Beginning in Genesis God has made a series of “everlasting covenants” with His people. These covenants were agreements that God made with people He had chosen to be His special representatives. His purpose was not to show favoritism to His chosen people, but rather to develop them into a “picture of God” that would attract those around them to come to God. In order to accomplish this, each of the covenants had four elements. The promise of the covenant was that He would bless His people so that they in turn could be a blessing and an example to those around them. The requirement of the covenant was His law, which is a reflection of His character, demonstrating the holiness that is an integral aspect of His nature. The provision for failure to meet the requirements of the law was the sacrifice of Christ, symbolized in the Old Testament covenants by animal sacrifices. The sign of the covenant was a visible symbol of the agreement, which had within it some relationship to the essence of the covenant.


The first covenant that was actually called a covenant was with Noah. Through the offspring of Cain sin had proliferated in the world, and finally the faithful descendents of Seth, (the “sons of God”) began to intermarry with the wicked descendents of Cain (the “daughters of men”, Genesis 6:2).[1] “Then the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (v. 5). This condition threatened to totally extinguish the holy line that was to bring forth the “seed of the woman,” the Messiah, who would crush the serpent’s head (Gen. 3:15).

In order to cleanse His creation, God intended to bring “floodwaters on the earth to destroy from under heaven all flesh in which is the breath of life” (Genesis 6:17). But to preserve the human race as well as animals, God chose Noah, “a just man, perfect in his generations” who “walked with God” to “establish [His] covenant” (Genesis 6:9,18). The first element of the covenant, God’s blessing to mankind, was to preserve Noah and His family (and through them the knowledge of God) and to cause him to be “fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth” (Genesis 9:1). He also promised that “never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth” (Genesis 9:11). This is the purpose of all of the covenants: that the knowledge of God would be preserved and would spread throughout the earth.

The second element, His requirements, was that people “shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood,” and that he should not “shed man’s blood” (Genesis 9:5,6). These requirements, although not comprehensive, struck at the very essence of the sin of the pre-flood society, who ravaged the earth with their violent disregard for the sanctity of life.

The third element, God’s provision to save those who violate His requirements, was implied indirectly by the fact that Noah “built an altar to the Lord, and…offered burnt offerings on the altar” (Genesis 8:20). This prefigured and symbolized the sacrifice of Christ, which makes it possible for God to forgive sins. When Noah had ofered sacrifices, God declared His mercy and willingness to forgive—“I will never again curse the ground for Man’s sake, although the imaginations of man’s heart is evil from his youth, nor will I again destroy every living thing as I have done” (Genesis 8:21).

The fourth element was the sign of the covenant. “And God said, ‘This is the sign of the covenant which I make between Me and you, and every living creature…I set My rainbow in the cloud and it shall be for the sign of the covenant between Me and the earth” (Genesis 9:13). There was an obvious relationship between the sign of the covenant and the promised blessing of the covenant. God had promised not to destroy the world with another flood, and the rainbow was present when it rained, reminding mankind that rain would never again result in universal destruction. “It shall be, when I bring a cloud over the earth, that the rainbow shall be seen in the cloud; and I will remember My covenant which is between Me and you…The waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh” (Genesis 9:14-16).

God called this covenant “the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth” (Genesis 9:16). This does not mean that there would be an eternal need for a guarantee that God would not destroy the world with a flood. The phrase “everlasting covenant” is used in each of the covenants, and means that the covenant will apply until it has fulfilled its purpose, in this case, until there are “new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:13).


Unfortunately, after the flood the human race returned to their sinful ways, again threatening to obliterate the holy line from which the “seed of the woman”, the Messiah, would come. Indeed, God had to call Abram, the man He had chosen, out of Babylon (Ur of the Chaldees) because his family had started to serve false gods.[2] God made a covenant with Abraham, which again included the four elements.

First, the blessing to mankind was that through Abraham, and specifically “in [his] seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3, 22:18). Paul makes it clear in the book of Galatians that this seed refers to Jesus Christ.[3]

The second element, obedience to the law, was the reason God chose Abraham for His covenant—“For I have known him [Abraham], in order that he may command his children and his household after him, that they keep the way of the Lord, to do righteousness and justice, that the Lord may bring to Abraham what He has spoken to him.” “Abraham obeyed My voice and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes, and My laws” (Genesis 18:19, 26:4,5).

God’s provision to save those who violate His requirements (which in every covenant points to the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross) was prefigured by the altars for sacrifice that Abraham built wherever he settled, [4] but even more powerfully in the drama of the sacrifice of Isaac.[5]

The sign of the Abrahamic covenant was circumcision—“You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and you” (Genesis 17:11). This unusual and seemingly barbaric sign actually had a close relationship with the blessing God was promising in the covenant—that through “Abraham’s seed” (Jesus) all the families of the world would be blessed. The Hebrew word for seed (zera) is the same word used for semen (See Leviticus 15:6, for example) which issues from the same organ that is circumcised. Thus this “sign in the flesh” was a continual reminder that someday the true seed would come.

As in the covenant with Noah, God promised Abraham that He would “establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you in their generations, for an everlasting covenant” (Genesis 17:7). In this case “everlasting” meant until the promise was fulfilled, and since Christ was the promised seed, circumcision was no longer an appropriate practice after Christ. Paul went so far as to declare that “if you become circumcised, Christ will profit you nothing” (Galatians 5:2), both because circumcision had become a way by which the Jews attempted to establish their own righteousness, and because it denies the reality that the true seed has come.


God promised Abraham that his descendants would be “as the sand of the sea” and would be “a great nation,” and that they would inherit the land of Canaan (which was located at the crossroads of the earth). This was to be fulfilled in the nation of Israel, which God called out of slavery in Egypt. God made a covenant with them at Mt. Sinai, which is often called the “Old Covenant.”[6]

God declared His purpose in selecting them, that they would be a blessing to the world—“You shall be a special treasure to Me above all people, for all the earth is Mine, and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:5,6). The role of a priest is to mediate between sinful man and God, in order to bring the sinner close to God. God intended to sanctify (make holy) the nation of Israel so that they could be priests to the world. He would place them where they could have the greatest exposure, and bless them to such an extent that the whole world would take notice.

In this covenant God gave the most detailed exposition of His requirements. “The Lord…wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments” (Exodus 34:28). He also gave His law in a more concise form, quoted by Jesus did nearly 1,500 years later—“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength” and “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Deuteronomy 6:5, Leviticus 19:8). He also gave an expanded version, the “law of Moses,” which gave details of how the law would apply to an agricultural nation of former slaves who were being established as a theocracy in the midst of hostile, heathen nations.

In one of the greatest blunders of all time, the people, awestruck by the overwhelming presence of God as he thundered out the Ten Commandments, told Moses that they did not want to hear the voice of God anymore, but that he should “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 5:27). Not realizing the absolute holiness the law required, or the abject sinfulness of the human heart, they totally miscalculated their own inability to meet the requirements of the law.

God had anticipated this, and along with the law he gave the third element, the provision for sin in the sacrificial system—“An altar of earth you shall make for Me, and you shall sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your peace offerings, your sheep and your oxen. In every place where I record My name I will come to you, and I will bless you” (Exodus 20:25). These sacrifices, a “shadow” of the true sacrifice and ministry of Christ, made it possible for the sinful children of Israel to be acceptable to a holy God—“I will set My tabernacle [the place of sacrifice] among you and My soul shall not abhor you” (Leviticus 26:11).

The sign of the covenant was the Sabbath—“Therefore the children of Israel shall keep the Sabbath…as a perpetual covenant. It is a sign between Me and the children of Israel forever” (Exodus 31:16, 17, see also Ezekiel 20:20). It was a sign of the blessing God wanted to give the world through His chosen people—that they would be a “holy nation” and a “kingdom of priests”—“My Sabbaths you shall keep…It is a sign between Me and you…that I am the Lord who sanctifies you” (Exodus 31:13).[7]

The two reasons God gave for keeping the Sabbath show why it is an appropriate sign of His covenant. “Remember the Sabbath day…for in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth” (Exodus 20:8-11). The Sabbath is a memorial of God’s creation, and for hopelessly sinful human beings, holiness requires an act of creation (“Create in me a clean heart, O God” Psalms 51:10). Holiness is not an alteration, modification or improvement of the present condition, but requires creative activity on the part of God that is as miraculous as His word which said “Let there be light’ and there was light” (Genesis 1:3).

The Ten Commandments are repeated in Deuteronomy and are nearly identical except for the reason for keeping the Sabbath. “Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it holy…and remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt and the Lord your God brought you out from there by a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm, therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day” (Deuteronomy 5:12-15). Thus the Sabbath is also a memorial of redemption, symbolizing the rest that God’s people enjoy when they are no longer slaves of sin. Far from being a symbol of human effort or “works of the law,” the Sabbath symbolized God’s creation and redemption, which are the only way that God’s people can be a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”

Right from the start the Children of Israel broke the covenant. Even while Moses was on Mt. Sinai receiving the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments, the people were at the base of the mountain crafting a golden calf and engaging in licentious worship (“This is your god, O Israel… And the people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play” Exodus 32:5,6). Their long and continual history of rebellion followed by repentance when they suffered the painful consequences of their sin showed that they had not really entered into the covenant that God had made with them. And so Moses, just before he died, made a "revised version" of the covenant, which really captures the essence of the “old covenant” mentality of the children of Israel.

“These are the words of the covenant which the Lord commanded Moses to make with the children of Israel in the land of Moab, besides the covenant which He made with them in Horeb” (Deuteronomy 29:1). We see from this verse that this covenant was not just a repetition of the Sinai (Horeb) covenant—it recognized the reality that they had not kept His covenant. The “words of the covenant” included highly detailed instructions governing every area of life (eg. Deuteronomy 10-26). They were to be hand-written on large stones (“You shall set up for yourselves large stones, and whitewash them with lime. You shall write on them all the words of this law” Deuteronomy 27:2,3,8). Half of the tribes of Israel were to stand on Mount Gerizim to pronounce a blessing on those who obeyed the law (“All these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, because you obey the voice of the Lord your God”). The other half of the tribes were to stand on Mount Ebal and pronounce a curse on those who disobeyed (“Cursed is the one who does not confirm all the words of this law”) (Deuteronomy 27:11- 28:68).

The blessings (abundance of children, animals, food, victory over enemies, financial and national success) were strong positive incentives to obey. The curses, on the other hand, were very strong negative incentives to be feared—poverty, defeat, disease, famine, national ruin and being scattered all over the world where they would be persecuted, sold into slavery and killed. “All nations would say, ‘Why has the Lord done so to this land? What does the heat of this great anger mean?’ Then people would say, ‘Because they have forsaken the covenant of the Lord God of their fathers, which He made with them when He brought them out of the land of Egypt; For they went and served other gods, and worshiped them” (Deuteronomy 29:24-26).

This was a performance-based covenant that reflected the people’s focus on externals—it did not include the Ten Commandments written and spoken by God, nor was it placed inside the ark of the covenant, and it condemned their rebellious refusal to enter into His heart covenant. “So it was, when Moses had completed writing the words of this law in a book, when they were finished, that Moses commanded…‘Take this book of the law, and put it beside the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God, that it may be there as a witness against you; for I know your rebellion and your stiff neck…I know that after my death you will become utterly corrupt and turn aside from the way which I have commanded you” (Deuteronomy 31:24-29).[8]

Essentially this covenant spelled out the consequences of not entering into the true heart covenant that God always wanted for His people. Although this is the kind of covenant that the legalistic human nature wants to enter into, God cannot accept this as anything more than a temporary arrangement on the way to a true covenant of love, and in fact it was this covenant that was "nailed to the Cross" (Colossians 2:14) But even in the midst of this harsh covenant, God pleaded for the hearts of His people—“For this commandment which I command you today is not too mysterious for you, nor is it far off…but the word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may do it…I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that both you and your descendants may live, that you may love the Lord your God, that you may obey His voice, and that you may cling to Him, for He is your life and the length of your days” (Deuteronomy 30:11-20).


The new covenant was given because God’s people had not entered into the covenant He gave them at Sinai. The new was basically the same as the old—it is “the everlasting covenant”—but it must be an internal spiritual reality rather than an external code of behavior.

Even in the Old Testament period God announced that He was going to make a new covenant. “Behold, the days are coming when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah” (Jeremiah 31:31). It was not that God had made a faulty covenant, but His people were faulty in their understanding and keeping of the covenant. “For if that first covenant had been faultless, then no place would have been sought for a second. Because finding fault with them He says: “Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant” (Hebrews 8:7,8).

The surprising thing is that the new covenant is almost exactly the same as the “old covenant.” God still designs that His people shall be a blessing to the world (“God…made us sufficient as ministers of the new covenant” 2 Corinthians 3:6), although His people now include anyone who is willing. Peter, writing to believers scattered all over the world, including Gentile believers “who once were not a people but are now the people of God,” said “You are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9,10).

Again, His requirement is His law, but instead of being written on stone tablets, “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 mind and write them on their hearts” (Hebrews 8:10). The big difference is that there will no longer be a middleman; God will not talk to “Moses” and then have the prophet or priest talk to His people. In the new covenant there is direct interaction between God and His people. “I will be their God, and they shall be My people. None of them shall teach his neighbor, and none his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them” (Hebrews 8:10,11). The requirements of the new covenant are to be internalized. “God…made us sufficient as ministers of the new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life...We all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord” (2 Corinthians 3:6,18).

The new covenant, just as the old, makes provision for the breaking of God’s law, but with a reality rather than a shadow. In the old covenant the sacrifices pointed forward to the great sacrifice Christ would make on the Cross. In the new covenant the sacrifice has already been accomplished. Instead of looking forward by faith, we now look back by faith to the “one sacrifice [offered] for sins forever” (Hebrews 10:12). As the writer of Hebrews makes clear, it was this sacrifice which made effective all the previous sacrifices that had prefigured it[9]

Naturally, the fulfilling of the great sacrifice of Christ negated the need for the “shadow” sacrifices, as well as the priests and the ceremonies connected with them. “For the law, having a shadow of the good things to come and not the very image of the things, can never with these same sacrifices, which they offer continually year by year, make those who approach perfect…but in those sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year” (Hebrews 10:1,2). “For the priesthood being changed, of necessity there is also a change of the law” (Hebrews 7:12).[10] In the new covenant, rather than a sacrifice, there is a memorial ceremony, the Lord’s Supper, which symbolizes what Christ has done.[11] “This cup is the new covenant in My blood. This do as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me. For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death till He comes” (1 Corinthians 11:25,26).

The New Testament does not clearly say what the sign of the new covenant is.[12] However, the fact that the new covenant offers the same blessing to the world through God’s people (who are now the church), has the same law (but written on the heart instead of tables of stone), and has the same sacrifice (but as a reality rather than a shadow), suggests that the Sabbath, with a deeper spiritual meaning, is also the sign of the new covenant.

This is supported by the third and fourth chapters of Hebrews, in which God’s rest on the Sabbath is presented as a continuing reality for those who believe the gospel. “Therefore, since a promise remains of entering His rest, let us fear lest any of you seem to have come short of it…For we who have believed do enter that rest…There remains therefore a rest (Greek Sabbitismos, the keeping of the Sabbath) for the people of God. For he who has entered His rest has himself also ceased from his works as God did from His” (Hebrews 4:1-3, 9,10). With the law written in the heart, the Sabbath becomes a true sign of God’s creative and redemptive work that he has accomplished and is accomplishing in us through the sacrifice, resurrection and ministry of Jesus. The new covenant Christian “has ceased from his works,” in other words, his own futile efforts to make himself acceptable, to live a holy life, and to minister to a lost world. Instead he allows God to “work in [him] both to will and to do for His good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13) so “that the righteous requirements of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Romans 8:4). Although the new covenant Christian does labor diligently, his labor is directed at knowing God – “Let us know, let us pursue the knowledge of the Lord,” “Let us therefore make every effort to enter that rest” (Hosea 6:3, Hebrews 4:11 NIV).[13]

The new covenant is called the everlasting covenant, essentially the same as all the rest of the covenants—“May the God of peace…make you complete in every good work to do His will…through the blood of the everlasting covenant” (Hebrews 13:20,21). It was this covenant that was brought into focus when “the temple of God was opened in heaven, and the ark of His covenant was seen in His temple” (Revelation 11:19).

In the book of Daniel, Satan’s enmity against the covenant was manifested through the activity of the “King of the North” who “shall be moved against the holy covenant; so he shall do damage…and show regard for those who forsake the holy covenant…He shall corrupt with flattery those who do wickedly against the covenant” (Daniel 11:28, 30, 32). The “King of the North” who wars against the covenant turns out to be none other than “the beast,” whose destructive activity is featured in chapter 13.

The climax of the great controversy theme of Revelation is found in chapters 12-14. There it is seen that the four elements of the everlasting covenant are the great issues of the final struggle, with each coming under fierce attack by the dragon, “that serpent of old” who hates Christ’s people and the message they have for the world, His law, His sacrifice, and the sign of His covenant.

Continue to next section: APPENDIX 10

[1] This unclear passage has led to endless speculation, much of it revolving around the fact that the phrase “the sons of God” apparently refers to angels in some passages such as Job 1:6, 38:7. However, it seems incredible that angels would impregnate humans, especially in light of Paul’s statement that angels are “spirits” (Hebrews 1:7), Jesus’ comment that spirits do not have flesh and bones (Luke 24:39), and His statement that the angels “neither marry nor are given in marriage” (Matthew 22:30). The New Testament uses the phrase “sons of God” for human beings who are filled and led by His Spirit (Romans 8:14,19, Galatians 3:26). Thus it probably refers to the faithful descendants of Seth, in contrast to the wicked descendants of Cain.

[2] Genesis 11:28-12:4, Nehemiah 9:7, Joshua 24:2,3.

[3] “Now to Abraham and his Seed were the promises made. He does not say, ‘and to seeds,’ as of many, but as of one, ‘and to your Seed,’ who is Christ” (Galatians 3:16).

[4] Genesis 12:7,8, 13:18.

[5] God’s demand that Abraham sacrifice his son Isaac led to one of the most powerful pictures of the sacrifice of Christ—Isaac was Abraham’s “only beloved Son,” God provided a substitute for the one condemned to die, and by faith Isaac was resurrected from the dead (Genesis 22, Hebrews 11:17-19).

[6] The Bible never actually uses the phrase “old covenant,” but the fact that a “new covenant” is mentioned implies that there must be an old one. See Hebrews 8:13.

[7] “Sanctify” is the Hebrew word “qadash” which means to consecrate or set apart as holy.

[8] No doubt it was these passages the Apostle Paul had in mind when he wrote in Colossians 2:14, “Having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross.” Notice that the covenant at Moab was handwritten on a whitewashed stone and was to be beside the ark as a "witness against [them]." Jesus on the Cross fully repudiated obedience as a means of salvation.

[9] “He is the Mediator of the new covenant, by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions under the first covenant” (Hebrews 9:15).

[10] The context of this section in Hebrews makes it clear that this is not the Ten Commandment law that is changed, but the law concerning the establishment and duties of the Levitical priesthood.

[11] The Catholic Mass, which is considered to be a repetition of the sacrifice of Christ, denies the reality that “we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Hebrews 10:10).

[12] The Lord’s Supper is not the sign of the covenant, because it is the memorial of the sacrifice, which was the third element of the covenant.

[13] In recent years a “new covenant” theology has been developed by dispensational theologians (those who believe that God has a different plan for the salvation of people at different periods or “dispensations”). They theorize a radical disconnect between the way of salvation for the Jews during the Old Testament period (based on keeping the law) and salvation in the New Testament (only believe). This theology ignores the fact that salvation in the Old Testament was also by grace, since all the children of believing Abraham will be saved through faith in the Savior to come, just as New Testament believers are saved by faith in the Savior who has come.

Today there are some who call themselves Christians who follow the old covenant and others who follow the spurious “new covenant.” These are in contrast to the true new covenant Christians. For example, many Christians perform ritual prayers and hear the scriptures as a part of a liturgical ceremony which “saves” them (old covenant). The “new covenant” Christian knows that he “doesn’t have to” pray or read the scriptures in order to be saved, so he does so when he “feels like it.” The true new covenant Christian knows that prayer and the word of God are the life of his soul, so they are a regular part of his life whether he feels like it or not. The old covenant fundamentalist keeps standards of diet, dress and behavior because these are God’s requirements and if he breaks them he will “go to hell.” The “new covenant” Christian “knows” that he is not saved by behavior so he doesn’t worry about rules and standards. The true new covenant Christian doesn’t want anything in his life that will get in the way of the closest possible relationship with the Lord or misrepresent his Savior in any way, and this is reflected in his diet, dress and behavior. Some old covenant “believers” distribute books and give Bible studies because this is a necessary part of their “salvation.” The “new covenant” Christian “knows” that he is not saved by witnessing so he doesn’t worry about it. The true new covenant Christian knows that spreading the Gospel is Jesus’ highest priority, so it becomes his highest priority too. And so the understanding (or misunderstanding) of the covenant is played out in every phase of the Christian life.