By Dr. Victor Torres
Covenants in the Scriptures are of primary importance to every believer. Learning about covenants is vital to understanding God’s eternal plan of salvation for mankind.
We find covenants throughout the entire Bible, from Genesis to Revelation. Yet their significance is not always apparent to us. Both the general concepts of covenants, and the specific details of each covenant made between God and man, are important to study.
Foundational to our study of covenants is knowing that God is a Covenant-Making and a Covenant-Keeping God. Our God makes promises. Then He makes an oath upon Himself – since there is nothing greater (Heb 6:13) – that He will fulfill His promises. God is the supremely all-powerful Being in the universe. He has all the power and authority needed to fulfill His promises to mankind.
WHY STUDY COVENANTS?
God has progressively revealed Himself and His plans for mankind over the centuries. They are recorded in the Bible. This revelation is further detailed through God’s covenants with man, also in the Bible. The covenants reveal much about how God communicates with and deals with mankind.
Students of the Bible know that one way to determine the importance of a word or subject in the Bible is to count how many times it appears. When God speaks about a subject repeatedly, it likely has high importance with God.
The subject of covenants is one of those important topics. The word covenant is used 282 times in the Old Testament and 34 times in the New Testament – a total of 316 times! It is obvious that the subject of covenants is a priority principle to God. Therefore, we need to understand this significant subject.
There is a principle in Bible study known as the “law of first mention.” The law of first mention means that the first time something is mentioned in the Bible, it is important to take notice. A doctrine or truth, when first mentioned in Scripture, is in its most basic form. More about that doctrine or truth may be revealed later in the Bible. Thus, this law of first mention should also guide how we interpret each following occurrence in Scripture of that same word or subject.
The Book of Genesis is the first book in the Bible. It begins God’s revelation of Himself to mankind. Even the word “genesis” means begin, or come into existence. It is important to notice that four of the eight covenants that God makes with mankind are found in this book of beginnings called Genesis.
Our study of God’s covenants begins in the Garden of Eden, with Adam and Eve. We will then progress through Noah, Abraham, Moses, David and conclude with the final covenant in Scripture, the New Covenant.
Let us now look at some of the great benefits of studying and gaining an understanding of the covenants:
- Our study will help to establish a sure foundation in Jesus Christ. Witnessing the faithfulness of God throughout human history will build our faith. It will teach us to “walk by faith and not by sight” each day (2Cor 5:7). We can, with confidence, expect God to continue to be faithful – for He cannot violate His own covenant (Num 23:19; Titus 1:2; Heb 6:18).
- The study of covenants will confirm that biblical history is not a series of random events or stories. It is instead the step-by-step unfolding of God’s great plan of redemption for mankind. Each of the eight covenants is linked, in purpose and plan, to the one before it and the one after it. Every successive covenant brings us a step deeper in the revelation of God’s plan of redemption; and a step closer to when Jesus (the Christ, Messiah, Savior) will return. This deeper revelation is also a revelation of God’s heart: A heart that does not seek to condemn His creation, but seeks salvation for His creation (John 3:16,17).
- Our study of covenants will reveal that the historical events of the Bible fit together in a logical sequence within the context of the covenants. There are 3,000 individuals named in the Bible. Yet, those with whom God has made covenants – men like Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David and primarily Jesus Christ – are some of the most important to study.
- This study of covenants will help us know that God has a purpose for mankind. He has chosen to reveal His purpose through a series of successive covenants. Each covenant reveals something important about God’s nature and also reveals something important about man’s nature.
God’s highest purpose, of course, is His redemptive plan to restore fallen mankind to a rightful relationship with Him. We catch a glimpse of the right relationship God intended for us in Genesis Chapters 1 and 2. Sadly, that relationship between God and mankind ended up broken (read Genesis Chapter 3).
From that moment of broken relationship, the remainder of the Bible represents an unfolding of successive covenants. These covenants are part of God’s plan of restoration and salvation for mankind. The covenants all lead and point to the final and ultimate covenant: The New Covenant of redemption ushered in by Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior (1Cor 11:25, Heb 8:6). The relationship with God the Father that was broken by man in the Garden can now be restored through Jesus and the New Covenant!
- Our study will show why Jesus Christ is the only way, truth and life (John 14:6). All people, of every nation, tribe and tongue can know and walk again with God. But there is only one way that can happen – through Jesus Christ as a result of the New Covenant. This is the final covenant in which we now live.
We will also learn that, as Christ followers, we have entered in to a covenant relationship. As part of that New Covenant, we become sons and daughters of God, and co-heirs with Jesus (Gal 4:5-7).
- The study of covenants will reveal that God desires relationship with us, not simply religious formality or ritual. As Adam walked with God in the Garden (Gen 3:8), so God desires to walk with us daily by His Spirit (Gal 5:16, 25).
- Our study will give us fresh eyes to see the 8,000+ promises of the Bible. We will look at conditional promises (require an action on our part) and some that are not conditional (a gift, favor or grace). As New Covenant believers, having faith in God’s promises can give us greater authority and power in our lives and ministries.
- The study of covenants will give new understanding of the greatness of our God and the profound truth in His Word. Our faith and trust in God will grow as we see afresh His faithfulness and unstoppable purpose being worked out through the ages. We will also see more of the purpose of God for our lives and ministries made manifest by His Holy Spirit.
Truly, our God is a covenant-making and covenant-keeping God. All of His promises to us are “yes” and “amen” in Christ (2Cor 1:20). As you study, allow your heart to rise with praise and thanksgiving; allow your faith to soar! Discover afresh the solid ground of the hope we have in Jesus, as God’s plan of salvation unfolds around us and through us.
THE CENTRAL THEME OF THE BIBLE IS REDEMPTION
WHO WROTE THE BIBLE?
As students of the Bible, it is critical for us to know the Bible’s origins. One can say that 40 writers who were inspired by the Holy Spirit of God wrote the 66 books of the Bible. These writers came from all walks of life and their writings spanned more than 1,500 years.
GOD IS THE AUTHOR OF THE BIBLE
While it is true that man wrote down the words on paper, the Author of the Bible was God! The Bible itself reveals this: “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (2Tim 3:16); “Knowing this first, that no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation, for prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” (2Pet 1:20,21). The Bible testifies and clearly states that God authored the Bible.
As pastors and leaders in the Church, everything we say and do should be in agreement with the Bible, the Word of God (Gal 1:6-9; 2Tim 2:15). In the Bible are the words of life, and all that we need to know for a godly life in Christ Jesus. In addition, all that we say and do should be for God’s glory alone (John 7:18; 1Thess 2:4-6).
THE THEME OF THE BIBLE
As with most books that we read or study, we first try to discern the theme. In finding the theme of the Bible, we will also discover the miraculous nature of the Bible.
The Bible has an incredible design. God used 40 different people with different backgrounds, literary styles and educations, spread out over 1,500 years of history. And yet there is still one unifying message of the Bible: mankind’s redemption. It is a theme running clearly from Genesis to Revelation. This theme is sometimes called the “scarlet thread of redemption,” a thread of Christ’s blood shed for us.
The redemption theme is most clearly understood when we see the Bible as God’s interaction with mankind through a series of eight primary covenants.
The word covenant is a word that has no exact parallel in modern times. The words contract, promise, will, or testament are similar. But they do not have the exact same meaning or significance as the biblical term covenant.
In the Bible, there are covenants between men, tribes and nations. The Bible is actually a record of many different covenants.
However, the most important covenants for us to study are the eight covenants that God made with man and mankind. They are:
- The Edenic Covenant: a Covenant of Innocence made with Adam before he sinned.
- The Adamic Covenant: a Covenant of Conscience made with mankind through Adam after “the Fall.”
- The Noahic Covenant: a Covenant of Human Government made with man through Noah.
- The Abrahamic Covenant: a Covenant of Promise made with man through Abram (Abraham).
- The Mosaic Covenant: a Covenant of Law made with man through Moses.
- The Palestinian Covenant: a Covenant made with man through Moses, which was a reaffirmation of the Covenant of Law and of the Abrahamic Covenant promise.
- The Davidic Covenant: a Covenant made with man reaffirming that the Christ, Messiah or Savior would come through the lineage of David the king and that Christ’s Kingdom would be eternal.
- The New Covenant: a Covenant of Grace made with mankind through Jesus Christ. This is the covenant in which we live today.
As we progress through this study, we will examine each of these eight covenants in greater detail.
The importance of blood in the biblical covenant process cannot be overlooked, as we examine the covenants between God and man.
- Blood of animals was shed by God in the Garden of Eden when He provided covering (clothing) for Adam and Eve, after they disobeyed God and ate the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (Gen 3:21).
- Blood of animals was shed when animals became available to eat through the Noahic Covenant (Gen 9:3,4).
- Blood of man was shed in circumcision as a sign of the covenant through Abraham (Gen 17:10,11).
- Blood of animals was shed in the sacrificial system of the Old Testament Mosaic law (examples are found in Leviticus Chapter 14 and Numbers Chapter 19).
- Blood of the Lamb of God was shed by the perfect sacrifice, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (John 1:29, Eph 2:13, Heb 9:14).
BECAUSE LIFE IS IN THE BLOOD
What makes blood so important to God? It is because life is in the blood. To shed blood requires a life. It is only by the shedding of blood that atonement can be made for sinful man (this will become more clear as we later study the New Covenant.) The high cost of sealing a covenant in blood allows us to see how profoundly God takes His Covenants (Lev 17:11; Heb 9:22).
GOD IS NOT THE AUTHOR OF CONFUSION
As Christians – and particularly as Christian leaders – it is important for us to know that the Bible was given to us by God. The books of the Bible have been assembled to present in very clear terms:
- The origin and history of mankind.
- God’s plan for mankind, through which man would find that it is impossible to please God by his own efforts or works.
- The means by which God would fulfill His redemptive work for mankind.
How will we present the Good News, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, unless we know and understand God’s plan for the salvation of man? This plan was to be accomplished through Jesus the Messiah (Hebrew word for savior) or Jesus the Christ (Greek word for savior).
This plan of God – which He initiated – is seen from the time of the Garden of Eden and throughout the Bible! The entire Old Covenant (or Old Testament) speaks of the anticipation and yearning to see the New Covenant of Grace initiated and fulfilled through the Son of God, Jesus Christ.
GOD DOES NOT MAKE MISTAKES
God already knows the outcome of every event that will take place. This principle that God knows everything (including what each person may choose to do) is called His forethought or foreknowledge.
God initiates His plans in order to accomplish His purposes. Even though God knows what a man will do, man still has the God-given ability to make freewill choices for either good or bad (Ps 94:11).
For instance, we read in the Scriptures that “we love Him because He first loved us” (1John 4:19). God loved us first.
Another example of God initiating an action is: “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him” (John 6:44). God initiates His plans. But each person must still choose how to respond to God’s action, invitation and will.
We will look at the eight primary covenants that God initiated in succession. It may seem that when one covenant “failed,” God created another covenant to replace the previous one. Nothing could be further from the truth! God never fails and He never makes mistakes.
As we study the covenants, we will find important lessons as to why man failed to keep covenants with God. But thankfully, God did not give up on mankind!
MAN’S LIMITED UNDERSTANDING
God knows everything. It is man who is limited in his understanding. Often man – instead of believing God’s truth and acting on it – chooses to experience the truth through trials, tribulations and testing.
It would be God’s desire that we learn through a relationship of trust in Him and by obeying His Word (using godly wisdom). Unfortunately, we see throughout biblical history that mankind would often rather “do what is right in their own eyes” (Judges 21:25). Often man chooses to learn through hard experiences instead of walking with God and following His loving commands.
There are two teachers in life: wisdom and experience. Throughout history, man has chosen to learn about himself the difficult way, through the way of experience.
As we consider in our minds what we might do in a given situation, we may think noble, heroic, admirable thoughts about ourselves and our possible actions. But when actually faced with adversity or temptation, we often end up falling far short of those ideals. All of us can relate to this experience!
Fortunately, we have the ability to choose to live by God’s wisdom, understanding and knowledge as revealed in the Bible, rather than living by our own limited wisdom and knowledge.
The Word of God was given to enlighten and instruct us (2Tim 3:15-17). God’s Word was given to guide us (Ps 119:105). God’s Word never fails (Isa 40:8; 2Pet 1:19).
Everything we need to know in life (2Pet 1:2) is made available to us through God’s Word, the Bible (Deut 29:29). God has even given us a measure of faith (Rom 12:3) so that we might walk by faith in Him and not by sight (2Cor 5:7; Gal 2:20). We can trust in God’s way of doing things.
A COVENANT-KEEPING GOD
There are several ways to make agreements between two individuals.
- You can make a verbal promise to someone, which is a familiar method.
- A more formal kind of agreement would be a legally binding written contract.
These first two types of agreements are limited. They can be limited by the agreement itself or limited by the power, strength and authority of the one who must fulfill or enforce it.
- A third type of agreement is a will or testament. In the case of a will, the testator (the one who makes the will) must die before the terms of the will go into effect.
God has made agreements with mankind. God also has unlimited power, unlimited strength and unlimited authority. Thus, God can and will fulfill ALL of His agreements and promises. God always keeps His covenant
A promise is a commitment by someone to do (or not do) something. Obviously by making a promise, there is an implied intent to fulfill the promise.
Man’s promises are limited to intent because none of us can absolutely guarantee fulfillment of a promise. This is because we do not have absolute power or control over all circumstances of life.
For example, I might promise to meet you next week on Tuesday at 10 a.m. in the train station. Yet, when that morning arrives, I become violently ill and end up in the hospital and cannot fulfill my promise to meet you. Some things are out of our control because our strength and power are limited.
God also makes promises. Some students of the Bible have found 1,260 specific promises in the Bible. However, some would argue that since everything that God says will come to pass, then everything that God says is a promise! With this broader definition of a promise – that everything God says is a promise – one could say that the Bible has more than 8,000 promises!
GOD SAYS WHAT HE MEANS
God is not like a man (Num 23:19). God makes promises and He has the authority and power to keep them all. When God makes a formal promise to mankind, it is called a covenant.
When we understand that God is a covenant-making and covenant- keeping God, we begin to see the Bible as a unified, logical revelation of God’s purpose, plan and program.
Knowing God as a covenant keeper causes our faith to grow and mature. We will recognize the faithfulness of God toward His Word: “So shall My word be that goes forth from My mouth; It shall not return to Me void, but it shall accomplish what I please, and it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it” (Isa 55:11).
As we embrace and stand upon God’s Word, we will see Him perform it! Let us now look more closely at covenants.
WHAT IS A COVENANT?
We will study the Bible as a series of covenants that God has made with man. So let us look at the word covenant more closely.
The word used for covenant in Hebrew is “beriyth”; in the Greek it is “diatheekee.” “Beriyth” literally means to divide or cut a sacrifice in two. When a sacrifice was split, the two parties of the agreement (known as covenant heads) would walk between the parts of the sacrifice. The term “to cut a covenant” comes from this definition.
A covenant is a binding contract or agreement between two people or two groups. It involves promises on the part of each to the other. For example, when an employer hires a worker, a verbal or written contract is made or “cut.”
A biblical covenant implies much more than a contract or simple agreement. A contract can be between any two people, and the contract has an end date. A covenant is also between two individuals (called covenant heads), but can extend for generations.
Another difference is that a contract generally involves only one part of a person, such as a talent, possession or skill. But a covenant covers a person’s total being, and even includes family members, clan members and all of their possessions. This last point is very important to understand. A covenant extends to every person that is connected to the covenant head.
In a biblical covenant, one covenant head is generally weaker in power, authority or wealth. The weaker party would usually covenant with a stronger covenant head. For instance, Jonathan (a prince and son of King Saul) was a stronger party who formed a covenant with David (1Sam 18:1-4). At that time, David was just a common man from a small family of shepherds.
CONDITIONAL (LAW) VS. UNCONDITIONAL (GRACE)
A covenant can be either conditional or unconditional. A conditional covenant exists when both parties agree to do certain things. For example, an employer agrees to pay wages if the worker performs certain tasks over a period of time.
An unconditional covenant is when one party agrees to do certain things (a promise) whether or not the other party performs any function or work. The covenant is not dependent on the ability of the weaker party to perform a function or duty. In other words the stronger covenant head extends favor or grace to the weaker covenant head.
Grace can be defined as: Favor or kindness shown to a person without regard to the worth or merit of the one who receives it, and in spite of what that same person deserves.
Grace is a key attribute of God. “And the LORD passed before him and proclaimed, ‘The LORD, the LORD God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth’” (Ex 34:6). Grace is associated with mercy, love, compassion and patience; as the source of help; with deliverance from distress.
SCRIPTURE AS COVENANTS
As you know, the sacred Scriptures are divided into two significant divisions, the Old Testament and the New Testament. The Old Testament is composed of 39 books and the New Testament is composed of 27. All of the books of Scripture are God-inspired (2Tim 3:16).
The word “testament” means witness, testimony, or covenant. In other words, we could rightly call the two major sections of Scripture the “Old Covenant” and the “New Covenant.” As a matter of fact, the word testament is used only 2 times in the Bible (Heb 9:16, 17) while the word covenant is used 316 times in the Bible.
COVENANTS BETWEEN GOD AND MAN
As we study each of the eight major covenants in Scripture, we will gain a greater understanding of three important things:
- A historical perspective. To understand the times and settings in the development of man’s understanding of God as He progressively revealed Himself.
- Why God established each covenant. God knows all things, past, present, and future. It is important that we realize He also knows the outcomes.
- Man could not save himself. From the beginning, God knew that man needed a Savior.
ESSENTIAL COVENANT PRINCIPLE
We will study in more detail the component parts of a covenant. But first, let us examine an essential principle in a blood covenant that is key to understanding the faithfulness of God.
As we have learned, a blood covenant is the most binding of all the covenants. A blood covenant also involves an exchange that takes place between the two parties of the covenant or the covenant heads. This exchange results in “oneness,” with the two parties of the covenant becoming one entity.
The marriage covenant is an example of two becoming one. In marriage, the two parties become one, one flesh (Gen 2:24; Matt19:5,6; Eph 5:31). In addition, all that belongs to the bride – including possessions, debts and future potential – now belongs to the bridegroom. All that belongs to the bridegroom – possessions, debts and future potential – now belongs to the bride. All the resources, power and authority are now shared between the covenant heads (in this case, the bride and bridegroom).
A COVENANT EXCHANGE
In the Bible are many examples of a powerful person coming to the aid of a weaker one because of the covenant principle. This principle gives the weaker person the authority to call upon and receive the power of the stronger one because of the promises made in covenant agreement.
In Genesis Chapter 14, Lot (Abram’s nephew) chose to leave the physical protection and covering of Abram and move to the region of Sodom. Sometime later, a war broke out (v9). The region in which Lot lived was conquered and of course “to the victor goes the spoils.” The cities, including Lot’s, were plundered of all their wealth (v11).
But the conquering kings made a fatal mistake; they took Lot captive (v12). Abram discovered what had happened: “Now when Abram heard that his brother was taken captive, he armed his three hundred and eighteen trained servants who were born in his own house, and went in pursuit as far as Dan” (v14).
Because Lot was of Abram’s clan, Lot’s captivity set in motion the entire clan of Abram against their now common enemy. “So he brought back all the goods, and also brought back his brother Lot and his goods, as well as the women and the people” (v16). The weaker (Lot) received the power of the stronger (Abram) because of the covenant relationship between them.
This is a very important covenant principle for us as Christians. Because of the New Covenant we have with Christ, which was established by His own blood, we have the power and authority of Jesus released to us! This profound truth will be studied in more detail later in this teaching.
A RIGHT HEART
We have learned that an essential principle of covenants is exchange. This is an exchange of authority, power or material goods between the stronger party and the weaker party.
A successful covenant requires:
- Both parties to understand the terms or conditions of the covenant.
- A sincere desire (a right heart) of each party to fulfill their part in the covenant.
Obedience to the covenant has a better outcome than failure followed by sacrifices of repentance (1Sam 15:22). True obedience includes a genuine willingness of heart to obey (Isa 1:19), rather than a reluctance to obey or obedience due to fear.