The word “covenant” is used all throughout the Bible by God to describe His relationship with us. Before He flooded the world, God told Noah “But I will establish My covenant with you; and you shall enter the ark—you and your sons and your wife, and your sons’ wives with you.” (Genesis 6:18)
After the flood, God made a promise to Noah:
God said, “This is the sign of the covenant which I am making between Me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all successive generations; I set My bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a sign of a covenant between Me and the earth. It shall come about, when I bring a cloud over the earth, that the bow will be seen in the cloud, and I will remember My covenant, which is between Me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and never again shall the water become a flood to destroy all flesh. (Genesis 9:12-15)
With Abram (before he was given his new covenant name, Abraham) God initiated His covenant. He then issued some rather specific commands:
I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make nations of you, and kings will come forth from you. I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your descendants after you. I will give to you and to your descendants after you, the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God.”
God said further to Abraham, “Now as for you, you shall keep My covenant, you and your descendants after you throughout their generations. This is My covenant, which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: every male among you shall be circumcised. (Genesis 17: 6-10)
Abraham was to “keep” the covenant. He was also to be circumcised — along with all males who enter into the covenant — on the 8th day after they were born. This theme of covenant prosperity (nations and kings coming forth) continues throughout the Old Testament, and is made more clear after the giving of the Ten Commandments at Mt. Sinai:
“Then he took the book of the covenant and read it in the hearing of the people; and they said, “ All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient!” (Exodus 24:7)
So it is clear that there are expectations that go along with the covenant. The Ten Commandments are laws; God’s people were to keep God’s laws — they were to be obedient to God.
What is the purpose of the covenant? As is written, “So keep the words of this covenant to do them, that you may prosper in all that you do.” (Deuteronomy 29:9)
This theme of the covenant continues to run through the New Testament:
But now He has obtained a more excellent ministry, by as much as He is also the mediator of a better covenant, which has been enacted on better promises. For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion sought for a second. (Hebrews 8:7)
and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood, which speaks better than the blood of Abel. (Hebrews 12:24)
Now the God of peace, who brought up from the dead the great Shepherd of the sheep through the blood of the eternal covenant, even Jesus our Lord (Hebrews 13:20)
So the question really becomes, for us: what is a covenant? What is its structure? The Bible obviously speaks of an old covenant and a new covenant. But what do we know about them?
THE COVENANT DEFINED
The answers to these questions have been provided by Ray Sutton in his breakthrough book That You May Prosper. He has recognized that God’s covenant is always a five-point structure. There is a convenient acronym, “THEOS”, to go along with the five points to help remember them:
Point 1, Transcendence/Immanence, identifies the initiator of the covenant: God. God is sovereign over history and all of His creation. God created the universe from outside of His being; we commonly say that He created the world from “nothing.” This means that God is transcendent to His creation; He is separate from it. God is not part of creation, as monistic religions like Hinduism pronounce; He is completely outside of it. At the same time, He is present in His creation. He sustains it through His providence. He interacts with it. He influences it.
Point 2, Hierarchy, means that God delegates authority to His chosen representatives. He makes the covenant with man. There is a hierarchy in creation, for example: God first, who created the heavens, the earth, and all of the creatures; then man, who is subordinate to God but has authority “over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” (Genesis 1:28)
Point 3, Ethics/Laws, are the terms of the covenant. This point is self-explanatory: these are the rules, and you must obey them. These rules are the Ten Commandments. They apply at all times, to all areas of life.
Point 4, Oath/Sanctions, relate to Point 3, ethics. God sets forth the laws we are required to obey, but so what? The 4th point lays out the sanctions for obeying the rules. Sanctions are two-fold: positive and negative. If you obey the rules, you are blessed. If you break the rules, you are cursed. The fourth point also describes the oath you take to enter into the covenant. The oath is self-maledictory: that means that you call down curses upon you if you break the terms of the covenant. The oath is taken in a symbolic manner (for example, circumcision in the Old Covenant, baptism in the New Covenant), but it has real power because the symbols are backed by God.
Point 5, Succession/Inheritance, lays out the terms of passing on the covenant from the current generation to the next generation. It also sets forth the ultimate ends of the covenant: if we persevere in obeying the rules and suffering the sanctions, what do we ultimately get? What will happen?
This is the way God structures His covenants with us. All five points are always intact. Deuteronomy is one of the clearest examples of this five-point covenant structure. It is written to follow the procession of these five points. Gary North describes the five-points in layman’s terms by asking five questions:
1. Who’s in charge here?
2. To whom do I report?
3. What are the rules?
4. What do I get if I obey (disobey)?
5. Does this outfit have a future?
The covenant doesn’t change, but the application of the terms of the covenant may change — for example, the application changed when Moses renewed the covenant by passing it into the hands of Joshua and Israel before they invaded Canaan. The application changed when the covenant was renewed under the terms of the new monarchy initiated with Saul. Also, since Jesus’ resurrection, He has filled the role of the high priest and abrogated the priestly laws of the Old Testament; through Him, we have all become priests. Recognizing the structure of God’s covenants helps us to better understand our relationship with God and what He expects from us — as well as what we can expect from Him.