I’ve been thinking about the two major covenants that God made with God’s people. There are several covenants found within the Bible but there are two that stand out above the rest. As a matter of fact the two sections of the Bible are named after these covenants. The word testament comes from the Latin word “Testamentum” which translates as covenant.
To be sure we are all on the same page, a covenant is an agreement or a contract made by God. Because it comes from God, God won’t break or cancel any covenant He establishes.
But wait… there’s more!
Did you know that not all covenants are not the same? There are three types of covenants found within the Bible. Not all covenants are alike! (Stick with me, this is going somewhere…)
- Parity Covenants— Two equal parties. It is a partnership contract. For example a marriage covenant.
- Suzerain Covenants—Not equal and is “top-down.” Imposed by a king to his people or by a king and lesser/defeated king/kingdom. These covenants are conditional, meaning both sides are required to do something. Often they are temporary.
- PromissoryCovenants—Also not equal. Not a two way agreement. It is given by the more powerful entity (God) and there is no quid pro quo. It is promise from one party to another with no strings attached. These have no expiration and these covenants continue on in perpetuity.
OK, with that said, let’s talk about the two major covenants of the Bible. The “Old Covenant/Testament” is the covenant God gave Moses and the people of Israel at Mount Sinai. In other words, the centerpiece of the Old Covenant is the 10 Commandments (see Exodus 20). However, the Passover Meal (see Exodus 12) reflects the relationship God establishes with the people of Israel that is tied to heart of that relationship: the Law.
The “New Covenant/Testament” is the covenant God gave through the death and resurrection of Jesus. The meaning of this covenant is forgiveness, redemption and reconciliation. However, Holy Communion (The Lord’s Supper) reflects themes of forgiveness, redemption and reconciliation.
Now here is the test… What type of covenants (old and new) are they?
The Old Covenant is a “Suzerain Covenant.” How do I know? The Bible tells us as much. There are many places where God repeats that this covenant is conditional. There are expectations that the Israelites must live up to if the covenant is to remain intact.
For example: “So be careful to do what the Lord your God has commanded you; do not turn aside to the right or to the left. Walk in all the waythat the Lord your God has commanded you, so that you may liveand prosper and prolong your days in the land that you will possess.” Deuteronomy 5:32-33
One more example, in case you were doubting me: “This is what you are to say to the house of Jacob and what you are to tell the people of Israel: ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now ifyou obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will bemy treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’” Exodus 19:3-6
There are more examples but I will stop with these two.
There are expectations! There are conditions! If the Israelites don’t live up to the directives laid out by God (The 10 Commandments) in the covenant, life won’t go well.
Most of us know enough of the Old Testament to know that God kept his Word. Things did not go well when the people of Israel did not live up to the covenant God made with them.
What about the “New Covenant?” What type of covenant is that?
It is a “Promissory Covenant.” This is good news! It is also great news! There are no conditions! It is a promise for us and there is nothing for us to do but receive: forgiveness, redemption and reconciliation. I know it seems too good to be true… but it is not. This covenant is a better deal for humanity, besides the Old Covenant was ONLY for the people of Israel.
That is why the author of Hebrews (a letter in the New Testament) says this… “For if there had been nothing wrong with that first covenant, no place would have been sought for another.But God found fault with the people…” Hebrews 8:7-8a.
And a little bit later… “By calling this covenant “new,” he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and aging will soon disappear.” Hebrews 8:13
The Suzerain nature of the Old Covenant means that is was always destined to be temporary. It was needed, it was good and it has a shelf life. God did not cancel it or break it but God did replace it.
Note: Some of our Jewish brothers and sisters still live under a form of this covenant. Yet we understand that in the fullness of time, this covenant will disappear for the newer covenant which is promissory and eternal.
Saint Paul tells us the purpose of the Old Covenant (historically speaking)… “So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.” Galatians 3:24-25
It served as a legal custodian to take care of us (historically speaking) until Christ arrived and we were emancipated! We are free!
Why did I tell you all of this? First, I want you to understand why the New Covenant is superior to the Old Covenant (see Hebrews 19:6). Second, I want you to know why the covenants are not equal. Third, all Christians have the tendency to revert Old Covenant thinking by adding rules and laws to following Christ in a very Suzerain way that limits God grace. Let us not go backwards!
The New Covenant is promissory in nature. There is no quid pro quo. God does all the heavy lifting and we don’t do any. God understands that we can’t live up to the standards He set for us. Instead of giving up on us, God did for us what we could not do for ourselves… we are made holy.
That is truly good news.