants with him.
By obeying God with the Holy Spirit’s help, and leaving his self-righteous attempts at keeping God’s commandments, Abraham would see his faith grow in ways yet unimaginable.
Discussion Questions: Read Genesis 16 and Psalm 103: 6-10. Why was God compassionate toward Hagar? How does this remind us to be compassionate toward those in the bondage of legalism, even when we ourselves are the ones who have become self-righteous?
Read Genesis 17:9-10, and 21:1-4. Why was the rite of circumcision given to Abraham by God and why was it instituted before Isaac was born?
Read Hebrews 11:11, 12. Why was Sarah’s faith also needed and recognized in the story of Abraham? Why did it only require one child (Isaac) to fulfill God’s promise to them?
Wednesday: Hagar and Mount Sinai
It’s important to examine the story of Hagar, which represented Abram’s attempt to obey God on his own, and the story of what happened at Mt. Sinai many generations later. In essence, they both amounted to self-confident actions and statements in how they would obey God.
We also notice that God uses similar language in speaking to them. To Abraham, He says, “I will make you a great nation; I will bless you and make your name great.” Genesis 12:2 NKJV To the Israelites, He said, “And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” Exodus 19:6 NKJV
The problem in these stories was not with God’s part in the covenant. His words and agreements were nothing but true and uplifting. The problem was with the response to His covenant that many humans still make. We try to fulfill God’s commandments through our own strength, sometimes unwittingly, instead of just obeying as a response to God’s abundant blessings in our life.
How often we find ourselves trying to earn our way to heaven by our good works. Paul was rightfully afraid that the Judaizers would influence the Galatian believers to obey for the wrong reason too.
It was time for circumcision, and other Jewish customs that symbolized events that had already happened, to be replaced by more fitting symbols. But, more importantly, their forced obedience which stemmed from their own efforts to please God, was not the kind of obedience God intended from His followers.
This forced, self-activated obedience was the defining factor that made up the old covenant. The new covenant would be received as a gift and was responded to by faithful, Spirit-filled obedience, through a power outside themselves.
We should not be afraid to proclaim that our sinful bodies and minds are incapable of fulfilling God’s law on our own. God’s original plan has always been that we would depend on Him for our life and happiness. We can never keep His commandments on our own. They require a mutual love for others and God that only God can provide.
Discussion Questions: Read Galatians 4:21-27. What do Hagar and Sarah represent in this narrative? How do they illustrate the old and new covenants?
Read Exodus 19:7-8 and 32:17-23. How long did their promises to obey last? How was idolatry a symptom of faithlessness? Is self-righteousness a form of idolatry then? Who are we putting above God?
Read Genesis 12:2 and Exodus 19:6. Why do you think it’s important for God to raise a group of people to follow Him? Why are we better at worshiping and serving God when we work as a team, and not as a lone player? Have some been called on to serve alone though? What Bible examples can you think of?
Thursday: Ishmael and Isaac Today
Ironically, those Jews who were born as Abraham’s descendants through his son Isaac were in actuality proving that they were instead in the lineage of Ishmael, Abraham’s illegitimate son. Spiritually speaking, any time we attempt to “help God” perform His will for us, we are following Abraham’s example of taking Hagar, his unlawful concubine.
This puts us in a form of bondage, similar to what Hagar experienced in this story. God longs to set us free from this kind of behavior. Only when our attitudes and motivations change will we be able to claim our rightful heritage and become the promised sons and daughters of Sarah, a free woman.
As we link our identity with Isaac, we are also aware of the possibility of persecution and ridicule that may be our lot in life. As Isaac suffered the mocking of his half-brother Ishmael, we too can expect to be tormented by those outside the faith.
Even Jesus was “despised and rejected by men” (Isaiah 53:3). This will continue to be the experience of God’s children as long as they are on this sin-filled planet.
Discussion Questions: Read Galatians 4:28, 29, Genesis 21:8-10, and Matthew 5:11, 12. Why must we expect criticism and persecution when we take the name of Christ?
Read Galatians 4:30, 31 and Genesis 21:17-19. Does everyone have a choice to be “free”? What about actual slaves, like Hagar and Ishmael? Since God comforted and blessed them in the desert, how are we reminded to be compassionate for those who are still slaves of sin, even to legalism? Why is legalism a sin?
How easy is it for our early zeal for Christ to be directed in ways that are legalistic? How do we outgrow our early attempts to “do everything right”, and grow into a more mature relationship with God? What does our behavior look like after we’ve had more time to perfect our faith? And how is it perceived by others, both before and after we were in old and new covenant modes?
Areas we covered in studying God’s covenant:
- A covenant represents God’s will for us (Sunday)
- God’s covenant with Abraham, and God’s response to his doubts (Monday)
- the relationship between Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar (Tuesday)
- the similarities between Hagar’s experience and the Hebrews at Mt. Sinai (Wednesday)
- the differences between Ishmael and Isaac (Thursday)
This week brought many old and new things to mind…
- There is only one covenant, or promise of redemption by God. The only thing that makes it new, is our response to it.
- God is the only one who needs to make a promise. We just make a choice.
- We simply can’t keep God’s commandments (which were part of the covenant) without God (and this pertains to before and after sin).
- Legalism is wrong because it shows a lack of faith in God, and is actually a form of idolatry, because we are putting ourselves above God in being able to fulfill the covenant.
- As God showed compassion on Hagar, we too must not condemn those, including ourselves, when we find we are becoming legalistic (depending on our own righteousness, instead of God’s).
Next Week: Freedom in Christ
To read the Sabbath School Lesson Quarterly or see more resources for its study, go to https://www.absg.adventist.org/
All Outlook blogposts by Teresa Thompson, are at http://outlookmag.org/author/teresathompson/