1. The SCOPE of the Covenant of Grace: We learn who salvation is for
A) It is for COVENANT CHILDREN: God made the covenant not just with Noah, but with his entire family (6:18; 7:1; 9:9ff): “God spoke to Noah and to his sons with him, saying, 'Now behold, I Myself do establish My covenant with you and with your descendants after you. . .” Earlier we noted how this has implications for seeing Noah as a type of Christ, our covenant representative. But we also gain an important insight here into how God works. The Lord is pleased to extend His covenant not just to individuals, but to entire families. We'll study this more in detail with Abraham, but even here in God's covenant with Noah, far before Genesis 17, we see that God's covenant extends to whole families—not only to believers, but also to their children. Now, this doesn't mean that covenant children (the children of believers) are automatically saved. Though all the children of believers are in the covenant—not all are necessarily of the covenant.1 Children of believers will show themselves to be either covenant-keepers (by embracing Christ by faith) or covenant-breakers (by rejecting Him). We see this clearly in Genesis 9, where Noah curses Canaan, the son of Ham, because of what his son Ham had done to him. Though Ham was a covenant child, it seems that he never embraced the covenant from the heart by faith.2 But what we see here is that God's covenant promises are made, not just to individuals, but to entire families, even for generations to come: “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household” (Acts 16:31).3
So, pray for your children. Plead with God to fulfill His covenant promises to your children, and their children, and their children—to confirm His covenant promises to your descendants after you.4 Also, invest in your children. A lot of father's in ministry make the mistake of forgetting about their children; they invest in everyone else, but they fail to take the time to really invest in the lives of their own children.5 And teach your children. Teach them everything you know. Teach them about the gospel, but also teach them about the covenant promises. Tell them that they have been set apart, as born into a covenant family. But also tell them that it all means nothing if they don't embrace Christ from the heart. Plead with them to show themselves covenant-keepers, and not covenant-breakers.6
B) It is for INGRAFTED FOREIGNERS: The covenant of grace isn't meant to be limited just to covenant children who grow up in the church.7 We are also given hints in the Noahic covenant that the Lord means to draw a people to Himself from every tribe, tongue, and nation under heaven:
I) Apparent in Noah's BLESSING: After Noah blesses his son Shem, he goes on to say, “May God enlarge Japheth, and let him dwell in the tents of Shem” (9:27). What does this mean? Well, we are told that from the offspring of Japheth, “the coastlands of the nations were separated into their lands, every one according to his language, according to their families, into their nations” (10:2,5). Later in Scripture, in the last chapter of Isaiah, we are given a precious glimpse of future missionary labors among unreached Gentile nations (a Gentile mission to Gentiles). If we compare Genesis 10:1-4 with Isaiah 66:19, it is apparent that it is the scattered sons of Japheth that will be brought home to the Messiah in the latter days. As another put it: the descendants of Japheth are “non-Shemites who become Shemites by embracing the God of Shem.”8 They're Gentile foreigners, strangers to God, outsiders—who come to take refuge in Christ.
II) Typified through Noah's ANIMALS: Earlier we talked briefly about the significance of the animals in the covenant of Genesis 9. We asked how it could be that animals are included in this covenant, if indeed it is part of the Covenant of Grace? There, we explained that all creation, in a sense, is comprehended in the Covenant of Grace. We noted that just as all creation suffered the consequences for man's sin in the fall, so too, the healing of redemption will one day extend, in turn, to all creation. So far, so good. But I believe there's even more significance to the animals.
Some noted theologians9 believe that the animals which were gathered from every corner of the earth into Noah's ark were a picture of the reality that people from every tribe and tongue and nation will be gathered to Christ (cf. Revelation 5:9; 7:9).10 In particular, these theologians affirm that the clean and unclean animals which were gathered into the ark fore-pictured two distinct groups: the clean animals represented the Jews, and the unclean animals represented the Gentiles. This may well be the case, especially in light of what we read elsewhere in Scripture:
Isaiah 43:20, “The beasts of the field will glorify Me, the jackals and the ostriches, because I have given waters in the wilderness and rivers in the desert, to give drink to My chosen people.”
Here, God's chosen people are pictured as unclean and wild animals; they are likened to jackals and ostriches. And we see the same thing echoed in another passage in the New Testament:
Acts 10:10-12, “[Peter] fell into a trance; and he saw the sky opened up, and an object like a great sheet coming down, lowered by four corners to the ground, and there were in it all kinds of four-footed animals and crawling creatures of the earth and birds of the air. A voice came to him, 'Get up, Peter, kill and eat!' But Peter said, 'By no means, Lord, for I have never eaten anything unholy and unclean. Again a voice came to him a second time, 'What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy.' ”
Later we come to understand that the animals in the vision symbolized unclean Gentiles—and that God was teaching Peter that He is calling to himself through the gospel not just the clean but the unclean; not just ethnic Jews, but men from every tribe and tongue and nation under heaven.
Pretty amazing, right? And if you're still not convinced, also think about this: the way that God describes His covenant with Noah—which includes the animals—parallels the way God describes outside Gentile foreigners in His covenant with Abraham and in the New Covenant. In each covenant we see a distinctive 3-fold formula that includes both covenant children and outsiders:11
The NOAHIC Covenant: “Now behold, I Myself do establish My covenant with you, and with your descendants after you; and with every living creature that is with you. . .of all that comes out of the ark.” (Genesis 9:9-10)
The ABRAHAMIC Covenant: “I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you. . .and every male among you. . .who is born in the house or who is bought with money from any foreigner, who is not of your descendants” (Genesis 17:7,12)
The NEW Covenant: “For the promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself” (Acts 2:39)
So in light of these Scriptures, and a lot of other Scriptures,12 it's very probable that these animals that are gathered together to Noah in the ark do indeed symbolize the truth that men and women from every nation under heaven will be gathered together to Christ.13 Just as God brought to Noah, in pairs of two's and seven's, every kind of animal on the earth to be preserved with him in the ark, so too the Lord will gather to himself men from every tribe and tongue and people.14 It is this universal imagery that provides the foundation for the universal offer of the Christian gospel: We are to “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation” (Mark 16:15).15
2. The SIGN of the Covenant of Grace: We learn about the picture of God's promise
A rainbow is given as a sign of God's covenant with Noah (9:12-17). This is the first explicit teaching on covenant signs in the Bible. Later, we'll see that circumcision would be the sign of God's covenant with Abraham, and the Sabbath would be the sign of God's covenant with Israel under Moses. What is the purpose of covenant signs? “Covenant signs declare covenant promises to covenant people. [A covenant sign] is a token and guarantee of the word of God.”16 Our sacraments—the Lord's supper and baptism—come from the idea of covenant signs. A covenant sign is a tangible picture of God's everlasting pledge to His people. So the rainbow is given here as a picture of God's pledge.
The picture was the rainbow (Genesis 9:12-13).17 The pledge was that God would never again send a flood to destroy every living thing on the earth (Genesis 9:14-15). So the rainbow served as a very tangible picture of God's solemn promise. It was a guarantee to all those in the ark that the same wrath that swept away the rest of the world would never, ever, come upon them. Dark clouds may come again—God never promised it wouldn't rain anymore—but God's promise was that the rain would never again be sent in wrath for the purpose of flooding the earth. And again, remember that the promise God is making here is not only a temporal promise being made to every living thing in the world. Isaiah 54 makes clear that this promise is meant to teach us about the Covenant of Grace.
So, what does this teach us as believers in Christ? Well, one thing it teaches us is that as believers, dark storms may still come upon us. God never promised that the Christian life would be easy, that there would be no storms. But though the dark rain clouds will sometimes come—the flood of God's wrath never will. As believers, what we can know as we go through seasons of hardship and distress and confusion is that there's not a single drop of God's anger in the trials that He sends us.18
We see this hinted at in another place in Scripture where we read about a rainbow. Revelation 4:3 says, “And He who was sitting was like a jasper stone and a sardius in appearance; and there was a rainbow around the throne, like an emerald in appearance.” I love what one writer says about this: “this rainbow. . .[signifies] to us that memorial which God himself has of his everlasting kindness to his church in the midst of all thundering dispensations whatsoever, as a sign and symbol unto his church of the light of his countenance shining on them in their thickest and darkest clouds. . .And this New Testament rainbow excels that other [in that] the old was but as a half-moon rainbow, a semi-circle, whereas this is round about the throne, and encompasses it; it is a whole circle. . .So let God turn himself in various dispensations, and look which way he pleases, yet still he does, and must necessarily, view his church through his rainbow, putting him in mind of mercy.”19
Another thing that the covenant sign of the rainbow teaches us as believers relates to what is taking place when we partake of the sacraments. We mentioned that covenant signs are the foundation for our understanding of the sacraments: they are tangible pictures of God's unwavering promises. So, we should be thinking about the sacraments—the Lord's supper and baptism—as we read what God says in Genesis 9:14-16. First, in verses 14-15, notice that God is not saying, “Noah, when you see the bow in the cloud, you remember the covenant I made with you.” No, God is saying to Noah: When you see the bow in the cloud, “I will remember.” It's like a husband who gives a ring to his wife on their wedding day, and he says to her, “when you look at that ring, I will remember that I gave myself to you.” The emphasis here is God's remembering.20 When we see the sign, God remembers His covenant.21 So when there is a baptism taking place, or when we partake of the Lord's Supper—it's not just us remembering what God has done—it's God himself remembering. When we eat and drink of Christ's body and blood, God remembers the promises He's made to us.
So verses 14-15 emphasize how when we look, God remembers. Then, in verse 16, God is the One who will both look and remember the sign: “When the bow is in the cloud, then I will look upon it, to remember the everlasting covenant. . .” In verse 14, it's us who sees the rainbow and then God remembers His covenant. In verse 16, it's God who both looks at the sign and remembers His covenant. God gave the sign to Noah so that he could look at it—but isn't it glorious that even in giving the sign, the important thing is not Noah looking at the sign and remembering God's promise—the important thing is that God looks at the sign and remembers His promise—whether Noah looks at it or not. It's God's way of saying “I'm not going to forget the promise that I made to you. You may forget the promise I made to you—that's why I have to give you a sign—but I will not forget. . .”22
1 This is true also of the church as a whole; outwardly all professing members belong to the visible church, but only true believers belong to the invisible church. So, there are two extremes to avoid: 1) the teaching that the children of believers are not in the covenant, on the one hand; and 2) the teaching that the children of believers are all of the covenant, on the other.
2 This is another way we would respond to Kuyper's claim that the covenant of Genesis 9 is made to all humanity without exception. Earlier we mentioned the importance of reading Genesis 9 in the context of Genesis 6; we noted that all humanity was actually destroyed in the flood—it was only God's chosen people out of all humanity that were spared from the judgment of the flood, and it is this same people with whom God covenants in Genesis 9. Here we can also note that while God's covenant promises extend to the children of believers and their children's children, even to a thousand generations, this does not mean that they encompass every specific child. It is here with Noah as it was later with Abraham. God made promises to Abraham and to his seed; but that did not mean His covenant extended to each and every descendant of Abraham. In time we come to learn that God's promises to Abraham were not to all his seed without distinction, but to the elect children of promise from among his physical seed. As Paul wrote in Romans 9:6-7: “they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel; nor are they all children because they are Abraham's descendants, but: 'Through Isaac your descendants will be named.'” The covenant line continues forever, but not all who come from Abraham's seed would be included in that covenant line. God would choose Isaac but not Ishmael, and Jacob but not Esau. So too, “God's covenant included Noah and Noah's family. The children of believers in their generations are included in the covenant. God's covenant with Noah also teaches the truth, the painful truth, but the truth that underscores God's sovereignty in the covenant, that not all the children of believers are included in God's covenant. There are Ham's and there are Canaan's.” (Cammenga, Cosmic Grace). Francis Roberts also draws out the same truths from Genesis 9, noting in particular: “God covenants not only with His people, but with their seed, and with their seed's seed, that keep Covenant with him, even to all generations. . .Doubt: Seeing God established his Covenant not only with Noah, but with his sons, and their seed also, God seems to admit into Covenant with himself the wicked as well as the righteous. For Ham was ungodly, and cursed by his own father; and more of the posterity of these three sons of Noah were wicked than godly. . .Resolution: . . .In God's Covenant we must further distinguish betwixt the Outward Administration and common benefits thereof which come short of salvation; and the Inward Efficacy and special benefits thereof which reach unto salvation. In the former sense all the seed of Noah and of his sons were comprehended in this Covenant, and thereby secured against any other universal deluge of waters; but in the latter sense only the elect of their seed are comprised in this Covenant, as tending to secure them from eternal perdition in Christ.” (Roberts, pp258-259).
3 Again, we'll study this more in depth with the Abrahamic covenant. Ligon Duncan says it this way: “As God said that it was not good for Adam to be alone in the original Covenant of Works, guess what, it is not good to be alone in the Covenant of Grace either. God continues to operate on a family principle. By the way, this is foundational for your understanding of the Church. The Church is not incidental to God’s plan. God’s plan does not save individuals and—oh by the way—we might do a church as well. The Church is fundamental, it is central to what God is doing in redemption and, of course, this cuts directly against the kind of intense individualism that continues to characterize the western world today.” (Covenant Theology course).
4 There is one particular family that has had a great impact on me personally and on the world for the kingdom of God. One night I was having dinner with my friend, and when I started asking more about his family, he began telling me the story of his great-grandfather's conversion. What he said was that when his great-grandfather came to Christ, he made it a point of emphasis to pray for his children, and their children, and their children. The incredible outpouring of the Spirit on this particular family seems to be the result of one man claiming the covenant promises of God for his children and grandchildren.
5 There's a wonderful phrase I've heard: “missional family.” Most of us are prone to fall off on one side or the other; either we forget about our kids trying to reach the world, or we forget about the world trying to raise our kids. We need to do both.
6 There's no greater or more powerful illustration that I know of on this point than the story Bill Iverson tells: “I took my grandsons up on the highest building in Miami, and as we looked over Biscayne Bay to the vast Atlantic, I told them a story. A tropical storm came up and a boatload of school children and teachers capsized about one hundred yards offshore. A team of local football players was at the beach and saw the tragedy in the making. As the coach realized the danger, he galvanized the team into action, forming a human chain reaching out into the water. Soon children and adults were pulled along the chain to safety. But one greedy lad saw what looked like a mahogany jewelry box floating by. He reached for it, breaking the chain and drowning himself and several others. How tragic! But there is even a greater tragedy: the broken covenant promise—not God’s, but ours. I looked those youngsters in the eye with earnest tears, and encouraged them as a covenant grandfather: 'Do not break the chain!' How I plead for each child and grandchild daily by faith in the blood of the everlasting covenant. Take heart. We frail promise makers are not alone. The covenant God is the ultimate promise keeper.” (cf. www.woh.org).
7 Though, it is in many ways a comforting thought that every single nation and individual traces their roots ultimately to Noah. In that sense, every person we will meet, and every nation to which God may send us, originally came from a covenant family. Though they may be far from that reality now—all we are doing is calling people back to their true family roots.
8 Palmer Robertson (?). Goodwin: “You, brethren, even you, are a portion of that seed, Japetians all; and whose forefathers have been persuaded to dwell in the tents of Shem, and the gospel is amongst you to this day; you are, with other nations, the church in all these prophecies pointed at, and children of this covenant, which hath taken hold of many of you.” (V9, p77).
9 Including Thomas Goodwin and Jonathan Edwards, who are quoted at length below.
10 It might be helpful to quote a few others at length here: Thomas Goodwin: “I must now again retrieve that objection which I before have made, namely, that there were all sorts of beasts, and fowls, and creeping things in the ark, which were saved from the waters, in a corporeal salvation, as well as Noah and his sons; yea, and with whom, after Noah and they came forth of the ark, that second covenant was made. And the objection is, that therefore this covenant cannot be drawn into a figure of the gospel covenant with the church, his elect. . .We read, Acts 10:11-12, how in the first beginning of the gospel, or of this new Christian church (as Peter speaks of it, Acts 15), there was a vessel let down from heaven in a vision to Peter, wherein were 'all manner of four-footed beasts in the earth: wild beasts, and creeping things, and fowls of the air.' And the interpretation of this to Peter was, that the catholic church under the New Testament should consist as of men from out of all nations of Noah's seed, whether clean or unclean, Jew or Gentile, who should now be converted to the faith of Christ; and that this was signified unto Peter by all these sorts of creatures. Now, bring this to Noah's ark and covenant, Genesis 7th and 9th chapters, the ancients readily understood the coming in of all nations under the gospel into the church to have been prefigured thereby. And how usual it is Scripture to set out the several sorts of wicked men under the similitude of beasts—as Herod by a fox, Nero by a lion, the circumcision by dogs—needs not be enlarged upon. I may therefore apply what God doth in Ezekiel touching his people, whom he had represented under the figure of sheep throughout chapter 34. He in the last verse, by way of exposition of that parable, 'The flock of my pasture are men,' says he; so, on the contrary, I may say, these beasts are men, the wickedness of men, and all kind of sinners of them. And truly when I consider how much that one alone in the Acts answers to the other in Genesis, and find in comparing both places the very same enumeration as to the kinds of these in both places, to be these generals, 'fowls of the air, beasts, and creeping things,' and how 'some of every sort' of these, are in both places pointed at, I could not reject this as a mere phantasm of man's imagination, it having so far the name of a Scripture for its warrant, as by this comparing these Scriptures together doth appear.” (Works, V9, pp77-78). Francis Roberts: “The ark had in it all variety of creatures, both clean and unclean; wolf and lamb, sheep and goats, etc. Yea in it was a cursed Ham, as well as a holy Noah and a blessed Shem. So the visible church, the spiritual ark has in it people of all nations, tongues and languages, of all sexes, ages, conditions and degrees; Jews and Gentiles; noble and ignoble; rich and poor; wise and foolish; bond and free; male and female; young and old. In this field, also are tares as well as wheat; in this net, bad, as well as good fish; in this house, foolish, as well as wise virgins; in this ark, hypocrites and reprobates, as well as the sincere and elect.” (p269). Jonathan Edwards: “A resorting of beasts and a flocking of birds, which is a lively resemblance of what is often foretold of the gathering of God’s people into his church from all quarters in the Messiah’s days, and coming to him for salvation when all the ends of the earth should look to him to be saved (Isaiah 45:22). When God should bring the seed of his church from the east, and gather them from the west, and would say to the north, Give up, and to the south, Keep not back. Bring my sons from far, and my daughters from the ends of the earth (Isaiah 43:6-7) and many other parallel places. And God would gather his people from all countries, agreeably to many prophecies, and it shall be said, Who are those that fly as a cloud, and as doves to their windows? The gathering of all kinds of creatures to the ark, clean and unclean, tame and wild, gentle and rapacious, innocent and venomous; tigers, wolves, bears, lions, leopards, serpents, vipers, dragons; and the door of the ark standing open to them, and their all dwelling there peaceably together under one head, even Noah, who kindly received them and took care of them, fed and saved them, and to whom they tamely submitted, is a lively representation of what is often foretold concerning the Messiah’s days, when it is foretold, that not only the Jews should be saved but unclean Gentile nations, when the gates of God’s church should be open to all sorts of people (Isaiah 60:11 with the context), when proclamation should be made to every one to come freely (Isaiah 55:1-9).” Nathan Pitchford: “God's command to Noah to bring on board the ark representatives of every kind of animal. . .and to keep them there together safely in the bosom of the ark, from which, being preserved from the flood, they might go out again and repopulate the earth, was a very appropriate shadow of the gospel, by which people of every diverse tongue and nation, even those naturally disposed to tear and rend each other, would be brought together as one in Christ (see Ephesians 2:11-22), and be fruitful in bringing many diverse men and women into the Kingdom of God, where they might live in harmony forevermore (cf. Isaiah 11:6-9).” (Images of Christ).
11 Insight gleaned gratefully from Ligon Duncan in his course on Covenant Theology.
12 See Isaiah 11:6-10; 30:6; 43:30; 56:9; 60:6-7; Hosea 2:18-23 with Romans 9:25; also Mark 7:24-30.
13 It is also fitting, in order to fore-picture various truths concerning salvation, that Noah's animals are both said to have been gathered into the ark by Noah on the one hand (Genesis 6:19; 7:2), and are said, on the other hand, to come to Him of their own accord, in order to keep them alive in the ark (Genesis 6:20). They are saved from the flood because they are brought by Noah; and they are saved from the flood because they come to Noah. Both are equally true. Later we are told that they freely come to Noah because God had first promised them to Noah (Genesis 7:8-9,16). This illustrates two truths: 1) we're saved because we come to Christ; and yet, 2) we only come to Christ because He himself draws us: “All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out.” (John 6:37). But why do they come? “I have other sheep, which are not of this fold; I must bring them also. . .” (John 10:16; cf. John 12:39-43; Romans 9-10; 1 Peter 2:8; etc).
14 This might be stretching the analogy past its proper limit, but could there also be significance to the amount of clean and unclean animals? Why seven times the number of clean animals? Could it be that Scripture here is also fore-picturing the truths that Paul would write about in Romans 11? For there he tells us of an incredible revival that will one day occur among the Jews, following the “fullness of the Gentiles” (Romans 11:25), which will be so widespread and pervasive, that Paul tells us “all Israel will be saved.” (Romans 11:26). So that in the end, Jews outnumber Gentiles! (See The Puritan Hope, Murray).
15 The last insight gleaned from O Palmer Robertson.
16 Alec Motyer, Covenant and Promise.
17 Why a rainbow? How does a rainbow act as a picture of the Lord's promise to never destroy the earth again with a flood? First, because of how it is described: We can better understand another function of the rainbow in understanding the word that is used to describe it. The original Hebrew doesn't actually say, “rainbow,” it just says “bow,” and it is the exact same word that is used throughout Scripture for describing the battle war-bow (bow and arrow). The Lord is saying His wrath has been spent, and now He is hanging up His war-bow in the sky for all to see as living proof. Second, because of when it is displayed: God had destroyed the earth with rain; and rain comes from clouds. And so the Lord said to Noah, “It shall come about, when I bring a cloud over the earth, that the bow will be seen in the cloud, and I will remember My covenant, which is between Me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and never again shall the water become a flood to destroy all flesh.” (Genesis 9:14-15). In this way the rainbow is a picture of God's promise to never destroy the earth again with a flood. Even as the rain falls to the earth, the Lord sends with it the rainbow as a visible token of the promise He had made.
18 “The rainbow is a divine security that the waters should return no more to destroy the earth; so the covenant of grace guarantees against the deluge of God’s wrath, that it shall never return again to destroy any soul that by faith flees to Christ (Isa. 54:9).” (A.W. Pink, Divine Covenants).
19 Thomas Goodwin, Works, V9, p79.
20 “it is gloriously put, not upon our memory, which is fickle and frail, but upon God's memory, which is infinite and immutable. . .Oh, it is not my remembering God, it is God's remembering me which is the ground of my safety; it is not my laying hold of His covenant, but His covenant's laying hold on me. . .My looking to Jesus brings me joy and peace, but it is God's looking to Jesus which secures my salvation and that of all His elect.” (Charles Spurgeon).
21 The insights here were gratefully gleaned from Ligon Duncan's Covenant Theology course.
22 Ibid. Duncan goes on: “And note that the sign does not procure God's blessing—it confirms it. The bow in the cloud is not what got blessing for Noah. What got blessing for Noah is God's election of him, God's promise to him, and God's redemption of him. The bow is given to confirm those things, not to procure them, but to confirm what God had already done. And now the sign confirms all of those things. So the sign does not procure the blessing; the sign confirms it.”