Confusion on the Covenants
People of the Covenant

Maurice Barnett


People generally think of a covenant as an agreement where two parties contribute to the terms of the covenant on an equal basis; the covenant is then equally binding on both. Though that's one meaning of the English word covenant, it is not the only one. This is especially true when viewing covenants God has made with mankind. In those covenants, there is no equality between the parties; they are covenants between unequals. We view one party to the covenant, God, who is superior to the other and is the only one who can set the terms of the covenant. The second party, either one man, selected men or mankind in general, has only the choice of abiding by the terms or rejecting them.

Two Types of Covenants

The Hebrew word, berith, is thought to come from the Akkadian biritu, which means "fetter" or "bond." So, we may derive from that the meaning of something binding. However, the attempt to delve into etymology and derivations may be an interesting exercise but is little more than that and quite unnecessary. Whatever the roots, berith covers a full range of what covenant means in the Old Testament, primarily, an agreement that binds the parties involved. It might refer to two parties who both contribute to the terms of the agreement and then are equally obligated to meet those terms. This is called a parity covenant, one made with bilateral obligations on the part of both parties.

Abraham and Abimelech made a covenant at Beersheba, terms were set, oaths taken and ewe lambs presented as witnesses of the covenant, Genesis 21:22-32. Jacob and Laban made a covenant, Genesis 32:44ff. A pillar of stones was raised as a witness to the covenant, oaths sworn, a sacrifice was offered and a meal was shared; all of this was a common practice in such covenants.

Joshua made a "league" with the Gibeonites, Joshua 9. Even though the Gibeonites lied about their origin and condition, Joshua honored the covenant he made with them because he had sworn an oath. Jehu and Jehonadab made a parity agreement and confirmed it by shaking hands, II Kings 10:15-16. David and Jonathan also made a parity covenant with each other, in which Jonathan gave gifts to David, I Samuel 18:3-4.

However, a suzerainty covenant is one wherein a superior individual, such as a king, made an agreement with one of his vassals; the king made all the terms. God has taken the initiative in making covenants with men, agreements proceeding from a superior person to a lesser one. God makes all the terms. In Genesis 6, God made a covenant with Noah that involved Noah building the ark, stocking it as directed, taking in the animals, following all God's instructions exactly. If Noah would do this, he and his family would be saved from the coming flood. Noah had no say about the rules; he could only obey or disobey.

Covenants have also been in the form of promises made by God, such as that to Noah. God promised to Noah that the earth would never again be destroyed by water, Genesis 9:9-16. There were no commands in this to obey; it was no more than a promise God made to man. The rainbow was given as a sign, the witness, to remind us of this promise.

God promised Abraham, Genesis 15:18, that He would give the land of Palestine to his seed. The terms of the covenant were in the form of promises. Later, however, we find a mixture of promises and terms given by God in Genesis 17:10-14. That list involved the land promise to Abraham's seed and the sign of the covenant, circumcision. Also involved was the promise that Sarah would bear a son who was to be named Isaac. God made all of the terms and expected them to be followed.

Covenant - Law

Exodus 34 records various laws, including the Ten Commandments, that are all included under the word covenant. Moses is warned, "observe thou that which I command thee this day." Then, Exodus 34:27 says, "And the Lord said unto Moses, Write thou these words: for after the tenor of these words I have made a covenant with thee and with Israel." God made the terms and insisted on obedience. Israel had no say in the terms and could only obey or disobey. If they disobeyed, they were punished; they were blessed if they obeyed. Thus, the Law is referred to as "the book of the covenant" and like phrases, such as, "the book of the law of God." In setting forth the Ten Commandments, Deuteronomy 5:1ff begins by referring to them as "the statutes and judgments which I speak in your ear this day, that ye may learn them, and keep, and do them."

This is followed by, "The Lord our God made a covenant with us in Horeb. the Lord made not this covenant with our fathers, but with us, even us, who are all of us here alive this day."

Covenant - Testament

The Greek word, atheke, is the word for covenant in the New Testament. Leon Morris says,

According to Adolf Deissmann, it refers to a last will or testament, Light From The Ancient East, page 337.

Louw & Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based On Semantic Domains, pages 586, 452, says,

New Covenant - New Testament

Hebrews 9:15 says, "And for this cause he is the mediator of a new covenant, that a death having taken place for the redemption of the transgressions that were under the first covenant, they that have been called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance. For where a testament is, there must of necessity be the death of him that made it. For a testament is of force where there hath been death: for it doth never avail while he that made it liveth."

The terms of a "will" are set by the person who makes the will. It is not a bargained contract made by the testator and those who would benefit from the will. The person makes his will and those who would benefit must be named in the will or must meet the terms of it, whatever they may be; they have no say in its makeup. This same point is also emphasized in Galatians 3:15, "Brethren, I speak after the manner of men: Though it be but a man's covenant, yet when it hath been confirmed, no one maketh it void or addeth thereto."

At this point in Galatians, Paul refers to the promise, the covenant, made to Abraham concerning his seed, singular, meaning Christ. He then calls the Law of Moses a covenant confirmed, though it did not require anyone's death to confirm it. The New Covenant, the New Testament, is referred to as a better covenant than the Law of Moses, one founded on better promises. Yet, it is God's covenant in which He made all the rules and has presented it to us; we have no say nor choice in the terms. We can obey or disobey but that is all the choice we have. So, God told Israel in the following passages: "Now therefore hearken, O Israel, unto the statutes and judgments, which I teach you, for to do them, that ye may live, and go in and possess the land which the Lord God of our fathers giveth you. Ye shall not add unto the word which I command you, neither shall ye diminish aught from it, that ye may keep the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you" (Deuteronomy 4;1-2). "Ye shall observe to do as the Lord your God hath commanded you: ye shall not turn aside to the right hand or to the left. Ye shall walk in all the ways the Lord your God hath commanded you, that ye may live, and that it may be well with you, and that ye may prolong your days in the land which ye shall possess" (Deuteronomy 5:32).

Numerous other passages in the Old Testament say the same thing, such as, Deuteronomy 12:32, Joshua 1:7, Proverbs 4:26-27, 30:5-6, and others. Note the following passages from the New Testament. "I testify unto every man that heareth the words of the prophecy of this book, If any man shall add unto them, God shall add unto him the plagues which are written in this book: and if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy. God shall take away his part from the tree of life, and out of the holy city, which are written in this book" (Revelation 22:18-19). "Whosoever goeth onward and abideth not in the teaching ofChrist, hath not God: he that abideth in the teaching, the same hath both the Father and the Son" (II John 9). "Now these things, brethren, I have in a figure transferred to myself and Apollos for your sakes; that in us ye might learn not to go beyond the things which are written" (I Corinthians 4:6).

Other New Testament passages teach the same, such as Matthew 7:21, Galatians 1:6-9. Jesus promised His Apostles, "But the Comforter, even the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said unto you" (John 14:26). "Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he shall guide you into all the truth: for he shall not speak from himself; but what things soever he shall hear, these shall he speak: and he shall declare unto you the things that are to come" (John 16:13).

The Holy Spirit would bring to their remembrance all that Jesus had said to them, teach them all things, guide them into all the truth, and show them things to come. That covers the entirety of the New Testament.

Paul told the Corinthians that what the Apostles (we) preached came not from man's wisdom but by the Holy Spirit who revealed the mind of God, I Corinthians 2:6-13. In I Corinthians 14:37, Paul declared that the things he wrote to them were the commandments of God.

Peter said, II Peter 1:20-21, that "no prophecy of scripture is of private interpretation. For no prophecy ever came by the will of man: but men spake from God, being moved by the Holy Spirit."

When Peter says no prophecy of scripture is of "private interpretation," he means it did not originate with man and his reasoning. It all came from God through the Holy Spirit. This is why Paul said to Timothy, "Every scripture inspired of God is also profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for instruction which is in righteousness: that the man of God may be complete, furnished completely unto every good work" (II Timothy 3:16-17).

Recall those at judgment that Jesus said would argue with Him: "by thy name do many mighty works." Jesus said they were guilty of lawlessness, iniquity. God not only gives us the rules but defines for us what qualifies as "good works." Because man thinks something is a good work doesn't mean God thinks the same thing. God's revealed word tells us everything we need to know and everything we must do in order to please God.

The Testaments of God were given by God to man. God made the rules and presented them to man who had no choice in what the rules would be. Man would be blessed if he followed them and condemned if he didn't.


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