Author: Ron Graham
We are thinking about the statement, "Jesus has obtained a more excellent ministry, because he is the mediator of a better covenant, which is based on better promises" (Hebrews 8:6-8).
In this lesson we ask, “What sort of covenant was this new and better one?” To answer that question, we need to consider that covenants come in three different kinds or styles.
We sometimes hear the word "covenant" defined as an "agreement" —meaning a formal negotiated agreement. This is correct for some covenants.
For example, in Australia, a marriage is such a covenant; so also is the usual solution to an industrial dispute.
As a Bible example, a covenant by negotiated agreement was made between Abraham and Abimelech. It involved peaceful co-existence and Abraham’s right to draw water from a well which Abimelech’s servants had seized (Genesis 21:22-34).
"...So Abraham took sheep and oxen and gave them to Abimelech, and the two men made a covenant... So they made a covenant at Beersheba. Then Abimelech and Phicol the commander of his army rose up and returned to the land of the Philistines." (Genesis 21:27,).
Is the new covenant of Jesus Christ an agreement negotiated between man and God? No, it is not.
Another kind of covenant is a solemn promise or vow by one party to benefit a second party without requiring the other party to fulfill any conditions.
Ruth made such a covenant with Naomi (Ruth 1:16-17). "Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you," she said, and then uttered her covenant:
"For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the LORD do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you." (Ruth 1:16-17, ESV).
God's rainbow promise is also such a covenant. God made a promise never again to destroy the whole world with a flood, and he set his bow in the sky as a sign of this covenant (Genesis 9:8-17). The people of Earth are not required to do anything to benefit from this promise.
Was the new covenant mediated by Jesus Christ one of unconditional promises? No, it was not.
A third type of covenant makes promises that are conditional upon the beneficiary doing something specified.
An insurance policy legally binds the insurer to cover the insured against certain losses provided the insured pays premiums and looks after the property.
A persons last will and testament may have certain conditions that the beneficiary must comply with in order to inherit.
The covenant God made with Abraham was of this kind, and depended on Abraham’s obedience to God’s commands —as shown in the oath God swore to Abraham.
"When Abram was ninety-nine years old the LORD appeared to Abram and said to him, 'I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless, that I may make my covenant between me and you, and may multiply you greatly' " (Genesis 17:1-2, ESV).
"By myself I have sworn, because you have done this thing, and not witheld your son, your only son, indeed I will greatly bless you... and in your seed all the nations of earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice" (Genesis 22:16-18)
The old law of Moses was this kind of covenant —a law with penalties for those who disobeyed, and promises for those who obeyed.
God said, "Now then, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, then you shall be my own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation..." (Exodus 19:5-6).
Is the new covenant mediated by Jesus Christ of this third kind? Is it a covenant in which the promises are conditional? Yes, it is.
It's important to understand that the new covenant of Christ is not a negotiated agreement, nor an unconditional promise, but a law that is gracious to those who keep it and wrathful to those who don't.
As a simple example, Jesus said, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood. As often as you drink it, do this in remembrance of me" (1Corinthians 11:25).
It is clear that, under the new covenant, the benefits of the blood of Christ are conditional upon keeping the commandment to remember Christ at the Lord’s Supper. And all other commandments of Christ are likewise conditions of his covenant.
"[Our Advocate is] Jesus Christ the righteous... He himself is the atonement for our sins... if we keep his commandments" (1John 2:1-6).
This is the essence of the new covenant. We are undeservedly blessed by God’s grace through Christ’s sacrifice, provided that we keep Christ’s law.