Covenants of the Bible

What's A Covenant?

A covenant is an agreement between two parties to share a relationship with one another. These can be alliances, loyalty agreements, and any other form of formal relationship. We see many of these throughout Scripture.

This requires a commitment between the two parties, and a commitment to oneself for entering the agreement. If one party violates the covenant, there are usually consequences written into the covenant. An example of this is the blessings and curses of Deuteronomy 28.

To make a covenant (cut a covenant) you need:

  1. A relationship. Covenants don’t have to initiate relationships but a relationship must be in place to form a covenant.
  2. Specific language for making the covenant (“cut a covenant”) because of how the covenant is made.
  3. Binding or legal status to a relationship begun a formal, solemn ceremony. Contracts can be started without this component.
  4. Involves a commitment, oath, or promise along with signs or witnesses. For Abraham and the Jewish people, circumcision is a sign of the covenant they have with God.

People called making a covenant “cutting a covenant” because making covenants in the Old Testament required cutting an animal in two halves and walking between them. The person was saying, “Let me end up like this animal if I violate the covenant.”

Today, contracts have replaced covenants. These serve two different purposes. Contracts are in-oriented while covenants are relationship-oriented. Contracts supply a service or product. Covenants form of oil relationship between two parties. Covenants require faithfulness and loyal love.

God describes the relationship He wants to build with people throughout the Bible through covenants. He has declared over and over through Scripture, “I will be their God and they will be my people” (Exod 6:7; Jer 24:7; 31:33; Ezek 11:20; 37:27; 2 Cor 6:16; Heb 8:10; Rev 21:7).

Progressive Revelation – as you read through Scripture from beginning to end, God gives deeper meaning and more precise understanding of His plan of redemption.

God's Covenant with Noah (Genesis 6-9)

The circumstances for God’s covenant with Noah begin with humanity becoming more and more violent and wicked (Genesis 6:5, 11-13). So God sends the Great Flood as His judgment for human wickedness.

Cutting a covenant initiates it. Establishing a covenant verbally affirms it. God establishes his covenant with Noah (Genesis 6:18; 9:9, 11, 17). God establishes or affirms His covenant with Noah.

“And God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. The fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth and upon every bird of the heavens, upon everything that creeps on the ground and all the fish of the sea. Into your hand they are delivered. Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. And as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything. But you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. And for your lifeblood I will require a reckoning: from every beast I will require it and from man. From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man. “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image. And you, be fruitful and multiply, increase greatly on the earth and multiply in it.”” (Genesis 9:1–7, ESV)

God's Covenant with Abraham (Genesis 12, 15, 17, 22)

God begins by promising Abraham a son as an heir, becoming the father of many nations, and a land of his own.

“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.” But Abram said, “O Lord GOD, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “Behold, you have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir.” And behold, the word of the LORD came to him: “This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir.” And he brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” And he believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness. And he said to him, “I am the LORD who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to possess.” But he said, “O Lord GOD, how am I to know that I shall possess it?”” (Genesis 15:1–8, ESV)

After God’s promises, God commands Abraham to gather the animals needed to sacrifice to initiate the covenant that will confirm these promises with Abraham’s obedience. The next section of Genesis 15 is the ceremony of the covenant.

“When the sun had gone down and it was dark, behold, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your offspring I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim,” (Genesis 15:17–20, ESV)

All the components needed for a covenant appear here. Earlier, God caused a deep sleep to fall over Abraham (Genesis 15:15). He had already commanded Abraham to get the animals for the sacrifice (Genesis 15:9-10).

The smoking pot and flaming torch represent the presence of the Lord. We have seen elsewhere in the Bible that God is a consuming fire () and His presence has come down and fire on Mount Sinai (). He led the Israelites through the wilderness in a pillar of fire by night (). God Himself is passing through the halves of the animal.

God makes His promises to Abraham official through making a covenant, literally cutting a covenant, as the animals are cut in half, the sacrifice of the animal and cutting it signifying the blood that must be spilt for the covenant to be made. Then God confirms everything he has said by promising land to Abraham.

The Sign of the Covenant (Genesis 17)

To confirm the covenant God has made with Abraham, He commands Abraham and his entire household to be circumcised (Genesis 17:9-14). After God gives Abraham more detailed promises, Abraham follows through in obedience (Genesis 17:23-27).

God has the responsibility in the covenant relationship to supernaturally open Sarah’s womb and give Abraham an heir. Through fulfilling this promise, God also makes Abraham the father of a great nation. God then makes it possible for Abraham’s descendents to own the land He has promised.

But Abraham also has responsibilities in this covenant relationship. He must be obedient to God by bearing the sign of the covenant and making sure his descendents do. He must be a blessing to the nations. He must be God’s representative and represent God’s principles.

Covenants have responsibilities for both parties. Failure to fulfill one’s side of the covenant responsibilities allows the other party to dissolve the covenant. This is called breaking the covenant. Only the one offended can forgive the other party.

Old Covenant (Mount Sinai, Exodus 19-24)

An outline of the covenant with Israel through Moses at Mount Sinai looks like this:

  1. Background (19)
  2. The Ten Commandments (20)
  3. The Judgments (21-23)
  4. The Covenant Ceremony (24)

The Ten Commandments are prescriptive laws, meaning that they are forever laws for every individual. The judgments are case laws, giving an example of a rule to follow. We form our principles for how we treat others from these case laws.

The covenant structure:

I. Preamble (20:1)
II. Historical Prologue (20:2)
III. Stipulations
      a. Basic (20:3-17)
      b. Detailed (21-23)
IV. Document Clause (24)

Moses is the mediator of the old covenant, going up and down Mount Sinai between God above and the people below. While many Bible teachers call this the covenant of law and the new covenant a covenant of grace, this is a covenant of grace as well.

God gave grace to Israel in making this covenant with them (Exodus 19:4-6). As with all covenants, this one is conditional. Israel must do their part for God to bless them and do as He promised.

The Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:3-21)
We can divide these commandments into the first four being God word or vertical and the last six being man word or horizontal. The first four concern our relationship with God while the last six concern our relationship with other people.

Our relationship with God comes first. But we do not honor God fully if we do not respect and treat well other people because they are made in God’s image. So you could see all ten laws as worshiping God through different means.

The Judgments (Exodus 20:22-23:33)
These laws contain both “You shall/shall not” prescriptive laws and conditional case law. These laws are an expansion of the Ten Commandments. Some scholars say these are examples of judicial prudence, how judges have ruled in these situations.

Mostly, they show us how to treat our neighbors and those around us. What we do either pleases the Lord or puts us under His judgment. We must not abuse our fellow human beings. God created them, and He views how we treat His creation of all kinds as either worship to Him or a reason for His judgment to fall on us.

Ultimately, Yahweh comes down on Mount Sinai, the King entering the midst of His people. He makes a covenant with them so they can be in His presence and He can receive their worship. This is the fulfillment of, “I will be there God and they will be My people.” The covenant, its laws and stipulations allow this relationship to take place.

This is the best way to see all the laws and sacrificial system. Violation of either of these does not only mean the end of the covenant at the end of the relationship. The was way the hardlines, the fence in which the people can have relationship with God. The sacrificial system is the grace when the people jump the fence.

This all focuses on holiness, the people practicing holiness in their hearts and actions so they can be in God’s presence. Holiness has three facets. The first is to be separate from the world and special to God. The second is to live pure, shown through the laws concerning clean and unclean living. The third is to reject worldliness and belong to God alone, giving Him our allegiance.

Some scholars disagree with separating the lot into moral, civic, and which will laws is imposed on the text because they are all mixed together. But it helps us understand how we can apply the law as Christians today.

The Cutting of the Covenant (Exodus 24:1-18)
The witnesses of the covenant are Moses, Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and the seventy elders of Israel (Exodus 24:1). Moses gives the covenant with its stipulations to the people of Israel (Exodus 24:3).

The people agree to uphold the covenant with Yahweh (Exodus 24:3). Moses writes the whole covenant as the document record (Exodus 24:4). Then Moses built an altar for the sacrifices, the blood to initiate covenant (Exodus 24:4) and the people offered sacrifices to the Lord. Moses took some of the blood and splashed it against the altar (Exodus 24:5-6).

Moses read the book of the covenant to the people and they affirmed for a second time that they would obey all the laws in the covenant (Exodus 24:7). Then Moses confirmed the covenant by sprinkling the people with the rest of the blood from the sacrifices (Exodus 24:8).

Side Note: Word for sprinkled or splattered, the actions Moses made in a priestly fashion against the altar and on the people of the blood, is the root word in Hebrew for Messiah. So Jesus, the Anointed One, is the sprinkled one of God who brings atonement to those who follow Him. He is the ultimate fulfillment of the covenant that brings relationship between God and those who trust in Him.

God's Covenant with David (2 Samuel 7; Psalm 89)

The Old Testament references the covenant with David many times. In the original covenant (2 Samuel 7), the word “covenant” is not used. But throughout the passage all the elements of a exist. It is later referenced as a covenant.

David wanted to build a house for the Lord, a temple, in Jerusalem (2 Samuel 7:1-3). But God responded He didn’t need a house (2 Samuel 7:4-7). Instead, God will build David’s house (his descendants and thrown) in David’s lifetime and eternally (2 Samuel 7:8-16).

As we look closer at 2 Samuel 7:8-16, we see all the elements of the covenant God establishes with David.

I. Promises realized in David’s lifetime (8-11a)
     a. To be with David all his days.
     b. To make David’s name great.
     c. To provide a place for Israel and not afflict them.
     d. To give David rest from all his enemies.
II. Promises realized after David’s death (11b-16)
     a. Solomon will build God a house.
     b. To establish Solomon’s kingdom.
     c. To establish his descendent’s throne forever.
     d. David’s descendent will be God’s Son.
     e. To discipline Solomon and his descendants, but His steadfast love will not depart from him.
     f. An eternal throne.

Although David’s descendants would split the united kingdom of Israel, the exiled to Babylon and Medo-Persia, and return to the land after exile, God’s promise for an eternal King would stand. Jesus was born into the human line of David.

New Covenant Prophesied

The Old Testament prophets referred to the new covenant in several ways, as an everlasting covenant, a covenant of peace, the promise of a new heart and new spirit, and as the new covenant. But all these expressions refer to the same agreement God would soon forage.

Isaiah 54:1-55:13
Isaiah looks further forward from the exiled to the restoration of Israel. God deals with the sin of Israel through releasing them to return to the Promised Land given by the old covenant, and forgiveness for all their sins.

Isaiah 54 talks about the new covenant in terms of the suffering Servant from the four servant songs in Isaiah. The suffering Servant represents the country of Israel as its King. He is both the country and an individual. And this new covenant comes because of His sacrifice in Isaiah 53.

There’s a transition of images representing the nation in Isaiah 54 from the barren married woman, represented by Sarah (vv. 1-3), to Israel as the deserted wife during the exile (vv. 4-10), to Zion the afflicted woman (vv. 11-17) as the people return and rebuild with enemies all around.

This progression shows the results of the new covenant prophesied by Isaiah. In Isaiah 55, the prophet now talks about the new covenant.

Ezekiel 16:59-63
In Ezekiel 8-11, God’s presence leaves the Temple in Jerusalem because the people will go into exile. Jerusalem was seen as the bride who committed adultery with the idols of other nations. God treated Israel like His bride, but she was unfaithful to Him.

In Ezekiel 16:59, Jerusalem begins to experience the curses of the covenant (Deuteronomy 28). In verse 60, Israel breaks the covenant. God says he’s going to “cut a covenant” with Israel. This is a reference to establishing the new covenant.

He mentions an “eternal covenant” with Israel. This language is used in the prophets for the new covenant. God makes a transition from the old covenants to this new covenant. It does not replace the old covenant. But the old covenant becomes obsolete because the new covenant is better.

Jeremiah 31:31-34
This is the only place in the Old Testament where the term “new covenant” appears. The people were saying that God was punishing them for their fathers’ sins instead of their own. God was tired of hearing this phrase. So He was making a new covenant with the people.

The entire section dealing with the new covenant is Jeremiah 31:27-40. What makes this covenant “new”? The time of the covenant is for the days that are coming (vv. 27, 31, and 38). This is a future time from the return from the exile.

Also, the parties of the covenant are with Israel and Judah. Jeremiah has already stated throughout his prophecy that the Gentile nations will become part of Israel, interpreted in the New Testament as the tree grafted in (Romans 11:13-14).

““Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”” (Jeremiah 31:31–34, ESV)

Jeremiah contrasts the old covenant with Moses in the wilderness and this new covenant. Because they broke the covenant, God is divinely decided to make a new one. But it will not be like the old one. The old one only went so far.

What God will do:

  • Put His Law within Them. He will write it on their hearts. The first law was written on stone to be observed on the outside. His new lock He will put on hearts of flesh (2 Corinthians 3:3). He will circumcise the heart.
  • He will be their God And They Will Be His People. We see this promise and desire of God for His people throughout the Bible (2 Corinthians 6:14-18).
  • They will no longer teach each other. This stands in contrast to the earlier proverb Jeremiah quoted, basically saying that children were paying for the sins of the parents. Neighbors won’t have to tell you to know the Lord. You will do it from your heart. You will have a personal relationship with God instead of a communal one at the Temple. Everyone will have a living relationship with the Lord. This goes toward the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.
  • The cutting of the new covenant renders the old covenant obsolete. Christians live under the new covenant, which often through Jesus’ teachings in the teaching of the rest of the New Testament have the same principles, for God does not change.
  • God will forgive their iniquity. God will no longer remember the sins of his people. This comes because of Jesus’ sacrifice. His forgiveness is the basis for His relationship with them. Jesus accomplished this on the Cross.

Comparison of the Old and New Covenants

Similarity of the New Covenant to the Old Covenant
   1. Basis is the same (the grace of God)
   2. Purpose is the same (cf. 1 Pet. 2:9–10)
   3. Initiated by blood (Heb. 9:6–10:18)
   4. Character of divine instruction is the same (Rom. 13:8; Gal. 5:14)
Dissimilarity of the New Covenant to the Old Covenant
   1. Better mediator (without sin) (Heb. 8:6; 9:15; 12:24)
   2. Better sacrifice (Heb. 9:6–10:18; Isa. 42:6; 52:13–53:12)
   3. Better provision (the Spirit of God; Ezek. 36:24–28)
   4. Better promise (impartation of a new heart) (Ezek. 36:24–28) 1

1 Peter J. Gentry and Stephen J. Wellum, God’s Kingdom through God’s Covenants: A Concise Biblical Theology (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015), 235–236.

Joel 2:28-32
Although not technically called a covenant, the New Testament references this promise of God. (Acts 2:17) and God fulfills it.

““And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit. “And I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes. And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved. For in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those who escape, as the LORD has said, and among the survivors shall be those whom the LORD calls.” (Joel 2:28–32, ESV)

God promises to pour out His Spirit on all flesh. This is revolutionary because only certain people in the offices of the prophets, priests, and kings experienced the Holy Spirit coming upon them to perform their duties for the nation.

“All flesh” means everyone. No one will have to be special, come from certain tribes, or only be the few among the masses with the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. Each person experiences God’s presence in fresh ways.

Sons and daughters prophesy. This was limited to the Old Testament prophetic office. But no longer. Sons and daughters means that everyone can prophesy. Old man dreaming dreams is not about nostalgia for the old days. In their old age, men will see visions and dreams like Daniel and John did. God will reveal things through these dreams.

They will not be in their “sunset years.” They will be releasing prophetic vision for the future, setting the stage for the things that are to come. Also, young men will see visions. These are the visions like the prophets saw. These are images that interpret the Lord’s current works.

Using broad terms like “sons and daughters” and “old man and young men” include people between those groups. Sons and daughters, it can be argued, refer to both men and women. Old and young include everyone between.

And we know the Holy Spirit is poured out for the baptism in the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2. God fulfills this promise and even today we experience this wonderful promise, this gift of the Father to us through Jesus. Jesus baptizes every believer who seeks Him in the Holy Spirit.

As with much prophecy, events and time periods are sometimes placed together because they happen in the same era. The beginning of the “last days,” as Peter puts it (Acts 2:17), begin from the Day of Pentecost and continue until the rapture, kicking off the end times.

Verses 30-31 refer to extraordinary events in the celestial bodies in the end times. Verse 32 gives the great promise that in those times (I include last days and at least part of the end times) everyone who calls on the Lord’s name will be same.

New Covenant Inaugurated

New Testament

The New Testament refers to the new covenant five times (Luke 22:20; 1 Corinthians 11:25; 2 Corinthians 3:6; Hebrews 8:8; 9:15), and once as the everlasting covenant (Hebrews 13:20). The New Testament, or new covenant, outlines how the new covenant is different from the old covenant.

When the new covenant was prophesied, many of the prophets had no idea of the wide scope of God’s plan of salvation. Prophecy has a telescoping effect, where God’s progressive revelation gets clearer and wider the further you read through the Bible.

So they prophesied the new covenant to the “house of Israel and house of Judah.” They did not know the people of God would not just be national Israel. Paul makes this clear when he talks about the spiritual Jew rather than one physically (Romans 9:6-8).

He then describes a “grafting in” of believing Christian Gentiles with believing messianic Jews. So God’s people is based on belief, not on genealogy or genetics. It is not that God has rejected national Israel. Previous covenants are still enacted and applied to those God made them with.

When we speak of the inauguration of the new covenant, we refer to how God enacted it with those who come under it through belief. The promises and blessings of the new covenant affect all who believe in the Mediator of the covenant. We will see this is Jesus.

First, every covenant must be initiated with blood. Jesus’ sacrificial death on the Cross fulfilled the requirements of the old covenant. He satisfied the requirements of the old covenant as He inaugurated the new covenant. His blood fulfilled the requirement of a blood sacrifice.

During the Lord’s Supper, Jesus says, “the new covenant in My blood” (Luke 21:20). Matthew calls it Jesus’ “blood poured out for many” (Matthew 26:26-29), a reference to Isaiah 53:10-12). Jesus’ blood has the power to do what the Old Testament prophets prophesied the new covenant would do.

Through Jesus’ blood, He forgives our sins, cleanses us from unrighteousness, seals us with the Holy Spirit when we trust in Him and His sacrifice, so that we know God and God’s laws are written internally in us.

Every time we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, we celebrate Jesus’ sacrifice and inauguration of the new covenant in His blood (1 Corinthians 11:25). Paul reminds us that in remembering Christ, we remember His great gift of the new covenant to us as believers in Him.

As Paul compares the ministry of the old covenant of Moses with the new covenant of Jesus, he mentions the new covenant (2 Corinthians 3:6). He compares how Moses had to hide his face in a veil from the Israelites because they were afraid of the glorious glow on his skin.

Paul then says that if the glory of the old covenant that brought the law was so great, the glory of the new covenant in Jesus Christ is so much greater. He describes how God’s brilliant glory is seen through us, earthen jars of clay, who though we are imperfect, God shines through us and our weaknesses.

We are living examples of God’s new covenant through Jesus. We represent Him every day. And as we live for Jesus and represent Him in front of others, God shines His glory through us. We are billboards of God’s glorious new covenant that others can join through belief in Jesus.

Paul describes the effects of the new covenant, it’s inclusive nature for both Jews and Gentiles through belief. He describes it as the Gentiles “grafted in” to the tree of believing Jews, who received the gospel first through the old covenant and its promises (Romans 11:13-24).

He further describes the beauty of the new covenant mediated and inaugurated by Jesus as He makes peace between Jews and Gentiles through belief in Him and His sacrifice (Ephesians 2:14-22). Jesus breaks down the divisions of the law and sacrifices when He died on the Cross. He made the far off Gentiles part of God’s family and citizens in heaven.

Finally, the writer of Hebrews discusses the new covenant and its results through Jesus’ mediation of it in several chapters throughout Hebrews. Beginning in Hebrews 8, he quotes extensively from Jeremiah’s prophecy of the new covenant to show how believing Jews and Gentiles become one in Christ and members of God’s family and Church.

Hebrews 9 further describe how Jesus is the greatest High Priest, the greatest Sacrifice, and whose blood is greater than the blood of animals in the old covenant. It is a rich and fascinating read and how God makes us who believe in Jesus part of His family and gives us an eternal inheritance with Him.

God’s mission to “Be their God and they will be my people” is made complete in Jesus. He used covenants, something done in the Ancient Near East to formalize relationships and agreements, to bring us close to Him and have relationship with Him forever.