Imagine buying a partially completed house and having to complete that house from its current state. If you didn’t have the original blueprints, there’s a good chance some disaster would happen without knowing how the house had been built up to that point and where the builder was going with it. A similar danger can occur when we seek to put the storyline of our Bibles together without understanding the architecture of God’s plan and progress of redemption. That architecture is found in God’s covenants with humans in the Bible.
What is a Covenant?
We don’t use the word “covenant” in our everyday vocabulary, so I want to give you a definition and then an everyday picture that illustrates the definition. A covenant is a solemn commitment to a particular relationship, guaranteeing promises or obligations undertaken by one or both parties, sealed with an implicit or explicit oath. That’s a mouthful isn’t it. How about a picture? Marriage is the everyday covenant relationship with which you are probably most familiar. That covenant is based on a pre-existing relationship, but that relationship is deepened and amplified with great solemnity with the vows (oath) of marriage where God and others are witnesses. In wedding vows, solemn obligations on the part of both parties are undertaken. There is even a sign of the marriage covenant: the wedding ring in Western countries. If the marriage covenant is upheld as intended with loyal love and faithfulness, there are great blessings for the couple. If the marriage covenant is violated, there is great sorrow and pain. This gives us a helpful basic picture of a covenantal relationship. In fact, marriage is the picture that God Himself designed as a picture of His covenantal relationships with humans.
What are the Key Covenantal Relationships between God and Humans?
Let’s start at creation. There is some dispute over whether God’s relationship with Adam and Eve at creation is a covenant relationship or not. Regardless, God’s relationship with Adam and Eve is at the very least covenant-like and sets the trajectory for the rest of the storyline of Scripture and so should be studied along with the other covenants (cf. Genesis 1–3). Next is God’s covenant with Noah and all his offspring (Genesis 8:15–9:17). Then, God institutes a covenant with Abraham, the core promises of which are found in Genesis 12:1–3). Later, God forges a covenant relationship with the Israelites at Mount Sinai after the Exodus, the core principles of which are the Ten Commandments and the stipulations of which are what we know as the Mosaic Law. In connection with David’s request to build God a temple, God institutes the Davidic Covenant (2 Samuel 7). Finally, God through the Old Testament prophets promised the culminating New Covenant which Jesus inaugurated through His death and resurrection (Jeremiah 31:31–34; Luke 22:14–20).
Why Should We Care about the Covenants?
Having discussed what a covenant is and which covenants I’m referring to, let me now give you three reasons why you should care about these covenants.
First, and most importantly, these covenants form the architecture of God’s plan of redemption. The Bible begins with God ruling over all creation through His chosen steward-king Adam in the perfect rest of Eden (Genesis 1:26–28; 2:1–3). The Bible ends with God ruling over all creation through the Second Adam, Jesus, over perfect and better Edenic conditions (compare Genesis 1–2 with Revelation 21–22 and note the similarities). The Fall in Genesis 3 was an attempted takeover of God’s kingdom by Adam and Satan. In the curse against the serpent in Genesis 3:15, God gives the fundamental promise of the male, serpent-crushing seed (offspring) of the woman who will restore things to Edenic rest and peace. The rest of the storyline of the Bible is centered around this main theme of God reestablishing His kingdom over the world through His chosen king, and God pushes the plan forward through the covenants mentioned above.
“You can think of God’s plans for restoring His kingdom through the covenants as the blueprint of redemptive history...”
Going back to the house illustration we started with, you can think of God’s plans for restoring His kingdom through the covenants as the blueprint of redemptive history and each of the covenants as part of the house. God’s creation purposes for Adam and Even and the promise of Genesis 3:15 set the foundation and trajectory of the house. Then the rest of the covenants are further components of the house that build on that foundation and on each other. No covenant is to be isolated from another for they all work together and fit together to bring about the fulfillment of God’s kingdom program.
So what? Since this is how God has put the storyline of the Bible together, to ignore the blueprint means that we will not put our Bible’s together (as far as the plot) properly. Put positively, to give proper attention to these covenants and their interrelationships will mean that we will see the Bible not as encyclopedia with isolated texts but as one continuous drama of redemption (to borrow a phrase from Jerod Gilcher). Just like we appreciate a good, epic story with a beautifully intricate plot, reading the Bible in this way causes us to worship the sovereign triune God who has written and is writing this beautifully intricate plan of redemption. And the story is real!
The second reason we should care about the covenants follows from the first. If the covenants give the architecture of the storyline of God’s plan of redemption, then understanding that storyline will help us to place ourselves in the proper location of that storyline. The story is real and we are really characters in it. What is our role? For those of us who have union with Christ by faith, we are part of the New Covenant community, the Church, and we partake in some of the blessings of the New Covenant. Understanding how the New Covenant works with the other covenants helps us to better understand our mission as the Church and shapes our expectations of what the future holds for the reestablishment of God’s kingdom over the world.
The final reason (among many others that I could give) for why you should care about the covenants is that understanding the Church’s covenantal relationship with the Trinity gives a proper gravity to local church life. God through Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension has established the New Covenant. If we are in Christ, our atonement and covenant mediator, the Father not only requires of us New Covenant loyal love and faithful obedience, but He also supplies the Holy Spirit to give a new nature that practices loyal love and faithful obedience.
What is the sign of the New Covenant? There are actually two: baptism and the Lord’s supper. Baptism publicly identifies a believer as part of the New Covenant community (the Church). It is an individual’s public appeal to God to be brought into the New Covenant because of Christ’s work (1 Peter 3:21) and it is the local church’s affirmation as an embassy of Christ’s kingdom that, as far as they can see, this person is a disciple of Christ, the New Covenant mediator (Matthew 28:18–20). Baptism is the public sign of entry into the New Covenant. The Lord’s supper is an ongoing sign of participation in the New Covenant (Luke 22:14–20; 1 Corinthians 11:23–32). When we partake in these signs, it is a sober and joyful reality of pledging our commitment to follow Christ and also our commitment to the New Covenant community, Christ’s body, the local church. Church membership i.e. identification with the local embassy of Christ’s kingdom is a serious commitment because it corresponds to our participation in the New Covenant and the New Covenant community founded by the New Covenant mediator, our Lord Jesus Christ.
Hopefully these reasons help you appreciate why the Biblical Covenants are so important. This is merely introduction and motivation for understanding the covenants. The stage has been set for our study of them and their relationships.