Thirty years ago Rebecca and I stood in the presence of God “and these witnesses” to enter into a covenant, a solemn vow “to love and cherish ‘til death do us part.” Thankfully, we have kept this agreement, both because we love each other and because we have a duty before God to fulfill our vows.

What does this covenant mean? And who demonstrates what keeping such a vow entails? For the answer to these questions we must turn to the Scriptures because God is frequently described as One who makes covenants and keeps them.

“Know therefore that the Lord your God is God; he is the faithful God, keeping his covenant of love to a thousand generations of those who love him and keep his commands” (Deuteronomy 7:9)

God Himself must teach us the meaning of a covenant and how it is to be kept.

First, we learn that a covenant is based on character; it’s only as good as the person who makes it. We can’t even dare to imagine what would happen if God were to break His promises. If He were undependable, our entire future would be in doubt.

God frequently made unconditional covenants. That simply means the covenant is one-sided: He will fulfill His part of the agreement even if the other party is unfaithful (see Genesis 15:12-21).

Second, a covenant joins two people in partnership. God’s covenant made Abraham a partner with Him. Christ’s covenant means we are partners, “members of His body.” All covenants have tokens of partnership. For example, in 1 Samuel 18, when Jonathan made a covenant with David, Jonathan gave David his robe, armor, and sword. This transaction was made as a token of their unity—their oneness of soul.

When Rebecca and I were married we gave one another rings as a symbol of the covenant; also, Rebecca took my last name. This confirmed our unity both before men and God. We became one flesh in this binding, permanent agreement.

Third, a covenant is always tested by trials. In the Old Testament, God accused Israel of following “false lovers.” No marriage can endure as long as one party practices adultery. Perhaps you remember when Princess Di was interviewed about her philandering husband. She said, “There isn’t room for three people in the marriage relationship.” How right she was!

Today covenants are broken for the pettiest of reasons. But thankfully, there are people who still understand integrity; people who are willing to be faithful despite the high personal cost. Many years ago Robertson McQuilken’s wife, Muriel, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. As President of Columbia International University he pondered the question of what should be sacrificed: his ministry or caring for his wife. As he wrote,

When the time came the decision was firm. It took no great calculation. It was a matter of integrity. Had I not promised 40 years ago “in sickness and in health, ‘til death do us part?” This was no grim duty to which I was stoically resigned, however. It was only fair. She had, after all, cared for me for almost four decades with marvelous devotion—now it was my turn. And such a partner she was! If I took care of her for 40 years, I would never be out of her debt.

That, my friend, is the meaning of a covenant. It means that we are faithful even though the partner cannot meaningfully uphold his/her part of the arrangement. Character means that we follow through, “for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health.”

That was the way Rebecca and I understood it thirty years ago. Today we are glad to reaffirm the vows of the past, trusting God for the strength to be faithful, “’Til death do us part.”