Covenant and God’s Purpose for the World by Thomas R. Schreiner
Earlier this year I was in Washington D.C. attending a Weekender at Capitol Hill Baptist Church. During a pre-conference class on ecclesiology, Jonathan Leeman asked the question, “Are the ten commandments binding?” Some in the class said yes, others no, and I was squirming somewhere in the middle. Surely we aren’t supposed to break the seventh commandment, “thou shall not kill,” but what about the new covenant? And what about that commandment in Leviticus regarding shellfish? Are Christians just being inconsistent with the Bible, picking and choosing which parts to obey?
Through that one simple question I realized I lacked a clear understanding of the biblical covenants. I asked Jonathan after the class for a couple of recommendations on the covenants and he suggested Covenant and God’s Purpose for the World by Schreiner and God’s Kingdom through God’s Covenant by Gentry and Wellum.
Thomas Schreiner is a trusted name for biblical scholars and the Short Studies in Biblical Theology series is an excellent academic resource written for everyday believers.
Schreiner begins with the assertion that “the biblical covenants are the backbone of the storyline of the Bible.” He argues that we can’t properly understand the Bible if we don’t understand the covenants. In order to understand how the Bible fits together, Schreiner says you have to start with the covenants. Before walking through the biblical covenants, Schreiner provides a helpful definition: “a covenant is a chosen relationship in which two parties make binding promises to each other”.
The Covenant of Creation
The first covenant Schreiner uncovers is likely the most controversial in the book, as the word covenant is nowhere to be found in Genesis 1–3. Yet Schreiner provides six arguments for the existence of a covenant at Eden. The most compelling of the six was the textual evidence seen in Hosea 6:7, “But like Adam they transgressed the covenant…” Israel, like Adam violated God’s covenant. Adam and Eve were to be priest-kings in God’s creation, representing God’s rule on earth and displaying his character as they worked the garden and subdued the earth. God told them, to be fruitful and multiply, yet the Serpent tempted them and they sinned against God. Adam’s sin brought the reign of death into the world, and a sacrifice had to be made. Both God’s mercy and judgment were on display as Adam and Eve were banished from the garden.
The Covenant with Noah
The second covenant occurred after the world was undone by sin. In Genesis 5 sin and death reign. Evil flourished both on the earth and in the human heart. Humanities corruption and violence poisoned the earth, and God’s holy response was to destroy his rebellious enemies by the flood, vindicating his name. Yet God made a covenant with Noah––the new Adam––and at the time, the only man on earth to find favor in the eyes of God (Gen 6:8). This covenant is often called the covenant of preservation, because God promised to preserve Noah and his family.
The flood points forward to what humans deserve because of evil, the final judgment (2 Pet 2:5). The rainbow in the sky serves as the sign of the covenant with Noah and declares that “God has withdrawn his weapons of war, that he will preserve the world until redemption is accomplished.” Once again God blessed his children and told Noah and his family to be fruitful and multiply. Yet the world after the flood had the same problems as when Adam’s descendants reigned. God’s solution to the continual wickedness seen in humanity is provided in the covenant with Abraham.
The Covenant with Abraham
Abraham too was a kind of new Adam. While Adam introduced curses into the world, Abraham received blessing from God (Gen 12:1-3). God chose Abraham, an idolater, and justified him despite his ungodliness. Once again, the word covenant is not found in the text, yet in subsequent chapters (Gen 15; 17) the word does appear. God made three promises to Abraham: offspring, land, and blessing extended to all the families of the earth. Therefore some argue that the covenant with Abraham is unconditional. Yet it is clear from the text that there is a conditional nature to the covenant also. The covenant is conditional on Abraham’s obedience and on the fact that only those who are circumcised are part of the covenant. The tension between unconditional aspects and conditional are ultimately resolved in Jesus Christ.
The Covenant with Israel
Some argue that the Abrahamic covenant is unconditional and that the Mosaic covenant, or the covenant with Israel, is conditional. This thinking appears to be a bit reductionistic, as all the covenants have conditional and unconditional elements. The context for this covenant is that God rescued his people from slavery in Egypt. The liberation of Israel and promise to bring them into the land fulfills God’s covenant with Abraham. The tie between the covenant of Abraham and the covenant with Israel is clear: the latter is secured by the former. God promised to be Israel’s God and for them to be his people, but there are covenant stipulations. In Exodus 20, we see the ten commandments given. Yet before giving these commandments, God declared, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery”. Here the Lord’s mercy to his people is seen. He is the God who delivered his people from slavery.
In many ways the covenant with Israel is an extension of the covenant with Abraham and Adam. Israel was called as God’s son and as a kingdom of priests. Their job was to display God’s righteousness to the world as they obeyed the covenant stipulations. Yet Israel’s history reminds us of their utter failure to abide by God’s commands. Some prophets, including Jeremiah, prophesied of a new covenant (Jer 31:31-34), yet this covenant would be written on the heart. The covenant with Israel did not transform the heart and Schriener argues there was a “built-in obsolescence”.
The Covenant with David
During the time of king David, Israel lived under the Mosaic covenant. David was to represent the people through his obedience to God and his reign over the people. Once again the word covenant is absent from 2 Samuel 7 but is confirmed in other texts. The promises made to Abraham would be obtained through a king of David’s line. Even the blessings promised in the Mosaic covenant would be secured under loyal Davidic kings, while curses would come for disobedience. Some of the kings obeyed God, yet many obtained God’s curses for them and their people.
Like the other covenants there were both conditional and unconditional aspects. The kings who did evil in the sight of the Lord were judged. After the exile, there were no more kings from David’s line on the throne. Yet because of the unconditional element, God guaranteed a king from the line of David on the throne. This covenant promise would only be fulfilled by the fully obedient king, Jesus.
The New Covenant
The new covenant is described a number of ways in the Old Testament. In Jeremiah it is described as the “new covenant,” in Isaiah and Ezekiel it is seen as the “covenant of peace,” and in all three it is referenced as an “everlasting covenant”. Schreiner provides five helpful themes to understand the new covenant: (1) renewal of heart; (2) regeneration; (3) complete forgiveness of sin; (4) new exodus, forgiveness of sins, and a new David; and (5) reunification of the people of God.
In the new covenant, God himself regenerates his people by the power of his Spirit. He gives his people new hearts so that they can obey him. God does this through the atoning death and resurrection of Jesus, the Son of God. The Mosaic covenant has passed away, in the new and restored Israel, God’s people are both Jews and Gentiles.
The covenants are fully and finally fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Adam was a covenant head and through his sin he brought death and destruction into the world. Jesus is the last Adam who offers righteousness and life to his people (Rom 5:12–19). Through Christ, God’s people can reign with him as priest-kings.
The covenant with Noah brought preservation, but humanity needed redemption. The preservation of humanity is the context that redemption is realized in Christ. The bow in the clouds shows that God withdrew his weapons of war, and the cross of Christ shows the world that God poured his wrath on his own Son so that the world could have peace with God.
Through Christ, people from every tongue, tribe, people, and nation are included in Abraham’s family. All those united to Christ are the true children of Abraham (Rom 9:8).
Israel failed as God’s son to obey his covenant stipulations. The covenant with Israel could not transform the heart. In every way Israel failed, Christ succeeded. He was the only truly obedient Son of God. The prophets of Israel prophesied of his coming day, when a new covenant would come, and there would be a new exodus, and a new creation.
The promise that David’s line would reign on the throne forever is fulfilled in Christ who reigns now at the right of God in heaven. Upon Christ’s return, all the covenant promises of God will be fulfilled for his people.
This book is an exceptional introduction to the biblical covenants. Schreiner’s writing is clear and his arguments are compelling. I recommend this volume to you and hope it is helpful as you seek to understand the word of God.