One Of These Covenants Is Not Like The Other

This post serves as an introduction to this web site. The things I say here are introductory and foundational to what’s ahead and I’ll be building on them in future posts. The Bible’s narrative is centered around two major covenants. Most of the events and stories in the Bible’s historic narrative took place during one or the other of these two covenants. These aren’t the only covenants mentioned in Scripture but they occupy the majority of its historic real estate. The first of the two is the covenant God made with the ancient nation of Israel (Exodus 19:5). The New Testament calls this covenant the Old Covenant.

The second is the covenant that began with the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. The New Testament calls this covenant the New Covenant. The Old Covenant ended when the New Covenant began (Hebrews 8:13). There is no point in time where these two covenants ran simultaneously side-by-side. They are incompatible with one another and served different purposes or as Mike Kapler puts it, they are out of sync with each other. These differences in purpose are what we will be fleshing out in many different ways on this blog site. Talking about those differences and knowing why it’s so important to understand the Bible in light of them is why I started this blog site.

What is a Covenant?

The word “covenant” is a high-profile word in the Bible and is used in the context of God making a binding agreement with someone or two parties making a binding agreement between themselves. Both parties making the covenant were bound by the stated terms of the covenant. Here are some examples of covenants introduced in the Old Testament.

The Noahic Covenant

The covenant with Noah is the first recorded covenant in Scripture. In it, God unilaterally promised to never destroy the earth again by a flood (Genesis 9:15-16). Since there were no conditions placed on Noah, it was an unconditional covenant and it is a covenant that is still in effect today.

The Abrahamic Covenant

The next major covenant we see in Scripture is the covenant God made with Abraham, or Abram as he was called at the time. This covenant is first stated in Genesis 12:1-3 and following. Even though the word “covenant” does not specifically appear there, it’s an obvious reference to the covenant and one the Apostle Paul used to explain that the Abrahamic covenant was actually a veiled version of the gospel (Galatians 3:8). Two things important to note about the Abrahamic covenant are 1) it involved the shedding of blood and 2) it was unconditional. God initiated and made the covenant with Abraham without needing Abraham’s buy-in. There was nothing Abraham had to do or could do to lose God’s promise. The Abrahamic covenant was unconditional. Let’s look closer at this.

When God made his covenant with Abraham, animals were slaughtered and their carcasses laid open and placed on either side of a path (Genesis 15:7-11). Normally, both parties of the covenant would then walk between the dead animals and agree to the terms of the covenant. By doing so, they were basically saying, “may what happened to these animals happen to me, and worse, if I break the terms of our covenant.” But tired old Abraham fell asleep until the sun went down and never took the stroll. Only God did. God made the covenant with Abraham and it was a one-way, unconditional covenant (Genesis 15:17-21). As I mentioned above, it was the gospel preached to Abraham in advance. So it’s safe to conclude that the relationship between the Abrahamic Covenant and the New Covenant inaugurated by Jesus is one of promise and fulfillment.

The Abrahamic Covenant The New Covenant
New Covenant Promised Promise Fulfilled

There is a lot more to talk about concerning the specifics of the Abrahamic Covenant and its relationship and importance to the New Covenant and all of Scripture, that is beyond this introduction. We will get there but for now, I’m simply introducing some concepts that we’re going to reference again and again as we move forward on this blog site.

The Old Covenant

The next covenant we see in Scripture is the one God made with ancient Israel at Mount Sinai in Exodus 19 and mediated through Moses. The New Testament refers to this covenant as the Old Covenant or the First Covenant. This Covenant with Israel was a mutual agreement between God and Israel. The people of Israel had to agree to its terms, and they did (Exodus 24:7). The Old Covenant was a conditional, legal, works covenant. Israel agreed to the conditional if-then terms of the covenant but were unable to keep it and repeatedly broke the terms of the covenant by failing to do what the law of the covenant, the Law of Moses, required them to do. The Law of the covenant promised blessings for perfect obedience (Deut. 28:1-14) and curses for anything less than perfect obedience (Deut. 28:15-24 ff). We have a lot to address in regards to this and we will in future posts.

For now we can say that the Old Covenant was temporary in nature. It had a beginning at Sinai and an end at the cross. It contained illustrations, types, and shadows, all of which pointed to Jesus, a better priest with a greater sacrifice (John 5:46). We can illustrate the relationship of both the Old Covenant and the Abrahamic Covenant to the New Covenant like this:

The Abrahamic Covenant The Old Covenant The New Covenant
New Covenant Promised Promise Fulfilled
New Covenant Pictured Picture Fulfilled

Why Does This Matter?

While I believe the Bible is inspired, I do not believe that everything in it is intended for us today. I believe a careful handling of context when reading Scripture will eliminate confusion. For example, much of what Jesus said, he said to Old Covenant Jews living under the law of Moses. Those portions of the gospels are not intended for us. Jesus was introducing the New Covenant while living under the Old. The New Covenant didn’t begin at Jesus’ birth but at his death. Understanding that, while reading passages such as the Sermon on the Mount, will give us more clarity in our understanding of what Jesus said and why and help eliminate interpretive confusion.

The writer of the New Testament letter to the Hebrews was quoting the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah when he said,

For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion to look for a second. For he finds fault with them when he says: “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt. For they did not continue in my covenant, and so I showed no concern for them, declares the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And they shall not teach, each one his neighbor and each one his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.” In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away. (Hebrews 8:7–13, emphasis added)

One of these covenants is not like the other. The Old Covenant is a conditional if-then law covenant based on works righteousness that kills those under it for failure to obey everything in it (2 Corinthians 3:6-11). The New Covenant is not like that. Under the New Covenant God is merciful toward our iniquities and remembers our sins no more. Are you ready to explore the implications of this? I am! Hold on and let’s get started.


Photo Credit:
Christian Stahl

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