How Were Covenants Made?

Circumcision was the sign given to Abraham. 36 The covenant and the sign were so closely identified that the Lord called the sign of circumcision, "My covenant." Anyone who did not take the sign would be "cut off" from the covenant people. 37 In the old covenant Scriptures the phrase "to make a covenant" was expressed with the words: "to cut a covenant," that is, to perform the cutting away of the foreskin of the penis of the uncircumcised adult male or the eight-day old Hebrew infant. 38 To be circumcised was to be identified with God and to be "cut off" from the world and to be included with God's visible covenant people.

Implied in the act of circumcision is the taking of an oath: "If I do not keep the covenant, may the destruction which is illustrated by the cutting of the foreskin, actually happen to me."39 This is why the Lord spoke of covenant breakers being "cut off" in Genesis 17:14. In Exodus 4:25, 12:15,30:33,38; Leviticus 7:20-25; Psalm 37; Ezekiel 14:8-17, 25:7-16. Scripture used the same verb for "cutting off" of covenant breakers as it did for the "cutting" of a covenant in Genesis 15:18.

The Lord placed himself under this curse in Genesis 15:17-21. He sealed his promise to Abraham by passing between the pieces as a sign that he would keep his promise. He received the curse upon himself in the Lord Jesus Christ who was "stricken by God, smitten by him and afflicted...cut off from the land of the living."40 Galatians 3:13,14; 2 Corinthians 5:21 clearly teach that Jesus became sin and endured the curses of covenant breaking for those who believe.41

Since the covenant of grace was made by God, it is he who gets to set its terms. God's Word says that before we were "in Christ" we were dead in sins and trespasses. As dead people we could no more save ourselves than Israel could get herself out of Egypt.42 Because God is sovereign, he has the final say about who receives Baptism and the Lord's supper and how they receive it.


36 Genesis 17:10-14

37 God nearly took Moses' life because he failed to circumcise his second son. See Exodus 4:24-26. On the threats attached to circumcisions see Genesis 17:14.

38 Genesis 15.18, Exodus 24.8, 34.27; Deuteronomy 4.23,5.2, 9.9.

39 For a clear example of this curse bearing see the book of Jeremiah. Repeatedly God prosecutes Israel for failing to live up to the "terms of the covenant." In 34: 17-20 the Lord says, "The men who have violated my covenant and have not fulfilled the terms of the covenant they made before me, I will treat like the calf they cut in two and then walked between its pieces. The leaders of Judah and Jerusalem, the court officials, the priests and all the people of the land who walked between the pieces of the calf. I will hand over to their enemies who seek their lives. Their dead bodies will become food for the birds of the air and the beast s of the earth." This is a direct re-enactment of the covenant-oath ceremony of Genesis 15:8-21. God graciously, sovereignly enters into a covenant with his people, i.e., "I will be your God, you will be my people." That Covenant-oath-promise is always sealed in blood. This is a common practice of the Ancient Near Eastern world. See K. A. Kitchen, Ancient Orient and the Old Testament (Downers Grove, 1966); M. G. Kline, The Structure of Biblical Authority, (Grand Rapids, 1972); ibid, Treaty of the Great King, (Grand Rapids, 1963); G. E. Mendenhall, Law and Covenant in Israel and the Ancient Near East (Pittsburgh, 1955). This is not just an Old Covenant occurrence. In Galatians 5:12, Paul wishes this very curse upon enemies of the gospel.

40 See the Song of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 52:13-53:12.

41 Isaiah 53:4,8; Hebrews 13:12; see the section above on being "cut off" from the covenant. See also Deuteronomy 21:22,23.

4242 Ephesians 1:1-15; 2:1-10.

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