For many people, opening up the Bible can feel like a daunting task. A person might open up God’s Word and begin to read through Genesis and this goes fine. But then when reading through Leviticus or the prophets, things begin to get more confusing. It’s important for us to have a frame of reference for how all of the stories, laws, and history in the Bible fit together. Thankfully, the Bible itself gives us a framework that helps us to see how the Scriptures as a whole cohere. It’s a framework that shows us how God dealt with the people of Israel as they awaited the Messiah and how our Messiah, Jesus Christ, has come and begun his church. This framework is the Bible’s six major covenants. Let’s walk through what a covenant is and review the six major covenants we see in the Scriptures. In this discussion, I’ll be following the framework that Peter J. Gentry and I wrote about at length in our book, Kingdom Through Covenant: A Biblical-Theological Understanding of the Covenants.
What is a Covenant?
At the heart of a covenant, which we want to distinguish from a contemporary contract, where you’re entering into a legal relationship, is an agreement between two parties that results in a strong kinship relationship. The Hebrew word for covenant (berit) is used in the Scripture for a number of different oath-bound commitments such as international treaties (Josh. 9:6; 1 Kings 15:19), clan alliances (Gen. 14:13), personal agreements (Gen. 31:44), national agreements (Jer. 34:8–10), and loyalty agreements (1. Sam. 20:14–17) including marriage (Mal. 2:14). When two parties enter into a covenant, they make promises to one another to fulfill the obligations of the covenant, and generally, with a covenant, there are consequences—curses and penalties—if we don’t keep our promises. The result of such an agreement is that those who were before not bound by ties of natural kinship are, after cutting the covenant, now bound as tightly as any family. At the heart of such a covenant is a relationship between parties that is characterized by faithfulness and loyalty in love.
Now, when we talk about the six major covenants in the Bible, we’re talking about relations of God to his people throughout biblical history. The covenants are so important for making sense of the Bible and how it fits together, because, in many ways, they’re the unfolding of God’s plan. God has had a plan from eternity to glorify himself through the creation of the world, its redemption in Christ, and in the saving of a people. The covenants unfold that plan for us in history.
The Story of the Covenants
The covenants begin with Creation— that’s where the Bible begins. It starts with God who has made the heavens and the earth. In the Creation covenant, God makes Adam a representative for us. So Adam is not only the first biological man but he also functions as a covenant head. He represents all of humanity, and the promises made to him as well as the obligations he takes on in the creation mandate and in Genesis 2 apply to us all.
Yet there is sin that enters the world, and Adam as our representative, by his disobedience, brings sin and death to the whole world. So, then we have God’s plan of redemption. That is outlined for us in Genesis 3:15, where there’s an embryonic (or seed-form) promise that God will take the initiative to provide a Savior—the seed of the woman—who will undo Adam’s work. Then, as you work through the remaining covenants, we have the development of who this person will be that God will provide.
|Covenant||Main Scripture Texts|
|The Covenant with Creation||Genesis 1–3|
|The Covenant with Noah||Genesis 6–9|
|The Covenant with Abraham||Genesis 12, 15, and 17|
|The Covenant at Sinai||Exodus 19:3b–8; 20–24|
|The Covenant with David||2 Samuel 7; Psalm 89|
|The New Covenant||Jeremiah 31–34; Ezekiel 33:29–39:29|
That development comes through the Noahic covenant, the Abrahamic covenant, through the Mosaic (or what we now call the Old Covenant, the Torah covenant, the Law covenant, or Israel’s covenant) to the Davidic covenant and then to the promise of the New Covenant, which is fulfilled in our Lord, Jesus Christ.
And as you think about how the covenants work together, they ultimately go from Adam to Christ. And that’s the big structure of how the Bible fits together. Adam, as a covenant head, represents us in his sin. He brings sin and death into the world. Then as God’s plan unfolds through the progression of the covenants, we begin to see how God will fulfill his promises in the Lord Jesus.
And that’s how you connect Old Testament with the New. Christ is at the center of God’s plan. God the Father sends the Son, the Son accomplishes our redemption, and then this redemption is applied to God’s people by the Spirit. In this story, we have God’s unified revelation centered in Christ, the coming of the new covenant, and all the benefits that we receive as the people of God awaiting the new creation. And so, in this way, we go from Genesis with creation all the way to Revelation with the new creation.
How Does Knowing the Covenants Help Us Read Our Bibles?
One common mistake that Christians make when reading their Bibles is that they fail to begin with the assumption that the Bible fits together as a grand narrative. Instead, they read it in a piecemeal or divided way. So, we’ll sit down for our devotions and look at a specific text, but we fail to tie it back to the message of even the book we’re reading. It’s even less often that we ask a question such as: How does this fit with the whole counsel of God—the entirety of Scripture?
When you read the Bible in a fragmented way, it’s easy to miss its primary message. You may be getting the parts—one particular command or promise—but you’re missing the big picture. I know a lot of Christians look in the back of their Bible—at the glossary or index—thinking, “I need a verse on faith.” They flip to that passage but don’t understand the context of that verse in light of the book of the Bible where it’s found, the Testament they’re in, or how that particular verse fits into the whole. If we’re not careful, this approach can lead to making big mistakes.
Really, this is thinking too small—looking at the trees instead of understanding the forest—and it’s exactly backward. We should first see the whole and how it points to God’s saving work in Christ. Then, in light of him, we dive into the particulars of a text’s larger and immediate context.
An understanding of the covenants equips us to see how the whole message of the Bible progressively builds toward Jesus. When we think about the covenant administration under which a particular text was given, we can then think about what part it plays in helping us to understand the Bible’s unfolding revelation of Jesus.
The covenants help us to see how God’s plan, his eternal plan, unfolds in history progressively. God didn’t give us his redemptive plan all at once; it happened over time. And the covenants reveal that plan step-by-step by building on one another. They’re related—organically tied—to one another. So the covenant of Noah builds on the covenant of Creation, but there is a difference because it’s now a fallen world. Abraham is the solution to the fall in Genesis 3. Israel—which receives the Mosaic covenant—is the nation that comes out of the Abrahamic covenant. And David is the true Israel, the son of God who fulfills the role of Adam, the role of Israel. And that leads us to Christ who is the ultimate Son of David.
In this way, the covenants help us to read the Bible Christologically. They move us from Adam to Christ our Lord. Adam sinned, disobeyed, and failed. But Christ the Redeemer, our Lord Jesus, obeyed and conquered. He is the Son who now brings all of God’s promises to pass.
If you’d like to learn more about how the covenants fit together and help us read our Bibles, check out my book with Trent Hunter, Christ from Beginning to End, or Graham Goldsworthy’s excellent book, According to Plan.
Dr. Stephen J. Wellum is professor of Christian Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY. He is also editor of The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology. Wellum has written numerous academic articles and contributed to books on various aspects of theology including Kingdom through Covenant: A Biblical-Theological Understanding of the Covenants with Dr. Peter J. Gentry, God the Son Incarnate in the Foundations for Evangelical Theology Series, and Christ Alone: The Uniqueness of Jesus as Savior.