Understanding Covenant, IV: The New Testament Covenant
From days of old God has interacted with His people through the medium of covenants, agreements with mutual benefits and obligations. God made such covenants with Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, all Israel, and David. Yet all of these covenants were looking forward to the One who was to come and inaugurate a new covenant in His blood, Jesus of Nazareth.
As previously discussed, the Greek word for covenant is diatheke. It originally referred only to a testament or will; the translators of the Hebrew Bible essentially added a new definition to diatheke by using it to translate the Hebrew berit. The vast majority of the time diatheke is used it conveys the primary definition of berit, covenant, as in Hebrews 9:15:
And for this cause [Jesus] is the mediator of a new covenant, that a death having taken place for the redemption of the transgressions that were under the first covenant, they that have been called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance.
God has thus established a new covenant in Jesus of Nazareth. This covenant proves revolutionary, for within it God shows no partiality: anyone can come to faith in Jesus and enjoy the benefits and shoulder the obligations of the covenant, not just the physical descendants of Abraham (Acts 10:34-35, Romans 4:1-25, 9:1-11:36). Thus the new covenant God has made in Jesus is with all mankind, and mediated by Jesus Himself, who is both fully man and fully God (1 Timothy 2:3-7). Within this covenant God has promised to reconcile to Himself those who would put their trust in Jesus: they receive forgiveness of sin, standing before God, fellowship with God and with His people, and all so that they can become more like God as made known in Jesus so as to share in eternal life with Him in the resurrection (John 17:20-23, Romans 5:1-11, 1 Corinthians 15:1-58, 1 John 1:1-4). In the new covenant humans are exhorted to become one with God and one with one another as God is One within Himself, to participate together in the work of God, turning aside from sin and becoming more like Jesus through repentance in love, humility, holiness, and righteousness (John 13:35, 17:20-23, Romans 8:29, Titus 2:11-14). The sign of the new covenant is baptism, immersion in water in Jesus’ name for the forgiveness of sins, the means by which one dies to sin, puts on Christ, and walks as a new, cleansed creature (Matthew 28:18-20, Romans 6:3-7, Galatians 3:27, Colossians 2:11-15, 1 Peter 3:21).
We can therefore see many parallels between the new covenant in Christ and the covenants which came before. Nevertheless, the new covenant in Jesus maintains its distinctiveness, and is superior, to what came before. All previous covenants looked forward to what God would accomplish in Jesus, and most find their fulfillment in Jesus and His Kingdom, as was predicted long before His birth (Jeremiah 31:31-34, Deuteronomy 18:15-19, Isaiah 2:1-4, Hosea 2:23; compare Hebrews 8:8-13, 1 Peter 2:10). The new covenant saw the inauguration of the reign of God in the Kingdom of Christ: a spiritual kingdom, one which transcends all nations, and not exclusively limited to one or a few (John 18:36, Ephesians 6:10-18). All are welcomed into the Kingdom of God in Christ, for in Christ all have equal standing before Him, no matter their gender, race, culture, or ethnicity (1 Timothy 2:4, Galatians 3:28). No covenant will replace what God has done in Jesus; it will endure forever (1 Corinthians 15:20-58). Until the He returns to judge the living and the dead, and death is finally defeated on the day of resurrection, Jesus continues to reign as Lord and Christ; God continues His eternal purpose He has purposed in Him in the church, the representation of God’s Kingdom on earth; all mankind is called to participate in God’s Kingdom in Christ if they would obtain eternal life in the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:20-28, Ephesians 3:10-21, Hebrews 13:8).
Thus the covenant between God and all mankind in Jesus Christ is the ultimate covenant, one for which we ought to praise God and give Him all glory and honor. As noted, Greek diatheke also has a meaning which goes beyond “covenant” to refer to testament or will. It seems to be used as such in Hebrews 9:16-18:
For where a testament is, there must of necessity be the death of him that made it. For a testament is of force where there hath been death: for it doth never avail while he that made it liveth. Wherefore even the first covenant hath not been dedicated without blood.
We understand the nature of a testament (or will): it represents the contractually authorized decree of the testator establishing the right of inheritance of his estate. As long as the person who made the will or testament lives, the promise might be alive, but the contractual obligations within it cannot be carried out. It is only when the testator dies that his or her heirs can inherit the testator’s estate. Such is why the attitude of the “prodigal” son is so shocking in Luke 15:11-13: he was essentially declaring that his father was dead to him!
All of us, like the “prodigal” son, have squandered our inheritance from God in the riotous living in the sin in which we participated, and found ourselves alienated from God (Ephesians 2:1-3). In Christ God has granted the ability to be adopted as sons, to become joint-heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with Him (Romans 8:12-18). In Christ God would provide us with every spiritual blessing (Ephesians 1:3); yet all of this required His death for it to be inaugurated in force. For this reason we celebrate the inauguration of the new covenant every Lord’s day in His Supper, a joint participation in Jesus’ body, grounding our life in Christ in His cross, celebrating the hope of life in His resurrection, and doing so together to reflect His body in the church (1 Corinthians 10:16-17, 11:17-34). Without Christ we are alienated from God and one another and have no hope in the world; in Christ we have a restored relationship with God and one another as His people and the hope of the resurrection of life. May we participate in the new covenant between God and all mankind in Jesus, and obtain its benefits and blessings!
Ethan R. Longhenry