[This post is from a session back in late August.]
Most of us who have been Christians for any length of time have been told that there were two “covenants” in the Bible – and “old covenant” and a “new covenant.” For Christians the latter is deemed to be the only important one, because the “old” one has been made obsolete by Jesus’ ministry, death and resurrection.
This is what I believed until Canadian Bible College Professor Andy Reimer gave my class the assignment of comparing and constrasting the various covenants found in the Bible. What? What did he mean by “various?”
It turns out that the Bible abounds with covenants. Some were personal, addressed to Abraham, for instance. Believe it or not, there were at least three distinct covenants between God and Abram/Abraham. At least two of these covenants have New Testament application in the sense that they foretell Jesus’ ministry and are held up as examples: 1) of Christian faith without works by Paul and 2) of Christian works because of faith by Jude.
God also made two covenants that I’m aware of with Jacob/Israel (the individual, not the nation).
There were covenants between God and a nation, too. I can think of at least three covenants between God and the nation of Israel. Two were made at Mt. Sinai. One was made before and one after the “golden calf” incident. That was necessary because the nation had already broken the covenant by making and worshipping another god.
Forty years later, another covenant is made at the Jordan River as the next generation of Israelites is about to finally enter the Promised Land (just before Moses dies). Most of the book of Deuteronomy details this covenant. (The previous generation had broken covenant by refusing to enter the promised land, and as a result the current generation of Israelites were not even circumcised – a symbol of being in covenant with God at that time.)
In addition to those three, the remnant of Judah who returned to the promised land from Babylonian captivity also entered into a covenant with God in the book of Nehemiah.
Believe it or not, there is an even older covenant that still seems to apply to some Christians by the time of the book of Acts. This is the covenant between God and Noah in Genesis 9:1-17, though it is a good idea to read Genesis 6-9 to get the whole story.
God’s “Older” Covenant With Noah: Some lessons we can learn
1. Noah would not have even been in the covenant without obedience first. He had to build the ark and get his family into it, because the covenant isn’t established until they step out into a new world.
Important safety tip: There is always obedience involved somehow in a covenant. For instance, even though eating meat is allowed, there are restrictions on eating meat with the blood in it.
2. There is a similarity with God’s command to Adam and Eve in Genesis 1 in the statement “Be fruitful and multiply…” The wording implies a previous covenant that God established with Adam and Eve (and, by extension, all of humanity). In a sense, Noah was entering a new world and that new world required a new covenant.
3. Notice with whom God is in covenant: Human beings descended from Noah plus all the creatures! God is not only interested in the human part of His created order! He even gives the creatures instructions not to kill human beings and imposes the death penalty for any creature that kills a human. God does not appear to see animals merely as “dumb beasts” that human beings can abuse in any way they want. He also protects them to a degree by making them naturally afraid of human beings.
4. Noah’s obedience saves the created order. Believe it or not, so does ours. (Romans 8:18-23) “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” [NIV]
5. Oddly enough, even Gentile Christians seem to remain under this covenant. Acts 15:19-21 says, “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood. For Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.”
Notice that the prohibition dating from Noah’s time against eating meat with blood in it continues even into the Gentile churches.
Thanks, but I think I’ll pass on the blood sausage…
From this example of an older covenant, I think it is unwise for any Christian to suggest that the Old Testament is irrelevant for modern-day Christians. The so-called Old Testament has a great many nuances that most of us are unaware of. There is still a great deal of wisdom and insight into the rest of the story of our salvation by Jesus Christ that is just waiting for us to discover in those ancient texts.