A tale of two covenants


This is the sixth in a series of posts on Understanding the Bible in the 21st century.

The Bible is divided into two ‘Testaments’. It is obvious that the Old Testament tells about Hebrew history and religion before Jesus, while the New Testament tells about the coming of Jesus and what happened next.

But is that all? Can the differences between the two Testaments tell us something important about the Bible and how we should read it?

What does ‘testament’ mean?

We are familiar with the word testament in the term last will and testament, but this isn’t it’s meaning here. The Greek and latin words could mean testament in this sense, but when used in the Bible the word means covenant (see FF Bruce on The Two Testaments).

And we know what a covenant is – a binding agreement between two parties.

The covenant between God and Israel

According to the Old Testament, God entered into a covenant with Abraham in which God promised Abraham several blessings of many descendants and great influence (Genesis 12-17). The covenant is renewed and expanded with Moses (Exodus 19-24), when the Law was given. This covenant essentially said Yahweh would be the Israelite’s God and they would be his people, serving no other gods, and obeying the very detailed commands given to Moses.

The Old Testament is the record of God’s dealings with his people under this covenant.

Jesus and the new covenant

One of Jesus’ most memorable actions was his Passover meal (the ‘Last Supper’) with his disciples the night before he was executed. During this meal, which included a ritual of drinking wine and offering prayers, Jesus made an astonishing statement (Luke 22:20):

This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.

The reference would have been obvious to any Jew. The Passover meal commemorated the killing of a lamb and the use of its blood to “save” the Hebrews at the time of Moses – and here was Jesus saying his blood was to be shed to begin a new covenant. He was claiming to have the authority to supersede a covenant established by God with a new covenant established by him!

The new replaces the old

It is clear in the New Testament that the new covenant supersedes and completes the old. I have outlined the reasons for this conclusion in The Old Testament Law and Christians, so I will only briefly summarise here:

  • Jesus said the Law (old covenant) remained in force for those who chose to live under it, but the new covenant of “the good news of the kingdom of God” is open to all who wish to receive it (Luke 16:16,17).
  • Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the apostles were willing to let go of some crucial aspects of the old covenant (see Acts 10-11 & 15).
  • Paul taught very strongly that the old covenant of Law and “written code” (including even the Ten Commandments!) was inferior to, and replaced by, the new covenant of grace, freedom and the Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:6, Romans 7:6-8, Galatians 3:23-25, Colossians 2:16-17).
  • The book of Hebrews reinforces this teaching (Hebrews 7:18-19, 10:1, 10:9).

What’s more, no christians tries to keep the old covenant in its entirety now – in fact it is impossible now the Jerusalem temple doesn’t exist.

The clear and obvious conclusion

The commandments of the Old Testament are not in themselves binding on christians because we didn’t sign up to that covenant! When we asked God for forgiveness through Jesus, we entered into Jesus’ new covenant of the good news of the kingdom of God, a covenant of grace, freedom and of the Spirit. The New Testament is written for us.

The take-home message

Whatever anyone says to the contrary, the Old and New Testaments don’t have the same status. While they are both included in the Bible, because they are both recognised as a revelation of God, they are not believed and obeyed in the same way.

This must affect the way we view the Bible.


7. The story so far (a summary)

Photo Credit: mrbill via Compfight cc

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  1. Amazing coincidence, unklee, but I wrote on the same subject today. I really appreciate that you pointed out that the New Covenant began with Jesus’ death, the shedding of his blood. The books of the New Testament begin their narrative earlier, but the covenant itself comes toward the end of each of the four gospels.

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