God’s Covenants

covenant

A covenant is a contract or agreement between two or more parties.  Covenant is how God has chosen to communicate to us, to redeem us, and to guarantee us eternal life in Jesus.  These truths, revealed in the Bible, are the basis of Christianity.  The Bible is a covenant document.  The Old and New Testaments are really Old and New Covenants.  The word “testament” is Latin for Covenant.

There is a pattern to the covenants found in the Bible. Basically, it is as follows.  The initiating party describes himself and what He has done, then there is a list of obligations between the two (or more) parties.  What follows is the section dealing with rewards and punishments that govern the keeping and breaking of the covenant.  The Ten Commandments fit this pattern and are a covenant document.

Covenant is how God first decided to deal with mankind.  We know this from studying the Eternal Covenant mentioned in Heb. 13:20, “May the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep” (NIV).  In this covenant, God the Father and the Son made an agreement regarding the elect.  This covenant was made before the universe was created, and it consisted of the Father promising to bring to the Son all whom the Father had given Him (John 6:39; 17:9, 24).  The Son would become man (Col. 2:9; 1 Tim. 2:5), become for a while lower than the angels (Heb. 2:7), and be found under the Law (Gal. 4:4-5).  The Son would die for the sins of the world (1 John 2:2; 1 Pet. 2:24), and the Father would raise the Son from the Dead (Psalm 2).

The Eternal Covenant, then, leads to the Covenant of Grace. Where the Eternal Covenant was made between the Father and the Son, the Covenant of Grace is made between God and man.  This latter covenant is where God promises to man eternal salvation based upon the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross.  The manifestation of that covenant occurs in our world in a sequence of additional major covenants that God made with individuals: Adam (Gen. 2:15-17), Noah (Gen. 9:12-16), Abraham (Gen. 17), the Israelites at Mount Sinai (Exodus 34:28), David  (2 Sam 7), believers in the New Covenant (Jer. 31:31-37), etc. 

Understanding God’s Covenants is important for several reasons:

  1. We learn that God deals with man covenantally.
  2. Since a Covenant is an agreement, it is a promise made by God.  Because we can rely on God’s word for eternity, we can take great comfort in His covenant promising us eternal life in His Son.
  3. It helps us to see the Bible as a covenant document.  The Old and New Testaments are Old and New Covenants.
  4. With Covenant understood as a framework through which the Bible was written, we can better understand it, God’s dealings with us through it, and our responsibilities to God as well as His to us.
  5. We can better understand the symbols used by God in covenant ratification: The Lord’s Supper and Baptism.

In every covenant between God and man, God has always been the initiator; covenant has always proceeded from him to us, never the other way round.  For this reason, we need to get a proper understanding of what ‘covenant’ really means in God’s eyes.

 The covenant expresses a relationship which god sovereignly initiates, out of his own choice and decision. He defines the terms on which he is prepared to enter into that relationship with man. It is important to emphasize that the initiative is wholly with God, and the terms are set exclusively by God. Man’s part is simply to respond to offer of a covenant and to accept the relationships which that covenant brings with it. Man does not set the terms, nor does he ever initiate the relationship.

When we refer to the ‘Old Testament’ and to the ‘New Testament’, we are really referring to two ‘covenants’. In English, we do not normally think of ‘covenant’ and ‘testament’ as being the same. We limit the word ‘testament’ to a legal document, which (as Scripture points out) comes into force after the death of the one who made the testament. On the other hand, we do not usually think of covenant as being necessarily associated with the death of the parties to the covenant.  In scripture, this distinction between testament and covenant is not valid.  The two are the same even though the terms are used interchangeably.

 The central theme of Israelite thought was covenantal relationship. The covenant with its stipulations opened up the possibility of transgression and sin, with the consequence of judgment and punishment.  This is one of the main themes of the Old Testament. However, there was also the important feature of the covenantal promise and the expectation.  The Davidic covenant with the promise of an eternal throne gave rise to the expectation of the Messiah, Son of David and formed the most important link between OT and NT.  With the new covenant of the NT a fresh expectation is given of the arrival of the Messiah wherein is fulfilled the expectation of the earlier promises.

The terminology

The two key words in the bible for covenant or alliance are ‘b’rit’ (Heb.) and ‘diatheke’ (Gk.) The Hebrew word refers usually to the act or rite of making the covenant.  It also can mean the standing contract between two partners. The Greek word is the translation (Septuagint) of this Hebrew word.  It is later carried over into the New Testament where its primary meaning is ‘testament’. In the Hebrew, other words were also used in a covenantal context: – aheb = to love; hesed = covenant love or solidarity; toba = goodness or friendship; salom = covenantal peace or covenantal prosperity; and yada = to serve faithfully in accordance with the covenant.

The technical term in connection with covenant-making is karat b’rit; literally, ‘to cut a covenant’, and points to the ancient rite of cutting an animal with the forming of a treaty or covenant.  Many other Hebrew verbs are used in place of ‘to cut’, such as ‘to establish’, ‘to give’, ‘to declare’, ‘to swear’, ‘to confirm’, ‘to command’ and ‘to make’.

Various verbs were used to denote the people’s participation in a covenant. Essentially these verbs differentiated between ‘entering into’, ‘coming into’, and ‘standing in’ a covenantal relationship.  Similarly, two different Hebrew verbs (nasar and samar) were used to denote the keeping of covenant and a whole cluster of different verbs were used for the breaking of covenant (for example, ‘to forget’, ‘to transgress’, to despise’, ‘to break’, ‘to be false to’, ‘to profane’ and ‘to corrupt’. These differences are often subtle. But they are nevertheless important in that they help us to understand in what manner the covenant is broken.

Covenant Analysis

  1. Requirements and Promises in the Eternal Covenant
    1. The Father required of the Son that He should atone for the sins of those whom the Father had given Him (1 John 2:2; John 6:39; 10:11, 15) and should do what Adam failed to do by keeping the law (Gal. 4:4-5; 1 Pet. 2:22).
    2. This requirement included the following particulars:
      1. That he should assume human nature (John 1:1, 14; Col. 2:9).
      2. That He should place Himself under the law (Gal. 4:4-5).
      3. That He, after accomplishing forgiveness of sins and eternal life, should apply them to the elect (Rom. 5:18; 1 Cor. 15:22; 2 Cor. 5:14).
  2. The Relation of the Eternal Covenant and the Covenant of Grace
    1. The Eternal Covenant is the model for the Covenant of Grace.  The former is eternal, that is, from eternity and the latter temporal in the sense that it is realized in time.  The former is a compact between the Father and the Son as a surety and head of the elect while the latter is a compact between the triune God and the elect sinner.
      1. If there had been no Eternal Covenant between the Father and the Son, there could have been no Covenant of Grace between God and sinful man.
      2. The Holy Spirit, which produces faith in the sinner, was promised to Christ by the Father; and the acceptance of the way of life through faith was guaranteed by Christ.
  3. The Covenant with Adam also known as the Covenant of Works
    1. This was a covenant made between God and Adam where Adam would have everlasting life based upon obedience to God. This apparently was possible since Adam did not have a sin nature.
      1. “And the LORD God commanded the man, ‘You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die’” (Gen. 2:16-17).
    2. God entered into a covenant with Adam.
      1. The promise connected to that covenant was life.  The condition was perfect obedience.  Its penalty was death.
  4. The Covenant with Noah
    1. This covenant was God’s promise to Noah to never again destroy the world with a flood. God gave the rainbow as a sign.
      1. “I now establish my covenant with you and with your descendants after you and with every living creature that was with you–the birds, the livestock and all the wild animals, all those that came out of the ark with you–every living creature on earth.  I establish my covenant with you: Never again will all life be cut off by the waters of a flood; never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth.”  And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all generations to come: I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth.  Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures of every kind.  Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life. Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth.”  So God said to Noah, ‘This is the sign of the covenant I have established between me and all life on the earth’” (Gen. 9:9-17).
  5. The Covenant with Abraham
    1. God promised a land and descendants to Abraham, who was commanded to “keep” the covenant (Gen. 17:9f., 14) and was given circumcision as the sign (Gen. 15:8-18; 17:1-14).
      1. On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram and said, “To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates” (Gen. 15:18).
  6. The Covenant with Moses
    1. In the giving of the Law, the nation of Israel was constituted a holy nation and given stipulations to follow to ensure fellowship with God.  The covenant was ratified by a covenant sacrifice and the sprinkling of blood (Exodus 24:4-8).
    2. Exodus 24:4-8 “Moses then wrote down everything the LORD had said.  He got up early the next morning and built an altar at the foot of the mountain and set up twelve stone pillars representing the twelve tribes of Israel.  5 Then he sent young Israelite men, and they offered burnt offerings and sacrificed young bulls as fellowship offerings to the LORD.  6 Moses took half of the blood and put it in bowls, and the other half he sprinkled on the altar.  7 Then he took the Book of the Covenant and read it to the people.  They responded, ‘We will do everything the LORD has said; we will obey.’  8 Moses then took the blood, sprinkled it on the people and said, ‘This is the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words’” (NIV).
  7. The Covenant with David
    1. God gave a promise to David that his descendants should have an everlasting kingdom and be known as his sons.
      1. “You said, ‘I have made a covenant with my chosen one, I have sworn to David my servant, I will establish your line forever and make your throne firm through all generations’” (Psalm 89:3-4).
      2. It was through the descendants of David that Jesus was born.
  8. The New Covenant
    1. This is the new covenant of the Messianic age where the Law of God would be written upon the hearts of men.
      1. “The time is coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah . . . This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time,” declares the LORD.  “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts.  I will be their God, and they will be my people” (Jer. 31:31, 33).
    2. It was promised in Eden
      1. “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel” (Gen. 3:15).
    3. It was proclaimed to Abraham
      1. “I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Gen. 12:3).
    4. It was fulfilled in Christ
      1. “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come and has redeemed his people.  He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David (as he said through his holy prophets of long ago), salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us–to show mercy to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant, the oath he swore to our father Abraham: to rescue us from the hand of our enemies, and to enable us to serve him without fear in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.  And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace” (Luke 1:68-79).
  9. The Covenant of Grace
    1. This may be defined as that gracious agreement between the offended God and the offending sinner in which God promises salvation through faith in Christ, and the sinner accepts this by faith–promising a life of faith and obedience (John 1:12-13; 3:16; Rom. 10:9-10).
  10. Comparison of the Covenant of Works (the Adamic Covenant) and the Covenant of Grace

 

Covenant of Works

Covenant of Grace

God is the Creator and Lord. Established because of His love and benevolence.

God is the Redeemer and Father. Established because of His mercy

Man appears simply as God’s creature–rightly related to his God

Man appears as a sinner who has perverted his ways and can only appear in union with Christ and grace.

No Mediator

Jesus is Mediator

Righteousness is based upon the obedience of a changeable man which is uncertain.

Based on the obedience of Christ as Mediator which is absolute and certain.

The way of life is by keeping the Law.

The way of life is by faith in Jesus Christ.

The covenant is partly known in nature since the law of God is written in the heart of Man.

The covenant is known exclusively through special revelation: the Bible.

 THE BLOOD COVENANT

In ancient times the blood covenant was common among almost all of the people of the middle east. It was a way of establishing a binding contract between two men. What we call the Old and New Testaments could easily be called the Old and New Covenants. The typical blood covenant contained nine parts, or steps. Two overview perspectives are given, one from the Old Testament and one from the New Testament.

OLD TESTAMENT

In the times of the patriarchs, there were generally eight steps in the process of making a covenant and they are take place, some in a somewhat unique way in God’s covenant with Abraham. Those steps were:

1) The pre-ceremony actions. This would be a discussion of terms, an agreement of consequences for both the keeping and breaking of the covenant, and a time of waiting where each party had an opportunity to determine whether they wanted to enter into the covenant. It was first in Genesis 12 where God proposes the covenant to Abraham. Years passed before the actual ceremony was enacted in Genesis 15.

2) Cutting the covenant. This is where animals would be slaughtered as each side of the agreement makes a personal sacrifice, investment, to demonstrate their willingness to enter into the covenant. Abraham kills a cow, a goat, a ram, a turtledove, and a pigeon.

3) The walk of death. In a covenant both parties were supposed to walk through the separated halves of the animals slaughtered in the previous step. It is a symbolic gesture that they are accepting responsibility, even to death, for maintaining the covenant. In Genesis 15:17, it is only God who walks through.

4) The exchange of gifts. Both parties were supposed to exchange belts, weapons, robes, etc. The items traded were supposed to be intensely personal. What can be more personal than the gift of a son which is exactly what God was giving to Abraham in this covenant. (Yes, there are Christological references there, as there are throughout this entire process)

5) The pronouncement of blessings and curses. Each side was to also “gift” their counterpart with warnings against breaking and promises of reward for keeping the covenant. God warns Abraham of the 400 years of slavery coming but also blesses him with peace in his time, a gift of the land, and promise of the retribution and plundering of his descendants oppressors.

6) The seal of the covenant. In ancient times, both parties would be cut and permanently scarred as a visible symbol that they had entered into the covenant. Circumcision for the Israelites was the visible symbol for millennia that they were the people of the covenant.

7) The exchange of names. We see a remnant of this today when a wife takes on the name of her husband. In ancient times a name would be modified and/or the place where the covenant was enacted would be changed to mark that the participants very being and abode has shifted as a result of the covenant. In Genesis 17, where the last three parts of the covenant are found, Abram and Sarai’s names are both changed.

8) The covenant meal.  Abraham gifted a meal to YHWH and His two companions at the start of Genesis 18 and the Passover ceremony was, and still is, an annual symbolic renewal for the people of the covenant.

The thing that makes the Abrahamic covenant unique from other covenants of the time (like that between Jacob and Laban, etc) is that each step was done by only one of the party. Where responsibilities are concerned it is God who acts. Where benefits or blessings are doles, Abraham is always the one who benefits. It is God alone who walks the covenant, but it is Abraham who is given the gift, the blessing, and the new name.

That is still the way it is for us today. Jesus carried the burden. He took the walk of death, but we are the beneficiaries. We are the ones blessed. It is the most lopsided covenant ever. All we can do is stand back and marvel. All we can do is live out the covenant in gratitude for the work He has done. He died. I live. That is the new covenant in a nutshell.

NEW TESTAMENT PERSPECTIVE

These steps are as follows:

1) EXCHANGE COATS OR ROBES. We come to this covenant clothed in sin and unrighteousness. He comes clothed in holiness and righteousness. We put on His righteousness. IICorinthians 5:21, “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” He takes our sins upon Him and we take His holiness for ours. What an exchange!

2)TAKE OFF BELT: He protects us and provides us with protection. Luke 10:19, “Behold, I have given you authority to tread upon serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall injure you.” Ephesians 6:13-17 “Therefore, take up the full armour of God, that you may be able to resist in the evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand firm therefore, having girded your loins with truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the preparation of the gospel of peace; in addition to all, take up the shield of faith with which you will be able to extinguish all the flaming missiles of the evil one. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sward of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”

3)CUT THE COVENANT: Hebrews 10:14-18, “For by one offering He has perfected for all time those who are sanctified. And the Holy Spirit also bears witness to us; for after saying, `This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws upon their heart, and upon their mind I will write them, And their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more. Now where there is forgiveness for these things, there is no longer any offering for sin.” Jesus was not only the one making the covenant, but he was also the sacrificial lamb.

4)RAISE RIGHT ARM & MIX BLOOD: Jesus was both man and God. He was holy and also human. As we have the shed blood of Jesus Christ applied to our hearts, His blood cleanses us from all sin and we are also made holy. Our lives are forever intermingled with His.

5) EXCHANGE NAMES: Jesus took on the name, “Son of Man” and we take on the name Christian. We are forever in the family of God.

6) MAKE A SCAR: Jesus has the scars of the nails in His hands and the feet and the spear in His side. We have the circumcision of the heart. Romans 2:29, “But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God.”

7) GIVE THE COVENANT TERMS: Jesus gives the terms of the covenant in the whole Bible. It is our responsibility to know it so that we can live by it.

8) EAT MEMORIAL MEAL: I Corinthians 11: 23-26, “For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus in the night in which He was betrayed took bread; and when He had given thanks, He broke it, and said, `This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of Me.’ In the same way He took the cup also, after supper, saying, `This cup is the new covenant in My blood; do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.”

9) PLANT A MEMORIAL TREE: The cross that Jesus died on was the tree that the blood of the sacrifice was sprinkled on and it still is a memorial of His covenant with us to this day. This is our covenant with the God of the universe. He will live up to His end and He expects us to live up to ours.

Covenants are an important feature of the Bible’s teaching. These covenants fall into three categories—conditional, unconditional, and general. Conditional covenants are based on certain obligations and prerequisites; if the requirements are not fulfilled, the covenant is broken. Unconditional covenants are made with no strings attached and will be kept regardless of one party’s fidelity or infidelity. General covenants are not specific to one people group and can involve a wide range of people.

The conditional covenant mentioned in Scripture is the Mosaic Covenant; the blessings it extends are contingent upon Israel’s adherence to the Law. The unconditional covenants mentioned in the Bible are the Abrahamic and Davidic Covenants; God promises to fulfill these regardless of other factors. The general covenants mentioned are the Adamic, Noahic, and New Covenants, which are global in scope. Each of these covenants is listed below in biblical order with a brief description:

1. Adamic Covenant. Found in Genesis 1:26-30 and 2:16-17, this covenant is general in nature. It included the command not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, pronounced a curse for sin, and spoke of a future provision for man’s redemption (Genesis 3:15).

2. Noahic Covenant. This general covenant was made between God and Noah following the departure of Noah, his family, and the animals from the ark. Found in Genesis 9:11, “I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of the flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” This covenant included a sign of God’s faithfulness to keep it—the rainbow.

3. Abrahamic Covenant. This unconditional covenant, first made to Abraham in Genesis 12:1-3, promised God’s blessing upon Abraham, to make his name great and to make his progeny into a great nation. The covenant also promised blessing to those who blessed Abraham and cursing to those who cursed him. Further, God vowed to bless the entire world through Abraham’s seed. 

Circumcision was the sign that Abraham believed the covenant (Romans 4:11). The fulfillment of this covenant is seen in the history of Abraham’s descendants and in the creation of the nation of Israel. The worldwide blessing came through Jesus Christ, who was of Abraham’s family line.

4. Mosaic Covenant. This conditional covenant, found in Deuteronomy 11 and elsewhere, promised the Israelites a blessing for obedience and a curse for disobedience. Much of the Old Testament chronicles the fulfillment of this cycle of judgment for sin and later blessing when God’s people repented and returned to God.

Davidic Covenant. This unconditional covenant, found in 2 Samuel 7:8-16, promised to bless David’s family line and assured an everlasting kingdom. Jesus is from the family line of David (Luke 1:32-33) and, as the Son of David (Mark 10:47), is the fulfillment of this covenant.

6. New Covenant. This covenant, found in Jeremiah 31:31-34, promised that God would forgive sin and have a close, unbroken relationship with His people. The promise was first made to Israel and then extended to everyone who comes to Jesus Christ in faith (Matthew 26:28; Hebrews 9:15). The New Covenant is a biblical interpretation originally derived from a phrase in the Book of Jeremiah, in the Hebrew Scriptures. It is often thought of as an eschatological Messianic Age or world to come and is related to the biblical concept of the Kingdom of God.

Generally, Christians believe that the New Covenant was instituted at the Last Supper as part of the Eucharist, which in the Gospel of John includes the New Commandment. A connection between the Blood of Christ and the New Covenant is seen in most modern English translations of the New Testament[22] with the saying: “this cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood”.[23]

Christians see Jesus as the mediator of this New Covenant, and that his blood, shed at his crucifixion is the required blood of the covenant: as with all covenants between God and man described in the Bible, the New Covenant is considered “a bond in blood sovereignly administered by God”.[24] It has been theorized that the New Covenant is the Law of Christ as spoken during his Sermon on the Mount.[25]

Spiritual significance of ‘covenant’ for us

 1. Every permanent relationship of God with man is based on covenant. God never enters into permanent relationship apart from covenant. God clearly defines those whom he will acknowledge as his people when he comes in his glory (see Ps. 50: 1-5. Note the words “those who have made a covenant with me by sacrifice” in v.5). Literally, ‘those who have cut my covenant on the basis of sacrifice’. 

 2. Covenant is only valid through death.   Sacrifice was necessary because it symbolized the death of each party to the covenant. When one enters into covenant, one enters by death. As each party walked through between the pieces of the slain animal, he was effectively saying: “that is my death. That animal died as my representative. He died in my place. Now that I am in covenant, I have no more right to live”. The necessity of death to make a covenant valid is emphasized in Hebrews 9:16-17.

 It is impossible to be in covenant and remain alive. The death of the sacrificed animal is physical, but it symbolizes another form of death for the one who offers the sacrifice and passes through the pieces. The one who does this hereby renounces all right, from that moment onwards, to live for himself. As each party passes through the pieces of the sacrifice he says, in effect, “if need be, I will die for you. From now on, your interests take precedence over my own.  What I own is no longer mine but yours. I no longer live for myself, I live for you”.

 3. Covenant is not an empty ritual in God’s sight. It is a solid and sacred commitment.  God called Abraham to keep his promise when he asked him for his son.  Abraham did not falter. Only at the last moment did god intervene directly from heaven to stop him from actually slaying Isaac (Gen. 22).   But it didn’t end there.  Two thousand years later, God in his turn fulfilled his part of the covenant. To meet the need of Abraham and his descendants, God offered up his only Son.  But this time there was no last minute reprieve.  Jesus laid down his life as the full price of redemption for Abraham and all his descendants.

4. God expects covenant to be honoured, even those made on the horizontal plane.  He considers the breaking of covenant a very serious matter (see Amos 1:9 res: the breaking of the covenant of brotherhood made between Solomon and Hiram).

 Sources: 

https://www.compellingtruth.org/Adamic-covenant.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_theology

https://carm.org/dictionary-covenant

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Follower of Jesus, married to Peggy, with 5 grown up children, 6 grand children, ex-military and residing in beautiful Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, Canada. a.k.a. "Papa"

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