Chapter 2: The Covenant and the Great Commission

Kenneth L Gentry

Narrated By: Joseph Spurgeon
Book: The Greatness of the Great Commission
Topics: , ,


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Chapter Text

And in the same way He took the cup after they had eaten, saying, ‘This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood” (Luke 22:20).

Structuring the God-ordained task of man in the world is a distinctive legal framework, which is abundantly exhibited in Scripture. That legal structure is known as “covenant.” The Bible is very much a covenant document. Even a cursory reading of Scripture demonstrates the Bible has a strongly covenantal cast: the word “covenant” occurs almost 300 times in the Old Testament[1] and thirty times in the New Testament.[2]

The Covenant in Scripture

To understand the implications of the covenant idea and its foundational significance for the Great Commission’s redemptive truth, we need a little background introduction.

Historical Background

Mutually established covenants were common among the ancients, examples of which are numerous both in Scripture and in ancient non-biblical texts. By way of example, we might notice the covenants between the following parties: Abraham and Abimelech (Gen. 21:22-32), Isaac and Abimelech (Gen. 26:26-31), Jacob and Laban (Gen. 31:43-55), Joshua and the Gibeonites (Josh 9:3-15), and Solomon and Hiram (1 Kgs. 5:12). There are many others.

Such mutually established covenants are similar to modern contracts and treaties, although with some important differences.[3] These human covenants were between roughly equal parties: man to man.

Also revealed in Scripture are the much more important sovereignly established divine covenants. The parties in these are decidedly unequal: the infinite God and finite man. Some of the divine covenants receiving emphasis in Scripture are those established with: Adam (Hos. 6:8), Noah (Gen. 6:18), Abraham (Gen. 15:18), Israel (Exo. 24:8), and David (Psa. 89:3). Off in the future from the Old Testament perspective lay the glorious, final “New Covenant” (Jer. 31:31-34). Paul summed up the various Old Testament covenants as being “the covenants [plural] of the promise [singular]” (Eph. 2:12). There is both a basic unity undergirding the divine covenants, as well as a progressive development in them.

Legal Definition

Succinctly stated, a covenant may be defined as:

A solemnly established, legal oath-bond, which creates a favorable relation between two or more parties based on certain specified terms, and which promises blessings for faithful adherence to those terms, while threatening curses for unfaithful departure from them.[4]

Let us consider the basic qualifying elements of our definition.

A Covenant Is a Legal Oath-bond. In a covenant the parties solemnly swear to maintain the obligations outlined in the covenant contract. Of divine covenants, Scripture notes regarding God: “Since He could swear by no one greater, He swore by Himself’ (Heb. 6:13). A covenant establishes a legal bond to which appeal can be made by either party, if the terms are breached. Thus, a covenant establishes and

protects specified rights.

Furthermore, each party to the covenant was to have a copy of the covenant contract. This is why the covenantal Ten Commandments were on two tables of stone.[5] Each stone held a complete copy of the Ten Commandments for each party, God and man.[6]

A Covenant Establishes a Particular Relation. The purpose of a covenant is to establish a favorable relationship. The heart of God’s “covenants of the promise” (Eph. 2:12) is: “I will be your God and you will be My people.” This idea occurs a great number of times in Scripture.[7]The divine covenants establish a favorable relationship between God and His people. By means of the covenant, the covenant people become intimately related to the God of Creation and Redemption.

A Covenant Protects and Promotes Itself. Favorable covenantal relations are conditional. They are maintained only by a faithful keeping of the specified legal terms. Thus, of the covenant set before Israel in Deuteronomy 34:15,19, we read: “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, and death and adversity…. I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse.” Obedience to covenantal demands brings blessings; disobedience brings cursings.

A Covenant Is Solemnly and Formally Established. Covenants are not casual, informal, and inconsequential arrangements. They are established in a most solemn manner by means of designated symbolic actions. The manner in which they are established is quite significant. For instance, in Genesis 15 God sovereignly and graciously established His covenant with Abram by passing alone between the pieces of the animals Abram had sacrificed (Gen. 15:8-17). The symbolic covenantal action represented to Abram was a graphic “pledge-to-death” by God. He solemnly promised that He would perform His covenant promise, or else be “destroyed” (as were the sacrificial animals). Thus, in the Hebrew language the phrase “to make a covenant” may be translated literally: “to cut a covenant.”

Formal Structure

Ancient sovereignly established covenants between imperial kings (“suzerains”) and lesser kings and conquered nations and peoples (“vassals”) often had a five-fold structure, generally found in the order below. A brief introduction to this structure will help us understand God’s covenant, which also follows this covenantal pattern.[8]

  1. Transcendence: Usually a preamble offering an introductory statement identifying the sovereignty of the covenant-making king.
  2. Hierarchy: An historical prologue summarizing the king’s authority and the mediation of his rule, by reminding of the historical circumstances of it.
  3. Ethics: A detail of the legal stipulations defining the ethics of faithful living under the covenant bond.
  4. Oath: The setting forth of the sanctions of the covenant, specifying the promises and the warnings of the covenant by the taking of a formal oath.
  5. Succession: An explanation of the arrangements transferring the covenant to future generations.[9]

As I mentioned above, God’s covenant follows the same pattern. As a matter of fact, this covenant structure appears frequently in the Bible. One prominent example is the entire book of Deuteronomy, which I will outline by way of illustration.[10]

  1. Transcendence (specifying the sovereignty of the covenant making God). Deuteronomy 1:1-3 serves as the Preamble to the covenant detailed in Deuteronomy. In verse 3 Israel is told that Moses is delivering “all that the LORD had commanded him to give them.” The English “LORD” translates the Hebrew “Jehovah,” which occurs over 6000 times in the Old Testament. It was God’s special, redemptive, covenantal name. By this name He made Himself known to Israel just prior to their glorious deliverance from Egypt (Exo. 6:2-7). The name

Jehovah immediately spoke of God’s exalted majesty and glorious might. This was He Who spoke and made covenant in Deuteronomy.

  1. Hierarchy (specifying the mediation of the covenant maker’s sovereign authority). In Deuteronomy 1:6-4:49 we discover a brief rehearsal of the covenantal history of Israel, which was to remind Israel of God’s active, historical rule in world affairs. Let us notice three aspects of the hierarchy involved:

(1) The LORD was Israel’s ultimate ruler. He graciously led and protected Israel in the wilderness and promised to overthrow their enemies in the Promised Land (Deut. 1:19-25, 29-31).

(2) Below the ultimate rulership of God was established the immediate governance of Israel by elected elders (Deut. 1:12-16). These were to rule for God (Deut. 1:17).

(3) Under the direction of the government of Israel, the nation was to be an influential example to the nations of the goodness of God and His ultimate rule (Deut. 4:4-8). In essence, they were to be a light to the world,[11] ministering by hierarchical authority the rule of God in the world. Israel, as a body, was God’s representative in the earth.

  1. Ethics (specifying the stipulations of the covenant). In Deuteronomy the stipulations are found in chapters 5:1 through 26:19. At the head of this section stand the Ten Commandments (Deut. 5:1-21), which are the basic, fundamental law-principles of God. The other laws contained in Exodus, Deuteronomy, and elsewhere are “case laws,” which illustrate how the “base law” is to apply under certain illustrative circumstances.[12]
  1. Oath (specifying the solemn sanctions of the covenant). In Deuteronomy 27:1-30:20 the sanctions of the covenant are recorded. These sanctions encourage ethical conduct by promising reward and discourage ethical rebellion by threatening curse.
  1. Succession (specifying the transfer of the covenantal arrangements into the future). In Deuteronomy 31-33 Moses is approaching death (31:2). He encourages future strength (31:6-8) and involvement of all the people, including the children (31:9-13). Obedience insures future continuity of blessing (32:46-47) upon all their tribes (33:1-29).

Clearly, the covenant idea is a fundamental concept in Scripture. Just as clearly the covenant is framed in concrete terms to avoid any confusion as to obligations and responsibilities.

The Covenant and the Great Commission

We come now to the heart of the matter: whether Christ’s Great Commission is a covenant. If it is, then it will display the five-point structure of the biblical covenant model. There would be other indications of the covenantal aspects of His ministry. If the Great Commission really is a covenant, then all Christians come under its stipulations. They are required by God to work in history to carry it out.

The Christ of the Covenant

Christ is the fulfillment of the most basic promise of the covenant. In Him all the promises of God find their ultimate expression (1 Cor. 1:20).[13] He is the confirmation of the promises of God (Rom. 15:8). Thus, at His birth, the joy of God’s covenant promise came to expression in inspired song in Zacharias’ prophecy: “To perform the mercy promised to our fathers, and to remember his holy covenant” (Luke 1:72, emphasis added). The fundamental promise of the covenant (“I will be your God; you will be My people”) comes to expression in the birth of the One called “Immanuel” (“God with us,” Matt. 1:23), who came to “save His people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21).

Christ was self-consciously the “Messenger of the Covenant.” This Messenger of the Covenant was prophesied in Malachi 3:1: ”’Behold, I am going to send My messenger, and he will clear the way before Me. And the Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come to His temple; and the messenger of the covenant, in whom you delight, behold, He is coming, says the Lord of hosts.'” That Christ comes as the Messenger of the Covenant is put beyond serious question in Christ’s application of the first part of Malachi 3:1 to John the Baptist, who was Christ’s forerunner. Matthew 11:10 records Christ’s tribute to John: “This is the one about whom it was written, ‘Behold, I send My messenger before your face, who will prepare Your way before You.'” Thus, he cleared the way for the Messenger of the Covenant.

One of the longest recorded messages of Christ is the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7). Interestingly, Christ seems intentionally to parallel Himself with Moses, through whom came the Mosaic Covenant.[14] He does so by presenting Himself on the mountain (Matt. 5:1) as the Law Keeper (Matt. 5:15ff), in parallel with Moses on Mount Sinai as the Law Giver (Exo. 19-24).[15] Elsewhere, comparisons between Christ and Moses (or “Sinai”) appear.[16]

Moses and Elijah, who represent the Law and the Prophets (the Old Covenant[17]), even appear somewhat later in Christ’s ministry on the Mount of Transfiguration to cede their covenantal authority to Christ.[18] They spoke to Him regarding His soon coming departure from the world through death,[19] when He would formally establish the New Covenant.

The New Covenant was established by Christ, “the Messenger of the Covenant,” in the Upper Room on the night preceding His crucifixion. It was established between Him and His New Covenant era people.[20] The New Covenant is the fruition (or “consummation”[21]) of the several progressive divine covenants, which developed God’s redemptive plan in the Old Testament era.

It is clear that Christ presents Himself as the Messenger of the Covenant to establish the final consummative covenant between God and His people. And this is significant for understanding the Great Commission as a covenantal transaction.

The Commission and the Covenant

I have spent these several pages developing the covenant theme of Scripture in order to put the Great Commission in covenantal perspective. The Great Commission is a summary of the New Covenant. Consequently, we discover in it the specific structuring features so characteristic of covenants. At this juncture we will just briefly suggest the covenantal elements of the Great Commission. These will be exhibited in detail in Part II of this study.

The basic structure of the Great Commission involves the following elements:

  1. Transcendent sovereignty. Christ gives the Commission from a mountain setting, an environment so characteristic of exaltedness in Scripture. “The eleven disciples proceeded to Galilee, to the mountain which Jesus had designated” (Matt. 28:16).
  2. Hierarchical authority. From the mountain top Christ declares all authority in heaven and earth is His. He then commissions His followers to make His authority known and felt throughout the earth. “And when they saw Him, they worshiped Him…. And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “AlI authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations'” (Matt. 28:17a, 18-19a).
  3. Oath commitment. Those to be brought under the gracious sway of Christ’s authority should be baptized in His Name, as a pledge of covenantal allegiance to Him. “[Baptize] them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19b).
  4. Ethical stipulations. Those who are bound to Him in baptism are to learn and obey the stipulations of their sovereign, Christ Jesus. “Make disciples of all the nations…. Teach them to observe all that I commanded you” (Matt. 28:19a, 20a).
  5. Succession arrangements. Christ establishes His commission for the extension of His authority through space (“all nations,” Matt. 28:19b) and through time (“And, lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age,” Matt. 28:20b)


The repeated emphasis of Scripture on covenant cannot be denied. Our God is a covenant-making God, who speaks and acts in history among men. The redemption He provides in Christ cannot properly and fully be understood apart from the covenantal progress exhibited in Scripture. Neither may our tasks as Christians be properly grasped apart from the covenant. As we shall see, the covenant framework of the Great Commission holds within it the essence of the Christian enterprise, of the Christian’s calling in the world.

May we dedicate ourselves to that task, as we come to a better comprehension of it.

[1] Sometimes the Hebrew word for “covenant” (berith) is translated either “confederacy” (Oba. 7) or “league” (Josh. 9:6ff; 2 Sam. 3:12ff)

[2] In the King James Version New Testament the Greek word for “covenant” (diatheke) is sometimes rendered “covenant” and other times “testament.”

[3] Covenant and contract cannot be equated. See Gary North, The Sinai Strategy: Economics and the Ten Commandments (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1986), pp. 65-70.

[4] A helpful study of the covenant in Scripture is found in O. Palmer Robertson, The Christ of the Covenants (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1980).

[5] Exo. 31:18; 32:15; 34:1,4; Deut. 4:13. See Meredith G. Kline, “The Two Tables of the Covenant,” chapter 1 in Part Two of The Structure of Biblical Authority, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1972), pp. 113-130.

[6] Interestingly, in divine covenants the prophets were God’s “lawyers.” Their ministry involved prosecuting God’s “lawsuit” against Israel for “breach of contract.” For example, notice the legal terminology in Micah 6:1,2: “Hear now what the Lord is saying, Arise, plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice. Listen, you mountains, to the indictment of the Lord, and you enduring foundations of the earth, because the Lord has a case against His people; even with Israel He will dispute.” This explains, too, why “witnesses” were called to God’s covenant. In Deuteronomy 30:19 Moses said, “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today” (Cp. Deut. 4:26; 31:28; 32:1; Mic. 6:1,2).

[7]  Gen. 17:7; Exo. 5:2; 6:7; 29:45; Lev. 11:45; 26:12,45; Deut. 4:20; Deut. 7:9; 29:14-15; 2 Sam. 7:24; Psa. 105:9; Isa. 43:6; Jer. 24:7; 31:33; 32:38; Eze. 11:20; 34:24; 36:28; 37:23; Hos. 1:10; Zech. 8:8; 13:9; 2 Cor. 6:18; Rev. 21:3, 7.

[8] More detailed information may be found in Ray Sutton, That You May Prosper: Dominion By Covenant (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1987).

[9] The Greek word for “God” is theos. “THEOS” can serve as a handy acronym for remembering the identifying features of the covenant: Transcendence, Hierarchy, Ethics, Oath, and Succession.

[10] For a more thorough investigation of this outline of Deuteronomy, see: Sutton, That You May Prosper, chs. 1-6.

[11] Isa. 42:6; 51:4; 60:3.

[12] Interestingly, the structure of the stipulations section of Deuteronomy even follows the outline of the Ten Commandments: The first commandment is expanded upon in Deut. 6-11; the second commandment in Deut. 12-13; the third in Deut. 14; the fourth in Deut. 15:1-16:17; the fifth in Deut. 16:18-18:22; the sixth in 19:1-22:8; the seventh in Deut. 22:9-23:14; the eighth in Deut. 23:15-25:4; the ninth in Deut. 24:8-25:4; and the tenth in Deut. 25:5-26:19. See: James B. Jordan, The Law of the Covenant: An Exposition of Exodus 21-23 (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1984), pp. 199-206 and Sutton, That You May Prosper, App. 1. For additional, similar information, see: Walter Kaiser, Toward Old Testament Ethics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983), ch. 8.

[13] See also: Acts 13:23, 32; 26:6.

[14] Exo. 24:8; 34:27; Num. 14:44.

[15] See: R. E. Nixon, Matthew in D. B. Guthrie and J. A. Motyer, eds., The Eerdmans Bible Commentary (3rd ed.: Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1970), p. 850. R. H. Fuller, “Matthew,” in James L. Mays, ed., Harper’s Bible Commentary (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1988), p. 981. Robert H. Gundry, Matthew: A Commentary on His Literary and Theological Art (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1982), pp. 593-596. Cp. William Hendriksen, The Gospel of Matthew (New Testament Commentary) (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1973), pp. 261ff.

[16] John 1:17; Gal. 4:24-5:2; Heb. 3:2-5; 12:18-24.

[17] 2 Cor. 3; Heb. 8; cp. Matt. 5:17.

[18] Matt. 17:1-8; Mark 9:2-8; Luke 9:28-36. See also: 2 Pet. 1:17ff.

[19] Luke 9:28-31.

[20] The New Covenant is mentioned as established in Matt. 26:28; Mark 14:24; Luke 22:20; 1 Cor. 11:25; 2 Cor. 3:6ff; Heb. 8:8ff; 9:15ff; 12:24.

[21] Robertson calls it “the Covenant of Consummation.” Robertson, The Christ of the Covenants, ch.13.