God’s Covenant Terms
(Reading time: 16 minutes) 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. Its terms identify its purpose, grant specific rights and privileges, and impose specific responsibilities on each partner.
In this article, we’ll first examine terms of covenants in the Old Testament to see how they affected the covenant partners, then we’ll investigate the new covenant described in the New Testament. As we discovered in a previous article, every covenant God makes with humans is a suzerain covenant, in which he specifies the terms and people can only enter the covenant if they accept them. Either we come to God on his terms or we don’t come at all; it’s that simple.
Old Testament Examples
Genesis doesn’t specifically describe God’s relationship with Adam and Eve as a covenant, but it clearly has a covenant structure, including covenant terms. God created Adam and Eve in his own image and likeness so they and their descendants could be like him and have similar abilities. Specifically, he crowned them with glory and honor (Ps. 8:5) and created the physical world for them to rule over, including all its other living creatures (Gen. 1:26, 28). He expected them to work and take care of the Garden of Eden (2:15) and produce offspring to fill the earth (1:28). He also expected them not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, which was in the Garden (2:17).
When God made covenant with Noah and all who had been on the ark, he told them to be fruitful and increase in number to repopulate the earth (Gen. 9:1, 7). He also stated he would never again destroy life on earth with a flood (vv. 9-11). These were the terms of the covenant he made with them.
An elderly couple, Abram and Sarai, were childless when God made covenant with him. God expected Abram to walk before him and be blameless (Gen. 17:1); that is, be aware of his presence in everything he did and live to please him. In return, God would make Abram the father of many nations (v. 4) and establish an everlasting covenant with him and his descendants, which included the land of Canaan as their everlasting possession (vv. 7-8). For his part, Abram and all males in his family were to be circumcised (v. 10). In recognition of the life-changing impact of the covenant, God changed Abram’s name to Abraham, and Sarai’s name to Sarah (vv. 5, 15). A year later, Sarah gave birth to the child God promised (17:1, 21; 21:5). The Books of Genesis and Exodus reveal God caused that supernatural childbirth to produce an entire nation he would call his own: Israel.
When God brought the Israelites out of Egypt, he made a covenant with them in which he would become their God and they would become his people. Moses read the “Book of the Covenant” to them (Exod. 24:7), which included the covenant terms. The Books of Exodus and Leviticus include Israel’s responsibilities in the form of laws and commandments. Among other things, God’s responsibilities included opposing their enemies and giving the Israelites their land (23:22-23), blessing their food and water, taking away sickness and giving them full life spans (vv. 25-26). God later confirmed to Moses, “in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel” (34:27, NIV). The covenant terms comprise what became known as the Law, or Law of Moses because he presented God’s terms to the people.
Because the Israelites refused to enter the Promised Land when God said and they disobeyed the covenant terms, he led them in the desert for 40 years until that generation died (Num. 32:13; Deut. 8:2; Josh. 5:6). He then led the next generation to the land’s border, where he had Moses present covenant to them. His goal was to form or confirm relationship with the younger generation. The covenant he presented was very similar to the one he made at Mount Sinai (see Deut. 7:12-15; 29:1). However, it included specific directions about occupying and using the land, refusing to intermarry with the pagan people who lived there, and destroying the objects used in their pagan worship (7:1-6).
Centuries later, David and Jonathan entered what’s often called a “life covenant,” in which they fully devoted themselves to each other. Scripture describes some results of this covenant in detail, but records very little about the covenant terms other than their commitment to serve each other.
Scripture refers to God’s covenant with David several times (2 Sam. 23:5; 2 Chron. 13:5; 21:7; Ps. 89:3), which included David’s family and his kingdom (2 Sam. 7:16). God committed himself to serving David in specific ways (2 Sam 7:9, 11, 12, 16; Jer 33:20-21, 25-26). The only covenant requirement for David appeared to be his continued faithfulness. In the New Testament, the apostle Paul quoted God as saying, “I have found David son of Jesse a man after my own heart; he will do everything I want him to do” (Acts 13:22).
The Old Testament clearly identifies marriage as a covenant relationship (Prov. 2:16-17; Mal. 2:14). Though the New Testament doesn’t specifically address marriage as a covenant, the marriage terms it identifies are the same as those of a covenant: the two become one (Matt. 19:6), must not divorce or separate (1 Cor. 7:10-11), are dedicated to their spouse’s needs and interests (7:33-34), and only death can separate them (7:39). Each spouse has specific covenant responsibilities. The husband is to love his wife by sacrificing himself as needed for her well-being and success (Eph 5:25, 28, 33), be considerate of her and treat her with respect (Col. 3:19; 1 Pet. 3:7). The wife is to treat her husband with respect and even awe (Eph. 5:33), and love him by sacrificing herself as needed for his well-being and success, be kind and willing to submit to him (Titus 2:4-5). Marriage is a legal, unbreakable merger, not a conditional partnership. God likely had at least two reasons for creating human marriages. They reflect the intimate and caring relationship he wanted with humans (Isa. 54:5; Jer 3:14; 31:32) and provide a loving, nurturing environment for producing generations of people to be fruitful, increase in number and fill the earth (Gen. 1:28; 9:1, 7). He also wanted an uncountable multitude of humans to be part of his kingdom family, who would relate to him as Father and God (Matt. 6:9; Rev. 7:9; 19:1, 6).
God’s New Covenant
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). Because Jesus died as a ransom to set us free from sin and its guilt, he is the mediator of the new covenant through which we can enter relationship with God (Heb. 9:15). Ultimately, that relationship affects every aspect of our lives as we discover the covenant elements, including God’s and our responsibilities, rights and privileges. We’ll begin by examining several of the covenant’s purposes.
Purpose: Restore us to relationship with God
Adam and Eve had daily intimate relationship with God until they knowingly disobeyed his simple command not to eat the fruit of a specific tree. They had chosen to follow Satan’s advice rather than God’s, which fractured their covenant relationship. As a result, God expelled them from his presence in the Garden.
From that moment, every human being other than Jesus was born in sin and separated from God, but at appropriate times he used covenants to restore gradually people’s relationship with him. The most comprehensive and final one is the new covenant in which Jesus made complete reconciliation with God possible (Col. 1:21-22). Through it, we can choose to become members of God’s family, with him as our heavenly Father (Matt. 6:9), by accepting Jesus as our Savior and Lord.
Before the creation of the world, God chose us to be holy and blameless in his sight, and “predestined us for adoption” in his family (Eph. 1:5). Throughout human history, adoption has been a legal process that creates a parent-child relation between people not related by blood, with the adopted child entitled to all privileges belonging to a natural child. Because God the Father is the King of kings and Lord of lords (1 Tim. 6:15) and we’re his children (John 1:12), we’re also his heirs and co-heirs with his Son Jesus (Rom. 8:16-17). It’s all legal and appropriate.
Adoption changed our identity and nature, and erased all record of our previous nature and sin. We’re not sinners saved by grace, because our identity as sinners has been erased. God fully restored our relationship with him, so we’re now his children and the record of our past no longer exists. We now have the same family and kingdom rights as Jesus.
A primary purpose of the new covenant is to restore our relationship with God by reversing the effects of our sin and erasing all record of it. But there’s more: Adam and Eve lost dominion over the earth, but we’ll reign with Jesus during the millennium and forever after (Rev. 20:6; 22:5), over the world and even the spiritual realm (1 Cor. 6:2-3; Rev. 2:26-27). This is how God operates; he redeems even a catastrophe so the result is better than the situation was before the catastrophe occurred.
Purpose: Restore his image and likeness in us
In the beginning, God created Adam and Eve in his image and likeness (Gen. 1:26-27). The Hebrew word translated “image” refers to his visual appearance, and the word translated “likeness” describes a similarity in appearance, but also character or nature. That is, God gave Adam and Eve an appearance and nature like his own. The Bible refers to angels as “sons of God” because he created them (Job 1:6; 2:1; 38:7), but nowhere does it state he created angels in his image or likeness.
We can conclude that only humanity – all of humanity – has been made in God’s likeness (James 3:9). Yet sin tarnished that likeness so now it’s less evident. However, God uses our covenant relationship to restore his image and likeness in us.
“Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). Notice the promise: We can’t see Jesus exactly as he is now so we don’t yet know what our future condition will be, but we’ll be (or become) like him when he appears. We will experience a radical transformation when he returns for us (2 Cor. 3:18; Phil. 3:21)!
A key word translated “likeness” in the New Testament (eikon) refers to an image, likeness or similarity in appearance, character or nature. That word appears in the following verses. Jesus is the image of the invisible God (Col. 1:15). God predestined those who love him to be “conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom. 8:28-29). Just as we “have borne the image of the earthly man, so shall we bear the image of the heavenly man” (1 Cor. 15:49). In reality, we “are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory” (2 Cor. 3:18).
God is transforming us into his image and likeness (his appearance and nature), to look and be like him, to think and act like him. One of his goals for the new covenant is to transform us so we look and act like his children.
Purpose: Prepare us to serve in God’s kingdom
It should be obvious that we can’t function effectively in God’s kingdom unless we understand what it is, who’s in charge, how it works and what our responsibilities are. That is, all of us need to be taught how to serve in the kingdom.
Jesus told his disciples, “go and make disciples of all nations … teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19-20). A disciple is a student, someone who embraces and adheres to someone’s teachings. Jesus instructed his disciple-students to make and teach other disciple-students. As followers of Jesus, that’s our responsibility. We’re to receive instruction and knowledge, and develop necessary skills so we can obey everything he commanded and function effectively in God’s kingdom, which includes helping others do the same.
In general, the purpose of such teaching is to conform our thinking to God’s written and spoken word; that is, to change how we think. Almost every page of the New Testament instructs us about spiritual development, godly character, God’s nature and ways, about kingdom principles and spiritual laws. It requires us to change what and how we think about every aspect of our relationship with God and our involvement in his kingdom.
Training is essential and the Bible is our training manual. “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17). Listening to someone teach is beneficial, but studying it ourselves produces much greater results. We’re to train ourselves to be godly (1 Tim. 4:7), to develop our own character and behavior based on Scripture.
The ultimate purpose of all such training and development is to prepare us to serve effectively in God’s kingdom. Any personal benefit we receive is a blessing, because it’s primarily about him, not us.
In this life, we serve God’s kingdom by making disciples of all nations (Matt. 28:19-20), allowing God to make his appeal to the world through us (2 Cor. 5:20) and properly representing our Father the King in daily matters (John 5:19; 14:10, 24). During Jesus’ 1000-year reign on earth, we will reign with him (1 Cor. 6:2; Rev. 2:26-27; 20:4, 6). I believe after the millennium, we’ll also reign over the spiritual realm and judge even angels (1 Cor. 6:3).
I see us receiving greater training and firsthand kingdom experience, becoming increasingly proficient in this life, during the millennium and then throughout eternity. As we prove ourselves faithful and learn important lessons at one level, then God can advance us to a higher level; see the parable of the minas (Luke 19:12-26). This is his intent and the new covenant makes it possible.
Purpose: Defeat Satan
There’s continuous conflict in the spiritual and physical realms between God’s kingdom and Satan’s (see “Spiritual Kingdoms at War”) and the new covenant is one of the means by which God is defeating Satan. After Satan enticed Adam and Eve to disobey God, every other human (except Jesus) has been born with a sinful nature, aligned with Satan and destined to share his eternal judgment (Matt. 25:41). Every unredeemed human is an enemy of God and of the cross of Christ (Col. 1:21; James 4:4; Phil. 3:18).
We humans are involved in the war, representing one kingdom or the other even if we don’t realize it. Satan can’t attack God directly, so he’s after everyone and everything belonging to God, especially people who have entered covenant with him.
Satan uses the law of Moses to provoke sin in people, which condemns them (Rom. 7:7-11; 5:18). Where there is no law, there’s no transgression or condemnation (Rom. 4:15; 5:13), but the law allowed sin to deceive us and produce death (Rom. 7:10-11). This is why the law of Moses is the law of sin and death (Rom. 8:2). However, Jesus defeated Satan by fulfilling or meeting all of the law’s requirements (Matt. 5:17) and paying the penalty under the law for all of humanity’s sin (John 1:29; Heb 7:27). Now, those of us in covenant with God live by a higher law, the law of Christ (Gal. 6:2), which supersedes and sets us free from the law of sin and death (Rom. 8:2). This means Satan has lost control of us unless we choose to be like him by rejecting God’s ways.
Because we’re now in covenant with God, Satan is our adversary, our enemy who prowls around looking for opportunities to devour us (1 Pet. 5:8). In fact, “Satan” is from a Hebrew word that refers to an adversary or opponent; his name identifies him!
Yes, we’re in the middle of a spiritual battle, but the battle isn’t about us; it’s about God and Satan. The new covenant allows us to participate with God in defeating Satan and countering everything he does by destroying his works (1 John 3:8; John 14:12).
God the Father’s Covenant Responsibilities
The new covenant is based on God’s grace, because he interacts with us on the basis of who he is, not what we do. He initiated it and met all the requirements, even giving us what we need to enter and remain in covenant relationship with him. This is an eternal covenant, which means he will never violate or cancel it (Heb. 13:20).
Consider how much God the Father has done and continues to do for us. He sent his Son to earth as a human to do his work and perform his will, including dying on a cross for humanity’s sin (John 6:38; 14:10; Matt. 26:39). Sin had alienated all of humanity from Father, but he reconciled us to himself through Jesus’ death so he can consider us holy, blameless and above reproach (Col. 1:21-22). Then the Father raised the Son from the dead (Rom. 6:4). So when Jesus, the Son, announced the new covenant, he was doing the Father’s work, because he only did what he saw Father doing and said only what he heard Father saying (John 5:19; 14:10). It was Father’s eternal purpose to accomplish all of this through him, so that through faith in Jesus we can approach the Father with freedom and confidence (Eph. 3:10-12). He did everything he needed to do for us to enter covenant with him, and now he equips us with everything we need to do his will and works in us what pleases him (Heb. 13:21).
God the Son’s Covenant Responsibilities
As we’ve already seen, Jesus the Son of God was actively involved in the Father’s plan to reconcile us to himself through covenant relationship. He came to earth to reveal God’s kingdom in heaven (Matt. 4:17; Mark 1:15) and show us the potential for covenant relationship with God in which he becomes our heavenly Father (Matt. 6:9). Jesus then died as a sacrifice or ransom for all the ungodly of the world for all time (Rom. 5:6; 1 Tim. 2:6; Heb. 7:27). The only issue now is whether each of us individually will accept the covenant through faith in his death and resurrection, and choose to remain faithful to the end (Matt. 10:22). Those who don’t will remain guilty of their sin and will be judged for what they have done (Rev. 20:12, 15).
Now that Jesus has died to set us free from sin, he serves as the mediator of the new covenant (1 Tim. 2:5; Heb 9:15). A mediator intercedes as needed and reconciles the covenant parties by resolving any issues that separate them (Rom. 8:34).
We’re not in covenant relationship with God because we deserve to be, but because we believe Jesus died for our sin and we accept God’s gracious offer.
God the Holy Spirit’s Covenant Responsibilities
Jesus introduced us to the new covenant then returned to heaven, but didn’t leave us alone or insist that we figure everything out by ourselves. Instead, he sent us the Holy Spirit as a personal counselor or advocate who will be with us continuously, teach us all things and remind us of everything Jesus said (John 14:16, 26). He “testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children,” that we are “heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ” (Rom. 8:16-17). The word translated “testifies” in this passage means to confirm or testify in support of another’s claim. Basically, when we call God our Father, the Holy Spirit serves as a legal witness to confirm we are God’s children, his legal heirs; that is, we’re included in the covenant. Among his many other covenant duties, he guides us into all truth, which includes showing us everything that belongs to Jesus (John 16:13-15). We’re adopted into his family, so whatever belongs to Jesus becomes available to us so we can continue the work he was doing on earth.
Our Covenant Responsibilities
God fulfilled all of his covenant responsibilities and completed its purpose, which includes reconciling us to himself. Having entered covenant with God, however, we assume specific responsibilities; not to enter covenant or earn anything from him, but as a result of being in covenant with him. Though they’re not specifically defined as such, those responsibilities clearly identify God’s expectations of us and therefore qualify as terms of our covenant with him. Our covenant is a legal arrangement and relationship, stronger than contracts and even stronger than marriage.
Again, 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. Many if not most children of God still live for themselves and are indistinguishable from the world, but that’s no longer be acceptable.
What are our covenant responsibilities? We could list everything the New Testament says we should do, but we’ll focus on a few.
Jesus began his earthly ministry with a simple message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matt. 4:17). The Greek word translated “repent” consists of two parts; the first refers to transformation or radical change and the second refers to our mind or what we think. Repenting literally means changing the way we think. We were born with sinful natures and grew up in a sin-dominated world. Repentance requires us to reprogram our minds so our attitudes, perspective, values, priorities and standards conform to what the Bible says. The new covenant is a major theme of the New Testament and virtually every page reveals changes we should make in our thinking.
One of the biggest problems Christians have is trying to change their behavior without transforming the way they think. That’s completely ineffective and really frustrating. We must change our thinking, then behavioral change will be automatic. Repentance is far more than saying the “sinner’s prayer.” Our relationship with God starts with recognition of our sinful condition and repeating a prayer, but that is only the beginning.
True repentance, deliberately and continually conforming our thinking to God’s, is absolutely essential. It requires continual exposure to his Word and sensitivity to his Spirit.
We enter covenant through faith in God’s redemptive work, not based on our abilities or qualifications. The Greek words translated “faith” and “believe” are the noun and verb forms of the same root word. So the verb form (believe) doesn’t mean to have or possess faith; rather it means to exercise or use faith. Faith isn’t just for salvation or entering covenant with God, but an essential element of covenant life. The apostle James wrote that he showed his faith by what he did; otherwise, his “faith” is dead or meaningless (James 2:17-18, 26).
Believing or faith is more than mental assent or agreement. It’s the act of accepting something as real so everything we do is based on that reality; that’s “living by faith” (Gal. 3:11). Right believing causes us to live by faith and God then credits righteousness to our account, as he did with Abraham (Rom. 4:5; James 2:23).
Many Christians live their lives as though we don’t have any responsibilities toward God because he did everything for us. Some live as though God only makes suggestions or requests. However, all of us need to realize that as citizens of his kingdom, we’re expected to do what the King says, and Jesus made this very clear with the words he used.
Many of Jesus’ statements were commands for those who are in covenant with him. A key word he often used refers to an authoritative direction, instruction, order or command to do something. It’s most often translated “command” or “commandment” and occurs in the New Testament most frequently in the writings of the apostle John, “the apostle of love” (for example, John 13:34-35; 15:10-13; 1 John 3:21-24; 4:21; 2 John 1:4-6). That is, the terms of the new covenant are commands, not requests.
In response, God expects us to obey. “Very truly I tell you, whoever obeys my word will never see death” (John 8:51); eternal life is a benefit only of the covenant. “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching” (John 14:23). “We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him” (Acts 5:32); only those who enter the covenant receive the Holy Spirit.
So obedience should be a natural expression of our covenant relationship with God. We don’t qualify for such a relationship by obeying him, but we gladly obey him because he chose to make covenant with us.
“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (John 13:34; also, 15:17). There’s that word again: “command.” Loving other believers as Jesus loves us is a covenant term, a requirement. And again from John’s writings, “And this is love: that we walk in obedience to his commands. As you have heard from the beginning, his command is that you walk in love” (2 John 6).
Biblical love primarily is a commitment, not just a feeling, and it’s a frequent topic in the New Testament. As we might expect, it requires us to repent, to change the way we think. We can choose to love other Christians as Jesus loves us by serving them and sacrificing ourselves for their benefit (John 15:12-13). We can choose to love even our enemies, regardless of how they treat us (Matt. 5:44). We love because God first loved us (1 John 4:19), and we love him by keeping his commands (1 John 5:3; 2 John 6). We’re to do everything in love, to follow God’s example and live a life of love (1 Cor. 16:14; Eph. 5:1-2).
May we become so impressed with the power and beauty of our relationship with God that we gladly embrace the covenant terms and fulfill our covenant responsibilities.