The Two Covenants
If you’ve ever opened the Bible, you’ve probably noticed that it has two major sections: the Old Testament and the New Testament. The words, testament, and covenant, mean the same thing. A testament or covenant is an agreement between two parties to either do or not do something specified. The Old Testament and the New Testament are agreements where God has made certain promises to His people, while requiring certain behavior in return for those promises. Since there are two main covenants in the Bible, do we treat them both alike, or are they to be viewed differently?
Are we to follow every commandment in the Bible? Some would think yes, but the answer is no. “Make for yourself an ark of gopher wood; you shall make the ark with rooms, and shall cover it inside and out with pitch” (Gen. 6:14). Should we follow that commandment from God? No, because God didn’t command us to do it; He commanded Noah. To properly study and understand the Bible, we must follow certain rules of interpretation, including asking certain questions while reading. Who is speaking? To whom is he/she speaking? When is this person speaking? Why is this person speaking?
About 1,500 B.C., after the Exodus from Egypt, God gave Moses the Ten Commandments with the rest of the Old Testament Law while on top of Mount Sinai (also known as Mount Horeb) (Deut. 4:13).
Deuteronomy 5:1-3: Then Moses summoned all Israel and said to them: "Hear, O Israel, the statutes and the ordinances which I am speaking today in your hearing, that you may learn them and observe them carefully. The Lord our God made a covenant with us at Horeb. The Lord did not make this covenant with our fathers, but with us, with all those of us alive here today."
God made this covenant (later called the Law of Moses; Mal. 4:4) with the nation of Israel who was present on that day with Moses.
The New Testament refers to the Old Testament Law as a tutor to lead those who had the Law to faith in Christ (Gal. 3:24). The Law was successful in its mission, and Paul claims, “But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor” (Gal. 3:25). The New Testament teaches that the Law of Moses has been replaced by the new covenant of Jesus Christ. In about 600 B.C., Jeremiah prophesied about the new covenant, which the Lord would make (Jer. 31:31-34). This covenant would not be on stone (like the Ten Commandments), but on the hearts of God’s people. A few years after Christ's resurrection, the author of the book of Hebrews quotes Jeremiah’s prophecy about the new covenant, and claims that it has been fulfilled, while calling Christ a “mediator of a better covenant.”
Hebrews 8:6-13: But now He has obtained a more excellent ministry, by as much as He is also the mediator of a better covenant, which has been enacted on better promises. For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion sought for a second. For finding fault with them, He says, "Behold, days are coming, says the Lord, when I will effect a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah; not like the covenant which I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt; for they did not continue in my covenant, and I did not care for them, says the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws into their minds, and I will write them on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people, and they shall not teach everyone his fellow citizen, and everyone his brother, saying, 'Know the Lord,' for all will know Me, from the least to the greatest of them. For I will be merciful to their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more." When He said, "A new covenant," He has made the first obsolete But whatever is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to disappear.
This passage claims that the new covenant makes the old one obsolete and makes it disappear. If something is obsolete, it is no longer in use or no longer useful.
Hebrews 9:15-17: [Christ] is the mediator of a new covenant, so that, since a death has taken place for the redemption of the transgressions that were committed under the first covenant, those who have been called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance. For where a covenant is, there must of necessity be the death of the one who made it. For a covenant is valid only when men are dead, for it is never in force while the one who made it lives.
This passage informs us that the New Testament serves kind of like the “last will and testament” of Jesus Christ. If your name is on a will to inherit a sum of money, you cannot go to the bank and get your inheritance when the person who made the will is still alive. Instead, you will receive the promised inheritance when the individual who made it dies. Hebrews 9:15-17 says the same things about the new covenant, “For where a covenant is, there must of necessity be the death of the one who made it” (Heb. 9:16).
God made a new covenant, sending Jesus to earth to introduce it. In about 30 A.D., something colossal happened! A sinless Man died on the cross for our sins, bringing to life the new covenant, making the old covenant obsolete. Ephesians 2:15 teaches us that Christ abolished “in His flesh” the “Law of commandments.” During His earthly ministry, Jesus lived as a Jew under the Old Testament law. That's why we see Him observing and teaching Jewish feasts (Jn. 5:1) and other Old Testament laws. But He, in His crucified body, did away with the old covenant law, including animal sacrifices, laws about certain meats, the Levitical Priesthood, the Ten Commandments, and others. Someone now interjects, “The Ten Commandments were abolished? I thought that Christians are supposed to follow the Ten Commandments!” According the Bible, the Ten Commandments were abolished with the rest of the Law. There is nothing in the Bible that indicates that the official Ten Commandments were excluded when Jesus made the old covenant obsolete. We must remember that the first covenant was made between God and Moses and the Israelites on Mount Sinai (Deut 5:1-3). For the same reason we are not supposed to make an ark out of gopher wood, the Ten Commandments do not bind us. The Ten Commands were not given for us.
For instruction, the New Testament is what we are to follow, not the Old Testament. The Ten Commandments (and the rest of the Old Law) were to the Israelites, not us today. However, one can still find the principles of nine of the Ten Commandments in the New Testament. The one that we don't see is the fourth one, “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy” (Ex. 20:8). The Sabbath was a day of memorial instituted for the Israelites to remember many things, among which was God’s power in their freedom from Egyptian slavery (Deut. 5:15). The Sabbath was the seventh day (Saturday) of the week, and on the Sabbath, the Israelites were not permitted to work (Ex. 16:29; Ex. 35:3; Deut. 5:14). The Sabbath law is no longer binding on God’s people today. When you consider the nine remaining principles, it makes sense why God would keep them in effect; however, the fourth only made sense to the Israelites. We were not freed from Egyptian slavery like the Israelites, so why would God bind a memorial of that on us? Instead, Christians are freed from the bondage of sin by the resurrection of Christ. Christ was resurrected on the first day of the week (Sunday) (Mt. 28:1, 6). Therefore, instead of observing the Sabbath, we see Christians in the New Testament observing the “first day of the week” (Acts 20:7) as “the Lord's Day” (Rev. 1:10).
Old Covenant (KJV)
- Thou shalt have no other gods before me (Ex. 20:3).
- Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image (Ex. 20:4).
- Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain (Ex. 20:7).
- Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy (Ex. 20:8).
- Honour thy father and thy mother (Ex. 20:12).
- Thou shalt not kill (Ex. 20:13).
- Thou shalt not commit adultery (Ex. 20:14).
- Thou shalt not steal (Ex. 20:15).
- Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour (Ex. 20:16).
- Thou shalt not covet (Ex. 20:17).
New Covenant (KJV)
- Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve (Mt. 4:10).
- Keep yourselves from idols (1 John 5:21).
- Hallowed be thy name (Mt. 6:9).
- Sabbath observance is not commanded for Christians. Instead, they are to worship on the first day of the week (Acts 20:7).
- Honour thy father and mother (Eph. 6:2).
- No murderer hath eternal life (1 John 3:15).
- Do not commit adultery (James 2:11).
- Let him that stole steal no more (Eph. 4:28).
- Wherefore putting away lying, speak every man truth with his neighbour… (Eph. 4:25).
- Thou shalt not covet (Rom. 12:9).
The apostle Paul wrote the letter to the Galatians, because they were listening to a “new gospel” (Gal. 1:6). False teachers were in the church spreading this “new gospel,” which taught that one must follow both the old and new covenants to be a Christian. Specifically, they were teaching that circumcision was required for salvation, which was abolished with the old Law and never instituted in the new (Lev. 12:3). Of course, circumcision is fine for medical practices, but it has no religious binding on us today, and as it was to the false teachers in the Galatian churches, it would be considered adding to God’s word if we tried to bind it as a Christian practice today (Gal. 1:6-12; Rev. 22:18-19). Notice how severely Paul deals with those that try to be saved by following part of the old Law:
Galatians 5:2-4: Behold I, Paul, say to you that if you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no benefit to you. And I testify again to every man who receives circumcision, that he is under obligation to keep the whole Law. You have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace.
Why do we not sacrifice bulls and goats? Because sacrificing bulls and goats for sins was a practice under the old Law, and Christ serves as our better sacrifice (Heb. 10:11-18). If you call part of the law obsolete, you must call all of it all obsolete. If you bind some, you must bind it all (Gal. 3:10). Thank God that we have been freed from the old Law, and we have a better, more perfect covenant today, where God writes on our hearts and not on stone (Mt. 5:21-22; Mt. 5:27-28; Rom. 6:17)!
The Bible calls the new covenant, “better” (Heb 8:6). We have Jesus, the mediator between God and us (1 Tim. 2:5). Jesus was our sacrifice on the cross, once and for all (Rom. 6:10)! With a new covenant that is so great, why would someone try to bind the old one?
Although we do not get direct commandments from the Old Testament, is it still good to keep around? Absolutely! The Law has no binding effect on us, such as meat laws and rules about animal sacrifices, but we can still learn much about God in the Old Testament. As we study through the prophets, we learn of certain characteristics of God, and our faith is increased as we read of the prophesies of our Lord Jesus Christ. As we study the Proverbs, we learn wise statements that will be true until the end of time. As we read through the Psalms, we read some of the most sincere prayers uttered, and learn the heart of true repentance. As we read Genesis, we learn the power of God, and His ability to create the heavens and the earth, and how He can turn a bad situation into something for the overall good. Although the Law has been made obsolete, the Old Testament is still extremely valuable for our learning (Rom. 15:4).