The Covenants Of God

[I am very much indebted to two books in particular for their help in this sermon. The first is called “God’s Kingdom through God’s Covenants”. It is by Peter Gentry and Steven Wellum. The second is Wayne Grudem’s “Systematic Theology”. If you read either of those books you will hear many echoes of them in this sermon.]

8 Then God spoke to Noah and to his sons with him, saying, 9 “Now behold, I Myself do establish My covenant with you, and with your descendants after you; 10 and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the cattle, and every beast of the earth with you; of all that comes out of the ark, even every beast of the earth. 11 “And I establish My covenant with you; and all flesh shall never again be cut off by the water of the flood, neither shall there again be a flood to destroy the earth.” 12 And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant which I am making between Me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all successive generations; 13 I set My bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a sign of a covenant between Me and the earth. 14 “And it shall come about, when I bring a cloud over the earth, that the bow shall be seen in the cloud, 15 and I will remember My covenant, which is between Me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and never again shall the water become a flood to destroy all flesh. 16 “When the bow is in the cloud, then I will look upon it, to remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” 17 And God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant which I have established between Me and all flesh that is on the earth.”

INTRODUCTION

Before getting to the sermon itself I want to take just a couple of minutes to name some of the elephants in the room. The coronavirus, the government-ordered quarantine, masks in stores, unemployment, unparalleled uncertainty, stock market nosedive, little and big differences in almost every aspect of our lives, George Floyd, riots affecting our jobs and friends’ homes, it’s Pentecost Sunday, we’re together for the first time in months, and of course, we’re meeting here at 25% capacity, spread out, and unsure of what all of this means.

I’d love to be able to speak prophetically about each and every one of those things. I wish I had really profound words that would make perfect sense of all of this and light up the good God is working in all of it. I’m glad God has raised some up who are able. I feel more incompetent than I ever have.

But there are a few things I do know, am fighting to build my life on, and want to remind you of: In all of this God is unmoved from His throne, recognizing our weakness is always our greatest strength, our prayers are more significant than almost anything else we can do, the power of the cross is sufficient to turn all of this around in a millisecond should God will, and right now the Holy Spirit of God can make you believe God’s promises in such a way as to produce peace that surpasses understanding. I also know that the truths revealed in the bible’s covenants are as relevant for us today as they have ever been.

Let me pray.

GOD’S COVENANT WITH NOAH (8-17)

Having stepped off of the ark into an entirely empty and unformed world, Noah and his family were commissioned by God to refill and recivilize it. For His part, God made something called a covenant with Noah that would help Noah accomplish what God required of him. We see that clearly in 9:9 which we began to look at last week.

Because covenants are an integral part of the bible and because we find the first explicit covenant in the bible in this passage, I’m going to briefly address God’s promise to Noah and then help you to see how it fits into the larger covenant context of the entire bible. In other words, in this sermon today, we are going to first look at the Noahic covenant, and then I’m going to answer three questions about covenants in general: 1) What is a covenant, 2) What are the covenants in the bible, and 3) What is our relationship to the covenants today; or why does any of this matter for us.

It might seem like I’m going a bit out of order by addressing the specific covenant with Noah outside of its place in the three questions. In some ways I suppose I am, but I wanted to give a specific, concrete example of a covenant so that we can all have it in our minds as we consider the covenants in general—particularly for those not already familiar with the covenants in the bible.

In the bible the first use of the term “covenant” is found in Genesis 6:17-18. Before the flood began God said to Noah, “… behold, I will bring a flood of waters upon the earth to destroy all flesh in which is the breath of life under heaven. Everything that is on the earth shall die. 18 But I will establish my covenant with you, and you shall come into the ark, you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives with you.” We’re not told in that passage anything about the content of the covenant, only that there will be one. In our passage for this morning we find the specifics of that covenant.

The Parties to the Covenant (8-10)

All covenants, as we will see more clearly in a bit, define some aspect of a relationship between two people/groups of people. Therefore, one key component of a covenant is a clear declaration of the parties involved. Who, exactly, is included in the relationship? The parties involved in the Noahic covenant—the covenant God made with Noah—are made especially clear in vs.8-10.

8 Then God spoke to Noah and to his sons with him, saying, 9 “Now behold, I Myself do establish My covenant with you, and with your descendants after you; 10 and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the cattle, and every beast of the earth with you; of all that comes out of the ark, even every beast of the earth.

Who is included in this covenant? God, Noah and his descendants, and the ark animals (every living creature) were the parties of this covenant. That is, this covenant is a description of some new way in which God would relate to the living creatures of the earth.

The Terms of the Covenant (11, 15)

Covenants also include a list of the specific terms agreed upon by the covenant parties. Covenants are made for specific, mutually beneficial, purposes. They don’t typically cover every aspect of a relationship, but they do define one or more specific parts of it. We find those clearly in this passage as well (in vs.11 and 15).

11 “And I establish My covenant with you; and all flesh shall never again be cut off by the water of the flood, neither shall there again be a flood to destroy the earth.”

15 and I will remember My covenant, which is between Me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and never again shall the water become a flood to destroy all flesh.

What were the terms of this covenant? In this particular covenant, God required nothing of any of the parties. He promised to do it all. In this, the Noahic covenant, all living creatures would benefit by God’s covenant promise to never again destroy the world “by the water of the flood.”

The Sign of the Covenant (12-17)

And third, covenants usually have signs, visual indications of the agreement of both parties.

12 And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant which I am making between Me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all successive generations; 13 I set My bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a sign of a covenant between Me and the earth.

What was the sign of this covenant? Here, of course, the sign is a rainbow. As God destroyed the world through rain, it is fitting that the sign He would never do it again would come only with rain.

In simplest terms, then, the covenant God made was with Noah and all living creatures. It was a promise to never again destroy the world as He had done in the flood. And the rainbow would be a perpetual sign of the covenant. Again, in all of this we find a clear, concrete example of what we mean by covenant in the bible.

And yet we might wonder what any of this has to do with us. It’s great news that we don’t need to worry about being destroyed in a world-wide flood, but frankly I don’t know anyone who does worry about that. What’s more, I’m not sure their lack of worry is in any way tied to a strong belief in their inclusion in this covenant with Noah. For most of us today this hardly seems like a big deal in the whole scheme of things. And even if we do appreciate the fact that we are in this covenant in some sense, it doesn’t seem central to the Christian gospel at all. Again, then, what difference does this really make? Why would we care? And if this is what all the covenants are like, why would we care about them either?

To answer those questions we need to zoom up a bit. We need to get to a higher vantage point to really appreciate the significance of covenants in the bible and in our lives today. We need to climb up in order to answer the three questions I mentioned earlier: 1) What is a covenant, 2) What are the covenants in the bible, and 3) What is our relationship to the covenants today; or why does any of this matter for us.

WHAT IS A COVENANT?

What is a covenant? I answered this in simple terms earlier when I said that covenants define some aspect of a relationship between two people/groups of people. I remember track and field day back in Jr. High. Even then I knew that I was never going to be a sprinter so I signed up for the longest distance I could, the 660—one and a half laps around the track. Once they called all of us 660 runners together I sized up the competition. I surmised that my greatest competition would come from a kid named Brad Parks. I wasn’t sure I could beat him so I sought to make a covenant with him. I proposed that if it were close at the end he would let me win and I’d give him the ribbon. We shook on it. In some ways a covenant is as simple as that.

With that, this might seem like a simple question. In some ways it is. However, in the most important ways answering this question is trickier. Let me explain.

Defining Covenant Is Tricky

The main reason that defining covenant can be tricky is because covenants can take so many different forms and not all of them even use the term covenant. For instance, many agree that there are three biblical covenants prior to the Noahic covenant we looked at a minute ago. None of them are explicitly named in the bible but all of them share certain characteristics with the covenants that are (explicitly named). Likewise, virtually everyone agrees that marriage is a covenant relationship but it is only spoken of in that way once in an obscure passage in the OT (Malachi 2:14). To further muddy waters, there are eternal covenants between the persons of the godhead, everlasting covenants between God and man, temporary covenants between God and man, and temporary covenants between man and man. In that way, some covenants are extraordinary and involve God’s promise of everlasting salvation to mankind and some involve the temporary land use between neighbors. So on one hand we can have an unnamed, eternal covenant between Father, Son, and Spirit regarding the salvation of yet-to-be created humans, and on the other hand we can have a covenant between two Jr. Highers about a 660 yard race.

I think you get the idea: defining covenant—when covenant can be used to describe such a wide variety of thing—can be tricky. I’ll offer what I believe to be a more specific definition in a bit, but first I want to help you see something else. Not only can defining covenant be tricky, doing so is also vital for us to truly understand God’s saving work.

Defining Covenant Is Vital

Just listen to how some describe the critical nature of the biblical covenants.

“The progressive unfolding of the biblical covenants is the backbone to the metanarrative of Scripture and, more importantly, …one cannot properly understand God’s glorious redemptive plan apart from thinking through the biblical covenants” (GKGC, 11).

“Covenant is one of the most important theological ideas in biblical theology…[Such that] the biblical history of salvation and the unfolding of God’s covenants are almost synonymous” (Olive Tree).

“The Christian religion must be understood covenantally, for that is how God has chosen to relate to man…” (Ligonier).

“The biblical covenants form the unifying thread of God’s saving action through Scripture, beginning explicitly with Noah and reaching fulfillment in the new covenant ratified through the blood of Jesus Christ…The biblical covenants form the unifying thread of God’s saving action through Scripture” (Paul Williamson, TGC).

“Our triune God has only one plan of redemption, yet we discover what that plan is as we trace his salvation work through the biblical covenants” (GKGC, 19).

Hopefully that helps you feel the significance, the necessity of understanding and defining biblical covenants.

So what then is a covenant? Again, in simplest terms, it is an agreement between two people/groups defining some aspect of their relationship. What we’re interested in, though, is a more specific kind of covenant. In Exodus 6:7 we read these words: “I will be your God and you will be my people, and I will dwell among you.” For the purposes of this sermon, we’re interested in the kind of covenant that describes how God means that promise to be worked out among a rebellious people. That is, the point of this sermon is to help you see the kind of covenants initiated and established by God with His creatures concerning His plan to rescue and redeem and save us; to bring us into fellowship with Him in spite of our sin.

WHAT ARE THE COVENANTS?

And that leads us to the second key question: What are the covenants? Again, this might seem like a simple question to answer. And yet again, it is not in a few important ways.

Identifying the Covenants Is Tricky

For many of the same reasons that it can be tricky to define covenant in the bible, it can also be tricky to identify them. While some are clear and obvious (which is why most people talk in terms of five biblical covenants—more in a minute), others are not. In other words, there are different ways to answer this question.

In broadest terms, there are two covenants established by God as part of His rescue plan for mankind—the Old and the New. In fact, most people don’t know that when we talk about the old and new testaments of our bible, the word “testament” is actually covenant. Each describes the way in which God calls his people to relate to Him.

In slightly narrower terms, there are three covenants— works, redemption, and grace. The covenant of works was between God and Adam and Eve prior to the fall. It is found in the opening chapters of Genesis in the commands of God to Adam (esp. 1:28-30 and 2:15). The word covenant is not used, but the key elements of a covenant are. Under this covenant Adam and Eve were to obey God. If they did, they would enjoy perfect fellowship with God forever. If they failed to do so they were to die.

The covenant of redemption is “an agreement among the Father [John 3:16], Son [Hebrews 12:2], and Holy Spirit [John 14:16-17], in which the Son agreed to become a man, be our representative, obey the demands of the covenant of works on our behalf, and pay the penalty for sin” (Grudem, ST, 518). This took place even before God created the heavens and earth (Ephesians 1:4).

And the covenant of grace is one in which God determined to rescue and reconcile to Himself all who would hope in Him (place their faith in Him). God began revealing the details of this covenant right after the Fall of Adam and Eve. In the OT this meant trusting God to send a savior (Genesis 3:15). The sign of entering into this covenant with God was circumcision; while the sign of remaining in it was perpetual participation in the feasts and festivals prescribed by God. In the NT it meant trusting in Jesus as the savior God promised to send. And the sign of entering into the covenant was baptism; while the sign of remaining in it is perpetual participation in the Lord’s Supper. In its various forms this covenant is found throughout the bible.

But there’s another way of answering that question still. It is often argued that there are five covenants in the bible—the Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic, and New covenants. For some these are the only ones that matter as they are the only explicitly named covenants. For those who understand covenants more broadly, each of these five is seen as a particular expression of the covenant of grace. Because of that overlap, these five are what most people mean when they talk about the biblical covenants.

We’ve already considered the Noahic covenant (Genesis 9:8-17).

The second is the Abrahamic covenant. It is, as the name suggests, a covenant God made with Abraham. It is found in the beginning of Genesis 15 and 17, and summarized in the beginning of Genesis 12, “Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2 And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed”. Out of all the earth God chose to bless Abraham in order that Abraham would be a blessing to all the earth. Believing God (22:16, 18) and circumcision was all that was required of Abraham.

The third explicitly named covenant in the bible is the Mosaic covenant. It is a covenant between God and Moses. We find this in Exodus 19:5-6, “Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; 6 and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation…”. To keep the terms of the covenant Moses and the Israelites were to trust in God and demonstrate it by being obedient to God’s commands in 20-23 (including the Ten Commandments). If they did, they would take and remain free and prosperous in the Promised Land. If they did not they would remain slaves and exiles.

The forth covenant is the Davidic covenant. It is found in 2 Samuel 7:1-17. In it God promised David that he would be a “prince over [His] people Israel” (8). He would cut off David’s enemies (9). He would make a great name for David (9). He would establish a land of perpetual peace for Israel through David (10). He would give David a house and raise up his offspring in it (11). He would establish an everlasting kingdom through David’s offspring (12-13). He would be a loving father to David’s offspring (14-15). And again, for David’s part, David and his offspring were to trust in God and obey His commands.

And the fifth and final biblical covenant is called the new covenant. The New Covenant is found in both the OT and the NT but only came into effect when Jesus died on the cross. Jesus taught of it during the Last Supper and Hebrews 8 explains it carefully. I’m going to come back to that shortly.

The point of all of this is to say, as I hope I’ve made clear, it can be tricky to identify exactly what constitutes a covenant in the bible. Many godly men and women have answered this question differently throughout the years.

Identifying the Covenants Is Vital

And yet, once again, identifying the covenants is also vital. I hope the reason for that is already mostly clear. If, as we saw earlier, the covenants are the backbone of God’s redemptive plan for mankind, it’s critical that we know what they are. Not to be able to do so is akin to the famous movie scene where a character, in his or her dying breath, whispers into the ear of a confidant, “The treasure that you’ve been seeking is hidden in…” and then he dies leaving the treasure hunter lost and discouraged.

If we understand that we need to be saved and we understand that our salvation is held up (or held together or given structure) by the covenants, then we also understand the need to know which covenants we’re talking about…but that’s not the point of this sermon.

WHAT IS OUR RELATIONSHIP TO THE COVENANTS TODAY?

Finally, we’re left with the question of what exactly is our relationship to the covenants today? And…you guessed it…answering that question is both tricky and vital.

Understanding our Relationship to God’s Covenants Is Tricky

Understanding our relationships with the covenants is tied to understanding our relationship between the covenants. Explaining that in any detail would take many, many sermons. The Christian Church has sought to do that for millennia. In fact, the NT has many examples of the first Christians struggling to answer the question themselves. Figuring out the relationship between Jews and Gentiles and how Jesus changed things in regard to salvation—that is, how the covenants related to each other and to them—was a huge issue for the NT Church (Matthew 15:1-20; 22:1-14; Acts 10-11; Galatians 2-3; Romans 4; Hebrews 7-10).

And so we’re left with questions like: does each successive covenant add on to, correct, or replace the previous ones? Or is it some of all three? Or something else? It is not my intention to answer any of those questions here, only to help you see that there is some trickiness here.

Understanding our Relationship to God’s Covenants Is Vital

And yet, once again, though tricky, it is also vital that we do so for at least three reasons: “Correctly ‘putting together’ the biblical covenants is central to grasping the Bible’s story, drawing correct theological conclusions, and rightly applying Scripture to our daily lives” (GKGC, 18).

There is of course a great deal to be said here. But I want to close by saying just two things; two things which this entire sermon has been building towards. Whatever the relationship between the covenants, and whatever that means for our relationship to them today, the two most important things for us to understand are: 1) that whatever God required of mankind in His various covenants, eventually mankind failed (Abraham, Moses, and David all failed to perfectly keep the terms of their covenant with God); and 2) Jesus didn’t fail; He alone perfectly fulfilled every covenant requirement of God on our behalf, and therein ushered in the New, better, and final Covenant.

In that sense, the key and starting point to understanding the covenants—and the key to understanding and applying everything we’ve covered so far in this sermon—is that all of them point to Jesus, the true and ultimate fulfillment of all of God’s requirements, the true covenant-keeper. What’s more, Jesus not only fulfilled the terms of the various covenants, He also took upon Himself on the cross every covenant curse on behalf of God’s disobedient people. More still, He fulfilled every covenant term, bore every covenant curse, and therein won for us every covenant blessing forever and ever! The covenant terms that God’s people obeyed in part, Jesus obeyed for us in full. The covenant curses that God’s people brought upon themselves and experienced in part, Jesus experienced for us in full. And the blessings for covenant obedience that God’s people received in part, Jesus secured for us in full! That is the New Covenant in Jesus blood—the one to rule them all.

This New Covenant was promised in the OT (Genesis 3:15; Jeremiah 31:31) and fulfilled on the cross in the NT (Matthew 26:28; Mark 14:24; Luke 22:20; 1 Corinthians 11:25). “It is unsurprising, therefore, that the New Testament declares that all God’s covenant promises are realized in and through Jesus (Luke 1:54–55, 69–75; 2 Corinthians 1:20)”. The NT connects Jesus to the fullness of the Noahic covenant (1 Peter). The NT helps us to see that Jesus is the “ultimate seed of Abraham (Matthew1:1; Gal. 3:16),” the true Moses, leading God’s people out of captivity once for all, “the long-awaited Davidic Messiah (Matthew 1:17–18; 2:4–6; 16:16; 21:9; Luke 2:11; John 7:42; Acts 2:22–36)…and the royal offspring of David (Matthew 1:1; Luke 1:27, 32–33; 2:4; Romans 1:3; 2 Timothy 2:8; Revelation 5:5; 22:16)” (Williamson, TGC).

Grace, whatever else might be said about the other covenants—and more must be said—Jesus, in the New Covenant, unites and fulfills them all. To understand this is to understand the heart of God for the salvation of his people from the beginning. It is to begin to grasp the fullness of God’s plan of salvation. And it is to begin to understand how to read the bible well and live according to it.

Consider carefully what God requires of you in the New Covenant—placing your trust wholly in Jesus who did all that was required for you—and then give all glory to Christ! Praise God from whom all blessings flow! Praise Him all creatures here below! Praise Him above every heavenly host! Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost! Amen.