Correctly Using Covenant Authority
(Reading time: 11 minutes) In every human culture, a person’s name represents their identity and authority. For example, when we sign our names to contracts, receipts or legal papers, we authorize work to be done or payment made.
It’s historically typical for people entering covenant to exchange portions of their names as evidence of their shared identity and legal authority to act in their partner’s behalf, including using their resources. Marriage is a covenant and, in most cultures, one partner takes the other’s name and they jointly own their property.
We see similar patterns in both Old and New Testament covenant descriptions.
When God made covenant with Abram, he added the predominant letter of his own Hebrew name – equivalent to the English letter H and pronounced with the sound of breath – to Abram’s name. God said, “No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I will make you a father of many nations” (Gen. 17:5, NIV). Essentially, they exchanged portions of their names and from that moment, Abram was known as Abraham and God called himself “the God of Abraham” (Exod. 3:6). The covenant name change affected Abraham’s wife the same way, by changing her name from Sarai to Sarah (Gen. 17:15). Covenant partners typically called each other “brother” or “friend,” as God did with Abraham (Isa. 41:8; James 2:23).
This is the only covenant God made with humans in which he exchanged a portion of his name. This likely reflects the significance of God’s relationship with Abraham. In all other covenants God made with people in the Old Testament, the partners received new titles, rather than new names. For example, Israel received the title of God’s “chosen people” (Isa. 65:9) while God continued referring to himself as “the God of Abraham.”
Also, after entering covenant with God, David called him “my Father, my God, the Rock my Savior” and God called David “my firstborn” (Psa. 89:26-28). The terms “Father” and “firstborn” describe an extraordinary relationship similar to blood relation, so this was yet another way God honored David above all other kings.
Jesus’ Human Identity and Authority
The Son of God, a member of the divine trinity having the nature and form of God, “made himself nothing” (Phil. 2:7). The Greek word translated “made … nothing” means he emptied himself of that nature; that is, he divested himself or set aside his innate divinity. Having done so, he took the very nature and form of a human. Humans and fallen spirits acknowledged him as the Son of God (Matt. 8:29; 14:33) and twice he’s recorded referring to himself as the Son of God or God’s Son (John 5:25; 10:36). But otherwise he referred to himself as the Son of Man (30 times in the Gospel of Matthew).
As a sinless human, he was the only one qualified to represent humanity to form a covenant relationship with God, which now allows us to enter that covenant. As the Son of Man, he had authority to accept responsibility for all of humanity’s sin and die in our place, freeing us from slavery to sin and paying our spiritual debt (Rom. 5:8; 1 John 2:2). After his death and resurrection, God restored Jesus’ divine nature and glory (John 17:5), so he now is both fully God and fully human.
The eternal Son of God became a human, the Son of Man, by taking our identity and nature, then used his authority as a human to represent us in the new covenant.
Our New Identity and Authority
By accepting Jesus as Savior, we enter the new covenant he made with God and receive a new identity. God legally adopted us (Rom. 8:15; Eph. 1:5) and declared us his children (Gal. 3:26; 1 John 3:2), with all the rights and privileges accorded family members. This entitles us to call him Father (Matt. 6:8-9) and acknowledge that we are his sons and daughters (2 Cor. 6:18), which is only possible within the new covenant. This also makes Jesus our elder brother, the firstborn of God’s human family (Rom. 8:29).
When we accepted Jesus as Savior, we received the Holy Spirit as an initial installment or guarantee of our full inheritance as God’s children (Eph. 1:13–14). “Now if we are children, then we are heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ” (Rom. 8:17; also Gal. 4:7). The Greek word translated “heirs” literally describes those who are entitled by law or by the terms of a will to receive a portion of an inheritance. God the Father made Jesus “heir of all things” (Heb. 1:2) and we became his co-heirs through our adoption as God’s sons and daughters. We are now heirs of God’s kingdom (James 2:5). This is why “God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms” (Eph. 2:6).
There are other terms that reveal our covenant identity and relationship; the most obvious one being “Christian,” which describes a follower of Christ (Acts 11:26). Just as Jesus came to earth in our likeness or appearance (Rom. 8:3; Phil. 2:7), we’re to conform to his image with ever-increasing glory (Rom. 8:29; 1 Cor. 15:49; 2 Cor. 3:18). We have an essential role in that process: putting off our old ways of thinking and behaving (Eph. 4:22) and putting on our new self in God’s image (Col. 3:10). As we do that, people should begin to “see” Jesus in us by what we say and do.
However, not everyone will be pleased to see Jesus in us. If we suffer from people’s harassment, persecution or rejection because we’re Christians, we should praise God that we bear that name (1 Pet. 4:16). People treated Jesus that way because he was completely selfless, lived a holy life without sin and rebuked hypocrisy. This doesn’t mean we should intentionally do things so people will mistreat us. But when we do the things Jesus did, we can expect to receive the same kind of treatment he did. Yes, there were many times when crowds flocked after him because he did good things for them, but many opposed him, including religious leaders.
New Testament believers were considered disciples (Matt. 28:19; Acts 6:2, 7; 9:10, 36; 14:21), a term not limited to the original twelve. The word translated “disciple” refers to a student or follower who adheres to a teacher, especially students of spiritual leaders. A disciple’s goal is to learn from their teacher, so they can replicate their work. A Christian is a disciple, a committed student of Christ.
The New Testament uses several family terms for those in covenant with God, including “family of God” (1 Pet. 4:17), “children of God” (John 1:12), “heirs of God” (Rom. 8:17) and “brothers and sisters” (Rom. 12:1). We also are the “body of Christ” (1 Cor. 12:27), “servants of God” (2 Cor. 6:4), and “saints” or “holy ones” (Phil. 1:1). All of these descriptions apply to us because we are in covenant with God and they reflect our special relationship with him.
Our covenant identity comes with authority and responsibility in Father’s kingdom. To fully understand that authority, we must go back to the beginning. After God created Adam and Eve, he told them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground” (Gen. 1:28).
Adam and Eve ruled the earth and everything in it. God told them to subdue the earth, which literally meant they were to walk on it and use it as they saw fit, so they had authority over all the earth. In heaven, all activity conforms to God’s will because he is the ruler, but Adam and Eve’s domain originally was the earth.
However, they abdicated their authority to Satan by agreeing with him to disobey God (Gen. 3:4-5, 13). As a result, their domain became subject to Satan, cursed and in bondage to decay (Gen. 3:17; Rom. 8:20-21). Also, Satan became prince of the world or cosmos (John 12:31; 14:30) and its kingdoms now belong to him (Luke 4:5-6).
Jesus came with all authority in heaven and on earth (Matt. 28:18) to represent Father and do his work, which included breaking the devil’s power over people by dying for our sin (Heb. 2:14). In effect, that partially restored to us, his followers, the authority Adam and Eve surrendered to the devil, which Jesus will fully restore when he returns to set up his kingdom on earth.
We are Christ’s ambassadors, his legal representatives, so we’re to continue his work on earth in his behalf by presenting the good news of God’s appeal to the world we live in (2 Cor. 5:20; Eph. 6:19-20). When we do anything in God’s name or Jesus’ name, we’re doing it in their behalf, as if they were doing it. A common earthly analogy is power of attorney, which authorizes a designated person to conduct business in another’s behalf. This is the significance of having a covenant identity.
We’re members of God’s royal family and no longer citizens of Satan’s kingdom, and the spiritual authority we have from our Father’s kingdom supercedes Satan’s. Until Jesus returns to set up his kingdom on earth, we’re essentially living in enemy-controlled territory, on the “front lines” of the spiritual warfare between God’s and Satan’s kingdoms. This provides an excellent environment for learning to use our kingdom authority and fulfill our kingdom responsibilities.
Everything we think or do conforms to and supports one of those kingdoms. When we live according to the desires we indulged as sinners – “the flesh” – we’re supporting Satan’s kingdom and the world, which leads to death (Rom. 8:13). When we instead transform our thinking and live according to “the spirit” – our human spirit in unity with the Holy Spirit – we’re supporting God’s kingdom, which leads to life (Rom. 8:5, 13). The question is which kingdom our lives represent. It’s that simple.
While he was on earth, Jesus authorized his disciples – including us – to use kingdom authority to do kingdom work. That includes proclaiming the kingdom of God and making disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit (Luke 9:2; Matt. 28:19). We’re to teach them everything Jesus commanded (Matt. 28:20). We’re to overcome all the enemy’s power (Luke 10:19), drive out impure spirits and heal every disease and sickness (Matt. 10:1; Luke 9:1). Whatever we do, whether in word or deed, we’re to “do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Col. 3:17). In his name, as his personal representatives acting in his behalf.
We have other responsibilities that help us become more effective at this. The New Testament refers to new believers as “mere infants in Christ” (1 Cor. 3:1), who are vulnerable to deceitful teaching (Eph. 4:14) because they aren’t yet acquainted with the teaching about righteousness (Heb. 5:13). We’re not to remain spiritually immature children, but become adult sons and daughters, and we accomplish this by practicing spiritual disciplines. As we conform our thinking to God’s will and reject our previous sinful attitudes and behavior, we become more spiritually mature, gain greater insight to our role in his kingdom and become more effective at fulfilling it. This also allows him to expand our realm of influence and allow us to exercise greater personal initiative.
God gives us authority to represent him and conduct kingdom business in his behalf, and he holds us accountable for how we use it. Some of Jesus’ parables provide evidence of people held accountable for what they did, rewarding them for faithfulness (Matt. 24:45-47; 25:21) or penalizing them for willful disobedience (Matt. 24:48-51; Luke 12:47-48). When Jesus returns, he’ll reward each of us according to what we’ve done (Matt. 16:27; Col. 3:23-24), including what we did for other believers (Matt. 10:42; Mark 9:41) and even how we treated non-believers (Luke 6:35).
Although we know he’ll reward us for what we do, our top priorities must be God’s kingdom and his righteousness (Matt. 6:33) rather than personal benefit. We must serve with humility, motivated by covenant love and absolute gratefulness for all he’s done. As we’ll see in another article, as we focus on Father’s needs, interests and desires, he focuses on ours; and he can fulfill them far better than we could imagine.
Authority and responsibility usually are inseparable, as they are in covenant. For example, we must avoid doing whatever slanders God’s name (1 Tim. 6:1). This parallels a command from the old covenant, that Israel must not misuse God’s name (Exod. 20:7). We take God’s name by entering covenant with him but if we refuse to do what he intends, have we not dishonored him? Especially if our conduct misrepresents his nature or damages people’s perspective of him? In covenant, we must focus on him and always do what honors him. This means in part that we should only use our covenant authority to serve his interests, because selfishness violates covenant.
Because authority expresses itself through what we say and do, passivity is evidence we’re not using our authority. Passivity is inappropriate in God’s kingdom. We are God’s workmanship, whom he created to do the good works he prepared for us (Eph. 2:10). He generously provides everything we need for those works (2 Cor. 9:8), so we have no excuse for not being actively engaged in kingdom business.
If we’re honest, we recognize our inadequacies in the big issues of life, which reflects an attitude of humility, and that God is more than adequate for every situation. That perspective leads to true success! Relying on the absolute, unlimited power and authority of God our Father, rather than our own abilities, not only defines true kingdom success but also produces consistently successful results. We can’t accept credit for the results because we don’t make them happen; we’re merely the ones he chooses to work through (see Luke 17:10; Acts 3:12).
Being in covenant with God allows us to use kingdom authority, power and resources as needed. Jesus said, “whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours” (Mark 11:24). The word translated “ask” means to ask with confidence we’ll receive what we request, or in some contexts even demand something from somebody and expect obedience. Obviously, we don’t demand anything from God, but our covenant authorizes us to ask with confidence he’ll give us whatever we ask for. The same word occurs in 1 John 3:22, which says we receive from God “anything we ask, because we keep his commands and do what pleases him.” Obeying and pleasing him are natural expressions of our covenant relationship. We’re glad to obey and please him, and he’s glad to provide what we request.
As we grow more spiritually mature and conform our thinking to Scripture, our gratefulness and desire to please Father increase. When we know what he wants and gladly do it, he can trust us with greater responsibilities and allow us to exercise more personal initiative.
We see examples of the early disciples doing what they knew the Father wanted, without stopping to pray or ask others to do so. Peter saw a man who was lame from birth, told him to walk and helped him get up (Acts 3:2-8); a miracle happened! Paul had a similar experience with the same result (Acts 14:8-10). Peter and Paul saw people with needs and decided on their own to act. This definitely doesn’t rule out praying for someone, but when we know what God’s will is, we can honor him by taking action and expecting him to produce the results. We take the initiative and use the authority he gave us to conduct kingdom business, then God does his part.
Having our identity changed in covenant is evidence we’re members of God’s royal family. He authorizes us and expects us to use our own initiative to serve his interests by acting in his name.