Covenant is not a word that we use often in the West. But it is a word that can show up in surprising places. Some of us live in “covenant communities”—neighborhoods where each resident agrees to abide by a written set of standards designed to make people’s homes and yards look neat and presentable. Or perhaps you have been to a wedding recently and heard the word covenant used during the ceremony. In both of these examples, covenant is not tossed around casually. Investment in a home and in the lifelong union of a husband and a wife are weighty matters that deeply affect people’s lives. In an age not known for its seriousness or thoughtfulness, covenant manages to carry the sense of something important and abiding.
That weightiness lines up with the Bible’s teaching about covenants. What does the Bible have to say about what a “covenant” is? The answer to this question is far-reaching. Covenant sits at the very heart of the Bible’s teaching about what God is doing in the lives of human beings. If we want to understand the Bible’s teaching, then we should have a good handle on what the Bible says about the covenants.
What is a covenant? In brief, a covenant formalizes a relationship between two parties, and it does so in terms of promises, conditions, and signs. Covenants in Scripture, then, typically have parties, promises, conditions, and one or more signs. Let’s look at each of these.
Covenants in Scripture involve two parties. These parties are God and human beings. God and human beings are, of course, already in relationship before a covenant is made. God has made all people and preserves all people. In the garden, that relationship was one of open fellowship. Since the fall, that relationship is one of enmity. Because of sin, people are at war with God, and God is justly angry with them.
This relationship helps us see something important about biblical covenants. In Scripture, we never see people approach God to make a covenant with Him. It is always the other way around. God pursues us. This pursuit is an act of grace. God seeks out His enemies.
God’s initiative shows us something else. In biblical covenants, we do not stand with God on the platform as equals. God condescends (comes down) to take us into covenant with Himself. And this was true even before the fall. In the garden, the distance between Creator and (sinless) man was so great that God condescended to enter into covenant with Adam.