More frequently, however, it refers to a covenant between God and humanity. But, as becomes evident from a careful study of the Scriptures, the deepest meaning of the concept of the everlasting covenant is found in the covenant relationship among the Persons of the Godhead. This intra-divine covenant relation is foundational to all divine-human covenant relationships.
The Everlasting Covenant in the Old Testament
In context, not much is said by God about the foundation of this covenant. It is mentioned earlier that “Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord” (Gen. 6:8), and from this it may be deduced that the everlasting covenant that God established with Noah and his seed is rooted in the grace of God.
The next three references to an “everlasting covenant” are found in Genesis 17. Already in Genesis 15:18 and 19 we are told that “the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying: ‘To your descendants I have given this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the River Euphrates,’” but it is not until years later that there is an extensive account of the Lord’s covenant with Abraham as recorded in Genesis 17:1 to 22. The initiative, as in the case of the covenant with Noah, is entirely with God. The Lord appeared to Abram (vss. 1, 2) and said to him, “‘I am Almighty God; walk before Me and be blameless. And I will make My covenant between Me and you, and will multiply you exceedingly.’”
Though the explicit references to God’s covenants with Abraham are found mainly in Genesis chapter 17, the promises made by the Lord throughout Abraham’s life are all included in the covenant. It is, therefore, scripturally sound to say that the promises of Genesis 12 and 22 are covenant promises, though the word covenant does not occur in these chapters.
It is evident from the New Testament that circumcision is not required of Christians. This is the clear decision of the Jerusalem council (Acts 15:24-29) and is stressed by the Apostle Paul in his letters (1 Cor. 7:10-19; Gal. 5:6; 6:15; Col. 3:10, 11). What implications does this have in regard to God’s eternal covenant with Abraham and his seed? Does the abolition of circumcision mean that God’s covenant promises to Abraham also have come to an end?
To the contrary! The Lord’s covenant with Abraham and the covenant promises pertain to all who have the same faith as Abraham. Jesus, marveling at a Roman centurion’s faith in the authority of Christ’s word, declared that many who would manifest such faith “‘will come from east and west, and sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven’” (Matt. 8:11). The Lord clearly included Gentile believers among the recipients of the covenant blessings. This, of course, is fully in harmony with the original promises of God’s everlasting covenant with Abraham that in him and in his seed “all the nations of the earth shall be blessed’” (Gen. 22:18).
Jesus’ words indicate that faith as the human response to the promises of God is crucial to the covenant relationship. Such faith manifests itself in trust in God’s mercy and obedience to God’s will. God testified of Abraham to his son Isaac, “‘Abraham obeyed My voice and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes, and My laws’” (26:5). These words were spoken hundreds of years before God proclaimed His commandments, His statutes, and His laws to Moses and the people of Israel at the time of the Exodus. Though the Book of Genesis does not specify the content of God’s commandments, statutes, and laws, which Abraham obeyed, there is no reason to doubt that this referred primarily to the law of the Ten Commandments and included laws on sacrifice and circumcision.
The fact that God promised that Israel was to be a kingdom of priests signified that He intended to reveal Himself and His salvation through Israel to the other nations of the earth. This salvation was revealed both through prophets who prophesied of a Redeemer to come and through the sanctuary with its priesthood, sacrifices, and sacred feasts. Eventually, God added to these the promise made to King David, that from him would come a seed, a son, whose kingdom would be established forever (2 Sam. 7:12-16). David recognized the extraordinary greatness of the promise made by God and humbly accepted it, fully trusting in the veracity of God’s words (vss. 18-29). At the end of his life, David referred to this as an everlasting covenant that the Lord had made with him (23:5). Undoubtedly, God’s covenant with David was understood by David as fully in harmony with the everlasting covenant God had made earlier with the patriarchs and with Israel (1 Chron. 16:14-18; Ps. 105:7-11). But the realization of this everlasting covenant, confirmed by God to succeeding generations, was still future.
It is not possible to deal here with critical questions that have been raised in regard to these announcements. It is clear, however, that according to the New Testament, the words of Psalm 110:1 are understood by Jesus as referring to Himself (Matt. 22:44; Mark 12:36; Luke 20:42) and are applied to the risen Christ in the rest of the New Testament, either by direct quotation (Acts 2:33, 34; Heb. 1:13) or by allusion (Rom. 8:34; Eph. 1:20; Col. 3:1; Heb. 1:3; 8:1; 10:12, 13; 12:2; 1 Peter 3:22). The words of Psalm 2 are also quoted as referring to Christ (Acts 13:33; Heb. 1:4; 5:5), as is the declaration of Psalm 110:4 (Heb. 5:6, 10; 6:20; 7:17, 21). On the basis of Psalm 110:1, Jesus confronted the Pharisees with the enigmatic question how the Messiah could be both the Son of David and yet be acknowledged by David as Lord. They had no answer to that question, because they did not want to acknowledge that Jesus was more than a mere man, nor that He was the long-expected Messiah.
Further Light on the Everlasting Covenant Through the Prophets
The Prophet Isaiah prophesied in the kingdom of Judah in a time of widespread apostasy. Through His prophet, the Lord strongly rebuked rulers and people for their unfaithfulness, their rebellion, and their hypocritical religion. There were also stern messages for many other nations, including Assyria, Babylon, Egypt, and Tyre. The prophet announces that the Lord will bring His judgments upon the earth. In Isaiah 24, the prophet announces a universal judgment on the earth and its inhabitants and utters the divine indictment: “The earth is also defiled under its inhabitants, because they have transgressed the laws, changed the ordinance, broken the everlasting covenant” (vs. 5). Though this prophecy may have had a primary application for Isaiah’s own time, the universal scope of its language suggests that it has a wider global application. And, if the Lord indicts the inhabitants of the whole world for breaking the everlasting covenant, then it is clear that the everlasting covenant includes the entire human race.
A remarkable feature of Isaiah’s prophecies is the inclusion of the Gentiles in the fulfillment of the covenant promise. Isaiah predicts the fulfillment of the Lord’s everlasting covenant with David (Isa. 55:3, 4), the everlasting rule of a special Child, a Son, whose name is unique: “Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (9:6). He will govern “upon the throne of David and over His kingdom” (vs. 7), yet “the Gentiles shall seek Him” (11:10).
In the latter part of Isaiah’s prophecies, there are predictions of the Servant of the Lord, who is to bring Jacob back to God and to gather Israel to Him. But that is not enough. The Lord’s purpose is global and includes all nations: “‘It is too small a thing that You should be My Servant To raise up the tribes of Jacob, And to restore the preserved ones of Israel; I will also give You as a light to the Gentiles, That You should be My salvation to the ends of the earth’” (49:6). The promised King and the promised Servant are the same Person, even the promised Seed of the everlasting covenant.
It was through Jeremiah that the Lord announced His intention to make a new covenant. “‘Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah’” (Jer. 31:31). Though the Lord stated that this covenant was not according to the covenant He made with their fathers at the time of the Exodus, the promises and the purpose of the new covenant do not seem to differ from those of the everlasting covenant. “But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. No more shall every man teach his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, “Know the Lord,” for they all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them, says the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more’” (vss. 33, 34).
In fact, in a later prophecy, while Jeremiah was shut up in the court of the king’s prison during the final siege of Jerusalem, the Lord referred to this new covenant as an everlasting covenant. He promised that, after the people of Israel had gone into captivity, He would gather them and bring them back to their place. “‘They shall be My people, and I will be their God; then I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear Me forever, for the good of them and their children after them. And 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’” (Jer. 32:38-40). In a second message to Jeremiah in prison, the Lord repeated the promise that a Branch of righteousness from David would rule. He then compared His covenant with David with His covenant with the day and the night. Neither of them can be broken (33:20, 21, 25, 26).
The Everlasting Covenant in the New Testament
The expression “everlasting covenant” occurs only once in the New Testament (Heb. 13:20). It is evident, however, that the everlasting covenant that God established with Abraham and his seed, with the people of Israel, and with King David, finds its fulfillment in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. It is highly significant that the Gospel of Matthew, the first book of the New Testament, begins with these words: “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham” (Matt. 1:1). Immediately, the New Testament focuses on Jesus as the seed, promised by God when He established the everlasting covenant with Abraham and later with David.
Though the expression “everlasting covenant” occurs only once in the New Testament, a Greek word occurs 33 times that has been translated in most early versions as “testament” but is more accurately translated as “covenant” in later versions.
The Gospels are permeated with evidence that in Jesus Christ the covenant promises are coming to fruition, although the word covenant, besides the one reference in Luke 1:72, is only found in Jesus’ words to His disciples at the last supper: “He took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins’” (Matt. 26:27, 28, NRSV). Or, as recorded in the Gospel of Luke, “‘This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood’” (Luke 22:20, NRSV). From this we may conclude that Jesus referred to His death on the cross, when His blood would be poured out on the earth, as the decisive event by which the new covenant would be confirmed.
The disciples, however, did not grasp the significance of Christ’s words until after His crucifixion and resurrection. On the evening of the resurrection day, Jesus appeared to His disciples in the upper room. He reminded them of the words He had spoken before, that “‘everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled’” (Luke 24:44, NRSV). Next, He showed them from the Scriptures that “‘the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem’” (vss. 46, 47, NRSV). Then they began to understand that the promises of the everlasting covenant, of which Moses, David, and the prophets had written, were fulfilled through their Lord, Jesus the Christ. That understanding would grow under the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit who, according to Jesus’ promise, would guide them into all truth (John 16:3).
Peter on the day of Pentecost showed that God’s covenant promise to David had been fulfilled in the death, resurrection, and exaltation of Jesus at the right hand of God (Acts 2:22-36). Soon after, Peter in another address to the people of Israel, repeated that “The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of our fathers, glorified His Servant Jesus” (Acts 3:13), and that the predictions that the Christ (the Messiah) should suffer had been fulfilled in the crucifixion of Jesus (vss. 13-18). Peter then reminded them that they were “‘the descendants of the prophets and of the covenant that God gave to your ancestors, saying to Abraham, “and in your descendants all the families of the earth shall be blessed”’” (vd. 25, NRSV). Peter proclaimed that the promises of the eternal covenant found their fulfillment in Jesus Christ.
The Everlasting Covenant in the Pauline Writings
The word covenant may not occur very often in Paul’s letters, but the concept was certainly in his thought and ministry. It is evident that the death and resurrection of Christ are central to Paul’s theology. He wrote to the Corinthians, “I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3, 4, NRSV). In the same letter, Paul reminded his readers of the words of Jesus at the last supper when He gave them the cup: “‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me’” (11:25, NRSV). God has called and enabled him and his fellow workers “to be ministers of a new covenant” (2 Cor. 3:6, NRSV) to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ. They were ambassadors for Christ, for God through Christ gave them the ministry of reconciliation, namely that “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor. 5:19, NRSV).
The fullest development of covenant theology in the New Testament is found in the Epistle to the Hebrews. It is evident that no other New Testament book treats the theme of the covenant so fully or provides a deeper understanding of Christ’s death and high priestly ministry as fulfilling the promises of the new covenant. Because Jesus Christ lives forever and is holy, blameless, unstained, separated from sinners and exalted above the heavens, He is the surety and High Priest of a better covenant than the covenant made at Sinai because it “has been enacted through better promises” (Heb. 8:6, NRSV).
This better covenant is the new covenant that was announced by the Lord through the prophet Jeremiah (Heb. 8:8-12). As High Priest, Christ ministers in the greater and more perfect tabernacle, even the heavenly sanctuary, where He presents “his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption” (9:12, NRSV). It is highly significant that the blood of Christ, the blood of the new covenant, is in the same Epistle referred to as “the blood of the eternal covenant” (13:20, NRSV). This shows that the new covenant is identical with the everlasting covenant. Though it was already clear from the Book of Jeremiah that the promises and purpose of the new covenant were the same as those of the everlasting covenant, it is in Hebrews that is revealed that it is Christ’s blood and His heavenly intercession as High Priest that brings those promises and that purpose to fulfillment.
It is evident that no other New Testament book deals so fully with the subject of the everlasting covenant. At the same time, there is good reason for investigating whether other books throw more light on the nature of that covenant without explicitly using the expression “everlasting covenant.” Especially passages referring to the significance of the blood of Christ and the realization of God’s purpose through Christ, one may expect further insight into the subject of the covenant.
The blood of Christ is the blood of the everlasting covenant. The Apostle Peter spoke about that blood. He wrote, “You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors, not with perishable things like silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without defect or blemish” (1 Peter 1:18, 19, NRSV). Peter is talking about the blood of the everlasting covenant. Immediately he added, “He [Christ] was destined before the foundation of the world, but was revealed at the end of the ages for your sake” (vs. 20, NRSV). The Greek word translated as “was destined before,” can be translated as “was chosen before” (NIV) or as “was preordained” (KJV).
This suggests that before the foundation of the world, before the human race was created, it was foreordained or destined beforehand that Jesus Christ would shed His blood, would die to redeem human beings from sin and its fatal consequence—eternal death. A similar thought is expressed by the Apostle Paul in Ephesians 1:3 to 8. Here it is said that God the Father chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before Him. In love He predestined us to be His children through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of His will. This was accomplished because in Christ we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses.
These two passages show that the redemption through the blood of Christ was foreordained, was and is the outworking of God’s eternal purpose. This means that the everlasting covenant is primarily a covenant between the Father and Christ—that Christ would take human form and shed His blood to redeem humanity from sin. According to Ephesians 1:5, this divine purpose is rooted in God’s love. It is not accidental that the announcement of the new covenant in Jeremiah 31:31 to 34 is preceded earlier in the chapter by a revelation of God’s everlasting love (vs. 3). The most famous text in the Bible—John 3:16—seems to reveal the same sequence. “For God so loved the world”—His everlasting love—“that He gave His only Son”—His everlasting covenant—“that whoever believes in Him”—result of the proclamation of the everlasting gospel—“should not perish but have eternal life”—everlasting redemption through the blood of the everlasting covenant. John 3:16 does not use explicit covenant language, yet it sums up the essence, the root, and the fruit of the everlasting covenant.
Ellen White referred quite often to the everlasting covenant. Such references can be found throughout her writings, but it is in the latter part of them that her fuller explanations of the expression “everlasting covenant” are found. In the earlier references, the phrase “everlasting covenant” occurs mostly in Scripture quotations containing that phrase. In volume 3 of the earliest version of her Great Controversy series, Spiritual Gifts (4 vols., 1858-1864), there are such quotations from the Book of Genesis (Gen. 9:16, p. 74; 17:7, p. 102; and 17:19, p. 103). In the first volume of this series, there is an interesting reference to the everlasting covenant in connection with the final deliverance of the saints shortly before Christ’s second coming. “And as God spake the day and hour of Jesus' coming, and delivered the everlasting covenant to his people, he spake one sentence, and then paused, while the words were rolling through the earth. The Israel of God stood with their eyes fixed upwards, listening to the words as they came from the mouth of Jehovah, and rolled through the earth like peals of loudest thunder. It was awfully solemn.”2
It is in writings from a later date that Ellen White elaborated on the deep significance and eternal nature of the everlasting covenant. In an article entitled “Christ our Hope,” she placed side by side the expressions “covenant of redemption,” “covenant of grace,” and “everlasting covenant,” and appeared to use them as synonyms: “The terms of this oneness between God and man in the great covenant of redemption were arranged with Christ from all eternity. The covenant of grace was revealed to the patriarchs. The covenant made with Abraham four hundred and thirty years before the law was spoken on Sinai was a covenant confirmed by God in Christ, the very same gospel which is preached to us. [Next, Galatians 3:8 and 9 is quoted.] The covenant of grace is not a new truth, for it existed in the mind of God from all eternity. This is why it is called the everlasting covenant.”3
The everlasting covenant was first and foremost a covenant made between the Father and the Son. Ellen White describes how the angels, looking upon Christ dying on the Cross, asked with intense emotion, “‘Will not the Lord Jehovah save him?’” In response to that question these words were spoken: “‘The Lord hath sworn, and he will not repent. Father and Son are pledged to fulfill the terms of the everlasting covenant. God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.’”5 She then added this explanation: “Christ was not alone in making his great sacrifice. It was the fulfilment of the covenant made between him and his Father before the foundation of the world was laid.”6
Peter M. van Bemmelen, Th.D., is Emeritus Professor of Systematic Theology at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.
NOTES AND REFERENCES
1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references in this article are quoted from the New King James Version of the Bible.
5. __________, The Signs of the Times (January 16, 1907).