COVENANT: How does God relate to people?

Christians: How does God relate to people?

I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God. Exodus 6:7

Who is your enemy? Whose betrayal of you, disregard of you, and injury to you has been the most treasonous? What has your response been?

The sin we have committed against God is far darker, deeper, and more disgusting than any sin that has been committed against us. God created the world as a gifted home for us. God created us and bestowed on us particular dignity as his image bearers. God gave us companionship through the gift of marriage. And God spoke nothing but grace to us and did nothing but bless us.

Our response was sin—damnable, horrible, inexcusable sin.

God’s response to our sin was covenant—saving, glorious, loving covenant. This is because God is, by nature of being Trinitarian, covenantal. As the Father, Son, and Spirit are a covenantal community as one God, so too they are graciously covenantal with the elect, despite the fact they are sinful enemies and rebels.

Practically speaking, at the most basic level a covenant is an agreement between two parties.1 Various covenants are made between people, between people and God, and between God and people. In the Old

Testament, the word covenant appears hundreds of times and is used in a variety of ways. Personally, Job made a covenant with his eyes not to look at women lustfully.2 Relationally, deep brotherly love is spoken of as covenantal,3 as is marriage.4 Nationally, the elders of Israel made a covenant with King David.5 Benefits of covenants can include protection from an enemy,6 peace,7 financial blessing,8 and obtaining a homeland.9

When the Bible speaks of God’s covenant with his people, it is explaining how our relationship with God is made by his provision and exists by his terms. That God deals with his people in covenant includes all of these glorious truths. Through covenant with God we enjoy a relationship with him that is akin to marriage and includes protection from Satan our enemy, peace with God though we declared war on him through sin, material provision in this life and the life to come, and a coming perfect kingdom as our home where Jesus will forever rule over all as our gracious covenant king.

The word for covenant is berith in Hebrew and diatheke in Greek. A covenant is “a solemn commitment, guaranteeing promises or obligations undertaken by one or both parties, sealed with an oath.”10 When God enters into a covenantal relationship with humanity, God sovereignly institutes a life-and-death bond.11 Or, to say it another way, a covenant is a life-and-death relationship with God on his terms.

As a bond, a covenant is a relationship that commits people to one another, God to God’s people, and people to God. Oaths, promises, and signs accompany the bond or commitment. This aspect of God’s covenants reveals his loving grace and mercy because although people deserve nothing but condemnation, God gives covenantal salvation.

By initiating covenants, God never enters into the relationship casually or informally. Covenant relationship signifies the life-and-death intensity of the bond. This intensity is seen in all three types of covenants, human to human,12 God to human,13 and human to God.14 The establishment of a covenant is called “cutting a covenant.” It usually entails the slaughter of an animal. This symbolizes or represents the curse that the covenant maker calls down upon himself or herself if they should violate the commitment that was made. This aspect of God’s covenants reveals his perfect holiness and justice.

In a covenant with God there is no bargaining, bartering, or contract negotiations regarding the terms of the covenant. Neither is God’s covenant something we must earn by our good works. It is always a gracious provision from the loving Lord to his people. The sovereign Lord of heaven and earth dictates the terms of God’s covenants. It is God’s covenant in that it is conceived, devised, determined, established, confirmed, and dispensed by God himself, who often says, “I will establish my covenant with you.”15 This aspect of God’s covenants reveals his sovereign rule as Lord. God makes five major covenants in the Bible with the following:16

  1. Noah and his family.17
  2. Abraham and his descendants.18
  3. Moses and the Israelites.19
  4. David and the kingdom of Israel.20
  5. The new covenant of Jesus and the church.21

For each of these covenants, it is helpful to highlight five special features:

  1. The covenant mediator (the person with whom God makes the covenant) and his covenant role (whom the mediator represents);
  2. The blessings promised in the covenant;
  3. The conditions (or curses) of the covenant;
  4. The sign by which the covenant will be celebrated and remembered;
  5. The form that God’s family takes as a result of the covenant.

The purpose of these covenants was to address the problem of the human race and of the entire created order. Across the Old Testament echo the promises and relationships in the covenants that will redeem God’s people and restore God’s sin-alienated creation to himself. It is important to note that covenants themselves do not solve the problem, but they do point to Jesus who does.

In addition to God, who would you consider to be in covenant relationship with you?

1Gen. 26:28; Dan. 11:6.
2Job 31:1.
31 Sam. 18:3.
4Prov. 2:16–17; Mal. 2:14.
52 Sam. 5:3.
6Gen. 26:28–29; 31:50–52; 1 Kings 15:18–19.
7Josh. 9:15–16.
81 Kings 5:6–11.
9Gen. 23:14–16.
10Paul R. Williamson, Sealed with an Oath: Covenant in God’s Unfolding Purpose, New Studies in Biblical Theology (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2007), 43.
11See O. Palmer Robertson, Christ of the Covenants (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1980), 4.
12Gen. 21:27, 32; 2 Sam. 3:12, 13.
13Abraham: Gen. 15:18; Moses: Ex. 24:8; Deut. 5:2; David: 2 Chron. 21:7; Ps. 89:3; the new covenant:
Jer. 31:31; Ezek. 37:26.
142 Kings 11:17; 23:3; 2 Chron. 29:10.
15See Gen. 6:18; 9:9, 11, 17; 17:7, 19, 21; Ex. 6:4; Ezek. 16:60, 62; Heb. 8:8. Also helpful is this Bible Project video on covenant https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8ferLIsvlmI
16Some systematic theologies add a sixth covenant with Adam. They appeal to Hosea 6:7, which is the only place the word covenant is used in connection with Adam. The debate that surrounds this point on such things as a covenant of works in covenantal theology or a dispensation of innocence in dispensational theology is more than we can address in this one chapter on covenant. Still, since the Genesis account of Adam does not speak of him as being in covenant with God, we have chosen not to include the possibility of the Adamic covenant, but we do acknowledge that there were Adamic commands.
17Gen. 6:18; 9:8–17.
18Gen. 12:1–3; 15:18; 17:1–14; 22:16–18.
19Ex. 3:4–10; 6:7; 19:5–6; 24:8.
202 Sam. 7:8–19; Ps. 89:3.
21Matt. 16:17–19; 26:28; Luke 22:20.