Theology 101

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Biblical Covenants

Covenant Defined

In common terms, a covenant is a formal and binding agreement between two or more parties to do or not do something specified. That which is specified in the agreement are the covenant stipulations.

Dr. Hal Harless: A covenant is “a solemn unilateral obligation made binding by an oath.”1)

Dr. Peter S. Ruckman: Covenants are “agreements between God and man, or simply interventions, by God, to set up an agreement… the Covenants mark the boundaries of each 'period of time…' (each economy / administration of the dispensation).2)

In the Bible covenants are the legal mechanism by which God sets up a steward in a stewardship. The covenant stipulations become the responsibility of the steward in his stewardship and delegate to him the authority required and necessary to carry out the responsibility. The covenant stipulation, then, become the legal basis for judgment if the steward is found less than faithful in in stewardship.

Covenant Types

There are three types of covenants in the Bible3):

  1. Grant Covenant: Unconditional
  2. Suzerainty 4) Covenant: Conditional
  3. Parity Covenant: Between Equals

The Grant Covenant: Unconditional

A suzerain is a sovereign exercising political control over a dependent state (e.g., the Great King over his vassals in his Great Kingdom).

The superior party (God) binds himself, not the inferior (man). The superior party binds himself to some obligation for the benefit of the inferior, and he does so by oath (a binding promise). This is a unilateral (in one direction) commitment by the superior party for the benefit of the inferior.

Example: The Abrahamic Covenant. God promised certain things unconditionally to Abraham and his descendants. Any conditions observed within the context of a grant covenant are conditions to enter into the covenant (i.e., Abraham was required to leave land and family before he could enter into this covenant with God; Gen 12.1). Once the conditions of entry into the covenant are met, however, the inferior party has no more conditions placed on him; the superior party has stated in the covenant that “I will…” without condition.

Grant covenants are unilateral oaths of the Great King granting unconditionally land and/or privileges to a vassal (a subject in His kingdom). The majority of all the major biblical covenants between God and man are grant (unconditional) covenants.

The Suzerainty Covenant: Conditional

The inferior party (man) binds himself, not the superior (God). The inferior party binds himself to some obligation in service to the superior party, and he does so by oath (binding promise).

The covenant of this nature often includes provisions offered by the superior if the inferior keeps his oath. If the inferior keeps his oath, the superior is bound to fulfill his promise of provision.

This is a unilateral commitment by the inferior party who binds himself to the superior party. Note that the failure of the inferior to fulfill his oath (what he promised to do) will invalidate and nullify the covenant (the provisions offered by the superior) but the oath remains. The inferior party is still bound until his oath is fulfilled.

The most notable example of a suzerainty (conditional) covenant in the Bible is the Mosaic Covenant.

The Parity Covenant

There is a third type of covenant mentioned in the Bible: a parity covenant. This is a covenant between equals, somewhat similar to the modern concept of a contract or partnership. Each party voluntarily assumes agreed upon obligations.

Parity covenants are frequently seen in the Bible between men and/or nations (e.g., Gen 14.13: the “confederacy” [alliance] between Abraham and some of the peoples surrounding his homeland) but never between God and man. God and man are not equals; the relationship between God and man is one of Superior to inferior, King to vassal.

The Mosaic Covenant

The Mosaic Covenant is a conditional suzerainty covenant.

  1. Israel, the vassal, bound herself by oath to God, the Sovereign King.
  2. God promised provision in this covenant if Israel was faithful to her oath.
  3. Therefore, God's provision included blessing or cursing based on Israel's obedience.


Because this is a conditional suzerainty covenant, one could say that it was imposed upon Israel by God, the Great King. This is a “non-gracious” covenant; it is a conditional covenant based upon the words of Israel. The blessings found in this covenant were made to depend on Israel's faithfulness to her oath (promise) to obey.

General Stipulations Regarding God: God's conditional covenant provision offered to Israel is found in Exodus 19.5-6 and it is a promise of the Kingdom. The provision follows the “then” in the “if-then” statement of the passage:

  1. (v5) “Ye shall be…”: God promises that Israel shall be above all the peoples of the earth. Israel is offered to be the head of all nations. Israel is given the privilege of a special, authoritative, and personal relationship with God (to be His peculiar treasure above all others).
  2. (v6) “Ye shall be…”: God promises that Israel shall be a kingdom of priests and an holy nation. Israel, as a nation set apart from all others, would be God's mediatorial ruler over the kingdom on earth, and they would therefore be the mediator between God and men (i.e., priests).

General Stipulations Regarding Israel: Israel's condition is found in Exodus 19.5. The condition imposed upon Israel in this covenant follows the “if” in the “if-then” statement. God required obedience of Israel; he required them to obey his voice and keep his covenant. If they did that, he would fulfill his promises of “ye shall be…” in Exodus 19.5-6.

The Covenant Oath

The covenant oath (the binding promise) of the Mosaic Covenant is found in Exodus 19.7-8 and repeated for ratification in Exodus 24.3, 7. All the people gave their oath to do that which the Lord spake (Exod 19.8).

God then explains the core requirements of the Law Israel was expected to obey under this covenant (Exod 20-23) and then, after hearing what the Lord required (Exod 24.3: all the people heard all the words and all the judgments), all the people of Israel ratified the Mosaic Covenant stating (v3): “All the words which the Lord hath said will we do.”

Exodus 24.7: Moses again read to all the people of Israel the words of the and all the people gave their binding oath saying, “All that the LORD hath said we will do, and be obedient.”

Exodus 24.8: At this point in the biblical narrative the Mosaic Covenant becomes legal and binding and will remain so until the oath given is fulfilled.

Summary & Review:

  1. Israel is bound by their oath to obey the 613 commandments of the Law of Moses. There are 365 negative commands and 248 positive commands which can be broken down into 10 general commands (the Ten Commandments of Exodus 20) and 603 specific commandments that show how Israel is to practice the Ten Commandments. And Israel swore before God they would do it all–that they would be obedient (which is why James 2.10 correctly states that to break one commandment is to break them all: Israel gave an oath, a binding promise, to do and obey all the Lord commanded).
  2. God offered the mediatorial kingdom over all the peoples of the earth to Israel if the Israelites obeyed. He was even gracious enough to provide the Levitical system of sacrifices for Israel's failures in keeping their oath.

If Israel obeyed the Law, she would reign (Deut 28.1-14). If Israel refused to obey, she would suffer punishment (Deut 28.15-68).

Covenant vs. Law

The covenant was the Kingdom. This was the “deal” God made with Israel. God would set Israel as the head of all nations and allow them to rule as His mediators of His kingdom over all the earth if they obeyed.

The oath was given by all Israel and it was a binding promise before God to obey the Law in its entirety. Israel promised to obey the Law and their failure to do so did not release them from their oath even though their disobedience annulled the covenant (it annulled God's offer to install them as the mediatorial head of the nations in God's kingdom on earth).

Soteriological Side Note: The Mosaic Covenant was not primarily about salvation but rather about the Kingdom. The provisions for salvation from sin and sin's punishment were part of the Kingdom system, but they were not the primary purpose of the system. If Israel obeyed the Law they would reign (and “be saved” because God promised them such in the Abrahamic Covenant). If Israel disobeyed the Law they would lose the Kingdom (and they would need to offer the prescribed sacrifice as a covering for their sin). All of this, of course, is worthy of its own separate and dedicated study but it is interesting to note here in the context of the establishment of the Mosaic Covenant.

What God promised Israel in the Mosaic Covenant was conditioned upon Israel's obedience:

If ye walk in my statutes, and keep my commandments, and do them; Then I will give you rain in due season, and the land shall yield her increase, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit… For I will have respect unto you, and make you fruitful, and multiply you, and establish my covenant with you. [Lev 26.3-4, 9]

And God's promise was binding (God was bound by His promise to give Israel the kingdom and all the blessings that came with it) until Israel invalidated the covenant by failing to fulfill their–by disobeying the Law:

But if ye will not hearken unto me, and will not do all these commandments; And if ye shall despise my statutes, or if your soul abhor my judgments, so that ye will not do all my commandments, but that ye break my covenant. [Lev 26.14-15]

However, Israel's oath is binding without condition. Their oath to obey the Law is binding until fulfilled; it is binding until they obey all the words of the Law of Moses, regardless of whether or not God is still obligated to fulfill his “part of the deal” (give them the Kingdom).

In other words, Israel could break the covenant if they failed to keep their oath (Lev 26.14-15). God would be free of His (conditional) promise to make Israel head of all the nations. And Israel would suffer God's promises of cursing for having failed in their solemn oath before Him to obey all the words of the covenant.

This is why Christ was born under the Law:

  1. (Gal 4.4; Mat 5.17) Christ fulfilled the Law by living a life of complete obedience to all of it commands.
  2. (Gal 3.10, 13) And then Christ became a curse to redeem those under the curse of the Law for having not obeyed all of its commands.

Conclusion: What is important to note here, before moving on, is that there is a distinction between the Mosaic Covenant and the Mosaic Law. The covenant was God's promise of the Kingdom conditioned upon Israel's obedience to the Law. Disobedience to the Law annulled the covenant (i.e., Israel would no longer received the Kingdom under this covenant) but that disobedience did not destroy the Law (Mat 5.17). Israel, although she invalidated the covenant by her disobedience, was still bound by her unconditional oath to obey all of the commands in the Law of Moses. Their oath would stand until all of those commands were obeyed.

4 For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sins.
5 Wherefore when he cometh into the world, he saith, Sacrifice and offering thou wouldest not, but a body hast thou prepared me:
6 In burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin thou hast had no pleasure.
7 Then said I, Lo, I come (in the volume of the book it is written of me,) to do thy will [born under the Law to keep the Law], O God.
8 Above when he said, Sacrifice and offering and burnt offerings and offering for sin thou wouldest not, neither hadst pleasure therein; which are offered by the law;
9 Then said he, Lo, I come to do thy will, O God. He taketh away the first [Christ fulfilled the Law and took away the binding oath of the Mosaic Covenant; Mat 5.17], that he may establish the second [the New Covenant]. [Heb 10.4-9]

Times of the Gentiles

There are several “covenant implications” surrounding what the Bible calls the “Times of the Gentiles” (Luke 21.24 cf. Dan 2). Israel's failure to keep their oath (and obey the Law) would lead to their loss of the kingdom. They would ultimately be ruled by their enemies, the gentiles nations God promised them they would be over if they would have obeyed the Law.

I also will do this unto you; I will even appoint over you terror, consumption, and the burning ague, that shall consume the eyes, and cause sorrow of heart: and ye shall sow your seed in vain, for your enemies shall eat it. And I will set my face against you, and ye shall be slain before your enemies: they that hate you shall reign over you; and ye shall flee when none pursueth you. [Lev 26.16-17]

Israel's disobedience would not only result in the loss of the kingdom. It would also result in the cursing of punishment God promised in the Law (Lev 26.14ff; Deut 28.15ff).

And that I also have walked contrary unto them, and have brought them into the land of their enemies; if then their uncircumcised hearts be humbled, and they then accept of the punishment of their iniquity… The land also shall be left of them, and shall enjoy her sabbaths, while she lieth desolate without them: and they shall accept of the punishment of their iniquity: because, even because they despised my judgments, and because their soul abhorred my statutes. [Lev 26.41, 43]

Israel's first failure to keep their oath of obedience occurred in Exodus 32 with their idolatrous worship of the golden calf. God, however, graciously renewed the Mosaic Covenant with them (Exod 33-34). There are seven of these covenant renewals in Scripture:

  1. Under Moses: Exodus 34
  2. Under Moses: Deuteronomy 1-28
  3. Under Joshua: Joshua 24.24-25
  4. Under King Asa: 2Chronicles 15.9-15
  5. Under King Jehoiada: 2Kings 11.17; 2Chronicles 23.16
  6. Under King Hezekiah: 2Chronicles 29.10
  7. Under King Josiah: 2Kings 23.1-3; 2Chronicles 34.31-32

With the Babylonian captivity of 606 B.C., however, the Mosaic Covenant was broken and invalidated, and it was never again renewed. The Babylonian captivity marks a clear distinction in the political rule on the earth (it marks a clear political transition5)).

Elliot Johnson explains6) that the Mosaic Covenant provided the right to rule over the nations of the earth as a mediated rule (i.e., Israel would reign as God's representative on earth, carrying out His will on earth; this is what the Bible calls the Kingdom of Heaven). In 606 B.C. God delegated that political rule over the nations of the earth to the Gentiles (e.g., Dan 2.37-38). This Gentile rule is not a mediated rule, like Israel's, but rather it is simply a delegated authority God shifted from Israel (who was to be the head of the nations) to the Gentiles (the nations now ruled over Israel). It is a clear distinction in delegated authority to rule: the Gentiles now govern Israel.

In the Bible this global, political rule by the Gentiles is called the Times of the Gentiles and it is outlined in broad form in the “metal man” of Daniel 2. It begins with Nebuchadnezzar and Babylon, the head of gold, and it ends with the Second Coming of Christ (the stone cut without hands that destroys the images and ends the reign of the Gentile nations; the stone that marks the beginning God's Kingdom on earth with Christ reigning on David's throne in Jerusalem according to the Davidic Covenant).

The Times of the Gentiles are defined in Luke 21.23 as the period during which the Gentiles lead the Jews into captivity out of their land and trod under foot Israel's capitol city of Jerusalem. It is the time of Gentile dominion on the earth and it includes Gentile dominion over Israel.

It bears reiterating here that the breaking of the Mosaic Covenant did not destroy (annul) the Law of Moses. The Law of Moses was not abolished when the Covenant of Moses was broken and annulled.7) Remember the two parts of the covenant agreement in Exodus 19.5-8 and 24.3-7:

  1. God promised the people of Israel they would reign over the nations of the earth if they obeyed the Law (this is the political reign of God from heaven on earth through Israel as the Lord's mediator; this is the Kingdom of Heaven).
  2. All the people of Israel gave their solemn oath to do all the Lord commanded them in the Law and to be obedient to it.

Because God's provision in the Kingdom was conditional, when Israel failed to meet the condition (when they disobeyed the Law), they lost the Kingdom. God graciously renewed the Mosaic Covenant with disobedient Israel seven times. However, after the seventh renewal, in 606 B.C. with the Babylonian captivity, God delegated the rule over the nations of the earth to the Gentiles (Dan 2). The Kingdom of Heaven was removed from the earth and not seen again until its offer by Christ in His first coming. The Gentiles, from 606 B.C., until the Second Coming of Christ, reign and rule over the “kingdoms of this world.”

Although Israel lost the kingdom (which was conditioned upon their obedience to the Law), their “Law responsibility” persisted because their oath to obey was unconditional.

Summary & Conclusion:

Not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt; which my covenant they brake, although I was an husband unto them, saith the Lord. [Jer 31.32]
For thus saith the Lord God; I will even deal with thee as thou hast done, which hast despised the oath in breaking the covenant. [Ezek 16.59]
In that ye have brought into my sanctuary strangers, uncircumcised in heart, and uncircumcised in flesh, to be in my sanctuary, to pollute it, even my house, when ye offer my bread, the fat and the blood, and they have broken my covenant because of all your abominations. [Ezek 44.7]

In 606 B.C., when the last tribes of Israel were led away in captivity to Babylon, two things happened:

  1. The Mosaic Covenant ended: God would no longer honor his conditional offer of the kingdom to Israel based on Israel's obedience to the Law (Exod 19.5-8).
  2. The Times of the Gentiles began (Dan 2). The political rule over the nations of the earth was taken from Israel and delegated to the Gentiles. An example of this rule is the fact that it was Cyrus King of Persia (a Gentile) whom God used to order and build the second temple after the 70 years of captivity in Babylon (2Chron 36.22-23; Ezra 1.1-3).

Israel, however, is still bound by their unconditional oath to obey all the Law always. And in this obligation to God we gain a wonderful insight into part of the purpose and work of Christ during his first coming.

The Lord Jesus Christ was born under the Law (Gal 4.4), an Israelite of the tribe of Judah. He came to fulfill all the obligations the Law imposed on Israel because of their oath to obey (Exod 24.7). In His life, the Lord fulfilled the keeping of the Law (John 8.29). In His death He, as an innocent substitute, fulfilled the punishment for not having kept the Law (Gal 3.10, 13). Any Israelite who believes on the Son of God today is freed from the oath to obey the Law (Gal 4.4-5) and is given the perfect righteousness of Christ which is by faith (Rom 10.4).

Those Israelites who reject the Messiah are still bound to their “Law responsibility” under the stewardship of the Law according to their oath (Exod 19.8; 24.3, 7). At the end of the 70 years of Babylonian captivity God pronounced 70 “weeks” of years to “finish the transgression, and to make an end of sins, and to make reconciliation for iniquity…” (Dan 9.24). The implication is clear: God will carry out the promises he made to Israel under the Law in Leviticus 26.14ff and Deuteronomy 28.15ff, promises of cursing because Israel failed to keep their covenant oath. Those cursings will reach their fullness in the Tribulation of Daniel's 70th Week, the last stage of the Times of the Gentiles, and then…

God will set up His Kingdom on earth, the Messianic Kingdom of the Millennium (the stone that destroys the image of the Times of the Gentiles is Christ in His Second Coming; Dan 2.34-35, 44-45). Then all Israel shall be saved (Rom 11.26-27; under the New Covenant [Jer 31.31-34] which is based on the unconditional promises of the Abrahamic Covenant [Gen 12.1-3]). But this does not mean that all Israelites (Rom 9.3) will be saved (Rom 9.6). All Israel will be saved in that Israelites from all 12 tribes will be saved in that day. And their salvation is conditioned in the Palestinian Covenant of Deuteronomy 29-30.

The beginning of the Times of the Gentiles in 606 B.C. signals the end of the “times of Israel” under the Mosaic Covenant, the times when Israel mediated God's rule over the nations of the earth (Exod 19.5-6). The beginning of the Times of the Gentiles marks the end of the Covenant of Moses.

After 606 B.C. hope for Israel would no longer be found in the Mosaic Covenant and in their obedience to the Law. Their hope would be found in God's provision through His unconditional promises in the Abrahamic Covenant (God's blessing; Gen 12.1-3), the David Covenant (God's Kingdom; 2Sam 7.8-17), and the New Covenant (life and reconciliation with God to become once again His people; Jer 31.31-34).

Palestinian Covenant

The Palestinian Covenant of Deuteronomy 30 appears to be the basis for entrance into the New Covenant (i.e., the conditions God established for one to enter into the New Covenant are found in the stipulations of the Palestinian–the “Land and Life”–Covenant).

  • You see some preliminary thoughts on this here.
Hal Harless. How Firm a Foundation, p. 12
Peter S. Ruckman, How to Teach Dispensational Truth, pp. 14-15.
Hal Harless. How Firm a Foundation, pp. 12-14.
I chose to use the “big, scholarly” word suzerainty because we run into it reading books about covenants and we should know what it means. When talking about the major covenants in the Bible, it is far more simple to refer to the unconditional covenants (grant covenants) and conditional covenants (suzerain covenants). But, learning a new word or two every now and then will not hurt us. So… there you go.
5) , 7)
Elliott Johnson. A Dispensational Biblical Theology, p. 284
Elliott Johnson. A Dispensational Biblical Theology, p. 273ff
moadis_overview_3_covenants.txt · Last modified: 2020/04/22 13:37 by gregkedro