What is a covenant?

A covenant (Hebrew, berith; Greek, diatheke) is a legal agreement between two or more parties.  The word "covenant(s)" occurs 284 times in the Old Testament (as found in the New American Standard Bible).  "Covenant(s)" occurs 37 times in the New Testament, which gives a total of 321 occurrences.

Using covenants is how God communicates to us, redeems us, and guarantees us eternal life in Jesus.  He does this because a covenant is a promise, and God's promises cannot be broken since they rest in his infinite, pure character.  The Bible is a covenant document.  The Old and New Testaments are really Old and New Covenants.  The word "testament" is Latin for Covenant.

There is a pattern to the covenants found in the Bible.  Basically, it is as follows.  The initiating party describes himself, and what he has done, then there is a list of obligations between the two (or more) parties.  What follows is the section dealing with rewards and punishments that govern the keeping and breaking of the covenant.  The Ten Commandments fit this pattern and are a covenant document.

  • The initiating party describes himself and what he has done.
    • "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery," (Exodus 20:2).
  • Then there is a list of obligations between the two (or more) parties.  
    • "You shall have no other gods before Me," (Exodus 20:3)
    • "You shall not make for yourself an idol..." (Exodus 20:4).
    • "You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain..." (Exodus 20:7)
    • etc.
  • Then there is the section dealing with rewards and punishments that govern the keeping and breaking of the covenant.
    • "... for the Lord will not leave him unpunished who takes His name in vain," (Exodus 20:7).
    • "Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be prolonged in the land which the Lord your God gives you," (Exodus 20:12).

Covenants can be conditional or non-conditional.  A conditional covenant might depend on the faithfulness of one or more parties, and the covenant is invalidated should one or both break the conditions.  An example of this would be the Adamic Covenant where God promised Adam eternal life if Adam remained obedient to God's word.  An unconditional covenant is one that is not dependent on the faithfulness of the parties but remains valid.  The Noahic Covenant is unconditional in that it is God's promise to never destroy the earth again by water.  There is no condition for the covenant.

All covenants in the Bible between God and man are originated by God and are an act of his grace.

Covenant Signs

Covenants have signs that represent the covenant promises.  

  1. The Adamic Covenant was made between God and Adam, where Adam would have everlasting life based on obedience to God (Gen. 1:28-30; 2:15).  The sign was the Tree of Life (Gen. 2:9).
  2. The Noahic Covenant was between God and Noah and was the promise by God to never destroy the earth again by a flood (Gen. 9:11).  The sign of the covenant is the rainbow (Gen. 9:13).
  3. The Mosaic Covenant was between God and the Israelites, where they would be a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6), and the sign of the covenant was the tablets of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 24:12).
  4. The New Covenant is between Christ and his church and consists of obtaining eternal salvation.  The covenant sign is baptism (Col. 2:11-12) with the continued participation in the covenant via the Lord's Supper (1 Cor. 11:25).

About The Author

Matt Slick is the President and Founder of the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry.