What was the problem with the Old Covenant, and what really changed with the New Covenant? What does the Bible say is new about the New Covenant?
Throughout history, God has made various covenants, or agreements, with human beings. These covenants lay out the terms of the relationship God wants to have with humanity. Two of the key covenants recorded in the Bible are:
- The covenant God made with ancient Israel at Mount Sinai, also referred to as the “Old Covenant.”
- The “New Covenant,” which was inaugurated by Jesus Christ, and which is the covenant that is in force for spiritual Israel, the Church.
Scripture states that the New Covenant is making the Old Covenant obsolete (Hebrews 8:13). But what does that mean? Did God create an entirely different set of terms for this new agreement? Just what is “new” about the New Covenant?
This article highlights four key changes from the Old Covenant to the New Covenant. Although these four items do not encompass every difference, they illustrate the fundamental distinction between the two agreements.
A change of the sacrificial law
The Bible states that sinners earn the death penalty (Romans 6:23). Forgiveness of those sins requires blood to be shed to satisfy that penalty (Hebrews 9:22). Under the Old Covenant, the Israelites sacrificed animals as sin offerings, shedding the blood of those creatures as God commanded.
However, animal sacrifices were insufficient as substitutes for human beings. The sacrifices did not truly cleanse the Israelites from their wrongdoing, “for it is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats could take away sins” (Hebrews 10:4).
Since animal sacrifices could not blot out sins, why did God require them under the Old Covenant? Because those sacrifices reminded Israel of their sins and pictured the time when removal of the death penalty would truly become possible! God never intended for those sacrifices to be in force permanently! He had a plan in place “from the foundation of the world” to have Jesus Christ make the ultimate sacrifice (Revelation 13:8).
Christ’s sacrifice of Himself made it possible to take “away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Because He is God, and human beings were created through Him (Colossians 1:16), His life is worth immeasurably more than all other human lives throughout history. Thus, His sacrifice was more than sufficient as total payment for the death penalty we have earned because of sin.
When Christ instituted the New Covenant with His shed blood (Luke 22:20), He made it possible for us to be truly cleansed from sin (Hebrews 9:13-14; 1 John 1:7). The result was that animal sacrifices were no longer required as symbols, because Christ was the ultimate fulfillment of that symbolism. We accept Christ’s sacrifice at baptism. Although we must still repent each time we sin in the future, Christ’s sacrifice is applied upon our repentance—no further sacrifices for our sins are needed (Hebrews 9:24-28; 10:12).
A change of the priesthood
Under the Old Covenant, priests came from the family of Aaron in the tribe of Levi. The high priest was required to offer a sacrifice for the Israelites’ sins each year on the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:29-34). He alone was allowed to enter the Most Holy Place (the innermost room) in the tabernacle and to approach the mercy seat—which represented the throne of God.
The Israelites all deserved the death penalty for their sins, and so the high priest’s responsibility was to make intercession for them. Since he was also “subject to weakness,” he understood how easy it was to sin, and he could show compassion for the people (Hebrews 5:1-4).
However, as we saw, the shed blood came from animal sacrifices under this physical system. Thus the priests under the Old Covenant were not able to truly make people right with God, and a change was necessary (Hebrews 7:11-12).
That change came with Jesus Christ’s sacrifice for all humanity, which fulfilled the symbolism of the yearly sin offering on the Day of Atonement. But Christ also filled the role of the high priest by offering Himself. He continues to serve as our High Priest, interceding on our behalf (Hebrews 7:23-28).
Under the New Covenant, Christ does not serve in a physical tabernacle (Hebrews 9:11). Instead, He performs His duties as High Priest in “the true tabernacle” (Hebrews 8:1-2). Today the Church is “the household of God” and “a holy temple” (Ephesians 2:19-22).
Members of the Church are able to draw near to the true mercy seat—the throne of God—as they develop a close and meaningful relationship with the Father. This is made possible because of Christ’s sacrifice and His continuing role as our High Priest (Hebrews 10:19-22).
Due to the change from the Levitical priesthood and the physical tabernacle, the rituals associated with the tabernacle and temple under the Old Covenant are no longer required—including various types of food and drink offerings, as well as ceremonial washings. These physical rituals were only “imposed until the time of reformation” (Hebrews 9:8-10)—which Jesus Christ ushered in with the New Covenant.
Under the New Covenant, God’s people now have a High Priest in Jesus Christ who intercedes for them continually. Since Christ lived as a human being, He understands our weaknesses, can help us when we are tempted, and can show us compassion when we sin. We can therefore be confident in seeking forgiveness when we repent (Hebrews 2:17-18; 4:14-16).
A change of the heart
God gave Israel His eternal laws that define sin—with the 10 Commandments serving as the core of Israel’s responsibility under the Old Covenant (Exodus 34:27-28; Deuteronomy 4:13). However, there was one key problem with this arrangement: Although God’s law was, and is, perfect (Psalm 19:7), the people were not.
God knew in advance that the Israelites were missing something very important. They did not have the necessary heart to be truly obedient to Him (Deuteronomy 5:23-29). The Israelites agreed to obey God because of external motivation. They were afraid of punishment from God (Exodus 20:18-21), but that type of external motivation does not guarantee right behavior! Unless a person is internally convicted to do what is right, it can become far too easy to choose to do what is wrong instead.
Ancient Israel sadly fell into this trap and repeatedly disobeyed God throughout history, despite the fact that they suffered punishment as a result. Time and time again, the Israelites broke the covenant they made with God, illustrating a key flaw in the covenant. The flaw was not with the laws they agreed to obey, but rather with the people themselves (Hebrews 8:7-8)!
The Israelites did not have a heart to truly know God because the time was not yet right for God to give them that heart (Deuteronomy 29:4). But even without a right heart, it was still possible for the Israelites to respond to the correction God gave them when they made wrong choices. Unfortunately, they failed to adjust their behavior in the long run. However, their example provides a powerful lesson to us of how easy it is to sin (1 Corinthians 10:11-12).
Under the New Covenant, God’s people have the opportunity to receive a heart to obey Him. In the Old Testament, God announced that the time would come when His people would have His laws internalized and written on their hearts—when they would truly be able to know Him (Jeremiah 31:31-34; see “What Is the New Covenant in Jeremiah 31:31?”).
When God’s Spirit was made widely available on the Day of Pentecost, that goal became possible. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, Christians become able to think like God (1 Corinthians 2:11, 16). God’s mind—reflected in His law of love—can now be internalized within His people.
A change of promises
Under the Old Covenant, Israel agreed to obey God; and in return, God agreed to treat Israel as “a special treasure” (Exodus 19:5-6). He promised Israel specific blessings, including rain at the appropriate time; victory in battle; freedom from sickness; a fear of Israel among other nations; and such tremendous prosperity that Israel would lend to other nations, not borrow (Leviticus 26:3-13; Deuteronomy 7:12-15; 28:1-14).
These promises were all incredible. But they were also all limited to this physical existence! There was no opportunity under the Old Covenant for the nation of Israel to receive access to the gift of eternal life. Thus, the Israelites could only enjoy the blessings of the Old Covenant during their life span on this earth.
Why was eternal life not offered under the Old Covenant? Because Jesus Christ had not yet come to this earth as humanity’s Savior, and “there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). Christ’s sacrifice provided a way for humans who had not lived perfectly (all of us!) to avoid the death penalty. Forgiveness was a key requirement so that human beings could “receive the promise of the eternal inheritance” (Hebrews 9:15)—eternal life (Titus 3:7).
Another necessary missing component is the Holy Spirit. Jesus Christ called it “the Helper” (John 16:7), a “Promise” from God that He gave on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 1:4-5; 2:1-4).
As covered earlier, the Holy Spirit enables God’s laws to be written on our hearts. But beyond that, the Holy Spirit makes it possible for us to be “heirs of God,” so that we can “be glorified together” with Christ (Romans 8:16-17). God’s Spirit serves as a guarantee, or down payment, on our promised inheritance of eternal life in God’s family (Ephesians 1:13-14).
The Holy Spirit was made available to a select few of God’s servants who lived prior to Christ’s inauguration of the New Covenant (1 Peter 1:10-11). However, the vast majority of the Israelites did not have access to that Spirit, and thus did not have access to eternal life. But God intended from the beginning for all human beings to have that opportunity (Titus 1:2)—His purpose is to bring “many sons to glory” (Hebrews 2:10), expanding His family.
Access to salvation under the New Covenant makes this “a better covenant” than the covenant at Mount Sinai, because the New Covenant “was established on better promises” (Hebrews 8:6). Ultimately, all human beings throughout history will have an opportunity for eternal life as part of the New Covenant. Those who become part of God’s family will dwell with Him forever, and there will be no more death (Revelation 21:1-4).
The New Covenant amplifies the terms of the Old Covenant
This article has not covered every difference between the Old and New Covenants. However, the changes we have examined illustrate a consistent trend: Contrary to the belief of many, the New Covenant does not abolish all the terms of the Old Covenant!
Both covenants include provisions for a sacrifice for sin, a priesthood serving in a tabernacle, obedience to God’s laws, and promised blessings from God. However, in each case, the changes in the New Covenant amplify the terms of the Old Covenant!
Under the Old Covenant, God presented the Israelites with two options and told them to “choose life” (Deuteronomy 30:19-20). God offers that same choice today to those whom He calls into the New Covenant. What makes the New Covenant “new” is that it is a far better agreement than the one entered into at Mount Sinai.
Ultimately all humanity will have the opportunity to be part of the New Covenant. But if God is calling you to be part of that covenant now by helping you to understand His truth, you have a decision to make. Will you choose life—eternal life? The choice is up to you.
For further study on this topic, read the article “Biblical Covenants.”