Last week left off with the fall of humanity because of our first parents’ sin. This week is a quick summary of the whole quarter, as we take one day each to look at the early covenants, the ones that in their own way were all present-truth manifestations of the true covenant, the one ratified at Calvary by the blood of Jesus, the one that we, as Christians, enter into with our Lord.
We begin with the covenant God made with Noah to spare him and his family from destruction. We proceed to the covenant with Abraham, so rich and full of promise for all of us; then to the covenant at Sinai and the importance of what was proclaimed there; and finally we look at the new covenant, the one that all the others pointed toward. All of these, of course, will be studied in more depth over the next several weeks. This week is just a preview.
What elements make up the covenant? What was the covenant that God made with Noah? What hope was found in the covenant with Abraham? What role do faith and works play in the human end of the covenant? Is the covenant just a deal, or does it have relational aspects to it? What is the essence of the “new covenant”?
* Study this week’s lesson to prepare for Sabbath, April 10.
“The Hebrew word translated as ‘covenant’ (appearing about 287 times in the Old Testament) is berith. It can also be translated as ‘testament’ or ‘last will.’ Its origin is unclear, but it has come to mean ‘that which bound two parties together.’ It was used, however, for many different types of ‘bond,’ both between man and man and between man and God. It has a common use where both parties were men, and a distinctively religious use where the covenant was between God and man. The religious use was really a metaphor based on the common use but with a deeper connotation [meaning].”—J. Arthur Thompson, “Covenant (OT),” The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, revised edition (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979), vol. 1, p. 790.
Like the marriage covenant, the biblical covenant defines both a relationship and an arrangement. As an arrangement, the biblical covenant contains these basic elements:
In the Old Testament, the sacrificial system of types instructed the people regarding the entire plan of salvation. Through its symbols, the patriarchs and Israel learned to exercise faith in the coming Redeemer.
Through its rites, the penitent could find forgiveness for sin and release from guilt. The blessings of the covenant could thus be retained, and spiritual growth—restoring the image of God in the life—could thereby continue, even when humankind failed to uphold their end of the bargain.
Though there are covenants made between people, the main use of the word berith in the Hebrew Bible deals with the relationship between God and humanity. Considering who God is and who we are in comparison to Him, what kind of relationship would such a covenant depict?
In the above verse the word covenant appears for the first time in the Bible, and, in this context, God has just told Noah about His decision to destroy the earth because of the massive and continuing spread of sin.
Though this destruction will come in a worldwide flood, God is not forsaking the world He created. He continues to offer the covenant relationship first set in operation after the Fall. The divine “I” who offers the covenant is Himself the ground of Noah’s security. As the covenant-keeping God, the Lord promised to protect the family members who were willing to live in a committed relationship with Him, one that resulted in obedience.
God tells Noah that there is going to be a flood and the world will be destroyed. But God makes a deal with him in which He promises to save Noah and his family. Thus, the stakes were quite high, because if God did not uphold His end of the promise, then no matter what Noah did, he would be wiped out with the rest of the world.
God said He would make a “covenant” with Noah. The word itself implies an intention to honor what one says one will do. It is not just some whimsical statement. The word itself comes loaded with commitment. Suppose the Lord had said to Noah, “Look, the world is going to end in a terrible deluge, and I might save you, or I might not. In the meantime, do this and this and this, and then we’ll see what happens, but I’m not making any guarantees.” Such statements hardly come with the kind of assurance and promise found in the word covenant itself.
In this, the first recorded divine revelation to Abram, God promised to enter into a close and lasting relationship with him, even before He used any language that spoke about covenant making. Direct references to the covenant that God would make came later (Gen. 15:4–21, Gen. 17:1–14). For the moment, God offered a divine-human relationship of great significance. The repeated “I will” in Genesis 12:1–3 suggests the depth and greatness of God’s offer and promise.
In addition, Abram received a single, but testing, command: “Go forth.” He obeyed by faith (Heb. 11:8), but not in order to bring about the promised blessings. His obedience was the response of his faith to the loving relationship, which God already had established. In other words, Abram already believed in God, already trusted in God, already had faith in God’s promises. He had to; otherwise, he never would have left his family and ancestral land to begin with and headed into places unknown. His obedience revealed his faith both to men and to angels.
Abram, even back then, revealed the key relationship between faith and works. We are saved by faith—a faith that results in works of obedience. The promise of salvation comes first; the works follow. Although there can be no covenant fellowship and no blessing without obedience, that obedience is faith’s response to what God already has done. Such faith illustrates the principle in 1 John 4:19, “We love him [God], because he first loved us.”
After the Exodus, the children of Israel received the covenant at Sinai, given in the context of redemption from bondage (Exod. 20:2) and containing God’s sacrificial provisions for atonement and the forgiveness of sin. It was, therefore, like all of the covenants, a covenant of grace, God’s grace extended to His people.
In many ways, this covenant reiterated the major emphases in the covenant with Abraham:
“Note the order here: the Lord first saves Israel, then gives them His law to keep. The same order is true under the gospel. Christ first saves us from sin (see John 1:29; 1 Cor. 15:3; Gal. 1:4), then lives out His law within us (Gal. 2:20; Rom. 4:25; 8:1–3; 1 Peter 2:24).”—The SDA Bible Commentary, vol. 1, p. 602.
These passages are the first time the Old Testament mentions what is referred to as the “new covenant.” It is lodged in the context of Israel’s return from exile, and it talks about the blessings they will receive from God.
Again, as in all the other instances, it is God who initiates the covenant, and it is God who will fulfill it by His grace.
Notice, also, the language there. God referred to Himself as a husband to them; He talked about writing His law within their hearts; and, using language from the Abrahamic covenant, He says He will be their God, and they will be His people. Thus, as before, the covenant is not just some legal binding agreement, as in courts of law today. It deals with something more.
In Jeremiah 31:31–34, one can see the elements of both grace and obedience, just as in the earlier covenants. God will forgive their sins, God will enter into a relationship with them, and God will bestow His grace in their lives. As a result, the people simply obey Him, not in some rote, mechanical way, but purely because they know Him, because they love Him, and because they want to serve Him. This captures the essence of the covenant relationship the Lord seeks with His people.
Further Thought: Read Ellen G. White, “Abraham in Canaan,” pp. 132–138, in Patriarchs and Prophets; “The Prophets of God Helping Them,” pp. 569–571, in Prophets and Kings.
“The yoke that binds to service is the law of God. The great law of love revealed in Eden, proclaimed upon Sinai, and in the new covenant written in the heart, is that which binds the human worker to the will of God. If we were left to follow our own inclinations, to go just where our will would lead us, we should fall into Satan’s ranks and become possessors of his attributes. Therefore God confines us to His will, which is high, and noble, and elevating. He desires that we shall patiently and wisely take up the duties of service. The yoke of service Christ Himself has borne in humanity. He said, ‘I delight to do Thy will, O My God: yea, Thy law is within My heart.’ Ps. 40:8. ‘I came down from heaven, not to do Mine own will, but the will of Him that sent Me.’ John 6:38. Love for God, zeal for His glory, and love for fallen humanity, brought Jesus to earth to suffer and to die. This was the controlling power of His life. This principle He bids us adopt.”—Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages, pp. 329, 330.
Summary: The entrance of sin ruptured the relationship the Creator had originally established with the human family through our first parents. Now God seeks to reestablish that same loving relationship by means of a covenant. This covenant signifies both a committed relationship between God and us (like a marriage bond) and an arrangement for saving us and bringing us into harmony with its Maker. God Himself, motivated by His great love for us, is the Initiator of the covenant relationship. By gracious promises and gracious acts, He woos us to come into union with Him.