More Thoughts About Biblical Covenants

As some of you know, I am Founder of Veritas School of Theology, an online seminary dedicated to educating God’s people in solid dispensational and presuppositional theology at a low cost.  This ministry also provides me with an outlet for my ongoing development of what I call “Biblical Covenantalism” (see here, and here): a more far-reaching and theologically balanced type of Dispensationalism.

One of the things we do at VST is to place a lot of emphasis on understanding the meaning of God’s covenants.  These covenants are easily located in the Bible.  They are the Noahic (Gen. 9:8-17); Abrahamic (Gen. 12:1-3; 15:7-21); Mosaic (Exod. 24:3-8); Priestly (Num. 25:10-13); Land (Deut. 30:3-10); Davidic (2 Sam. 7:4-17); and New (Jer.31:31-36).  The Noahic Covenant provides the time and space framework for history and providence needed for the accomplishment of God’s purposes on this earth.  The Abrahamic contains the seed, land and kingly promises for Israel (thus supporting the Priestly, Land, and Davidic Covenants).  The Mosaic Covenant serves to set apart Israel from the nations while also demonstrating the necessity of a better, New Covenant, by which all God’s plans and promises will be fulfilled through Jesus Christ.  It is because of the tremendous cosmic implications of the outworking of these biblical covenants that we think they should be given more prominence than many others have given them in the past.  Quite simply, we do not think these implications have been examined and set out in a systematic way.  With this in mind it is surely not inappropriate to remind ourselves of some of the considerations involved in “thinking through the covenants.”

1.      When God made a “covenant” – be it unilateral or one-sided (e.g. Noahic) or bilateral, that is, two-sided (Mosaic), there was of necessity a human response to the revelation.  Although it almost seems remedial to say it, we ought to take notice of this necessity of a human response.  For the covenants were made to elicit that response from people!  The one who said “Let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes’ and your ‘No’ be ‘No’” didn’t need to make covenants for Himself!  He always thinks and speaks perfect truth and never has to recant it.

2.      Granted this is self-evident, the real issue is whether the human response is of any import. If the covenant is unilateral the answer is “not really,” unless in acknowledgement of God’s gracious revelation.  For example, God will never bring another global flood upon the world regardless of anyone’s response to His word.  But in the case of a bilateral covenant however, the response of those to whom the covenant is addressed obligates that party to the terms of the covenant.  They must carry out their part.

3.      In both cases the terms are drawn up by the Superior Party (the ‘Suzerain’ or Ruler). In the unilateral treaties in the OT it is the Suzerain (God) who obligates Himself, while no obligation to bring about the fulfillment of the terms of the covenant come upon the second party (e.g. Abraham in Gen. 15 or Israel in Jer.31). And even though the unconditional covenants may have subsidiary conditions appended to them (like circumcision for example), these conditions in no way absolve God from His obligation to bring the wording of His covenant to pass.

4.      The various contexts in which the OT covenants were “cut” do not allow for much ambiguity. Always the divine initiative is to the fore, and always a trajectory, in line with God’s overall purpose, is announced and usually set in motion. As most of God’s covenants are one-sided in character (Noahic, Abrahamic, Land, Priestly, Davidic, New), Divine obligation becomes a sort of “test” of God’s own Self-revealed nature (e.g. His veracity, omnipotence, immutability, righteousness). These things must be kept in mind when interpreting the New Testament.  It is because these matters are lost sight of that many Christians ignore God’s responsibility to do exactly what He has obligated Himself to do.

5.      As an example of this we should note that the word employed by NT writers to denote a covenant (“diatheke”), abandons its standardized Greco-Roman meaning of “disposition” (in the sense of legal settlement), or “last will and testament” (a meaning the writer of Hebrews may momentarily exploit in Hebrews 9:16-17), and instead we must allow the Bible to define its own use of terms so as not to misread it.  In the Book of Hebrews the central quotation from Jeremiah 31 in Hebrews 8:8f. (taken together with Christ’s allusion to it at the Last Supper) is decisive.

As D. Hillers rightly says, “The point worth noting is that the death of Jesus has suggested the meaning he [the writer of Hebrews] attaches to diatheke, “covenant,” and not the reverse.” – Delbert R. Hillers, Covenant: The History of a Biblical Idea, (1994), 182. Moreover, once it is understood that the LXX or Septuagint, which was the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures often used by the Apostles, uniformly uses the one-sided term “diatheke” instead of the more usual two-sided term “syntheke,” to translate the Hebrew word for covenant (“berith”), then clearly the choice of diatheke deliberately lays stress upon God’s liability to accomplish His promises.

6.      Personally speaking, I don’t see why dispensationalists have pulled their hair out over the New Covenant. To me at least, the language of Luke 22:2, made as it was with those who were to become “foundations” of the church (see Eph.2:20), and repeated imperturbably by Paul in I Corinthians 11:25; when taken with the argument in Hebrews, decisively shows that Jesus, “the Mediator of the New Covenant”, made the New Covenant with the Church!  If one is expecting to find that truth in Jeremiah or Ezekiel then one is not a dispensationalist. Those prophets did not envisage “the Body of Christ,” so naturally they did not write about the relationship of the New Covenant to the Church.

Does this necessitate two separate new covenants? No indeed! It means only that the same new covenant was given to the Church as shall be given to Israel.  The New Covenant promises to Israel are not the New Covenant promises to the Church.

7.      That the Church does bear a relationship to the Abrahamic Covenant is certain.  Paul, in fact, shows this by quoting Genesis 12:3 (“in you [Abram] all the families of the earth will be blessed”) in Galatians 3:8, using it as a basis for his doctrine of justification!  But if the Church is related to the Abrahamic Covenant (at least via Gen. 12:3), how does the Church gain access to this promise?  There is no mechanism within the Abrahamic Covenant that can deliver its provisions to the rightful recipients, whether Israel or the Church.  And that is where the New Covenant comes in!

8.      We ought not to speak of the New Covenant as revealed in the OT as possessing distinct blessings which are absent from the Abrahamic Covenant. There simply is no way into those blessings without the New Covenant. And it is the same for the Church. The same New Covenant is needed for the Church to enter into its blessings (e.g. Gal. 3:6-9).

There is much more to say, and I shall be posting more on Biblical Covenantalism by and by.  But there is sufficient grist here for the Bible student’s mill.


  1. The significance of the Biblical covenants cannot be underestimated. W. F. Albright, the father of American Biblical archeology, made the sweeping observation in 1968 that “only the Hebrews, so far as we know, made covenants with their gods or God.” The fact that God deals with man by means of covenants is immensely significant and practical. The ancient pagan lived a life of fear and uncertainty, never sure how to please his “gods” or how they would react to his actions; his gods were by their nature capricious and unpredictable (e.g., this continues to be true today for the Hindu gods, the Allah of Islam, and even the god of Mormonism). In contrast, the Divine Covenants establish a stable and predictable relationship between men and Jehovah. By putting the terms of the covenant in writing that is supernaturally preserved throughout history (Ps12:6-7; Isa40:8; Matt24:35; 1Pet1:24-25), the performance of both parties (i.e., Jehovah and men) with regard to the terms of the covenants can be objectively measured. The Divine Covenants allow Jehovah to demonstrate His attributes of faithfulness and immutability to His creation, and the stable foundation they provide for man allow him to live a life free of fear and uncertainty regarding the future.

  2. This is helpful in my thinking.
    Thanx guys!

    Would Malachi 3:10, “Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. And thereby put me to the test, says the LORD of hosts, if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you a blessing until there is no more need.”, be an example of God allowing,(which seems to be in direct conflict with, “Thou shalt not put the LORD thy God to the test”), Himself to be tested as spoke of in point 4 above?

    We were going over this in a class and it seemed to be a “figure of speech” that God was using to get His people to “taste and see that the LORD is good.” That He could indeed be tested in order to see what His character is? I’m kind of just thinking out loud here, I could be off?

    On point 6 I think you meant Luke 22:20.

    All in all this makes it plain to see that God wants us to know who He IS! Every mouth will be stopped on that DAY. We need to warn everyone!!!

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