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What do you think about when you hear the word "covenant"? It sounds so religious, doesn’t it? Maybe a bit old-fashioned as well.
But in reality, covenants are a part of everyday life. When a couple exchanges wedding vows, they are making a covenant with each other. They are agreeing to live together in love and mutual support. Families often operate according to unspoken covenants—agreements on how parents and children will relate to each other and the obligations that they have toward each other. In a similar way, professional sports teams make a kind of covenant with their players. They spell out how they expect each member of the team to perform, even as they commit to paying each player a certain amount of money.
Covenants have been around for thousands of years. In Old Testament times, when two clans or tribes faced a potentially violent disagreement, they would often negotiate a truce and enter into a covenant that would spell out the terms of their agreement. In other cases, a weaker nation would approach a more powerful nation and suggest that they enter into a covenant together. The stronger nation would promise to protect and do business with the weaker nation in exchange for the weaker nation’s promise not to make alliances with the stronger nation’s enemies.No matter how powerful or weak the participants were, no matter how large or small the stakes were, one thing remained constant: A covenant was considered a sacred agreement that should never be broken. Both parties were bound to uphold their part of the agreement or face very stern consequences, both from God and from the offended party.
Abraham—A Covenant of Pure Grace. Considering how common—and how important—covenants were, it’s no surprise that the people of Israel saw their relationship with God as a covenant as well. From the time when God called Abraham to follow him to the Promised Land, it was clear that God wanted to build a close relationship with his people. He wanted to form them, protect them, and care for them. He wanted to set them apart as his own people so that the rest of the world could see how faithful and loving he is.
Like many of the other covenants of the time, God’s covenant is the kind where a stronger party enters into a covenant with a weaker party. God, the stronger party, accepted Israel, the weaker party, and agreed to treat them with kindness and protection. On their part, the Israelites agreed not to follow the ways of the pagans around them and not to bow down to their false gods and goddesses.
But as similar as God’s covenant was to these other covenants, there was one key difference: God’s covenant with Israel was an act of pure grace. He reached out from heaven and revealed himself to a childless nomad named Abraham. He invited Abraham to follow him and promised that if he did, he would be blessed beyond his wildest dreams. He would finally have children—descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky. His ancestors would become a nation unto themselves. And finally, this nation would become a blessing to the entire world, a channel of God’s grace, faithfulness, and protection to every person on earth who turned to him.
Again, all of this came from God’s own initiative. Abraham wasn’t looking for divine protection. He wasn’t asking for anyone to bless him or help him. God simply reached out from heaven and made a covenant with him. All Abraham had to do was believe in God’s promises and try his best to follow God’s ways.
Moses—A New Calling and a New Identity. Abraham was just the beginning. From age to age, God showed his faithfulness by remembering his covenant with his people and making it even more generous and more encompassing. Many centuries after Abraham, when the Israelites were enduring harsh slavery in Egypt, God again reached out to his people and rescued them. Through Moses, he led them through the Red Sea and into the desert where he again offered them a covenant.
This time, the covenant was both broader and deeper. It was broader because it marked the founding of Israel as a separate, unique nation. The people were no longer just the descendants of Abraham. In fact, just before God made this covenant with the people, he told them:
You have seen for yourselves how I treated the Egyptians and how I bore you up on eagle wings and brought you here to myself. Therefore, if you hearken to my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my special possession, dearer to me than all other people, though all the earth is mine. You shall be to me a kingdom of priests, a holy nation. (Exodus 19:4-6)
They were a people set apart, a nation with a mission that no other people could claim or even imagine. God had set them apart for himself, and they were precious in his sight. He promised to protect them and nurture them, and they promised to follow him and be his special people.
This covenant was deeper because now God made it more clear that he expected his people to act in a certain way. He gave them the Ten Commandments so that their lives could witness to God’s holiness and justice. He gave them a way of worship centered around the Ark of the Covenant so that they could draw close to him and know his presence more deeply. And he gave them directions on how to relate to the nations around them so that they could remain wholly dedicated to him and still radiate his goodness to their neighbors.
Through this covenant, God reached out in love to the descendants of Abraham and made them into the people of Israel. He made them a special nation and called them to live in a way that would show his greatness to the world.
Jeremiah—A New Covenant. Time marched on, and the people of Israel grew and prospered. They settled in the land of Canaan, just as God had promised Abraham, and they began their life as an independent nation and as God’s holy people. But problems developed. As they settled into their new lives, the people began to lose sight of their privileged calling. They forgot the covenant that God made with them and began to take on the ways of the nations around them. The rich began to exploit the poor. Religious leaders became attracted to the religions of the Canaanites and the Philistines. Many of Israel’s kings became concerned about increasing their power more than they cared about upholding the covenant and leading the people in peace.
Sadly, by moving further away from their covenant with God, the people also moved further away from his protection and grace. Eventually, Israel was defeated by the more powerful nations around it, and the people were devastated. Hadn’t God made a covenant with them? Hadn’t he promised to protect them? What happened? Gradually, they came to realize that it was their own sin that brought this on. They were experiencing the consequences of not upholding their covenant with God.
But God didn’t leave Israel alone. He continued to reach out to them, offering them his love and grace. He still wanted them to be his own special possession. He still wanted to make them into a light to the nations. He had made a covenant with them, and he was determined to keep it. 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. No longer will they have need to teach their friends and kinsmen how to know the Lord. All, from least to greatest, shall know me, says the Lord, for I will forgive their evildoing and remember their sin no more. (Jeremiah 31:33-34)
He made a similar promise through Ezekiel as well:
I will give you a new heart and place a new spirit within you, taking from your bodies your stony hearts and giving you natural hearts. I will put my spirit within you and make you live by my statutes. . . . You shall be my people, and I will be your God. (Ezekiel 36:26-28)
A Faithful God. No matter how unfaithful the Israelites were, God remained faithful. And when they proved that they couldn’t keep the covenant on their own, he promised to help them by making a new covenant with them. Looking back, we can see that this promise of a new covenant was ultimately fulfilled when Jesus offered his life for us on the cross. And it’s this covenant that we want to explore in our next article.
Brothers and sisters, God is faithful to his promises! From the very beginning, he has been working to form us into his holy, special people. From the very beginning, he promised to care for us and fill us with his grace. Let’s take up our part of the covenant and promise to be his holy people—a people set apart for his glory.