Introduction to Covenants
Summary: Our relationship with God is based on covenant, and we’ll understand that relationship much better when we understand what covenants are and how they work.
The Bible describes a relationship that was typical throughout history, but is largely ignored by modern western cultures. Though most of us don’t realize it, it’s the kind of relationship God has with us. Yes, God is our Father and always will be, and the covenant perspective reveals why that relationship is possible and how it works.
Most Americans think a covenant is a contract or part of one. 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. However, a biblical covenant and a western contract are totally different. Let’s consider their similarities and differences.
Similarities Between Contract and Covenant
Both are legal agreements which define relationships. Both have terms or lists of expectations, blessings or benefits for adhering to the terms, and curses or penalties for violating the terms. Both require all parties involved to affirm the agreement and may require legal witnesses. Although contracts and covenants may look very similar on the surface, the underlying motivation of a covenant is the exact opposite of a contract’s.
Differences Between Contract and Covenant
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 is fully committed to the other’s success and well-being within the covenant terms. Protection of each party from the other is totally unnecessary.
A contract defines a conditional relationship based on performance, so either party can cancel it if the other doesn’t meet the contract’s terms. A contract can be changed or cancelled.
A covenant defines an unconditional, enduring relationship. It’s a binding obligation between the parties that can only be broken by death.
The Bible is a Covenant Book
The Bible consists of two major parts: the Old Testament and the New Testament, with the word “testament” better translated “covenant.” The Old Testament contains descriptions of several significant covenants before the time of Jesus, with special emphasis on the first covenant God made with Israel, and the New Testament describes the new covenant he initiated.
The new covenant is with Israel, which is an important point, but Israel wasn’t ready for it so God made covenant relationship with its salvation available to the Gentiles to make Israel envious. (Ro 11:11) At the appropriate time, Israel will be “saved,” or brought into the new covenant. (Ro 11:25-27) The emphasis of this series of articles, however, is on the new covenant as it 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) With that in mind, it will become clear 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 man, including the new covenant. He specifies every aspect of the covenant relationship, so it’s totally non-negotiable. 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 absolutely nothing to fear from him because he always does the absolute 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.
Our relationship with God is based on covenant, and we’ll understand that relationship much better when we understand what covenants are and how they work. The fact that we Christians don’t understand covenants is obvious. For example, many of us continue thinking and acting like the world; our families and friendships are falling apart; our divorce rate is identical to the world’s; moral failure is not unusual among Christians. If we Christians understood and honored covenants, we’d gladly be shining examples of the absolute supremacy of God’s ways.
God’s New Covenant with Christians
On the night he was betrayed, at the event we call the “Last Supper,” Jesus initiated 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 supercedes all the previous covenants God made with mankind.
As Christians, followers of Christ, our entire relationship with God is based on this covenant — 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 phenomenal grace.
May we begin to see the magnitude of God’s love for us, how fully committed he is to our well-being, and how he honored us by offering covenant relationship with him.