The Bible records that one of the ways in which God relates to us – to humanity – is through His Covenants. The word ‘covenant’ is probably a slightly unfamiliar word to most of us unless we are legal experts – it is not a word that we tend to use in our everyday conversation. So what is a ‘covenant’?
Covenants are not an agreement
Very often, Christians substitute the word ‘agreement’ for ‘covenant’. They present the idea that a covenant is some sort of agreement between God and us. But God’s Covenants are not like ‘agreements’. The word ‘agreement’ carries with it the idea that two groups or the representatives of such groups come together to negotiate an agreement. They, as it were, sit around the table and thrash out a deal. Various proposals, points or clauses are debated, argued over, refined, modified and eventually agreed upon such that a final Agreement is then drawn up. So in this interpretation, a Covenant becomes a sort ratified and signed final negotiated agreement, a sort of ‘contract’ that is signed up to by both parties. But this is not the Biblical idea of a Covenant as presented by God.
God’s Covenants are much more one-sided than this. God’s Covenants are more like God’s statement of terms and conditions – terms and conditions that are defined and outlined by God. These terms and conditions have not been negotiated – they have not been democratically decided upon and agreed between God and humanity.
Covenants are not a contract
In some ways God’s Covenants are more like the non-negotiable rules or conditions of membership of a club or business. But even this does not quite cover what a Covenant is. When you join a club or a business, you usually sign some sort of ‘contract’. This is a document that declares that you are now a member of this club, or an employee in this business and that you agree to be bound by the rules, terms and conditions of the organisation. Someone signs the contract on behalf of the club or business and you sign it as an indication that you are joining this organization and willing to abide by these mainly non-negotiable rules – these terms and conditions of membership/employment. With a contract, you can choose not to sign and of course if you do not sign it, then you cannot be a member of the club or an employee within the business. When it comes to God’s Covenants however, you may not have the freedom to ‘opt out’ by not signing. You may not even ‘sign up’ – you may be automatically included.
A constituted relationship
A Covenant then is in some ways a little more like the Constitution of the country or nation into which a person is born. I was born in England and unlike the United States for example, we do not have a ‘written constitution’. Nevertheless, there are very definite terms, conditions and obligations concerning being a British Citizen. I have had no say in those terms and I did not ‘sign up’ to them in the sense that I actually signed any sort of ‘agreement’ or ‘contract’. Just by being born in England I am covered by those terms and conditions – I receive certain advantages and privileges and certain expectations and obligations are placed on me – to be a law-abiding citizen for example. Even here of course I can eventually ‘opt out’ – I could renounce my citizenship of the United Kingdom and apply for and take up citizenship in another country. Once again however, God’s Covenants may be more universally expansive than this and there may simply be no ‘opt out’ clause.
Some of terms in God’s Covenants are simple statements as to how things are: they are statements regarding the situation and arrangement that God has put into place. There are no ‘if’s’, ‘and’s’ or ‘but’s’ about what God declares in these kinds of statements. They are unconditional. It does not matter what the group covered by the Covenant says or does – this is the way God has arranged and ordered things. This is the way things are – no debate, no opt out.
In some of God’s Covenants there are conditional statements. A conditional statement says in effect: ‘If you do this, then a certain thing will happen, but if you do not do this – if you fail or if you disobey this clause of the Covenant and do something else, then something different will happen as a result.’ Most of us are familiar with this kind of conditional statement when bringing up children: ‘If you are well behaved, then you will get a treat, if you are naughty, then you will be punished.’ That is an example of a conditional statement and some of God’s Covenants have these kinds of statements in them.
A Covenant is sealed and legal
So God’s Covenants are not ‘negotiated agreements’ nor are they ‘contracts’ that we can ‘opt out’ of. Like national constitutions, they have a strong element of authority about them – they are binding – they tie us to a particular situation or arrangement. There is a ‘legal’ quality about them. A Covenant is a ‘legal’ document, statement or arrangement. I am sure that you have seen documents such as wills, deeds or other important legal documents. They often have a seal on them in one way or another in order to show the authority and validity of the document and to prevent its falsification – to prevent counterfeit documents being produced. The idea of a ‘seal’ is also present in the Bible. The idea of a ‘seal’ has a number of meanings. A seal sometimes represents a likeness of the ‘authority’ that is issuing the document – the king’s seal may have an image of King himself – to immediately identify the authority by which or through whom the document has been issued. A ‘seal’ also has the sense of finalising and closing the document – it is sealed up, finished, complete. In legal circles a Covenant is a sealed document.
In effect, God’s Covenants declare divine promises that establish or modify God’s relationship to humanity or to a particular group within humanity as a whole. The word ‘Covenant’ comes from the Latin ‘convenīre’: ‘to come together’. God’s Covenants stipulate the way in which God comes together with His creation and particularly with humanity and certain groups within humanity. God’s Covenants stipulate declared commitments by God. In a Covenant, God formally declares, promises and as it were makes binding legal commitments concerning the way in which He will relate to the particular group covered by the Covenant concerned. God’s very Name and Character seals these Covenants – God is Faithful to His promises. However, some Covenants contain conditional statements regarding the group covered by the Covenant. The group’s non-performance or violation of these conditions will give rise to a cause of action for breach of Covenant. Thus damages will be sought for any breach of a sealed, authoritative Covenant stipulation. Such actions for breach of Covenant may occur fairly quickly, or they may be reserved for the Final Judgment in the Great Assizes at the end of the ages, when all debts will be formally settled.
What does all this mean for me?
Well, the bottom line is that you are ‘under’ one of God’s Covenants. One of God’s Covenants is, as it were, applied to you – you are covered by its ‘terms and conditions’. You may not have ‘signed up’, you may not have seen the document or even be aware of it, but nevertheless, as far as God is concerned, you are ‘covered’ by a legal, sealed Covenant. At the very least you were ‘automatically enrolled’ into a Covenant at birth. It may be that you have chosen to be under a particular Covenant – but one thing is for certain – you cannot be in a position whereby you are not under any Covenant at all.
I will explore some of these Covenants in other posts in due course. The key point here is that I have defined what Covenants are and stated that every one of us is placed in one or other of these Covenants.