What is a covenant? And how does an understanding of the covenant concept help us understand the Bible? I’m Fred Zaspel, editor here at Books At a Glance, and that’s our topic for today. We’re talking to Dr. Tom Schreiner, author of the new book, Covenant and God’s Purpose for the World.
Tom great to have you with us again!
Thanks so much, Fred, it’s great to be with you.
What is a covenant?
A covenant, in contrast to a contract, is an agreement where there is a relationship and promises are made or obligations and there are consequences if you break those obligations. I think the best example in the Scriptures, and the best example for us to understand, is marriage. Marriage in Scripture is a covenant; it’s a relationship that promises one another; there are consequences if that covenant is broken. Sometimes people say that every covenant involves blood; but that’s not true in the Scripture. The most important ones do; but, of course, marriage is a covenant without any blood being offered. So, at least in my book, I go by minimalistic definition when you look at all of the examples of covenants in Scripture.
So, it’s a solemn oath but not necessarily sealed in blood? I think that was Robertson’s definition of it.
Right. We have a number of examples in Scripture where there’s no sacrifice, no giving of blood; and, of course, in marriage there’s not. You know, some people say that every covenant involves a pre-existing relationship; and I think that’s usually true, but I don’t think it’s always true. If you look at the example of the covenant with the Gibeonites and Joshua; they had no pre-existing relationship, but a covenant was made. So, sometimes definitions are given that I don’t think capture everything the Scriptures say about covenants. Often they describe what’s often true. But with my definition I was trying to look for a common bond that was always true.
What’s the essence of the covenant, then? Solemn oath? Obligations?
Yeah, I think it’s the oath, the commitment, the promises that are made to one another. Sometimes in Scripture berith is translated with the word treaty. So, you are making promises to one another, and there are obligations. And often in a covenant there are covenant curses if you break those vows and promises.
What makes the understanding of covenant so vital to understanding the Bible?
Well, I would say my book is really a footnote to Peter Gentry and Steve Wellum’s book, Kingdom Through Covenant; and I think they’re exactly right – covenant is the backbone for the storyline of the Bible. So, why do we have to understand covenants? We need to understand because we want to understand how the Bible fits together as a whole. We don’t want to just read the bits and pieces, the individual paragraphs; we want to see the whole story. And I think that story, which I think is rightly called the story of God’s kingdom, that story advances through the covenants God makes with his people. Therefore, covenant is absolutely essential to understand the Scriptures. If you don’t understand God’s covenants, it’s fair to say you cannot and will not understand Scripture.
Tell us how you pursue this subject in your book. Can you give us a brief overview? And then at the same time maybe an overview of the progression of the covenants.
Sure. I move through the covenants historically, one by one. If they are the backbone of the story of Scripture, I think it makes sense to move through them chronologically. I began with the Creation Covenant. Not everyone believes that there is such a covenant; the word covenant isn’t used there. But I argue, along with many others, that there is such a covenant made with Adam and Eve. You don’t have to have the word covenant for a covenant to exist. The covenant made with David, incidentally, in 2 Samuel 7, there’s no word covenant there; the word covenant is just used later. And I actually think in Hosea 6:7, where it speaks of Adam transgressing the covenant, that we have a reference to the Creation Covenant.
So, God makes a covenant with Adam and Eve and the covenant is they are to serve as God’s priest/kings in the garden, under God’s Lordship. They are to serve as God’s vice-regents; and they are to, I take it, advance his kingdom, but in obedience to the King. He gives them a command not to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil; and their obedience to that command signals whether they are obeying their covenant Lord. And if they disobey that covenant command, then they will experience the covenant curses. And, indeed, that’s what they did; they transgressed the covenant and the curse was death, as we know.
That could have been the end of the story; but, we see in Genesis 3:15 that God gives a promise to his people that the offspring of the woman will triumph over the serpent and the serpent’s offspring. God had mercy over the people. Immediately we see, in the storyline, we see the conflict of the seeds in the conflict of the offspring. I would see that with the conflict between Cain and Abel, for example. But it’s very clear that the evil unleashed in Adam and Eve’s disobedience is grave, because we come to the account of the flood in Genesis 6, where all of humanity, except for eight people, are wiped out because of human sin. So, we again see that God would be entirely just not to fulfill the promise made in Genesis 3:15. However, we have Noah and his family who were spared, the eight of them, and God makes a covenant with Noah. And I think the fundamental element of that covenant is he promises to preserve the world until the promise of redemption is realized. He will not wipe out the world again as he did at the flood. So, I think we can call the covenant with Noah is in many ways a repristination of the covenant with Adam. In some ways, know what is a new Adam, beginning the human race again. Many features of God’s relationship with Adam and Eve are repeated with Noah – be fruitful and multiply, so forth and so on. But the fundamental element is the world will be preserved until the promise is realized. However, one of the most interesting things about the covenant with Noah, is that the problem of sin is still not solved.
Then we move on to the covenant with Abraham. We have the Tower of Babel before that, showing again that human beings have not fundamentally changed. God makes a covenant with Abraham; and he promises Abraham lands, offspring, and universal blessing. The land is Canaan, the offspring initially is Isaac, and the universal blessing is rather far away. So that promise given to Abraham, (I’m just being brief here) has conditional and unconditional elements. Ultimately, Genesis 15 – we have a covenant ceremony there, ultimately that covenant is unconditional; but no particular individual will experience the blessings of that covenant unless they are obedient and faithful. The story of Abraham and his offspring continues. We come to the book of Exodus; Israel is in Egypt, they are not in the land. The promise of offspring is being fulfilled in significant ways. In fact, that promise is being fulfilled so significantly that Pharaoh tries to wipe out Israel, showing, by the way, that Pharaoh is the offspring of the serpent. And Pharaoh is trying to wipe out the nation; but the Lord fulfills his promise to Abraham. He frees the people from Egypt and then a covenant is made with Israel.
I would argue the covenant made with Israel at Sinai, with Moses, that covenant sets apart Israel from the rest of the nations. That covenant, I would argue, is a conditional covenant. God shows his grace to his people in freeing them from Egypt; but the covenant made with Israel is conditional. However, if Israel obeys, per the Abrahamic covenant, it will be the means by which the promise of the Abrahamic covenant is realized.
We fast-forward (I’m going quickly here – we can back up on anything you want to), but we fast-forward to the covenant with David; and in that covenant, we see that the promises of the covenant with Abraham – the promise of land and offspring and blessing – will be fulfilled through a king. Now, we’ve had indications of that earlier in the narrative, but now this is substantiated through a covenant with David. So, the offspring through which the whole world will be blessed is a king, and will be a son of David, fundamentally. Meanwhile, Israel, with David and Solomon, David does well, mainly, but Solomon, of course, slips into significant sin. The kingdom is divided and the curses of the covenant made with Israel are realized in both the northern kingdom and the southern kingdom. And both the northern and southern kingdoms go into exile.
So, instead of the promises being filled, the promises are going backwards, right? Instead of being in the land, they are outside the land. We remember the promise given to Abraham of universal blessing – well, it’s not happening, at all. But God makes a new covenant with his people. We see this in Jeremiah 31, Ezekiel 36; we see it in Isaiah and other prophets as well. And that New Covenant (maybe we can elaborate on this in another question) but that New Covenant is the means by which the covenant with Abraham and the covenant with David, and really the covenant with Adam, is realized. And the Old Covenant passes away. The Old Covenant is obsolete with the arrival of the New Covenant.
How is the New Covenant related to all the previous covenants, and how did they all come to climax?
I would say that the new covenant fulfills the promise, really, first given to Adam, a promise of blessing and rule. That covenant promise is realized through an offspring of Abraham, a child of Abraham. That’s one of the fundamental promises given to Abraham that he would have offspring. But when we read in the New Testament, who is fundamentally the offspring of Abraham? It’s Jesus Christ – Galatians, Chapter 3, verse 16. Who is the son of David? Who is the fulfillment of that promise? And, of course, that promise given to David fulfills the promise to Abraham. Well, Jesus is the Son of David and indeed he is the Son of God. He is the true Israel. He’s more than a human being, but he’s not less than a human being. So, he’s the true son of Abraham; he’s the Son of God; he’s the Son of Man; and he’s the Servant of the Lord of Isaiah 53. Which I think is very significant, as well, because we remember, in Isaiah, that the Servant of the Lord is Israel. So, all the promises, as Paul says in 2 Corinthians 1:20, all the promises culminate in Jesus Christ, given to Abraham.
Now, that’s the promise of offspring – what about the promise of land? This is a very controversial subject, but I would argue that the promise of land is fundamentally fulfilled, first, in the resurrection of Jesus himself. Every promise is fulfilled in Jesus; so the resurrection, the physical resurrection of Jesus, it’s the inauguration of that promise made, originally, to Adam and reaffirmed to Abraham and David. That new covenant promise is fulfilled in Jesus’ resurrection; but it’s ultimately fulfilled in the new creation – in the new heavens and the new earth where the whole universe is God’s temple, the whole universe is where God resides.
And of course, the promise of universal blessing – we never saw that fulfilled in the Old Covenant. But that is fulfilled through Jesus Christ in the preaching of the church as the Gospel goes to every tribe, tongue, people and nation. At the same time, Fred, we see that the Old Covenant has passed away. The Old Covenant is obsolete now. The Old Covenant was made fundamentally with Israel. It wasn’t an evil covenant, it was a fine covenant; but it didn’t give people the ability to have regenerate and transformed hearts. So, we see in the New Covenant promise in Jeremiah, which is picked up in Hebrews, and 2 Corinthians 3, and other places, as well, the Lord’s Supper, Jesus picks this up. Now God has given his people a new heart, a regenerate heart, and that was not provided under the Old Covenant. The New Covenant is not just a renewed covenant; but it’s truly a New Covenant. We no longer live under the stipulations and the rules of the Old Covenant, now that the New Covenant has come. And, the New Covenant promises, as well, that there would be forgiveness of sin; and, of course, the forgiveness of sin takes place through the servant of the Lord, through Jesus Christ who died for the sake and in the place of his people to grant them new life.
I’d love to pursue this further with regard to the relation of the Old and New Covenants, but I think that will have to be for another time.
Before we sign off, what is the audience you are aiming at in this book?
This book is not a complicated book. This book is for the ordinary layperson, Sunday School teacher, really, any Christian. It’s rather brief and it’s not technical; so I hope it’s just accessible to the ordinary reader – the kind of book that can be given to someone who says, “I just want some sense of how the whole Bible fits together. What do the covenants mean for Christians today?” I’m hopeful that the book will be read by many people who haven’t done technical study but want to have some understanding of the Scriptures.
Yes, in a sense, I think this is an entry level survey of the Bible story.
We’re talking to Dr. Tom Schreiner of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and author of the new book, Covenant and God’s Purpose for the World. It’s a great little book, accessible to virtually all Christian readers, and a very helpful guide to understanding this massively important biblical subject.
Tom, thanks for talking to us today.
Thanks so much, Fred, I enjoyed being with you.
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Covenant and God’s Purpose for the World