The Everlasting Covenant(s)

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And God said, “Sarah thy wife shall bear thee a son indeed; and thou shalt call his name Isaac: and I will establish my covenant with him for an everlasting covenant, and with his seed after him” (Genesis 17:19).

This is what the LORD says, he who appoints the sun to shine by day, who decrees the moon and stars to shine by night, who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar – the LORD Almighty is his name: “Only if these decrees vanish from my sight,” declares the LORD, “will the descendants of Israel ever cease to be a nation before me” (Jeremiah 31:35-36).

Israel is an everlasting nation constituted by an everlasting covenant. The covenant the LORD made with Abraham and his descendants is an everlasting covenant which finds its fulfilment through Christ, the seed of promise (see Galatians 3:16). Most commentators agree that the covenant the LORD made with Israel at Mount Sinai is also an everlasting covenant, citing these passages in support: (Ex. 40:15; Lev. 16:34; Lev. 24:8; Is. 24:5). Long after he made this covenant with Israel the LORD said through the prophets that he would make a new covenant with Israel that would also be an everlasting covenant.

The time is coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will make a new 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 broke my covenant, though I was a husband to 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 law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will a man teach his neighbour, or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the LORD. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more”(Jeremiah 31:31-34).

The LORD said through the prophet Ezekiel that he would establish the everlasting covenant with us when he made atonement for all our sins:

This is what the Sovereign LORD says: I will deal with you as you deserve, because you have despised my oath by breaking the covenant. Yet I will remember the covenant I made with you in the days of your youth, and I will establish an everlasting covenant with you… So I will establish my covenant with you, and you will know that I am the LORD. Then, when I make atonement for you for all you have done, you will remember and be ashamed and never again open your mouth because of your humiliation, declares the Sovereign LORD.'” (Ezekiel 16:59-63)

This has been fulfilled in the new and better covenant of which Christ is the mediator:

Jesus Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance – now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant (Hebrews 9:15).

How does the new covenant relate to the previous covenants? Derek Thomas poses the question that if God’s covenant which he made at Mount Sinai had been everlasting, how can God create another covenant which is also to be an everlasting covenant? He then goes on to suggest: “The answer seems to lie in the fact that essentially it is the same covenant that is being referred to.” (1)

According to this reasoning they are essentially one and the same covenant, the only difference being that the former was written on tablets of stone, the latter on the heart. However, the LORD said that the new covenant would not be like the covenant that he had made with their forefathers when he led them out of Egypt because they had become unfaithful to that covenant thereby deserving death and curses rather than life and blessing. Furthermore, the writer to the Hebrews said that by calling this covenant “new,” he has made the first one obsolete, and what is obsolete and aging was soon to disappear (Heb. 8:7-13), as indeed happened when the temple was destroyed and with it the old order of worship, and that …the gifts and sacrifices offered (under the old covenant) were not able to clear the conscience of the worshiper. They were only a matter of food and drink and various ceremonial washings–external regulations applying until the time of the new order (Hebrews 9:9-10).

It is also essential to understand that the very nature of a covenant is that nothing can be added to it or taken away from it. It cannot simply be adapted or amended to suit changed circumstances. The apostle Paul underscored this fact: Brothers, let me take an example from everyday life. Just as no one can set aside or add to a human covenant that has been duly established, so it is in this case. (Galatians 3:15).

Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:17-19).

The covenant made at Mount Sinai remains an everlasting covenant, without amendments, but it does not and cannot impart everlasting life. Paul refers to it as “the ministry that brought death,” and “the ministry that condemns,” in contrast to the new covenant which brings righteousness and sets us free from the law of sin and death (see 2 Cor. 3:7-18, Rom. 8:2). The covenant made at Mount Sinai was intended to bring death to the sinful nature and so it is neither set aside, nor amended, for the new covenant only brings life to that which has died (in and through faith in Christ). Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds” (John 12:24).

The covenant made at Mount Sinai is binding until death. Paul uses the analogy of a marriage covenant to illustrate that death sets us free from the old covenant and that the sinful nature must be put to death:

Do you not know, brothers – for I am speaking to men who know the law – that the law has authority over a man only as long as he lives? For example, by law a married woman is bound to her husband as long as he is alive, but if her husband dies, she is released from the law of marriage. So then, if she marries another man while her husband is still alive, she is called an adulteress. But if her husband dies, she is released from that law and is not an adulteress, even though she marries another man. So, my brothers, you also died to the law through the body of Christ, that you might belong to another, to him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit to God. For when we were controlled by the sinful nature, the sinful passions aroused by the law were at work in our bodies, so that we bore fruit for death. But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code. (Romans 7:1-6).

Confusion arises when we try to live according to both covenants at the same time. Jesus taught that it is like putting new wine into old wineskins or trying to sew a new patch onto an old worn out garment. The wineskins burst and the patch tears! The one everlasting covenant condemns sinners forever, the other sets them free from the curse of death and gives eternal life. Paul, who was at one time extremely zealous for the old covenant Law, said that if he were to rebuild his life according to the old covenant, his sinful nature would lead to his destruction and condemnation all over again (see Galatians 2:17-21). If righteousness (and life) could have been attained through obedience to the old covenant, then Christ would not have had to die and it would not have been necessary to make a new and better everlasting covenant. No-one will be counted as righteous according to the everlasting covenant made at Mount Sinai.

If the covenant made with Israel at Mount Sinai is an everlasting covenant what does that mean for the natural descendants of Israel (or converts to Rabbinical Judaism)? Do they remain chosen in spite of their unfaithfulness or unbelief, on the basis of the everlasting nature of the covenants God made with their forefathers? Are they still bound by the covenant made at Sinai despite the fact that it is impossible to live in obedience to it? Some insist that there are two chosen peoples of God; the natural descendants of Israel according to the flesh who remain under the old covenant and the Church which constitutes the spiritual seed of Israel according to the new covenant.

The Church is often accused of stealing the blessings while assigning all the curses to unbelieving Israel. What is overlooked is that although the covenant made at Mount Sinai is an everlasting covenant it was not an unconditional covenant. The covenant itself spelt out blessings for obedience and faithfulness to the covenant and curses for disobedience. The LORD said through the prophet Jeremiah that Israel had broken the covenant (Jeremiah 31:32) and thus brought themselves under the curses. The apostle Paul taught that partial obedience is not good enough: All who rely on observing the law are under a curse, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law” (Galatians 3:10-11) and the apostle James affirms this: For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. (Jas.2:10)

If those who are enslaved to sin are not set free from the bonds of such an everlasting covenant, they remain under an everlasting curse rather than an everlasting blessing.

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus demonstrated that it is not what we do that makes us sinners but that we are sinners by nature (Matt. 5:21-29). Thus we are doomed to fall under the curses of the Law. Paul teaches in Romans that God has indeed bound all men over to disobedience, so that he might have mercy on them all (Roman 11:32). There is only one way to be set free from the sinful nature and that is through the new covenant by which we put to death the earthly, sinful nature and are raised to new life according to the Spirit.

According to the covenant made at Mount Sinai, everyone who does not listen to the prophet like Moses will be held accountable by the LORD. Peter restates this that anyone who does not listen to him (Jesus) will be completely cut off from the covenant people (Acts 3:23, Deut. 18:19). Jesus is the prophet like Moses who was destined to cause both the falling and rising of Israel. In other words that part of Israel, according to natural descent, which refuses to listen to Jesus Christ, is cut off from the redeemed and faithful part of Israel. Jesus said, “I told you that you would die in your sins; if you do not believe that I am the one I claim to be, you will indeed die in your sins” (John 8:24). According to both everlasting covenants, the one made at Mount Sinai and the new covenant made by Jesus, those who refuse to listen to him are to be cut off from the Israel of God for as long as they persist in their unbelief.

The redeemed and faithful part of Israel accepts the verdict of the old covenant which condemns all sinners to death, identifying with Christ in his death so that by faith in him, who is the Resurrection, they are also raised with him to new life through the Holy Spirit according to the new and better covenant. But this eternal, resurrection life is forfeited by those who cling to the old covenant that condemns them to death. This is why Jesus said,“Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:39).

To recognise only that part of Israel that was destined to stumble over Jesus Christ the stumbling stone (see Isaiah 8:14 and 1 Peter 2:8) overlooks the Israel of God which is raised to everlasting life and blessing through Jesus Christ and the new covenant. This is the covenant nation into which many Gentiles have been grafted through faith in Christ the Redeemer and from which many natural descendants have been cut off due to unbelief (see Romans 11). “I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (see Matthew 8:11-12). This was the mystery contained in the writings of the old covenant prophets of Israel, (see for example Zechariah 2:11), which Paul said was kept hidden for ages past but has now been revealed through the new covenant in Christ (see Ephesians 3:1-13).

It was revealed to the apostle John on the Isle of Patmos that there are two deaths and also two resurrections. Physical and spiritual death is the consequence of sin and sin was made evident through disobedience to the commands of the old everlasting covenant. But, by God’s mercy, we are counted as having died with Christ through baptism so that we share in his resurrection (the first resurrection) so that we will not experience the second death (see Revelation 2:11; 20:6;14 and 21:8. The lake of fire (eternal condemnation) is the second death.

Daniel was told by the angel Gabriel: Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt (Daniel 12:2). If we fully uphold the covenant made at Mount Sinai without adding or taking away from it, then we must concede that all who do not obey everything written in the covenant are subject to the curses enumerated in the covenant. We must acknowledge that it is a covenant which condemns sinners and that all have sinned. This is why Jesus said that he did not come to condemn anyone because they were already condemned: “But do not think I will accuse you before the Father. Your accuser is Moses, on whom your hopes are set” (John 5:45).

To reject the new covenant is to remain in an everlasting covenant that leads to death. This is perhaps what was alluded to by the prophet Isaiah when he referred to those who say that they have entered into a covenant with death (Isaiah 28:15;18) for as we have noted, Paul referred to the covenant made at Mount Sinai as the ministry that brought death. Paul warned those who rejected the good news of salvation in Christ: “We had to speak the word of God to you first. Since you reject it and do not consider yourselves worthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles (Acts 13:46).

Of what value is an everlasting covenant without everlasting life? If we sincerely desire the blessings for unbelieving Israel we must realise that the blessings are only received through faith in Christ.

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be (a) sin (offering) for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:17-21).


1. “God’s Strength” page 116.