Understanding Covenant, Part IV: The New Testament Covenant

Previously we have examined the definitions of covenant, covenants in the Old Testament, and the nature of covenant during the life of Christ. Let us now spend some time examining the nature of the new covenant as described in the New Testament.

Diatheke as Covenant

In our first discussion on covenant, we saw that the word for covenant, in Greek, was diatheke. We noted also that diatheke originally referred only to a testament or will, and that the translators of the Hebrew Bible essentially added a new definition to diatheke by using it to translate the Hebrew berit, “covenant.” The description of the new covenant in Christ utilizes both definitions of diatheke; we shall begin by looking at diatheke as “covenant,” as seen in Hebrews 9:15:

And for this cause he is the mediator of a new covenant, that a death having taken place for the redemption of the transgressions that were under the first covenant, they that have been called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance.

Let us look at some of the characteristics of this covenant:

  1. The covenant is between God and man through the mediation of Christ Jesus (1 Timothy 2:3-7).
  2. The covenant is conditional upon the obedience of men to the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ (Matthew 7:21-23, 2 Thessalonians 1:6-9).
  3. The covenant obliges God to forgive the sins of the baptized, repentant believer, to have fellowship with all such Christians, and to provide eternal life to all Christians after the resurrection (Acts 2:18, Romans 10:9-10, 1 John 1, 1 Corinthians 9:24-27).
  4. The covenant obliges Christians to follow their Lord and obey Him, repenting and petitioning their Lord for forgiveness when they stumble (1 Corinthians 11:1, 1 John 1:7-9).
  5. The sign of the covenant is the Lord’s Supper, the memorial of the sacrifice of Christ for our sins (1 Corinthians 10:16-17, 1 Corinthians 11:20-34).

The covenant between God and man through Christ is unique in many ways. Let us examine some of its unique characteristics:

  1. The emergence of the new covenant was prophesied far before, that it would replace the covenant between God and Israel, and that the Gentiles would be added into the fold (Jeremiah 31:31-34, Deuteronomy 18:15-19, Isaiah 2:1-4, Hosea 2:23; compare Hebrews 8:8-13, 1 Peter 2:10).
  2. The covenant entails a spiritual, not physical, kingdom (John 18:36, Ephesians 6:10-18).
  3. Everyone is called to be a part of said kingdom, and no distinction is made between race, culture, or ethnicity (1 Timothy 2:4, Galatians 3:28).
  4. The covenant will be everlasting, and will not be superseded by another (1 Corinthians 15:20-58).

These, then, are some of the characteristics of the covenant between God and man through Christ Jesus. Let us contrast this covenant with the covenants of the Old Testament previously examined to gain some insights.

The New Covenant and Previous Covenants

The Garden of Eden and the New Covenant

We noted previously that while the term “covenant” is never used to describe the relationship between God and Adam, they did have an agreement that was like a covenant.

Paul contrasts the death which Adam introduced into the world with the life that Christ brought by His death in 1 Corinthians 15:22 and 15:45:

For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.

So also it is written, “The first man Adam became a living soul.”
The last Adam became a life-giving spirit.

Therefore, we can see that death, the penalty of the disobedience of Adam, has been reversed by the death of Christ, which gives us life.

Noah and the New Covenant

The covenant between God and all flesh at the time of Noah finds no adaptation or change as long as the earth continues to exist. It is interesting to note, however, how Peter describes the salvation of Christians in terms of an “antitype” of Noah in 1 Peter 3:20-21:

that aforetime were disobedient, when the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water: which also after a true likeness doth now save you, even baptism, not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the interrogation of a good conscience toward God, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

As Noah and his family were saved by remaining above the water, we are saved by being immersed within water– not a bath, but the appeal to God for a clean conscience through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The Covenant with Abraham and the New Covenant

The covenant between God and Abraham saw some initial fulfillment in the Israelites: God made them a great nation, with numerous descendants, and gave them the land of Canaan. One promise remained to be fulfilled, and it was done through Christ Jesus, as Paul explains in Galatians 3:16, 29:

Now to Abraham were the promises spoken, and to his seed.
He saith not, “And to seeds,” as of many;
but as of one, “And to thy seed,” which is Christ…
And if ye are Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, heirs according to promise.

It was through Christ that “all the nations of the earth will be blessed;” Christ, therefore, represents the final fulfillment of the covenant between God and Abraham.

The Covenant with Israel and the New Covenant

The relationship between the covenant between God and Israel and the new covenant can be analyzed in three ways: fulfillment, supercession, and superiority.

  1. Jesus Christ fulfills the covenant between God and Israel. Jesus says the following in Matthew 5:17-18:

    “Think not that I came to destroy the law or the prophets: I came not to destroy, but to fulfil. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass away from the law, till all things be accomplished.”

    Many wish to believe that this passage teaches that Jesus in no way will ever fulfill the law, but the text shows this to be not so. Jesus confirms here that the law, the obligations of the Israelites in their covenant with God, will not change at all “until all things are accomplished [or, “fulfilled”].” After His death and resurrection, Jesus says the following to His disciples in Luke 24:44:

    And he said unto them, “These are my words which I spake unto you, while I was yet with you, that all things must needs be fulfilled, which are written in the law of Moses, and the prophets, and the psalms, concerning Me.”

    Truly, therefore, Jesus did fulfill the law.

  2. The new covenant supersedes the old. Most of the covenants we have seen beforehand have been complementary: the covenant with all flesh at the time of Noah is not superseded by God’s covenant with Abraham; the covenant between God and Israel represents a partial fulfillment of His promises to Abraham, and does not supersede His previous covenant; the covenant between God and David functions fully within His covenant with Israel. The prophets, however, spoke of a new covenant which would be made that would replace the old, as shown above; likewise, the New Testament speaks of this replacement, in Ephesians 2:11-18, Colossians 2:14-16, and Hebrews 8:13:

    Wherefore remember, that once ye, the Gentiles in the flesh, who are called Uncircumcision by that which is called Circumcision, in the flesh, made by hands; that ye were at that time separate from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of the promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus ye that once were far off are made nigh in the blood of Christ. For he is our peace, who made both one, and brake down the middle wall of partition, having abolished in the flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances; that he might create in himself of the two one new man, so making peace; and might reconcile them both in one body unto God through the cross, having slain the enmity thereby: and he came and preached peace to you that were far off, and peace to them that were nigh: for through him we both have our access in one Spirit unto the Father.

    Having blotted out the bond written in ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us: and he hath taken it out that way, nailing it to the cross; having despoiled the principalities and the powers, he made a show of them openly, triumphing over them in it. Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of a feast day or a new moon or a sabbath day.

    [previously citing Jeremiah 31:31-33] In that he saith, “A new covenant,”
    he hath made the first old. But that which is becoming old and waxeth aged is nigh unto vanishing away.

    The most manifest evidence of the change is from Hebrews 7:12, when the Hebrew author argues regarding Christ’s priesthood in the order of Melchizedek, since He was not of Levi:

    For the priesthood being changed, there is made of necessity a change also of the law.

    The change is manifestly necessary: the Law of Moses was in no way to be changed, either by addition or subtraction (Deuteronomy 4:2). Likewise, the covenant between God and Israel was made only between God and Israel: it did not include all other nations. The covenant between God and man through Christ, however, includes all peoples, and is founded under the authority of Christ Jesus (Matthew 28:18). The new covenant, by necessity, supersedes the old.

  3. The new covenant is superior to the old covenant. One of the significant challenges in the early church was the spread of the “Judaizers,” those “Hebrew Christians” who believed that the Law of Moses was to be imposed upon all Gentile converts to Christianity. Because of these the New Testament authors spend much time demonstrating not only that Christ has superseded the old, but that the new covenant is vastly superior to the old. Paul speaks of the two covenants allegorically in Galatians 4:21-30:

    Tell me, ye that desire to be under the law, do ye not hear the law?
    For it is written, “that Abraham had two sons, one by the handmaid, and one by the freewoman.”
    Howbeit the son by the handmaid is born after the flesh; but the son by the freewoman is born through promise. Which things contain an allegory: for these women are two covenants; one from mount Sinai, bearing children unto bondage, which is Hagar. Now this Hagar is mount Sinai in Arabia and answereth to the Jerusalem that now is: for she is in bondage
    with her children. But the Jerusalem that is above is free, which is our mother.
    For it is written, “Rejoice, thou barren that bearest not; Break forth and cry, thou that travailest not: For more are the children of the desolate than of her that hath the husband.”
    Now we, brethren, as Isaac was, are children of promise. But as then he that was born after the flesh persecuted him that was born after the Spirit, so also it is now.
    Howbeit what saith the scripture? “Cast out the handmaid and her son: for the son of the handmaid shall not inherit with the son of the freewoman.”

    The same contrast between bondage and freedom is the primary message of Paul in Galatians 3-5.

    The main means by which the superiority of the new is demonstrated may be found in Colossians 2:16-17 and Hebrews 9:23-24:

    Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of a feast day or a new moon or a sabbath day: which are a shadow of the things to come; but the body is Christ’s.

    It was necessary therefore that the copies of the things in the heavens should be cleansed with these; but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. For Christ entered not into a holy place made with hands, like in pattern to the true; but into heaven itself, now to appear before the face of God for us.

    Both of these passages provide the same type of indication: the covenant between God and Israel was fleshly, physical, a copy, a shadow; the covenant between God and all men through Christ Jesus is spiritual, heavenly, the reality, the substance. The contrasts are many: the earthly sabbath on the seventh day vs. the perpetual heavenly rest (Hebrews 4:1-11); the earthly animal sacrifices vs. the perfect sacrifice of Christ (Hebrews 9:16-25); the earthly, imperfect priesthood of Levi vs. the spiritual priesthood of all believers, with Christ Jesus the Head Priest, in the order of Melchizedek (1 Peter 2:9, Hebrews 7); the ministration of death vs. the ministration of glory (2 Corinthians 3); and so on.

The conclusion is evident: Jesus Christ, through fulfilling the Law, was able to replace the covenant between God and Israel with a better covenant based on better promises, an everlasting spiritual kingdom open to all who obey: this was the eternal purpose of God in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:11)!

The Covenant with David and the New Covenant

God promised to David that his throne would be established forever (2 Samuel 7:13). The line of physical kings ended with Jehoiachin and Zedekiah at the time of the Babylonian captivity (cf. 2 Chronicles 36), and because of the sins of David’s descendants there was no king on that throne for 580 years. The final fulfillment of the covenant between God and David was recognized in Jesus Christ, descended from David (Matthew 1:1-16, Luke 3:23-31), and having full power (Romans 1:3-5).

Diatheke as Testament or Will

We noted earlier the two meanings of the Greek word diatheke, that it meant both “covenant,” corresponding to the Hebrew berit, but originally meant “testament,” or “will.” The Hebrew author exploits the dual meanings of this word; we saw above how he uses diatheke as covenant in Hebrews 9:15, and he continues using diatheke in the following verses, although this time referring to the idea of “testament,” or “will”:

For where a testament is, there must of necessity be the death of him that made it. For a testament is of force where there hath been death: for it doth never avail while he that made it liveth. Wherefore even the first covenant hath not been dedicated without blood…It was necessary therefore that the copies of the things in the heavens should be cleansed with these; but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. For Christ entered not into a holy place made with hands, like in pattern to the true; but into heaven itself, now to appear before the face of God for us: nor yet that he should offer himself often, as the high priest entereth into the holy place year by year with blood not his own; else must he often have suffered since the foundation of the world: but now once at the end of the ages hath he been manifested to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. And inasmuch as it is appointed unto men once to die, and after this cometh judgment; so Christ also, having been once offered to bear the sins of many, shall appear a second time, apart from sin, to them that wait for him, unto salvation, (Hebrews 9:16-18, 23-28).

The covenant with Christ could not be inaugurated until a death had taken place, since that covenant was the last will and testament of Jesus Christ, and no will/testament is in force until the death of the testator. This is why, despite the fact that Jesus preached the Gospel of the Kingdom during His lifetime, the covenant could only go into effect after He had shed His blood for all mankind. This act– and the book that speaks of it and His lordship, the New Testament– represents the last will and testament of our Lord Jesus Christ, for us all to heed and obey.

We will conclude our examination of covenant by looking at various errors regarding matters of covenant in “Christendom” today.


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