15 The Historical Old Covenant
by Hubert F. Sturges, www.everlastingcovenant.com , December 2013
And he took the book of the
covenant, and read in the audience of the people: and they said, All
that the Lord hath said will we do, and be obedient. Exodus 24:7
Every believer needs to understand the difference between the old
covenant and the new covenant. This can be complicated because the old
covenant was presented in many forms and people use different terms to
describe it. I have chosen to use the term “historical old covenant” to
describe the covenant Israel made and ratified with God at Sinai. Within
a another forty-six days Israel had already broken this covenant. The
term “old covenant” does not occur in the Bible, except for “old
testament” (2 Cor. 3:14) and “first testament” (Heb. 9:15). Yet, any
attempt to gain pardon for sins, approval of God, or eternal life by
human effort is the old covenant method!
The new covenant
described in Jeremiah 31:31-34 is different from the covenant the
children of Israel broke (Jer. 31:32). In the new covenant, God, by His
initiative, puts the law in the human heart.
Hebrews 8 to 10
describes a covenant that was first, faulty, decayed, old, and ready to
vanish away. It is first because it was the first covenant officially
ratified between Israel and God. Jesus Christ ratified the second (or
new) covenant on the cross (Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 370). The first
was faulty because it was based on weak and presumptuous human promises,
It is decayed because the law was corrupted by
rabbinical additions and by the Jewish focus upon the performance of
sacrifices and sanctuary services as the fulfillment of the “covenant”
and the means of salvation. It was growing old and was ready to vanish
away because its legitimate ceremonial aspects
were no longer needed
once Jesus died upon the cross and the Temple ceased to be (Heb. 8:13).
Jesus is the Redeemer to whom the symbols in the ceremonial law pointed.
In Jesus’ time the ceremonial law had become a corrupted attempt by
humans to gain salvation through their own efforts.The Covenant
The covenant of God, or “My covenant,” was made in the
eternity before the creation of the world in the council of the three
persons of the Godhead. God made this covenant for humans, yet humans
cannot break or modify it. God offered this covenant to Abraham, and
Abraham “believed in the Lord; and [the Lord] counted it to him for
righteousness” (Gen. 15:6). The Abrahamic covenant had two parts, the
“My covenant” of God plus the faith response of Abraham.
the covenant to Abraham in a series of seven presentations, with the
greatest detail in Genesis 17. In His statement to Abraham, “I will
establish my covenant between me and thee and thy
seed after thee in their generations for an everlasting covenant” (Gen.
17:7), God intended this covenant to be effective throughout the history
of Israel and the church. God gave the covenant also to Isaac, to Jacob,
to Moses at the burning bush, and to the elders of Israel in Egypt.
Shortly after Israel arrived at Sinai, Moses went up into the
mountain and communed with God. God presented to the people “My
covenant,” a covenant previously established:
the covenant of Abraham
(Exod. 19:4-6). God presented promises to Israel as a nation that were
more glorious than the promises given to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The
covenant given at Sinai included the preamble of grace to give them
strength to obey the ten-commandment law.2
The People’s Promises
God asked for a response to “obey my voice indeed, and keep my
covenant” (Exod. 19:5). “And Moses came and called for the elders of the
people, and laid before their faces all these words which the Lord
commanded him” (Exod. 19:7).
The people answered with enthusiasm,
“All that the Lord hath spoken we will do. And Moses returned the words
of the people unto the Lord” (Exod. 19:8). If God wanted them to “obey
my voice and keep my covenant,” that is what they would do. What else
could they do for the God who delivered them from the Egyptians, took
them through the Red Sea, and supplied them with water and food? They
would do whatever He desired of them.
And the Lord heard the
voice of your words, when ye spake unto me; and the Lord said unto me, I
have heard the voice of the words of this people, which they have spoken
unto thee: they have well said all that they have spoken. O that there
were such an heart in them, that they would fear me, and keep all my
commandments always, that it might be well with them, and with their
children for ever. (Deut. 5:28, 29)
Their words were commendable.
It pleased God to have His people make a commitment to Him, but faith
was lacking in their response. The people failed to understand the
majesty and holiness of God and their own weakness. God accepted their
words, but how could weak humanity add anything to the covenant of God
(Deut. 5:28, 29)? While Abraham fell on his face in reverence before
God, the elders of Israel confidently planned to do their part, as
though they could be equal partners in a covenant with God!3
purposed to teach them lessons they needed to make a success. They must
see His majesty,
His holiness, and the power of His grace to be able to
fulfill their promises. They must know that He is not just another god
like the gods of Egypt. They must know that He is the one God, the
Creator of heaven and earth. They needed to recognize that only God
could make up for their weakness.God Appears to the People
God gave Moses instructions for the people to wash their clothes and
sanctify themselves for two days. On the third day, they were to come to
the mount but not to go beyond the bounds set by Moses. If the people
had put away all sin and worldly thoughts from their minds, leaving a
deep hunger to know God, they would rejoice to see God when He came.
They would be like Moses at the burning bush and remove their shoes, for
the place where they stood was holy ground.
God came onto the
mount with fire and smoke, a trumpet blast, thunder and lightning, and
an earthquake. It was a demonstration of power and majesty never seen
from the gods of the heathen (Exod. 19:16, 18, 19). God came to instill
awe and holy fear at His presence. The people were to experience the
power of God as Creator and Lord. God Himself stood behind His covenant
and would fulfill its terms.
The demonstration came to a halt,
and there was silence as, from the mountain, God spoke the
ten-commandment law, also referred to as “the covenant.” He spoke the
law before the ratification ceremony so people would know what their
promises entailed. The law was the pattern on which God would make of
them “an holy nation.”4
They failed to understand the preamble of grace
by which God would fulfill the promises of the Ten Commandments in their
lives: “I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land
of Egypt” (Exod. 20:2). Instead, they endeavored to keep the law in
their own power.
When people come into the presence of the living
God in reverence and awe, it is a life-changing experience.5
believed in a God who is “merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and
abundant in goodness and truth” (Exod. 34:6), like Abraham, they would
have fallen on their faces as God spoke to them (Gen. 17:3). Instead,
the presence of God terrified them, and “they removed, and stood afar
off” (Exod. 20:18). They asked Moses not to let God speak to them again,
but rather that God speak through Moses to them.
In spite of what
God had done for them, the people still had the heathen concept that God
is vengeful and judgmental, seeking only to punish. God has always
desired that His people come close to Him, but fear of God will not be
totally resolved until shortly before Jesus comes again! At that time,
He will have a people who have consented to the work of grace in their
lives and who look for His coming with joy. Jesus’ coming
the wicked (Rev. 6:15, 16), as His presence terrified the Israelites.
However, of the righteous, “It shall be said in that day, Lo, this is
our God; we have waited for him, and he will save us: this is the Lord;
we have waited for him, we will be glad and rejoice in his salvation”
(Isa. 25:9).The Response of Faith
Faith is the response
of the human heart to the love of God. It is trust, belief, and an
emotional commitment to God as to a friend. In faith, one takes hold of
grace, which is the supernatural power of God to change the sinner’s
heart. The Holy Spirit, speaking through God’s Word, initiates faith in
the human heart (Rom. 10:17). God always respects the gift of free will
that He gave to the human family. He awaits the response of faith to the
covenant, which is to consent for God to work His will in the believer’s
life by His grace (Heb. 11:6). How does one come to Christ unless he
takes these steps? One must do as Abraham did when he fell on his face
in awe and believed all that God said He would do (Gen. 15:6). Belief is
a form of decision because people live out everything they truly
This is the new covenant relationship that God desires.
“Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians, and how I bare you on
eagles’ wings, and brought you unto myself. Now therefore “ (Exod.
The prayer that God always hears is the cry for help. In
the Temple of Israel one day, a publican standing afar off “smote upon
his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner” (Luke 18:13). In
this brief view, we find a man who recognized his need, recognized his
inability to help himself, and fell upon the mercy and strength of God
for the help he needed.
In answering that prayer, God possesses
all that He requires, and He will give all the help that one needs. In
gratitude, we can take no pride in what we have done, and we will thank
God for what He has done. God looked in vain for the elders of Israel to
recognize their need and show faith in Him as they responded to the
covenant (Exod. 19:8).
In making these promises, the people
forgot the power of God shown in their deliverance from Egypt; they
indicated that they would obey God and keep His Commandments and
covenant, but they did not have faith in His grace. They did not believe
God, as did Abraham,
but rather relied upon their own ability to obey.
Their separate ratification ceremony lacked the faith response and
further separated the covenant of human promises from the covenant
presented by God (see Exod. 19:4-6). Only Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross
can ratify the everlasting covenant.The Historical Old Covenant
Moses went into the mount where God gave him
instructions regarding the civil law (Exod. 21- 23). He also received a
modified Abrahamic covenant consistent with their human promises.
Behold, I send an Angel before thee, to keep thee in the way, and to
bring thee into the place which I have prepared. Beware of him, and obey
his voice, provoke him not; for he will not pardon your transgressions:
for my name is in him. But if thou shalt indeed obey his voice, and do
all that I speak; then I will be an enemy unto thine enemies, and an
adversary unto thine adversaries. For mine Angel shall go before thee,
and bring thee in unto the Amorites, and the Hittites, and the
Perizzites, and the Canaanites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites: and I
will cut them off. (Exod. 23:20-23)
The “Angel” or “Messenger”
(Heb. mal’ak) was Jesus Christ, “for my name is in him” (Exod. 23:20,
21; cf. Mal. 3:1). God respected their promise to obey. Yet, in making
their human promise, they failed to accept the grace that God promised.
Other translations of this verse indicate that the sins that He will not
pardon were rebellion, bitterness, and repeated conscious sins, which
lead to the loss of the covenant (Heb. 6:4-6).
The people did not
recognize the majesty and holiness of God and the comprehensive
requirements of the holy ten-commandment law. They failed to recognize
their own weakness and proceeded The Historical Old Covenant 85 with
ratification (Exod. 19:8), repeating their promises twice again, “All
that the Lord hath said will we do, and be obedient” (Exod. 24:3, 7;
Joshua 1:16). They forgot the grace that liberated them from slavery
Moses wrote these instructions in the “book of the
covenant” (Exod. 24:7), which he read before the people. This book was
an expansion of the Ten Commandments. It contained laws to govern civil
affairs and details regarding the sanctuary, the priesthood, and the
How did they ratify the covenant with God? They
conducted a formal covenant ceremony in the presence of certain young
men. As Moses repeated to them the words of the Lord, they responded
with, “All the words which the Lord hath said will we do” (Exod. 24:3).
They made animal sacrifices and Moses sprinkled blood on the altar, on
the people, and on the book (Exod. 24:6-8; Heb. 9:19-21). The historical
old covenant was in effect! Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and the seventy elders
of Israel ate a covenant meal in the presence of God.
covenant was faulty, but it was not because God offered a faulty
God offered the same covenant He gave Abraham and the same
covenant Peter referenced in 1 Peter 2:9 for the Christian church. The
old covenant was faulty because the promises of the people did not
include the faith response. They broke their covenant by worshiping the
golden calf (Exod. 32).The Experiential Old Covenant
The old covenant reappeared in Jewish history, with
dependence on law keeping and on the rituals themselves as the means of
salvation. The people made these rituals the sum and substance of their
religion, obeying God’s command by rote with no heart-felt obedience or
change in their life. They even forgot the Redeemer to whom the
sacrifices pointed and failed to recognize the Redeemer when He came.
This corrupted perception of the covenant constituted the
experiential old covenant. Periodically men have made covenants with
God. A covenant of dedication, which is a commitment to God, is
admirable. The six righteous kings of Judah made covenants of this sort.
As long as they kept their focus on the everlasting covenant of God and
accepted His grace, their intent was admirable. When the covenant was
without faith and dependent on human promises, it could not succeed. The
corrupted perception of the covenant was the predominant belief when
Jesus came, causing Jesus’ rejection and condemnation by the nation’s
By the time of Christ, the sanctuary
services and ritual had become a religion of externals. The people did
the rituals and kept the letter of the law to earn salvation. There was
no love, faith, or grace. The people did not accept the power of grace
to change their lives. Jesus’ sermon on the mount showed that God
desired a religion from the heart. The sacrifices were of no use unless
there was an accompanying change in the life. The sacrifices served only
as an object lesson to show how the blood of Christ purchased their
The Scriptures say: “For finding
fault with them” and “unto us was the gospel preached, as well as unto
them: but the word preached did not profit them, not being mixed with
faith in them that heard it” (Heb. 8:8; 4:2, emphasis supplied).
Grace is often defined as the unmerited favor of God, but it is also
the supernatural power of God to change the life, as we find in Hebrews
4:16. Grace was to change the motives of human beings from pride and
selfishness to love--love for God and love for our fellow humans--and to
enable sinners to keep the law of God, which is why God’s laws in the
heart are the first stipulation of the new covenant (Heb. 8:10). That He
also writes his laws in the mind would indicate a conscious awareness of
what God expects.3.
The people’s promise was a covenant of
dedication. Men praise God when they choose to serve him. The six
righteous kings of Judah each renewed this covenant with God, usually
after a revival from idolatry. The problem with the people at Sinai was
their lack of understanding of the holiness of God and of their own
weakness. They thought they could do it in their own strength and did
not understand the implications of God’s sustaining grace (Exod. 19:4;
33:12-17). They lacked the faith response and had yet to understand
faith and grace.4.
“The covenant that God made with his people
at Sinai is to be our refuge and defense.”| And all the people answered
together, and said, All that the Lord hath spoken we will do.... This
covenant is of just as much force today as it was when the Lord made it
with ancient Israel” (Ellen G. White, The Southern Watchman, March 1,
1904). See also The Seventh-day Adventist Commentary, vol. 1, pp.
592-598). The covenant was the Ten Commandments written by God on two
tablets of stone, which was also called “the testimony.” One must also
recognize and understand the preamble of grace before both the covenant
promises and the law (Exodus 19 4; 20:2). Exodus 32:15 calls the tablets
“the two tables of the testimony.” Deuteronomy 9:9, 11, 15 identifies
them as “the tables of the covenant.” Exodus 34:28 describes Moses’
reception of the covenant. “And he was there with the Lord forty days
and forty nights; he did neither eat bread, nor drink water. And he
wrote upon the tables the words of the covenant, the ten commandments.”
Deuteronomy 9:11 says, “... The Lord gave me the two tables of stone,
even the tables of the covenant.”5.
God’s presence changed lives
(Gen. 32:24-30; Exod. 3:4-10; Joshua 5:13-15; 1 Kings 3:5-15; Isa.
6:1-13; Jer. 1:4-10; and Acts 9:3-6, 15-20).6.
The expansion of
the ten “words” of the covenant can be seen in Leviticus: “But I will
for their sakes remember the covenant of their ancestors, whom I brought
forth out of the land of Egypt in the sight of the heathen, that I might
be their God: I am the Lord. These are the statutes and judgments and
laws, which the Lord made between him and the children of Israel in
mount Sinai by the hand of Moses” (Lev. 26:45, 46, emphasis supplied).
It can also be seen in Nehemiah: “Thou camest down also upon mount
Sinai, and spakest with them from heaven, and gavest them right
judgments, and true laws, good statutes and commandments” (Neh. 9:13,
emphasis supplied). The judgments were casuistic (or case) law,
describing the penalty for violations of the statutes.