1. The Old Testament covenant
a. The agreement of the terms
b. The swearing of an oath
c. The offering of a sacrifice
d. The witness
e. The feast
2. The covenants of God
a. Adam (Adamic)
b. Noah (Noahic)
c. David (Davidic)
d. Abraham/Abram (Abramic)
e. Moses (Mosaic/Sinaitic/Old Covenant)
f. The New Covenant
3. The Church in covenant
a. Unity in Christ
b. Unity in communion
The subject of ‘covenant’ is proclaimed by the dividing sections that exist within the Bible. Both the Old and New ‘Testaments’ should, perhaps, be better rendered as the Old and New ‘Covenants’ seeing as they refer to the covenant made with Moses and all Israel at Sinai (the Old) and that covenant made with individuals through Jesus (the New).
There’s been a great deal of debate in past years as to the proper rendering of the Greek word translated ‘testament’ but, whatever the arguments both for and against, it can’t be denied that, at the heart of both Judaism and Christianity, there lies a ‘covenant’ that God has made with men and women and which forms the basis of how God deals with those in a ‘covenant relationship’ with Him.
Very simply, a ‘covenant’ is an agreement though, as will be seen as we think about the complexities of what makes a ‘covenant’, this definition is too simple. It’s usually an agreement made by two individuals but which can bind tribes, families or even nations to observe some sort of obligation to others and through the subsequent generations - it may even only have an obligation laid upon just one of the two sides of the parties, the other being free from having to perform certain conditions.
But, in each and every circumstance, an agreement lies at the heart of a ‘covenant’.
The subject has gone through an extensive treatment in recent years and I personally remember a time when every book that was reputed to be anything special seemed to always deal with the issue of ‘covenant’ or ‘covenant relationships’.
Now that ‘era’ has been and gone, we need to try and see clearly what the Bible has to say about what a covenant is, what the reasons behind it are and what the implications of it are today for us as individuals.
Before we can go on to look at the type of covenant that God has made with believers through Christ’s work on the cross, and before we can think about the type of covenant that does and does not exist between fellow christian believers, we must look at, firstly, the characteristics of what a covenant comprised and then go on to think about the Old Testament covenants of God that He made both with nations and with individuals.
In this context, we shall be able to see the relevance of the ‘New’ covenant and how it mirrored and was a fulfilment of what had gone before.
1. The Old Testament covenant
It was very common practise for two people of similar social standing to come to an agreement that not only bound themselves but also their servants and households (and even their offspring) to some sort of obligation. It was such a widespread and common practise that it doesn’t appear to have been necessary to give exact details in Scripture, but by piecing together the references we have about covenants that were made, a five-point outline can be arrived at.
The type of covenant which existed throughout the OT, then, had five specific characteristics that we can see in totality in the covenant that was made between Laban and Jacob in Gen 31:25-54. Here we find Jacob fleeing with all his possessions from his father-in-law Laban (and fleeing with some of Laban’s possessions, too!) but Laban pursuing and catching him up in the hill country of Gilead.
Having been warned by God in a dream that he should do Jacob no harm, Laban decided that, at the very least, he wanted to enter in to a covenant with him to safeguard his interests.
There’s no passage like this one that contains all five points throughout the rest of the Bible (to my knowledge) and it must therefore be the passage by which we define all the other covenants that we encounter.
By taking these five points in later sections and by considering the application of them to various other covenants, we’ll see how the structure failed to changed in spite of the years that passed between them.
These five characteristics are as follows.
a. The agreement of the terms
Jacob’s agreement - Gen 31:49-50,52
Laban’s agreement - Gen 31:52
Before a covenant could ever be entered into, the terms had to be agreed by both parties. Laban agrees that the place that they’re making the agreement will be a boundary and that neither of them will pass over that mark with the intention of doing the other party harm. Jacob, on the other hand, agrees to look after all that Laban still considers to belong to him (his daughters) and is also obligated in the agreement that Laban has taken upon himself.
As we’ve already said, a covenant didn’t have to obligate both sides of the agreement (see, for instance, Gen 26:28-29 where Abimelech enters into covenant with Isaac and the obligation is entirely Isaac’s) but it does in this case.
Jacob may well have been bewildered as to the agreement he was entering in to for it would have been unlikely that he would have done harm to what he now considered to be his own (Laban’s daughters) and Jacob had been fleeing for his life from Laban and his family so he would have had little desire to return into his territory.
Laban, on the other hand, obligates himself not to come after Jacob for harm - the very thing which Jacob would have wanted dealing with to ease his mind, knowing that, very soon, he must deal with his brother Esau.
At the very least, if that meeting were to develop into war, he could be assured that he was unlikely to be attacked from the rear by Laban’s men having now made the covenant.
b. The swearing of an oath
Jacob’s oath - Gen 31:53b
?Laban’s oath - Gen 31:53a?
In ancient times, the participants would swear by a god who they considered to be greater than themselves (Heb 6:13) and usually invoke that god to curse them if they didn’t hold to their side of the agreement.
Jacob here invokes the
‘Fear of His father Isaac’
referring to the reverence that His father had for the God YHWH. The only reason why ancient people held fast to the agreements thus made was that they sincerely believed that the god that they swore by was able to bring about all that they’d laid upon themselves as a just punishment for their transgression.
When we look at the oaths that are sworn in courts of law throughout the United Kingdom, for instance - that the person giving testimony will tell ‘the whole truth and nothing but the truth’ - it’s unsurprising that so much lying takes place for God is largely consigned to the concept of an impotent Being in those swearing the oath - even if a belief in some sort of higher intelligence is believed in - and the fear of retribution is not often considered or expected.
But, with ancient peoples, the swearing of an oath was a serious business that couldn’t have been done light-heartedly for fear of reprisals from the god who was watching over their words.
The oath, then, bound the covenanters to keep the agreement that had been settled but committed the judgment of whether the agreement was being fulfilled into the hands of a being who was greater than themselves.
c. The offering of a sacrifice
Jacob’s sacrifice - Gen 31:54
Blood sealed the agreement.
There were two forms of sacrifices that could take place. Firstly, there was the ‘cut’. In the Hebrew language, when we talk about ‘making a covenant’ we’re literally saying that we’re ‘cutting a covenant’ (see the use of Strongs Hebrew number 3772 in, for instance, Gen 15:18 where it’s translated as ‘made’).
This ‘cutting’ was an integral part of the covenant, referring as it did to the procedure whereby both sides would present animals, cut them in half and lay each half opposite the other but separate. The two individuals making the covenant would then walk in between the halves, securing it. Though there were two halves, they were joined by the participants walking between them.
It served a useful purpose in reminding the participants that, if they broke covenant, they were invoking a similar fate upon themselves that had fallen upon the victim(s) of the sacrifice - see Abraham’s covenant below and Jer 34:18 where God says that
‘...the men who transgressed my covenant and did not keep the terms of the covenant which they made before me, I will make like the calf which they cut in two and passed between its parts’
Secondly, when this method wasn’t employed, and as occurs in the passage that deals with the covenant between Jacob and Laban, the ‘cut’ may just have been a sacrifice - but the implication that the breaker of the agreement would rightly be judged with a similar fate as befell the sacrificial victim was not far away from the minds of the covenanters.
d. The witness
Jacob and Laban’s witness - Gen 31:47-48,51-52
Today, courts of Law call upon witnesses to give evidence that certain events took place or that individuals said such things as they’re accused of saying. In marriage, witnesses are present to sign a declaration that marriage vows have been taken and that the joining together of man and wife has taken place.
But, unlike today’s witness, a witness in those times didn’t have to be a living person who would be able to describe accurately what the agreement was or what they’d seen take place.
It was often an inanimate object that reminded the individuals of their agreement - this was the purpose of the witness. Though there may have been a place for individuals to remind both sides of the covenant should they be in contravention of the agreement, a witness was primarily something that reminded the covenanter of the agreement every time that he saw it.
Therefore, we read in Gen 21:27-30 (NIV) that seven ewe lambs were used as the witness of the covenant made between Abraham and Abimelech (and it certainly could never be envisaged that, in today’s society, a barrister in a court of law would call the ewes to the stand to testify to the agreement!) and, in Joshua 24:27, a pile of stones served for the same purpose.
Here, between Jacob and Laban, a heap of stones and a pillar were set up as the ‘witness’ so that, should Jacob or Laban (or any of their representatives) ever be on their way to the other family to break the agreement, they would pass the stones and pillar and be immediately reminded of the agreement - and thereby warned to turn back.
The pillar may have had writing etched onto it to outline the agreement (as was the case in other places when covenants were made), it may just have had names put on or it may have been left blank - though the latter option seems unlikely as, a generation on from the covenant being cut, who would be able to remember what the pillar looked like or that one pile of stones was any different from another?!
e. The feast
Jacob and Laban’s feast - Gen 31:54
In today’s Bedouin society (and amongst other cultures of the east), if a man wants to enter into a covenant with another, he won’t eat with him until he’s agreed the terms and sealed it, for to eat with someone means that you’ve become allies with them.
The same holds true in ancient times. If there were differences to be sorted or business that needed to be transacted, food would not be taken until the issues had been settled and the matters suitably dealt with - the eating together of two parties constitutes a ‘covenant of peace’ and binds the participants to be both allies and brothers.
So, we see in Gen 24:33 that Abraham’s servant will not eat what’s set before him until he can satisfy himself that he’ll be able to obtain a wife for his master’s son.
Even in the NT, we see both positive and negative aspects of the same action in II John 10-11 and III John 5-8, while I Cor 5:11 carries with it a warning concerning eating with someone who has name of ‘brother in Christ’ and yet still lives as an enemy of the cross.
This five point covenant needs to be borne in mind as we now go on to look at the main covenants in the Biblical record that God made with man/mankind.
2. The Covenants of God
a. Adam (Adamic)
Covenant made with mankind, Adam being the representative for all
I mention this ‘covenant’ only in passing as some commentators have referred to an ‘Adamic’ covenant that, supposedly, God made with Adam, sealing it with the blood of the animals that He used to cover mankind’s nakedness before Him (Gen 3:21).
But there are numerous problems with this.
Firstly, the ‘covenant’ is more a curse or a promise. God isn’t entering in to an agreement with Adam that Adam can reasonably expect God to fulfil within his lifetime. Rather, God’s stating that even though his sin has caused Creation to rebel against his authority, there will still come a day when God will do something about it and so restore Creation into its original state.
Secondly, there’s no mention of blood being shed when the skins are used to cover Adam and Eve. Some commentators have gone to great lengths to insist that the blood shed would have been the first recorded sin offering mentioned in the Bible but there’s no application of the blood and certainly no forgiveness of sins mentioned.
The most that could be said is that the blood was the seal of the ‘covenant’ made with Adam - but it’s unlikely that we should consider the curse as a covenant of any description. The sole purpose of God’s acquisition of animal skins was for the covering of mankind’s nakedness before Him. If the blood was a seal of a covenant then the skins would not have been used.
Really, covenants only come into existence after the Fall (the time when the first man, Adam, sinned) when relationships between men and women needed a system that showed the obligation of parties to perform certain duties towards one another.
Because all men fell with Adam, the curse/agreement was binding upon all who came from Adam’s seed (that is, all his descendants - everyone)
b. Noah (Noahic)
Covenant made with mankind, Noah being the representative for all.
This is the first of the covenants that God made with a man/mankind and the agreement was totally one-sided. God made a promise to Noah and his family (and, therefore, subsequently to all mankind) and also to the entire Creation of living things, that He would never again destroy the earth by a universal flood.
The only characteristics that we can observe of the fivefold covenant that we’ve previously defined are the agreement of the terms (Gen 9:11) and the witness (Gen 9:12-13 - the rainbow).
The latter served as the traditional type of witness in that, when God looked upon the rainbow, He would remember His covenant and make sure that a universal flood wasn’t repeated.
It’s meant as a sign for mankind as well and as a point of security, that should the earth ever be threatened in the future by the possibility of a universal water catastrophe, mankind can rest assured that it will never come about.
c. David (Davidic)
Covenant made with a specific individual.
This covenant goes back to the incident of II Samuel chapter 7 (see especially v.4-17) when David had been established king over Israel and the kingdom was secure. Having contemplated the state of the ark of the covenant (the symbol of the presence of God), David decided to build a house to keep it in. But God stepped in and refused to allow one to be built, stating that, because this was in David’s heart to do such a thing, God would build him a house (a lineage - an ever-reigning son) that would never come to an end.
It was a one-sided covenant made with David with no obligation on David’s part to fulfil any sort of bargain. However, disobedience to the known will of God through the incident of Bathsheba (II Samuel chapters 11-12) caused the kingdom to be lost for a short time (II Sam 12:10-12) though it was re-established after the period of judgment.
David never lost that agreement with God, even though Solomon forfeited the right to have as his descendant the Messiah through disobedience (see the notes on ‘The Genealogy of Christ’).
d. Abraham/Abram (Abramic)
Genesis chapter 15
Covenant made with an individual (and his seed - Cp Gal 3:16-18)
Abraham here stands as a representative for all his offspring who were to be born from him but there are three points which need to be noted. Firstly, only the selected ‘line’ was to be chosen as part of the agreement when it came to the blessing promised upon the nation (that is to say, the line of descendants through Ishmael, though blessed by God, do not participate in the promise of the land of Canaan).
Secondly, only the selected ‘line’ was chosen from which the child of promise, Jesus, was to come and, thirdly, only those who share the same faith as that which Abraham had are truly sons of Abraham - not merely those born according to the flesh (that is, descended from him - Rom 4:11-12, Gen 15:6).
Covenants in which the people agreeing to the terms bind such an agreement to be observed by the subsequent generation are not uncommon. Here, the agreement was a promise with no obligation upon Abraham or his descendants that they needed to fulfil.
However, as in most covenants that God makes with individuals and nations, there needs to be a correct moral response to the promise received as we see in Numbers chapters 13 and 14 where, because the nation of Israelites didn’t possess the same faith as that of their father Abraham, they failed to go in and take possession of the land of Canaan at that time, being exiled away from the inheritance for a further 38 years of wilderness wandering.
The Abramic covenant began with God - as all covenants of grace do. It was God who declared what He was going to do for Abraham even though, in the natural, he wasn’t worthy of such an honour.
Hence, it’s only by God’s grace that we can ever receive good from His hand - works (trying to do things to gain favour before God) don’t prompt God into having to pour out His favour upon individuals or nations.
The five characteristics applied to the Abramic covenant are considered below.
Gen 15:4,7,18 shows us that the agreement was one-sided. Abraham made no agreement to do anything for God. The promise/agreement lay solely with God that He would provide:
1. A son (Isaac) - Gen 15:4
2. The Son (Jesus) - Gen 15:4, and,
3. The land of Canaan - Gen 15:7,18-21
The first concern of Abraham out of which the covenant sprang was that he had no son through which he could continue his line and so pass on all that he had in his possession and all that the Lord God had promised him. Therefore, in the immediate future, Isaac was the fulfilment of this promise (Gen 15:4, 21:2) even though Ishmael was considered to be the answer by Abraham for a time.
But the promise of God looked beyond Isaac to the One who was to come through the line of Abraham (see the notes on ‘The Genealogy of Christ’) who would continue forever and so be the recipient of a never ending promise - that is, Jesus. He who was descended from Abraham and who lives forever must necessarily be the recipient of all that Abraham was promised because death cannot separate Him from it (Gal 3:16,29, Gen 15:8).
It’s only in the person of Jesus Christ that all things promised to Abraham are brought into a perfect fulfilment and it’s only Jesus Christ who can be the One who’s the perfect fulfilment of what was promised to Abraham.
The agreement represents two contrasting covenants wrapped into one.
With regard to the natural order, Isaac is the answer to God’s agreement to give Abraham a son and the land of Canaan is the rightful possession of both him and his descendants who come after him (that is, Israel). But, to his spiritual descendants (to those who possess the same faith as that which Abraham had), Jesus is the fulfilment of the promise of a Son and God’s spiritual land beyond the grave is the right of all these spiritual descendants (Heb 11:13ff and especially 11:39-40 as the conclusion of the writer’s argument).
Luke 1:72-73 speaks of
‘...the oath which He swore to our father Abraham...’
The passage in Luke shows us that the entire covenant thus made with Abraham could be referred to as ‘the oath’. In some ways, this phrase is perplexing when we consider it as applying to the Abramic covenant for, in Genesis chapter 15, no oath is ever mentioned as being sworn by God.
But, having said that, after the original covenant had been sealed, God sealed the promise by an oath in a later incident when Abraham was commanded to offer his son as a burnt offering to God (Gen 22:16-18).
The response to Abraham’s obedience causes God to declare (Gen 22:16)
‘By myself I have sworn, says the Lord...’
where, because God has no one greater by whom He can swear, swears by Himself to assure Abraham that the promises contained within the covenant are sure and reliable.
Abraham demonstrated his faith in the promise of God as revealed to Him - he believed the word of God (Gen 15:6). His subsequent question to God in Gen 15:8 of
‘How am I to know that I shall possess it?’
wasn’t a demonstration of unbelief on Abraham’s part but a request to God that He might seal the agreement in a way that he could understand - he wanted something that reinforced the word that he’d believed that he could point to and say
‘this is an unbreakable promise of God’
God’s reply was to enter into a ‘human-type’ covenant with Abraham that he would both remember in later years if he should ever doubt and so comprehend it as the seal upon the agreement.
God ‘cuts’ the covenant just as two humans would have done in the society of Abraham’s day. That is, the two halves of a sacrificial victim were laid separate and the two sides making an agreement would pass between the pieces securing the covenant (Gen 15:9-10,17), invoking a similar fate upon themselves should they fail to meet up to their part of the agreement.
In Gen 15:17, however, it’s only recorded that YHWH passed between the two pieces, Abraham being described as an observer. The reason is in the nature of the agreement that had been made for it was only God who was promising to do anything - so only He was in a position to seal what He’d promised.
God obligated Himself by this action to fulfil all that He’d spoken, it being impossible that God should lie (note Jer 34:18 on the fate of those who failed to keep covenant).
Gen 15:12-16 is an important aspect of the covenant that was being sealed. Before this takes place, the Lord declared to Abraham what was going to fall upon his descendants. The Scripture reads that Abraham experienced
‘...a dread and great darkness...’
a manifestation of the oppression that his descendants were to be partakers of in Egypt (see Ex 10:21 where a similar spiritual darkness fell upon the land of Egypt which could be ‘felt’).
In a similar manner, the Lord was showing him a little of the darkness that his greater Offspring, Jesus, would experience on the cross when He tasted separation from God on behalf of the people He had come to save (Mtw 27:45).
The ‘witness’ was that object that reminded both sides to observe the covenant and not to neglect fulfilling their obligation.
The witness that God commanded as a reminder to Abraham and his descendants after him was the rite of circumcision (Gen 17:10-11) where the witness is not so much a reminder to God of the agreement that He’s made, as it is a witness of the covenant to the descendants of Abraham.
Circumcision was never intended to be the covenant in itself but to be the witness of the covenant that had already been sealed through the blood of the sacrifice previously described. Therefore the Scripture says that circumcision (Gen 17:11 - my italics) is
‘...a sign of the covenant between Me and you...’
rather than the covenant itself. Circumcision was the witness that Abraham carried with him always in his own flesh that reminded him of the covenant that had been made. So important was the reminder to be that the Lord didn’t command it to be done in any other place that would not be visible to its recipient at least a few times every day.
When a Jew was to urinate, he was to be immediately reminded of the covenant that existed between his father Abraham and God and, by descent, the covenant that existed between himself and God.
It’s also interesting to note that, just as the covenant was ‘cut’ (see above), so, too, the witness was a ‘cut’ - this time in the flesh of each descendant of Abraham.
This covenant came first, before the Law, and wasn’t superseded by it. Though the Jews rejoiced in the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai and tended to look toward that covenant rather than the one made with Abraham as being the one that formed them into a nation (which, indeed, it did), it didn’t do away with the promises of God to Abraham and to his descendants which had been given years previously (Gal 3:17).
No feast is recorded.
However, we can cite the occurrence in Gen 18:8 when Abraham shared with YHWH
‘...curds and milk and the calf which he had prepared...’
Meals were regular occurrences in the east which constituted ‘covenants of peace’ between the individuals involved. Though Abraham may have primarily welcomed the strangers in traditional fashion, it wasn’t long before he was to realise that the three men were no ordinary travellers that had chanced upon his encampment (Gen 18:9-15ff).
In concluding, it’s important that we remind ourselves once again that the covenant was made primarily with Abraham, but that he was the representative of all who belonged to him (slaves and sons - Gen 17:12-13) - either those that were in existence at that present time and then through subsequent generations of children for the inheritance of the land of Canaan; or his descendants after him who shared in like faith with him who were waiting to receive the inheritance of a city that would be theirs after the One was to come who’d also been part of the promise to Abraham.
e. Moses (Mosaic/Sinaitic/Old Covenant)
Exodus chapters 19 and 24
Covenant made with a nation
The covenant that came about through Moses at Mount Sinai after the children of Israel had left Egypt miraculously is looked at as God forming a people for Himself by covenanting with them. However, Ex 3:7 should be noted where God calls Israel ‘My people’ even before the covenant is made. The covenant made with Israel didn’t make them God’s people as God had already made His choice.
His choice of Israel was based upon grace (that is, God chose the people because of His will rather than because of anything that they’d done either good or bad) and not because the people were righteous in His eyes - see Deut 9:4-5, 26:16-19, 27:9-10 but especially the latter reference where we read
‘...you have [already] become the people of the Lord...You shall therefore [now] obey...keeping His commandments...’
God’s choice of Israel naturally meant that they should now serve the One who’d chosen them by obeying the Law that He had just given.
It wasn’t that Israel had kept His commandments and that now they were accounted worthy (they disobeyed repeatedly after they’d left the land of Egypt), but that God chose Israel for His own people and so from that moment on they were to live as God’s people should. The keeping of the covenant (that is, obedience to the Law) was a condition of future blessing (Ex 19:5-6).
Notice also that this covenant was made with no individual and then subsequently with relatives, slaves etc., as it was with Abraham. The covenant was with a nation and is the first of its type (Ex 19:3b,8) so that, as a nation, they had to keep the covenant.
When God’s looking to the covenant being upheld, He looks to the nation as a unity so that one transgression by one person means guilt upon all. Therefore the enforcement of the covenant must also be corporate and not individual.
Joshua 7:1,11-12 is a good example of this point. One man sinned (Achan) and ‘transgressed My covenant’ but it was the entire nation that suffered the consequences - the armies of Israel couldn’t stand against the smaller city of Ai that they came against after the defeat of Jericho. If one person sinned, the entire nation was guilty and stood condemned.
Again, the five characteristics of a covenant are considered below.
The covenant is two sided unlike that made with Abraham.
Firstly, Israel were to be obedient to God’s voice (which up to that time they hadn’t been) and also be obedient to God’s covenant (taken to mean the Law).
Now, notice that in the order that Exodus is written, the covenant hadn’t been declared to Israel when, in Ex 19:8, Israel answer
‘...all that the Lord has spoken we will do’
And, again, after the Law had been received, they answer similarly in Ex 24:3,7. Israel didn’t realise the weakness of their own flesh (that is, their lack of power to carry out what they were obligating themselves to do) and their incapacity to honour their side of the agreement.
There needs to be some clarification of the types of Law that God gave Israel at Sinai before we continue. The Hebrew translated ‘words’ in Ex 20:1 refers to categorical law (that is, ‘You shall not’ do this or that. These are absolute statements of God’s will concerning His people and can’t be lessened in their application to all men and women everywhere even today under the New Covenant - though the way that individuals are obedient to the categorical law is different now that Christ has died and risen - see below), whereas the ‘ordinances’ of Ex 21:1 (literally ‘judicial decisions’) are verdicts and judgments to be used in everyday life (they begin ‘if...’ or ‘when...’ - though not always) and refer to situations that the Israelites may find themselves in and so would need specific guidelines to know how they should resolve the situation.
God’s agreement to Israel was to make them His own possession among all the nations - that meant that they would be (Ex 19:5-6)
‘...a kingdom of priests and a holy nation’
Again, note Ex 3:7 where God mentions that Israel were already His people. This covenant, then, was made to separate Israel from the world to be a nation wholly and holy for God. In future generations, the nation was able to point back to a specific time and place where their special relationship with God had been sealed.
It ensured Israel future blessing so long as they kept to their side of the agreement that they’d made with God. It was also two sided and its maintenance depended not upon the faithfulness of God (for that cannot be broken), but upon the obedience of the nation Israel.
Neither was the covenant based upon the forgiveness of sins but upon Israel’s readiness to be obedient to the written Law (Cp Jer 31:34 which refers to the New Covenant). There was no forgiveness of sins contained within the agreement, only a reminder of it so long as the sacrificial system remained in place (Heb 10:3).
An oath is not recorded for us here but we may read Deut 8:18 where Moses, speaking about the Sinaitic covenant, says
‘...His covenant which He swore to your fathers...’
The Book of Deuteronomy contains many other passages that talk of this covenant containing a sworn oath by God even though, when we come to the institution of it in Exodus, we find no such mention of one.
Ex 24:5-8 (esp v.8)
The blood of oxen was the seal of the covenant.
Notice here that in Ex 24:5, it’s ‘burnt offerings’ and ‘peace offerings’ that are being sacrificed and not ‘sin offerings’. As has been previously noted, this covenant contained no forgiveness of sins.
The blood is firstly thrown against the altar which stands as a symbol for God (Ex 24:6). This blood therefore seals God to keep His side of the agreement.
Next, the book of the covenant was read (that is, the Law that was being given to them to obey as being their side of the agreement) which would have taken a considerable time seeing as it comprised all of Exodus chapters 20-23. Whether just Israel’s representatives stood before Moses to hear the reading or whether commissioned readers went about the camp to convey the commandments to everyone is not clear.
After it had been read, Israel declared (Ex 24:7)
‘...all that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient’
They solemnly agreed to keep their part of the agreement as a nation, not as individuals.
The blood is finally thrown over the people to seal them into a covenant relationship with God (Ex 24:8). Notice that Moses’ words
‘Behold, the blood of the covenant...’
is extremely similar to Jesus’ statement in Mtw 26:28 where the ‘New Covenant’ is being outlined before the sacrifice is made, though Moses goes on to declare that the basis of the covenant is obedience to a written Law.
The one blood thrown upon the two peoples brings them together into unity. The covenant is thereby sealed.
Ex 40:20 reads that
‘[Moses] took the testimony [lit ‘witness’] and put it into the Ark...’
This witness was the ten words (the categorical Law) that were written by God on the tablets of stone that Moses had provided for the purpose. They’d already been written down (Ex 24:7) but, after the covenant was sealed (Ex 24:12), Moses received from God the witness of the covenant on Mount Sinai.
They served as a continual reminder to Israel as a nation that they’d covenanted to be wholly and perfectly obedient to the words contained on the tablets of stone. But they were slightly different in purpose to a normal witness which stood as a reminder of the covenant whenever they were seen. The tablets of stone couldn’t have been observed at any time as the ark was to be kept covered always and no access was to be given to the place where they were stored.
Therefore, the written Law would have served as the witness that reminded Israel of the covenant made every time it was read out to them or, indeed, every time they saw the scrolls which contained them.
Notice here that there were two occasions when the ‘ten commandments’ were given to Israel on tablets of stone. The first set of tablets had God giving Moses both the stones and personally writing upon them (Ex 24:12, 31:18, Deut 9:9-10) whereas the second set of tablets were made by Moses and then God wrote upon them afterwards (Ex 34:1, Deut 10:1-4).
There’s quite a bit of significance in this even though it’s very easy to miss.
The first tablets were a command along the lines
‘This is the Law that’s on My heart. Keep it!’
Being ‘God’s stones’, they represented God’s heart. Here, at Sinai, God was revealing His heart to the Israelites and showing them what was on it - that is, commandments based upon love.
But man can’t keep the Law of God (Rom 7:7-20). When the Israelites broke God’s Law (Ex 32:7-9), they broke God’s heart and Moses demonstrated the fact by breaking the tablets of stone when he came to the camp of Israel (Ex 32:19).
Before it had even begun, man had broken covenant with God. It was the end of man trying to keep the Law in his own strength. However, the second tablets spoke of a different covenant, one which was yet to come. The second tablets, then, were a promise which proclaimed in type
‘This is the Law that will be on your heart. You will keep it’
God’s external written code couldn’t be obeyed by unregenerate man (a man in his natural state before the work of Christ is applied to it), it had to become internal and part of his very being. By having Moses make the second tablets, it was a prophetic insight into the covenant that God was going to seal in Christ at the appointed time. Jer 31:33 records God’s words concerning this covenant that
‘...I will put My Law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts...’
It’s God’s writing on tablets of men’s hearts that belongs to the New Covenant (as will be seen under section f below) so that the Law becomes a part of a believer’s nature and doesn’t remain an external written code to be observed in their own strength as it is under the Old, Mosaic Covenant.
The feast is spoken of in a passage which is often considered to be somewhat ‘weird’ (Ex 24:9-11) but, when viewed in the context of ‘covenant’, it becomes immediately intelligible.
The 74 men (Moses, Aaron, Nadab and Abihu and 70 elders) were representative for all Israel. It was a final ‘covenant of peace’ between Israel and God - they agreed to be allies and abide by the covenant that had been previously sealed.
It’s now important to pause for a few moments and reflect upon the relationship of this covenant with that of the one made with Abraham 430 years before.
The Sinaitic (‘Old’ or ‘Mosaic’) covenant made nothing perfect. On the contrary, it brought a realisation of what sin is and condemnation to everyone that transgressed one point of it. Neither was there forgiveness of sins contained in it, only a continual reminder that it hadn’t yet been finally dealt with. The more the Law was read, the more it was revealed to man that without the settlement of the sin problem, it wouldn’t be possible to draw near to God.
The Sinaitic was also made with a nation rather than with an individual or individuals - it rose or fell by the observance of the entire nation of all its requirements. Though we’ve just considered that an ‘individual’ would have been aware of his own personal sin as the Law was read out to him, the covenant was actually made with a nation rather than with individuals that formed a nation.
The Abramic covenant, on the other hand, brought no such condemnation through sin committed. It simply contained a promise for the future that God would bring about. Namely, that Jesus Christ, the Son of Abraham, would be born as heir of all the good things that God had promised and that the offspring of that one Man would inherit a land at the appointed time.
Abraham was considered righteous because of his faith (Gen 15:6), whereas Israel were concerned to make themselves righteous by their obedience to a written set of rules (Ex 19:8, 24:3,7 - works). Therefore, this Sinaitic covenant could only ever be a temporary set up until God fulfilled His promise to Abraham in the person of Jesus Christ.
f. The New Covenant
Jer 31:27-34 (Pp Heb 8:6-13), Jer 32:37-41, Ezek 11:19-20, Ezek 36:24-29
Covenant made with individuals like the Abramic, not with a nation like the Mosaic.
To say that a ‘new’ covenant was to be made between the nations of Israel and Judah and God, implied that the old one was to be treated as fulfilled and obsolete (Jer 31:31, Heb 8:13). And, further, if the old had been faultless then there would have been no need for a new, second one (Heb 8:7).
These considerations lie at the heart of the Gospel when it’s considered from the viewpoint of ‘covenant’. If the observance of the old is still in force and relevant for today, then christianity is condemned for proclaiming the new when the old has not yet passed away (though it must be pointed out that God’s promise concerning the Jews and the Jewish nation remains unaltered seeing as it’s based upon the promise made to Abraham).
This New Covenant brought about by Christ is the OT promise of God and a fulfilment of that covenant that God promised to Abraham back in Genesis chapter 15 (Luke 1:72-75), the Law being a ‘bracket’ that was brought in until the appointed time when that which was promised to Abraham would be fulfilled.
The new is made with individuals (Jer 31:34) and the nation (Jer 31:31). Or, more simply, God covenants with individuals so that they come together to form a new nation that are in covenant relationship with God (I Peter 2:9). Therefore an individual covenant lies at its heart rather than a corporate one as in the old.
The proverb that’s quoted in Jer 31:29 which runs
‘...the fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge’
is one that sprang up out of the Old, Mosaic covenant (Ex 20:5). The current nation was suffering through the previous generation’s sin whether by consequence or by judgment. But this New Covenant that was to be made wasn’t going to be with a nation but individuals. Therefore Jer 31:30 tells us that
‘...everyone shall die for his own sin...’
(notice also the proclamation of Deut 24:16 where it’s said that the sons shall not die for the sins of their father). It was to be a total change in the type of covenant that was to be made, not a re-styling of the old or a modification.
If we read Is 42:6 (in context), we see that it refers to the coming Messiah. It says concerning Him that
‘I have given You [Jesus] as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations’
This last phrase declares the covenant that God intended to make between Himself and the Gentiles. The new covenant was to be for everyone who acknowledged Jesus as the Covenant of God, the Light to all peoples, tribes and nations. This, again, was in total contrast to the Old Covenant which separated and segregated one people from the nations.
The five characteristics of covenant are considered below.
Let’s ask ourselves some questions to understand the agreement as it stands under the New Covenant. Firstly
‘What are the terms of agreement of the New Covenant?’
These are variously described as the forgiveness of sins (Jer 31:34b), a relationship with God (Jer 31:34a), that God will cause believers to be obedient (Jer 31:33a, Ezek 36:27) and that God will be God to His people (that is, there will be a new relationship brought about that’s based upon a personal relationship with Him - Jer 31:33b). Secondly
‘What has God promised to do? What has man promised to do?’
The promises of God are laid out above in answer to the previous question, but what’s man’s side of the agreement?
Very simply - nothing. God has agreed to do all that’s necessary.
Just as in Genesis chapter 15, where the covenant is entirely one-sided, so too here. God has obligated Himself even to be responsible for providing for our obedience. That doesn’t mean that we can do as we please until God makes us do what is right - No! It means that God has made provision on the cross through Christ that we might be obedient from the heart to Him.
The Old Covenant only had a reminder of sin and legislation to outline what the punishment for it was - it brought condemnation to everyone who didn’t live by every point of the Law. But the new brought mercy through forgiveness.
Jeremiah the prophet is not concerned with the method, only the reality - therefore, although the aspects of the new are outlined, we get no glimpse into how God intends to achieve His purpose.
But one thing he’s careful to point out is that the initiative is with God and, like Abraham’s covenant, man isn’t bound to do anything but to receive.
Never throughout the entire NT (and I’ve looked, believe me) does it ever talk of a covenant that we make with God. That should sit up and make us take notice when we start going along the lines of thinking what we have to contribute to the covenant that has been made.
It’s always God making covenant with man through the cross because it’s His initiative, not ours, that’s caused us to be welcomed into fellowship with Himself.
No specific oath is recorded as coming from the mouth of God in which He submits to the terms of the outlined agreement and makes covenant with individuals.
However, the Scriptures (Heb 7:18-22, 8:6, 12:24) show us the Lord swearing an oath to make Jesus a priest forever, the mediator of the New Covenant and we could, perhaps, see in this the assurance that what has been promised will come about.
Jesus is the sacrifice of the New Covenant.
Mtw 26:28 tells us that it’s the blood of Jesus that’s poured out as the seal of the covenant and Luke 22:20 tells us that the blood (as represented in the cup)
‘...is the New Covenant’
in Christ’s blood. The passage in Matthew speaks of the blood as securing the forgiveness of sins, a characteristic of the promised New Covenant in Jeremiah chapter 31 previously considered and we know that it’s only through the shedding of blood that sins can be forgiven (Heb 9:22).
Therefore, though the Old Covenant was sealed with the sacrifice of burnt and peace offerings, the New Covenant is sealed with a sin offering. We see this by comparing Jesus’ words in Mtw 26:28 with those in Lev 4:7 (the commands concerning the sin offering) where both passages talk about blood being ‘poured out’, the only sacrifice of the five commanded where this phrase is used.
This work to secure the forgiveness of sins, then (see the subject ‘Yom Kippur’), is also the means whereby the covenant is sealed because of the shedding of blood.
iv. Witness and v. Feast
Again, just to prompt us, a ‘witness’ is a reminder - something that brings to mind what has already been achieved as part of the covenant. I Cor 11:25-26 fits very neatly into this aspect of the covenant when it says that
‘In the same way [Jesus took] also the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the New Covenant in My blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me”’
It is, therefore, the wine and bread of communion that serves as our witness, our reminder, of the covenant that God has made with us. As often as believers break bread together and share wine (or whatever cordial that may have been substituted for it!), they should be reminded of the covenant that has been made with them by God and which has been sealed by the blood of Christ.
And, more than this, the bread and the wine serve as the feast of the New Covenant. The context of Jesus’ words and the proclamation of the bread and the wine being the New Covenant remind us that these were but two aspects of the entire Passover meal that was being eaten (see Appendix 3 in my Passover notes).
Similarities quite obviously abound between the original festival celebrated in Egypt which effected the release from the bondage of servitude (see the subject ‘Redemption’) and the release from all types of bondage in the death of Christ.
Therefore the participation in ‘communion’ should be more to us than a weekly ceremony that takes place within a church ‘service’ - it should be an integral part of our day to day meal times.
Yet also, I John 5:6-7 should be read which says that
‘...the Spirit is the witness, because the Spirit is the truth’
The Holy Spirit - who we should have within - also reminds us of the sacrifice that’s been made to seal the agreement on the cross - without which sacrifice we could never have received Him into our lives.
But I prefer to see in the bread and the wine both aspects of the ‘witness’ and of the ‘feast’ being fulfilled. As often as we eat the symbols of the Lord’s body and blood, we have a witness before us that reminds us of the covenant. This ‘feeding upon Jesus’ (John 6:53-58) is our continual feast throughout the Church age but is proclaimed with the symbols of the bread and wine.
In the next section, we’ll look a little more closely at the subject of communion as we attempt to discover what sort of ‘covenant’ exists between believers.
A few comparisons of the covenants now need to be considered.
Between the Sinaitic and the New Covenant
The old brought an external Law to be observed (Ex 20-23, 24:7), the new brought an internal Law that guides the individual (Jer 31:33).
The old was only for Israel (Ex 19:3b), the new was for all people (Is 42:6).
The old brought condemnation through the knowledge of what is considered to be sin (II Cor 3:7-9), the new brought eternal forgiveness (Jer 31:34).
As has been shown above, the Old (Mosaic) Covenant speaks of a written Law that we obey that’s outside ourselves. The New (Jesus’) Covenant speaks of a Law that’s internal, having been written on the inside of our being, on our hearts.
It’s referred to as ‘the Law of the Spirit’ in Rom 8:1-2 and by that we mean that God’s Holy Spirit who dwells within believers will guide them into all the Truth. It’s He who’ll direct their ways and teach them what God requires of them.
Believers under the New Covenant learn about God not just because they read the Scriptures but because, while they read them, God’s Spirit speaks through them into their lives.
Between the Abramic and New Covenant
The Son to whom the promises were passed on under the Abramic covenant, has now come in the New. The New Covenant is therefore the fulfilment of God’s promise to Abraham concerning the Son who would be the heir of all things.
Both are received by faith.
Both bring righteousness.
Both are made by grace.
Both originate with God.
Both obligated God but not man.
Both are made between individuals.
Both are one-sided agreements.
Hence, the blessing of Abraham falls on all who believe and the blessing of the Law is obsolete along with the curse (Gal 3:14).
This chart summarises the contrasting aspects of the three main covenants (Abramic, Mosaic and the New) dealt with in the notes above.
3. The Church in Covenant
Having laid a foundation to see what a covenant is, which covenant God has made with us and the terms of agreement of that covenant, we move on to consider briefly what sort of covenant exists between individuals in the Church.
There have been many congregations in recent years that have sought to work out ‘covenant relationships’ as they apply to individuals that have made a commitment to Christ through the cross. Some have been well informed though the majority that I’ve seen have been somewhat lacking in their understanding of what a Biblical covenant represents.
I’ve even been in congregations where ‘agreements’ have been drawn up so that individuals can place themselves under such terms and conditions that they may know what sort of function they are to have within the local body of believers - though why we should think that it’s ever necessary to constrict ourselves to some form of contract that can only ever bring condemnation when we fail to fulfil it, beats me. I’d rather serve in the freedom of the New Covenant rather than return to the same sort of set up that was in existence under the old.
a. Unity in Christ
Let’s note, firstly, that never in the entire NT do we see the word for covenant used in the way that we defined it earlier as applying between two believers. We never read that two believers have entered into a covenant with one another, having come to an agreement that each party is obligated to keep.
That should sound alarm bells ringing in our ears should we ever consider doing such a thing!
But, having said this, the idea of being ‘united together’ because of the New Covenant is found in the NT.
Because God has entered into covenant with us as individuals, we share the same experience and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit. We are, therefore, one ‘in Christ’ and the unity we now have is to be ‘maintained’ (Eph 4:3).
Yet, there’s a unity that’s to be sought (I Peter 3:8, Eph 4:13, I Cor 1:10, Col 2:2), a unity that comes about when each individual deepens his relationship with God and maturity in Him. We become more like Christ and therefore more like one another and more united in purpose.
If we’re united by the same experience, there can be no greater or lesser believer because our unity with Christ is the only thing that draws us together. Neither can there be a better or worse believer, a believer more worthy of our love than another or a believer who takes priority over another, for we’re all one in Christ through His covenant. Our differing ministries don’t affect our unity and shouldn’t be made to elevate one believer over and above another.
We’re to encourage one another to be more like Christ, exhort one another and, when necessary, rebuke and correct one another - but we’re not called upon to condemn, but to help each other become more like the One who’s drawn us together through Himself.
This is our obligation and it comes about because God has covenanted with us in His Son.
Therefore, though the Church isn’t obligated to covenant with each other, it should find itself in a position of unity because of the covenant that’s been made between God and the individuals that make up the Body of Christ - whether they live next-door to us, in the same village or city, whether they attend the same local church as we do or whether they live in some antipodean nation that we might never have heard of!
b. Unity in Communion
(the background provided here comes mainly from Wight)
The sharing of food in the east is a way of making a ‘covenant of peace’ between those who partake of the meal.
When Abraham’s servant was sent to get a wife for Isaac, he came to Laban’s household at the conclusion of his journey but, before he had had a chance to enter into discussions, food was brought before him (Gen 24:33) but he wouldn’t eat.
He knew that he couldn’t enter into a covenant of peace before the issue of a wife for his master’s son was settled. However, after all had been agreed (Gen 24:54) he ate and drank with them, thus securing the friendship between the two families.
The sharing of a meal in the east is considered almost ‘sacred’. We read David saying in Ps 41:9 that even the one
‘...who ate of my bread has lifted his heel against me...’
showing us that the insult of betraying such a bond of peace through a meal was not considered to be a minor transgression.
And, in John 13:26-27, Jesus offers peace to Judas by giving a morsel to him, even though Judas is willing to eat the bread that’s offered to him but chooses to ‘...lift his heel...’ against Him (John 13:18). This type of ‘covenant’ also extends to the saying
‘there is bread and salt between us’
‘we are bound together by a solemn covenant’
To eat of the bread and salt of someone is to enter into a covenant of peace with them. A ‘covenant of salt’ (II Chr 13:5) is also an expression for ‘an everlasting covenant’ (Cp II Sam 23:5), salt’s nature as a preservative perhaps being the reason that it’s here used to denote time though the exact reason for salt being mentioned in ancient times is far from certain (significantly, in Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Last Supper’ it’s Judas Iscariot who’s shown to have knocked over the salt cellar. The artist chose to symbolise his betrayal of Jesus in this way).
Similarly, communion is also (in one sense) the sharing of food. It takes on a deeper meaning than proclaiming the Lord’s death when we realise that it should be regarded as a meal. According to the culture and setting of the Bible, eating communion with another is to enter into a ‘covenant of peace’ with those that we share with.
It’s certainly not the same type of ‘covenant’ that we’ve been looking at in the previous pages, but we need to realise that by eating together we’re ‘covenanting’ together as allies, friends and brothers with some quite pertinent consequences.
For example, III John 5-8 encourages us to support brothers in the Lord by feeding them, putting them up for the night and financially supporting them because we become ‘fellow-workers’ in the truth that they’re proclaiming (no, this isn’t a plug for the reader to send the author money...). Even on a natural level, this can be seen where resources used free up the resources of another to do what they feel God is calling them to do.
On the other hand, II John 10-11 and II Cor 5:11 both indicate the severity of joining in fellowship through a meal with those who are opposed to the Gospel of Christ because we become joined/partners in their sin and in their wrong doing. In this case, our resources are supporting someone who’s actively opposed to the message of the Gospel.
Going further on than this, it seems impossible that believers that are sharing the bread and wine could ever work against each other and bring harm knowingly to the other’s interests if we’re to fully understand the ‘covenant’ that we’re entering in to through our participation.
Communion, then, is not to be taken lightly!
To participate in it is to proclaim our unity in Christ and to reaffirm a commitment to the believers that there exists ‘peace’ between us.