38 Distinguishing the Old Covenant From the New
by Hubert F. Sturges, www.everlastingcovenant.com, December 2013
In that he
saith, A new covenant, he hath made the first old. Now that which
decayeth and waxeth old is ready to vanish away. Hebrews 8:13.
The terms “new covenant” and “old covenant” come up frequently in
religious discussions. It is not enough just to use the terms; we need
to carefully explain what the terms mean and where they are applied.
The new covenant is the covenant of grace, which is also known as
the everlasting covenant, “My Covenant,” and the Abrahamic covenant. The
new covenant describes the “born-again” experience and being made a “new
creature.” It represents what God will initiate and perform for His
people. Jesus confirmed the new covenant at Calvary and made effectual
all the sacrifices in the past.
The old covenant is implied in
Jeremiah 31:31-34, where a former, broken covenant is compared with the
new covenant. The former covenant is the
historical old covenant of
human promises (Exod. 19:8; 23:20-23; 24:3-11; Jer. 31:31, 32; and
Hebrews 9:18-21). That covenant was broken at Sinai but came back as an
idolatrous, corrupted view of the ceremonial law (Heb. 8-10). The old
covenant is the effort of humans to do what only God can do.
Review of the Controversy
The place of the ceremonial law and its
usage in Christian life produced the most controversial issue in the
apostolic church. Jewish Christians felt that Gentile converts needed to
become Jews before they could be Christians. After all, “salvation is of
the Jews” (John 4:22). The council at Jerusalem freed Gentile Christians
from the obligations of the ceremonial law except for four practical
recommendations (Acts 15:20), and the report was carried to the church
The many Jewish-Christians were still reluctant to
let go of circumcision and certain temple rituals. They failed to
realize that, for all people, the ceremonial observances had met their
fulfillment in Jesus Christ. This created an unhealthy tension in the
church, inasmuch as one large segment followed an elaborate system of
religious practices disregarded by the other.
a vague idea of Christ’s work in the heavenly sanctuary. They
did not realize that their sacrifices were ineffective in view of Jesus’
sacrifice on the cross. It was time for the Jewish Christians to learn
faith in the heavenly realities and in the Rock, Christ Jesus, on which
the church was built.Comparisons Between the Covenants
The epistle to the Hebrews makes a number of comparisons between old and
new. One must understand that there are several different “laws” that
make up the ceremonial law. The human performance of many of these laws
ended at Calvary, to be replaced by the ministry of Jesus Christ in
At Sinai, God gave Israel what He called “My covenant,”
which was a covenant previously established- the everlasting covenant,
which is also called the Abrahamic covenant and the new covenant.
Redemption through Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross was the basis for this
covenant. The Abrahamic covenant was to continue to all Abraham’s
descendants and to the Christian church to the end of time (Gal. 3:29).
Moses presented the Sinai covenant to the elders of Israel. They
responded with, “All that the Lord hath spoken we will do”
This was a promise of dedication. Their intent was admirable, but they
did not know their own weakness (Deut. 5:28, 29) or the holiness of God.
They had bypassed the promise of grace (Exod. 19:4) and offered to “obey
[His] voice and keep [His] covenant” by their own strength!1
God promised Abram that he would have
descendants in number as the stars of heaven. “He believed in the Lord;
and he counted it to him for righteousness” (Gen. 15:6). God then
promised him the land of Canaan. Abram must have thought it too much to
believe since he asked, “Whereby shall I know that I shall inherit it?”
In His mercy, God carried out a ratification
ceremony, according to the custom of the time (Gen. 15:9-17), to
reassure Abram of His promise of land. By contrast, the everlasting
covenant of God could be ratified only by Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross.
At Sinai, God offered Israel unique blessings with the covenant He
called “My covenant”-they would be the exclusive treasure of God, a
kingdom of priests, and a holy nation. They were to obey God’s voice and
keep His covenant by the power that God had shown in their deliverance
The people promised to obey, but they failed to
recognize the holiness of God and forgot God’s promise of grace. Their
presumptuous human promises were a separate covenant from what God had
offered, one that required a separate ratification ceremony! It was a
covenant doomed to fail from the start. This was the historical old
covenant. Within forty-six days, they broke their promises by a
rebellious, heathen festival at the base of Sinai.
The focus and
center of the everlasting covenant of God is Jesus Christ and His
sinless life on earth, His death on the cross for our sins, His
resurrection, and His high priestly intercession for us in the heavenly
sanctuary. All that human beings can do in response to the covenant of
God is to bow in reverent awe and accept it by faith. It is the covenant
of redemption, which Jesus ratified or confirmed at Calvary.
Jesus’ power and authority are based on His sacrifice. It is through the
cross that Jesus breached the walls of evil and blessed His people. The
prayers of the saints give Jesus “permission” to act.
The New and
We discuss the new covenant often in other chapters of
this book. The new covenant is the covenant of redemption and grace, and
it is the same as the everlasting covenant or “My covenant.” God gave it
to Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and Israel, and He
finally passed it on to the Christian church. It is the covenant that
Jesus confirmed at Calvary and that He now mediates in heaven.2
Israel ratified the historical old covenant at Sinai. This separated it
from the covenant of God, which Jesus ratified at Calvary. It was
temporary, dependent on the weak promises of the people, and it lasted
just forty-six days.
The old covenant is the covenant of works,
whereby humans try to do the work of God in their own strength,
bypassing grace. The old covenant is also seen as a corrupted view of
the ceremonial law. That corrupted view of the ceremonial law has taken
different forms, and it was dominant when Jesus was here on earth. For
the first time in Scripture, Paul discussed the concept of the old
covenant in Hebrews, chapter nine.
A common belief is that the old
covenant was the ceremonial law and that the ceremonial law was “nailed
to the cross” and brought to an end (Col. 2:14). The problem with this
proposition is that large parts of the ceremonial law, such as the human
priesthood, changed. The Levitical priesthood of the Old Testament ended
at Calvary, while the priesthood continued with Jesus’ ministry for us
in the heavenly temple. Nowhere does the Bible say that the sacrifices
or sanctuary services were the old covenant.
23:21 asserts that there was no pardon
for transgressions in the
proposed covenant of human promises (the historical old covenant).3
Since the ceremonial law specifically provided for pardon for sins, one
must place it as an illustration of the everlasting covenant, also known
as Abrahamic covenant or the new covenant.Corrupted View of the
By the time of Jesus, the people had come to believe
that salvation came through the mere performance of the sacrifices and
sanctuary services. Many took this one step further in that they looked
to the death of the animal itself as making atonement for their sins.
They had largely overlooked the Redeemer to whom it pointed. Their false
assurance also rested on faith in their descent from Abraham and in
their rigorous observance of the law.
Many observant Jews today
believe that salvation comes through keeping the law and living a clean,
ethical life. What is lacking here is the need for a change of heart,
which comes only through the grace and power of God.4
described this corrupted view of the ceremonial law, calling it that
which was old and about to vanish and comparing it with the true and
effective sacrifice of Jesus on the cross and His effective priestly
ministry in the heavenly temple.
Because the Jews looked for a
Messiah who would take the throne of David, drive out the Romans, and
restore the former glory of Israel, they did not identify a Messiah who
came to bring the kingdom of grace. These beliefs influenced even Jesus’
disciples. They did not understand His mission until after the
resurrection. Even then, there were among the Christians of Jewish
background those who believed that one had to perform sacrifices and
rituals and be circumcised to be saved.
Paul wrote many times
about this corrupted view of the covenant. An understanding of Paul’s
writings is essential in grasping the purpose of the old covenant, what
Jesus accomplished on the cross, and the differences in the new
covenant.Sacrifices Illustrate the “New Covenant in My Blood”
Hebrews 8 speaks of a covenant that was first, faulty, not continued
in, growing old, decayed, and ready to vanish away.5
Hebrews 9 goes into
more detail in comparing the true and effective sacrifice and priesthood
of Jesus Christ, with the symbols and shadows of the animal sacrifices
and the human priesthood. Bible writers sometimes used the term “old
covenant” to describe this faulty perception of the ceremonial law,
which was common at the time of Jesus.6
There was no pardon in
the covenant of human promises (Exod. 23:20-23).7
It offered strict
accountability and atonement for sins of ignorance. In the new covenant
were better promises, forgiveness of sins, and grace to renew the
The ceremonial law, which provided pardon for sin, had nothing
to do with the historical old covenant. It was, instead, an illustration
of the new or everlasting covenant. Here are several proposals that
support this view:
The sanctuary services were merely symbols to
point forward to the realities of the new covenant.9
makes no statement that the sanctuary services were a part of any
covenant. Rather, the ten-commandment law is “the covenant.” Moses kept
the tables of this law inside the ark, and he kept the “book of the
law,” which was the ceremonial law, in the side of the ark.10
human beings carried out these ceremonial activities. A man cannot
effect his own salvation, even by doing sacrifices. They can serve only
as an illustration of the covenant and a sign of personal commitment.
The sanctuary services were a connecting link whereby people in Old
Testament times could look forward by faith to the coming of the
Messiah, the true sacrifice.
The ceremonial law was never
ratified as a covenant.
Even though God gave the ceremonial law,
He is displeased with sacrifices if there is no change in the life.11
God gave the ceremonial laws, which were an illustration of the plan
of salvation, as symbols to point forward to eternal realities. God
pardoned sin through faith in the prophesied
sacrifice of Jesus. The
sacrifices pointed to the new covenant in which Jesus’ sacrifice atoned
for the sins of mankind (Luke 22:20) and provided grace to remove
condemnation and guilt (Rom. 8:1) and write God’s laws in the heart
(Heb. 8:10; 10:16). Jesus is the Mediator of this new covenant.
What the Jews Should Have Known
God gave Israel many advantages.
They had seen the direct intervention of God in the ten plagues against
Egypt. God opened the way for them through the Red Sea and then
destroyed the Egyptian army that followed them. Every day they witnessed
the pillar of cloud and every night the pillar of fire. The people
gathered manna on a daily basis, and water came from a rock for their
use. God demonstrated His power and majesty on Mt. Sinai when He spoke
the ten-commandment law. Prophets, priests, and Levites instructed them
in the ways of God. Miraculous victories paved their way into the land
of Canaan. Even after 40 years of wandering in the desert, no one got
sick, and no one’s clothes wore out.
That God is alive, merciful,
and able to save should have been abundantly clear. However, people are
inclined to take even remarkable things for granted. When the sinful
human nature reasserted itself, the people repeatedly fell into idolatry
and apostasy. The concept of a Messiah to come, bringing peace,
righteousness, and eternal life, would and did appeal to people of a
spiritual nature. Unfortunately, these were few in number. When Jesus
came, He had to deal with all these unsolved problems.
question may be raised: Are we better than they are? As we look over the
world, we see selfishness in all levels of society; we see crime,
violence, broken homes, and willing ignorance of eternal realities. In
the churches, it seems that things are not much different.
first of the Ten Commandments is “Thou shalt have no other gods before
me.” People break
this commandment more than any other. God must be
first in a person’s life, and that means making Him first in the daily
schedule. The Christian must take time daily for family worship and
personal time for Bible study and prayer. God must be first in business
affairs, in social life, and in helping others.
See chapter 15, “The Historical Old Covenant.”
Jesus is the
Mediator of the new covenant (Matt. 26:26-29; Mark 14:24; 1 Cor.
11:23-26; 1 Tim. 2:5; Heb. 7:22; 9:15; 8:6; 12:24).3.
it is God’s nature to forgive iniquity and transgression and sin (Exod.
34:7; Num. 14:18).4.
People need to have their lives changed
(Matt. 5:20; John 3:3; Rom. 2:25-29).5.
See chapter 15, “The
Historical Old Covenant.”6.
The ministration that was faulty is
described in Hebrews as
(a) having repetitious animal sacrifices, which
cannot take away sins (Heb. 9:9; 10:4); 7.
(b) possessing a human
priesthood that is mortal and changeable (Heb. 7:8-12);
inferior to the better covenant, to the better promises, and to Jesus,
who is separate from sinners (Heb. 7:26; 8:6);
(d) having a worldly
sanctuary that is only a copy of the true (Heb. 8:5; 9:1, 11);
a shadow of things to come (Heb. 10:1);
(f) having come first (Heb. 8:8,
(g) being faulty because of “them” (Heb. 8:8);
broken by the fathers (Heb. 8:9); and
(i) decaying and growing old and
being ready to pass away (Heb. 8:13).
“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”
(Exod. 23:20, 21). Ellen White commented: “This angel, Christ, gave
Moses the ceremonies and ordinances of the Jewish law to be repeated to
the people. The rebellion of Israel against the law and authority of
God, caused their destruction” (Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, April
29, 1875). The Psalmist explains what God meant by not provoking the
Angel. “How oft did they provoke him in the wilderness, and grieve him
in the desert! Yea, they turned back and tempted God, and limited the
Holy One of Israel” (Ps. 78:40, 41). In provoking Him, they grieved Him
and caused Him to not pardon their transgressions.8.
of the “˜old covenant’ were, Obey and live: “˜If a man do, he shall even
live in them’ (Ezekiel 20:11; Leviticus18:5); but “˜cursed be he that
confirmeth not all the words of this law to do them.’ Deuteronomy 27:26.
The “˜new covenant’ was established upon “˜better promises’--the promise
of forgiveness of sins and of the grace of God to renew the heart and
bring it into harmony with the principles of God’s law. “˜This shall be
the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those
days, saith the Lord, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write
it in their hearts.”| I will forgive their iniquity, and will remember
their sin no more.’ Jeremiah 31:33, 34.
“The same law that was
engraved upon the tables of stone is written by the Holy Spirit upon the
tables of the heart. Instead of going about to establish our own
righteousness we accept the righteousness of Christ. His blood atones
for our sins. His obedience is accepted for us. Then the heart renewed
by the Holy Spirit will bring forth “˜the fruits of the Spirit.’ Through
the grace of Christ we shall live in obedience to the law of God written
upon our hearts. Having the Spirit of Christ, we shall walk even as He
walked. Through the prophet He declared of Himself, “˜I delight to do
Thy will, O My God: yea, Thy law is within My heart.’ Psalm 40:8. And
when among men He said, “˜The Father hath not left Me alone; for I do
always those things that please Him.’ John 8:29" (Ellen G. White,
Patriarchs and Prophets [Nampa, ID: Pacific Press Publishing
Association, 2005], p. 372).9.
The ceremonial law used animal
sacrifices, which pointed to the Messiah-Redeemer. It also had a
sanctuary ministry and human priesthood that ended and were replaced by
the true and effective sacrifice of Jesus and His ministry in the
heavenly sanctuary. Rituals for cleansing from defilement and
circumcision were temporary. Because the Most Holy Place is the throne
of God, the festivals could only continue if they were invested with new
emphases and meanings.10.
Moses put the two tablets inside the
ark (Exod. 25:16, 21) with the pot of manna (Exod. 16:33, 34), attaching
staves to carry the ark (Exod. 40:20). Later, he placed Aaron’s rod that
budded inside the ark (Num. 17:10). The covenant was written on tables
of stone (Deut. 4:13) twice (Deut. 10:2, 5). Later, only the covenant
remained (1 Kings 8:9; 2 Chron. 5:10). Hebrews mentions all three items
Moses put the book containing the ceremonial and
other laws in the side of the ark. “And it came to pass, when Moses had
made an end of writing the words of this law in a book, until they were
finished, that Moses commanded the Levites, which bare the ark of the
covenant of the LORD, saying, Take this book of the law, and put it in
the side of the ark of the covenant of the LORD your God, that it may be
there for a witness against thee” (Deut. 31:24-26).11.
speaks of the pleasure that God and the holy angels enjoy over the
conversion of a sinner to Christ. In the sacrifices, this is expressed
as “an offering made by fire, of a sweet savour unto the Lord.” In
actual experience, we quickly realize that burnt flesh, fat, and hair
are not a pleasant smell. However, as symbols of a dedicated life, they
are pleasing to God. Forty-four times the Bible uses the expression
“sweet savour(s)” with reference to God’s pleasure in such offerings
(e.g. Gen. 8:21; Exod. 29:18, 25, 41; Lev. 1:9, 13, 17; 2:2, 9; Ezek.
6:13; 16:19; 2 Cor. 2:15).