In form, a covenant is an agreement between two people and involves promises on the part of each to the other. The concept of a covenant between God and His people is one of the central themes of the Bible. In the Biblical sense, a covenant implies much more than a contract or a simple agreement between two parties.
The word for "covenant" in the Old Testament also provides additional insight into the meaning of this important idea. It comes from a Hebrew root word that means "to cut." This explains the strange custom of two people passing through the cut bodies of slain animals after making an agreement (cf. Jer. 34:18). A ceremony such as this always accompanied the making of a covenant in the Old Testament. Sometimes those entering into a covenant shared a meal, such as when Laban and Jacob made their covenant (Gen. 31:54).
Abraham and his children were commanded to be circumcised as a "sign of covenant" between them and God (Gen. 17:10-11).
At Sinai, Moses sprinkled the blood of animals on the altar and upon the people who entered into covenant with God (Exo. 24:3-8).
The Old Testament contains many examples of covenants between people who related to each other as equals. For example, David and Jonathan entered into a covenant because of their love for each other -- this agreement bound each of them to certain responsibilities (1 Sam. 18:3).
The remarkable thing is that God is holy, omniscient, and omnipotent; but He consents to enter into covenant with man, who is feeble, sinful, and flawed.
In this article, we want to examine five great covenants of the Bible.
Centuries before the time of Abraham, God made a covenant with Noah, assuring Noah that He would never again destroy the world by flood (Gen. 9).
Noah lived at a time when the whole earth was filled with violence and corruption -- yet Noah did not allow the evil standards of his day to rob him of fellowship with God. He stood out as the only one who "walked with God" (Gen. 6:9), as was also true of his great-grandfather Enoch (Gen. 5:22). "Noah was a just man, perfect in his generations" (Gen. 6:9). The Lord singled out Noah from among all his contemporaries and chose him as the man to accomplish a great work.
When God saw the wickedness that prevailed in the world (Gen. 6:5), He told Noah of His intention to destroy the ancient world by a universal flood. God instructed Noah to build an ark (a large barge) in which he and his family would survive the universal deluge. Noah believed God and "according to all that God commanded him, so he did" (Gen. 6:22).
Noah is listed among the heroes of faith. "By faith Noah, being divinely warned of things not yet seen, moved with godly fear, prepared an ark for the saving of his household, by which he condemned the world and became heir of the righteousness which is according to faith" (Heb. 11:7).
With steadfast confidence in God, Noah started building the ark. During this time, Noah continued to preach God's judgment and mercy, warning the ungodly of their approaching doom. Peter reminds us of how God "did not spare the ancient world, but saved Noah, one of eight people, a preacher of righteousness, bringing in the flood on the world of the ungodly" (2 Pet. 2:5).
Noah preached for 120 years, apparently without any converts. At the end of that time, "when ... the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah ... eight souls were saved through water" (1 Pet. 3:20).
People continued in their evil ways and ignored his pleadings and warnings until the flood overtook them. When the ark was ready, Noah entered in with all kinds of animals "and the Lord shut him in" (Gen. 7:16), cut off completely from the rest of mankind.
Noah was grateful to the Lord who had delivered him from the flood. After the flood, he built an altar to God (Gen. 8:20) and made a sacrifice, which was accepted graciously, for in it "the Lord smelled a soothing aroma" (Gen. 8:21).
The Lord promised Noah and his descendants that He would never destroy the world again with a universal flood (Gen. 9:15). The Lord made an everlasting covenant with Noah and his descendants, establishing the rainbow as the sign of His promise (Gen. 9:1-17).
Another part of the covenant involved the sanctity of human life, i.e., that "whoever sheds man's blood, by man his blood shall be shed; for in the image of God He made man" (Gen. 9:6). Every time we see a rainbow today we are reminded of that agreement -- this covenant has not been done away with. As long as God still sends rainbows after a storm, capital punishment will still be a part of God's law for the human race.
In making a covenant with Abraham, God promised to bless his descendants and make them His own special people -- in return, Abraham was to remain faithful to God and to serve as a channel through which God's blessings could flow to the rest of the world (Gen. 12:1-3).
Abraham's story begins with his passage with the rest of his family from Ur of the Chaldeans in ancient southern Babylonia (Gen. 11:31). He and his family moved north along the trade routes of the ancient world and settled in the prosperous trade center of Haran, several hundred miles to the northwest.
While living in Haran, at the age of 75, Abraham received a call from God to go to a strange, unknown land that God would show him. The Lord promised Abraham that He would make him and his descendants a great nation (Gen. 12:1-3). The promise must have seemed unbelievable to Abraham because his wife Sarah was childless (Gen. 11:30-31; 17:15). Abraham obeyed God with no hint of doubt or disbelief.
Abraham took his wife and his nephew, Lot, and went toward the land that God would show him. Abraham moved south along the trade routes from Haran, through Shechem and Bethel, to the land of Canaan. Canaan was a populated area at the time, inhabited by the war-like Canaanites; so, Abraham's belief that God would ultimately give this land to him and his descendants was an act of faith.
The circumstances seemed quite difficult, but Abraham's faith in God's promises allowed him to trust in the Lord. In Genesis 15, the Lord reaffirmed His promise to Abraham. The relationship between God and Abraham should be understood as a covenant relationship -- the most common form of arrangement between individuals in the ancient world. In this case, Abraham agreed to go to the land that God would show him (an act of faith on his part), and God agreed to make Abraham a great nation (Gen. 12:1-3).
In Genesis 15 Abraham became anxious about the promise of a nation being found in his descendants because of his advanced age -- and the Lord then reaffirmed the earlier covenant. A common practice of that time among heirless families was to adopt a slave who would inherit the master's goods. Therefore, because Abraham was childless, he proposed to make a slave, Eliezer of Damascus, his heir (Gen. 15:2). But God rejected this action and challenged Abraham's faith: "'Look now toward heaven, and count the stars if you are able to number them.' And He said to him, 'So shall your descendants be'" (Gen. 15:5).
Abraham's response is the model of believing faith: "And he believed in the Lord, and He accounted it to him for righteousness" (Gen. 15:6). The rest of Genesis 15 consists of a ceremony between Abraham and God that was commonly used in the ancient world to formalize a covenant (Gen. 15:7-21). God repeated this covenant to Abraham' son, Isaac (Gen. 17:19). Stephen summarized the story in the book of Acts 7:1-8.
The Israelites moved to Egypt during the time of Joseph. A new Pharaoh came upon the scene and turned the Israelites into common slaves. The people cried out to the God of their forefathers. "So God heard their groaning, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob" (Exo. 2:24). After a series of ten plagues upon the land of Egypt, God brought the Israelites out "of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand" (Exo. 32:11).
Three months after leaving the land of Egypt, the children of Israel camped at the base of Mount Sinai (Exo. 19:1). God promised to make a covenant with the Israelites (Exo. 19:3-6). Before they even knew the conditions of the contract, the people agreed to abide by whatever God said (Exo. 19:8).
This covenant was between God and the people of Israel -- you and I are not a party in this contract (and never have been). The Ten Commandments are the foundation of the covenant, but they are not the entirety of it.
After giving the first ten commands, the people asked the Lord to speak no more (Exo. 20:18-20). Moses then drew near to the presence of God to hear the rest of the covenant (Exo. 20:21). After receiving the Law, Moses spoke the words of the covenant to all of the people, and the people agreed to obey (Exo. 24:4).
Moses then wrote the conditions of the covenant down, offered sacrifices to God, and then sprinkled both the book and the people with blood to seal the covenant (Exo. 24:8). This covenant between God and the people of Israel was temporary -- God promised a day when He would make a new covenant, not only with Israel but also with all mankind. "Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah -- not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, though I was a husband to them, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people" (Jer. 31:31-34).
Another covenant was between God and King David, in which David and his descendants were established as the royal heirs to the throne of the nation of Israel (2 Sam. 7:12-13).
This covenant agreement reached its fulfillment when Jesus, a descendant of the line of David, was born in Bethlehem. The gospel of Matthew starts off by showing Christ was "the Son of David" (Matt. 1:1), and thus He had the right to rule over God's people. Peter preached that Jesus Christ was a fulfillment of God's promise to David (Acts 2:29-36).
The New Testament makes a clear distinction between the covenants of the Mosaic Law and the covenant of Promise. The apostle Paul spoke of these "two covenants," one originating "from Mount Sinai," the other from "the Jerusalem above" (Gal. 4:24-26). Paul also argued that the covenant established at Mount Sinai was a "ministry of death" and "condemnation" (2 Cor. 3:7, 9).
The death of Christ ushered in the new covenant under which we are justified by God's grace and mercy -- it is now possible to have the true forgiveness of sins. Jesus Himself is the Mediator of this better covenant between God and man (Heb. 9:15). Jesus' sacrificial death served as the oath, or pledge, which God made to us to seal this new covenant.
The "new covenant" is the new agreement God has made with mankind, based on the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The concept of a new covenant originated with the promise of Jeremiah that God would accomplish for His people what the old covenant had failed to do (Jer. 31:31-34; Heb. 11:7-13). Under this new covenant, God would write His Law on human hearts.
When Jesus ate the Passover meal at the Last Supper with His disciples, He spoke of the cup and said, "this is My blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins" (Matt. 26:28). Luke's account refers to this cup as symbolizing "the new covenant in My blood, which is shed for you" (Luke 22:20).
When Paul recited the account he had received concerning the Last Supper, he quoted these words of Jesus about the cup as "the new covenant in My blood" (1 Cor. 11:25).
The Epistle to the Hebrews gives the new covenant more attention than any other book in the New Testament. It quotes the entire passage from Jeremiah 31:31-34 (Heb. 8:8-12). Jesus is referred to by the writer of Hebrews as "the Mediator of the new covenant" (Heb. 9:15; 12:24). The new covenant, a "better covenant ... established on better promises" (Heb. 8:6), rests directly on the sacrificial work of Christ.
The new covenant accomplished what the old could not, i.e., the removal of sin and cleansing of the conscience (Heb. 10:2, 22). The work of Jesus Christ on the cross thus makes the old covenant "obsolete" (Heb. 8:13) and fulfills the promise of the prophet Jeremiah.
Unlike the Mosaic covenant, the new covenant of Jesus Christ is intended for all mankind -- regardless of race. In the Great Commission Jesus sent His apostles into the entire world so they could tell the story of the cross (Luke 24:46-47; Matt. 28:18-20). The gospel call extends to every man and woman today!