There are several biblical covenants—agreements—between God and man. What do Christians need to know about the Old Covenant and the New Covenant?
There are various covenants mentioned in the Bible, but the most well-known to the Christian world is called the New Covenant.
This raises some questions for us, such as: In what way is it new? Did this New Covenant replace a former one? How does it supersede any other covenant?
This article will provide a framework for understanding some of the important points about the biblical covenants.
What does “covenant” mean?
Its basic meaning is an agreement. In scriptural terms, it is an agreement between God and man, initiated by God. God chooses to reach out to man and offer him an agreement. Simply stated, God says, “If you will do this, then I will do that.”
Agreements and promises to Abraham
About 4,000 years ago, God reached out to Abram and made an offer to him. The relationship started in Genesis 12 where God said, “Get out of your country, from your family and from your father’s house, to a land that I will show you. I will make you a great nation; I will bless you and make your name great; and you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (verses 1-3).
The following verses show Abram’s faith, obedience and worship of the true God growing. God began to work in many specific ways with Abram—whose name was changed to Abraham.
The apostle Paul points out that, spiritually speaking, all those who are faithful are the children of Abraham and will inherit his spiritual blessings (Galatians 3:7-9, 16-18, 29). This spiritual promise of salvation came through Abraham’s “‘Seed,’ who is Christ” (verse 16).
The physical blessings were passed down to Abraham’s descendants. From the marriage of Abraham and Sarah came Isaac, who passed the blessings on to his son Jacob, who passed them on to his 12 sons who formed the tribes of Israel. It was these 12 tribes or extended families that became slaves in Egypt.
God established a biblical covenant with Israel
God began to establish His covenant with the children of Israel through Moses.
Moses, under God’s guidance, brought Israel out of Egypt (a type of sin) and to the Promised Land. It was during this process of establishing Israel as a nation that God Himself offered a covenant to the people. It was based upon His law, the 10 Commandments that God spoke from Mount Sinai.
Israel heard, accepted and agreed to this covenant, which was renewed by Moses at the end of his life just before the tribes crossed over into the Promised Land (see Deuteronomy 5).
What went wrong?
Despite all of the examples in their history (recorded by Moses in the Torah, the first five books of the Bible), Israel consistently disobeyed God, His prophets and leaders. This is why the book of Hebrews records these words: “Finding fault with them” (Hebrews 8:8).
There was nothing wrong with the beneficial laws and agreement God proposed to the Israelites in what became known as the Old Covenant. It was the people who failed to keep this biblical covenant with God.
Because human nature doesn’t change, God added a sacrificial system to teach man that sin doesn’t pay. Ultimately it brings death. Sin must be repented of and the penalty paid, and this was a key part of the promise God gave to Abraham. His Seed, the promised Messiah (Christ, the anointed One), would come to be a blessing to everyone. Jesus Christ willingly paid the penalty for all sin.
What God knew
Deuteronomy 5:29 shows us clearly that God knew human nature would fail. Man might have good intentions, but the ability to fulfill them wasn’t there. God prophesied through the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel that He would create a new heart in us and give us His Spirit and write His laws on our hearts and minds (Jeremiah 31:31-34; Ezekiel 36:24-28; see “What Is the New Covenant in Jeremiah 31:31?”).
This action, made possible through Christ’s sacrifice and grace, is the basis of the New Covenant—which is actually a renewed covenant. The essential change isn’t to the law, but to where the law is written. Having God’s good laws written on our hearts and minds through the Holy Spirit gives us the power and the motivation that Israel lacked (Hebrews 8:7-13).
Covenants and testaments
The words testament and covenant can be confused to mean the same thing. But there is a difference.
The word testament is defined as a written document by which a person bequeaths or allocates certain portions of his possessions or estate to another. People are encouraged to keep in a safe place a document referred to as a “last will and testament” in which they stipulate how they wish to dispose of their possessions after death. Since the New Covenant involved the death of Jesus Christ, it can be called a testament.
In modern usage, New Covenant and New Testament are interchangeable. However, the biblical concept of a covenant or agreement is the key element showing the continuity of God’s relationship with human beings through the Old Covenant and the New Covenant.
The Old Covenant between God and the nation of Israel was not a testament or will. It was an agreement by which the people of Israel covenanted with God to obey Him. On His part, God promised to give them bountiful physical and other national blessings.
Notice Exodus 19:5: “Now therefore, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be a special treasure to Me above all people” (emphasis added).
Did you notice the “if” in the covenant agreement? The people of Israel responded by saying they were willing to do all that God commanded them. The agreement was ratified by blood (Exodus 24:4-8).
Despite agreeing to the terms and conditions of the Old Covenant, the people sadly did not fulfill their part of the agreement. They repeatedly disobeyed God and His laws. But the problem lay not with God or His covenant, but with the people who refused to adhere to the terms and conditions they had accepted at Mount Sinai (Hebrews 8:6-10). It was the fault of the people that they didn’t receive the national blessings that God promised and was fully capable of providing.
The Israelites broke their promise and violated the solemn agreement with God. This is a fact that few people understand when they study the concept of the biblical covenants.
God’s wonderful plan of salvation
God created man in His own image and likeness for a purpose—to offer man eternal life as children in His family (Hebrews 2:10). Instead, humans chose disobedience and death.
It is only through the promise made to Abraham that salvation can come and man can be saved. People must repent and turn away from sin and accept Christ’s sacrifice on their behalf, and then these eternal offers from God can be theirs.
This renewed biblical covenant is based on the same laws, but has the benefit of the help of the Holy Spirit and better promises. This New Covenant supersedes the Old Covenant and brings us to a point of evaluating our own lives in the light of God’s law, which is holy, just and good. Only in this way can we receive the promise of eternal life, which God has made possible for all mankind through Jesus Christ.
For further study on this topic, read the article “The New Covenant: What Is New About It?”