I. INTRODUCING the New Covenant: How do the Gospels Introduce Jesus?
When you're introducing one friend to another, most of the time you try to give some context to the relationship: This is my friend Brett; he's the one I roomed with in college. Or, this my friend Seth; we got to know each other really well at seminary. In a similar way, when we get to the gospels, each of the gospel writers are seeking to introduce us to Jesus; and as they do so, they're also trying to give us some context, so that we might have a better understanding of whom it is they're introducing us to.
Well, as each of the gospel writers introduces us to Jesus, the context they give us is God's covenantal dealings throughout redemptive history; starting from the end, back to the beginning. Mark wrote his gospel before Matthew, Luke, or John; and he introduces Jesus by quoting some of the last words in the entire Old Testament: “Behold, I send My messenger ahead of You, who will prepare Your way” (Mark 1:2). This is a quote from Malachi 3:1. And not only does Mark quote from Malachi; he also combines this with a quote from Isaiah: “The voice of one crying in the wilderness, 'Make ready the way of the Lord, make His paths straight.'” (Mark 1:3; cf. Isaiah 40:3). So, as Mark introduces us to Jesus, he quotes from both the first and the last of the prophetical books; and in doing so, gives us an important context: Mark's gospel account about Jesus picks up right where the prophets had left off.
Matthew traces the roots of the new covenant a little further back. He begins writing his gospel in the first verse by introducing us to Jesus in this way: ““The record of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” (Matthew 1:1). So then, the context Matthew gives us traces Jesus back from the prophets to David and Abraham; and in describing Him as the son of David and Abraham, Matthew is declaring that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Davidic and Abrahamic covenants.
Luke traces the ancestry of Jesus even further back, for in Luke's genealogy, not only is Jesus the son of David and the son of Abraham, but also “the son of Adam” (Luke 3:38). Luke is identifying Jesus here with that descendant of Eve whom God had promised would crush the head of the serpent, all the way back in Genesis 3:15. This was the very first promise of the Covenant of Grace. Not only is Jesus the true fulfillment of the Davidic and Abrahamic covenants—but He's also the second Adam.
John goes the furthest back as He introduces us to Jesus. In the opening sentence of his volume, he writes: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (1:1); going on to tell us: “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us (v 14). Jesus isn't only the son of David or the son of Abraham, or the seed of the woman from Genesis 3:15. He is God himself.1
II. ASCERTAINING the New Covenant: When exactly does the New Covenant Begin?
The new covenant begins with Jesus. But one question that still arises is: When exactly is it that the new covenant begins? On the one hand, it seems that the new covenant must have begun with Jesus' birth. But some Scriptures seem to tell us the new covenant didn't properly begin until the preaching ministry of John and Jesus' earthly ministry (Matthew 11:12-13; Luke 16:16); which was many years afterwards. Other Scriptures seem to convey that the new covenant wasn't inaugurated until Christ's death, for it wasn't until the Last Supper that Jesus said: “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood.” (Luke 22:20). But even after Jesus' death and resurrection, it seems that the inauguration of the new covenant is still something yet to come, for Christ tells His disciples that the Holy Spirit will not come upon them until He ascends to His Father (John 16:7); and it's for this reason they are told to wait in Jerusalem until they're clothed with power from on high (Luke 24:49). So then: Did the new covenant properly begin with Jesus' birth? Or with His earthly ministry? Was it inaugurated with His death? Or was it not established until He poured out His Spirit at Pentecost?
Thankfully, we don't have to pick one of these options over against the others. As one writer put it: “the kingdom of heaven did not directly and all at once attain to its full state of maturity, but by slow degrees acquired strength.” In other words, the new covenant wasn't established in a single moment of time, all at once; but, rather, it unfolded organically, beginning with the events surrounding Christ's birth and culminating with the sending forth of the Spirit at Pentecost. The inauguration of the new covenant was, in some ways, like a mountain range with many peaks. There are over fifty mountains in the Himalayas—but though each of these mountains has its own distinct name and its own distinct peak—they're all part of the same range. And it's the same principle with the inauguration of the new covenant: Each of these events has its own distinct place—but the new covenant includes them all.2
III. OVERVIEWING the New Covenant, PART 1: What Events Mark the Inauguration of the New Covenant?
A) The PREPARATION of the New Covenant: Perhaps the first place to begin in considering the inauguration of the new covenant is the preparation that took place in and through the birth and life of John. In the days of Herod, king of Judea, an angel was sent to a priest named Zacharias with this message: “Do not be afraid, Zacharias, for your petition has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will give him the name John. . .And he will turn many of the sons of Israel back to the Lord their God. It is he who will go as a forerunner before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers back to the children, and the disobedient to the attitude of the righteous, so as to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” (Luke 1:13-17; cf. 1:76-77). The angel was harkening back to the last two verses of the entire Old Testament; where Malachi foretold that God would send “Elijah the prophet” before the coming of the Lord. The angel clarifies that it's not Elijah himself who would come again. But the Lord would raise up another prophet in the spirit and power of Elijah; and that prophet was John. This is why Christ said, “John himself is Elijah who was to come” (Matthew 11:14); and again, “Elijah is coming and will restore all things; but I say to you that Elijah already came, and they did not recognize him. . .” (Matthew 17:12). Just as Elijah was the forerunner for Elisha, so too, John would be the forerunner for the Messiah. And just as God raised up Samuel as the last of the judges to anoint David; so too, John came as the last of the prophets to usher in the coming of Christ. John's life and ministry was God's preparation for the new covenant.3
B) The INCARNATION of the New Covenant: But if John's birth was the preparation for the new covenant, then the birth of Christ embodies its formal inauguration. Indeed, if there's one event that signifies the inauguration of the new covenant, surely it's the incarnation. So it's no surprise that the Prophets often associated the birth of the Messiah with the beginning of the new covenant age. This is precisely what the prophet Micah is saying when he writes that God would give His people over to their enemies “until the time when she who is in labor has borne a child. . .” (5:3). Micah's telling us that the days of the new covenant would begin with the birth of Christ. And Paul seems to be saying the same thing when he contrasts the old and new covenants in Galatians. For after telling us that we were, in some respects, “held in bondage” under the old covenant, Paul describes the inauguration of the new covenant in this way: “But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law. . .” (4:4). For Paul, “the fullness of the time” is a reference to the new covenant; and the new covenant dawned upon the world when God sent forth His Son. Indeed, it was in contemplating the birth of the Messiah that Zacharias lifted up his voice and said: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for He has visited us and accomplished redemption for His people, and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of David His servant—as He spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets. . .to remember His holy covenant, the oath which He swore to Abraham our father. . .” (Luke 1:68-74). All the old covenant promises find their fulfillment in the Messiah's birth.
C) The PUBLICATION of the New Covenant: Though in some respects, the new covenant seems to have been inaugurated with the birth of Christ, in other respects it seems to have been more fully inaugurated with the beginning of Jesus' public ministry. Jesus himself says in Luke 16:16: “The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John; since that time the gospel of the kingdom of God has been preached, and everyone is forcing his way into it.” John lived and ministered in a unique period of redemptive history; sometimes it seems his ministry belongs to the end of the old covenant; other times it seems to belong to the beginning of the new (cf. Matthew 11:11-13). It's almost as if he stood with one leg on each side. But if John's ministry was in-between the two different administrations, the ministry of Christ ushered in the beginning of the new covenant age. Jesus tells us that since the time of John, “the gospel of the kingdom of God has been preached. . .” But what is He saying? Wasn't the gospel preached in the old covenant as well? It was. But not with the same clarity; not with the same effect; and not yet in such a way that the substance had come to replace the signs and shadows. In other words, Jesus is telling us that ever since the time of John, the preaching of the new covenant began dawning upon the world. And it's this preaching that Christ inaugurated at the commencement of His earthly ministry. When Jesus came, declaring, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand” (Mark 1:15), He was announcing the old covenant administration was passing away—and the new covenant age had already begun to bloom. The fullness of time had come; the old was giving way to the new. In a very real sense, the new covenant was inaugurated with Jesus' public ministry.4
1 The truths from this section are largely adapted from the new covenant chapter in Jonty Rhodes' Covenants Made Simple. I've found this short book by Jonty Rhodes to be a very helpful introduction to understanding the covenants of Scripture.
2 John Ball says: “From the birth of Christ, the things foretold in the Old Testament pertaining to the constitution of the new, began to be fulfilled; and that first by his coming in the flesh, afterwards by his administration, and then by his death; by whose death the Old Testament was abolished, and the new did succeed in the room thereof. . .[and yet,] properly the beginning of the new covenant is to be fetched from that time, wherein Christ has fulfilled all things, which were shadowed of him in the Law, or foretold in the Prophets, that is, after that Christ was corporally ascended into heaven, and had sent down the Holy Spirit in the visible shape of fiery tongues upon His Apostles, at the solemn feast of Pentecost. . .From this time properly the New Testament took its beginning.” (pp196-98). And Roberts notes: “The new covenant administration began, when the old covenant administration ended, and was abrogated. . .[and] the old covenant administration ended and was abrogated at and near upon the death of Jesus Christ. . .[Still,] when I fetch the date or beginning of the new covenant from the death of Christ, I understand the death of Jesus Christ. . .as comprising also his resurrection, ascension, session at the right hand of God, and his pouring forth his Spirit on the feast of Pentecost. . .” (pp1233-34). And again: “The term of the new covenant's beginning comprises in it three things; [namely], 1) the preparation to it, which was by the ministry of John [the] Baptist, of Jesus Christ and his disciples; 2) the dedication or sanction of it, which was properly by the death and blood of Jesus Christ, the great new covenant's sacrifice; [and] 3) the solemn publication of it, which was on the solemn feast-day of Pentecost. . .when the Holy Ghost fell upon the Apostles. . .” (Roberts, pp1233-34). And Witsius writes: “Some begin the New Testament from the birth of Christ, because of that expression of the apostle (Galatians 4:4), in which he asserts the fulness of time was come, when God sent his Son made of a woman; to which they add, that on that very day the angels proclaimed the Gospel concerning Christ was manifested (Luke 2:10-11). Others begin the New Testament from the year of Christ's preaching, alleging Mark 1:1, where the evangelist seems to refer the beginning of the Gospel to that year in which John and Christ began to preach, which is more clearly taught in that passage just cited from Luke 16:16. Others again place the beginning of the New Testament at the moment of Christ's death, upon the authority of the apostle, who says, that the New Testament was ratified by the death of Christ the testator (Hebrews 9:17). Some. . .on the day of Pentecost, or the effusion of the Holy Spirit on the apostles, on which the New was as it were sealed, and its law came out of Zion (Isaiah 2:3). But all these things are easily reconciled, if we allow some latitude to that fulness of time, in which the New succeeded the Old Testament. . .the kingdom of heaven did not directly and all at once attain to its full state of maturity, but by slow degrees acquired strength” (V1, pp315-16).
3 What do we make of the fact that John himself denies he is Elijah when he is asked by the Jews in John 1:21? Calvin says: “But the question is founded on a false opinion which they had long held; for, holding the opinion that the soul of a man departs out of one body into another, when the Prophet Malachi announced that Elijah would be sent, they imagined that the same Elijah, who lived under the reign of king Ahab (1 Kings 17:1) was to come. It is therefore a just and true reply which John makes, that he is not Elijah; for he speaks according to the opinion which they attached to the words; but Christ, giving the true interpretation of the Prophet, affirms that John is Elijah (Matthew 11:14; Mark 9:13).” (Commentary on John 1:21).
4 Calvin notes: “John stands between the Law and the Gospel, holding an intermediate office allied to both. For though he gave a summary of the Gospel when he pronounced Christ to be 'the Lamb of God who taketh away the sin of the world,' yet, inasmuch as he did not unfold the incomparable power and glory which shone forth in his resurrection, Christ says that he was not equal to the Apostles. For this is the meaning of the words: 'Among them that are born of woman, there has not risen a greater than John the Baptist: notwithstanding, he that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he,' (Matthew 11:11). He is not there commending the persons of men, but after preferring John to all the Prophets, he gives the first place to the preaching of the Gospel, which is elsewhere designated by the kingdom of heaven.” (Calvin, Institutes, 2.9.5). And again, he notes in his commentary on Matthew 11:13: “Christ does not class John with the ministers of the Gospel, though he formerly assigned to him an intermediate station [cf. v12?] between them and the Prophets. But there is no inconsistency here; for although John's preaching was a part of the Gospel, it was little more than a first lesson.” Calvin's comments here also shed some light on how he understands the meaning of Christ's phrase “the kingdom of heaven” and “the kingdom of God” in the context of these particular passages (Matthew 11:11-13 and Luke 16:16). In the first reference, he tells us that the kingdom of heaven is a designation for “the preaching of the Gospel”; but it's clear that he means by this the clarity of the gospel that only came after John with the inauguration of the new covenant preaching of Christ. According to this, Calvin explicitly notes of Matthew 11:11, that “The kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of God denote the new condition of the Church. . .” In other words, according to Calvin, “the kingdom of heaven” and “the kingdom of God” in Matthew 11:11-13 and Luke 16:16 are short-hand for the administration of the new covenant. This doesn't mean, however, that we should interpret this phrase in this particular or limited way every time it's used in the Gospels, for it's clearly given a broader range of meaning in other passages where the kingdom of heaven seems to convey the realities of the Covenant of Grace more generally (cf. Matthew 13:44, etc).