|Just what is the new covenant? What part do covenants play in God's plan?|
Meaning of "covenant"
The English word "covenant" means
"a written agreement or promise . . . between two or more parties, esp. for the performance of some action" (Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary).
"Covenant" expresses the fundamental meaning of both the Old Testament Hebrew word "berit" and the New Testament Greek word "diatheke."
"The covenant . . . is an act of grace on God's part for reconciling man to himself, but man's response should not be overlooked" (Smith's Bible Dictionary, article "covenant", emphasis mine).
Covenants and God's plan
God created man with the potential to have a relationship with Him (Genesis 1:26-27). Therefore, He has initiated many agreements with man--some conditional, some unconditional. Since God wants us to obey Him, many of these covenants stress the necessity of obedience as a condition to receiving what He promises.
The first scriptural mention of "covenant" is found in Genesis 6:18. God promises to spare Noah and his family from the impending worldwide deluge. This "covenant" was primarily an act of God's grace (Genesis 6:8). But Noah's responsiveness to God was also a significant factor (Genesis 6:9).
God established another covenant with Noah after the Flood, promising to never again destroy the earth with water (Genesis 9:11-17). This covenant was unilateral and fundamentally unconditional. It was simply an expression of God's grace.
Some claim God's "covenant" with Abraham mentioned in Genesis 15:18 is the main covenant He made with Abraham. But this account is more like an oath that He would fulfill what He promised. Genesis 17 describes the formal institution of the covenant. Here God spells out the terms and conditions of this historic pact. God's promises are conditioned upon Abraham's obedience (Genesis 17:1, 26:3-5). This covenant was also extended to Isaac and his descendants (Genesis 17:9, 24:60, 27:28-29, 28:10-14). Circumcision was the "sign" or physical brand of identification of the human participants (Genesis 17:11).
Genesis 22:16-18 describes the "seed" promise which Paul refers to in Galatians 3:16. Again, although fundamentally based on God's grace, the context clearly ties God's offer to Abraham's obedience.
God delivered Israel from Egypt due to His prior covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Exodus 2:23-25, Exodus 6:2-8). God then makes a covenant with Israel (through Moses as mediator) (Exodus 19:1-8). Israel glibly accepts the offer, not realizing they don't have the nature to fulfill God's requirements (Exodus 19:8, Deuteronomy 5:28-29). The terms and conditions of this covenant are spelled out in the remainder of the book of Exodus and reiterated in Deuteronomy.
Exodus 31 expounds yet another covenant to emphasize the monumental importance of the Sabbath as an identifying sign of God's people. Some erroneously claim the Sabbath is a sign of the old covenant, which the text simply does not say.
A "new covenant"
Jeremiah 31:31-34 prophesies about "a new covenant." The book of Hebrews provides the main New Testament commentary on this "new covenant."
Why is it called "new?" The New Testament uses two different Greek words for "new." "Neos" means new in contrast to old. "Kainos" means "new" in the sense of "unique". Hebrews 12:24, which identifies Jesus Christ as the mediator of the new covenant, is the only scripture where "neos" is used in reference to the new covenant. Every other passage uses "kainos." So the "new covenant" is unique.
How is the new covenant unique and better than the old?
Hebrews 8:6 tells us the new covenant is better than the old because it contains better promises. Promises which were never before offered and thus unique to the new covenant. Hebrews 8 enumerates three such promises.
The main fulfillment of Jeremiah's prophecy will occur when the new covenant is made with the house of Israel (Jeremiah 31:31, Hebrews 8:10). After He returns to set up the kingdom of God, Christ will establish the new covenant with all Israel and ultimately all mankind. So Malachi 3:1 calls the returning Christ the
"messenger of the covenant."
Under His rule, The Law will be taught from Jerusalem (Isaiah 2:3). This shows The Law remains an integral part of the new covenant.
Ezekiel 11:17-20 prophesies that God will give them a new heart and new spirit to motivate them to obedience. Mercy and forgiveness of sin will be extended to all (Isaiah 59:20-21). As result, Israel will enjoy an intimate relationship with God (Hosea 2:16, 19-20, 23).
What is "obsolete" (Hebrews 8:13)?
Some wrongly assume that all Old Testament laws are obsolete unless repeated in the New Testament. The New Testament is a record of members living by the terms of the new covenant. But nowhere does the Bible say all new covenant laws are recorded in the New Testament. Rather, the laws of the new covenant are written in the minds and hearts of God's people.
The new covenant renders the old covenant obsolete. The old covenant is not the same as the Ten Commandments. A covenant is an agreement; commandments are laws or terms of the agreement. The Ten Commandments are the "words ["terms," Jewish Publication Society translation] of the covenant" not the covenant itself (Exodus 34:27-28). The covenant or agreement became obsolete, not the laws within it.
The word "obsolete" (Gr. "palaioo") means "things worn out by time and use" (Vine's Dictionary of Biblical Words). Hebrews 10:9-18 shows Christ's sacrifice made animal sacrifices obsolete. But the old covenant was not suddenly discarded or forbidden in the New Testament Church. It simply faded into disuse as people became aware of the superiority of the new covenant and came under it. But the law of God will never become obsolete (Matthew 5:18).
Summary of new covenant features (present and future)
The new covenant is really quite simple. God wants us to have a relationship with Him. Obeying His laws is fundamental to that relationship. The way God has communicated His laws has varied, but the laws remain the same. He related His laws verbally to the patriarchs
(Abraham "obeyed my voice" - Genesis 26:5).
To Israel, God wrote them on stones and in the "book of the law." In the new covenant, He "writes" them in the mind and on the heart.
The new covenant provides the motivation to obey His laws, extends forgiveness when we don't, and results in an intimate relationship with God for all eternity. We all look forward to the time when we will fully experience the benefits of the new covenant as eternal spirit members of God's family.
Written by: Larry Walker