The most basic meaning of the word “covenant” is simply an agreement. Thus in the Bible, covenants are agreements between God and His people. God made several covenants with individuals in Old Testament times including Noah (Genesis 6:6) and Abram (Genesis 15:8). Circumcision was introduced as a token of the covenant God had made with Abraham (Genesis 17:9-11).
When we speak of the “Old Covenant,” however, we usually refer to the written agreement or law given by God to Moses at Mount Sinai. In this article, the term has the same meaning as “Law of Moses.”
The ending of the Law of Moses when Jesus died has been a major point of doctrine in the Restoration Movement. Alexander Campbell in 1816 preached his famous Sermon on the Law to a meeting of Baptists. He maintained that we cannot make distinctions among ceremonial, judicial, and moral laws in the Old Testament. All are part of the Law that ended with the death of Christ. While the Old Testament is useful for our learning (Romans 15:4), it cannot be used as a rule of life for Christians. This issue was often debated with denominationalists but it was widely accepted by members of the Lord’s church.
In recent times, teaching that once seemed clear has become blurred in the writing and preaching of some within the church. They tell us that we are missing the continuity of God’s dealings with sinful people if we insist on dividing His revelation into two distinct covenants. Yet, the old and new covenants are clearly distinguished in the Scripture. Jeremiah prophesied that the Lord would “make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah” (Jeremiah 31:31). In verse 32, God contrasts this new covenant from “the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt.” He had a better covenant planned for His people. Paul explained the benefit of this new covenant when he said that the minds of those reading the Old Testament were blinded by a veil. But that veil was done away in Christ (2 Corinthians 3:12-16). Careful Bible students should be able to see clearly that Jeremiah’s prophecy promised a change of covenants that would be fulfilled with Jesus’ death.
WHY THE OLD COVENANT WAS GIVEN
God had dealt directly with the fathers of families through the times of Noah, Abraham and Jacob, but by the time when Moses led the Israelites out of Egyptian slavery, the need for a written law was critical. Galatians 3:19 says that the law was added because of transgressions. A written law from God exposes man’s sinfulness. Kenneth Boles helps our understanding with a good illustration of one way this works: “It functions as a flashlight might help to identify what has gone wrong with an automobile. The flashlight could call attention to a broken fan belt, but would be of little use in actually fixing the problem. The law spotlights man’s broken, sinful state, but the law is not the tool we need to fix our brokenness” (Galatians and Ephesians, 87).
The law served as a schoolmaster to bring us to Christ (Galatians 3:24). “Schoolmaster” might not be the best rendering of a Greek word that originally referred to a slave who guarded the children as they went to and from school. Hugo McCord thought that “school bus driver” was the best modern-day equivalent of the word. In any event, the Law of Moses served to help maintain Israel’s identity as the people of God through the centuries from Sinai to the Cross.
WHY THE OLD COVENANT ENDED
Christ accomplished His mission of fulfilling the Law of Moses (Matthew 5:17). The Law was never intended to be permanent since it had always been God’s plan to send His Son to achieve our salvation in a way that was never possible under the Mosaic law. Back in Galatians 3:19, we’re told that the law was added . . . “till the seed should come to whom the promise was made.” Earlier (verse 16), Paul had made it clear that the word seed was singular and so referred to only one person. That Seed can only be Christ Jesus. Thus, we have learned that the Law of Moses was intended to last until the coming of Christ. When Jesus came, He made possible something much better. Hebrews 7:19 tells us, “For the law made nothing perfect, but the bringing in of a better hope did; by the which we draw nigh unto God.”
In Christ, we have a better hope because we have a better covenant, one based on better promises and a better sacrifice offered by Jesus through his death (Hebrews 8:6-8). Note verse 7 in that passage: “For if that first covenant had been faultless, then should no place have been sought for the second.” If the Old Covenant accomplished everything we needed to have eternal life, God would have had no reason to replace it. However, God did find fault with the old covenant because he promised to make a new covenant with Israel and Judah. It is in that new covenant that we have a new and improved way to gain access to God and obtain forgiveness for sins.
HOW THE OLD COVENANT ENDED
The effectiveness of the Law of Moses ended when Jesus died on the cross. Colossians 2:14 says, “Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross.” The English Standard translation says that He nailed to the cross “the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands.”
That refers to the requirement inherent in the Law of Moses that its dictates must be followed with exact precision. Back in Galatians 3, Paul called this demand “the curse of the law” (Galatians 3:10, “For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse; for it is written, Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them”). While Jesus was always able to resist the temptation to sin (Hebrews 4:15), you and I are highly unlikely to accomplish that same feat. Regarding law-keeping, if we succeed in keeping “the whole law” while failing in only one point, we are still sinners . . . guilty of all (James 2:10). There had to be a better way and that better way is given to us through the crucifixion of the altogether-innocent, sinless Son of God.
Through the body of Christ, we have become dead to the law (Romans 7:4). Since Christians are now dead to the law, we are released from it and from its power over us (Romans 7:6). Paul used marriage to illustrate his point in Romans 7. A husband’s death frees the wife from “the law of her husband” so that she may remarry without being called an adulteress (verses 1-3). In the same way, those who had been under the Law of Moses and had been “married” to that law are now free to “be married to another, even to him who is raised from the dead” (verse 4). The Law of Moses has no more power or authority over those who are in Christ Jesus.
WHAT THE END OF THE OLD COVENANT
MEANS FOR CHRISTIANS TODAY
Salvation. “There is now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh but after the Spirit” (Romans 8:1). The Old Covenant offered the postponement of guilt through animal sacrifices. “In those sacrifices there is a remembrance again made of sins every year. For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sins” (Hebrews 10:3-4).
Sacrifice.Jesus gave Himself as the ultimate, once-for-all-time sacrifice. His death on the cross never needs to be repeated. Unlike the animal sacrifices that needed to be offered over and over, Jesus offered up himself once. People generally understand this truth. We do not see many people today attempt to obtain forgiveness by slaughtering lambs on altars.
If the Law of Moses was deficient in its ability to provide genuine salvation and if the sacrifices of sheep and bulls and goats was vastly inferior to the sacrifice of Christ, why should we think that any part of the Old Covenant would still be binding on today’s Christians? Why would we think that Sabbath-keeping, worshiping with instrumental music, or any other detail of the lifestyle Israelites practiced under the Old Covenant would be appropriate for Christians living under the better covenant of Christ?
John Gaines preaches for the Skagit Valley Church of Christ in Burlington, Washington
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