The New Covenant
A cartoon in a magazine years ago showed a business executive in an office standing before other executives. He was holding a box of detergent in his hands, showing it to the other men and women. He proudly pointed to the word “New” that was displayed in large red letters on the box, the implication being, of course, that the product was new. The executive then said, “It’s the ‘New’ on the box that is new.” In other words, all that changed, all that was new, was simply the word New on the box. Everything else was the same.
In a sense, one could say that the new covenant is like that. The basis of the covenant, the basic hope that it has for us, its basic conditions, are the same as what was found in the old covenant. It has always been a covenant of God’s grace and mercy, a covenant based on a love that transcends human foibles and defeats.
* Study this week’s lesson to prepare for Sabbath, June 5.
Read Jeremiah 31:31–34 and answer the following questions:
It is clear: the new covenant is not so different from the old covenant made with Israel on Mount Sinai. In fact, the problem with the Sinai covenant was not that it was old or outmoded. The problem, instead, was that it was broken (see Jer. 31:32).
The answers to the above questions, all found in those four verses, prove that many facets of the “old covenant” remain in the new one. The “new covenant” is, in a sense, a “renewed covenant.” It is the completion, or the fulfillment, of the first one.
At the time when the southern kingdom of Judah was about to end and the people were to be taken into Babylonian captivity, God announced through His prophet Jeremiah the “new covenant.” This is the first time this notion is expressed in the Bible. However, when the 10-tribe northern kingdom of Israel was about to be destroyed (some one hundred fifty years before the time of Jeremiah), the idea of another covenant was mentioned again, this time by Hosea (Hos. 2:18–20).
At moments in history when God’s plans for His covenant people were hampered by their rebellion and unbelief, He sent prophets to proclaim that the covenant history with His faithful had not come to an end. No matter how unfaithful the people might have been, no matter the apostasy, rebellion, and disobedience among them, the Lord still proclaims His willingness to enter into a covenant relationship with all who are willing to repent, to obey, and to claim His promises.
The Lord will provide “ ‘a heart to know that I am the Lord’ ” (Jer. 24:7, RSV). He will “ ‘take the stony heart out of their flesh and give them a heart of flesh’ ” (Ezek. 11:19, RSV), and will give “ ‘a new heart’ ” and “ ‘a new spirit’ ” (Ezek. 36:26, RSV). He also says, “ ‘I will put My Spirit within you’ ” (Ezek. 36:27, NASB). This work of God is the foundation of the new covenant.
Jeremiah states that the new covenant is to be made with “ ‘the house of Israel’ ” (Jer. 31:33). Does this mean, then, that only the literal seed of Abraham, Jews by blood and birth, are to receive the covenant promises?
No! In fact, that was not even true in Old Testament times. That the Hebrew nation as a whole had been given the covenant promises is, of course, correct. Yet, it was not done to the exclusion of anyone else. On the contrary, all, Jew or Gentile, were invited to partake of the promises, but they had to agree to enter into that covenant. It is certainly no different today.
Read the above texts in Isaiah. What conditions do they place on those who want to serve the Lord? Is there really any difference in what God asked of them and what He asks of us today? Explain your answer.
Though the new covenant is called “better” (see Wednesday’s study), there really is no difference in the basic elements that make up both the old and new covenants. It is the same God who offers salvation the same way, by grace (Exod. 34:6, Rom. 3:24); it is the same God who seeks a people who by faith will claim His promises of forgiveness (Jer. 31:34, Heb. 8:12); it is the same God who seeks to write the law into the hearts of those who will follow Him in a faith relationship (Jer. 31:33, Heb. 8:10), whether they be Jew or Gentile.
In the New Testament, the Jews, responding to the election of grace, received Jesus Christ and His gospel. For a time they were the heart of the church, the “remnant, chosen by grace” (Rom. 11:5, RSV), in contrast to those who were “hardened” (Rom. 11:7, RSV). At the same time, the Gentiles, who formerly did not believe, accepted the gospel and were grafted into God’s true people, made up of believers, no matter the people or race to which they belonged (Rom. 11:13–24). So the Gentiles, “at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise” (Eph. 2:12, RSV), were brought near in the blood of Christ. Christ is mediating the “new covenant” (Heb. 9:15, RSV) for all believers, regardless of nationality or race.
Yesterday we saw that regarding the basic elements, the old and new covenants were the same. The bottom line is salvation by faith in a God who will forgive our sins, not because of anything worthy in us but only because of His grace. As a result of this forgiveness, we enter into a relationship with Him in which we surrender to Him in faith and obedience. Nevertheless, the book of Hebrews does call the new covenant “a better covenant.” How do we understand what that means? How is one covenant better than the other?
The problem with the old covenant was not with the covenant itself but with the failure of the people to grasp it in faith (Heb. 4:2). The superiority of the new to the old lies in the fact that Jesus—instead of being revealed only through the animal sacrifices (as in the old covenant)—now appears in the reality of His death and high-priestly ministry. In other words, the salvation offered in the old covenant is the same offered in the new. In the new, however, a greater, more complete revelation of the God of the covenant and the love that He has for fallen humanity has been revealed. It is better in that everything that had been taught through symbols and types in the Old Testament has found its fulfillment in Jesus, whose sinless life, His death, and high-priestly ministry were symbolized by the earthly sanctuary service (Heb. 9:8–14).
Now, though, instead of symbols, types, and examples, we have Jesus Himself, not only as the slain Lamb who shed His blood for our sin (Heb. 9:12) but also as the One who stands as our High Priest in the heavenly sanctuary ministering on our behalf (Heb. 7:25). Though the salvation He offers is the same, this fuller revelation of Himself and the salvation found in Him, as revealed in the new covenant, make it superior to the old.
The book of Hebrews places a heavy emphasis on Jesus as our High Priest in the heavenly sanctuary. In fact, the clearest exposition of the new covenant found in the New Testament appears in the book of Hebrews with its emphasis on Christ as High Priest. This is no coincidence. Christ’s heavenly ministry is intricately tied to the promises of the new covenant. The Old Testament sanctuary service was the means by which the old covenant truths were taught. It centered on sacrifice and mediation. Animals were slain, and their blood was mediated by the priests. These, of course, were all symbols of the salvation found only in Jesus. There was no salvation found in them in and of themselves.
All these sacrifices and the priestly mediation that accompanied them met their fulfillment in Christ. Jesus became the Sacrifice upon which the blood of the new covenant is based. Christ’s blood ratified the new covenant, making the Sinaitic covenant and its sacrifices “old,” or void. The true sacrifice had been made, once and for all (Heb. 9:26). Once Christ died, there was no more need for any animals to be slain. The earthly sanctuary services had fulfilled their function.
Tied, of course, to these animal sacrifices was the priestly ministry, those Levites who offered and mediated the sacrifices in the earthly sanctuary on behalf of the people. Once the sacrifices ended, the need for their ministry ended, as well. Everything had been fulfilled in Jesus, who now ministers His own blood in the sanctuary in heaven (see Heb. 8:1–5). Hebrews stresses Christ as High Priest in heaven, having entered by shedding His own blood (Heb. 9:12), mediating on our behalf. This is the foundation of the hope and promise we have in the new covenant.
Further Thought: “In partaking with His disciples of the bread and wine, Christ pledged Himself to them as their Redeemer. He committed to them the new covenant, by which all who receive Him become children of God, and joint heirs with Christ. By this covenant every blessing that heaven could bestow for this life and the life to come was theirs. This covenant deed was to be ratified with the blood of Christ. And the administration of the Sacrament was to keep before the disciples the infinite sacrifice made for each of them individually as a part of the great whole of fallen humanity.”—Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages, p. 659.
“The most striking feature of this covenant of peace is the exceeding richness of the pardoning mercy expressed to the sinner if he repents and turns from his sin. The Holy Spirit describes the gospel as salvation through the tender mercies of our God. ‘I will be merciful to their unrighteousness,’ the Lord declares of those who repent, ‘and their sins and their iniquities will I remember no more’ (Heb. 8:12). Does God turn from justice in showing mercy to the sinner? No; God cannot dishonor His law by suffering it to be transgressed with impunity. Under the new covenant, perfect obedience is the condition of life. If the sinner repents and confesses his sins, he will find pardon. By Christ’s sacrifice in his behalf, forgiveness is secured for him. Christ has satisfied the demands of the law for every repentant, believing sinner.”—Ellen G. White, God’s Amazing Grace, p. 138.
Summary: The new covenant is a greater, more complete, and better revelation of the plan of redemption. We who partake of it partake of it by faith, a faith that will manifest itself in obedience to a law written in our hearts.