In ancient times covenants were made in a way very different from our time. We sign papers with ink and keep copies. If a document is very important we have the signature witnessed and even notarized. We use pens, but the ancients also used knives. To show a covenant was serious, it had in it a threat of death for breaking it. That is where the knife and blood come into the picture. When a covenant would be ratified in a ceremony, they called it cutting a covenant.
One of the most graphic and intimidating of all covenants was the covenant-making ceremony where animals were cut in two and placed in two piles. If a strong king had defeated a weaker one in battle, he might let him live as his subject, but he would force on him a solemn agreement. This covenant would be one where the weak one promises, for example, to send so many sheep, so much olive oil, or gold and silver to the other king every year. He would promise never to take the side of any other ruler on penalty of death. He covenanted never to rebel. He would always be subject to the great king.
To show what will happen to the one promising loyalty if he defects, that poor soul was forced to walk between the carcasses. On his right was half of a cow and the other half on his left. This was scary stuff! The message was clear. It was: “You break your covenant with me, buddy, and you will end up in two piles yourself, with one leg over there and the other here. Do you understand?”
In Genesis 15, Abraham slaughtered a young cow, a goat and a ram, plus two birds, according to the instructions of the Lord. Probably in his mind Abraham expected that he would be walking between the piles!
This covenant-making ceremony in Genesis 15 was precipitated by God making a promise to Abraham that the land he was standing in would be his. When he said to the Lord, “How shall I know this?” God’s response was not, “Because I said so!” Coming from God, that would have been a very proper reply. But it pleases God when we believe Him (Hebrews 11:6), and He wanted to make so clear to Abraham how very serious He was about His promise that He would add something to His word. God did this for Abraham’s encouragement and assurance.
On another occasion God uttered an oath swearing by Himself that He would bless Abraham (Genesis 22:16-18). God making an oath! No one has any right to require of God that He make an oath, but He made one anyway. Here in Genesis 15, He wanted to show Abraham that He would keep His promise, so He did something to bolster Abraham’s faith, and assure him of His great faithfulness. God does not know how to break His word; He has no experience in it, no desire for it and no temptation to do it. When others break their word, it is repugnant to Him.
Abraham said, “How am I know to know that I shall possess this land?” And God said, “Bring me a heifer.” After it and the other animals were cut in two, a deep sleep came over Abraham. The Lord repeated His promise to him, adding some detail to it. But what of the two piles of dead animals? It was then that Abraham saw a flaming torch passing through them, and the light from it made the smoke and firepot of hot coals visible. It was the Lord holding the torch and the firepot. It was the Lord Who passed through the animals. It was the Lord and not Abraham.
By such a ceremony God was saying, “Abraham, if I break my word to you, may I be cut in two!” It was God saying, “May I be damned if I break my pledge!” When people speak that way it is profane. When God acted that way He was showing His utter seriousness. No one takes His word more seriously than God (Psalm 138:2), and therefore we may rest in all He says.
I am certain Abraham was staggered in amazement that God would do this. The high and mighty Lord was showing His commitment to the low and weak. God made a wonderful promise to Abraham and then in this way He underlined it, highlighted it, and put it in bold print. He did this to let His little man know that He knew what He said and would remember His promise. The Great God Who is accountable to no one would bind Himself to His promise to a mere man of flesh and blood, a man lower in rank than all of God’s millions of angels, a man whose very breath is a gift from God, but a man God loved and called His friend (Isaiah 41:8). Abraham was a man to whom God made a commitment. In Genesis 15 it was a solemn commitment.
Our faith rests on the integrity of God. Years ago I heard of a pastor visiting a dying woman. He asked of her faith in Christ and after hearing her confession and testimony of faith in Christ, he asked her a strange thing. He said, “And what if after believing in Jesus, you should die and go to hell?” Her classic reply was, “Oh, that would be very bad for me for I would lose my soul! But it would be far worse for God, for He would lose His honor!” She saw clearly that the Lord Who had made a promise to her as a believer in the gospel could not break it and still be God.
Blood on the People
At various times God made covenants with man and warned of death for breaking them. This is the way it was in Genesis 2:16,17 when God warned that eating the forbidden fruit would bring death. There was no formal cutting or blood sprinkled before their eyes as a sober witness of death for covenant breaking. It was just a verbal warning.
There was a time later when God did make a covenant by bringing on blood. Blood was actually sprinkled on the people. It would take quite a volume of blood to sprinkle the entire nation, yet that was the way it was. Hebrews 9 says,
For when every commandment of the law had been declared by Moses to all the people, he took the blood of calves and goats, with water and scarlet wool and hyssop, and sprinkled both the book itself and all the people, saying, ‘This is the blood of the covenant that God commanded for you.’ And in the same way he sprinkled with the blood both the tent and all the vessels used in worship.
When those people went home, they had to clean the blood off their clothes and skin. That sprinkling was a solemn warning to them of the danger of death if they broke the law of God. This is obviously a situation quite similar to the first warning in the Garden of Eden. Disobedience would bring death. Sin is disobedience; the wages of sin is death. The blood on the people was applied “when every commandment of the law had been declared by Moses to all the people.”
A ceremony like that puts both obligation and a threat on the people. It was a great burden they could not bear, because they were sinners. At the same time the Lord showed His gospel mercy by calling for sacrifices of innocent animals in their place. But this covenant in Moses’ time when the law was given carried a heavy obligation. THEY had to obey or the penalty was upon them. This situation was in force while at the same time it was alleviated by the provision of God. He taught them of a substitutionary sacrifice, and that all who trusted and looked for salvation in His promised Messiah would be forgiven.
There is no escaping that the old covenant made a genuine threat of death. Centuries before that covenant was made obsolete, God specifically assured the people in the Psalms and in Isaiah that the Messiah would die for His people. They had the gospel preached to them. Genesis 15 says¸ “Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness.” While they were never saved by their law keeping, the old covenant still required their death for their sin, and the good law of God never enabled them to obey the law they had covenanted to keep. They were in great need of a better covenant, one to lift these burdens from them and show them more fully God’s great salvation.
The New Covenant
The people surely needed a new covenant. Sinners unable to keep the old one needed someone to keep covenant for them; needed someone one to accept the penalty for their sins, and needed a real obedience to be produced in them. The salvation of the Lord came in the Lord Jesus and in the new covenant He brought. In the Old Testament this better covenant was promised; in Jesus, it arrived.
Any covenant of any kind that brings salvation must address the matter of sin. Since this covenant was one of salvation, the issue of death for sin was included. When it was inaugurated by Christ in the most simple ceremony imaginable, He would set the blood of the covenant before their eyes. Thus Jesus said,
This is my body, which is
given for you. Do this in re
membrance of me.” And
likewise the cup after they
had eaten, saying, “This cup
that is poured out for you is
the new covenant in my
This was the ratification of a covenant. This was another covenant being introduced because Jesus said so. It even had the blood of the covenant present on the table. But at that moment there was no knife, no cutting and even no literal blood. The cup of wine stood for the blood. The real blood would be shed once only and very soon, in fact later that day when daylight came and Jesus was taken to the cross.
Unless it was a covenant of promise as in Genesis 15, every other time a covenant included the blood of the covenant, the blood served as a warning of death. That meant of course a death deserved by anyone violating it. This death threat was standard in cutting covenants that oblige people to obedience. If Jesus had indicated that this covenant ceremony for some new covenant had their blood in view, they would not be surprised at all. Their instincts and old covenant background would prepare them well to suppose that God was demanding such of them too, and that death was in order for rebellion. (Isn’t death always appropriate for covenant breaking?) They would all promise like Peter that they would be faithful. In unison they would say, “We will lay down our lives for you.” (See John 13:37). It would be like Exodus 19 all over again:
So Moses went back and
summoned the elders of the
people and set before them
all the words the LORD had
commanded him to speak.
The people all responded
together, “We will do every
thing the LORD has said.”
So Moses brought their answer back to the LORD. (Exodus 19:7,8)
If the disciples spoke as this, they would be promising, just like their fathers, contrary to their ability to keep their word. On that night Peter would break his promise to lay down his life for Christ. Before it was over, in his weakness he denied his Lord.
The new covenant is a different kind of covenant. It is not a binding by God of us to do our covenantal duty with a hoped for reward of eternal life. It is a covenant of what God does for His people, a covenant where we gain all the benefits simply believing/trusting that God will do all He has said for us.
Wonderful Surprises in the New Covenant:
- The Lord Jesus said that this was a covenant in His blood! That is a great surprise and a glorious angle in this new covenant that we must not miss. The Lord, who cannot sin, cannot be punished for sin since He cannot commit any. Yet this Lord was saying that in this covenant the blood is His! This is unheard of! All the sacrificial animals in the Old Testament were innocent, and did not deserve to be slaughtered, so the gospel truth was always there, but here at the Last Supper the Lord was speaking of His death. The Mediator of the new covenant, a Mediator without sin, would die for those who were sinners.
- In the first communion service no blood was sprinkled on them, but the blood of the covenant in the form of the cup was given to them to drink. There is no death threat there; we do not take our food and drink to die but to live! The disciples would not wear the blood of the new covenant in a sober warning, but receive it in nourishment of their souls, as they trusted in Christ as
their forgiveness. This covenant at its inauguration turns away from somber threat to the promise of life. It could only switch from death to life because the full penalty for breaking the covenant will fall on the One who obeyed God and not on those who sinned.
3. This is an odd and wonderful covenant. It is like a man becoming a co-signer. The Scriptures warn about making a rash commitment that may well entail a loss. “A man lacking in judgment strikes hands in pledge and puts up security for his neighbor,” (Proverbs 17:18). Jesus became our Surety, not pledging to God for us hoping no harm would come to Him, but putting Himself under the threat of death for sins He knew we had committed.
No one becomes a surety for a person already in default! To do so aware of the situation is just a way of volunteering to pay for the debtor. The same day Jesus gave them the cup of the new covenant in His blood was the day He shed His blood for us faithless sinners. Jesus signed on for us knowing full well the obligation of death He was incurring. Only days earlier Jesus had said, “Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour,” (John 12:27). He saw clearly whose blood would be the blood of the new covenant; it would be His.
4. This new covenant is not a covenant of law for us to do. It is a gospel promise of what God will do for us. All other covenants where God required anything of humans have been violated by man. Here is a covenant where a Person Who is the Son of God was sent from heaven to become a man. Here on earth He was tested and proven to be a righteous man. He was sent to represent His people before God, not just represent God to us. In other words, Jesus was more than a prophet to us; He became a priest for us. Now in Jesus we have it made! Finally, finally there is real obedience! And finally, after centuries of animal blood, there is a sacrifice that really takes away sin!
It used to be that covenants were God on one side and man on the other. Now we have the Lord on both sides. God is still in the role of God, but now we also have God standing in the place of man. Nothing can improve on that. God is faithful as always to His covenant as God, and the Jesus as a man was faithful to God. Divine faithfulness was (for the first time) matched by human faithfulness in Jesus. This is what a covenant should be – faithfulness all around. So now that this is so, we are invited by the gospel to enter by faith into all the benefits of this new covenant. Only blessings are promised. Concerning our sins, only forgiveness is extended with no wrath to those in this covenant. The wrath our Lord has already taken on Himself. Because of the faithfulness and mediation of Christ, the God Man, we enter a new covenantal arrangement with God that cannot fail.
5. But what of our obedience? There IS something about our obedience in the new covenant. It says,
“I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people,” (Jeremiah 31:33). This is not a statement of obedience being required of us, it is all about an obedience promised to us, and produced within us. Our obedience is not a condition of this covenant, it is a blessing given to us in it. The requirements were all met by Christ for us, and the blessings are all a gift to us in Christ. To twist this around to suppose that the new covenant requires obedience of us is to deny one of its great benefits. It is also to diminish the work of Christ. God has given in Christ what He required of us in Adam.
One day long ago, God used a solemn covenant ceremony to show Abraham that He was serious about keeping covenant. At that time, and by that solemn promise, God was in no danger. It is impossible for Him to lie, and so He would never be cut in two as a covenant breaker. He would not end up like the animals He passed between. With Jesus everything was different. He was acting as a Mediator for sinners, sinners He came to save from their sin. For forgiveness to come to them, death must come to Him. And so He spoke of His blood as the blood of this covenant. Jesus was the Lord in the place of man. He would take on the charge of our sin; thus the penalty of death would fall on Him. Jesus took on our danger. And so long ago, on the night He was betrayed, our Savior announced that this covenant was now in effect. Its ultimate bloodshed would occur on the same day this covenant was announced. It would be fulfilled and activated in His death. Shortly after His resurrection and ascension the promised obedience in us included in this new covenant would be the effect of the Spirit Jesus would send to us.
In Luke 22, the only Man ever to keep covenant was the one in danger of death, AND the blood of the covenant was not a blood on the people, but a blood shed for the people. It was the blood of the One Who was by nature a lifelong covenant keeper.
We need to see what the new covenant is not. It is clearly not: you sin and you die. It is to put it bluntly; we have sinned and He died. There is no covenant like this one. The divine wrath fell on the Righteous One. The new covenant neither has nor threatens the bloodshed of any sinner brought into it. Who would ever make up such a crazy covenant that would backfire on God rather than the deserving covenant breakers? God made it, because He is that gracious. He wanted to do this, and did it out of the love of His heart. He put Himself in the ultimate danger, a danger only God Himself could bear. He did this to spare us the danger of His own wrath. Thus, the wrath of God for the covenant-breaking people of God, fell on God. There is no other god like ours.
So when we hear the words of Jesus in Luke 22:20, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood…” Let us remember that it was His blood, not ours, though which we are graciously given benefits that do not rest on our obedience any more than they rest on our bloodshed. Let us come before the Lord with joyful and grateful hearts, and also with understanding that we are in a covenant that cannot fail because God is faithful as God and Jesus was faithful as a man. Everything God has required for our eternal life has been accomplished by Christ, and given to us in Him.
Rev. David Linden is a member of the Bethel United Reformed Church in Calgary, Alberta.