There is much confusion today over what the covenants are. Especially is the New Covenant and its application to the Christian misunderstood. We will first take a close look at what a covenant is and then consider the difference between the old and the new.
Webster’s Dictionary defines covenant this way: “An agreement between persons or groups of persons; especially, a formal agreement solemnly promising mutual help or common effort; contract. In theology—the promises of God to man, usually carrying with them conditions to be fulfilled by man, as recorded in the Bible.”
Consulting an encyclopedia concerning covenants and contracts, we find there are several parts that are essential.
- It must be written.
- It will contain promises.
- It will contain terms or conditions.
- There must be mutual agreement signified by the signatures.
- And finally it must have a seal placed upon it.
Here is an example of a typical covenant or contract in our society. When someone is selling their house, the seller says, “Give me $120,000, and I will give you my house.” The buyer agrees. The contract is signed and then sealed by a notary public. When the buyer gives the specified amount to the seller, the seller then gives the buyer his house. However, if the buyer does not come through with the money within the time given, he does not get the house. He has broken the contract, making it void.
Now let us look at the covenant God made with Israel in the wilderness as recorded in Exodus 19:5–8: “Now therefore, if ye will obey My voice indeed, and keep My covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto Me above all people: for all the earth is Mine: And ye shall be unto Me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation. These are the words which thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel. And Moses came and called for the elders of the people, and laid before their faces all these words which the LORD commanded him. And all the people answered together, and said, All that the LORD hath spoken we will do. And Moses returned the words of the people unto the LORD.”
The Covenant is Conditional
You see, there is an “If–Then” in the covenant, a promise upon condition—if you obey Me, then you will be My people. The people gave their promise to fulfill the conditions, thereby signing the contract.
Now, what exactly was the covenant? “And He declared unto you His covenant, which He commanded you to perform, even Ten Commandments; and He wrote them upon two tables of stone.” Deuteronomy 4:13. It is very clear. The Ten Commandments are God’s covenant, written by His finger. (Also see Exodus 31:18 and 34:28.)
Leviticus 26 very plainly spells out all the conditions and promises of the covenant God made with Israel. Notice the “If–Thens.” The promises were all conditional upon the actions of the people. “If ye walk in My statutes, and keep My commandments, and do them; Then I will give you rain in due season, and the land shall yield her increase, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit.” (Verses 3, 4.)
“But if ye will not hearken unto Me, and will not do all these commandments; And if ye shall despise My statutes, or if your soul abhor My judgments, so that ye will not do all My commandments, but that ye break My covenant: I also will do this unto you; I will even appoint over you terror, consumption, and the burning ague, that shall consume the eyes, and cause sorrow of heart: and ye shall sow your seed in vain, for your enemies shall eat it.” (Verses 14–16.)
But what is the sad record of Israel’s compliance with the conditions of the covenant? “They kept not the covenant of God, and refused to walk in His law.” Psalm 78:10.
Israel had signed the contract. They had promised, “All that the Lord hath spoken we will do.” But they were doomed to fail. They broke the contract. You remember at the close of Joshua’s life he exhorted the people to “fear the Lord, and serve Him in sincerity and in truth: and put away the gods which your fathers served on the other side of the flood, and in Egypt; and serve ye the Lord.” Joshua 24:14. And all the people answered, “God forbid that we should forsake the Lord, to serve other gods;…therefore will we also serve the Lord; for He is our God.” (Verses16, 18.) But what was Joshua’s startling reply? “Ye cannot serve the Lord!” (Verse 19.) Why would Joshua say such a thing? I believe he was trying to get them to realize how incapable they were in their own strength to carry out their promise. But the people disagreed with Joshua. “Nay; but we will serve the Lord…The Lord our God will we serve, and His voice will we obey.” (Verses 21, 24.)
Theirs was the “Promise of the Penniless Prospective Buyer.” The penniless prospective buyer does not have a penny, but he wants that house. He signs the contract, somehow possessing wild optimism that he can come up with the money. But, alas, he fails to come through with his end of the bargain. He breaks the contract. The contract is no longer valid, not because the seller did not make his promise good, but because the buyer’s promise was faulty. If the prospective buyer ever should be able to come up with the money, he would have to enter into a new contract with the seller, because the old contract is broken and can no longer be used.
God is so gracious with His people. Though we have failed, He is yet willing to enter into a new covenant with us. Jeremiah prophesied of this new covenant: “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.” Jeremiah 31:31–33.
In writing to his Jewish brethren, Paul reminds them of this promise and points to Jesus as the mediator of this new covenant. “But now hath He obtained a more excellent ministry, by how much also He is the mediator of a better covenant, which was established upon better promises.” Hebrews 8:6. Why is this a better covenant? Because it is based on better promises. “For if that first covenant had been faultless, then should no place have been sought for the second.” (Verse 7.) So there was a fault in the first covenant! What was the fault? “For finding fault with them, he saith, Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah:” (Verse 8.) The fault was with the people’s promise. They did not come through on their word.
“Not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt; because they continued not in My covenant, and I regarded them not, saith the Lord.” (Verse 9.) They did not comply with the conditions as they had promised they would. But God has a solution for their faulty promises—His powerful promise to change their heart, so they can comply with the conditions.
“For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, saith the Lord; I will put My laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts: and I will be to them a God, and they shall be to Me a people.” (Verse10.) Once God’s law is internalized, becoming a part of our character, then we obey from the heart instead of chafing under external rules.
So it is like this: God says, “If you keep My commandments, I will give you eternal life.”
Man says, “God, there is no way I can keep Your Law. I am a sinner by nature.”
God says, “I will enable you to keep My law if you will surrender your will and cooperate with Me. I will give you a new nature. I will write My Law in your heart.”
Now these are the better promises. God’s promises are better than man’s, so we accept God’s promise by faith, thus signing the contract.
Did you know everyone saved in the Old Testament was saved under the New Covenant? Hebrews 11 says all these obeyed by faith. The Old Covenant cannot save anyone. It is not a saving covenant, because no one is capable of keeping the Law in his own strength. The promise, “All that the Lord hath spoken we will do” is a faulty promise. We can only be saved by accepting the terms of the New Covenant, by accepting the offer of God’s power to change our hearts and give us the power to obey.
There is one aspect of a contract or covenant that we have not yet discussed. That is the seal. Does God’s covenant have a seal? Yes, it does. Right in the heart of the Law of God He has placed His seal, in the fourth commandment, Exodus 20:8–11. “For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day, and hallowed it.” (Verse 11.)
A seal always contains three things:
- The ruler’s name—LORD
- His title—Creator (“made heaven and earth. . .”)
- Area of jurisdiction—“heaven, earth, the sea, and all that in them is.”
So we see all the elements of a seal in the fourth commandment.
Exodus 31:12, 13 speaks of the Sabbath as a sign of the perpetual covenant. “And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying, Speak thou also unto the children of Israel, saying, Verily My Sabbaths ye shall keep: for it is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations; that ye may know that I am the LORD that doth sanctify you.” And in verses16 and 17 it says, “Wherefore the children of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, to observe the Sabbath throughout their generations, for a perpetual covenant. It is a sign between Me and the children of Israel for ever: for in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day He rested, and was refreshed.”
What is a Sign?
Webster’s Dictionary defines sign, “in theology, that which being external, represents or signifies something internal or spiritual; as, an outward and visible sign.”
Observing the Sabbath is the sign that you understand that you cannot of yourself fulfill the Law, that you rest in the power that God gives you to obey.
“Let us therefore fear, lest, a promise being left us of entering into His rest, any of you should seem to come short of it. For unto us was the gospel preached, as well as unto them: but the word preached did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in them that heard it… For He spake in a certain place of the seventh day on this wise, And God did rest the seventh day from all His works. And in this place again, If they shall enter into My rest. Seeing therefore it remaineth that some must enter therein, and they to whom it was first preached entered not in because of unbelief:… There remaineth therefore a rest to the people of God. For he that is entered into His rest, he also hath ceased from his own works, as God did from His. Let us labour therefore to enter into that rest, lest any man fall after the same example of unbelief.” Hebrews 4:1–11.
So the gospel was preached to ancient Israel, but it did not do them any good because they did not exercise faith in it. God gave them His Sabbath to be a sign that He would give them the power to obey His law, but they did not enter into that rest because of their lack of faith in His power. They felt they were to obey by their own works. So instead of grasping the true significance of the Sabbath, they strictly observed it to earn their salvation. The true Sabbath rest is still offered to the people of God. How do we enter into it? By ceasing from our own works and taking hold of God’s power by faith. This is what true Sabbath–keeping represents. Keeping the Sabbath is not a work, it is a rest!
Let us review now the elements of a covenant and analyze the New Covenant.
- It must be written. —The New Covenant is written out for us in the Bible.
- It will contain promises. —God promises to write the Law in our hearts.
- It will contain terms or conditions. —–Obedience through God’s power.
- There must be mutual agreement signified by the signatures. —Our faith.
- And finally it must have a seal placed upon it. —The Sabbath.
Revelation 14:12 gives promise of a people who will live by the New Covenant. “Here is the patience of the saints: here are they that keep the commandments of God, and the faith of Jesus.”
[All emphasis supplied.]