Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Bearing the Permanent Marks

In The Blood Covenant, Clay Trumbull (a late 1800s clergyman) explores the concept of covenant, a binding agreement, and how it permeates cultures around the globe, even those not reached by modern Christianity. No matter how remote the culture, each one he encountered in his studies demonstrated understanding of the solemnity of "cutting covenant" with another.

From the darkest heart of the African Jungle to the deserts of the Middle East and on into Europe and Asia--cultures throughout time have shared many significant similarities when it comes to cutting covenants, from the sacrifice / shedding of blood (Gen. 15 & 31, Ex. 24) and partaking of a meal to the sharing of gifts and creating a visible sign to memorialize the covenant.

In one passage, Trumbull writes of African blood covenants as witnessed by Christian missionary and explorer Dr. Livingston: "Commander Cameron...gives several illustrations of the observance of this rite...'The first operation consisted of making an incision on each of their right wrists, just sufficient to draw blood; a little of which was scraped off and smeared on the other's cut; after which gunpowder was rubbed in [thereby securing a permanent token on the arm]'" (p. 15-16).

At first, this blood rite may not seem like anything found in the Old Testament. Yet, while the intentional maiming oneself and the co-mingling of literal blood may not be found in its pages, the intentional marking of one's body as a sign of covenant definitely is.

The second time God entered into covenant with Abraham, He gave two memorial signs--the changing of names and circumcision. God says, "No longer shall your name be called Abram, But your name shall be Abraham...This is My covenant, which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: every male among you shall be circumcised. And you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin, and it shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you....But an uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that person shall be cut off from his people; he has broken My covenant" (Gen. 17:5, 10-11,14).

The first memorial of this covenant is the changing of Abram and Sarai's name. Matthew Henry's Complete Commentary says, "Some think it added to the honour of Abraham’s new name that a letter of the name Jehovah was inserted into it, as it was a disgrace to Jeconiah to have the first syllable of his name cut off, because it was the same as the first syllable of the sacred name, Jer. 22:28 . Believers are named from Christ, Eph. 3:15."

What a beautiful depiction of how God's covenant would find its fulfillment later in the New Covenant, with God, Himself, inserting not merely the letter of His name into our names but His Spirit, Himself, within all Christians--Yahweh within us.

While the symbolism of this renaming is fulfilled by the Spirit residing within Christians, it seems there is still a literal re-naming of God's people. God tells His people that in the New Zion, "
you will be called by a new name Which the mouth of the LORD will designate" (Is. 62:2). In the New Testament, the apostle John also alludes to those who enter into the New Covenant through the blood of Christ receiving an actual new name: "To him who overcomes, to him I will give...a white stone, and a new name written on the stone which no one knows but he who receives it"(Rev. 2:17)

The second memorial of covenant is the act of circumcision, where all male Israelites
were to shed their own blood, symbolizing their being God's covenant people. This was a literal "cutting" of covenant; without the shedding of this blood, God is quite clear that those un-cut should be "cut off" from His people.

While the apostle Paul makes it clear that literal circumcision is no longer necessary for partakers of the New Covenant of faith since "circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter," he mentions other bodily scars as a reminder of his covenant with Christ Jesus, saying, "I bear on my body the brand-marks of Jesus" (Rom 2:29, Gal. 6:17). Here, Paul does not speak of his actual circumcision as a Jew but likely of scars from many beatings he endured while sharing the gospel. As one who often refers to Himself as the servant/slave of Christ, Paul also may be referring to himself (and other Christians by extension) as having a literal brand or "seal" similar to those that slaves would receive in ancient Rome...but if that is the case, then that's the subject of another post entirely.

One other interesting comparison is that in the blood covenant of Livingstone's Africans, both covenant partners would have had remaining visible scars. Similarly, God describes Himself as having cut His own palms to remind Himself of His covenant promises; He tells His chosen people, "Behold, I have inscribed you on the palms of My hands" (Is. 49:16).

While this Scripture does pertain directly to the Old Covenant, one need only look at Christ, Himself, to see the scars of the New Covenant that He still bears.

After His resurrection, Christ appears to His disciples with the scars of His sacrifice: "Then He said to Thomas, 'Reach here with your finger, and see My hands; and reach here your hand and put it into My side; and do not be unbelieving, but believing'" (Jn. 20:27). Even in Scripture's final vision of heaven, the apostle John makes sure to describe Christ as appearing with the scars of the New Covenant, as "a Lamb standing, as if slain" (Rev. 5:6).

Even in its non-religious uses in cultures around the globe, the historical understanding of covenant seems to show even more so that we modern-day Christians have lost our way simply because we have minimized what a covenant is supposed to be.

The marks on our Savior's body aren't just so someone can pick Him out of a lineup or a painting hanging in an art gallery. They are tokens of remembrance, marks of covenant...an everlasting one.

Published 08.07.11

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