Anyone who has read through the Bible a number of times becomes familiar with the covenants that God established. In essence, the Old Testament is an orderly, progressive, unfolding revelation from God, of the blood covenant He entered into with man through the Lord Jesus Christ. A Blood Covenant is the means by which two persons enter into the closest, most enduring, and most sacred of pacts. Only death can terminate the pact.
Theologians and Bible students sometimes refer to “the scarlet thread running through the Bible.” By this they mean that the Bible’s theme is Jesus Christ and His sacrifice for the redemption of mankind. The blood of Christ runs throughout the entire Bible, symbolically. It is seen in the animals killed in Eden to provide garments for Adam and Eve, the ram that took Isaac’s place on the altar of Moriah, the Passover lamb, the institution of the sacrificial system, the scarlet rope of Rahab, and the thousands of years of sacrifices performed at the tabernacle and temple. The scarlet thread runs all the way up to John the Baptist’s declaration, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29) and to the foot of the cross, where Jesus finally says, “It is finished” (John 19:30).
“Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Hebrews 9:22), and that’s why the symbolism of the scarlet thread in the Bible is significant. The scarlet thread is the theme of atonement found throughout the pages of Scripture.
When God called Abraham out of his hometown and away from all things familiar, He gave Abraham some promises. A covenant is a kind of promise, a contract, a binding agreement between two parties. The fifteenth chapter of Genesis reiterates the covenant God had made with Abraham at his calling. Except this time, God graciously reassures His promise with a visual of His presence. He asks Abraham to find and kill a heifer, a ram, a goat, a dove, and a pigeon. Then, Abraham was to cut them in half (except the birds) and lay the pieces in two rows, leaving a path through the center (Genesis 15:9-10).
In ancient Near Eastern royal land grant treaties, this type of ritual was done to “seal” the promises made. Through this blood covenant, God was confirming primarily three promises He had made to Abraham: the promise of heirs, of land, and of blessings (Genesis 12:2-3). A blood covenant communicated a self-maledictory oath. The parties involved would walk the path between the slaughtered animals so to say, “May this be done to me if I do not keep my oath.” Jeremiah 34:18-19 also speaks about this type of oath-making.
However, there was an important difference in the blood oath that God made with Abraham in Genesis 15. When the evening came, God appeared in the form of a “smoking fire pot and flaming torch [that] passed between the pieces” (Genesis 15:17). But Abraham had fallen “into a deep sleep, and a thick and dreadful darkness came over him” (verse 12). Thus, God alone passed through the pieces of dead animals, and the covenant was sealed by God alone. Nothing depended on Abraham. Everything depended on God, who promised to be faithful to His covenant. “When God made his promise to Abraham, since there was no one greater for him to swear by, he swore by himself” (Hebrews 6:13-18). Abraham and his descendants could trust, count on, and believe in everything God promised.
This specific blood covenant is also known as the Abrahamic Covenant. The blood involved in this covenant, as with any blood covenant, signifies the life from which the blood comes (Leviticus 17:11).
The Mosaic Covenant was also a blood covenant in that it required blood to be sprinkled on the tabernacle, “the scroll and all the people” (Hebrews 9:19-21). “In fact, the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Hebrews 9:22).
In the Mosaic Covenant, the blood of animals served as a covering, or atonement, for the sins of the people. The animal’s life was given in place of the sinner’s life.
In the Abrahamic Covenant, God, in essence, was declaring He would give His life if His promises were broken. There could be no greater encouragement to believers, since God is eternal and can no more break an oath than He can die.
All of these things were only “copies,” or “shadows,” of the better covenant to come (Hebrews 9:23). The lives of animals could never remove sin; the life of an animal is not a sufficient substitute for a human life (Hebrews 10:4). The blood of bulls and goats was a temporary appeasement until the final, ultimate blood covenant was made by Jesus Christ Himself – the God Man (Hebrews 9:24-28). The New Covenant was in His blood (Luke 22:20).
The New Covenant (or New Testament) is the promise that God makes with humanity that He will forgive sin and restore fellowship with those whose hearts are turned toward Him. Jesus Christ is the mediator of the New Covenant, and His death on the cross is the basis of the promise (Luke 22:20). The New Covenant was predicted while the Old Covenant was still in effect—the prophets Moses, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel all allude to the New Covenant.
The Old Covenant that God had established with His people required strict obedience to the Mosaic Law. Because the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23), the Law required that Israel perform daily sacrifices in order to atone for sin. But Moses, through whom God established the Old Covenant, also anticipated the New Covenant. In one of his final addresses to the nation of Israel, Moses looks forward to a time when Israel would be given “a heart to understand” (Deuteronomy 29:4, ESV). Moses predicts that Israel would fail in keeping the Old Covenant (verses 22–28), but he then sees a time of restoration (30:1–5). At that time, Moses says, “The Lord your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live” (verse 6). The New Covenant involves a total change of heart so that God’s people are naturally pleasing to Him.
The prophet Jeremiah also predicted the New Covenant. “‘The day will come,’ says the Lord, ‘when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and Judah. . . . But this is the new covenant I will make with the people of Israel on that day,’ says the Lord. ‘I will put my law in their minds, and I will write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people’” (Jeremiah 31:31, 33). Jesus Christ came to fulfill the Law of Moses (Matthew 5:17) and to establish the New Covenant between God and His people. The Old Covenant was written in stone, but the New Covenant is written on our hearts. Entering the New Covenant is made possible only by faith in Christ, who shed His blood to take away the sins of the world (John 1:29). Luke 22:20 relates how Jesus, at the Last Supper, takes the cup and says, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (ESV).
The New Covenant is also mentioned in Ezekiel 36:26–27, “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.” Ezekiel lists several aspects of the New Covenant here: a new heart, a new spirit, the indwelling Holy Spirit, and true holiness. The Mosaic Law could provide none of these things (see Romans 3:20).
The New Covenant was originally given to Israel and includes a promise of fruitfulness, blessing, and a peaceful existence in the Promised Land. In Ezekiel 36:28–30 God says, “Then you will live in the land I gave your ancestors; you will be my people, and I will be your God. . . . I will call for the grain and make it plentiful and will not bring famine upon you. I will increase the fruit of the trees and the crops of the field, so that you will no longer suffer disgrace among the nations because of famine.” Deuteronomy 30:1–5 contains similar promises related to Israel under the New Covenant. After the resurrection of Christ, Gentiles were brought into the blessing of the New Covenant, too (Acts 10; Ephesians 2:13–14). The fulfillment of the New Covenant will be seen in two places: on earth, during the Millennial Kingdom; and in heaven, for all eternity.
We are no longer under the Law but under grace (Romans 6:14–15). The Old Covenant has served its purpose, and it has been replaced by “a better covenant” (Hebrews 7:22). “In fact the ministry Jesus has received is as superior to theirs as the covenant of which he is mediator is superior to the old one, since the new covenant is established on better promises” (Hebrews 8:6).
Under the New Covenant, we are given the opportunity to receive salvation as a free gift (Ephesians 2:8–9). Our responsibility is to exercise faith in Christ, the One who fulfilled the Law on our behalf and brought an end to the Law’s sacrifices through His own sacrificial death. Through the life-giving Holy Spirit who lives in all believers (Romans 8:9–11), we share in the inheritance of Christ and enjoy a permanent, unbroken relationship with God (Hebrews 9:15).
The shadows became realities in Christ, who fulfilled all of the Old Testament blood covenants with His own blood. Christians can be confident that the gift of eternal life that God gives through Jesus is the true promise to people of faith. As the apostle Paul explains, the covenant was established with Abraham and his “Seed”—singular. Paul interprets this as the singular person of Christ (Galatians 3:15-16). Therefore, all who are “in Christ” are spiritual heirs of the promises made to Abraham (Galatians 3:29).
To put it simply, a blood covenant is a promise made by God that He will choose a people for Himself and bless them. The covenant was originally for Abraham’s physical descendants but was later extended, spiritually, to all those who, like Abraham, believe God (Galatians 3:7; cf. Genesis 15:6). God’s promise of eternal blessing is given only on the basis of faith in the saving blood of His Son, Jesus Christ (Hebrews 9:12).