Covenants are contracts between individuals given to define a relationship. The covenants of the Bible between man and God are completely unique to Christianity. Nowhere in the religions of the world does one find the gods relating to man through covenants. In Scripture, the personal relationship between God and man is based upon and mediated through means of covenants. The purpose of the covenants is to reveal God’s earthly agreements, spiritual promises, earthly redemption, and only hope for mankind. God wants to bind Himself to His people to keep His promises so He may demonstrate in history His character.
Types of Covenants
The nature of a biblical covenant is of two types: conditional and unconditional. A conditional covenant is of the nature that God makes a promise to man conditioned by “if you will” whereby He then promises to bring about the covenantal promises. An unconditional covenant is a sovereign act of God whereby He fulfills the covenantal promises made with an individual regardless of man’s obedience or disobedience. An unconditional covenant is characterized by “I will” which declares that God alone will fulfill the promises.
The Royal Grant Treaty is an example of an unconditional covenant. It is a promissory covenant that arose solely from a king’s desire to reward a faithful servant. Examples of this type of covenant are the Abrahamic and Davidic Covenants.
The Suzerain-Vassal Treaty is a conditional covenant; this type of covenant bound a subordinate vassal to a superior vassal. It was binding only upon the one who swore it. The purpose of the covenant was to emphasize the goodness and kindness of the lord to his vassal with a view to cause the vassal to accept his responsibilities and obligations gladly. Examples of this type of covenant are the Adamic, Noahic, and Mosaic Covenants.
A Parity Treaty was a covenant binding two equal individuals in a relationship. It provided conditions that were stipulated by the participants. Examples of this type of covenant are 1) Abraham and Abimelech (Gen. 21:25-32); 2) Jacob and Laban (31:44-50); 3) David and Jonathan (1 Sam. 18:1-4; 2 Sam. 9:1-13); and, 4) Christ and the church (Jn. 15).
Of the five covenants that were made with Israel, only one of those is conditional: the Mosaic Covenant. Three things are to be noted regarding the covenants with Israel: 1) the covenants are literal, which means the contents of those covenants must be interpreted literally; 2) the covenants God made with Israel are eternal, that is, they are not restricted by time; and, 3) the covenants (with the exception of the Mosaic Covenant) are all unconditional. The covenants with Israel are not annulled because of her disobedience. It is because the covenants are dependent upon God for fulfillment that their literal fulfillment can be expected.
The Abrahamic Covenant is the greatest of redemptive covenants. All of God’s blessings for both Jew and Gentile are the result of this covenant (Gen. 12:1-3, 7; 13:14-17; 15:1-21; 17:1-21; 22:15-18). Regarding the unconditional covenants, Dr. Fruchtenbaum wrote,
An unconditional covenant can be defined as a sovereign act of God whereby God unconditionally obligates Himself to bring to pass definite promises, blessings, and conditions for the covenanted people. It is a unilateral covenant. This type of covenant is characterized by the formula I will which declares God’s determination to do exactly as He promised. The blessings are secured by the grace of God [Arnold G. Fruchtenbaum, Israelology: The Missing Link in Systematic Theology (Tustin, CA: Ariel Ministries, 1989), 570].
The participants of the Abrahamic Covenant are God and Abraham. In this covenant, Abraham represented the whole Jewish nation not all humanity. The token of the covenant was to be circumcision (17:9-14). Circumcision was a sign of one’s Jewishness.
There are 14 provisions of the Abrahamic Covenant. First, from Abraham would come a great nation, Israel (12:2; 13:16; 15:5; 17:1, 2, 7; 22:17). Second, Abraham was promised a land, Canaan (12:1, 7; 13:14, 15, 17; 15:17-21; 17:18). Third, Abraham would be greatly blessed (12:2; 15:6; 22:15-17). Fourth, Abraham’s name would be great (12:2). Fifth, Abraham will be a blessing to others (12:2). Sixth, those who bless the nation of Israel will themselves be blessed (12:3). Seventh, those who curse the nation of Israel will themselves be cursed (12:3). Eighth, through Abraham all humanity will be blessed, including Gentiles (12:3; 22:18). Ninth, Abraham will receive a son of promise by his wife Sarah (15:1-4; 17:16-21). Tenth, Abraham’s descendants would undergo the Egyptian bondage (15:13, 14). Eleventh, there will be other nations that will come from Abraham (17:3, 4, 6). Twelfth, Abraham’s name would be changed (17:5). Thirteenth, the name of Abraham’s wife would be changed. Fourteenth, circumcision would be the token of the covenant (17:9-14) [Fruchtenbaum, Israelology, 574-575].
The Abrahamic Covenant involves a promise of a land to Abraham and Israel, a nation (seed), and a worldwide blessing. The implication is that the Abrahamic Covenant will be fulfilled in the form of three sub-covenants: 1) the Land [Palestinian] Covenant; 2) the Davidic Covenant; and 3) the New Covenant. The Abrahamic Covenant is literal (13:15, 17), eternal (13:15; 17:7, 8, 13, 19), and unconditional (15:1-18). The confirmation of the covenant would be through Isaac (26:2-5, 24). From Isaac’s two sons, the promise of the covenant would be through Jacob. Concerning the sons of Jacob, the covenant was confirmed through his twelve sons who would father the twelve tribes of Israel.
Concerning the promise of land, or Palestinian Covenant, God promised that Israel would return to their land after being scattered throughout the world. The content of the covenant is found in Deuteronomy 29:1-30:10. The Land Covenant is distinct from the Mosaic Covenant (Deut. 29:1). The covenant was made between God and the nation of Israel.
There are eight provisions of the Land Covenant. First, the disobedience of Israel to the Mosaic Law and subsequent worldwide scattering was prophesied (29:2-30:2). Second, after her disobedience, Israel will eventually repent (30:2). Third, the Messiah will return (30:3). Fourth, after being dispersed, Israel will be regathered to her land (30:3, 4). Fifth, Israel will posses the land promised to her (30:5). Sixth, Israel will be regenerated (30:6). Seventh, Israel’s enemies will be judged. Eighth, Israel will receive the blessings of the Messianic Kingdom (30:8-10) [Fruchtenbaum, Israelology, 582].
The Land Covenant was given to reaffirm the title deed of Israel to her promised land as originally given in the Abrahamic Covenant. Since the Land Covenant is unconditional (e.g. despite Israel’s disobedience), the covenant will not be annulled. Disobedience does, however, affect Israel’s enjoyment of the land. The Land Covenant enlarges upon the original Abrahamic Covenant;this covenant was still in effect centuries after Israel’s continued disobedience (Ezek. 16:1-63). The Land Covenant is yet to be fulfilled in the Messianic Kingdom.
The Davidic Covenant is set forth in two passages: 2 Samuel 7:11-17 and 1 Chronicles 17:10-15. Although the passages may appear similar, there are some variations. The Davidic Covenant was made between God and David. David endures as the representative head of the Davidic house and dynasty. The Davidic Covenant amplifies the seed aspect of the Abrahamic Covenant. It narrows the promise of a seed to one rightful claimant (viz., David).
There are seven main provisions that are given in this covenant. First, David is promised a house or dynasty that will be eternal (2 Sam. 7:11; 1 Chron. 17:10). Second, David’s son would be established on his throne after him (2 Sam. 7:12). Third, Solomon would build the temple (7:13). Fourth, the throne of the Davidic and Solomonic Kingdoms would be established forever (7:13, 16). Fifth, though Solomon would be judged for disobedience, God would not remove His lovingkindness from him (7:14-15). Sixth, the Messiah will come from the seed of David (1 Chron. 17:11). Seventh, the Messiah’s throne, house, and kingdom will be established forever (17:12-14) [Fruchtenbaum, Israelology, 584-585].
The Davidic Covenant is a literal, unconditional, and eternal covenant. It still awaits fulfillment and is confirmed in numerous biblical passages (Ps. 89; Isa. 9:6-7; 11:1; Jer. 23:5-6; 30:8-9; 33:14-17, 19-26; Ezek. 37:24-25; Hos. 3:4-5; Amos 9:11; Lk. 1:30-35, 68-70; Acts 15:14-18). The eternal promises of the Davidic Covenant will be mediated through the Messiah; these eternal promises are of a house, dynasty, throne, and seed.
It is from the house of David, that the line of kings will come. The kingdom promised to David would be a people possessing a land that God promised. The throne is used to indicate authority; it is only as David’s seed that one will have the right to rule. The seed of David who will reign is the Messiah. The emphasis in 2 Samuel is on Solomon, whereas the emphasis in 1 Chronicles is on the Messiah. God is not speaking of one of David’s sons who will be established on his throne forever, but the seed of one of sons from many years later. The one who reigns upon the throne will be established forever with authority, not merely the throne itself. Whereas the 2 Samuel passage mentioned sin, the 1 Chronicles passage does not since it is in the latter passage that the emphasis is on the Messiah.
The importance of this covenant is to amplify the seed aspect of the Abrahamic Covenant. According to the Abrahamic Covenant, the seed would be of Abrahamic descent, which meant the Messiah would be a Jew. It was later revealed to Jacob that the seed would be limited to the tribe of Judah, the family of David.
The New Covenant is recorded in Jeremiah 31:31-37 (see also Isa. 55:3; 59:21; 61:8-9; Jer. 32:40; Ezek. 16:60; 34:25-31; 37:26-28; Rom. 11:25-27; Heb. 8:7-9:1; 10:16-17). There are eight main provisions of this covenant. First, it is an unconditional covenant between God and Israel (Jer. 31:31). Second, it is distinct from the Mosaic Covenant (31:32). Third, it promises the regeneration of Israel (Jer. 32:33; Isa. 59:21). Fourth, the regeneration of Israel would be universal among the Jews (Jer. 31:34; Isa. 61:9; Rom. 11:25-27). Fifth, it would provide a provision for permanent forgiveness of sin (Jer. 31:34). Sixth, the provision is the indwelling of the Holy Spirit (Jer. 32:41; Isa. 61:8; Ezek. 34:25-27). Seventh, Israel is promised many material blessings (Jer. 32:41; Isa. 61:8; Ezek. 34:25-27). Eighth, it will provide for a new temple (Ezek. 37:26-28).1
The New Covenant amplifies the blessing aspect of the Abrahamic Covenant (particularly in relation to salvation). The New Covenant is not an elaboration of the Mosaic Covenant since it ultimately replaced the Law (Jer. 31:31-32; Rom. 6:14-15). The key aspect of this covenant is the blessing of salvation that will include the national regeneration of Israel (Jer. 31:34; Ezek. 36:29; Rom. 6:22; 11:25-27). The national salvation of Israel will extend to every individual Jewish person. This salvation will be true in succeeding generations from the time that the initial regeneration of Israel begins. Therefore, during the Millennium the only unregenerate people will be Gentiles. In other words, during the entire millenium there will be no unsaved Jews. This is the reason why “they shall teach no more every man his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, Know the LORD” (Jer. 31:34).
The relationship of the church to the New Covenant has caused some confusion because the prophet Jeremiah specifies that the covenant is with Israel, not with the church. Nevertheless, there are numerous passages that connect the New Covenant with the church (Mt. 26:28; Mk. 14:24; Lk. 22:14-20; 1 Cor. 11:25; 2 Cor. 3:6; Heb. 7:22; 8:6-13; 9:15; 10:16, 29; 12:24; 13:20). Scripture is clear on the following: Israel—not the church—will fulfill the New Covenant. However, the church does partake of the spiritual blessings of the Abrahamic and New Covenants (Rom. 15:27).
It is not uncommon to hear teaching that there are two New Covenants: one with Israel and one with the church. The two New Covenant view is difficult to defend from Scripture. Another related teaching is that there is only one covenant, but there are two aspects of the covenant. The solution to the problem is found in Ephesians 2:11-16 and 3:5-6. The two Ephesian passages teach God made four unconditional covenants with Israel. It is through these four covenants that all of God's spiritual blessings will be mediated.
The Mosaic Covenant was the “middle wall of partition” between Jew and Gentile. The Law prohibited the Gentiles from experiencing the blessing of the four unconditional covenants. For a Gentile to experience the blessings of the four unconditional covenants, he had to completely submit himself to the Mosaic Law. Since this was not possible because of the weakness of human flesh, the Gentiles were “aliens from the commonwealth of Israel.” When Jesus Christ died, this “middle wall of partition” was abolished. Christ ratified the New Covenant by His shed blood (Lk. 22:20). The church celebrates the New Covenant and the ratifying of it through the death of Christ (1 Cor. 11:23-26).
Although the church is partaking of the spiritual blessings of the New Covenant (Eph. 1:3), it is the nation of Israel who will receive the material and national promises. The relationship of the church to the New Covenant is explained in Galatians 3:13-14; through Christ the church partakes of the New Covenant between God and Israel (Rom. 11:28-29; 11:17).
All of the biblical covenants contain two types of promises: physical and spiritual. The physical promises are, and will continue to be fulfilled by and limited to Israel. Nevertheless, some of the spiritual blessings of the covenants will extend to the Gentiles. Since the death of Christ is the basis of salvation for all people, for all time, the church has become a partaker of the Jewish spiritual blessings. The covenants of God with Israel are not relinquished to the church. Only Israel will fulfill the New Covenant as promised in the Old Testament. The New Covenant was given and will be fulfilled by Israel. The church participates in the promises but in no manner will she fulfill the covenants given to Israel. One’s ability to understand the Bible and particular in God’s dealings with humanity in general depends on how well he understands the biblical covenants.
1 Fruchtenbaum, Israelology, pp. 586-587.