My father told me the most startling thing about this small, hand-made vessel. His grand-father had claimed that it could sail, without danger of capsizing in the actual ocean. This claim, my father had to test, and so he took the boat into the ocean and tested it, and it remained afloat. This tiny vessel in comparison with the mighty sea remained the master of the waves.
We often see much of that boat in our struggle to live Christian in an unchristian world. The world's sea would see us capsize and yet, miraculously, we seem to stay afloat. How is this possible? How can we have confidence that we will remain upright when the entire world seems obsessed with our demise, when the waves of temptation would see us sink?
We come to the topic of covenants. To some, this brings up images of sprinkled babies or broken promises. Some Christians despise so-called covenant theology, knowing only its apparent superficial ramifications. Nevertheless, you may not study the Bible properly without understanding the importance of covenants, for the Bible speaks of them regularly. The church has legitimately traced the story of redemption through the covenants.
To begin with, we must define what a covenant is. One theologian suggests the definition that it is an agreement between two or more persons. (Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, p.264) Another has added that it is "a bond in blood sovereignly administered." (O. Palmer Robertson, The Christ of the Covenants, p.4) The Westminster Confession of Faith reads, "The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto him as their Creator, yet they could never have any fruition of him as their blessedness and reward, but by some voluntary condescension on God’s part, which he hath been pleased to express by way of covenant." (WCF 7.1) The covenant then is the means by which God willingly stoops down to man to enable man to have a blessed relationship with Him. That relationship imposes requirements, of itself, not arbitrarily demanded of God.
We have already seen how a relationship with God requires personal, perfect and perpetual righteousness. The first covenant then reveals that requirement. "The first covenant made with man was a covenant of works, wherein life was promised to Adam; and in him to his posterity, upon condition of perfect and personal obedience." (WCF 7.2) In Genesis chapter 2, God puts Adam in the garden and gives him the responsibility over the creation. He gives him freedom to eat of any tree in the garden but one. That one tested Adam's obedience, obedience being the qualification for continued relationship. We call this covenant, the covenant of works, for relationship with God demanded every man's righteousness.
After the fall, another covenant was necessary. Here, it could not be every man's work that enabled the relationship with God. Rather, it was Jesus' work applied to us by grace. Thus, we call this covenant the covenant of grace. The confession also speaks of this covenant, "wherein he freely offereth unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ; requiring of them faith in him, that they may be saved, and promising to give unto all those that are ordained unto eternal life his Holy Spirit, to make them willing, and able to believe." (WCF 7.3)
While these constructs are logical, they do not appear as plainly in the text of scripture. Instead, in hindsight, looking back and viewing all through the lens of the New Testament, we see how this must be. Paul will speak of the failure of the first Adam and the success of the second. (Romans 5) Revelation paints heaven with Edenic colors. Hebrews speaks of the superior covenant under Christ, fulfilling all the Old Testament expectations.
When you look at the covenants the Bible describes in New Testament light, you discover a progression in revelation. The Old Testament begins with simple promises and brings more light to the work of God as the history of God's people progresses through time. Any good teacher understands that learning takes time. You cannot ask the student to proceed from the concept that 2+2=4 immediately to solving the quadratic equation. The learning of subtraction, division, algebra, and geometry must intervene. So also, we ought not expect covenants in Genesis to fully reveal the character of the covenant fully understood in Revelation. Nevertheless, you can see the beginning of the process, the light of the gospel beginning to shine.
We begin with Genesis 3:15 "And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel." We call this the first declaration of the gospel, as God promises to crush the head of the serpent bruising the heel of the seed of the woman. This looks little like the cross, but in hindsight, we can clearly see its connection.
In tracing the covenants, God's promises to certain people stand out as major advances in the covenant idea. The first is Adam as we have seen. The second is Noah. The world is wracked with evil and God cleanses it with the flood. In that event, He saves His people through the ark. After the flood, the Lord promises never to destroy the earth again with the flood of water. Another deliverer will come to carry His people through the final judgment.
The next major character is Abraham. The Lord calls Abraham out of Ur and leads him to Canaan, promising to give Abraham this land and a mighty nation. This promise appears paradoxical. Consider the promises. The Lord promises the land of Canaan to Abraham and descendants as numerous as the stars in heaven or sand on the seashore. How will all those people live in that one small part of the globe? With this paradox, the Lord also states that in Abraham's seed, all the nations of the world would be blessed. (Gen. 22:18) Paul will interpret this statement in his letter to the churches in Galatia. "Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He saith not, And to seeds, as of many; but as of one, And to thy seed, which is Christ." (Gal.3:16) So in Christ, the nations of the world are blessed and Abraham possesses descendants that Christianity cannot number.
The next major character in the covenant is Moses. The covenant Moses made with Israel has so many beauties to it. The covenant officially appears in Exodus 19, but its operation runs throughout the rest of the Pentateuch. In it, we discover how God's people live. Note that the construction of God's people appears in chapter 19, and the law begins in chapter 20. The law never made people God's people. God's people learn the law as recovering their lost selves, their rightful inheritance that sin took from them.
David appears next as the Lord promises to build David a royal dynasty. (II Samuel 7) David intended to build the temple, but God thwarted his plan and would not let David build the Lord a house, but instead the Lord would build David a "house". That is why the New Testament constantly refers to Jesus as the son of David, for He was the fulfillment of the promise that the kingdom would be established forever.
After David, the history of Israel takes a downward turn. Israel fails into idolatry and sin. This also, God intended, for these covenants only pointed forward to the one greater covenant of which these were only dispensations or administrations. Israel's earthly kingdom had to fall to remind us that a greater kingdom, a greater land, a heavenly home lay before us. The author of Hebrew reminds us of this truth in the so-called "hall of faith."
These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. For they that say such things declare plainly that they seek a country. And truly, if they had been mindful of that country from whence they came out, they might have had opportunity to have returned. But now they desire a better country, that is, an heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: for he hath prepared for them a city.
In Jeremiah, the promise of the final covenant appears.
Behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah: not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt; which my covenant they brake, although I was an husband unto them, saith the LORD: but this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those days, saith the LORD, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people. And they shall teach no more every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the LORD: for they shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the LORD: for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.
This final covenant Jesus fulfilled and established. In Him, God performed all the promises that the Old Testament records. We now look forward for Jesus to return to complete our redemption.
Now we turn to where we began, the value of the covenants in living Christian in an unchristian world. The author of Hebrews explains why the Lord should bind Himself to covenantal promises, but in order to understand his words, we must go back to Genesis, to Abraham.
And he said, Lord GOD, whereby shall I know that I shall inherit it? And he said unto him, Take me an heifer of three years old, and a she goat of three years old, and a ram of three years old, and a turtledove, and a young pigeon. And he took unto him all these, and divided them in the midst, and laid each piece one against another: but the birds divided he not. And when the fowls came down upon the carcases, Abram drove them away. And when the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram; and, lo, an horror of great darkness fell upon him.... And it came to pass, that, when the sun went down, and it was dark, behold a smoking furnace, and a burning lamp that passed between those pieces. In the same day the LORD made a covenant with Abram.
Notice that this covenant was made for the sake of assuring Abraham of the truth of the promises that God had made. The strange ritual here reflected the covenantal rituals of the nations around Abraham. The Lord used this rite to give assurance to His chosen. The ritual symbolized the consequences of breaking the covenant. The corpses, threatened by buzzards, communicated that if one broke his promises, he would become like those corpses for the buzzards to consume.
Notice also significantly that Abraham never passes between the corpses. In this ceremony, the superior party would make the inferior party pass through the pieces, threatening what the stronger would do to the weaker if they rebelled. Here, God Himself in TWO figures pass through the pieces. The Lord communicated to Abraham that He put His existence at stake regarding His promises.
Now to Hebrews:
And we desire that every one of you do shew the same diligence to the full assurance of hope unto the end: that ye be not slothful, but followers of them who through faith and patience inherit the promises. For when God made promise to Abraham, because he could swear by no greater, he sware by himself, saying, Surely blessing I will bless thee, and multiplying I will multiply thee. And so, after he had patiently endured, he obtained the promise. For men verily swear by the greater: and an oath for confirmation is to them an end of all strife. Wherein God, willing more abundantly to shew unto the heirs of promise the immutability of his counsel, confirmed it by an oath: that by two immutable things, in which it was impossible for God to lie, we might have a strong consolation, who have fled for refuge to lay hold upon the hope set before us: which hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and stedfast.
The author of Hebrews encouraged his readers to remain steadfast in their obedience in the face of living in an unchristian world because of God's faithfulness to His promises. These promises, confirmed by covenant provide the sure and steadfast anchor of the soul.
We need that anchor. We need that assurance to stand steadfast in the face of the world's opposition. We need the confidence that God cannot turn aside from saving us. We need the assurance that God still operates to enable us to stand in the midst of trial. We need the covenants to vividly show us what is at stake for God if He fail to fulfill His promises. When we feel like the world is against us, when it seems like we are that little boat in the midst of a vast ocean, we need more than the promise of our ancestors. We need the covenants. We need the anchor of our soul.