“Thus, I establish My covenant with you.” (Genesis 9:11)
We often read in the Bible that God keeps His covenants. But what is a covenant?
Technically, two parties form a covenant to “make binding promises to each other to do or not do something to reach a common goal.” In other words, it is a contract or an agreement. The Bible describes God’s seven covenants to restore mankind to salvation and his divine calling after the fall in the Garden.
Four covenants are specifically for Israel: Abrahamic, Palestinian, Mosaic (Moses), and Davidic. God made the other three covenants with mankind in general: Adamic, Noahic, and New. Each has a unique purpose in God’s plan of redemption. In this study, we will walk through each one in order as they occur in the Bible.
The First Covenant
The Adamic Covenant is the earliest agreement God made with man. It includes three parts — Edenic, Adamic, and the restoration of man.
Genesis 1:26–30 describes the Edenic portion. First, God makes man in His image. He then outlines man’s responsibilities toward nature.
“And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth and subdue it. Have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.’” (v28)
Stewardship of nature also included the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.
“And the LORD GOD commanded the man, saying, ‘Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat. But of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it, you shall surely die.’” (Genesis 2:16–17)
As we know, Adam and Eve did not keep their end of the covenant.
In Genesis 3, Satan, as a serpent, convinced the couple to eat the fruit on the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Their sin caused God to implement the Adamic Covenant, in which God promised eternal consequences for their disobedience. Women will experience extreme pain during childbirth and have struggles with their husbands (v16), and men will endure hard labor as they coax the ground to produce food (v18–19).
But God does not leave Adam and Eve’s descendants to suffer forever. He promises restoration in the third part of His covenant.
“And I will put enmity between you and the woman and between your seed and her Seed. He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise His heel.” (v15)
Notice the different spellings of Adam and Eve’s respective seeds. Eve’s seed is capitalized, which points to the coming Messiah. Though believers (Eve’s seed) and unbelievers (Adam’s seed) will always be at odds, God promises a full restoration of man one day.
In the meantime, God implemented a second covenant.
The Noahic Covenant
By Noah’s arrival, man was rampantly sinning, and God’s patience had run out. But God showed grace to Noah. Genesis 6:9 says he was “a just man, perfect in his generations,” so God chose to spare Noah and his family from destruction. He instructed Noah to build an ark to protect them from the coming great flood.
It took many years to build the ark and gather “two of every kind” (note: not two of every animal, only two of every kind of animal, i.e., two dogs, two cats, two birds, etc.). Once everyone was aboard, God caused continual rain to fall for forty days and nights until He covered the earth in water. A little more than a year later, the waters receded, and Noah was able to leave the ark.
The first part of God’s covenant with Noah was to preserve Noah and his family (Genesis 6:18). The second part occurred after Noah left the ark and built an altar to God. Because of his obedience, God promised never to send a destructive flood on the earth again.
“Thus, I establish My covenant with you. Never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of the flood. Never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” (Genesis 9:11)
As a sign of keeping His covenant, God placed a rainbow in a cloud. Every time a cloud appears, God will place a rainbow in it, and He will remember His covenant (9:12–17).
Today, seeing a rainbow in the sky reminds believers of God’s eternal faithfulness.
God’s promises to Abraham are scattered throughout several chapters in the book of Genesis, beginning in chapter 12.
“I will make you a great nation. I will bless you and make your name great. And you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse those who curse you. And in you, all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (v1–3)
In this third covenant, God promises to make Abraham a great nation and bless him always. Notice that God refers again to the coming Messiah. Soon after, God promised Abraham that he would have many descendants.
“And I will make your descendants as the dust of the earth. So that if a man could number the dust of the earth, then your descendants also could be numbered.” (Genesis 13:16)
God also promised to give Abraham “all the land of Canaan as an everlasting possession (Genesis 17:8).” Only a portion of modern-day Israel contains the original land of Canaan (Promised Land). Genesis 13:1–15 and chapters 18–21 further outline the land’s boundaries.
Up to this point, God pronounced His responsibilities under His third covenant. Genesis 17 then establishes what He expected of Abraham: Every male must be circumcised. Abraham kept his part of the deal.
He also obeyed when God commanded him to take his only son, Isaac, up Mount Moriah and sacrifice him (Genesis 22). Thankfully, God stopped him before he thrust his knife into his son. Notice the parallel between Abraham sacrificing his only son and God the Father sacrificing His on the cross.
As a result of Abraham’s obedience, God confirmed His covenant to give Abraham many descendants. Notice God again promising a coming Messiah in verse 18.
“Because you have done this thing and have not withheld your son, your only son — blessing I will bless you, and multiplying I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven and as the sand which is on the seashore, and your descendants shall possess the gate of their enemies [which is Israel]. In your seed, all the nations of the earth shall be blessed because you have obeyed My voice (22:16–18, additions).”
True to His word, Abraham had many descendants who the Egyptians later enslaved. Following their miraculous release in Exodus 12, Moses led them to Mount Sinai, where God reiterated His promises to Abraham and established a fourth covenant.
The covenant did not focus on what the Israelites must do to inherit the “land of milk and honey (Exodus 3:8)” but, rather, on how they should conduct themselves once they entered it. If they wanted to receive the Lord’s blessings and become a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Exodus 19:6),” they must abide by all His 600 requirements. Exodus 20–23 describes them, beginning with the Ten Commandments.
Though humanly impossible to keep, if one could keep them all, he would be holy like God, and God would bless him. As a whole, they would be a great nation, reflecting God’s wisdom and goodness and helping fulfill His promises to Abraham.
“Therefore, be careful to observe [the covenant], for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples who will hear all these statutes and say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’” (Deuteronomy 4:6)
On the other hand, if the Israelites disobeyed the covenant, He would bring a curse (Deuteronomy 28). Unfortunately, it did not take long.
Before they fully received the new covenant, the Israelites conspired to worship a golden calf instead of God. When Moses finally returned with the covenant after forty days, he angrily threw the stone tablets to the ground and burned the calf (Exodus 32). Graciously, God re-established the covenant in Exodus 34. The book of Leviticus details how the people could achieve and maintain Israel’s holiness, which many Jews still follow today.
The Mosaic Covenant guaranteed Israel’s preservation, even in the last days. Next, God would ensure a royal bloodline that eventually led to the Messiah’s birth.
Years later, the Israelites drifted from keeping the Mosaic Covenant and demanded a king to govern them. God anointed Saul as their first king, but he soon disobeyed, succumbing to his wives’ pagan influences. God then chose David as Saul’s successor (2 Samuel 2:4).
Through King David, God built a bloodline through which the Messiah Jesus would come (2 Samuel 7:12–29). In doing so, God continued to fulfill His promise to Abraham that he would be a great nation and God would bless all through his “seed (Genesis 22:18).” The Davidic Covenant identifies more precisely Jesus’ royal lineage, tracing it back to Abraham and continuing through King David (see Genesis 35:11; 49:10; Genesis 38; Ruth 4:18–22).
Hundreds of years later, an angel in Luke 1:32–33 proclaimed the fulfillment of Jesus’ lineage.
“He will be great and will be called the Son of the Highest. And the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father, David. And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom, there will be no end.”
Psalm 72:17 further prophesied Jesus’ greatness and fulfillment of the Abrahamic Covenant.
“His name shall endure forever. His name shall continue as long as the sun. And men shall be blessed in Him. All nations shall call Him blessed.” (Psalm 72:17)
The New Covenant
Despite the covenants, the Israelites continued to disobey, so God cast judgment. First, He allowed the Assyrians and then the Babylonians to conquer them. He also dismantled their monarchy and allowed the Romans to destroy the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD.
Yet God never forgot His promises to His chosen people. To fulfill His restoration plan, He established a final covenant.
Though only mentioned as a “new covenant” once in Jeremiah 31:31, other Scriptures allude to it, most specifically as a humble “Servant” (see Isaiah 42:6; 49:8; 54:10; 55:3, 61:8). God primarily established the covenant with Israel, but it is for all mankind.
“For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek.” (Romans 1:16)
However, God restricted who could receive the covenant’s blessings.
“Thus says the LORD: ‘Keep justice and do righteousness, for My salvation is about to come and My righteousness to be revealed. Blessed is the man who does this, and the son of man who lays hold on it, who keeps from defiling the Sabbath and keeps his hand from doing any evil. Everyone who keeps from defiling the Sabbath and holds fast My covenant — even them I will bring to My holy mountain and make them joyful in My house of prayer.’” (Isaiah 56:1–2, 6–7)
God promises to forgive the sins of anyone who asks for salvation and restore fellowship with them through His Son, Jesus, the rightful king from the line of David. But His blessings are confined to those who can “hold fast” to the covenant. However, this time it is not by keeping laws but by faith alone and seeking obedience to His word (i.e., showing fruit).
All is Fulfilled in Jesus the Messiah
Jesus’ death on the cross is the foundation of the New Covenant, and His resurrection ensures victory over death to all who put their trust in Him. John 3:16 sums up the details.
“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”
Whitney Woollard at The Bible Project says it this way:
“God preserved the world through Noah, initiated redemption through Abraham, established the nation of Israel through Moses, promised an eternal shepherd-king through David, and then fulfilled all of his covenants through Jesus. With each covenant, God’s promises and plans to save the world through the seed of the woman become clearer and clearer until we finally see that redemption can only come through King Jesus.
“The New Testament authors present Jesus as the offspring of Abraham who trusted Yahweh, even to the point of death, and became a blessing to all nations. He is the greater Moses, leading us out of bondage, and he is the obedient Israelite who perfectly follows the laws of God. He is the royal son of David, who inaugurated God’s Kingdom in his life, death, and resurrection, and who now sits at God’s right hand, forever reigning as the one true King.
“Jesus perfectly succeeded at every point where humanity failed. He is the guarantor and mediator of the new and better covenant (Hebrew 7:22; 9:15).”
Jesus is the ultimate fulfillment of all the covenants. All the laws, rules, and stipulations stated in all the previous covenants were satisfied through His death and resurrection. He paid the price we owe for our rebellion and disobedience. But thanks be to God. Because of Him, our relationship with the Father has finally been re-established, and we have the promise of eternal life with Him.