God’s intention has always been the same—namely, living in a vibrant relationship with His faithful followers.
A biblical covenant is the legal establishment of a relationship between God and His people. God takes the initiative, institutes this close relationship, and secures it personally. He makes the first step and does it because of His love for His children. The covenants He establishes are based on His love, grace, and faithfulness, and rooted in God’s eternal covenant established within the Trinity before the foundation of the world to save human beings in case they fell into sin (Eph. 1:3, 4; 2 Tim. 1:9; Titus 1:2; 1 Peter 1:20; Rev. 13:8).
In the Epistle to the Hebrews, the apostle Paul made a clear distinction between the “first” and the “new” covenants and stated that if there had been nothing “deficient” or “inadequate” with the first one, the “second” or “new” would not have been needed. The new covenant was first stated by Jeremiah (33:31–34), explained by Ezekiel (36:22–32; 37:23–28), and then repeated by Paul in Hebrews (8:8–12), which is the longest quotation of an Old Testament passage in the New Testament.
Paul discussed the new covenant in the setting of Christ’s ministry in the heavenly sanctuary as our High Priest in comparison to sanctuary services in the earthly tabernacle with the animal sacrifices and the Levitical priesthood. He spoke about the “better covenant” (7:22; 8:6), and this better covenant is the “new covenant” (8:8; 9:15; 12:24) or the “second” one (8:7). The key adjective better is a comparative of good; thus, Paul compares the first covenant, which was “good,” to the new covenant, which is “better.” It is important to remember that Paul’s purpose for writing the Epistle to the Hebrews is to admonish his readers to stay faithful to Jesus and not abandon their faith in Him because in Christ everything is better and superior in comparison to the previous sacrificial system full of rituals.
What Was the First Covenant?
One needs to ask what Paul meant when he speaks about the “first covenant.” (The full phrase is used only in Hebrews 9:15; but see also 8:7, 13; 9:1, 18.) To what covenant is he referring? It is interesting that Paul in Hebrews never once uses the term “old covenant” to describe the first covenant. Paul used the phrase “old covenant” only in 2 Corinthians 3:14 in reference to the reading and understanding of Old Testament revelation without acknowledging Christ as the key to interpret it. He stressed that Christians are “ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Cor. 3:6, ESV).
In the new covenant passage, the Lord explained that the new covenant would not be “like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt” (Heb. 8:9, NIV). The reference is plainly to the Sinaitic or Mosaic covenant that God made with Israel after the Exodus. This covenant was established at Mount Sinai (Ex. 19:3–8; Heb. 12:18–21), ratified by the blood of animal sacrifices (Ex. 24:4–8), and renewed by the merciful Lord after the golden-calf apostasy (34:10, 11) as the forgiving Lord demonstrated on multiple occasions that He is the God of love (19:4; 20:2; 34:6, 7). Paul spoke about this Sinai experience in Hebrews 9:18–20, and Jeremiah contrasted the new covenant with the Sinaitic covenant, too (Jer. 31:32). So, the first covenant referred to here by Paul was not a covenant with Adam, Noah, or Abraham, but with Israel at Mount Sinai. It is also clearly declared by the author of the Book of Hebrews: “the first covenant had regulations for worship and also an earthly sanctuary” (9:1, NIV).
A tabernacle with its services was an integral part of this Mosaic covenant and this means that the ceremonial or cultic laws were tied to the first covenant. The first covenant’s sacrificial system pointed to Jesus, who was the Passover Lamb and greater than the temple (Ex. 12:13; Isa. 53:7; Dan. 9:27; Matt. 5:17, 18; John 1:29; 1 Cor. 5:7). This represents the discontinuity aspect of the first covenant.
Thus, in the context of Paul’s discussion of the covenants in Hebrews, the first covenant had two inseparable parts: (a) the ceremonial or cultic—the sacrificial system with its regulations, and (b) the moral or spiritual with God’s four timeless promises. These four elements God had already given to Israel at Sinai (and even earlier, as they are key principles or promises of harmonious spiritual life), and were re-emphasized by prophets: (1) the presence and cultivation of God’s law in heart and mind (Ex. 20:2, 6; Deut. 6:5–8; Joshua 1:6–9; Ps. 1; Prov. 3:4–7); (2) the close covenantal relationship with the Lord (Ex. 6:6, 7; Lev. 26:12); (3) the existential knowledge of the Lord (Ex. 16:6; 29:46; 33:13); and (4) the forgiveness of sins (Ex. 20:6; Ps. 32:1, 2; 51:1–4; Isa. 1:18, 19). This content of the new covenant was nothing new; it was only the renewed appeal to internalize God’s law, thus the continuity of this covenant is underscored. This is exactly what Jesus was doing when He explained the true meaning of the Old Testament’s teachings in the Sermon on the Mount of Beatitudes (Matt. 5:17–48).
From this perspective, it is significant to realize that the new covenant has no curses, but only blessings. God’s promises are rooted in a renewed relationship with God, in what God can do for and in us when we let Him. The complete solution to the problem of sin comes when sin will be no more, when our transgressions will be no longer be remembered (Heb. 8:12).
What Went Wrong?
Paul stated that “if there had been nothing wrong with that first covenant, no place would have been sought for another” (Heb. 8:7, NIV). It is interesting that many Christians, when reflecting on the first or old covenant, automatically assume that the Sinaitic covenant was improper and bad, so they pose an important question: What was wrong with the old covenant? However, it must be stressed that this is a false question because the adverb wrong (vs. 7, NIV) is an incorrect translation of the Greek term amemptos, which means “faultless,” “blameless,” or “without defect”—and not wrong as the NIV translators put it. Nowhere does the Bible state that the old covenant was a mistake.
Paul argued that in the first covenant something was insufficient, lacking, deficient, and faulty (Heb. 8:7, 8), thus inadequate, but not wrong. The first covenant was good but older and aging (vs. 13) and had regulations that were “weak and useless” (7:18). It was characterized as “obsolete” (Greek verb palaioein means “declare as obsolete”; “make or become old”), signifying that the first covenant was vanishing, disappearing, and aging, thus, no more relevant. Why?
The Sinaitic covenant with all its specific ceremonies and sacrifices was an illustration (Heb. 9:9), an object lesson of how God saves repentant people, and how He deals with sin, and destroys evil. This presentation of God’s plan of redemption included things that were teaching tools before the reality came in Christ Jesus. It required: (1) offering sacrifices and the blood of the animals, which could not forgive sins (Heb. 9:23; 10:4) nor bring perfection, cleanse the consciences of people, and assure salvation (7:11; 9:9, 10); (2) the services of the priests who were sinful and mortal and, consequently, they needed to repeatedly sacrifice for themselves as well as for people (5:3; 7:23, 27; 9:7); (3) Levitical priesthood (7:5, 9, 11) in contrast to the priesthood according to the order of Melchizedek (6:20; 7:24, 26–28); and (4) regulations for worship and an earthly sanctuary (9:1). Thus, a better sanctuary than the earthy one was envisioned (8:1, 2; 9:11, 12), a better sacrifice and blood was offered (9:12–15, 23, 25), a better foundation of promises was needed (8:6), and a better hope was projected (7:19).
In other words, nothing was wrong with the Sinaitic covenant itself. The new covenant was part of the eternal covenant of God with His people (Heb. 13:20). It was the Lord Himself who initiated and entered into a covenantal relationship with them. Neither was the fault with God. He did not trick them nor gave them something inappropriate. The deficiency was not on God’s side. He was not misleading His Old Testament people, nor was He unfair to the Israelites by giving them the Sinaitic covenant.
Roots of the new covenant can be traced back into antiquity. All four principles mentioned in the new covenant are present in the Sinaitic covenant (see above) and can also be detected in the Abrahamic, Noahic, and Adamic covenants. After God’s inauguration of His covenant of grace with the protoevangelium (Gen. 3:15), every subsequent covenant grandfathered in the gospel truths of His previous covenant(s) while adding new elements to the progressively revealed divine covenant, culminating in the new covenant. God’s everlasting covenant of grace is actually built on the covenant between the Father and the Son, Jesus Christ, when they covenanted to redeem humanity in case Satan would deceive humans into sin (Eph. 1:3, 4; 3:10, 11; 2 Tim. 1:9; Rev. 13:8).
The NIV Study Bible rightly comments on the connection between the Abrahamic covenant and the Sinaitic covenant: “The covenant between God and Israel at Mount Sinai is the outgrowth and extension of the Lord’s covenant with Abraham and his descendants 600 years earlier. Participation in the divine blessings is conditioned on obedience added to faith.”1 John Sailhamer depicts several parallels between Noah’s altar and Moses’ altar at Mount Sinai and then wisely concludes on the close relation between the Sinaitic and Noahic covenants: “These observations suggest that the author intentionally draws out the similarities between God’s covenant with Noah and the covenant at Sinai. Why? The answer that best fits with the author’s purposes is that he wants to show that God’s covenant at Sinai is not a new act of God. The covenant is rather a return to God’s original promises.”2 The principles of the new covenant are already alluded to in the Adamic covenant: (1) God’s law in the heart (Gen. 1:28; 2:2, 3); (2) belonging to God and in close connection with Him (1:27; 2:7, 21, 22; 3:8, 9); (3) personal knowledge of God (Gen. 1:28; 2:15–17), and (4) forgiveness of sins (3:15, 21). God’s goodness was presupposed because He is the Creator, and obedience was always required (Gen. 2:15–17; 6:9, 22; 17:1, 2; 22:12; 26:5). The promise of eternal life was connected to the gift of salvation accepted by faith (Gen. 3:15; 15:6).
Paul gave an explicit answer to the question of what went wrong with the first covenant. The problem was with the people’s reception of the covenant and their response toward it: “God found fault with the people” (Heb. 8:8). People transgressed the first covenant, and this was one of the reasons that God gave the new covenant. This is a very significant observation: People were to blame, not God or the covenant. Remember, people requested that Moses would speak to them directly, and not the Lord (Ex. 20:18–20), even though God invited them to go up to Mt. Sinai to meet Him after He gave them the Decalogue (Ex. 19:13). So Moses became the mediator of the first covenant (Deut. 5:24–27; Heb. 9:19, 20; 12:18–21). Most importantly, the Israelites worshiped the golden calf (Ex. 32:4–6, 19, 20), and later people sacrificed to goat idols in the wilderness (Lev. 17:7). They took God’s law merely as a command, discounting its promissory potential and accepted His covenant as something they had to do in order to be righteous and holy instead of keeping God’s precepts out of gratitude for His kindness toward them. The Decalogue became the performance of work—hard obedience to God’s stipulations to earn God’s favor—and was not received as God’s promise. The law became a burden, an external duty to keep, and the people lacked a deep understanding of internalizing and living it out of thankfulness for God’s experienced goodness. Three times they responded to the establishment and ratification of the covenant: “‘We will do everything the Lord has said’" (Ex. 19:8, NIV), but their hearts were not converted. They did not realize the sinfulness of their hearts and their inability to obey God by their own power (Joshua 24:19). Obedience is possible only when people are enabled to do so by the power which comes to them from outside of themselves springing from God’s grace, His Word, and the Spirit (Eze. 36:27; 1 Cor. 15:10; Gal. 2:20).
What Is New in the New Covenant?
Several crucial aspects need to be highlighted to answer this question. First, the new thing is the historical ratification of the new covenant by Jesus Christ’s death. He is the guarantor of this covenant (Heb. 7:22) because He secured and sealed forgiveness and salvation for His followers as well as for believers who lived during Old Testament times in anticipation of the Cross (9:15). This proleptic hope was ratified once for all. Second, Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice fulfilled the sacrificial system (Dan. 9:27; Matt. 27:51; John 1:29), so no longer were animal sacrifices and their blood, the Levitical priesthood, and the earthly sanctuary needed. These rituals and cultic ceremonies performed by human priests were imbedded in the earthly sanctuary. It is transparent that the author of Hebrews proclaims that the cultic elements of the first covenant are no longer relevant to a Christian because of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross. Third, it means that only the ceremonial or cultic part of the first covenant ceased to exist. This is the part that consists of sacrifices and the blood of animals, mortal Levitical priesthood, and services in the earthly sanctuary. Offered sacrifices “were not able to clear the conscience of the worshiper” (Heb. 9:9, NIV), but the blood of Christ was able to cleanse “our consciences from acts that lead to death” (vs. 14). The imperfection of the Levitical priests is contrasted by Paul with the perfect life and obedience of Jesus (2:10; 4:15; 5:8, 9).
In Jesus Christ, everything is better and superior to the previous old covenant era. He is superior to prophets (Heb. 1:1, 2), angels (1:4), Abel (12:24), Moses (3:3), and Joshua (4:8). Christ is better because He is fully divine (1:3) as the Son of God (1:2–5; 4:14; 7:3), yet He is also fully human, like us but without sin (2:14; 4:15). He became our Brother (2:11, 12, 17). In Christ we have the better priesthood (7:15, 16, 24–28), the better sanctuary (8:2), the better hope (7:19), the better promises (8:6), the better blood (9:12; 12:24), and the better sacrifice (7:27; 9:23, 28). He provides perfect rest (4:3; Matt. 11:28). Christ is above all, holy, blameless, and pure (Heb. 7:26), He lives forever (vs. 24), is worshiped by angels (1:6), is faithful (3:2) and merciful (4:15, 16), He suffered (2:10, 18; 5:8), obeyed (5:8), became perfect (5:9; 7:28), always ready to intercede for us (7:25), so He is the Author and Source of eternal salvation (2:10; 5:9), the Author and Perfector of our faith (12:2), the Apostle (3:1), the great Shepherd (13:20), and the High Priest in the heavenly sanctuary (3:1; 8:1, 2). Because of His resurrection, we are waiting for a “better resurrection” at the second coming of Jesus (11:35; 1 Cor. 15:12–23). This Christological context is the background to understanding the nature of the “new” covenant and discovering its newness.
No longer Moses but Jesus is the mediator of the new covenant (Heb. 8:6; 9:15; 12:24). The atoning death of Jesus Christ on the Cross as a ransom for our sins brought this radical change: the security and guarantee of salvation (2:10; 5:9; 9:15; 12:2). Christ had to die to put into effect the new covenant (9:16, 17), and as the blood inaugurated the first covenant (9:18), so Christ’s blood sealed the new covenant (Heb. 7:22).
The cycle of perpetual animal sacrifices for people and priests has been broken. The pattern has been disrupted and fulfilled by Christ, thus abrogated. Jesus’ sacrifice “once for all” is all-sufficient and brings salvation to those who believe in Him (Heb. 7:27; 9:12, 26, 28; 10:10). The benefits of the Cross are now applied to all devotees during Christ’s ministry as our High Priest in the heavenly sanctuary. The unique and irreversible nature of Calvary is now celebrated.
One must make a difference between the external rituals and the inner content related to the Mosaic covenant. The cultic/ceremonial part of the first covenant was temporary: The regulations, sacrifices, priests, and earthly sanctuary were fulfilled by Christ’s death because He fulfilled the sacrificial system on the Cross (Dan. 9:27). In this sense, “He takes away the first that He may establish the second” (Heb. 10:9, NKJV). From this angle, discontinuity is stressed in the Book of Hebrews and the covenant is characterized as “new.”
However, as for the content, nothing is new in the new covenant, as the same four principles or promises are present in both covenants. The law in the new covenant is not taken away, abrogated, or cancelled, but is internalized (Matt. 5:17–48) even as it was in the hearts of the Old Testament believers (Deut. 30:14; Ps. 37:30, 31; 40:8; Isa. 51:7). To use a soccer analogy, the Decalogue is not “kick out” but “kick in.” God’s law is put into the heart with loving knowledgeable consent. Obedience springs from the grateful, regenerated, and circumcised heart (Deut. 10:16; 30:6; Jer. 32:31). Only by the power of the Holy Spirit are we able to obey God’s teachings, His law, and His will (Eze. 36:27). Perfect obedience is only through Christ (Heb. 2:10, 17; 4:15; 5:9), and in Him it is given to the believers (2:10, 11, 18). This perspective underlines the continuity of the four foundational aspects of the Sinaitic covenant.
This interpretation is fully in harmony with the term new, which should be translated “renew” in the given biblical context. God always desired to build a new community of faith. Jesus’ statement about the new commandment means the renewal of the commandment of love (John 13:34). When John the Revelator affirms that God will create a new heaven and a new earth, he states that our Lord will renew life on earth as originally intended with totally new conditions, namely life without sin, death, violence, suffering, pain, sickness, and calamities. Thus, the term new points to the renewal of the original intent of the covenant God made with His people as well as to its continuity.
The first covenant was written on stone but should have been internalized in the same way as the new one is to be implanted in the heart (Deut. 6:5; 30:10–14; Ps. 40:8; Isa. 51:7; Heb. 9:15). The new covenant was sealed by the blood of Jesus (Heb. 7:22; 10:19, 20). When Christ established the Lord’s Supper as a commemoration of His death, He said about the fruit of the vine: “‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood’” (Luke 22:20, NIV). Christ is the Author of salvation (Heb. 2:10) and “the source of eternal salvation” (5:9). He is the Goal, the Purpose, the Content, or “the culmination of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes” (Rom. 10:4, NIV)—and not its termination.
As the Fulfiller of the covenant, which Moses mediated, “Christ is the mediator of a new covenant” (Heb. 9:15, NIV). Already, Old Testament prophets called for repentance and renewed commitment to the Lord (Joel 2:12–14; Isa. 1:16–20; Jer. 32:36–42; Eze. 11:18–20). They wholeheartedly warned people, before the Assyrian captivity (Amos, Hosea, Isaiah) and before the Babylonian captivity (Zephaniah, Habakkuk, Jeremiah, Ezekiel), that if they repented and acquired a new heart the predicted calamities would not happen. However, the people did not and would not listen. Then Jesus came to renew this covenant in person, by His blood and sacrifice. Whoever accepted Him could receive forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life (John 5:24; Rom. 8:1) resulting in a new life here on earth (Rom. 12:1, 2; 2 Cor. 3:18; 5:17) and through eternity in that city He has prepared for them “whose builder and maker is God” (Heb. 11:10, NKJV).
The new covenant is not actually new, it is only a renewal of the original intent of God’s first covenant that God established with His people at Mount Sinai. The new covenant, which is eternal in nature (13:20), was a theological and spiritual reality before the first coming of Christ and existed in anticipation of Christ’s sacrifice and its benefits, but after the Cross it is now also a historical reality, thus sealed, ratified, secured, and guaranteed by the blood of the sinless, eternal Jesus, our Brother, Shepherd, Author, and Perfecter of our faith, and the High Priest who serves in the heavenly sanctuary on our behalf.
God loves people with an everlasting love (Jer. 31:3) and made an everlasting covenant with His people (Jer. 32:40; Eze. 37:26; Heb. 13:20), which is founded in the eternal covenant between the Father and the Son to save humanity (Eph. 1:3, 4; 3:10, 11; 1 Peter 1:20). He initiated a covenant with Israel (Ex. 19:4–6) and renewed or confirmed it (24:3–7; 34:10, 11). He does this because He wants to deepen the covenantal relationship between Himself and His people and encourage them to be faithful to Him through all life’s circumstances in the Promised Land. He gave the Sinaitic covenant as an illustration of what will come in fullness through Christ. The new covenant is built on a better priesthood, better sanctuary, better blood, better promises, better sacrifice, better forgiveness, and better Person, the Son of God, and our Shepherd. Because of Christ, the believer in Him receives all the benefits of this new covenant: direct access to God (4:16; 10:19–22), grace (4:16), salvation (2:10; 5:9; 7:25; 12:2), help to resist temptation (2:18), clean conscience (9:14), freedom and forgiveness (9:15, 28), holiness (10:10, 14), perfection (10:14), eternal inheritance (9:15), glory (2:10), and an unshakable kingdom (12:28).
The newness of the new covenant is not connected to the content of the covenant but to Christ’s efficacy and achievements on the Cross, where He ratified the covenant by sacrificing His life as a ransom for us (Heb. 9:15), thus becoming the guarantor of the new covenant (7:22). He is “the mediator of a new covenant” so that believers in every historical era can receive “the promised eternal inheritance” (9:15, NIV). He offered His life once for all as a better sacrifice that secured forgiveness of our sins and guaranteed better promises because as the immortal, perfect, and holy High Priest, He ratifies the new covenant. What was done proleptically, in anticipation in the Old Testament, is now historically secured (Heb. 9:15). Christ died “once for all” (7:27, NIV), not repeatedly, as it was with the death of the animals that could not secure forgiveness. They were only pointing to the forgiveness available through Jesus Christ.
We are no longer under the obligations of the earthly sanctuary, sacrifices, and Levitical priesthood. Yet, the benefits of God’s promises are the same in both the first and the new covenants: knowing God personally, experiencing forgiveness of sins, accepting the gift of salvation, and receiving eternal life. Before the reality came through Christ Jesus, by the Sinaitic covenant, God gave the Israelites the illustration of the plan of redemption, an object lesson so they could understand the terrible nature of sin and how God saves repentant sinners (Heb. 9:9). The new covenant is built on a better sanctuary, a better sacrifice, a better priesthood, and better promises. The promises are not better in quality but are better by the performance of Jesus Christ Himself; they are the same promises of forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life but are better because they were fulfilled in His life, ratified by the Cross, and guaranteed by Christ’s blood. The cultic dimension of the first covenant is discontinued, while the promises continue.
At the heart of the new covenant occurs the core statement: “‘I will be their God, and they will be my people’” (Jer. 31:33, NIV—and then quoted in Hebrews 8:10). This covenant formula describes God’s intimate relationship with His people during all time and expresses His desire to have a close fellowship with them. This specific phrase slightly varies in different texts but is at the heart of the Old Testament covenant. For the first time this formula occurs in Exodus 6:7, and then it runs throughout the entire Bible and occurs in many key passages (Lev. 26:12; Jer. 24:7; Eze. 11:20; Zech. 8:8; Heb. 8:10; Rev. 21:3). At the center of the prophet Ezekiel’s theological message, he emphasizes God’s proclamation: “‘You will live in the land I gave your forefathers; you will be my people, and I will be your God’” (Eze. 36:28, NIV). God’s intention was and always was the same, namely living in a vibrant relationship with His faithful followers. Praise the Lord for this renewal of His relationship with us through the new covenant.
Jiří Moskala, ThD, PhD, is Dean of the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, U.S.A., and Professor of Old Testament Exegesis and Theology.
NOTES AND REFERENCES