The New Covenant: What Was Wrong With The Old One?
Two of the first things my daughter learned in school were the names of the books of the Bible and that the Bible is divided into the Old Testament and the New Testament. There is even a standard song that I learned as a child to help remember the Bible books. While my young daughter has memorized the books and understands that the whole Bible is God’s Word, she really does not understand why there are two testaments. My impression is that many adults who have attended church for years do not understand this concept either. A simple explanation for the two testaments is that the Old Testament details God’s dealings with the nation of Israel, and the New Testament talks about Jesus. But what is the relationship between the two? In this series of articles we will explain why there are two testaments in the Bible and the relationship between them.
The English word “testament” is the translation of the Greek word diatheke which can mean a last will and testament, a contract or a covenant.1 In the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures from around 200 B.C., diatheke was used as the Greek translation of the Hebrew word berith. This Hebrew word is used to designate many kinds of contracts in the Old Testament, but it is used particularly in reference to God’s covenants with Noah, Abraham, Moses and David. It is in this sense that the ancient church understood diatheke when they termed the Jewish Scriptures the “Old Covenant” and the Scriptures from the apostles of Christ the “New Covenant.”2 Therefore, when considering the relationship between the Old and New Testaments, we must give specific attention to the relationship between the Old Covenant (or Mosaic Covenant) and the New Covenant.
The New Covenant is not simply the New Testament. The New Covenant was prophesied in the Old Testament as part of God’s plan for the nation of lsrael (Jer. 31:31). The New Testament is so designated because the apostles saw that the events in the life of Jesus had relevance to the New Covenant which was prophesied in the Old Testament. The New Testament shows the outworking of the New Covenant inaugurated by Jesus as the Messiah both presently for the Church and also in the future for the nation of Israel.
The focus in these articles will be the New Covenant. The questions to be examined in this article are: What was the Old Covenant? Why was there a need for a New Covenant? What was wrong with the Old Covenant? Did God make a mistake? The next article will deal with the enactment or fulfillment of the New Covenant, and the final article will discuss the components of the New Covenant.
The Nature of the Old Covenant
When the New Testament writers refer to the Old or Mosaic Covenant, they often use the term “Law.” While this term can sometimes refer to the whole of the Old Testament (Mt. 5:18), the term “Law” usually refers specifically to the first five books of the Old Testament written by Moses, or the Pentateuch. But even within the Pentateuch there are different covenants. God made one covenant with Noah (Gen. 9) and another with Abraham and his descendants (Gen. 12; 15). But these are covenants of promise, or unconditional covenants, in which God obligates Himself to do certain things. They do not refer to what is technically termed the Old Covenant. Technically, the Old Covenant is the covenant or agreement God made with Israel at Mount Sinai after their exodus from Egypt.
The giving of the Mosaic Covenant at Mount Sinai served two functions for the nation of Israel. The nation had just been freed from the slavery of Egypt, and now the Lord sought to make them a nation unto Himself. But most of the people within the nation did not know much about who ”the God of their fathers” was or what He was like (Ex. 6:2-8). They had witnessed in the exodus and the plagues God’s power over all the gods of Egypt. But at Mount Sinai, the Lord sought to reveal Himself, His holy and righteous character. The first purpose of the Law, therefore, was to reveal to Israel God’s holiness as being the only true God (Dt. 6:4; cf. Ps. 19:7-11). The second factor was that due to the Lord’s redemption of Israel from Egypt, they were now His people. He owned them, and they as His people were to reflect in their lives the character of the God who was their King. Israel was to be holy as God was holy (Lev. 11:45).
In Moses’ day, when a king conquered a people and wished to make them his own possession, he made a covenant with them in which he promised protection from enemies in return for loyalty. This kind of covenant is called a suzerain-vassal treaty. The Mosaic Covenant is this kind of treaty, especially as it is presented in the Book of Deuteronomy. God promised blessing for loyalty (i.e. obedience to the Law), but He also promised cursing or a dispersion of the people from the land for disloyalty (in Israel’s case, idolatry) [Dt. 27-28].
What was the spiritual state of the Israelites when they came out of Egypt? Does the fact that they were physically redeemed out of Egypt by the blood of the Passover lamb mean they were all spiritually redeemed? Or did the Lord give them the Law so that they could become righteous by keeping it? It is significant to note that the Mosaic Covenant was made with a people who were already redeemed, at least physically, and who were already God’s people and possession. In other words, the Law was not given to Israel so that they might, by keeping it, become righteous and thus have fellowship with God. They were God’s people because of what He had done for them in bringing them out of Egypt; hence, the Law was given to instruct the people how to maintain fellowship with their holy God. It is at this juncture that the sacrificial system given in the Book of Leviticus comes into focus. The main emphasis of Leviticus is that while Israel was the Lord’s possession, they were sinful, and the Lord is holy. The only way they could maintain fellowship was through substitutionary blood sacrifices which covered their sin (Lev. 16).
The Law was not given as a standard for men to achieve in order to become righteous; rather, it was a guide for the person of faith to know how to live in a way pleasing to God. The most important passage in the Old Testament concerning salvation is Genesis 15:6. It reads, “And he [Abram] believed in the LORD, and he counted it to him for righteousness.” God declares men righteous only on the basis of their faith in His Word. Abram believed God’s Word concerning his descendants. In Moses’ day, the person of faith was the one who believed that blessing came from a heart that loved God.
Loyalty to the King: A Heart Which Loves God
As previously mentioned, at the very heart of the Mosaic Covenant, was the concept of loyalty to the Lord as Israel’s King, as explained in Deuteronomy 6. In verse 5, the essence of all the commandments is given: “And thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.” The Lord did not desire from the people of Israel rote obedience to the Law’s commands; rather, He wanted a changed heart that would willingly and lovingly obey.
But even after the exodus and Mount Sinai, the majority of the people did not evidence this love. They complained about the desert; they did not believe God could conquer the Canaanites; they rebelled against Moses’ authority. In Deuteronomy 29:4 Moses concluded, “Yet the LORD hath not given you an heart to perceive, and eyes to see, and ears to hear, unto this day.” For this reason, Moses saw only discipline for the nation. Why? Not because they did not keep the sacrifices or festivals, but because, even in keeping them, they were not doing it from a love for God but from a misguided understanding that this was how they could achieve righteousness (Isa 1:10-20).
The problem was that Israel did not comprehend that their position before God as His people was totally due to His grace and His promises to Abraham. In Deuteronomy 7:6-11 and 9:3-6, the Lord made it patently clear that the only reason Israel was being given a place of privilege was because of God’s promises to Abraham and not because of their own righteousness. But the majority of the people of lsrael missed this. They believed that their position was due to their own superiority over all other people. They felt that since they were “God’s people,” they would be blessed regardless of how sensitive or insensitive they were to God or His Word. This simply shows that the majority of the people of Israel in the time of Moses did not have changed hearts; they were not regenerate. The same was true in the times of David, Jesus and right up to the present day. Israel’s history from Moses onward demonstrates the horrible fact that even though Israel is covenanted to the Lord under the Mosaic Covenant, they are not willing (or able) to recognize their own need of a new heart that would bring blessing. It is true that lsrael had moments of glory under Joshua and David, but the exilic prophets were very clear on the problem. Jeremiah says:
For thus saith the LORD to the men of Judah and Jerusalem, Break up your fallow ground, and sow not among thorns. Circumcise yourselves to the LORD, and take away the foreskins of your heart, ye men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem, lest my fury come forth like fire, and bum that none can quench it, because of the evil of your doings (Jer. 4:3-4).
Until the people were able to serve God from regenerate hearts, which is what God desired under the Old Covenant, they would always be under the curse of the Law and God’s judgment What the nation needed then, as well as today, was a new heart.
The New Covenant
The prophets saw that in order for Israel to experience the blessing of God as promised, they needed new hearts. They recognized the problem. But how can a man change or regenerate his own heart, especially if he does not even see a need (Jer. 13:23)? Only God can regenerate a person’s heart, and it is only through the work of the Spirit of God that a person can even recognize his own need so that he may come to God for mercy. In God’s faithfulness to the promises He made to Abraham and David, that Israel would be eternally blessed, God has promised that one day He will change Israel’s hearts of stone to hearts that love Him.
For I will take you from among the nations, and gather you out of all countries, and will bring you into your own land. Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean; from all your filthiness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you. A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you; and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep mine ordinances, and do them. And ye shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers; and ye shall be my people, and I will be your God (Ezek 36:24-28).
The need of the New Covenant for Israelis obvious. The Old Covenant promised blessing for the person who would love God from the heart. But since the majority of the nation was not willing to recognize their sinfulness and the fact that they stood before the Lord only through His grace, the Law could only curse; it could not save. The Law is not bad; God did not make a mistake (Rom. 7). The Law revealed God’s holiness and was a guide for righteous living for the person of faith. But the majority of the people were faithless; their hearts were cold toward God. In order for Israel to inherit the promises that God made to them, promises which He has obligated Himself to fulfill, God must change their hearts so that through recognition of their sin and service for Him out of a changed heart, they can be blessed.
In the next article we will examine how this New Covenant is being enacted today in the Church and will be enacted in the future for the nation of Israel.
- Bauer, Arndt, Gingrich and Danker, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, p. 183.
- Geisler and Nix, A General Introduction to the Bible, pp. 21-22.