Entering the New Covenant
Summary: Jesus paid the penalty for sin so we can enter covenant relationship with God and experience his love and blessings, including salvation.
Beginning with this chapter, we’ll examine typical aspects of human and biblical covenants. We’ll briefly consider each aspect as it appears in several covenants God made with individuals in the Old Testament and a very significant example of covenants between people. Then with this as a foundation, we’ll examine four covenants in greater detail: the one God made with Abraham, the original covenant He made with Israel, marriage and finally the new covenant that’s available to us today.
God initiates and establishes the aspects of all covenants He makes with man, then man can simply accept the covenant He offers. Covenants with God aren’t even about us; they’re about Him. It’s His nature to create, to love, to nurture, to provide for and protect His people. Not because of who we are, but because of who He is. It’s His pleasure to create a people who choose to love Him, then express all that He is to them. That’s His heart. These covenants are about God and we’re the recipients of all He does for us.
Historically, men entering a covenant typically would perform a ceremony which involved sacrificing an animal and exchanging vows. After slaughtering the animal, they’d cut the carcass in half and place the halves beside each other on the ground. The men would then walk between the halves of the carcass, reciting the covenant terms, blessings and curses. This was called the “walk of death” because the sacrificed animal represented death to oneself or individuality; the two individuals become one in covenant. The halves of the dead animal represented the two people, and from that moment only death would separate one from the other. In effect, they were stating symbolically that if they separate, they would be as dead as that animal. Many covenants actually included what amounted to a personal curse, such as, “If I fail to keep this covenant, may it be done to me as was done to this animal!” Covenants were so highly honored, violators brought devastating judgment on themselves. We’ll see a reference to this practice when we examine God’s original covenant with Israel.
Every covenant is made with an oath, a solemn affirmation binding oneself to every aspect of the covenant. Partners of human covenants in Old Testament times called upon God to witness their words, to be their strength in keeping the covenant terms, and to keep a constant watch over the partners to ensure they honor their covenant relationship. By calling on God while making the oath, they made God the third party to the covenant. Once the new partners complete the oath, their covenant is nonnegotiable and unchangeable. As we’ll discover, God has bound himself to us with an oath, which is unique to Judeo-Christian experience. While it could be argued that everything God promises to us is an oath, including every “I will” statement, we’ll limit our study to scriptures that actually refer to oaths or swearing to affirm a statement.
Unfortunately, modern western culture seems to consider covenants and oaths as antiquated, probably because people are intensely self-centered and demand their freedom. The purpose of this study, however, is to examine God’s perspective of covenants as revealed in scripture.
The opening chapters of the Book of Genesis describe the very first covenant, which God made with Adam and Eve. Genesis doesn’t use the word “covenant” to describe this relationship, but the Book of Hosea clearly shows Adam was in covenant with God. (Hosea 6:7) As with all covenants God made with men in the Old Testament, He initiated this covenant unilaterally and only required Adam and Eve to remain faithful to it. There’s no record of an animal sacrifice or oath for entering the covenant, suggesting God created them in covenant relationship with Himself. After Adam and Eve sinned by violating the only condition God required, He made garments of skin to clothe them, which implies he killed one or more innocent animals for the skin, but this wasn’t part of a ceremony for entering covenant. (Gen. 3:21)
A few chapters later in Genesis, we read that as people began to fill the earth, wickedness became so widespread and severe that it grieved God. (Gen. 6:5-7, 11-12) He planned to destroy humanity for its unbridled wickedness, but he chose to preserve Noah, whom the Bible describes as righteous and blameless among the people of his time. (Gen. 6:8-9) God told Noah what He was about to do, gave him specific plans for building an ark that would preserve him and his family, and said He would establish covenant with him in the future. (Gen. 6:13-21) After the flood occurred and the earth eventually dried, God instructed Noah and his family to leave the ark and release the animals. (Gen. 8:15-19) Then Noah built an altar and sacrificed burnt offerings on it to the Lord. (Gen. 8:20) While the Bible doesn’t describe this as a sacrifice for entering covenant, Noah may have offered the sacrifice as an expression of covenantal relationship. There’s no biblical evidence of a “walk of death” involving the covenant sacrifice. Shortly after that, God established his covenant with Noah, all his descendants and the living creatures that were on the ark. (Gen. 9:9) God then bound himself with an oath to everyone who had been on the ark. “I establish my covenant with you: Never again will all life be cut off by the waters of a flood; never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth.” (Gen. 9:11) This is how God entered covenant with Noah.
Centuries later, Saul was king over Israel and his son Jonathan was heir to the throne. The Philistines were severely oppressing Israel and prevented the Israelites from even owning weapons. King Saul chose three thousand men from Israel and put one third of them under Jonathan’s command, but only Saul and Jonathan had weapons. (1 Sam 13:2-3, 22) At one point, Jonathan attacked a Philistine outpost accompanied only by his armor-bearer and defeated the enemy, which rallied the Israelite army. (1 Sam. 14:1-14) It was this Jonathan, an accomplished warrior and heir to the throne, who admired David, a young shepherd who defeated Goliath single-handedly, and chose to make covenant with him. Theirs was a powerful example of human covenants and the Bible provides lots of detail about it, so we’ll include it in our study. Jonathan initiated the covenant with David because they had such love and respect for each other and they sealed their covenant with an oath in God’s name. (1 Sam. 18:3; 20:16-17, 42)
God later made a covenant with David, who would become renown for his success as a warrior king of Israel and for his love for God. (1 Sam. 13:14; 2 Sam. 23:5; Ps. 89:3; Acts 13:22) Late in his life, King David stated that God had made an everlasting covenant with him and his lineage, arranged all of its details and secured it so it could never be changed. (2 Sam 23:5) There appears to be no record of the actual event, including any sacrifice or “walk of death,” but God made covenant with David when He told him he would never fail to have a descendant to rule over Israel. (2 Chron. 7:18; Jer 33:21) God loved David and chose him because he had integrity, kept God’s commands and followed Him with all his heart. (1 Kings 9:4; 11:33; 14:8; 15:3, 5) Scripture also records God confirming it with an oath: “If you can break my covenant with the day and my covenant with the night, so that day and night no longer come at their appointed time, then my covenant with David my servant — and my covenant with the Levites who are priests ministering before me — can be broken and David will no longer have a descendant to reign on his throne.” (Jer. 33:20-21) This clearly is an everlasting, irrevocable covenant. (2 Sam. 23:5; Ps. 89:3-4, 35-37)
With these covenants as background, let’s consider four other biblical covenants that are relevant today: God’s covenant with Abraham, His original covenant with Israel, marriage and the new covenant.
Most of us are familiar with Abraham in the Old Testament. We may not realize, however, that his given name was Abram and God changed it to Abraham when He made covenant with him, as we’ll see in a later chapter.
Genesis Chapter 12 explains that God had spoken to Abram, giving him specific instructions and promising specific blessings. He was to leave his father’s household and God would lead him to a land where He would bless him greatly. (Gen. 12:1-3) After Abram arrived in the land, God repeated some of His original promises and when Abram asked for confirmation, God instructed him to bring Him certain animals which were ceremonially clean and acceptable for sacrifice. (Gen. 15:4-9)
God didn’t tell him what to do with the animals, but Abram clearly understood what was about to happen. He brought the animals, cut them in two and arranged the halves opposite each other, because he was preparing to enter covenant with God. (Gen. 15:9-10) As the sun began to set, Abram fell into a deep sleep and after sundown an intriguing event occurred; a smoking fire pot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the sacrifice pieces and the Lord made covenant with Abram. (Gen. 15:12, 17) The fire pot and blazing torch are generally believed to be God Himself, passing between the sacrifice halves in a “walk of death.” He also made a covenant oath to give Abram’s descendants the land, which includes but isn’t limited to the current land of Israel. (Gen. 15:18-21; 24:7; 26:3) Notice that God performed the covenant ceremony alone, without Abram’s involvement, which clearly shows He took full responsibility for this covenant, regardless of anything Abram did. This was an unilateral, unconditional, irrevocable covenant because it depended entirely on God.
Several years later, the Lord appeared to Abram again and confirmed the covenant, at which time the Lord changed Abram’s name to Abraham. (Gen. 17:1-2, 5) When Abraham prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac years later, as God told him, God stopped him and swore another oath regarding his offspring — they would be as numerous as the stars and be victorious over their enemies, and through his offspring all the nations of the earth would be blessed. (Gen 22:15-18; Lk 1:73-74; Heb 6:13-14)
The New Testament states Abraham was called God’s friend. (James 2:23) The term, “friend,” describes a covenant partner or blood brother, not simply a casual acquaintance. This identifies Abraham’s special status as God’s covenant partner, and scripture doesn’t describe anyone else this way.
Why did God make covenant with Abraham? We can only speculate, based on what scripture says about him and what happened. Abraham believed God and He credited it to him as righteousness, so Abraham became the ultimate human model of faith in God. (Gen. 15:6; Rom. 4:3, 9; Gal. 3:6; James 2:23) His descendants became a new nation set aside as God’s covenant people and provided a human lineage for the Messiah. (Deut. 29:12-13; Matt. 1:1)
How is God’s covenant with Abraham relevant to us? God’s love and grace are what motivate Him to initiate covenants with humans and He’s totally faithful to them. However, this one is an outstanding example of a covenant of grace and faith — God’s grace and Abraham’s faith — making it the foundation and precedent for the new covenant.
Also, the New Testament calls believers — Messianic Jews and Christians — descendants of Abraham and heirs according to God’s promise. (Gal. 3:7, 29) As He did for Abraham, God credits or regards us as righteous if we “believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead.” (Gen. 15:6; Rom. 4:23-24) No one can become righteous or earn righteousness by his own effort, but because we have faith in Him and His Son’s death for our sin, God treats us as if we were righteous.
God told Abraham his descendants would be slaves in a foreign land 400 years and He would lead them back to the land He showed him. (Gen. 15:13-17) Abraham’s grandson Jacob had an encounter with God, Who changed his name to Israel and made covenant with him. (Gen. 32:28; Exod 2:24) Jacob or Israel had twelve sons, whose descendants became the twelve tribes of the nation Israel, or Israelites. (Gen. 46:8) After the specified time, God sent Moses to deliver the Israelites from Egypt and lead them to the land God promised to Abraham. (Exod. 3:7-10) Three months after leaving Egypt, the Israelites reached Mount Sinai, where God made covenant with them. (Exod. 19:1-6) He told them, “Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Exod. 19:5-6) In effect, God proposed covenant with them and vowed to make them His treasured possession, a nation devoted to Him. To this, the people responded, “We will do everything the Lord has said”; that is, they accepted His offer of covenant and vowed to honor it. (Exod. 19:8) Both God and the people took an oath to enter covenant relationship. This typically is called the Mosaic Covenant, because Moses mediated the covenant between God and Israel, but it may also be called the Sinai Covenant because God initiated it at Mount Sinai.
Moses recorded everything the Lord said, then he instructed men to sacrifice young bulls as offerings to the Lord. (Exod 24:4-5) Based on the Hebrew wording, these were fellowship, peace, alliance or friendship offerings, all of which were typical covenant terms. The young bulls, therefore, were covenant sacrifices.
When the people reached the boundary of the promised land, Moses sent twelve men to investigate the land, but their report terrified the people, who rebelled against God’s command to enter the land. (Num. 13:1-14:4; Deut. 1:21-26) As a result, God kept the nation in the wilderness forty years, until the entire rebellious generation died. (Num. 14:28-33) He then brought the people back to the boundary of the promised land and renewed His covenant with them.
Some believe God made two separate covenants, separated by forty years. (The view of two separate covenants is based on Deuteronomy 29:1, which indicates the one described in Deuteronomy is “in addition to the covenant” God made at Horeb or Mount Sinai, described in Exodus and Leviticus.) However, when Moses addressed the second generation as they were about to enter the promised land, he stated the covenant made forty years earlier was with all those who were alive, not with the previous generation that died in the wilderness. (Deut. 5:2-3) Also, the New Testament refers to the new covenant as the second and better one, meaning there was only one before it. (Heb. 9:15; 10:9; 8:7; 7:22) So it’s appropriate to view the covenant described in Deuteronomy as a renewal or revision of the one in Exodus and Leviticus.
There’s no description of the second generation entering covenant before they crossed into the promised land, but they entered covenant with God forty years earlier at Mount Sinai. They did sacrifice fellowship offerings, however, which suggests a commemoration or renewal of the original covenant. (Deut. 27:7; Lev. 3:1-9) In Jeremiah we see a reference to sacrificing a calf and walking between its pieces in conjunction with making covenant with God. (Jer. 34:18-19) The context indicates this was after the Israelites settled in the land and occupied Jerusalem, and so was a commemoration of the existing covenant. We can conclude the “walk of death” was part of the covenant ceremony at Mount Sinai and fellowship sacrifices were made for centuries afterward.
It’s significant that God made this covenant with the nation of Israel, not individuals. Every Israelite was accountable for honoring the covenant and those who violated its terms — codified in the Law of Moses — received judgment for their sin unless they made the appropriate sacrifice. This covenant remained in effect until it was superceded by the new covenant. (Heb. 8:8-9, 13) It’s still relevant today only in the sense that descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob — the Jews — continue to observe it and everyone not in covenant with God is judged by its terms, though it’s obsolete and fading away. (Heb. 8:13)
This covenant was a symbolic shadow of the new covenant and dealt with the self-centeredness or self-sufficiency of sinful human nature by requiring human effort to adhere to a written set of laws. The purpose was to prove we can’t earn righteousness by our own efforts and therefore need a savior.
Israel’s violation of the original covenant brought them under the covenant curses but didn’t nullify it. Instead, Old Testament history reveals God’s plan to supercede Israel’s original covenant with a new one, which is further evidence His commitment to Israel is unconditional and everlasting.
This covenant was only with the nation of Israel, so it excluded Gentiles. (Exod. 19:3-6) It even specified how they were to treat foreigners differently than their fellow Israelites, which created an ethnic barrier between them. (Deut. 14:21; 15:3; 17:15; 23:20) Gentiles were excluded from citizenship in Israel and the covenant God made with them; therefore, they were totally separated from God. (Eph. 2:11-12)
Marriage is the most widely practiced covenant between a man and a woman. The most concise statement about this appears in the Old Testament as an explanation for why the Lord wouldn’t accept offerings from certain men: “You cover the Lord’s altar with tears, with weeping and groaning because he no longer regards the offering or accepts it with favor from your hand. But you say, ‘Why does he not?’ Because the Lord was witness between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant.” (Mal. 2:13-14, ESV) God specifically refers to “your wife by covenant” and states He was the covenant’s legal witness between husband and wife when they married. In this case, the man was unfaithful to his wife, violating the marriage covenant terms which require faithfulness.
The Lord causes the two to become one in marriage (Gen. 2:24; Mal. 4:15; Matt. 9:5; Mark 10:8; Eph. 5:31) and as in all life covenants, they should only be separated by death. (Rom. 7:2-3; 1 Cor. 7:39) God hates divorce and allowed divorce under the law of Moses only because the people were hard-hearted; that is, they rejected God’s standard of life-long marriages. (Mal. 4:16; Matt. 19:8) The New Testament states a believer must not initiate divorce unless the spouse has been unfaithful, in which case divorce is allowed. (Matt. 19:9; 1 Cor. 7:11-13, 27)
God defines marriage as a covenant and only describes it as between a man and a woman. Wedding ceremonies vary due to cultural and personal preferences, but the godly Judeo-Christian standard includes an oath of life-long faithfulness to the covenant partner.
As we saw in the previous chapter, the new covenant applies first and primarily to the Jews but also includes Gentiles. When God made covenant with Abraham, He declared that the Gentile nations would be blessed through him and He accomplishes that through the new covenant. (Gal. 3:8) God calls both Jews and Gentiles into this covenant and baptizes those who believe, making them one in Christ so He no longer distinguishes between Jew and Gentile. (Rom. 9:24; 1 Cor. 12:12-13; Gal. 3:28; Col. 3:11) In the new covenant, Jesus destroyed the barrier between Jews and Gentiles — by abolishing the Law of Moses with its commandments and regulations — and reconciled them both to God. (Eph. 2:14-16) The Gentiles now share in the Jews’ spiritual blessings and receive the promise originally made to Abraham. (Rom. 15:27; Gal. 3:14)
As history shows, Israel has experienced a partial or temporary spiritual hardening. (Rom. 11:25) As a result, with the exception of Messianic Jews, most Jews presently aren’t able to acknowledge Yeshua or Jesus as their Messiah. However, Bible prophecies clearly state that when the Lord returns to set up his kingdom on earth, the surviving non-Messianic Jews will realize He is their Messiah and mourn for Him, then He will include them in the new covenant so all Israel will be saved. (Zech. 12:10-14; Jer. 31:31; Rom. 11:26-27)
The new covenant is the ultimate and final covenant. It makes relationship with God possible and defines key aspects of that relationship. Through it, He provides everything we need for both temporal and eternal life, and godly nature (2 Pet. 1:3) — forgiveness of sin, deliverance, transformation, healing, care, provision, empowerment, salvation, justification, righteousness, sanctification, holiness and everything else he makes available to us. But only for those who enter the covenant.
The Bible states that the wages of sin is death; that is, death is the result, earning or penalty to anyone who sins. (Rom. 6:23) The death referred to is primarily spiritual death — separation from God — which results in every other form including physical death. But He loved mankind so much that He sent His Son to die in our behalf while we were still sinners, to pay the penalty for our sin so we could have eternal life. (Rom. 5:8; John 3:16-17)
The Son of God laid aside His equality with God to come to earth as the Son of Man, fully human yet totally sinless. (Phil. 2:6-8; Heb. 4:15) He was the only human qualified to enter covenant with God because He was the only sinless human since the fall of man. Through His sinless human life and death for all sin, He made it possible for everyone to enter covenant with God. That covenant is everlasting or irrevocable. (Heb. 13:20)
The night He was betrayed, Jesus initiated the new covenant for the rest of humanity by including His disciples. (1 Cor. 11:23-25) His purpose was absolutely clear because He stated the cup of wine He gave them was “the new covenant in my blood.” (Luke 22:20; 1 Cor. 11:25) The next day, He became sin in our behalf, was forsaken by God, declared “It is finished!” and died on the cross for the sins of the whole world. (2 Cor. 5:21; Matt. 27:46; John 19:30; 1 John 2:2) Because Jesus received the punishment for the sins of all people for all time, God reconciled the whole world to Himself and doesn’t count men’s sins against them. (1 John 2:2; 2 Cor. 5:19) “It is finished” — Jesus did it all!
Now that our penalty for sin is paid, God can offer us covenant relationship and allow us to decide whether we’ll accept it. Anyone who rejects His offer or doesn’t believe Jesus died for our sin is still guilty of sin and must pay the penalty — eternal spiritual death, total separation from God. (John 3:18, 36; Rom. 6:23) If we instead believe Jesus died for us and agree to the covenant terms, in effect accepting God’s offer, He includes us in the new covenant and we receive all of its blessings, including eternal life. The choice is ours and God honors our choice.
The new covenant is not about our love for God, but how much He loves us. Through the covenant, He totally purifies us from the effects of sin, transforms our nature and restores our relationship with Him. (1 John 1:9; 2 Cor. 3:18; Rom. 5:10) This could be accomplished only through Jesus’ death and resurrection, so previous covenants couldn’t do it. We don’t deserve and can’t earn any of the covenant benefits, but God in His grace makes them all available to us. The only thing He requires of us is to believe that Jesus’ death paid for our sin and agree to the covenant terms, then He immediately brings us into His covenant. Jesus is the covenant’s mediator, because He met all the requirements, paid off our spiritual obligations from sin and reconciled us with God. (Heb. 9:15; 2 Cor. 5:18-19) Once we’re in covenant with God, everything we do with and for Him is in response to what He did for us. We still can’t earn or deserve or qualify for anything from God, but Jesus did it all.
In other biblical covenants, the covenant sacrifice and walk of death symbolize the loss of one’s individuality — effectively surrendering one’s independence. In the new covenant, Jesus asks us to deny or disregard our own interests, to stop focusing on ourselves. (Matt. 16:24) Because we accept His death for us on the cross, we no longer belong to or live for ourselves, which means we’re no longer independent. (1 Cor. 6:19-20; 2 Cor. 5:15)
Why do we lose our independence in covenant? Because we become one with God. For example, “he who unites himself with the Lord is one with him in spirit.” (1 Cor. 6:17) The original language speaks of uniting, joining or binding together, or clinging to another person. This is exactly the same language used to describe two people becoming one through marriage. Obviously, they maintain their separate identities, but they’re united to each other and are no longer independent. They’re aware that everything they do now affects their partner.
Just as God gave up His independence from us by becoming one of us through Jesus, we give up our independence from Him in the new covenant. We are now united with Him as covenant partners.
Because Jesus met all the requirements for all people for all time, the only issue is whether each of us individually will accept the covenant offer. We come under the new covenant through faith in God’s redemptive work, including Jesus’ death for our sin. Once we enter covenant, our disobedience doesn’t nullify the covenant because a primary function of the covenant is to pardon our sin.
It can be very difficult to understand how or why God loves us as He does. As we discover how He works in our lives, we realize He gives us experiences that help us understand His love for us. For many of us, those experiences occur within a healthy family life. Unfortunately, not all of us have loving and supportive families, but God provides similar experiences in other contexts, if that’s the case.
Allow me to describe one of my experiences. My wife and I have two adult sons. They’re obviously human — they have their own strengths, skills, faults and idiosyncrasies — and we love them both. They’re unique individuals, of course, but the family resemblance is unmistakable. In many ways they look like us, act like us, think like us and have similar values. But as much as we love them, we didn’t choose them from a selection of available babies. And as much as they love us, they didn’t choose us as parents.
But let me tell you about my daughters-in-law. Out of all the young men in their lives, these two women fell in love with our sons, married them, set up their own households and had children. My sons didn’t choose our family to be born into, but these two women chose my sons and chose to be part of my family. How do you think that makes me feel?
I didn’t have sisters, didn’t have female cousins nearby as I grew up and didn’t have daughters. So, except for my wife, having young women in my immediate family was a new experience. And I’m enjoying it immensely. Both of these women are human — they have their own strengths, skills, faults and idiosyncrasies — and we love them both dearly. I’m confident I couldn’t love these women more if they were my biological daughters; instead, I may even love them more because they chose to become my daughters through marriage.
God created us in His image and endued us with qualities similar to His own. I think my love for my sons reflects His love for every human who has every lived. In somewhat of a contrast, my great affection for my daughters-in-law gives me insight to God’s great affection for those of us who choose to enter His family.
God has a special relationship with us who have chosen Him and that relationship is called a covenant.
How can you enter the new covenant? Through a process we normally call salvation, as described in the previous section. First, acknowledge that you’re a sinner and deserve eternal torment and separation from God, which the Bible describes as death. (Rom 3:23; 6:23) Then acknowledge you can’t become righteous — acceptable before God — by your own efforts. (Eph. 2:8-9; Tit. 3:5) Believe Jesus died in your place for your sins and God raised Him from the dead. (Rom 4:25; 5:8; 10:9) Finally, accept the terms of the covenant and God’s forgiveness of your sins. From that moment, you are in covenant relationship with God.
We use several terms to describe this relationship — we’re God’s children and He’s our Father, we’re Christians or believers — and other terms to describe how we enter this relationship — salvation or being born again. This isn’t a religion, but a vibrant and personal relationship with God. Entering this covenant doesn’t mean we’re church members; rather, we’ve become members of God’s family. The Bible shows very clearly, however, that we need to be connected with other Christians to serve them and promote our own spiritual health.
Whether you entered that relationship just now or many years ago, you have only begun to understand the significance of it. The goal of this study is to help you see the magnitude of God’s love for you and the astounding provisions He made for you in covenant.
In Chapter One, we defined a covenant as a loving, enduring relationship in which each partner focuses on the well-being and success of the other, including what they deserve, need or want. Obviously, we enter covenant with God for very selfish reasons; we don’t want to be ravaged by sin or go to hell. As we learn what God did for us, we also learn how to respond appropriately by radically changing the way we think. We become less self-centered, less independent, more humble and more attentive to Him than ourselves. This is a gradual, life-long transition.
When we realize how much God loves us, how much He values and cares for us and focuses His attention on us, it becomes easier to focus our attention on Him. In covenant, each focuses on the other instead of himself.
No one would enter into either a contract or a covenant without understanding the expectations or requirements of that relationship. In the next chapter, we’ll examine the terms of the new covenant.