The Old and New (1st and 2nd) Covenants
Jeremiah 31:31-34 - "Behold, the days come, saith Jehovah, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah: not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt; which my covenant they brake, although I was a husband unto them, saith Jehovah.
This announcement marks a pivotal point in the history of God and his relation to his people. It is his promise of a new covenant, different from, and much improved, from the covenant made at Mount Sinai. This is the first biblical reference to a new covenant. The passage is quoted in the New Testament, Heb. 8:8-12. No amount of theological manipulation can make the "new" the same as the "old." The simple words, "not according
to" forever separate the two.
From Mount Sinai came God's first covenant with Israel. That covenant was made to one nation, Israel. It did not exist prior to Sinai, except in God's purpose. Other covenants had been made, but this one marked a definite change in covenants. It was God's first written covenant, revealed in the form of the first written system of laws and statutes.
The word covenant in the Hebrew language is "Berith." The corresponding Greek word is "diatheke." The Greek term "suntheke" is a word for a covenant between two equals. It is not a New Testament word. "Diatheke" is the term the New Testament employs to translate either
covenant or testament. The reason is obvious; God made no covenant with man as man's equal.
The N.T. book of Hebrews presents "diatheke" as a last will and testament (Heb. 9:15-17). Whereas "suntheke" always means an agreement made on equal terms which either party can change. The terms of a "suntheke" covenant can be negotiated. Not so with "diatheke." W.E. Vine noted the difference saying "diatheke" "primarily signifies 'a disposition of property by will or otherwise.' In its use in the Septuagint, it is the rendering of a Hebrew word meaning a 'covenant' or agreement (from a verb signifying 'to cut or divide,' . . . In contradistinction to the English word 'covenant'
(literally, 'a coming together'), which signifies a mutual undertaking between two parties or more, each binding himself to fulfill obligations, it does not in
itself contain the idea of joint obligation, it mostly signifies an obligation undertaken by a single person." (Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words.)
Ephesians 2:12 describes the former condition of Gentile Christians as "strangers from the covenants of promise." The fact that Paul put covenants in the plural accords with the number of promissory covenants God made with various people at different times.
1. He made a covenant with Noah to never again destroy the earth with a flood -- a promissory covenant (Gen. 9:9-12).
2. The promise in Gen. 3:15 was a covenantal promise of God which he renewed from time to time -- a promissory covenant (see 2 Sam. 7:12, 22).
3. The covenant God made with Abraham was a promise to bless all nations through the seed of Abraham (Gen. 12:1-3; 17:10-11).
All these are "covenants of promise." God alone makes these covenants. The Bible makes a distinction between covenants of promise and covenants of law. The children of Ephraim refused to keep God's covenant by refusing to walk in his law (Psa. 78:9-10).
Laws don't structure the covenant; the particular covenant contains laws and conditions that must be obeyed and complied with in order to keep the covenant. Covenant breakers are those who refuse to obey covenantal law.
This is true of the covenant God made at Sinai and with the new covenant promised in Jeremiah 31. Verse 33 clearly states this: "This shall be (future) my covenant . . . I will put my law in their inward part .
Jeremiah prophesied of God's covenant, God's law. God said he would make the covenant. Man had nothing to do with "making" the covenant. Man has only to accept and enjoy its benefits or reject it and suffer consequences. God said of the covenant, it is MY covenant and said HE would make it.
God also said "it shall be my law for my people." The covenant God promised was his law he promised would come in the future, in "the latter days." It is by God's love and grace he was willing to make a covenant with his people.
Verse 3 of this chapter: "The LORD hath appeared of old unto me, saying, Yea, I have loved thee with an everlasting love: therefore with lovingkindness have I drawn thee." Here he promised his people a new beginning "in the latter days" (Jer. 30:24). His promise of a new covenant was intended to give them assurance of a wonderful future state.
Just as the prophecies of Isaiah (2:1-4), Micah (4:1), and Joel (2:28) promised a bright future, so the prophecy of this new covenant enhanced the hope of Jeremiah and the people of God. The prophetic future of all men rested on God making a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. This refers to the new age ushered in when Jesus, by his own blood, sealed forever the New Testament (Matt. 26:28; Heb.
In the same act of grace, he nailed the old to his cross (Col. 2:14) thus breaking down the middle wall of partition and establishing a domain of spiritual rest and peace (Eph. 2:14-16).
Not only does God say the covenant is his to make, he also says it is ours to keep. Keeping the covenant means complying with the laws of that covenant. The old covenant, made exclusively with the Jews at Sinai, was broken. That covenant is described by inspiration as "weak through the flesh" (Rom. 8:3) and faulty (Heb. 8:7). Because fault was found with the first covenant (made at Sinai) a second was sought for and established. Hebrews 8:7-12 is a quotation from Jeremiah 31:31ff. There can be no possible way to scripturally say God has never had but one covenant
with his people.
Under the provisions of the first covenant, the fault was not the covenant, established by God, but in the lack of provision it held for full and instant
remission of sins (Heb. 10:1-4). The law, the old covenant, made nothing perfect, but the bringing in of a better hope did (Heb. 7:19). Notice the interchange in the words "commandment going before" and the old covenant ("diatheke") that was done away in Christ (2 Cor. 3:14). The new covenant is "a better hope," "a better covenant," being based on better promises (Heb. 8:6).
Everything taught in the Bible about covenants is against the idea that there is one, and only one, covenant God has anything to do with and that all other covenants are but "subsets" of that alleged one covenant.
No amount of theological manipulation can make the "new" the same as the "old," and the "first" the same as the "second." The simple words, "not according to" forever separate the two.
To say one thing is "not according to" another thing is to say they are not the same but different. God's statement that the new covenant is "not according to" the one he made at Sinai with those Jews who escaped Egyptian slavery has reference to two covenants, one old and done away, the other new and in effect till the end of time.
By Dudley Ross Spears
From Expository Files 14.7; July 2007