What do biblical writers mean when they talk about a generic “covenant” or an “old covenant” in contrast to the new or final covenant?
The very name of the Old Testament creates some confusion. “Testament” and “covenant” have the same meaning. This prompts us to err by lumping the Abrahamic covenant and the Mosaic covenant into one. By extension, we might then assume that the New Testament or new covenant replaces the Abrahamic covenant. But the New Testament writers themselves continued to wait for God to fulfill the promises contained in the Abrahamic covenant, treating these promises as prophecies of end-time events.
So if biblical writers don’t have all Old Testament covenants in mind when they use the phrase “the (old) covenant,” how can we be sure which covenant is being spoken of? Here are some clues to help us discern their intent:
When you encounter the term “covenant” within a declaration, expect that the writer had the Mosaic covenant in mind if there are mentions of conditions and bi-directional responsibilities. Look for references to a “promise,” “inheritance,” or other unconditional language when in relation to the Abrahamic covenant.
The term “blood covenant,” however, invokes a link from the Mosaic back to the Abrahamic covenant. Exodus 24:7-8 provides us with an example of the sprinkled blood of the covenant that God made with Israel as confirmation of the promises and requirements described in Exodus 19-24. We find God’s grace referenced prior to the law being given and covenants made. God stated “my” covenant in Exodus 19:5. Notice he didn’t state “our” covenant. Both of these passages seem to connect God giving his promises to Israel as the first step before they can agree to keep any laws or conditions.
Exodus 19-24 is where a large portion of the law was given to Israel so we have these bookend passages referenced above to understand the relationship of law to grace. Grace was stated prior to the law being handed out and confirmed after.
We see a connection between all covenants, whether conditional or unconditional. They trace back to Abraham and the land promise as we see all throughout the books of Moses. Grace and law interrelate.
“I also established my covenant with them to give them the land of Canaan, the land in which they lived as sojourners.”
— Exodus 6:4
“then I will remember my covenant with Jacob, and I will remember my covenant with Isaac and my covenant with Abraham, and I will remember the land.”
— Leviticus 26:42
Law and Grace
Has the “law” that Israel received through the Mosaic covenant been fulfilled by Christ? Did Christ make the law void? Or does the law remain in place, awaiting further action from Christ? Notice what Jesus said regarding his intentions:
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”
Law and grace are critical biblical concepts. We often think of them as contradictory, but the truth is that they work in concert. The law is not obsolete, as the New Testament makes clear, and has not been abandoned; God still upholds the law today. But the law does not smother grace; we do not receive inheritance of the land or eternal life through good works or our adherence to the law. So if the law endures, yet cannot deliver our inheritance, what is its end-time relevance?
The following three points about the law are important to consider:
- Israel continually broke the covenant they made through Moses.
- God’s law reveals his nature. Since God doesn’t change, his law remains intact.
- Like Israel before us, we fall short of God’s perfect standard. Christ alone fulfilled the Father’s law.
Just as we need to distinguish between the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants, we need to separate God’s natural law (the general truths that define who God is and how he chooses to relate to his creation) from Mosaic law (the specific behaviors that demonstrated Israel’s devotion to God). The laws delivered to Israel at Mount Sinai were based on underlying laws that already existed. By clarifying these separate terms, we can understand why Christ came to earth and identify what he fulfilled. We will then know if any laws await an end-time fulfillment.
“It is because the Lord was not able to bring this people into the land that he swore to give to them that he has killed them in the wilderness.”
According to this passage in Numbers, God had sworn to give the land to those who left Egypt. But except for Caleb, Joshua, and the younger generation, those who left Egypt did not enter the promised land. Did God break his oath? No, only the people who broke the covenant were exempted from the promise. God kept his side of the Mosaic covenant.
Here are other passages that describe Israel in relation to the Mosaic covenant –
“Then men will say, ‘Because they forsook the covenant of the Lord, the God of their fathers, which he made with them when he brought them out of the land of Egypt…’”
“Israel has sinned, and they have also transgressed my covenant which I commanded them. And they have even taken some of the things under the ban and have both stolen and deceived. Moreover, they have also put them among their own things.”
“And now I am about to go the way of all the earth, and you know in your hearts and souls, all of you, that not one word has failed of all the good things that the Lord your God promised concerning you. All have come to pass for you; not one of them has failed. But just as all the good things that the Lord your God promised concerning you have been fulfilled for you, so the Lord will bring upon you all the evil things, until he has destroyed you from off this good land that the Lord your God has given you, if you transgress the covenant of the Lord your God, which he commanded you, and go and serve other gods and bow down to them. Then the anger of the Lord will be kindled against you, and you shall perish quickly from off the good land that he has given to you.”
This dire warning in Joshua is clearly an extension of the conditional language of the Mosaic covenant. The land promise was not fully realized in Joshua’s time. Conditions remained. This is crucial to understand: the irrevocable promises to Abraham were not realized by Joshua, or David.
Israel bowed down to other gods again and again, and so this prophecy in Joshua 23 was fulfilled: God’s people were exiled from the land they had received from God. We would have experienced the same punishment as ancient Israel, so there is no reason to add our own derision or condemnation. Nobody has been able to keep God’s perfect law except the Person of Christ.
And yet we encounter passages like Luke 1:6 that describe certain people as blameless before God. We should not infer that they lived a perfect life, as this would create a conflict with other clear passages that state nobody besides Christ kept the law. Luke 1:6 must agree with the teachings in Romans 3:10 and 3:23 that all have sinned and fallen short of God’s commands.
“So the anger of the Lord burned against Israel, and he said, ‘…[T]his nation has transgressed my covenant which I commanded their fathers and has not listened to my voice.’”
“He said, ‘I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the sons of Israel have forsaken your covenant, torn down your altars and killed your prophets with the sword and I alone am left; and they seek my life, to take it away.’”
—1 Kings 19:10
“They rejected [God’s] statutes and his covenant which he made with their fathers and his warnings with which he warned them and they followed vanity and became vain, and went after the nations which surrounded them, concerning which the Lord had commanded them not to do like them.”
—2 Kings 17:15
“[T]hey did not obey the voice of the Lord their God, but transgressed his covenant, even all that Moses the servant of the Lord commanded; they would neither listen nor do it.”
—2 Kings 18:12
“They did not keep God’s covenant
but refused to walk according to his law….
Their heart was not steadfast toward him;
they were not faithful to his covenant.”
—Psalm 78:10, 37
“They have turned back to the iniquities of their ancestors who refused to hear my words, and they have gone after other gods to serve them; the house of Israel and the house of Judah have broken my covenant which I made with their fathers.”
“For thus says the Lord God, ‘I will also do with you as you have done, you who have despised the oath by breaking the covenant.’”
“[Y]ou brought in foreigners, uncircumcised in heart and uncircumcised in flesh, to be in my sanctuary to profane it, even my house, when you offered my food, the fat and the blood; for they made my covenant void—this in addition to all your abominations.”
“Set the trumpet to your lips! One like a vulture is over the house of the Lord, because they have transgressed my covenant and rebelled against my law.”
There are many other verses about how Israel failed to keep the law and therefore broke God’s covenant with them. Stephen sums up the situation for us:
“You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.”
Stephen declares that the Holy Spirit was active in Old Testament times. Pentecost was therefore an outpouring of the same Spirit already at work in the world, not a different dispensational Spirit sent for New Testament believers only.
“The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter. And after there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, ‘Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith. Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.’”
Stephen, Peter, and the writer(s) of Hebrews declare that the New Testament gospel message was given to their Old Testament ancestors and that the same Holy Spirit had been present with them. Then, as now, the path to righteousness was to follow Abraham’s example of faith. We cannot achieve right standing with God through the law. Our key priority is to believe in God’s promises of grace, to receive the gift of faith. Yes, faith is a gift from God, not simply a belief. We will discuss this in more detail in chapters 8 and 10.
Nowhere in Scripture is the Abrahamic land covenant shown to be broken. This promise of grace remains. But the terms of the Mosaic covenant have been broken again and again as we have just seen. This poses a problem. Though we cannot keep the law, God cannot discard it. He cannot offer us a lawless gospel. Righteous living does not save us—only grace can do that—but law still features in God’s new covenant with his people.
Paul offers us some inspired words about law and grace in relation to Jews and Gentiles. He demonstrates how the same gospel is given to all people.
“But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
“Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one—who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith. Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.”
“Is the law then contrary to the promises of God? Certainly not! For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law….
“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.”
—Galatians 3:21, 28–29
The phrase “heirs according to promise” means that salvation is tied to God’s oath to Abraham. God offers us grace even before we learn his standards of law or justice. (Note that God’s law still exists despite our ignorance. Though he may reveal his grace without initially revealing his law as in his interactions with Abraham, his grace and law are intertwined.) Through grace we receive salvation—both the spiritual sense of being brought into God’s righteousness and the physical promise of an inheritance: an eternal resurrected life in the Promised Land. God’s promises to Abraham are the basis of the salvation he makes available to Abraham’s physical and spiritual descendants—all of whom can only receive that gift through faith.
These passages from Peter and Paul in Acts 15, Romans 3, and Galatians 3 all explain that there is only one way to be saved: by grace, through faith. This same message echoes throughout the Old Testament. Jews and Greeks, Hebrews and Gentiles, all are heirs to the promise of grace by faith, as described more fully in Romans 9–11.
The law without faith is futile, but that doesn’t mean the law is disposable. God cannot offer us salvation apart from the law.
What about the unconditional nature of grace? If the fulfillment of the promise of eternal life depends upon perfect righteousness, why didn’t God give the law to Abraham? Because God understood that Abraham’s righteousness would never be sufficient. It wasn’t up to Abraham to satisfy the requirements of the law. That would fall to Christ; he kept God’s law because we could not. Now, by grace, we are brought into Christ’s perfect righteousness ourselves. So, in essence, the law does save us—but we must solely rely upon grace and Christ’s righteousness on our behalf.
Christ shares with us in the inheritance granted to him as the Descendant of Abraham. He is the Grantor and Grantee (similarly, Christ is David’s Lord and Son as shown in Luke 20:41-44). Abraham demonstrated belief that God, by grace, would deliver on his promises and give Abraham an eternal land inheritance. The same faith that Abraham exemplified is given to us as well; in faith, we believe that Abraham’s Descendant blessed the earth according to the promise and invites us to live with him forever as co-heirs of the earth.
The inheritance theme is a common thread coursing throughout Scripture:
- Genesis 15:7; 17:5–8
- 1 Chronicles 29:14–18
- Psalm 2:8; 37:29; 105:6–11;115:16
- Isaiah 45:18
- Ezekiel 47:13–23; 48:29
- Matthew 5:5; 19:27–29
- Romans 4:13–18; 8:16–17; 15:8–9
- Galatians 3:13–29
- Ephesians 2:11–22; 3:6
- Colossians 1:12–16
- Hebrews 1:2
These passages provide a foundational understanding of the significance of the first and second advents of Christ.
We know God created the earth for this purpose: not merely to keep it for himself in the person of Christ, but to share in it with us and dwell with us. This is the reason for creation. God shares the inheritance due his Son, making us co-heirs (Romans 8:16–17); we will be counted as Abraham’s offspring (Galatians 3:29) as long as we share Abraham’s faith (mentioned in Romans 4:16).
This new testament builds upon the blood covenant of Genesis 15; the inheritance we receive does not change or replace the Abrahamic promises.
The inheritance plan brings “all Israel” (all Old and New Testament saints) back to an Edenic world. Throughout Scripture, this process of redemption is described using terms like restoration, renewal, and regeneration. Land and saints alike will be transformed. Descriptions of this future Paradise do not include the devil or death; these are counted among the enemies that will be defeated forever.
“All Israel” is to share in the inheritance that God promised to Abraham long ago; this category includes any Gentiles who through the gift of faith accept this timeless gospel of salvation. Christ fulfilled the law once and for all on the cross, while God’s offer of grace has remained since Genesis 3:15.
Here are some of the passages that speak of Gentiles becoming adopted into Israel:
- John 4:20–22; 10:16
- Romans 9:4–8, 24–26; 10:8–13, 17-20; 11:11–32; 15:8–12
- Galatians 3
- Ephesians 2:11–22; 3:6
“…so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.”
“This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring.”
All people who receive faith by grace in “the blessing of Abraham” are united in one gospel. The blessing goes back to the promise that all nations will be blessed by the Descendant of Abraham.
A very important supporting passage is found in Romans 15. Paul explains a dual purpose of Christ’s first coming: he came to confirm God’s promises to Abraham (and the other patriarchs) and to invite the Gentiles to respond to this message of grace. The promises to Abraham formed the gospel that we still have today.
“For I tell you that Christ became a servant to the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy.”
Paul writes extensively about this in Romans 9-11. It is very clear that the Church has become the umbrella of “all Israel,” as salvation is based on the promise that the Savior would come through Abraham’s seed to bless all nations.
All Israel, Old and New Testament saints alike, will be saved under the same gospel message.
“Lest you be wise in your own sight, I do not want you to be unaware of this mystery, brothers: a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. And in this way all Israel will be saved, as it is written,
‘The Deliverer will come from Zion,
he will banish ungodliness from Jacob’;
‘and this will be my covenant with them,
when I take away their sins.’”
Here Paul addresses the mystery that “all Israel will be saved.” He includes all 12 tribes and the Gentiles, whom he describes as the wild branches grafted into the natural branch—all will receive the promise. Only a remnant of Israel’s blood descendants will be saved according to Romans 9:27, so Paul’s statement here regarding “all Israel” does not refer to all Jewish individuals, but rather Israel’s wider spiritual family. “All” means all types of people on earth.
Christ alluded to an adoptive “all Israel” in John 10:16, building off of a common Old Testament metaphor comparing Israel to sheep. “And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” Along with the Jewish people of the southern kingdom, Christ includes Gentiles and people from the lost northern tribes; together they comprise “all” Israel.
- We see the term “my” covenant in Zechariah 9:11. Christ also used the same term at the Last Supper. ↵
- Compare to Hebrews 4:2, which we examined in the previous chapter. ↵
- See Romans 4:16. ↵
- Also see Romans 8:16–17. ↵
- See Romans 8:3–4. ↵
- See Isaiah 45:18; Colossians 1:16; Hebrews 2:10. ↵
- See Romans 8:16–25. ↵
- “All Israel” includes Jews and the Gentile believers, including those from the “lost” northern tribes. ↵
- See Ephesians 3:1–10. ↵