The Problem with a “Personal Relationship with God” Part III
A covenant is basically an ancient contract. It brought two parties into a formal relationship with one another. They were very common in the ancient Near East (ANE) so unsurprisingly there are many examples of covenants in the Bible as well. Most importantly, covenants defined the terms of the relationship between God and his people and how that relationship unfolded through the course of the biblical narrative. They are therefore sometimes described as the backbone of the Bible since the narrative framework of the Bible depends on them. So instead of talking about something as ambiguous as a “personal relationship with God” we should use the definite biblical language of covenant.
Scholarship has shown that there were different types of covenants in the ANE and they exhibited a defined structure. These formal features can be discerned in biblical covenants as well. Each covenant had its own terms and stipulations, just like modern contracts. Simply saying you’re in a covenant with God, no matter how sincerely you meant it, was not enough. Covenants were not casual arrangements but followed certain procedures and formed very specific kinds of relationships. Therefore, if we are going to speak in theologically meaningful manner we need to know what were the covenants and what they entailed. The principal covenants in order are the Noahic covenant (Genesis 9:1-17), the Abrahamic covenant (Genesis 12:1-3, 15, 17), the Mosaic covenant (Exodus 20:1-24:11), the Davidic covenant (2 Samuel 7:5-16; Psalm 89:3-4) and finally the new covenant (Jeremiah 31:31-34; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26.)
When you carefully study the above covenants and how important they are to the shape of the Bible, it is clear that a relationship with God was thoroughly covenantal. These covenantal relationships were not personal but rather communal and were sometimes enacted through a mediator. For example God’s covenant with Israel was mediated through Moses. Even when covenants were made with individuals such as with Abraham, it was not only for their sake but often for their family or the people they belonged to as well.
Having said all that, I do think that there is such a thing as a personal relationship with God and the Bible talks about it. However, as I earlier pointed out, personal in the Bible does not mean individualistic. There is one person in the Bible, and only one, who has a truly personal relationship with God and that is Jesus Christ his Son.
Jesus is the only one who has seen God and knows him (John 1:18, 6:46; Matthew 11:27.) Since he is human, it is only in the face of Jesus that we can see God and it is only through the Son that we know the Father (Luke 10:22; Hebrews 1:3.) So it is consistently portrayed throughout the New Testament that God and Jesus have a unique relationship with one another so he is the only who has a truly personal relationship with God. This makes him the ideal person, indeed the only person, who can effectively broker a relationship between God and humanity.
For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time. – 1 Timothy 2:5-6 ESV
Jesus is described as the mediator of the new covenant (Hebrews 9:15, 12:24.) There is a sense in the New Testament that all the previous biblical covenants led up to and were surpassed by the new covenant that is mediated by Jesus (Hebrews 8:13.) So as I previously said, in the Bible we actually have a communal, mediated relationship with God. However, Jesus is the only one who has a personal relationship with God so through him we are brought into a covenant with his Father (Romans 8:14-17.)
While it may not be strictly personal in the sense of a direct, one-to-one relation with God, the new covenant is nevertheless real and deeply intimate. This is because through Jesus we receive God’s own life-giving spirit who realizes the covenant relationship we have with God (Acts 2:33; 2 Corinthians 3:6.) The covenant is a spiritual relationship and by spiritual I do not mean something abstract or metaphysical but rather what comes from God’s spirit. He is a real entity whose presence and activity is manifest in the Church which enables its members to live distinctly as the people of God. So living in the new covenant is living in the Spirit (Romans 8:1-4.)