Why do preachers and teachers always tiptoe around the subject of the covenants? I admit to a touch of timidity when it comes to this topic myself. It seems like there are as many ways to look at it as there are books in the Bible. Most people totally misunderstand the basic concepts involving God’s will and promises for humankind, which are, after all, what the covenants represent.
And when we throw the law into the picture, there is even more misunderstanding. So be prepared to have some fog lifted from your thinking this week, as it certainly happened to me as I explored these deep Bible truths.
Key Text: “For this reason Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance–now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant” Hebrews 9:15 NIV
This verse speaks of a new covenant, but also a first covenant. Seemingly there is more than one covenant, right? The following verses from the New Testament use the plural form for “covenant”:
- Romans 9:4 KJV “Who are Israelites; to whom pertaineth the adoption, and the glory, and the covenants, and the giving of the law, and the service of God, and the promises;”
- Galatiains 4:24 KJV “Which things are an allegory: for these are the two covenants; the one from the mount Sinai, which gendereth to bondage, which is Agar.”
- Ephesians 2:12 KJV “That at that time ye were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world:”
As we will see from our study, however, there is really one covenant of God’s saving grace. It has just been given in different forms to different people in different places and times.
Here are some Old Testament verses that speak of the covenant:
- Deuteronomy 7:9 KJV “Know therefore that the Lord thy God, he is God, the faithful God, which keepeth covenant and mercy with them that love his commandments to a thousand generations;”
- I Kings 8:23 KJV “And he said, Lord God of Israel, there is no God like thee, in heaven above, or on earth beneath, who keepest covenant and mercy with thy servants that walk before thee with all their heart:”
- Daniel 9:4 KJV “And I prayed unto the Lord my God, and made my confession, and said, O Lord, the great and dreadful God, keeping the covenant and mercy to them that love him, and to them that keep his commandments;”
Notice the word “mercy” is used in connection with “covenant” in these verses. Both “love” and “commandments” are also used to indicate those who are under the covenants. We can begin to see that law and grace are blended in perfect harmony in the Old and the New Testaments. Not separated, like some theologians would have us believe.
And this blending will continue to the very end of time. Revelation 12:17 describes the remnant of her seed as those “which keep the commandments of God, and have the testimony of Jesus Christ.”
Sunday: Covenant Signs
We must first understand what a covenant is. It’s basically an agreement between two parties. Sometimes both parties mutually agree to promises to each other, such as in a marriage, a business merger, or the purchase of property. But other times one party determines the promises and terms of the agreement, and the other party may or may not agree to the terms. We see examples of this in paying our taxes, getting a bank loan, or enrolling in college.
Covenants are most likely to be sealed with some kind of symbol. It may just be a signature on a title deed or a marriage license from the state. The symbol itself is not the covenant. It’s just an indication that the covenant agreement took place. They serve as reminders of the covenant promise.
Discussion Questions: What kind of covenant method do you suppose occurs when God makes a covenant with man? Are both parties mutually agreeing to terms, or does it resemble more the type where one party initiates and outlines the terms, such as with our taxes or obtaining a mortgage?
God gave Noah the sign of a rainbow (Genesis 9:12-17), following the flood. And Abraham was instructed to be circumcised (Genesis 17:2-12) as a symbol of His covenant with God. What are the differences and similarities between these two symbols? Who were they to benefit and for how long? What were their purpose?
Read Exodus 31:16 and Isaiah 56:4-6 and discuss how and why the Sabbath is an appropriate sign of God’s covenant. To whom was it given and to whom does it apply?
Monday: Covenant Promises
The words “covenant” and “promises” may be used interchangeably. We must keep in mind though that some Bible promises were local and dealt with limited affairs. For instance, the agreement between Jacob and his uncle Laban was limited in its scope. (See Genesis 31:43-54.) Therefore when one party died, the terms of the treaty would become irrelevant, no longer binding.
Some have wondered about God’s covenant with Abraham. What was the scope of God’s promise in Genesis 22:18? “And in thy seed shall all nations of the earth be blessed; because thou hast obeyed my voice.” KJV
Abraham had obeyed God’s voice by leaving his homeland and traveling to Canaan. And also in his willingness to sacrifice his son. Would the covenant be over when Abraham died?
Read Galatians 3:15-29. You will be convinced that God did fulfill His part of the covenant through Abraham’s Seed, “which is Christ” (v. 16). And all nations have been blessed by Jesus, just as the promise was given.
The law is also mentioned repeatedly in this passage:
“Wherefore then serveth the law? It was added because of transgressions, till the seed should come to whom the promise was made; and it was ordained by angels in the hand of a mediator. Now a mediator is not a mediator of one, but God is one. Is the law then against the promises of God? God forbid: for if there had been a law given which could have given life, verily righteousness should have been by the law.” Galatians 3:19-21 KJV
The purpose of the law was clear. It was given to point out transgression. As stated here, if the law had been able to give life, there would be no need for Jesus to come. You may have heard or believed that salvation before Jesus was by the law and now it is by grace, but this passage points out the error of this thinking. The law could never give life even before Christ came. The covenant has always been one of grace!
Discussion Question: Why is God’s covenant with Abraham and Moses seen as a covenant of works, as opposed to the new covenant of grace? What part did their legalism play in this perception?
Tuesday: Tables of the Covenant
What connection does the Ten Commandment Law have to do with the covenant? Or is there any connection at all? Evidently there is:
“Also in Horeb ye provoked the Lord to wrath, so that the Lord was angry with you to have destroyed you. [after the golden calf incident] When I was gone up into the mount to receive the tables of stone, even the tables of the covenant which the Lord made with you, then I abode in the mount forty days and forty nights, I neither did eat bread nor drink water: And the Lord delivered unto me two tables of stone written with the finger of God; and on them was written according to all the words, which the Lord spake with you in the mount out of the midst of the fire in the day of assembly. And it came to pass at the end of forty days and forty nights, that the Lord gave me the two tables of stone, even the tables of the covenant.” Deuteronomy 9:8-11 KJV
The Ten Commandments were not intended as a barrier, but as a bridge to God. They are an expression of His love and were meant to benefit mankind. They were a sign of the covenant, the very basis of its promises.
Discussion Questions: Would you place a greater significance on Mount Sinai or Mount Calvary?
Are we at a greater advantage for salvation today than the Israelites before Jesus’ birth and death? Didn’t they have a promise of deliverance in the First Coming, similar to the one we have in the Second?
Wednesday: The Covenant and the Gospel
The gospel story is presented very well in Hebrews 9:15-28. Here the word “testament” can also be translated “covenant” according to Strong’s Concordance, and other translations render it that way.
The shedding of blood is compared, but seen as a vital element of our salvation–be it the blood of animal sacrifices or the blood of our Savior Jesus Christ.
Naturally, Christ, our supreme Sacrifice, would be deemed a better sacrifice than the blood of goats and sheep. In addition, He would be a better Mediator for us than the High Priest of the earthly sanctuary.
“It was therefore necessary that the patterns of things in the heavens should be purified with these; but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these.” Hebrews 9:23 KJV
The word “will” is also included in the concept of covenant. We’ve heard the expression “last will and testament”. We might have called our Old and New Testament divisions of the Bible, the Old and New Covenants, or the Old and New Wills. They do incorporate God’s will for us.
Discussion Questions: Read II Corinthians 3:13-18. Discuss what the veil might be referring to. When is it lifted? How does this affect the gospel message?
Hebrews 9:15 calls Jesus the Mediator of a new covenant. Why do we need a Mediator of the covenant? What does this have to do with the law? [if we need a mediator, there must be a law that we need his services for]
Thursday: Covenant Benefits
God’s covenant seems to operate on the carrot-stick principle. There are blessings for those who follow His terms of the contract, but there are also penalties for those who don’t.
It’s difficult to understand why God’s curses fell so heavily on His people at times. As a matter of fact, these curses came in the form of instant death by stoning or banishment from the camp for those who violated God’s law out in the wilderness with Moses.
At times when God was growing and perfecting His people, this seems to be the method used. We even ponder the death of Ananias and Sapphira for not fulfilling their pledge to the early Christian church.
When you consider the opportunity of closeness to God for these people, their actions must have been rooted in staunch rebellion. They couldn’t remain a part of God’s people without seriously jeopardizing God’s plans for His people.
Ezekiel 18:4 tells us, “…the soul that sinneth, it shall die.” The same punishment of death is still facing all who transgress His law today though. Romans 6:23 says, “For the wages of sin is death…”.
Yes, the gospel, the covenant, God’s love, and the law do not change. Thankfully His benefits for obedience are the same too.
- II Corinthians 4:17 “For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory;” KJV
- I John 5:13 “…that ye may know that ye have eternal life…”
- Philippians 1:6 “Being confident of this very thing, that he which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ:”
- John 5:24 “…He that heareth my word, and believeth on him that sent me, hath everlasting life…”
So, His benefits are many. Among them are:
- ability to weather the storms of life
- knowledge that we have eternal life
- confidence that Jesus will work in us to perfect our characters
- understanding of His Word to build our faith
We have always had the Holy Spirit with us to make this obedience and faith possible. Read Hebrews 11 for a “Hall of Faith”. God’s Spirit was striving with man from the very beginning.
Discussion Question: How far back did the covenant with God’s chosen go? See Ephesians 1:4. (“According as he hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love:”) Discuss how these words help us understand the “everlasting covenant”.
God’s plan of salvation has been presented in His covenant promises in different forms, but it’s always been an expression of His love for humanity. He desires to have a close relationship with men and women of all nations of the world.
Both the old and new covenants are based on God’s love and require faith in Jesus as the means of our salvation. The tablets of law, the Ten Commandments, were a symbol of God’s justice and His death on the cross of Calvary was a symbol of God’s love. Both His mercy and justice are part of His covenant agreement with His people in all ages.
Obedience to His law and faith in Jesus are the terms of the agreement for us in both the old and new covenants. When seen in this light, God’s covenant is more fully understood and God’s character is never jeopardized. We can’t say He is unjust or unloving.
Terms of the agreement for both parties that were always there:
- God’s justice–expressed forcefully at Mt. Sinai (our obedience–evidence of our love for God, made possible by His Spirit–they needed faith in the Seed to come)
- God’s mercy–expressed forcefully at Mt. Calvary (our faith–evidence of our love for God, a gift of the Spirit–we need to recognize His authority by keeping the Law)
Under the old covenant, men and women were required to offer an animal sacrifice when they violated God’s law. Seeing an innocent animal suffer in this way was a reminder for them of Jesus, the Lamb of God, and the sacrifice He would make for them in the future.
Be reminded of this sacrifice this week by reading Isaiah 53 and contemplating the price that was paid for your sins.
Next week: The Apostles and the Law