Interpreting the Bible: Covenants (pt. 3)

Interpreting the Bible: Covenants (pt. 3)

In the previous post we discussed typology. A type is one thing used by God to signify another, greater thing. A type foreshadows something other than itself. Israel was not Jesus Christ, but it foreshadowed the coming Messiah in both positive and negative ways. Positive when Israel obeyed God. Negative when it disobeyed God and caused the saints of old to realize how desperate they were for God’s grace in the coming Messiah. Additionally, that toward which the type looks is also greater than the type. The antitype always surpasses its type. Jesus Christ was the other and greater antitype of the nation of Israel, of the Davidic line of kings, etc.

Following typology, we must look at the concept of covenant, since typology is intimately related to covenant. In this article, I want to begin our discussion on God’s covenants by defining covenant and then relating the concept of covenant to typology.

What Is a Covenant?

Covenants are often defined as mutual agreements between two parties, one greater and one lesser, for the purposes of improving the situation of the lesser party. The greater party, then, imposes conditions on the lesser party, and the lesser party obeys those conditions in order to earn some reward. In the ancient near east, these were referred to as Suzerain/vassal treaties, agreements, or covenants. Covenants between God and man are similar, with some obvious differences worth mentioning. Whereas with purely human covenants, in which both parties must cooperate with one another, divine covenants are unilaterally imposed upon the lesser party, God’s people. Never is there an instance where God asks for the participation of the other party. He simply demands it and then announces blessings and cursings for obedience or disobedience, respectively.

For example, we might take the first covenant found in Scripture, the covenant of works. Though the word covenant is not so much as muttered in the first three chapters of Genesis, there most certainly exists a covenantal transaction. God put Adam in the Garden in order that Adam should tend and keep it (Gen. 3:15). There is already a way of life prescribed in the Garden, but it becomes more specific. There is natural work in the Garden to be done, but then God adds a law, 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 (Gen. 2:16-17).” Now, a law by itself is not a covenant, but a law with blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience imposed upon a person or persons is a covenant. In the case of Adam, the blessing for covenantal obedience is life, and the curse for covenant disobedience is death, both spiritual and physical. In the covenant of works, God imposed a law upon man, it was not voluntary on man’s part. But because God is a gracious God, He offered blessings for the obedience of that law, with curses in the case of rebellion.

Another example would be the covenant of circumcision made with Abraham in Genesis 12, 15, and 17. There is much to say about this covenant, but the basic ingredients are conditions (Gen. 17:10), blessings for keeping the conditions, and curses for not keeping the conditions (Gen. 17:14: Deut. 4:1). The Mosaic Covenant contained the same ingredients: conditions, blessings, curses (Lev. 20:22).

Broadly speaking, therefore, a divine covenant is that which is imposed upon man, regardless of man’s agreement or permission. But, because God is a gracious God, He includes blessings for those who keep His covenant for the sake of their improvement, and curses for those who disobey.

Form & Matter

An important distinction with regard to covenants is that made between form on the one hand and matter on the other. We need to be asking the question, “What’s a covenant made out of?” In other words, what’s the material of any given covenant? There are basically two different kinds of material given in Scripture: that of law and that of promise. A covenant is either “made out of” law, in which case obedience is required for covenant membership; or it is a covenant made out of promise, in which case God unilaterally makes a keeps the covenant for His people, irrespective of their works (Gal. 3:18).

Now, the matter of the covenant always dictates the form. Law and promise never intermingle when it comes to how we relate to God. We either relate to God through obedience to the law, or we relate to God through gracious promise. Dr. Sam Renihan writes:

When it comes to justification, the material basis of a covenant is either law or promise. Works/law and grace/promise do not intermingle.

If two parties are committed to each other based on a law, a covenant of works has been established. If two parties are committed to each other based on a promise, a covenant of grace has been established. The matter dictates the form (cf. ‘Form and Matter…’).

So, if the matter is law, the form is works or obedience to that law. If the matter is promise, then God’s free grace [in Christ] is the form. There is no such thing as a conditional/unconditional covenant, where a person is related to God by faith + works. A person or people are always related to God by either law/obedience or promise/grace, never both.

Covenants & Typology

How are covenant and typology related? There are several ways in which types relate to covenants, but the most apparent can be found in the purpose of covenants. God always makes covenants with His people in order to improve their station in the world. Never is there an instance in Scripture where God institutes a covenant for the purpose of moving backwards. New wine always belongs in new wineskins. Newer covenants always improve God’s people from older covenants. What was promised in the Abrahamic Covenant was a people (Gen. 12:1-3), a kingship (Gen. 17:6), and land (Gen. 15:7; 17:8). The subsequent covenants functioned to move Israel toward the fulfillment of those promises. There is a progression of improvement seen throughout the various covenants made in the Old Testament. The Mosaic Covenant instituted laws for the nation to live by in the land they were to inherit. It’s right after this they came to possess the promised land (Jos. 21:43-45). The Davidic Covenant established a line of kings. There was only one promise to be fulfilled, which was that of the skull-crushing Messiah (Gen. 3:15; 12:3, 7; Gal. 3:16).

How does all this relate to typology? Remember our definition of types. Types are that which point forward to other and greater things. Likewise, covenants always look toward better covenants, the greatest of which is the New Covenant. The Old Covenant looks forward to the New. As with types, the Old Covenant, which began with Abraham, goes away when the New Covenant arrives. The older covenants serve to typify the New Covenant. The New Covenant contains the ultimate fulfillment of all God’s promises (2 Cor. 1:20). Hebrews 8:6 tells us, “But now He has obtained a more excellent ministry, inasmuch as He is also Mediator of a better covenant, which was established on better promises.”

Again, as with typology, covenants never look back to what was, but always move God’s people toward what is to come. Covenants progress to better covenants, and the New Covenant is the best of the best. Never is there an instance in Scripture where a covenant reverts back to an older covenant. Thus, the New Covenant doesn’t move God’s people backward to an earthly temple, an earthly land, and an earthly king, but forward to a heavenly temple, a heavenly land, and a heavenly king (Heb. 11:16; 12:22).


A covenant, most basically put, is an imposed relationship between God and man, upon man, for the improvement of man. Covenants are made out of conditions, blessings, and curses. Blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience. The New Covenant differs from the older covenants in that it was not a covenant of works, but a covenant of grace. In the New Covenant, conditions are kept by Another, and the blessings received by Christ from the Father as a result of His obedience are mediated to Christ’s blood-bought people. Covenants are closely related to types because the older covenants subserved the New, ultimate, covenant by foreshadowing or revealing it. Like types, the older covenants looked forward to another, greater New Covenant. When the New Covenant came, the older ones passed away.

In the next post of this series, I’d like to discuss how covenants should relate to our biblical-interpretive endeavor.