The other day, a good friend made a passing comment that alerted me to something I failed to mention over the course of these musings on Acts and “the law” in general. It’s time to correct that oversight.
I have already pointed out, that many believers live with the understanding that there are two covenants (or testaments) and that the newer covenant replaced the older covenant. The truth however, is that Scripture speaks of MANY covenants. Some, are between God and man. Others, are between one man and another. Some are between the leaders of nations, binding one nation to another. All these covenants share common characteristics: They create binding relationships; they establish sacred conditions; they are mutually beneficial to both parties in the covenant.
Two Types of Covenants
It would be more accurate then, to say that there are two TYPES of covenants, rather than two covenants. What creates the difference in these two types? The only difference is that God is a party in one type of covenant, but not in the other. Today, I will focus on the type to which God is party.
What makes God’s covenants different? The difference is that He lives forever. This means that they never need to be “replaced.” He is never replaced, so neither are they. He never changes so they never need to be updated. Even if the other party fails to keep their part of the covenant, He always keeps his end. Instead, God Covenants build on each other, the earlier covenants becoming a foundation for later covenants.
Let’s start with the God Covenant with Noah. (see Genesis 9:1-17) God calls this covenant “an everlasting covenant” (v 16). Only God can make covenants that last this long! So, did this covenant end when God then made another covenant with a different man, Abram? (Genesis 15) Clearly not. How do we know? One reason is that we still have the “sign of the covenant”. When we see rainbows in the sky on certain days, they remind us (and God) that the covenant with Noah is still in effect. What could be more obvious?!
When God then went on to make covenants with Isaac, Abraham’s son and Jacob, his grandson, did they replace or nullify the earlier covenant with Abram? Hardly! We know this because the covenant with Abram was also declared (by God) to be “everlasting.” (17:7)
Were the covenants with Isaac and Jacob “replaced” by the covenant with Israel? Definitely not. These too were everlasting and were built on the foundation of the preceding covenants.
So, what about the covenant with Israel? Do we finally come across an exception? Again, not so. We read in Exodus 31 that terms of the covenant are “perpetual.” In Leviticus 24 they are called “everlasting.”
The Shape of God Covenants over Time
Because His ways are not our ways and because He lives forever, God’s covenants are unique. From our limited human perspective, we might say that God’s covenants stack like a pyramid. The earlier covenants are broader and more general in nature. Each new covenant builds on the foundation of preceding covenants and adds more detail to the revelation of God’s intentions.
Nothing Temporary Here
Based on the biblical evidence, we conclude that none of the preceding covenants God has made are “temporary” – including the covenant he made through Moses with Israel. This covenant brought us one step closer to understanding our need for “a better sacrifice” and a perfect lamb. It contains terms (such as observance of the Sabbath) which are everlasting. In the law, it provides greater detail about God’s standard of right living (righteousness). Like the other covenants, it never needs to be replaced – even though the example of Moses is later followed by a greater prophet and the high priesthood of Aaron is surpassed by the priesthood of Melchizedek. (see Hebrews) Each level in the “covenant pyramid” adds to OUR understanding, but not to God’s. He has always understood what his final covenant with mankind will be.
I trust that we now see the shallowness of a “two covenant” perspective of the Bible.