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Introduction to the Bible

by Rev. Ralph Allan Smith

Chapter Two

What is a Covenant? (Part 1)

When we say that the kingdom of God is a covenantal kingdom, we refer to the fact that the covenant defines God's relationship with man and therefore, the covenant is the "constitution" of the kingdom. But we must consider more specifically what a covenant is. To begin with, it is important to understand the essence of the covenant, for it is often misunderstood. Sometimes even Biblical scholars erroneously state that the covenant idea in the Bible is essentially the same as the idea of a contract. This is not true. The covenant is not a contractual type of relationship that remains only so long as the two parties provide some sort of mutual benefit.

To discern the essence of a covenantal relationship, we need only to consider the book of Deuteronomy, one of the first books of the Bible and one which emphasizes the covenant. Deuteronomy shows clearly that the essence of the covenant is love. God's love for His people is the basis for His calling them. They are urged to respond to Him in love, expressed by loyalty to the covenant established between them.

For thou art an holy people unto the LORD thy God: the LORD thy God hath chosen thee to be a special people unto himself, above all people that are upon the face of the earth. The LORD did not set his love upon you, nor choose you, because ye were more in number than any people; for ye were the fewest of all people: But because the LORD loved you, and because he would keep the oath which he had sworn unto your fathers, hath the LORD brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you out of the house of bondmen, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. Know therefore that the LORD thy God, he is God, the faithful God, which keepeth covenant and mercy with them that love him and keep his commandments to a thousand generations; And repayeth them that hate him to their face, to destroy them: he will not be slack to him that hateth him, he will repay him to his face. Thou shalt therefore keep the commandments, and the statutes, and the judgments, which I command thee this day, to do them. Wherefore it shall come to pass, if ye hearken to these judgments, and keep, and do them, that the LORD thy God shall keep unto thee the covenant and the mercy which he sware unto thy fathers: And he will love thee, and bless thee, and multiply thee: he will also bless the fruit of thy womb, and the fruit of thy land, thy corn, and thy wine, and thine oil, the increase of thy kine, and the flocks of thy sheep, in the land which he sware unto thy fathers to give thee. (Dt. 7:6-13)

In these verses we see that the origin of the covenant is the love of God for Abraham and his seed. God determined to bless the children of Israel and to make them His own people. He did not choose them as if He were getting 'a good deal." There is nothing contractual here. In grace He determined to love them and to bestow His blessing upon them.

But love requires mutuality. It is a two-way street. So, God demands that the children of Israel also love Him.

Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD: And thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might. (Deu. 6:4-5)

And now, Israel, what doth the LORD thy God require of thee, but to fear the LORD thy God, to walk in all his ways, and to love him, and to serve the LORD thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul, To keep the commandments of the LORD, and his statutes, which I command thee this day for thy good. (Deu. 10:12-13)

A contract, in distinction from a covenant, only lasts so long as both parties are enjoying the benefits of the relationship. It is binding upon the condition of being profitable for both parties. A covenant, on the other hand, is a commitment of love. Since it creates a relationship fundamentally different from the mutual profit-seeking relationship of a contract, it must be established in a different manner. In the Bible, a covenant can only be established and sealed by an oath, which usually involves an oath-taking ceremony like circumcision (that is, in ancient Israel, the act of circumcising a child constituted a covenant oath). The oath is so important in a covenant that the word oath is sometimes used as a synonym for covenant (cf. Deu. 29:12, 14).

What then is an oath? An oath is a self-maledictory promise. When one takes an oath, he promises to preserve the covenantal relationship and seals the promise with words that call a curse upon himself if he should fail to keep his promise. The curse of the covenant is death.

Many Christians may not realize that a curse is part of the traditional Christian wedding vow. "Till death do us part" means "until death," but it includes the idea that nothing but death can end the covenant, implying the curse of death on the one who is disloyal to the oath. Another aspect of the traditional wedding vow illustrates the kind of commitment demanded in a covenant. For example, we say "in sickness and health," and "for better or worse," which witness to the fact that even if the relationship turns out to be "unprofitable" for us, we will not abandon our partner because of economic or other hardships. Marital love is self-sacrificial. There is no basis for dissolving the relationship except when one of those who took the vow betrays it and undermins the whole relationship. Sickness, poverty, or an unpleasant person-ality cannot undo the oath. In marriage, each person takes an oath to give himself or herself sacrificially to the other, without thought of personal profit.

The wedding illustration is especially appropriate, for God's relationship with Israel is compared to the relationship of husband to wife (Ez. 16). So long as Israel is faithful to the love of the covenant -- and "faithful" here does not mean sinless perfection, but rather repentant faith and love -- God will never leave her or forsake her. His commitment to bless her cannot be shaken.

But it is not in God's relationship with Israel that we see the full meaning of love, for the Bible does not unfold the full meaning of covenantal love until the coming of Christ. It is in the relationship between Christ and the Father, that we first see that covenantal love is the eternal fellowship of Father, Son, and Spirit.

Father, I will that they also, whom thou hast given me, be with me where I am; that they may behold my glory, which thou hast given me: for thou lovedst me before the foundation of the world. . . . And I have declared unto them thy name, and will declare it: that the love wherewith thou hast loved me may be in them, and I in them. (Jn. 17:24, 26)

In the relationship of Christ and the Father, we understand that John's words "God is love" have Trinitarian significance. God is love because the Father, Son, and Spirit share an everlasting love for one another. Each of the three Persons of the Trinity wholly devotes Himself to bless and glorify the other (cf. Jn. 7:18; 8:50, 54; 11:4; 12:28; 13:31-32; 14:13; 16:14;17:1, 4, 5, 22, 24). God Himself in the fellowship of Trinitarian love is the ultimate kingdom and the relationship between the Persons of the Trinity is the true covenant.

This has profound significance for the Biblical story of creation and redemption. God created the world as His kingdom to manifest His glory (cf. Ps. 8, 19). Since the three Persons of the Trinity constitute a covenantal kingdom of love, the created world, too, is a covenantal kingdom over which God set Adam and Eve to rule. Their rule was to be based upon love for God and one another. They were to guard the created world and take care of it so that it would bear fruit for God's glory (Gn. 2:15). The fall of man was a rejection of God's love and a rejection of the way of love among men. The violence of the pre-flood world is the climax of the rebellion of the fall and the logical outcome of the rejection of God's love.

Redemption means the restoration of the covenantal purpose of God. Man is restored to his original calling as God's image, which means man is called back into the fellowship of the covenantal love of the Father, Son, and Spirit. The created world, too, must be restored to its original purpose of revealing God's glory through the covenantal stewardship of God's image. The kingdom of righteousness and love must come to historical realization in order that Satan's lie and the temptation in the Garden may be utterly defeated to the glory of God. Redemption finds its fulfillment in the kingdom of God. God has poured out His covenantal love upon us in Jesus Christ in order that through faith in Him we may be re-created as His children and brought into an everlasting fellowship of love.

The Bible is the story of God's covenantal kingdom -- its creation, its corruption by sin and folly, and God's gracious redemption of that kingdom to the praise of the glory of His grace. The central theme of the Bible, the covenantal kingdom of God, reveals the nature of the Triune God as a God of love who has called man into a fellowship of love with Himself.

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