What is a biblical covenant? This is the post you need to read first in the biblical covenant series.
In classical Greek, long before the New Testament was written, a covenant was a testament, as in a man’s last will and testament. A dying man in good mental health would spell out the terms of how his property and assets would be distributed. It was inalterable and irrevocable. Then it came into effect when he died.
The picture for our purposes: inalterable commitment, irrevocable (it can’t be withdrawn by other parties), and death for it to be implemented or ratified. This speaks volumes for the New Covenant.
Let’s begin with an easy-to-follow word study of covenant and look at the types of covenants in Bible times, which is repeated in the other articles on biblical covenants.
It was written in Hebrew, and the noun is berit (pronounced b’reet or buh-reet). It means “covenant” or “treaty.” It is used 287 times.
The ancient Near East was filled with treaties and agreements between tribes and militaries and even nation states. So it is logical that God would relate to his people in a custom that they could understand.
The verb for making a covenant is karat (pronounced kah-raht), and it literally means “to cut (objects), exclude or destroy, make a covenant.” It is used 289 times. Therefore, to “make a covenant” with God is literally to “cut a covenant.” The majority of times it is used in cutting / making a covenant between humans (e.g. Gen. 21:27, 32; Jos. 9:11, 15) or between God and his people (e.g. Exod. 34:10; Deut. 4:23).
What is the background to “cutting a covenant”?
First, it communicates the rite of ratifying a covenant. The parties walked between dismembered parts of the sacrificial animals (Gen. 15:9-10, 17; Jer. 34:18-20). The implied announcement is this: If I break the terms of the covenant, let what happened to this animal happen to me! It was a symbol of binding the parties to the covenant. The death of the animals stood in or substituted for the death of the people and through them the covenant went into effect. This is where we get our idea of substitution.
Second, ancient treaties were cut into stones, and both parties got a copy to store in their own temples. Note how Moses cut the Ten Commandments in the two tablets of stone and placed them in the ark of the covenant (Exod. 34:1-4). Further, he sacrificed young bulls and sprinkled blood on the people (Exod. 24:5-8). The text does not say the dismembered animal parts were laid out in two parallel rows, but sacrifice and the blood were present.
But God using a covenant goes deeper than just conformity to ancient customs. The concept describes God love and commitment to his people, out of his initiative.
The Hebrew word for God’s commitment to his covenants is ḥesed (pronounced kheh-sed), and it is variously translated as “steadfast love” or “unfailing love.” It really means “covenant love.” God is so committed to his highest creation—us—that he establishes inalterable agreements with humankind. However, it happens that people became faithless and broke the terms so God, who was not surprised, had to come up with an alternative plan—the New Covenant and put his Spirit into humans to ensure their ability to keep the terms.
The Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek in the third century B.C., called the Septuagint or LXX (for the seventy scholars who translated it). And in nearly every place that the word berit appears, they used the less common Greek word diathēkē (pronounced dee-ah-they-kay) and not the commoner sunthēkē (pronounced soon-they-kay or sin-they-kay) because the latter term implies equality (note the prefix sun– or “with”) between the parties making the agreement, which inadequately describes how God relates to humankind: they are not equal! In fact, diathēkē usually means, as noted, a testament explaining how a man disposed of his property as he dictated the terms before he passed on. “This parcel of land is to go to my son named Abraham”…. So the head of household initiated it and it was irrevocable and inalterable. It went into effect when he died.
The New Testament was also written in Greek, and the writers took over term diathēkē from the LXX. It is used 33 times, and almost half in quotations from the Old Testament.
The synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) show Jesus instituting the Last Supper and sayin that this cup is his covenant in blood, shed for the forgiveness of sins (Matt. 26:28; Mark 14:24; Luke 22:20). The expressions “blood” and “poured” out allude to the Old Sinai Covenant, which was ratified in the blood of animals. Through his sacrificial death on the cross, he ratified the New Covenant.
The writer of Hebrews uses the term seventeen times. It can mean last will and testament (Heb. 9:15-23; cf. Gal. 3:15-18). A diathēkē does not go into effect until its writer dies, and in the Old Sinai Covenant, this required a sacrificial animal that stood in for the humans who presented it to the priest, every year.
In the Old, the high priest represented the people and was their mediator (Lev. 16). In the New, Christ is our better high priest (Heb. 2:17; 4:14-15; 8:1; 9:11, 25) and mediator (Heb. 9:15; 12:24).
In the Old, the high priest entered the tabernacle to offer sacrifices. In the New, Jesus himself went into the heavenly tabernacle (Heb. 9:2, 8, 11, 21).
In the Old, the sacrificial animal was the substitute to pay for human sins. In contrast, Jesus’s shed blood through his death on the cross was eternal, so we do not have to go through a yearly ritual. It was once-and for all (Heb. 9:12; 9:28; 10:10). He stood in for us (our substitute) and paid for our sins. This covenant, ratified by his blood, is eternal.
In Jer. 31:31-34, the New was predicted. It promised to take away the sins of the people, so God would remember them no more. Christ fulfilled this promise in reality; he took away and forgave our sins (Heb. 10:16-23).
Here, then, is a working biblical definition of covenant:
Out of his great love for his highest creation, people, God unilaterally reaches out to them and initiates an unalterable legal agreement, in which he stipulates the terms that reveal how he relates to people, and they to him.
A covenant is an unalterable legal agreement, in which God stipulates the terms that reveal how he relates to people, and they to him.
The main points are that he takes the initiative and spells out the terms of the agreement. We cannot strut up to God and demand that he relates to us in our way. That’s arrogant and presumptuous because our strutting and demanding fail to understand that he is the one in charge of his creation. He imposes the agreement on his highest creation, humankind.
To be clear: he wants a relationship with us. But there is a Creator-creature gap, which cannot be bridged by human effort and ingenuity. Since he is so far above us, he must instruct us on how we approach him and get to know him. He did this through the New Covenant, with foreshadows in the Old.
So how does this post help me grow in my knowledge of God?
Let’s not listen to the over-thinkers throughout social media who tells us that Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross is old-fashioned, too bloody, and irrelevant. They must believe that he died an unfortunate martyr’s death, the death of a good man, but nothing more. It is as if they leave him up on the cross and ignore his words at the Last Supper, on the night before he was crucified.
This is arrogance and presumption from the over-thinkers.
I for one will never leave Jesus on the cross and claim he died a mere martyr, a wise teacher. He himself said that his death would take away our sins through his blood. He was taking over and fulfilling the Old Sinai Covenant, and he was the once and for all sacrifice for all times and all people, if they repent of their sins and receive saving faith through the Spirit-filled proclamation of the gospel. Then the Spirit fills them, so their salvation is sealed and they can live for him.
We need to go back to the Bible and learn from it, not impose our modern ideas on it and decide what must and must not say.
Written by James Malcolm
At that link, look for Mounce, primarily.