When Jesus died the veil which hung in the temple separating the holy place from the most holy place was rent in two (Luke 23:44,45). Certainly this symbolized that a change in covenants was taking place; a new covenant was being established between God and man that would replace the old covenant. "And for this reason He is the mediator of a new covenant, in order that since a death has taken place...for where a covenant is, there must of necessity be the death of the one who made it. For a covenant is valid only when men are dead, for it is never in force while the one who made it lives." (Hebrews 9:15-17).
In the preceding passage, we learn that this new covenant is like a will which would only take effect when the one who drew it up has died. Hence, the Old Testament remained in force until the death of Christ on the cross, whereupon His New Testament was validated. There are several important points to be made concerning this change of covenants.
Why the Change?
"For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion sought for a second." (Hebrews 8:7). The reason that God gave us a new covenant was because there was a problem with the first one. The problem was not in the covenant itself, but in man's failure to keep it. In fact, the first covenant did everything that it was intended to do, but it was never intended to provide the means necessary to save the sinner. Instead, it pointed the way to the coming of a redeemer and a new covenant (Galatians 3:23-28). These promises which the old covenant made have been fulfilled in Christ.
Some Ways the Two Covenants are Similar
"God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son..." (Hebrews 1:1,2). There are several things that are the same with both the Old and New Testaments. For example, this verse tells us that God is responsible for both of them. They are both therefore absolutely true, even though we are only under the New Covenant today.
Also, both of these testaments contain vital information. No part of the Bible should be ignored or neglected. There are important truths revealed about God in the Old Testament as well as the New, so we should be familiar with both (Romans 15:4).
Some Ways in Which the Covenants Differ
"But now He has obtained a more excellent ministry, by as much as He is also the mediator of a better covenant, which has been enacted upon better promises." (Hebrews 8:6). There are many differences between the two covenants. One was given in the age prior to the coming of the Messiah while the other was given as a result of His coming. Jesus' coming was so pivotal to the whole history of the relationship between God and man that many aspects of that relationship changed with the coming of Jesus. What the Old Testament could only speak of as a mystery or shadow becomes spiritual reality in our era.
Since the covenants are different, the provisions, emphasis and regulations are also different, though they certainly overlap at places. For example, God provided the people with many physical blessings during the times they were faithful under the Old Testament. He would also withhold these blessings if they were unfaithful. While He still provides physical blessings today, the New Testament gives more emphasis to spiritual blessings found in Jesus which result in greater security and potential for happiness than physical blessings could ever give. Many times, the reward mentioned for faithful living in the Old Testament is a long and prosperous life while the New Testament shines the light on treasures in heaven and eternal life with God. Many of the Old Testament religious rituals were symbols of New Testament themes and occurrences, for example, the sacrifice of a lamb symbolized the sacrifice that Jesus would one day make on the cross.
The Ten Commandments and the New Covenant
"...written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the Living God, not on tablets of stone, but on tablets of human hearts." (2 Corinthians 3:3). The ten commandments were written on tablets of stone. They, too, are a part of the Old Covenant, in fact, they are the foundation of it. We are not under the law written on tablets of stone; for as glorious as the events of the giving of the ten commandments at Mount Sinai was, we have a more glorious covenant (2 Corinthians 3:7,8).
While we are not now under the Old Covenant, including the ten commandments, the principles expressed in them are also found in the New Testament, and we are under obligation to it. The ten commandments - Exodus 20:3-17.
1. You shall have no other gods before me. Of course, the New Testament makes this same point and speaks of our duty to Him (Ephesians 4:6).
2. You shall not make for yourself an idol...or serve them... Again, the New Testament contains the same prohibition (1 Corinthians 8:4-6).
3. You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain. The New Testament also warns us not to profane or casually use the name of the Lord (James 2:7).
4. Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. The New Testament shows that Christians assembled on the first day of the week to worship God (Acts 20:7; 1 Corinthians 16:1,2). The Sabbath was on the seventh day of the week and no longer remains in effect. However, a Sabbath rest does remain for us; a spiritual rest will one day be ours in heaven (Hebrews 4:9-11).
5. Honor your father and mother. Children are commanded in the New Testament as well to respect their parents (Ephesians 6:1)
6. You shall not murder. Not only are we commanded not to murder in the New Testament, we are not even to hate our brother (Matthew 5:21,22).
7. You shall not commit adultery. Again, the New Testament goes even further to not only prohibit the act of adultery but also the lustful thought or plan to take such action (Matthew 5:27,28).
8. You shall not steal. It always has been, and still is an ungodly and unmanly thing to steal. The New Testament also condemns such behavior (Ephesians 4:28).
9. You not shall bear false witness against your neighbor. Lying is condemned in both testaments of God (Colossians 3:9).
10. You shall not covet.. To allow the desire to have that which rightfully belongs to another to control our attitudes and behavior most certainly leads to many sinful actions, whether under the old covenant or the covenant of Christ (Ephesians 5:3).
Salvation and the Covenants
"...in order that since a death has taken place for the redemption of the transgressions that were committed under the first covenant, those who had been called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance." (Hebrews 9:15). When Jesus died, it was for the forgiveness of sins not only of those alive at that time, but also for us who were yet to be born as well as for those who had already died before Jesus came. However, those who had lived previous to Jesus' death were under a different covenant which had, as we have already seen, different regulations and provisions. The commands which we obey to have our sins taken away by Christ under the New Testament are different from what they were under the old. We are commanded to believe in Jesus, repent and be baptized for the remission of our sins (Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38;22:16). Those who lived and died prior to His death were under a different covenant; a covenant which does not mention baptism into Christ Jesus. For this reason, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, on up to the thief on the cross had their sins taken away under the covenant which was in effect up until Christ died on the cross. But now we are under a New Covenant ratified by the death of God's Son. It is our covenant, the covenant of Christ, the Lord.
By Jon W. Quinn
From Expository Files 20.7; July 2013