Understanding the Two Covenants

How are we to understand the old and new covenants or testaments?

C. G. TULAND, Pastor, Illinois Conference

Personal religious experience based on an intimate personal relationship with God can­not be transmitted in the form of a legacy, it has to be acquired individually. There is no substitute for it. It can­not be performed by others for us. The church cannot bestow it upon us as a grant. It is not given through the acceptance of a dogma, even if it is Biblically correct. Obe­dience to the commandments and the performing of rituals cannot earn it. The believer is continuously in a precarious position because he has to distinguish between religious form and religious life. He may attain unto a constant re­newing, growing, and unlimited life with God, or he may slip into something possibly quite similar in semblance: a stereotype religiosity, a worship in form only. The latter is an insidious, ever-present danger as it appears to be religion, even though it is only a shell without life. To a certain extent this judgment can be passed on the church, too, for a church may degenerate to a point where she finds her fulfillment in numerical growth, material pos­sessions, intellectual and religious pride, while she really is retrogressing spiritually and forgetting her main concern—the salvation of the individual. The Word of God offers numerous instances where the church is warned. See Revelation 3:17, 18 for one of them.

The relapse into formality was one of the great concerns of the apostle Paul. He rebuked the churches in Galatia: "How can you revert to dead and sterile principles... ? Your religion is begin­ning to be a matter of observing certain days or months or seasons or years. Frankly, you stagger me" (Gal. 4:9-11, Phillips).* Thus it was necessary to explain to Jews and Gentiles alike the principles of man's salvation as an act of divine grace alone. The apostle also indicated the correlation between God and man in this experience. Since man's obedience and keeping of the commandments could not contribute to his justification, if it was grace alone, why then, obedience? Thus there is estab­lished the fine balance which excludes obedience as a means of earning salvation but makes true obedience the natural fruit of salvation by grace. Human insufficiency is replaced by divine omni­potence as the only power to make man ready for the kingdom of righteousness. Man accepts that pro­vision by faith, and as an expression of that new relationship with God he completely surrenders his life to his Redeemer.

To illustrate this sublime truth—salvation by grace alone—the apostles in different ways ex­plained the meaning of the old and the new Covenant through their relationship to one an­other. Too many Christians, inside and outside of our denomination, have failed to grasp the mean­ing of the two covenants. In order to understand some of it as a means of gaining a deeper religious experience and of learning to know God better through Jesus Christ, we enter upon the following study.

A covenant, in the ancient Near East in general and in Old Testament times specif­ically, was a solemn promise and/or agreement, often confirmed by an oath. Its verbal formula was generally supplemented by a symbolic action expressing the new relationship of the contract partners, or the eventual punishment in case of violation by one or both parties. Covenants were customary between individuals, kings, or countries to regulate their social, political, or other relationships. They were made on the basis of equal or subordinated position, were dictated or voluntarily agreed upon, and contained clauses and conditions. The Old Testament mentions covenants be­tween human partners as well as those be­tween God and man (Gen. 21:27; 31:44; 6:18; Acts 7:8, et cetera).

In this study we are primarily concerned with the so-called old and new covenants or testaments, the definition of terms to be considered later on. In all camps of Chris­tian denominations there is still much misunderstanding about the most elemen­tary significance of the covenants, their relationship with law and salvation, and other problems. If one asks the question: "When did the old covenant begin?" most people acquainted with the Bible will say: "On Sinai, when the law was given." That would be a correct answer. But if one con­tinued: "When did the new covenant be­gin?" the answers vary considerably. Some will say: "When Christ was born," or, "When He began to preach," or, "When He died on the cross," or, "When He went to heaven." Well, none of these answers is correct, although one text is sufficient to clarify the situation. If the question as to the fundamental differences between the two covenants is raised, the answers are sim­ilarly nebulous.

The text referred to above is found in Jeremiah 31:31-33, which not only con­tains the basic elements of both covenants but also offers the clues for understanding their differences. It even provides the es­sential technical and legal details of the covenants.

The old covenant:

  1. Time: [When] "I took them . . . out . . . of Egypt."=Sinai.
  2. Covenant partners: "I . . . with the house of Israel, and . . . Judah."—God and Israel.
  3. Covenant objective: "I . . . will be their God, and they shall be my people." =Sonship.
  4. Covenant conditions: "My law."= Obedience.

Using the same passage which is repeated in Hebrews 8:8-10 the same elements are found for the New Testament, except for the difference in time.

  1. Time: "The days come, . . ."=a pro­phetic point of time.
  2. Covenant partners: "I . . . Israel and . . Judah"—God and His people.
  3. Covenant-objectives: "I will be to them a God, and they shall be to me a people."=Sonship.
  4. Covenant conditions: "My laws."= Obedience.

For the present, therefore, except for the time element, there is no apparent differ­ence between the two covenants: the cove­nant partners are the same, the covenant objective is the same, and the covenant con­ditions are the same.

However, the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews states that God did not consider the first covenant to be faultless (Heb. 8:7). It could not be God Himself, for. He is perfect (Deut. 32:4). Neither could it be His law, for that, too, is perfect (Ps. 19:7). There was nothing wrong with the objec­tive of the covenant which aimed at making fallen man a child of God again. Thus, there is only one possibility left—the hu­man contract partner. He—that is, the peo­ple of Israel—did not fulfill his part of the agreement, which was perfect obedience to God's law. And that thought is emphasized in Jeremiah 31:32, "My covenant they brake," and Hebrews 8:8, for "finding fault with them." The true cause for the collapse of the old covenant, therefore, is the moral weakness of man. And we should also real­ize that this factor continues through the whole history of mankind. Left to itself humanity cannot possibly lift itself to such a standard of perfection. No covenant based on the promise of perfect obedience of man —as was the case at Sinai (Ex. 19:8), "All that the Lord has spoken we will do"—could produce better results than the first one. The solution had to be found by God Himself without compromising the princi­ples of His eternal justice.

Christians usually do not realize that sin, and with it salvation, created problems not only for mankind but for God as well. The death of Adam and Eve would have been a simple execution of God's pronounce­ment that the transgressors of His command would have to die. But God wanted man to live in order to justify the righteousness of His government before the universe. Thus He had to uphold His death sentence and still save man from death. That the universe participates in this problem, even in judg­ing the words and actions of God in this matter, is expressed by the apostle Paul: " 'That thou mayest be justified in thy words, and prevail when thou art judged' " (Rom. 3:4, R.S.V.). And the apostle pre­sents likewise the "divine dilemma," if we may use this expression, that "it was to prove at the present time that he I-God] himself is righteous and that he justifies him who has faith in Jesus (Rom. 3:26, R.S.V.). The theological implication of this pronouncement, the incarnation of God's son, the vicarious death of Christ, and man's salvation through acceptance of God's gracious gift, cannot be elucidated in this discussion, but these are the funda­mentals of the new covenant to which Paul makes reference. They contain the basic provision for an effective covenant by which God can achieve His goal--to bring righteousness back to man without sacrificing the principles of His eternal moral law. It can be expressed in a simple way: "What man cannot do by himself, I will do for him.' Let us now read the promises of the new covenant: "But this is the covenant . . . :I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts" (Jer. 31:33, R.S.V.). A similar description of God's ac­tion in behalf of man is found in Ezekiel 36:26, R.S.V.: "A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh." These promises are a divine provision cov­ering not only a transformation of man but also God's participation in it. It is that part, of which the apostle speaks in He­brews 8:6, that "the covenant he [Christ] mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises."

We have already raised the question as to the time the covenants began. According to Jeremiah 31:32 the old covenant was made at Sinai, when Israel left Egypt. But if the new covenant, as the majority of Christians believe, began with the death of Christ on Calvary, the question naturally arises: Was there no covenant beginning with the fall of man until the exodus from Egypt? Was there no covenant relationship between God and humanity during that period? There are several texts answering this question. First, there is a reference to a covenant of God with Adam: "But . . . [like] Adam they transgressed the cove­nant" (Hosea 6:7, R.S.V.). The most in­teresting statement comes from the apostle Paul: "This is what I mean: the law, which came four hundred and thirty years afterward, does not annul a covenant pre­viously ratified by God" (Gal. 3:17, R.S.V.). The purpose of this statement is very clear. By "the law" Paul refers to the covenant of God with Israel on Mount Si­nai (ca. 2553 A.M., or 1451 B.c.). The other event referred to took place 430 years be­fore the exodus in connection with Abra­ham (Gal. 3:18). At that time God made a covenant with Abram. The important point in Paul's statement, however, is that even the covenant with Abraham was not new, it was merely a ratification of an al­ready previously existing one.

Reason for Divided Animals

A brief review of the text in Genesis 15 indicates that the Lord during His meeting with Abram ordered him to bring certain animals and to slaughter them, karath, to cut (hence the literal meaning "to cut" a covenant), and to lay each half over against the other (Gen. 15:19, 10). When the contract partners walked to­gether between the divided animals they demonstrated one significance of the ritual: he who violates the terms of the covenant shall experience the fate of the slaughtered animals (Jer. 34:18, 19): "And the men who transgressed my covenant . . . I will make like the calf which they cut in two and passed between its parts."

The specific importance of Abram's cov­enant with God was, however, that God did not ask Abraham to walk with Him between the animals; it was God alone who did so (Gen. 15:17). This is a fundamental dis­tinction, making this Abramic covenant entirely different from the one on Sinai, for it symbolized the unilateral obligation on God's part. He alone made Himself re­sponsible for the fulfillment of the cove­nant, which included the birth of a son by Sara, a multitude of descendants, and an inheritance of the land of Canaan (Gen. 15:5, 18).

Another important aspect of Abram's covenant with the Lord is the already men­tioned fact that it was not a new covenant, but only the ratification of an already ex­isting one (Gal. 3:17). Paul explains that there was a twofold fulfillment of God's prophetic utterance regarding the prom­ised son: " 'Through Isaac shall your de­scendants be named' " (Rom. 9:7; Gen. 21: 12). That was the first fulfillment. The ulti­mate meaning of the promise, and the only one by whom all the nations would be blessed, is given by the apostle Paul in Gala­tians 3:16, R.S.V.: " 'And to your offspring,' which is Christ." If God, therefore, ratified a covenant with Abraham, the ultimate realization of which was in the "seed," the question arises as to which was the original covenant and the point of time it was made. Was there ever a covenant similar in nature to that made with Abraham? God's address to the serpent in Eden contains a reference to such a "seed of the woman," who al­though wounded by the evil one should overcome and destroy him (Gen. 3:15). There is obviously a progressive develop­ment:

  1. The original covenant—with Adam.
  2. Its ratification—with Abraham.
  3. Its fulfillment—in Christ.

In this covenant, too, there is one out­standing principle: its nature. Its fulfillment rests on the promises and faithfulness of one partner alone—God. Though in two cases there was a violation by the other part—"Adam transgressed the covenant," and Abraham sought its fulfillment by nat­ural means — it did not change the faith­fulness of God.

What's the Difference?

This brings us to the question of the na­ture and the relationship of the two cove­nants to each other. The Hebrew word for covenant is berith. There appears to be no philological differentiation in Biblical usage between the old and the new cove­nant. Neither does the term, in the under­standing of our study, indicate any distinc­tion between their character, whether one was a contract and the other one a uni­lateral promise. The same holds true in the Greek, where diatheke can mean arrangement, agreement, covenant, a disposition by will (Liddell & Scott, vol. 1, pp. 394, 395). Yet both words in the Scriptures re­quire a distinction of character and appli­cation. In the case of the old covenant they designate an agreement or a contract based on conditions and stipulations: obedience, in this instance emanating from human ef­forts, "We will do it." But they failed. Then God offered the new covenant, which like the first was made by two parties, but rest­ing on a completely different relationship. True, the stipulation was perfect obedi­ence, as in the first, but it was God who made Himself responsible in lieu of human achievement. He demanded man's com­plete dedication, accepting man's surren­der as a token of accepting the righteous­ness offered to him. That the validity of the old covenant depended upon the fulfillment of its stipulations by two parties, but in the new covenant by only one (the other party accepting its share by faith), changed a basic characteristic of the covenants but not the covenant relationship. It is signif­icant that wherever the apostles use a paral­lel for the explanation of the new cove­nant, it is the one made with Abraham, not that of Sinai (Acts 3:25).

From Contract to Will

The most important difference between the old and the new covenant can be estab­lished by using two different words in Eng­lish. But how can we justify this, when the

Hebrew as well as the Greek use only one? It is simple and logical, for it can be established on the basis of the context in which the Hebrew or Greek word appears. The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews clarifies the situation. He speaks of Christ as of the diatheke, Kaine which in most versions is translated as new covenant (Heb. 9:15; 12:24). Then he continues: "So that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance" (Heb. 9:15). But an inheritance does not ordinarily come to a person by way of a contract, but through a last will, or testament. This thought follows immediately: "Since a death has oc­curred . . ." This sequence of statements establishes the meaning of diatheke in its New Testamental application. Inheritance in consequence of another person's death is not any more based on a contract but on a last will, a "testament." This thought develops with the seventeenth verse: "For a will takes effect only at death, since it is not in force as long as the one who made it is alive." Thus the old "covenant," the contract in the books of the Old Testament, becomes a new testament, a will to become valid with the death of Christ. The con­text has furnished the natural application and self-interpretation. To restate our con­tention: while the covenant relationship between God and His people remained un­changed, the change took place in the char­acter of the covenant. It became a last will, a testament, which became valid with the death of the Testator, Jesus Christ, on the cross of Calvary. The contractual nature of the old covenant was changed and took on a testamental character in the new cove­nant.

There are still several other details to be considered. In Hebrews 9:15 it is stated that under the new covenant, that is "testament," also those are redeemed who were under the first covenant, that is the old one from Sinai. The unrealizable stipulations of the old covenant were not only replaced by better ones in the new, but the "better promises" took care of those who had died under the first covenant having faith in God's mercy, even though they could make no claims on the basis of human achieve­ment. For further clarification and imple­mentation of God's plan read Romans 3: 21 to 5:11 possibly in Phillips' translation. The situation, then, is as follows:

  1.  The new testament (covenant) be­came valid with the death of Jesus.
  2. Thus the new covenant is not a bilat­eral contract as commonly understood, but a "testamentum," a last will.
  3. The testament, or last will, is retro­active, for it includes also those who failed to fulfill the conditions of the old covenant which was a bilateral contract.
  4. Since the new "testament" was issued with the fall of man, its validity embraces all of believing humanity from the begin­ning.

With this we have established the ele­ment of time concerning the new covenant, its beginning and its extent. Christians are often confused because of the use of old and new covenant which seems to imply that the old one was older and the new one more recent. However, as we have seen, the old covenant began only at Sinai, or approximately 1451 B.c., and ended with the death of Christ, c. A.D. 31. We have al­ready answered the question as to the existence of a covenant before Sinai. We have established that there was a covenant be­tween God and Abraham, based on the same principles as the new covenant, and of which it is said by the apostle Paul that it was merely a ratification of another even older one. This latter covenant we have discovered in Genesis 3:15, when the Testator of that last will, Jesus Christ, promised to bring the frail children of dust back to undefiled sonship to His Father. He foretold His victory over the evil one, but also His sacrifice in order to achieve it. And when He died on Calvary that testament of the Son of God became valid for all who since the beginning of time placed their hope in God alone.

The last great chapter of this salvation has still to become a reality. It will take place on that day when all of God's chil­dren will stand before His throne to hear: "Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the founda­tion of the world" (Matt. 25:34).

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C. G. TULAND, Pastor, Illinois Conference

August 1966

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