Large books have been written on the topic of HOW God’s covenants with Israel transition into the New Covenant. What changed with the coming of Christ? On the other hand, what stayed the same – what parts of God’s dealings with His people carried through into the New Covenant era? There is much debate over this topic, and the key terms that define the debate are continuity and discontinuity. One’s view of baptism will be largely determined by the degree of continuity he sees between the older covenants and the New Covenant in Christ. The Reformed position of infant baptism rests solidly on the belief in a strong continuity between the covenants, particularly in the area of covenant children.
General Continuity Between the Covenants
First, in terms of general continuity, there is significant evidence that the New Testament writers saw continuity between the people of the old and new covenants. For example:
Romans 11:15-24 15 For if their (meaning Israel) rejection is the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead? 16 If the first piece of dough is holy, the lump is also; and if the root is holy, the branches are too. 17 But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, being a wild olive, were grafted in among them and became partaker with them of the rich root of the olive tree, 18 do not be arrogant toward the branches; but if you are arrogant, remember that it is not you who supports the root, but the root supports you. 19 You will say then, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” 20 Quite right, they were broken off for their unbelief, but you stand by your faith. Do not be conceited, but fear; 21 for if God did not spare the natural branches, He will not spare you, either. 22 Behold then the kindness and severity of God; to those who fell, severity, but to you, God’s kindness, if you continue in His kindness; otherwise you also will be cut off. 23 And they also, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again. 24 For if you were cut off from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and were grafted contrary to nature into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these who are the natural branches be grafted into their own olive tree?
What is the olive tree in this passage? From Paul’s words, it is clear that it extends backwards into the past, because the gentiles he is writing to have recently been grafted into an already existing tree. The Israelites are the natural branches of this tree, therefore it appears that the tree is the covenant between God and his people, having its original structuring in the covenant with Abraham. Earlier, in Romans 9 Paul states:
Romans 9:3-4 3 For I could wish that I myself were accursed, separated from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh, 4 who are Israelites, to whom belongs the adoption as sons, and the glory and the covenants and the giving of the Law and the temple service and the promises,5 whose are the fathers, and from whom is the Christ according to the flesh, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen.
The Israelites are the natural branches of the covenant tree because all these things, including the covenants and the promises, belonged to them.
Now, understanding what the tree is, we can also see clearly that the gentiles have now been grafted in to the same tree that some of Israel was broken off from. They were broken out of the tree due to their unbelief, specifically their rejection of God’s Messiah. The entire covenant, while still in continuity with its older forms, has been transfigured and centered around Christ. Therefore rejection of Him constitutes the ultimate breach of the covenant, resulting in expulsion and curses. It is also worth noting that if/when physical Israelites turn from their unbelief and receive Jesus as their Lord, they are not placed back into a Israeli-centric community that should practice circumcision and all the other old testament rites. Rather, they are grafted back into the same community that we gentiles are now a part of – the church of Jesus Christ. This passage is a significant point in favor of continuity between the covenants.
Paul also demonstrates the continuity of the people of God in Galatians 4:
Galatians 4:1-7 4 Now I say, as long as the heir is a child, he does not differ at all from a slave although he is owner of everything, 2 but he is under guardians and managers until the date set by the father. 3 So also we, while we were children, were held in bondage under the elemental things of the world. 4 But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, 5 so that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons. 6 Because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” 7 Therefore you are no longer a slave, but a son; and if a son, then an heir through God.
Paul’s analogy compares the people of God to a child growing into adulthood. First, a child, although an heir, is like a slave until the date set by the father. The people of God were like a slave in their childhood, being held in bondage under the elemental things of the world (under the Law). But in the fullness of time (i.e. the date set by the father) God sent forth His Son to redeem those under the law. This is the people of God coming into their adulthood, because we are no longer like slaves, but have received the adoption as full sons and full heirs of God. The basic point, from the perspective of continuity, is that the child in his childhood and then grown into adulthood is the same person! Israel under the law was the people of God in childhood, the church of Jesus Christ with the gift of the Spirit is the people of God in adulthood. I owe my awareness of this point to Doug Wilson (in To A Thousand Generations).
Finally, in 1 Peter 2, Peter takes phrases from Exodus that are clearly prophecies of Israel’s future, and applies them directly to the church. The prophecy, given by God as Israel approaches Sinai after being delivered from Egypt, is as follows:
Exodus 19:4-6 4 ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings, and brought you to Myself. 5 Now then, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine; 6 and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you shall speak to the sons of Israel.”
The book of 1 Peter, written “to those who reside as aliens… who are chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, by the sanctifying work of the Spirit, to obey Jesus Christ and be sprinkled with His blood” (1 Peter 1:1-2)”, gives the fulfillment of this passage:
1 Peter 2:9-10 9 But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, A people for God’s own possession, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; 10 for you once were not a people, but now you are the people of God; you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
Israel under the old covenant never fully became a kingdom of priests, for only a small portion of the nation could serve as priests – the male descendants of Levi. Now in first Peter, we see that it is through the obedience and covenant keeping (see Exodus 19:4) of Jesus that this promise comes to fulfillment. He has met the requirement for His people, and all who are united with Him (His Church) now make up the holy nation of priests to God, He being our high priest. While this demonstrates the transfiguring of the covenant people that occurs in Jesus Christ, it is also a strong statement as to the continuity between the covenants. The church is Israel’s fulfillment, transfigured and made complete by the work of the great high priest.