Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Covenants: Part I - Introduction and Background


Growing up in Seventh-day Adventism, I was taught what is often referred to as the “proof-texting” method of Biblical interpretation.  Because I used the Bible in a very fragmented way to support my own preconceived notions, I never had any real feel for the flow of scripture and how it all fit together.


All this changed when I began to read and study whole books of the Bible in context and then began to read through the entire Bible.  What instantly leaped out at me from the pages of scripture was the way in which the entire narrative was structured and defined by covenants.  It suddenly dawned on me that redemptive history could not be fully understood without understanding the covenants that God had made with His people.


Understanding the Biblical covenants opened the scriptures up to me in a way I had never experienced.  Suddenly, I could see a beautiful arc across all of scripture.  No longer were the scriptures a bunch of fragmented texts used for proving a doctrine.  Now I could see God at work through the ages with all things pointing to the person and work of Jesus Christ.  The realization that all the scriptures, both Testaments, are all about Jesus revolutionized my understanding of the Word.


This Bible study is designed to provide an outline overview of the two major covenants in scripture.  Because the material covers nearly the entire Bible, it is not possible to present an absolutely exhaustive study of every book and chapter dealing with the covenants.  I will be presenting texts and passages that I believe provide the basic facts and structure of the covenants.  However, because of the danger of falling into the “proof-texting” trap, I strongly recommend that readers progress through this study with an open Bible.  It is my hope that readers will not settle for only reading the texts I have quoted, but that they will conduct a much more extensive investigation that includes reading the surrounding chapters for context.  I would especially encourage readers to read through entire books that are extensively quoted, such as Romans and Galatians.  The key to avoiding proof-texting is context, context, context!  I challenge every reader to read beyond the quotes in this study to absolutely assure that all quotes are fully in context.



The first step to understanding the Bible is to understand its historical context.  In the case of covenants it is vital to understand that covenants were common in the near east during biblical times.  Covenants were frequently used to establish lordship.  A suzerain would make a covenant with his vassals that normally contained three parts:


  • Promise
  • Condition
  • Sign

The promise might be something like the suzerain promising not to kill the conquered vassals.  Although some covenants might be unconditional, i.e. the suzerain would do what he would do regardless, most held some sort of condition for fulfilling the promise.  So the suzerain might promise not to kill the conquered vassals if they provided him with a yearly tribute of grain and wine.  The covenant was usually ratified with blood and a sign was setup as a way of showing that the vassals were in the covenant with the suzerain.  The sign was often arbitrary and could be just about anything such as an earring in the left ear, an ankle bracelet, or almost any other external sign.

So, with this background in mind, let’s see if we can find the major elements in a couple of Biblical covenants.  Let’s start with a couple of easy ones.  We’ll begin with the Noahic Covenant.  The Noahic Covenant was an unconditional covenant.  It did not depend on the vassals (men).  The suzerain (God) sovereignly said what He would do without any condition applied.  So we only need to look for a promise and a sign.  Read through this passage and see if you can identify a promise and sign before reaching the end of the passage.

Genesis 9:9-17 (NASB)
9 "Now behold, I Myself do establish My covenant with you, and with your descendants after you; 10 and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the cattle, and every beast of the earth with you; of all that comes out of the ark, even every beast of the earth. 11 "I establish My covenant with you; and all flesh shall never again be cut off by the water of the flood, neither shall there again be a flood to destroy the earth." 12 God said, "This is the sign of the covenant which I am making between Me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all successive generations; 13 I set My bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a sign of a covenant between Me and the earth. 14 "It shall come about, when I bring a cloud over the earth, that the bow will be seen in the cloud, 15 and I will remember My covenant, which is between Me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and never again shall the water become a flood to destroy all flesh. 16 "When the bow is in the cloud, then I will look upon it, to remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth." 17 And God said to Noah, "This is the sign of the covenant which I have established between Me and all flesh that is on the earth."
So how did you do?  You should have discovered the following:

  • Sign: the rainbow.
  • Promise: all flesh would never again be destroyed by flood. 

Let’s move on to another unconditional covenant.  The Abrahamic Covenant is an important covenant as it foreshadows a covenant to come.  I believe you will be able to find a two part promise and a sign.  Give it a try.

Genesis 15:5-7 (NASB)
5 And He took him outside and said, "Now look toward the heavens, and count the stars, if you are able to count them." And He said to him, "So shall your descendants be." 6 Then he believed in the LORD; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness. 7 And He said to him, "I am the LORD who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess it."
Genesis 17:10-11 (NASB)
10 "This is My covenant, which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: every male among you shall be circumcised. 11 "And you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin, and it shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you.
So, were you able to find each part of the covenant?  Here’s what I have:

·         Promise: a) Many descendants b) possess the land.
·         Sign: Circumcision

There is no condition to this covenant in the sense of Abraham having to do something.  He simply believed and it was credited to him as righteousness. The Abrahamic Covenant is an "unconditional" covenant because God simply says what He will sovereignly do. Faith, not works, is the basis of this covenant. Next time we will compare and contrast this with the first of the two most prominent Biblical covenants.

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