GOD’S AMAZING COVENANTS
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There are times when every person wonders about his or her relationship with God.
• Karen’s doubts emerged after a painful divorce, followed immediately by the loss of her job. She had felt close to God and sure of His love. But then her husband left, and the hospital she had worked for as a grief counselor was purchased by a giant health care organization that required a degree she didn’t have. She felt so abandoned. Could she really count on God, or not?
• For Stacey, it was the auto accident that left her in a wheelchair at age 17. How could she trust God if He let such a terrible thing happen to her? No, she hadn’t been wearing a seat belt. And no, she knew the boy she was with had a reputation for reckless driving. But God shouldn’t have let the terrible accident happen. Could she ever really trust a God who would let her become a cripple?
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There are times in all our lives when events make us question our relationship with God. Even more, they make us question God Himself. What kind of God is He? Can we really, truly trust Him?
For everyone who has ever wondered, for everyone who has ever doubted, God’s Word has a wonderful answer. We can trust God. He is a God who commits Himself fully to us. He is a God who makes us wonderful promises, and who keeps them!
But God’s commitment to us and His wonderful promises do not guarantee a life without stress or pain . If we’re to maintain our trust in God when troubles come, we need to know just what His commitments to us are, and which of His wonderful promises you and I can claim and count on today. That’s why this book is more than a Bible resource, which answers questions you may have about specific verses. It’s also a personal resource, which you can turn to in times of doubt and uncertainty, to find your faith restored as you meditate on the trustworthiness of our wonderful God.
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COMMITMENTS TO COUNT ON:
God’s Covenant Promises
Genesis 12 ; Exodus 20 ; 2 Samuel 7; Jeremiah 31
• Covenants define relationships
• Covenants served as guarantees ( Hebrews 6:13–19 )
• How God’s covenants are unique ( Genesis 12:1–3 , 7 )
• Covenants define God’s purposes ( Genesis 9 ; 12 ; Exodus 19 –20 ; 2 Samuel 7 )
• What’s so special about covenants?
Our understanding of the Bible and of God’s purposes rests on special commitments God has made throughout sacred history. These special commitments are promises—but more.
Scripture applies a special name to these special commitments: They are called “covenants.”
WHAT DOES THE WORD COVENANT MEAN?
The Hebrew word translated “covenant,” berit, occurs 272 times in the Old Testament. The Greek word, diatheke, is used 33 times in the New Testament. Berit was a familiar word in Old Testament times. In general, it meant a “binding agreement” or “contract.”
When two people involved in a business deal worked out its terms, they wrote them into a berit (contract). When two nations wanted to define the relationship between them, or agree to defend each other, they wrote the terms of their agreement into a berit ( treaty ). When a ruler wanted to spell out his responsibilities to his subjects, and his subjects’ responsibilities to him, he produced a berit ( a national constitution ). Even an informal pledge of friendship, like that made by David and Jonathan to each other ( 1 Sam. 18:3 ), is called a berit in the Bible. Marriage too is called a berit, because marriage involves the commitment of two people to each other ( Mal. 2:14 ).
So the concept of covenant was both familiar and important in the ancient world. And the word covenant was used whenever people wanted to spell out the nature of a wide variety of relationships.
WHY DID GOD MAKE COVENANTS WITH PEOPLE? ( HEBREWS 6:13–19 )
In one passage, the book of Hebrews looks back on God’s covenant with Abraham and explains why God chose to call this special commitment a “covenant.” The passage says,
When God made a promise to Abraham, because He could swear by no one greater, He swore by Himself, saying, “ Surely blessing I will bless you, and multiplying I will multiply you.” And so, after he had patiently endured, he obtained the promise. For men indeed swear by the greater, and an oath for confirmation is for them an end of all dispute. Thus God, determining to show more abundantly to the heirs of promise the immutability of His counsel, confirmed it by an oath, that by two immutable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we might have strong consolation, who have fled for refuge to lay hold of the hope set before us. This hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and steadfast ( Heb. 6:13–19 ).
The writer of Hebrews tells us that when God made certain special commitments, He chose the familiar language of covenant, so that those to whom the promises were given might have an anchor for the soul. God made His special commitments legally binding to remove every doubt and fear.
Several words and phrases in this passage help us understand just how significant “covenant” is when it is applied to a divine commitment.
God confirmed His covenant by an oath ( Heb. 6:17 ).
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“God made a promise” ( Hebrews 6:13 ). God’s covenants are promises. The issues covered in biblical covenants are firm commitments made by the Lord.
“He swore by Himself” ( Hebrews 6:13 ). God’s covenants are promises that have been made legally binding by the taking of an oath ( Heb. 6:16 ). In court a person about to give testimony is asked, “Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?” Whenever the Bible mentions God’s covenants, we’re dealing with something God has confirmed with a binding oath, and has sworn “This is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth!”
“Determined to show the immutability” ( Hebrews 6:17 ). God didn’t need to put His special commitments in covenant form. God keeps His Word. But He chose to use the covenant form for mankind’s sake, to make sure that we understood that God will never, ever change His mind about what each covenant declares. The covenants contain statements of God’s fixed purposes: they tell us what He surely will do.
“An anchor of the soul” ( Hebrews 6:19 ). God’s covenant commitments are so secure that we can anchor ourselves to them. In the ancient world, large stones served as anchors for ocean-going vessels. When strong winds blew up, these stones were often dragged across sandy bottoms, and many ships were lost because of this. It’s no wonder most mariners along the Mediterranean Sea preferred to find some cove where they could pull their little ships up on the beach.
But the writer of Hebrews tells us that we can anchor our very selves to God’s covenant commitments. However fierce the storms of life, this anchor will never drag and threaten us with shipwreck. We will be safe, with our hope fixed for time and eternity in the covenant promises of God.
WHAT IS SPECIAL ABOUT GOD’S COVENANTS?
Two things are very special about God’s covenants. The first is that they are unilateral and thus unconditional. And the second is that most of them are eschatological.
God’s covenants are unconditional. If we check out most uses of berit in the ancient world, and even those uses of berit in the Bible when that word is used to describe relationships between persons, we find something interesting. Most of these covenants are bilateral and conditional.
But a striking feature of biblical covenants is that they are unilateral. God is the only party who makes commitments under the covenants. And,God does not make His commitments conditional on anything that people might do!
This means that even when God’s people fall short, or sin, or even temporarily abandon Him, God cannot and will not go back on His promises! The biblical covenants state what God surely will do—no matter what we human beings do.
It’s no wonder then that the writer of Hebrews says we have an anchor for the soul. If receiving the blessings promised to us in God’s covenants depended on us—on our faith, our obedience, or anything else we might do—we would be in trouble indeed. How wonderful then that God’s covenant commitments—these special promises He has made and confirmed with an oath—do not depend on us. God has committed Himself to do what the covenants state, no matter what!
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A B E RIT (TREATY) BETWEEN EGYPT AND HATTI 1280 B.C.
After an indecisive battle at Kadesh [in Syria], Ramses II and Hattusilis III executed a treaty [berit] that kept the peace between the southern and northern powers for some 50 years. The following terms taken from the treaty illustrate this type of two-party covenant executed between nations.
Hattusilis agrees to this treaty with Ramses, creating peace and an eternal alliance between us. We are brothers and are at peace with each other forever.
I, Hattusilis, came to the throne of Hatti, when Myuwatallis died. Therefore, I agree to this treaty with Ramses, creating peace and an alliance between us. The state of peace and alliance between our lands is now better than in former times.
I, Ramses, agree to peace and an alliance. The successors of The Great King of Hatti will be allies with the successors of the Ramses. The relationship between Egypt and Hatti shall be like our relationship—one of peace and an eternal alliance. There will never again be war between us.
If a foreign army invades the lands of Ramses , and he sends a message to The Great King of Hatti, saying: “Come and help me against this enemy,” The Great King of Hatti shall come and fight against the enemies of Egypt, his ally. If the Great King of Hatti does not wish to come personally, he may send infantry and chariots to fight against the enemy of Egypt, his ally.
Likewise, if Ramses is trying to put down an armed revolt, The Great King of Hatti shall help him until all the rebels have been executed.
If a foreign army attacks The Great King of Hatti, Ramses shall come and fight against the enemy of Hatti, his ally. If Ramses does not wish to come personally, he may send infantry and chariots, as well as word to this effect, to Hatti. If the officials of The Great King of Hatti break their oaths of loyalty to him, Ramses … etc.
Compare the language of this two-party treaty-covenant with the language of God’s covenant to Abraham ( Gen. 12:1–3 , 7 ). The uniqueness of this unilateral biblical covenant becomes clear.
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God’s covenants are eschatological.
This simply means that God’s covenants describe what He will accomplish at history’s end. The ultimate fulfillment of God’s covenant always lies ahead.
At first this seems troubling. How can God’s covenant commitments be an anchor for our souls if they’re not for us right now?
Actually, while God’s covenant commitments are to find their ultimate fulfillment in the future (they are eschatological), they have always had an impact on the believer’s present (they are also experiential).
As we examine each covenant, we’ll see just how their ultimate fulfillment is achieved, and we’ll also learn how we can experience the benefits promised in the covenant right now. But before we look at this in detail, there is an analogy that may help.
EX AMP LE:
Suppose a grandparent left you $100 million in a trust, all of which is to be given to you when you reach age 50. If you are 25, you might feel frustrated. You have $100 million, but you have to wait 25 years to get it!
But suppose the trust is written so that while you don’t get the $100 million until you reach age 50, every year you do receive the interest the trust monies earn? At just 5 percent interest, you’ll have $5,000,000 a year to spend right now! You would be rich right now, even though you have to wait for the full $100 million.
God’s covenant promises are like this. When Jesus returns, everything God has promised will become ours. But right now, as we trust Jesus and live close to Him, God pours out on us many of the blessings promised for history’s end. We’re rich right now, as we draw the interest on the covenant promises, experiencing God’s blessings in our daily lives.
How exciting it will be as we look at God’s great covenant commitments to discover just what benefits we can experience, and how to claim them today!
WHAT ARE GOD’S COVENANTS?
The Bible doesn’t apply the word covenant to every promise made by God. This doesn’t mean that God won’t keep His other promises. It does mean that the commitments made by God in the form of covenants are foundational.
They are foundational, in that the cove-nant promises of God spell out for us His basic plans and purposes for history and for us. We’ll look at each covenant in detail soon. But for now, we want to identify some of the basic purposes of God spelled out in covenant form.
The Noahic Covenant ( Genesis 9 ).
After the great worldwide flood described in Genesis, God promised never again to destroy the world by water. We can be sure that the earth and our race will remain until history reaches God’s intended end.
The Abrahamic Covenant ( Genesis 12 ).
God made a number of promises to Abraham. God would be Abraham’s God. The Lord would bless Abraham, and make his name great. God would bless those who blessed Abraham and curse those who cursed him. God would make Abraham a blessing to all peoples. And of course, God would give the land of Canaan to Abraham’s ancestors as a permanent possession.
God’s great commitments to Abraham included the promise that “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” ( Gen. 12:3 ). And how the world has been blessed through Abraham along the way. Abraham was the ancestor of the Jewish people, and it has been through the Jews that God gave the world His written Word. And it was through the Jews and as a Jew that the Son of God entered our world, to live and to die for our sins.
A rainbow represents God’s covenant with Noah.
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The Mosaic Covenant ( Exodus 19 ; 20 ).
Another name for this covenant is the “law covenant,” a name which brings to mind the Ten Commandments. But the Mosaic Covenant was more than the Ten Commandments: it was a pattern for living that set down principles of morality, established sacrifices for sins, taught ways of worship, defined procedures for civil and criminal law, set up institutions for the care of the poor, and in general established a distinct way of life for God’s Old Testament people. This covenant and the lifestyle it described was specifically given to Israel ( Ex. 3:27 ), and is developed in the Old Testament books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.
When God gave His law to Israel the Lord also made two special covenant commitments to the Jewish people. God’s first commitment was that He would bless them when they were faithful to Him and lived by His law. Thus faithfulness to God and His Word became the way any generation of Israelites could “draw the interest” on blessings promised in the Abrahamic Covenant for history’s end.
God’s second covenant commitment was that He would punish His people when they were unfaithful and disobedient. Instead of blessings, unfaithful generations would have all sorts of troubles until they returned to the Lord.
Each of these commitments was unilateral. Each stated in clear, unmistakable terms what God would do.
God made His covenant with Moses on Mount Sinai.
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The Davidic Covenant.
This is the name given to a special commitment God made to King David. God told David that there would always be a descendant of his qualified to take Israel’s throne, and that one day a descendant of David would rule an everlasting kingdom ( 2 Sam. 7 ).
This is an especially precious covenant commitment to us, because the descendant of David whom God had in mind as ruler of the everlasting kingdom was Jesus Christ! Today Jesus rules as King in the hearts of those who trust Him as Savior and Lord. And one day, at history’s end, Jesus will be acknowledged by all to be the ruler not only of this world but of the universe itself, and His kingdom will be forever.
God promised David, “Your throne shall be established forever.”
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The New Covenant.
The Old Testament prophet Jeremiah promised that one day God would replace the “old” covenant He had made with Israel with a better covenant. The old covenant that God promised to replace was the Mosaic, or Law Covenant.
When Jeremiah compared the Old Covenant and the New Covenant, it was clear why replacement was in God’s plan. The Old Covenant showed people what they ought to do, but it did not change their hearts so that they would want to live God’s way. The Old Covenant had sacrifices that covered sins, but the New Covenant provided for a sacrifice that would take sins away and provide eternal forgiveness.
Perhaps the most important teaching in the Bible about the New Covenant is that it was put in force when Jesus died. God made His great New Covenant commitment to us on the cross.
Jesus’ death and resurrection marked the beginning of the age of the New Covenant. When Jesus comes again, we will receive the complete inner transformation that the New Covenant promises. In this sense the New Covenant, like the Abrahamic and Davidic Covenants, is eschatological. It tells us what will surely happen at history’s end. But like those other covenants, it is also experiential.
Through faith in Jesus, we can experience the New Covenant promise of full and complete forgiveness of our sins. By trusting Jesus daily and staying close to Him, we can experience the gradual transformation of our hearts and motivations. God the Holy Spirit is at work in us even now to make us more and more like Jesus.
WHAT’S SO SPECIAL ABOUT THE COVENANTS?
• Covenant commitments are unilateral, and they tell us what God will do. Covenant commitments find their complete fulfillment at history’s end, but believers can experience the blessings that the covenants promise here and now.
• These commitments have been given to us in covenant form as an anchor for our souls. God wants us to be sure of His commitment to us, and to be positive that He will do what He has said.
• But there’s one other thing that’s most special about the biblical covenants. Each of the major eschatological covenants is about Jesus Christ.
• Jesus is the one who fulfills God’s promise to Abraham to bless all people of the earth through him.
• Jesus is the one who fulfills God’s promise to David of a King who will rule forever.
• Jesus is the one whose death and resurrection marked the beginning of the New Covenant age, and whose coming again will see us transformed and blessed forever.
• The covenant commitments that God has made throughout history are all about Jesus Christ. As we study them, we learn about Him. And our trust in God’s love grows and grows.
The Cross marked the beginning of the New Covenant.
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