The Two Covenants - The Major Divisions of the Bible (1)

by Leland M. Haines

To properly interpret Scripture one must understand that there are two major divisions of the Bible, and he must understand how they relate to God's plan of redemption. These two divisions are the Old Covenant or Testament, and the New Covenant or Testament. A great deal of confusion and error can be caused when one fails to understand the relation of these two, and that the Old Covenant is no longer binding as a system of religious doctrine and practice but has been fulfilled by Jesus Christ and has been superseded by the New Covenant.

The Old Covenant is the first part of God's progressive revelation of Himself to mankind. It contains many prophecies concerning the Messiah and promises that He would usher in a New Covenant. One of these is,

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 days 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. Jer. 31:31-34.

This prophecy reveals two main characteristics of the New Covenant: (1) it will be a truly new covenant, "not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers," and (2) it will produce a regeneration experience, with the law being in men's hearts. These characteristics separate it from the Old Covenant. The writer of Hebrews used this prophecy to show the difference between the two covenants.

The two covenants are compared in the New Testament in II Corinthians 3. The New Covenant is "not of the letter, but of the spirit" (v. 6) and is not a dispensation of death and condemnation (vs. 7, 9; cf. Rom. 4:15; 5:13, 20; 7:7-20; 1 John 3:4, for the results of the law). The New Covenant "is the ministration [dispensation] of the Spirit . . . and righteousness" (vs. 8, 9). It far exceeds the old in glory and in fact exceeds it so much that "which was made glorious had no glory in this respect by reason of the glory that excelleth" (v. 10). Even though the old killed and condemned men, it was "glorious" (v.7); it was "holy, and just, and good" (7:12). There is no contradiction here because the purpose of the law is to reveal sin, and thus it killed (vs. 9, 10). But the law is now "done away" and the New Covenant "remaineth [is permanent]" (II Cor. 3:11). "Christ is the end of the Law - the limit at which it ceases to be, for the Law leads up to Him Who is the fulfillment of its types, and in Him the purpose which it was designed to accomplish is fulfilled" (Rom. 10:4 Amplified).

Many Scriptures teach that the New Covenant is now binding on man, replacing the Old Covenant. Among these are:

1. "Wherefore then serveth the law? It was added because of transgressions, till the seed should come to whom the promise was made; and it was ordained by angels in the hand of a mediator. . . . Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster" (Gal. 3:19, 24, 25). The old was given for a limited period to bring us to Christ. Since Christ has come, it has served its fulfilled purpose.

2. "For the law was given through Moses: grace and truth came through Jesus Christ" (John 1:17 ASV). "Ye are not under the law, but under grace" (Rom. 6:14). We are under grace that came through Jesus and are no longer under the Old Covenant, the Law.

3. "He that rejecteth me, and receiveth not my words, hath one that judgeth him: the word that I have spoken, the same shall judge him in the last day" (John 12:48). "Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me" (14:6). "And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying: All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth." (Matt. 28:18). Jesus is the truth today; all authority rests in Him and no longer in the Old Covenant.

4. "God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, Hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the worlds" (Heb. 1:1, 2). "A new covenant, he hath made the first old. Now that which decayeth and waxeth old is ready to vanish away" (8:13). "Then said he, Lo, I come to do thy will, O God. He taketh away the first, that he may establish the second. By the which will we are sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all" (10:9, 10). Christ has established a New Covenant, replacing the old one.

5. "Who also hath made us able ministers of the new testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life" (II Cor. 3:6; cf. v. 11). Christ has blotted out "the handwriting of ordinances that was against us . . . and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross" (Col. 2:14). The New Testament is of the Spirit and gives new life, doing away with the letter that couldn't change the heart, thus being against us.

The above Scriptures show that the Old Covenant or Testament has served its purpose and is therefore no longer in force as a system of religious doctrine and practice. This does not mean it has no value for us today. The study of it is essential if one is to understand man's relationship to God under the New Covenant or Testament. For example, the story of creation and man's fall, the story of God's acting in the history of Israel to prepare man for the Messiah, unfulfilled prophecies, etc., "were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope" (Rom. 15:4). Without these the New Testament would not be clear, and we would not understand the person, mission, and redemption that is in Christ.

The Old Testament and New Testament make up one Bible. They form a harmony to reveal God's plan of salvation. Yet each must be understood according to its peculiar character. The Old will be understood as part of a progressive revelation that ended in the New. Thus the New Testament is the final revelation. It is the final authority for doctrine and practice. Therefore the Christian will give his greatest attention to the study of the New Testament.

(1) Quoted from Chapter 7 of Authority of Scripture, © copyright 2000 by Leland M. Haines.
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