God’s covenant commitment to His people, made in successive promise-bonds, forms the scaffolding within which He builds His church; its shape and growth are determined by it. But like a medieval cathedral, the church is built over centuries; and like a great book, its story is divided into chapters.
The word covenant (Hebrew berith, Greek diathēkē) first occurs in the context of the judgment-flood from which only Noah and his family were saved: “I will establish my covenant with you,” God promised (Gen. 6:18). While God brought judgment-curse on the earth (vv. 11–13), by contrast He promised to bless Noah and his seed (9:1).
“Establish” here reflects an earlier promise-bond. God’s command to Noah to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” (v. 1) echoes His command to Adam (1:28) and hints at an earlier covenant. Certainly, the Lord’s bond with Adam included essential covenant ingredients: His commitment to Adam would lead to blessing for faith and obedience (1:28; 2:3), but mistrust and disobedience would result in judgment-curse (2:17; 3:17).
This “new” covenant with Noah, however, was soon despised at Babel. The blessing was forfeited; now the curse fell on disobedience. Yet, mercifully, God came again, establishing another “new” covenant-bond with Abraham. The promised Deliverer-Seed (3:15) would come specifically through his seed and would bring blessing to the nations (12:1–3). This was confirmed in a dramatic night scene. In symbolic form, God passed through two lines of dismembered animals, indicating His commitment unto death to His “new” covenant promise (15:1–21). Abraham believed, and despite sometimes stumbling, he obeyed. Blessings followed.
But then came Egypt, slavery, and bondage. Once more, God revealed Himself specifically as the same covenant-making and covenant-keeping God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob who comes to help His people (Ex. 3:6, 13–17; 6:2–9). He inaugurated a new epoch, through another “new” covenant. He redeemed His people and called them to trust and obey Him, warning them that faithlessness and disobedience would again lead only to judgment-curse (Deut. 28:1–68). Later, He would promise David that the Deliverer-Seed would come specifically from his line (2 Sam. 7; Ps. 89:19–37). When He came, a final “new covenant” would be established (Jer. 31:31–34; Heb. 8:8–12; 10:15–17). Jesus is the Deliverer-Seed who forges “the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20). Thus, from Adam to Christ, this unified series of divine covenants created a single family tree (Luke 4:23–38).
It is sometimes said that now everything has changed: “covenant” virtually disappears. It is rarely mentioned again outside of the letter to the Hebrews. But this is to miss the point. For when Jesus speaks about the “new covenant in my blood,” He means that He Himself is the covenant. The Lord had already hinted at this: “Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen in whom my soul delights. ... I will give you as a covenant for the people” (Isa. 42:1, 6–7). The final “new covenant” is no longer a promise waiting to be fulfilled but a person who embodies its fulfillment. God’s covenant word is now the Word made flesh (John 1:14).
Thus, from Adam through Noah, from Abraham through Moses, and from David to Christ, God’s people have been defined, united, and shaped through an ever-renewed and developed covenant bond. This is why the fathers of the church spoke about ecclesia ab Adam (the church from Adam) or ecclesia ab Abel (the church from Abel)—one people, in different epochs, living at different covenant stages of the unveiling of God’s promise, and, from the fall of Adam and Eve, always sinners who “found favor in the eyes of the Lord” (Gen. 6:8), always justified by faith alone, not by works, always trusting the promise of God, always conscious that they were one family.
Moses and Paul (and therefore we) belong to one family. “To them” (the old covenant people), Paul says, “belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises” (Rom. 9:4). The same is true for Paul (and for us) in the new covenant—only more so: we are the sons of God by adoption (8:14–17); we are being changed from one degree of glory to another (2 Cor. 3:18); by the Spirit the commandments of the law are fulfilled in us (Rom. 8:3–4); we are the true circumcision who worship in the Spirit (Phil. 3:3); and we trust in the One in whom all the promises of God have found their “yes” (2 Cor. 1:20). We live in different epochs, but we are one people, one family.
This unity is expressed very clearly in Hebrews’ description of Moses, who “By faith ... refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God. ... He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the riches of Egypt” (Heb. 11:25–26). Throughout the covenant ages, there is one faith, one Christ, one people.
Hebrews 3:1–6 puts it this way: in both the old and the new covenant epochs, believers have belonged to the same household and the same family. They have occupied the same house, even though changes have taken place. And now Moses the servant has given way to Jesus the Son. Restrictions have been lifted (we are no longer heirs who are underage). Now, believers live in the fullness of grace and truth and cry, “Abba, Father!” (Gal. 4:1–7). But the ancestral home remains one and the same.
What a privilege it is to belong to this millennia-old covenant family. If the Corinthians could be told that “Paul ... Apollos ... Cephas ... the world ... are yours” (1 Cor. 3:22), then we can surely add, “and Abraham ... Elijah ... Isaiah ... Daniel ... are also ours,” because we “are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.” So, whenever we read the Old and New Testaments, we are looking at our family album. Learning about church history is simply visiting our relatives. Assembling for worship is going to the weekly family reunion where we “come to ... innumerable angels ... the assembly of the firstborn.” More than that, we come “to the spirits of the righteous made perfect”—some of whom once sat beside us in church. And all this because through faith we, like them—including those who lived under the old covenant—have come “to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant” (Heb. 12:22–24). You belong to a “megachurch.” The congregation is much bigger than you thought.
This covenant perspective thrills our hearts because we realize that we have been caught up into Christ’s grand, ages-long project. It gives us a sense of identity—we know our roots. It also brings us a sense of stability—we know that the gates of Hades will never prevail against God’s covenant people. Dr. Sproul expresses all this so well in his hymn “Saints of Zion”:
From Abel's favored off'ring to Jesus' holy cross,
The church of God's own choosing has triumphed over loss.
Then come, O saints of Zion in sweet communion wed;
The bride awaits her glory: Lord Jesus Christ, her head.
By faith our fathers labored: in faith they lived and died.
From Abraham to David, faith stood when it was tried.
This covenant of grace divine, by Christ's own blood was bought;
The promises of blessing shall never come to naught.
By martyr's death the holy seed was sown in grief and pain,
That holy seed will flourish till Christ shall come again.
The church of God triumphant shall in that final day.
Have all her sons and daughters home from the well-fought fray.