Thursday, May 14, 2009

There’s more to covenants than meets the eye

I’ve had some interesting experiences lately that have drawn my interest to studying gospel covenants. I'll tell you about them after a bit.

The Old Testament has lots of mentions of covenants that people make with the Lord and also mentions the covenants that the Lord makes with His people.
7 And he took the book of the covenant, and read in the audience of the people: and they said, All that the Lord hath said will we do, and be obedient.
8 And Moses took the blood, and sprinkled it on the people, and said, Behold the blood of the covenant, which the Lord hath made with you concerning all these words. (Exodus 24:7-8)
People’s covenant: All the Lord says we will do.
Lord’s covenant: To redeem through the blood of sacrifices (foreshadowing Christ).
12 Wherefore say, Behold, I give unto him my covenant of peace:
13 And he shall have it, and his seed after him, even the covenant of an everlasting priesthood; because he was zealous for his God, and made an atonement for the children of Israel. (Numbers 25:12-13)
Lord’s covenant: Peace to him and his children (and bestowal of priesthood?) as a reward for zeal and making atonement for others
And Jehoiada made a covenant between the Lord and the king and the people, that they should be the Lord’s people; between the king also and the people. (2 Kings 11:17)
People’s covenant: to be the Lord’s people
Lord’s covenant: to have the people as His own
And the king stood by a pillar, and made a covenant before the Lord, to walk after the Lord, and to keep his commandments and his testimonies and his statutes with all their heart and all their soul, to perform the words of this covenant that were written in this book. And all the people stood to the covenant. (2 Kings 23:3, see also 2 Chronicles 34:31)
People’s covenant: Keep the Lord’s commandments, testimonies, statutes with all heart and soul, to do as written in the scriptures
Gather my saints together unto me; those that have made a covenant with me by sacrifice. (Psalms 50:5)
Lord’s covenant: To gather His saints
People’s covenant: To sacrifice
2 Hear ye the words of this covenant, and speak unto the men of Judah, and to the inhabitants of Jerusalem;
3 And say thou unto them, Thus saith the Lord God of Israel; Cursed be the man that obeyeth not the words of this covenant,
4 Which I commanded your fathers in the day that I brought them forth out of the land of Egypt, from the iron furnace, saying, Obey my voice, and do them, according to all which I command you: so shall ye be my people, and I will be your God:
5 That I may perform the oath which I have sworn unto your fathers, to give them a land flowing with milk and honey, as it is this day… (Jeremiah 11:2-5)
Lord’s covenant: The people will be His people and He would be their God. He will give them a land flowing with milk and honey.
People’s covenant: To obey the Lord’s voice in all He commands.

The New Testament has comparatively fewer mentions of covenants, and when they are mentioned they generally focus on the covenant that the Lord makes with His people and there is very little mention of the nature of the covenant that people make with the Lord. This makes it seem like the Lord makes promises to us and we don’t have to do anything to receive them. But a covenant isn’t a one-way promise. It’s a two-way promise.

The Book of Mormon has lots of mentions of covenants. I realized this when some Jehovah’s Witnesses asked me what the Book of Mormon had that the Bible didn’t that was necessary for them. At the time I was stumped, but when I looked on the title page, I immediately found the answer:
...Which is to show unto the remnant of the House of Israel what great things the Lord hath done for their fathers; and that they may know the covenants of the Lord, that they are not cast off forever (emphasis added)
This was when I realized how wonderful it is that the Book of Mormon tells what both sides of the covenants are. If we don’t know what our side of the covenant is, we can’t do our part. If we don’t do our part, the Lord isn’t bound to do His. And even worse, if we don’t even know that we have a part to keep, we may delude ourselves into thinking we have a covenant when we don’t, then into thinking that the Lord has to keep His part when He isn’t bound (because we don’t know and haven’t done ours), then into thinking that the Lord doesn’t keep His promises, when no covenant was made in the first place.
9 Or, in other words, I give unto you directions how you may act before me, that it may turn to you for your salvation.
10 I, the Lord, am bound when ye do what I say; but when ye do not what I say, ye have no promise. (D&C 82:9-10)
So what covenants are in the Book of Mormon? There’s the covenant of baptism:
10 Now I say unto you, if this be the desire of your hearts, what have you against being baptized in the name of the Lord, as a witness before him that ye have entered into a covenant with him, that ye will serve him and keep his commandments, that he may pour out his Spirit more abundantly upon you?....
13 And when he had said these words, the Spirit of the Lord was upon him, and he said: Helam, I baptize thee, having authority from the Almighty God, as a testimony that ye have entered into a covenant to serve him until you are dead as to the mortal body; and may the Spirit of the Lord be poured out upon you; and may he grant unto you eternal life, through the redemption of Christ, whom he has prepared from the foundation of the world. (Mosiah 18:10-13)
People’s covenant: To serve the Lord and keep His commandments until the end of mortality
Lord’s covenant: To pour out His Spirit more abundantly, to grant eternal life through Christ’s redemption.

King Benjamin’s people made a similar covenant:
5 And we are willing to enter into a covenant with our God to do his will, and to be obedient to his commandments in all things that he shall command us, all the remainder of our days, that we may not bring upon ourselves a never-ending torment, as has been spoken by the angel, that we may not drink out of the cup of the wrath of God.
6 And now, these are the words which king Benjamin desired of them; and therefore he said unto them: Ye have spoken the words that I desired; and the covenant which ye have made is a righteous covenant.
7 And now, because of the covenant which ye have made ye shall be called the children of Christ, his sons, and his daughters; for behold, this day he hath spiritually begotten you; for ye say that your hearts are changed through faith on his name; therefore, ye are born of him and have become his sons and his daughters.
8 And under this head ye are made free, and there is no other head whereby ye can be made free. There is no other name given whereby salvation cometh; therefore, I would that ye should take upon you the name of Christ, all you that have entered into the covenant with God that ye should be obedient unto the end of your lives. (Mosiah 5:5-8)
People’s covenant: To do God’s will, be obedient in all things to His commandments for the rest of mortality, to take the name of Christ upon themselves
Lord’s covenant: To not bring never-ending torment, to not cause the people to drink of the cup of the wrath of God, to spiritually beget the people so that they become His sons and daughters so that their hearts are changed through faith, to make them free, to give them salvation.

Moroni tells how the Lord fulfills his end of the covenant:
31 And the office of their ministry is to call men unto repentance, and to fulfil and to do the work of the covenants of the Father, which he hath made unto the children of men, to prepare the way among the children of men, by declaring the word of Christ unto the chosen vessels of the Lord, that they may bear testimony of him.
32 And by so doing, the Lord God prepareth the way that the residue of men may have faith in Christ, that the Holy Ghost may have place in their hearts, according to the power thereof; and after this manner bringeth to pass the Father, the covenants which he hath made unto the children of men. (Moroni 7:31-32)
Now, once I started noticing covenants in the Book of Mormon, I started noticing that they are all over the place.

Captain Moroni thought covenants were really important.
20 Behold, whosoever will maintain this title upon the land, let them come forth in the strength of the Lord, and enter into a covenant that they will maintain their rights, and their religion, that the Lord God may bless them.
21 And it came to pass that when Moroni had proclaimed these words, behold, the people came running together with their armor girded about their loins, rending their garments in token, or as a covenant, that they would not forsake the Lord their God; or, in other words, if they should transgress the commandments of God, or fall into transgression, and be ashamed to take upon them the name of Christ, the Lord should rend them even as they had rent their garments.
22 Now this was the covenant which they made, and they cast their garments at the feet of Moroni, saying: We covenant with our God, that we shall be destroyed, even as our brethren in the land northward, if we shall fall into transgression; yea, he may cast us at the feet of our enemies, even as we have cast our garments at thy feet to be trodden under foot, if we shall fall into transgression. (Alma 46:20-22, emphasis added)
Therefore Moroni thought it was expedient that he should take his armies, who had gathered themselves together, and armed themselves, and entered into a covenant to keep the peace—and it came to pass that he took his army and marched out with his tents into the wilderness, to cut off the course of Amalickiah in the wilderness. (Alma 46:31, emphasis added)
And it came to pass that whomsoever of the Amalickiahites that would not enter into a covenant to support the cause of freedom, that they might maintain a free government, he caused to be put to death; and there were but few who denied the covenant of freedom. (Alma 46:35, emphasis added)
(How sad that some people had to be threatened with death before they would make a covenant to support freedom! Yet it is significant that once they made the covenant, they tried very hard to keep it and very few broke that covenant later.)

Another case—in Alma 44, Moroni required the Zoramite-Lamanite army to make a covenant of everlasting peace in return for sparing their lives. It took some ..ahem.. convincing, but eventually the message got through.
19 Now Zerahemnah, when he saw that they were all about to be destroyed, cried mightily unto Moroni, promising that he would covenant and also his people with them, if they would spare the remainder of their lives, that they never would come to war again against them.
20 And it came to pass that Moroni caused that the work of death should cease again among the people. And he took the weapons of war from the Lamanites; and after they had entered into a covenant with him of peace they were suffered to depart into the wilderness. (Alma 44:19-20)
In another case, when the city of Morianton started a turf war with the city of Lehi and then took off north, Captain Moroni sent Teancum to head them, subdue them, and bring them back. This also involved a covenant.
And thus were the people of Morianton brought back. And upon their covenanting to keep the peace they were restored to the land of Morianton, and a union took place between them and the people of Lehi; and they were also restored to their lands. (Alma 50:36, emphasis added)
Captain Moroni himself had a covenant to keep in addition to his baptismal covenants.
Yea, and he was a man who was firm in the faith of Christ, and he had sworn with an oath to defend his people, his rights, and his country, and his religion, even to the loss of his blood. (Alma 48:13, emphasis added)
This covenant was what caused him to write such a stiff letter to the chief judge Pahoran about the government’s neglect of the armies in perilous times.
And now behold, I, Moroni, am constrained, according to the covenant which I have made to keep the commandments of my God; therefore I would that ye should adhere to the word of God, and send speedily unto me of your provisions and of your men, and also to Helaman. (Alma 60:34, emphasis added)
The stiff part of the letter is not here obviously, but we see his covenant induced him to act.

The parents of the 2,000 stripling warriors had their own covenant that they had made in order to escape their previous war-mongering bloodthirsty ways before their conversion to the gospel.
6 And now ye also know concerning the covenant which their fathers made, that they would not take up their weapons of war against their brethren to shed blood.
7 But in the twenty and sixth year, when they saw our afflictions and our tribulations for them, they were about to break the covenant which they had made and take up their weapons of war in our defence.
8 But I would not suffer them that they should break this covenant which they had made, supposing that God would strengthen us, insomuch that we should not suffer more because of the fulfilling the oath which they had taken. (Alma 56:6-8)
Earlier it describes this as well and it gives a more serious reason why Helaman didn’t want them to break their covenant.
And Helaman feared lest by so doing they should lose their souls… (Alma 53:15)
We see here that Helaman certainly thought that deliberately breaking a promise to God was a very serious thing, a thing to be avoided at all costs. This predicament led to their sons making their own special covenant.
And they entered into a covenant to fight for the liberty of the Nephites, yea, to protect the land unto the laying down of their lives; yea, even they covenanted that they never would give up their liberty, but they would fight in all cases to protect the Nephites and themselves from bondage. (Alma 53:17)
This tells us why those 2,000 were so fearless, so courageous, so strong. They were bound to keep their covenant.

Why did I get so interested in all of this? Here’s my story.

For the longest time I had a terrible habit of going to bed late. This habit has extended over years, over more than a decade. I’d fight against it for a while and then it would return worse than ever. It was a major thorn in my flesh. I would go to bed so late, thinking “Oh, it won’t be so bad next morning” and then I’d wake up and feel like death warmed over and think, “Ooohhhh, why did I do that to myself?” Then I’d tell myself that I was going to go to bed early this time and by the time bedtime came around, I had forgotten how tired I was and do it to myself again. (Repeat ad nauseum) I think it was Tuesday morning of last week that I woke up and I was feeling terrible again, and I prayed (probably for the umpteenth time) that Heavenly Father would help me overcome this bad habit.

When I was reading scriptures as I usually do, I was reading in Alma 46, and those three different cases of covenant-making suddenly popped out at me. I thought it was interesting that the people thought it was necessary to make an extra covenant to keep the peace, to follow the Lord, to support freedom.

That’s when I got the impression that Heavenly Father wanted me to make a covenant with Him to go to bed early. To be honest, I was freaked out by this.

I knew myself. I knew all the times I had tried and failed to go to bed early. I didn’t have any confidence that I could keep a covenant like that. I felt like Zerahemnah:
And now it came to pass that when Zerahemnah had heard these sayings he came forth and delivered up his sword and his cimeter, and his bow into the hands of Moroni, and said unto him: Behold, here are our weapons of war; we will deliver them up unto you, but we will not suffer ourselves to take an oath unto you, which we know that we shall break, and also our children; but take our weapons of war, and suffer that we may depart into the wilderness; otherwise we will retain our swords, and we will perish or conquer. (Alma 44:8)
I didn’t want to make a covenant that I knew I would break.

Something that gave me hope was remembering a Relief Society lesson given a few years ago by a previous Relief Society president, Heather Pettingale, who told of how she had made a covenant with the Lord to try to overcome a bad habit and she had made it for a period of time and renewed it until it became a good habit.

I thought I could do that. I also realized that deep down, part of my reluctance to make a covenant came because part of me wanted to be free to go to bed whenever I wanted to and felt that a covenant would be restrictive. However, I then remembered that the reason for making this kind of covenant was tofree me from the bad habit that was enslaving me. So I decided to take the plunge; I made a covenant to be in bed by 11pm for a week, trusting that the Lord would help me keep this covenant.

You’d think that the story would be over, but it’s not. After I made this covenant I became more curious about what the scriptures said about covenants and promises, so I started searching.

I found what I’ll call “The Analogy of the Marriage Covenant”. It features Sarah and Hagar, wives of Abraham.
21 Tell me, ye that desire to be under the law, do ye not hear the law?
22 For it is written, that Abraham had two sons, the one by a bondmaid, the other by a freewoman.
23 But he who was of the bondwoman was born after the flesh; but he of the freewoman was by promise.
24 Which things are an allegory: for these are the two covenants; the one from the mount Sinai, which gendereth to bondage, which is Agar.
25 For this Agar is mount Sinai in Arabia, and answereth to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children.
26 But Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us all.
27 For it is written, Rejoice, thou barren that bearest not; break forth and cry, thou that travailest not: for the desolate hath many more children than she which hath an husband.
28 Now we, brethren, as Isaac was, are the children of promise.
29 But as then he that was born after the flesh persecuted him that was born after the Spirit, even so it is now.
30 Nevertheless what saith the scripture? Cast out the bondwoman and her son: for the son of the bondwoman shall not be heir with the son of the freewoman.
31 So then, brethren, we are not children of the bondwoman, but of the free. (Galatians 4:21-31)
This is a very puzzling scripture and makes what seems like an unfair and bizarre comparison: Abraham’s wife Sarah is compared to the heavenly Jerusalem (which represents the new and everlasting covenant) and Abraham’s bondwoman wife Hagar is compared to Mount Sinai (which represents the Law of Moses). I had always taken it for granted that Abraham married both these woman in the everlasting covenant. You’d think he would, right? So it seems odd that Hagar’s marriage is given second-class status here in the comparison. I decided to make a list of what terms were identified with Hagar in order to pin down why her status wasn’t accorded the same privilege.

Mount Sinai,
gendereth to bondage,
Jerusalem with now is (in bondage with her children),
cast out,
bondwoman’s son not an heir.

I thought it was interesting that Hagar was being compared to Mount Sinai, and to me Mount Sinai evoked establishment of the Law of Moses. And then I remembered that the Law of Moses was established as a temporary schoolmaster because the Israelites were not willing to enter into the everlasting covenant and could not abide the Lord’s presence.

Then I remembered the doctrine that a person had to enter the everlasting covenant of marriage sealed by proper priesthood authority for it to still be in force out of the world.
And again, verily I say unto you, if a man marry a wife by my word, which is my law, and by the new and everlasting covenant, and it is sealed unto them by the Holy Spirit of promise, by him who is anointed, unto whom I have appointed this power and the keys of this priesthood; and it shall be said unto them—Ye shall come forth in the first resurrection; and if it be after the first resurrection, in the next resurrection; and shall inherit thrones, kingdoms, principalities, and powers, dominions, all heights and depths—then shall it be written in the Lamb’s Book of Life, that he shall commit no murder whereby to shed innocent blood, and if ye abide in my covenant, and commit no murder whereby to shed innocent blood, it shall be done unto them in all things whatsoever my servant hath put upon them, in time, and through all eternity; and shall be of full force when they are out of the world; and they shall pass by the angels, and the gods, which are set there, to their exaltation and glory in all things, as hath been sealed upon their heads, which glory shall be a fulness and a continuation of the seeds forever and ever. (D&C 132:19)
So I looked again at this scripture:
Nevertheless what saith the scripture? Cast out the bondwoman and her son: for the son of the bondwoman shall not be heir with the son of the freewoman. (Galatians 4:30)
Could it be that Hagar had not been willing to enter the everlasting covenant of marriage and instead settled for a temporary form, and so Paul was prophesying of her forfeiture of eternal blessings? I have no idea. But that’s the only way it makes sense. Could it be that Hagar was afraid of the eternal-ness of the covenant, afraid she would break it, and so declined to enter it? Is this why Paul used her as a parallel for the temporary Law of Moses given to the children of Israel who couldn’t abide the everlasting covenant?

It seems then that Paul was trying to make the point that making an eternal covenant makes you eternally free at the same time that it binds you to eternal blessings that go on past the grave.

After I came to this conclusion I decided I’d change my little going-to-bed-early covenant into one that is much longer term—until the end of my life. I’m going to rely on the Lord to help me, and I know that taking the sacrament worthily renews all my covenants.

So far I have been very blessed. I've been going to bed when I should.

Today I was reading the conference issue of the Ensign and I ran across Elder D. Todd Christofferson’s talk “The Power of Covenants”, and this resonated with me much much more now after my study than it did when I first heard it. At the end he says:
I testify that in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is found the priesthood authority to administer the ordinances by which we can enter into binding covenants with our Heavenly Father in the name of His Holy Son. I testify that God will keep His promises to you as you honor your covenants with Him. He will bless you in "good measure, pressed down, . . . shaken together, and running over" (Luke 6:38). He will strengthen and finish your faith. He will, by His Holy Spirit, fill you with godly power. I pray that you will always have His Spirit to be with you to guide you and deliver you from want, anxiety, and distress. I pray that through your covenants, you may become a powerful instrument for good in the hands of Him who is our Lord and Redeemer, in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.
Covenants give us power. Covenants increase our faith in God. Covenants make us free.


Mona said...

Amen Amen Amen! VERY GOOD. Covenants have to be challenging enough to qualify as a "leap of faith", or why would they even be necessary? By definition, they are God's way of helping our weak, natural man selves gain exaltation -- that is BECOME WORTHY of exaltation. We have to improve and progress and covenants (and accompanying ordinances) are the stepping stones. If we only covenant over things we feel we "have down" -- the whole purpose is defeated. THANK YOU for these insights.


In The Doghouse said...

As members of the LDS Church we are a covenant making and keeping people. Your observations about the Book of Mormon are spot on! Satan would like nothing better than to have us forget the covenants that have been made with our fathers, so that we lose focus and forget that our job is to be the keepers of that covenant.

By doing missionary work (ie gathering Israel) we become the keepers of the covenant that the Lord made with Abraham. It is a beautiful covenant relationship we have with the Lord. Through us He is glorified, because we have made it so He can keep his part of the Covenant. By Him we are glorified in that His life was spent so that we could do His work, and be like Him. Both are made perfect by one another.

Don't forget, the Lord always sets the terms in the Covenant relationship, we have but to agree to those terms. Because of LAW we can then bind the Lord, by our obedience, to the blessings that are attached to that law or covenant. This allows us the confidence to be in His presence once again.
Loved this post and reading about all of your covenant insights.

Michaela Stephens said...

Mona: I like how you put that--covenants "are God's way of helping our weak, natural man selves gain exaltation".

In The Doghouse: I agree that the Lord sets the terms of our covenant relationship with Him. This may have been why I was led to a scripture that moved me to make a more lasting covenant.