A Brief Review of the Major Biblical Covenants

A covenant is essentially an agreement between two parties. Frequently, for biblical covenants, the covenant is unconditional, one party assumes all responsibility. An example of this was God’s covenant with Noah that he would never destroy the earth again by flood. There were no conditions attached to this covenant. Regardless what humanity did, there would be no more global floods.

But most biblical covenants are conditional, an agreement between two parties. Generally they are between God and his people. There are four significant covenants that I believe have bearing on the relationship between Israel and the Church and they are each discussed below.

Abraham

The first of these covenants is between God and Abraham. God called Abram from his birthplace in Ur and led him to Canaan. After he had been in the land for a while, he and his nephew Lot separated. And God then appeared to Abram and made this covenant promise with him.

“Look around from where you are, to the north and south, to the east and west. All the land that you see I will give to you and your offspring forever. I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth, so that if anyone could count the dust, then your offspring could be counted. Go, walk through the length and breadth of the land, for I am giving it to you.”

Genesis 13:14b-17 NIV

This is an unconditional covenant. There is no hint in it, or in anything that follows, that Abraham and his descendants had to agree to it or fulfill any obligation. The promise of land and descendants was made unconditionally.

Israel

A second significant covenant was the one made with Abraham’s descendants after their deliverance from Egyptian captivity. God brought them to Mt. Sinai and while there established a covenant agreement with them. But this covenant, unlike the one made with Abraham, was conditional.

‘You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’

Exodus 19:4-6a NIV

This passage records an offer God made to this group of newly freed slaves. An offer for them to be his treasured possession, a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. But there was a condition attached. If they would obey him fully and keep the requirements of the covenant, they would be his people. The bulk of Exodus through Deuteronomy goes on to establish the requirements of this covenant between God and his people. The rest of the Old Testament is a record of Israel’s failure to keep their part of the covenant and God’s repeated efforts to draw them back.

King David

David is the second king of Israel, and during his reign, along with his son Solomon, the kingdom reached its greatest heights. David was identified as a man after God’s own heart (1 Sam. 13:14), a king who led his nation under the authority of God. In nearly every part of his life David was faithful to God and sought him out. And, at the end of his life, God established a covenant with David.

The LORD also declares to you that the LORD will make a house for you. When your days are complete and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your descendant after you, who will come forth from you, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for My name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. . . . Your house and your kingdom shall endure before Me forever; your throne shall be established forever.

2 Samuel 7:11b-13, 16 NIV

There is definitely an unconditional aspect to this covenant God established with David. His throne and kingdom would endure forever. And, at least here, there is no indication of obligation on the part of David’s descendants. But in other passages that refer to this covenant there is the sense that this covenant was dependent on the faithfulness of the kings.

Now therefore, O LORD, the God of Israel, keep with Your servant David, my father, that which You have promised him, saying, ‘ You shall not lack a man to sit on the throne of Israel, if only your sons take heed to their way, to walk in My law as you have walked before Me.’

2 Chronicles 6:16 NIV

These words came from Solomon at the dedication of the temple. And they mirror several other passages that demonstrate a requirement for David’s descendants to continue to walk according to God’s law.

A New Covenant Promised

Israel repeatedly failed to keep their end of their covenant with God. And David’s descendants largely fell short of living up the God’s expectations for them. And as a result the nation, and their king, are defeated by Assyria and Babylon and find themselves in exile. Jeremiah writes as this is happening and holds out a light. Israel had broken their covenant. But God was promising to establish a new covenant.

Behold, days are coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,” declares the LORD.

Jeremiah 31:31-32 NIV

Unlike the Old Covenant

This biblical covenant was not in effect at the time Jeremiah was writing, but it was held out as a covenant would come at some time in the future. A covenant unlike what they had before.

“But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the LORD, “I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. They will not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,” declares the LORD, “for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.”

Jeremiah 31:33-34 NIV

This is a covenant whose terms would be written on the hearts of the people rather than on stone. And there is no hint of conditionality associated with this covenant. In this covenant each member of the covenant community will have a personal, internal, relationship with God.

The New Covenant Established

Jeremiah looked forward to a time when God would establish a new covenant with his people. In the New Testament we find that new covenant being established. There are a number of passages that refer to a new covenant. The most explicit connection to the covenant Jeremiah foretold comes in Hebrews. Twice in this book (Heb. 8:8-12; 10:15-17) the author looks back at this covenant foretold by Jeremiah, quoting it in it’s entirety the first time.

The context of this reference to Jeremiah is as a part of demonstrating the superiority of the priesthood of Jesus to the Old Testament priesthood. In Hebrews 8:6 he says that “the ministry Jesus has received is as superior to theirs as the covenant of which he is mediator is superior to the old one, since the new covenant is established on better promises.” Here we see that Jesus is the mediator of a new covenant. A new covenant that is superior to the old covenant, established at Mt. Sinai, and it’s priesthood.

Then, after quoting Jeremiah’s promise of a new covenant, the author of Hebrews says that “By calling this covenant ‘new,’ he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and outdated will soon disappear.” The author here is claiming that the first covenant, the one established at Sinai, is obsolete and outdated. It has been replaced with a new covenant. A covenant that is mediated and established by Jesus.

An Obsolete Covenant

There are many Christians who will contend that the biblical covenant established between God and Israel at Mt. Sinai is still in force. And that the message of the prophets concerning Israel’s future will be literally fulfilled because of that. This seems to be based, at least in part, in a belief that the covenant at Sinai was unconditional. Yet the terms of that covenant are clearly conditional. It was dependent on Israel abiding by the terms of the covenant. Something they clearly did not do.

Hebrews makes it explicitly clear that the old covenant is obsolete and outdated. The other New Testament authors also reference a new covenant, comparing it to the old covenant at Sinai. And none of them offer any indication that the old covenant remains in effect.

I believe that the message of the Bible is clear. God has one covenant people. And those are the people of the new covenant, regardless their ethnic origin or background.

The views expressed here are solely mine and do not necessarily reflect those of any other person, group, or organization. While I believe they reflect the teachings of the Bible, I am a fallible human and subject to misunderstanding. Please feel free to leave any comments or questions about this post in the comments section below. I am always interested in your feedback.

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4 thoughts on “A Brief Review of the Major Biblical Covenants”

  1. I enjoyed this article on covenants. I’ve always wrestled with the thought of GODs covenant with Israel being obsolete but I’ve not heard or read much commentary on it. I would like to hear more of your thoughts on “the new covenant” and its conditions.
    What are man kinds conditions under the new covenant? Believe, repent, live faithful?
    Thanks again for the article.

    Reply
    • The requirement for me to live under the new covenant is simply to believe in the Lord Jesus. But that involves more than simple intellectual affirmation. To believe in him is to entrust my life to him. To be faithful to his call in my life. To be faithful as long as he leaves me here.

      Reply

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