Introduction to the Bible
What is a Covenant? (Part 2)
The essence of God's covenant is love, but the idea of a covenant also implies a formal relationship. The mutual commitment of a love relationship may be expressed in a legal form which makes the obligations of love explicit. A covenant is such a formal love commitment.
Again the analogy of the marriage is helpful. The fact that a wedding vow is a legal ceremony does not detract from the love which it expresses. Just the contrary. If a man professes love to a woman, but he refuses to assume legal obligations, the reality of his love is questionable at best. God's love for man is expressed in the legal form of a covenant in which God takes obligations upon Himself and calls man to be loyal to the covenant. The covenant, therefore, has a clear structure and may be expressed in formal legal language.
The book of Deuteronomy, the book of covenant love, provides us with our understanding of the covenant. The whole book is a covenantal document, structured in terms of a five-point outline which is used throughout the Bible to define the covenant. Ray Sutton explains the outline of Deuteronomy as follows.
Of course, the five-point outline is not the only outline of the covenant that has Biblical validity. James Jordan, in a inductive study of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, suggests that threefold (Trinity), fourfold (world foundations), fivefold (housebuilding), sixfold (man), sevenfold (sabbath), tenfold (law), and twelvefold (covenant people) organizations of the covenant material are also possible. However, although Jordan does not believe that the division of the covenant into five parts has any actual priority over other possible outlines, he shows that a five-point outline is used most frequently by Moses and is not an arbitrary invention of expositors.
Also, the ten commandments, according to North, Sutton, and Jordan, are structured as a twofold repetition of the five point covenant outline.
We have seen that the five-point outline of the covenant is 1) actually the outline of Deuteronomy, 2) repeatedly used in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, and 3) the structural outline for the ten commandments. Thus, it may be used as a tool for Biblical exegesis and relating the covenant to the concrete details of daily life. Jordan lists the five points in broad terms that make the broader implications of each point clear.
We will use this five-point outline of the covenant to help analyze the various covenants in the Bible so that we may obtain a detailed understanding of each covenantal era. While the general structure of the covenant is the same, covenant revelation grows over time. To see the implications of the covenant for each era and observe the growth of the covenant, it is important to consider each point in every Biblical covenant.
As we shall see, the first point, the Lordship of the Triune God, is essentially the same in each covenant. However, God reveals Himself in each covenant in different ways so that His people come to a deeper understanding of Him. The second point concerns the representative system established on earth. In each age there are representatives in church, state, and family who are God-appointed leaders for His people, but the details of the system change in different ages. The third point covers the detailed commands for daily life that God gives to His people. These, too, vary from age to age, though the heart of the righteous demand of the law of God is unchanging. The fourth point, blessings and curses, varies, depending on the actual situation of the people of God. Also, the fourth point deals with covenantal ceremonies, our renewal of the covenant oath, the details of which change a great deal from covenant to covenant. The fifth point which deals with inheritance, varies with the second and fourth points in accordance with the covenantal situation of the people of God.
Before we consider each covenant era in detail, it is important to obtain a grasp of the overall covenantal structure of the Bible.
1. Sutton's original outline did not spell the word THEOS as the outline above, but the points are the same. See, Ray Sutton, That You May Prosper (Tyler, Texas: Institute for Christian Economics, 1987).
2. James B. Jordan, Covenant Sequence in Leviticus and Deuteronomy (Tyler, Texas: Institute for Christian Economics, 1989), pp. 3-6. Jordan also suggests a threefold approach to the covenant in, The Law of the Covenant (Tyler, Texas: Institute for Christian Economics, 1984), p. 7: "In summary, the covenant has three aspects. There is a legal bond. There is a personal relationship. There is a structure within the community." He develops a four point and a twelve point approach in Through New Eyes, pp. 130-31.
3. Covenant Sequence in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, p. 6, 9-10.
4. Gary North, The Sinai Strategy: Economics and the Ten Commandments (Tyler, Texas: Institute for Christian Economics, 1986).
5. Op. cit. pp. 214-24.
6. Op. cit. pp. 10-13.
7. Covenant Sequence in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, p. 14.