What Is the Old Covenant?

The Bible speaks of an Old Covenant and a New Covenant. What was the Old Covenant? Were God’s laws abolished along with the Old Covenant?

Covenants are common in our modern day, as they were in biblical times. A covenant is a formal, binding contract or agreement between two or more parties, in which each party agrees to abide by specific terms spelled out by the covenant.

So what is the Old Covenant?

Background of the Old Covenant

The roots of the Old Covenant actually trace back to Abraham, the forefather of Israel. God initiated a covenant with Abraham in which He promised to make a special nation of his descendants. It is these descendants who later entered into a covenant with God at Mount Sinai. 

Notice the following scriptures in which God spells out specific promises to Abraham and his descendants. These promises include:

These covenanted promises passed from Abraham to his son Isaac (Genesis 17:19), to Isaac’s son Jacob (whom God renamed “Israel”—see Genesis 35:10-12; 28:3-4, 13-14), to Israel’s 12 sons (Genesis 49), and to their offspring (who became the 12 tribes of Israel).

After Abraham’s death, the family eventually ended up in Egypt, and they grew prolifically. Exodus 1 records that while in Egypt, they became entrapped in a life of bondage. “So God heard their groaning, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob” (Exodus 2:24, emphasis added throughout).

The next 10 chapters record God’s intervention to extricate Israel from Egypt, through the famous 10 plagues and the appointment of Moses as God’s spokesman.

Then, 430 years after confirming the covenant with Abraham, God brought his descendants out of slavery, free at last to begin living as an independent nation (see Exodus 12:40-41).

Israel’s formal introduction to the covenant

The final threat from Egypt was drowned in the Red Sea (Exodus 14). In the weeks that followed, God led Israel farther from Egypt, eventually arriving at Mount Sinai—a special place where God would formally explain the covenant to Israel. Many centuries had passed since Israel’s forefathers had been in contact with God, and most of what they were about to hear would be “new” to their ears. Exodus 19 records the preparation of the people to meet with God and hear His proposal.

Remember that a covenant is a formal, binding agreement, in which each party agrees to specific terms or expectations. To put it briefly, God required Israel to obey whatever He said. In exchange, God would make Israel the premier nation of the earth.

“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; for all the earth is Mine” (Exodus 19:5-6). This is remarkable, as no other nation had ever been offered the opportunity to enter into a covenant with the Creator of the universe!

The scene was very dramatic, with a supernatural trumpet blowing, thunder, lightning and thick smoke covering the mountain. It was time for God Himself to address the nation: “And God spoke all these words, saying …” (Exodus 20:1).

Terms of the covenant

Exodus chapters 20-23 give the fundamental terms of the covenant. They include:

  • God’s preexisting laws. In Exodus 20 God begins with the 10 Commandments. These were not new laws. For example, notice in Exodus 16:4-5, 22-30 that obedience to the Sabbath commandment was clearly in force before the people ever came to Mount Sinai. (For more on this, see “Were the 10 Commandments Around Before Moses?”)

Besides the 10 Commandments, there were other laws imperative upon humans long before Israel arrived at Mount Sinai. Among these are statutes such as tithing and clean meats. Notice that centuries earlier in Genesis 26:5 God said, “Abraham obeyed My voice and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes, and My laws.”

  • Laws pertaining to civil life within the national context. Now that Israel was a full-fledged nation, certain statutes and judgments were needed to maintain peace and order within the nation. Many statutes were amplifications of God’s preexisting laws. For example, “You shall not afflict any widow or fatherless child” (Exodus 22:22) is an application of God’s fundamental law of love toward neighbor. “You shall not circulate a false report” (Exodus 23:1) is an amplification of the Ninth Commandment.

Judgments are precedents that the judges in the nation were to render in cases of conflict or violations of God’s laws. For example, “If a man steals an ox or a sheep …” (Exodus 22:1) establishes the penalty for that particular violation of the Eighth Commandment.

Israel’s agreement

The laws contained in the 10 Commandments were in effect long before God entered into this covenant with Israel (see “Were the 10 Commandments Around Before Moses?”). They were included in (or became one of the requirements of) the Old Covenant, and they continued on into the New Covenant also.

Exodus 20-23 is called “the book of the covenant” (Exodus 24:4, 7). After hearing these basic terms spelled out, it was Israel’s turn to express agreement. “All the words which the Lord has said we will do,” was their reply (Exodus 24:3, 7).

After Israel’s agreement to God’s terms, the covenant was then ratified (made officially valid and binding) with blood. Today we put our signatures on a contract, for example, to formalize our agreement to the terms. The “ink” of this covenant—so to speak—was animal blood. “And Moses took the blood, sprinkled it on the people, and said, ‘This is the blood of the covenant which the Lord has made with you according to all these words’” (Exodus 24:8).

Of course, the blood of animals prefigured the blood Jesus Christ would one day shed, and which would become the blood of the New Covenant.

A marriage covenant

Many have heard of the Old Covenant, but few have understood that it was in many ways similar to a marriage covenant. Even more surprising to many, it was a covenant between Israel and the God of the Old Testament, who later came to earth as Jesus Christ! Notice the following scriptures:

  • “So Moses came and called for the elders of the people, and laid before them all these words which the LORD commanded him. Then all the people answered together and said, ‘All that the LORD has spoken we will do.’ So Moses brought back the words of the people to the LORD” (Exodus 19:7-8).
  • “Moreover, brethren, I do not want you to be unaware that all our fathers were under the cloud, all passed through the sea, all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them, and that Rock was Christ. … Nor let us tempt Christ, as some of them also tempted, and were destroyed by serpents” (1 Corinthians 10:1-4, 9).
  • “For your [Israel’s] Maker is your husband, the Lord of hosts is His name; and your Redeemer is the Holy One of Israel; He is called the God of the whole earth” (Isaiah 54:5).

As a bride and groom each say “I do” upon hearing the expectations of each in marriage, Israel agreed to submit to her Husband, and God promised to love and provide for Israel. After Exodus 24, God continued to elaborate on His laws and how He expected Israel to live. In other words, there were laws added after Israel said, “I do.” Some were additional amplifications of the 10 Commandments; some were additional civil laws; some were additional judgments.

God also added a tabernacle and a priesthood, with a separate body of laws or regulations for the priesthood to follow and for managing the tabernacle. Among these were laws governing sacrifices and offerings (Exodus 25-30).

Notice that God’s Holy Spirit and immortality were not among the promises made in this covenant. This is important to keep in mind when looking ahead to the New Covenant.God also added more promises for Israel’s obedience, in addition to inheriting the land promised to Abraham and his descendants (notice Leviticus 26:3-12, for example).

Notice that God’s Holy Spirit and immortality were not among the promises made in this covenant. This is important to keep in mind when looking ahead to the New Covenant.

Abandoning the covenant—back into captivity

Before even making it to the Promised Land, Israel dragged her heels with God. After entering the Promised Land, rebellion and unfaithfulness was the norm over the next seven centuries. It became so blatant that Israel effectively abandoned the marriage covenant.

Notice God’s words in response to this rejection of Him:

“Then I saw that for all the causes for which backsliding Israel had committed adultery, I had put her away and given her a certificate of divorce; yet her treacherous sister Judah did not fear, but went and played the harlot also. …

“‘Return, O backsliding children,’ says the Lord; ‘for I am married to you. … Surely, as a wife treacherously departs from her husband, so have you dealt treacherously with Me, O house of Israel,’ says the Lord” (Jeremiah 3:8, 14, 20).

Finally, in the 700s B.C. God allowed the northern 10 tribes to be conquered and deported into captivity in Assyria. About a century later, Babylon conquered the southern tribes and likewise carried them off into captivity.

And to this day, there is no active covenant between God and any physical nation. Since the laws of God are spiritual and not limited to the Old Covenant, the nations of Israel are still responsible to obey them—and will suffer punishment if they fail to do so.

Unfinished business and transition to a New Covenant

There are many prophecies in which God points back to promises He made in the original covenant with physical Israel and, at the same time, points ahead to the time Jesus Christ returns to the earth and declares that He will revive those original promises.

In other words, even though Israel long ago abandoned the covenant, God will again restore to Israel the land promised to their forefathers, and all the other physical blessings that He promised Abraham—and his descendants—many centuries ago.

Deuteronomy 30:1-5, for example, refers to that future time when modern-day Israelites (of all 12 tribes) will be in captivity in various nations, and the newly returned Christ will rescue them and bring them back into the original Promised Land.

And notice the next verse: “And the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants.” This is a reference to a new promise that will be offered at that time—conversion by means of God’s Holy Spirit, which will be part of the New Covenant offered at that time.

But also notice verse 8: “And you will again obey the voice of the Lord and do all His commandments which I command you today.” We see that when the New Covenant is in effect, it will not abolish God’s laws!

Notice also Jeremiah 31:31-33, which likewise introduces the New Covenant and clearly does not abolish God’s law:

“Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah—not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, though I was a husband to them, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.”

(To learn more about Jeremiah’s prophecy about the New Covenant, read “What Is the New Covenant in Jeremiah 31:31?”)

Ezekiel 36:24, 27-28, another prophecy of this future time after Christ’s return, also points to unfinished business in the Old Covenant, while transitioning to the New Covenant:

“For I will take you from among the nations, gather you out of all countries, and bring you into your own land. … I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgments and do them. Then you shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers; you shall be My people, and I will be your God.”

The Old Covenant contained only physical, material promises—God’s blessing to prosper them, health and healing, protection from their enemies, good weather, etc. The New Covenant can include those, but also adds the promise of total forgiveness, the gift of His Spirit and power and life for all eternity.

Fault with the people, not the covenant

Hebrews 8:6 refers to Jesus Christ as the “Mediator of a better covenant.” Is that covenant based on better laws (as many today assume)? No. It “was established on better promises.” These promises include forgiveness of sin, God’s Holy Spirit and immortality. Verses 7-8 say that the fault was not with the covenant, but with “them” (the people).

Finally, notice verse 13, which says the first (old) covenant is “is becoming obsolete and growing old.” Becoming and growing are progressive tense words, and were written approximately three decades after Christ left the earth! This speaks to the unfinished business of the Old Covenant and the introduction of the New Covenant to all people shortly after Christ’s return.

Then the New Covenant will be initiated with the nation of Israel and subsequently all nations. In the meantime, God is offering participation in the New Covenant in advance to a relatively small number of people He has called out of this world to become part of His Church. Their minds have been opened to the knowledge of the truth and the need to repent and receive the gift of God’s Holy Spirit, which enables the internalizing of the righteous laws of God.

The complete fulfillment of the establishment of the New Covenant will not take place until the return of Jesus Christ when all who are having the law written on their hearts are born into the family of God.

Read more about the New Covenant in our article “The New Covenant: What Is New About It?

About the Author

Paul Luecke

Paul Luecke

Paul Luecke and his wife, Ronda, have three married children and have served congregations in Arizona, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Dakota, South Dakota, Canada, Pennsylvania, Kansas and Oklahoma, currently pastoring congregations in Alabama and Georgia.

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