What Is a Covenant, what are the covenants of the Old Testament and why does it matter?

These notes are adapted from my study guide on Old Testament that is used at Unity Christian School. Where I have “lifted” direct words from another author I have sought to cite them parenthetically. There are many writers and pastors I have learned this information from and have used words and points they have made and it is impossible to cite every word remembered from a sermon heard or read from memory. With that said it is very important to note that I owe much to men who have gone before on this issue and want it clear that my work is the work of many others. So, just note I’m leaning hard on other pastors and writers for this manuscript.


What Is a Covenant, what are the covenants of the Old Testament and why does it matter?

Being God’s people is a repeated theme throughout both Testaments: “I will live among them and walk among them, and I will be their God and they will be my people” (e.g., Lev. 26:12; Jer. 32:38; Ezek. 37:27).

The Christian story begins with creation in harmony, unity, and peace, and it ends with a restored creation.

Between these two bookends is the story of redemption. The covenants are major acts in this dramatic story of God in redemptive history.

The goal is to see the person and work of Jesus Christ in light of the Old Testament and to highlight aspects that are easy to overlook.

Christ’s work is related to and fulfills each of the five covenants (with Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David) that God initiated in the Old Testament. New dimensions are brought to light when Jesus’ covenant is understood in the context of the previous covenants.

Covenants are about God’s activity and intention to redeem us, and the covenants tell us about ourselves, our condition, our brokenness, our dignity, our role as image bearers of God, our suffering, and our calling.

God entered into covenant relationship with his people. There are explicit references of a divine covenant established with Noah (Gen. 6:18), Abraham (Gen. 15:18), Israel (Ex. 24:8), and David (Ps. 89:3).

Israel’s prophets anticipated the coming of a “new covenant” (Jer. 31:31), and Jesus himself spoke of the last supper in covenantal language (Luke 22:20).

The word for covenant is “berith” in Hebrew and “diatheke” in Greek.

A covenant is “a bond in blood that is sovereignly administered” (O. Palmer Robertson, The Christ of the Covenants, p. 4).

When God enters into a covenant relationship with humanity, God sovereignly institutes a life-and-death bond.

Covenant: a life and death relationship with God on his terms. (Driscoll)

A bond

This implies relationship. It commits people to one another, God to God’s people, and people to God. Oaths, promises, and signs accompany the bond or commitment.

A bond in blood

There is intensity in the covenant. By initiating covenants, God never enters into the relationship lightly. Covenant relationship signifies the life-and-death intensity of the bond. This intensity is seen in all three types of covenants—human to human (Gen. 21:27, 32; 2 Sam. 3:12, 13), God to human (Abraham—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), human to God (2 Kings 11:17; 2 Kings 23:3; 2 Chron. 29:10).

The establishment of a covenant is called “cutting a covenant.”

Cutting a covenant usually involves the slaughter of an animal. The slaughter of an animal symbolizes the curse that the covenant-maker takes on themselves if they should violate the commitment that was made.

A bond in blood sovereignly administered

“There is a unilateral form of covenantal establishment. There is no bargaining, bartering, or contract negotiations. 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: “Behold, I am establishing my covenant with you.” (Driscoll)

God makes six major covenants in the Bible:

1. Adam and Eve (Gen. 1:26–2:3)

2. Noah and his family (Gen. 9:8–17)

3. Abraham and his descendants (Gen. 12:1–3; 17:1–14; 22:16–18)

4. Moses and the Israelites (Ex. 19:5–6; 3:4–10; 6:7)

5. David and the Kingdom of Israel (2 Sam. 7:8–19)

6. Jesus and the Church (Matt. 26:28; 16:17–19)

The purpose of these covenants was to address the problem of humanity. The claim that God has solved that problem with the establishment of his covenants is echoed across the Old Testament.

The covenants are the story of God’s uncaused, gracious, and generous love. God is under no obligation to rescue humans and the world from their state of sin, but he chooses to do so and takes the initiative to do it.

As the story develops throughout the Old Testament, this covenant love is referred to in various terms, but the main word is “hesed”.

Vine’s Expository Dictionary defines it this way:

“Hesed” is God’s loving kindness—the consistent, ever-faithful, relentless, constantly pursuing, lavish, extravagant, unrestrained, one-way love of God.

“Hesed” is often translated as covenant love, loving kindness, mercy, steadfast love, loyal love, devotion, commitment, or reliability.

“Hesed” turns up regularly in the Old Testament, particularly in the Psalms. It is typically translated “love” and sometimes translated as “mercy” (Ps. 23:6).

However, “hesed” has a much narrower definition than the English term “love” conveys. In the Hebrew Scriptures, “hesed” refers to a sort of love that has been promised and is owed—that is, covenant love—as in Hosea 11:1: “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.”

Covenant love is the love God promised to give to his covenant people, and which they in turn were to respond to in kind, loving God with all their hearts, minds, and strength.

“Hesed” does not suggest some kind of generic love of everyone.

No doubt God does love all of his created beings and his creation, but that general love for all of God’s creation is not the same as “hesed”. (See “Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God”, D.A. Carson).

Malachi 1:1–5 is a clear presentation of “hesed”. Malachi opens with the declaration of the word of Yahweh: “I have loved you.” This affirmation of God’s choice of and affection for the nation provides a powerful beginning to the message to be given. On the one hand, it will soften the tone of the messages—they will be delivered in love. On the other hand, it will underscore the nation’s ingratitude.

The people were not immediately convinced of this declaration; to them, because of their state of spiritual rebellion, it sounded good but was not convincing because things had not worked out to their satisfaction. “How have you loved us?” they asked. And the prophet’s response reminded them of their status as the chosen people of God: “Is not Esau Jacob’s brother? . . . Yet I have loved Jacob, but Esau I have hated.”

The point that Malachi was making to his audience was that their existence as the people of God was the clearest evidence of the love of God. God chose the Israelites to be his kingdom of priests in the world. He gave them the Scriptures, the temple, the priests, the prophets, the covenants, and the Messiah. And his love for them was an everlasting love—even though they failed him again and again, he still retained his covenant with them.

Not only did God choose Israel (“Jacob”), but he also cared for the Israelites whenever they were in trouble. The simple fact was that Israel was protected throughout the ages. This should have told Malachi’s audience that the love of God was genuine. Not only had God protected Israel from the treatment they received from Edom, he also restored Israel to her land and left the mountains of Edom a wasteland.

This was a clear demonstration of God’s “hesed” for his people.

For each of these covenants, it is helpful to highlight five special features (see Scott Hahn, A Father Who Keeps His Promises: God’s Covenant Love in Scripture):

1. The covenant mediator (the person God makes the covenant with) and his                   covenant role (those that he, 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.


What Is the Adamic Covenant?

The covenant with Adam (Gen. 1:26–2:3; Hos. 6:7)

The word “covenant” isn’t used, but the story of Adam and Eve is told in covenantal language. Adam is the covenant mediator in his role as husband. God promises blessings—that their union will be fruitful and their offspring will fill the earth and rule over it. God establishes a sign by which the covenant will be remembered and celebrated—the Sabbath, the seventh day of rest. And God imposes one condition that they must keep to fulfill their obligation under the covenant—that they not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. God attaches a curse for disobedience—that they will surely die. By this covenant, God’s family assumes the form of the marriage bond between husband and wife.

1. Adam, Husband

2. Fruitful union and offspring will fill the earth and they will rule over it

3. Do not eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil or they will die

4. Sabbath

5. Marriage


What Is the Noahic Covenant?

The covenant with Noah (Gen. 9:8–17)

The word “covenant” is used in the case of Noah, as God promises never again to destroy the world by flood. The covenant is made with all humanity, through the mediator, Noah, in his role as the father of his family. The covenant includes blessings to Noah and his family (that they will be fruitful and fill the earth) and conditions that must be obeyed (not to drink the blood of any animals, not to shed human blood). The sign of the covenant is the rainbow in the sky. By this covenant, God’s people assume the form of a domestic household, an extended family.

1. Noah (representing all humanity), father of his family

2. Fruitful and fill the earth

3. Do not drink the blood of any animals and do not shed human blood

4. Rainbow

5. Domestic household and an extended family


What Is the Abrahamic Covenant?

The covenant with Abraham (Gen. 12:1–3; 17:1–14; 22:16–18)

God swears to give Abraham a great land and to bless his descendants, who will become a great nation. God makes the covenant with the mediator Abraham in his representative role as chieftain. God promises the blessings of land and great nationhood for his descendants, and through them to bless all the nations of the earth. The sign of the covenant is the mark of circumcision. Circumcision is also the condition that Abraham and his descendants must obey in order to keep the covenant. By this covenant, God’s family takes a “tribal” form.

1. Abraham, Chieftain of a tribe of people

2. Land, a great nation, and blessing all “families or nations” of the earth with family inclusion

3. Circumcision

4. Circumcision

5. Tribe


What Is the Mosaic Covenant?

The covenant with Moses (Ex. 3:4–10; 6:7; 19:5–6)

By this covenant, made with the mediator Moses in his representative role as the judge and liberator of Israel, God swears to be Israel’s God and Israel swears to worship no other but the Lord God alone. The blessings promised are that they will be God’s precious and chosen people. The conditions of the covenant are that they must keep God’s Law and commandments. The covenant sign is the Passover, which each year commemorates Israel’s birth as a nation. By this covenant, God’s family assumes the form of a “holy nation, a kingdom of priests.”

1. Moses, Judge and liberator

2. Precious and chosen people

3. Must keep God’s law and commandments

4. Passover

5. Holy nation, a Kingdom of priests


What Is the Davidic Covenant?

The covenant with David (2 Sam. 7:8–19)

God promises to establish the mediator David’s “house” or kingdom forever, through David’s heir, who will also build a temple to God’s name. To David in his role as king, God promises to make David’s son his son and to punish him if he does wrong but never take away his royal throne: “Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever.” Through the blessings of this kingdom God promises to give wisdom to all the nations. The sign of the covenant will be the throne and temple to be built by David’s son, Solomon. By this covenant, God’s family grows to take the form of a royal empire, a national kingdom.

1. David, King

2. God promises to make David’s son his son and sit David’s son on the throne forever, give wisdom to all nations

3. Punish him if he does wrong but never take his throne away from him

4. Throne and temple

5. Royal empire, a national Kingdom


What Is the New Covenant?

The New Covenant of Jesus (Matt. 16:17–19; 26:28)

The mediator Jesus, who by his cross and resurrection, assumes the role of royal high priest and fulfills all the promises God made in the previous covenants, makes the sixth and final covenant. The prophets, especially Isaiah and Jeremiah, had taught Israel to hope for a Messiah who would bring “a new covenant,” through which God’s law would be written on men’s and women’s hearts (see Jer. 31:31–34; Heb. 8:8–12).

The conditions of the covenant are that men and women believe in Jesus, be baptized, observe communion, and live by all that he taught.

The Lord’s Supper is the sign of the New Covenant.

By this covenant, God establishes his family in its final form as a universal (katholicos or “catholic” in Greek) worldwide kingdom, which Jesus calls his Church.

1. Jesus, Royal High Priest, Prophet, King

2. God’s law would be written on men and women’s hearts, God fulfills all the promises made in the previous covenants

3. People repent, believe, be baptized, observe the Lord’s Supper and live by all Jesus taught

4. Lord’s Supper

5. Worldwide Kingdom Jesus calls “Church”


What do we learn from this?

1. There is a very clear continuity from Genesis to Revelation

A. The bible is not 66 separate books, but 1 book with one author and many helpers

telling 1 story called redemptive history.


2. God pursues mankind in progressive revelation for our good and his glory

A. God pursues fallen man

B. Man perverts the nature of God when left to himself into all kinds of idolatry

(Romans 1)

C. Progressive revelation displays the gentle and patient nature of God

D. The consequences of rebellion is death and there is no turning that around

1. Why did God just not go Jesus on them from day 1? Because the

consequences of sin is death and man must receive the penalty for sin. But

in the fullness of time God ends that punishment and takes the final blow

himself so we can be freed from that punishment.

a. Those who refuse the Gospel reach of God will taste that

punishment forever


3. Marriage, home, nations and the church all matter and and must be fought for in righteousness


4. God’s response to his people makes sense; God’s people’s behavior becomes even more absurd


5. The metanarrative comes in view and becomes the standard by which we make decisions in this parenthesis called fallen humanity.

A. We don’t make decisions according to the “rules” that are unique to fallen

humanity and we don’t live by human wisdom

B. We do make decisions according to the “rules” of God’s economy and we live

by God’s wisdom which is counter to humanity’s fallen way


6. God holiness becomes clearer to see


7. Man’s sinfulness becomes more ugly


8. The Gospel becomes sweeter




Clark, R. Scott. “A Brief History of Covenant Theology.” 2001. http://www.wscal.edu/clark/briefhistorycovtheol.php .

Hahn, Scott. A Father Who Keeps His Promises: God’s Covenant Love in Scripture. Ann Arbor, MI: Servant Publications, 1998.


Robertson, O. Palmer. The Christ of the Covenants. Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 1981.



A Christmas Eve Wondering: Not What You Think

On Christmas Eve I usually have strange thoughts. They are strange because they are a bit different from what I was used to growing up. Ever since the invasion of grace at the hands of King Jesus my desires have slowly shifted over 18 years. My desires for right and better things increase and old and ugly desires for poor and soul killing things still exist and these two desires conflict with each other quite often in the inner recesses of me.

Christmas is one day this happens a lot. But, what you may expect I’m going to say is not what I’m going to say. Here is my “wondering”. Christmas is a complex yet simple day. It’s like the Gospel. It’s complex and simple at the same time. As C.S. Lewis so aptly said in Chronicles of Narnia, “Aslan’s tent is larger on the inside”. The Gospel is simple and yet when explored extremely complex and appealing. That is why the Gospel never gets boring. If you are bored by the Gospel, you’ve never heard the Gospel and begun applying it in discipleship. Which leads me to my “wondering”. See, I try to teach people so they can understand by so that they can know. In other words I teach up and not down to the lowest common denominator because I want God’s people to know God and the simple yet extremely complex nature of following the Lord Jesus. It’s not easy to wrap one’s hands, heart and mind around sound doctrine, but if I don’t ever teach up people will never reach up and grow.

Some people critique this method and claim that hard things to know should be reserved for the classroom and not the “pew”. Here is my response: Does a football coach ever start the season with the attitude that winning is hard so we’ll reserve that for the real good teams and we’ll be content to just show up and get our rear ends handed to us each week and hope we have some fun along the way? NO! Of course not. So, why do we do this as teaching pastors?

I have had no less than 10 folks from other churches ask me to “teach” them as some separate “discipleship” thing while they continue to attend their current church. Why? The reasons are varied and I don’t want to get into all of them here, but why? I’ll mention one, and I would like your comments.

1. Pastors are teaching down and not up. They are giving scraps to hungry people and the are starving.

Why do pastors do this? Why do the pastors not see that we are going backward and not forward? Why do the shrinking demographics not communicate that their praxis is bad? Do they not know church history? Do they not read the book they are to be teaching from (bible)? Do they read the bible? Are they teaching from its full content?

I wonder?

An Advent Poem

I’m not one for too many tears and I’m not easily moved emotively. It’s a sin issue. Long story. However, I want to share a poem with you that bypasses my cold and dead walls and gets straight to some sanctified emotions.

The title of the Poem is “The Innkeeper”. The author is one of my living heroes, John Piper. Here is the setting: This takes place during the life of Jesus. Jesus goes back to find the inn where he was born and meets the innkeeper who ran the inn and learns of the price the innkeeper paid when Herod issued the command that all boys 2 years and under were to be killed in a suspicious and paranoid rage. Jesus gently let’s the innkeeper know that he is that boy born at his inn that night and that his coming work of salvation will reward the old innkeeper for his suffering. Jesus knows and understands our difficulty as a merciful and faithful high priest who was tempted in every way as we have been yet without sin.

Obviously, this event did not happen, but one could imagine if it did it might go something like this:

Jake’s wife would have been fifty-eight
The day that Jesus passed the gate
Of Bethlehem, and slowly walked
Toward Jacob’s Inn. The people talked
With friends, and children played along
The paths, and Jesus hummed a song,
And smiled at every child he saw.

He paused with one small lass to draw
A camel in the dirt, then said,
“What’s this?” The girl bent down her head
To study what the Lord had made,
Then smiled, “A camel, sir!” and laid
Her finger on the bulging back,
“It’s got a hump.” “Indeed it does,
And who do you believe it was
Who made this camel with his hump?”
Without a thought that this would stump
The rabbi guild and be reviled,
She said, “God did.” And Jesus smiled,
“Good eyes, my child. And would that all
Jerusalem within that wall
Of yonder stone could see the signs
Of peace!” He left the lass with lines
Of simple wonder in her face,
And slowly went to find the place
Where he was born.

Folks said the inn
Had never been a place for sin,
For Jacob was a holy man.
And he and Rachel had a plan
To marry, have a child or two,
And serve the folk who travelled through,
Especially the poor who brought
Their meal and turtle-doves, and sought
A place to stay near Zion’s gate.
They’d rise up early, stay up late,
To help the pilgrims go and come,
And when the place was full, to some
Especially the poorest, they would say,
“We’re sorry there’s no room, but stay
Now if you like out back. There’s lots
Of hay and we have extra cots
That you can use. There’ll be no charge.
The stable isn’t very large
But Noah keeps it safe.” He was
A wedding gift to Jake because
The shepherds knew he loved the dog.
“There’s nothing in the decalogue,”
He used to joke, “that says a man
Can’t love a dog!”

The children ran
Ahead of Jesus as he strode
Toward Jacob’s Inn. The stony road
That led up to the inn was deep
With centuries of wear, and steep
At one point just before the door.
The Lord knocked once then twice before
He heard an old man’s voice, “‘Round back!”
It called. So Jesus took the track
That led around the inn. The old
Man leaned back in his chair and told
The dog to never mind. “Ain’t had
No one to tend the door, my lad,
For thirty years. I’m sorry for
The inconvenience to your sore
Feet. The road to Jerusalem
Is hard ain’t it? Don’t mind old Shem.
He’s harmless like his dad. Won’t bite
A Roman soldier in the night.
Sit down.” And Jacob waved the stump
Of his right arm. “We’re in a slump
Right now. Got lots of time to think
And talk. Come, sit and have a drink.
From Jacob’s well!” he laughed. “You own
The inn?” The Lord inquired. “On loan,
You’d better say. God owns the inn.”
At that the Lord knew they were kin,
And ventured on: “Do you recall
The tax when Caesar said to all
The world that each must be enrolled?”
Old Jacob winced, “Are north winds cold?
Are deserts dry? Do fishes swim
And ravens fly? I do. A grim
And awful year it was for me.
Why do you ask?” “I have a debt
To pay, and I must see how much.
Why do you say that it was such
A grim and awful year?” He raised
The stump of his right arm, “So dazed,
Young man, I didn’t know I’d lost
My arm. Do you know what it cost
For me to house the Son of God?”
The old man took his cedar rod
And swept it ‘round the place: “Empty.
For thirty years alone, you see?
Old Jacob, poor old Jacob runs
It with one arm, a dog and no sons.
But I had sons . . . once. Joseph was
My firstborn. He was small because
His mother was so sick. When he
Turned three the Lord was good to me
And Rachel, and our baby Ben
Was born, the very fortnight when
The blessed family arrived.
And Rachel’s gracious heart contrived
A way for them to stay—there in
That very stall. The man was thin
And tired. You look a lot like him.”
But Jesus said, “Why was it grim?”

“We got a reputation here
That night. Nothing at all to fear
In that we thought. It was of God.
But in one year the slaughter squad
From Herod came. And where do you
Suppose they started? Not a clue!
We didn’t have a clue what they
Had come to do. No time to pray,
No time to run, no time to get
Poor Joseph off the street and let
Him say good-bye to Ben or me
Or Rachel. Only time to see
A lifted spear smash through his spine
And chest. He stumbled to the sign
That welcomed strangers to the place,
And looked with panic at my face,
As if to ask what he had done.
Young man, you ever lost a son?”

The tears streamed down the Savior’s cheek,
He shook his head, but couldn’t speak.

“Before I found the breath to scream
I heard the words, a horrid dream:
‘Kill every child who’s two or less.
Spare not for aught, nor make excess.
Let this one be the oldest here
And if you count your own life dear,
Let none escape.’ I had no sword
No weapon in my house, but Lord,
I had my hands, and I would save
The son of my right hand . . . So brave,
O Rachel was so brave! Her hands
Were like a thousand iron bands
Around the boy. She wouldn’t let
Him go and so her own back met
With every thrust and blow. I lost
My arm, my wife, my sons—the cost
For housing the Messiah here.
Why would he simply disappear
And never come to help?”

They sat
In silence. Jacob wondered at
The stranger’s tears.

“I am the boy
That Herod wanted to destroy.
You gave my parents room to give
Me life, and then God let me live,
And took your wife. Ask me not why
The one should live, another die.
God’s ways are high, and you will know
In time. But I have come to show
You what the Lord prepared the night
You made a place for heaven’s light.
In two weeks they will crucify
My flesh. But mark this, Jacob, I
Will rise in three days from the dead,
And place my foot upon the head
Of him who has the power of death,
And I will raise with life and breath
Your wife and Ben and Joseph too
And give them, Jacob, back to you
With everything the world can store,
And you will reign for evermore.”

This is the gift of candle three:

A Christ with tears in tragedy
And life for all eternity.