Paul and the Old Covenant

1. Paul dealt with questions about the covenants in several letters. Did he consider himself a minister of the old covenant or of the new? 2 Corinthians 3:6. How did he contrast the new covenant with the old covenant that was written on stone? Verses 3, 7. What did the old covenant bring, and what does the new covenant bring? Verses 6-9.

The stone tablets mentioned here are the tablets Moses carried when his face shown in glory. The tablets contained “the words of the [old] covenant — the Ten Commandments” (Exodus 34:28). This is the ministry that brought death and condemnation.

The law, written in stone, required death for transgression. It did not give righteousness or salvation (Galatians 2:21). But the new covenant brings the Holy Spirit and life and righteousness. The old covenant could not cleanse the conscience, but the new covenant is written on the heart. It changes our hearts in a way that an external law cannot. The old covenant was temporary. It was glorious in its time, but its glory has faded because a greater glory is now here.

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2. Does everyone understand the glory of the new covenant? Verses 13-15. How can the covering be taken away from their hearts and minds? Verse 14, last part, and verse 16. Does the veil prevent people from understanding the gospel? 2 Corinthians 4:3. Who creates this veil that blinds the people who don’t believe the gospel? Verse 4.

In this passage, Paul uses the new covenant and the gospel as similar terms. When we see one clearly, we also see the other. Through the new covenant, the veil has been removed from us so we can see the Lord’s glory. The gospel is no longer veiled to us.

The god of this age is Satan, who prevents people from seeing the ministry that brings righteousness through faith in Jesus Christ. Only in Christ can the veil be removed. Only when we turn to him can we see “the gospel that displays the glory of Christ.” Since Jesus Christ is the image of God, the gospel gives us “the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ” (verse 6). This is the glory of the new covenant, the message that gives us hope and boldness. (For a more detailed analysis of 2 Corinthians 3, click here.)

Paul discusses the covenants in his letter to the Galatians, too. In that letter, let’s pick up the discussion in chapter 3. There, Paul tells us that Christ redeemed us so we might be given the blessing of Abraham, the promise of the Spirit (Galatians 3:14).

3. To whom were the promises given? Galatians 3:16, 18. Through Christ, are we heirs of the promises given to Abraham? Verses 29, 14. Once the promise was given to Abraham by a covenant, could it be taken away? Verse 15. Could the law set aside God’s promise to Abraham? Verse 17.

Paul is contrasting the promise given to Abraham with the law of Moses, which was given 430 years later. Both were covenants, but one was characterized by God’s promise, and the other was dominated by laws. Christians are, through Christ, inheritors of the promise given through the covenant with Abraham.

Paul’s point in this passage is that what God gave through a promise, he cannot take away by adding extra requirements later on. The law of Moses cannot set aside the promise given to Abraham. The old covenant cannot add extra requirements that thwart the promise God gave through Abraham to everyone who has faith in Jesus Christ. The law of Moses cannot take away the promise; the laws of the old covenant cannot limit or restrict salvation, which is by faith.

4. What was the purpose of the law? Galatians 3:19, 24. Now that faith has come, are we still under the law? Verses 23-25.

In this passage, “the law” refers to the law of Moses or the old covenant, which was the law added 430 years after the promise was given to Abraham. This law was designed to be temporary “until the Seed to whom the promise referred had come” (verse 19). The “Seed” referred to by the promise was Jesus Christ (verse 16), so verse 19 means the law was added until Christ came, and it ceased to be in force after that. The law of Moses served to confine the Jews until the promise was given by faith (verse 23).

In verse 24, Paul compares the law to a paidagogos — a type of slave that was part of ancient Greek society. Wealthy Greeks used a paidagogos slave to supervise their children’s education. The paidagogos did not teach, but made sure the children went to school and did their homework. The paidagogos also taught manners and social customs, and disciplined the children. There is no modern equivalent of a paidagogos, so many different translations have been used: schoolmaster, tutor, custodian, disciplinarian. The NIV tries to convey the thought by using the word “guardian.” Paul was indicating that the law of Moses was put in a supervisory function only until Christ came. (For a more detailed analysis of Galatians 3, click here.)

Our spiritual problem is sin. We are sinful, and our sin needs to be removed from our record. We need to be declared righteous or justified. The law cannot do that — only the Judge can declare us righteous. We are justified by faith in Jesus Christ (Romans 3:26). So the law served a purpose until “justification by faith” was revealed through the gospel of Jesus Christ. Before that kind of faith came, the law had authority over us. But now that we are in the era of faith, the law no longer has that authority.

This is another way of saying that Christians do not have to keep the law of Moses; it is another way of saying that the old covenant is obsolete. The message of Acts and Hebrews and Galatians is similar. The law of Moses, with its worship rituals, civil laws and other customs, was temporary.

Many Old Testament rituals symbolized the work of Jesus Christ. Hebrews 9 explains that the Day of Atonement ceremonies, for example, pictured what Christ has done for us. Hebrews 10:1 says that the law was a “shadow” of the spiritual realities that had been promised. The law of Moses contains analogies that show in advance, in silhouette form, what Christ does for us.

The law shows that it is impossible for us to earn our salvation. No amount of law-keeping can make us righteous. It cannot cleanse our consciences or change our hearts. All it can do is condemn us for falling short. So the law helps people see their need for a Savior.

The old covenant helped people see how common sin is. Paul said: “I would not have known what sin was had it not been for the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’” (Romans 7:7).

Human societies rarely have rules about internal desires such as coveting. The old covenant revealed that sin starts in the heart. In this way, the old covenant showed how pervasive sin is — it permeates us — it is found throughout us. Through the law, sin became revealed as “utterly sinful” (verse 13). No matter how many good laws people are given, no matter how hard they try to be good, they always fall short. This sinful fruit reveals the kind of tree we are: We are sinful, and we need the cleansing sacrifice of Jesus.

The old covenant served other purposes, too. It gave the ancient Israelites a framework for national laws. It helped the people understand God’s holiness and their own lack of holiness. It gave practical guidelines for avoiding sin and expressing love toward neighbors. It gave a social context in which Jesus could teach and provide a sacrifice for sin. The main point in this study is that “the law” of the old covenant was temporary. Although it continues to be useful for instructing us in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16), it is not required for Christians today. We do not have to perform the sacrifices, rituals and ceremonies the law commanded.

5. Were some of the Galatian Christians being tempted to come under the law? Galatians 4:21. What illustration from the law did Paul use? Galatians 4:22-31. Which woman represented the old covenant? Verse 24. What is the result of this covenant? Verses 24-25. Are we Christians children of the slave woman, or of the free? Verses 26, 28, 31.

Although the Galatians had faith in Christ, false teachers were trying to get them to add the old covenant to their faith. The false teachers were teaching circumcision, which in Jewish thought was the sign of entering the old covenant. Paul warned them that if they became circumcised, they would have to keep the entire Torah (Galatians 5:3). The implication of Paul’s statement is that Christians do not have to keep the entire Torah, the entire old covenant. We are not children of the slave woman; we were not born under the old covenant. We are not in slavery or in captivity — rather, Christ has set us free (verse 1). (For more on Galatians 4, click here.)

The laws we keep today may be in the old covenant, but if so, we keep them not because they are in the old covenant, but because they are also in the new. If all we know about a law is that it is in the old covenant, that in itself does not tell us whether it is still in force, for some old covenant laws are obsolete. We must evaluate the law by new covenant standards — which shows that the Old Testament has no legal authority of its own. The New Testament is the higher legal authority, and it declares the old covenant obsolete.

The old covenant stands or falls as a unit, as a group, and the fact that some of the laws are obsolete tells us that the entire covenant is obsolete. It is not a moral authority for Christians. Although it is not a legal authority, it is still authoritative as a revelation of how God dealt with his people in that specific time and culture. It continues to give us insights into God’s will. Even the laws of sacrifice are “useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). But that does not mean those laws still have authority as laws.

6. Were gentiles once separated from Christ? Ephesians 2:11-12. How have they now been brought near? Verse 13. Has Christ made one new humanity out of two? Verse 15. Has he made the two one? Verse 14. Are both of them reconciled to God through Christ? Verse 16.

The “two” people Paul is talking about in this passage are Jews and gentiles. Christ preached peace not only to those who were near (the Jews) but also to those who were far away, who had been separated from him (the gentiles). Through Christ both Jews and non-Jews have access to God (verses 16-17). Through him the two have been joined into one. Through the blood of Christ the gentiles have been brought near. Through his cross all people have been reconciled to God. Paul’s focus in this passage is the spiritual union of everyone in Christ.

7. In order for the two peoples to be made one, what had to be destroyed? Ephesians 2:14. How was it done? Verses 15-16.

Although Jews and gentiles had been spiritual competitors, separated from one another, Jesus has made them one. He saves them both in the same way. How did he make them one? By breaking down “the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility” that had separated Jews and gentiles. What was the wall of division, the cause of the hostility or enmity between Jews and gentiles?

What barrier did Jesus destroy? It was “the law with its commandments and regulations.” These were the laws that separated Jews from gentiles — ordinances in the law of Moses, the old covenant — ordinances that were given to Jews but were not commanded for gentiles. Jesus abolished these laws. He did not die on the cross to eliminate human rules and regulations — he died to abolish old covenant regulations. All the rules in the law of Moses concerning ritual purification and sacrifices are now obsolete. So are the civil laws and other rituals — all the laws that Jews had to keep to make them different from gentiles.

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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™  Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide.

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This article was written by in 1997 and updated in 2014. Copyright by the author. All rights reserved. If you'd like to learn more about the Bible, check out Grace Communion Seminary. It's accredited, affordable, and all online.

These laws separated Jews from gentiles. The Bible says that some of these laws served that very purpose, to set the Israelites apart from other peoples (Leviticus 20:24). Many other laws did that, too, because God commanded the Israelites to keep certain rules that he did not command the gentiles to keep. Jewish rabbis understood that God gave many laws only to the Jews, and that gentiles could be considered righteous without keeping those particular laws. They did not apply to the gentiles.

In his death, Jesus abolished the old covenant rules that separated Jews and gentiles, the rules that required Jews to be different. This is the way he made peace between Jew and gentile, making one people out of two (Ephesians 2:15). Jesus reconciled both groups to God, making them one body by his death on the cross, “by which he put to death their hostility” (verse 16).

Jesus killed the hostility, figuratively speaking, when he was crucified. He put an end to the rules that separated Jew from gentile. Just as we have seen in Acts, Galatians and Hebrews, Jesus put an end to the old covenant, the law of Moses. The laws that were given only to the Jews came to an end. (For more on Ephesians 2, click here.)

Christ did not unite Jews and gentiles by requiring gentiles to come under the old covenant. Rather, he united them by removing the old covenant and forgiving the sins of both. No one has to keep the obsolete laws. Jews do not have to keep the laws that divided them from gentiles. Peter was able to live like a gentile (Galatians 2:14). Paul could, too, because he was not under the Torah (1 Corinthians 9:20-21). Christians are not under the law of Moses. We will now begin to explore in more detail what that means.

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