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Bridgeway Bible Dictionary

Covenant

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A covenant was an agreement between two parties that laid down conditions and guaranteed benefits, depending upon a person’s keeping or breaking the covenant. It was sealed by some form of witness (Genesis 21:22-32; Genesis 31:44-54; 1 Samuel 18:3-4; Malachi 2:14).

Covenants between God and the people he created, however, differed from purely human covenants. They were not agreements between equals, because God was always the one who gave, and people were always the ones who received. No human being could negotiate an agreement with God or make demands upon him. God’s promises originated in his sovereign grace alone, and those who received those promises could do nothing but accept his directions.

Through one man to the world

From the time of the earliest recorded covenant (God’s covenant with Noah, and with the human race through him), features of grace are prominent. The covenant originated in God’s grace and depended upon God’s grace for its fulfilment. The rainbow was the sign, or witness, that sealed the covenant (Genesis 6:18; Genesis 9:8-17; see GRACE).

Having promised to preserve the human race (Genesis 9:15-16), God then revealed that he had a plan of salvation for it. This plan again was based on a covenant that originated in God’s grace. In his sovereign will God chose one man, Abraham, promising him a multitude of descendants who would become a nation, receive Canaan as their homeland, and be God’s channel of blessing to the world (Genesis 12:1-3; Genesis 15:18-21; Genesis 17:2-8; Acts 3:25).

God confirmed his promise to Abraham by a covenant ceremony. The ancient custom was for the two parties to kill an animal, cut it in halves, then pass between the two halves, calling down the fate of the slaughtered animals upon themselves should they break the covenant (Genesis 15:9-11; Jeremiah 34:18). But in Abraham’s case, only God (symbolized by a smoking fire-pot and a flaming torch) passed between the halves of the animal. He alone made the covenant and guaranteed its fulfilment (Genesis 15:17).

Abraham, however, had a responsibility to respond to God’s grace, and his response would determine whether he would enjoy the covenant benefits. A truly spiritual relationship could exist only where people responded to God in faith and obedience. The rite of circumcision, which God gave as the sign and seal of the covenant, gave Abraham and his descendants the opportunity to demonstrate such faith and obedience. Those who responded to God’s grace by being circumcised kept the covenant; those who did not were cut off from it. The covenant depended upon God, but only those who were obedient to God experienced the communion with God that was the covenant’s central blessing (Genesis 17:9-14; see CIRCUMCISION; OBEDIENCE.)

Developed through Israel

Once the promised nation existed and was on the way to its promised homeland, God renewed the covenant made earlier with Abraham, this time applying it to the whole nation. Since Moses was the mediator through whom God worked in dealing with the people, the covenant is sometimes called the Mosaic covenant. It is also called the Sinaitic covenant, after Mt Sinai, where the ceremony took place.

God, in his sovereign grace, had saved the people of Israel from bondage in Egypt and taken them into a close relationship with himself. Grace was again the basis of God’s covenant dealings (Exodus 2:24; Exodus 3:16; Exodus 4:22; Exodus 6:6-8; Exodus 15:13; Exodus 19:4-6; Exodus 20:2). As in the covenant with Abraham, so in the covenant with his descendants, the central blessing was communion with God; for he was their God and they were his people (Genesis 17:7; Exodus 6:7; Leviticus 26:12). Again, the people would enjoy this blessing only as they were holy in life and obedient to God (Exodus 19:5-6). The people understood this and agreed to be obedient to all God’s commands. They were in no position to argue with God; they could do nothing but surrender completely to his will (Exodus 24:7-8; see also LAW).

The two parties to the covenant were then bound together in a blood ritual. Half the blood was thrown against the altar (representing God) and half sprinkled on the people (Exodus 24:3-8).

But this blood ritual was more than just a dramatic way of swearing loyalty to the covenant. The Passover had shown the people of Israel that blood symbolized life laid down to release those under condemnation of death (Exodus 12:13). Blood was linked with release from the penalty of sin; therefore, the blood ritual at Sinai was an indication to Israel that it began its formal existence as God’s covenant people in a condition of ceremonial purity (Hebrews 9:19-22; see BLOOD).

All this ceremonial procedure emphasized once more that the covenant with Israel, following the covenant with Abraham, was based on divine grace, not human effort (Galatians 3:17-18). Nevertheless, the people had to keep their part of the covenant if they were to enjoy its benefits (Exodus 19:5; cf. Genesis 17:9). God had no obligation to bless his people when they disobeyed his covenant commands, though in his mercy he was patient with them (Leviticus 26:27-33; Deuteronomy 4:25-31; Deuteronomy 7:9-10; Nehemiah 9:33; Hebrews 3:16-19).

Note on the form of the covenant

The covenant between God and Israel was of a kind that people of the time understood. It was similar in form to the common Near Eastern treaty by which a sovereign overlord made a covenant with his subject peoples.

Such a treaty was not a negotiated agreement. It was an authoritative document prepared by the overlord, declaring his sovereignty over his people and laying down the order of life he required of them. The features of these ancient documents are well illustrated in the book of Deuteronomy, which was written in the form of a covenant document. (For details see DEUTERONOMY. Concerning the illustration that likens the covenant between God and Israel to the marriage covenant see LOVE, sub-heading ‘Steadfast love’.)

Towards a specific goal through David

After the promised nation had become established in the promised land, God revealed the next stage in directing his covenant purposes towards their ultimate goal. The promised offspring of Abraham through whom God would send his salvation to the world was Jesus the Messiah (Genesis 12:3; Genesis 12:7; Galatians 3:16; Galatians 3:29).

God prepared Israel to produce the Messiah by choosing from the nation one person, King David, and promising that his dynasty would be the channel through which the Messiah would come. God gave David this promise by means of a covenant that followed on from his earlier covenants, namely, those with Abraham and with the nation Israel (2 Samuel 7:12-17; 2 Samuel 23:5; Psalms 89:3-4; Psalms 89:28-37).

Jesus therefore was the true fulfilment of all God’s covenant purposes. The Abrahamic covenant led to the Sinaitic covenant, which in turn led to the Davidic covenant, which led finally to Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the world (Luke 1:32-33; Luke 1:72-73; Acts 13:17-23).

The new covenant

Former covenants, then, were but a preparation for that saving work of God through Christ which the Bible calls the new covenant. Or, to put it another way, the new covenant fully develops the features consistently displayed in the former covenants.

Like the former covenants, the new covenant originates in the sovereign grace of God (Romans 3:24; Romans 5:15-21; Ephesians 2:8-9; Titus 3:5). Through it God makes unworthy sinners his people and promises to be their God (Hebrews 8:8; Hebrews 8:10; 1 Peter 2:9-10). But if people are to enjoy that life-giving relationship with God which is the covenant’s central blessing, they must respond to God’s grace in faith and obedience (Galatians 3:14; Hebrews 5:9; 1 Peter 1:2). Also, since faith involves perseverance, they must continue in the covenant (Colossians 1:23; cf. Hebrews 8:9; see PERSEVERANCE).

Yet there are great differences between the old and new covenants. All former covenants were imperfect – not in the sense of being wrong, but in the sense of being incomplete. They belonged to the era before Christ and therefore could not in themselves bring salvation. Only the atoning death of Christ can do that (see ATONEMENT). Therefore, until Christ came, there was always the need for a new covenant, one that carried with it better promises (Hebrews 8:6-9; Hebrews 8:13; Hebrews 10:9-10).

The new covenant, in contrast to the old, is not concerned with a particular nation, nor is it concerned with any nation as a whole. Rather it is concerned with individuals, regardless of their nation. It does not demand obedience to a set of laws, but puts God’s laws in people’s hearts. It does not need priests to mediate between God and individuals, for all believers know God personally and have direct fellowship with him. There is no remembrance of sins through repetitive sacrifices, for all sins are at once removed and are gone for ever (Hebrews 8:10-12). (For further details of the contrast between the old and new covenants see HEBREWS, LETTER TO THE.)

Jesus Christ’s atoning death is the basis of the new covenant. He is the mediator through whom God makes the covenant, and he is the sacrifice whose blood seals the covenant (1 Corinthians 11:25; Hebrews 9:15; Hebrews 12:24). Through that same blood, sin is forgiven completely, so that God’s people enter the covenant not with mere ceremonial cleansing, but with actual cleansing (Matthew 26:28; cf. Hebrews 9:19-22). This is an eternal covenant, for there will never be another to follow it. Covenant grace is fully revealed, and the blessings that flow from it are eternal (Hebrews 10:16-18; Hebrews 13:20).


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Bibliography Information
Fleming, Don. Entry for 'Covenant'. Bridgeway Bible Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/bbd/c/covenant.html. 2004.

Lectionary Calendar
Monday, July 22nd, 2019
the Week of Proper 11 / Ordinary 16
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