God Makes a New Covenant
J. Dan Gill
Moses was a forerunner and his law was a stand-in until the coming of the Messiah. It is through the Messiah that God would make his ultimate and final arrangement with the descendants of Abraham and all humanity. God himself showed the prophet Jeremiah (7th – 6th centuries BCE) his plans for a new covenant:
“The day is coming,” says the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors in the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt” (Jer. 31:31, 32).
It was YHWH who told Jeremiah, “I will make a new covenant.” No one could rightly oppose, dissolve or alter the covenant that God made with the people through Moses at Horeb (Deut. 12:32).¹ There was one, however, who had the right to dissolve that covenant: the God who made the covenant in the first place. And it was he alone who had the right to make a new arrangement: an arrangement that would not be like the one that he made with the children of Israel when they came out of Egypt.
God assured Jeremiah that he had justification for making a different covenant. He said it was “Because they broke my covenant” (Jer. 31:32). The earlier covenant was an agreement between two parties: God and the children of Israel who were in the Exodus. The people were to serve only YHWH as God, and keep the law he gave them by Moses. In turn, he would greatly bless them. For his part, YHWH would not break that covenant for “a thousand generations” (Deut. 7:9). However, by the testimony of God himself, they had broken it again and again— throughout their generations (Jer. 16:10–12).
The covenant which God foretold to Jeremiah would not only be “new” but also “better”—much better! The law that Moses brought to the people was wonderful. Nevertheless, it had severe limitations. As we have seen, it was given only to those children of Abraham who came out of Egypt and their descendants. The new covenant on the other hand is by the Messiah himself and extends to all peoples. Again, the Law of Moses was designed for the people of the Exodus and was beautifully suited to their agrarian society. However, God’s new covenant by the Messiah focuses not on the elements of nature, but rather on the greater aspects of the human heart, the forgiveness of transgressions and a more direct, more personal relationship with God. Speaking of the new covenant, God told Jeremiah:
“No longer will a man teach his neighbor or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they all will know me, from the least to the greatest of them,” says the Lord. “For I will forgive their inequity, and I will remember their sin no more” (Jer. 31:34).
In the New Testament, the writer of Hebrews reflects on God’s declaration that he would make a “new covenant.” The writer indicates that covenant has come. He tells his readers that the new covenant is superior to the old one: that it is founded on “better promises” than was the Law of Moses, and that it has a new mediator—the Messiah himself:
But now Jesus has received a ministry which is more excellent, even as the covenant of which he is the mediator is a more excellent covenant, because it has been founded on better promises (Heb. 8:6).
The writer of Hebrews goes on to observe that the new covenant by Messiah will be the sole arrangement between God and his people for all eternity (Heb. 13:20). There will not be two covenants in the age to come. The one that God gave by Moses had to give way to the superior one of the Messiah. The writer indicates that when God used the word “new” regarding the covenant of the Messiah, that made the one he had given Moses “old.” In the day that God spoke to Jeremiah about a new covenant, time was passing by for the earlier covenant he had made through Moses:
When God speaks of a “new” covenant, he has made the first one obsolete. When something is obsolete it is growing old and will soon disappear (Heb. 8:13).
(1) Jesus tells the people that he did not come to destroy the law or the prophets. Rather, he came “to fulfill” (Matt. 5:17, 18). He does indicate that Moses’ law would end and tells them when: it is when “all is fulfilled.” It is Messiah who “fulfills” the law and brings God’s new arrangement—the new covenant (Luke 24:44–47; Mark 14:23, 24; Heb. 10:15–22). It should be remembered that Gentiles are excluded from the law as long as the law stands. If the Law of Moses is eternal, and its jots and tittles will never end, then its provisions against Gentiles participating in it will never end. The greater hope for humanity, both Jews and Gentiles, is not at all to be found in the Law of Moses. It is found in the new covenant—the covenant of the Messiah.