Covenant In The Bible (Part 1): Its Purposes
Why does the Bible talk about covenants so much? Why did it seem like such an important matter? To God and to the apostles? Should it be important to me today since most of it seems to be related to the Old Testament?
Covenant is a critical concept in the Bible yet not many have understood nor appreciated its importance to God. Understanding God’s covenants helps us understand how God wants to relate with us and how we ought to relate with Him. It also helps us understand how we should relate with one another in the Church. God has special plans for His Church. But for that to come to pass, we need to relate with God and His people in God’s way.
In this 6-part Covenant series we will seek to unfold key concepts about God’s covenant between Him and man. In this article we will examine its significance and briefly look at the different categories of covenants.
THE SIGNIFICANCE OF GOD’S COVENANT
What it means to covenant with God
Covenant describes formal types of relationship. How various parties relate to one another.
Covenant describes formal types of relationship. How various parties relate to one another. In the secular world, the term covenant is used to describe a legal agreement between parties. But what does it mean in the Bible?
The New Testament Greek words used brings out some of the nuance. The Greek Suntithemi means to put together, to make arrangements. It refers to covenants between man, but never with God. While the Greek Diatheke is used for legal testaments, wills. It is a formal expression of one person's will. It does not refer to a negotiated agreement reached between 2 parties. Like a person’s last will and testament. You cannot change it. It is often applied to a contract made by a superior to another. Such as between God and men. A contract that cannot change. It is either accepted or rejected. Sometimes it is one party only as God obligates Himself, not requiring man's response.
A Bible covenant refers to a relationship contract where God sets out the terms and conditions on how the relationship will function. God offers it to man. We either accept or reject it.
Hence, a Bible covenant refers to a relationship contract where God sets out the terms and conditions on how the relationship will function. God offers it to man. We either accept or reject it. For example, if we want to become a citizen or permanent resident in Australia, we must agree to its laws, its terms. We cannot negotiate with the government the terms for us to become a citizen or permanent resident, saying “I like to negotiate a better tax rate. I like to negotiate better voting rights for myself. On condition you give me a seat in the senate.” It is non-negotiable.
What it means to relate covenantally with God
There can be no relationship with God outside of covenant. No covenant, no relationship. God’s covenant provides certainty, assurances and security in the relationship.
It is crucial to understand this. There can be no relationship with God outside of covenant. No covenant, no relationship. God’s covenant provides certainty, assurances and security in the relationship.
Consider this. Because God is the superior in every way, it would be easy for God to make the relationship advantageous to Him. He could change the terms of relationship in an ad hoc manner to suit His whims. In the 1980 Star Wars movie, The Empire Strikes Back, the evil and powerful Darth Vader forced a deal with Lando Calrissian to capture and use Han Solo and friends to get to Luke Skywalker. But Darth Vader kept changing the terms to his own advantage. After the second change, Lando was very upset: “You said they'd be left at the city under my supervision!” Darth Vader threatened: “I am altering the deal. Pray I don't alter it any further.” God does not do that to us, ever.
A covenant is brought into effect once the terms, sacrifice and seal are in place.
Every time God chooses to have a relationship with man, it is always within the context of a covenant. It started with Adam and Eve in Eden. And it continued through Noah, Abraham, Moses until us today. Every time, the terms of covenant is given by God and offered with a sacrificial act, usually the cost of a life. Man then has to accept and the covenant marked with a seal or a sign is given. A covenant is brought into effect once the terms, sacrifice and seal are in place.
Those who are not offered God’s covenant, or reject His covenant are effectively not in formal relationship with God. That is why God commanded Abraham in
Genesis 17:14 (NIV84) “Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.”
Those who accept Christ as Saviour, effectively also accept God’s covenant.
That is why those who accept Christ as Saviour, effectively also accept God’s covenant. This covenant requires us to put our trust in Christ to be our Saviour and Lord. To follow Him for the rest of our lives. Again, here we have the 3 elements. The terms of the covenant, the sacrifice which is Jesus crucified at the cross, and finally the Holy Spirit comes into our hearts. He is the seal. Once all 3 are in place, the covenant is operative. God’s covenantal promises and blessings is now applied to us.
The amazing thing is this! God who is Almighty had no obligation to bind Himself to us. But He did with covenants! It is a demonstration of His faithfulness and love.
What covenantal relationships mean within the church
We are to covenant with God vertically and covenant with His Body horizontally.
Just as God relates to us through the lenses of covenant, He expects us to relate to the rest of the Church, through covenant. In other words, we are to covenant with God vertically and covenant with His Body horizontally.
Unfortunately, the Church has largely failed to understand God’s expectations of covenant. Consequently, failed to live in covenant relationship with one another and the local church. So when people have differences, conflicts or offense, they leave the church. Instead of responding covenantally. Instead of working through the issue because we are committed to each other.
Our inadequate appreciation of covenant weakens the Church.
Our inadequate appreciation of covenant weakens the Church. The bond, the connection of relationship that were meant to be unbreakable, breaks all too easily. The church is meant to be a family, special because of the covenantal bond. That is why we use the words brethren, or brothers and sisters. It is not some old tradition. It is meant to convey something special about our relationship with one another. Weaken the covenant and weaken the family.
Many Christians treat the church more like a club than a family. Because they don’t understand covenant. They think that a club no longer meet their needs, so time to change club. A husband may express a decision to his wife.
“Honey, the church is no longer doing the music we like, let’s change church.”
“Honey, I was so offended by Johnny today at church. Let’s leave!”
“Honey, I have changed my taste on the type of sermons I want to hear. I realise that the pastor doesn’t preach the way I prefer. Let’s leave!”
But you don’t do that to family. If we are to build the Church God's way. We need to understand about covenant and live it out with God’s grace. If a church is to be biblical, it must teach about covenant and be committed to living it out.
TYPES OF COVENANTS
There are differences in the nature of God’s covenants.
Conditional and unconditional covenants
In real estate, there are conditional and unconditional contracts. When you buy a property, you could sign an unconditional contract which means you are buying no matter what happens. Conditional contract could have conditions such as success in getting a bank loan, the property passes professional house inspection, etc.
God’s covenants may be categorised as conditional or unconditional depending on whether the fulfilment of the covenant require certain conditions.
The New Covenant is conditional on man’s response. It requires man to repent, have faith in Jesus Christ as Saviour and obey Him. Christ is Saviour to all who continue to obey Him
Conditional covenants require man to fulfill certain conditions. Usually, faith and obedience in certain ways. These covenants can be broken by man’s disobedience. The Mosaic covenant is conditional. The New Covenant is conditional on man’s response. It requires man to repent, have faith in Jesus Christ as Saviour and obey Him. Christ is Saviour to all who continue to obey Him, in
Hebrews 5:9 (NIV84) once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.
As Man can accept the New Covenant. Man can break the covenant.
Just as it is possible for man to accept the New Covenant, it is possible for some to reject God, fall away from Him because they intentionally break the covenant terms. This is also known as apostasy. As Man can accept the New Covenant. Man can break the covenant.
God is always consistent. If God gives man choice to accept the New Covenant, then God also allows man to break the terms of the covenant. For God will not force anyone to enter into the New Covenant with God. Neither will God force anyone to remain in the covenant with Him. Just like a marriage covenant. “Honey, I chose to marry you. Now I choose to unmarry you!”
Unconditional covenants where God obligates Himself to fulfil regardless of man’s response.
There are also unconditional covenants where God obligates Himself to fulfil regardless of man’s response. There is no “if”. Instead, there is “I will” without any conditions attached. The Abrahamic covenant and Davidic covenants are examples of these.
Genesis 22:17–18 (NIV84) 17 I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, 18 and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.”
2 Samuel 7:12–16 (NIV84) 12 When your days are over and you rest with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, who will come from your own body, and I will establish his kingdom. 13 He is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. 14 I will be his father, and he will be my son… 16 Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever.’ ”
Of course, this is a Messianic promise.
Temporal and everlasting covenants
An everlasting covenant means it will apply for all time, forever.
An everlasting covenant means it will apply for all time, forever. However, some elements within these covenants do not last forever because of their temporal nature. Whether it be in the promise, sacrifice or seal. For example, the Abrahamic covenant is spoken as an “everlasting covenant”. But the seal of physical circumcision was not the everlasting component. Only the internal and spiritual reality involving the circumcision of the heart remains forever. The temporal element was fulfilled and abolished at the cross.
Temporal covenants are only meant to apply for a limited time. These are not permanent. For example, the Mosaic covenant. The writer of Hebrew contrasted the New Covenant with the Mosaic covenant in
Hebrews 8:13 (NIV84) By calling this covenant “new,” he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and aging will soon disappear.
We will elaborate more on these in later articles in this series.
God relates through covenants with His people. By doing so, God gives us certainty about the nature and scope of the relationships. By understanding the principles in it gives us appreciation on how we should relate to God and also with one another in a more biblical fashion.
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