In biblical language, a covenant was a promise made by God, given to a person or group of people, which God often accompanied with a sign.
It can be conditional: “If you obey My commandments, I will bless you; if you disobey my commandments, I will punish you.”
It can be unconditional: such as the promise God delivered to Noah’s clan, “I will never again destroy all life with a flood.” No strings attached.
But really, even conditional covenants are based on God’s grace. There is honestly nothing to obligate God to enter into a pact with humankind. As supreme and ultimate Creator and Sovereign Lord, God may do as He sees fit with His creation. Every living thing, every -thing- owes God its very existence. The Lord God therefore has authority over every person, all people are dependent on God and morally obligated to obey God without thought of reward.
We need to get our heads wrapped around that.
Yet, God instead chooses out of His love and goodness to make Himself vulnerable to covenant with people. These covenants are solely for the benefit of humankind, and continue to be active until they have been fulfilled, until God’s purpose for them has been accomplished.
All of God’s covenants have been cut in blood. After Noah’s sacrifice, God blessed and commissioned Noah and his family, then established His covenant with all living things, which is where we pick up the story today.
After over a year of silence, of simply sitting and waiting, with no idea when this period of waiting would end, or even if it would end, with their resources shriveling up before their eyes, and the relentless hard work of caring for the entire world’s treasure of life forms wearying them a little more every day, Noah and his family must have felt overwhelmed by God’s voice. From silence to a wall of sound, from no words to a whole stream of words: blessing, instruction, promises, commissioning. And now, God would speak with them about a lasting covenant.
This covenant actually begins clear back in Genesis, chapter 6, when God said, “I will establish my covenant with you; and you shall come into the ark, you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives with you.” The first provision of God’s unconditional covenant was to preserve a remnant from His judgment.
Now God gave reassurance that whenever the clouds came, or whenever it rained, it would not be like it had been for the Great Flood. God’s promise of protection would now be there as a reminder. A rainbow is a particularly apt sign of God’s grace. As I’m sure you know, rainbows are produced by the very elements that threaten—clouds and rain.
God already knew “the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth.” God knew eventually Noah and his family would involve themselves in doing wrong, because the source of their motivations (and ours, too) was their hearts. There is nothing you and I can do, either, about this situation, not on our own steam. We are never going to be able to kick the sin problem on our own, not by sheer dint of will, not by strength of character, not by becoming an ascetic hermit, not by spending every moment doing good deeds.
All our best efforts to correct sin will only make it worse, because now we will be locked into the great deception that it can be done. We’ll end up down the road of denial, or rationalizations, or legalism, or antinomianism, or you name it. But, God has a solution to the sin problem, His covenant of grace through Jesus.
The word “testament” in Greek means covenant: Old Covenant, New Covenant. God’s conditional covenant of law, the “old testament,” was fulfilled in the Messiah, Whose work on the cross, and His resurrection, inaugurated an unconditional covenant, the “new testament,” of grace. If the promises attached to the coming and work of the Messiah had been conditional, you and I could never have lived up to them. From Adam on down, people have been covenant breakers.
So, God established His new covenant purely on grace, the precursor of which is this rainbow covenant. That’s the amazing spiritual component to the sign of the rainbow. One day, the very elements that threaten storm and destruction, God’s cleansing power (often called God’s “wrath”), will become what transforms us into the stuff of life by the mighty work of the Holy Spirit, through the eternal work of Jesus, made possible by the gracious work of the Father.
Because, filled with the Spirit, our faith anchored in Jesus, those storms become the proving ground of the inner transformation already at work.
The rainbow ends up being the longest section of this covenant, it’s where God put His emphasis. Noah and his family had endured the loss of everything they knew. They had endured the hardship of living in the ark for over a year, wondering what would happen next. Would they have to live in there forever? Had God forgotten them?
Now, God gave them every reassurance of His love and careful protection, and He gave something beautiful to sign and seal His promise. In the same way, Jesus’ sacrifice and the pouring out of His blood establishes the covenant of grace you and I can enter into, and the rainbow sign is the seal of His Holy Spirit Who enlivens and empowers us.
I look forward to that and let God’s beautiful sign give me comfort and encouragement.
God knows life is filled with tragedy. Sin is ugly, but God is the God of beauty, and in Him you and I can overcome these things.
At the end of the Bible, in the book of Revelation, God is sitting on His throne and all around is a perfect rainbow, not half an arc, but a whole circle, heaven and earth finally made one.
After this I looked, and there in heaven a door stood open! And the first voice, which I had heard speaking to me like a trumpet, said, “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.”
At once I was in the spirit, and there in heaven stood a throne, with one seated on the throne!
And the one seated there looks like jasper and carnelian, and around the throne is a rainbow that looks like an emerald.Revelation 4:1-3
europa rainbow | Robert Couse-Baker, Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)