A look at the practical application of covenant.
Several years ago a friend of mine opened my eyes to the importance of covenant. He pointed out that we Christians can’t really understand our relationship to Christ and God without understanding covenant. He’s right. That’s how the New Testament describes our relationship. When you get right down to it, the Bible is not so much a record of history as it is a record of covenant history. In fact, the word “Testament” which we use to label the two major sections of the Bible is simply another word for covenant.
But what is a covenant? It’s my observation that even though we are in a covenant relationship with Christ and though Christ called the Communion we celebrate – many of us each week – a new covenant in his blood (1 Corinthians 11:25, etc.), few Christians really know what a covenant is. They would be hard pressed to define it or explain covenant to someone else.
So what is a covenant?
In some ways, a covenant is like a contract in that it is an agreement between two parties. These parties may be individuals, families, nations or, in some cases on God’s part, all of mankind. Like contracts, covenants define certain benefits which accrue to the participants and also define the penalties for breaking the terms.
However, there are significant differences between contracts and covenants. Unlike contracts, covenants are put into effect through blood. They are confirmed and commemorated with fellowship meals. They usually remain in effect for life. The penalty for breaking the terms of a covenant is usually death.
But perhaps the most significant difference is that contracts are selfish. If I negotiate a contract, it will be for the greatest advantage I can get, for the least cost. In contrast, we enter covenants for the benefit of the other party. Sure, we hope to be blessed by the relationship, but our motive for entering the relationship should be love. It is to bless the other party.
Malcolm Smith provides this definition of covenant: “A covenant is a binding, unbreakable obligation between two parties, based on unconditional love sealed by blood and sacred oath, that creates a relationship in which each party is bound by specific undertakings on each other’s behalf. The parties to the covenant place themselves under the penalty of divine retribution should they later attempt to avoid those undertakings. It is a relationship that can only be broken by death.” (Malcolm Smith, The Power of the Blood Covenant, Harrison House, 2002, pp. 12-13)
This definition reinforces the fact that contract and covenant represent two different world-views. Contract focuses on self and emphasizes obligations and rights. In contrast, covenant focuses on the other party to the covenant and emphasizes promises and blessings.
Notice also the line in the definition about “undertakings on each other’s behalf.” One of the characteristics of covenant, which distinguishes it from contract, is that the parties help each other to keep the terms of the covenant. If someone is in danger of default, the other person will do whatever is necessary to help him or her remain faithful to the covenant.
The marriage covenant
Let me illustrate with the covenant of marriage. A couple stands in front of a preacher. He opens his little black book (Yes, preachers really do have them!) and proceeds to read the marriage vows from it. He asks the man something like this: “Do you solemnly promise, before God and these witnesses, that you will love her, comfort her, honor, cherish and protect her, in sickness and in health, for richer or poorer; and that, forsaking all others for her alone, you will faithfully perform to her all the duties which a husband owes to a wife, so long as you both shall live?”
After the man answers in the affirmative, he asks the woman something similar to, “Do you solemnly promise, before God and these witnesses, that you will love him, serve him, honor, cherish and obey him, in sickness and in health, for richer or poorer; and that forsaking all others for him alone, you will faithfully perform to him all the duties which a wife owes to a husband so long as you both shall live?” (Adapted from The Star Book for Ministers, Edward T. Hiscox, Judson Press, 1990)
Notice what the focus of the vows is. It’s not about getting, but giving. It’s about doing what is best for the other person. It’s about helping the other person remain faithful to the relationship. Our culture has bought into the lie that marriages are 50-50 arrangements. That is, each partner should carry 50 percent of the load or responsibilities. But covenant teaches a different reality. Marriage is not 50-50. It is 100-100. Each partner accepts full responsibility for making the relationship work. Each partner also does whatever is necessary to ease the other person’s load and help him or her keep his or her commitment.
Do you want to know how to have a happy marriage? Put the principles of covenant into practice. It’s tragic that many couples forget their covenant promise. Instead of concentrating on doing what they vowed to do for their spouse, they start complaining they’re not getting as much out of the marriage as they should. The focus becomes self instead of serving one another. They start worrying about their rights instead of what is best for their spouse. I guarantee you that if couples wold concentrate on serving each other instead of their own selfish desires, almost all marital troubles would be solved.
The New Covenant
With that in mind, is it any wonder that Christ likens the New Covenant to a marriage? “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church – for we are members of his body.” (Ephesians 5:22-30 NIV)
Just think how much better, deeper and richer our marriages would be; how much deeper and satisfying our church experience would be, if we followed the example of Christ and learned to give ourselves up for one another, if we could just kill off our pride and selfishness and put the good of others before our own.
It’s time we practiced covenant.