Founding Documents (2)
For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. Romans 15.4
Two covenants in one
The Book of God’s Covenant – the Bible – is divided into two covenantal dispensations, traditionally referred to as Old and New. These two Testaments together tell the story of God’s covenant relationship with His people, whereby He brings them to His Kingdom and righteousness through His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.
As covenants, both the Old and New Testaments partake of a similar structure. In each God comes to His people entirely by grace, offering precious and very great promises by which they may know Him and the blessings of a restored relationship with Him (cf. Gen. 12.1-3; 2 Pet. 1.4). These promises entail everything that pertains to life and godliness, all that human beings could ever want for happy and fruitful lives.
Enjoyment of the promises is contingent upon faith and obedience. Arrested by grace, God’s people respond by believing Him and His promises and following in the path He marks out for them as the way of obedience. All those who refuse the promises of God, freely and lavishly offered to undeserving sinners, are left to themselves and the ravages of sin, leading to death and everlasting separation from God.
This covenantal structure – grace, promises, faith and obedience, blessing or sanctions – holds the entirety of Scripture together. Wherever we may be reading in the Bible we can see that we are engaged in some aspect of this structure. Understanding this structure, and being able to discern it, helps us to hold the Bible together as one book and allows us to relate the parts, whether in the Old Testament or the New, to the whole.
This structure is evident in Scripture from the very beginning and recurs and expands in developing dispensations throughout the Old into the New Testament.
A story of covenant development
The Old Testament – 39 books written by some 35 authors over a period of around 1500 years – reveals the developing nature of God’s covenant relationship with His people. In the Old Testament we see God’s Covenant unfolding in five separate covenantal periods. Each of these lays the foundation for the next and, to a certain extent, continues into it, although certain “administrative” changes appear with each successive period.
Nevertheless, through all five periods, the structure of grace, promise, faith and obedience, and blessing or sanction remains intact.
The creation covenant. The first period of covenant-making in the Old Testament is that which begins with the creation. God did not have to create the world, and, in particular, He did not have to create people to live in this “very good” environment. God has no need of anything or anyone outside Himself; His act of creating, therefore, was entirely of grace, in order that created beings might share in His glory and enjoy the fullness of life and love He has known within Himself from all eternity past.
Graciously placing human beings in a lush, abundant, and beautiful environment, God commanded them, if they would know the fullness of His blessings, to obey His Word. When Adam and Eve failed, the sanctions of the creation covenant fell upon them, and they died to righteousness and, ultimately, to (temporal) life itself.
The covenant with Noah. By the time of Noah in Genesis 6 God’s covenant was already in place, although the people of earth had largely scorned its promises and consigned themselves to its judgments. God did not say that He would make a new covenant with Noah; rather, the covenant He extended to Him was “My” covenant – the one He had already initiated and was maintaining. In faith and obedience, Noah built the ark and brought the blessings of God to the world.
The covenant with Abraham. Following the episode of the Tower of Babel (Gen. 11) God moved to enlarge the scope of His covenant once again, by reaching out to Abram in Ur of the Chaldees and offering Him the promises of Genesis 12.1-3. To gain those promises Abram was commanded to believe God and obey, first, by going to the land of Canaan; second, by having a child with Sarah; and, third, by circumcising the child on the eighth day. During a season of testing and setbacks, Abraham obeyed God and was given a further promise that his descendants, after a period of sojourning in Egypt, would return to Canaan where they would flourish in the promises of God (Gen. 15.12-21).
We note that the form of God’s covenant relationship with Abraham was the same as that with Adam and Noah – approached by grace, given promises, told how to obey, and blessed for obedience. The way the covenant was administered differed in each of these periods, due to changes in the historical circumstances in which the covenant was offered. The form of it, however, remained the same, and we can see certain elements of the covenant continuing unchanged in each period, as, for example, the command to multiply and fill the earth.
The covenant with Moses. Following their period of captivity in Egypt, Israel was now no longer a tribal entity, but a great nation. God’s covenant would once again need to be altered – without compromising the essential structure or replacing the core components of promise – in order to meet the needs of a nation of people.
The Law of God, the land of Canaan, and the tabernacle became the primary administrative components used by God in this new epoch of covenant development in order to extend His blessings to His people. Israel was not saved by keeping the Law; they were saved by grace. Keeping the Law was the way to show gratitude to God and to demonstrate their covenant uniqueness (cf. Deut. 4.1-8).
The covenant with David. With David God expanded the scope of the covenant, formalizing it into the kingdom aspect which was first promised in Genesis 35.9-12 and 49.8-11. The kingdom focus is twofold, one on an earthly monarchy, descended from David, and one extending as an eternal Kingdom through, we must suppose, an eternal Son (2 Sam. 7.8-16; cf. Ps. 89.1-37). Again, the purpose of this new dispensation of God’s covenant was not to nullify what had gone before, but to adapt, adjust, and enlarge God’s Covenant in order to prepare for its final stage of development, that of the New Covenant.
We may thus think of the Old Testament developing within a covenantal structure, according to progressive covenant epochs, each overlapping and bringing forward aspects of the previous period, while, at the same time, introducing new components and developments in God’s covenant relationship with His people.
This same structure continues into the period of the New Testament, which, indeed, is already anticipated and foretold within the Old Testament, as we shall see.
Are your Bible reading and study practices what they ought to be? For a concise overview of how to study and apply the Bible, go to our book store and order a copy of Text to Transformation.