QUESTION: How many covenants are in the Bible? A leader in my church said it's two, but I think it’s more than that. Would you please help me. Thank you.
ANSWER: Thank you for your question about the covenants of Scripture. The word "covenant" is found in the Bible over 300 times. It’s an interesting subject. If you check various resources, you’ll see there is some disagreement on the subject. But I think the outline below is helpful, and can be supported by Scripture.
First, we need to consider a definition. A covenant is a kind of contract or pledge involving two parties. Scofield describes a Bible covenant as: “A sovereign pronouncement of God by which He establishes a relationship of responsibility [i.e. with man]” (The New Scofield Reference Bible, p. 5). God’s covenants involve certain promises that He will fulfil, and may also spell out certain conditions under which human beings are responsible to relate to Him.
The Lord can make a covenant with an individual (e.g. Adam), or a particular family (e.g. the family of David), or with a particular nation (e.g. Israel). Or He can make a covenant with mankind in general. The covenants explain and define God’s purposes with the human family. One author states, “God’s relationship with man has always been mediated through one or more of the biblical covenants” (Charting the End Times, by LaHaye and Ice, p. 78).
The covenants are most often unconditional. That is, God graciously obligates Himself, by His sovereign “I will,” to accomplish certain purposes. In this case, the human response may affect the individual’s, or the group’s, enjoyment of the covenant’s blessings, but it can’t cancel the covenant or prevent its ultimate fulfilment, because that rests with God alone.
Many Bible commentators identify eight covenants that are quite significant. Some of the circumstances involved relate to a particular time in human history. But often there are aspects of a covenant that continue to affect humanity down through the ages. The eight covenants are as follows. (The Scriptures given are not necessarily the only ones referring to a particular covenant, but provide an example.)
1) The Edenic Covenant (Gen. 1:28-30; 2:15-17) describes God’s promised provision for unfallen man in Eden, and defines his responsibilities in the beginning.
2) The Adamic Covenant (Gen. 3:14-19) defines life conditions after the fall, including God’s curse placed upon fallen creation, and His early promise of a Saviour (vs. 15).
3) The Noahic Covenant (Gen. 8:20–9:17) describes the conditions after the flood, establishing the principle of human government (by introducing capital punishment). It also includes God’s pledge to never again bring a worldwide flood on the earth, with the rainbow as a sign of this.
4) The Abrahamic Covenant (Gen. 12:1-3; 13:14-17; 15:1-18; 17:1-8) establishes the nation of Israel, and makes them a specific promise of a land of their own forever. God also pledges the blessing of the whole human family through Abraham. This is to come through Abraham’s Seed (or Descendant), whom we later learn is Christ (Gal. 3:16). Male circumcision was commanded as a sign of the covenant (Gen. 17:9-10).
5) The Mosaic Covenant, or The Law (Exod. 20:1–31:18), was made with Israel, and its 613 individual laws governed their moral, social, and religious life, imposing penalties for disobedience. It also provided a sacrificial system to deal with sin, offerings which foreshadowed the final fulfilment in Christ. The sign epitomizing Israel's obligation to obey the Law was Sabbath keeping (Exod. 31:13).
6) The Palestinian or Land Covenant (Deut. 30:1-10, see also chapters 28-29) defines the terms under which Israel can enjoy the blessings of their land, and includes a promise of their final restoration to the land, after a time of dispersion and discipline. The Promised Land is theirs forever (Gen. 17:8), but they can only remain in it, and enjoy its fruitfulness, if they walk in faith and obedience toward God.
7) The Davidic Covenant (II Sam. 7:4-17) establishes the permanent right of David’s dynasty to the throne of Israel–a pledge finally to be fulfilled in Christ, Israel’s Messiah-King, when He comes again (Isa. 9:6-7; Lk. 1:31-33; cf. Matt. 1:1).
8) The New Covenant (Jer. 31:31-34; II Cor. 3:6; Heb. 8:7-12) rests on the sacrifice of Christ (Matt. 26:28). It was made specifically with the nation of Israel (Jer. 31:31) and includes their permanent restoration to the Promised Land (Jer. 31:38-40; cf. Ezek. 36:26-38). However, there are aspects of it that bless us all.
Some final notes:
The Abrahamic Covenant includes three major elements that are expanded on in three later covenants. 1) The promise regarding Abraham’s Seed is further developed in the Davidic Covenant. 2) The promise regarding the land of Israel is covered by the Land Covenant. (This term is now preferred as a name, since the word “Palestinian” is strongly associated with the conflict in the Middle East.) 3) The promise to Abraham of universal blessing to the whole human family relates to the New Covenant.
The Mosaic Covenant (the Law) is the only one of the eight covenants that was clearly and consistently conditional. Its blessings were conditioned on works, a rewarding of Israel's faithfulness to its many precepts. Law, as a principle, is that works lead to blessings (cf. Lev. 18:5; Rom. 10:5; Gal. 3:12). The Grace principle, under which believers now live, is just the opposite: blessings freely given lead to works–not to earn the blessings, but as our loving response to God for them (Rom. 4:4-5; Eph. 2:8-9).
The Law was a covenant made with the nation of Israel. It was in force from Mount Sinai to Mount Calvary, but we are no longer under law but under grace (Rom. 6:14-15; 7:6; 10:4; Gal. 3:10-13, 24-25; Heb. 7:18-19). God’s righteous standard is eternal and is clearly restated in the New Testament, but the Law as an indivisible ruling system (cf. Jas. 2:10; Gal. 3:10) was not permanent. It was replaced by the New Covenant (Heb. 8:13).
As to the New Covenant, a few commentators suggest that there are actually two "new covenants"--one for Israel and one for the church. However, this is neither logical, nor is it necessary. The covenant God made with Israel was "new" in the sense that it replaced the old covenant, the Law (Heb. 8:13). But the church had no old covenant to be replaced.
Christians share in the spiritual blessings of the New Covenant with Israel--specifically salvation and the new birth (cf. Jer. 31:33-34; Ezek. 36:26-27), through faith in the shed blood of Christ (Heb. 9:12-15). Though it has blessinga yet to be fulfilled with Israel, its redemptive blessings spill over and flow out to the whole human family–much as “all the families of the earth” are blessed through God's covenant with Abraham (Gen. 12:3).