Are the covenants made with Abraham still in force? Are there more than one? A related, subsequent question: Do Jews have a biblical right to live in Israel today?
As noted in every article about biblical covenants, here is a working definition of covenant:
Out of his great love for his highest creation, people, God unilaterally reaches out to them and initiates an unalterable legal agreement, in which he stipulates the terms that reveal how he relates to people, and they to him.
More simply: a covenant is an unalterable legal agreement, in which God stipulates the terms that reveal how he relates to people, and they to him.
The main points are that he takes the initiative and spells out the terms of the agreement. We cannot strut up to God and demand that he relates to us in our way. That’s arrogant and presumptuous because our strutting and demanding fail to understand that he is the one in charge of his creation. He imposes the agreement on his highest creation, humankind, who can accept or reject the covenant, out of their own free will.
This covenant we study in this post is called the Abrahamic Covenant or the Covenant with Abraham, which is divided in two parts (Gen. 15 and 17).
Since all covenants have component parts, so does this one, as follows:
1.. God’s initiative
God called Abram to leave his land in Ur of the Chaldees, in Iraq today (Gen. 12:1-3). And so he set out for the land promised to him and reached it and was ordered to walk around and claim what God had already given him (Gen. 13:14-17). Then God promised the aged Abram a son, and he believed the Lord, and it was counted him as righteousness (Gen. 15).
The point is that all throughout Abram / Abraham’s life, God initiated the call and the end of this patriarch’s life. The patriarch did not strut into God’s presence and dictate the terms. God initiated and set the terms. It is by God’s initiating grace.
2.. Types of covenant
Scholars divide the covenant with Abraham into two parts.
The first part was a Royal Grant of land, an unconditional promise to possess Canaan (Gen. 15:7). It was to belong to Abraham and his descendants forever, but under the Lord’s ownership.
Some object that it was not unconditional If the people broke the Sinai covenant, then the land would vomit them out (Lev. 18:22; 20:22). And it did when the northern and southern kingdoms violated this covenant (2 Kings 17-18; 2 Chron. 36:15-23). However, the Abrahamic covenants, particularly the first one, are different from the Sinai covenant.
The second part was a Suzerain-Vassal Covenant. Abraham and his descendants were to be totally dedicated, loyal, and obedient to their sovereign Lord (Gen. 17).
Many scholars see these as two separate covenants. I believe they are right.
3.. Parties involved
In both parts, the parties were the Lord as the ruler of heaven and earth, and Abraham, the Lord’s servant.
4.. Stipulations and obligations and promises
This aspect of the covenant could also be called requirements or conditions, if the covenant is like that.
In the first part, Abraham was to have the land by God’s unconditional promise (Gen. 15:17).
In the second part, the terms were conditional. In Gen. 17:4, the phrase “as for me” and in v. 9 “as for you” signify the conditions. For God’s part, he would ensure that Abraham would have many descendants, and he reinforced the land grant established in the first part (Gen. 17:8). For Abraham’s part he and his descendants were to be totally consecrated to the Lord.
But what would happen if they were disobedient? Would they lose the land? If so, then the first part was conditional, after all. But if they were never to lose the land, but a remnant could keep it because they remained faithful, then the first part can be considered unconditional.
See the fulfillment section for a possible resolution of these interpretations.
The first part was by Abraham’s faith (v. 6) and then his faith was confirmed by his cutting up animals and laying them out in two parallel rows (Gen. 15:9-11, 17-18). A flaming torch and smoking firepot passed between the dismembered animal parts. This was the presence of God ratifying the covenant.
The second part was confirmed by circumcision (Gen. 17:11-14).
The Abrahamic covenant in both parts together was repeated to Abraham (Gen. 22:17-18), Isaac (Gen. 26:3-5), Jacob (Gen. 28:13-15), and to Moses (Exod. 6:2-4); it was celebrated by the psalmist (Ps. 105:7-11) and the exiles who had returned (Neh. 9:7-8).
6.. Fulfillment of the covenants
It is the clearest teaching of Scripture that New Covenant fulfills all OT covenants through Christ, which he initiated at the Lord’s Supper and ratified at his death and resurrection. He fulfills even the two-part covenant given to Abraham. Specifically, Paul says that in Abraham’s “seed” all the nations will be blessed. Who is the “seed”? Christ alone is the seed (singular) of Abraham (Gal. 3:15-18), and salvation goes through him and only him. Now the church inherits the whole world by salvation through Christ (Rom. 4:13). Now through him the whole world is being blessed as his gospel is spread.
The sign of the the second covenant was circumcision. Today, believers are not circumcised except in their hearts (Rom. 2:25-29; 1 Cor. 7:19). So this sign of the covenant and therefore the second part of the covenant is obsolete. The nation of Israel rejected the Messiah, about four decades before the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in A.D. 70. That rejection, however, opened the door to Gentiles to receive salvation offered through the Messiah (Gal. 3:15-18). Christ is the fulfillment of the “seed” (singular) or the descendant promised to Abraham the believer that the whole world would be blessed through his “seed.” Now he is the only way of salvation through faith in him. We can be like Abraham the believer, but our faith is now directed towards and put wholly in Christ. This is Paul’s main emphasis throughout his writings, particularly in Rom. 9-11 and Gal. 3-4.
Now the church inherits the world (Rom. 4:13), while the Jews can inherit Israel. They are on two parallel tracks globally, but salvation is through Christ alone (see the next major section).
See the fuller post about Jews in Israel today:
Does the Land of Israel Belong to Jews Today by Covenant?
So how does this post help me grow in my knowledge of God?
Let’s explore the salvational aspect more deeply. The Hebrew Bible is full of prophecies about the Messiah. See this post for a table of them:
As Peter proclaimed before the Jewish Sanhedrin (high court and council), now salvation is only through faith in Jesus Christ, Yeshua ha-Meshiach (Acts 4:12). I for one will never abandon him and his bold stance and statement.
Jews today need their Messiah. Please don’t accept the theology of the two-track covenants: one salvation for Jews through the covenants with Abraham and Moses, and the other one for Gentiles (and a few “wayward” Messianic Jews) through Jesus Christ. Two tracks of history is not the same as one covenant through Christ. No, Jesus is the only way of salvation for everyone on the planet, Jew and Gentile.
God’s whole plan for humanity is to break down the dividing wall between this small band of Jews and the rest of the seven billion people on the planet (cf. Eph. 2:14). This was important in Paul’s day because for him Israel was a major player in the first-century Roman Empire.
Now for us today, the Church must reach out to everyone, including Jews, and keep an eye on any anti-Semitism that rears its ugly head.
We can support the Jewish state of Israel and still call for the salvation of the Jews everywhere through their true Messiah. In fact, the best way to support Israel is to issue this call of salvation.
One Decisive Difference Between Sinai Covenant and New Covenant
What Does the New Covenant Retain from the Old?
Do Christians Have to ‘Keep’ the Ten Commandments?
Ten Commandments: God’s Great Compromise with Humanity’s Big Failure
How Jesus Christ Fulfills the Law: Matthew 5:17-19