Reading through the book of Hebrews, I found interesting the whole Old Covenant vs New Covenant discussion of the yet-to-be-known author of this book. I, at the same time, noticed I had a lack of a deep understanding of the intricacies of the Old Covenant and what the New Covenant meant in relation to the old one. Hence this post.
A covenant is an agreement between two people with conditions to which both agreed. Such an agreement, known as the Old Covenant, was given to Israel in Mt. Sinai right after they had been delivered from the opressive hand of Egypt. Before handing them the Ten Commandments, you see God in Exodus 19:4-6 , especifically in v.5, propositioning the covenant to the people of Israel through Moses, telling them, “‘You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites.”
After God had proposed this covenant to Moses, Moses came down from the mountain and presented it to the leaders and elders of Israel. And what was their response? “The people all responded together, ‘We will do everything the LORD has said.’ So Moses brought their answer back to the LORD.”(Ex. 19:8) Following Israel’s promise to abide by this covenant proposed by God, the Ten Commandments were given to them. These were the central basis for all other instructions for Israel, found in the first five books of the Bible, that pertained to the covenant already made to God.The Law was given because of the transgressions of the people(Gal. 3:19). It was never intended to save people, but to keep them in line, mirror-reflect their transgressions and show the need for a Savior.
But the question is: Why? Why the need for a change in the law? Because the Law of Moses was powerless to make those who were under it perfect. The law itself was “holy righteous and good” according to Paul in Romans 7:12, but at the same time he called it “weak and useless”(v.18) in that it couldn’t produce holiness, righteousness or goodness in him. Are you among those who say you’re going to heaven because you’re a good person, live a relatively moral and ethical life? Then you’re living “under the law”, also called “legalism”. The only thing acceptable to God would be absolutely perfect adherence and obedience to God’s Word. And as you may already know, and probably tried, this is impossible. Every human weakness is therefore exposed by the law without the law being able to add any goodness.
Was there anything wrong with the Old Covenant then? Well, the Old Covenant itself was a good covenant as well as the law on which it was based. So what was the problem? The problem lied in one side of the parties involved in the covenant: the people of Israel. They weren’t able to live up to it. That’s where the wondrous love of God shines the brightly, that’s where His amazing grace rises up from the most distant horizon lighting up the whole world, that’s where His immeasurable ocean of mercy is poured unto us. A New Covenant was prophesied by Jeremiah(Jeremiah 31:31-34) and brought into effect by Jesus Christ. We were in need of a higher priest to intercede for us before God. A perfect one. One that didn’t have to first make sacrifices for his own sin as the Levitical priests did. That’s where Jesus comes in. Jesus was “holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted, above the heavens”(Heb. 7:26) One that would intercede for us, uninterrupted by death like in the Levitical priesthood’s case where all died, but Jesus lives forever as it’s shown in Psalm 110:4, “The LORD has sworn and will not change his mind: `You’re a priest forever.`”
As we have said already, a covenant is an agreement between two people with conditions to which both agreed. You can see this happening in the Old Covenant in Exodus 24:1-8. The greek word used in Hebrews 8 however, is normally used for “will”, which is not put into force until the death of the testator, or person who made the will. This is one of the features of the “New Covenant”. This is one of the features that makes it new. In the case of the New Covenant it was not a bilateral agreement, like in the case of the Old Covenant, but a unilateral—it only depended on God and not on man’s ability to keep it.
Whereas the Old Covenant was written in stones, the New Covenant indicated the law of God was to be a written in our hearts. The Mosaic Law too urged the believers to write these laws in their hearts(Deut. 6:6-7) but the New Covenant would assure that this was actually accomplished. The New Covenant also now allows us to have a relationship with God. With the forgiveness of our sins our relationship with God is restored. He delivered us forgiveness for all the ways we displease Him.
In the Old Covenant as well, the priests and worshipers had to be sprinkled repeatedly with specific animal blood(Heb. 9:13) This signified this animal blood didn’t truly remove sin. These sacrifices of animals were only a symbolism of what had to take place on a larger and more perfect scale when Jesus would come and die on the cross and pay for our sins. The use of blood in the sacrificial proceedings were necessary as evidence of the substitution of one life for another. The sins of the Old Testament people were forgiven on the basis of God’s future promised action in sending Christ to die in the place of sinners. The Old Testament never suggested the actual blood of the animals would take away sins(Heb. 10:3) But Christ’s blood was only shed once and atoned for our sins once and forever. When those confessing sin believed in God’s promises and faithfulness, then God granted forgiveness.
Another difference from the Old Covenant is that the Levitical priesthood, the lineage of priests assigned by God which sole job was to present sacrifices before Him for the sins of the people, had been unable to establish the perfection the people needed if they were to stand before God, hence the need for a greater priesthood. Nobody could enter the Most Holy Place but them. We see an example of this when King Uzziah attempted to offer incense to the Lord by entering the temple where only the priest were allowed to go and God judged him by afflicting him with leprosy(2 Chronicles 26:16-23) You either had to be suicidal or plain crazy to go in thinking you could come out unscathed. With the New Covenant everyone would have an intimate and personal knowledge of God, even the Gentiles(Old Covenant was only for the Jews). We are now free to come before Him anytime we want and approach Him in the name of Jesus Christ, for Jesus is to His right hand interceding for us. That’s why at the exact moment Jesus died at the cross the curtain separating the Most Holy Place from the rest of the temple was torn, signifying that we now had full access to God through the work of Jesus. No more would the knowledge of God be confined to a privileged few(i.e, priests and prophets).
What then do we learn from all of this? To deposit one’s full faith in Jesus. Forget ceremonies, only aiming for “good morals”, patterns of religion, spiritual practice or self-confidence as means to attain God. God is already attained. Not by our own strength or will, but only because He first came to us. There is no way on earth(or heaven for that matter) that we would’ve been able to get close to God, pay for our sins or develop a relationship with Him by our own strength.