THE COVENANTS OF SCRIPTURE
In The Beginning …
The meaning of “Genesis” is derived from that book’s first verse – “In the beginning …” As we read Genesis we see the beginning or origin of time, space, the universe, earth, and all created beings. We also see that most of the Bible’s foundational doctrines have their beginning in Genesis. We are introduced to Satan as he tempted Adam and Eve, brought sin into the world, and separated man from God. To fully understand God’s revelation to man and the reasons for His dealings with people throughout the ages, we need to know why He chose certain people, and why He instituted certain practices which became part of the structure through which man could be reconciled to his Maker. Promises were made, covenants were established, and faith in the Creator became an integral part of the salvation process.
In Scripture we read about different types of covenants. Some were between individuals, tribes or nations; others were between God and man. The first covenant that comes to most minds is that of the Ten Commandments. Commonly known as the Law, it was a conditional covenant that God made with Israel, promising blessing if they kept the Law, but punishment if they disobeyed. Conditional covenants are usually preceded by “If you …” statements. (Ex. 19:5; Dt.28:1-68)
But rather than look at conditional covenants, let’s look at some of God’s unconditional ones. Because of His holy, sovereign, and immutable character, unconditional covenants are declarations by God in which His “I will…” is followed by His determined blessings. These covenants are promises made by God which will be fulfilled because they depend on Him alone and rest on His unchangeableness. (Gen. 12:1-4; 15:4-21; Dt. 30:1-10; 2 Sam. 7:10-16; Jer. 31:31-40)
THE COVENANTS OF PROMISE
The story of Abram introduces us to one of these unconditional covenants (Gen. 12:1-4). Abram lived in Ur, a city known for its pagan idolatry, with a huge ziggurat (terraced) temple to the moon god Nannar. When God called Abram to leave Ur and go to an unknown land to establish worship to Him, he believed God and obeyed. When we consider the implications of Abram moving to an unknown place with no guarantees as to what to expect – no books or travel videos to give an inkling of what was to come – we begin to understand his faith. Abram acted in faith before Scripture was written, before the Ten Commandments were given.
He was justified by his faith, and an eternal relationship was made between him and God in an unconditional covenant. “The Lord had said to Abram, ‘Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. 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. 12:1-3 NIV).
God’s purpose from the beginning was to have fellowship with man, who was created in His own image. Unfortunately, man sinned, and there was nothing he could do to restore fellowship with his Creator. However, God had a plan that would allow mankind to be reconciled, and the promises to Abram were an important part of the progressive revelation of His plan for the salvation of Israel. This salvation would come through a promised Messiah, who would be one of Abram’s descendants, and who would ultimately bring salvation to all people and nations.
Abram obeyed God’s call, and God promised to bless him and make his descendants a great nation. Abram had no son, but he believed God who said he would, and from him a mighty nation would come. “Abram believed the Lord, and it was credited it to him as righteousness” (Gen. 15:6). God sealed this unconditional covenant by a custom of that day. When a covenant was made, an animal was cut in half, and the two people making the blood covenant walked between the halves signifying that if the pact was broken, the breaker would be slain like the animal. “The men who have violated my covenant … made before me, I will treat like the calf they cut in two and then walked between its pieces” (Jer. 34:18).
God told Abram to prepare certain animals for the upcoming ceremony (Gen. 15:9-10). The animals God chose were the same types to be used in the sacrifices made under the covenant of the Law. Abram obediently killed them and was ready to walk with God between the pieces. As he waited, birds of prey came to feast on the carcasses, perhaps a picture of Satan seeking to take away from God’s work, (Mt. 13:4,19). Abram drove them away. Then as a deep sleep came over him, God spoke and confirmed the promises made earlier, after which a smoking firepot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces of the slain animals. God alone passed between the pieces showing that the covenant was unconditional and His alone to fulfill. The covenant regarding the land was confirmed at that time also, giving the extent of the land Abram’s descendants were to possess – “from the river of Egypt to the Euphrates” (Gen. 15:17).
The Abramic covenant had three distinct categories: 1. The promise of land that Israel would possess, the Palestinian Covenant (Gen 12:1; 13:15-17); 2. The promise of descendants that would become a great nation leading to an everlasting throne (Gen. 12:2; 13:16; 17:2-6), the Davidic Covenant (2 Sam. 7:11-16; Jer. 33:20-21; 31:35-37); 3. The promise of blessings to all nations which foretold the possibility of salvation to all people, the New Covenant (Gen. 12:3; 22:18; Gal. 3:16).
This three part covenant needs to be interpreted literally and not spiritualized into types that would lead to faulty interpretation and serious error. There has been much confusion caused by applying those covenants to the Church which are specifically directed to the nation of Israel. To correctly interpret Scripture, one must always apply the teachings pertaining to the Church, as doctrines for the Church. The same rule applies to the teachings related to Israel, and likewise with those relating to the Gentile nations. They should not be interchanged.
The covenants originating with Abram, the father of Israel, were made for God’s covenant people, Israel. The only part of that covenant which extends beyond Israel, is the New Covenant, the promise of blessing to all people. Regarding Israel, Paul told the Romans, “Theirs is the adoption as sons; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the Law, the temple worship and the promises” (Rom. 9:4).
We are also told that the Gentile nations were outside the covenants: “Remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called ‘uncircumcised’ by those who call themselves ‘the circumcision’ – remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:11-12). Israel was promised land they’ll eventually possess, while the Church is promised a heavenly inheritance (Phil. 3:20).
Because of Abram’s faith, God promised that his name would be great; that through one of his descendants all families and nations on earth would be blessed; to him and to his seed would be given Palestine; that kings would proceed from him; and that this covenant would be “everlasting.” God wants to bless everyone, but more importantly, His desire is for all to be saved. Peter says that God is patient, “not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9).
THE PALESTINIAN COVENANT
Now let’s look at the first part of the Abramic covenant, the promise to give land to Abram and his descendants. “The Lord said to Abram … ‘Lift up your eyes from where you are and look north and south, east and west. All the land that you see I will give to you and your offspring for ever. I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth … Go, walk through the length and breadth of the land, for I am giving it to you” (Gen. 13:14-17).
Israel has never possessed all the land promised to Abram, not even in David’s and Solomon’s time. During the time of the kings of Israel and Judah, idolatry and evil practices caused God to send the nation into captivity, but He promised to bring them back to the land if they repented. “The Lord your God will … gather you again from all the nations where he scattered you. Even if you have been banished to the most distant land under the heavens, from there the Lord your God will gather you and bring you back … to the land that belonged to your fathers” (Dt. 30:3).
God’s punishment of unfaithful Israel was that they would be dominated by Gentile nations before being brought back into the land. This return to the land began when Israel became a nation in Palestine in 1948. However, before the total fulfillment of the Palestinian Covenant, the Church period will end with the Rapture, after which there will be seven years of Tribulation for Israel. After that, the promised Messiah will return, establish His kingdom and reign for 1000 years. This will also be the time of fulfillment of the Davidic Covenant when Christ, Abram’s descendant through the line of King David, will reign in righteousness.
THE DAVIDIC COVENANT
The promise to Abram, that a great nation would come from his descendants, was confirmed to King David who first established Israel as a world power. David, whom God called “a man after my own heart” (Acts 13:22), had a special desire to build the first temple where God could be worshiped. God appeared to Nathan, the prophet who confirmed to David the everlasting covenant regarding his descendants and his throne: “Your house and your kingdom shall endure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever” (2 Sam. 7:16). God had narrowed down the original promise made to Abram to the line of David, the one from whom the great King and Savior of the world would come.
As we have already seen, when Christ returns with His bride, to reign over the earth, Israel will recognize Him as their Messiah, and will also realize that He was the One they rejected and “pierced” (Zech. 12:10). “Look, He is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see Him, even those who pierced Him” (Rev. 1:7). He will return with great power and glory, His enemies will be put down and He will be seen as King of kings and Lord of lords (Rev. 19:11-21). “On His robe and on His thigh He has this name written: KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS” (Rev. 19:16). The fulfillment of the Davidic Covenant will take place when Christ sits on the throne in Jerusalem and begins the 1000 year reign. At that time Israel will be converted and will come into the good of the New Covenant.
THE NEW COVENANT
In Jeremiah 31:33-34 we read about the New Covenant that is eternal and that God implements for Israel: “This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after that time … 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. No longer will a man teach his neighbor … saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know Me … For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” This will be the national conversion of Israel and the fulfillment of the promise to Abram.
However, there is more to the New Covenant than that which applies to Israel. God had promised that all people would be blessed, and so the basis for the New Covenant to Israel is also the basis for the blessing to all people. God’s purpose has always been that every living person would have the opportunity to receive His blessings.
The blood sacrifices in the Old Testament could never satisfy a Holy God as the basis for the salvation of the sinner. These sacrifices were accepted by God when offered in faith and obedience, but they could never cleanse or take away sin. “Those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins, because it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. Therefore, when Christ came into the world, he said: ‘Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me; with burnt offerings and sin offerings you were not pleased.’ Then I said, ‘Here I am – it is written about me in the scroll – I have come to do your will, O God’” (Heb. 10:3-7).
The Old Testament sacrifices were types of the substance that was to come. With the one perfect sacrifice of God’s Lamb, there was no further need for animal sacrifices: “When this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, He sat down at the right hand of God. Since that time He waits for His enemies to be made His footstool, because by one sacrifice He has made perfect forever those who are being made holy. The Holy Spirit also testifies to us about this. He says: ‘This is the covenant I will make with them after that time … I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds’” (Heb. 10:12-16).
The Lord was the promised One who would establish the New Covenant that would be perfect, and by which Jews, Gentiles and people of all nations could be saved. His one blood sacrifice was the basis for the salvation for all people. They are brought into the blessings of the New Covenant because of the work of Christ: “This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 3:6).
On the night that the Lord was betrayed, He took the bread and wine – symbols of His incarnation, suffering and blood sacrifice – and when He told the disciples to drink the wine, “He took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the New Covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you’” (Lk. 22:20).
The blood sacrifice of Christ on the cross was the basis for the New Covenant and the basis for the salvation of all who by faith offered the animal sacrifices in the past. His sacrifice was the fulfillment of the Old Testament types, and it will be the basis for the salvation of Israel when Jesus comes to reign. Also, His sacrifice opened up salvation for all who have professed faith in Him since Pentecost and until the Rapture. “For this reason Christ is the mediator of a New Covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance – now that He has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant” (Heb. 9:15).
Having received salvation through belief in the Lord, our eternal blessings are sure because His finished work brought to fruition and fulfillment the original covenant with Abraham.
By Ian Taylor
With permission to publish by: Sam Hadley, Grace & Truth, 210 Chestnut St., Danville, IL., USA. Website: www.gtpress.org