Merriam-Webster: a usually formal, solemn, and binding agreement.
Dictionary.com: an agreement, usually formal, between two or more persons to do or not do something specified. Ecclesiastical: a solemn agreement between the members of a church to act together in harmony with the precepts of the gospel.
Biblical Meaning of Covenant
According to the Bible Dictionary of Bible Study Tools,
The word "covenant," infrequently heard in conversation, is quite commonly used in legal, social (marriage), and religious and theological contexts.
The Idea of Covenant. The term "covenant" is of Latin origin (con venire), meaning a coming together. It presupposes two or more parties who come together to make a contract, agreeing on promises, stipulations, privileges, and responsibilities. In religious and theological circles, there has not been agreement on precisely what is to be understood by the biblical term. It is used variously in biblical contexts. In political situations, it can be translated treaty; in a social setting, it means a lifelong friendship agreement; or it can refer to a marriage.
In its biblical meaning, two functions of the word are used:
1. Of a covenant between God and man; e.g., God covenanted [or promised] with Noah after the flood that a like judgment should not be repeated. It is not precisely like a covenant between men but was a promise or agreement by God. The principal covenants are the covenant of works --God promising to save and bless men on condition of perfect obedience --and the covenant of grace, or God's promise to save men on condition of their believing in Christ and receiving him as their Master and Saviour. The first is called the Old Covenant, from which we name the first part of the bible the Old Testament, the Latin rendering of the word covenant. The second is called the New Covenant, or New Testament.
2. Covenant between man and man, i.e., a solemn compact or agreement, either between tribes or nations (Joshua 9:6 Joshua 9:15; 1 Samuel 11:1) or between individuals (Genesis 31:44) by which each party bound himself to fulfill certain conditions and was assured of receiving certain advantages. In making such a covenant, God was solemnly invoked as a witness (Genesis 31:50), and an oath was sworn. (Genesis 21:31) A sign or witness of the covenant was sometimes framed, such as a gift (Genesis 21:30) or a pillar or heap of stones erected. (Genesis 31:52)
Examples of Covenants in Scripture
We find several covenants in the Bible, most between God and a group or individual. Arguably, there are more than what’s listed below, but most scholars agree on these four main covenants throughout Scripture.
First, Noah receives a covenant after God sent a worldwide Flood.
He also instructs Noah, as He had with Adam and Eve, to be fruitful and multiply.
Second, we see a covenant between God and Abraham.
This involves slicing animals in half (Genesis 12). And interestingly enough, God puts Abraham in a deep sleep and passes through the pieces by himself.
That means God takes on the covenant twofold, including the curses involved if he doesn’t uphold his end of the deal. In this covenant, God promises to make Abraham a great nation (Israel), give him the Promised Land, and make Abraham’s name great. God does all of these things.
Third, God makes a covenant between himself and King David.
Through David’s line, there would be a king (Jesus) unlike any other to deliver God’s people. As we learn in 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings, David’s family goes astray, but God fulfills his end of the covenant, and through David’s line comes Jesus.
Finally, we have the New Covenant in Jesus Christ.
“‘The days are coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah.’” (Jeremiah 31:31). This involves Christians today.
Because humanity had fallen far from the grace of God, and God wanted a renewal of the relationship, we have something known as the New Covenant. Through God’s son and his sacrifice, we have the chance for a redemptive relationship with our Savior.
No wonder we call the New Testament the New Testament. Because it fulfills the New Covenant through Jesus.
Luke 22:20 ~ And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.
Hebrews 9:15 ~ Therefore He is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant. (Bold added)
Why Do Covenants Matter to Us?
Covenants should matter to us because the last one listed involves everyone today. Through Jesus’ sacrifice, we can become God’s people.
But covenants also show God’s true and loyal nature. If He says he will do something, He will not break that promise.
We can also see God’s faithful fulfillment of the other covenants, even when humans sinned and didn’t hold up their end of the oath. Praise the Lord that we have such a wonderful God who will also fulfill his covenants and promises.
How Do Covenants Relate to Interpreting Scripture?
So one of the main features that we see throughout the Bible are covenants. Covenants are not exactly contracts in the way we think of contracts today, though there is some similarity. A covenant is essentially a relationship, but it's a relationship that has been formalized and has been brought under sanctions, as it were. So there are blessings that come if the relationship is kept, and there are penalties that come if the relationship is broken, and a covenant is simply the terms of that relationship.
This was a very common feature of the ancient Near East in the way nations governed their relationships with each other, and God in his kindness and his condescension so that we can understand what He's doing, kind of picked up that form and used it to describe our relationship with Him, since He is the great king, and He has brought us into a relationship with Himself.
The language of covenant beginning, I think, in very seed form even in Genesis 1 and 2, but then in its fullest expression later on with Noah and then with Abraham. We see the covenant established with Israel, and then a personal covenant established with David, and then finally the new covenant that is announced in the prophets and fulfilled in Christ. These covenants become a way of helping us understand how is it that we relate to God, and He relates to us.
The covenants are not all the same, though they're all related. Part of understanding how the Bible fits together is understanding how the various covenants that God's revealed either build on one another and fulfill one another, or in some ways are quite different from each other and are introducing something new.
Why Are Covenants Important to Us Today?
Everything that God does is based on covenant. And when you take the bible, it's divided into two parts, the Old Testament or the Old Covenant and the New Testament or the New Covenant. So he is the God of covenants, he is the sovereign administrator of covenants. Now, what is a covenant?
A covenant is a solemn binding agreement. And it is made by passing through pieces of flesh. So you go through the whole bible which I've done because I've written a book on covenant and the covenants. But you go through the whole bible and you see that he made a covenant, Abraham made a covenant, others made covenants. So they made a covenant.
The first time that you actually see the cutting of covenant is in Genesis 15. And this is where God has told Abraham in Genesis 12, that he's going to make of him a great nation. Well if you're going to make of him a great nation, he has to have a child. And he says, "You know one born in my house, my servant, could be like a son he could be my heir." God says, "No, come here." And he takes him out and he says, "Count the stars if you are able." And he says, "So shall your seed be." Singular, not plural.
Abraham says, "How am I going to know?" And he says, "You get these animals, you bring them, you kill them, you cut them in half, you lay them each opposite one another. And then God came down in a smoking oven and a flaming torch and he passed between the pieces. You can think of like an eight where there's no end. And he passed through the pieces. So he makes a covenant.
Then Galatians says 430 years later, he makes another covenant. And that covenant is the law at Sinai. That covenant is a covenant that has to be kept on both sides. The Abrahamic covenant is unconditional. God walks through the pieces, Abraham doesn't. Blessings and cursings, you obey you get blessed, you disobey you get cursed, you get judgment. And so that law becomes a school master as Galatians 3 says, to shut us up until faith in Messiah comes, until faith in Jeshua, until faith in Jesus the Christ, the Messiah comes.
Then you have the Davidic covenant in there. In 2 Samuel 7 you have the Davidic covenant. And in the Davidic covenant, God makes a covenant with David. Messiah is going to sit on your throne. You will have someone who will sit on your throne forever.
Then in Jeremiah 31, where God is getting ready to take, to destroy Jerusalem. Because they disobeyed. And he's told them over and over and over again, and they have not listened. So when Jeremiah before he does this, he says, "I'm going to make a new covenant with you. Not like the covenant which I made would when I took you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. My covenant which you broke." And you even see Moses taken those tables ourselves stone and smashing them down because they broke the covenant.
And he says, "But this is the covenant that I will make with you in those days. I will take my law and I will write in on your heart. No longer on tables of stone, but I will write it on your heart. I will be your God, you will be my people. And I will forgive your sins and remember them no more."
And so here is a covenant that is a covenant that is written on tables of flesh, our heart. And here is a covenant in Ezekiel 36 will expand that, that puts his Spirit within us. Here is a covenant that grants us forgiveness of sins. But you say, "But if you don't put men under the law, they can't obey God." Oh, they can. Because the new covenant puts his Spirit within us, puts the law within us. So that his Spirit within me causes me to walk in the statues, enables me to keep his commandments.
Key Bible Verses about Covenants
Hebrews 8:6 ~ But as it is, Christ has obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises.
Exodus 34:28 ~ So he was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights. He neither ate bread nor drank water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments.
Jeremiah 31:31-34 ~ “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”
Deuteronomy 4:13 ~ And he declared to you his covenant, which he commanded you to perform, that is, the Ten Commandments, and he wrote them on two tablets of stone.
Matthew 26:28 ~ For this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.
Exodus 19:5 ~ Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine;
Hebrews 13:20-21 ~ Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.