Question: "What was the Old Covenant?"
Answer: The Old Covenant was a conditional or bilateral agreement that God made with the Israelites. The Old Covenant was in effect during the dispensation of the Law. It is “old” in comparison to the New Covenant, promised by Jeremiah the prophet (Jeremiah 31:31, 33) and made effective by the death of the Lord Jesus (Luke 22:20). In the Old Covenant, the Israelites were required to obey God and keep the Law, and in return He protected and blessed them (Deuteronomy 30:15–18; 1 Samuel 12:14–15). In the New Covenant, things change and God becomes the proactive and unconditional source of salvation and blessing. In the New Covenant, “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
The author of Hebrews details some of the differences between the Old Covenant and the New. The Old Covenant required repeated, daily sacrifices of animals as a reminder of the people’s sin. But “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Hebrews 10:4). Under the New Covenant, “we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (verse 10), ending the need for animal sacrifices. “Where [sins and lawless acts] have been forgiven, sacrifice for sin is no longer necessary” (verse 18).
Under the Old Covenant, only the high priest could enter the Most Holy Place where God’s presence dwelt—and that only once a year. But under the New Covenant, Jesus is our High Priest (Hebrews 10:21), “we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus” (verse 19), and we can “draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings” (verse 22).
The Old Covenant was a set of “external regulations applying until the time of the new order” (Hebrews 9:10). Upon Jesus’ death and resurrection, the external regulations gave way to an internal change of heart (see Galatians 6:15). The Old Covenant was fulfilled in Christ (Matthew 5:17). “The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves” (Hebrews 10:1). “The reality . . . is found in Christ” (Colossians 2:17). The New Covenant involves a superior ministry (of Christ), is “established on better promises,” and is, in fact, “superior to the old [covenant]” (Hebrews 8:6).
Even while the Old Covenant stood, God had planned the New Covenant. The two work together to show people their need for God and then to fulfill that need. The Old Covenant required people to please God, but no one can measure up to perfection, and the Old Covenant resulted in a string of failures. “Through the law we become conscious of our sin” (Romans 3:20). The Old Covenant established our guilt before God and our need for a Savior. The Old Covenant was never intended to save us; in fact, “the old written covenant ends in death; but under the new covenant, the Spirit gives life” (2 Corinthians 3:6, NLT).
In the Old Covenant, God also established that the way to atone for sin is through the shedding of blood (Hebrews 9:22). That is why during the Last Supper on the night of His arrest, Jesus passed the cup to the disciples and told them, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you” (Luke 22:20). When Jesus was crucified, His blood provided for the forgiveness of the sins of the whole world—the basis of the New Covenant. “By calling this covenant ‘new,’ he has made the first one obsolete” (Hebrews 8:13). Salvation is now a free gift for any who will believe in Christ and trust that His blood takes away their guilt before God (John 3:16–17).
One purpose of the Old Covenant was to make it absolutely clear that no man is righteous before God and that no one can save himself (Romans 3:10–11, 20). Before the New Covenant came, we were “held in custody under the law” (Galatians 3:23). God’s people were stuck in the Old Covenant, relying on a sacrificial system that looked forward to the coming of Christ and justification by faith (verse 24). “But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son . . . born under the law to redeem those under the law” (Galatians 4:4–5). When the Son of God died on the cross, God “canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross” (Colossians 2:14).
The ultimate purpose of the Old Covenant was to point people to Christ: “The law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian” (Galatians 3:24–25). One truth that must not be missed is that we are no longer under the Old Covenant. Many false teachers today call on people to keep the Law, or at least part of it, as a means to be made right with God. Christians must stand firm in the grace that God has given us and reject such legalism. “In Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith” (verse 26).