Understanding the New Covenant
the key to the new covenant is in
change from the old
The New Covenant is called "the better covenant". What is it
that makes it better? How is it changed from the Old Covenant?
The Change In The Law
The New Covenant is the complete fulfillment of the types and shadows under the Old Covenant; yet it is much more. Hebrews 8:6 tells us, “But now hath he obtained a more excellent ministry, by how much also he is the mediator of a better covenant, which was established upon better promises.” How is the New Covenant related to the Old and how is it better? The word, better, in the original New Testament Greek, was kreittonos, which literally means, “hold more.” (Concordant Keyword Index) Here is our first clue: somehow the New Covenant holds more than the Old Covenant could. There is an expansion indicated! Additionally, the implementation of the New Covenant and Christian faith involved some kind of change. This was the charge leveled by witnesses against the first Christian martyr, Stephen: “For we have heard him say, that this Jesus of Nazareth shall… change the customs which Moses delivered us.” (Acts 6:14) Biblical scholar, Dr. Dale Patrick, in his book, “Old Testament Law,” commented that, “The New Covenant remedies the defects in the Old but retains its basic structure.” (p.243) It is a change for the better, yet has important structural similarities, as we shall see.
How new is the New Covenant? Obviously, it supercedes the Old Covenant. “But,” declared Arthur W. Pink, well-regarded evangelical theologian, “let it be clearly understood that it is called “New” not because its contents from the Old, for it is simply a fulfillment and confirmation of all that went before.” (The Divine Covenants, p.277) In fact, there are four different Greek words translated “new” in the King James translation of the New Testament, each with a different meaning. The Greek word “prosphatos” means “lately made,” or what we might call, “brand new.” The Concordant Literal Version translates it as “recently.” Interestingly, this word is never used in Scripture in relation to the New Covenant. The two Greek words that are used for the New Covenant are “neos,” meaning “regenerate,” and “kainos,” meaning “freshness.” The word usage in the original Greek text of the New Testament would therefore seem to indicate that the New Covenant is a revised or regenerated and freshened version of the Old Covenant it replaced.
Integral to the Old Covenant was the law of God, and this underwent change, too, under the New Covenant. Hebrews 7:12 states, “For the priesthood being changed [from Old Covenant to New Covenant], there is made of necessity a change also of the law.” The word change here is an English rendering of an interesting Greek compound word, metathesis: “meta” means above, over, beyond, further, addition to, or magnified. It therefore speaks of augmentation; a concept related to the word, better, as already shown. A “thesis” is popularly known as a writing or composition; the Greek literally means, “to stand upon; a basis.” Put together, we find that the word metathesis or change speaks of an augmentation or expansion of the original thesis, the Old Covenant. Therefore, the New Covenant is a change and expansion to the Old Covenant and its laws. This is perhaps intimated in our Lord’s enigmatic statement, “Except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 5:20)
What Has Been Abolished?
As an interesting sidelight, a Greek word related to metathesis that has come into English usage is metamorphosis. This is the change that occurs when a lowly caterpillar, through a miraculous change in nature, turns into a beautiful butterfly. Not only is it much more wonderful to behold, but it has many more capabilities. The caterpillar has not died or ceased to exist, but its former structure has been incorporated into the new creature along with a significant improvement, a change for the better.
So it is with the law of God. It has not been abolished or destroyed; in fact, the law is integral to the New Covenant according to Hebrews 8:8-11. The Concordant Literal translation of Hebrews 7:12 reads, “there is coming to be a transference of law also…” from the Old Covenant to the New. A transfer or
change -- not an end -- takes place in the law under the New Covenant. It is commonly taught today that the law of God ended with Christ’s sacrifice and has been replaced by faith in the Son of God. But the Apostle Paul clearly stated the opposite: “Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid: yea, we establish the law.” (Rom. 3:31) The word, establish, used here literally means “to hold upright or sustain.” Our Christian faith leads us to uphold and sustain God’s law. Similarly, it is curious to know how anyone can actually believe that the law was overthrown by the Christ who said, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat: All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do.” (Matt 23:2-3)
Yet one author used the word “abolish” in reference to God’s law at least two or three dozen times in his book on the New Covenant. He quoted Ephesians 2:15, which reads, “Having abolished in his flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances…” The original Greek word here translated, abolished, is katargeo, and is the same word translated “make void” in Romans 3:31 (quoted above) where the Apostle Paul says that the law was not made void or abolished. The Apostle Paul would not have told us in Romans that our faith did not abolish or make void the law, and then say in Ephesians that it did! Clearly, the “ordinances” under discussion and declared abolished in Ephesians chapter two were not the laws of God. The word, ordinances, is an inexact translation of the Greek word, dogma, which means, “opinion.” It is defined variously as “that which is held as an opinion, a doctrine laid down by a church[i.e., not on the level of Divinely-given Scripture –Ed.], or a doctrinal notion asserted without regard to evidence or truth; an arbitrary dictum.”(Webster’s Dictionary) We are also told that at the time of Christ, “the term was applied to the teaching of various philosophical schools or to some practical decree coming from those in authority.” (Westminster Dictionary of Christian Theology, p.162) The term, dogma, is twice used in the original Greek New Testament to refer to the decrees of the Roman Caesars (Lk 2:1; Acts 17:7), but it is never used for any part of God’s Law. The New Testament does not teach that the law of God is invalidated or abandoned, but that man’s traditions (human opinions, decrees, and dogma) invalidate it, and that is wrong. (Mt. 15:6; Mk 7:8-9, 13; Col. 2:8)
A Focus On The Heart
The moral principles of the “Sermon on the Mount” in Matthew chapter five are usually considered central to what has been called “the law of Christ.” Six times our Savior used the formula, “You have heard that it was said… but now I say unto you.” Some assume from this that He replaced Old Covenant law with a new law of His own. Dr. E.P. Sanders answers, “New Testament scholars, with surprising unanimity and inaccuracy, say that here Jesus clearly contravenes the law. But it is perfectly apparent that He does no such thing. He prohibited what Moses permitted, He did not permit what Moses prohibited. It is as if… a driver chooses to drive 5 m.p.h. below the posted speed limit, thus heeding a higher law… [This is] what Jesus meant by here going beyond the law of Moses… He laid down a requirement that goes beyond the law.” (Religion & Law: Biblical-Judaic & Islamic Perspectives, p.147) This “going beyond” ties in with the concept of the expansion or augmentation of the law under the New Covenant. But Sanders further comments, “Prohibiting something explicitly permitted, however, (as Jesus does with regard to divorce), does imply that Moses was not strict enough, and thus potentially that his law is not adequate.” (ibid., p. 148)
Dr. Sanders clearly is on to something here, but we disagree that Christ was trying to be more strict than Moses. A closer look will show instead that He was extending the laws beyond mere external commands, to moral principles and a heart attitude as God had intended from the beginning. Under the New Covenant, the law drives down to the source of our motivations in the heart. God was always concerned with our heart attitudes, but under the Old Covenant the Israel people did not comprehend this. It is an often quoted misstatement that “Judaism requires good works, Christianity good motives.” The truth is that God requires both, with an emphasis on the heart. As Hebrew scholar Dr. Montefiore stated, “The true fulfillment of the law included and implied an inward and enlarged interpretation of the leading moral enactments.” (Sermon On The Mount, p.499)
As an example, consider Christ’s statements concerning violation of the marriage union. Matthew 5:27-28 reads, “Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.” A common interpretation is that Christ overturned the Mosaic law, in this case the Ten Commandments, in favor of His own new law. But such is not the case. Christ is NOT saying that the seventh and tenth commandments (Deut. 5:18,21) forbidding adultery and lust are now abolished. What He is really saying is that under the New Covenant the focus of the law is now upon our heart attitude. Hastings Dictionary Of The Bible expounds on this by saying that Christ “insists not only upon abstention from the act, but upon the repression of all wrong thought and desire, in this going much deeper than even the Tenth Commandment [and] forbids impure thoughts and desires on the part of any one.” (v:26) Our physical actions do not exist in a vacuum, but out-flow from the desires of our heart. If a person does not commit adultery in their heart, they will not commit the physical act, either. So Christ focused on the Spiritual principles in the law, the most important dimension which controls our physical actions. There is also an augmentation of the Mosaic law under the New Covenant, but it is not really an increase in strictness, nor is it harder to obey. Under the New Covenant, we have the help of the Holy Spirit writing God’s law upon our heart (Jer. 31:31-34; Heb. 8:8-11), giving us added strength to keep it. This makes the law easier to obey, not harder. Christ Himself said, “For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matt. 11:30) With God’s Help, through the aid of the Holy Spirit, it is not as difficult (for those with regenerated hearts) to keep the moral principles of God’s law under the New Covenant as it was under the Old.
The Function Of Covenants
What is the relationship of law to covenant? A testament and covenant are the same, and both are correct translations of the Greek word, diatheke. In Scripture, covenanting is synonymous with swearing or taking an oath. (Dt. 29:12, 14; 1 Chron 16:15-16; 2 Chron. 15:12, 14, 15) William Blackstone, the eminent English jurist, stated, “After warrants, usually follow covenants, or conventions, which are clauses of agreement contained in a deed, whereby either party may stipulate for the truth of certain facts, or may bind himself to perform, or give something to the other.” (Commentary on the Laws of England, ii:20) A contract or covenant is a vehicle to oversee the implementation of a person, place, or thing. Law and covenant are therefore two distinct ideas. While the law continues under the New Covenant, “the Old Testament (Old Covenant) …is done away” (2 Cor. 3:14, King James Version) or “abrogated.” (ibid., NEB) The replacing (really an upgrading or augmentation) of the old contract or covenant by the new did not end the law.
As an example, suppose you decide to write a last will and testament, a final covenant, leaving the oil well in your backyard to your cousin Homer. But poor Homer dies before you do, requiring you to prepare a new covenant. The old covenant has become obsolete and been replaced, but the oil well is still there and figures prominently under both the old and new covenants. In the same way, the Mosaic law (which reflects the mind of God concerning our welfare) is not abolished but continues under the New Covenant, and is in fact the focus or goal of both of these covenants. (Heb. 8:8-11) Returning to our example, a local oil company agrees that after your death they are willing to operate your oil well themselves and send monthly income by a check in the mail to your heirs. No longer will the owners, your heirs, have to do backbreaking labor as you did manually operating that hand crank on the old oil well; it will now all be done electronically. It is truly a better arrangement, more efficient, a better covenant. So, too, is the New Covenant more effective from the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit to aid, strengthen, and guide us, writing His Laws directly on our hearts independent of our own ability to keep them.
It is important to recognize that a covenant is a transfer vehicle and is separate in the eyes of the law from the thing it transfers even while being associated with it. The Mosaic law did not end with the Old Covenant any more than did Homer’s death end the existence of the oil well. In a similar way, the Old and New Covenants are transfer vehicles, methods of imparting God’s law to our lives. Under the Old Covenant this was done externally, with the children of Israel listening to the law read to them once every seven years at the feast of Tabernacles. (Deut. 31:10-11) Under the New Covenant it is done internally, by the Holy Spirit writing these laws directly to our hearts, which is a much more effective and efficient method.
In summary, the transcending of the Mosaic Law by Christ and the Holy Spirit should not be misconstrued as its dissolution. The New Covenant is truly a “better” covenant because God is involved in a more active, effective, and expanded way, helping us to implement the moral principles of His Laws in our own lives.