WHAT COVENANTS MEAN
By Venerable Dr. Ifechukwu U. Ibeme
“To BELIEVE in God in accordance with the Scriptures is to enter into COVENANT with Him.”
The word COVENANT (from ancient French covenir) implies COMING TOGETHER of two or more parties to share in offered, granted or demanded responsibilities. Covenant (translating the Hebrew= berit, and Greek= diatheke) in the Scriptures, is a solemn agreement between two parties for self-giving entrustment and sacrificial loyalty. A covenant is jealously guaranteed by the covenanting parties with an oath. The words “Covenant” and “Testament” are used interchangeably in the KJV to translate the same Greek word (Grk= diatheke Heb_9:4; Mat_26:28; 1Co_11:25; Heb_9:15-17) because a covenant document sealed with death/blood/oath of the testator is called a testament, so that “book of the covenant” (Exo_24:7; 2Kin_23:21) is a “testament”. In the New Testament, diatheke occurs 33 times and is translated in the KJV 20 times as “covenant” and 13 times as “testament.” In the RSV and the NASB, only “covenant” is used.
The Gospels are the testamentary record of “word and deed” (Acts_1:1) depositions and dispositions of Christ’s New Covenant which are elaborated upon in the books of Acts, the Epistles and the Revelation. Old Testament Scriptures record the Old Covenant provisions mediated by Moses in the Torah which are elaborated upon in the Prophets and the Writings. Covenants are the solemn agreements while Testaments are their authentic documents. So, covenants and testaments in the Scriptures do not differ in purpose and meaning.
The Scriptures show that God Who created all humanity also calls them to loyally worship Him and intimately commune with Him, not casually or arbitrarily but according to His clearly commanded covenant terms. Divine Covenant is God’s loving initiative to offer His blessed resources and redemptive grace as means of bringing humanity into loyal stewardship and intimate communion according to His commands and counsels. Those who answer this loving and redemptive call to loyal intimacy are admitted into peculiar relationship through definite act of covenant faith and covenanting rite by which they subscribe to the provisions and precepts of God’s COVENANT COMMANDS and God’s covenant promises.
When God conceives and commands His redemptive covenant, God calls humanity to commit to it for their redemption. Through God’s divinely commanded Covenants, humanity is brought into covenant relationships with God in which God becomes their God and they become God’s people (Lev 26:9-15; Jer 7:22-23; Jer 11:2-5). Every commandment in the Scripture is a COVENANT COMMAND (Deu_4:13; Deu_4:13; Deu_29:1; Josh_7:11; Judg 2:20; Neh 1:5; Psa 105:8; Psa 111:9; Mat 9:20; Heb 9:20) and every blessing in the Scripture is a COVENANT BLESSING. So also, every keeping of commandments in the Scripture is keeping of COVENANT COMMANDS, and every claiming of promises in the Scripture is claiming of COVENANT PROMISES. God relates with all His creation only on the basis of some covenant He has commanded. God calls us to commit and conform to His covenant commands in order to possess and steward His covenant heritage according to His good pleasure.
A COVENANT is specifically a formal agreement based on some commands and/or consents while a TESTAMENT is specifically a formulary document of some covenant commands and/or consents. Therefore, a TESTAMENT is the written testimonial document containing all aspects of authenticated narrative and stipulations of a COVENANT. While the Old Testament Scriptures record the narrative and stipulations of the Old Covenant as authenticated for the nation of Israel, the New Testament Scriptures record those of the New Covenant as authenticated for the Church of Christ.
In the Scriptures, God reveals Himself as the only One Who is the sole Creator Who owns all creation and Giver of all things and blessings found in creation: both visible and invisible, spiritual and physical, temporal and eternal – whether present, past and future. At creation, God beforehand entrusted innocent Adam with regency over His wondrous creation and brought Him to dwelling in Eden for covenant fellowship with Him subject to God’s stipulated command (Gen_1:26-31; Gen_2:15-17).
The rebellious fall of Adam into sin and shame (Gen_3:1-12; Hos_6:7) evoked God’s covenant justice on Adam; thus requiring provision for the restoration of Adamic humanity from sin and judgment (Gen_3:13-24). Fortunately, God revealed that by His testamentary deposition and disposals, He has wisely and mercifully provided for restoration of humanity into future Messianic Heritage if we acknowledge such redemptive covenant in Christ (Rom_6:23). Through His Covenant terms, God invites all humanity to receive divinely sworn and sealed rights of eternal heritage and be entrusted with fruitful privileges of faithful stewardship in every aspect of His rich resources (grace and blessings) as He has commanded (Rom_6:20-22).
So in every divine covenant, God is the owner, testator, initiator, inviter, censor and guarantor while we are His believers, invitees, beneficiaries, stewards, and inheritors of the disposed resources. Every Divine Covenant of redemption from sin is commanded and enacted with blood, sworn on loyal oath or faith, and administered by a mediator (Exo_24:7-8; Heb_12:24). Since the beginning of human history, individuals, nations and royalties have used similar covenant principles in their compacts and contracts, treaties and testaments.
The Scripture shows that God comes to man in covenant as a means of revealing himself, otherwise worship of God would be a guesswork or mere uncertain groping (Act 17:27). According to plain Scriptures,
- God made immutable covenant with the Created Order (Jer 33:20, 25)
- God also made progressively successive covenants with Humanity through:
- Adam (Hos 6:7)
- Noah (Gen. 9:9-17)
- Abraham (Gen. 17:2-21)
- Israel – at Sinai (Exd 24:4-8; 34: 10-28)
- at Moab (Deut 29:1ff)
- under Joshua (Josh 24)
- under Jehoiada (2Chron 23:3)
- under Hezekiah (2Chron 29:10)
- under Josiah (2Kin 23:3)
- under Ezra (Ezr 10:3)
- Levi (Malachi 2:4) and Phinehas (Num 25:12-13)
- David (2Sam 7; 1Chron 17)
- All Peoples through Christ (Isa 49:8; Jer 58:5; 31:31-33; Heb 8)
Covenants with God involve God taking the initiative to graciously make and mediate promises (grace and glory) and issue counsels (precepts and commandments) as well as curses and cures, with invitation to humans who then pledge to loyally walk in the precepts, accept the promises as well as the penalties. Covenants have four or five elements (terms and curse/cure, oath and symbols) binding the covenanting parties:
- the terms or precepts and basis, commandments and counsels, provisions and promises, responsibility and benefit as stipulated and consented to;
- the curse or penalties for disloyal violation;
- the cure or propitiation for penitent violator;
- the oath or binding pledge or loyal faith in God’s name subscribing to the covenant basis, commandments, counsels, benefits, responsibilities and penalties;
- the sign-seal or guaranteeing symbol and memorial mark/token for initial ratification and continuous commemoration.
Not all covenants in the Scriptures were conditional and not all covenants were sealed with blood. A covenant may be:
- MUTUALLY negotiated and CONTRACTED between two equals (also agreement/consent e.g. Luk 22:15, Greek= suntheke) as with peace treaties for civil alliances, compacts for social relationships and self-plighting troths for marriages).
Here, blood covenants are cut to bind the parties into a lifelong brotherhood/friendship/partnership/union and carry the penalty of condemnation and ostracism on the violator. (Gen_31:44-54; Joshua 9).
- UNILATERALLY stipulated and COMMANDED by a superior (e.g. God or any potentate) with the inferior graciously invited to pledge commitment (as in Divine worship Testaments and Suzerain royal Ordinances).
Here, blood covenants are cut to bind the invited beneficiaries to irrevocably unending allegiance, and usually impose the curse or sentence of death on the violator, who is inevitably the inferior party. (Exo_24:4-8; Jer_34:18). But there is usually a provision for atonement.
In God’s eyes, BLOOD has life in it (Gen_9:4; Lev_17:11a). Blood Covenants save/give life (Joh_6:53-54; Lev_17:11b; Heb_2:14) and cost life (Gen_9:5; Jer_34:18), such that their power last beyond life (Heb_9:12-15; Heb_12:24).
Christian Marriage is a good example of mutual covenant of intimacy and loyalty between a husband and a wife plighting their life, love and livelihood to each other in the Lord, (NOT demanding love and service from, BUT devoting such to each other).
UNILATERALLY COMMANDED COVENANTS could offer God’s redemptive love:
- either as conditional law (gives promises for commitment to pleasing God – “If you will …, then I will …”) for regulation of hard-heartedness and lawlessness; or
- or as unconditional grace (gives the promises of endowments to please God) which could be:
(i) reward for past merit (“Because you have …, I will surely …” e.g. the covenant with David) or
(ii) grant/gift for no merit (“Because I have …, I will surely …” e.g. the New Covenant in Christ).
The New Testament salvation in Christ is unilaterally granted by God to all who pledge their commitment to Christ. Christ is both the Mediator (Finisher/Perfecter) of the New Covenant (Heb_8:6; Heb_9:15; Heb_12:24) and the Testator (Author/Pioneer) of the New Testament (Heb_9:16-17; Heb_12:2). Christ’s WORD AND DEED which the Apostles SAW AND HEARD (Act 4:20; 1John 1:1-3) are the New Covenant commands and terms which He died to mediate and which we are mandated and commissioned in Christ’s Name to believe, witness to, preach, be baptized into, teach and observe (Mat 28:18-20; Luk 24:44-49). New Covenant is whatever Christ DID AND TAUGHT (Act 1:1) for which he died to mediate through His Blood and in Christ’s Name for us to be convincingly committed to for salvation. Through His death Christ activated His Gospel Testament once-for-all: and by His resurrection from death, He lives forever to administer His New Covenant perpetually (Heb_7:24-28).
The Scriptures make it clear that the first covenant of royalty over imperfect heritage, with priesthood and sanctuary for ritual propitiation in Israeli Kingdom is called the Old Covenant (2Co_3:14; Heb_8:13). The final covenant of royalty over perfect heritage, with priesthood and sanctuary for spiritual salvation in Christ’s Kingdom is called the New Covenant (Heb_9:6-15). WITH THE ENACTMENT OF THE NEW COVENANT, EVERY OTHER COVENANT FADES TO VANISH AWAY (Heb_8:13). No wonder the New Covenant was, in apostolic times, known even among Jewish Christians as the covenant which is “better” (Heb_7:22), “second” (Heb_8:7) and “new” (Heb_9:15), “perfect and eternal” (Heb_5:6; Heb_9:11).
The Old Covenant of natural Promised Land which was for Jacob’s national Political Israel, partitioned and FAVOURED Israelites APART FROM other nations, only stands temporally in this world; but the New Covenant of messianic Heavenly Paradise which was for Jesus’ universal Commonwealth ‘Israel’, unpartitioned and SAVED Christians FROM BOTH natural Israel and all natural nations, endures eternally beyond this world. So Israel and her Old Covenant is the SHADOW of that which the Church and her New Covenant is the REALITY (Heb_8:5; Col_2:17). These two covenants should not be confused, substituted or antagonised with each other.