Introduction to the New Covenant
Summary: The new covenant defines the relationship God wants to have with every human, what he intends to achieve through that relationship and how he does it.
The Bible describes a relationship honored throughout history, but largely ignored by modern western cultures. Though most of us don’t realize it, it’s the relationship we have with God if we’ve accepted Jesus as our Savior and it’s called “covenant.” Yes, God always will be our Father and the covenant perspective reveals why that’s possible.
In this study, we’ll investigate the major covenants described in the Bible to gain insight to God’s relationship with man throughout history and his intent for the covenant that’s available to us today. Especially in western culture, many people think that covenants and contracts are the same, so we’ll begin by considering their similarities and differences. Then we’ll examine the significance of covenants to the Bible and how they demonstrate God’s extraordinary love for humanity. This will lay an essential foundation for the following chapters, in which we’ll investigate essential covenant elements and strive to interpret relevant scriptures correctly.1
While this may sound like just an academic study, it’s my goal to show you the beauty, depth and balance of this astounding relationship we have with God. Maybe you think the Bible is only a history book or has no real pattern to it. Maybe the blessings and promises God offers in it seem almost arbitrary and unrelated. If that’s the case for you, I understand because that’s how I used to view the Bible.
Since I became aware of covenants, the Bible has continued to unfold and I’m increasingly awed at what God has done for us. I keep discovering more of God’s intent for us and it’s all based on covenant; all of it. Now I wonder how it’s possible to have a healthy relationship with God, serve him effectively and fulfill one’s life purpose without an understanding of our covenant relationship. The more I learn about biblical covenants, the more I want to know, because they explain so many otherwise puzzling things we see in scripture. It’s like I can’t learn enough! I’m beginning to understand how angels can stand around God’s throne and call out, “Holy, holy, holy,” as they keep seeing new aspects of his nature and ways.
May this study revolutionize your perspective of the Bible and the God who wrote it.
Most Americans think covenants and contracts are the same. In the American legal system, 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. Homeowners association covenants are promises to respect the rules of conduct, use of the property, limitations on construction, and so on.
However, a biblical covenant and a western contract are completely different. Let’s consider their similarities and differences.
Both are legal agreements which define relationships. Both include terms or lists of expectations, benefits for adhering to the terms, and penalties for violating the terms. Both require all parties involved to affirm the agreement and may require legal witnesses.
Although they may look similar on the surface, a covenant’s underlying motivation is the exact opposite of a contract’s. A contract defines a potentially adversarial or hostile relationship, in which each party focuses on protecting their interests and maximizing their benefits within the contract terms.
A covenant defines a loving relationship, in which each party fully commits to the other’s success and well-being within the covenant terms. Protecting one party from the other is 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.
Exchanging something of value is essential to a contract. In fact, most contracts require payment in exchange for a specified product or service.
In contrast, covenants typically involve an exchange of abilities and resources, but this isn’t its primary purpose.
Parties seal a contract with their signatures, promising to fulfill their contractual obligations, but their promise is only as good as their character.
Parties seal a covenant, however, with an oath before God.
The difference between contracts and covenants is like the difference between law and grace. Law and grace both set standards and expect all parties to conform to those standards. The law requires obedience and penalizes any violation of the standards. In contrast, grace equips and motivates people to obey the standards.
In modern western culture, we may think grace simply excuses mistakes or overlooks problems, but the biblical perspective of grace enables us to do what’s needed. God’s grace toward us doesn’t excuse our sin, but enables us to become righteous! Law demands obedience, but grace enables us to obey.
We don’t have a good example of covenant in our modern western culture. In reality, God considers marriage a covenant between a man and a woman, but since we view marriage as a contract, we’re casual about divorce.2
A covenant is a loving, enduring relationship in which each partner focuses on the other’s well-being and success, including what they deserve, need or want.
The Old Testament contains descriptions of several significant covenants, with emphasis on God’s original one with Israel, and the New Testament describes the new one Jesus initiated. When we understand covenants and read the Bible as a covenant book, it becomes much clearer. The Bible isn’t a collection of random stories or a list of arbitrary principles. There’s a coherence through the entire Bible and the glue is covenants. To understand the Bible properly, we simply must understand covenants.
God initiates every covenant he makes with man, including the new covenant. He specifies every aspect of the covenant relationship, so we can only accept or reject the covenant in its entirety. 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.
Covenants around the world and throughout history fall into several categories, but we see only a few different types in Scripture. We see a few examples of defense covenants in the Old Testament, in which two or more parties – individuals, villages or nations – pledge to defend and protect each other. We also see examples of peace covenants or treaties, in which potential enemies agree not to attack each other.
There’s also a beautiful example of a life covenant, in which two individuals fully devoted themselves to each other – David and Jonathan. Their covenant is a key to some important events in the Old Testament, shows some of the reasons God made covenant with David, and serves as an excellent example of covenants between people.
Defense, peace and life covenants are “parity” covenants, which means the partners have equal status. Most covenants we find in Scripture, however, are those God makes with people. God obviously is superior to those with whom he makes covenant, so those are suzerain covenants by definition. The superior party specifies the details of a suzerain covenant and the other party must accept or reject it as specified, without bargaining or negotiating.
Suzerain covenants between humans are usually oppressive. For example, a strong nation conquering and occupying a weaker nation would dictate how the occupied nation may continue to operate. Scripture reveals that God’s covenants with people are suzerain, but not oppressive because he’s motivated by love. He offers this relationship to those he loves because of who he is, not because we deserve it. We either go to God on his terms or we don’t go to him at all; it’s that simple and that clear.
Many church traditions and all of God’s dealings with us reflect our covenant relationship. The covenant enables us to come boldly into his presence, receive his help when we need it and become his heirs. It reveals why Jesus has scars in his glorified body, why God gave us the Holy Spirit, and so much more.
The Bible is covenant book, so if we don’t understand covenants, we’ll misinterpret the Bible.
As stated earlier, a covenant is a durable, loving relationship in which each partner fully commits to the other’s well-being and success, including what they deserve, need or want. This motivates each party to lay aside personal concerns and focus on the other’s benefit.
Because we’re inherently self-centered, we’re naturally interested in the benefits we’ll receive from a covenant, including the one we have with God. But our self-centeredness violates our covenant’s purpose and so interferes with our relationship. To help us change our focus, let’s consider the extent of his love for us.
To begin with, consider the Trinity, the three members of the godhead – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – who are in such close relationship and unity we refer to them collectively as God. Among other things, this indicates a close, loving and supportive relationship among them. Jesus used what we might consider unusual language to describe his relationship with Father, saying he was in the Father who also was in him.3 Significantly, Jesus also stated he wanted us to have the same kind of relationship – Jesus in us, just as Father is in Jesus and Jesus in the Father.4 In other words, God wants us to have a close, loving and supportive relationship with him; something even the angels don’t have.
Think about how he made that possible. In the Genesis creation account, God stated he would make man in his own image and likeness.5 The words translated “image” and “likeness” have similar meanings and refer to God’s essential nature, so he patterned Adam after himself. The Bible refers to angels as “sons of God” because he created them, but nowhere does it state he created them in his image or likeness.6 So man alone is the image and likeness of God.
God designed marriage as the ultimate loving relationship among humans, in which a man will leave his parents and unite with his wife.7 It likely is God’s intent for this relationship to help us understand the close, loving and supportive one he wants to have with each of us. Marriage is unique to humans, by God’s design; angels do not marry.8
He gave man and other living creatures on earth the ability to procreate and populate the earth.9 For man, this parallels God’s ability to create other beings and is reserved for the marriage relationship. In the Law God gave Moses for the Israelites, any other sexual relations were unacceptable and the New Testament refers to them as sexual immorality.10 It wasn’t God’s will for angels to procreate and those who abandoned their place in heaven, took on physical form and produced children through human women received severe judgment.11 Among sentient, spiritual beings, God limited procreation to humans.
In Psalm 8, David wrote that God made man a little lower than elohim, and various Bible versions translate that Hebrew word as God, heavenly beings or angels.12 It’s significant that David wrote that God made man lower or inferior, decreased or lessened his status, and only by a small amount or for a short time. So when did God make Adam lower than the angels; when he originally created him or after he sinned? Let’s examine other passages that will clarify this.
God gave man his own domain over which he was to rule, which included living creatures.13 Nowhere does scripture state God did this for any other beings. He created a hierarchy of spiritual beings and gave archangels authority over other angels, but he didn’t give them their own planet and creatures to rule over. He only did that for man.
God gave spiritual beings free will, including man, knowing some would choose to reject his standards. One of the archangels, Lucifer, wanted to usurp God, who then expelled him from heaven.14 Lucifer then usurped Adam and Eve, becoming the prince of this world and causing God to expel them from the Garden of Eden.15 Because they disregarded what God said, they came under Lucifer’s control and became a little lower than both God and the angels, as David wrote in Psalm 8.
God knew before he created the universe this would happen and sent his Son to die for our sins, but not those of the fallen angels.16 Forgiveness of sin is only available to people, which also makes us unique.
God loved the world – all of us – so much that he gave his only Son to die for our sin while we were still sinners.17 He doesn’t want anyone to die for their sin, so he paid the price for all sin and invites us to repent so he can save us from sin and death.18 Everyone who rejects his offer of salvation will pay the price for their own sin because they’re still guilty and deserve spiritual death.19
God delivered Jesus over to death to pay the price for our sins.20 He forgave all our sins and keeps no record of them.21 He makes everything work together for our good or benefit.22 He’s given us everything we need for life and godliness.23 He’s developing his nature in us, making us like Christ, so we can experience him as he is, participate in what he does and receive all he has; and it’s all for our benefit! He does none of this for angels.
Jesus also demonstrates the extreme nature of God’s love for humanity. The Son of God became the Son of Man by laying aside his divine nature, his equality with God, to become Jesus the man.24 He became impoverished and destitute so we could become rich, prosperous and generous not in material wealth, but in every aspect of our lives, relationships and beings; especially our spirits.25 He experienced temptation, just as we do, yet didn’t sin.26
At the end of Jesus’ ministry, the religious and civil authorities arrested him and subjected him to brutal physical punishment before executing him. The Sanhedrin and Roman soldiers struck him in the face with their fists.27 The soldiers flogged him, which often was fatal because it tore the person’s flesh open.28 The soldiers then placed a crown made of thorns on his head, piercing his scalp.29 They struck him repeatedly on the head with a staff; scripture doesn’t say they first removed the crown of thorns.30 Isaiah prophesied he was unrecognizable, so disfigured he didn’t even look like a man.31 The soldiers forced him to carry his cross but eventually he couldn’t, so they forced someone else to carry it for him.32
The Romans perfected crucifixion because they knew exactly where to drive the nails to sever major nerves and maximize the pain, so Roman crucifixion was a slow, torturous death. The guards stripped him of his clothes and divided them among themselves.33 The holy, sinless Son of God took all the world’s sin on himself, so God had to turn away and forsake him.34
Jesus hung on the cross for six hours in excruciating pain, bleeding and suffocating to death, until he cried out, “It is finished.” Then he breathed his last breath and gave up his spirit.35 He went to the place of torment for all sinners, and preached the good news to everyone there.36 Finally, on the third day, God resurrected him from the grave.37
Jesus knew beforehand what he would experience, but accepted this as the only legal way to rescue humanity from bondage to sin and spiritual death. Beyond question, this demonstrates how much Jesus loves you and me. Though it’s greater than anything we’ve ever known and we’ll never know the full extent of it, with God’s help we can begin to comprehend the extent of his love for us.38
God has a special love for Israel and repeatedly referred to Israel as “my people.”39 In the Old Testament, he was among the Israelites on the ark of the covenant in the Most Holy Place.40 He even placed his name on Jerusalem.41 In the future, his throne will be in New Jerusalem so he will be among his people and they will see his face, as he has always wanted.42
As we’ll see in later chapters, God made his original covenant with Israel while they were traveling from Egypt to the Promised Land. That was a covenant of law and provided blessings or curses dependent on the people’s obedience.43 The people eventually rejected that covenant and God promised to make a new and different covenant with them.44 The new covenant is based on God’s grace and provides salvation and other blessings for people who accept Jesus’ sacrifice for their sin.
Jesus stated that God sent him only to the Jews, the “lost sheep of Israel,” and he initially sent his disciples only to the Jews.45 Then he initiated the new covenant by paying the price for all sin, making the covenant available to everyone by faith; the Jews first, then the Gentiles.46
God always intended for Jesus to be a light to the Gentiles.47 So, through his death and resurrection, Jesus destroyed the hostility between Jews and Gentiles, uniting them into one body, making the Gentiles members of God’s household and heirs with Israel.48 This is the “mystery of Christ.”49 Romans describes this union as grafting wild olive shoots into a cultivated olive vine.50 Stated another way, Gentiles who believe in Jesus are Abraham’s descendants and heirs.51 Notice that Gentile believers aren’t offspring of Moses, because the Law of Moses never applied to Gentiles, but they’re descendants of Abraham, to whom God attributed righteousness because of his faith.52
Unfortunately, many church denominations believe what is called replacement theology, supersessionism or fulfillment theology. There are several forms of this, but essentially it’s a belief the church has superseded or replaced Israel in God’s plan. This view interprets God’s relationship with Christians as replacing, fulfilling or completing the promises he made to the Jews in the Old Testament.
This belief is widespread today and many mainline churches adhere to it. As a result, many churches believe the Jews are no longer God’s chosen people, the modern nation of Israel is illegitimate and has no right to exist. Therefore, these churches openly oppose what they call Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land, the return of Jews to Israel, building new Israeli communities and defensive barriers. However, Israel will always be the center of God’s attention because he will never violate his covenants with Abraham and Israel.53
God told Abraham, “I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you. The whole land of Canaan, where you are now an alien, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God.”54 Like his covenant with Abraham, God’s covenant with Israel is everlasting or never-ending.55
Even the land of Israel is part of God’s commitment. The land itself belongs to God56 and he gave it to Israel as an everlasting gift or inheritance.57
When God made this covenant, he knew Abraham’s descendants, the nation of Israel, would ignore it, not serve him and collectively reject Jesus as Messiah. Yet he repeatedly stated the covenant is everlasting. History clearly shows the nation suffered the consequences for rejecting covenant – commonly called covenant curses – but their actions didn’t nullify the covenant because God considers it everlasting.
The new covenant extends God’s grace to both Jew and Gentile. “For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile – the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’”58 Today, Jewish believers in Yeshua or Jesus call themselves Messianic Jews, while Gentile believers call themselves Christians. These titles reflect the people’s origin and culture, but before God there’s no distinction because all believers are one in Christ Jesus.59
Although most Jews have experienced a partial spiritual hardening, eventually all Israel will be saved.60 God’s gifts and his call to the descendants of Abraham are irrevocable.61 He will never forsake the nation of Israel or the Jewish people, so any description of the new covenant that excludes them is incomplete and misrepresents God’s plan.
In the beginning, God made covenant with Adam, whom he created in his own image and crowned with glory.62 Adam was God’s peer, as much as a created being could be like his Creator, and God gave him qualities and attributes like his own. He gave Adam a domain to rule over – all of physical creation – just as he ruled over his domain.63
I suggest God did this because he wanted relationship with someone who had a lot in common with him and could participate in what he does. God created angels as servants, but it’s impossible to have a close relationship with servants.64 God wanted a peer relationship with Adam, so they could have common experiences and enjoy being together. That’s God’s intent for us; not because we’re such wonderful people, but because it’s an expression of his nature and it’s what he wants. We’ll discover that didn’t change when Adam and Eve sinned. Instead, God uses the new covenant to bring his covenant partners into such a relationship.
The new covenant is with Israel, which is an important point, but Israel wasn’t ready for it so God made it available to the Gentiles to make Israel envious.65 Eventually, Israel will be “saved” or brought into the new covenant.66
The new covenant defines the relationship God wants to have with every human, what he intends to achieve through that relationship and how he does it. He begins with our original spiritual condition: sin and death enslaved us and we desperately needed someone to liberate us.67 Through the new covenant, he paid the price for our sin and reconciled us to himself, legally transferring us from our bondage in Satan’s kingdom to his own kingdom.68
He fully redeems us from the effects of sin, making us his children and citizens of his kingdom.69 He develops us spiritually to be like his Son, Jesus, places us in positions of kingdom responsibility and equips us to do the work of his kingdom, which includes destroying Satan’s works. He removes the debris left in us by sin’s destructive power and rebuilds the basic qualities that are like his. He endows us with the Holy Spirit to work directly with us and perform God’s work in us.
As we examine the new covenant, it’d be easy to conclude it’s about God meeting our needs and blessing us beyond what we can imagine. The covenant benefits we experience now are wonderful, even beyond description, but they’re only a taste of what’s to come. The Bible states that no one has seen or heard or even imagined what God’s prepared for us in this life and eternity.70 Yet God does this because it’s his nature, not because we deserve it.
He’ll show everyone – those who love him and those who oppose him – the unlimited power of his love, his mercy, his grace, his holiness and his devotion for his creation. Ultimately in eternity, it’ll be as though sin had never affected creation, except for the marks in Jesus’ body, which will be eternal reminders of what it cost God to redeem us from sin. He will have purified us from our sin and that purging will produce a splendor that will exceed Adam’s, simply because that’s God’s intent and it’s the way he works.
The new covenant describes the relationship in which God and those humans who enter covenant with him devote themselves fully to each other. It’s an eternal pledge sealed by his unbreakable oath that brings us into the highest relationship anyone can enjoy with God, and that brings him the greatest pleasure.71 His grace and love motivate him to raise us to his level so he can share all that he has and all that he is with us. Through the covenant, we become a unique people who draw great strength and new character from him and he accomplishes the seemingly impossible through us.
Almost everything you will read in this study you will have read before, but our goal is to see how it applies to the new covenant. Sure, we know Jesus died for our sins, that we are now members of God’s family, that we have spiritual authority, that we can ask God for help and so on. We’ll see, however, that everything the New Testament says about us is relevant only within the context of our covenant.
We see that man was and remains the only creature that bears God’s image and likeness, though temporarily lowered in the cosmic hierarchy by sin. He created us to become like him and eventually rule with him. His response to man’s sin makes the extent of his love for humanity completely clear. He lovingly comes down to our level, in a sense, to honor us by dealing with us more or less as his equals, and he does this by offering us covenant relationship. He doesn’t just feel or express love; he is love and he expresses it freely to humans.72 He doesn’t love us for what we’ve done, but because of who he is.
This is all evidence of God’s extraordinary love for man. Now let’s look at the biblical covenants to see how he expresses his love through covenant relationship.
1. 2 Tim. 2:15
2. see Mal. 2:14-15
3. John 17:21
4. John 17:21-23
5. Gen. 1:26
6. Job 1:6; 2:1; 38:7
7. Gen. 2:24
8. Matt. 22:30
9. Gen. 1:22, 28; 8:17; 9:7
10. Lev. 18:6-18, 20, 22-23; Rom. 1:24; 13:13; 1 Cor. 6:9, 18; et al
11. Gen. 6:4; Jude 6
12. Ps. 8:5
13. Gen. 1:26
14. Isa. 14:12-15; Ezek. 28:14-17
15. John 14:30; Gen. 3:23-24
16. Eph. 1:4; 2 Tim. 1:9; Titus 1:2; 1 Pet. 1:20
17. John 3:16-17; 1 John 2:2; Rom. 5:8
18. 2 Pet. 3:9
19. Rom. 6:23
20. Rom. 4:25; 1 Cor. 15:3; 1 John 4:10
21. Col. 2:13; 1 Cor. 13:5
22. Rom. 8:28-29
23. 2 Pet. 1:3
24. Phil. 2:6-7
25. 2 Cor. 8:9
26. Heb. 4:15
27. Matt. 26:67; John 19:3
28. Matt. 27:26; Mark 15:15; John 19:1
29. Matt. 27:29; Mark 15:17; John 19:2, 5
30. Matt. 27:30; Mark 15:19
31. Isa. 50:6; 52:14
32. Matt. 27:32
33. Matt. 27:35; Mark 15:24; Luke 23:34; John 19:23
34. Matt. 27:46; Mark 15:34
35. Matt. 27:50; Mark 15:37; Luke 23:46; John 19:30
36. Rom. 10:7; Eph. 4:9; 1 Pet. 3:19-20
37. Matt. 12:40; 27:63; Mark 9:31; 10:34
38. Eph. 3:18-19
39. Exod. 3:7; 5:1; Lev. 26:12; Jer. 31:33; et al
40. Exod. 28:35; Lev. 16:2; 1 Sam. 4:4
41. 1 Kings 11:36; 2 Kings 21:4, 7; 2 Chron. 6:6; Dan. 9:18-19
42. Rev. 22:3-4
43. Lev. 26:1-39
44. Jer. 31:31-32
45. Matt. 15:24; Acts 10:36; Matt. 10:5-7
46. John 1:29; 2 Cor. 5:19; 1 John 2:2; Eph. 2:8; Rom. 1:16
47. Isa. 42:6; 49:6
48. Eph. 2:14-16, 19; 3:6
49. Eph. 3:4-6
50. Rom. 11:13-24
51. Gal. 3:29
52. Rom. 4:3, 13
53. Lev. 26:44; Judg. 2:1
54. Gen. 17:7–8
55. Isa. 61:8; Ezek. 37:26
56. Lev. 25:23, Isa. 14:25; Jer. 2:7; 16:18; Ezek. 38:16; Joel 1:6-7; 3:2
57. Gen. 13:14-15; Gen. 35:12; Deut. 4:40; Deut. 21:23; Deut. 24:4; Deut. 25:19; Deut. 26:1
58. Rom. 10:12-13
59. Gal. 3:28
60. Rom. 11:25-27
61. Rom. 11:28-29
62. Hos. 6:7; Gen. 1:27; Ps. 8:5
63. Gen. 1:28; Ps. 8:6-8
64. Heb. 1:7; Rev 22:8-9
65. Rom. 11:11
66. Rom. 11:25-27
67. Rom. 3:23; 6:17; 8:2; Rev. 1:5
68. 2 Cor. 5:18; Col. 1:13
69. Tit. 2:14; Phil. 2:15; 3:20
70. 1 Cor. 2:9
71. Heb. 6:16-18; 13:20
72. 1 John 4:8, 16