Rethinking Covenants

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Understanding the Covenants of the Bible

I’ve recently returned from teaching a course on Covenants as part of Regent College’s Summer Program in Vancouver. Understanding the major covenants of the Bible is a helpful way to connect the various parts of the Bible into a whole. To that end, David Palmer and I are currently writing a six-week Bible study on the Covenants of the Bible, which will be available next spring.

If you’ve been reading my earlier blogs, you’ll know that I’ve been discussing a few points from Andy Stanley’s Aftermath sermon series, in which he advocates “unhitching” the Old Testament from the Christian church. As one who has studied and taught the Old Testament for many years, this teaching is troubling, to say the least.

I wanted to pick up Stanley’s teaching on covenants, as I think this will help us get a handle on his views and where I think some modifications are needed. In his third sermon, he gives the following summary PowerPoint of the three main covenants:

Individual

Nation

World

He notes how revolutionary it was for his comprehension of the Bible to understand the covenants, and he laments that he wasn’t taught about them earlier. I concur. Understanding the covenants helps significantly in one’s endeavor to understand the Bible as a whole.

Yet I think his three categories need further refining. Here’s why.

As we get started, let me summarize briefly what Stanley means by these three categories. The “Individual” covenant refers to God’s covenant with Abraham. The “Nation” covenant refers to God’s covenant with Israel. And the “World” covenant refers to the New Covenant that includes the Gentiles (= nations).

I’m going to discuss each category in more detail, but here’s my critique in a nutshell.  The “Individual” covenant with Abraham had the world in view—in fact, it was its goal. The “Nation” covenant was not exclusively Jewish since it always included both Jews and Gentiles. And the “World” covenant is a fulfillment of God’s promises given in the Old Testament, so God’s plan for the “world” is central to the Bible as a whole, not simply the New Testament. In fact, if we are to understand what God’s doing with the “world” now, we have to understand what God promised in the Old Testament. So while Stanley’s categories are beneficial in their simplicity, they are somewhat misleading. If you miss the “world” emphasis of the Old Testament, you’ll miss the main storyline of the Bible.

Now let’s work through each category in more detail.  

Let’s start with the “Individual” covenant—the covenant God made with Abraham. We need to bear in mind that God’s plan for the world was contained in his promises given to Abraham. God promised Abraham that “all the nations” would be blessed in him and in his seed (Gen. 12:3; 18:18). I’ve already discussed this promise concerning the nations in a previous blog post, but I simply reiterate here that God’s blessing to the nations is the goal of the promises God makes to Abraham. The seventy nations given in Gen. 10:1-32 are the intended recipients of this promise, they are the “families of the earth” (Gen 12:3; cf. Gen. 10:5, 32). So the title for this covenant being Individual misses this key “worldly” aspect. God’s plan to bless the Gentiles was central to this covenant—it was its goal.

This leads to the second point. The promises God made to Abraham were not simply to an individual, as they were given to Abraham and to his descendants (literally, to his “seed”). There’s something interesting about the Hebrew word “seed,” which is often translated as “descendants.” The Hebrew word for “seed” is a singular collective, which means that the noun is singular in form but it can have a collective meaning, thus referring to Abraham’s descendants. In fact, the term “seed” (often translated as “descendants” or “offspring”) occurs fifty-seven times in the book of Genesis—it’s a big deal! The Israelites understood that the promises were to them, not simply to an individual.

But the noun can have a singular meaning since it is singular in form. When Paul writes about God’s promise to bless the nations through Abraham “and his seed,” Paul explains that in the bigger picture of the Bible, Jesus is the “seed” to whom the promise had been given. This is what he says: “Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. Scripture does not say ‘and to seeds,’ as referring to many [people], but rather to one ‘And to your seed,’ that is, Christ” (NASB, Gal. 3:16). Paul identifies the “seed” as Christ. We can take this one step further. Paul says that if we are “in Christ,” we are being counted as the seed! So we are recipients of these promises! This is good news, and we certainly don’t want to set aside this covenant! 

The point I am simply noting here is that the designation “Individual” fails to include the central aspect of the covenant, namely, God’s blessing to the nations. When we keep this in view, we realize that God’s plan from the beginning was not simply to bless an individual. Nor was it exclusive. But God’s blessing to the nations was central from the very beginning. In other words, there is much more of the “World” in the Abrahamic covenant than Stanley suggests. Further, since the term “seed” refers to Abraham’s descendants, this means that the promise is greater than an Individual. In the larger scheme of things, we are being counted as the “seed” of Abraham—and the “we” includes Jew and Gentile—that was the whole point.

This leads us to the second category: The Nation.

Not only did God’s covenant with Abraham have the nations as the intended recipients, but the covenant with Israel (called the Mosaic Covenant) was not exclusively Israelite.

I’ve discussed this in another previous blog post, but there are many texts that demonstrate that other people groups were incorporated into the nation of Israel in the Old Testament. It was never a monolithic nation from one ethnic group. For example, when God commanded Abraham to circumcise those in his household, this included foreigners from outside of Abraham’s family (Gen. 17:11-14). This is in the first book of the Old Testament! As noted in my blog post linked above, there are many indications throughout the Old Testament that non-Israelites were incorporated into the “nation” of Israel. So if we think of the term “nation” as being exclusively Jewish, we’ve missed a crucial aspect of the Old Testament.

The last point concerns the “World” covenant, by which Stanley means the New Covenant. Stanley teaches that since we are now under the New Covenant which is open to the “world,” we need to set the Old Testament aside, which was “exclusive.” But we’ve seen that the nations were always part of God’s plan of redemption. That’s why Paul says that the “law, introduced 430 years later, does not set aside the covenant previously established by God and thus do away with the promise” (Gal 3:17). He’s reminding his readers that the promise given to Abraham still stands.  We surely do not want to set aside this covenant—for if we are in Christ, we are its beneficiaries!

In short, the Bible is one redemptive story, with Jesus at its center. We are heirs of the promises God makes to Abraham through faith in Christ, which means that the story of Abraham in the Old Testament is our story. No unhitching.

Dr. Carol Kaminski