God's Magnificent Series of Covenants

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What is the central message of Jesus Christ’s gospel? It is the promise that God plans to transform all people to be like Him, starting with their hearts and minds. Proclamation of that message continues through the Church He built (Matthew 16:18 Matthew 16:18And I say also to you, That you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.
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). But the full impact of that message will not be felt by all people until after He returns.

Eventually, as a result of His direct supervision, the whole “earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Isaiah 11:9 Isaiah 11:9They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain: for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea.
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). Christ’s first coming was only the beginning of His personal involvement in transforming the spiritual nature of mankind.

God’s visionary plan

Through special covenants made with Noah, Abraham, Moses and David, God long ago began to reveal important details of His plan to produce for Himself an enduring holy people (Leviticus 20:26 Leviticus 20:26And you shall be holy to me: for I the LORD am holy, and have severed you from other people, that you should be mine.
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; Leviticus 26:12 Leviticus 26:12And I will walk among you, and will be your God, and you shall be my people.
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; Hebrews 8:10 Hebrews 8:10For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, said the Lord; I will put my laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts: and I will be to them a God, and they shall be to me a people:
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). The promised New Covenant—the basis of Christ’s gospel—is the capstone of that revelation process.

Through the pen of the prophet Jeremiah, God summarized what He intends to accomplish through Jesus Christ: “I will make an everlasting covenant with them, that I will not turn away from doing them good; but I will put My fear in their hearts so that they will not depart from Me” (Jeremiah 32:40 Jeremiah 32:40And I will make an everlasting covenant with them, that I will not turn away from them, to do them good; but I will put my fear in their hearts, that they shall not depart from me.
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).

“I will give them a heart to know me, that I am the Lord. They will be my people, and I will be their God, for they will return to me with all their heart” (Jeremiah 24:7 Jeremiah 24:7And I will give them an heart to know me, that I am the LORD: and they shall be my people, and I will be their God: for they shall return to me with their whole heart.
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, New International Version).

The impact of that promise was only hinted at—through symbolic ceremonies—at the time ancient Israel became a nation under the Sinai Covenant. For example, the temple worship of ancient Israel anticipated Christ’s sacrifice with figurative rituals and ceremonies.

Those rituals symbolized—for those living in that era—that a lasting, permanent solution to the problem of humanity’s spiritual inadequacies was needed. But the sacrifices and rituals given to Israel at that time did not provide that solution.

The reason was that “the gifts and sacrifices being offered were not able to clear the conscience of the worshiper” (Hebrews 9:9 Hebrews 9:9Which was a figure for the time then present, in which were offered both gifts and sacrifices, that could not make him that did the service perfect, as pertaining to the conscience;
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, NIV). Only by forgiveness of sin through the sacrifice of Christ and receiving the spiritual power provided by the gift of the Holy Spirit is that possible.

Righteous laws, but no righteous heart

Since most of the people of ancient Israel did not receive God’s Spirit, they were unable to live or apply God’s teachings from the heart as a truly holy people. As Moses told them, “The Lord has not given you a heart to perceive and eyes to see and ears to hear” (Deuteronomy 29:4 Deuteronomy 29:4Yet the LORD has not given you an heart to perceive, and eyes to see, and ears to hear, to this day.
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).

But God already had a clear plan in mind to give them that “new heart” in the future. Even when speaking to Moses, God expressed His eager longing for the time when that change of heart could happen. He exclaimed to Moses, “Oh, that they had such a heart in them that they would fear Me and always keep all My commandments, that it might be well with them and with their children forever!” (Deuteronomy 5:29 Deuteronomy 5:29O that there were such an heart in them, that they would fear me, and keep all my commandments always, that it might be well with them, and with their children for ever!
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).

But the time was not yet right for God to make His Spirit available to the masses of humanity—not even to most of the people of Israel. Except for Israel’s prophets and a few other specially chosen servants of God, Israel’s history describes a people who had righteous laws but lacked righteous hearts.

Like most people today, they did not have the ability to live by the full spiritual intent of the instructions God reveals in the Scriptures. Something was missing.

Therefore, “God found fault with the people [notice that the fault was not with the laws He gave them] and said: ‘The time is coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new[revised] covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they did not remain faithful to My covenant, and I turned away from them, declares the Lord.

“This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time, declares the Lord. I will put My laws in their minds and write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be My people’ ” (Hebrews 8:8-10 Hebrews 8:8-10 [8] For finding fault with them, he said, Behold, the days come, said the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah: [9] Not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt; because they continued not in my covenant, and I regarded them not, said the Lord. [10] For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, said the Lord; I will put my laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts: and I will be to them a God, and they shall be to me a people:
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, NIV).

A changed heart offered to mankind

Most people assume that the New Covenant abolishes the laws of God as enumerated under the Sinai Covenant (also known as the Old Covenant). But notice that no indication is given in this promise that God’s laws are to be ignored or abolished.

On the contrary, they are to be engraved into the minds and hearts of the recipients of the promised New Covenant—to be made a part of their very being! This New Covenant is a vital revision in how God interacts with His people.

God has fully committed Himself to changing the hearts of all people who choose to serve Him willingly. Since “there is no partiality with God” (Romans 2:11 Romans 2:11For there is no respect of persons with God.
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), He has extended this promise to all nations.

As Paul explained, “And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel to Abraham beforehand, saying, ‘In you all the nations shall be blessed’ ” (Galatians 3:8 Galatians 3:8And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the heathen through faith, preached before the gospel to Abraham, saying, In you shall all nations be blessed.
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).

From the beginning, God’s plan has been that all peoples are to receive an opportunity to repent—to turn from doing things their own way to wholeheartedly embracing God’s way—and have their hearts changed so they can live as He intended. He decided to begin with one family—faithful Abraham and his descendants through his grandson Jacob.

God changed Jacob’s name to Israel. From his 12 sons came the tribes of the ancient nation of Israel. To these physical descendants of Jacob, God began to reveal the essential details of His plan to make a holy people for Himself.

What is a covenant?

Inherent in any covenant is the concept of a lasting commitment to a clearly defined relationship. Generally speaking, a covenant is a long-term agreement between two or more parties that formalizes a binding relationship between them. It defines their essential obligations and commitments to each other.

In ancient times, major covenants were ratified and kept alive through symbolic rituals that reflected each party’s commitment to, and acceptance of, the covenant’s binding requirements. However, covenant rituals are not the same as covenant commitments and obligations.

Rituals in divine covenants serve primarily as symbolic reminders and are intentionally given only a figurative value. The real value is in the substance of the commitments made! Through the substance of His covenants—His divine commitments—God binds Himself to perform all of the promises He makes.

In a divine covenant, God defines the basic obligations that He imposes on Himself and, usually, on the other participants. Thus a dominant feature of a covenant is a list of blessings that God promises to give to those who honor their covenant commitments.

A divine covenant can be compared to a sacred constitution established to regulate human relationships with God. It is a formal declaration of God’s will and purpose. It typically expresses His deep love for humanity and reveals one or more major aspects of His plan for humanity’s salvation.

Covenant discussions in the New Testament

Two covenants, the Sinai or Old Covenant and the New Covenant (mediated by Jesus Christ), are the focus of considerable discussion in the New Testament. Both are based on God’s earlier covenant with Abraham that promises the inheritance of a global kingdom to Abraham’s special “seed” or descendant—Jesus Christ (Romans 4:13 Romans 4:13For the promise, that he should be the heir of the world, was not to Abraham, or to his seed, through the law, but through the righteousness of faith.
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; Galatians 3:16 Galatians 3:16Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He said not, And to seeds, as of many; but as of one, And to your seed, which is Christ.
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).

The covenant made at Mount Sinai established the ancient national kingdom of Israel. The New Covenant promises that the Messiah, Jesus Christ, will establish the much more inclusive Kingdom of God that will rule over the whole earth (Isaiah 9:7 Isaiah 9:7Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, on the throne of David, and on his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from now on even for ever. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will perform this.
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; Matthew 25:34 Matthew 25:34Then shall the King say to them on his right hand, Come, you blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world:
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; Luke 22:29-30 Luke 22:29-30 [29] And I appoint to you a kingdom, as my Father has appointed to me; [30] That you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.
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; Revelation 11:15 Revelation 11:15And the seventh angel sounded; and there were great voices in heaven, saying, The kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord, and of his Christ; and he shall reign for ever and ever.
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).

Jesus made that coming Kingdom, and the repentance required for us to participate in it, the central feature of His gospel (Mark 1:14-15 Mark 1:14-15 [14] Now after that John was put in prison, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, [15] And saying, The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent you, and believe the gospel.
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). To qualify as an heir of that Kingdom, one has to meet the terms defined in God’s covenants. Jesus Christ alone has met all of those terms perfectly.

So He alone is the qualified heir of all the promises made to Abraham. And only through Him may other human beings—including such men of faith as Abel, Noah, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Hebrews 11)—share in that promised inheritance. As Paul explained, “If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:29 Galatians 3:29And if you be Christ’s, then are you Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.
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, NIV).

Peter confirmed this central role of Jesus, saying, “There is no salvation through anyone else; in all the world no other name has been granted to mankind by which we can be saved” (Acts 4:12 Acts 4:12Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved.
American King James Version×
, Revised English Bible).

This is why Jesus Christ’s role in God’s covenants is so vital. Those covenants contain the promise of salvation that He alone, as the Messiah, can make a reality.

Each covenant points to specific aspects of God’s ultimate solution to the problem of sin and evil. And the New Covenant deals explicitly with the “heart” aspect of that solution.

The character of covenant recipients

God carefully chose special individuals to convey some of His covenant commitments to the rest of humanity. Each of these special covenant recipients had already been serving God from the heart. Each had a personal relationship with God and was already living a righteous life to the best of his ability and knowledge.

Noah is the first person mentioned specifically in the Bible as entering into a covenant relationship with God. This occurred at a time when all human beings—except for Noah (and apparently his immediate family)—had become completely engrossed in an evil way of life (Genesis 6:5-8 Genesis 6:5-8 [5] And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. [6] And it repented the LORD that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart. [7] And the LORD said, I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth; both man, and beast, and the creeping thing, and the fowls of the air; for it repents me that I have made them. [8] But Noah found grace in the eyes of the LORD.
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; Genesis 9:8-11 Genesis 9:8-11 [8] And God spoke to Noah, and to his sons with him, saying, [9] And I, behold, I establish my covenant with you, and with your seed after you; [10] And with every living creature that is with you, of the fowl, of the cattle, and of every beast of the earth with you; from all that go out of the ark, to every beast of the earth. [11] And I will establish my covenant with you, neither shall all flesh be cut off any more by the waters of a flood; neither shall there any more be a flood to destroy the earth.
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).

The second individual recorded in the Bible with whom God made a personal covenant was Abraham (Genesis 15:18 Genesis 15:18In the same day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, To your seed have I given this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates:
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; Genesis 17:1-2 Genesis 17:1-2 [1] And when Abram was ninety years old and nine, the LORD appeared to Abram, and said to him, I am the Almighty God; walk before me, and be you perfect. [2] And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will multiply you exceedingly.
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).

Abraham shared Noah’s key character traits. Just as God chose to have a covenant with Noah, a righteous man (Genesis 6:8-9 Genesis 6:8-9 [8] But Noah found grace in the eyes of the LORD. [9] These are the generations of Noah: Noah was a just man and perfect in his generations, and Noah walked with God.
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), so He chose Abraham, a man of faith and obedience (Genesis 15:6 Genesis 15:6And he believed in the LORD; and he counted it to him for righteousness.
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; Genesis 26:5 Genesis 26:5Because that Abraham obeyed my voice, and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws.
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), for this second covenant. From these two examples it becomes clear that God initiated covenants with individuals only if the persons receiving those covenants had already demonstrated that they were willing to obey Him.

These traits of faithfulness and obedience were also present in Moses (Numbers 12:3 Numbers 12:3(Now the man Moses was very meek, above all the men which were on the face of the earth.)
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; Hebrews 11:24-28 Hebrews 11:24-28 [24] By faith Moses, when he was come to years, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter; [25] Choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God, than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season; [26] Esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures in Egypt: for he had respect to the recompense of the reward. [27] By faith he forsook Egypt, not fearing the wrath of the king: for he endured, as seeing him who is invisible. [28] Through faith he kept the passover, and the sprinkling of blood, lest he that destroyed the firstborn should touch them.
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) and David—as well as in the other prophets who participated in writing the Old Testament scriptures. Concerning David, God says: “I have made a covenant with My chosen, I have sworn to My servant David: ‘Your seed [Jesus Christ] I will establish forever, and build up your throne to all generations’ ” (Psalms 89:3-4 Psalms 89:3-4 [3] I have made a covenant with my chosen, I have sworn to David my servant, [4] Your seed will I establish for ever, and build up your throne to all generations. Selah.
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).

Paul mentions, concerning the people of Israel, that God “raised up for them David as king, to whom also He gave testimony and said, ‘I have found David the son of Jesse, a man after My own heart, who will do all My will.’ From this man’s seed, according to the promise, God raised up for Israel a Savior—Jesus” (Acts 13:22-23 Acts 13:22-23 [22] And when he had removed him, he raised up to them David to be their king; to whom also he gave their testimony, and said, I have found David the son of Jesse, a man after my own heart, which shall fulfill all my will. [23] Of this man’s seed has God according to his promise raised to Israel a Savior, Jesus:
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).

Abraham and David are especially significant to the divine promises and covenants most necessary for humanity’s salvation. That is why the very first words in the New Testament are: “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham” (Matthew 1:1 Matthew 1:1The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.
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).

This opening sentence links Christ’s mission directly to the promises made to Abraham and David. The covenants with these men contain the basic promises related to God’s plan to offer salvation to all mankind through Jesus Christ.

The covenant with Abraham

To Abraham God promised: “I will make you a great nation; I will bless you and make your name great; and you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed”(Genesis 12:2-3 Genesis 12:2-3 [2] And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great; and you shall be a blessing: [3] And I will bless them that bless you, and curse him that curses you: and in you shall all families of the earth be blessed.
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).

Here God declares His intention to offer salvation not only to the physical descendants of Abraham but also to “all the families of the earth.” But Abraham’s descendants were to play a special and vital role in this process—especially the unique descendant of David who would come as the Messiah.

Peter explained to his fellow Jews what Jesus Christ’s most challenging role would be: “You are sons of the prophets, and of the covenant which God made with our fathers, saying to Abraham, ‘And in your seed all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’ To you first, God, having raised up His Servant Jesus, sent Him to bless you, in turning away every one of you from your iniquities” (Acts 3:25-26 Acts 3:25-26 [25] You are the children of the prophets, and of the covenant which God made with our fathers, saying to Abraham, And in your seed shall all the kindreds of the earth be blessed. [26] To you first God, having raised up his Son Jesus, sent him to bless you, in turning away every one of you from his iniquities.
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).

This is what the whole world needs most. Only when all of humankind has received a “new heart”—through Christ’s active involvement in turning all peoples away from their sins —will God’s plan be complete. Peter explained that full reconciliation, as planned by God, requires “every one of you” to turn away “from your iniquities.”

That is God’s goal. And He has promised to achieve it! His covenants contain His commitments to fulfill that goal.

More details revealed about God’s plan

In His covenant with Abraham, God first began to give clear details of His plan. He told Abraham: “I will make My covenant between Me and you, and will multiply you exceedingly . . . and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. And I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you in their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and your descendants after you” (Genesis 17:2-7 Genesis 17:2-7 [2] And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will multiply you exceedingly. [3] And Abram fell on his face: and God talked with him, saying, [4] As for me, behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be a father of many nations. [5] Neither shall your name any more be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for a father of many nations have I made you. [6] And I will make you exceeding fruitful, and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come out of you. [7] And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your seed after you in their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God to you, and to your seed after you.
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).

This covenant anticipated the following key elements of God’s plan: God’s special relationship with Abraham’s descendants, the institution of the kingdom of Israel , the birth and reign of the Messiah over the Kingdom of God and the ultimate salvation of all nations.

Abraham’s faith—his implicit trust in and loyalty to God—is ascribed to him as righteousness (Genesis 15:6 Genesis 15:6And he believed in the LORD; and he counted it to him for righteousness.
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). His full confidence in God was the foundation of his character. His trust in God was demonstrated through his obedience (James 2:21-24 James 2:21-24 [21] Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son on the altar? [22] See you how faith worked with his works, and by works was faith made perfect? [23] And the scripture was fulfilled which said, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed to him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God. [24] You see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.
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). Abraham not only believed God, he also understood and faithfully obeyed God’s laws as a result of his faith (Genesis 26:5 Genesis 26:5Because that Abraham obeyed my voice, and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws.
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).

Abraham’s pattern of faith—demonstrated by his obedience to God—is the model of living faith that Paul describes in the book of Romans, where he makes the point that even obedient Abraham still needed forgiveness. Speaking of Abraham and his faith, Paul says: “Blessed are they whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will never count against him” (Romans 4:7-8 Romans 4:7-8 [7] Saying, Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered. [8] Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin.
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, NIV).

Abraham’s manner of life was that of obeying God from the heart. But even he was not without sin. He still needed forgiveness for the sins he committed—just as do all of us.

That forgiveness is possible only through faith in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. But once forgiven, we all are expected to follow Abraham’s example in demonstrating our faith by putting our full effort into pleasing God through obedience to Him. That is the righteous response our faith should produce in us.

God’s covenant with David

The next covenant to consider between God and a specific person is His covenant with King David.

In it God promises that David’s dynasty will last forever and that the Messiah— David’s special descendant—is to be the everlasting King of that dynasty. “I have made a covenant with My chosen, I have sworn to My servant David: ‘Your seed I will establish forever, and build up your throne to all generations’ ” (Psalms 89:3-4 Psalms 89:3-4 [3] I have made a covenant with my chosen, I have sworn to David my servant, [4] Your seed will I establish for ever, and build up your throne to all generations. Selah.
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).

God declares that this covenant will be irrevocable. “Thus says the Lord: ‘If you can break My covenant with the day and My covenant with the night, so that there will not be day and night in their season, then My covenant may also be broken with David My servant, so that he shall not have a son to reign on his throne’ ” (Jeremiah 33:20-21 Jeremiah 33:20-21 [20] Thus said the LORD; If you can break my covenant of the day, and my covenant of the night, and that there should not be day and night in their season; [21] Then may also my covenant be broken with David my servant, that he should not have a son to reign on his throne; and with the Levites the priests, my ministers.
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).

When the time came for the Messiah to be born, notice what the angel announced to the woman chosen to be His mother: “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:30-33 Luke 1:30-33 [30] And the angel said to her, Fear not, Mary: for you have found favor with God. [31] And, behold, you shall conceive in your womb, and bring forth a son, and shall call his name JESUS. [32] He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give to him the throne of his father David: [33] And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end.
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).

The apostle Peter also commented on the importance of God’s covenant with David: “Brothers, I can tell you confidently that the patriarch David died and was buried, and his tomb is here to this day. But he was a prophet and knew that God had promised him on oath that he would place one of his descendants on his throne.

“Seeing what was ahead, he spoke of the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to the grave, nor did his body see decay. God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact. Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear.

“For David did not ascend to heaven, and yet he said, ‘The Lord said to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.”’ Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:29-36 Acts 2:29-36 [29] Men and brothers, let me freely speak to you of the patriarch David, that he is both dead and buried, and his sepulcher is with us to this day. [30] Therefore being a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him, that of the fruit of his loins, according to the flesh, he would raise up Christ to sit on his throne; [31] He seeing this before spoke of the resurrection of Christ, that his soul was not left in hell, neither his flesh did see corruption. [32] This Jesus has God raised up, whereof we all are witnesses. [33] Therefore being by the right hand of God exalted, and having received of the Father the promise of the Holy Ghost, he has shed forth this, which you now see and hear. [34] For David is not ascended into the heavens: but he said himself, The Lord said to my Lord, Sit you on my right hand, [35] Until I make your foes your footstool. [36] Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly, that God has made the same Jesus, whom you have crucified, both Lord and Christ.
American King James Version×
, NIV).

From the beginning of man’s existence, God has been putting into place the details of His great plan for humanity’s salvation. Crucial to that plan was the birth and mission of the Messiah—the promised descendant of David and Abraham. To assure us of the irrevocability of that plan, He confirmed it with a series of covenants.

The temporary Sinai Covenant

Understanding the purpose and temporary nature of the covenant that God made with ancient Israel at Mt. Sinai is critical for comprehending the New Testament scriptures correctly. The contents of this covenant became, in effect, Israel’s national constitution.

With God as its King, Israel became a theocratic state—essentially a temporary, earthly kingdom of God. Its people accepted all the covenantal conditions God laid out for them, saying, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do” (Exodus 19:8 Exodus 19:8And all the people answered together, and said, All that the LORD has spoken we will do. And Moses returned the words of the people to the LORD.
American King James Version×
).

Amid the thunder, lightning, smoke and fire atop Mt. Sinai, God spoke the Ten Commandments to the entire nation (Exodus 20:1-18 Exodus 20:1-18 [1] And God spoke all these words, saying, [2] I am the LORD your God, which have brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. [3] You shall have no other gods before me. [4] You shall not make to you any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. [5] You shall not bow down yourself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; [6] And showing mercy to thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments. [7] You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain; for the LORD will not hold him guiltless that takes his name in vain. [8] Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. [9] Six days shall you labor, and do all your work: [10] But the seventh day is the sabbath of the LORD your God: in it you shall not do any work, you, nor your son, nor your daughter, your manservant, nor your maidservant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger that is within your gates: [11] For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: why the LORD blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it. [12] Honor your father and your mother: that your days may be long on the land which the LORD your God gives you. [13] You shall not kill. [14] You shall not commit adultery. [15] You shall not steal. [16] You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. [17] You shall not covet your neighbor’s house, you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is your neighbor’s. [18] And all the people saw the thunder, and the lightning, and the noise of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking: and when the people saw it, they removed, and stood afar off.
American King James Version×
).

How did the people respond to Moses? “Surely the Lord our God has shown us His glory and His greatness, and we have heard His voice from the midst of the fire. We have seen this day that God speaks with man; yet he still lives. Now therefore, why should we die? For this great fire will consume us; if we hear the voice of the Lord our God anymore, then we shall die.

“For who is there of all flesh who has heard the voice of the living God speaking from the midst of the fire, as we have, and lived? You go near and hear all that the Lord our God may say, and tell us all that the Lord our God says to you, and we will hear and do it” (Deuteronomy 5:24-27 Deuteronomy 5:24-27 [24] And you said, Behold, the LORD our God has showed us his glory and his greatness, and we have heard his voice out of the middle of the fire: we have seen this day that God does talk with man, and he lives. [25] Now therefore why should we die? for this great fire will consume us: if we hear the voice of the LORD our God any more, then we shall die. [26] For who is there of all flesh, that has heard the voice of the living God speaking out of the middle of the fire, as we have, and lived? [27] Go you near, and hear all that the LORD our God shall say: and speak you to us all that the LORD our God shall speak to you; and we will hear it, and do it.
American King James Version×
).

The prophets’ words as the “voice of the Lord”

They requested, from sheer terror of the awesome power that God manifested to them, that never again would He speak to them directly with His own voice.

From that time forward the inspired words of God’s prophets were regarded as carrying the same authority as if God were speaking to the people directly. For example, Moses included—for being obedient to the “voice of the LORD“—”statutes which are written in this Book of Law,” statutes given to Israel some 40 years after God spoke at Mt. Sinai (Deuteronomy 30:10-11 Deuteronomy 30:10-11 [10] If you shall listen to the voice of the LORD your God, to keep his commandments and his statutes which are written in this book of the law, and if you turn to the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul. [11] For this commandment which I command you this day, it is not hidden from you, neither is it far off.
American King James Version×
).

That the writings of the prophets represent accurately the instructions and teachings of God is confirmed in the New Testament: “But first note this: no prophetic writing is a matter for private interpretation. It was not on any human initiative that prophecy [the writings of the prophets] came; rather, it was under the compulsion of the Holy Spirit that people spoke as messengers of God” (2 Peter 1:20-21 2 Peter 1:20-21 [20] Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation. [21] For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.
American King James Version×
, REB).

In Deuteronomy 5:28-31 Deuteronomy 5:28-31 [28] And the LORD heard the voice of your words, when you spoke to me; and the LORD said to me, I have heard the voice of the words of this people, which they have spoken to you: they have well said all that they have spoken. [29] O that there were such an heart in them, that they would fear me, and keep all my commandments always, that it might be well with them, and with their children for ever! [30] Go say to them, Get you into your tents again. [31] But as for you, stand you here by me, and I will speak to you all the commandments, and the statutes, and the judgments, which you shall teach them, that they may do them in the land which I give them to possess it.
American King James Version×
, Moses recounts how God accepted the Israelites’ request at Mt. Sinai that He would speak to them in the future only though His prophets: “And the Lord heard the voice of your words when you spoke to me, and the Lord said to me, ‘I have heard the voice of the words of this people which they have spoken to you. They have done well in all that they have spoken.

“ ‘Oh that they had such a heart in them, that they would fear Me, and keep all My commandments always, that it may be well with them and with their sons forever! Go, say to them, “Return to your tents.” But as for you [Moses], stand here by Me, that I may speak to you all the commandments and the statutes and the judgments which you shall teach them, that they may observe them in the land which I give them to possess’ ” (New American Standard Bible).

The people had said all the right words. They had agreed to God’s conditions. They had committed themselves to live by all the words that God would speak to them through Moses and the prophets that would come later. But God knew it would take more than their promises to produce the results He desired.

It would require a change in their hearts through the gift of the Holy Spirit. And for the vast majority of them that would become possible only after the Messiah had come to pay the penalty for their sins. Prior to that time God gave His Holy Spirit to only a relatively small number of selected individuals such as Noah, Abraham, David and other prophets and servants as recorded in the Old Testament.

The people of ancient Israel have provided the lesson, through their example, that having righteous laws without a righteous heart is not enough. Their centuries-long example illustrates vividly that receiving knowledge of truth does not by itself produce full and lasting obedience (Romans 3:9-12 Romans 3:9-12 [9] What then? are we better than they? No, in no wise: for we have before proved both Jews and Gentiles, that they are all under sin; [10] As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one: [11] There is none that understands, there is none that seeks after God. [12] They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable; there is none that does good, no, not one.
American King James Version×
).

Revealing and defining righteous behavior

The five books written by Moses—Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy—define the righteous way of life that God desires all peoples and nations to embrace (see Deuteronomy 4:6 Deuteronomy 4:6Keep therefore and do them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the nations, which shall hear all these statutes, and say, Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.
American King James Version×
; Deuteronomy 6:4-6 Deuteronomy 6:4-6 [4] Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD: [5] And you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. [6] And these words, which I command you this day, shall be in your heart:
American King James Version×
; Deuteronomy 8:2-3 Deuteronomy 8:2-3 [2] And you shall remember all the way which the LORD your God led you these forty years in the wilderness, to humble you, and to prove you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments, or no. [3] And he humbled you, and suffered you to hunger, and fed you with manna, which you knew not, neither did your fathers know; that he might make you know that man does not live by bread only, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of the LORD does man live.
American King James Version×
).

The books containing His instructions to them became ancient Israel’s supreme religious and legal code. They contained not only the guidelines, laws and procedures by which its citizens were to be judged but also rituals and ceremonies that represented symbolically the kind of relationship God wanted them to have with Him.

They are called in the Hebrew language the Torah (meaning “the teaching” or, more commonly today, “the law”). As Moses explained: “And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all His ways and to love Him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments of the Lord and His statutes which I command you today for your good?” (Deuteronomy 10:12-13 Deuteronomy 10:12-13 [12] And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, and to love him, and to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, [13] To keep the commandments of the LORD, and his statutes, which I command you this day for your good?
American King James Version×
).

It was in this Torah that “all His ways” were first committed to writing. These books reveal and define, as the voice of the Lord, the righteous behavior that is the foundation of a godly way of life.

Therefore, at least four decades after the giving of the Sinai Covenant, Moses explained again that what He wrote had indeed come from God: “The Lord your God will make you abound . . . For the Lord will again rejoice over you for good as He rejoiced over your fathers, if you obey the voice of the Lord your God, to keep His commandments and His statutes which are written in this Book of the Law . . .”(Deuteronomy 30:9-10 Deuteronomy 30:9-10 [9] And the LORD your God will make you plenteous in every work of your hand, in the fruit of your body, and in the fruit of your cattle, and in the fruit of your land, for good: for the LORD will again rejoice over you for good, as he rejoiced over your fathers: [10] If you shall listen to the voice of the LORD your God, to keep his commandments and his statutes which are written in this book of the law, and if you turn to the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul.
American King James Version×
).

The point is that the covenant that God made with ancient Israel was not limited to only the words He spoke at Mt. Sinai. Whatever He would command them—then or in the future—they agreed to do. They asked that from that time forward God would not speak to them personally with His own voice, but through His prophets. Their agreement with God was that they would do all that He would command them—even through the words of the prophets that would follow Moses.

The prophets became God’s spokesmen. The messages they received from God, often written in books for later generations, were to be obeyed as “the word of the Lord” (see Isaiah 38:4 Isaiah 38:4Then came the word of the LORD to Isaiah, saying,
American King James Version×
; Jeremiah 1:4-5 Jeremiah 1:4-5 [4] Then the word of the LORD came to me, saying, [5] Before I formed you in the belly I knew you; and before you came forth out of the womb I sanctified you, and I ordained you a prophet to the nations.
American King James Version×
; Ezekiel 6:1-3 Ezekiel 6:1-3 [1] And the word of the LORD came to me, saying, [2] Son of man, set your face toward the mountains of Israel, and prophesy against them, [3] And say, You mountains of Israel, hear the word of the Lord GOD; Thus said the Lord GOD to the mountains, and to the hills, to the rivers, and to the valleys; Behold, I, even I, will bring a sword on you, and I will destroy your high places.
American King James Version×
). This same authority was later given to Christ’s apostles (Acts 4:29-31 Acts 4:29-31 [29] And now, Lord, behold their threatenings: and grant to your servants, that with all boldness they may speak your word, [30] By stretching forth your hand to heal; and that signs and wonders may be done by the name of your holy child Jesus. [31] And when they had prayed, the place was shaken where they were assembled together; and they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and they spoke the word of God with boldness.
American King James Version×
).

Today the entire Bible claims authority as the written Word of God. And God promises to bless those who obey it as His Word.

The covenant that offered only temporary benefits

Near the end of Leviticus we find a long declaration of blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience (Leviticus 26:3-45 Leviticus 26:3-45 [3] If you walk in my statutes, and keep my commandments, and do them; [4] Then I will give you rain in due season, and the land shall yield her increase, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit. [5] And your threshing shall reach to the vintage, and the vintage shall reach to the sowing time: and you shall eat your bread to the full, and dwell in your land safely. [6] And I will give peace in the land, and you shall lie down, and none shall make you afraid: and I will rid evil beasts out of the land, neither shall the sword go through your land. [7] And you shall chase your enemies, and they shall fall before you by the sword. [8] And five of you shall chase an hundred, and an hundred of you shall put ten thousand to flight: and your enemies shall fall before you by the sword. [9] For I will have respect to you, and make you fruitful, and multiply you, and establish my covenant with you. [10] And you shall eat old store, and bring forth the old because of the new. [11] And I set my tabernacle among you: and my soul shall not abhor you. [12] And I will walk among you, and will be your God, and you shall be my people. [13] I am the LORD your God, which brought you forth out of the land of Egypt, that you should not be their slaves; and I have broken the bands of your yoke, and made you go upright. [14] But if you will not listen to me, and will not do all these commandments; [15] And if you shall despise my statutes, or if your soul abhor my judgments, so that you will not do all my commandments, but that you break my covenant: [16] I also will do this to you; I will even appoint over you terror, consumption, and the burning ague, that shall consume the eyes, and cause sorrow of heart: and you shall sow your seed in vain, for your enemies shall eat it. [17] And I will set my face against you, and you shall be slain before your enemies: they that hate you shall reign over you; and you shall flee when none pursues you. [18] And if you will not yet for all this listen to me, then I will punish you seven times more for your sins. [19] And I will break the pride of your power; and I will make your heaven as iron, and your earth as brass: [20] And your strength shall be spent in vain: for your land shall not yield her increase, neither shall the trees of the land yield their fruits. [21] And if you walk contrary to me, and will not listen to me; I will bring seven times more plagues on you according to your sins. [22] I will also send wild beasts among you, which shall rob you of your children, and destroy your cattle, and make you few in number; and your high ways shall be desolate. [23] And if you will not be reformed by me by these things, but will walk contrary to me; [24] Then will I also walk contrary to you, and will punish you yet seven times for your sins. [25] And I will bring a sword on you, that shall avenge the quarrel of my covenant: and when you are gathered together within your cities, I will send the pestilence among you; and you shall be delivered into the hand of the enemy. [26] And when I have broken the staff of your bread, ten women shall bake your bread in one oven, and they shall deliver you your bread again by weight: and you shall eat, and not be satisfied. [27] And if you will not for all this listen to me, but walk contrary to me; [28] Then I will walk contrary to you also in fury; and I, even I, will chastise you seven times for your sins. [29] And you shall eat the flesh of your sons, and the flesh of your daughters shall you eat. [30] And I will destroy your high places, and cut down your images, and cast your carcasses on the carcasses of your idols, and my soul shall abhor you. [31] And I will make your cities waste, and bring your sanctuaries to desolation, and I will not smell the smell of your sweet odors. [32] And I will bring the land into desolation: and your enemies which dwell therein shall be astonished at it. [33] And I will scatter you among the heathen, and will draw out a sword after you: and your land shall be desolate, and your cities waste. [34] Then shall the land enjoy her sabbaths, as long as it lies desolate, and you be in your enemies’ land; even then shall the land rest, and enjoy her sabbaths. [35] As long as it lies desolate it shall rest; because it did not rest in your sabbaths, when you dwelled on it. [36] And on them that are left alive of you I will send a faintness into their hearts in the lands of their enemies; and the sound of a shaken leaf shall chase them; and they shall flee, as fleeing from a sword; and they shall fall when none pursues. [37] And they shall fall one on another, as it were before a sword, when none pursues: and you shall have no power to stand before your enemies. [38] And you shall perish among the heathen, and the land of your enemies shall eat you up. [39] And they that are left of you shall pine away in their iniquity in your enemies’ lands; and also in the iniquities of their fathers shall they pine away with them. [40] If they shall confess their iniquity, and the iniquity of their fathers, with their trespass which they trespassed against me, and that also they have walked contrary to me; [41] And that I also have walked contrary to them, and have brought them into the land of their enemies; if then their uncircumcised hearts be humbled, and they then accept of the punishment of their iniquity: [42] Then will I remember my covenant with Jacob, and also my covenant with Isaac, and also my covenant with Abraham will I remember; and I will remember the land. [43] The land also shall be left of them, and shall enjoy her sabbaths, while she lies desolate without them: and they shall accept of the punishment of their iniquity: because, even because they despised my judgments, and because their soul abhorred my statutes. [44] And yet for all that, when they be in the land of their enemies, I will not cast them away, neither will I abhor them, to destroy them utterly, and to break my covenant with them: for I am the LORD their God. [45] But I will for their sakes remember the covenant of their ancestors, whom I brought forth out of the land of Egypt in the sight of the heathen, that I might be their God: I am the LORD.
American King James Version×
). These blessings and curses gave warning to the ancient Israelites not to take their covenantal relationship and responsibilities lightly.

If they obeyed God, they would enjoy bountiful harvests, good health, prosperity and national security (verses 4-10). These benefits, however, were mostly physical.

A comparison of the material blessings of Leviticus 26:3-13 Leviticus 26:3-13 [3] If you walk in my statutes, and keep my commandments, and do them; [4] Then I will give you rain in due season, and the land shall yield her increase, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit. [5] And your threshing shall reach to the vintage, and the vintage shall reach to the sowing time: and you shall eat your bread to the full, and dwell in your land safely. [6] And I will give peace in the land, and you shall lie down, and none shall make you afraid: and I will rid evil beasts out of the land, neither shall the sword go through your land. [7] And you shall chase your enemies, and they shall fall before you by the sword. [8] And five of you shall chase an hundred, and an hundred of you shall put ten thousand to flight: and your enemies shall fall before you by the sword. [9] For I will have respect to you, and make you fruitful, and multiply you, and establish my covenant with you. [10] And you shall eat old store, and bring forth the old because of the new. [11] And I set my tabernacle among you: and my soul shall not abhor you. [12] And I will walk among you, and will be your God, and you shall be my people. [13] I am the LORD your God, which brought you forth out of the land of Egypt, that you should not be their slaves; and I have broken the bands of your yoke, and made you go upright.
American King James Version×
with those cited in Deuteronomy 28:1-14 Deuteronomy 28:1-14 [1] And it shall come to pass, if you shall listen diligently to the voice of the LORD your God, to observe and to do all his commandments which I command you this day, that the LORD your God will set you on high above all nations of the earth: [2] And all these blessings shall come on you, and overtake you, if you shall listen to the voice of the LORD your God. [3] Blessed shall you be in the city, and blessed shall you be in the field. [4] Blessed shall be the fruit of your body, and the fruit of your ground, and the fruit of your cattle, the increase of your cows, and the flocks of your sheep. [5] Blessed shall be your basket and your store. [6] Blessed shall you be when you come in, and blessed shall you be when you go out. [7] The LORD shall cause your enemies that rise up against you to be smitten before your face: they shall come out against you one way, and flee before you seven ways. [8] The LORD shall command the blessing on you in your storehouses, and in all that you set your hand to; and he shall bless you in the land which the LORD your God gives you. [9] The LORD shall establish you an holy people to himself, as he has sworn to you, if you shall keep the commandments of the LORD your God, and walk in his ways. [10] And all people of the earth shall see that you are called by the name of the LORD; and they shall be afraid of you. [11] And the LORD shall make you plenteous in goods, in the fruit of your body, and in the fruit of your cattle, and in the fruit of your ground, in the land which the LORD swore to your fathers to give you. [12] The LORD shall open to you his good treasure, the heaven to give the rain to your land in his season, and to bless all the work of your hand: and you shall lend to many nations, and you shall not borrow. [13] And the LORD shall make you the head, and not the tail; and you shall be above only, and you shall not be beneath; if that you listen to the commandments of the LORD your God, which I command you this day, to observe and to do them: [14] And you shall not go aside from any of the words which I command you this day, to the right hand, or to the left, to go after other gods to serve them.
American King James Version×
reveals a crucial omission in both lists. God agrees to be their God and regard them as His people (Leviticus 26:11-13 Leviticus 26:11-13 [11] And I set my tabernacle among you: and my soul shall not abhor you. [12] And I will walk among you, and will be your God, and you shall be my people. [13] I am the LORD your God, which brought you forth out of the land of Egypt, that you should not be their slaves; and I have broken the bands of your yoke, and made you go upright.
American King James Version×
; Deuteronomy 28:9 Deuteronomy 28:9The LORD shall establish you an holy people to himself, as he has sworn to you, if you shall keep the commandments of the LORD your God, and walk in his ways.
American King James Version×
). But no promise of eternal life is included in this covenant. Its blessings related mostly to what people could enjoy in this present physical life.

Exceptions were made for those servants and prophets of God who were given the Holy Spirit during that time. This is confirmed by Peter who explains: “Of which salvation the prophets have enquired and searched diligently, who prophesied of the grace that should come unto you: Searching what, or what manner of time the Spirit of Christ which was in them did signify, when it testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ, and the glory that should follow” (1 Peter 1:10-11 1 Peter 1:10-11 [10] Of which salvation the prophets have inquired and searched diligently, who prophesied of the grace that should come to you: [11] Searching what, or what manner of time the Spirit of Christ which was in them did signify, when it testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ, and the glory that should follow.
American King James Version×
, KJV).

That is significant for a major reason! In the New Testament explanation of covenants and law, it is made very clear that eternal life is available only though faith in Jesus Christ as the promised Messiah (Acts 4:12 Acts 4:12Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved.
American King James Version×
). The prophets of old looked forward in faith to the day when the Messiah, Jesus Christ, would make that sacrifice for them.

At the time of the Sinai Covenant, the Messiah had not yet come. So eternal life was not offered to the people in that covenant, with the exception of those special servants who led and taught the people in God’s ways. The Holy Spirit was not made available to the rest of the people.

But far from the Sinai Covenant and God’s law being a burden, as they now are often represented, they bestowed on all the people of Israel an amazing array of blessings and benefits.

Blessings for obedience

Though the Sinai Covenant sealed a unique relationship between the Israelites and God, it contained one essential condition. The benefits of that relationship were—for their own good—available to them only if they did their part by following His instructions! They had to faithfully put into practice all that they had agreed to do. And they had agreed to follow all the instructions God was giving them—to, in effect, become a “holy people.”

Had they diligently kept their part of that agreement, they would have become the envy of the world, an incredibly blessed nation. No other nation on earth would have enjoyed the degree of blessings and benefits that God would have given them. They would have become the showcase of righteousness for all nations around them.

As God explained to them through Moses: “See, I have taught you statutes and judgments just as the Lord my God commanded me, that you should do thus in the land where you are entering to possess it. So keep and do them, for that is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples who will hear all these statutes and say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people’ ” (Deuteronomy 4:5-7 Deuteronomy 4:5-7 [5] Behold, I have taught you statutes and judgments, even as the LORD my God commanded me, that you should do so in the land where you go to possess it. [6] Keep therefore and do them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the nations, which shall hear all these statutes, and say, Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people. [7] For what nation is there so great, who has God so near to them, as the LORD our God is in all things that we call on him for?
American King James Version×
, NASB).

God’s laws define behavior that naturally results in peace, safety and prosperity. If the people of Israel had obeyed God, to the best of their natural ability, they would have reaped His promised blessings to the extent that neighboring nations could have noticed that they also might enjoy the same wonderful benefits if only they would also adopt the same laws.

Therefore, in the next verse Moses challenged the Israelites to ask themselves, “What great nation is there that has statutes and judgments as righteous as this whole law which I am setting before you today?” (Deuteronomy 4:8, NASB).

Not only were they promised abundant physical blessings, they also had received from God the world’s most fair and righteous system of governance!

The limits of physical blessings

One major limitation is present in this rosy picture—the selfish, stubborn inclinations of all human beings. Moses explained to the Israelites: “Know, then, that the Lord your God is not giving you this good land to occupy because of your righteousness; for you are a stubborn people . . . you have been rebellious against the Lord from the day you came out of the land of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 9:6-7 Deuteronomy 9:6-7 [6] Understand therefore, that the LORD your God gives you not this good land to possess it for your righteousness; for you are a stiff necked people. [7] Remember, and forget not, how you provoked the LORD your God to wrath in the wilderness: from the day that you did depart out of the land of Egypt, until you came to this place, you have been rebellious against the LORD.
American King James Version×
, NRSV).

God knew in advance that without the gift of His Holy Spirit the people of Israel, like all other peoples, would not be able to fully live up to their promise to obey Him. However, they could have obeyed what they were taught much better than most of them did. This is evident in their history. During some limited periods the entire nation was mostly observant of God’s instructions (Joshua 24:31 Joshua 24:31And Israel served the LORD all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders that outlived Joshua, and which had known all the works of the LORD, that he had done for Israel.
American King James Version×
; 2 Chronicles 32:26 2 Chronicles 32:26Notwithstanding Hezekiah humbled himself for the pride of his heart, both he and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that the wrath of the LORD came not on them in the days of Hezekiah.
American King James Version×
).

Significantly, the Israelites were given every natural advantage any people could desire—lacking only the super natural help of God’s Holy Spirit, which would have enabled them to have a consistently righteous heart. Without a divinely changed heart, it is impossible for any people to consistently live a fully obedient life.

Though some individuals are more law abiding than others, none has succeeded in living without sin. That problem has been present in all peoples of all nationalities and cultures throughout human history. Only by receiving God’s Spirit can that problem be eliminated. And not until Christ returns to rule all nations will it finally be resolved worldwide.

As Paul observed of mankind, quoting Psalms 14:3 Psalms 14:3They are all gone aside, they are all together become filthy: there is none that does good, no, not one.
American King James Version×
, “They have all turned aside; they have together become unprofitable; there is none who does good [consistently], no, not one” (Romans 3:12 Romans 3:12They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable; there is none that does good, no, not one.
American King James Version×
). This is the lesson we must learn so we will never be tempted to think that the Sinai Covenant was a failure. It accomplished precisely what God intended it to accomplish.

An interim arrangement

The Sinai Covenant is not the complete, final model for our relationship with God. Though it contained many permanent, eternal principles, many of its figurative benefits, instructive as they were, represented only symbolically the far better benefits included in the New Covenant relationship with God that was established later by Jesus Christ, the promised Messiah.

As Hebrews 9:9-10 Hebrews 9:9-10 [9] Which was a figure for the time then present, in which were offered both gifts and sacrifices, that could not make him that did the service perfect, as pertaining to the conscience; [10] Which stood only in meats and drinks, and divers washings, and carnal ordinances, imposed on them until the time of reformation.
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explains, the ritualism of the covenant at Sinai “was symbolic for the present time in which both gifts and sacrifices are offered which cannot make him who performed the service perfect in regard to the conscience—concerned only with foods and drinks, various washings, and fleshly ordinances imposed until the time of reformation.”

A future revision of that covenant—particularly in those features linked to the death and mission of the coming Messiah—was promised. God announced through His prophets that with this “better covenant” He would put His laws in the minds of humanity and He would write them on their hearts. He promised to provide—at the individual level—direct access to Him (Hebrews 8:6 Hebrews 8:6But now has he obtained a more excellent ministry, by how much also he is the mediator of a better covenant, which was established on better promises.
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; Jeremiah 31:31-34 Jeremiah 31:31-34 [31] Behold, the days come, said the LORD, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah: [32] Not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt; which my covenant they broke, although I was an husband to them, said the LORD: [33] But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those days, said the LORD, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people. [34] And they shall teach no more every man his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, Know the LORD: for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest of them, said the LORD: for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.
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).

It should now be made eminently clear that God was not blindsided by Israel’s failures. He anticipated them. From the beginning He revealed hints of a “better” solution to the sinfulness of mankind that could be made available only through the coming Messiah. Those “hints,” in the form of various ceremonies, symbols and rituals, are woven throughout the instructions given under the Sinai Covenant.

God’s permanent solution to humanity’s unrighteousness

The problems caused by human weaknesses and desires (see James 1:14-15 James 1:14-15 [14] But every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed. [15] Then when lust has conceived, it brings forth sin: and sin, when it is finished, brings forth death.
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) extended far beyond the boundaries of ancient Israel. They cause problems for all peoples. Thus, in crafting a permanent solution, God has taken into consideration much more than merely the welfare of the Israelites. His solution applies to all peoples in all nations.

As He promised Abraham, “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3 Genesis 12:3And I will bless them that bless you, and curse him that curses you: and in you shall all families of the earth be blessed.
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). Before that permanent solution is made available to more than the present “little flock” of truly obedient Christians who are given God’s Spirit in this “present evil age” (see Luke 12:32 Luke 12:32Fear not, little flock; for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.
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; Galatians 1:4 Galatians 1:4Who gave himself for our sins, that he might deliver us from this present evil world, according to the will of God and our Father:
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), all of humanity must learn some essential lessons.

God uses the experiences of ancient Israel, as recorded in Scripture, to help all of mankind, including the Israelites themselves, learn how easily we succumb to sin. Eventually all nations are destined to comprehend why sin is so terrible and why so much more than human effort is required to erase it from the heart.

In the Sinai Covenant with ancient Israel, God comprehensively and permanently defined the fundamentals of righteous behavior. But giving them the knowledge of God’s laws did not automatically put righteousness in their hearts and minds.

The needed transformation occurs only in those who receive additional spiritual help through the gift of the Holy Spirit. To receive God’s Spirit, one first must be called of God (John 6:44-65 John 6:44-65 [44] No man can come to me, except the Father which has sent me draw him: and I will raise him up at the last day. [45] It is written in the prophets, And they shall be all taught of God. Every man therefore that has heard, and has learned of the Father, comes to me. [46] Not that any man has seen the Father, save he which is of God, he has seen the Father. [47] Truly, truly, I say to you, He that believes on me has everlasting life. [48] I am that bread of life. [49] Your fathers did eat manna in the wilderness, and are dead. [50] This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that a man may eat thereof, and not die. [51] I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever: and the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world. [52] The Jews therefore strove among themselves, saying, How can this man give us his flesh to eat? [53] Then Jesus said to them, Truly, truly, I say to you, Except you eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, you have no life in you. [54] Whoever eats my flesh, and drinks my blood, has eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day. [55] For my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. [56] He that eats my flesh, and drinks my blood, dwells in me, and I in him. [57] As the living Father has sent me, and I live by the Father: so he that eats me, even he shall live by me. [58] This is that bread which came down from heaven: not as your fathers did eat manna, and are dead: he that eats of this bread shall live for ever. [59] These things said he in the synagogue, as he taught in Capernaum. [60] Many therefore of his disciples, when they had heard this, said, This is an hard saying; who can hear it? [61] When Jesus knew in himself that his disciples murmured at it, he said to them, Does this offend you? [62] What and if you shall see the Son of man ascend up where he was before? [63] It is the spirit that vivifies; the flesh profits nothing: the words that I speak to you, they are spirit, and they are life. [64] But there are some of you that believe not. For Jesus knew from the beginning who they were that believed not, and who should betray him. [65] And he said, Therefore said I to you, that no man can come to me, except it were given to him of my Father.
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) and genuinely repent of, or turn from, sin (Acts 2:38 Acts 2:38Then Peter said to them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.
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). God did not make His Spirit generally available until after Jesus Christ was crucified and resurrected so that He could serve as the Mediator of the New Covenant.

Once sin entered the picture in the Garden of Eden, God chose to delay making His Spirit available to mankind—except to the few He used as His special servants and prophets—until after Jesus Christ’s death, at which time He became mankind’s Redeemer.

That is why understanding Christ’s sacrificial and priestly roles in a “better covenant” that provides the means for receiving forgiveness of sin and the precious gift of the Holy Spirit is so vital.

These additions are the vitally important enhancements to the Old Covenant that God made with the people of ancient Israel. They will enable their descendants, who are to be gathered back to the Holy Land by Jesus Christ at His return (Jeremiah 23:5-8 Jeremiah 23:5-8 [5] Behold, the days come, said the LORD, that I will raise to David a righteous Branch, and a King shall reign and prosper, and shall execute judgment and justice in the earth. [6] In his days Judah shall be saved, and Israel shall dwell safely: and this is his name whereby he shall be called, THE LORD OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS. [7] Therefore, behold, the days come, said the LORD, that they shall no more say, The LORD lives, which brought up the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt; [8] But, The LORD lives, which brought up and which led the seed of the house of Israel out of the north country, and from all countries where I had driven them; and they shall dwell in their own land.
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), to have a personal relationship with God that only a few of their forefathers ever experienced.

God promises for that time: “ ‘This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws in their minds, and write them on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And they shall not teach one another or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.’ In speaking of ‘a new covenant,’ he has made the first one obsolete. And what is obsolete and growing old will soon disappear” (Hebrews 8:10-13 Hebrews 8:10-13 [10] For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, said the Lord; I will put my laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts: and I will be to them a God, and they shall be to me a people: [11] And they shall not teach every man his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: for all shall know me, from the least to the greatest. [12] For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their iniquities will I remember no more. [13] In that he said, A new covenant, he has made the first old. Now that which decays and waxes old is ready to vanish away.
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, NRSV).

This passage is quoting God’s promise of a New Covenant as given in Jeremiah 31:31-34 Jeremiah 31:31-34 [31] Behold, the days come, said the LORD, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah: [32] Not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt; which my covenant they broke, although I was an husband to them, said the LORD: [33] But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those days, said the LORD, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people. [34] And they shall teach no more every man his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, Know the LORD: for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest of them, said the LORD: for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.
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. Only a few decades after Jesus Christ was crucified, and not long after these words were written, the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in A.D. 70 and the entire ceremonial and sacrificial system attached to it came to an end. It truly became obsolete.

Once the sacrifice of Christ was in place, those temple ceremonies and rituals were simply no longer needed. But as Hebrews 8:10-13 Hebrews 8:10-13 [10] For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, said the Lord; I will put my laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts: and I will be to them a God, and they shall be to me a people: [11] And they shall not teach every man his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: for all shall know me, from the least to the greatest. [12] For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their iniquities will I remember no more. [13] In that he said, A new covenant, he has made the first old. Now that which decays and waxes old is ready to vanish away.
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clearly tells us, the spiritual laws that God had included in the Sinai Covenant were not disbanded. With the Spirit of God now available, the principles of love that the law so eloquently expressed can finally be written in the hearts of all who repent of breaking them.

That is the central promise of the New Covenant.

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