When was the last time you attended a wedding? How inspiring it is to see a man and a woman stand before God and enter into a solemn, lifelong promise to love and honor one another! The Church honors marriage so deeply that it calls this sacrament a “covenant”—a sacred bond that cannot be broken.
But a couple’s wedding day is just the beginning. Over the years, their marriage covenant will change them. Their lives will become more and more entwined as they learn to love and serve each other in good times and in bad.
This image of marriage is a beautiful illustration of the covenant God has made with all of us—the covenant he has made with you. He has entered into a sacred, unbreakable bond with us that is meant to change us from within. This month, we want to explore this covenant. We want to examine how God has committed himself to us both irrevocably and unconditionally. We want to ask how our lives can be changed—individually and as a Church—as we commit to living out God’s covenant in our lives.
What is a Covenant? Covenants have long played an important role in the history of God’s people. In the ancient Near East, they were used to spell out the terms of agreement between two clans, either as they formed an alliance or as they faced a potentially violent situation. In Genesis, for example, Abimelech, the king of Gerar, approaches Abraham and says, “God is with you in everything you do. So now, swear to me by God at this place. . . Then . . . the two made a covenant” (Genesis 21:22-23, 27).
In many situations, a weaker nation would approach a more powerful nation and suggest that they enter into a covenant together that would benefit both. The stronger nation would promise to protect and do business with the weaker nation. In exchange, the weaker nation would promise not to ally itself with the other country’s enemies.
But no matter how powerful or weak the participants were and no matter how large or small the stakes were, one thing remained constant: a covenant was sacred and binding. Both parties were bound to uphold their covenant or face stern consequences, both from their gods and from the offended party.
Abraham: Blessed Abundantly. When the time came for God to begin drawing his people back to himself, he expressed his love and commitment to them through something they were familiar with: a covenant ceremony. Appearing to Abraham, he told him, “Between you and me I will establish my covenant” (Genesis 17:2). From that moment on, God made it clear that he wanted to build a close relationship with Abraham and his descendants.
In this covenant, God agreed to bless Abraham abundantly. He promised to give the land of Canaan to Abraham and his descendants. “I will maintain my covenant between me and you and your descendants after you throughout the ages,” he promised (Genesis 17:7). On their part, Abraham and his family agreed to follow God’s ways and keep his covenant as well.
But as similar as God’s covenant was to other human covenants, there was one key difference: God’s covenant with Abraham was an act of pure grace. God took the initiative to reach out from heaven, reveal himself, and enter into a covenant with this childless nomad. All Abraham had to do was believe in God’s promises and commit himself to following God’s ways.
God promised Abraham that if he did, he would be blessed beyond his wildest dreams. His descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the sky. They would become an entire nation, a people unto themselves, who would become a blessing to the entire world. Through their covenant with God, Abraham’s descendants would become a channel of God’s grace, faithfulness, and protection to everyone who turned to him.
A Covenant with Israel. Abraham was just the beginning. Throughout Israel’s history, God showed his love more and more clearly by making his covenant more generous and more encompassing. When the people were enduring harsh slavery in Egypt, God reached down to rescue them. Through Moses, he led them through the Red Sea and into the desert. There, on Mount Sinai, he entered into a covenant with them that was both broader and deeper than his covenant with Abraham.
This covenant was broader because it marked the founding of Israel as a nation. The people were no longer just children of Abraham. Now they were God’s “treasured possession, . . . a kingdom of priests, a holy nation” (Exodus 19:5, 6).
This covenant was deeper because God made it clear that he expected his people to act in a certain way. He gave them the Ten Commandments so that together they would honor God first and foremost and love each other as brothers and sisters. He gave them a new way of worship centered around the ark of the covenant so that they could experience his presence in a deeper, more intimate way. And he taught them how to live so that they could remain wholly dedicated to him and still radiate his goodness to their neighbors.
The Promise of a New Covenant. Time marched on, and the Israelites grew and prospered. But God’s purposes for Israel didn’t always advance smoothly. Instead, much like our own lives, there were times of blessing and obedience and times of weakness and sin. As they settled into their new lives in the Promised Land, the Israelites began to drift away from their holy, privileged calling. They took for granted how deeply God loved them and all the ways that he had saved them and protected them. In other words, they forgot his covenant.
Instead of worshipping the one true God, the people began to worship the false gods of their neighbors, the Canaanites and Philistines. And as it always happens, their worship of false gods led them to practice all the sins and injustices that these gods represented. They began to treasure wealth and power over love and mercy. The rich began to exploit the poor. Sins of deception and adultery produced enmity and division. The hearts of many of the people were no longer set on God, and it showed.
By disobeying their covenant with God, the children of Israel lost his protection, not unlike children who disregard the wisdom of their parents and engage in risky behaviors. Eventually, Israel was defeated by the more powerful nations around it, and the people were devastated. Many were sent into exile, where they wept bitter tears and puzzled over their fate. What happened? Hadn’t God made a covenant with us and promised to protect us? Gradually, they came to realize that their own sin had brought this on. They were experiencing the consequences of not upholding their covenant with God.
But God never abandoned his people. He had made a covenant with them, and he was determined to keep it. He still wanted them to be his own special possession and to make them into a light to the nations. And so through the prophet Jeremiah, he promised that he would gather them together again and make a new and better covenant with them:
I will place my law within them, and write it upon their hearts; I will be their God, and they shall be my people. They will no longer teach their friends and relatives, “Know the Lord!” Everyone, from least to greatest, shall know me . . . for I will forgive their iniquity and no longer remember their sin. (Jeremiah 31:33-34)
Through Ezekiel, he promised even more:
I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you so that you walk in my statutes. . . . You will be my people, and I will be your God. (Ezekiel 36:26-27, 28)
God Is Always Faithful. No matter how many times the Israelites were unfaithful, God always remained faithful. He never gave up on them! Even when it became clear that they could never keep the covenant on their own, he remained committed to them. He showed them that this first covenant with Israel pointed forward to a new covenant. Something new and wonderful was on the horizon, and it would be fulfilled in Jesus. But that’s another story: a story of mercy, generosity, healing, justice, and, most important, God’s faithful love. In our next article, we’ll see just how far God’s covenant love extends: to the point of sending us his only Son.