Christians are under the guidance and authority of the new covenant, not the old covenant. This brings up an important question: What is the relationship between the two covenants?
It’s sometimes said that the new covenant is a magnification of the old. In an informal way of speaking, this may be acceptable. However, by thinking of the new covenant as only a modification of the old, we may be led to accept the erroneous idea that the new grew out of the old. If the new covenant is only an expanded version of the old, then this creates a question. Perhaps some of the practices (such as avoiding unclean meats) commanded under the old should also be commanded in the new?
Also, to say that the new covenant develops from the old is to imply that the new is only a Johnny-come-lately, whose existence depends on something that came before it. We might be left with the wrong conclusion that the old covenant is the real basis for the new. This is absolutely not the case. That’s why the title of this article is “The new covenant is older than you think.” This title insists on the ironic conclusion that the new covenant existed long before the old covenant did.
The old covenant existed on a much lower, physical plane. It was kind of a teaching tool pointing to the intent of that which was God’s original and ongoing purpose with humanity. This covenant had a limited existence for a specific time in history for a specific people under special circumstances. The best it could do was point, for a limited time and in a somewhat veiled way, to the reality of God’s purpose in Christ—the new covenant.
On the other hand, the new covenant should be understood as timeless. We cannot attach an age to it, because it goes back to “the beginning.” It was the original plan all along—what some theologians call “the covenant of grace,” the covenant under which all other covenants were given. Creation has never existed without the new covenant, even though God’s purpose is not yet fully achieved.
The New Testament insists that the new covenant goes back to the beginning. Of course, such passages do not use the words “new covenant.” For this reason we need to get a working definition of the new covenant so we can understand when it is being spoken about. Essentially, the new covenant can be defined in the following phrase: the working out of God’s purpose to create human beings to transform them out of their fallen condition into the image of his Son, and give them eternal life.
But here is where things get complicated. We infer from Scripture that God purposed human beings to be created in such a way as to allow them – if they choose – to become prisoners of the fallen world order, which includes sin and death.
Bondage to sin and decay
We understand this aspect of the new covenant from the New Testament. The apostle Paul, for example, summed it up with these words:
The creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we are saved. (Romans 8:20-24)
Our bondage to sin and decay forms the underlying problem the new covenant is meant to deal with. Without the new covenant promises, every human would die and decay into eternal nothingness. God’s purpose would be stopped dead in its tracks. But we know the rest of the story—the new covenant. God provided a means whereby sinning humans could be rescued from the evil world order, from Satan (Ephesians 2:2; 1 Corinthians 4:4; Revelation 12:9) as well as from sin and death. God, in the person of the Son or Word, would become a human being (Jesus Christ), would die for humanity’s sins, and be resurrected as Savior.
God would forgive humans their sins, image them in his Son through the transforming work of the Holy Spirit, and ultimately raise them from the dead. Jesus Christ is the embodiment of the new covenant. Under the new covenant, sin and death are defeated, and God’s purpose to provide humans with eternal life comes to pass. That is the new covenant in a nutshell.
But to say it again, the new covenant is much older—eternally older—than the old covenant. (Since God’s purpose ultimately wins out, his purpose is as good as done, even before it occurs it is manifested in creation.) A number of New Testament verses testify to the eternal existence of God’s plan, now known as the new covenant. These scriptures refer to the promise of Christ’s atoning work and God’s purpose to give eternal life in him.
Christ is the basis of the new covenant. Let’s see, in rapid-fire fashion, how insistently these scriptures tell us of the eternal existence of the new covenant.
- The new covenant is God’s “eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Ephesians 3:11).
- Jesus (the Lamb) “was slain from the creation of the world” (Revelation 13:8).
- We were redeemed from our empty way of life by the blood of Christ, who “was chosen before the creation of the world” (1 Peter 1:18-20).
- God’s “work has been finished since the creation of the world” (Hebrews 4:3).
- It was God’s purpose to choose humans for salvation “before the creation of the world” (Ephesians 1:4).
- The kingdom we are to inherit has been prepared “since the creation of the world” (Matthew 25:34).
- God’s purpose to save us and call us to his grace “was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time” (2 Timothy 1:8-9).
- The new covenant has been eternally in existence. It is “the hope of eternal life, which God, who does not lie, promised before the beginning of time” (Titus 1:2).
The new covenant is extremely old. It appears new only because it didn’t come into general force until nearly 2,000 years ago. The fact of its existence before this time was generally hidden from humans. (It was discussed in the Hebrew Scriptures, but we see this primarily in retrospect, because the Reality has now come.)
One of Jesus’ purposes was to reveal the prior existence of this eternal new covenant. Matthew, quoting one of the prophets, said of Jesus’ teaching: “I will utter things hidden since the creation of the world” (13:35). Paul said God’s new covenant purpose to include all people in his plan of salvation “has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the saints” (Colossians 1:26). It was, said Paul, “God’s secret wisdom” (1 Corinthians 2:7). Elements of the new covenant, however, existed partially long before the old covenant. Here are some examples.
- The new covenant ministry of Melchizedek existed before the old covenant ministry of Levi (Hebrews 7). The new covenant high priest in the Melchizedek line existed before the old covenant high priest Aaron.
- John tells us that the Logos existed before Moses.
- The new covenant “fruits” of the Holy Spirit existed before the giving of the old covenant law at Sinai.
- Salvation was given by grace to people such as Abel, Enoch, Noah and Abraham long before the old covenant people of Israel (Hebrews 11:5-12). In Galatians 3:8, Paul says God “announced the gospel”—the new covenant—“in advance to Abraham.”
The fact that the new covenant existed before the old has many implications for us. As Christians, we would want to look to that which came first—to the real thing—as our authority for truth and that in which we put our hope. That’s the new covenant. We would not look to the old covenant, which was but a temporary imitation—a copy or shadow.
Since the old covenant has become obsolete, it would of itself not determine how we should worship God. The old covenant institutions—temple, Levitical priesthood, law etched on stones, various worship regulations and the sacrificial system—would not be normative for us under the new. That is, we would not determine what must be done under the new covenant by looking at the institutions of the old. The book of Hebrews makes this clear. So does Paul in his letters.
Shadow and reality
Let’s summarize the difference between the two covenants. The old covenant institutions were the shadow; the new covenant is the eternally existing reality. The shadow points to the real thing, and cannot exist by itself. The new covenant does not grow out of the old, just as a shadow does not grow out of the reality. Rather, the old covenant grew out of the new. Under the old covenant, Israel became the matrix or setting for the coming of Jesus Christ and his redemptive work.
The new covenant did not come into existence with Christ’s death, resurrection and coming of the Spirit (although that is when the old covenant ended), nor did the new covenant come into existence with Abraham. The new covenant came into existence as God’s original purpose for the human race. Even from before the beginning of time, God has purposed and promised to be gracious to all humanity, to bring us into a joy-filled, never-ending relationship with Father, Son and Spirit.
The very old “new” covenant is the authority for how we are to live our lives in Christ and the framework – through Christ – of our faith.