I wrote a bunch of posts about covenants in spring of 2016. Those posts, especially “Inheriting Covenants,” make up a Bible study that I still think about on a weekly basis. I’ve considered revisiting my covenants study several times over the past five years. During Sukkot this year–a time filled with scripture-rich messages and Bible discussions–I felt the time was right for another study.
Covenants are the framework that God uses for His relationship with human beings, which means they’re a vital part of Christianity. If we want to be in a relationship with God, then we’d better make sure we understand the terms of that relationship. God loves everyone, but He isn’t in a loving, friendship-relationship with everyone; only with those who keep covenant with Him. The better we understand Biblical covenants, the better we understand how God relates to us and to all of humanity.
As I wrote about five years ago in “Covenants 101: An Introduction to Relationship with God,” Hebraic understanding of covenants in the Old Testament forms the basis for covenants between God and man. We need to start in the Old Testament for this study because Jesus Christ’s covenanting work (and the way New Testament writers talk about that) grows out of the earlier covenants. The central covenant in the Old Testament–the one New Testament writers call “the Old Covenant”–is the one made at Sinai, but it’s not the only significant covenant in the Old Testament.
Though some describe God’s relationship with Adam and Eve as a covenant, the first time the Hebrew word bĕriyth is used is in relation to Noah (Gen. 6:18; 9:8-17). In this covenant, God establishes a promise not to flood the whole earth again. He describes this to Noah as “the covenant which I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for perpetual generations.” The sign, or token, of this covenant is a rainbow. Like other covenants, this one involved an established relationship, specific words and promises, and a sign to seal the covenant and remind both parties of its existence.
In Genesis 15, the Lord Yahweh initiates a covenant with Abraham that forms the basis of the future religious covenants with His people. The key promises for this covenant were land inheritance and heirs. The covenant also establishes a relationship, which is maintained when both parties stay faithful to their covenant agreements. In this covenant, as in all others God makes with His people, He is unfailingly faithful. He sets the terms, binds Himself to them, and then invites people into a covenant relationship with Him based on those terms.
When a Bible translation says, “the Lord made a covenant,” a more literal version of the Hebrew phrase would be “Yahweh cut a covenant.” Covenants often involved blood sacrifices to show the seriousness of the covenant agreement. We see that here in Genesis 15, with God binding Himself to the covenant by walking between the blood sacrifices. Later in Genesis 17, when Abraham learns more about his role in the covenant, he binds himself to it with the sign God gave him of male circumcision.
In many ways, the Sinai or Mosaic covenant grows from the Abrahamic covenant. The children of Israel, those promised descendants of Abraham, just recently delivered from slavery in Egypt, arrive at Mount Sinai to find God giving them a covenant. This covenant involved blood (sprinkled on the people as they bound themselves to the covenant), promises from God to the people and from the people to God, and agreement from both parties. The words of this covenant agreement are briefly covered in Exodus 19 through 24, then expounded on through the remainder of Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy.
In addition to blood and male circumcision, salt was also a sign of the Sinai covenant (Lev. 2:13; Num. 18:19). This connects the Sinai covenant with friendship (we’ll talk most about that in a moment). In addition, Israel is described as being in a marriage covenant with God because they agreed to bind themselves to Him; this analogy is also used to describe the New Covenant (Jer. 31:32; 2 Cor. 11:2).
God’s covenant with King David also plays a key role in Biblical history. Oddly, there’s no mention of a sign for this covenant in 2 Samuel 7. It is, however, described as “a covenant of salt” in 2 Chronicles 13:5. We need to go outside the Bible to get more information on this type of covenant. Salt and covenant are traditionally linked, likely because of salt’s preservative qualities and because sharing salt at meals is a sign of established friendship (“What is a ‘covenant of salt’?”). The promises of the Davidic covenant focus on God providing loving kindness, relationship, and kingship for David and his descendants.
Covenants, Messiah, and Inheritance
Another important aspect of the Abraham, Mosaic, and Davidic covenants is the promise of the Messiah. Paul tells us the Abrahamic covenant pointed directly to Jesus Christ (Gal. 3:15-18). Jesus’s words, “all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me,” reveal the Mosaic covenant points to Him as well (Deut. 18:15-16; Luke 24:44). Jesus is also a fulfillment of God’s promises that David’s descendants would be established as rulers forever (2 Sam. 7:16; Jer. 33:14-22; Acts 2:25-36). Jesus’s role in these covenants is key to understanding what covenants mean and how they change between the Old Covenants and the New Covenant.
The words translated “covenant” in the Bible come from the Hebrew bĕriyth (H1285) and the Greek diatheke (G1242). These words have slightly different meanings that echo our slightly different relationships to covenants with God before and after the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
Bĕriyth is a binding agreement between two parties. As we saw in the examples discussed above, these covenants established a relationship defined by the covenant words and sealed with signs such as blood and salt. Diatheke is a little different. It can be translated “testament” (as in, “last will and testament”) and reflects the unilateral will of one person. Despite those differences, both words are translated “covenant” and the Biblical writers clearly connect their discussions of diatheke to the relationships God describes in the Old Testament as bĕriyth.
In The Complete WordStudy Dictionary of the New Testament, Spiros Zodhiates proposes a definition of covenant that covers both the unilateral enactment of diatheke and the established relationship of bĕriyth. He writes that a covenant “is a divine order or agreement which is established without any human cooperation and springing from the choice of God Himself whose will and determination account for both its origin and its character” (entry G1242, section IV). As we look at Old and New Testament covenants, we always see God as the initiator. He makes promises that people did not ask for nor expect and which cannot be nullified by their descendants. Yet even though covenants are unilateral in some senses, they are also mutual because people can chose for themselves whether or not to keep the terms of the covenant. Covenants are initiated by God, but responding is our choice.
Jesus’s Covenant Inheritance
Covenants that God makes with people aren’t just for one individual, but most of the Old Testament covenants were limited to certain groups. The covenant made with Noah is for all living things on earth. Abraham’s and David’s covenants were made with that individual man and his descendants; no one else could join. The Sinai covenant was for all the children of Israel, their descendants, and anyone outside that group who wanted to follow Yahweh. Someone joining the covenant from the outside was rare, though prophesy pointed to a time when all nations would enter covenant with God (Is. 56:6-7).
Jesus came to this earth as a physical descendant of Abraham, an Israelite heir of the covenants with God, and a man in the lineage of David. Not only was He the promised Messiah pointed to by the covenants, but He was also born into the physical position of an heir to the covenants. As such, He inherited the covenants made with Abraham, the children of Israel, and David. The writer of Hebrews goes so far as to say that God appointed Jesus “heir of all things” (Heb. 1:2, NET). That position as heir to all the covenants put Him in a unique position for sharing those covenants with us.
Our Inheritance Through Jesus
Every human who tried to keep covenant with God failed to do so perfectly. We are fallible, and even though God is merciful and loving we deserved to inherit the curses contained in the covenanting words. The only one who perfectly kept God’s covenant was Jesus Christ, and so He’s the only one who truly deserved to inherit all the promises. Once He inherited, He died and “willed” those promises to us (Heb. 9:15-28). This washed our sins away and made it possible for all people–not just the descendants of certain individuals–to walk in covenant with God.
In the New Testament, Paul writes to Gentile believers that they were “aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” until the time of their conversion. They were not previously heirs to the covenants, “but now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (Eph. 2:12-13). In another letter, Paul extends this analogy to say, “if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to the promise” (Gal. 3:28-29). Jesus makes us part of the family and shares the inheritance with us.
If you’re in covenant with Christ, then you are counted an heir of all the covenanting promises made before. We’ll even inherit alongside those original heirs, who haven’t yet fully received the promises; they’re awaiting the resurrection when all the faithful will rise together and inherit the promises as members of God’s family (Heb. 11:8-13, 39-40).
Getting Into Covenant
How do we get into covenant with God? It seems like a serious thing, perhaps something that requires special steps. Really, though, understanding the importance of covenants doesn’t change much about our understanding for how someone enters a relationship with God. The same things needed to join yourself in relationship with God and become part of His church are what’s needed to enter this covenant with Him. At its most basic, this means we need to repent, believe in Jesus, and be baptized (Mark 1:15; Acts 2:38). Once that happens, God makes us part of His New Covenant people.
God offers salvation freely, but that salvation is also offered on His terms. He initiates the covenant and establishes its parameters, then gives us the opportunity to join that covenant. Paul’s letters reveal that all believers in Jesus become part of this covenant. In a letter to one of the churches, Paul talks about how God “made us sufficient as servants of a new covenant, not of the letter, but of the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:6). He also says that those who’ve been justified by Jesus’s sacrifice, follow Him faithfully, and love God are “heirs of God and also joint heirs with Christ” (Rom. 8:16-17; Titus 3:5-7; James 2:5). As followers of Jesus, we inherit covenant responsibilities and promises as part of joining a New Covenant with God.
To be clear, keeping covenants is not the same idea as us trying to “earn salvation” by keeping the law. Under the New Covenant, the law is written within the hearts of everyone who chooses to follow God. That’s what the phrase “not under the law” that Paul uses means—the law becomes internal, transforming our hearts so we have no desire to break it, rather than functioning as external rules. Salvation is a gift, and once we receive it we begin a process of change. Receiving grace means that we agree to live in a certain way as we walk in covenant with God. Even under grace we should still follow God’s way of life, refusing to jeopardize our inheritance for the momentary gratification of fleshy desires (Gal 5.19-21; Heb. 12:14-17).
Learning about covenants help us understand the implications of our belief in God the Father and Jesus the Messiah. It gives us a deeper understanding of the type of commitment we make to God as believers. It helps us fully appreciate and participate in the relationship that God offers us. And if you’re like me, it fills you with awe at the realization that God longs for a stable, faithful relationship with His people so much that He keeps making covenants with us over and over again, constantly inviting us closer to Him and opening up salvation to more and more people each time He makes a new covenant.
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