The Old and New Covenant Distinctions

by | Posted March 2nd at 8:23pm

Post 2: New Covenant Series first published March 2017

The new covenant (NC) was the term given by Jeremiah to define a new arrangement coming on the horizon of time. This covenant between God and human beings in which the law would be written in their hearts rather than on tablets of stone (Jer 31:31–33) would transform how God would be perceived by mankind.

The term New Covenant relates to the Greek term καινὴ διαθήκη (kainē diathēkē) which can also be translated “new testament.” The early Christians believed that the promise of a new covenant/testament was fulfilled in Christ (see 2 Cor. 3:6; Heb. 8:8, 13; 9:15; 12:24), which gave rise to the designation of their scriptures as the “New Testament.” 1

Jesus himself is represented as speaking of a new covenant in his words at the Last Supper (Luke 22:20; 1 Cor. 11:25) 2 The word “new” is repeated in the parallel accounts of that meal in Matt. 26:26–29; Mark 14:22–25, though the word “covenant” is missing. The letter to the Hebrews expresses the NC (Hebrews 8:8; 9:15) as does the apostle Paul (1 Corinthians 11:25; 2 Corinthians 3:6)

A “covenant” is an arrangement between two parties involving mutual obligations. In ancient times, nations would enter into covenants – agreements – with each other—a stronger nation would promise to protect the weaker nation, while the weaker promised some service to the stronger.

In the Bible, the covenant, which is diathēkē in Greek, is the arrangement that establishes the relationship between God and His people. The “old covenant” stipulated a relationship with God based on keeping God’s law. This covenant failed because the people failed to keep God’s law, outlined in the moral ten commandments and hundreds of other laws given by Moses.

In contrast to written laws, the new covenant is based on what God has promised to do in the hearts of believers. This is expressed clearly in the book of Jeremiah:

“Behold, days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord. “But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the Lord, “I will put My law within them, and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.” (Jer. 31:31–33)

The quotation of Jeremiah 31:31–34 in Hebrews 8:8–12 is the longest Old Testament quotation found in the New Testament. This quotation explained that the new covenant would one day supersede the old covenant–   “not like the covenant which I made with their fathers” and it was prophesied to occur in the future: “after those days”.

The theme of the new covenant dominates the book of Hebrews, which was written to encourage faltering Christians by demonstrating the superiority of the Christian faith over older Jewish beliefs and practices closely bound to the law prescribed by Moses.

The writer compares the new covenant to a person’s “will” throughout the book of Hebrews, tying the two different meanings of the word diathēkē—“covenant” and “will”—together. Just as the stipulations of a will go into effect when a person dies, so Christ died to initiate the new covenant—the covenant that frees us from bondage to the law of God, or the “old covenant.”

Jesus saw the Lord’s Supper as instituting an entirely different, and therefore, a new covenant. The covenant was sealed by His sacrificial death, and the cup of the Lord’s Supper symbolises the blood of Christ’s sacrifice. In Luke 22:20 we see Jesus during His last supper with the disciples: “And in the same way He took the cup after they had eaten, saying, ‘This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood’”. The apostle Paul wrote in 1 Cor 11:25: “In the same way He took the cup also after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in My blood; do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me’” 3

Every time we gather to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, we are celebrating the new covenant—the wonderful truth that Christ died to save us from our sins and give us new life. 4 The new covenant involves forgiveness of sin, spiritual transformation, and the fulfilment of God’s promises to Israel.

The Promises to Israel

Forgiveness of sins In the Old Testament, the prophetic books of Jeremiah and Ezekiel indicate that the new covenant involves ultimate forgiveness and cleansing (Jer 31:34; Ezek 36:25), and they express this in a number of ways. Jeremiah emphasises the fulfilment of God’s guarantees to Abraham (Jer 31:31–37), while Ezekiel focuses on the fulfilment of God’s relationship with His people (Ezek 36:28).

In Jeremiah, the new covenant is differentiated from the Mosaic covenant (Jer 31:32) and characterised by internal transformation (Jer 31:33–34). 

Transformative relationship promised Ezekiel affirms several additional characteristics about God’s initiative to transform and heal Israel, and eventually, mankind’s relationship to Himself via a divine intervention. He would put His Spirit within the mind of mankind, cleanse and renew their view of God through opening their spiritual viewpoint/eyes to enable perception of Him. His Holy Spirit will actually “cause you to walk” in obedience to Him. (Ezek 36:22–36). 

Old Testament Presentation

Covenants in the Old Testament are of two types. What came to be known as the new covenant is a synthesis of both types: 1. Promise or grant covenants, in which God makes a series of guarantees (i.e., Abrahamic and Davidic); and 2. Administrative or treaty covenants, which govern human response and obedience (i.e., Mosaic). 5

The Abrahamic covenant guarantees promises for Abraham’s offspring to become a great nation, live in the promised land, and bring about blessing for all families of the earth (see Gen 12:1–3; 15:1–21). 

Several passages related to the Mosaic and Davidic covenants appear to anticipate the need for what will become known as the new covenant – and will finally fulfil the promises made to Abraham. 

The Mosaic covenant mediated the fulfilment of those blessings regarding Israel’s obedience and disobedience with many written laws for Israel to follow and obey. Moses also hoped that Israel would be influenced by the Holy Spirit (Num 11:29). In Deuteronomy 30:1–10 Moses describes Israel’s future exile, stating that God must circumcise – meaning renew the spiritually hardened hearts of Israel in its restoration (Deut 30:6). 

The Davidic covenant stipulated that the lineage of King David would provide a king to accomplish Israel’s purpose to bless the world. David’s son Solomon proclaims that God will forgive the people’s sin when they are in exile and vindicate them (1 Kings 8:46–50). 

The Prophets foretell the coming new covenant

The prophetic books of Isaiah and Joel further elaborate on these ideas. Joel envisions that, in the latter days, God will pour out the Holy Spirit upon Israel (Joel 2:28–29). This will result in Israel’s salvation on the Day of Yahweh (Joel 2:30–32). 

When discussing God’s ability to save, Isaiah also promises an outpouring of the Holy Spirit, which provides great spiritual renewal (Isa 44:3). This takes place in an eschatological age brought about by the saving work of the Servant (Isa 59:21 ) Through this renewal; the Abrahamic promises would be fulfilled (Joel 3:1–21; Isa 54:1–55:13).

In Jeremiah, the concept of Israel’s spiritual renewal is described as a futurist “new covenant” (Jer 31:31), in contradistinction to the Mosaic covenant (Jer 31:32). 

The new covenant secures God’s promises and blessings for Israel because it transforms the people’s hearts (Jer 31:33–34). The transforming work of the Spirit produces a nation that knows Yahweh (Jer 31:34; 33:3). This leads to the fulfilment of the Abrahamic promises for Israel, which will be a nation sanctified to Yahweh as He intended (Jer 33:3–26). 

Ezekiel presents the Spirit’s new covenant work in terms of new life (Ezek 36:22–28; 11:19–21), promising that God will “remove the heart of stone” from the Israelites and “give them a heart of flesh” (Ezek 11:19; 36:26). 

The Spirit’s work provides a new inner being, one that is truly living. In Ezekiel 36, the description of the “new” (חָדָשׁ, chadash) covenant, does not merely stem from its distinction from the old covenant. It also reflects its connection with God’s new creation in the hearts of mankind which is achieved via the Holy Spirit indwelling those faithful to Jesus Christ, His divine Son in the final expansion of Abraham’s kingdom which is also the kingdom of Yahweh (our Father God).

New Testament Presentation

The nature of the new covenant’s fulfilment in the New Testament era is a topic of debate. There are three main arguments: 

 1. The new covenant is fully fulfilled in the current era. According to this view, several observations demand that the new covenant must be active: Jesus inaugurated the new covenant by His death (Luke 22:20); Paul states he is the minister of the new covenant (2 Cor 3:6); and the author of Hebrews applies the term to current believers (Heb 8:13; 9:15). I will seek to prove that this is the accurate argument. 

 2. The new covenant is not yet fulfilled. The New Testament does not mention Israel’s experience of all the Abrahamic promises; consequently, none of the new covenant has been fulfilled. Within this view, some contend that two new covenants exist—one for the church, and one for Israel. 6 This view as well as the third view, sustains the Dispensationalism view that Israel will yet be saved and be grafted into the church of Jesus Christ. We will see as the study develops, why this is not scriptural as we look at the entire contour of the covenant transitions.

 3. The new covenant is preliminarily or partially fulfilled. The present spiritual realities and unfulfilled promises to Israel are in tension. Although parts of the new covenant have been inaugurated in Christ, certain elements are awaiting Israel’s restoration (see, e.g., Rom 11:11–31). In the current era, the spiritual aspects of the new covenant operate in a preliminary fashion, awaiting their full and final completion in the future. 7

In the New Testament, Jesus is presented as the promised Messiah who inaugurates the new covenant by His sacrificial death (Luke 22:20; 1 Cor 11:25). Moreover, Jesus indicates that His death and resurrection leads to the ministry of the Holy Spirit (John 14:26; 16:7–14; Acts 1:6–8), which was envisioned by the prophets as a feature of the new covenant. The Spirit’s work brings transformation along the lines of new creation and new birth (John 3:5–6).

Related articles:

Jesus Reformed the Old Covenant

Christ: High Priest of a New Covenant

Chou, A. (2016). New Covenant. In J. D. Barry, D. Bomar, D. R. Brown, R. Klippenstein, D. Mangum, C. Sinclair Wolcott, W. Widder (Eds.), The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.

Powell, M. A. (Ed.). (2011). new covenant. In The HarperCollins Bible Dictionary (Revised and Updated) (Third Edition, p. 698). New York: HarperCollins.

NASB quoted, recognised as the most literal translation.

Carpenter, E. E., & Comfort, P. W. (2000). In Holman Treasury of Key Bible words: 200 Greek and 200 Hebrew words defined and explained (p. 340). Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers.

(McComiskey, Covenants, 14–20; see Grisanti, “Davidic Covenant,” 236)

Chafer, Systematic Theology, 190

7 Thorsell, “Spirit,” 41–43


Article posted by Glen R. Jackman, founder of GraceProclaimed.org

Glen has optimized his eldership role to teach the full scope of the New Covenant of Jesus Christ without boundaries.
You can read his testimony.