LCN Article
Pentecost and God’s Covenants

May / June 2023

Wyatt Ciesielka

The Old and New Covenants are powerful manifestations of God’s sovereignty, His purpose, and His love. Both covenants have a special connection to the Feast of Pentecost, making this time of year a special opportunity to meditate on what they can teach us.

Anciently, God entered into a covenant with a small, imperfect, but chosen and special people. But even in those ancient times, God’s plan pointed to future events. Under the Old Covenant, ancient Israel became God’s Church in the wilderness (cf. Acts 7:38). The Israelites were predecessors of God’s Church today, and God offered them His law, blessings, and great promises. But, as a whole, and because of repeated national sin, they did not obtain what they sought (Romans 11:7). In New Testament times, God is again working with a small, imperfect—but chosen and special—people. These special people, of all ethnicities and nationalities (cf. Colossians 3:11), form God’s Church, and they have been called to become “firstfruits” (Romans 8:23; James 1:18). Better understanding the relationship between the Old and New Covenants and Pentecost will help us better understand how to fulfill more perfectly our role as those special people.

Why Covenants?

Simply stated, a covenant is a binding legal agreement between two or more parties. The Bible contains many covenants. Genesis 9:8–17 records God’s covenant to never again destroy the earth with a flood. God’s covenant to establish David’s house forever is found in 2 Samuel 7:11–16, and His promise to bring the Messiah from that line in Jeremiah 23:5–6. The New Covenant is anticipated in numerous Old Testament passages, including Jeremiah 31:31–33, and is referenced numerous times in the New Testament, such as in Romans 11:26–27 and Galatians 4:21–31. But covenants were not only made between God and humanity. There were also covenants between human beings, such as the covenant between David and his friend Jonathan (cf. 1 Samuel 20:8). Innumerable covenants were made throughout history that are not recorded in the Bible, such as treaties between kings or nations, or promises or deeds between common people.

But there is something unique about God’s covenants. When God makes a covenant, He always fulfills it, even if the complete fulfillment takes generations or millennia. Notice that the Abrahamic covenant will ultimately be fulfilled through Jesus as the Messiah at the Second Coming, as the descendant of both Abraham and King David (2 Samuel 7:11–16; Jeremiah 30:9; Ezekiel 37:24; Hosea 3:5; Matthew 1:1).

But why did God establish a covenant with Israel in the first place? Scripture reveals that God established His covenant because of hesed, a Hebrew word that could be rendered into English as “covenant love.” Hesed is more than just a general type of fondness—to display hesed is to display binding love. And this meaning fits perfectly with berit, the Hebrew word for “covenant,” which means to “fetter” or to mutually “obligate” oneself to another, as in a binding marriage covenant. The marriage ceremony is the recognition and formalization of preexisting love (hesed). These two terms are often used together when God speaks of His covenant love for ancient Israel (cf. Deuteronomy 7:9; 1 Kings 8:23; Daniel 9:4)—where God keeps His covenant (berit) in love (hesed) with those who love Him.

To appreciate more fully the purpose that God is working out on earth, it is helpful to be reminded that the Old Covenant—this berit based on hesed—was a divine oath that bound or fettered God’s chosen people to Him in an intimate way. As God’s love and sovereignty are absolute, so was ancient Israel bound to its Creator absolutely. This special and binding relationship is expressed in numerous passages where God inspires it to be recorded that “they shall be My people and I will be their God” (cf. Jeremiah 11:4; 24:7; 30:22; 32:38; Ezekiel 11:20; 14:11; 34:30; 36:28; 37:27; Zechariah 8:8). This language expresses the covenant-love that God had for His people, and the very real and binding oath into which they had entered. Under the terms of the Old Covenant, God even intended to dwell with His chosen people (Exodus 25:8; 29:44–46)! Interestingly, these terms and benefits are very similar to what God offers in a more personal way under the terms of the New Covenant. This should not be surprising, since the same God who established the Old Covenant also established the New Covenant (1 Corinthians 10:4)—and He never changes (Hebrews 13:8).

Faithful to Our Covenant?

Regrettably, ancient Israel was not faithful to the terms of the Covenant. Passages such as Ezekiel 20:1–21 and Jeremiah 3:1–8 contrast God’s love and longsuffering with ancient Israel’s dismal failure to live up to its covenant oath. Consequently, Israel (and later Judah) suffered curses, national correction, military defeat, eventual captivity, and dispersion. But did ancient Israel’s failure foil God’s great plan to bless and call a people who could become His firstfruits?

No, it did not. The time was coming for a New Covenant. The New Covenant—just like the Old Covenant—is intended to bring blessings (1 Peter 2:9). Under its terms, God dwells in those who enter into this binding oath with Him (Acts 2:1–4; Ephesians 4:23–24; 2 Corinthians 5:17). But, as Hebrews 8:7–8 explains, the New Covenant has certain advantages over the Old Covenant—not that the Old Covenant was flawed, but that God makes available additional promises. Under the New Covenant, Christians are blessed to have Jesus Christ as Mediator (Hebrews 12:24), and, as was powerfully demonstrated on Pentecost 31 AD, God’s Spirit can now dwell in us (Acts 2:1–39; Hebrews 8:6–10). The New Covenant is available to Christians personally, and Christ—who is Mediator and Lawgiver (James 4:12)—lives personally in those who have accepted those terms (Galatians 2:20). Very few in ancient Israel personally received the Holy Spirit at the time of the Old Covenant (1 Peter 1:10–11). But in the New Testament Church, the Holy Spirit is available to all who repent, are baptized, and have hands laid on them in response to God’s call (Acts 2:38; 8:17; 9:17; 1 Corinthians 12:13).

In the New Testament Greek, God inspired the word diatheke to be used for the New Covenant. During the Apostles’ time, a typical contract or legally binding agreement would usually be referred to not as a diatheke, but as a syntheke, which was a legally binding agreement between two parties of relative equality. However, God did not choose to use syntheke in the New Testament. He inspired diatheke, which is derived from diatithemai and conveys the relationship of one with plenary or absolute power over another. In secular Greek, the word was usually used to mean one’s last will and testament. The connotation of diatheke is that the dispenser—God—is overwhelmingly, entirely, and completely superior. His power is absolute in every way. He can dictate His own terms and the other party may not alter those terms. Just as with the Old Covenant, God again asserts His absolute authority over those with whom He enters into covenant. But, again, His covenants are always based on loving kindness.

Becoming Firstfruits

Some mistakenly assume that the New Covenant is a less-binding or “softer” agreement between God and those who answer His call. But in fact, under the New Covenant (diatheke), as we become the recipients of the Holy Spirit, we are bound more intimately to God than was ancient Israel. We become God’s literal slaves and bondservants (doulos), as the apostles often emphasized (Romans 1:1; Philippians 1:1; Titus 1:1; James 1:1; 2 Peter 1:1; Jude 1). But God’s purpose remains the same. Just as God intended ancient Israel to be His “special treasure” (Exodus 19:5; Deuteronomy 7:6; Psalm 135:4; Malachi 3:17), He even more so now expects New Covenant Christians to become His royal, special, and chosen treasure (1 Peter 2:9). Both covenants are based on love. Both covenants make the people a special treasure to God. But, under the New Covenant, we have the advantage of Christ as Mediator and of the Holy Spirit in us individually. Thus, the New Covenant is more personally binding (Hebrews 6:4–6), and is also a better covenant (Hebrews 8:6).

God entered into the Old Covenant with Israel on the day of Pentecost, when He delivered the Ten Commandments to Moses, codifying the terms of that covenant. But ancient Israel failed to keep those covenant terms. Then, beginning on the Day of Pentecost in 31 AD, and under the terms of the New Covenant, God made the Holy Spirit available to His Church. Because of the Holy Spirit in us, Christians can have the mind and heart to keep God’s law and the terms of the Covenant (John 14:16–20; Acts 2:1–4; Romans 5:5; 8:1–14; Titus 3:5; 1 Peter 1:14–16). Ezekiel recorded God’s promise that comes with His gift of the Holy Spirit: “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgments and do them” (Ezekiel 36:26–27).

The Holy Spirit in us gives us a new heart that is able to keep God’s Commandments, which are the terms of His covenants. Remember, the “fault” was not with the Old Covenant—it was with the people who refused to keep God’s law. Now, with the Holy Spirit in us, we can have the heart to do what ancient Israel, for the most part, utterly failed to do. We can keep God’s law; it can be written in our hearts and we can be His special people (Jeremiah 31:33).

When we observe the Feast of Pentecost, we commemorate the wonderful day when God poured out His Holy Spirit upon the Church to call a few in this age to become firstfruits in His Kingdom. We also celebrate that God has given us new hearts, so we may love and keep His law and thus be faithful to the binding oath that we have made with the Creator God who loved us (1 John 4:19), who called us (John 6:44), and who wants us to be His special people (Exodus 19:5–6; 1 Peter 2:9).