For a long time I was confused about the difference between what the Bible calls the “Old Covenant” and the “New Covenant.” I imagine many outoftheoverflow.com readers still struggle with some confusion between the two.
This post has been made in hopes of clearing up that confusion.
The Old Covenant was in effect during the time before Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection when the Jews were living under the Mosaic Law, or, the Old Law, and is associated with the Old Testament and the leadership of Moses.
The New Covenant went into effect after Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection that fulfilled the requirements of the Old Covenant and Old Law, and is associated with the New Testament and the leadership of Jesus.
When I was in college a professor of mine named Dr. Phil Thompson presented my class with a handout put together by a man named Jack McKinney. I’d like to share the contents of that handout with you today as I’ve found them to be very helpful.
Jack McKinney uses 2 Corinthians 3 to compare/contrast the Old Covenant to the New Covenant in a way that really helped clear up a lot of confusion for me … check it out:
The Old Covenant vs. The New Covenant
- Old Covenant – Moses as Minister (2 Corinthians 3:13-15; John 1:17; Hebrews 3:5)
- New Covenant – Jesus’ Disciples as Ministers (2 Corinthians 3:6; John 16:12-15)
- Old Covenant – A Covenant of the Letter (2 Corinthians 3:6)
- New Covenant – A Covenant of the Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:6-8)
- Old Covenant – A Covenant which Kills (2 Corinthians 3:6)
- New Covenant – A Covenant which Gives Life (2 Corinthians 3:6 – literally “makes alive”)
- Old Covenant – A Ministry of Death (2 Corinthians 3:7)
- New Covenant – A Ministry of Life (2 Corinthians 3:6)
- Old Covenant – A Ministry of Condemnation (2 Corinthians 3:9)
- New Covenant – A Ministration of Righteousness (2 Corinthians 3:9)
- Old Covenant – A Covenant Written with Ink (2 Corinthians 3:3)
- New Covenant – A Covenant Written with the Spirit of the Living God (2 Corinthians 3:3)
- Old Covenant – A Covenant Written on Stone (2 Corinthians 3:3-7)
- New Covenant – A Covenant Written on the Heart of Man (2 Corinthians 3:3; Jeremiah 31:33; Ezekiel 11:19-20; 36:26)
- Old Covenant – A Covenant which came with Glory (2 Corinthians 3:7; Exodus 34:29-35)
- New Covenant – A Covenant which came with the Greatest Glory (2 Corinthians 3:8-11)
- Old Covenant – A Covenant whose Glory was Passing/Fading (2 Corinthians 3:7)
- New Covenant – A Covenant whose Glory Continues to Shine (2 Corinthians 3:18)
- Old Covenant – A Veiled or Covered Glory (2 Corinthians 3:12-16)
- New Covenant – An Unveiled, Ever-Increasing Glory (2 Corinthians 3:18)
- Old Covenant – A Covenant Destined to be Done Away (2 Corinthians 3:11; Hebrews 7:12, 8:13, 10:9)
- New Covenant – A Covenant Destined to Last Forever (2 Corinthians 3:11; Hebrews 13:20)
McKinney goes on to note:
It was not merely the glory (GREEK: Doxa; cf. English “doxology”) which was transient in nature, but the Old Covenant itself. A close reading of 2 Corinthians 3:11 makes that clear, though some commentators have missed this. It is especially clear from 2 Corinthians 3:7, where Paul speaks of the “ministry that brought death … engraved in letters on stone” coming with glory (NIV). It does not make sense to say that the glory of the Old Covenant “came with glory.” To understand this chapter, one must turn back to the situation in Exodus 34, and even then Paul’s argument may seem a bit strange to us. Still, his line of reasoning in one that is quite acceptable to that of the rabbinical interpretation of his time. It is not, of course, as if the Old Testament were of no value to the Christian. As the tutor or schoolmaster whose purpose was to lead to Christ, it has tremendous value for us, but the fact that “now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law” (Galatians 3:19-23, 25; 2:19-21).
That leads me to the question: what should we do with the teachings surrounding the Old Covenant today? Should we simply ignore them, or are they still applicable?
I really appreciate the way Mark Driscoll explains this on pages 46 & 47 of his book On the Old Testament (A Book You’ll Actually Read):
I have also been asked many times whether we need to obey all commands in the Old Tesatment. The short answer regarding law is that all of the Old Testament commands/laws were fulfilled in Jesus Christ (Matthew 5:17-18). This does not mean that we do not love and value the Old Testament law. But it does mean that we are no longer under it. Similarly, when I was in high school I had to sign an attendance sheet every day, go to assemblies, and bring a note if I had been sick. Since the graduation requirements have been met, I am no longer bound to do those things. This does not mean they were bad, only that they are completed. However, there are some laws from high school that are still binding on me. For example, at my school I was not allowed to kill anyone, sell drugs, or steal. These laws are still applicable to me, even though I have graduated.
Likewise, there are three kinds of laws in the Old Testament.
First, there are ceremonial laws, which are related to the priesthood, sacrifices, temple, and cleanness. These are now fulfilled in Jesus (for example, nearly the entire book of Hebrews addresses this issue for Jews who struggled with the Old Testament laws once they were saved). These laws are no longer binding on us because Jesus is our Priest, Sacrifice, Temple, and Cleanser.
Second, there are civil laws, which refer to the governing of Israel as a nation ruled by God. Since we are no longer a theocracy, these laws, while insightful, are not directly binding on us. As Romans 13 says, we must now obey our pagan government because God will work through it, too.
Third, there are moral laws, which prohibit such things as stealing, murdering, and lying. These laws are still binding on us even though Jesus fulfilled their requirements through His sinless life. Jesus Himself repeats and reinforces nine of the Ten Commandments. The only exception is the Sabbath, because that is part of the ceremonial law. Now our rest is in the finished work of Jesus, not just a day.
In Summary, the ceremonial and civil laws of the Old Testament are no longer binding on us, while the moral laws are.
Is there value in studying the laws surrounding the Old Covenant? Absolutely.
Does that mean we’re still bound to all of them? As both Mark and Jack explain above, no.