What is Covenant?

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“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” (Exodus 20:2)

This is how a standard Covenant agreement started out in ancient times, with a statement of who the principal partner was, the one setting out its terms for the agreement.

The Hebrew word for covenant (berith) occurs 284 times in the Old Testament and the Greek diatheke occurs 37 times in the New Testament. That is to say, it’s a crucial concept!

But what does it mean for us? Technically, it just means “Contract, ” but Henri Nouwen takes it much deeper, in terms of relationship:

“When God makes a covenant with us, God says: ‘I will love you with an everlasting love. I will be faithful to you, even when you run away from me, reject me, or betray me.’ In our society we don’t speak much about covenants; we speak about contracts. When we make a contract with a person, we say: ‘I will fulfill my part as long as you fulfill yours. When you don’t live up to your promises, I no longer have to live up to mine.’ Contracts are often broken because the partners are unwilling or unable to be faithful to their terms.

But God didn’t make a contract with us; God made a covenant with us, and God wants our relationships with one another to reflect that covenant. That’s why marriage, friendship, life in community are all ways to give visibility to God’s faithfulness in our lives together.”

Timothy Keller developed Nouwen’s discussion in terms of how we understand marriage.

“In sharp contrast with our culture, the Bible teaches that the essence of marriage is a sacrificial commitment to the good of the other. That means that love is more fundamentally action than emotion. But in talking this way, there is a danger of falling into the opposite error that characterized many ancient and traditional societies. It is possible to see marriage as merely a social transaction, a way of doing your duty to family, tribe and society. Traditional societies made the family the ultimate value in life, and so marriage was a mere transaction that helped your family’s interest. By contrast, contemporary Western societies make the individual’s happiness the ultimate value, and so marriage becomes primarily an experience of romantic fulfilment. But the Bible sees GOD as the supreme good – not the individual or the family – and that gives us a view of marriage that intimately unites feelings AND duty, passion AND promise. That is because at the heart of the Biblical idea of marriage is the covenant.”

Marriage works as a metaphor for the real meaning of a Biblical covenant.

How were they set out?

Basically, the pattern is as follows. The initiating party describes himself and what he has done, then there is a list of obligations between the two (or more) parties. What follows is the section dealing with rewards and punishments that govern the keeping and breaking of the covenant.

For example, the Ten Commandments fit this pattern and form a covenant document. First, the initiator states who he is and what he has done: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” (Exodus 20:2)

Then there is a list of obligations between the two (or more) parties.  “You shall have no other gods before Me,” (Exodus 20:3). “You shall not make for yourself an idol . . . ” (Exodus 20:4). “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain . . . ” (Exodus 20:7).

Then there is the section dealing with rewards and punishments that govern the keeping and breaking of the covenant. ” . . . for the Lord will not leave him unpunished who takes His name in vain,” (Exodus 20:7).

“Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be prolonged in the land which the Lord your God gives you,” (Exodus 20:12).

There’s several examples of covenants contained in the Bible but all those between God and man are originated by God and are an act of His grace. Also, Covenants have signs that represent the covenant promises.  The Tree of Life (Gen. 2:9) was the sign of the Adamic Covenant. The rainbow was the sign of God’s covenant with Noah (Gen. 9:13). The Mosaic Covenant had the sign of the tablets of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 24:12).

The Bible itself is a covenant document. The Old and New Testaments are really Old and New Covenants. The word, “testament,” is simply the Latin for Covenant. The New Testament/ Covenant is between Christ and His church. The covenant sign is baptism (Col. 2:11-12) with the continued participation in the covenant via the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:25).

The key New Testament chapter for the Christian concept of the New Covenant is Hebrews 8, a portion of which is quoted below:

7 For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion to look for a second. 8 For he finds fault with them when he says: “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, 9 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. For they did not continue in my covenant, and so I showed no concern for them, declares the Lord. 10 For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 11 And they shall not teach, each one his neighbor and each one his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. 12 For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.” 13 In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.

God revealed in the Abrahamic Covenant that Gentile blessing would henceforth be mediated through Israel (Isaiah 42.160.1-3Zechariah 8.22-23). This blessing assumed the obedience of national Israel. Blessings to Israel would ultimately come through the Messiah and blessing to Gentiles through Israel. But how could Gentiles be blessed in the face of Israel’s disobedience, i.e., rejection of their Messiah? The answer was that they couldn’t. God had no covenantal provision, no plan to bless Gentiles apart from Israel’s national obedience.

The Christian view of the New Covenant is a new relationship between God and humans mediated by Jesus which necessarily includes all people,[11] both Jews and Gentiles, upon sincere declaration that one believes in Jesus Christ as Lord and God. The New Covenant also breaks the generational curse of the original sin on all children of Adam if they believe in Jesus Christ, after people are judged for their own sins, which is expected to happen with the second arrival of Jesus Christ.

God is sovereign!

Let’s close with a wonderful passage from Paul E. Miller who described what “Covenant Life” might look like for us as believers:

“Everything you do is connected to who you are as a person and, in turn, creates the person you are becoming. Everything you do affects those you love. All of life is covenant.

Embedded in the idea of prayer is a richly textured view of the world where all of life is organized around invisible bonds or covenants that knit us together. Instead of a fixed world, we live in our Father’s world, a world built for divine relationships between people where, because of the Good News, tragedies become comedies and hope is born.”

― Paul E. MillerA Praying Life: Connecting with God in a Distracting World

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One Response to What is Covenant?

  1. Michael Rodgers says:

    Amen.

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