God’s Kingdom and the New Covenant
[Reading time: 13 minutes] As we saw in a previous article, there are two primary categories of covenants – parity and suzerain. Two parties could enter into a parity covenant, in which they would treat each other as equals. However, a suzerain covenant would bring two unequal parties together, with the stronger or dominant one dictating all the covenant details. The lesser party could only accept the terms or be penalized severely for rejecting the covenant.
When we examined the covenants God makes with people, we discovered he alone initiates the relationship, which makes them suzerain covenants. Because he clearly is the greater partner and is the King of kings and Lord of lords (1 Tim. 6:15), he unilaterally defines the terms. We respond to his offer by either accepting or rejecting the covenant in its entirety without negotiating.
In this article, we’ll explore the new covenant described in the New Testament and how that relationship relates to God’s kingdom. His kingdom exists as an expression of his will, which includes a loving family working with him in the governance and operation of his kingdom. We’ll see how the new covenant brings us into that relationship and kingdom, and how the kingdom provides the context and resources of all aspects of the covenant. God’s kingdom and the new covenant are distinct but inseparable topics.
Jesus and the New Covenant
Sin entered the world through Adam and Eve, making all of humanity prisoners of sin (Rom. 5:12; Gal. 3:22). It made us God’s enemies and separated us from him (Rom. 5:10; Col. 1:21). In response, he began using covenants to reconcile people to himself, revealing new aspects of his nature, broader perspectives of his plan, and greater insight to our potential relationship with him.
God’s covenant relationship with national Israel served as a precursor to the new covenant, which brings us into personal rather than national relationship with him. Because sin alienated humanity from him, God the Father sent his Son to reconcile us to himself (2 Cor. 5:18). The Son took on human form to mingle with people, set an example of righteous human living, spread the good news of God’s love for them and pay the penalty for their sin (1 John 4:10). God created (gave birth to) humanity, so he’s a legitimate Father and his love for his children is unconditional, though he honors the choice of those who reject him and remain his spiritual enemies. The new covenant fulfills his desire for a loving, enduring, legal relationship with the beings he created in his own image. That’s the foundation for his covenant, which he offers freely and invites everyone to enter voluntarily.
Jesus had an essential role in making that possible. He began his ministry on earth by urging people to repent because God’s heavenly kingdom had come near (Matt. 4:17; Mark 1:15). The Greek word translated “repent” means to radically change the way one thinks, including one’s values and priorities, resulting in changed behavior. He focused on ministering to the Jews (Matt. 15:24) and his call to repentance urged them to change their perspective of God and their relationship with him. They were under the Law of Moses from God’s covenant with Israel, so they followed that covenant’s laws and rituals. However, Jesus began referring to God as their Father early in his ministry, beginning with the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:16, 45, 48), and enabled them to move from the previous covenant to the new one. So, from the beginning, Jesus brought the themes of kingdom and personal relationship together.
It wasn’t until the end of his ministry, during the “Last Supper” the night before his crucifixion, that he apparently introduced the concept of covenant to his disciples. That was the first recorded time he referred to the covenant (Matt. 26:28; Mark 14:24; Luke 22:20). “The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor. 11:23-26, NIV).
The following morning, Jesus initiated the covenant by becoming a physical and spiritual sacrifice paralleling the practice of sacrificing animals by shedding their blood to seal covenants. After Pilate gave in to the crowd’s demands, he had Jesus flogged and handed over to Roman soldiers to be crucified (Mark 15:15). Flogging was a torturous penalty that lacerated a person’s back. It wasn’t unusual for prisoners to die from trauma and blood loss after flogging. The soldiers then forced a crown of thorns on his head (Mark 15:17). They used thorns intentionally to pierce his scalp, causing pain and bleeding. Crucifixion was a standard form of execution under Roman law, so the soldiers drove large nails into his hands or wrists, and into his feet to nail him to a wooden cross. Obviously, he also bled through those wounds. After his death, a soldier thrust a spear into Jesus’ side, “bringing a sudden flow of blood and water” (John 19:34).
Jesus’ blood initiated or ratified the new covenant, which paid the penalty for all of humanity’s sin and made it possible for us to enter personal relationship with God. “For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect. He was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake. Through him you believe in God, who raised him from the dead and glorified him, and so your faith and hope are in God” (1 Pet. 1:18-21). God presented Jesus as a sacrifice of atonement or means of appeasing his wrath against sin, so each person who exercises faith in Jesus’ blood receives forgiveness of their sin and enters personal covenant relationship with him (Rom. 3:25). Without Jesus’ blood, there is no new covenant!
Jesus is the mediator of the new covenant (Heb. 9:15; 12:24), a negotiator or intermediary who resolves differences between God and us. He started in that role by providing a settlement for the sin that separated us from God – dying in our place, paying the price for our guilt. Once we accept his sacrifice in faith, we enter covenant relationship and the kingdom, and he continues to mediate by interceding for us before God (Rom. 8:34; Heb. 7:25).
We need to realize the magnitude of God’s love for us is incomprehensible. His commitment to us is based entirely on who he is, on his oath of faithfulness and blessing. He loves us with an unconditional, unending love and intends only the absolute best for us. If we choose to accept Jesus’ sacrifice for our sin and enter the new covenant, we’ll receive the many expressions of God’s grace and favor.
Entering the New Covenant
The covenant God made with Israel excluded Gentiles (Exod. 19:3-6). It even specified how Jews were to treat foreigners differently from their fellow Israelites, which created an ethnic barrier between them (Deut. 14:21; 15:3; 17:15; 23:20). Excluded from Israel and the covenant God made with them, Gentiles remained separated from God (Eph. 2:11-12). The Bible calls that the old covenant.
God promised to make a new covenant with Israel, unlike the first one the people couldn’t keep (Jer. 31:31-32). Through his death on the cross, Jesus destroyed the barrier between Jews and Gentiles — abolishing the Law of Moses with its commandments and regulations — and reconciled them both to God (Eph. 2:14-16). That was a radical departure from the old covenant and the first believers or Jewish Christians didn’t believe Gentiles could enter the covenant. God made his intent clear, however, when he directed Peter to share the gospel with a group of Gentiles eager to hear the good news (Acts 10:1-11:18). Today, Gentile Christians far outnumber Jewish believers, or Messianic Jews. In other words, by dying for the sin of the whole world, Jesus removed what separated everyone from God and made it possible for anyone to enter covenant with him (1 John 2:2). God uses the new covenant’s inclusion of Gentiles to make the Jews envious (Rom. 11:11).
Jesus’ blood sealed the new covenant and served as a sacrifice for everyone’s sin. The key for us is believing Jesus died for our sin and receiving him as our Savior. When we do, we immediately reconcile with God (Rom. 5:10; 2 Cor. 5:18-19), become citizens of his kingdom (John 3:3, 5; Phil. 3:20), his children (John 1:12-13; 1 John 3:1) and his heirs along with Christ (Rom. 8:17).
This covenant includes every aspect of our relationship with God – salvation, justification, righteousness, sanctification, holiness and every other aspect. Jesus is the way, the truth and the life, and no one can enter this covenant relationship except through him (John 14:6). If any other way were possible, making him die for our sin would have been cruel and unjust.
For the purposes of this study, we defined a covenant as 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. The new covenant’s main purpose is to restore us to relationship with God by abolishing our sin through Jesus’ death and resurrection. Again, the only effort we must make to enter this covenant is to believe Jesus died in our behalf and accept the offer of God’s extraordinary grace.
By entering this relationship with God and becoming part of his kingdom, we experience a variety of relationships. We relate to God as our Father (Matt. 5:16; John 6:27) and Lord (Luke 1:32; Acts 17:24). We relate to the original Son of God as God (John 1:18), Jesus (Mark 1:1; Acts 9:20), Lord (Acts 1:21; Rom. 10:9) and brother (Rom. 8:29; Heb. 2:11).
We also enter the covenant community of sons and daughters God adopted, making Jesus “the firstborn among many brothers and sisters” (Rom. 8:29). The key Greek word for this study in this verse (adelphos) is translated as “brothers” or “brethren” in many Bible versions, but it specifically refers to siblings regardless of gender; so a more versatile and accurate translation is “brothers and sisters” (see CSB, NIV2011 and NLT). So let’s be clear: every true child of God is our spiritual brother or sister, whom God loves as unconditionally and for the same reason he loves us. Regardless of our doctrinal differences, true children of God are family. Jesus said in one of his parables, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matt. 25:40). Each of us is being transformed into Jesus’ image (Rom. 8:29) – we’re all works in progress – and we should treat others as Jesus’ siblings, regardless of how they treat us. Our relationships with each other should reflect our mutual covenant with God: loving, enduring and legal, focusing on the other’s well-being and success, including what they deserve, need or want. That is a godly family.
The Covenant’s Kingdom purposes
In some respects, the new covenant restores God’s original relationship with humanity but even surpasses it. God personally created the first two humans, Adam and Eve, in his own image (Gen. 1:27). He was their father in the sense he brought them into existence. He “crowned them with glory and honor and put everything under their feet” so they could rule over all of creation (Heb. 2:7; Ps. 8:5-8). He endowed them with qualities and attributes similar to his own, and gave them their own domain to rule over, just as he had his own domain. That is, he created virtual peers, as much as created beings could be peers with their Creator. He clearly wanted relationship with someone who had a lot in common with him. In contrast, though angels presently are higher than humans (Ps. 8:5; Heb. 2:7), they’re servants (Heb. 1:14) and one can’t have close relationship with servants. God wanted a bidirectional relationship, in which both parties voluntarily love and serve each other – that’s covenant – and have a lot in common so they can relate to each other. I suggest that is God’s intent for us. Obviously, we’re not God’s literal peers, but he promotes us from sinners to saints (holy ones) so we can work alongside him in his kingdom, using his authority to conduct his business as he would do. And he’s not doing it because we’re such wonderful people, but because it’s an expression of his nature and what he wants.
Our covenant with God is about him and his kingdom, not about our needs or desires. He loved us and adopted us into his family to rule and reign with him, but he’s the one and only sovereign God; we are not. Everything in his kingdom operates according to his will; the issue is whether our will conforms to his. We’re managers or stewards of his kingdom, and our job is to govern everything in our realm of responsibility as he wants it. In that sense, his government is decentralized.
Because of humanity’s sin, there are now two spiritual kingdoms engaged in all-out combat – God’s and Satan’s. Satan is out to destroy everything and everyone associated with God’s kingdom, but this war is not about people; it’s about God and Satan. We humans are involved in the war and what we do supports one kingdom or the other. Though each of us was born in sin as members of Satan’s kingdom, Jesus’ blood makes it possible for us to enter covenant with God and become members of his kingdom, instead.
Consider biblical history. When God chose a nation to be his people, Satan set out to destroy them. God sent Israel to Egypt to provide for them during a famine, but later Satan used the Egyptians to severely oppress the Israelites. Satan tried to kill Israel’s deliverer in Egypt, but Moses’ parents protected him. Satan tried to keep Israel out of the Promised Land, but God helped them drive out their enemies and occupy the land. Satan tried to kill the infant Messiah, but Jesus’ parents protected him.
Satan now is after us because we belong to God. He’s determined to steal, kill and destroy, but Jesus came so we could have abundant lives (John 10:10). The name, “Satan,” is a literal translation of a Hebrew word that describes an adversary or opponent, and he’s clearly our adversary. The Bible describes him as “a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Pet. 5:8). But he’s after us only because we now belong to God instead of him. We’re in the middle of the spiritual war, but it’s about God and Satan, not about us.
The new covenant is completely relevant to this spiritual warfare. It brings us out of Satan’s kingdom of darkness and into God’s kingdom of light (Col. 1:12-13). It transforms us spiritually from our original sinful nature to be like Jesus (Rom. 8:29; 2 Cor. 3:18). It equips us to do even greater things than Jesus did to destroy the devil’s work (John 14:12; 1 John 3:8). The new covenant is one of the means by which God is defeating Satan, and it enables us to participate by enforcing the victory Jesus won at the cross.
Adam and Eve originally ruled the earth (Gen. 1:28), but Satan became the prince or ruler of this world due to their sin (Luke 4:5-6; John 12:31; 16:11). The new covenant restores earthly authority to redeemed humanity (Matt. 16:19; 18:18-19) and eventually will increase that authority to include the spiritual realm (1 Cor. 6:3).
Satan is now demoted to god of this age (2 Cor. 4:4), which indicates his remaining authority will end in the future, then God will sentence him and his angels to eternal fire (Matt. 25:41). The present warfare between spiritual kingdoms will be over and the new covenant has an essential role in producing that result. The kingdom and the covenant are inseparable.
We should respond to all of this with absolute awe at God’s majesty, grace and power; with unlimited gratefulness to him for rescuing us from the destruction of sin and transforming us into his image. We should respond in total humility and willingness to do anything and everything God asks. We should persevere in developing godly character so we can serve him more effectively. We should have a fierce determination to engage in the spiritual war by destroying the works of the devil.
Because we’re in covenant with God and are members of his kingdom, we need to develop a kingdom-covenant perspective. We need to repent, which literally means to radically change the way we think, including our values and priorities, resulting in changed behavior. Normal human thinking, even in its most intelligent form, originates with the fallen spiritual kingdom that governs the world, which means it’s antagonistic toward God. The message of the cross, the good news of forgiveness and liberty, is foolish to people who think like the world (1 Cor. 1:18). By comparison, even “the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom” (v. 25). Kingdom thinking always is superior to normal human thinking.
We can begin transforming our thinking by viewing God as our loving Father (John 14:23; 16:27; 2 Thess. 2:16). If he loved all of fallen humanity so much that he sent his Son to die for our sin (John 3:16), “how will he not also … graciously give us all things?” (Rom. 8:32). If he loves sinners and did that for them, how much more will he love us, his children, and do even more for us?
We can choose to think about the two spiritual kingdoms and begin to identify the attitudes and behavior of people who belong to each. We’ll begin to recognize how the conflicts between the kingdoms influence people’s beliefs, attitudes and interactions on earth.
We can choose to make our thoughts and motives compatible with God’s, by viewing everything from his perspective and immediately rejecting incompatible thoughts. We can decide to see his image in every human (Gen. 1:27) and not view people from a worldly perspective.
We can set our hearts and minds on things above; that is, on heavenly or kingdom things, not on earthly things (Col. 3:1-2). Setting our hearts on something relates to wanting it or making it a priority. Setting our minds on it relates to making it a frequent topic of our thoughts. As we make progress in this area, it becomes easier and more sincere to pray for God’s kingdom to come and his will to be done on earth as it is in heaven (Matt. 6:10). Ultimately, we make his kingdom and righteousness our top priority (Matt. 6:33). We begin to grieve over the fallen world we live in and long for Jesus to set up his kingdom on earth.
We can choose to consider other Christians as members of an extended family and treat them with honor and respect as our equals. We’re to love other Christians as Jesus loved us by serving them and even sacrificing our personal interests for their benefit (John 13:34; 15:12-13), willing to perform even the most basic tasks (13:14).
We can begin to recognize the value each Christian adds and how we can function together as the body of Christ, each with our own abilities, gifts and motivations (Rom. 12:5-6). It then becomes more natural to be devoted to them and honor them (Rom. 12:10).
We can learn to rely on God for insight and understanding (John 16:13, Col. 1:9), guidance (Rom. 8:14), wisdom (1 Cor. 1:30; Eph. 1:17; James 1:5), provision (John 16:23; Rom. 8:32) and whatever else we need (Matt. 6:8; 7:11). By recognizing our own limitations and his unlimited love, abilities and resources, we realize how foolish it is to rely on ourselves.
God’s kingdom is lived from the a heavenly or spiritual perspective, not earthly. That’s why Jesus said to seek first God’s kingdom and righteousness (Matt. 6:33). The people who reject or ignore him may run after the physical, visible stuff, but we’re called to prioritize God’s kingdom. What we experience in life must first be addressed from God’s viewpoint before we can make any significant difference on the human level.
Rational human thinking and self-centered Christianity focus our attention ourselves – our abilities, resources or experiences and whatever benefits and blessings we can receive from God. But kingdom-covenant thinking focuses our attention on God, the King of kings and Creator of everything that exists. That means our faith should focus on performing kingdom business and fulfilling God’s will. He chose to bring us into covenant relationship with him and engage us in the governance of his kingdom. We should eagerly embrace a kingdom-covenant perspective and emphatically reject any thoughts that are incompatible with it!
God’s kingdom and the covenant he invites us to enter are inseparable, what we could consider two aspects of the same topic. In the following articles, we’ll examine how the key elements of that covenant either are dependent upon or expressions of God’s kingdom.