Biblical Covenants: The Theme, Meaning, and Theology

Central to Christianity is relationship with God, more specifically, covenantal relationship. Eternal life itself is to know God and be in relationship with him (John 10:27-28; 14:6-7; 17:3; 1 John 5:11-12). If eternal life is to know and to relate to God, what then is the process by which we accomplish that? What is the basis of man’s relationship with God? Since the creation of the world, God has related to humanity through specific requirements and promises,[1] this is the main idea of the covenant. God’s covenant with mankind lies at the heart of man’s salvation and relationship. Therefore, covenant is a central and prominent theme in the Bible.[2] The Prince of Preachers, Charles Spurgeon said, “The doctrine of the divine covenant lies at the root of all true theology.” [3] The covenantal relationship between God and man should therefore be the base of biblical doctrine, as well as biblical ethics and how we live our lives as Christians.[4]

At this point, it should hopefully begin to be clear that covenants are important, but what exactly is a covenant? Perhaps a helpful definition comes from Wayne Grudem: “A covenant is an unchangeable, divinely imposed legal agreement between God and man that stipulates the conditions of their relationship.” [5] A covenant, therefore, is much more than legal agreement. The relationship between the two parties is key. Both parties of the covenant are bound together through the covenant relationship. The covenants then that God gives in the Bible should be viewed in the context of relationship—they are covenant relationships. In fact, the reality of the relationship itself stands or falls on whether the mutual obligations and commitments to the covenant agreement are kept or not.[6] The modal of a covenant or agreement is the main way in which the Bible depicts the relationship between God and his people.[7]

The two main words for “covenant” used in the Bible are the Hebrew word בְּרִית (berith), and the Greek word διαθήκη (diathēkē).[8] The Hebrew word berith can mean an agreement or contract [9] but is also defined as an obligation. [10] The word refers to ancient covenants or treaties, and is the primary word used in the Old Testament to describe relationships between people (marriages, alliances, etc.), God and individuals, or God and nations.[11] Excluding family ties, the berith was the primary way of establishing relationships in the ancient Near East. The berith could be made between parties of equal status or in suzerain-vassal agreements (similar to the kind of covenants established by God).[12] It is also probable that the “berith sayings” of the Old Testament are modeled after vassal texts, defining Israel’s relation to God as a vassal relationship. An example is the exhortation to “love God with all the heart, soul, and might,” which seems to have its origin in vassal loyalty oaths. The theology of the berith in the Old Testament is also based on the idea of God’s royal sovereignty. God’s covenant promise to Abraham is based on the act of a royal gift given to the loyal vassal. As well, God’s obligation to bestow kindness, faithfulness, protection, and care precedes the covenantal obligation of his people.[13] God was all of these things for his people because he was in covenant with them.

While the word berith is not used, what seems to be the first covenant in the Bible can be seen in Genesis 2, where God establishes what some theologians have historically called a “covenant of works.”[14] Some have questioned whether it is appropriate to call this a covenant since the word “covenant” is not used in this passage. However, all the essential parts of a covenant are present – a definition of the parties involved, a legally binding set of provisions that designates the obligations of the relationship, the promise of blessings for obedience, and the condition for obtaining the blessings.[15] Hosea 6:7 also suggests a covenant, “But like Adam they transgressed the covenant” (ESV). It can be said that the commandment that God gave Adam and Eve was actually a covenant, especially since keeping their relationship with God hinged on them keeping the commandment.[16] It is clear then that the passage in Hosea viewed Adam as being in a covenant relationship with God in the Garden of Eden.[17] While much more can be said about this first covenant, as well as the covenant God made with Noah (Gen. 9:8-11), space here does not permit.

While Adam and Eve failed to obey the covenant terms and sinned, God had mercy on them and did not destroy them. It is clear that God gave grace to Adam and Eve and revealed the promise of a Savior (Gen. 3:15). God’s future covenants will rest on this promise.[18] God’s covenant with Abraham truly begins God’s covenant of redemption and grace, and it is in these covenants that the main covenantal themes emerge. One of the most obvious of these themes is command and promise. Abraham was commanded to go and if he obeyed he would be blessed (Gen. 12:1-2).[19] Another important aspect is that Abraham’s obedience to the covenant was based on his faith in God, Abraham believed God and his faith was counted as righteousness (Gen. 15:6; Rom. 4:18-22).[20] It is important to see three things here, (1) that Abraham was justified by his faith in God (not works); (2) Abraham obeys God because of his covenantal relationship with him; and (3) Abraham did not perform any work to earn God’s covenantal relationship, but he was chosen by God’s grace. Lastly, there is a sense within the covenant that while there will be many blessings, the chief blessing is God himself, this is hinted at when God tells Abraham, “I am your shield, your very great reward” (Gen. 15:1 NIV).[21] This truth is also seen in Genesis 17:7, “I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring…to be God to you and to your offspring after you.”

After the book of Genesis, important developments take place with God’s covenant. The biggest change is that while the first covenants were given to the patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob) and their families, God now initiates and establishes his covenant with an entire nation (Israel). The image of the covenant is no longer only individualistic but national as God chooses Israel as “a people for his treasured possession” (Deut. 14:2 ESV). God’s covenant with the nation of Israel officially began with Moses on Mount Sinai (Ex. 19-20). As mentioned before, this covenant is done with the imagery of God as the suzerain and Israel as his vassal. Large portions of the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy are commentary and exposition of the covenant initiated by God with Israel at Sinai. Another development with the covenant is the more explicit choice between obedience and disobedience, blessing and curse. This theme can be clearly seen in Deuteronomy 11:26-32.[22]

Although the covenant with Israel required obedience to God’s laws, the theme of grace is also clear (Deut. 7:7-8; 9:5-6) as God gave his commandments to a people already claimed and redeemed through the covenant (Ex. 3:15; 19:4; 20:2). The promise of God’s covenant was also made stronger through the many types and shadows of the coming Savior that were given in the law. Unfortunately, the Israelites failed to keep the Siniatic covenant and were punished as the curse for breaking the covenant.[23] Israel’s failure of keeping the covenant is a dominant theme in the Old Testament prophets. Isaiah says that they have “transgressed the laws, violated the statues, broken the everlasting covenant” (Isa. 24:5, ESV). In Jeremiah the covenant is portrayed as “broken” (Jer. 11:10), “forsaken” (Jer. 22:9), and “transgressed” (Jer. 34:18). In other prophets the covenant is not remembered (Amos 1:9), “corrupted” (Mal 2:8) and profaned (Mal 2:10).[24] The failure of the Israelites in keeping the covenant given at Sinai showed the need for a new and better covenant which Jeremiah prophesied would come (Jer. 31:31-34; 32:38-40). In fact, the covenant given at Sinai was actually just the preparation for the coming of God himself in the person of Jesus. Jesus became the mediator of the new covenant by fulfilling all the laws and promises of the Siniatic covenant, as well as giving substance to the types and shadows (Isa. 40:1; Mal. 3:1; John 1:14; Heb. 7-10). Jesus offered himself as the true and final sacrifice for sin and after rising from the dead becoming the inheritor of all the covenant blessings.[25]

The significance of Jesus’ role as the mediator of the new covenant is explained particularly in Hebrews 7-10. In fact, the longest single citation of an Old Testament scripture is found in theses chapters (Heb. 8:8-12), which is a LXX quotation of Jeremiah 31:31-34.[26] Legally, the person who made a covenant (diathēkē) could either change or annul it if needed. According to the author of Hebrews, God established the first covenant and has had it replaced with a new one as prophesied by Jeremiah, making the old covenant obsolete.[27] The new covenantal relationship between God and his people is superior because the new involves: (1) the implanting of God’s law on his people’s hearts; (2) the knowledge of God as personal experience; and (3) the forgiveness of sins (Jer. 31:31-34; Heb. 8:10-12).[28] The new covenant is also enacted on better promises (Heb. 8:6) grounded on a better sacrifice (Heb. 9:23) offered by a better high priest in a better sanctuary (Heb. 7:26–8:6; 8:11, 9:13–14), and guarantees a better hope, that is a heavenly country with God forever (Heb. 11:16). Lastly, while no person outside of Christ can be in covenant with God, the fulfillment of the old covenant opens up the door for Gentiles to enter into the new covenant. Jews and Gentiles alike are united to Christ by faith and become the true “seed” of Abraham (Rom. 4:9-17; 11:13-24; Gal. 3:26-29).[29]

In conclusion, while much more can be said about the theology and biblical theme of the covenant, what should be clear is that the way God chose to relate to mankind is through covenants. While Israel was not able to keep the covenant given to Moses at Sinai, God did not break his promise with Abraham (Gen. 12-17). The new covenant prophesied in Jeremiah 31:31-34 was fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Jews and Gentiles alike can now become a part of God’s covenant through faith and experience all of the covenantal blessings and promises as Abraham’s true “seed,” fulfilling God’s promise to bless all families of the earth through Abraham.

[1] Grudem, Wayne A.; Allison, Gregg (2015). Systematic Theology/Historical Theology Bundle (Kindle Location 14088). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

[2] Elwell, W. A., & Beitzel, B. J. (1988). In Baker encyclopedia of the Bible (p. 530). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.

[3] Spurgeon, C. H. (1912). The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit Sermons (Vol. 58, p. 517). London: Passmore & Alabaster.

[4] Packer, J.I. (2012). An Introduction to Covenant Theology (Kindle Location 47). Fig. Kindle Edition.

 

[5] Grudem, Wayne A.; Allison, Gregg (2015). Systematic Theology/Historical Theology Bundle (Kindle Locations 14092-14093). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

[6] Packer, J.I. (2012). An Introduction to Covenant Theology (Kindle Locations 51-53). Fig. Kindle Edition.

[7] Ryken, Leland; Wilhoit, James C.; Longman III, Tremper (1998). Dictionary of Biblical Imagery (p. 176). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

[8] Hahn, S. (2012, 2013, 2014, 2015). Covenant. In J. D. Barry, D. Bomar, D. R. Brown, R. Klippenstein, D. Mangum, C. Sinclair Wolcott, … W. Widder (Eds.), The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.

[9] “בְּרִית,” HALOT, 1:157.

[10] “בְּרִית,” TLOT, 1:256.

[11] Jones, M. R. (2014). Covenant. D. Mangum, D. R. Brown, R. Klippenstein, & R. Hurst (Eds.), Lexham Theological Wordbook. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Balz, H. R., & Schneider, G. (1990–). Exegetical dictionary of the New Testament (Vol. 1, p. 299). Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans.

[14] Ryken, Leland; Wilhoit, James C.; Longman III, Tremper (1998). Dictionary of Biblical Imagery (p. 177). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

[15] Grudem, Wayne A.; Allison, Gregg (2015). Systematic Theology/Historical Theology Bundle (Kindle Locations 14110-14111). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

[16] C. F. Keil and Delitzsch F., Commentary on the Old Testament (Accordance electronic ed. 10 vols.; Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1996), n.p.

[17] Grudem, Wayne A.; Allison, Gregg (2015). Systematic Theology/Historical Theology Bundle (Kindle Locations 14110-14111). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

[18] Packer, J. I. (1993). Concise theology: a guide to historic Christian beliefs. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House.

[19] Ryken, Leland; Wilhoit, James C.; Longman III, Tremper (1998). Dictionary of Biblical Imagery (p. 177). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

[20] Packer, J. I. (1993). Concise theology: a guide to historic Christian beliefs. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House.

[21] Ryken, Leland; Wilhoit, James C.; Longman III, Tremper (1998). Dictionary of Biblical Imagery (p. 177). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

[22] Ryken, Leland; Wilhoit, James C.; Longman III, Tremper (1998). Dictionary of Biblical Imagery (p. 177). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

[23] Packer, J. I. (1993). Concise theology: a guide to historic Christian beliefs. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House.

[24] Ryken, Leland; Wilhoit, James C.; Longman III, Tremper (1998). Dictionary of Biblical Imagery (p. 177). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

[25] Packer, J. I. (1993). Concise theology: a guide to historic Christian beliefs. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House.

[26] Peter T. O’Brien (2009). The Letter to the Hebrews PNTC (p. 294). Accordance electronic ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

[27] Ibid. (pp. 302-303).

[28] Peter T. O’Brien (2009). The Letter to the Hebrews PNTC (p. 298). Accordance electronic ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

[29] Packer, J. I. (1993). Concise theology: a guide to historic Christian beliefs. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House.

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