What is a Covenant?
[Reading time: 7 minutes] Imagine yourself as a young child, only aware of what you experience every day. You may have heard there are other countries and customs in the world, but you haven’t personally experienced them. You may have heard people talk about the past, but you can’t relate to what they’re saying. Your family’s customs and traditions make no sense to you; they’re just nice things to do. Your parents simply may have said, “We’ve always done it this way.”
How would you or did you feel? Confused, maybe frustrated? The only thing that’s important to you is what’s happening now, what you want, how you feel. Many traditions are empty and meaningless, except for the pleasure they give you now.
This is not an imaginary scenario; this is our world today, even for adults. Why? Because we’re missing an important concept that throughout history has tied many things together, gives them meaning and adds value to our lives. That missing concept is covenant.
For example, why does a bride change her name? Why do a bride and groom exchange vows, exchange rings, take communion and share food? What does it mean for them to become “one”?
Why did the Law of Moses given to the Jews include blessings and curses? Why did they make animal sacrifices and observe mandatory feasts? Why did people occasionally set up a memorial by planting a tree or making a pile of stones? Why was Abram’s name changed to Abraham, and why was he called a friend of God? Why did God disperse Israel in 70 AD, and cause them to be persecuted for centuries and distrusted by almost everybody?
Why are we as Christians told we can come boldly into God’s presence? How can we be heirs of God? What’s the significance of communion? Why can we expect God to help us when we’re in need? Why is our Bible divided into two “testaments”? Why doesn’t God punish us for our sins? Why is it important other people know we’re Christians, that they see something different about us? Why does Jesus have scars in his glorified body from wounds he received on earth?
It’s not the purpose of this article series to answer all these questions. But we’ll discover answers for these questions and many more in an understanding of covenants. In reality, to understand the Bible and our relationship with God properly, we must understand covenants!
Definition of Covenant
The Old Testament uses a Hebrew word (berit) for a wide variety of oath-binding commitments in various relationships. These include national treaties, clan alliances, national and personal agreements, business arrangements, pledges and marriage.
The word normally used for covenant in New Testament times is based on the legal equality of the covenant parties, which cannot reflect our relationship with God because we’re not equal with him. Instead, the New Testament uses a different Greek word (diatheke) for covenant, which describes a disposition, testament or settlement of possessions and rights. In Greek culture, this would be an arrangement made by one party with absolute power to define the terms, which the other party may accept or reject, but cannot change. This clearly is the case if the covenant only took effect upon the death of the person originating it. In the New Testament covenant between God and people, he initiates the arrangement declaring his will and graciously allows us to accept or reject it. The word diatheke, like other words used in the New Testament, received greater meaning and emphasis when used in the context of our relationship with God.
Another covenant-related term that receives greater meaning in the Bible is “friend,” referring to partners in covenant relationship. In societies where covenant-making was practiced and understood, there was no higher honor than to be called “friend.” Because of the covenant God made with him, the Bible refers to Abraham as God’s friend (2 Chron. 20:7; Isa. 41:8-10; James 2:23). Because of our covenant relationship with God, Jesus called his followers “friends” (John 15:12-15). For us, that’s a great honor.
God chose to use the human practice of covenant-making as a basis for the relationship he wanted with people who would accept his terms. In earlier times, people would immediately understand the significance of covenant relationship with God. Unfortunately, that’s a foreign concept for most of us today, which is why we need to examine it. Without this insight, it’s easy to miss the theme running throughout the Bible, though the Bible in reality is a covenant book.
In this article series, we’ll use the following definition of biblical covenants between individuals: A covenant is a loving, enduring, legal relationship in which each partner focuses on the other’s well-being and success, including what they deserve, need or want. Notice each person is dedicated more to their partner’s well-being than their own, so they would never do anything harmful to them.
It’s Not a Contract
Most Americans think covenants and contracts are the same. In the American legal system, a covenant is a promise in a written contract or deed of real property that defines special permissions such as allowing use of an easement. Homeowner association covenants are promises to respect the rules of conduct, use of the property, limits on construction, and so on.
However, a biblical covenant and a western contract are completely different. Let’s consider their similarities and differences.
Both are legal agreements which define relationships. Both include terms or lists of expectations, benefits for adhering to the terms, and penalties for violating the terms. Both require all parties involved to affirm the agreement and typically require legal witnesses.
Although they may look similar on the surface, a covenant’s underlying motivation is the exact opposite of a contract’s. A contract defines a potentially adversarial or hostile relationship, in which each party focuses on protecting their own interests and maximizing their benefits within the contract terms. A covenant defines a loving relationship, in which each party fully commits to the other’s success and well-being within the covenant terms. Protecting one covenant friend from the other is unnecessary.
A contract defines a temporary and conditional relationship that lasts until the terms are completed or one of the parties withdraws. A covenant defines an unconditional, enduring relationship that only death can end.
A contract can be changed or even canceled if either party is dissatisfied for any reason. A covenant is an unbreakable obligation between the partners, so it’s not dependent on performance or results.
Exchanging something of value is essential to a contract. In fact, most contracts require payment in exchange for a specified product or service. In contrast, covenants typically involve an exchange of abilities and resources, but this isn’t their primary purpose.
Parties seal a contract with their signatures, promising to fulfill their contractual obligations, but their promise is only as good as their character. In a covenant, however, the parties seal their agreement with an oath before God.
The difference between contracts and covenants is like the difference between law and grace. Law and grace both set standards and expect all parties to conform to those standards. The law requires obedience and penalizes any violation of the standards. In contrast, grace equips and motivates people to obey the standards. In modern western culture, we may think grace simply excuses mistakes or overlooks problems, but the biblical perspective of grace enables us to do what’s needed. God’s grace toward us doesn’t excuse our sin, but enables us to become righteous! Law demands obedience, but grace enables us to obey. That difference also exists between contracts and covenants.
We don’t have a good example of covenant in our modern western culture. In reality, God considers marriage a covenant between a man and a woman, but since we view marriage as a contract, divorce is rampant.
Categories of Covenants
In biblical times, the two most common categories of covenants or treaties were parity and suzerain. If two individuals, clans, villages or nations of approximately equal status entered into covenant and were treated as equals, theirs would be a parity covenant. If, instead, one party clearly was superior and dictated all the covenant details, theirs would be a suzerain covenant; the lesser party could only surrender or be penalized severely for violating the terms. The Old Testament also contains examples of peace covenants or treaties, in which potential enemies agreed not to attack each other.
The most significant covenants in Scripture are those God makes with people, in which he obviously is superior to those with whom he makes covenant. Our covenant with God clearly is a suzerain one. He specifies every aspect of the covenantal relationship, so we can only accept or reject the covenant in its entirety. Though that may seem offensive to us at first, we soon realize we have nothing to fear from him because he always does what’s best for us; that’s covenant. If we try to interpret the covenant in our own way after accepting it, we create problems in our relationship with him. That’s not to suggest God gets angry and punishes us; instead, he may withdraw some of his protection or blessings. But he does that only out of love for us, encouraging us to return to him. He honors us by accepting our choices and though he tries to persuade us, the choice is ours.
The Covenant Book
The Bible consists of two major parts: the Old Testament and the New Testament. The Old Testament contains descriptions of several covenants made before the time of Jesus, those God made with humans and those people made among themselves. The New Testament describes the new covenant Jesus mediated (Luke 22:20; Heb. 12:24). When we understand covenants and read the Bible as the covenant book it is, we understand it much better. The Bible isn’t a collection of random stories or a list of arbitrary principles. There are two common themes in the Bible and they are the kingdom and the covenant. God initiates every covenant he makes with man and our relationship with him is a covenant.
It’s obvious we don’t understand covenants. For example, many – if not most – of us essentially have taken the Lord’s name in vain, because we call ourselves Christians but continue thinking and acting like the world. Our families and friendships are falling apart. Our divorce rate is the same as the world’s and moral failure is common among us.
We would think and behave differently if we understood the powerful covenant relationship we have with God, our loving Father. This article series can help make that happen.