Several people teach that Christians should keep the Sabbath and several other laws that are found in the Old Testament. However, Christians are not required to keep the Sabbath, to keep annual festivals, to avoid “unclean” meats, and to give two or three tithes. One approach that can help people understand this is a study of the biblical covenants. Below are three Question and Answers that focus on the covenants.
Question: Has the new covenant been made?
Answer: In the old covenant, God listed numerous laws and promised to drive the Canaanites out of the land (Exodus 20-23). The people agreed to obey God, and Moses sprinkled “the blood of the covenant” on the altar and on the people, finalizing the covenant (Exodus 24:1-8). Even though the covenant had been made, Israel’s relationship with God was only in its beginning stages. They had not yet demonstrated whether they would be obedient, and God had not yet given them the land he had promised.
Hebrews 8:6 tells us that Christ’s covenant “is founded on better promises.” It “was established,” says the King James Version; the New American Standard says it “has been enacted.” In other words, the new covenant has been made. The Greek verb is nomotheteo, meaning “to give or to establish a law” (Louw-Nida lexicon). In Hebrews 8:6, it is in the perfect tense, indicating that something was completed in the past and it continues to have an effect. This verse clearly says that the new covenant has been legally made, and it continues in that legally ratified status.
Analogies, such as the analogy of a covenant as a marriage agreement, cannot negate the clear meaning of Hebrews 8:6. Some of the new covenant promises have not yet been fulfilled, but we have been given a down payment as a guarantee that all the promises will be fulfilled. In contract language, the agreement has been signed, though all the goods have not yet been delivered.
Covenants were traditionally ratified with the blood of a sacrifice (Genesis 15:8-18; Exodus 24:1-8). The new covenant was also ratified with sacrificial blood. Hebrews 10:29 calls the blood of Jesus the “blood of the [new] covenant,” which has sanctified us, that is, made us holy. His sacrificial death “has made perfect forever those who are being made holy” (verse 14). The blood of the covenant has been applied to us; the new covenant has been made and ratified. Our relationship with God may have only begun, but it has begun, and it is continuing on the basis of the new covenant, made possible by the blood of Jesus Christ. He is the guarantee and the mediator of the new and better covenant (Hebrews 7:22; 8:6).
Jesus mentioned the new covenant during his last meal with his disciples. The cup of wine represented “the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20). Jesus’ blood, the blood of the new covenant, was poured out for us at the crucifixion, ratifying the new covenant. No one can alter or annul this covenant; it has been made.
Paul wrote that God “has made us…ministers of a new covenant,” which is characterized by God’s Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:3-6). A covenant must be made before it can be administered, and the fact that we have been given the Holy Spirit indicates that the new covenant has already begun to be implemented in us. God’s law is written on our hearts by the Holy Spirit, which guarantees the future promises.
We should live under the terms of the new covenant. The reason we should live this way is that the new covenant has been made.
Question: The NIV says that the old covenant is obsolete (Hebrews 8:13). The King James Version, however, says only that it is decaying and growing old, implying that it is still here. Can you prove from the King James Version that the old covenant is obsolete?
Answer: Hebrews 10:9 (KJV) says that Jesus Christ, as God in the flesh, came to do the will of God the Father. He took away the first covenant so he could establish the second. Hebrews 8:6 (KJV) says that he is the mediator of a better covenant, and that the better covenant has already been established. These two verses show that the old covenant has ended. When he established the new covenant, Christ made the old covenant obsolete. The new agreement replaces the old. Our relationship with God is on the basis of the new covenant, not the old.
The old covenant included both the tabernacle and the sacrificial system (Hebrews 9:1). These are now obsolete, indicating that the law requiring them is also obsolete. We do not have to offer both physical and spiritual sacrifices; we do not keep all the old laws and simply add the Holy Spirit to help us keep them in their spiritual intent as well as in the letter. Instead, such commandments are set aside, disannulled, no longer required, made obsolete (Hebrews 7:18).
For example, the old covenant required sabbatical years, jubilee years, tree-branch booths, phylacteries and the destruction of mildew-infested homes. The reason that we do not have to obey these laws is because the covenant itself is obsolete. (Some old covenant laws, such as the law forbidding adultery, are continued into the new covenant. But they existed before the old covenant, and we can demonstrate their continuing validity from the new covenant.)
2 Corinthians 3 also discusses the old and new covenants. Verse 3 refers to the tables of stone on which the old covenant was written, and the writing of the Holy Spirit on the heart, which is the new covenant. Paul notes that the new covenant is already being administered (verse 6). The old covenant was glorious, Paul said (verse 7), but he also refers to that covenant as “that which is done away” (verse 11).
Galatians 3 also makes it clear. Verse 17 mentions the Abrahamic covenant and a law that was added 430 years later. What law was given 430 years after a covenant was made with Abraham? The law at Sinai, including the covenant and all its sacrifices — both its commandments and its penalties. This law was added long after the covenant of promise through faith was given to Abraham. The covenant at Sinai was made with Abraham’s descendants in Moses’ day “because of transgressions, till the seed [Christ] should come to whom the promise was made” (verse 19).
The laws and penalties were designed to be a “schoolmaster” (KJV) to bring us to Christ (verse 24). Before we were brought to faith in Christ, we were “held prisoners by the law, locked up until faith would be revealed” (verse 23, NIV), but after faith has come, we are no longer under a “schoolmaster” (verse 25). Galatians is talking about an added law that has become obsolete.
Is it possible that this additional law was only the law of sacrifices? Were the sacrifices temporarily added to the Ten Commandments, which are (according to this interpretation) a permanent covenant? If so, verse 17 would then need to be understood in this way: “The law, which was added two months after the covenant was made, cannot disannul the covenant.” But this is not what verse 17 says. The covenant mentioned in verse 17 is the promise given to Abraham, and “the law” is the covenant made at Sinai 430 years later. Galatians is not arguing about sacrifices at all. The Levitical sacrifices could not be performed in Galatia, and they were not part of the controversy Paul was addressing.
In Galatians 4, Paul is contrasting the covenant given to Abraham with the covenant given to Moses. Abraham had two sons, and in an allegory they are compared to two covenants (verses 22-24). The son of the bondwoman corresponds to Sinai and the temple in Jerusalem (verses 24-25). But Christians are children of the promise — we are under the Abrahamic covenant, not the Sinaitic covenant (verses 28, 31). “Cast out the bondwoman and her son,” Paul quotes with approval (verse 30). Do not put yourself under the old covenant, but under the new.
Question: Is the new covenant really established? Hebrews 8:11 says, “No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, `Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.” Does this verse prove that the new covenant isn’t established, since not everyone knows the Lord?
Answer: We must understand the context of the verse. Hebrews is a book that compares and contrasts an old order with a new order. It shows that Jesus Christ is superior to the angels, superior to Moses and the Aaronic priesthood, and he is the mediator of a better covenant.
After drawing these comparisons and contrasts, the author shows that something was wrong with the old order, the old covenant (Hebrews 8:7). The flaw of that covenant was with the people (verse 8). In light of this, God announced that he would establish a new covenant. This covenant would include better promises.
In verses 8-12, the author quotes Jeremiah 31:31-34, which is a prophecy about a new covenant. This covenant focuses on three things: God will write his laws on our hearts (Hebrews 8:10), knowledge of the Lord will be available from the least to the greatest (verse 11) and our sins will be remembered no more (verse 12). Verse 13 ends the section by stating that the first covenant is obsolete. We are now under the new covenant.
The author quotes part of Jeremiah’s prophecy again in Hebrews 10:15-18. In this passage he says that the forgiveness of sins has been achieved, implying that Jeremiah’s prophecy has been fulfilled. In using Jeremiah’s prophecy, the author shows that in the old covenant, people did not personally know the Lord because they had to be taught about him. Human mediation accompanied the old covenant. Knowledge of God was made possible through the priesthood. Instead of the law being internalized or written on the “inward parts,” the people memorized the law as an external code. This resulted in a knowledge about God but not necessarily a personal relationship with him.
Under the new covenant, believers know the Lord through a personal relationship with him. Jeremiah’s new covenant prophecy says that those who know the Lord, from the least to the greatest, will know the Lord in a better way. Believers know the Lord without a required human mediator or the memorization of an external code.
In the new covenant there is no class (such as priests) who alone could teach others to know the Lord, no class distinctions by age or sex or race, but the knowledge of God is available to everyone across the whole range of humanity. Everyone in the Body of Christ is on an equal footing through a common and personal knowledge of God (see Donald Guthrie, Hebrews, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, volume 15, page 177).
Covenants, like promises, are made before they are fulfilled. For instance, part of the Abrahamic covenant began to be fulfilled centuries after it had been made. The Mosaic covenant was made 40 years before the Israelites even entered the land that it promised. Likewise, God has already made his new covenant with Christians, even though they have not received the fulfillment of all its promises. The covenant requires faith precisely because the promises are not yet fulfilled, but the promises have been given and the covenant has been made. The agreement and relationship has been established. The church still looks forward to the fulfillment of all the promises of the new covenant. Many blessings do await, and they are new covenant blessings.
The prophecy that the new covenant would be made has been fulfilled, for the new covenant has been made. The new covenant has begun to be fulfilled, but it has not been completely fulfilled yet, for not all the promises have been completed. But it is still correct to say that the new covenant has been made, even though many people do not yet know the Lord.