Introduction to Covenants
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(Total reading time: 4.3 minutes. All scripture quotations are from the NIV 1984 Bible.)
The Bible describes a relationship that was common throughout history, but most western cultures ignore, so most of us don’t realize it describes our relationship with God. The covenant perspective reveals why that relationship is possible and how it works.
In most western cultures, a covenant is a promise in a written contract or deed of real property, that defines special permissions such as allowing use of an easement. However, a biblical covenant and a western contract are completely different. Let’s consider their similarities and differences.
Similarities Between Contract and Covenant
Both are legal agreements which define relationships. Both have terms that describe the nature of the relationship, including lists of expectations. Both define benefits for adhering to the terms, and penalties for violating them. Both require all parties involved to affirm the agreement and may require legal witnesses. Although contracts and covenants may appear similar, a covenant’s underlying purpose is the opposite of a contract’s.
Differences Between Contract and Covenant
A contract defines a potentially confrontational or hostile relationship, in which each party protects their interests and benefits within the contract terms.
A covenant defines a loving, supportive relationship, in which each party focuses on the other’s success and well-being. Protections from abuse are unnecessary.
A contract defines a conditional relationship based on performance, so either party can change or cancel it if the other doesn’t meet the contract’s terms.
A covenant defines an unconditional, enduring relationship that only death can end.
The Bible is a Covenant Book
The Bible consists of two major parts: the Old Testament and the New Testament. The Old Testament describes several significant covenants before Jesus’ time, with special emphasis on the first one God made with Israel. The New Testament describes the new covenant with Israel, but Israel wasn’t ready for it, so God made it available to the gentiles to make Israel envious (Rom. 11:11). Eventually, Israel will be “saved,” or brought into the new covenant (Rom. 11:25-27). This series of articles, however, examines how the new covenant applies to Christians.
It should be no surprise that God also considers marriage a covenant between a man and a woman (see Mal. 2:14-15). We’ll see that most covenant features we examine apply to marriage, though we won’t address that in this series.
God initiates every covenant he makes with humanity, including the new covenant. He defines the covenant’s terms, so they’re nonnegotiable, and we must decide whether we’ll accept them. Though that may seem offensive to us at first, we soon realize we have nothing to fear from him because he always does what’s best for us; that’s covenant. Once we accept his covenant, if we then try to interpret it our own way, we create problems in our relationship with him. That’s not to suggest God gets angry and punishes us; rather, he may withdraw some of his protection and blessings, allowing us to experience more of the consequences of our choices. But he does that only out of love for us, encouraging us to return to him. He honors us by accepting our choices, so though he tries to persuade us, the choice is ours.
We’ll understand this relationship better as we learn what covenants are and how they work. Our behavior is evidence we don’t understand covenants. For example, we continue thinking and acting like the world; our families and friendships are falling apart; our divorce rate is high; and moral failure is not unusual among Christians. If we understood and honored covenants, we’d gladly be shining examples of how God’s ways are superior.
God’s New Covenant with Christians
On the night he was betrayed, at the event we call the “Last Supper,” Jesus introduced God’s new covenant. Luke 22:20 reads, “In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.’” By calling it “the new covenant,” he shows that it supersedes all previous covenants God made with humanity.
This covenant defines every aspect of our relationship with God – salvation, justification, righteousness, sanctification, holiness and everything else. This covenant applies to us as we believe on the Lord Jesus, accepting what he’s done for us. It’s main purpose is to restore us to relationship with God by abolishing our sin through Jesus’ death and resurrection. The only effort we must make to enter this covenant is to believe Jesus died in our behalf and accept the offer of God’s extraordinary grace.
In the following articles, we’ll examine the extent of God’s love for us, how fully committed he is to our well-being, and how he honored us by inviting us to enter covenant with him.
A covenant defines a loving, supportive relationship, in which each party focuses on the other’s success and well-being. It’s also an unconditional, enduring relationship that only death can end.
The Bible describes the covenants God makes with humanity, including the new covenant presented in the New Testament. This covenant defines every aspect of our relationship with him, so understanding it is essential to living an effective Christian life. In covenant, he always does what’s best for us.