A failure to grasp the relationship between the new covenant and prior covenants diminishes how the entire biblical storyline coheres and finds its culmination in Christ. Finally, a failure to misperceive that the new covenant has been already inaugurated through Christ is to obscure Christ’s work as the Last Adam, the definitive offspring of Abraham, the true and faithful Israelite, and the final son of David. Put simply, a proper appraisal of Christ’s work in inaugurating the new covenant magnifies the glory of Christ and the glory of God’s grace toward us in him.
This essay will seek to address the following three questions: How does the new covenant differ from the old covenant? How does the new covenant relate to God’s prior covenants with his people? Finally, in what sense did Christ fulfill the new covenant? These questions, while challenging for readers of Scripture, are necessary for us to have a right grasp of the Bible’s storyline, a right appreciation for Christ’s work on our behalf, and a right foundation for the church and the Christian life.
The New Covenant Transcends the Old Covenant
The descriptor “new” sets the new covenant in redemptive-historical contrast with the “old” covenant. The new covenant is new not merely in time but also in quality. As Hebrews 8 poignantly says it, the new covenant is qualitatively better than the old because it is founded on “better promises” (Heb 8:6). These promises are aptly summarized by Jeremiah 31:33–34, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” We can summarize these promises as the internalization of the law, an inviolable covenant relationship between God and his people, a community-wide knowledge of God, and the final forgiveness of sins. Each of these promises contrasts with Israel’s experience under the old covenant and evinces at least four ways in which the new covenant transcends the old.
First, under the old covenant God did not internalize the law within his people. God gave the law on tablets of stone, but he did not transform the hearts of Israelites such that they would receive the law and desire to obey it (see 2 Cor. 3:3). Put another way, old covenant Israel was circumcised outwardly but not inwardly. In contrast with Israel’s experience, the new covenant promise to internalize the law means that God would circumcise the hearts of the covenant members (Deut. 30:6) and put within them his Spirit so that they would desire to obey God’s commands from the heart (Ezek. 36:26–27).
Second, the old covenant did not provide a lasting covenant relationship between God and his people. Immediately after God ratified the Sinai covenant with Israel, Israel broke the covenant by worshiping the golden calf. The new covenant’s promise of a relationship that is “not like the [Sinai] covenant . . . that they broke” (Jer 31:32) strongly suggests that the new covenant relationship forged between God and his people will never be broken. Accordingly, at times the biblical authors will depict the new covenant as a “covenant of peace” or an “everlasting covenant” (Isa 55:3; Ezek 34:25; 37:26; cf. Heb 13:20).
Third, the old covenant community was mixed in that only some of the covenant members possessed saving faith, whereas the majority were characterized by unbelief. Shot through the Old Testament is the notion of a faithful remnant within the broader covenant community. This remnant was often keenly felt to be minuscule (e.g., 1 Kgs. 19:10; Jer. 6:13). The new covenant’s promise is that the entire covenant community would “know the Lord” savingly, even “from the least of them to the greatest” (Jer 31:34). This portrays a vastly different experience for the covenant community, not only in their relationship to God but also to one another.
Finally, through the sacrificial system, the old covenant provided forgiveness of sins for Israel (e.g., Lev. 4:26; 4:31; 5:10). At the same time, such forgiveness was only temporary and provisional, since Israel needed to offer animal sacrifices for their sins repeatedly. Even more, as Hebrews 10 notes, animal sacrifices cannot actually provide forgiveness of sins, but only served as a constant reminder for Israel of their need for forgiveness (Heb. 10:3–4). Embedded within the old covenant, therefore, was a system impotent to deal definitively with sin in the covenant community. Set in contrast to this system is the new covenant promise of final and definitive forgiveness, such that God would “remember their sin no more” (Jer. 31:34), thus abrogating the necessity of repeated sacrifices for sin (Heb. 10:18).
The New Covenant Fulfills All God’s Covenant Promises
A right understanding of the new covenant takes into consideration not only how it is set in contrast with the old covenant but also how it fulfills all of God’s covenant promises throughout redemptive history, including the covenant at creation and the covenants with Abraham, Israel, and David.
At creation God gave Adam and Eve life and joy in the Garden of Eden, where God dwelt among them. They lost this paradise when they failed to trust and obey God’s word, which led to their eviction from the garden and the concomitant loss of life and joy in God’s presence. The new covenant relates to this loss by promising that through the new covenant the paradise lost would become paradise regained. Particularly, in the new covenant God promised to pour out his Spirit, recreating and giving life to a new sacred community whose beauty would match that of the Garden of Eden. Coinciding with Jeremiah’s new covenant promises is a depiction of the entire new and expanded Jerusalem as holy to the Lord (Jer. 31:38–40).