Jehovah Is a God of Covenants
“I will conclude with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah a new covenant.”—JEREMIAH 31:31.
1, 2. (a) What celebration did Jesus initiate on the night of Nisan 14, 33 C.E.? (b) What covenant did Jesus refer to in connection with his death?
ON THE night of Nisan 14, 33 C.E., Jesus celebrated the Passover with his 12 apostles. Since he knew that this would be his final meal with them and that he would soon die at the hands of his enemies, Jesus took advantage of the occasion to explain many important matters to his closest disciples.—John 13:1–17:26.
2 It was at this time that, after dismissing Judas Iscariot, Jesus instituted the only annual religious observance commanded for Christians—the Memorial of his death. The record says: “As they continued eating, Jesus took a loaf and, after saying a blessing, he broke it and, giving it to the disciples, he said: ‘Take, eat. This means my body.’ Also, he took a cup and, having given thanks, he gave it to them, saying: ‘Drink out of it, all of you; for this means my “blood of the covenant,” which is to be poured out in behalf of many for forgiveness of sins.’” (Matthew 26:26-28) Jesus’ followers were to memorialize his death in a simple, dignified manner. And Jesus referred to a covenant in connection with his death. In the account in Luke, it is called “the new covenant.”—Luke 22:20.
3. What questions are asked about the new covenant?
3 What is the new covenant? If it is the new covenant, does that mean that there is an old covenant? Are any other covenants related to it? These are important questions because Jesus said that the blood of the covenant would be poured out “for forgiveness of sins.” All of us desperately need such forgiveness.—Romans 3:23.
A Covenant With Abraham
4. What ancient promise helps us to understand the new covenant?
4 To understand the new covenant, we have to go back almost 2,000 years before Jesus’ earthly ministry to the time when Terah and his family—including Abram (later, Abraham) and Abram’s wife, Sarai (later, Sarah)—trekked from prosperous Ur of the Chaldeans to Haran in northern Mesopotamia. They stayed there until Terah’s death. Then, at Jehovah’s command, the 75-year-old Abraham crossed the Euphrates River and traveled southwestward to the land of Canaan to live a nomadic life in tents. (Genesis 11:31–12:1, 4, 5; Acts 7:2-5) That was in 1943 B.C.E. While Abraham was still in Haran, Jehovah had said to him: “I shall make a great nation out of you and I shall bless you and I will make your name great; and prove yourself a blessing. And I will bless those who bless you, and him that calls down evil upon you I shall curse, and all the families of the ground will certainly bless themselves by means of you.” Later, after Abraham had crossed into Canaan, Jehovah added: “To your seed I am going to give this land.”—Genesis 12:2, 3, 7.
5. Jehovah’s promise to Abraham is linked to what historic prophecy?
5 The promise to Abraham was related to another of Jehovah’s promises. Indeed, it made Abraham a key figure in human history, a link in the fulfillment of the first prophecy ever recorded. After Adam and Eve sinned in the garden of Eden, Jehovah pronounced judgment on both of them, and on the same occasion, he addressed Satan, who had misled Eve, saying: “I shall put enmity between you and the woman and between your seed and her seed. He will bruise you in the head and you will bruise him in the heel.” (Genesis 3:15) Jehovah’s covenant with Abraham indicated that the Seed through whom Satan’s works would be brought to nothing would appear in the lineage of that patriarch.
6. (a) Through whom would Jehovah’s promise to Abraham be fulfilled? (b) What is the Abrahamic covenant?
6 Since Jehovah’s promise was related to a seed, Abraham needed a son through whom the Seed could come. But he and Sarah grew into old age and were still childless. Finally, though, Jehovah blessed them, miraculously reviving their procreative powers, and Sarah bore Abraham a son, Isaac, thus keeping alive the promise of a seed. (Genesis 17:15-17; 21:1-7) Years later, after testing Abraham’s faith—even to the point of his willingness to offer his beloved son, Isaac, in sacrifice—Jehovah repeated his promise to Abraham: “I shall surely bless you and I shall surely multiply your seed like the stars of the heavens and like the grains of sand that are on the seashore; and your seed will take possession of the gate of his enemies. And by means of your seed all nations of the earth will certainly bless themselves due to the fact that you have listened to my voice.” (Genesis 22:15-18) This extended promise is often called the Abrahamic covenant, and the later new covenant would be closely linked to it.
7. How did Abraham’s seed begin to increase in number, and what circumstances led them to be residents in Egypt?
7 In time, Isaac had twin boys, Esau and Jacob. Jehovah chose Jacob to be the ancestor of the Promised Seed. (Genesis 28:10-15; Romans 9:10-13) Jacob had 12 sons. Clearly, it was now time for Abraham’s seed to begin to increase. When Jacob’s sons were adults, many with families of their own, a famine forced all of them to move down to Egypt where, by divine providence, Jacob’s son Joseph had prepared the way. (Genesis 45:5-13; 46:26, 27) After a few years, the famine in Canaan eased. But Jacob’s family stayed in Egypt—at first as guests but later as slaves. It was not until 1513 B.C.E., 430 years after Abraham crossed the Euphrates, that Moses led Jacob’s descendants out of Egypt to freedom. (Exodus 1:8-14; 12:40, 41; Galatians 3:16, 17) Jehovah would now give special attention to his covenant with Abraham.—Exodus 2:24; 6:2-5.
“The Old Covenant”
8. What did Jehovah conclude with Jacob’s offspring at Sinai, and what did this have to do with the Abrahamic covenant?
8 When Jacob and his sons moved into Egypt, they were an extended family, but their descendants left Egypt as a large body of populous tribes. (Exodus 1:5-7; 12:37, 38) Before Jehovah brought them to Canaan, he led them southward to the foot of a mountain named Horeb (or, Sinai) in Arabia. There, he made a covenant with them. This came to be called “the old covenant” in relation to “the new covenant.” (2 Corinthians 3:14) By means of the old covenant, Jehovah administered in an illustrative way the fulfillment of his covenant with Abraham.
9. (a) What four things did Jehovah promise through the Abrahamic covenant? (b) What further prospects did Jehovah’s covenant with Israel open up, and on what condition?
9 Jehovah explained to Israel the terms of this covenant: “If you will strictly obey my voice and will indeed keep my covenant, then you will certainly become my special property out of all other peoples, because the whole earth belongs to me. And you yourselves will become to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Exodus 19:5, 6) Jehovah had promised that Abraham’s seed would (1) become a great nation, (2) be given victory over their enemies, (3) inherit the land of Canaan, and (4) be a channel for blessings to the nations. Now he revealed that they themselves could inherit these blessings as his special people, Israel, “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation,” if they would obey his commands. Did the Israelites agree to enter into this covenant? They answered as one person: “All that Jehovah has spoken we are willing to do.”—Exodus 19:8.
10. How did Jehovah organize the Israelites into a nation, and what did he expect of them?
10 Hence, Jehovah organized the Israelites into a nation. He gave them laws regulating worship and civil life. He also provided a tabernacle (later, a temple in Jerusalem) and a priesthood to render sacred service in the tabernacle. Keeping the covenant meant obeying Jehovah’s laws and, especially, worshiping only him. The first of the Ten Commandments that were the nucleus of those laws was: “I am Jehovah your God, who have brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slaves. You must not have any other gods against my face.”—Exodus 20:2, 3.
Blessings Through the Law Covenant
11, 12. In what ways were the promises in the old covenant fulfilled toward Israel?
11 Were the promises in the Law covenant fulfilled toward Israel? Did Israel become “a holy nation”? As descendants of Adam, the Israelites were sinners. (Romans 5:12) Still, under the Law, sacrifices were offered to cover their sins. Regarding the sacrifices offered on the annual Atonement Day, Jehovah said: “On this day atonement will be made for you to pronounce you clean. You will be clean from all your sins before Jehovah.” (Leviticus 16:30) When faithful, therefore, Israel was a holy nation, cleansed for Jehovah’s service. But this clean condition depended on their obeying the Law and continually offering sacrifices.
12 Did Israel become “a kingdom of priests”? Right from the start, it was a kingdom, with Jehovah as heavenly King. (Isaiah 33:22) Further, the Law covenant included provisions for a human kingship, so that later Jehovah was represented by kings ruling in Jerusalem. (Deuteronomy 17:14-18) But was Israel a kingdom of priests? Well, it had a priesthood rendering sacred service at the tabernacle. The tabernacle (later, the temple) was the center of pure worship for Israelites and also for non-Israelites. And the nation was the sole channel of revealed truth to mankind. (2 Chronicles 6:32, 33; Romans 3:1, 2) All faithful Israelites, not just Levitical priests, were Jehovah’s “witnesses.” Israel was Jehovah’s “servant,” formed to ‘recount his praise.’ (Isaiah 43:10, 21) Many humble foreigners saw Jehovah’s power in behalf of his people and were attracted to pure worship. They became proselytes. (Joshua 2:9-13) But only one tribe actually served as anointed priests.
Proselytes in Israel
13, 14. (a) Why can it be said that proselytes were not participants in the Law covenant? (b) How did proselytes come under the Law covenant?
13 What was the standing of such proselytes? When Jehovah made his covenant, it was only with Israel; those of the “vast mixed company,” although present, were not named as participants. (Exodus 12:38; 19:3, 7, 8) Their firstborn were not taken into account when the ransom price for the firstborn of Israel was calculated. (Numbers 3:44-51) Decades later when the land of Canaan was divided between the Israelite tribes, nothing was set aside for non-Israelite believers. (Genesis 12:7; Joshua 13:1-14) Why? Because the Law covenant was not made with proselytes. But proselyte men were circumcised in obedience to the Law. They observed its regulations, and they benefited from its provisions. Proselytes as well as Israelites came under the Law covenant.—Exodus 12:48, 49; Numbers 15:14-16; Romans 3:19.
14 For example, if a proselyte accidentally killed someone, he could, like an Israelite, flee to a city of refuge. (Numbers 35:15, 22-25; Joshua 20:9) On Atonement Day a sacrifice was offered “in behalf of the entire congregation of Israel.” As part of the congregation, proselytes shared in the proceedings and were covered by the sacrifice. (Leviticus 16:7-10, 15, 17, 29; Deuteronomy 23:7, 8) So closely were proselytes associated with Israel under the Law that at Pentecost 33 C.E. when the first ‘key of the kingdom’ was used in behalf of the Jews, proselytes also benefited. As a result, “Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch,” became a Christian and was among the “seven certified men” appointed to care for the needs of the Jerusalem congregation.—Matthew 16:19; Acts 2:5-10; 6:3-6; 8:26-39.
Jehovah Blesses Abraham’s Seed
15, 16. How was Jehovah’s covenant with Abraham fulfilled under the Law covenant?
15 With Abraham’s descendants organized as a nation under the Law, Jehovah blessed them according to his promise to the patriarch. In 1473 B.C.E., Moses’ successor, Joshua, led Israel into Canaan. The subsequent division of the land among the tribes fulfilled Jehovah’s promise to give the land to Abraham’s seed. When Israel was faithful, Jehovah fulfilled his promise to give them victory over their enemies. This was especially true during the rule of King David. By the time of David’s son Solomon, a third aspect of the Abrahamic covenant was fulfilled. “Judah and Israel were many, like the grains of sand that are by the sea for multitude, eating and drinking and rejoicing.”—1 Kings 4:20.
16 How, though, would the nations bless themselves through Israel, Abraham’s seed? As already mentioned, Israel was Jehovah’s special people, his representative among the nations. Shortly before Israel marched into Canaan, Moses said: “Be glad, you nations, with his people.” (Deuteronomy 32:43) Many foreigners responded. “A vast mixed company” had already followed Israel out of Egypt, witnessed Jehovah’s power in the wilderness, and heard Moses’ invitation to rejoice. (Exodus 12:37, 38) Later, the Moabitess Ruth married the Israelite Boaz and became an ancestress of the Messiah. (Ruth 4:13-22) The Kenite Jehonadab and his descendants and the Ethiopian Ebed-melech distinguished themselves by adherence to right principles when many natural Israelites were unfaithful. (2 Kings 10:15-17; Jeremiah 35:1-19; 38:7-13) Under the Persian Empire, many foreigners became proselytes and fought with Israel against her enemies.—Esther 8:17, footnote.
A New Covenant Needed
17. (a) Why did Jehovah reject the northern and the southern kingdom of Israel? (b) What led to the final rejection of the Jews?
17 Still, in order to receive the complete fulfillment of God’s promise, God’s special nation had to be faithful. It was not. True, there were Israelites of outstanding faith. (Hebrews 11:32–12:1) Nevertheless, on many occasions the nation turned to pagan gods, hoping for material benefits. (Jeremiah 34:8-16; 44:15-18) Individuals misapplied the Law or just ignored it. (Nehemiah 5:1-5; Isaiah 59:2-8; Malachi 1:12-14) After Solomon’s death, Israel became divided into a northern and a southern kingdom. When the northern kingdom proved utterly rebellious, Jehovah announced: “Because the knowledge is what you yourself have rejected, I shall also reject you from serving as a priest to me.” (Hosea 4:6) The southern kingdom was also severely punished because of its proving false to the covenant. (Jeremiah 5:29-31) When the Jews rejected Jesus as the Messiah, Jehovah likewise rejected them. (Acts 3:13-15; Romans 9:31–10:4) Finally, Jehovah made a new arrangement to administer the complete fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant.—Romans 3:20.
18, 19. What new arrangement did Jehovah make so that the Abrahamic covenant could be fulfilled in a complete way?
18 That new arrangement was the new covenant. Jehovah had foretold this when he said: “‘Look! There are days coming,’ is the utterance of Jehovah, ‘and I will conclude with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah a new covenant’ . . . ‘This is the covenant that I shall conclude with the house of Israel after those days,’ is the utterance of Jehovah. ‘I will put my law within them, and in their heart I shall write it. And I will become their God, and they themselves will become my people.’”—Jeremiah 31:31-33.
19 This is the new covenant that Jesus referred to on Nisan 14, 33 C.E. On that occasion, he revealed that the promised covenant was about to be concluded between his disciples and Jehovah, with Jesus as mediator. (1 Corinthians 11:25; 1 Timothy 2:5; Hebrews 12:24) Through this new covenant, Jehovah’s promise to Abraham was to have a more glorious and lasting fulfillment, as we will see in the following article.
Can You Explain?
◻ What did Jehovah promise in the Abrahamic covenant?
◻ How did Jehovah administer toward fleshly Israel the fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant?
◻ How did proselytes benefit from the old covenant?
◻ Why was a new covenant needed?
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Through the Law covenant, Jehovah administered an illustrative fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant