The Law – Only One Covenant?
Recently an Adventist pastor went to great lengths to attempt to show that there never were two covenants, that there is not an Old Covenant and a New Covenant. I got to thinking about this and found that the Bible actually teaches the very opposite—it teaches that there are two covenants.
Both the Old and New Testaments make it clear that the Ten Commandments were “the covenant” God placed in the ark.
“But they went up heedlessly to the ridge of the hill country; neither the ark of the covenant of the LORD nor Moses left the camp.”
“So He declared to you His covenant which He commanded you to perform, that is, the Ten Commandments; and He wrote them on two tablets of stone. The LORD commanded me at that time to teach you statutes and judgments, that you might perform them in the land where you are going over to possess it.”
“The LORD our God made a covenant with us at Horeb. The LORD did not make this covenant with our fathers, but with us, with all those of us alive here today.”
“When I went up to the mountain to receive the tablets of stone, the tablets of the covenant which the LORD had made with you, then I remained on the mountain forty days and nights; I neither ate bread nor drank water.”
“It came about at the end of forty days and nights that the LORD gave me the two tablets of stone, the tablets of the covenant.”
1 Kings 8:21
“There I have set a place for the ark, in which is the covenant of the LORD, which He made with our fathers when He brought them from the land of Egypt.”
Through the prophet Jeremiah, the Lord Himself predicted that He would establish what He calls a “new covenant.” He specifically says that it will not be like the one He had made at Sinai. The Lord acknowledges that He made the first covenant of the Ten Commandments, but He clearly says that He is going to make another covenant, which will not be like it.
“Behold, days are coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,” declares the LORD. “But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the LORD, “I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.”
It is clear that the Lord is saying that this covenant would NOT be like the first—which was the covenant of the Ten Commandments.
It is God who says that there are TWO covenants.
The book of Hebrews comments on this saying that God fulfilled His desire to establish a “new covenant.”
Remember the context of Hebrews 8. This epistle is written to Hebrew Christians who were struggling with issues of essential Judaism and of those things that surrounded the covenant that God had made at Sinai with Israel.
These new believers must have been concerned that the Old Covenant of the Ten Commandments and its accompanying rituals were still to be observed. Undoubtedly, these Jewish Christians understood that the Old Covenant was the covenant of the Ten Commandments that was placed in the Ark of the Covenant, as verses 6-13 take this knowledge for granted.
“But as it is, Christ has obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises. For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion to look for a second. For he finds fault with them when he says: ‘Behold, the days are coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel and with 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. For they did not continue in my covenant, and so I showed no concern for them,’ 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 laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And 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. For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.’ In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.” ESV
Next, the argument in Hebrews 8 goes way beyond what one might expect; not only is there a “new covenant,” but the former covenant (which the first seven texts we read have clearly established as the covenant of Ten Commandments) is “obsolete.” The Greek word “paiaioo,” translated “obsolete,” means “worn out” or “something declared to be obsolete.”
The first seven passages we looked at establish that the covenant God gave Israel was specifically the Ten Commandments; the Holy Spirit is very emphatic about this.
In Hebrews 8, the Old Covenant and the New Covenant are clearly distinguished. The Old Covenant of the Ten Commandments is replaced by a NEW covenant. The Greek word “kainos” means “new” and not “refreshed.”
2 Corinthians 3:4-18 is another passage that emphatically declares that the Old Covenant is the Ten Commandments and that God has exchanged it for a new and better covenant.
Verses 4-6: “Such confidence we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are adequate in ourselves to consider anything as coming from ourselves, but our adequacy is from God, who also made us adequate as servants of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”
Note it says, “…a new covenant…” “…not of the letter…” What was the covenant specifically known for its letters? It was the Ten Commandment covenant, as we have seen:
"When I went up to the mountain to receive the tablets of stone, the tablets of the covenant which the LORD had made with you, then I remained on the mountain forty days and nights; I neither ate bread nor drank water” (Deuteronomy 9:9).
We are told that the Old Covenant of Ten Commandments “…kills…” but the New Covenant of the Spirit gives life.
It is significant that after the Old Covenant of the Ten Commandments was given to Israel in a cloud of fire, 3000 people died (Exodus 32:28); but after the New Covenant was established on the Day of Pentecost, again through fire, 3,000 people were saved (Acts 2:41). The Holy Spirit intended that we pick up on those numbers. The Old Covenant ministered death to 3,000 from its inception, while the New Covenant gave life to 3,000 from the beginning.
Verses 7-11: “But if the ministry of death, in letters engraved on stones, came with glory, so that the sons of Israel could not look intently at the face of Moses because of the glory of his face, fading as it was, how will the ministry of the Spirit fail to be even more with glory? For if the ministry of condemnation has glory, much more does the ministry of righteousness abound in glory. For indeed what had glory, in this case has no glory because of the glory that surpasses it. For if that which fades away was with glory, much more that which remains is in glory.”
The concept of “glory” is very important to understanding this chapter. The word “glory” is used 17 times in 12 verses.
When Moses came off Mount Sinai with the Old Covenant of the Ten Commandments, his face radiated the glory of God, glory so great that he had to veil his face. But just as that glory slowly faded away, Paul argues the glory of the Old Covenant has faded away to be replaced with a new glory.
The glory of the New Covenant is shown on the Day of Pentecost when the fire fell upon the disciples, a magnificent display, most likely reminding the disciples of the glory of God’s presence. Paul also may be referring to Jesus’ glorious transfiguration where Jesus’ face radiated God’s glory: “And He was transfigured before them; and His face shone like the sun, and His garments became as white as light” (Matthew 17:2). The glory of the New Covenant established and inaugurated by our Lord Jesus will never fade, but the glory of the Old Covenant, reflected in the face of Moses has no glory anymore (2 Corinthians 3:10).
The Old Covenant is called the covenant that was “…in letters engraved on stones…” That must be the Ten Commandments, since no other commandments were written on stones when the Lord delivered the Law to Israel on Mount Sinai.
Paul clearly states that the Old Covenant, the covenant of the Ten Commandments came in with glory, but it’s glory has now faded and been replaced with the glory of the New Covenant.
The Apostle moves on to say that the Old Covenant of the Ten Commandments is a “…ministry of condemnation…” and that it has lost its glory.
Verses 12-18: “Therefore having such a hope, we use great boldness in our speech, and are not like Moses, who used to put a veil over his face so that the sons of Israel would not look intently at the end of what was fading away. But their minds were hardened; for until this very day at the reading of the old covenant the same veil remains unlifted, because it is removed in Christ. But to this day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their heart; but whenever a person turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit.”
Paul remarks that when people are reading the Old Covenant, which he has clearly shown to be the Ten Commandment covenant, they cannot see or understand the New Covenant. The New Covenant with its glory and liberty can only be understood when the Holy Spirit lifts the curtain of the Old Covenant.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture references are taken from The New American Standard Bible® (NASB), Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission. All rights reserved.