How covenant works

River Jordan baptisms River Jordan baptism site: John the Baptist, called the Messenger of the Covenant, called Jewish people back to the Covenant and gave individuals the baptism of repentance here (or nearby) in the River Jordan. [Image: Daily Telegraph)

Why covenant is important, how it operates

Malachi 2:2-8

COVENANT is a big emphasis in Malachi’s message. In the short passage above there are words of warning not to discontinue the covenant. Following on in Mal. 2:8 there’s a statement “You have violated the covenant with Levi” and the question, “Why do we profane the covenant…? Finally, Malachi foretells the coming of the messenger of the covenant Mal. 3:1 who in Jesus’ own words Matt. 11:10-14 is John the Baptist, whose baptism of repentance in the River Jordan was his way of calling the Jewish people back to the covenant.

Malachi uses covenant language. It had a special resonance for his fellow Jews, a resonance which we do not pick up easily. In particular he mentions the covenant with Levi (or the house of Levi). The role of Levitical priests was to teach the covenant, observe the covenant and keep people obedient to the covenant. So Malachi is going back to the covenant with Moses, going back to the people’s agreement on Mount Sinai Exodus 19:5 before hearing the Ten Commandments Exodus 20:1-17 and the rules that followed, and also further reminders e.g. Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 7:9-12. That’s quite a big chunk of agreement. It’s also quite a big chunk of promise.

Why is this mention of covenant so significant? Early on in the Bible, when God created man, He placed him in the Garden of Eden and gave him one command: “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die” Genesis 2:16-17. God sets Adam in the Garden and promises eternal life to him and his descendants as long as he is obedient to God’s commands. It’s black and white. The reward for faith and obedience is life. Lack of it will lead to death.

After Adam and Eve disobeyed, the waywardness of man led to the flood and a kind of covenant re-start with Noah. God led Abraham on a long journey in the course of which He promised to make Him not just a father but the father of a nation. Then God appeared to Moses, and (50 years later) He made promises to David.

All of that formed the basis of a very different kind of covenant, not just with God’s chosen people but with people like us who would choose to entrust their lives to Jesus and know God personally through entering into what Jesus called the New Covenant.

The nature of a covenant is that it is absolute and enduring, unlike a modern-day contract or business agreement or even treaty which can be terminated by one of the parties. For example, your bank may call in an overdraft or alter the terms if the Bank of England rate or restrictions on money supply change – and some businesses foundered in the recession as a result. The Greeks are accused of violating their ‘covenant’ with the European Union, and the British stand accused of not wishing to honour its ethos of ever-closer union: being expelled and leaving are both options. These are political treaties, and are vulnerable to political challenge. The covenants with Noah, Abraham and David didn’t work like that – they were absolute, unconditional and permanent.

The covenant with Moses (Malachi calls it the covenant made with Levi) is essentially without condition: it is permanent. But here’s the bit that is more challenging for us to get hold of. There’s an element that seems quite conditional to us. If people don’t keep it, it doesn’t work for them. Because it is spiritual, moving into it more (dependence) and moving out of it (independence) has spiritual consequences which result in practical, measurable gain or loss. Call it a fine distinction if you like, but consequences are not the same as conditions

Old Covenant: Emphasis on obedience

In the Old Testament the emphasis is on obedience because personal living faith was difficult in a religious system where priests represented God to man, and man to God. However where there is faith, there is also a willing dependence on God, and obedience comes naturally. Malachi’s warning is that the faith relationship has become weak, so people are ignoring or even despising the covenant between them and God, and –as a consequence – are missing out on its protection and provision for them.

The New Covenant in Jesus emphasises faith and God’s grace in a personal relationship which is open to all people, not just the chosen holy nation. It is a much better covenant because we are constantly being enabled and led to live in it by the Holy Spirit. He shows us how to walk in it, so faith rises and we do it. To put it in other words obedience – that sense of living out God’s purposes in God’s way – is a natural consequence of faith. The Law is written on our hearts, as Jeremiah foretold Jer. 31:33. For us as Jesus’ disciples it is a downhill run. Go with the flow of the Spirit.

Uphill and offputting?

For the people of Malachi’s time, it was much more of an an uphill climb – the Law, precept by precept. They might have heard Jeremiah’s prophecy but that was for a future time. As Jews their relationship with God had to be built on obedience first, and then faith and knowledge of God could grow.

Many not-yet-Christians’ perception of church is quite off-putting – an uphill climb of rules and obedience. Unfortunately that perception is not entirely unfounded. Many churches are still serving up Law, rather than grace. The messages we give out, directly by what we teach and indirectly by our practice and expectations, can create a culture of serving a demanding God who exacts much from us. This fits with Malachi’s message.

The way out of this religious trap is, as Malachi says, to know and experience in a real way the love God has for us. It’s about getting hold of how as a Father He wants us simply – to be His Mal. 1:2, 1:6, 3:17. Unlike Malachi’s people, we have the Holy Spirit to invite to be our Helper and Enabler in this.


  • Talk about where you have heard, or perhaps experienced an unwritten expectation, that was about serving a demanding God rather than enjoying relationship with the loving, gracious one.

  • How does the permanent, unchanging nature of God’s covenant encourage you in your challenges and trials?

  • If you are having a close and personal walk with God and doing most of the right things the right way and at the right time – does it lead to greater blessing? If it’s not a reward for obedience, why is that?

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Why we need this covenant – Blue Run
Covenant and the promise of revival – Black Run