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 four biblical covenants: the one God made with Abraham, the one he made with Israel, marriage and the new covenant that’s available to us today.
God initiates and defines the aspects of all covenants he makes with man, then man can simply accept or reject 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 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 them. That is, if they break their covenant, they figuratively would be as dead as that animal. Many covenants 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 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 includes an oath, a solemn affirmation legally binding oneself to every aspect of the covenant. Partners of human covenants in Old Testament times called on God to witness their words, to be their strength in keeping the covenant terms, and to help them honor their covenantal relationship. By calling on God while making the oath, they included him in the covenant. Once the new partners complete the oath, their covenant legally 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 one could argue that everything God promises to us is an oath, including every “I will” statement, we’ll limit our study to scriptures that clearly refer to oaths.
Unfortunately, modern western culture considers covenants and oaths 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 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.1 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 covenantal 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. However, this wasn’t part of a ceremony for entering covenant.2
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.3 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.4 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 make covenant with him in the future.5 After the flood occurred and the earth eventually dried, God told Noah and his family to leave the ark and release the animals.6 Then Noah built an altar and sacrificed burnt offerings on it to the Lord.7 While the Bible doesn’t describe this as a sacrifice for entering covenant and there’s no biblical evidence of a “walk of death,” Noah may have anticipated the covenant God promised. Shortly after that, God made covenant with Noah, all his descendants and the living creatures that were on the ark.8 God then legally 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.”9 That 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.10 At one point, Jonathan attacked a Philistine outpost accompanied only by his armor-bearer and defeated the enemy, which rallied the Israelite army.11 It was this Jonathan, a skilled 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 many details about it, so we’ll include it in our study. Jonathan initiated the covenant because they had such love and respect for each other and they sealed their covenant with an oath in God’s name.12
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.13 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 change.14 There’s no record of any sacrifice or “walk of death,” but God made covenant with David and said he would never fail to have a descendant to rule over Israel.15 God loved David and chose him because he had integrity, kept God’s commands and followed him with all his heart.16 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.”17 This clearly is an everlasting, irrevocable covenant.18
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.19 After Abram arrived in the land, God repeated some of his original promises and when Abram asked for confirmation, God told him to bring specific animals which were ceremonially clean and acceptable for sacrifice.20
God didn’t tell him what to do with the animals, but Abram clearly understood what was about to happen. He brought the animals and except for the birds, cut them in two and arranged the halves opposite each other, because he was preparing to enter covenant with God.21 As the sun began to set, Abram fell into a deep sleep and after sundown a smoking fire pot with a blazing torch passed between the sacrifice pieces and the Lord made covenant with Abram.22 Most Bible scholars believe the fire pot and blazing torch represented 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 more than the current land of Israel.23 Notice that God performed the covenant ceremony alone, which clearly shows he took full responsibility for this covenant, regardless of anything Abram did. This was a unilateral, unconditional, irrevocable covenant because it depended entirely on God.
Several years later, the Lord appeared to Abram again, confirmed the covenant and changed his name to Abraham.24 Years later, God directed Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac and as he was about to perform that grisly task, God stopped him. God then swore an oath about his offspring – they would be as numerous as the stars and be victorious over their enemies, and through his offspring all the nations would be blessed.25
The New Testament states Abraham was God’s friend.26 The term, “friend,” describes a covenant partner or blood brother, not simply a casual acquaintance. This identifies Abraham’s unique status as God’s covenant partner.
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 human model of faith in God.27 His descendants became a new nation set aside as God’s covenant people and provided a human lineage for the Messiah.28
How is God’s covenant with Abraham relevant to us? God’s love and grace are what motivate him to make covenants with humans and he’s completely 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.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.”30 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.31 Abraham’s grandson Jacob had an encounter with God, who changed his name to Israel and made covenant with him.32 Jacob or Israel had twelve sons, whose descendants became the twelve tribes of the nation Israel, or Israelites.33 After the specified time, God sent Moses to deliver the Israelites from Egypt and lead them to the land God promised to Abraham.34 Three months after leaving Egypt, the Israelites reached Mount Sinai, where God made covenant with them.35 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.”36 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.37 Both God and the people took an oath to enter covenantal relationship. This typically is called the Mosaic Covenant, because Moses was the mediator between God and Israel, but it may also be called the Sinai Covenant because it began at Mount Sinai.
Moses recorded everything the Lord said, then he instructed men to sacrifice young bulls as offerings to the Lord.38 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 explore the land, but their report terrified the people, who rebelled against God’s command to enter the land.39 As a result, God kept the nation in the wilderness forty years, until the entire rebellious generation died.40 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.41 However, as the second generation was about to enter the promised land, Moses stated the covenant made forty years earlier was with all those who were alive, not with those who died in the wilderness.42 Also, the New Testament refers to the new covenant as the second and better one, meaning there was only one before it.43 So the covenant described in Deuteronomy was 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.44 In Jeremiah we see a reference to sacrificing a calf and walking between its pieces while making covenant with God.45 The context shows this was after the Israelites settled in the land and occupied Jerusalem, and so was a commemoration of the existing covenant. So the “walk of death” was part of the covenant ceremony at Mount Sinai and the Israelites commemorated it by making fellowship sacrifices for centuries afterward.
It’s significant that God made this covenant with the nation of Israel, not individuals. Yet every Israelite was accountable for honoring it and those who violated its terms – codified in the Law of Moses – received judgment for their sin unless they made a suitable sacrifice. This covenant remained in effect until the new covenant superseded it.46 It’s still relevant today only because everyone not in covenant with God is judged by its terms, though it’s obsolete and fading away.47
This was the forerunner of the new covenant and dealt with the self-centeredness of sinful human nature by requiring people to obey 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 violated the Mosaic covenant, which brought them under its curses but didn’t nullify it. Instead, Old Testament history reveals God’s plan to supersede 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.48 It even described how they were to treat foreigners differently than Israelites, which created an ethnic barrier between them49 and separated the Gentiles from God.50
Marriage is the most widely practiced covenant. 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.”51 God specifically refers to “your wife by covenant” and states he was the covenant’s legal witness between husband and wife when they made their marriage vows. 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 marriage52 and as in all life covenants, only death should separate them.53 God hates divorce and allowed it under the law of Moses only because the people were hardhearted; that is, they rejected God’s standard of lifelong marriages.54 The New Testament states a believer must not initiate divorce unless the spouse has been unfaithful, in which case divorce is acceptable.55
God defines marriage as a covenant and only describes it as between a man and woman. Wedding ceremonies vary because of cultural and personal preferences, but the godly Judeo-Christian standard includes an oath of lifelong 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 the Gentile nations would be blessed through him and the new covenant made that possible.56 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.57 In the new covenant, Jesus destroyed the barrier between Jews and Gentiles – by abolishing the Law of Moses with its commandments and laws – and reconciled them both to God.58 The Gentiles now share in the Jews’ spiritual blessings and receive the promise originally made to Abraham.59
As history shows, Israel has experienced a partial or temporary spiritual hardening.60 As a result, most Jews currently aren’t able to recognize 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.61
The new covenant is the superior and final covenant. It makes relationship with God possible and defines its key aspects. Through it, he provides everything we need for both temporal and eternal life, and godly nature.62 That includes 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 describes the wages of sin as death; that is, death is the result, earning or penalty to anyone who sins.63 The death referred to is primarily spiritual death – separation from God – which results in every other form including physical death. But he loved humanity 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.64
The Son of God laid aside his equality with God to come to earth as the Son of Man, fully human yet sinless.65 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 his death for all sin, he made it possible for everyone to enter covenant with God. That covenant is everlasting or irrevocable.66
The night of his betrayal, Jesus introduced the new covenant.67 His purpose was clear because he stated the cup of wine he gave them was “the new covenant in my blood.”68 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.69 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.70 “It is finished” – Jesus did it all!
Because Jesus paid the penalty for our sin, God can offer us covenantal relationship and allow us to decide whether we’ll accept it. Anyone who rejects his offer or doesn’t believe Jesus died for us is still guilty of sin and must pay the penalty – eternal spiritual death, total separation from God.71 If we instead accept God’s offer and agree to the covenant terms, 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 it, he purifies us from the effects of sin, transforms our nature and restores our relationship with Him.72 This is possible 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. He only requires us 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 terms, paid the debt for our sin and reconciled us with God.73 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 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 reject our own interests, to stop focusing on ourselves.74 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.75
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.”76 The original language speaks of uniting, joining with or clinging to another person. This is the same language used to describe two people becoming one through marriage. Obviously, they keep 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. Now we are his 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 his covenant offer. We enter the new covenant through faith in God’s redemptive work, including Jesus’ death for our sin. Once we enter covenant, our sin doesn’t nullify it because its primary function is to pardon our sin; however, sin interferes with our relationship.
It can be 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 to be born into our family, but these two women chose my sons and chose to become 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 gave us qualities similar to his own. I think my love for my sons reflects his love for every human who has ever 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 a covenant.
How can you enter the new covenant? Through what we normally call salvation, as described in the previous section. First, admit you’re a sinner and deserve eternal torment and separation from God, which the Bible describes as death.77 Then recognize you can’t become righteous – acceptable before God – by your own efforts.78 Believe Jesus died in your place for your sins and God raised him from the dead.79 Finally, accept the covenant terms and God’s forgiveness of your sins. From that moment, you are in covenantal 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 clearly, however, that we need to connect 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 its significance. The goal of this study is to help you see the extent 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 other’s well-being and success, including what they deserve, need or want. And each person has specific rights and responsibilities. Obviously, we enter covenant with God for 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 properly 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, lifelong 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 a covenant without first understanding its requirements. In the next chapter, we’ll examine the terms of the new covenant.
1. Hos. 6:7
2. Gen. 3:21
3. Gen. 6:5-7, 11-12
4. Gen. 6:8-9
5. Gen. 6:13-21
6. Gen. 8:15-19
7. Gen. 8:20
8. Gen. 9:9
9. Gen. 9:11
10. 1 Sam. 13:2-3, 22
11. 1 Sam. 14:1-14
12. 1 Sam. 18:3; 20:16-17, 42
13. 1 Sam. 13:14; 2 Sam. 23:5; Ps. 89:3; Acts 13:22
14. 2 Sam. 23:5
15. 2 Chron. 7:18; Jer 33:21
16. 1 Ki. 9:4; 11:33; 14:8; 15:3, 5
17. Jer. 33:20-21
18. 2 Sam. 23:5; Ps. 89:3-4, 35-37
19. Gen. 12:1-3
20. Gen. 15:4-9
21. Gen. 15:9-10
22. Gen. 15:12, 17
23. Gen. 15:18-21; 24:7; 26:3
24. Gen. 17:1-2, 5
25. Gen. 22:15-18; Luke 1:73-74; Heb. 6:13-14
26. Jas. 2:23
27. Gen. 15:6; Rom. 4:3, 9; Gal. 3:6; Jas. 2:23
28. Deut. 29:12-13; Matt. 1:1
29. Gal. 3:7, 29
30. Gen. 15:6; Rom. 4:23-24
31. Gen. 15:13-17
32. Gen. 32:28; Exod. 2:24
33. Gen. 46:8
34. Exod. 3:7-10
35. Exod. 19:1-6
36. Exod. 19:5-6
37. Exod. 19:8
38. Exod. 24:4-5
39. Num. 13:1-14:4; Deut. 1:21-26
40. Num. 14:28-33
41. 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.
42. Deut. 5:2-3
43. Heb. 9:15; 10:9; 8:7; 7:22
44. Deut. 27:7; Lev. 3:1-9
45. Jer. 34:18-19
46. Heb. 8:8-9, 13
47. Heb. 8:13
48. Exod. 19:3-6
49. Deut. 14:21; 15:3; 17:15; 23:20
50. Eph. 2:11-12
51. Mal. 2:13-14, ESV
52. Gen. 2:24; Mal. 4:15; Matt. 9:5; Mark 10:8; Eph. 5:31
53. Rom. 7:2-3; 1 Cor. 7:39
54. Mal. 4:16; Matt. 19:8
55. Matt. 19:9; 1 Cor. 7:11-13, 27
56. Gal. 3:8
57. Rom. 9:24; 1 Cor. 12:12-13; Gal. 3:28; Col. 3:11
58. Eph. 2:14-16
59. Rom. 15:27; Gal. 3:14
60. Rom. 11:25
61. Zech. 12:10-14; Jer. 31:31; Rom. 11:26-27
62. 2 Pet. 1:3
63. Rom. 6:23
64. Rom. 5:8; John 3:16-17
65. Phil. 2:6-8; Heb. 4:15
66. Heb. 13:20
67. 1 Cor. 11:23-25
68. Luke 22:20; 1 Cor. 11:25
69. 2 Cor. 5:21; Matt. 27:46; John 19:30; 1 John 2:2
70. 1 John 2:2; 2 Cor. 5:19
71. John 3:18, 36; Rom. 6:23
72. 1 John 1:9; 2 Cor. 3:18; Rom. 5:10
73. Heb. 9:15; 2 Cor. 5:18-19
74. Matt. 16:24
75. 1 Cor. 6:19-20; 2 Cor. 5:15
76. 1 Cor. 6:17
77. Rom. 3:23; 6:23
78. Eph. 2:8-9; Titus 3:5
79. Rom. 4:25; 5:8; 10:9