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Lesson 17: The Theme Of Covenant

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It is often argued that there are two principal themes of Scripture: covenant and kingdom. God is building his kingdom on the earth and he is doing so through covenants with people. In this section, we will focus first on the theme of covenant.

Covenants are bonds God makes with individuals or nations in order to accomplish his redemptive plan. The word “covenant” in Hebrew means “to cut.” It pictures how blood was often used to seal or confirm a covenant. For example, in Genesis 15:7-18, God instructed Abraham to take certain animals, cut them in half, and place each half opposite the other. At this point, when establishing ancient covenants, it was customary that both parties would walk between the two halves of the dead animals, essentially saying, “Let this happen to me if I don’t fulfill my part of the covenant!” But in a surprising move, God himself walked between the dead animals (v. 17), essentially declaring, “Let this happen to me if I don’t fulfill my part of the covenant!” In other words, God promised to bear all the responsibility of fulfilling his covenant with Abraham.

With many covenants, often a sign symbolizing the covenant agreement is performed or given. For example, rings are commonly exchanged in weddings as symbols of fidelity to the marriage covenant. Likewise, regarding God’s covenant with Noah to never destroy the world through a flood, God symbolized his promise with the sign of the rainbow.

Why does God give covenants in Scripture? Again, from the beginning of Scripture, it is clear God is building a kingdom. God called Adam and Eve to subdue and rule over creation (Gen 1:28), and though the first humans failed, God is still partnering with people to get his will done on earth. Christ taught his disciples to pray this in the Lord’s Prayer, “may your kingdom come, may your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt 6:10). Through prayer and the works of believers, God is building a kingdom on the earth, which started with Adam and Eve in the garden and continues with Abraham and his seed. God is still calling people and saying to them, “Follow me! I will be your God and you will be my people, and I’ll use you to bless the earth!”

There is some debate as to the exact number of covenants: some argue for seven while others argue for eight. Not all are specifically identified as covenants in Scripture, but they bear covenantal characteristics. Some are temporary, established only for a particular season until the next covenant is in place. Many of them overlap, as God uses each covenant to fulfill the other. In this study, we will consider eight covenants.

1. The Edenic Covenant

The Edenic Covenant was in place at creation before the fall. (1) It primarily detailed humanity’s responsibility towards creation. In Genesis 1:28, God commanded Adam and Eve: “Be fruitful and multiply! Fill the earth and subdue it! Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and every creature that moves on the ground.” Also, they were allowed to eat only from seed-bearing plants and trees with fruit and seeds in it. Animals, who were under Adam and Eve’s rule, were allowed to eat only green plants for food (Gen 1:29-30). (2) In addition, Adam and Eve were commanded to not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and if they did, they would die (Gen 2:16-17). In effect, this covenant was conditional. If they obeyed God and did not eat of the tree, God would provide for them, bless them, and they would live eternally.

Though not called a covenant in Genesis, in Hosea 6:7, God said this about Israel, “But like Adam they transgressed the covenant; there they dealt faithlessly with me.” God’s instructions to Adam and Eve in Eden were indeed a covenant. Adam and Eve were called to rule. God was king, and Adam and Eve were his vice-regents. When humanity broke the Edenic Covenant, it triggered a cascade of consequences, which we will consider under the Adamic Covenant.

2. The Adamic Covenant

After humanity broke the Edenic Covenant, ushering in the fall, God implemented the Adamic Covenant. This covenant included the negative effects of the fall on creation and humanity (Gen 3:16-18) and the promise of a redeemer who would eventually restore creation (Gen 3:15). The consequences of the fall include Adam and Eve’s relationship remaining in perpetual conflict, which would ultimately lead to all types of human conflict—fights, divorce, murder, and war. Eve would struggle with pain associated with childbearing, including infertility, labor pains, the death of the mother, or the death of the child. Also, the earth would be cursed; it would not only be less fruitful, but also bear thorns and thistles. But most significantly, humanity began to die (cf. Rom 6:23). They died spiritually, as they experienced separation from God. After the fall, Adam and Eve hid from God, and humanity, since then, does the same. People hide from God, do not seek him or obey him (cf. Rom 8:7). Also, people die physically, from old age and sickness. Finally, people experience eternal death—eternal separation from God’s blessing in a place of judgment (2 Thess 1:9).

But, in the midst of the details of judgment, God gave Adam and Eve hope, in Genesis 3:15. This verse is often called the proto-evangelium—a compound Greek word that means “first gospel.” Genesis 3:15 says, “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.” This essentially promised a perpetual battle between Satan and his demons with the woman (and through her, all humanity), and ultimately Satan and his demons with Christ—the seed of the woman. Satan would strike Christ’s heel, as pictured in his death on the cross, but Christ would strike Satan’s head—referring to a fatal blow. Christ would defeat Satan and ultimately restore God’s kingdom, healing all of humanity and creation. This covenant was fulfilled in Christ’s death and resurrection, but it will be ultimately fulfilled when Christ eternally judges Satan and rules the earth as the unrivaled King (Rev 20-22).

3. The Noahic Covenant

Because of the results of sin, humanity’s depravity grew worse and worse, until God vowed to judge the world through means of a flood. Before sending the flood, God initiated a covenant with Noah; God promised that Noah’s family would survive the flood, repopulate the earth, and rule it. In Genesis 6:18, before the flood, God said this to Noah: “but I will confirm my covenant with you. You will enter the ark—you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives with you.” After destroying the earth through the flood, God promised in Genesis 9:13 to never again destroy the earth through a flood and gave Noah the symbol of the rainbow as a perpetual reminder of that promise. God also gave Noah many other instructions, including:

  • the original covenant command given to Adam, that Noah and his family would be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth (Gen 9:1).
  • that all animals would fear humanity and that man was to be a good steward over them (Gen 9:2).
  • that everything living (including plants and animals) would be food for humanity (9:3).
  • that people should never eat meat with blood in it (9:4).
  • that capital punishment would be instituted for the murder of a person, since all people were made in the image of God—whether that murder was committed by a human or an animal (9:6). This is a clear establishment of human government, which is to protect human life and also judge those who take life (cf. Rom 13:1-7).
  • that God would never again destroy the earth through a flood (Gen 9:11-13).

4. The Abrahamic Covenant

The Abrahamic Covenant, which is an everlasting covenant (Gen 17:7-8), is God’s pledge to use Abraham (and his family) to be a blessing to the nations. Genesis 12:1-3 (NIV) says:

The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”

Initially, this covenant was conditional upon Abraham’s obedience in leaving his home to go to Canaan; however, it later became unconditional. As cited in Genesis 15, God walked between the cut animals as he swore to fulfill the covenant through his power alone. In addition, as God reaffirmed this covenant throughout Abraham’s life, God added stipulations and elaborated on the details of it. The covenant includes:

  • that Abraham would become a great nation (Gen 12:2).
  • that God would make Abraham’s name great and that he would be a blessing to many (Gen 12:2).
  • that God would protect Abraham by blessing those who blessed him and cursing those who cursed him (Gen 12:3).
  • that all nations would be blessed through Abraham (Gen 12:3).
  • that God would give Abraham’s descendants the land of Canaan (Gen 12:7).
  • that Abraham’s descendants would be as numerous as the sand on the seashore and the stars in the sky (Gen 13:16, 15:5). They would eventually be enslaved by a nation for 400 years outside of Canaan. God would judge that nation, and Abraham’s descendants would leave the nation with great possessions and return to Canaan (Gen 15:5, 13-16).
  • that nations and kings would come from Abraham (Gen 17:6).
  • that God would make an everlasting covenant with Abraham’s descendants and that they would possess Canaan forever (Gen 17:7-8).
  • that Abraham’s male descendants would need to be circumcised on the eighth day after birth, as a sign of the covenant, or be cut off from the nation (Gen 17:10-14).
  • that the messiah would come through Abraham and bless the nations (Gen 22:18, Gal 3:16).

God would eventually reaffirm many of these covenant promises with Abraham’s seed—Isaac, Jacob, and the nation of Israel. God planned to bless the nations through Israel by allowing them to be prophets and priests to the world, and ultimately by establishing Christ through their lineage. Christ would die for the sins of the world.

5. The Mosaic Covenant

Unlike the Abrahamic Covenant, the Mosaic Covenant is not an everlasting covenant. It was a temporary, conditional covenant established to prepare Israel for the messiah. In Galatians 3:19 and 24, Paul said,

Why then was the law given? It was added because of transgressions, until the arrival of the descendant to whom the promise had been made. It was administered through angels by an intermediary… Thus the law had become our guardian until Christ, so that we could be declared righteous by faith.

The Mosaic law is a collection of 613 laws given to Israel in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. (1) These laws taught God’s holiness and his standards for people to practice. (2) Since nobody could ever live up to God’s standards, the law also gave people a way to atone for their sins through various sacrifices. With each sacrifice, it reminded them that they could never be holy as God was holy, and that they needed a substitute to atone for their sins. (3) Their sacrifices ultimately pointed to Christ, who would pay the penalty for the sins of every person in the world. They needed the Savior promised in the Genesis 3:15 proto-gospel. The law was not given to every nation, but only to Israel and foreigners who became part of Israel.

These 613 laws incorporate ceremonial, civil, and moral laws. Ceremonial laws include specifics about how the Israelites should live with God dwelling in the camp or city (including food, clothing, sanitation, and sacrifice requirements). Civil laws include the administration of justice for murder, stealing, idol worship, and other offenses. The moral law includes the Ten Commandments. In Deuteronomy, the laws include blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience. These are written in the form of a suzerain covenant—a covenant that a small nation would make with a great king for protection. The Old Testament historical books, from Joshua to Esther, are actually detailing Israel’s obedience and disobedience to God’s commands, including evidence of God’s faithfulness to bless and curse Israel in accordance with God’s laws.

6. The Palestinian Covenant

The Palestinian Covenant is the covenant that not all accept as a separate covenant. Many believe that it is actually part of the Mosaic covenant, as it is given at the end of the book of Deuteronomy. However, there are reasons for considering it as a separate covenant. (1) Deuteronomy 30:1 indicates that this promise will happen at a time after both the blessings and curses of the Mosaic covenant have been fulfilled in Israel. It says: “When you have experienced all these things, both the blessings and the curses I have set before you, you will reflect upon them in all the nations where the Lord your God has banished you…” (2) In addition, Moses gave promises not stipulated in any other part of the Mosaic covenant, promises which look forward to the New Covenant. Specifically, God promised to bring them back to the land of Canaan and give them circumcised hearts so that they will love God with all their heart and soul. Deuteronomy 30:5-6 says:

Then he will bring you to the land your ancestors possessed and you also will possess it; he will do better for you and multiply you more than he did your ancestors. The Lord your God will also cleanse your heart and the hearts of your descendants so that you may love him with all your mind and being and so that you may live.

While the Mosaic Covenant was temporary and fulfilled at Christ’s first coming, this promise in Deuteronomy 30:5-6 is brought to completion in the New Covenant, fully realized in Israel at Christ’s second coming. Consider the following New Covenant promises:

“‘I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries; then I will bring you to your land. I will sprinkle you with pure water and you will be clean from all your impurities. I will purify you from all your idols. I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit within you. I will remove the heart of stone from your body and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my Spirit within you; I will take the initiative and you will obey my statutes and carefully observe my regulations. Then you will live in the land I gave to your fathers; you will be my people, and I will be your God.

Ezekiel 36:24-28

“Indeed, a time is coming,” says the LORD, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and Judah. It will not be like the old covenant that I made with their ancestors when I delivered them from Egypt. For they violated that covenant, even though I was like a faithful husband to them,” says the LORD. “But I will make a new covenant with the whole nation of Israel after I plant them back in the land,” says the LORD. “I will put my law within them and write it on their hearts and minds. I will be their God and they will be my people.

Jeremiah 31:31-33

And so all Israel will be saved, as it is written: “The Deliverer will come out of Zion; he will remove ungodliness from Jacob. And this is my covenant with them, when I take away their sins.”

Romans 11:26-27

At Christ’s coming, all Israel will repent of their sins, be regathered to their land, and given a new heart to faithfully obey God’s laws. The Mosaic law provided no empowerment to fulfill God’s laws—only reparations for failure to do so.

According to Deuteronomy 30:1-7, the Palestinian Covenant says:

  • that after receiving the blessings and curses of the Mosaic covenant, Israel will return to God and obey him (Dt 30:1-2).
  • that the Lord will regather Israel from every nation on earth, bring them to Canaan, and give it to them as a possession (Dt 30:3-5).
  • that Israel will prosper and grow in number (Dt 30:6).
  • that God will give them circumcised hearts and enable them to love and obey God (Dt 30:6, 8)
  • that God will discipline their enemies (Dt 30:7).

The Palestinian Covenant is a continuation of the Abrahamic Covenant, wherein God promises to give Abraham’s descendants the land of Canaan as an everlasting possession (cf. Gen 17:7-8). This will be fulfilled in the New Covenant—at Christ’s second coming. Only when Israel is obedient to God and serving King Jesus will they dwell and prosper in the land of Palestine.

7. The Davidic Covenant

During the United Kingdom of Israel, David became Israel’s second king. David was called “a man after God’s own heart.” Though he had flaws, David lived a life of obedience to God. Because of this, God covenanted with David to give him a son who would build God a temple and have an everlasting reign. Second Samuel 7:8-16 says:

“So now, say this to my servant David: ‘This is what the Lord of hosts says: I took you from the pasture and from your work as a shepherd to make you leader of my people Israel. I was with you wherever you went, and I defeated all your enemies before you. Now I will make you as famous as the great men of the earth. I will establish a place for my people Israel and settle them there; they will live there and not be disturbed any more. Violent men will not oppress them again, as they did in the beginning and during the time when I appointed judges to lead my people Israel. Instead, I will give you relief from all your enemies. The Lord declares to you that he himself will build a dynastic house for you. When the time comes for you to die, I will raise up your descendant, one of your own sons, to succeed you, and I will establish his kingdom. He will build a house for my name, and I will make his dynasty permanent. I will become his father and he will become my son. When he sins, I will correct him with the rod of men and with wounds inflicted by human beings. But my loyal love will not be removed from him as I removed it from Saul, whom I removed from before you. Your house and your kingdom will stand before me permanently; your dynasty will be permanent.’”

This prophecy has dual fulfillments—a near and a far fulfillment. As a near fulfillment, it was partially fulfilled in David’s son, King Solomon. Solomon built God a temple and during his reign Israel lived in peace and prospered. However, when he sinned God disciplined him. The kingdom of Israel was divided into two kingdoms: the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah. God did not fully take away the kingdom from Solomon, as his sons ruled the smaller kingdom, Judah.

Nonetheless, some parts of this prophecy could never be fulfilled in Solomon. He died and therefore did not have an everlasting reign. The prophecy is fulfilled in Christ. He came from David’s lineage to be their king and to usher in his eternal rule called “the kingdom of heaven.” However, the Jews rejected him and crucified him. Now, Christ reigns at the right hand of God until he returns to judge and rule the earth (cf. Acts 2:29-36, Ez 37:22-25). He will have an eternal kingdom.

Also, Christ’s mission of “building God a house” may be interpreted as having dual fulfillments: it is fulfilled in the church, as we are the temple of God (cf. Matt 16:18, 1 Cor 3:16-17), but others believe it will be fulfilled in Christ’s building of a literal temple at his coming and millennial reign as prophesied in Ezekiel 40-42 (cf. Rev 20).

The Davidic Covenant promises:

  • that David’s name will be made great (2 Sam 7:9).
  • a land for Israel, including blessing and protection for a season (2 Sam 7:10-11).
  • to establish a kingdom for David’s son (2 Sam 7:12).
  • that David’s son will build God a house (2 Sam 7:13).
  • that God will love David’s son as a father, including disciplining him if he sinned (2 Sam 7:14-15).
  • that David’s throne will be established forever through his son (2 Sam 7:16).

Christ is the ultimate fulfillment of the Davidic king—he rules in heaven and will one day rule on earth. At his first coming, he began to build his church (Matt 16:18), which is the temple of God (1 Cor 3:16-17), and one day, at his second coming, he will build another temple which will fulfill detailed prophecies in Ezekiel 40-42, as he reigns over all nations on the earth during his millennial reign (Rev 20).

8. The New Covenant

God promised Israel another covenant because they couldn’t fulfill God’s first covenant with them. In Jeremiah 31:31-34, God prophesied about this future New Covenant:

“Indeed, a time is coming,” says the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and Judah. It will not be like the old covenant that I made with their ancestors when I delivered them from Egypt. For they violated that covenant, even though I was like a faithful husband to them,” says the Lord. “But I will make a new covenant with the whole nation of Israel after I plant them back in the land,” says the Lord. “I will put my law within them and write it on their hearts and minds. I will be their God and they will be my people. “People will no longer need to teach their neighbors and relatives to know me. For all of them, from the least important to the most important, will know me,” says the Lord. “For I will forgive their sin and will no longer call to mind the wrong they have done.”

Jeremiah 31:31-34

Ezekiel 36:26-30 also describes this future covenant with Israel:

“‘I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries; then I will bring you to your land. I will sprinkle you with pure water and you will be clean from all your impurities. I will purify you from all your idols. I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit within you. I will remove the heart of stone from your body and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my Spirit within you; I will take the initiative and you will obey my statutes and carefully observe my regulations. Then you will live in the land I gave to your fathers; you will be my people, and I will be your God. I will save you from all your uncleanness. I will call for the grain and multiply it; I will not bring a famine on you. I will multiply the fruit of the trees and the produce of the fields, so that you will never again suffer the disgrace of famine among the nations.

What are some of the dominant characteristics of the New Covenant?

  • God will gather Israel from the nations and restore them to their land (Ez 36:26).
  • God will forgive the sins of Israel (cf. Jer 31:34, Rom 11:26-27). As taught by further revelation, God will do this in a different way than the Mosaic Covenant stipulated. In the Mosaic Covenant, they had to offer sacrifices for their sins every year. But because of Christ’s complete payment for their sins, there will be no need for continual sacrifices (cf. Hebrews 9:15, 10:11).
  • God will pour out his Spirit on Israel and give them a new heart so they will obey God’s laws (Jer 31:33, Ez 36:26-27). Under the Old Covenant, God’s Spirit anointed the prophet, priest, and king for special duties, but not everybody received God’s special empowerment through the Spirit. However, in the New Covenant, every Israelite will receive ability to obey God. In Joel 2:28, God said this to Israel: “After all of this I will pour out my Spirit on all kinds of people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy. Your elderly will have revelatory dreams; your young men will see prophetic visions.”
  • God will prosper Israel (Ez 36:29-30).

In considering all these New Covenant promises to Israel in the Old Testament, one must ask, “How can the church (made up of both Jew and Gentile believers) then take part in the New Covenant, as clearly taught throughout the New Testament (cf. Lk 22:20, 1 Cor 11:25, 2 Cor 3:6)?” The following views address that question from two different positions:

1) Some believe that the church has replaced Israel, and therefore no promises remain specifically applicable to the nation. This is called “replacement theology.” The problem with this view is that many of God’s promises to Israel have no literal fulfillment, including the land promise, which is considered an everlasting covenant.

2) Others believe that God will ultimately fulfill his promises to the nation of Israel (cf. Rom 11:26-29), but the church takes part in many of the promises because of her new relationship to Christ. Since believers are in Christ (Eph 1:3), baptized into his body (1 Cor 12:13), and co-heirs with him (Rom 8:17), the church will, in some sense, take part in the promises to the nation of Israel. Nonetheless, some promises may only apply to the nation of Israel, such as being regathered from exile at Christ’s return. The New Testament teaches that the church takes part in New Covenant promises, such as the forgiveness of sins, receiving the Holy Spirit, and having God’s laws written on their hearts. However, participation in other promises will have a future fulfillment, as the church rules with Christ in the millennial kingdom (cf. 1 Cor 6:2-3, Rev 20:4-6).

Conclusion

Through his covenants, God is fulfilling his eternal plan on the earth. After Adam broke God’s Edenic Covenant, God promised to bring the one who would restore God’s rule on the earth—the messiah. In God’s redemptive plan, he covenanted with Noah, Abraham, Israel, and David. Now, he has partnered with the church—made of Jew and Gentile believers—through the New Covenant to bless the nations. When the promised king returns, Israel will return to God, in partial fulfilment of the New Covenant, resulting in blessings for the nations. In speaking about Israel’s restoration to God, Paul said:

I ask then, they did not stumble into an irrevocable fall, did they? Absolutely not! But by their transgression salvation has come to the Gentiles, to make Israel jealous. Now if their transgression means riches for the world and their defeat means riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their full restoration bring?

Romans 11:11-12

God is a God of covenant; he says, “You will be my people and I will be your God, and I will use you to build my kingdom.”

Reflection

  1. In the reading, which covenant stood out most to you and why?
  2. As mentioned, some don’t accept the Palestinian covenant as an actual Biblical covenant, insisting instead that it is part of the temporary Mosaic Covenant. What are your views on whether Scripture supports the Palestinian Covenant as an eternal biblical covenant, ultimately fulfilled in Israel at Christ’s return?
  3. In what ways does the church participate in the New Covenant, which was originally given to Israel? Has the church fully replaced Israel, receiving all of God’s promises originally given to her?
  4. What other questions or applications do you have from the reading?

Copyright © 2020 Gregory Brown

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Related Topics: Basics for Christians, Bibliology (The Written Word), Covenant

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