The Importance of Covenants – Part I

Text: Genesis 9:9-17


I.         People have lost their understanding of covenants. People really don’t understand them or their importance.

            A.        In part, it is because we don’t honor our word as we once did as a people.

                        1.         Like New Year resolutions, they only last as long as it is convenient

                        2.         A basic dishonesty has crept into society and it has spread to other aspects of life

            B.        We break our word, we break our promises, and far too often we break our covenants.

            C.        Covenants are first mentioned in Genesis 6:18-21

                        1.         They are never really explained. It is as if people always understood, so it didn’t need explaining

                        2.         But people have lost the idea. They confuse it with other terms, thinking a covenant is nothing more than a promise

II.        What is a covenant?

            A.        The Hebrew word berith refers to a bond or a treaty that joins two parties

                        1.         It literally refers to cutting something into two. It is a reference to sacrificial offerings given in some covenants

                        2.         The offering was cut into two and the parties binding themselves would walk between the sacrifices - Genesis 15:9-21; Jeremiah 34:18-20

            B.        The Greek word for a covenant is diatheke. It refers to a last will and testament, a legal agreement or contract. However, its usage in the New Testament follows the Old Testament definition than the Greek definition.

            C.        A covenant is a mutually binding agreement between parties. Perhaps the modern-day idea of a treaty comes close to the idea of a covenant. The parties take on obligations that then give benefits to all under the covenant. It is an improvement in the relationship between those under the covenant.

                        1.         Those initiating the covenant have to enter it willingly. It isn’t something that can be imposed without agreement.

                        2.         It is also limited to the parties entering the covenant.

                                    a.         You would not expect a treat between Russia and the United States to binding on Spain.

            D.        A covenant creates a tie, bonding, or fellowship between those entering into it.

                        1.         This is why God forbade making covenants with the idolatrous nations in Canaan - Exodus 23:31-32

                        2.         The tie would destroy Israel - Exodus 34:12-16

                        3.         It is an extension of a truth - I Corinthians 15:33

            E.        A covenant can be unconditional

                        1.         That is, in some covenants, a person can bind themselves to obligations without expectation of anything in return.

                        2.         Example is God’s covenant after the flood - Genesis 9:9-17

            F.        Most covenants are conditional

                        1.         Both parties accept obligations and if either party doesn’t fulfill its obligations the covenant is void.

                        2.         However, this isn’t like a business contract. Since a covenant is mutually beneficial, when one party can’t fulfill its obligations, the other party is expected to bridge the gap

                        3.         Jeremiah 31:31-32 - Note that Israel broke the covenant despite God’s efforts

            G.        Broken covenants were serious matters

                        1.         Saul broke a covenant with the Gibeonites - II Samuel 21:1-7

                                    a.         It was the covenant Joshua made about 500 years earlier - Joshua 9:15-20

                        2.         Zedekiah made a covenant to free slaves, which he and the people broke - Jeremiah 34:8-22

                        3.         The king of Judah broke a covenant made with a conquering country - Ezekiel 17:12-21

                        4.         These are covenants between men, but God enforced punishments when they were broken.

            H.        Covenants can be updated, with the new covenant superseding the prior ones - Hebrews 8:13

III.       Covenants between friends

            A.        Jonathan and David - I Samuel 18:1-4

                        1.         The reason for the covenant was their great love for each other

                        2.         Here is something we see in covenants, the giving of something to show the covenant is enforce.

                        3.         The covenant was reaffirmed and expanded with not just David, but also his house - I Samuel 20:16-17

                                    a.         Another aspect of covenants is that it is made in the presence of God.

                        4.         When David and Jonathan separated, more detail is revealed - I Samuel 20:41-42

                                    a.         The oath was in God’s name, who would oversee its enforcement

                                    b.         It involve both men’s families in perpetuity.

                        5.         Later, when another covenant was broken and the deaths of seven of Saul’s descendants was demanded, Jonathan’s son, Mephibosheth, was spared. David kept his covenant - II Samuel 21:7

            B.        The Jews with each other - II Chronicles 15:12-15

                        1.         Again it was a vow made to each other, given at the same time to the Lord

                        2.         Notice that there were stipulations given as to what would happen if it was not given.

                        3.         Also notice this was done voluntarily and fervently.

            C.        The people returning David’s lineage to the throne - II Chronicles 23:1-21

                        1.         Stipulations of protecting the king and serving the Lord.

                        2.         Punishments listed for breaking the terms

            D.        A similar dedication was done after the captivity ended - Nehemiah 10:28-39

                        1.         Notice that there is a list of obligations they were taking on and stipulations as to what would happen if they didn’t keep the covenant

IV.      Covenants to solve problems

            A.        Abraham and Abimelech - Genesis 21:22-32

                        1.         Reason: Abimelech feared God’s protection of Abraham. Abraham entered because he wanted water rights.

                        2.         It was binding on the descendants - covenants, if you haven’t noticed are meant to last.

                        3.         There was a giving of gifts - sheep and oxen in this case. Seven in particular were designated witnesses to the existence of the covenant.

                        4.         Note that the oath was a part of the covenant, but it wasn’t the covenant itself.

            B.        Isaac and Abimelech - Genesis 26:26-31

                        1.         Reason: This Abimelech also was worried about making an enemy of someone so powerful.

                        2.         Terms are given of not causing mutual harm.

                        3.         A feast is given, serving as both a given gift and proof that the animosity between the two groups was resolved.

                        4.         Again the mention of oaths being exchanged.

            C.        Jacob and Laban - Genesis 31:36-55

                        1.         The reasons for the dispute are laid out

                        2.         A stone pillar is set up to serve as a witness of the covenant

                        3.         It was done in the presence of God to serve as both witness and enforcer

                        4.         Terms are stipulated.

                        5.         The mutual benefit of peace is mentioned

                        6.         Oaths are exchanged

                        7.         A sacrifice to God is offered.

                        8.         A meal is given to show the fellowship between the parties

V.        Symbolism in covenants

            A.        A covenant wasn’t merely a promise, though oaths are given in making a covenant.

                        1.         Covenants bound people together to create a fellowship that didn’t exist before or to formalize a fellowship that existed.

                        2.         It was to the mutual benefit of all parties

            B.        Fellowship shown by giving

                        1.         Gifts, as with Abraham and Abimelech - Genesis 21:27-30

                        2.         A feast - Genesis 26:30

            C.        Personal importance shown by giving something personal

                        1.         A giving of their hand (pledge or promise) - Ezra 10:19; Lamentations 5:6; Ezekiel 17:18

                                    a.          Where we get the idea of shaking hands for an agreement.

                        2.         The giving of a sandal - Ruth 4:7-12

                        3.         Clothing - I Samuel 18:3-4

            D.        Seriousness shown by death

                        1.         Walking between the halves of sacrifices - Jeremiah 34:18-20

            E.        Endurance shown by something lasting

                        1.         Signing a document with witnesses - Jeremiah 32:10-14

                        2.         A monument as with Jacob and Laban - Genesis 31:45-53

                        3.         Thus salt (a preservative) was used as a symbol - Leviticus 2:13; Numbers 18:19; II Chronicles 13:5

            F.        It was witnessed, with the Lord being the chief witness

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