High Priest in Heaven

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 in Antioch.

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.

Jewish Christians had only 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 heaven.

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” (Exod. 19:8). 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

Three Ratifications

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?” (Gen. 15:8).

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 from Egypt.

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 the Old

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.

Further, Exodus 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 Sacrifices

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

Hebrews 9 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 heart.8 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

The Bible 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 Further, 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.

The 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.

The 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.


1. See chapter 15, “The Historical Old Covenant.”

2. 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. However, 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);
(b) possessing a human priesthood that is mortal and changeable (Heb. 7:8-12);
(c) being 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);
(e) being a shadow of things to come (Heb. 10:1);
(f) having come first (Heb. 8:8, 13; 9:1);
(g) being faulty because of “them” (Heb. 8:8);
(h) being broken by the fathers (Heb. 8:9); and
(i) decaying and growing old and being ready to pass away (Heb. 8:13).

7. “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. “The terms 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 (Heb. 9:4).

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. The Bible 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).