Why the Old Covenant?

Previously, we asked the question, “What is a Covenant?” Now let’s explore some covenants in the Bible.1

Long before sin entered this world through Adam and Eve, God made a covenant with Himself concerning a plan to deal with the sin problem. It was a comprehensive plan that would settle the controversy between Christ and Satan and provide a way to save sinners. Even though it was a one-sided covenant involving two parties, it still required acceptance by the sinner in order for elements of it to become effective.

We see parts of this covenant showing up in several places in the Old Testament, starting with Adam and Eve when God told them,

“I will put enmity between you and the woman,
And between your seed and her Seed;
He shall bruise your head,
And you shall bruise His heel” (Gen 3:15 NKJV).

It was a promise given through grace, and this grace also shows up in the covenant God made with Noah (Gen 9). It shows up again in the covenant made with Abraham as the promise of an inheritance and a blessing to all people through him (Gen 15). These are not actually separate covenants but are reaffirmations of the covenant God made before sin, which we often call the everlasting covenant.

When Abraham asked for a guarantee concerning the promise God gave him of posterity and the possession of land, God ratified that covenant with him in the custom of his time (Gen 15) which was by blood. The specific promise made to Abraham is known as the Abrahamic covenant, but it involves the same basic promises and has the same goal as the everlasting covenant and therefore is but another reaffirmation. In all of these, the only requirement God places on man is to accept Him as Lord and to believe the promises that God would do for man what man could not do for himself.

After a while, according to the prediction God gave Abraham concerning the generations that would follow, the children of Israel became slaves in a foreign land. That brutal slavery did immense damage to the faith and religion of God’s people. God, therefore, had to reeducate them, and He gave them detailed instruction through the sanctuary services on how He was going to deal with the sin problem.

Ten Commandments pronounced from SinaiThis reeducation started at Sinai with the formal pronouncement of God’s Law,2 which is the basis of both types of covenants (see Jer 31:31-33). At this time God also gave Moses “judgments,” which demonstrated how to apply the law in their situation, and Moses wrote these down in “a book of the covenant.” After Moses read these to the children of Israel, they entered into a covenant in which they pledged themselves to accept God as their Ruler and promised to be obedient. (Ex 24:7,8) This covenant was then ratified with blood, and we know it today as the “old covenant” because it was ratified before the everlasting covenant also known as the “new covenant,” which was ratified at Calvary. The old covenant was ineffective because it was based on the people’s promises, which they soon broke.

The old covenant was radically different from the everlasting and Abrahamic covenants, which were one-sided promises. The old covenant was a two-sided covenant in which the people promised to obey all of God’s law and abide by the judgments read to them in order to receive the benefits God promised them. It therefore took the form of a contract that involved two promises – one from God and one from the people. It was a covenant that depended on human works, rather than on trusting in what God would do for them. We see this in the promise that the people made to God during ratification, “Then he took the Book of the Covenant and read in the hearing of the people. And they said, ‘All that the LORD has said we will do, and be obedient ‘” (Ex 24:7 NKJV). Notice the “we will do” – a promise in which the people took all the responsibility of doing God’s commandments upon themselves. Since they had no true conception of God’s holiness and the far-reaching implications of His law, they did not realize that they were utterly unable to do it on their own.

This covenant was faulty because it was based on faulty promises. According to Hebrews 8, the new covenant is, “a better covenant, which was established on better promises” (Heb 8:6 NKJV), because it is based on God’s promises.

God designed that the people’s failure to keep the old covenant would demonstrate to them the necessity of trusting fully in God’s mercy and thus to enter into the everlasting covenant which was based on God’s works instead (See Patriarchs and Prophets p 371). It was in this way, that the law was to be a “tutor” to God’s people. (Gal 3:24)

The sanctuary services which God gave to Moses to give to the people after they had broken the covenant were designed to keep the provisions of the everlasting covenant constantly before their minds. And there were men and women of faith throughout Old Testament times who entered into a everlasting-covenant relationship with God. Some of them are listed in Hebrews 11. However, the majority of the people either treated the sanctuary services as a contract in which God owed them salvation in exchange for their offerings, or they fell into blatant idolatry. They failed to look forward to the great Sacrifice that God Himself would provide, as typified in all sacrifices in the sanctuary services.

Love is the heart of the Law.We need to remember that a covenant is a promise. The old covenant was based on the promises of men and women who hoped to gain salvation by their own effort of obedience. The new covenant, or everlasting covenant, on the other hand, is a one-sided promise by God to write His Law in the hearts of His people (See Heb 8:10-12; Jer 31:31-34).3 The people need only to accept God’s promise by faith in order for the covenant to become active in their lives. It is a promise of righteousness which translates into everlasting life.

A very practical description of how Christ writes His laws in the heart, according to the new-covenant promise, can be found in Steps to Christ:

Many are inquiring, “How am I to make the surrender of myself to God?” You desire to give yourself to Him, but you are weak in moral power, in slavery to doubt, and controlled by the habits of your life of sin. Your promises and resolutions are like ropes of sand. You cannot control your thoughts, your impulses, your affections. The knowledge of your broken promises and forfeited pledges weakens your confidence in your own sincerity, and causes you to feel that God cannot accept you; but you need not despair. What you need to understand is the true force of the will. This is the governing power in the nature of man, the power of decision, or of choice. Everything depends on the right action of the will. The power of choice God has given to men; it is theirs to exercise. You cannot change your heart, you cannot of yourself give to God its affections; but you can choose to serve Him. You can give Him your will; He will then work in you to will and to do according to His good pleasure. Thus your whole nature will be brought under the control of the Spirit of Christ; your affections will be centered upon Him, your thoughts will be in harmony with Him.

Through the right exercise of the will, an entire change may be made in your life. By yielding up your will to Christ, you ally yourself with the power that is above all principalities and powers. You will have strength from above to hold you steadfast, and thus through constant surrender to God you will be enabled to live the new life, even the life of faith. (Steps to Christ, pp. 47, 48)



Why the Old Covenant? — 7 Comments

  1. Brother, I cannot tell you what a blessing this post was to me. Your explanation of the covenants of the Bible have opened my eyes and heart to God's love for His people of all generations and His desire for a deeper relationship with me.

    thank you,
    David Roundtree
    Waycross, GA

  2. Thank you for the quotation from the book Steps to Christ. It gave me an explanation for someone who really needed it.
    Dean Saunders, Midrand, South Africa

  3. Some people think we have to deal away with the old testament events and focus much in the new testament events but one clarificationj i want to make is that there is link between the two therefore we dont have to neglect none of them.

    • Joseph, I don't believe anyone is casting off the Old Testament or any part of it. The point that I am making is what Hebrews says, "But now He has obtained a more excellent ministry, inasmuch as He is also Mediator of a better covenant, which was established on better promises" (Heb 8:6 NKJV).

  4. I'm 70 years old. My parents were Seventh-day Adventists before I was born. I attended Adventist schools and dozens of Adventist "evangelistic" meetings. Over and over, I heard Adventist clergy say there was nothing faulty with the old covenant. There was only something faulty with Israel's response to it. That statement was even included in a Sabbath School lesson guide.

    After many months of prayerful study of Hebrews, the only way I could make sense of it was to understand the old covenant to BE Israel's promise to obey.

    Our efforts to obey fall in the same category as our promises to obey.

    Long ago, I decided it is better to do the right thing for the wrong reason than to do the wrong thing. The value of an old covenant relationship with the Lord is that, eventually, most Christians realize that we cannot become like the Lord "with his help". That realization drives some people to a despair from which there is no recovery. But we ARE instructed to be perfect. So how is that accomplished?

    Perfect obedience cannot be achieved but it can be received. It is every bit as much a gift of God's grace as forgiveness is a gift of God's grace. Forgiveness is imputed righteousness. Obedience is imparted righteousness.

    Under the old covenant, our relationship with the Lord is based on our promises. Under the new covenant, our relationship with the Lord is based on his promises.

    Many Christians say that our relationship with the Lord is based on what he has done.

    One of the great contributions of the advent movement to the Christian church is the teaching that our relationship with the Lord is based on what he DOES--what he has done, what he is doing and what he has promised to do but has not yet done.

    What the Lord has already done IS important. Without that, the rest of the gospel would be moot. But there is more to the biblical gospel than what Jesus has already done.

    Please help spread the word.


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