Old Testament Sacraments, Pt. 5: The Rainbow and the Noahic Covenant (2)

In our previous post, we explored the nature of the Noahic Covenant and how it was not merely a common grace covenant that God established with creation. Rather, it was a redemptive covenant in continuity with the Covenant of Grace. Having established the redemptive element of the Noahic Covenant, it is imperative to establish the sacramental nature of the rainbow, the covenant’s sign and seal.

The Rainbow as Sign and Seal

As discussed in our first post, John Calvin (1509-1564) notes three different senses of Old Testament sacraments, the rainbow being an example of a covenant sign attached to something “natural.”[1] Many Reformers acknowledged that the rainbow was already a naturally occurring phenomena, but God’s designation of the rainbow as his sign of the Noahic Covenant thus makes it a sacrament, for now the rainbow signifies the covenant word.[2] While some notable theologians—such as Herman Witsius —maintained that the rainbow wasn’t strictly sacramental, many Reformers—including Calvin, Wolfgang Musculus (1497-1563), Konrad Pellikan (1478-1556), and Peter Martyr Vermigli (1499-1562)—considered it a kind of sacrament, although many regarded it as distinct from the “ceremonial” sacraments of the New Covenant.

The rainbow functions as the “sign” of the covenant between God and his whole creation, a creation groaning under the curse of Adam and suffering because of the sins of men. It functions as a seal of remembrance between God and his creation, declaring forever that God will “remember” His covenant and have mercy on His creation. As Luther states,

“There was need for them to have a sign of life, from which they could learn God’s blessing and good will. For this is the particular nature of signs, that they dispense comfort, not terror. To this end also the sign of the bow was established and added to the promise.”[3]

The rainbow is a seal that the promise will never be forgotten but will remain as long as the heavens and earth remain. Of course, the idea of “remembrance” does not refer to God’s recollection, but is an “expression of the self-obligating” or the “conscious covenant truthfulness, as manifested in the covenant sign.”[4] In the very sky that sent judgment on the earth and put the fear of God’s judgment in the hearts of men comes the sign of God’s covenant faithfulness and a constant reminder that the wrath of God is always mediated by his covenant promises to his people and his creation.

There has been much speculation as to how the rainbow’s shape and colors signify the covenant promise. By God calling the rainbow his “bow” which he sets in the sky, it may signify that God has put away His bow of war and promises mercy and forbearance instead. The “arch” may also signify in some way God restoring creation as the “house for my name”—perhaps a foreshadowing of the rainbow before the throne in Revelation 4:3. The many colors may signify the covenant as applying to “every tribe, nation, people, and tongue” and foreshadowing the multiplicity of tribes gathering before the rainbow covered throne in Revelation 7. Andrew Willet (1562-1621) notes that some have taken a “mystical” interpretation of the two predominant colors (blue and red) to signify either the two kinds of cosmic judgment—first flood and then fire—or the two kinds of Christ’s baptism (water and fire), although it seems that many Reformers shied away from such allegory.[5] Of more general consensus is the significance of the rainbow coming after the rains and being made by the rain, which signifies both the righteous judgment upon sin and also the divine mercy.

There is both continuity and discontinuity between the sacramental rainbow and other sacraments. Unlike ceremonial sacraments, this sacrament is solely operated by God himself. While other sacraments, such as Passover, are principally said to cause the people to remember (Ex. 13:3), in this sacrament the focus is upon how it causes God to remember.[6] While other sacraments are only for the chosen people of God, this sacrament is for the entire creation. Granting this discontinuity, the rainbow seems to be a sacrament that provides a context for the sacraments that follow (such as circumcision and Passover), for it is rooted in both creation and redemption, for (as discussed in the previous post), the Noahic Covenant reiterates the Genesis 1 mandate, carries on the promises of Genesis 3:15, and provides a renewal of God’s covenant with mankind, which is necessary for the Abrahamic covenant that follows. As a covenant of creation and redemption, the rainbow functions as a sacrament between God and the whole world that he will redeem and renew through the work of Christ. The rainbow is a sacrament of new creation.

Fulfillment in Christ

The Noahic Covenant and the covenant sign directly relate to the work of Christ and our eschatological hope. Even those who did not understand the Noahic Covenant in strictly redemptive terms saw in it a shadow and type of the redemption in Christ. As Vermigli avers,

“Though in this covenant, God promised to deliver men, as to their bodily life, that they should not perish in the waters; yet in this there was a shadow or type of the deliverance from eternal death; namely, they should not be overwhelmed with eternal damnation.”[7]

Pellikan specifically argues that the rainbow “signifies Christ,” for Christ is “given as a sign of our reconciliation with God the Father. Appointed to be an advocate for us, he is looked to when you seek his mercy and when we ask for his help in faith.”[8] Andrew Willet says that the rainbow “as a sign of temporal benefit, may be a type and figure of God’s everlasting mercy in Christ.”[9]

Christ’s work fulfills both the creation and redemption element of the Noahic Covenant. Because the Noahic covenant is a covenant made with Noah as a new Adam and a descendent of Seth that preserves God’s people from his wrath, Christ’s work as the last Adam and savior of God’s people is in fulfillment of the Noahic Covenant. Furthermore, because this is a covenant given to all peoples (not just the descendants of Abraham), it foreshadows the inclusion of both Jews and Gentiles into Christ’s kingdom. Because the Noahic Covenant is also made with creation and is attached to the reiteration of the cultural mandate and a reversal of the Fall, Christ’s work to reconcile to himself all things in heaven and earth (Col. 1:20) and restore the groaning creation (Rom. 8:22) also fulfills the Noahic Covenant. The rainbow, as the sacrament of this covenant, functions as the sign and seal of God’s promises to renew the creation and redeem mankind rather than wipe it out, a renewal and redemption accomplished through Christ.[10]

The fact that the rainbow is a sacrament for the whole world sheds light on the rainbow reappearing in Revelation 4:3 around the throne. Given the context of the Noahic Covenant and the connection with Christ’s throne in heaven, the rainbow may symbolize Christ as our mediator at God’s right hand, the one to whom we look for assurance of mercy, the promise that God will not pour out his wrath upon us for those who are in Christ. The rainbow also symbolizes the mercy God will pour out on all his creation, fully lifting the Adamic curse and ushering in a new heavens and a new earth once Christ takes his rightful place before everyone on the throne of the world, fully assuming his Adamic position as chief human ruler of this created world, even as he now sits at the Father’s right hand ruling in heaven.[11] The rainbow signifies that Christ’s second coming will finally and fully make right what Adam made wrong. Lastly, the rainbow signifies God’s divine mercy on people from every corner of the earth, just as it was a universal sign of comfort for all men that God would not again flood the earth. From first to last, the rainbow has been a symbol of the covenant promise of God to reverse the curse, fulfill Genesis 3:15, and restore peace with mankind once and for all.

The Rainbow and New Covenant Sacraments

As the sacrament of the Noahic Covenant, which finds its fulfillment in Christ, the rainbow relates to the New Covenant sacraments. Calvin himself draws this connection between the rainbow and the New Covenant sacraments in his sermons.[12] Because Peter connects the floodwaters to baptism (1 Pet. 3:21)—the ark being a type of baptism which saves us from the wrath of God—the rainbow then corresponds to baptism. Just as the rainbow is made of the very waters that God used for wrath and yet signifies God’s mercy and preservation, so baptism can be understood as the floodwaters that for Christ was his condemnation so that the same waters might be for our cleansing and salvation.

The connection between the rainbow and the Lord’s Supper may be even more explicit. Lange ties the idea of “remembrance” in the rainbow to the “remembrance” of the Supper. In our remembering him, he promises to remember us:

He remembers the act of faith, and the sign of faith, as he remembers no other human act, no other finite phenomenon. [. . .] The eye of the Redeemer looking into the eye of the believer, or both meeting in the same memorial: this is certainly a ‘real presence,’ whatever else there may be of depth and mystery in that most fundamental Christian rite—the evangelical [sign of the everlasting covenant].[13]

Because the rainbow is a “sacrament of continuation,” one that continually testifies to the believer of the covenant promises within the Noahic covenant, there seems to be a connection between the rainbow and the Supper. The Lord’s Supper, like the rainbow, continually testifies to the past and future work of Christ who protected God’s people from his wrath and promises to renew the creation.

Seen in connection with the rainbow and the Noahic Covenant, the Lord’s Supper draws the participants’ eyes up into the cosmic story of redemption that includes even the creation itself, a redemption that we anticipate and proclaim by partaking of the bread and wine. The bread and wine bespeak God’s mercy to us in Christ, sparing us from the cup of his wrath that was poured out on Christ on our behalf. As Rivet says,

Christ’s throne is encompassed with mercy, and that he shews it on his countenance, whenever he manifests himself. But especially, in his face we have that rainbow, by which we are assured, not only that the waters shall no more overflow the whole earth; but especially, that we are not to be afraid of the deluge of divine wrath, seeing Christ has reconciled the Father, so that while God beholds him, he remembers his mercy and his promises, which in him are yea and amen. Christ therefore appears crowned with a rainbow, as the messenger of grace and peace.[14]

The Supper proclaims the everlasting nature of his covenant promises: that the flood of his wrath will never again be poured out on his people. The weary sinner, struggling under the weight of continual sin need not fear that there are any flood waters left to drown him, for God has promised through Christ, our ark of salvation and rainbow of hope, that he will no longer pour out his wrath upon us.

Weary sinners struggling under the weight of the Adamic curse are reminded by partaking that one day the earth will be fully renewed and the second Adam will finally sit on his throne of mercy and judgment to once and for all rid the world of its corruption and show favor to his people. The Supper is a sign just as sure as the rainbow that creation will not groan forever, but will be transformed from one degree of glory to another and that by the shedding of one man’s blood, no more blood will be shed (Gen 9:6).

Nathan Johnson is Assistant Dean of Academics, Head of Program, and Teaching Fellow at New College Franklin. He holds two M.A. degrees in Biblical Studies and Theological Studies from Reformed Theological Seminary (Charlotte) and an M.A. in Liberal Arts from St. John’s College. He also serves as a Lecturer in Philosophy at Davenant Hall.

  1. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1970), IV.XIV.18.

  2. Wolfgang Musculus, “Genesis 9:12-17,” In Primum Librum Mosis (1569), 41r.

  3. Martin Luther, Luther’s Works Volume 2: Lectures on Genesis Chapters 6-14, ed. Jaroslov Pelikan (Saint Lewis: Concordia, 1960), 145.

  4. John Peter Lange, Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Critical, Doctrinal, and Homiletical: Genesis, trans. Philip Schaff (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, n.d.), 328.

  5. Andrew Willet, “Genesis 9:13,” Hexapla in Genesin (1608), 103-04.

  6. This is not to say that other covenant signs do not also cause God to remember. The sign of circumcision, for example, can be seen as a sign to God to bless the procreation of the Israelites in keeping with his promise to give Abraham many descendants.

  7. Witsius, Economy, 240.

  8. Pellikan,”Genesis 9:8-15,” Cemmentaria Bibliorum (1532).

  9. Andrew Willet, “Genesis 9:13,” Hexapla in Genesin (1608),

  10. Although confusing and difficult to interpret, Peter creates a connection between Christ and Noah in 1 Peter 3:18-20 and the waters of the flood to the waters of Baptism. In this way, Christ’s work is understood to be in some sense a type of the salvation wrought through Noah and through the floodwaters.

  11. Of course, in many ways Christ is already on his throne, ruling and reigning. But in some ways his rule and kingdom are not complete, and creation still groans.

  12. John Calvin, Sermons on Genesis 1-11, trans. Rob Roy McGregor (East Peoria, IL: Banner of Truth, 2009), 758-61.

  13. Lange, Genesis, 328.

  14. Qtd. in Witsius, Economy, 241.

*Image Credit: “Dankgebet nach Verlassen der Arche Noahby D. Mirelli (1901), Wikimedia Commons


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