What Is A Biblical Covenant?

Derek Ouellette —  February 22, 2010

Thank you for joining me again this week as we begin to explore the Covenant of Agape as it was introduced to us last week. In this post I want to look at some basic elements of a biblical covenant. I do not want to assume that everyone knows what a covenant is and why God works in them, so we begin with some basics.

O. Palmer Robertson defines a biblical covenant as “a bond in blood sovereignly administered”[1]. He continues:

When God enters into a covenantal relationship with men, he sovereignly institutes a life-and-death bond. A covenant is a bond in blood, or a bond in life and death, sovereignly administered.[2]

Sovereignly Administered:

What this means is that when God enters into a covenant with a partner it is always God who initiates that covenantal relationship. It is God who created Adam and entered relationship with him [Genesis 1:26-27]; God who called Abram [Genesis 12:1-3], God who delivered Israel and brought them to the covenant mountain [Hosea 11:1], and God who promised David an everlasting heir [2 Samuel 7:16]; and it is Christ who called his disciples and established a covenant with them [John 15:16]. God initiates. Man responds.

Adam was given a choice to remain in that relationship or to exit it [Genesis 2:17]. He chose to rebel [Genesis 3:7]. Abraham was called to “go”; but he had to faithfully respond to God [Genesis 12:4]. Israel was sovereignly delivered by God, but remaining in that covenant depended upon their faithfulness to the covenant charter [Deuteronomy 28:62-63]. Even Christ’s disciples where given a chance, and a choice, to leave, and one took the opportunity to his own demise [John 6:66-70].[3]

Bond in Blood:

The Hebrew verb Karat is rendered “to make” a (covenant); but literally the phrase is translated “to cut a covenant”. This reinforces the fact that a biblical covenant, in fact all covenants in the ancient world, were covenants created as a “bond in blood”. The most dramatic example “scholars relate it to” is that of “a rite of ratification for a covenant, in which the parties to the covenant walked through dismembered parts of a sacrificed animal”[4]. Abraham seems to have been familiar with this practice, because he goes ahead and dismembers animals without having to be told by God to do so [Genesis 15:10].

This act was not to be taken lightly. It communicated the idea that if I break the stipulations of this covenant, may what happened to these animals happen to me. It was calling a curse down on the covenant makers if that covenant were broken. It was quite literally a vow made “until death do us death”. We’ll see this played out over and over again as we explore the unfolding of the biblical covenant.

Another custom in the ancient world related to the phrase “to cut a covenant” was in the practice of writing up the stipulations of the covenant on stone; it is then “cut out” of the stone and each member of the covenant was to take one copy and keep it as a reminder of the covenant agreement. This tradition takes on particular relevance during the covenant God ratifies with Israel at Zion.

If we allow these two images to stand, “to cut” out of stone or “to cut” to spill blood, both in the context of the covenant, then we are left with the conclusion that the covenant which God initiates can be broken only on pain of death. Gods covenant is intended to be everlasting.

Stipulations of the Covenant

A covenant has, by definition, stipulations. Vows are made, promises are given, contracts are written up; and if both parties agree to these stipulations they may enter the covenant. You will recall we just said that the biblical covenant is made or “cut” in blood, signifying the everlasting nature of the covenant broken only on pain of death. But it is that last part that is often ignored. People want to look at the everlasting nature of the covenant and forget that if it may be broken on pain of death, meaning that it is breakable. But that this results in death.

This means that if the vows made, the promises given or the contracts written up are violated, it results in judgment and death for the violating party. We see this again and again throughout the scriptures and will endeavor to make this explicit as we trace our way through the covenant of God.[5]

ONE Covenant: Old & New

The covenant of God is most discernibly divided between the “old” covenant and the “new” covenant, not least because this is the terminology which the bible itself uses[6]. But the characteristic of this divide is not “law and grace”. This is a misnomer which is in serious need of correction and results in many mistakes of interpretation: both the “old” covenant and the “new” covenant contain law and grace or grace and law.

Robertson writes:

The “old covenant” may be characterized as “promise,” as “shadow,” as “prophecy”; and the “new covenant” may be characterized as “fulfillment,” as “reality,” and as “realization.”[7]

The sacrifices, the promises, the priesthood, the land and the blessings in the “old” covenant all pointed towards their fulfillment in the “new” covenant. They were shadows, images, prophecy which all find their fulfillment in Christ and through his work. This will become most clear as we conclude our study on the covenant of God.

What is of primary importance here is to observe that there are not two separate and distinct covenants! The Old Testament is not to be seen or interpreted as a covenant of “law” or a covenant of “works”; and the New Testament is not to be seen or interpreted as a covenant of “grace” or a covenant of “faith”. There is one covenant, a Covenant of Agape, and this covenant has always included Gods grace and individual’s faithful response.[8]

The covenant[s] in the scriptures have an inherent unity that builds on the previous one until they find their climax in Christ. We will see the element of faith in each covenant and the place of obedience as well.

Immanuel Principle: The Heart of the Covenant (Conclusion)

After taking a brief look at what a biblical covenant is and how it works, we should ask the question which perhaps should have been asked first: What is the point? Why does God work in Covenant?

The thematic unity of the covenant is also the thematic unity of the scriptures as a whole. It is the primary artery running through the body of literature we call the scriptures. It is found in Genesis and it is found in Revelation. It is found in the simple phrase repeated over and over again in different ways throughout the scriptures like a beautiful refrain:

“I shall be your God and you shall be my people”. – God

Every time I read that refrain in the scriptures I feel as though I’ve been privileged to hear the heartbeat of heaven. It’s as though God opens up his most intimate and private journal entry and slides it to me across the coffee table saying, here is what I really want most, this is my heart. When God says, then I shall be your God and you shall be my people, he is giving us a glimpse of the plea of his deepest hearts cry.

It is in fact the point of the whole covenant because a covenant is a relationship. It should be no surprise then that the climax of the covenant is Jesus Christ himself, the Immanuel!

“The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” – which means, “God with us”. – Matthew 1:23

But before we go their we must begin in a garden called Eden (next week).

***Stay Tuned***

Discussion Questions:

  1. Define a biblical covenant?
  2. What is the significance of the Hebrew word Karat?
  3. The covenant is intended to be everlasting. How may it be broken and what are the consequences?
  4. Why does God work in covenant?

[1] The Christ of the Covenant, p.4

[2] Ibid.

[3] If anyone tries to remove man’s legitimate free response to accept, reject, or walk out of that covenant from the equation, he might as well remove the word relationship from their biblical covenantal vocabulary altogether. Furthermore, to take this position is to only accept half the biblical testimony as I just illustrated it.

[4] Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old & New Testament Words, p.143

[5] Many people don’t take this reality seriously enough. They think that once someone enters the covenant they can never leave. The scriptures testify again and again against this notion and we’ll see this as we explore the covenant.

[6] Jeremiah 31:31, Hebrews 8:13, Hebrews 12:24

[7] The Christ of the Covenant, p.57

[8] Hebrews 4:2 – the gospel preached after Christ is the same gospel preached before Christ.

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Derek Ouellette

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a husband, new dad, speaker, writer, christian. see my profile here.
  • http://harysheresy.wordpress.com Harry Heimann

    Good start to your series. Covenants are in fact a binding sense of commitment for a personal relationsip, something severely lacking in today’s society. Look at a covenenant of marriage. In(Mal 2:14-16) we see God hates divorce, yet today many get divorced for any reason. If one cannot have a stong personal relationship with their partner, or at least try to work things out, do we think we will keep a strong commitment to God?

  • http://covenantoflove.net Derek Ouellette

    Thanks Harry, that’s a great point. I think it stands to reason (as I hinted at in last Monday’s intro to this series), that God hates divorce precisely because marriage between a man and a woman is a symbolic representation of God’s covenant relationship with mankind.

  • Pingback: Fear of the Lord (Pt 3) « Harry's Heresy Blog()

  • Joni williams

    This was an amazing dead. It has helped me to prepare For my school presentation.