How do you understand the covenants of the Bible? (Part 7)
The Wikipedia Encyclopedia says this about the covenants of the Bible:
“The Hebrew Bible makes reference to a number of covenants (Hebrew: בְּרִיתוֹת) with God (YHWH). These include the Noahic Covenant (in Genesis), which is between God and all living creatures, as well as a number of more specific covenants with Abraham, the whole Israelite people, the Israelite priesthood, and the Davidic lineage of kings. In form and terminology, these covenants echo the kinds of treaty agreements in the surrounding ancient world.
“The Book of Jeremiah, 31:30-33, say that Yahweh will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah… Students of the Bible hold wildly differing opinions as to how many major covenants exist (or did exist) between God and humanity, with numbers ranging from one to at least twelve… Some scholars classify only two…”
As we have explained in our free booklet, “And Lawlessness Will Abound”, as well as in this series of Q&As, the concept that there are only one or two covenants must be rejected. There were clearly multiple covenants between God and man in the Old Testament, in addition to the New Covenant which is described in the Old and in the New Testaments as well.
For example, we read about a covenant with day and night; a covenant with David and another covenant with Levi; a marriage covenant; and a covenant with Noah. We saw that God made several covenants with Abram or Abraham, in addition to covenants with Isaac and Jacob. He also made several covenants with the people of Israel at Mount Sinai and in Moab.
The fact that God speaks about “My covenant” in the singular in the Hebrew Bible has led to the wrong conclusion that there is only one covenant. However, when analyzing the covenants which God made, they are quite different in scope and nature, and some apply to us today, while others do not. For example, the covenant of circumcision is no longer in effect; and neither is the original covenant which God made with Israel at Mount Sinai (or which He made after Israel sinned in building a golden calf, or which He made with the new generation of Israel in Moab). On the other hand, His covenant with Abraham, and His covenant with Isaac, and His covenant with Jacob have great importance for us today insofar as they refer to the blessing through the Messiah, including the promise of eternal life and rule over the earth (thereby including aspects of the New Covenant), but are of limited significance for true Christians when addressing the physical blessings of the House of Israel (but they are of significant importance for the descendants of the House of Israel today).
The same can be said about His covenant with David—that he would always have a descendant sitting on his throne, ruling over at least one tribe of Israel. Insofar as his physical descendants are concerned, they are of limited significance for true Christians today (but they are of tremendous importance for the descendants of the house of David today), but as Jesus Christ, a descendant of David, will occupy David’s throne when He returns, God’s covenant with David is of incredible importance for all Christians [and the entire world] in this day and age.
When addressing the covenant which God made with the people of Israel at Mount Sinai, it only included physical blessings. Israel broke this covenant when building the golden calf, and as a consequence, Moses broke the tablets of the Ten Commandments, on which the covenant was based. So, the covenant was renewed, but Israel kept breaking it as well. The same is true for the covenant which God made with Israel in Moab. Even though God expected that the people would at least keep their commitment in a physical way—He knew of course that they were unable to do so in spiritual terms—they did not even abide by their promise to keep the covenants and the laws on which the covenants were based, in their physical application. That is why God pronounced that He would offer them and was willing to make a New Covenant with them, based on better promises, which would include forgiveness of sin and the gift of the Holy Spirit, enabling them to keep the spiritual laws of the Ten Commandments on which the New Covenant would be based, in a spiritual way. As true Christians, we are today spiritual Israelites, so we can live under the conditions of the New Covenant which will be fully established when Christ returns. (In passing, as we explained, God made another covenant with the people of Israel at Mount Sinai, pertaining to the weekly and annual Sabbaths. This covenant is still in full force and effect today and also includes true Christians—spiritual Israelites).
Jeremiah tells us in chapter 31 (see below) that people who are parties to the New Covenant have obtained, and can obtain, forgiveness of sin—something the previous covenants did not offer—and they can have spiritual understanding of God through the Holy Spirit given to them—again, something that was not offered to such an extent in previous covenants. Notice this additional prophecy regarding the New Covenant in Jeremiah 32:38–40: “They shall be My people, and I will be their God; then I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear Me forever, for the good of them and their children after them. And I will make an everlasting covenant with them, that I will not turn away from doing them good; but I will put My fear in their hearts so that they will not depart from Me.” By the fear of God, one departs from evil (Proverbs 16:6). God’s Spirit will be living in those people, so that they will not practice the way of disobedience any longer.
As God draws a parallel in Jeremiah 31 between the covenant He made with the people of Israel in the day when He led them out of the land of Egypt, and the New Covenant which He promises to make with them after Christ’s return, many speak therefore of the Old Covenant and the New Covenant. However, we must point out and will explain that the term “Old Covenant” is nowhere expressly used in the Old Testament or the Hebrew Bible. And even in the New Testament, the term is only used on a very few occasions, depending on what translation from the Greek is being used, and in this regard, the context is commonly overlooked.
Still, as God made so many covenants with man, why does He not speak in the Hebrew Bible about covenants in the plural, but only refers to “My covenant” in the singular?
When addressing God’s covenants with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, we stated the following in our first installment of this series:
“Even though God made covenants with Abraham, and then, because of the obedience of Abraham, He made a covenant with Isaac, and another one with Jacob (Leviticus 26:42), the Bible may sometimes speak about God’s covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, as the subject matter and the promises involved were the same. (The promises which God gave Abraham were the same as the promises which He gave Isaac and Jacob.) Still, God made individual covenants with Abraham and with Isaac and with Jacob, as the parties to the covenants were not identical.”
So, it is important to review the context and especially the subject matter to determine WHAT covenant God makes reference to. This is especially critical when analyzing the “Old” and the “New” Covenant.
For instance, we read in Jeremiah 31:31-33:
“‘Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah—not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, though I was a husband to them,’ says the LORD. ‘But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.’”
First, we should note that even though two covenants are mentioned the terms “Old Covenant” and “New Covenant” are not specifically used in this passage.
Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible gives the following explanation:
“‘Not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers’… Meaning not Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; but the ancestors of the Jews [Israelites] that came out of Egypt, as appears by what follows… That the Sinai covenant is intended is clear by the following circumstances:
“‘…in the day that I took them by the hand, to bring them out of the land of Egypt’; that is, immediately after their being brought out of Egypt, the covenant was made with them; see Exodus 19:1; at which time of their bringing out, the Lord took them by the hand, as being unable to deliver themselves, and to go out of themselves; which is expressive, as of their weakness, so of his power and goodness, kindness and tenderness to them; and is an aggravation of their ingratitude to him in breaking the covenant, made with them at such a time by the Lord, who was so kind and indulgent to them; and which is still more fully expressed in the following clause:
“‘…which my covenant they brake, although I was an husband unto them, saith the Lord’; they promised fair, but did not perform; their hearts were not right with God, nor were they steadfast in his covenant; though it was such a solemn transaction, and had the nature of a matrimonial contract; it was the day of their espousal; they were betrothed to the Lord, and he acted the part of a husband to them in nourishing and cherishing them in providing food and raiment for them; manna that continued with them, and clothes that waxed not old; and in protecting them from their enemies, and bringing them to a good settlement in the land of Canaan…”
So, from the context, the covenant God has reference to in Jeremiah 31, which was broken, was in fact the initial one made at Sinai, but it had to be renewed at Sinai (or a second covenant had to be made), since it was broken, and it was renewed again in Moab, as technically, the new generation had not as yet entered into the covenant relationship.
This passage of Jeremiah 31 is quoted in the New Testament in the Book of Hebrews. In Hebrews 8:1-13, we read:
“(1) Now this is the main point of the things we are saying: We have such a High Priest, who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens, (2) a Minister of the sanctuary and of the true tabernacle which the Lord erected, and not man. (3) For every high priest is appointed to offer both gifts and sacrifices. Therefore it is necessary that this One also have something to offer. (4) For if He were on earth, He would not be a priest, since there are priests who offer the gifts according to the law; (5) who serve the copy and shadow of the heavenly things, as Moses was divinely instructed when he was about to make the tabernacle. For He said, ‘See that you make all things according to the pattern shown you on the mountain.’ (6) But now He has obtained a more excellent ministry, inasmuch as He is also Mediator of a better covenant, which was established on better promises. (7) For if that first covenant had been faultless, then no place would have been sought for a second. (8) Because finding fault with them, He says: ‘Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah—(9) not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt; because they did not continue in My covenant, and I disregarded them, says the Lord. (10) For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put My laws in their mind and write them on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. (11) None of them shall teach his neighbor, and none his brother, saying, “Know the Lord,” for all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them. (12) For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more.’ (13) In that He says, ‘A new covenant,’ He has made the first obsolete. Now what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.”
Notice carefully: Nowhere do we read about the “old covenant.” Even the word “covenant” in verse 7 (in the phrase, “that first covenant”) was added by the translator and is not in the Geek (it simply says, “for if that first had been faultless”), but since verse 9 does speak about “the covenant” which God made when he brought Israel out of Egypt, it is clear that a covenant is being referred to (Note, however, verse 13, where the word “covenant” has also been added. The original Greek says: “In the saying, new, He has made old the first…”). But what exactly is the reference? The whole context speaks about the sacrificial system, human priests and the earthly tabernacle, which are being contrasted with Christ’s Sacrifice, His ministry and the heavenly Tabernacle. Paul is addressing here the fact that due to Christ’s Sacrifice, animal sacrifices are no longer required and have become obsolete.
Regardless, when God speaks about the covenant in the context of the letter to the Hebrews, quoting from Jeremiah, He uses the word “covenant” as an all-inclusive summary term, while really addressing the covenants He made with Israel at Mount Sinai and even in Moab, which were all interconnected and included the same subject matter and the same physical blessings (but NOT the Sabbaths covenant which was separate and distinct.) But when He says that the “first” was made “old”, He is not referring to the entirety of the law on which the covenant was based, but only to certain portions of it (the rituals and sacrifices).
To use the word “covenant” as a summary term for several covenants is not a unique phenomenon in the Bible; Scripture speaks many times of the Law or of Sin, as summary terms, including and referring to many laws or sinful actions.
It is also interesting to review Ephesians 2:12 where Paul says that in former days, Gentiles were strangers from the covenants of promise—clearly referring to more than just one covenant.
The Jamison-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary states: “The plural implies the several renewals of the covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and with the whole people at Sinai.” Matthew Poole’s Commentary adds: “…those covenants in which the great promise of Christ and salvation by him was made. The covenants were several, as that with Abraham, and that by Moses, and differ in some accidents, but the promise in them was one and the same, which was the substance of each.” Barnes’ Notes on the Bible says: “The covenants of promise were those various arrangements which God made with his people, by which he promised them future blessings, and especially by which he promised that the Messiah should come. To be in possession of them was regarded as a high honor and privilege; and Paul refers to it here to show that, though the Ephesians had been by nature without these, yet they had now been brought to enjoy all the benefits of them.”
A similar explanation applies to Romans 9:4, where the plural form of covenants is mentioned as well, stating that “the covenants” pertain to the Israelites. Barnes’ Notes on the Bible comments: “The various compacts or promises which had been made from time to time with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and with the nation; the pledges of the divine protection.” Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers says: “Not the two tables of stone, but the several compacts made by God with Abraham and his descendants.” The Benson Commentary writes: “He says covenants, in the plural, also, because God’s covenant with his people was often and variously repeated.” Similar the Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Commentary: “‘the covenants of promise’ to which the Gentiles before Christ were ‘strangers’ (Eph 2:12); meaning the one covenant with Abraham in its successive renewals.”
Galatians 4:24 also speaks of covenants in the plural, but as we explain in our free booklet, “Paul’s Letter to the Galatians,” the reference here is not to the “old” or “first” covenant made at the Mount of Sinai, and the New Covenant. We state the following:
“Most commentaries will tell you that Paul is addressing here the Old and the New Covenant, and conclude that the Old Covenant with all its laws has been abolished. However, Paul is not speaking here about the Old Covenant. Rather, he is describing in his allegory (verse 24) two ways of life—a ‘covenant’ with death and a ‘covenant’ with life. When we are in Christ, we are no longer under the penalty of the law. We are no longer in ‘bondage’ (verse 24) to death. We read in Isaiah 28:15, 18 that carnal people made a covenant with death, thinking they could escape death even though they lived wrongly. But we can only escape death through our acceptance of Christ’s sacrifice. Hagar’s son Ishmael was born according to the flesh. However, Sarah’s son Isaac was born according to promise, symbolizing, in this allegory, the gift of the Holy Spirit which would ultimately be in Isaac. Paul could not have talked here about the Old Covenant, because at the time of Hagar, the Old Covenant under Moses was not even made…
“Paul is describing in his allegory our spiritual battle, which goes on in our mind. God’s Spirit in us wars against our flesh. Our flesh ‘persecutes’ the Spirit of God and must therefore be cast out (compare James 4:4–5, 8; Romans 6:1–4; 8:5–9; and Colossians 2:11–13). Paul also points out, in verse 31, that we are no longer children of the bondwoman—children of bondage to death—if we let Christ live in us. It is Christ who sets us free from sin and death… Paul is not talking in verse 1 [of chapter 5] about the Old Covenant or even the sign or covenant of circumcision (Acts 7:8), because the Galatians had never been part of the Old Covenant, nor were they part of the covenant of circumcision—so they could not AGAIN be entangled with the ‘yoke of bondage.’ Rather, Paul continues his theme of addressing two ways of life. He explains that we must walk by the Spirit, which sets us free, not by the flesh, which brings us into bondage.
“… As we have to cast out the fleshly desires and our human nature, Abraham had to cast out the bondwoman and her son (Galatians 4:30). And why? Because the son of the bondwoman, who was born according to the flesh, persecuted the son of the freewoman, who was born according to the Spirit (verse 29). And Paul continues to allegorize by saying that this is also the case today (same verse)… God’s Spirit in us wars with our flesh. Paul said that he did not do what he wanted to do, but that he gave in at times to his flesh, following its desires (Romans 7:13–25). As our flesh ‘persecutes’ our Spirit-begotten minds, so we must cast out the flesh and its desires, including temptations which might originate with Satan or this world.”
Another confusion arises when in the New Testament, translators use the word “covenant” and the word “testament.” Only the context can determine which is the correct rendering, as in the Greek, the word for covenant is the same as the word for testament. The connection between covenant and testament is the concept of inheritance which we discuss more fully in the first part of our series, when quoting from our booklet, “And Lawlessness Will Abound.”
In 2 Corinthians 3:14, we read in the New King James Bible that the minds of the Israelites, under Moses, were blinded, which was symbolized by the veil which Moses put over his face, and that the same veil remains uplifted “in the reading of the Old Testament.” Here, the translation of “testament” rather than “covenant” seems correct. Most older Bibles (English and German) use here [in 2 Corinthians 3:14] the word “Testament” even though newer Bibles use the word “covenant”. It makes sense to talk about reading of the Old Testament (compare Luke 24:44-45; see also Acts 15:21), but it would make little sense to speak about reading of the “old covenant”—also, because this term is never used anywhere else. Either way, the context in verse 15 indicates that only a portion of the Scriptures is meant. It says that when “Moses is read”, the “veil lies on their heart.” The reference to the veil on Moses’ face is to the two great massive stones on which the Book of Moses was written (verse 7). We discuss this in our booklet, “The Ten Commandments”, chapter 14.
Hebrews 9:15 speaks about Christ as the “Mediator of the new covenant… for the redemption of the transgressions under the first covenant.” The Authorized Version uses here the rendition “testament” in both cases. So does the old Luther Bible, whereas the newer Luther renditions use the word “covenant.” We see again that the choice of words is up to the translator and his interpretation. Actually, both renditions make sense here. The people sinned by breaking God’s covenant (the summary term for all the covenants He made with His people), and they also transgressed all the laws written in the Old Testament. Christ is the Mediator of the New Covenant and also of everything written in the New Testament Scriptures which we can only understand when the mind and the Spirit of Christ are in us. And as our Mediator, He helps us to keep the law, and He appears in front of God the Father as our High Priest who understands the weaknesses of our flesh.
To conclude, we are quoting again from our free booklet, “And Lawlessness Will Abound”:
“The New Covenant is based on God’s law, just as all the other covenants were based on God’s law, and the New Covenant is not identical with God’s law, just as none of the other covenants were identical with God’s law. However, the New Covenant is not based on laws that God has decreed are no longer valid. The New Covenant is not based, for example, on the sacrificial system, the Levitical priesthood, and other rituals and washings. But it is important that we understand why those particular laws are no longer valid. Not, because the ‘Old Covenant’ was abolished, and with it all Old Testament laws. The concept that the ‘Old Covenant’ ended, and with it all the laws of the Old Testament, is WRONG, as a covenant is not identical with the law, but it is BASED on the law…
“… certain Old Testament laws are no longer binding because God tells us in the New Testament that they are no longer binding. Therefore, the covenants which God made with ancient Israel at Mount Sinai and in Moab are vanishing, because they were based, along with other laws, on ritual statutes and sacrificial regulations which are no longer valid today—and, of course, because Israel kept breaking the covenants…
“When analyzing His covenant with the Levitical priesthood, we find that He kept that contract alive, but He modified it, as the provisions or laws regarding the collection of tithes were changed. That right was transferred from the Levites to Christ. The remainder of the contract between God and the Levites, including the Levitical right to bring, and to eat from, the sacrifices, stayed in effect. As you will recall, it will be the Levites who will administer the sacrifices, which will be reestablished in Jerusalem for the Jews prior to Christ’s return (Daniel 12:11; 8:11-12), and at the beginning of the Millennium for unconverted people (Ezekiel 44:15, 29–30).
“When analyzing the covenants that God made with the ancient nation of Israel at Mount Sinai and in Moab, God did away with those covenants [except for the Sabbaths covenant with Israel, which remains in force and effect], as too many laws on which those covenants had been based, had become obsolete. Also, God wanted to make a new covenant that would include additional promises that were never a part of the previous covenants with the nation of Israel. So, God abolished the previous covenants with the nation of Israel because certain laws on which the covenants were based were changed or abolished.”
Lead Writer: Norbert Link