“I’m just not sure if I see God as good. I see Him as holy but not necessarily kind.”
Someone said this to me a few days ago, and it immediately brought me back to my teenage years when I had the exact same thought. I was trying to read through the Old Testament, and I remember being so confused by God’s responses to His people. In Exodus, He responded to the Israelites’ grumblings in the wilderness with grace time after time. Then suddenly in Numbers, He responded to the exact same grumblings with curses and serpents.
I found myself wondering: Did He just run out of patience? Does that mean His grace for me also has limits? Why did He keep blessing Abraham and Moses, even though they made so many terrible choices, but then didn’t show that same continued grace to His people when they were wandering in the desert? Does He have favorites?
Thankfully, God used His Word to answer my questions and reinforce His identity as a loving Father. If anyone out there is in a similar place—I want to encourage you to study covenants. The reason it’s so important to learn about and understand these different covenants/agreements is not because we need a deep, historical understanding to be a “good Christian.” Rather, it is to help us understand why God reacted in different ways in different parts of Scripture, and to help us recognize what it means to be entrusted to carry the message of the new covenant to people around the world.
“Now, it’s because of God’s mercy that we have been entrusted with the privilege of this new covenant ministry.”
– 2 Corinthians 4:1
WHAT IS A COVENANT?
So, what is a covenant? Historically, a covenant is a binding agreement between two or more parties or entities, where the penalty of breaking the agreement is death. The official definition that you can find in the dictionary is: A formal, solemn, and binding agreement or promise usually under seal between two or more parties, especially for the performance of some action.
Here are some components of all covenants made before the 20th century:
- Covenants were based on each party’s word
- They had a clear list of benefits and consequences
- They included a list of responsibilities for each party
- There was a blood exchange
- There was a gift exchange
- There were no loopholes
There were two parts of a covenant: the legal part and the relational part.
In Hebrew, the legal part of the covenant was the Brit (which means to cut.) This is where the blessings and curses were listed out along with the responsibilities, and then both parties needed to cut themselves and mingle their blood before exchanging gifts.
The relational part of the covenant was the Chesed. This part meant that everything owned by one party belonged to the other, and vice versa. This is similar to what we see in a marriage—everything that the husband has now belongs to the wife, and everything the wife has now belongs to the husband. This part of the covenant also gave each party the ability to call for anything and everything at any given time.
Covenants were made frequently between tribes or people groups. In Scripture, there are several covenants that take place throughout the Old and New Testament. The original covenant—established at creation—was directly between God and man. It was a fairly simple covenant: God promised Adam eternal life and dominion over the earth as long as he refrained from eating the fruit of the forbidden tree. When Adam ate from the tree, he gave away the covenant, enacting the consequences: death and loss of authority over the earth.
Noah and Abraham also had a blood covenant with God. What was unique about both of these is that the covenants were made by God with Himself on behalf of man—which means God took the place of both parties.
In Genesis 15, when God was speaking to Abraham (Abram at the time), Abraham responded to God’s promise by saying, “But how will I know?” And how did God respond? Scripture says that the creator of our universe responded by meeting Abraham at his faith level and making a covenant for his sake—established and sealed by a blood sacrifice.
When establishing a blood covenant, it was typical for both parties to pass between halved animals to signify the seriousness of the commitments each party was making. In Genesis 15:17, only God passed through the center of the animals, while He put Abraham in a deep sleep. This shows us that the covenant was unilateral, meaning its fulfillment was dependent on God and His sovereignty alone, not on Abraham. Abraham only had to believe, and then it was credited to him as righteousness. This was the same covenant the Israelites were under when they first came out of Egypt.
As we can see later in Exodus, this was a covenant of grace. While traveling to Mt. Sinai, the Israelites doubted God on the shores of the Red Sea, and God, out of His mercy, delivered them. They complained about the water at Marah, and God, out of His kindness, provided for them. They grumbled about hunger in the desert, and God, out of His love, supplied them with abundant bread and meat.
These are the sort of actions that are displayed in a covenant of grace. The fulfillment is not based on the works or obedience of the people, but on God and His faithfulness alone. None of the covenants made after the fall in the garden were made directly between God and Man…Until the Mosaic Covenant (Ten Commandments.)
The covenant that God made with Moses and the Israelites was different than previous covenants because Israel requested to be the second party in the covenant. When the Mosaic Covenant was made, the people were longing for their own leader, so God entered into a promise with them directly on the basis that they fulfilled certain requirements. Deuteronomy 27-28 provides a detailed list of blessings and curses that were established under this covenant.
So, it’s important to know that the reason God’s reaction to His people changed between Exodus and Numbers was because the Israelites had entered into a different covenant with God. When they were under the Abrahamic Covenant, Israel became arrogant. They started to believe that they could follow the covenant out of their own strength. They started to see themselves as equal partners in God’s covenant, but they did not like His terms and wanted to be in control. So, at Mount Sinai, everything changed. They signed up for a new, law-based covenant where God’s blessings now hinged on their faithfulness and obedience. The people told God that they could do everything He was asking of them. They basically said to God: “Judge us based on our obedience and ability instead of Your goodness and mercy.”
The Ten Commandments, along with the other laws given to the Israelites, are found in the very next chapter, Exodus 20. While the Abrahamic Covenant was a unilateral covenant (binding only based upon one person’s actions), the Mosaic Covenant was a bilateral covenant (binding on the action of both parties.) Though its ultimate fulfillment was still dependent on God, in the Mosaic Covenant there was also now an agreement that had to be fulfilled by the Israelites. If they failed to meet the standard of the covenant, they would fail to experience the blessings of the covenant.
While the Mosaic law was good and holy, since it was established by God, the covenant was weak because it was dependent on human ability. Hebrews 8:7-8 says the covenant had fault, but the fault was with the people. The Israelites couldn’t live up to the promise that they had made to God. They immediately broke their end of the covenant when they created the golden calf, and it was only Moses’ fervent prayer and God’s unfailing mercy that kept them from being consumed by God’s wrath right then and there.
After this exchange, take note how God reacted to the same repeated sins of the Israelites. In Numbers 21:4-6, for instance, the people spoke against God and against Moses. The Lord then sent fiery serpents among them. In the Mosaic Covenant, the people experienced God’s justice in the form of His punishment rather than the grace and provision they had seen before. This is the difference between a grace covenant, like the one God had made on behalf of Abraham, and a works-based covenant. There were punishments for transgressions and disobedience, and rewards for faithful obedience.
But, even under this covenant, God showed His people grace in His goodness and mercy. Instead of calling for their immediate deaths when they fell short, which would have been fair and expected, He instead instituted the sacrificial system. For someone to be made clean after they failed to uphold their end of the covenant, they were required to bring an unblemished lamb to God as an atonement for their sins once a year. The sinner would lay their hands on the lamb’s head before it was killed, transferring their sins onto the lamb. In return, the lamb’s innocence would then be imparted to the sinner, making him righteous.
Hebrews 8:8 reminds us that the Lord knew a new covenant would come—one that would be perfect and faultless: “Behold, the days are coming…when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah.”
THE NEW COVENANT
The New Covenant—which is the one that believers live under today—was established on the cross when the Lamb of God took all of our sins upon Himself: past, present, and future. Unlike the previous sacrificial system, which was only good for one year at a time, Christ’s sacrifice on the cross didn’t just hide the sins for one year. It completely covered all sins for all time.
This covenant was the culmination of God’s plan to save His people.
As we already know, when Adam sinned, he gave away the original covenant between God and man. Since God could not break His own covenant, He needed a different man—one who could uphold the covenant—to reclaim dominion for mankind. This is why Jesus had to become fully man and shed His blood. He restored what Adam lost when He fulfilled all of the Old Covenants and established the New Covenant.
The cross brought us back to being able to experience a permanent state of grace by giving us Christ’s righteousness. Jesus was the only one who could perfectly satisfy the covenant God had created because He was fully God and fully man. So, by nailing the law to the cross, He fulfilled its requirements on our behalf. Now, believers stand as forgiven, righteous, and blessed children of God because of Christ’s finished work.
As Paul writes in Colossians 2:13-14: “When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with Christ, having forgiven us all our sins, having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of legal demands against us and which were hostile to us. And this certificate He has set aside and completely removed by nailing it to the cross.”
Looking at the New Covenant that Jesus established, these are the parts of the Mosaic Covenant that were fulfilled and rendered obsolete:
- Sacrificial offerings
- Curses and enmity with God
- The need to go through a priest to approach God
- The requirement of perfectly keeping all of the laws
The terms were changed.
Now, through the blood covenant Jesus made with the Father, we have only to believe in Him, the One who was sent, to be saved by grace through faith and have access to all of the blessings:
- Relationship and right-standing with God
- Eternal life
- The gift and baptism of the Holy Spirit
- Authority over the earth and power on the earth
- Becoming co-heirs with Christ and sharing in His inheritance
- Access to all of Heaven’s resources and promises
One of my favorite verses depicting this is Romans 8:3-4, which says:
“For God achieved what the law was unable to accomplish, because the law was limited by the weakness of human nature. Yet God sent us his Son in human form to identify with human weakness. Clothed with humanity, God’s Son gave his body to be the sin-offering so that God could once and for all condemn the guilt and power of sin. So now every righteous requirement of the law can be fulfilled through the Anointed One living his life in us. And we are free to live, not according to our flesh, but by the dynamic power of the Holy Spirit!”
Believers now live under the power of the Father’s grace, by the Holy Spirit, through the Son’s sacrifice. This covenant is not based on our faithfulness, but on Christ’s faithfulness. It is not determined by our works, but by Christ’s finished work on the cross.
In Greek, the word “Gospel” translates to “good news” or “a message of victory”. The Gospel is the good news that Jesus came to pay the penalty for our sin so that we might become children and heirs of God. Everything Jesus did while He was on the earth foreshadowed the victory that was to come. He took what others deserved and, in return, gave them healing, freedom, and right-standing with the Father.
Mark 1 tells of a leper, who was an outcast because Levitical law said that the unclean had to remain separate, or apart. Jesus touched the man and healed him. He told the man, “Don’t tell anyone”, but the man went out and told them anyway. Because of this, Jesus could no longer enter a town openly, but stayed outside in the lonely places.
In Mark 5, a man with an impure spirit came across Jesus. We are told that no one was strong enough to subdue him, so people feared him and stayed away. But when Jesus came, He cast the demons out of the man and into the pigs. When the people saw the man who had been possessed sitting there, dressed and in his right mind, they were afraid, begging Jesus to leave their region.
In Luke 7, there was a woman who lived a sinful life and was judged by the Pharisees. Yet when she saw Jesus, she wet His feet with her tears, wiped them with her hair, and poured perfume on them. Jesus told her that her sins were forgiven and the other guests began to judge Jesus, asking, “Who is this who forgives sins?”
At the beginning of the story, the leper was in the lonely place. The possessed man was feared. The woman was judged. But by the end of the story, Jesus was in the lonely place. Jesus was feared. Jesus was judged. He didn’t just save them—He took their place.
Under the New Covenant, Jesus didn’t just save us—He took our place in the covenant, so that we could take His, and come face to face with the Father of grace.
And, as my husband likes to say, ALL of the Father’s thoughts about you are good. Psalms 136:15 says He wrote a whole book about you, and He wants to fulfill every page. Psalm 139:18 says that His thoughts for you outnumber the sands on the shore. Do you know how many thoughts those are? He would have to think over 95,000 thoughts a second about you from the time you’re born until the moment you die—and ALL of those are good. All of His thoughts about you are good. He tells us over and over again, “You are My treasure. The most valuable thing I have—because I gave My Son for you. And now nothing can separate you from My love.”
That is the message of victory.
That is the good news.
That is the Gospel!