"Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ." - Jerome

Monday, August 04, 2008

What is a Covenant?

A major motif through Scripture is covenant. From the book of Genesis through to the Prophets to the New Testament (or New Covenant), the word and concept of covenant repeats as God’s main mode of dealing with humanity, appearing over 280 times just in the Old Testament.

The most simple definition would be an agreement between two or more parties. The agreement would include some sort of exchange or promise and conditions for that promise to be fulfilled. Usually, in the Bible, these covenants are accompanied by a sign.

The major covenants between God and man are found between God and:

Noah: Gen 6, 9
Abraham: Gen 15, 17
Moses: Ex 24, 31
David: 1 Chron 15
New: Jer 31, Luke 22:20, Acts 2, Heb 8, 9

Other places might be seen as covenant, though the word is not used at the time, such as between Adam and God: the agreement that if Adam obey he will live, if he disobeys he will die.

But if we start with Noah, we can see most of the elements of a covenant:
Noahic Covenant:
Parties: Noah (all humanity) and God
promise: For God not to destroy the world by water
Sign: Rainbow

The one element that is missing is a set of conditions or stimulations for the promise to be given. Thus, the Noahic covenant takes the form more a declaration or decree, since God gives, without condition, to all. In fact, the same structures exist for the Davidic covenant.

However, the Mosaic, Abrahamic and New Covenant take the more typical form, including stipulations with the promise, parties and sign components.

Abraham Covenant (Genesis 15, 17):
Parties: The believer and their child. Abraham and his decendents [Israel]. (Genesis 17:9-12)
Sign: Circumcision (Gen 17:9-13)
Promise: Great Nation, Land of Canaan, Salvation.
Stipulations: Faith (Gen 15:6)

I say the stipulations in both covenants are faith due to the reference to the efficacy of Abraham’s faith in Genesis and the requirement of faith in the Mosaic covenant. Other factors such the Law come in, but I’m only interested in a broad definition here.


A question arises here: How were Abraham’s decendents included in the covenant if they did not have faith?

We see the sign of circumcision is given to Abraham after he came to faith, and Isaac before his faith. Yet, we cannot say that Isaac was not required to have the stipulation to receive the promise. Hence, Isaac would come to mature faith in the covenant to receive the promise, but nonetheless was in the covenant before faith and did not require initiation (re-circumcision) after coming to faith.

What about the final “New Covenant”? What are the elements of the New Covenant?

In the first sermon by Peter to the Jews in Acts 2:38-39, Peter tells them how the covenant has changed:
And Peter said to them,"Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself."

New Covenant:
Parties: Believer and their child. The near (the audience: Jews) and the far (Gentiles) [Acts 2:38-39] [cf. Eph 2:11-22 for near far language use for Gentiles and Jews]
Promise: The Gift of the Holy Spirit (salvation)
Stipulations: Faith/Repentence
Sign: Baptism (the replacement for circumcision Col 2:11-12)

Peter repeats that the promise is for the children of believers as well. It is an issue he would have to address with the audience, as they would have understood that their children are covenant members in Judaism. If the children are not included, the question would have to answered: when were they kicked out of the covenant?

So just as circumcision was a sign of the covenant, and even a sign of faith (Romans 4:11) so Baptism is a sign of the covenant and faith, and available to believers and their children.

1 comment:

Aaron said...

No children are kicked out! Puppies too! I hate them both because I am a Baptist!
Yes, but the sign comes after the requirement and make sure it is the right children i.e. open to your children if they are children of Abraham.

In the epistle to the Galatians, it is written "If ye be Christ's then are ye Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise' Let us inquire, what is implied in believers being the seed of Abraham and what promise is here intended. In the context (ver 6,7) it is written, "Evan as Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness: Know ye, therefore, that they which are of faith, the same are the children of Abraham." Abraham believed; therefore, they who believe are his children.

Sola Fide!
- me