We don’t talk a lot about covenants today. But we should. Covenants are one of the most important themes in the Bible because they act as the skeletons upon which the entire redemptive story is built. They’re like the backbone of the Bible. From Genesis on, God enters into one formal relationship after another (i.e., covenants) with various humans in order to rescue his world. These divine-human relationships push that narrative forward until it reaches its climax in Jesus. Thus, to tell the story of God redeeming his people through Jesus is to tell the story of God’s covenantal relationship with his people.
Pretty important, right? That’s why we’re going to explore the key biblical covenants. But before we do, let’s back up and consider what a “covenant” is and how the covenantal story all began.
What’s A Covenant?
A covenant is a chosen relationship or partnership in which two parties make binding promises to each other and work together to reach a common goal. They’re often accompanied by oaths, signs, and ceremonies. Covenants contain defined obligations and commitments, but differ from a contract in that they are relational and personal. Think of a marriage. In love, a husband and wife choose to enter into a formal relationship binding themselves to one another in lifelong faithfulness and devotion. They then work as partners to reach a common goal, like building a career or raising children together. That’s a covenant.
This type of relationship is very common in the Bible. There were personal covenants between two individuals (think David and Jonathan in 1 Samuel 23), political covenants between two kings or nations (again, think King Solomon and King Hiram in 1 Kings 5), legal covenants with a nation (like the laws about freeing Hebrew slaves), and so forth. Covenanting was part and parcel of what it meant to live in the ancient near east. It makes sense then that a merciful God would reach out to humans to reveal himself and bring about reconciliation through a structure they already understood. How strategic!
The Beginning of the Covenantal Story
Like every good story, the covenantal story began long ago in a land far, far away—the garden of Eden. It’s there that God created humans in his image to be in relationship with him and to act as partners to help him spread goodness throughout the world. The word “covenant” (Heb. berit) isn’t explicitly used in Genesis 1-3, but the details of the relationship are similar.
Our first parents, Adam and Eve, were to live as priest-kings on God’s behalf, replicating and ruling over the world and representing his righteousness to all (this is often referred to as the “cultural mandate”). They would enjoy the blessings of eternal life with God as long as they didn’t eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. To do so, however, would bring the curse of death on humanity. Easy-peasy, right?
Wrong. Unfortunately, we humans didn’t live up to our end of the deal. Imagine that. Adam and Eve chose to disbelieve God and trust their own instincts about right and wrong. They sinned against God, fracturing the human-divine relationship, and plunged humanity into sin and death. This “fall” accounts for the brokenness and corruption we experience in the world today. We’d be stuck in the wreckage of Genesis 3 were it not for divine intervention through the covenants. Thankfully, the rest of the Bible describes how God sets out to repair this broken partnership with humans.
Cue the covenants.
A Quick Guide to Five Key Covenants
There’s no consensus on the number of divine covenants. There are, however, five explicit covenants that form the backbone of the Bible: those God makes with Noah, Abraham, Israel, and David and the New Covenant inaugurated by Jesus. You’ll want to know these as they keep the narrative moving along until we get to the climax of the story—Jesus!
Jesus is the Covenantal Climax
This wouldn’t be any fun if we didn’t see how the covenants pointed towards and were fulfilled in Jesus. That’s the best part! The New Testament presents Jesus as the offspring of Abraham who trusted his Father, even to the point of death, and so became a blessing to all nations. He is the obedient Israelite who perfectly kept, fulfilled, and thus transcended the law of God. He is the royal son of David who inaugurated God’s kingdom in his life, death, and resurrection, and now sits at God’s right hand reigning as shepherd-king over the earth and will continue to reign forever over the new creation.
Think about it—Jesus perfectly succeeded at every point humans failed. This makes him the guarantor and mediator of the new and better covenant (see Hebrews 7:22 and 9:15). Now people from every nation, tribe, and tongue who are joined to Jesus in faith are part of God’s covenant family and experience the rich blessings of the new covenant.
In this new covenant we get total forgiveness of sins and cleansing from shame. We get new hearts of flesh and the indwelling Spirit, causing us to love God’s laws and to walk in his ways. We can actually do justice and righteousness, and so be a light to all the nations. In light of the biblical storyline, that’s amazing! We can walk in freedom and light, rather than sin and darkness. We have bold access to God and stand in the realm of grace. We trust that a renewed world is coming where peace and righteousness will reign forever under the rule of King Jesus. And it’s all possible because of him, the perfect covenant-keeper.
See. We told you that you’d want to know the covenants.