A covenant is a special type of agreement between people or groups that involves making promises and is sometimes accompanied by obligations and rituals. A covenant, in contrast with a transactional contract, is relational. A good example is a marriage covenant where two people bind themselves together in a formal relationship.

Covenants in the Bible

In the Bible, there were covenants between people (e.g., David and Jonathan, see 1 Sam. 18:3), tribes (Jos. 9:1–15), and kings (1 Kgs. 5:12, 20:34). There were at least five covenants made between God and man:

  1. Under the Noahic Covenant God promised Noah and all humanity that he would never again destroy every living thing in a flood (Gen. 8:21, 9:11). God’s promise is unconditional and accompanied by the sign of the rainbow (Gen. 9:12–17).
  2. Under the Abrahamic Covenant God promised to bless Abram and his descendants and make them into a great nation with their own Promised Land, the land of Canaan (Gen. 12:1–2, 15:7, 17:2, 8, Ex. 6:4). God told Abram that he would be exceedingly fruitful and become “the father of a multitude of nations” (Gen. 17:5). God also promised that through this new nation he would bless the whole world (Gen. 12:3, 22:17–18), a promise which was fulfilled through the Messiah. This covenant is accompanied by the sign of male circumcision (Gen. 17:10–14).
  3. The Mosaic Covenant, which is also known as the Old Covenant, was formed with the nation of Israel at Mt. Sinai. Unlike the earlier covenants, it was a conditional covenant where God promised to bless Israel if they kept his commands and curse them if they didn’t (Ex. 19:5–8, Deut. 28–29). The centerpiece of this covenant was the Ten Commandments (Ex. 34:10–28, Deu. 4:13).
  4. The Davidic Covenant is a promise God made to David to make his name great and establish the throne of his kingdom forever (2 Sam. 7:9–16, Ps. 89:3–4). The promise was fulfilled through the Son of David, that is Jesus Christ (Matt. 1:1, Mark 12:35).
  5. The prophets of old spoke of a New Covenant that God would make that would be unlike the old covenant he had made with their ancestors (Jer. 31:31–34). It would be a covenant where God would forgive and remember their sins no more and give his people a new heart and a new spirit (Eze. 36:22–27). On the night he was betrayed, Jesus said this new covenant would be established in his blood (Luke 22:20). He was literally declaring his last will and testament, a new covenant that would come into effect when he died (Hebrews 9:16-17). Born into the line of Noah, Abraham, and David, Jesus is the culmination of the old covenant (Matt. 5:17) and the embodiment of the new.

The old vs new covenant

Understanding the difference between the old and new covenants is essential if we are to rightly divide the scriptures. These covenants cannot be mixed, yet someone who trusts grace for salvation but looks to the law for guidance on how to live, is caught between two covenants. They will reap the benefits of neither. The essential difference between the two covenants is this:

    • Old covenant: Man makes promises to God and breaks them

    • New covenant: God makes promises to himself and keeps them forever

    At the foot of Mt Sinai the Israelites boasted:

    We will do everything the Lord commands. (Exodus 19:8)

    This was a fatal boast, a recipe for disaster. What the Lord demands you cannot provide. This is the indisputable lesson of history, yet many have not learned it. They’re stuck on the vicious cycle of making and breaking promises, repenting, then promising to do better next time. We need a revelation of the new covenant that is based on God’s unbreakable promises to us.

    I will make an everlasting covenant with them: I will never stop doing good to them, and I will inspire them to fear me, so that they will never turn away from me. (Jer. 32:40)

    The difference between the old and the new is we will versus he will. In the old, we broke our word again and again, but in the new he keeps his word forever. It’s a huge difference. We no longer wobble on the shaky ground of our resolve, but stand secure on the Rock of Ages. Let us give up the futile practice of saying “I will” and put our faith in the “I wills” of God:

    • I will make an everlasting covenant with them (Jer. 32:40)
    • I will never stop doing good to you (Jer. 32:40)
    • I will bless you (Gen. 22:17)
    • I will be your God, and you will be my people (Jer. 31:33, Ez. 36:28, Heb. 8:10)
    • I will have compassion on you (Is. 54:8)
    • I will forgive your wickedness (Jer. 31:34, Heb. 8:12)
    • I will remember your sins no more (Jer. 31:34, Heb. 8:12)
    • I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean (Ez. 36:25)
    • I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols (Ez. 36:25)
    • I will give you a new heart (Ez. 36:26)
    • I will put my Spirit in you (Ez. 36:25)
    • I will save you (Ez. 36:29)
    • I will not forget you (Is. 49:15)
    • I will strengthen you (Is. 41:10)
    • I will help you (Is. 41:10)
    • I will uphold you with my righteous right hand (Is. 41:10)
    • I will be with you when you pass through the waters and flame (Is. 43:2)
    • I will instruct you and teach you in the way which you should go (Ps. 32:8)
    • I will counsel you with my eye upon you (Ps. 32:8)
    • I will multiply the fruit of the tree and the produce of the field (Ez. 36:30)
    • I will rescue you from every attack and will bring you safely to my heavenly kingdom (2 Tim. 4:18)
    • I will never cast you out (John 6:37)
    • I will never leave you or forsake you (Heb. 13:5)
    • I will never blot out your name from the book of life (Rev. 3:5)
    • I will raise you up on the last day (John 6:39-40)

    What the Lord requires, he provides. Everything you need – salvation, holiness, righteousness – he freely supplies according to the riches of his grace in Christ Jesus. There are no ifs in God’s promises to us, no conditions for you to fulfill. All he asks is that you take him at his word. All he requires is that you believe in his eternal goodness as revealed in Jesus.

    Reading scripture through a new covenant lens

    When reading any scripture in the Bible we need to ask, what does this passage mean in light of the cross? Jesus’ death on the cross is the single most important event in human history. Before the cross the old law covenant reigned. But after the cross a new covenant based on grace made the old covenant obsolete (Heb. 8:13). Under the old covenant you were blessed if you were good, but under the new covenant we are blessed because He is good.

    Consider these contrasts from scripture:

    • Before the cross we were blessed when we obeyed and cursed when we disobeyed (Deu. 11:26-28). But after the cross we are blessed because we are forgiven (Rom. 4:8) and we are redeemed from the curse of the law (Gal. 3:13).
    • Before the cross we forgave in order to earn God’s forgiveness (Matt. 6:14). But at the cross we were unconditionally forgiven and we now forgive because Christ has forgiven us (Eph. 4:32; Col. 3:13).
    • Before the cross loving your neighbor meant not coveting his wife or property (Deu. 5:21). But after the cross we love and accept others because Christ loves and accepts us (1 Joh 4:19; Rom. 15:7).
    • Before the cross God was distant and unapproachable (Ex. 19:12). But because of the cross we have been brought near to God to receive mercy and find grace (Eph. 2:13; Heb. 4:16).

    In every way, the new covenant is superior to the old:

    • The old covenant failed because it hinged on your imperfect obedience, but new covenant endures because it is founded on Christ’s perfect obedience unto death.
    • The old covenant says you will be blessed if you do good, but the new declares we are blessed because God is good.
    • The old covenant warns that you will be punished if you do bad, but the new declares that in Christ you are eternally unpunishable.

    Which is why they call it good news.

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