“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were no people but now you are God’s people – once you had not received mercy but now you have received mercy.” – 1 Peter 2:9-10
Covenant Christian Community
In the Sword of the Spirit we describe ourselves as a community of communities and we say that we are in covenant together, at the local level, and at the international level. Our covenants are unique at the local level, but they all contain a paragraph that describes our relationship to the international community of communities. The issue could be easily raised as to whether or not a written covenant is necessary, or whether or not it can be described as a part of the nature of life in the Body of Christ.
We believe that the Lord has called us into covenant with him and with this people. We have had numerous prophecies that have initiated and sustained that understanding. Here are some excerpts:
“I am making a covenant with you… this covenant is part of my plan to renew my church…”
“Yes, I have called you together in a covenant that is of great significance for the life of my people throughout the world, and I want you to bind yourselves to me and show forth your loyalty to me. I want you to come to me under this covenant, submit yourselves to my service, lay down your lives for the mission that I have given you.”
Exodus 19:5 says, “Now therefore, obey my voice and keep my covenant and be my possession.” It could be said here that the prophecies are for us, for those to whom they were spoken. It could also be said that the Scripture given is for the Old Testament folks, or more narrowly, for those that the prophet addressed.
We would not say that all Christians or Christian groups should sit down and write a covenant, but we do think we have something to contribute in this area. Furthermore, since the Bible is broken into the Old and New Testaments (covenants), it may be the case that the Lord does have certain expectations on his New Testament people based on his covenant with us, sealed by the blood of his son.
We have been led in our local communities to attempt to identify and summarize that greater covenant and to commit ourselves together in covenant relationships.
The Roman Catholic Bishop James A. Griffin talked about commitment this way:
“Words like commitment, compassion and empathy have no place in the world of objects,” said Bishop Griffin.
Individual relationships in our society are characterized by looser connections. We’re no longer joiners living out commitments in fraternal or social groups. We’ve become more individualistic. Individual fulfillment is more important. …If this is where we find ourselves, is there any antidote for the loose connections? The solution is found in commitment.
“We learn this in the family, which is the root of all relationships. Within every family there is a commitment to all the members of the family and a shared commitment to a common value system,” he added.
“Without commitment, there can be no lasting relationships”, said Bishop Griffin, and “barriers are insurmountable. Disagreements are destructive. Shortcomings are terminal. Commitment allows individuals’ lack to be filled up with gifts of others.”1
More Covenant Background
What are the needs in society today? How is the Lord addressing those needs? What is there about our call that is unique, or important or prophetic? Society today is increasingly unstable, increasingly disconnected. We see a profound example of this at the family level where many marriages have failed and many families have unraveled at the altars of individualistic hedonism and narcissism.
The Lord wants a people where unity is a blessing, and to be scattered is seen as a curse. It is not good when members of a family run in every direction, each pursuing his own path to self-fulfillment.
If we consider the marriage covenant and the divorce rate, we can identify and target one of the major threats to the stability and strength of the family, to society, and to the church. If making and keeping covenants strengthens and supports marriages, we would have ample reason for seeing value in our life together. It is the case that covenant communities have divorce rates far below that of most churches. That result is important and prophetic. The Lord is addressing a need.
Types of Covenants
There are many types of covenants: solemn, implied, simple, legal, simple-legal, limited duration, etc. An example of an implied contract is when a paper boy delivers a paper for weeks and is paid weekly. There is then an implied covenant that if he delivers the paper next week, he will get one week’s pay. It is also implied that his price will be the same.
I’d like to describe marriage as an expansive covenant: The vows may have been simple and limited, but there is a much broader understanding of what a man and woman are entering into as husband, as wife, as father, and as mother. There are legal, spiritual, and societal expectations that go beyond, “I will be a friend to you.” So too with us; when we agree to follow the Lord together, to be faithful to him and to each other, it is broader than the few elements that we identify in our local covenants. But, we would certainly like to focus on and get those elements to work. We would get a long way into the Christian life if we took our covenants seriously.
The Covenant Nature of God
We see first in the Trinity a clearly defined relationship of a certain order, of fierce loyalty, of covenant love. Jesus knew his role and his relationship to the Father and to the Holy Spirit; the Father spoke of his Son, and the Spirit gives testimony to Jesus in the hearts of millions daily. Is there a written covenant among the Father, Son and Spirit? I don’t know. But their relationship is clear, and clearly defined.
God and Man
All through the Bible we see the Lord entering into agreements with man, promising certain things in return for certain obedience. These agreements and promises have theological names based on persons and places (Davidic, Edenic, Sinaitic, Abrahamic, etc.), but each one shows certain aspects of the covenant nature of God: 1) his faithfulness (he will do his part); 2) his justice (he requires our part); 3) his tenacity (he is determined to get mankind on the right track and into his family); 4) his desire to “deal” with man. There is also a progressive nature to these covenants as mankind is shepherded more closely onto the path that leads back to God. We see the culmination of God’s covenant nature with the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. He will go to great lengths to keep his side of the deal: the sacrifice of his son.
There is an algebraic rule which states that if “A=B” and “B=C”, then “A=B=C.” In a certain way we are acting in a similar fashion. That is, if the Trinity has a clearly defined relationship and God defines his relationship with man, then it is good for brothers and sisters to have clearly defined relationships. We attempt to mimic our Father, to relate the way he relates, and to take on the covenant nature of God.
Covenant in Scripture
The word “covenant” is used as a translation for the Hebrew word “berith” in the Old Testament. That word literally means “fetter” or “bind,” but it also means “to eat with.” For the Hebrews, it was a serious thing to have a meal with someone. In the New Testament, the Lord’s Supper is the covenant meal of the Christian. It is where and how we celebrate our “deal” with the Lord…the deal that gets us into heaven and delivers us from the fires of hell. The words translated “covenant” show up about ninety times in the Old Testament and twenty-eight times in the New Testament. It is clearly a major theme, an important way of describing the character and intentions of God.
There are three types of covenants common in Scripture:
- A two-sided agreement between equals (David and Jonathan; see example next section);
- A one-sided disposition imposed by a superior party; and
- God’s self-imposed obligation (our redemption by the work of Christ is in this category).
Serious Intentions Require Serious Tools
Close brotherhood and Christian mission are often complex endeavors. We saw in the New Testament that John Mark did not complete his mission as Paul expected and was subsequently excluded from the next mission (Acts 15:38). Marriage is a complex journey which is begun (and not until) with marriage vows. We have “confessing” churches, and “rules” for religious orders. These defined relationships have taken an approach that puts them at odds with our shifting-sands culture. Our shifting-sands culture affects both marriage and mission.
At stake are survival, continuity, endurance, longevity and inter-generational strength. Our word should be important; our covenants are a blueprint for the present as well as a seed for future generations. They are a mix of God and man, and express our best efforts to describe our intended response to him and to each other.
- Covenants are serious.
- Covenants are serious tools for serious intentions (community, discipleship, mission, all require covenant).
- Covenants are serious because our WORD should be serious.
- Covenant-breaking unravels relationships: the family, society and the Church.
- Covenant reflects the very nature of God.
- Covenant reflects the relationship of the Trinity.
- Restoring covenant is one of the key works of God being introduced to us and then shown through us (a gift from the Lord to meet a need).
- It is not the idea or the invention of some prophets of a movement.
- It is ancient, widely expressed in Scripture, and in Church life, in civil law, and in marriage.
- The inability to commit, the inability to honor and to keep your word is a modern fatal flaw…a need that is being addressed by God.
- Covenant is inter-generational but must be fully embraced in nature and fully embraced with character to benefit from its blessing.
A Scriptural Example
In a quick study of Ruth, we see it begins with the widow Naomi instructing her Moabite daughters-in-law to return to their own land now that her two sons have died. Ruth says, “Wherever you go I shall go, wherever you live I shall live; your people will be my people, and your God will be my God too” (Ruth 1:16 paraphrased). This example of covenant love works out well for Ruth who marries Boaz. They have a son, Obed, who was the father of Jesse, the father of David.
So covenant love and faithfulness is in the line of David. The very next book in the Old Testament is 1 Samuel. In 1 Samuel, we see the story of Samuel, the story of Saul and the story of David (1 Samuel 16).
Covenant Lived Out
The knitting of the souls of Jonathan and David; Jonathan and David make a covenant (1 Samuel 18:1-5) “When he had finished speaking to Saul, the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul. And Saul took him that day and would not let him return to his own house. Then Jonathan made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul. And Jonathan stripped himself of the robe that was upon him, and gave it to David, and his armor, and even his sword and his bow and his girdle. And David went out and was successful wherever Saul sent him; so that Saul set him over the men of war. And this was good in the sight of all the people and also in the sight of Saul’s servants.”
The outbreak of jealousy in the heart of Saul (1 Samuel 18:6-9) “As they were coming home, when David returned from slaying the Philistine, the women came out of all the cities of Israel, singing and dancing, to meet King Saul, with timbrels, with songs of joy, and with instruments of music. And the women sang to one another as they made merry, “Saul has slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands.” And Saul was very angry, and this saying displeased him; he said, “They have ascribed to David ten thousands and to me they have ascribed thousands; and what more can he have but the kingdom?” And Saul eyed David from that day on.”
The attempted murder of David by the now insane Saul (1 Samuel 18:10-12) “And on the morrow an evil spirit from God rushed upon Saul, and he raved within his house, while David was playing the lyre, as he did day by day. Saul had his spear in his hand; and Saul cast the spear, for he thought, “I will pin David to the wall.” But David evaded him twice.”
Things continue to deteriorate between Saul and David, yet the covenant stands (1 Samuel 20:3-4; 8a) “But David replied, ‘Your father knows well that I have found favor in your eyes; and he thinks, ‘Let not Jonathan know this, lest he be grieved.’ But truly, as the Lord lives, and as your soul lives, there is but a step between me and death.’ Then said Jonathan to David, “Whatever you say, I will do for you… (David replied,) “Therefore deal kindly with your servant, for you have brought your servant into a sacred covenant with you.”
The covenant extends to family (1 Samuel 20:14-17) “‘If I am still alive, show me the loyal love of the Lord, that I may not die; and do not cut off your loyalty from my house for ever. When the Lord cuts off every one of the enemies of David from the face of the earth, let not the name of Jonathan be cut off from the house of David. And may the Lord take vengeance on David’s enemies.’ And Jonathan then made David swear again by his love for him; for he loved him as he loved his own soul.”
The covenant is reiterated (1 Samuel 20:23) “And as for the matter of which you and I have spoken, behold, the Lord is between you and me forever.”
The covenant is reiterated as inter-generational (1 Samuel 20:41-42) “And as soon as the lad had gone, David rose from beside the stone heap and fell on his face to the ground, and bowed three times; and they kissed one another and wept with one another, until David recovered himself. Then Jonathan said to David, “Go in peace, forasmuch as we have sworn both of us in the name of the Lord, saying, “The Lord shall be between me and you, and between my descendants and your descendants, forever.”
Recommitment night (1 Samuel 23:15-18) “And David was afraid because Saul had come out to seek his life. David was in the wilderness of Ziph at Horesh. And Jonathan, Saul’s son, rose, and went to David at Horesh, and strengthened his hand in God. And he said to him, “Fear not; for the hand of Saul my father shall not find you; you shall be king over Israel, and I shall be next to you; Saul my father also knows this.” And the two of them made a covenant before the Lord.”
Saul and David remain at odds (2 Samuel 3:1) “There was a long war between the house of Saul and the house of David; and David grew stronger and stronger, while the house of Saul became weaker and weaker.”
Saul and Jonathan die (1 Samuel 31:2, 4c) “And the Philistines overtook Saul and his sons; and the Philistines slew Jonathan and Abinadab and Malchishua, the sons of Saul…Therefore Saul took his own sword and fell upon it.”
The introduction of Jonathan’s son (2 Samuel 4:4) “Jonathan, the son of Saul, had a son who was crippled in his feet, Mephibosheth.”
The covenant extends to Jonathan’s family (2 Samuel 9: 1-13) And David said, “Is there still any one left of the house of Saul, that I may show him kindness for Jonathan’s sake?” Ziba replied, ‘There is still a son of Jonathan; he is crippled in his feet.” The king said to him, “Where is he?” And Ziba said to the king, “He is in the house of Machir the son of Ammiel, at Lodebar. Then King David sent and brought him from the house of Machir the son of Ammiel, at Lodebar. And Mephibosheth, the son of Jonathan, the son of Saul, came to David, and fell on his face and did obeisance. And David said, “Mephibosheth!” And he answered, “Behold, your servant.” And David said to him, “Fear not for I will show kindness for the sake of your father Jonathan, and I will restore to you all the land of Saul your father; and you shall eat at my table always.” And he did obeisance, and said, “What is your servant, that you should look upon a dead dog such as I?”
Then the king called Ziba, Saul’s servant, and said to him, “All that belonged to Saul and to all his house I have given to your master’s son. And you and your sons and your servants shall till the land for him, and shall bring in the produce, that your master’s son may have bread to eat; but Mephibosheth your master’s son shall always eat at my table.” Now Ziba had fifteen sons and twenty servants. Then Ziba said to the king, “According to all that my lord the king commands his servant, so will your servant do.” So Mephibosheth ate at David’s table, like one of the king’s sons. And Mephibosheth had a young son whose name was Mica. And all who dwelt in Ziba’s house became Mephibosheth’s servants. So Mephibosheth dwelt in Jerusalem; for he ate always at the king’s table. Now he was lame in both his feet.
Note: In ancient times a covenant in blood was not uncommon. Each man would make a small cut at the base of his thumb and the two would bring their two hands together and mix the blood as a sign of being joined together. Some think that this covenant of David and Jonathan was a “blood covenant.”
This article is from Essays on Christian Community: Do Covenant Communities Have Something to Contribute to Our Models of Church, Chapter 11, © 2019 by Bob Tedesco, published by Credo House Books, Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA. Used with permission.
Top photo credit: photo collage of community activities, © Living Bulwark / The Sword of the Spirit
Bob Tedesco is the founder of the People of God, a Sword of the Spirit community in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA where he served as Senior Coordinator for 26 years. He has been involved in lay ministry for over forty-five years, and has served as Regional President of the North American region in the Sword of the Spirit.