A Look At The Covenants Of Scripture
“He who promised is faithful.” Hebrews 10:23
Water everywhere! Even the highest mountains had disappeared beneath the floodwaters of God’s judgment. Noah knew that life no longer existed anywhere except in the water and in their ark, where his family and the animal kingdom had been preserved. Now they would float safely, and wait.
Never Again By Flood
More than a year after the first raindrops had fallen, Noah and his family finally stepped onto dry land. Should they remember the ark’s location, in case God sent another flood? No! They abandoned the ark with confidence, certain they would never need it again. Why? God had made a covenant.
The word “covenant” appears more than 275 times in the Bible. Noah’s life presents the first use of the term, revealing important aspects of covenants in general. Here are some essential questions to ask each time a biblical covenant is explored:
1. Who made the covenant? In this case, God had made a covenant with Noah before the flood, and confirmed it afterwards: “I am bringing floodwaters on the earth … But I will establish My covenant with you” (Gen. 6:17-18; 9:9-17NKJV). Noah did not take part in making this covenant; he just listened to God’s unilateral declaration.
2. What was the covenant? For Noah it was God’s assurance: “Never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth” (Gen. 9:11).
3. How long would the covenant last? God Himself called this an “everlasting covenant” (Gen. 9:16). It would not be rescinded, and it did not depend on Noah’s response. When Noah displayed serious moral failure, there was no hint of a lapse in the certainty of God’s covenant. Even today, every rainbow is a sign that God’s pledge continues (Gen. 9:13).
Although some differences exist among commentators as to which scriptures are technically “covenants,”1 there are numerous occasions when God Himself clearly applies the term to His promises. We will briefly examine these occasions, and then seek to understand why this topic of covenants is important for Christians today.
A Land For A Great Nation
After Noah’s time, God’s next covenant was with Abraham. He promised to bless him, to make a great nation from his family, and to make his family a blessing to the world. The land of Canaan was to become the lasting possession of his descendants, extending from the river of Egypt to the river Euphrates. After first revealing His plans in Genesis 12, God expanded and confirmed them in chapters 15 and 17, where the word “covenant” is used. He even repeated the promise of Canaan to Isaac and Jacob, Abraham’s descendants (Ex. 2:24).
The Abrahamic covenant, as it is called, depended solely on God. For example, Genesis 15 records that God Himself, in appearance as a smoking oven and a burning torch, passed between pieces of animal carcasses which Abraham had divided. Historically, both covenant parties usually walked between the pieces to prove their commitment,2 but in this case Abraham only observed. As another example, consider the sign of circumcision, which was the way for Abraham’s descendants to show they had accepted God’s covenant. Although anyone who neglected this sign had broken the covenant, this personal failure didn’t mean the covenant itself had ended, for it was everlasting (Gen. 17:7,14). There were no conditions for its fulfillment, even if individuals might not enjoy or appreciate its blessings themselves.
Keeping The Law
The next covenant occurred 430 years later. Abraham’s family had grown into the nation of Israel. When the Lord invited the nation to keep His covenant, they promised, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do” (Ex. 19:5,8). In response, the Lord presented His law at Mount Sinai in Horeb. This covenant was comprised primarily of the Ten Commandments, written on two stone “tablets of the covenant” (Dt. 9:11). This is often called the Mosaic covenant, since it was Moses who brought the tablets, along with many detailed ordinances about behavior and worship, to the people. Under this conditional agreement, Israel would be God’s special people if they obeyed His voice (Ex. 19:5; Dt. 26:18), with specific blessings for obedience but with judgment for failures. Deuteronomy 28 provides an amazingly comprehensive description of God’s promised responses to Israel’s behavior, including their eventual dispersal into many lands if they would disobey, which, sadly, is exactly what happened.
Despite this anticipated failure, God affirmed that His promises to Abraham regarding possession of the land had not been cancelled (Dt. 30:1-10). Some scholars call this the Palestinian covenant. Israel’s confirmed title to Canaan included an aspect of spiritual renewal (Dt. 30:6) which seems to link it with the new covenant, discussed below.
A Son On The Throne
The next major covenant occurred when David indicated his desire to build a temple for God. The Lord responded with an unconditional blessing for David’s own house, declaring that the line of kingship in his family would be established by an everlasting covenant (2 Sam. 7:12-16; 23:5). The Lord Himself mentioned this Davidic covenant to Solomon when he began to reign. Solomon was promised a similar result, except that his covenant was conditional, and Solomon failed to keep it (2 Chr. 7:17-18; 1 Ki.11:11).
A New Covenant
Because of references in the New Testament, Christians may have a sense of familiarity with the phrase “the new covenant.” It is important to realize that the new covenant was first defined through Jeremiah, specifically in relation to the permanent spiritual renewal of Israel and Judah: “I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts … and their sin I will remember no more” (Jer. 31:33-34). This “everlasting covenant” announced God’s determination to “plant them” in their land (Jer. 32:40-41).
In the New Testament, Jesus indicated that His blood formed the foundation of the new covenant (Mk. 14:24; Lk. 22:20). The new covenant had promised the conversion of Israel and Judah, so the blood of a suitable sacrifice was required for that conversion. Christ was that sacrifice. This should not be confused with the fact that His sacrificial death is also the means of bringing sinners to God in the era of the Church. Various spiritual results are accomplished by the same Person and the same sacrifice, and some of those results are the same for different groups. For example, the remission of sins is a wonderful future promise to Israel, yet Christians already experience that blessing today (Heb. 10:11-22).
Old Testament references to the new covenant are exclusively for Israel and Judah, as Jeremiah 31:31 indicates. Since it is their everlasting covenant, it would be an error to believe the Church now stands to receive those Old Testament blessings. However, it is true that Christians already enjoy certain spiritual features and benefits of the new covenant, since both it and our salvation are secured by the blood of Christ.
Under the conditional Mosaic covenant, Israel defaulted. Despite many prophetic warnings and true-hearted renewals, Israel simply could not keep God’s law – just as no one can, for righteousness cannot come through the Law (Gal. 2:16,21). As promised, God, in judgment, dispersed them among many nations.
However, the Abrahamic and Palestinian covenants promised possession of the entire land, and the Davidic covenant promised a ruler to sit always on David’s throne. These conditions have never fully developed. Even the reign of Solomon, as grand as it was, did not fulfill them. Yet these are everlasting covenants, so we may expect God will still bring them to pass. Israel will yet have full possession of the land of promise (Ezek. 47:13-21) All nations will be blessed through Israel during the future kingdom age (Isa. 2:2), when Christ Himself, the root and offspring of David, will reign. Moreover, the new covenant assures that Israel will yet have a heart to know the Lord (Jer. 31:34).
Why should Christians be concerned about biblical covenants? There are several valuable lessons to gain from these discussions.
1. Israel is not the Church. As Paul stated in Romans 9:4, the Old Testament covenants (except Noah’s) are specifically connected with Israel. To insert the Church into Israel’s covenant blessings is to mar the entire fabric of biblical prophecy. An understanding of God’s explicit plans for Abraham’s descendants will make other portions of the Bible much clearer.
2. God always keeps His promises. The writings of Moses are twice called the book of the covenant (Ex. 24:7; 2 Ki. 23:2), and Moses, Solomon, Nehemiah, and Daniel all called on the covenant-keeping God (Dt. 7:9; 1 Ki. 8:23; Neh. 1:5, 9:32; Dan. 9:5). We can be certain that God our Father, and Christ our Savior, will uphold every New Testament promise, too. “The one who comes to Me I will by no means cast out … I will give you rest … If you ask anything in My name, I will do it … I will never leave you nor forsake you … I will come again.”3 Do you need rest, provision, comfort? The God who keeps His promises has spoken; come to Him.
These promises are all the more magnificent because they are given not under law but by grace. The entire point of Paul’s discussion in Galatians 3-4 is that the Mosaic Law could not annul the unconditional covenant of promise which God had previously made with Abraham. The Abrahamic precedent supports Christianity, but is not replaced by it, for the Christian also depends on faith instead of works and on promise instead of law, just as Abraham did (Gal. 3:6-10; 4:21-28).
3. Renewal is always an option. The nation of Israel repeatedly and progressively failed to uphold the Mosaic covenant as they promised. But God patiently sent numerous prophets to remind the people of God’s long history of faithfulness to them. Those who responded, with repentance and true-hearted determination to follow the Lord, were blessed. Josiah, Ezra, and Nehemiah called their generations to take a stand for renewed covenants to obey God and display practical righteousness (2 Ki. 23; Ezek. 9; Neh. 9:38-10:39).
Have we failed to walk worthy of the Christian calling? We cannot maintain that high calling in our own strength, but it is equally true that we do not have to remain fallen. “Repent, and do the first works,” is Christ’s welcome message to faltering Christians (Rev. 2:5). Whether we are weary, doubting, or careless in our walk, God’s stability encourages us. “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful” (Heb. 10:23).
1. For example, some see a covenant in God’s promise that the seed of the woman would bruise the serpent’s head (Gen. 3:15). The phrases “I will” and “you shall” are used several times in verses 14-19, although the word “covenant” is not found.
2. Many scholars believe the Hebrew word for “covenant” is from a verb meaning “to cut,” alluding to this very practice.
3. Jn. 6:37; Mt. 11:28; Jn. 14:14; Heb. 13:5; Jn 14:3.
By Stephen Campbell
With permission to publish by: Sam Hadley, Grace & Truth, 210 Chestnut St., Danville, IL., USA. Website: www.gtpress.org