How does the New Covenant Surpass the Old?
Hebrews 8 teaches that Jesus mediates "a better covenant." How is the new covenant better than the old covenant?
Within Hebrews 8 the old covenant in view is the Law of Moses, the covenant God made with the people at Sinai. The better covenant in view is the “new covenant” (Heb 8:8). It’s the covenant inaugurated by the work of Jesus.
In both covenants, God takes the initiative. God saved them from Egypt and God met with Moses to deliver the Law. Likewise, God would be the great initiator of the new: “I will establish…I will make…I will write…” God sets the terms. God takes the initiative. So, never should we get the idea that the old covenant was bad or unholy while the new is good and holy. God initiated both. We can even say that both were the result of God’s grace toward his people. Even the old revealed God’s character and mitigated evil and set Israel apart for himself.
How was the Old Covenant lacking?
Nevertheless, the old covenant had faults of its own. Hebrews 7:19 says, “the law made nothing perfect.” Everything necessary to make you whole before God’s presence, the Law could never do it. That was not God’s design for the Law.
There was also no forgiveness under the law. 10:4 says that it was impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. The law could expose sin. The law could even picture what was necessary to take away sins. But it could never actually forgive them. Yes, that means even faithful men like Joshua and Caleb and David and the remnant who never bowed to Baal—none of them found forgiveness in the Law. They found forgiveness in what the Law was pointing them to in Christ.
Also, the law couldn’t change the heart. It told the people what to do. But as a bare letter, as something written externally on stone tablets, it could not make the people obedient from the heart. That is why Hebrews 8:8 says, “God found fault with them.” That is why Hebrews 8:9 says, “they did not continue in my covenant…” The problem was not the letter; it was the people. Right from the start they would not obey. Then over and over and over again the people get the law, agree to keep it, and then don’t. What does this history teach us? The law lacks the power to save. It only has the power to condemn.
Lastly, the law was not permanent. It was only provisional. Hebrews 8:13 says, “In speaking of a new covenant, he [i.e., God] makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.” What is implied in the prophecy of Jeremiah itself? Just by speaking this promise in Jeremiah’s day, God’s word set in motion the day when the law-covenant would become obsolete. Not obsolete in the sense that we now ignore it. But obsolete in terms of that covenant now governing our relationship with God. In God’s plan, the law was always awaiting the better promises.
How is the New Covenant far better?
If that is how the old covenant was lacking, how is the new covenant so much better. What are the better promises? There are four of them (technically, there are three, and the last promise is the basis for all the rest).
The first promise is God’s law written on the heart. Verse 10, “I will put my laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts…” Earlier in Jeremiah, God describes the people’s rebellion like this: “the sin of Judah is written with a pen of iron; with a point of diamond it’s engraved on the tablet of their heart…” The people so loved their idols, that sin was etched into the core of their being such that it could not be erased. But here, it is no longer sin etched into the heart. It is God’s Law. He has to give them a new heart for that to happen.
They needed a new mind too, one that did not stiff-arm the Lord’s word but received it gladly as truth to build your life upon. In an incredible act of grace, God would replace obstinate rebellion with obedient devotion. God’s law would become so much a part of them that all that grieves God would also grieve his people, and all that pleases God would also please his people. The old covenant made demands but never produced obedience. The new covenant effectively produces the obedience.
Promise number two: God’s commitment to us in covenant bond. Verse 10 says, “and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” This language spans the whole of Scripture from the covenant with Abraham in Genesis to the final scene in Revelation.[i] Such language does not belong to everyone. Not everyone shares such a relationship with God. Only the remnant. Only believers. It is the language of mutual belonging. Returning to the marriage analogy, it is God’s “I do” to his people, and their “I do” to God. But unlike human marriages, nothing will separate God from his people.
To break the old covenant meant God’s judgment. His faithfulness to the law-covenant required him to curse sinners—as verse 9 indicates, they didn’t continue in the first covenant, so God showed no concern for them. But things aren’t like that under the new covenant. Why? Because Jesus met all the obligations under the first covenant for us. Then he died to remove God’s curse from us. If God did not spare his only Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? God has bound himself to us by the blood of Jesus.
Promise three: everyone belonging to the new covenant knows God. That wasn’t the case under the old covenant. In Israel, all one had to do under the old covenant was be born into Abraham’s family. But being born in Israel did not mean you had a heart for God. That is why God had to keep sending his messengers. He appointed priests and prophets and kings to keep telling the people to know the Lord; and yet many of them never listened. But that would not be the case under the new covenant.
Under the new covenant, the whole community would know the Lord. Verse 11, “they shall not teach, each one his neighbor and each one his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.” So not just those special prophets and priests and kings who mediated God’s revelation to the people, who said, “Know the Lord”—everybody knows him under the new covenant. Why? Because they have a direct relationship with God through Jesus Christ, the true Prophet, Priest, and King. No one enters the new covenant except those who believe in Jesus; and those who believe in Jesus know God. Every one of them, from the least to the greatest.
Last promise: the forgiveness of our sins. This promise undergirds all the rest. Verse 12, “For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.” Sin made Israel covenant breakers. Sin makes us covenant breakers. Sin separates us from God. Sin in our biggest problem. And the law can’t take it away. The law made nothing perfect. But Jesus does. It was Jesus who took a cup with his disciples and said, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant [the new covenant], which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”
So, now what?
1. Come to Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. Have you sinned against God? Is your conscience riddled with guilt over things you said this week? Over evils you thought this week? Over things you have desired for years now? Do you have any idea how much your sin offends God’s holiness and presumes on his grace? Do you have any sense of deep regret for the way you have treated others, whether recently or in your past? Are there dark things you have not confessed, dark secrets that leave you undone and hiding from the Lord and hiding from others?
Hide no more! Come to Jesus Christ and your sins will be forgiven. Call upon his name! Look to the cross and see God’s sacrifice for you. Because of Jesus’ death, God will remember your sins no more. It’s the promise of the new covenant; and God sealed that covenant with his Son’s blood.
2. Follow the new covenant vision for the church. In coming to Jesus, realize that you are not coming to a new moral code without any power. Christianity is not just another set of moral teachings. True Christianity involves transformation of our person at the deepest level. Christianity is about God acting in Christ to change us at the very core of our being, or it is not Christianity. God must write his law on your heart.
This shapes our approach to ethics. People, and I mean Christians, are rightly concerned with what’s right and wrong. But sadly, it’s often presented in a way that if someone knows what’s right, if someone can just discover what is true, then they will do it. People think that our fundamental problem as humans is a lack of knowledge. Hebrews says, “Wrong!” How many times did Israel know what was right? Was it not Israel that said to God, “We will do all that you have commanded!”? Then failure, failure, failure, exile.
The problem was deeper. The work God has to do in you is deeper than just knowledge of right and wrong. He has to make you love it from the heart, treasure his glory, enjoy his word, long for his character to be formed in you, or you are not a Christian. In short, you must be born again. Being right is what empowers doing right. God must regenerate your heart. New covenant people love God’s law.
This also affects the way we understand the church membership. Some people ask why we have some of the processes we do for membership and church discipline—one big answer to those questions is the new covenant. We see here that everyone under the new covenant knows God—the church is for the regenerate only, in other words. Also, the people within that covenant must love God from the heart. And if they don’t have such love, then who are we to keep saying they belong to the new covenant. It is at the height of deception to do that; and it ruins the church’s witness. As much as possible, devote yourself to keeping regenerate church membership. Practice accountability and corrective discipline when we are out of step with the new covenant, and follow through with restoration for the repentant.
3. Pay attention to how the covenants develop in Scripture. God’s revelation comes to us progressively in history. There’s an important storyline; and one significant piece in that storyline is how the old covenant is surpassed in the new. If you miss that development, if you miss the nature of the old covenant and how is was lacking, if you miss the point for which God designed it as a pointer to Christ, then it will lead you into a host of errors. Isn’t this what the apostles kept having to correct in the early churches? Think of Acts 15 and Galatians in relation to circumcision. Think of Colossians 2 in relation to festivals and new moons and the Sabbath, which he says were only copies but the substance belongs to Christ. Think of false teachers misusing the law in 1 Timothy 1.
It’s still a problem today. Take the so-called prosperity gospel. One of the reasons it’s false is that it seeks to apply to us the temporal blessings of the old covenant when those blessings were limited to a particular people for a particular era based on their obedience. Prosperity teachers hijack promises to Israel under the old covenant and they seek to apply them to you in the here and now, “If you’d just have more faith and obey God more.” Promises for the prosperity of God’s people under the old covenant typify the prosperity we will gain at Jesus’ return; but we are not old covenant Israel and this present age is characterized by suffering to advance the gospel, not prosperity. The only way you discern that, though, is by relating the covenants properly.
Or, how many of you have heard that Christians should give ten percent of their income to the church? Yet what many don’t realize is that tithing was inextricably linked to the Levitical priesthood. We just read here that Jesus inaugurated a better covenant, a better priesthood. His work made the Mosaic covenant obsolete. What are you going to say now? What we do say is this: giving is motivated not by looking at another ‘law’ for a minimum amount I’m required to give, but by looking at Jesus’ person and work for the maximum amount he frees me to give.[ii] But the only way you’ll discern this is by relating the covenants properly.
This doesn’t mean the Law has no place for the Christian. It’s still the word of God. Paul says elsewhere that it’s holy and righteous and good. It’s not a matter of choosing which laws apply and which don’t, but how those laws are fulfilled and brought to their truest intent in Christ and our union with him. So relating the covenants rightly will guard you from false teaching.
4. Take heart that God grants what he also commands. Lastly, take heart that God grants what he also commands in the new covenant. The problem with the old covenant is that it could never produce the obedience it required. The new covenant actually produces the obedience it requires. God writes his law upon our hearts. That is true freedom. That is some massive assurance for the Christian. Because how often do you read your Bible and think, "That is a lot required of me. That requires all of me right there and all the energy I have today; and I feel like I barely made it yesterday. What’s going to keep me going?" Answer? Jesus is.
The covenant he inaugurates creates in us everything we need to follow the Lord and abide in his will. That does not mean you are passive. You can’t have a heart for God and be passive about obeying him. You will want to. And you know why you will want to? The grace of the new covenant. So do not fret, Christian, about whether your faith is going to last or not. In union with Christ, it will. He will keep you to the end, until that day comes as it says, when we will dwell with God and he with us; and God will be our God and we will be his people (Rev 21:3).
[i] E.g., Gen 17:7-8; Exod 29:45; Lev 26:45; Jer 24:7; 32:38; Ezek 11:20; 34:24; Hos 2:23; Zech 8:8; 2 Cor 6:16; Rev 21:3.
[ii] Luke 16:1-13; Rom 15:26-27; 2 Cor 8:7-9; 9:13; 1 Tim 6:17-19.