A Little Introduction to Covenants
We end the week talking about covenants. Yes, covenants. We need to. In the words of one recent book on the topic, “the covenants are not the central theme of Scripture. Instead, the covenants form the backbone of the Bible’s metanarrative and thus it is essential to ‘put them together’ correctly in order to discern accurately the whole counsel of God.” Those words are from Peter Gentry and Stephen Wellum (see Kingdom, 21; God’s Kingdom, 17).
Covenants are a sort of skeletal structure, and we must put them together rightly. To explain covenants and how they work, I called Dr. Don Carson. On occasional Fridays I call him up as part of our relationship with our friends at The Gospel Coalition. Carson is the co-founder and president of The Gospel Coalition, and also the editor of the NIV Zondervan Study Bible, which is the study Bible version of what we’re doing in these occasional Friday podcasts.
So what is a covenant, and how do they hold our Bibles together? Here’s Don Carson to explain.
Christians know, of course, that the Bible is made up of two testaments and they may wonder from time to time where the word testament comes from. It comes from two passages in the New Testament, one in Hebrews and one in Galatians where actually the word is properly rendered covenant. It would be easier, it would be more accurate to speak of the Bible as having two covenants: the old covenant and new covenant. Of course, we have inherited the term testament, so we will continue to speak of the Bible having two testaments, but the notion of covenant shapes an awful lot of how the Bible is put together rather than testament.
Again, we should begin in Genesis 1–3 in the garden of Eden. The word covenant isn’t used there. But one of the striking things that we have already seen part of about Genesis 1–3 is that those chapters lay a kind of seed bed of notions that are developed in much richer detail farther on in the Bible. The Bible doesn’t talk of God as King in those chapters. But he is clearly reigning. The Bible doesn’t talk about the church in those chapters, but there is the beginning of his own elect, covenant people. The Bible doesn’t really talk about blood sacrifice in those chapters, but nevertheless, the covering that God provides for Adam and Eve depends on the death of an animal. The Bible doesn’t talk about the Trinity, yet you have these strange expressions like, “Let us make man in our image” (Genesis 1:26).
And in the same way, the Bible certainly doesn’t speak of covenant there. Yet there is in some sense what some theologians have called a “covenant of works.” Probably the best defense of the notion that covenant is introduced in these chapters is the book by Michael Horton called Covenant and Eschatology. In any case, there is an agreement made by a sovereign — in this case, God — with human beings where there is worship and adoration on one side, and blessing and protection and privilege granted by God on the other side — on condition of certain obedience with threat of certain judgment if there is disobedience. That is the setup for the horrible drama of Genesis 3 where human beings choose defiance and disobedience and die — die in multiple ways.
I suppose, however, the first covenant that people fasten a lot of attention on is the Abrahamic covenant. But before we get there, there is the Noahic covenant or sometimes it is pronounced the Noacic covenant, the covenant with Noah after God destroys the world with water with only eight human beings left alive to repopulate the earth again. He promises in grace not to destroy the world again by water. The next destruction of the world will be by fire at the end of the age. That is a theology that is picked up in 2 Peter.
But in this case, God makes a covenant that is sealed by a public sign; namely, the rainbow. The rainbow takes on that covenantal significance. The Abrahamic covenant is much more complicated. It is sometimes called a “covenant of promise.” It turns on several chapters. First of all, Genesis 12: “The Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’” Now, the word covenant isn’t used there, but there is a flat out blessing from God with promise not only to Abraham but through Abraham to all the peoples on the earth who will be blessed through him. That is chapter 12.
“The drama of unfolding covenants brings us to the renewal of the covenant in the Lord’s Table and baptism.”
Genesis 15:1–2 has a dramatic scene. There God establishes his covenant with Abram. We read, “After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision: ‘Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.’” Then there is a lot of talk about God’s promise that he will provide a son and an heir and an inheritance (verses 2–4). And we are told in verse six, “He [Abram] believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness.”
Then by the end of the chapter, there is this dramatic scene that the first part of the chapter introduces (Genesis 15:12–21). In this scene in a vision as the sun is setting, Abram falls into a deep sleep and a thick and dreadful darkness comes over him. And the Lord promises some things that will take place in the future. And when the sun has fully set and darkness has fallen, there is a smoking fire pot with a blazing torch that appears and passes between animals that have been cut up, and the symbolism derives from curses in the day. Sometimes a sovereign state, a regional superpower would enter into a covenant with a vassal state. In fact, it would be an imposed covenant, but it would be cast after a sort of historical preamble. It would be passed into the mode of mutual promise. The regional sovereign promises protection and security and blessing and prosperity, and the vassal state promises obedience, paying taxes on time, not rebelling, and that sort of thing.
And then there is a mutual curse. “Let this be done to me and more also if I should break this covenant” (see Genesis 15:17). What it means, in fact, is that the curse falls on the lower member, on the vassal state. In other words, if the vassal state rebels and tries to make a political tie with some other regional power, there will be terrible judgment that follows. And in the symbolism of the cut animals, the two parties are supposed to walk between the cut up animals and implicitly they are saying: “Let this be done to me. Let my body be cut up and trashed if I were to break this covenant.” But in this vision slumber of Abram, only the fire pot that represents God goes between the two animals, as if God himself takes on the entire curse all by himself. That is chapter 15.
In Genesis 17 the covenant is sealed by the sign of circumcision. And then there is Genesis 22 and the testing of Abraham, the almost-sacrifice of Abraham’s son after God stops Abraham from killing the boy. The voice from heaven, the angel of the Lord speaks, “Do not lay your hand on the boy . . . I know that you fear God” (verse 12). And Abraham eventually calls that place, “‘The Lord will provide’; as it is said to this day, ‘On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided’” (verse 14).
And then the angel of the Lord calls to Abraham from heaven a second time. And God through him swears, “Because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you, and I will surely make your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice” (Genesis 22:16–18). That is the same blessing and the promise that goes all the way back to chapters 12, 15, and 17.
Now, it is possible to configure these chapters a little differently. For example, there is an excellent Australian scholar called Paul Williamson whose book Sealed with an Oath: Covenant in God’s Unfolding Purpose sees two covenants here rather than just one. But the detail is not nearly as important as seeing how this Abrahamic covenant or these Abrahamic covenants, if you prefer, are fulfilled in the New Testament. This promise that through Abram’s seed all the nations of the earth will be blessed is picked up in spectacular display, especially in Galatians 3. And the fulfillment is found in the ultimate seed, Jesus Christ himself who brings blessing to all the peoples of the earth as promised. So, that is the Abrahamic covenant.
Then a covenant is made with the people of God as a nation in Exodus, and this is the one that is sometimes referred to in the New Testament as the old covenant. It is the covenant that predominates in day-to-day existence amongst the Israelites for much of their national existence. After God pulls the people out of the land of slavery, that is the presupposition of the covenant. God saves the people first and then enters into a covenant with them where we are told, “On the third new moon after the people of Israel had gone out of the land of Egypt, on that day they came into the wilderness of Sinai” (Exodus 19:1). And there Moses goes up to the mount of God, and God calls him and says,
“Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the people of Israel: ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel.” (Exodus 19:3–6)
And the same order of things is found in the next chapter, the Ten Commandments, the high point of this covenantal structure. But the presupposition is, again, that it is imposed by God who has brought people out of the land of Egypt. God spake all these words, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the land of slavery” (Exodus 20:2). And then you begin, “You shall have no other gods before me” and so forth (Exodus 20:3).
Chapters 21–23 are the so-called holiness code. And then you get to Exodus 24, and the covenant is confirmed. So much of the Old Testament is bound up with the importance of the Sinai covenant as it is sometimes called or the old covenant or the Mosaic covenant because Moses was the mediator. And what is very clear about that covenant is that it is profoundly conditioned by obedience. “You will be my people if you obey me.”
And then there is the book of Deuteronomy where the book is structured as a series of addresses by Moses to the people before he dies, and they are on the edge of entering into the Promised Land. The structure, the language of the book is a kind of renewal of the covenants. It is the establishing, once more, of the Mosaic covenant. It is the book of the covenant in many, many respects. And that is all before you even get over the Pentateuch.
Then further covenant is established with David and the inauguration of the Davidic dynasty. We will come back to that in a later session. But that is really important as well, with promises that are given to David about great David’s greater Son: God will ensure that there is a Davidite, someone from the line of David who is sitting on the throne, and ultimately he will be called the Wonderful Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace. That is from Isaiah 9:6, of course — words we sing every Christmas in the glorious music of Handel’s Messiah. But the base promise of that is found in 2 Samuel 7.
“God promised centuries before Christ that the old covenant wouldn’t last forever.”
Then we will skip over that to the promise of the new covenant. And that shows up in several Old Testament passages, not least Jeremiah 31 and also in Ezekiel 36 and elsewhere, so that already God is promising centuries before Christ that the old covenant, that is, the covenant with Moses, won’t last forever. Indeed, the writer to the Hebrews spells the argument out in Hebrews 8 very powerfully after quoting Jeremiah 31: I will make a new covenant in those days. It will not be like the old covenant. It will be a new covenant (see Hebrews 8:8–12). And then he spells out the particulars by which it will be characterized as new. Then the writer to the Hebrews says in Hebrews 8:13, “In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete.” He is promising a new covenant. And that is six centuries before the coming of Christ when already there is promise of a new covenant.
Which raises, of course, all kinds of questions about how the old one will relate to the new one. What things will continue? What things won’t continue? For example, according to Jesus in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus made certain foods clean (Mark 7:19). That is in contradistinction to the stipulations of the old covenant. We will come back to those points later in this series as well. But there are points of continuity between the old covenant and the new covenant, and there are points of discontinuity.
So now with this multiplicity of covenants, you begin to see how they point forward to the new covenant with Jesus in different ways. The Abrahamic covenant points forward to the new covenant by promising a seed that would bring blessing to the whole earth and by making of Abraham a prototypical figure of faith. He becomes the father of those who share his saving faith. That argument is worked out, for example, in Romans 4. And the old covenant establishes all kinds of structures of right and wrong and blessing and curse and the importance of obedience, but it does not have intrinsic power to transform. That is not the way the old covenant is structured, the Mosaic covenant is structured.
But on the other hand, it establishes many precedents and structures. For example, it is under the terms of the old covenant that the ark of the covenant, as it is called, becomes really important on which the blood of bull and goat is sprinkled. And this is the place of the tabernacle, the meeting place between God and human beings. It is the organizing of the people of God into a nation state, a covenant people, a kingdom of priests. And all of these things become structures that point forward to and anticipate the covenant people of God when Jesus says: I will build my assembly. “I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18). He comes as the messianic covenant maker.
Now, there are some people who look at the promises of the new covenant in Jeremiah 31 and parallels and say that what is promised is merely the renewal of the covenant. And I would say that they are partly right. That is, there are some elements of the covenant that are being renewed, but nevertheless the language of Jeremiah 31 is very explicit. It will not be like the old covenant in certain particulars that we don’t really have time to detail. And that is the language that Hebrews 8 picks up very explicitly. It is the promise of a new covenant that makes the old one obsolete and passing away. If the promise were merely of a renewed covenant, then it would be an improper inference to draw that the old one is becoming obsolete and passing away (see Hebrews 8:13).
And then, of course, when you come to the passion narrative at the Last Supper, Jesus takes the cup and says, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood” (1 Corinthians 11:25). And Hebrews 10 works this out in detail to make it clear that Jesus is the Mediator of a new covenant and that he is entering into a better tabernacle: his sacrifice is complete and once for all and doesn’t have to be repeated year after year. And as the Mediator of this new covenant he is able to save to the uttermost all those who come to God by him, precisely because his sacrifice was once for all and does not need to be repeated and his blood is utterly sufficient in this respect (Hebrews 7:23–28).
“As our better Mediator, Jesus’s sacrifice is utterly sufficient. It doesn’t have to be repeated year after year.”
Now, there are many other things that could be said along these lines. John’s Gospel doesn’t use the word covenant for example. But it is replete with covenant themes. There is a promise of land connected in the Old Testament covenant with Abraham. And Christians have disagreed on exactly how those covenantal promises are fulfilled. But one of the recent books in the “New Studies in Biblical Theology” series, the book by Oren Martin Bound for the Promised Land argues pretty strongly that the ultimate fulfillment is a new heaven and a new earth. It is more than just the land of Israel, not less.
And likewise, there are some differences amongst Christians as to exactly the way the new covenant fulfills the old, but those debates need not detain us here. What is important for our purposes is that this drama of unfolding covenants — and I haven’t listed all of them — this drama of unfolding covenants finally brings us to the renewal of the covenant in the Lord’s Table and the covenantal seal of baptism, which is held by both baptists and paedobaptists. They interpret it a little differently, but nevertheless, there is the covenantal seal of baptism that marks out the people of God.
And so, we are to see ourselves now as people of the new covenant in continuity with a covenant of grace pronounced to Abraham in fulfillment of the covenant of law that is worked out with Moses and at Sinai with typological fulfillments and explicit fulfillments now at the end of the age, in the fullness of time, until we finally land in the new heaven and the new earth, the home of righteousness, the end of all the covenantal promises.