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What is a covenant?

A covenant is a binding agreement between two or more parties, similar to a promise or a contract. A covenant defines the relationship between two parties, how they will act, and the promises they will fulfill with and to one another. Covenants often contain both conditional and unconditional elements. While covenant relationships are almost obsolete in our culture, there is one that survives that we can understand. Marriage is a covenant relationship between two people; it is legally binding, but more importantly it defines the relationship between husband and wife. They both make certain promises to each other that they are expected to fulfill, and yet at the same time there is the promise that when one is not fulfilling their promises, the other will love unconditionally and continue to fulfill their covenantal relationship.

Covenants are used throughout the Bible to establish a relationship between God and His people, and they form the backbone of the narrative structure. This is made more obvious when we understand that in the Bible the word testament is another word for covenant; the Old Testament could be rendered Old Covenant, and this portion of the Bible records when humanity was living in relationship to God under the old covenant. Often in the covenantal relationships, man fails to uphold his part of the promise, but God in His unchanging character upholds the covenantal promises.

An early covenant we see in Scripture is between God and Noah (Genesis 6:18). God comes to Noah immediately after the flood making this promise: "I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of the flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth" (Genesis 9:11). This covenant is one between God, Noah, and all of creation; the rainbow still stands in the sky as a sign of this covenant (Genesis 9:13–16). The Noahic covenant does not ask anything of Noah—it is completely dependent upon God.

The Abrahamic covenant appears next. Parts of this covenant are established at different times—God calls Abraham out of his land and promises to make him a great nation from which the whole world will be blessed in Genesis 12. In Genesis 17 the covenant is sealed with the sign of circumcision. But the main event is a dramatic scene in Genesis 15. Abraham asks for reassurance of God's promise to give him a son, and God responds by telling Abraham to gather various animals and sacrifice them, laying their halves on either side of a path for them to walk through. God then puts Abraham in a deep sleep and passes through the animal halves to seal the covenant between them. The symbolism of the cut-up animals is saying, "Let my body be cut up if I were to break this covenant."

The next covenant is what we often refer to as the old covenant, made between God and the people of Israel in Exodus 19. God called Moses to Mount Sinai where He laid out the Ten Commandments and other details of the laws of this covenant. The new relationship between God and Israel is as He describes here: "Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the people of Israel: 'You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles' wings and brought you to myself. 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; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation'" (Exodus 19:3–6).

Later, God makes a covenant with David, promising the coming Messiah. God promises to bring a king from David's line whose kingdom will be established forever (2 Samuel 7:12–13). This description of the one to come speaks to the hope of a new covenant. God further describes what His new covenant will look like in Jeremiah 31:31–34. Unlike the old covenant that His people broke, in the new covenant God will put His law within their hearts. There will be no priesthood for each person will know God and He will forgive their sins.

The new covenant will last forever. God, more specifically the second person of the Trinity, became man in the form of Jesus Christ so that He could establish His covenant upon His own broken body. Jesus' blood is the "blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins" (Matthew 26:28; cf. Mark 14:24). This new covenant both fulfills the requirements of the first covenant and makes it unnecessary because its foundation is upon better promises (Hebrews 8:6, 13). When we take communion we remember the new covenant (1 Corinthians 11:25).

Jesus fulfills the Abrahamic covenant by being the seed that blesses all surrounding nations (Galatians 3:16), and through His sacrifice Abraham's legacy includes not only his blood descendants but also anyone from any nation who proclaims the name of Christ (Galatians 3:24–29).

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