Understanding the Two Covenants

One of the teachings of the Bible that is LEAST understood by Christians is the difference between the two covenants. Confusion about this issue results in a number of wrong beliefs that commonly ensnare Christians in legalism. What is the relationship between the old and new covenants? Are there any parts of the old covenant which are still in force and can be directly applied to Christians today? How do we decide which parts still apply and which parts do not? Your answers to these questions will have very practical implications for your Christian life.

The Concept of Covenant

The concept of covenants is vital to our understanding of the Bible, but we who live in the 21st century are hampered by the fact that we are not familiar with this concept as it was practiced in the ancient world. In biblical times, covenants were very common. They were written agreements between two parties outlining the responsibilities and rights of each party. Covenants were the equivalent of our modern-day contracts. For example, a person leasing land to graze sheep would have a covenant specifying the terms of the lease. The covenant would detail the length of the lease, the rights and responsibilities of both parties, as well as setting out clearly defined reimbursements, fines, rewards and punishments – all of which formed part of the legally binding conditions of the covenant. Under the terms of such a covenant, the lessee may be required to pay an annual percentage of the new-born lambs or a percentage of the wool, with penalties for late payment. At the end of the lease period a completely new covenant would need to be negotiated, and the old covenant would be destroyed. If it was written on a clay tablet (as was common in the early Old Testament period) it would be smashed. If it was written on parchment or papyrus it would be torn up or burned.

Once a new covenant was negotiated and signed, the old covenant was completely obsolete. The fact that the new covenant might have elements that were identical or similar to the old covenant did not mean that parts of the old covenant were still current. Whatever had been written in the old covenant was irrelevant; only what was written in the new covenant was binding. The new covenant totally replaced the previous one even though it may have some similar or identical elements. This understanding of covenants is essential to our reading of the Bible.

Here is an image of some broken, obsolete covenantal tablets from an archaeological dig in Israel. There are thousands of these that have been uncovered:

The New Covenant

Just before his death, Jesus announced that he was instituting a new covenant between God and mankind:

“After supper he took the cup, saying “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.” (Luke 22:20).

In biblical times, important covenants were sealed with the shedding of blood; the more important the covenant, the more costly the animal that was slaughtered. In this case, Jesus himself was the sacrifice that would seal the new covenant between God and mankind;

“This cup is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20)

How does the new covenant that was instituted by Jesus relate to the old one? The book of Hebrews answers that question unequivocally:

“By calling this covenant “new” he has made the first one obsolete” (Heb 8:13).

The writer to the Hebrews is appealing to the first century common understanding of covenantal obsolescence. In the ancient world,  if a “new” covenant existed, in any sphere of life, the old was automatically obsolete. As I have already explained, covenants were very common in the ancient world, and annual covenants for the renewal of leases and other flexible yearly arrangements were ubiquitous. At the beginning of each new year, a new covenant was negotiated with new conditions and penalties, and the old covenant was superseded.

This is crucial for our understanding of the old covenant of the Bible. It is completely obsolete. All of it! All the rituals, all the ceremonies, all the blessings, all the curses, all the laws. They are no longer in operation for those who follow Christ. Every commandment in the Old Testament, including the Ten Commandments, are part of the old covenant which is now “obsolete”. The fact that the new covenant contains some laws that were in the old covenant, (for example, nine of the ten commandments are repeated in some form in the new covenant), does not mean that parts of the old covenant are still current. The old covenant is obsolete, and the new covenant totally replaces the previous one.

There is a common misconception among many Christians that Christ only fulfilled the ceremonial laws of the old covenant and that the moral laws are still current. I held this view, myself, in my early years as a Christian, because this is what I had been taught. According to this view, part of the old covenant is still current, and part is not. Not only is this confusing (how do we distinguish which laws are ceremonial and which are moral?), but it fails to appreciate the ancient concept of covenantal obsolescence. The first covenant has been completely superseded. It is “obsolete”. There are no parts of it that remain in force for Christians. Only what is written in the new covenant is binding. The early Christians, living in a world where covenants were common, would have understood this implicitly.

People often point to Jesus’ statement in Matthew 5 regarding the enduring nature “the law” as a verse that seems to contradict the concept of covenantal obsolescence:

“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. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19 Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:17-20)

How do we reconcile this passage with the clear statement of Hebrews 8:13 that the old covenant is now “obsolete”? For clearly we must reconcile them, because the Bible does not contradict itself! We must conclude, therefore, that whatever Jesus meant in this Matthew passage, he cannot be contradicting the concept of the obsolescence of the old covenant – a concept which is one of the main themes of the whole book of Hebrews! There are two important points of exegesis we must understand regarding this statement by Jesus in Matthew 5:

Firstly, Jesus is explaining the reason for the old covenant’s obsolescence. The old covenant is not obsolete because it was faulty or untrue in some way. It is obsolete because it has now been “fulfilled” in him (v.17). Under the old covenant, a person’s path to righteousness and acceptance by God was through meticulous and perfect observance of all God’s laws. The problem was, of course, that no one can perfectly keep God’s commands. In fact that was the whole point of the old covenant; to define sin and help us to see our need of a Saviour. The coming of Jesus into our world to ultimately atone for our sins on the cross is what the whole of the law was pointing toward. The law, with its myriad of commands, was put in place to lead us to Christ. It was meant to convict us of sin and get us ready for the coming of the Messiah, by pointing out the impossibility of achieving righteousness through perfect obedience. This is what Jesus meant in verse 20 when he said,unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.” 

Secondly, Jesus is also defining the nature of the old covenant’s obsolescence. The old covenant may be obsolete, but it is not discarded or destroyed. Jesus here affirms the ongoing truthfulness of the old covenantal teachings and laws. They were and are good laws, defining in meticulous detail what sin is and what a righteous life looks like. And for those who do not accept him as Saviour, this enduring Law of God will be the basis of their eventual judgment and condemnation. It is in this sense that Jesus says, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished” (v.18). The reference to heaven and earth disappearing is a reference to the day of judgment, when God’s laws will be the standard against which all people will be judged, and those who are not in Christ will be condemned.

But for those who have turned to Christ in faith and repentance, they are no longer under the law, for the law (the old covenant) has served its purpose in leading them to the Saviour. The old covenant has been superseded by something much better:

“We were held in custody under the Law, locked up until faith should be revealed. So the Law became our guardian to lead us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith. Now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.” (Galatians 3:23-25)

“We are no longer under law” (Romans 6:14)

Let us be clear about another thing: the obsolescence of the old covenant does not mean that the Old Testament is obsolete. It is the old covenant that is obsolete, not the Old Testament. The Old Testament contains the old covenant, including the written record of the terms and conditions of that covenant; promises, blessings, curses, laws etc. But the Old Testament contains much more than this. It also contains timeless theological truths, important historical narratives and profound words of prophecy. It reveals God’s character and the history of his dealings with mankind. It lays important theological foundations for our understanding of the gospel, by describing the fall of mankind, our inability to save ourselves, and our dependence upon God’s redemptive intervention. It lays the groundwork for the coming of the Messiah. The Old Testament is an important part of God’s inspired Word for Christians because it provides us with a deeper understanding of the nature of mankind and the character of God, and gives us a richer appreciation of the work of Christ.

Furthermore, although the old covenant’s obsolescence means that it no longer applies to us, this does not infer that we should skip over those elements as we read the Old Testament. There is much value to be had in reading and understanding the old covenant, for, in so doing, we will gain a richer appreciation of the grace that is made available in the new covenant through the saving work of Christ.

Old Covenant Laws Are Applicable Only When Renewed in the New Covenant

Christians cannot apply the laws and promises of the Old Testament to themselves. They are part of a covenant that is now obsolete. Only when a law or promise is repeated in the New Testament is it applicable to us under the new covenant. The terms and conditions of the new covenant are recorded in explicit detail in the New Testament. It contains some laws that are the same as the old covenant, some that have been modified from the old covenant, and some that are completely new.

Laws That Are Carried Over into The New Covenant

Some old covenantal laws have been carried over into the new covenant. The wording may not be identical, but the concept is the same:

Laws That Are Modified in The New Covenant

Some of the old covenantal laws have been given a facelift in the new covenant. But, rather than watering them down, they have been raised to an even higher level. Because the followers of Christ now have the indwelling Holy Spirit to empower and transform them, God’s expectation of people living under the new covenant is greater than his expectation of those under the previous covenant. The following are examples of old covenantal laws that have been modified in the new covenant:

Laws That Are Not Renewed In The New Covenant

There are many laws in the old covenant that are not carried over into the new covenant. This includes not only the large number of ceremonial laws, but also a variety of other moral, ethical and judicial laws. In my book, “Making Sense of the Bible”, I discuss several old covenant laws that are commonly misunderstood by Christians as still being in force. In this paper, however, I will discuss just one: Sabbath day observance.

Keeping the Sabbath

“Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labour … but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work …” (Exod 20:8-10)

The commandment to keep the Sabbath is the only one of the oft-cited Ten Commandments that is not repeated in the New Testament. In fact, Jesus angered the religious leaders of his day by breaking the Sabbath command on several occasions. He “worked” on the Sabbath. On at least seven occasions he healed people on the Sabbath:

  • The demon possessed man (Luke 4:35)
  • The woman with bleeding (Luke 13:14)
  • The man with the withered hand (Matt 12:13)
  • The crippled woman (Luke 13:12)
  • The leper (Luke 14:4)
  • The paralysed man (John 5:9)
  • The blind man (John 9:14).

On another occasion Jesus and his disciples deliberately broke the Sabbath by walking on a long journey and by harvesting and eating grain as they did so (Mark 23-28).

When asked about these violations of the Sabbath law, Jesus replied, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). By this he meant that the concept of the Sabbath was meant as a blessing to people, not to be a burden that made life more difficult.

Not only is the Sabbath command not renewed in the new covenant, the New Testament specifically overturns it, stating that no longer is any single day more special than another. Every day is now to be lived in service to and worship of God. Anyone who wishes to maintain Sabbath observance may still do so, but they must not look down on those who choose not to, because it is no longer a mandatory law of the new covenant:

“One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. He who regards one day as special, does so to the Lord. He who eats meat, eats to the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who abstains, does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God”. (Rom 14:5-6)

“Therefore, do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day” (Col 2:16).

The New Testament teaches that the old commandment of the Sabbath was a foreshadowing of the Sabbath rest that God’s people would one day enter into, through the redeeming work of the Messiah. The physical Sabbath was a foreshadowing of the spiritual rest that was to come. The book of Hebrews states that we have now entered that Sabbath rest through Christ:

 “… the promise of entering his rest still stands, for we have had the gospel preached to us, … Now we who have believed have entered that rest … For somewhere he has spoken about the seventh day in these words: “And on the seventh day God rested from all his work.” (Heb 4:1-4).

Seventh Day Adventist Legalism

The Seventh Day Adventist church teaches that the 4th commandment (of the old covenantal 10 Commandments) concerning the Sabbath day is still in force for all true Christians. In fact, the official teaching of the SDA movement declares that anyone who worships God on a Sunday (the first day of the week) and not on the prescribed Saturday (the seventh day) is actually worshipping Satan and has the mark of the beast upon them! Yes, they really do teach that! (See Ellen G. White, “The Great Controversy”, 1950, p.605).

Ellen White: The SDA prophet who declares that anyone who worships on a Sunday is worshipping Satan:

 

This insistence by Seventh Day Adventists that all true Christians observe the old covenant Sabbath day regulations is predicated upon the mistaken belief that the old covenant laws are still in force. Yet, as we have already noted, the New Testament clearly teaches that this is not so:

“By calling this covenant “new” he has made the first one obsolete” (Heb 8:13).

It is significant that the New Covenant, as prescribed in the teachings of the New Testament, does not contain a commandment regarding sabbath day observance. While the principle of having a weekly day of rest (and worship) is no doubt a very sensible one, it is no longer a legalistic requirement as an essential component of one’s worship of God. Indeed, the old covenantal observance of the sabbath day was merely “a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ” (Colossians 2:16-17). I will discuss this concept in detail shortly, but at this point it is important to note the New Testament’s clear denunciation of those who persist in trying to enforce old covenantal laws and regulations upon Christians. In fact, this was the issue that was occurring in the church in Rome and which prompted Paul to write his letter to the Romans.

A group of Judaisers – Jewish Christians who insisted on legalistic adherence to all the old covenant laws of Judaism – had infiltrated the church in Rome and had begun to promulgate their false teaching. They argued that it was the Jewish sabbath day, Saturday, that should be celebrated, not Sunday, and that Christians should strictly observe all the rules and regulations pertaining to that day. They also insisted that Christians should abide by all the old covenant food laws and celebrate all the Jewish religious festivals, as prescribed in the old covenant. It is this precise issue that Paul was specifically addressing in Romans chapter 14 when he wrote:

6 One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in their own mind. Whoever regards on day as special, does so to the Lord. Whoever eats meat, does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God; and whoever abstains does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God … 13 Therefore, let us stop passing judgment on one another …”

Here, Paul gives permission for people to observe the old covenant sabbath (and other old covenant observances) if they choose to do so, but states that they must not insist upon such observances as essential or binding under the new covenant. In particular, he forbids “passing judgment on one another” on these matters – an injunction that Seventh Day Adventists clearly ignore!

THE SHADOW AND THE REALITY

In Colossians 2:16-17, Paul writes:

“Therefore, do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink or with regard to a religious festival, a new moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.”

Seventh Day Adventists try to dodge Colossians 2:16-17 by claiming that the sabbaths referred to there were the special ‘high sabbaths’ associated with annual festivals, not the weekly sabbaths. But high sabbaths are included in the phrase “religious festivals” as they formed part of those festivals. The seperate reference to “sabbaths” is a clear reference to weekly sabbaths. Furthermore, the phrase “a religious festival, a new moon celebration or a Sabbath day” describes the descending hierarchy of annual, monthly and weekly observances. These three types of observances are mentioned together six times in the Old Testament, and in each instance it is the weekly sabbath that is being referred to [eg: 1 Chronicles 23:31]. Paul would have known this and he deliberately used this phrase in Colossians 2:16 to refer to these three types of observances. Furthermore, in Colossians chapter 2 Paul is addressing the well documented “Colossian Heresy” – a group of Judaisers who had infiltrated the church and who were trying to convince Christians to adhere once more to the strict observance of the Jewish sabbath and other Old Testament festivals and rituals as an essential means of being justified by God. The question of whether Christians should still observe the weekly sabbath was a central point of the hot debate within the church at Colossae at that time. It is in direct response to this issue that Paul writes Colossians 2:16-17. If that passage isn’t referring to weekly sabbaths (as SDAs claim), there would be no point in Paul writing it, as it would be irrelevant to the debate raging within the church! The clear meaning of Colossians 2:16-17 is that the Old Testament weekly sabbath day observance was merely a “shadow” of what was to come “in Christ” and is no longer to be enforced or meticulously observed. Like many of the Old Testament rituals and laws, sabbath day observance has now been widened and extended so that every day is a day to worship and serve God.

It is this understanding that lies behind Paul’s strong prohibition in verse 16 against judging people because of their divergent views of the sabbath. Having been freed from the legalism of Judaism, Christians are not to pass judgment on one another regarding adherence to Old Testament Jewish laws and rituals that are not repeated in the New Testament, including regulations concerning the Sabbath day. Yet this is precisely what SDAs do! Their official teaching condemns other denominations for not worshipping on a Saturday. Significantly, SDAs do not make a similar insistence regarding other Jewish festivals such as Passover, the Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkoth), and the Feast of Weeks (Shavuot). The Adventist movement explain this inconsistency by asserting that it is only the 10 commandments which are still in force for Christians.

The SDA denunciation of all other Christians who choose to worship God on the day of Christ’s resurrection is deeply concerning. The fact that most denominations choose to worship on the first day of the week warrants, in the SDA view, the denunciation of those denominations and the classification of their adherents as now belonging to the kingdom of Satan. It is an extremely legalistic and judgmental view.

The question must be asked, therefore, ‘Is God so pedantically particular about the exact day of the week when Christians must gather together in worship?” The answer that Paul gives in Romans 14:6 and Colossians 2:16-17 is a clear “No.”

From a theological perspective, it can also be argued that the two expressions of the sabbath day (Saturday and Sunday) are typological of the two Covenants. The old covenant sabbath is based upon the seven days of creation, where God rested on the seventh day. The new covenant declares that through the resurrection of Christ from the dead, those who are in Christ are now a “new creation” and have entered a perpetual “sabbath rest” (Hebrews 4). The celebration of the sabbath on the first day of the week, when Jesus rose from the dead, is an appropriate symbol of this new covenant.

For a more detailed discussion of the difference between the two covenants, see my book, “Making Sense of the Bible”.

For a more detailed discussion of the Sabbath day and the evolutions of Sunday as the day of worship, see my paper, “A Response to Seventh Day Adventism”.

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