“Everlasting” and “Forever”

People will sometimes argue that the Abrahamic Covenant must be the Covenant of Grace because Scripture refers to it as “everlasting.”

And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God.

Genesis 17:7-8

Of course, Dispensationalists also appeal to the same passage to argue that Abraham’s carnal offspring have claim to the land of Canaan forever into eternity. However, the word is also used to described various aspects of the Old Covenant that the New Testament teaches have ended.

You shall command the people of Israel that they bring to you pure beaten olive oil for the light, that a lamp may regularly be set up to burn. In the tent of meeting, outside the veil that is before the testimony, Aaron and his sons shall tend it from evening to morning before the Lord. It shall be a statute forever to be observed throughout their generations by the people of Israel.

Exodus 27:20-21

“For Aaron’s sons you shall make coats and sashes and caps. You shall make them for glory and beauty. And you shall put them on Aaron your brother, and on his sons with him, and shall anoint them and ordain them and consecrate them, that they may serve me as priests. You shall make for them linen undergarments to cover their naked flesh. They shall reach from the hips to the thighs; and they shall be on Aaron and on his sons when they go into the tent of meeting or when they come near the altar to minister in the Holy Place, lest they bear guilt and die. This shall be a statute forever for him and for his offspring after him.

Exodus 28:40-43

Then you shall bring his sons and put coats on them, and you shall gird Aaron and his sons with sashes and bind caps on them. And the priesthood shall be theirs by a statute forever. Thus you shall ordain Aaron and his sons.

Exodus 29:8-9

When they go into the tent of meeting, or when they come near the altar to minister, to burn a food offering to the Lord, they shall wash with water, so that they may not die. They shall wash their hands and their feet, so that they may not die. It shall be a statute forever to them, even to him and to his offspring throughout their generations.

Exodus 30:20-21

You shall bring his sons also and put coats on them, and anoint them, as you anointed their father, that they may serve me as priests. And their anointing shall admit them to a perpetual priesthood throughout their generations.”

Exodus 40:14-15

He shall make atonement for the holy sanctuary, and he shall make atonement for the tent of meeting and for the altar, and he shall make atonement for the priests and for all the people of the assembly. And this shall be a statute forever for you, that atonement may be made for the people of Israel once in the year because of all their sins.” And Aaron did as the Lord commanded Moses.

Leviticus 16:33-34

And the Lord said to Moses, “Phinehas the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, has turned back my wrath from the people of Israel, in that he was jealous with my jealousy among them, so that I did not consume the people of Israel in my jealousy. Therefore say, ‘Behold, I give to him my covenant of peace, and it shall be to him and to his descendants after him the covenant of a perpetual priesthood, because he was jealous for his God and made atonement for the people of Israel.’”

Numbers 25:10-13

Scripture teaches that this priesthood and its functions has in fact ceased, despite the language of “everlasting,” “forever,” and “perpetual.”

Now if perfection had been attainable through the Levitical priesthood (for under it the people received the law), what further need would there have been for another priest to arise after the order of Melchizedek, rather than one named after the order of Aaron? For when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well… For on the one hand, a former commandment is set aside because of its weakness and uselessness (for the law made nothing perfect); but on the other hand, a better hope is introduced, through which we draw near to God… In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.

Hebrews 7:11-12, 18-19; 8:13

Jews have appealed to the above passages to argue that Old Covenant ceremonies continue to be obligatory today. Bullinger replied

But however the Jews do even at this day abide in their wilful stubbornness, the Lord did from heaven declare openly enough, that he is no longer delighted with the ceremonial rites, because he destroyed all the instruments belonging to that ancient kind of worship; and made the very shop of that old religion, I meant the temple and city of Hierusalem, level with the ground…

It is a very slender, or rather no defence at all for the Jews to allege the words in the law, which are many times rehearsed, where the ceremonies are described: “Ye shall keep it for an everlasting ordinance.” For in this sense everlasting is taken for long lasting and unchangeable, so far forth as it hath respect unto the will or authority of mankind. For the Lord did with threatening of grievous punishments forbid that mankind’s unadvisedness should change or abrogate the holy ceremonies. And yet, since he did ordain those ceremonies until the time of amendment, he doth neither sin, nor yet incur the crime of unconstancy, when he doth change or take away the ceremonies according to the determinate purpose which he intended from the beginning.

The Decades of Henry Bullinger, Volume 8, 261-2

Commenting on Hebrews 7:24 “but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever,” John Owen said

And this “for ever” answers unto the “for ever” under the law, each of them being commensurate unto the dispensation of that covenant which they do respect; for absolute eternity belongs not unto these things. The “for ever” of the old testament was the duration of the dispensation of the old covenant. And this “for ever” respects the new covenant, which is to continue unto the consummation of all things, no change therein being any way intimated or promised, or consistent with the wisdom and faithfulness of God; all which were otherwise under the law.

The point is that “everlasting,” “forever,” “perpetual” must be understood in context. The word alone cannot decide the matter. The Covenant of Circumcision cannot be said to be the Covenant of Grace (continuing in force today) because it is called everlasting any more than the Phinehastic Covenant can be. Nehemiah Coxe said

Now it is evident that they have for many ages been disinherited of it [the land of Canaan – recall Gen 17:8]. But the solution to this doubt will be easy to him who consults the use of these terms in other texts, and the necessary restriction of their sense when applied to the state or interests of Abraham’s seed in the land of Canaan. For the priesthood of Levi is called an everlasting priesthood (Numbers 25:13) and the gates of the temple, everlasting doors (Psalm 24:5). This is the same sense that Canaan is said to be an everlasting inheritance. No more is intended than the continuance of these for a long time, that is, throughout the Old Testament economy until the days of the Messiah, commonly spoken of by the Jews under the notion of the world to come. In this a new state of things was to be expected when their old covenant right and privilege was to expire, its proper end and design being fully accomplished.

87

Its description as “everlasting” was also applied to other temporary institutions. The word translated “everlasting” in Genesis 17:8, literally means, “until the distant future.” Often it does signify forever and ever (Deut. 33:27; Ps. 90:2), but not always. Context must determine its duration. Scripture uses this very word to describe the duration of the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16:34) and of the Aaronic priesthood (Exod. 29:28, 40:15). Scripture indicates explicitly that these other old covenant institutions terminate with the coming of Messiah. His coming is their vanishing point, the end of the age. Similarly, in Genesis 17:8, עולם signifies “until the distant future, throughout the entire era of Hebrew Israel’s theocracy.” That era lasted a very long time, some fifteen-hundred years, until the promised Messiah came to institute the new covenant.

Greg Nichols. Covenant Theology: A Reformed and Baptistic Perspective on God’s Covenants. Pelham: Solid Ground Books, 2011. pp. 191-192.

The Covenant of Circumcision was not the Covenant of Grace. It consisted of historia salutis promises, not ordo salutis promises. And because it consisted of historia salutis promises, it is now ended, having been fulfilled.

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