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.