The Everlasting Covenant


2 What Makes a Covenant?

by Hubert F. Sturges, www.everlastingcovenant.com, Decmber 2013

For when God made promise to Abraham, because he could swear by no greater, he sware by himself, Saying, Surely blessing I will bless thee, and multiplying I will multiply thee. Hebrews 6:13, 14

God’s words contain power. Whatever God promises is as certain as already accomplished. In God’s plan to redeem humankind, He made redemption more than a promise; He made it a covenant. God made a commitment to save His creation, including humankind. Even more, He committed Himself to meet the challenge, having established the government of God on love, freedom, and creativity for the whole universe forever. God will reveal that He is a God of mercy and justice.


The Law of God Is Holy, Just, and Good

The whole of God’s universe is under the laws of nature, which provide for order and beauty in all created things.1 God created human beings in His image and wrote the moral law in their hearts. God placed within human beings the desire to be like God to the limits of human capability. Love and harmony guided all their actions.

When God created intelligent beings with free will, they needed a moral law to guide their interactions with God and with other created beings. A loving God values free will in angelic and human beings; He desires that His creatures give their love freely by their own choice rather than by compulsion or instinct. Free will makes life attractive and offers pleasant surprises. It opens the door to new beauty in music and art. Freedom, however, can only exist within the boundaries of the law.

When Satan rebelled against God, he challenged the concept of a moral law, claiming that angels and human beings were so wise that they did not need a law. Satan raised questions about God’s character, asserting that God is arbitrary, selfish, and unwilling to accept for Himself the conditions under which He expected humans to live. Without law, he said, angels and human beings could be free! Free! Free! (or so he claimed).

When Satan objected to a moral law, why did God not deal with him immediately? The very nature of God’s government, based on free choice, requires that angels and human beings see the nature of sin and contrast the methods of Satan with the plans and purposes of God (1 Cor. 4:9). They must see that God is merciful and just (Ps. 85:10; Rev. 15:3). They must also see that, in God, there is love, freedom, life and joy, while, in sin, there is noth but death (Ringom. 6:23).2


Was There a Covenant Before Sin?

It is not clear whether sinless beings-the uncounted millions of angels in heaven or the beings on other planets (Rev. 5:11; 14:4; Job 1:6)-knew of an objective law. In their happy and holy state, they willingly patterned their lives after their heavenly Father (John 13:15; 1 Peter 2:21; Matt. 5:45, 48). God’s actions were an example for them; the law was and is a transcript of His character.3

Why then is a law needed at all? As soon as God created the second angel with intelligence and free will, He had to lay down rules for the behavior of intelligent beings. It is only within the boundaries of law that freedom can exist. Without law, there is anarchy, oppression, and tyranny. The results of Satan’s attack on the law of God are all too evident in the world today.

In Eden, God gave Adam and Eve instructions and responsibilities. Since there were just two people, the whole earth was theirs to enjoy. Imagine how big it must have seemed to them! They were to demonstrate their loyalty and obedience to God by not eating of a certain tree in the garden (Gen. 2:16, 17).

As sinless human beings, the law of God was their covenant.4 God wrote this law on the hearts of every human being when He created the first humans in His image. In Eden, they did not focus on law but rather on how best to praise and honor their Creator, thereby reaching far beyond the law and surpassing its minimum requirements. Sinless beings lived only to do God’s will; they kept the law of God by their very nature.

Today, if people keep the minimum requirements of the civil law, they will stay out of jail. This is what many choose to do with God’s law; they keep the bare minimum-that which is written in stone. The problem is that, when people keep a law that is written only on stone, obedience is mechanical and without love. God wants to write His law in our hearts so that we can keep His law from a heart filled with love for Him and our fellow human beings. When Jesus came to earth, He introduced the kingdom of grace. In the Sermon on the Mount, He emphasized keeping the law from the motives and attitudes of the heart.

The everlasting covenant, with its promise of grace and redemption, became effective only after sin but remained a mystery until Christ came.5


Various Levels of Agreement

One can use different terms to describe an agreement between parties. These vary in commitment. Intent to do something is often unspoken and is subject to the whims of the individual. A promise must be kept to meet another’s expectations. When a person makes a promise and breaks it, it lessens the credibility of the person who promised. A vow is a more serious commitment than a promise and must be fulfilled to avoid a specified consequence.

A covenant includes the concepts of intent, promise, and vow. A covenant is formal and includes commitment, stipulations, and consequences. In ancient times, signatories often sealed a covenant by blood, either that of both parties, of one party, or by animals representing the parties. A covenant may be one-sided or binding on both sides. By contrast, a modern contract incurs only monetary loss.

Scripture uses the term “everlasting covenant” to describe the covenant made in the council of the Godhead before the foundation of the world. Scripture also uses the term for the covenant that God made with Abraham (Gen. 17), showing that the covenant has two aspects. That God called it “My covenant” shows that He considers it to be uniquely His own, especially because the term bears close relation to two other terms, which establish its independence from humans: the everlasting covenant and the new covenant. That Abraham had to accept it by faith shows that humans have a role to play in accepting the covenant.


The Faith Response

Careful reading will show that God expected a faith response from humans every time He gave them His covenant. He assumed this response from Adam and Eve when, fresh out of Eden, they sinned. Noah responded in faith by preaching and building the ark over the course of 120 years. Abraham responded in faith, believing that God would do all that He promised.

However, this response was missing when the people at Sinai made their own promises instead of receiving the covenant in faith.6 Obedience has always been important, and it is important today. It was God’s will that people have faith in the prophesied Redeemer to take hold of grace for power to do God’s will. The issue of faith was and is always critical.

After Israel broke their covenant of human promises, Moses interceded with God four times until God took them back into His covenant. God said, “Behold, I make a covenant: “ (Exod. 34:10).

Whenever God makes a covenant, it is serious business. He had already made a covenant with Abraham. The real and effective ratification was yet to come when Jesus gave Himself in sacrifice on the cross. What covenant then did God make with Israel in Exodus 34:10? He had already given Israel what He referred to as “My covenant” in Exodus 19:5.

One must distinguish God’s unique “My covenant” from other covenants He has made with humans. In Exodus 34:10, God is not speaking of His “My covenant,” which humanity cannot change or break but can only accept by faith. It is the faith response that makes it a covenant between God and the human family. On that occasion, they showed their faith by liberally contributing gold, silver, and other materials, and their meticulous handwork to make the sanctuary.


The Covenant of God Is More Than a Promise

God made much, much more than a promise; He made an everlasting covenant, which is a formal commitment to humanity. The Creator of this earth covenanted to live on this sinful planet as a human being and die that we might live! The plan of salvation and the everlasting gospel are terms that express the same idea as the everlasting covenant. When we understand the covenant, it brings into sharp focus the gospel and the plan of salvation.

God’s commitment to the covenant assures us of the permanence of His intent. Jesus Christ confirmed the everlasting covenant at Calvary. The cross makes clear the meaning of all doctrines and makes possible the promises and blessings of God.

God always knows “the end from the beginning” (Isa. 46:10). This makes His answers to problems always the best. The Godhead, in council before the creation of the world, made God’s everlasting covenant. Human beings cannot break this covenant, for they had no part in making it. We can only trust and have confidence in God’s solemn promise (Heb. 6:13-16).

The concept of the covenant is ancient, and it takes a number of forms. Since ancient times, covenants between men and nations were common. Some scholars look to the covenant of God with Adam after sin for the origin of the covenant. Others look to the classic ancient covenant of the Hittite Suzerainty Treaty, the components of which are listed below.

• First came a preamble, introducing the parties involved and describing the gifts they were to exchange.
• Then there was a prologue, discussing the ability of each party to perform expected conditions.
• At this point, there was often a blood ceremony.
• Then came the stipulations, delineating the actions that were expected of either one or both parties for the duration of the treaty. These were followed by blessings if the stipulations of the treaty were upheld and curses if they were not.
• Lastly, the parties shared a sacrificial meal to symbolize their joint participation in the treaty.

Scripture does not always use the terms “covenant” or “testament” in every presentation of the covenant. Often it identifies the covenant by using the names of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob or by repeating the promise of land. Since a covenant with God is either long lasting or permanent, Scripture often does not repeat all the same details. The promise of a Redeemer, of pardon for sins, of salvation, and of restoration are permanent aspects of God’s covenant. When God “makes” a covenant with humankind, it often includes promises specific to a local situation or the promise of land. Many of God’s promises in Scripture are not covenants. These He gave in response to particular needs. The focus on Jesus’ sinless life and sacrifice on the cross identifies the everlasting covenant. The specific covenant promise is, “I will be to them a God, and they shall be to me a people” (Heb. 8:10).7,8


Endnotes

1. The creation is kept under the laws of God (Gen. 1; John 1:1-3; Ps. 8:3, 136:7-9; Isa. 40:26).

2. Regarding Satan’s role in the origin of sin, see Ellen G. White, “Why Was Sin Permitted?” Patriarchs and Prophets (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 2005), pp. 35-43.

3. “The law of God is as sacred as God Himself. It is a revelation of His will, a transcript of His character, the expression of divine love and wisdom” (Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 52).

4. When God created Adam and Eve, He gave them instructions on how to live (Gen. 1:26-2:24). This will be expanded in our next chapter, “Adam and Eve in Eden.”

5. The plan of salvation was a mystery hidden from the foundation of the world (Rom. 16:25-26; 1 Cor. 2:6-9; Eph. 3:9-11, 17-19; Col. 1:26-28). What Makes a Covenant? 19

6. That the missing ingredient was faith is seen in Paul’s statement in Hebrews 4: “For unto us was the gospel preached, as well as unto them: but the word preached did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in them that heard it” (Heb. 4:2).

7. Various forms of “I will be to them a God, and they shall be to me a people” are repeated throughout Scripture (Gen. 17:7,

8. The covenant promise. "I will take you to me for a people, and I will be to you a God." Exod. 6:7; 33:14-17; Lev. 26:12; Deut. 29:13; Jer. 11:4; 24:7; 30:22; 31:1, 33; 32:38; Ezek. 11:20; 14:11; 34:30; 36:28; 37:23, 26, 27; 39:22; Hosea 2:23; Zech. 8:8; 13:9; 2 Cor. 6:16; Heb. 8:10; and Rev. 21:3, 7).