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The Old and New Covenants

Would you explain the difference in the Old Covenant and the New Covenant? I have been reading in Jeremiah 31:31-34 and need a clearer understanding of all of it.

For easy reference, here is the text of the passage:

Jeremiah 31:31-34 Behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah: Not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt; which my covenant they brake, although I was an husband unto them, saith the LORD: But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those days, saith the LORD, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people. And they shall teach no more every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the LORD: for they shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the LORD: for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.

The Old Covenant is the law of Moses as given to the children of Israel. In Exodus 24:1-8, we have the record of the formal making of this covenant between the Lord and the Israelites. Moses sprinkled the blood of the covenant on the altar and on the people and the people promised to keep the words of the book of the covenant. This is the covenant mentioned in Jeremiah 31:32 (see above).

The New Covenant is promised in Jeremiah 31:31-34 and also in Ezekiel 37:21-28. The new covenant is also verified in Hebrews 8:8-13. However, the Jeremiah reference is the key passage. I will use it to make several important points about the New Covenant.

Historically and primarily, the New Covenant is promised to the Jewish people. Jeremiah 31:31 is very specific. It will be made with the house of Israel (the northern kingdom) and with the house of Judah (the southern kingdom). There is no way to spiritualize this promise and keep the meaning intact. The Lord is referring to the Jewish people. They have not yet received the New Covenant. This is still in the future for them. This is the covenant Paul has in mind in the following passage where he is clearly referring to the earthly Israelites.

Romans 11:25-29 For I would not, brethren, that ye should be ignorant of this mystery, lest ye should be wise in your own conceits; that blindness in part is happened to Israel, until the fulness of the Gentiles be come in. And so all Israel shall be saved: as it is written, There shall come out of Sion the Deliverer, and shall turn away ungodliness from Jacob: For this is my covenant unto them, when I shall take away their sins. As concerning the gospel, they are enemies for your sakes: but as touching the election, they are beloved for the fathers' sakes. For the gifts and calling of God are without repentance.

However, I will add one addendum. I believe that the Gentiles of this age have been enabled to partake of some of the privileges of the New Covenant through the cross of Christ. Specifically, this is distinguished in the English Bible as the New Testament. So, we partake of some of the blessings that will later come on the Israelites through the blood of Christ. This is possible because the blood of Christ on the cross is the blood of the covenant (Hebrews 13:20); that is, it is the basis of the future relationship of the Israelites in the New Covenant. The New Covenant with the Jews is based on the blood of Christ. But this in no way replaces the promise of the New Covenant to the Jewish people as taught in Romans 11:25-27 and other places.

The New Covenant has several provisions:

  • God's law will be written in their hearts (Jeremiah 31:33). Ezekiel 37:26-27 refers to this "new heart" and "new spirit" that will cause them to walk in God's statutes and keep His judgments.
  • Their relationship with God will be perfect. He will be their God and they will be His people (Jeremiah 31:33). This is a common expectation in the Old Testament (Exodus 6:7; Leviticus 26:12; Jeremiah 24:7; 30:22; 31:1; 32:38; Ezekiel 11:20; 37:27; Zechariah 13:9) and is finally fulfilled in the New Jerusalem (Revelation 21:3) when all the righteous will be included.
  • Their knowledge of God will be universal (Jeremiah 31:34). They will all know Him, from the least to the greatest. By the way, this provision does not apply to the age of grace since all do not know Him today and this demonstrates the fact that the New Covenant will not be completely fulfilled until it is fulfilled in the Jewish people--the people to whom it was originally promised.
  • Their iniquities and sins will be completely forgiven (Jeremiah 31:34). Romans 11:25-27 shows how this promise directly applies to Israel.

The Old Covenant of the law failed because of the failure of the Jews to obey it. However, God will overcome this failure by the future application of the New Covenant when He brings the Jews into perfect relationship with Himself. Yet, even today through the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ and the New Testament, we begin to understand the greatness and blessings of the New Covenant. It is only important that we do not think that we have fulfilled the New Covenant in any complete way. That remains to be fulfilled in the house of Israel and the house of Judah.