You Have A Problem with the Old Covenant

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The Old Covenant (i.e. the Old Testament) is problematic. We can't keep the law, and even if we try, we end up becoming self-righteous and breaking it anyway. You and I have a problem with the Old Covenant. We simply can't keep it up. 

So what's the solution? The author of Hebrews helps us understand in 8:8-13

8 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, 9 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. 10 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. 11 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. 12 For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.” 13 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.

The old covenant has passed away. The new covenant has come. John Piper explains these verses in the following way.

“What was wrong? What was the flaw? There are two ways to answer that question. From the human side and from God's side. From the human side the problem was unbelief and hard-heartedness (Hebrews 3:8,15,19; 4:7). From God's side the problem was that God withheld the sovereign enablement of his Spirit.

Listen to Deuteronomy 29:4. Moses is speaking as he looks back over forty years of rebellion in the wilderness: "To this day the LORD has not given you a heart to know, nor eyes to see, nor ears to hear." That was the ultimate reason why the old covenant was inadequate. God had lessons he meant to teach in the Old Testament and they involved enduring generations of stubbornness and rebellion and hard-heartedness until the time the new covenant should come.

But now it comes with Jesus Christ, the Mediator of a new covenant. He says three things about this new covenant: First, the will of God is going to be written not just on stone tablets or white Bible paper, but in the mind and on the heart. Second, the new covenant will establish a relationship of ownership of us by God: "I will be their God and they will be my people." And finally, the new covenant will be personal and intimate. When it is perfected we won't have to exhort each other to know the Lord, because we will know him intimately and personally. "All shall know me from the least to the greatest.

Christ is the Mediator of this new covenant, according to Hebrews 8:6. What does that mean? It means that his blood—the blood of the covenant (Luke 22:20; Hebrews 13:20)—purchased the fulfillment of these promises for us. It means that God brings about this inner transformation by the Spirit of Christ. And it means that God works all this transformation in us through faith in all that God is for us in Christ. The new covenant is purchased by the blood of Christ, effected by the Spirit of Christ and appropriated by faith in Christ.”

In Jesus, the shadows of the Old Testament have faded away. Jesus is the founder of the new covenant. The terms he brings are different, they are more gracious and more merciful.

It is not that the old covenant was not gracious. It was. For example, the Ten Commandments are preceded by grace. “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exodus 20:2). But under the old covenant, Israel had to keep the law in order to be blessed, and if they failed they were under the curse of God (Leviticus 26, Deuteronomy 26-28). Clearly, it was insufficient because sinful men can never hold to the law of God. Our hearts are too hard without him. We need the softening that only comes through Holy Spirit-enabled regeneration.

The goal of both covenants was the same: knowledge of God. The problem under the old covenant was that we didn’t want to know God. As Paul says in Romans 1, we suppress the truth. Our hard hearts push God away from us. Until God does his work to soften the heart, we cannot, and will not, know him. The author quotes Jeremiah 31 (the longest OT quotation in the NT) to prove the fault was with man, not with God.

“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, 9 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. 10 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. 11 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. 12 For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.”

Jeremiah is talking about the new covenant. This is groundbreaking. Nowhere else does the Old Testament speak of a new covenant. This is brand new language.

To bring about this new covenant two things had to happen:

  1. We had to be made new. The law had to be written on our hearts and minds (v. 10). Moses received the law written on tablets. It was external and could be viewed but not desired. By the blood of Jesus, under the new covenant, the law is written on our hearts. It is internal and can be desired. The fundamental flaw in God’s people has been diagnosed and healed. The people of God now desire to obey. They’ve been made new.
  2. We had to be forgiven forever. This was accomplished by the blood of Jesus on the cross. (v. 12). Because God’s people failed to obey the law, they were under the wrath of God. The only way out is by substitutionary atonement, which Jesus accomplished. He will be merciful toward our iniquities, and he will remember our sins now more. When he looks at us, he remembers Jesus.

Notice that both are the work of God for us. The old covenant gave us the stipulations by which we should live, but it did not provide the power by which to live it. But in the new covenant, the Holy Spirit is given to all believers to empower them and make them new. We have new hearts by the blood of Christ. We are washed, cleansed, remade. Ezekiel’s prophecy in 36:26-27 has come true, “I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.”

Matthew 26:26-29 shows us what Jesus did right before his crucifixion.

26 Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.”27 And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, 28 for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. 29 I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father's kingdom.”

What Jesus did during that last supper was more significant than serving bread and wine. He prophesied the work he was about to accomplish. Some manuscripts insert the word “new” before the word “covenant” in verse 28. Regardless of that word being there, we should read it that way, because that’s what Jesus was doing. He was instituting the new covenant. His body and blood were the covenant promises. His life was the covenant guarantee. What no one could have imagined was that God would come as a man and die on behalf of his people. But that’s exactly what Jesus did.

Jesus, our high priest, took the sacrifice into the presence of God and presented it for the atonement of his people’s sins. Jesus did not break the old covenant in order to bring about the new, he fulfilled it perfectly down to every jot and tittle (Matthew 5:18). He left nothing out. He satisfied God’s desire for the law so that he could satisfy our need to be made righteous.

What makes Hebrews 7-8 so powerful is that it proclaims to us the reality that the priest we need is the priest we have, forever and always. Jesus, our great high priest, has accomplished his work to offer the perfect sacrifice, and to become the perfect sacrifice, and has entered his priestly ministry in heaven now interceding on our behalf. Our life in Christ is safe because Christ is keeping us safe in heaven.

We don’t have to return to slavery under the law, trying to earn our way into his favor. We have his favor because every sin—past, present, and future – has been forgiven at the cross of Christ. We are free. Now it’s time to live like it.