The Covenantal Context

“Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers…

– Jeremiah 31:31-34 (ESV)

We Christians today are experts at taking verses out of context. We do it almost as much as Hollywood or the Name-It-And-Claim-It crowd. We just don’t realize it.

How many of us regularly quote Philippians 4:19 (“And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.“), taking this verse as an unconditional promise that applies to all believers? Well, it’s not. Paul wrote this to those who, in spite of their poverty, were sacrificially supporting his work in bringing the gospel to the nations. (To see the context, start reading from verse 10, or better yet, read the whole letter in one go.) Paul was merely repeating what Jesus said in Matthew 6:31-33: “…seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” So this is not a blanket promise to every believer. It’s only a promise to those who set the kingdom of God above their own needs. In fact, those who don’t work are explicitly told they won’t have their needs met (2 Thessalonians 3:10).

It’s very important to pay attention to context when reading or studying the Bible, but especially when committing verses to memory. Think of how many false doctrines and even whole cults have arisen by lifting an isolated verse out of a passage, or understanding a biblical phrase in light of today’s culture instead of the culture it was written in. But there’s another context that even those of us who have learned to pay attention to context usually miss, and that is the covenantal context.

A covenant is a binding agreement between two parties. The Bible records many covenants made between God and man. There’s the one God made with Noah after the flood, saying He would never destroy the earth that way again. There’s another one He made with Abram to give the “Promised Land” to his many descendants. Later God gave him the covenant of circumcision and changed his name to Abraham.

But the most prominent covenants in the Bible are the ones that we use to label the two sections of the Bible: the old covenant and the new covenant. The old covenant was given to those God redeemed from slavery in Egypt, and the new covenant was given to all those redeemed from sin through the blood of Jesus. These two are distinct, but many times we unconsciously mix elements of one into the other when we try to understand the Bible. This opens us up to doctrinal and practical error. The Galatian believers, for example, left Christ and fell from grace when they added old covenant law-keeping to their faith 1.

While I could go into detail about the various errors that have come from mixing the two covenants, I think it would be more beneficial to compare the two to show why they are incompatible with each other, because it’s better to show why something is wrong then to just say it’s wrong.

It’s true both covenants share some similarities. Both were put into effect through mediators. Both were enacted the same way: through a blood sacrifice (Exodus 24:6-8, Hebrews 9:15-22, 10:29, Matthew 26:28). But the new covenant is much better than the old one, as the writer of Hebrews declares:

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.

– Hebrews 8:6-7 (ESV)

Why is the new covenant better than the old one? Here are some reasons…

The old covenant was made at Mount Sinai exclusively with Israel (Psalm 147:19-20). No other people had a part in it: not the Gentiles, and not even any other descendant of Abraham. No one but the Israelites were under the Law (Acts 14:16, Romans 2:14), and they shared the promises with no one else (Ephesians 2:12). But the new covenant was made at Mount Calvary between God and anyone who believes in Jesus for salvation, regardless of any earthly distinction (Romans 10:12, Galatians 3:21-22). The new covenant is for both Jew and Gentile alike, and it has much better promises (Hebrews 8:6).

The old covenant was temporal. It provided an earthly inheritance and earthly blessings for Israel, because they were an earthly race and kingdom (Leviticus 20:24). The new covenant provides eternal benefits with no earthly inheritance. We are called strangers and pilgrims because this earth is not our home (Hebrews 11:13, 1 Peter 2:11). All of our blessings are eternal, and we lack not one (Ephesians 1:3).

The old covenant was of human effort. Israel had to keep the Law to receive the promised blessings (Leviticus 18:5, Romans 10:5). The new covenant is by faith in God’s work (Romans 1:17, Galatians 2:20). Our eternal blessings are assured because Jesus has kept the Law for us.

The old covenant provided not only earthly blessings for those who obeyed, but also cursings and condemnation for those who didn’t (Deuteronomy 28:15-68). The new covenant has no curse or condemnation at all (John 3:18, 5:24, Romans 8:1)! God will never turn His face away from those who are in Christ.

Those under the old covenant would repeatedly seek God’s mercy (i.e. Psalms 4:1, 9:13, 25:16). But those under the new covenant have already received mercy (1 Peter 2:10). Hence, there are no New Testament examples of Christians asking God for mercy. 2

The sign of the old covenant was the Sabbath (Exodus 31:13,17, Ezekiel 20:12,20). The sign of the new covenant is the Lord’s Supper (Matthew 26:28, 1 Corinthians 11:25). The Lord Jesus is now our Sabbath rest, appropriated by faith (Hebrews 4:1-11).

It should be very evident from these points (and others) that the old and new covenants are not only very different, they are incompatible with each other. You can not be under both covenants. You cannot mix elements of one into the other (Galatians 3:15). You cannot live on the basis of works and grace at the same time. When Peter tried to do so in Galatians 2:11-16, he became a stumbling block for other believers. This is what Jesus was referring to when He spoke of repairing torn clothes and filling wineskins…

“No one tears a piece from a new garment and puts it on an old garment. If he does, he will tear the new, and the piece from the new will not match the old. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the new wine will burst the skins and it will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed. But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins. And no one after drinking old wine desires new, for he says, ‘The old is good.'”

– Luke 5:36-39 (ESV)

If you have been saved, you have been clothed with the righteousness of Christ. Don’t wear your old, filthy rags “righteousness” at the same time, or try to weave parts of those rags into the garments of your salvation (Isaiah 61:10, Galatians 3:24-27). Just as the Old Testament Law forbade Israel from making clothes out of two different kinds of fabric 3, we are forbidden from mixing works of Law (human effort) with the finished work of Christ to gain favor with God. 4

Keep this in mind whenever you read your Bible. Be aware of which covenant (if any) a passage belongs to. 5 This will help keep you from many errors.

Notes:

  1. Galatians 5:4
  2. In Acts 8:18-24, Peter told Simon to ask God for mercy, but Simon had not received the Holy Spirit himself and therefore was not saved.
  3. Leviticus 19:19, Deuteronomy 22:11
  4. We do not work at all towards our justification, but we do work out our salvation in terms of sanctification. These are not works of the Law but works in the power and direction of the Spirit, and they fulfill the requirements of the Law (Romans 8:2-4).
  5. The new covenant began when Jesus died on the cross. Hence, all of the events before this in the gospels must be understood in context of the old covenant.

Comments

The Covenantal Context — 7 Comments

  1. “A covenant is a binding agreement between two parties.”

    Jer 31:31 “Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah 
    32 “not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers…

    As a Gentile I am not party to the old or new covenants. To my recollection I have never made an agreement with God. However, God has given me several assurances in which I trust (a gift from God), believing in His Son Jesus being the first.

    • A covenant does not require agreement or response from both sides. God made a covenant with Noah not to destroy the earth with a flood (Genesis 9:12-17). Noah didn’t have to do anything. But the agreement was still binding between God and man.

      But the New Covenant is only for those who have agreed to the terms, which are: repent and believe. It is for everyone who is saved through Jesus, whether Jew (as shown in Jer. 31:31) or Gentile.

      The Corinthian believers, the majority of which were Gentiles, partook of the Lord’s Supper which is the sign of the New Covenant (1 Cor. 11:20-33). Every time we do so, we also recognize ourselves under the same covenant. There is no difference between Jew or Gentile (Romans 10:12).

      • The new covenant expressly states “the house of Israel the house of Judah”.
        There is not a term which states “repent and believe” in all of the new covenant which is set out in: Isa 29:22-24 30:18-22 44:1-5 45:17 61:8-11 62:1-5 Jer 24:7 31:31-37 32:37-41 50:19-20 Eze 11:19-20 36:25-27 37:21-28 Ho 1:10,11 2:14-23 14:4-8 Joe 2:28-32 Mic 7:18-20 Zep 3:9-13.

        • The new covenant is with Israel and Judah, but believing Gentiles are also included in the covenant (Romans 11:17, 15:27, Ephesians 2:11-13). Gentiles have a part in this covenant because they share in the promise. It’s called a “mystery” in Ephesians 3:1-7 because it was not made clearly known to the Old Testament prophets, but revealed in the New Testament. This is what makes the gospel such good news for everyone. It is not that believing Jews are under the New Covenant, and the Gentiles are not. There’s no difference between us under the New Covenant.

          Repentance toward God and faith in God is mentioned many times in the New Testament. It’s one of the primary themes of the gospel message given in Acts (http://dtjsoft.com/the-gospel-according-to-acts/). Even in the Old Testament, the primary message the prophets gave was the call to repentance. This was the prerequisite to the gospel, as even John the Baptist preached repentance to prepare the way for Jesus. The faith of the New Covenant is mentioned in Isaiah 28:16 (cf. Romans 9:33, 10:11, 1 Peter 2:6-8).

          • I did not repent when I was saved, neither did any of my family who are saved, neither did any of the 100 or so people at church who I asked when first looking at the subject of repentance.

            There is no record of any of the male disciples repenting nor the seven female disciples nor anyone else saved under Jesus’ ministry the last of which was the thief on the cross.

            Paul didn’t repent and told the jailor (who didn’t repent) all he needed to do was “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house.” No mention of repentance.

            The Apostle Paul’s gospel was different from the disciples gospel; the disciples were taught by Jesus while here on earth, whereas it was the risen heavenly Jesus that taught Paul by revelation (Gal 1:12).

            Like the John the Baptist before Him (Mt 3:2 ) Jesus preached repentance and baptism “repent; for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mt 4:17). it was the only gospel the disciples heard from Jesus. At first Paul himself preached the kingdom gospel as it was all he knew. Later Paul received a new and different gospel (possibly in the three years he spent in Arabia) directly from Jesus; “the gospel of grace.”

            The disciples ministry was to Jews and it was to Jews alone that Peter preached his gospel of repentance and baptism (Ac 2:38). It remained the same gospel of repent and be baptised from John the baptiser through to Acts 15 and the Jerusalem council.

            In discussing how to respond to the Gentiles who were getting saved and baptised in the Holy spirit, Peter, in support of Paul, said a remarkable thing; “But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved in the same manner as they” Ac 15:11.

            This was an extraordinary change; firstly, that “through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved” not through repentance and baptism but through grace; secondly, “we shall be saved in the same manner as they” Jews saved like Gentiles through grace, not Gentiles like Jews through repentance and baptism!

            Why a change in Peter? Maybe the answer is in Ga 2:2 “And I went up by revelation, and communicated to them that gospel which I preach among the Gentiles, but privately to those who were of reputation.” Maybe Peter was one of those who “were of reputation” who Paul says, that he “communicated to them that gospel which I preach among the Gentiles,” being ”the gospel of grace”. Maybe, just maybe this is what brought about the remarkable change in Peter’s gospel in Acts 15? For sure, something caused the extraordinary change.

            Paul’s gospel was, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved” (Ac 16:30,31). Paul referred to the gospel that Jesus revealed personally to him; Eph 3:2.3 “if indeed you have heard of the dispensation of the grace of God, which was given to me for you, how that by revelation He made known to me the mystery…”

            So we read of this “mystery” (‘secret’ in the original text) of “the gospel of the grace of God,” (Ac 20:24) “the gospel which I preached to you,” (1Co 15:1-5) this gospel was through faith alone; no repentance, no externals. Eph 2:8 “For by grace you have been saved through faith.”

            Paul separated out his revealed mystery from any other by calling the gospel of grace “my gospel” (Ro 2:16 16:25 2Ti 2:8), and “our gospel” (2Co 4:3 2Th 2:14), “the gospel of your salvation” Eph 1:13, “the gospel of peace” Eph 6:15), “that gospel which I preach among the Gentiles” (Ga 2:2), (Th 1:8), “the glorious gospel” (2Ti 1:8).

            After the ascended Lord Jesus called Paul He revealed doctrines to Paul He had never revealed to the Twelve. He gave the disciples only one mystery of “the Kingdom of God” Mr 4:11; to Paul the Lord gave several mysteries from union with “Christ in you” Col 1:27, to events in the last day when, “shall all be changed in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye” 1Co 15:51.

            The gospel of grace and the mystery surrounding it, plus the further revelations exclusively to Paul were hard to accept, after all were not the disciples with Jesus for three years; surely plenty of time to reveal all. As with all new moves of God, all new revelation the ‘old guard’ always find it hard to understand (I would go as far as to say the establishment never accepts any new move of God). Even the great Peter wrote; 2Pe 3.15-16 “Consider that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation — as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given to him, has written to you, as also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand…”

            Now to Him who is able to establish you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery kept secret since the world began but now made manifest… Ro 16.25.

            Repentance and water baptism are not part of Paul’s gospel. Paul wrote 1Co 15.1-4; 1 “Moreover, brethren, I declare to you the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received and in which you stand, 2 by which also you are saved, if you hold fast that word which I preached to you — unless you believed in vain. 3 For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures.”

            Paul’s gospel was a new gospel; Eph 6.18-20 “praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, being watchful to this end with all perseverance and supplication for all the saints 19 and for me, that utterance may be given to me, that I may open my mouth boldly to make known the mystery (secret) of the gospel, 20 for which I am an ambassador in chains; that in it I may speak boldly, as I ought to speak.”

            This “mystery” gospel contained no works such as water baptism, nor did it require repentance; Paul’s gospel was faith plus nothing, zero, zilch; a totally new revelation.

          • The Gentiles are called to repent just as the Jews are. Paul preached repentance to the Gentiles in Acts 17:30, 20:21, and 26:20.

            When the first non-Jews were saved, Peter recognized that they had repented (Acts 11:18). In fact, Acts 15:11 which you quoted shows that Jews are saved the same way Gentiles are: by grace. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile. Paul’s gospel was no different than the disciples – he just had greater insight into it than the other disciples had at first.

            Repentance does not save anyone, but it is the prerequisite for God saving someone. Repentance is merely a change of mind, laying down one’s animosity against God, surrendering one’s own will in favor of God’s will. You can see repentance by how people responded to the gospel message, whether the word “repent” is in the text or not. The thief on the cross repented because he ceased mocking Jesus. The Philippian jailer recognized the truth of the gospel by observing Paul and Silas and he repented. This is repentance.

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