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How do you understand the covenants of the Bible?

Much confusion exists about the biblical covenants. In fact, there are many covenants mentioned in God’s Word. We discuss those in our free booklet, “And Lawlessness Will Abound.”  

In there, we state, first of all, what a covenant is:

“The word ‘covenant,’ as used in the Old Testament, is a translation from the Hebrew word ‘berith.’ The meaning of this term is ‘covenant, agreement or contract.’… Webster defines a ‘covenant’ as a ‘usually formal, binding agreement between two or more persons, to do or not to do something; a document containing the terms of the agreement.’” The word “berith” is also defined, by Strong’s, as a “compact.”

When the New Testament speaks of covenants, it uses the Greek word “diatheke,” which conveys the same meaning as the Hebrew word “berith.” Strong’s defines it as a contract or as a devisory will or testament. The dual meaning of the word for both a covenant and a testament is important, as explained below. We also show in our above-mentioned booklet that the new covenant is a marriage agreement between Christ and His Church. Christ will marry His Church at His return—the marriage will be consummated between Spirit beings. But it is not only a marriage agreement. We added this:

“In addition, this marriage contract with Christ is also an agreement to inherit what had been promised, through covenants, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and to their descendants. It is not only a will, or a testament that can be changed by the testator at any time before his death, but it is a legally binding, enforceable agreement. In any event, the testator, Jesus Christ, who inherited the promises from Abraham and his offspring, did already die, so His will, as promised to us by a contract, cannot be changed anymore. A will or a testament, in biblical times, was more like a mutual contract of inheritance. In fact, the Greek word for ‘covenant’ and for ‘testament’ is exactly the same, i.e., ‘diatheke.’ Both parties had to agree to the terms of the covenant of inheritance. This contract could be based on certain conditions, and the agreement could only be carried out, and the inheritance obtained, if both parties fulfilled the conditions…

“We, as spiritual Israelites, must be married in order to obtain the inheritance. The New Covenant tells us to whom we have to be married—Jesus Christ. But a marriage can only occur and last if both parties are willing to marry each other, and to remain faithful to each other. Christ has already made a marriage agreement with us—a betrothal—and He will spiritually consummate His marriage with us at His return, if we remain faithful (Revelation 19:7–9; Matthew 22:2; 25:1)… [If] we become disobedient and rebellious and begin again to practice the wrong way of life, Christ has the right to divorce us…”

When God made a covenant with man, He set forth the subject matter (the contents, conditions and promises) and offered the same to man, and man had to agree to and accept the offer. Until man accepted God’s offer, no covenant was entered into. When man subsequently broke the agreed-upon covenant, God was no longer bound by the terms, but man still had to suffer the penalty for breaking the covenant (compare for example Leviticus 26:25).

When God and man made a covenant, they entered into a very special relationship. That is why we speak many times of a covenant relationship. The marriage agreement or covenant constitutes such a relationship. The bridegroom and the bride promise to fulfill the conditions of the marriage covenant, and when the minister officiating the marriage declares them as husband and wife, before God, then a covenant has been entered into which was made between three parties—the husband, the wife and God. This covenant is supposed to last until the death of either the husband or the wife; it must not be broken; but sadly, many times it is. When one party forsakes the marriage, the other party is no longer bound, and divorce is possible. God was “married” to Old Testament Israel, but sent Israel away and divorced her due to her spiritual adultery or idolatry (Jeremiah 3:8).

When we become baptized, we enter into the conditions of the New Covenant. As we explain in our previously mentioned booklet:

“Christ clearly told us the conditions of the New Covenant, and we accepted them at the time of our baptism. As ancient Israel said, we also said, ‘Everything that the LORD has said, we will do.’ We also, of course, accepted Christ’s shed blood that forgives our sins, and we acknowledged that we had entered into a covenant with God at the time of our baptism. Does this mean, then, that the New Covenant has already been made with us at the time of our baptism? Well, yes and no.

“The New Covenant is a marriage agreement. The consummation of our marriage with Jesus Christ—the bridegroom and the Lamb—is still in the future. This is where the biblical concept of betrothal becomes important. In biblical times, the parties went through a period of ‘betrothal’ before they actually consummated the marriage. Mary was already betrothed to Joseph when she was found to be with child (Matthew 1:18). Since they had not consummated the marriage, Joseph thought that Mary was guilty of fornication. But Mary and Joseph were already called, at the time of their betrothal, husband and wife (Matthew 1:19–20, 24; compare also Deuteronomy 28:30). Betrothal was a binding agreement or contract of marriage, and it could only be severed through a divorce. With this contract, the husband had promised his wife to consummate the marriage with her, after a certain period of time.

“In the same way, we, when we became baptized, entered into a covenant with God, and into a contract of betrothal with Jesus Christ. The consummation of our marriage will occur, once Jesus Christ returns to establish His Kingdom. At that time, we will be immortal Spirit beings—born-again members of the God Family.”

When we become baptized, we enter into a life-long commitment and a life-long relationship with God, which He will not break, as long as we stay obedient. However, continued disobedience could lead to our breaking the covenant and ending our relationship with God.  So both our marriage agreement and our baptism constitute covenants establishing a relationship with God.

As we can see from the foregoing examples, we must accept the covenant conditions. When God made His covenants with Abraham and Isaac, they accepted the same. However, Jacob did not at first. When he deceived Isaac and fled, he told God at Bethel that he would tithe IF he would return safely (not before then), and he said that then (not before then), He would be his God (Genesis 28:18-21). He only entered into a covenant relationship with God and accepted God’s covenant offer, when He wrestled with Christ, signifying his repentance, dedication and perseverance.

As we said, a covenant has a certain “subject matter,” and it requires at least two parties who agree to enter into a covenant relationship. For instance, God made several covenants with Abram or Abraham, and each agreement enlarged the scope of the godly promise, being part of the particular covenant. The promises or conditions of the covenant in Genesis 15:18 were limited to a particular piece of land; the covenant in Genesis 17  involved the promise that many nations and kings would descend from Abraham, and it included the promise that the Eternal would be God for Abraham and his descendants. Another covenant with Abraham, referred to in Acts 3:25-26, included spiritual promises referring to Jesus Christ (compare also Genesis 22:16-18). As Abraham increased in faith and obedience, God increased the scope of His promises, by making additional covenants with him. It appears that He even made another covenant with Abraham, not specifically mentioned in Scripture as such, as God promised him not to be just the heir of certain lands, but of the entire world (Romans 4:13; this is also a promise included in the New Covenant for all Christians).

We state in our booklet:

“Abraham is actually called the friend of God in numerous places (James 2:23; 2 Chronicles 20:7; Isaiah 41:8). This means that Abraham agreed with God as to how to live, because two cannot walk together unless they are agreed (Amos 3:3). Abraham lived in obedience to God’s laws, and that is why God called him His friend and entered into agreements with him.”

Even though God made covenants with Abraham, and then, because of the obedience of Abraham, He made a covenant with Isaac, and another one with Jacob (Leviticus 26:42), the Bible may sometimes speak about God’s covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, as the subject matter and the promises involved were the same. (The promises which God gave Abraham were the same as the promises which He gave Isaac and Jacob.) Still, God made individual covenants with Abraham and with Isaac and with Jacob, as the parties to the covenants were not identical.

We also read that God made other covenants with David and with Aaron or Levi, which had different subject matters and included different promises. The same is true for the covenant of circumcision, and the covenant which God made with the nation of Israel under Moses (commonly referred to as the “Old Covenant.”). But even there, God made several covenants with them. The first covenant which He made was broken by Israel when they made the golden calf; so God made another covenant with them. In this regard, Exodus 34:10 says this about the covenant which God made with Israel after they had built the golden calf: “Then the LORD said: ‘I AM MAKING a covenant with you’” (Exodus 34:10, NIV). This is indeed the proper translation of the tense—God is referring to a new contract that He was about to enter into with the people. The Living Bible says it in a similar fashion: “This is the contract that I AM GOING TO MAKE with you.” The New American Bible states, “‘Here then,’ said the LORD, ‘is the covenant I WILL MAKE.’”

Later, just prior to crossing over the River Jordan to enter the Promised Land, Moses addressed the younger generation. He said in Deuteronomy 29:1, “These are the words of the covenant which the LORD commanded Moses to make with the children of Israel in the land of Moab, besides the covenant which He made with them in Horeb.”

It is important that we understand that a covenant does not constitute law, but is BASED on law. Covenants and laws are not identical. For instance, we are told in Joshua 7:11, “Israel has sinned [Sin is the transgression of the LAW, 1 John 3:4], and they have also transgressed My covenant which I commanded them.” When it comes to the covenant which God made with the younger generation at Moab, it was made on the basis of additional laws that had been written in the Book of the Law as time had gone on—laws that had not been the basis for the covenant(s) that God made with Israel at Mount Sinai a generation earlier. These additional laws had been added later because of sin, and included sacrificial rules, rituals, and other ceremonial washings, as well as curses and penalties (Galatians 3:15-19).

Some have claimed that the Old Covenant was identical to the Ten Commandments, and when the Old Covenant with its rituals became obsolete due to the death of Christ, the Ten Commandments vanished as well, and Christ brought a “new law” with just eight or nine of the Ten Commandments, while omitting the Sabbath commandment and the commandment against idolatry. This is nonsense. [Please read our booklet, “The Ten Commandments,” which addresses this false teaching in detail.] God’s covenants were all, in one way or another, based on the Ten Commandments which existed before God made ANY covenant with men. And insomuch as the covenants under Moses with the nation of Israel did not bring the Ten Commandments into existence, they did not do away with the Ten Commandments, when certain covenants became obsolete.

This becomes also clear when realizing that God made a separate covenant with the nation of Israel which is described in Exodus 31. We state the following in our booklet:

“The subject matter of this covenant was the Sabbath, but this covenant did not bring the Sabbath into existence. This covenant was made long after the Ten Commandments had been announced, and, as we saw earlier, the Sabbath commandment was already in existence since the time of the creation of man. So, we see again that a covenant is not identical with the law, although it is based on law.

“We read in Exodus 31:16, ‘Therefore the children of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, to observe the Sabbath throughout their generations as a perpetual covenant.’ In addition, the Sabbath law was now designated as a sign between God and Israel. Verses 13 and 17 tell us, ‘Surely My Sabbaths (this word is in the plural and refers to both weekly and annual Sabbaths or Holy Days) you shall keep, for it is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I am the LORD who sanctifies you… It is a sign between Me and the children of Israel forever…’

“By observing and being mindful of this sign, Israel would understand that it is God who sanctifies them, and Israel as a nation would become a sign to the other nations of this world, as the keeping of God’s Sabbaths does single one out. This separate Sabbath covenant between God and His people was never abolished—neither were the laws of God commanding us to keep His weekly and annual Sabbaths holy. And, since Christians are to be spiritual Jews (Romans 2:28–29; Galatians 6:16; Revelation 2:9; 3:9), they have a two-fold obligation to keep God’s Sabbaths—first, because God commands us to do so; and second, because they are under a specific covenant or agreement that God made with both physical and spiritual Israel, for all generations.”

In addition, the New Covenant is also based on the Ten Commandments, but not on laws that God has decreed are no longer valid. The New Covenant is not based, for example, on the sacrificial system, the Levitical priesthood, and other rituals and washings. But it is important that we understand why those particular laws are no longer valid. Not, because the “Old Covenant” was abolished, and with it all Old Testament laws. The concept that the “Old Covenant” ended, and with it all the laws of the Old Testament, is WRONG, as a covenant is not identical with the law, but it is BASED on the law. The Old Covenant ended, because it was based on laws which ended. We say this in our booklet:

“When analyzing the covenants that God made with the ancient nation of Israel at Mount Sinai and in Moab, God did away with those covenants [except for the Sabbaths covenant with Israel, which remains in force and effect], as too many laws on which those covenants had been based, had become obsolete. Also, God wanted to make a new covenant that would include additional promises that were never a part of the previous covenants with the nation of Israel. So, God abolished the previous covenants with the nation of Israel because certain laws on which the covenants were based were changed or abolished.”

(To Be Continued)

Lead Writer: Norbert Link