One area in which Catholics and many Protestants agree is that covenant is key to Christianity. After all, Judaism and Christianity are frequently referred to as the “Old Covenant” and “New Covenant,” and the terms Old and New Testament are also tied to the covenant. Granted, we often disagree with how the covenants should be understood, but both (or all) sides should be able to recognize the importance of the subject.
Whether you’re looking at how we’re saved, the relationship of the Old Testament Law to the Church, how Jesus is High Priest, or any of countless other areas, you’re going to need to understand what a covenant is, and how it works within Christianity. That’s one reason why covenantal theology is so important: it’s at the foundation of much of what we believe. But there’s another reason that I’m heartened to see so many Protestants with an interest in understanding covenants: the New Covenant points to the Catholic Church. We can see this from three distinct perspectives: what the covenant says about the Eucharist, about the necessity of the Church for salvation, and about the need for baptism.
|Joos van Cleve, Altarpiece of the Lamentation (1525)|
There are literally hundreds of covenant references throughout the Old Testament, and it’s critical to understanding Christianity. Given this, you might be surprised to learn that Jesus only uses the term “covenant” once in the New Testament. Other than Zechariah’s reference to the Old Covenant in Luke 1:72, this is the only time covenant gets mentioned in any of the four Gospels.
So what does He have to say about the New Covenant? The sole covenant reference comes while He is consecrating the wine as His Blood. He says, “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20). So the only time Jesus talks about the New Covenant, the only time He mentions covenants at all, He’s tying the New Covenant to the Eucharist.
What’s more, He’s saying that what’s in the Chalice is His Blood, the Blood of the Covenant. So we should be asking: does He mean this literally? Or is the Eucharist just a symbol, as many Protestants hold? The clearest answer comes from Hebrews 9:18-22, by comparing the Old and New Covenants:
Hence even the first covenant was not ratified without blood. For when every commandment of the law had been declared by Moses to all the people, he took the blood of calves and goats, with water and scarlet wool and hyssop, and sprinkled both the book itself and all the people, saying, “This is the blood of the covenant which God commanded you.” And in the same way he sprinkled with the blood both the tent and all the vessels used in worship. Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.
Hebrews tells us three things. First, that Moses used actual blood. Second, that this ratified the Old Covenant. And third, that this was absolutely necessary for there to be forgiveness of sins. If Moses had used wine instead, if he’d gone around spritzing the people with spritzer, the Covenant wouldn’t have been ratified, and there would have been no forgiveness of sins.
So that’s what happened when Moses said “This is the blood of the covenant which God commanded you” (Heb. 9:20, referencing Exodus 24:8). And there’s an obvious parallel between that proclamation, and Christ’s: “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.”
But here, we encounter an oddity. From the Protestant perspective, Jesus isn’t using real Blood, so He’s not really ratifying the Covenant, and the Eucharist doesn’t actually bring about the forgiveness of sins in any way. In other words, in each of the three areas that Hebrews 9:18-22 highlights, Jesus’ action is inferior to Moses’.
That conclusion can’t be right. After all, the very next verse says “Thus it was necessary for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with these rites, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these.” (Heb. 9:23). In other words, Moses’ action foreshadows Christ’s, but Christ’s is superior. The logical conclusion is that the Protestant interpretation here is wrong: that Jesus really has turned wine into His Blood, the same Blood that He sheds for our salvation.
|Matthias Gerun, John’s Vision of Heaven (Revelation 4:1-11, 5:1-14), from the Ottheinrich Bible (1532)|
If you understand the Covenant, you’ll understand why the Catholic Church is indispensable to salvation. Let’s turn back to Hebrews again, specifically, Heb. 9:13-15,
For if the sprinkling of defiled persons with the blood of goats and bulls and with the ashes of a heifer sanctifies for the purification of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify your conscience from dead works to serve the living God. Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred which redeems them from the transgressions under the first covenant.
In other words, God saves us through a covenant, the New Covenant. And that’s important, because covenants are contracts, and like all contracts, there are parties to them. And the parties to this covenant are Jesus and the Church. St. Paul makes this clear in Ephesians 5:25-27, when he compares the marriage covenant to Christ’s covenant with the Church:
Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.
This shows us why the Church is critically important. We like to imagine that we can simply be saved individually: me and Jesus. But this shows us why that view can’t be right: it would involve separate covenants between Jesus and each believer, and each one would need to be sealed by His shedding His blood. And Hebrews tells us that this isn’t the case (Heb. 9:25-26):
Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the Holy Place yearly with blood not his own; for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.
So salvation is possible only through the One True Church, the one Bride of Christ. Now, this still leaves the question of what this True Church looks like. But already, we’ve recognized that the role of the Church is more central than most Protestants (and for that matter, most ordinary Catholics) realize. After all, Christ’s first words in Mark’s Gospel are “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). Salvation has always consisted of both individual belief in the Gospel and membership in the Kingdom. The covenant doesn’t make sense without this dimension.
And what else do we know about this Church? Well, in Matthew 16:17-19, Jesus says:
“Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
So Christ blesses Simon, changes his name to Peter (which means Rock), and then makes a series of promises to him (that He will establishes the Church on him, and that He will give him the Keys and the binding/loosening power). All of this neatly parallels Genesis 17, in which God creates a covenant with Abram by blessing him (Gen. 17:3-4), changing his name to Abraham (Gen. 17:5), and making a series of promises to him. So the Church necessary for salvation is the same one that Christ establishes on Peter. All of this points towards the Catholic Church.
|God Appears to Abraham Kneeling for the Second Time (14th c.)|
If participation in the covenant is necessary for salvation, how do we enter into the covenant? Here, it helps to look back at Israel and the first Covenant. In Genesis 17:10-14, God says to 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. You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. He that is eight days old among you shall be circumcised; every male throughout your generations, whether born in your house, or bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring, both he that is born in your house and he that is bought with your money, shall be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.
This is how a male entered the Old Covenant. Failing to do this meant that the covenant was broken. So what’s the New Covenant parallel? We find it in Colossians 2:9-14, while St. Paul is speaking of our relationship with Christ:
For in him the whole fulness of deity dwells bodily, and you have come to fulness of life in him, who is the head of all rule and authority. In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of flesh in the circumcision of Christ; and you were buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead. And you, who were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, having canceled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands; this he set aside, nailing it to the cross.
So it’s through baptism, the New Covenant equivalent of circumcision, that we enter into the saving Covenant. This Covenant then works through faith in the working of God. And, of course, this makes sense. Baptism is the way that we enter into the Church: if the Church is the party to the Covenant, then Baptism serves as the doorway to both. And this baptism-plus-faith formula for salvation is what Christ explicitly lays out in Mark 16:16: “He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.” And this is one of the reasons that St. Peter can proclaim to his readers that Baptism “now saves you” (1 Peter 3:21).
To see how these three distinct areas (the Eucharist, the Church, and Baptism) are interrelated within the New Covenant, look at the foreshadowing of the Passover meal in Exodus 12. This ritual meal was closely restricted to the covenantal people (Ex. 12:43-49):
And the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “This is the ordinance of the passover: no foreigner shall eat of it; but every slave that is bought for money may eat of it after you have circumcised him. No sojourner or hired servant may eat of it. In one house shall it be eaten; you shall not carry forth any of the flesh outside the house; and you shall not break a bone of it. All the congregation of Israel shall keep it. And when a stranger shall sojourn with you and would keep the passover to the Lord, let all his males be circumcised, then he may come near and keep it; he shall be as a native of the land. But no uncircumcised person shall eat of it. There shall be one law for the native and for the stranger who sojourns among you.”
In other words, a non-Jew could eat the Passover, but only by entering into the covenant first. He must be circumcised, and then he could join the Old Covenant people of God, Israel, and could partake of the Passover. This prefigures the way that believers must be baptized, and thereby join the New Covenant people of God, the Church, and can partake of Christ’s Last Supper meal, the Eucharist (Matthew 26:18; 1 Corinthians 5:7).
What’s more, all of this had to happen within one house. St. Cyprian of Carthage, writing in the early third century, highlighted this requirement:
Also, the sacrament of the passover contains nothing else in the law of the Exodus than that the lamb which is slain in the figure of Christ should be eaten in one house. God speaks, saying, “In one house shall you eat it; you shall not send its flesh abroad from the house.” The flesh of Christ, and the holy of the Lord, cannot be sent abroad, nor is there any other home to believers but the one Church.
From the Passover, then, you can see that the three dimensions operate in a distinct but interconnected manner. To try to understand the Old Covenant without looking at sacrificial meals, Israel, or circumcision would render an inaccurate and incomplete view of the Old Covenant. So, too, would understanding the New Covenant with only a cursory consideration of the Eucharist, the Catholic Church, and Baptism.
I mentioned at the outset that the covenant is an area of interest for many Protestants as well as Catholics. And that’s great: without understanding the covenant, you don’t have a full grasp of what Christianity is all about. But to take that idea a step further, without a proper understanding of its distinct Eucharistic, ecclesiastical and sacramental dimensions, you don’t have an adequate understanding of the New Covenant. In these three ways and more, a rich understanding of the New Covenant points to the truth of the Catholic Church.