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Definition

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.

Summary

The biblical covenants form the unifying thread of God’s saving action through Scripture. While some theologians argue that there are three covenants prior (the covenant of redemption, covenant of works, and covenant of grace), the first explicit covenant in Scripture is between God and Noah after the flood. The Abrahamic covenant follows soon after in Genesis, laying the groundwork for the nation of Israel and the coming Messiah, through whom God would bless all the nations of the world. The Mosaic covenant continues God’s dealings with the nation of Israel, the descendants of Abraham, calling them to reflect the glory of their Lord to the nations around them. The covenant made with King David pointed ahead of Israel to the coming Messiah, the one who would rule perfectly on David’s throne forever. It was not until Jesus came as Israel’s Messiah, however, that the covenants with man were kept perfectly and fulfilled. Jesus came to ratify the new covenant, promised in the Law and the Prophets, bringing along with it the eschatological blessings promised to God’s people.

Covenants between God and human beings form a unifying thread in Scripture, from their conceptual introduction in Genesis to their eschatological fulfilment in Revelation. Although theologians differ over the precise number and nature of such divine covenants, few question their theological significance in relation to redemptive history.

While the term “covenant” does not appear before Genesis 6:18, Reformed/Covenant Theology maintains that three other covenants precede God’s covenant with Noah: an eternal “covenant of redemption” made between members of the Trinity before the creation of the world, a probationary “covenant of works/creation” established between God and Adam before the fall, and a post-fall covenant of grace through which God promised to rescue humanity from the consequences of sin and fulfil his creative purpose. While not all Reformed theologians agree on the precise relationship between the covenant of grace and the covenant of redemption, one or both are thought to underpin the subsequent divine-human covenants in Scripture, all of which serve the same overarching purpose and ultimate goal.

Other scholars, however, are unpersuaded and identify only those explicitly described as such in Scripture as divine covenants. While not denying that the Triune God planned human salvation before the creation of the world, or that God established a relationship with Adam involving mutual obligations, or that God’s relationships with humanity express a single creative and redemptive goal, they carefully distinguish such ideas from the concept of a covenant—one that involves additional elements such as a sworn and/or enacted oath. Understood in the latter sense, the first divine-human covenant is thus the one established in the days of Noah (cf. Isa. 54:9), affirming God’s commitment to creation after the flood.

The Covenant with Noah and All Creation

This universal covenant announced prior to the flood (Gen. 6:18) was established only after the deluge had subsided (Gen. 8:20–9:17). Its first mention simply highlights God’s plan to preserve Noah and the others in the ark (Gen. 6:18). God’s covenant with Noah reaffirms his original plans, temporarily disrupted by judgment. A suspension of the natural order will never again interrupt (8:21–22; 9:11–15) the fulfillment of humanity’s creational mandate (cf. 9:1–7; 1:26–30). Additional commands (9:4–6) emphasize the value of human life in particular, further underlining the primary rationale for this covenant: preserving life on earth without further divine interruption. It is at least implicit from the scope of this covenant that God’s redemptive goal will ultimately encompass the whole creation.

The Abrahamic Covenant(s)

The promises encompassed by God’s covenants with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are recorded in Genesis 12:1–3. God would bless Abraham in two ways: (1) he would become a great nation and so have a great name, and (2) through him God would mediate blessing to all peoples on earth. Significantly, each of these promises are subsequently ratified by covenant: (1) the national dimension of God’s promise is the focus of Genesis 15, where God establishes “a covenant with Abram” (15:18); (2) the international dimension of the promise (ignored in Gen. 15) is alluded to in Genesis 17 (cf. 17:4–6,16), where God announces an “everlasting covenant” (17:7), the so-called “covenant of circumcision” (Acts 7:8). While many see the latter as simply unpacking further the covenant in Genesis 15, the different circumstances and emphases suggest that it is actually a second stage in God’s covenantal dealings with Abraham.

The covenant in Genesis 15 formally ratifies God’s promise to make Abraham into a “great nation” (Gen. 12:2); the primary focus is on how God will work out his creative goal in Abraham’s biological “offspring,” subsequently identified as the sons of Jacob (Israel). This, however, was only the preliminary stage in God’s unfolding plan of redemption. The second stage relates to how Abraham, through that great nation descended from him, would mediate blessing to “all peoples on earth” (Gen. 12:3)—the main focus of Genesis 17 and 22.

Even though the prospect of nationhood is not altogether absent (cf. 17:8), in chapter 17 stress is placed on “nations,” “kings,” and a perpetual divine-human relationship with Abraham’s “seed” (17:4–8,16–21). Significantly, particular focus is placed on Isaac (17:21; cf. 21:12) as the one through whom this covenant will be perpetuated, highlighting what was at stake in the divine test of Genesis 22. There Abraham’s obedient faith (22:16,18) met the demands of 17:1 (cf. 18:19; 26:5), thus prompting God to ratify the promises of Genesis 17 (cf. 22:17–18; 26:4) by a solemn oath (Gen 22:16; cf. 26:3).

Thus understood, two distinct covenants were established between God and Abraham. The first guaranteed God’s promise to make Abraham into a “great nation,” whereas the second affirmed God’s promise to bless all nations through Abraham and his “seed.”

The Mosaic Covenant

God established the Mosaic covenant just after the prospect anticipated in Genesis 15 had taken place: the emancipation of Abraham’s descendants from oppression in a foreign land (cf. 15:13–14; cf. Exod. 19:4–6; 20:2). The focus at Sinai is less on what Abraham’s descendants must do in order to inherit the land and more on how they must conduct themselves within the land as God’s chosen people (Exod. 19:5–6). In order to be God’s “treasured possession,” “kingdom of priests,” and “holy nation,” Israel must keep God’s covenant by submitting to its requirements (i.e., the stipulations set forth in Exod. 20–23). By adhering to these and the subsequent covenant obligations given at Sinai, Israel would be manifestly different from other nations and thus reflect God’s wisdom and greatness to surrounding peoples (cf. Deut. 4:6–8).

By such means, Abraham’s descendants would not only follow in the footsteps of their ancestor (cf. Gen. 26:5) but would also facilitate the fulfillment of God’s promises (Gen. 18:19). Thus, like Abraham, Israel must “walk before God and be blameless” (Gen. 17:1). Failing to do so would undermine the very reason for Israel’s existence, a lesson that the incident of the golden calf so graphically illustrated (Exod. 32–34). Although God reestablished the covenant (Exod. 34), this was an act of grace rather than justice (34:6–7). Moreover, the re-issuing of the same covenant obligations at the end of this incident demonstrated that Israel’s responsibility had not changed.

By reflecting God’s holiness (Lev. 19:1), Israel would showcase true theocracy and thus serve as God’s witnesses to a watching world. Moreover, since human rebellion threatened to jeopardize God’s ultimate objective (i.e., blessing all nations through Abraham’s “seed”), the Mosaic covenant also encompassed the means by which the divine-human relationship between Yahweh and Israel could be maintained: sacrificial worship, particularly on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16), would ritually atone for Israel’s sin and symbolically express God’s forgiveness. Therefore, just as the Noahic covenant guaranteed the preservation of human life on earth, so the Mosaic covenant guaranteed the preservation of Israel, Abraham’s great nation, in the land. Such was crucial for the next stage in fulfilling God’s promises: establishing a royal line through which Abraham’s ultimate seed and covenant heir would eventually come (cf. Gal. 3:16).

The Davidic Covenant

After Sinai, the next major development comes with Nathan’s oracle to David (2 Sam. 7; 1 Chr. 17). David intends to build a house (i.e., temple) for God, but God promises to build a house (i.e., dynasty) for David. Neither 2 Samuel 7 nor 1 Chronicles 17 explicitly describes this promise as a “covenant,” but several other texts do (cf. 2 Sam. 23:5; 2 Chr. 7:18; 13:5; Ps. 89:3; Jer. 33:21).

The Davidic covenant continues the trajectory of both the Mosaic and Abrahamic covenants. God’s plans for David and Israel are clearly intertwined (cf. 2 Sam. 7:8–11, 23–26). Moreover, significant parallels link David to Abraham:

  • God promises both “a great name” (Gen. 12:2; 2 Sam. 7:9).
  • In the future both will conquer their enemies (Gen. 22:17; 2 Sam. 7:11; cf. Ps. 89:23);
  • Both have a special divine-human relationship (Gen. 17:7–8; 2 Sam. 7:24; cf. Ps. 89:26).
  • A special line of “seed” perpetuates both of their names (Gen. 21:12; 2 Sam. 7:12–16).
  • The descendants of both must keep God’s laws (Gen. 18:19; 2 Sam. 7:14; cf. Pss. 89:30–32; 132:12).
  • The offspring of both would mediate international blessing (Gen. 22:18; Ps. 72:17).

The Davidic covenant thus identifies more precisely the promised “seed” who will mediate international blessing: he will be a royal descendant of Abraham through David.

Therefore this covenant introduces a subtle but significant shift in focus. With the great nation promised to Abraham now firmly established (2 Sam. 7:1), attention zooms in on his royal offspring (cf. Gen. 17:6, 16). This royal line, already traced explicitly in Genesis (cf. 35:11; 49:10; see also Gen. 38 and Ruth 4:18–22), culminates in an individual, conquering “seed” who fulfills the promise of Genesis 22:18 and the hope expressed in Psalm 72:17.

The New Covenant

Persistent failure to live according to God’s covenant requirements led to inevitable disaster for both the nation and its monarchy, culminating in judgment: the destroyed temple and Babylonian exile. This might have spelled the end, had God’s plans for Israel not been crucial for fulfilling his covenant promises. The exile of the nation and the demise of the monarchy had somehow to be overcome for God’s goal to be realized. Covenant history thus continued through the prospect of a “new covenant”—one that would be both continuous and discontinuous with those of the past.

Though referred to explicitly as a “new covenant” only once in the OT (Jer. 31:31), several passages, both in Jeremiah and elsewhere, allude to it. In Isaiah this everlasting covenant of peace is closely associated with the Servant figure (Isa. 42:6; 49:8; 54:10; 55:3; 61:8). It is inclusive—incorporating even foreigners and eunuchs (Isa. 56:3), but also exclusive—confined to those who “hold fast to” its obligations (Isa. 56:5–6; cf. 56:1–2).

While Jeremiah and Ezekiel use different terminology to describe it, both anticipate a fundamental change taking place in the covenant community: Jeremiah speaks of internalizing the Torah (Jer. 31:33), whereas Ezekiel speaks of spiritual surgery and radical transformation (Ezek. 36:26–27). For both prophets, this inner renewal would result in the ideal divine-human relationship, which this and earlier covenants express in terms of the covenant formula: “I will be their God, and they will be my people.” In this new covenant, all the hopes and expectations of previous covenants attain their climactic fulfillment and eschatological expression.

It is unsurprising, therefore, that the New Testament (“covenant”) declares that all God’s covenant promises are realized in and through Jesus (cf. Luke 1:54–55, 69–75; 2 Cor. 1:20), the long-awaited Davidic Messiah (Matt. 1:17–18; 2:4–6; 16:16; 21:9; Luke 2:11; John 7:42; Acts 2:22–36). As the ultimate seed of Abraham (Matt. 1:1; Gal. 3:16) and royal offspring of David (Matt. 1:1; Luke 1:27, 32–33; 2:4; Rom. 1:3; 2 Tim. 2:8; Rev. 5:5; 22:16), Jesus also fulfills the role of Isaiah’s Servant (Acts 3:18; 4:27–28; 8:32–35)—not only in redeeming Israel (Luke 2:38; Acts 3:25–26; Heb. 9:12,15), but also by mediating God’s blessing to an international community of faith (Acts 10:1–11:18; 15:1–29; Rom. 1:2–6; 3:22–24; 4:16–18; 15:8–12; Gal. 3:7–14, 29).

According to the NT Gospels and letters, the new covenant was ratified through Jesus’s death on the cross (cf. Matt. 26:28; Mark 14:24; Luke 22:20; 1 Cor. 11:25). In the inaugural Lord’s Supper, Jesus alludes to both the forgiveness linked by Jeremiah to the new covenant (Matt. 26:28; cf. Jer. 31:34), and the blood associated with the establishment of the old (i.e. Mosaic) covenant (Luke 22:20; cf. Exod. 24:7). Accordingly, the NT emphasizes the forgiveness of sins, something only fully attainable under the new covenant (Acts 13:39; cf. Heb. 10:4), as the primary benefit of Jesus’ death (e.g. Luke 1:77; 24:46–47; Acts 2:38; 10:43; 13:38; 26:18; Rom. 3:24–25; Eph. 1:7; Col. 1:14; Heb. 9:12, 28; 1 John 1:7; Rev. 1:5; 7:14; 12:10–11).

Thus, according to both Paul and the writer of Hebrews, the new covenant is far superior to the old (i.e. the Mosaic covenant). Such is already implicit in the use of the adjective “new” in 1 Corinthians 11:25 (cf. Luke 22:20), which clearly alludes to the contrast in Jeremiah (31:31–32). Paul is even more pointed, however, in 2 Corinthians 3:1–18, where he explicitly contrasts the new and the old covenants, highlighting the vast inferiority of the old compared with with the surpassing glory and permanence of the new. A similar comparison is also made by his “figurative” contrast between Hagar and Sarah in Galatians 4:21–31.

Analogous conclusions are also drawn by the author of Hebrews. Having noted the superiority of the new covenant in 7:22, the writer elaborates his point through an extended comment on Jeremiah 31:31–34, which forms a literary bracket around much of the argument in Hebrews 8–10 (cf. 8:9–12; 10:16–17). Not only does Jesus exercise a permanent, perfect, and heavenly priesthood (7:23–8:6), but the covenant of which he is mediator “is established on better promises” (8:6), explained in terms of an “eternal redemption” (9:12) and “eternal inheritance” (9:15) secured through the blood of Christ (9:11–10:18)—later described as “the blood of the eternal covenant” (13:20). Like Paul, therefore, the contrast is not between something bad and something good, but between something good (but temporal) and something better (because eternal).

While these new covenant realities are in many respects already present (cf. Heb 9:11), it is nevertheless true that the best is still to come. Just as Israel’s restoration hopes were not exhausted in repatriation after the Babylonian exile, neither were they fully realized in the first coming of their Messiah. While in Jesus—the promised seed of Abraham (Gal. 3:16), the anticipated “prophet like Moses” (Matt. 17:5; cf. Deut. 18:15), King David’s greater son (Matt. 22:41–46), and the mediator of the new covenant (Heb. 8:6)—God’s covenant promises for both Israel and the nations have come to fruition, the ultimate expression of God’s creative and redemptive goal awaits fulfillment in the eschatological reality of the new creation. Only then will the hope expressed in the covenant formula be most fully experienced (Rev. 21:3), for “the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him, And they will reign for ever and ever” (Rev. 22:3–5).

Further Reading

In relation to Biblical Theology

In relation to Reformed/Covenant Theology

In relation to contemporary debates


This essay is part of the Concise Theology series. All views expressed in this essay are those of the author. This essay is freely available under Creative Commons License with Attribution-ShareAlike (CC BY-SA 3.0 US), allowing users to share it in other mediums/formats and adapt/translate the content as long as an attribution link, indication of changes, and the same Creative Commons License applies to that material. If you are interested in translating our content or are interested in joining our community of translators, please reach out to us.