Scripture talks about the old covenant, the covenant God made with Israel after saving his people from Egypt, and the new covenant, which it contrasts with the old covenant. God made the old covenant through Moses on Mount Sinai. The new covenant was made through Jesus.
But what’s the difference between the old covenant and the new covenant?
Galatians 3 says that before God made the old covenant through Moses, he made a promise to his people through Abraham. This promise was a prophecy related to the new covenant (Gen. 15). Later in the Old Testament, long before Jesus was born, Jeremiah wrote a more direct prophecy about the new covenant:
Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts.– Jer. 31:31–33
So in the old covenant, God wrote his law on tablets of stone. Now, under the new covenant, given through Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit writes his law on the hearts of his people. Jesus instituted the new covenant at the Last Supper: “This cup that is poured out for you,” he told his disciples, “is the new covenant my blood” (Luke 22:20).
The old covenant wasn’t defective. It just wasn’t meant to continue forever. There was something greater coming: the new covenant through Christ’s redemptive work. The old covenant was given for a limited time.
Galatians 3 says that the old covenant, or the law, was meant to lead us to Christ. It was like a schoolmaster, teaching God’s people to look ahead to Jesus and the promise of the gospel. Now that we have the promise—the reality—in Christ and the new covenant, we no longer live under the old covenant.
God’s moral law, summarized in the ten commandments, always binds people. But the sacrifices, rituals and civil laws that were part of the old, mosaic covenant are gone. We’re not under Moses; we’re under Jesus Christ. That’s the beauty of what we read about in Jeremiah 31. It’s what the New Testament explains.
Jesus fulfilled the law in our place, so we’re free from it. The moral law guides our lives, but the gospel tells us that, through his perfect life and sacrificial death for us on the cross, Jesus fulfilled the law—he did everything the old covenant required. We’re justified in Christ. We’re free from the condemnation of the law. That’s the new covenant.
And every time we take the Lord’s Supper, we participate in a renewal of the covenant.
You can read more about the differences between the new covenant and the old covenant in the book of Hebrews, particularly Hebrews 8. That chapter emphasizes that the problem was not with the old covenant. The problem was that God’s people broke the covenant. Hebrews and Galatians are two of the best places in the New Testament to study this crucial distinction between the old and the new covenants.
This article is part of our Frequently Asked Questions series. Listen to Pastor Adriel answer this question on Core Radio here.
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