The Two Covenants*
An exposition of Hebrews 8:6-13

Arthur W. Pink

The Two Covenants
I.  Hebrews 8:6-9
II. Hebrews 8:10-13

I.  Hebrews 8:6-9

In the 7th chapter the apostle has demonstrated by irrefutable logic and upon the authority of Holy Scripture that the priesthood of Christ has superceded the Aaronic order. Here in chapter 8 he makes manifest the superior ministry of our great High Priest.

First , He is "seated" (verse 1).

Second , He is seated on the throne of Deity (verse 1).

Third , He is a Minister of the heavenly sanctuary (verse 2).

Fourth , His own person provides the antitype of the tabernacle (verse 2).

Fifth , He is presenting before God a more excellent sacrifice (verses 3-6).

Sixth , He is Mediator of a superior covenant (verse 6).

Seventh , that covenant has to do with "better promises" (verse 6).

That upon which the Holy Spirit would here have us focalize our attention is the place where our High Priest ministers, and the immeasurable superiority of the economy which He is now administering.

This 8th chapter of Hebrews treats of two things: the sphere of our High Priest's ministry and the better covenant with which it is connected: the one being in suited accord with the other. The 6th verse gives the connecting link between them. The apostle's object in introducing the "new covenant" at this stage of his argument is obvious. It was to the old covenant that the whole administration of the Levitical priesthood was confined. The entire church-state of the Jews, with all the ordinances and worship of it, and all the privileges connected with it, depended wholly on the covenant which God made with them at Sinai. But the introduction of the new Priesthood necessarily abolished that covenant, and put an end to all the sacred ministrations which belong to it. This it is which the apostle here undertakes to prove. "The question which troubled the minds and hearts of the Hebrews was their relation to the Levitical priesthood, and to the old dispensation. The temple was still in Jerusalem, and the Levitical ordinances appointed by Moses were still being observed. Although the Sun had risen, the moon had not yet disappeared. It was waning; it was ready to vanish away. Now it became an urgent necessity for the Hebrew Christians to understand that Christ was the true and eternal High Priest in the heavenly sanctuary, and that the new and everlasting covenant with Judah and Israel was connected with the gospel promise, and not with the law. God Himself had made the first covenant old by promising the new. And now that Christ had entered into the holy of holies by His own blood, the old covenant had passed away; and yet the promises of God to His chosen people remained firm and unchanged" (Adolph Saphir).

That God had "changed" the order of priesthood ( Hebrews 7:12) was, as we have seen, clearly evidenced by His causing Christ to spring from the tribe of Judah ( Hebrews 7:14). God's raising up of a Priest from that tribe necessarily excluded those belonging to the house of Aaron from the sacerdotal office, just as God's raising up David to sit upon the throne, forever set aside the descendants of Saul from the regal office. Herein we may discern one reason why Jehovah ordained and gave such strict regulations for the distribution of Israel into their tribes, namely, that He might provide for their instruction as to the continuance of the legal worship among them, which could no longer be continued than while the priesthood was reserved unto the tribe of Levi.

This Divine change in the order of priesthood necessarily entailed a change of covenant or economy, as a change of the royal family denotes a new dynasty, or as a new president involves a change of government. The economy with which Christ is connected as far excels the old order of things as His sacerdotal office exceeded that of Aaron's. Thus the apostle is here really advancing one more argument or proof for the pre-eminence of our Lord's priesthood. As a Minister or public functionary Jesus Christ is as far superior in dignity to the Levites as the dispensation over which He presides is of a far superior order than the dispensation in which they served.

In approaching the subject of the two covenants, the old and the new, it should be pointed out that it is not always an easy matter to determine whether the "old covenant" designates the Mosaic economy or the covenant of works which God made with Adam ( Hosea 6:7 margin); nor to decide whether the "new covenant" refers to the Gospel dispensation introduced by Christ, or to the covenant of grace which was inaugurated by the first promise made to Adam ( Genesis 3:15) and confirmed to Abraham (Genesis 17). In each case the context must decide.

We may add that the principal passages where the two covenants are described and contrasted are found in 2 Corinthians chapter 3, Galatians chapter 3 and 4, Hebrews chapters 8, 9 and 12. "But now hath He obtained a more excellent ministry, by how much also He is the Mediator of a better covenant, which was established upon better promises" (verse 6). "This verse is a transition from one subject to another; namely, from the excellency of the priesthood of Christ above that of the law, to the excellency of the new covenant above the old. And herein also the apostle artificially compriseth and confirmeth his last argument, of the pre-eminence of Christ, His priesthood and ministry, above that of the law. And this He doth from the nature and excellency of that covenant whereof He was the Mediator in the discharge of His office" (John Owen). "But now hath He obtained a more excellent ministry." The apostle here introduces his important assertion by a time-mark, the "But now" signifying at this season. It points a contrast from the period of the Mosaic dispensation, when Israel's priests served "unto the example and shadow of heavenly things" (verse 5). A close parallel is found in Romans 3:21, "but now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested," which is defined in verse 26 as "to declare at this time His righteousness: that He might be just, and the Justifier of him which believeth in Jesus" (verse 26).

God in His infinite wisdom gives proper times and seasons to all His dispensations toward His Church. The Lord hastens or consummates all His works of grace in their own appointed time: see Isaiah 60:22. Our duty is to leave the ordering of all the concerns of His people, in the accomplishment of His promises, to God in His own good time: Acts 1:7.

That which is here ascribed unto Christ is "a more excellent ministry." The priests of old had a ministry, and an excellent one, for it was by Divine appointment they served at the altar (verse 5). So Christ has a ministry, and "a more excellent" one. In verse 2 He is designated "a Minister of the sanctuary." He is called such not with respect unto one particular act of administration, but because a standing office has been committed to Him.

The service to which Christ has been called is of a higher order and more excellent nature than any which Aaron ever discharged. It is a "more excellent ministry" because it is the real and substantial one, of which the Levitical was but the emblem; it pertains to things in heaven, while theirs was restricted to the earthly tabernacle; it is enduring while theirs was but temporary.

This more excellent ministry Christ is here said to have "obtained." The way whereby the Lord Jesus entered on the whole office and work of His mediation has been expressed in Hebrews 1:4 as by "inheritance": that is, by free grant and perpetual donation, made unto Him as the Son -- compare our comments on that verse. There were two things which concurred unto His obtaining this ministry: first, the eternal purpose and counsel of God, decreeing Him thereunto ( 1 Peter 1:20, Revelation 13:8). Second, the actual call of God ( Hebrews 5:4,5), which carried with it His unction of the Spirit above measure ( Psalm 45:7), for the holy discharge of His whole office. Thus, Christ obtained this ministry not by any legal constitution, fleshly succession, or carnal ordination, as did the Levitical priests. The exaltation of the human nature of Christ into union with His Deity, for the office of this glorious ministry, depended solely upon the sovereign wisdom, grace, and love of God. "But now hath He obtained a more excellent ministry, by how much also He is the Mediator of a better covenant." The particular point which the apostle here makes, or rather the conclusion which he here draws from the premises laid down, had been anticipated and intimated in what he said in Hebrews 7:20,22. There he had declared that the excellency of the covenant of which Christ has been made Surety and Mediator has a proportion with the pre-eminence of His priesthood above that of Aaron's.

His being made a Priest by Divine oath (which the Levites were not) fitted Him to be the Surety of a better economy. Conversely, the covenant of which He is Surety must needs be better than the old regime because He who was the Surety of it had been made so by Divine oath. Thus, the dignity of Christ's priesthood is demonstrated by the excellency of the new covenant, and declaratively the new covenant sets forth the dignity of Christ's priesthood. "He is the Mediator of a better covenant." It is most important to recognize that Christ is a sacerdotal Mediator. This is made clear by Timothy 2:5, 6, "For there is one God, and one Mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus; Who gave Himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time." The mediating Priest intervenes with sacrifice and intercession for the reconciling of God and sinners. As we shall (D.V.) yet see, Hebrews 9:15 expressly declares that Christ's priestly work was the very purpose of His being appointed Mediator. So in Hebrews 12:24 His sacrifice is again made prominent in connection with His mediation. Thus the sacerdotal character of His mediation cannot be scripturally gainsaid.

Christ has obtained a more excellent priestly ministry corresponding to the superior dispensation of which He is the Mediator. "But now (in this Christian dispensation) hath He (as 'Priest') obtained (from God) a more excellent ministry (than Aaron's) by how much also He is the Mediator of a better covenant." He is not only Priest, but Mediator; Priest because He is Mediator, Mediator because He is Priest. It is by His priestly office and work that He exercises His mediatorship, standing between two parties and reconciling them. He thus combines in His own person what was divided between two under the old economy, Moses being the typical mediator, Aaron the typical surety. As "Surety" Christ pledged Himself to see that the terms of the covenant were faithfully carried out; as "Mediator," He is negotiating for His people's blessing. The word "covenant" in this chapter signifies an arrangement or constitution of things, an economy or dispensation. The "old covenant" was that peculiar order of things under which the Jewish people were placed in consequence of the transactions at Sinai. The "new" or "better covenant" is that order of things which has been introduced by Jesus Christ, namely, the Christian dispensation. "He is the Mediator of a better covenant." A mediator is a middle person between two parties entering into covenant, and if they be of different natures, a perfect mediator would have to partake of each of their natures in his own person. This Christ has done. Such mediation presupposes that the two parties are at such variance they cannot treat directly with the other; unless this were so, a go-between would be needless. See this fact illustrated in Deuteronomy 5:23-27. In voluntarily undertaking to serve as Mediator, two things were required of Christ: first, that He should remove whatever kept the covenanters at a distance, taking away the cause of enmity between them. Second, that He should purchase and procure, in a way suited to the glory of God, the actual communication of all the good things prepared and proposed in this covenant (grace and glory) unto those on whose behalf He acts as Surety. Finally, He who is this Mediator must be accepted, trusted, and rested in by both parties entering into covenant.

On God's part, He has openly declared that He is "well pleased" with Christ ( Matthew 3:17); on the part of His elect, they are made willing "in the day of His power" (Psalm 110:3). "Which was established upon better promises." Every covenant between God and man, must be founded on and resolved into promises. Hence, essentially, a promise and a covenant are all one, and God calls an absolute promise founded on an absolute decree, His covenant, Genesis 9:11.

And His purpose for the continuation of the course of nature to the end of the world, He calls His covenant with day and night, Jeremiah 33:20.

The being and essence of a Divine covenant lies in the promise. Hence are they called 'the covenants of promise,' Ephesians 2:12. Such as are founded on and consist in promises. And it is necessary that so it should be" (John Owen). "Which was established upon better promises." The word "established" here is important to note, for it plainly intimates to us that the apostle is not here treating of the Everlasting Covenant absolutely, and as it had been virtually administered from the foundation of the world in the way of a promise; but relatively, as it had been formally introduced on earth as a new dispensation or economy. In the Divine administration of the Everlasting Covenant it has now been reduced to a fixed statute or ordinance. The term "established" signifies legally established, formally established as by a law. All is now fixed in the Church by Divine arrangement and secured by inviolable sanctions. In Hebrews 7:11 the Greek verb here rendered "established" is translated "received the law" -- compare our comments thereon. "The covenant to which the priesthood of Christ refers has been also established by law. It has been promulgated by Divine authority. The truth with regard to it has been 'spoken by the Son of God, and confirmed to us by those who heard Him; and God has borne witness with signs and miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit,' according to His own will" (John Brown). "Established upon better promises." Caution requires to be exercised and great care taken at this point lest we err in our understanding of the particular contrast which is here pointed by the word "better." "The promises in the first covenant pertained mainly to the present life. They were promises of length of days; of increase of numbers; of seed time and harvest; of national privileges, and of extraordinary peace, abundance and prosperity. That there was also the promise of eternal life, it would be wrong to doubt; but this was not the main thing. In the new covenant, however, the promise of spiritual blessings become the principal thing. The mind is directed to heaven; the heart is cheered with the hopes of immortal life; the favor of God and the anticipation of heaven are secured in the most ample and solemn manner" (A. Barnes).

Observe well the two words which are emphasized in the above quotation.

In Old Testament times God "commanded the blessing, life forever more" (Psalm 133:3), not only temporal life in Canaan; while His people in New Testament times have "promise of the life that now is," as well as "of that which is to come" ( 1 Timothy 4:8)!

Rightly did Adolph Saphir point out, "The contrast between the old and the new would be viewed in a false light, if we forgot that in the old dispensation spiritual reality and blessings were presented, and were actually embraced in faith by the people of God. The law had a positive or evangelical aspect, although herein also it was elementary and transitory, it acted as a guardian and a tutor; as the snow is not merely an indication of winter, and a contrast to the bright and genial sunshine, and the refreshing verdure of summer, but is also a beneficent protection, cherishing and preparing the soil for the approaching blessings from above. But now the winter is passed, the fullness has come."

The "better promises" are described in verses 10-13: they are summed up in justification and sanctification, or more briefly still, in redemption. "But what he adds is not without some difficulty, -- that the covenant of the Gospel was proclaimed on better promises; for it is certain that the fathers who lived under the Law had the same hope of eternal life set before them as we have, as they had the grace of adoption in common with us, then faith must have rested on the same promises. But the comparison made by the apostle refers to the form rather than to the substance; for though God promised to them the same salvation which He at this day promises to us, yet neither the manner nor the character of the revelation is the same or equal to what we enjoy" (John Calvin).

Thus, the "promises" with which the new covenant is concerned are "better" in that they mainly respect spiritual and eternal blessings, rather than earthly and temporal ones; in that they have been ratified by the blood-shedding of Christ; in that they are now openly proclaimed to God's elect among the Gentiles as well as the Jews. "For if that first covenant had been faultless then should no place have been sought for the second" (verse 7).

The covenant which is here referred to is that into which Jehovah entered with Israel at Sinai: see Exodus 19:5; 34:27, 28; Deuteronomy 4:13.

Israel's response is recorded in Exodus 19:8, 24:3. It was ratified by blood: Exodus 24:4-8. This was not the "first" covenant absolutely, but the first made with Israel nationally. Previously, God had made a covenant with Adam ( Hosea 6:7), and in some respects the Covenant at Sinai adumbrated it, for it was chiefly one of works. So too He had made a covenant with Abraham, which in some respects adumbrated the Everlasting Covenant, inasmuch as it was one purely of grace. Prior to Sinai, God dealt with Israel on the basis of the Abrahamic covenant, as is clear from Exodus 2:24; 6:3, 4. But it was on the ground of the Sinaitic covenant that Israel entered Canaan: see Joshua 7:11,15; Judges 2:19-21; 1 Kings 11:11; Jeremiah 34:18,19. "For if that first covenant had been faultless then should no place have been sought for the second." The connection between this and the preceding verse, intimated by the opening "For" is as follows: there the apostle had affirmed that the Christian covenant is superior to the Judaic; here, he demonstrates the same thing by arguing from the fact that the old covenant must have been defective, otherwise the new had been superfluous. It is an inference drawn from the facts of the situation. If there was need for a second, the first could not have been perfect, failing to secure that which was most desirable. A parallel is found in Galatians 3:21. "For if that first covenant had been faultless, then should no place have been sought for the second." Wherein lay its "faultiness?" It was wholly external, accompanied by no internal efficacy. It set before Israel an objective standard but supplied no power to measure up to it. It treated with men in the flesh, and therefore the law was impotent through the weakness of the flesh ( Romans 8:3). It provided a sacrifice for sin, but the value thereof was only ceremonial and transient, failing to actually put away sin. It was unable to secure actual redemption. Hence because of its inadequacy, a new and better covenant was needed. "Every work of God is perfect, viewed in connection with the purpose which He means it to serve. In this point of view, the 'first covenant' was faultless. But when viewed in the light in which the Jews generally considered it, as a saving economy, in all the extent of that word, it was not 'faultless.' It could not expiate moral guilt; it could not wash away moral pollution; it could not justify, it could not sanctify, it could not save. Its priesthood were not perfected -- they were weak and inefficient; its sacrifices 'could not take away sin,' make perfect as concerning the conscience, or procure 'access with freedom into the holiest of all.' In one word, 'it made nothing perfect'" (John Brown). "For finding fault with them, He saith, Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah" (verse 8).

The opening "For" denotes that the apostle now confirms what he had just affirmed in verses 6, 7: the proof is found in what immediately follows. The "finding fault" may refer either to the old covenant, or to the people themselves who were under it: finding fault "with it" or "with them." In view of what is added in verse 9 the translation of the A.V. is to be preferred. It was against the people that God complained for their having broken His covenant. "He saith, Behold, the days come," etc. The word "Behold" announces the importance of what follows, and calls to a diligent and admiring attention of the same. "Behold" bids us be filled with wonderment at this marvel of grace. It is indeed striking to observe that the apostle did not rely upon logical deductions and inferences, conclusive though they were. A change of priesthood necessarily involved a change of covenant, or dispensational administration. Nevertheless, obvious as this was, Paul rested not until he proved his assertions with a definite and pertinent "thus saith the Lord." He would not have the faith of the Hebrews stand in the wisdom of man, but in the power of God. Blessed example for God's servants today to follow.

Alas that so many people are contented with the dogmatic assertions of some man who "ought to know what he is saying," instead of demanding clear proof from the Scriptures.

The text which the apostle here quotes in proof of his assertion is taken from Jeremiah 31:31. It is most blessed to note the time when God gave this precious promise to His people. Beautifully has Adolph Saphir pointed out, "It is in the night of adversity that the Lord sends forth bright stars of consoling hope. When the darkest clouds of woe were gathering above Jerusalem, and the prophet himself was in the lowest depths of sorrow, God gave to him the most glorious prophecies of Judah's great redemption and future blessedness. The advent and reign of Messiah, the Lord our righteousness the royal dominion and priesthood of Israel's Redeemer, the gift of the Holy Spirit, the renewal and restoration of God's chosen people, the days of unbroken prosperity and blessedness -- all the golden Messianic future was predicted in the last days of Jerusalem, when the magnificent fabric of its temple was about to sink into the dust, and its walls and palaces were about to be thrown prostrate on the ground."

This new covenant God promised to make with "the house of Israel and with the house of Judah." The word, "Israel" is used in the Scriptures in no less than four distinct senses.

First , it is the name which God gave to Jacob when he wrestled with the angel and prevailed as a prince ( Genesis 32:28).

Second , it denotes his fleshly descendants called "the children of Israel," that is, the Jewish nation.

Third , it is employed of the ten tribes, the kingdom of Samaria or Ephraim, in contradistinction from the kingdom of Judah, and this, after the Nation was rent asunder in the days of Jeroboam.

Fourth , it is applied spiritually to the whole of God's people ( Galatians 6:16). To which we may add, Fifth , in Isaiah 49:3 (note the verses which follow) it appears to be applied to Christ Himself, as identified with His people. Personally, we believe that it is the second and the fourth of these usages that obtain in our present passage.

The law of first mention helps us here. The initial occurrence of any expression or word in Scripture defines its scope and fixes, very largely, its consequent significance. So it is in this case. The name "Israel" was first given to Jacob: from that point onwards he is the man with a double name, sometimes being referred to as Jacob, sometimes as Israel, according as the "old man" or "new man" was uppermost within him. This more than hints at the double application of this name; oftentimes it is applied to Jacob's natural descendants, at other times to his spiritual brethren. When Christ affirmed of Nathanael "Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile" ( John 1:47), it was the same as though He had said, "Behold a true Israelite, a spiritual prince with God." To insist that "Israel" always signifies the fleshly descendants of Jacob betrays excuseless ignorance: why does the Holy Spirit speak of "Israel after the flesh" in 1 Corinthians 10:18 if there be no Israel after the spirit!

The writer has no doubt whatever in his mind that the time is not far distant when God is going to resume His dealings with the Jewish people, restore them unto their own land, send back their Messiah and Redeemer, save them from their sins, and fulfill to them His ancient promise through Jeremiah. Nevertheless, we are fully assured that it is a serious mistake to limit the prophecy of Jeremiah (or any other prediction) to a single fulfillment. It is abundantly clear from 2 Corinthians 3 that Christians in this dispensation are already enjoying the good of the new covenant which God has made with them. Moreover, are we not reminded at the Lord's table of our Savior's words, "This cup is the new testament," or "covenant in My blood" ( 1 Corinthians 11:25)?

It should be pointed out that Old Testament Israel were typical and mystically significant of the whole Church of God. For that reason were the promises of grace under the old economy given unto the saints of God under the name of "Israel," "Judah," etc. (carefully compare Romans 2:28,29), because they were types of those who should really and effectually be made partakers of them. Hence it is that in 2 Corinthians 1:20 we are told that "All the promises of God in Him (Christ) are Yea, and in Him Amen, unto the glory of God by us." Hence it is we read that "Jesus Christ was a Minister of the circumcision for the truth of God, to confirm the promises unto the fathers, and that the Gentiles might glorify God for His mercy" ( Romans 15:8,9).

And hence it is that the apostle Paul writing to Christians says, "Having therefore these promises" -- the preceding verses quoting from Leviticus 26:12, etc! For the same reason in Hebrews 13:6 the Christian is assured that the promise which the Lord made to Joshua belongs to him too.

Thus, by "the house of Israel" and the "house of Judah" in Hebrews 8:8 we understand, first, the mystical and spiritual Israel and Judah; second, the application of this covenant to the literal and fleshly Israel and Judah in the day to come. In other words, we regard those expressions as denominating the whole Church of elect believers, typified of old, by the fleshly descendants of Abraham. Nor is it without reason that the Holy Spirit has here used both these names: we believe His (veiled) design was to take in God's elect among the Jews and the Gentiles. Our reason for believing this is because that in the very first inspired sermon preached after the new covenant had been established, Peter said to the convicted Jews, "the promise is unto you, and to your children (descendants) and to all that are afar off, as many as the Lord our God shall call" ( Acts 2:39).

It is indeed remarkable that the two emphasized words have a double reference.

First , they applied to the literal house of Israel, who were then outside the land, in the dispersion ( Daniel 9:7); Second , to elect Gentiles, away from God: see Ephesians 2:13!

At the time God announced His purpose and promise through Jeremiah, the fleshly descendants of Abraham were divided in two hostile groups.

They had separate kings and separate centers of worship. They were at enmity with one another. As such they fitly adumbrated the great division between God's elect among the Jews and the Gentiles in their natural and dispensational state. There was a middle wall or partition between them ( Ephesians 2:14). There was "enmity" between them ( Ephesians 2:16). But just as God announced through Ezekiel ( 37:16, 17) that the diversified houses of Judah and Israel should "become one," so His elect among the Jews and the Gentiles are now one in Christ ( Ephesians 2:14-18)! Therefore are all born-again believers designated the "children" and "seed" of Abraham ( Galatians 3:7,29), and thus are they "blessed with faithful Abraham" ( Galatians 3:9). "Not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt; because they continued not in My covenant, and I regarded them not, saith the Lord" (verse 9).

The contrast between the two covenants is first expressed negatively: "not according." The differences between them are many and great. The former was mainly typical, the latter has the substance. The one was administered under an imperfect priesthood, the latter under a perfect one. The one had to do, primarily, with that which was external; the other is, mainly, internal.

The Mosaic covenant was restricted to one nation, the Christian is international in its scope.

The old covenant is spoken of as dating from the day when the Lord took Israel, "by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt." This language emphasizes the woeful and helpless condition that Israel was then in: unable to deliver themselves out of their bondage, like children incapable of walking unless supported and led. As Deuteronomy 1:31 says, "The Lord thy God bare thee, as a man doth bear his son, in all the way that ye went." So in Hosea 11:3 God says, "I taught them to go, taking them by the arms." Such expressions also accentuate the infinite condescension of God toward His people: that He should (so to speak) bow down Himself to reach them in their lowly estate. "But they continued not in My covenant, and I regarded them not, saith the Lord." "They soon forgat God's works, they waited not for His counsel" (Psalm 106:13). The principal reference is to Israel's conduct at Sinai, when during the absence of Moses in the mount, they "thrust Him from them" ( Acts 7:39), and made and worshipped the golden calf. That was but prophetic or indicative of their whole history. Their shameful conduct is mentioned here for the purpose of magnifying that marvelous grace that shall yet make the new covenant with such a people. "I regarded them not" refers to God's governmental dealings with Israel: the severity He exercised, consuming them in the wilderness. In view of which we may well heed that searching word, "Wherefore let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall" ( 1 Corinthians 10:12).

II. Hebrews 8:10-13

The subject of the two covenants supplies the principal key which unlocks for us the meaning of God's dispensational dealings with His people here on earth. Its importance and blessedness is not surpassed by anything within the entire range of Divine revelation. Yet, sad to say, it is something which is scarcely known at all today by the majority of professing Christians. Covenant-relationship has always been the basis on which God has dealt with His people. The foundation of all is the Everlasting Covenant, a compact or agreement which God made with Christ as the Head and Representative of the whole election of grace. We would refer the interested reader unto two articles upon it, which appeared in the January and February 1930 issues of this magazine. What we shall here endeavor to treat of is the administration  of that covenant, as it was made known by God, and the various forms  in which it was established among His saints.

There was an original covenant made with Adam and all mankind in him: see Hosea 6:7 margin. This consisted of an agreement between God and man concerning obedience and disobedience, reward and punishment. To that covenant were annexed promises and threatenings, which were expressed in visible signs or symbols; the first, in the tree of life; the latter in the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. By these did God establish the original law of creation as a covenant. On the part of man, it was required that he should accept of this law. It was a covenant of works, and had no mediator. That arrangement or constitution formed the basis on which God dealt with Adam, but it ceased as soon as sin entered the world.

God had provided a way of salvation for His own elect apart from their personal obligation to sinless obedience as the condition of life, and that through their Surety discharging all their responsibilities in His own person.

This was made known in the first promise God proclaimed: Genesis 3:15. All who receive the grace which is tendered through the promises of the Gospel, are delivered from the curse of that covenant which Adam, their legal representative, broke.

But though this first earthly covenant is no longer administered as a "covenant," nevertheless, all those of Adam's descendants who receive not the grace of God as it is tendered to them in the promises of the Gospel, are under the law and curse of the Adamic covenant, because the obedience which it requires of the creature unto the Creator, and the penalty which it threatens and the curse it pronounces upon the disobedient, has never been met for them by a substitute. Therefore, if any man believe not, the wrath of God (not "cometh," but) abideth on him ( John 3:36), and this, because the command and curse, which result from the relation between man and his Maker, and the inflexible righteousness of God as the supreme Governor and Judge of all mankind, must be fulfilled.

Now the children of Israel were not formally placed under the Adamic covenant absolutely, as a covenant of life, for, from the days of Abraham the promise (a renewal of Genesis 3:15; see Genesis 12:1-3, 17:6-8, etc.) was given unto him and his seed. Let it be carefully noted that in Galatians 3:17 the apostle proves that no "law" would afterwards be given, nor covenant made, that should or could disannul that promise. Had Israel been brought under the Adamic covenant of works it would have disannulled the promise, for that covenant and the promise of Grace are diametrically opposed. Moreover, had Israel come formally under the Adamic covenant of works they were all under the curse, and so had all perished eternally.

That there were other federal transactions between God and His Church before the giving of the law at Sinai, is abundantly clear from the book of Genesis. God entered into covenant with Abraham, making him promises on behalf of his descendants, and appointing a solemn outward seal for its confirmation and establishment. That covenant contained the very nature and essence of what is termed the "new covenant." Proof of this is found in the fact that the Lord Jesus is said to be "a Mediator of the circumcision, for the truth of God to confirm the promises made to the fathers" ( Romans 15:8). As He was the Mediator of the new covenant, so far was He from rescinding the promises which God made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, that it belonged to His office to ratify and establish them. But it was at Sinai that the Lord entered formally into covenant with Israel as a nation ( Hebrews 8:9), a covenant which had all the institutions of Divine worship annexed to it ( Hebrews 9:1-6).

In contrast from the covenant which God made with Israel at Sinai, Christ is made "the Mediator of a better covenant" ( Hebrews 8:6). This is the covenant of grace, being so called in contrast from that of works, which was made with us in Adam. For these two, grace and works, do divide the ways of our relation to God, being opposite the one to the other ( Romans 11:6). Of this covenant of grace Christ was its Mediator from the beginning of the world, namely, from the giving of the first promise in Genesis 3:15, for that promise was given in view of His incarnation and all that He should accomplish by His future and actual mediation. Christ was as truly the Surety of Abel as He was of the apostle Paul, and God had "respect unto" (was favorable toward and accepted) the one on the ground of Christ's surety-ship as much as He did the other. To this it may be replied, If such be the case, then wherein lies the superior privilege of the Gospel-dispensation over that of the Mosaic?

In seeking an answer to the above question, it is needful to recognize (as was pointed out in our last article) that the "new covenant" referred to in Hebrews 8 is not the new covenant absolutely considered, and as it had been virtually administered from the days of Genesis 3:15 in a way of promise. For considered thus it was quite consistent with the covenant that God made with Israel at Sinai: in Galatians 3:17 the apostle proves that the renewal of the covenant (as a promise) to Abraham, was in no way abrogated by the giving of the law. Instead, in Hebrews 8 the apostle is treating of such an establishment of the new covenant as demanded the revocation of the Sinaitic constitution. What this "establishment" was, is made clear in Hebrews 9 and 10: it was the ordinances of worship connected with it.

When Christianity had been formally established by God, not only was the old covenant annulled, but the entire system of sacred worship whereby it was administered, was set aside. When the "new covenant" was first given in the way of a promise ( Genesis 3:15, renewed Genesis 12,17, etc.), it did not introduce a system of worship and privileges expressive of the same. But the promise of the new covenant was included in the Mosaic covenant, nor was it inconsistent with its rights and ceremonies, nay not even with them composed into a yoke of bondage. And why? Because all those rites and ceremonies were added after the making of the covenant in Exodus chapters 19 and 24; nevertheless what was added did not and could not overthrow the promise. As the Mosaic system was completed, then all the worship of the Church was to proceed from it and to be conformed to it.

No sinner was ever saved but by virtue of the new covenant and the mediation of Christ therein. The new covenant of grace (in contrast from the old covenant of works made with the human race in Adam) was extant and effectual throughout the Old Testament era. Then what is the "better covenant" with its "better promises" which the death of Christ has inaugurated? We say again, it is not a new covenant absolutely considered.

There are many plain passages in the Psalms and the Prophets which show that the Church of old knew and believed the blessed truth of justification and salvation by Christ, and walked with God in the faith thereof: compare Romans 4:3-9. Let those who have access to the incomparable and immortal "Institutes" of Calvin read carefully chapters 9–11 in book 2. "The Church under the Old Testament, had the same promise of Christ, the same interest in Him by faith, remission of sins, reconciliation with God, justification and salvation by the same way and means that believers have under the New. And whereas the essence and substance of the covenant consists in these things, they are not said to be under another covenant, but only a different administration of it. But this was so different from that which is established in the Gospel after the coming of Christ, that it hath the appearance and name of another covenant" (John Owen).

The leading differences between the two administrations of the covenant of grace may be reduced to the following heads.

First , the manner in which the love of God in Christ is made known. The miracle recorded in Mark 8:23,24 illustrates and adumbrates the two states. The Old Testament saints had sight, but the Object set before their faith was seen at a distance, and through clouds and shadows. The New Testament saints "with open face behold the glory of God in a mirror" ( 2 Corinthians 3:18).

Second , in its more plentiful communication of grace unto the Church: John 1:16. Old Testament believers had grace given to them ( Genesis 6:8, etc.), but we an "abundance of grace" ( Romans 5:17).

Third , in our access to God. The revelation of God at Sinai filled the people with terror; His revelation of Himself in Christ, fills us with joy.

They were shut out from the holy place; we have freedom to approach His throne ( Hebrews 4:16).

Fourth , the extent of the dispensation of Divine grace. Under the Old Testament it was restricted to one nation; now it extends to all nations.

The covenant of grace was the same, as to its substance, from the beginning. It passed through the whole dispensation of times before the law, and under the law, of the same nature and efficacy, unalterable, everlasting, "ordered in all things and sure." The covenant of grace considered absolutely was the promise of grace in and by Christ Jesus ( 2 Timothy 1:9, Titus 1:2), and that was the only way and means of salvation unto the elect from the entrance of sin. Absolutely, in Old Testament times, the covenant consisted only in promise, and as such is referred to in Acts 2:39, Hebrews 6:14-16. The full and lawful "establishment" of it ( Hebrews 8:6), whence it became formally a "covenant" unto the whole Church, was future only. Two things were needed to change the "promise" into a "new covenant": the shedding of the blood of the only Sacrifice which belonged to it, and the institution of that worship in keeping therewith.

Whilst the Old Testament Church enjoyed all the spiritual benefits of the promise, wherein the substance of the covenant is contained, before it was confirmed and made the sole rule of worship unto the Church, it was not inconsistent with the holiness and wisdom of God to bring His people under any other covenant, or prescribe unto them what forms of worship He pleased, for they did not render ineffectual the promise before given.

Nor did the institutions of the Mosaic covenant divert from, but rather led to, the future establishment of the promise. Yea, the laws and worship of the Mosaic economy were of present use and advantage to the Church while it remained in its state of minority (Galatians 4). For much of the above we are indebted, under God, to the writings of John Owen (1670 A.D.). We now turn again to our passage. "For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, saith the Lord; I will put My laws into their minds, and write them in their hearts: and I will be to them a God, and they shall be to Me a people" (verse 10). "The design of the apostle, or what is the general argument which he is in pursuit of, must still be borne in mind, while considering the testimonies which he produceth in the confirmation of it. His design is to prove that the Lord Christ is the Mediator and Surety of a better covenant, than that wherein the service of God was managed by the high priests according to the law. For hence it follows, that His priesthood is greater and far more excellent than theirs. To this end he doth not only prove that God promised to make such a covenant, but also declares the nature and properties of it, in the words of the prophets. And so, by comparing it with the former covenant, he manifests its excellency above it. In particular, in this testimony, the imperfection of that covenant is demonstrated from its issue. For it did not effectually maintain peace and mutual love between God and the people; but being broken by them, they were thereon rejected of God. This rendered all the other benefits and advantages of it, useless. Wherefore, the apostle insists from the prophet, on those promises of this other covenant, which infallibly prevent the like issue, securing the people's obedience forever, and so the love and relation of God unto them as their God" (John Owen).

The apostle is here contrasting the Christian dispensation from the Mosaic.

Having in the previous verse declared in general the abrogation of the old covenant, because of its inadequacy through the weakness of the flesh, he here describes the new covenant which has supplanted it. He shows it to be so excellent in its constitution that none should object against its substitution in place of the old: such is the force of the opening "For." The formal "this is the covenant" announces that it is the duty of Christians to make themselves distinctly and fully informed in the privileges belonging unto them. It was for this very end that the writings of the evangelists and apostles were added to those of the prophets. This new covenant is made with "the house of Israel," which we understand mystically, comprising under it all the people of God. It is taken spiritually for the whole Church, the "Israel of God" ( Galatians 6:16). "After those days" is in antithesis from "in the day" of verse 9, which was an indefinite expression covering the interval between God's sending Moses into Egypt and the arrival of Israel before Sinai. "After those days" means, following the Old Testament era. The dispensation which succeeds that is called "the time of reformation" in Hebrews 9:10. Now just as God's making of the first covenant with Israel was preceded by many things that were preparatory to the solemn establishment of the same -- such as His sending of Moses to announce unto them His designs of grace, His delivering them out of the house of bondage, His miraculous conducting of them through the Red Sea, His making known His law at Sinai -- so the new covenant was gradually made and established, and that by sundry acts preparatory for it or confirmatory of it. As this is so little understood we must enter into details.

First , the introduction of the new covenant was made by the ministry of John the Baptist ( Luke 16:16). He was sent to prepare the way of the Lord. Until his appearing the Jews were bound absolutely unto the covenant at Sinai, without any alteration or addition to any ordinance of worship. But John's ministry was "the beginning of the Gospel" ( Mark 1:1,2). He called the people off from resting in the privileges of the old covenant ( Matthew 3:8-10), and instituted a new ordinance of worship, baptism. He pointed away from Moses to the Lamb of God. Thus, his ministry was the beginning of the accomplishment of God's promise through Jeremiah.

Second , the incarnation and ministry of the Lord Jesus was a further advance unto the same. His appearing in the flesh laid an axe to the root of the whole Mosaic dispensation ( Matthew 3:10), though the tree was not immediately cut down. By His miracles and teaching Christ furnished abundant proof that He was the Mediator of the new covenant.

Third , the way for the introduction of the new covenant having been prepared, it was solemnly enacted and confirmed in and by Christ's death: thereby the "promise" became a "testament" ( Hebrews 9:14-16). From that time onwards, the old covenant and its administration had received its full accomplishment ( Ephesians 2:14-16, Colossians 2:14,15), and it continued to abide only in the longsuffering of God, to be taken out of the way in His own time and manner.

Fourth , the new covenant was further established in the resurrection of Christ. The old covenant could not be abrogated till its curse had been borne, and that was discharged absolutely when Christ was "loosed from the pains of death" and delivered from the grave.

Fifth , the new covenant was promulgated and confirmed on the day of Pentecost, answering to the promulgation of the law at Sinai, some weeks after Israel had been delivered out of Egypt. From Pentecost onwards the whole Church of God was absolved from any duty with respect unto the old covenant and the worship of it (although it was not manifest as yet unto their consciences), and the ordinances of worship and all the institutions of the new covenant now became obligatory upon them.

Sixth , the question was formally and officially raised as to the continuance of the obligatory form of the old covenant, and the contrary was expressly affirmed by the apostles under the infallible superintendence of the Holy Spirit: Acts 15:1-29.

But at this point a difficulty, already noticed, may recur to our minds: Were not the things mentioned in Hebrews 8:10-13, the grace and mercy therein expressed, actually communicated to God's elect both before Sinai and afterwards? Did not all who truly believed and feared God enjoy these same identical blessings? Unquestionably. What then is the solution? This: the apostle is not here contrasting the internal operations of Divine grace in the Old and New Testament saints, but as Calvin rightly taught, the "reference is to the economical condition of the Church." The contrast is between that which characterized the Judaic and the Christian dispensations in the outward confirmation of the covenant. While there were individuals like David and Daniel, perhaps many such, in whom the Spirit wrought effectually, yet it is evident that the great majority of Abraham's natural descendants had no experimental acquaintance with the external revelation God had given. "I will put My laws into their minds, and write them in their hearts." That this is not an experience peculiar to Christians or restored Christians is clear from Psalm 37:30,31, "The mouth of the righteous speaketh wisdom, and his tongue talketh of judgment. The law of His God is in his heart." So, too in Psalm 19:7,8, we read, "The law of the Lord is perfect converting the soul... the statutes of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart."

But that the major portion of Israel, or even a considerable number of them, were regenerated, at any period in the lengthy history of that nation, there is nothing whatever to show: instead, there is very much to the contrary. This experience is enjoyed by none save God's elect, and in every age they have been but a "little flock." "I will put My laws into their minds." These words have reference to the effectual operations of the Spirit in His supernatural and saving illumination of our understandings, whereby they are made habitually conformable unto the whole law of God, which is our rule of obedience in the new covenant.

The carnal mind is enmity against God, and is not subject to His law, neither indeed can be ( Romans 8:7). But when we are renewed by the Spirit, He works in us a submission to the authority and revealed will of God. As the Lord opened the heart of Lydia "that she attended unto the things which were spoken of Paul" ( Acts 16:14), so in the miracle of the new birth, the Christian is given an ear to heed and a mind to perceive the holiness, justice, and goodness of God's law. Yea, that law is effectually applied to him, so that it becomes the former of his thoughts, the subject of his meditation, and the regulator of his ways.

The preacher may announce the law of God to the outward ear, but only the Spirit can engrave it on the mind. The realization of this fact ought to drive every minister to his knees. No matter how diligently he has prepared his sermon, no matter how clearly and faithfully he expounds God's truth, no matter how solemnly and searchingly he endeavors to press it on the individual's conscience, unless God Himself gives His Word an entrance into the soul, nothing spiritual and eternal is accomplished. Nowhere is the deadness of the "churches" more plainly evidenced today than by the absence of concerted and definite prayer immediately before and immediately after the Word is preached: the "song service" has been substituted for the prayer service. O that God's own people might be aroused to the need of their coming together and crying, "Lord, open the eyes of these men" ( 2 Kings 6:20). "And write them in their hearts." It is this which renders the former part actually effectual. The "heart" as distinguished from the "mind" comprises the affections and the will. First, the understanding is informed, and then the heart is reformed. An active principle of obedience is imparted, and this is nothing else than a love for God Himself. Where there is a real love for God, there is a genuine desire and determination to please Him. The heart of the natural man is "alienated" from God and opposed to His authority.

That is why, at Sinai, God wrote the commandments upon stones -- not so much to secure the outward letter of them, as to represent the hardness of the hearts of the people unto whom they were given. But at regeneration God takes away the heart of stone, and gives a heart of flesh ( Ezekiel 36:26) -- pliable, living, responsive.

Let each reader pause here and lift up his or her heart to God, asking for grace and wisdom to honestly examine themselves in the light of this verse.

You may sit under a sound and scriptural ministry every Sabbath, but what effect has it upon your inner man? You may be well acquainted with the letter of the Word, but how far is it directing the details of your daily walk? Does your mind dwell most on temporal or eternal things, material or spiritual? What engages your thoughts in your seasons of recreation? Is your heart fixed upon God or upon the world? There are thousands of professing Christians who can talk glibly of the Scriptures, but whose lives give no evidence that God has written His laws in their hearts. Are you one of this class? "And I will be to them a God, and they shall be to Me a people." This expresses covenant-relationship. It is placed in the center of these promises because it is the spring from which the grace of the other blessings doth proceed. The wicked are living in this world "without God, and without hope" ( Ephesians 2:12), but unto the righteous He says, "I am thy Shield, thy exceeding great Reward" ( Genesis 15:1). "Happy is that people, that is in such a case, happy is that people, whose God is the Lord" ( Psalm 144:15). When He says "I will be to them a God" it means that He will act toward His people according to all that is implied in the name of God. He will be their Lawgiver, their Counselor, their Protector, their Guide. He will supply all their needs, deliver from all dangers, and bring them unto everlasting felicity. He will be faithful and longsuffering, bearing with their frailties, never leaving nor forsaking them. "And they shall be My people" expresses both a dignity and a duty. Their dignity is set forth in 1 Peter 2:9; their duty in the verses which follow. "And they shall not teach every man his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: for all shall know Me, from the least to the greatest" (verse 11).

These words point a contrast from the general spiritual ignorance which obtained among the Jews: cf. Isaiah 1:3, etc. "The words in the 11th verse are not to be understood absolutely, but comparatively. They intimate, that under that covenant there shall be a striking contrast to the ignorance which characterized the great body of those who were under the Old Covenant; that the revelation of the Divine will shall be far more extensive and clear under the new than under the old economy; and that there shall be a correspondingly enlarged communication of the enlightened influences of the Holy Spirit. They probably also are intended to suggest the idea, that that kind of knowledge which is the peculiar glory of the New Covenant is a kind of knowledge which cannot be communicated by brother teaching brother, but comes directly from Him -- the great Teacher, whose grand characteristic is this, that whom He teaches, He makes apt to learn" (John Brown). "And they shall not teach every man his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord." During the Mosaic economy, and particularly in the last century before Christ, there was an external teaching of the Law, which the people trusted and rested in without any regard for God's teaching by the inward circumcision of the heart. Such teaching had degenerated into rival schools and sects, such as the Pharisees, Sadducees, Herodians, Essenes, etc., and they made void the Word of God through their traditions ( Mark 7:13). It was against such the last of Israel's prophets had announced. "The Lord will cut off... the master and the scholar out of the tabernacles of Jacob" ( Malachi 2:12).

Or, our verse probably has more direct reference to the general knowledge of God which obtained during the Mosaic economy, when He revealed Himself under types and shadows, and was known through "parables and dark sayings." These were now supplanted by the full blaze of the Gospel's light. "For all shall know Me, from the least to the greatest." God is now known in the full revelation which He has made of Himself in the person of His incarnate Son: John 1:18. As we are told in 1 John 5:20, "And we know that the Son of God is come, and hath given us an understanding, that we may know Him that is true": "know Him" in the sense that we recognize, own, and practically obey Him as God. This spiritual, experimental, vital, saving knowledge of God is now communicated unto all of His elect. As the Savior announced, "They shall be all taught of God" ( John 6:45): taught His will and all the mysteries of godliness, which by the Word are revealed. This "knowledge" of God cannot be imparted by any external teaching alone, but is the result of the Spirit's operations, though He frequently, yea generally, uses the oral and written ministry of God's servants as His instruments therein. "For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their iniquities will I remember no more" (verse 12). "This is the great foundational promise and grace of the new covenant. For though it be last expressed, yet, in order of nature, it precedeth the other mercies and privileges mentioned, and is the foundation of the communication of them unto us. This the casual 'for' at the beginning of the verse doth demonstrate. What I have spoken, saith the Lord, shall be accomplished, 'For I will be merciful,' etc., without which there could be no participation of the other things mentioned. Wherefore, not only an addition of new grace and mercy is expressed in these words, but a reason also is rendered why, or on what grounds, He would bestow on them those other mercies" (John Owen).

In verse 12 a reason is given why God bestows the wondrous blessings enumerated in verses 10, 11. The word here rendered "merciful" is propitious, for it is not absolute mercy without any satisfaction having been taken by justice, but grace shown on the ground of a propitiation: cf. Romans 3:24,25. Christ died to render God propitious toward sinners ( Hebrews 2:17), and in and through Him alone is God merciful toward the sins of His people. Just so long as Christ is rejected, the sinner is under the curse. But as soon as He is received, the blessings described in verses 10-12 become his. Note there are just seven blessings named, which exemplifies the perfection of the new covenant.

It is to be noted that no less than three terms are used in verse 12 to describe the fearful evils of which the sinner is guilty, thus emphasizing his obnoxiousness to the holy God, and magnifying the grace which saves him. "Unrighteousness" signifies a wrong done unto God, against man's sovereign Ruler and Benefactor. "Sin" is a missing of the mark, the glorifying of God, which is what ought ever to be aimed at. "Iniquity" has the force of lawlessness, a setting up of my will against God's, a living to please self rather than for His glory. How marvelous is the propitious favor of God toward those who are guilty of such multiplied enormities! The apostle's object was to point another contrast between the covenants. That which characterized Judaism was a reign of law and justice: that which distinguishes Christianity is the "Throne of Grace." Note that no "conditions" are here stipulated. But does not the new covenant require repentance and faith? Assuredly: Mark 1:15. But He who requires these has promised also to work them in His people: Acts 5:31. "In that He saith, A new, He hath made the first old. Now that which decayeth and waxeth old is ready to vanish away" (verse 13).

That the translators failed to perceive the drift of the apostle's reasoning here is evident from their adding the word "covenant" in italics. This was not only unnecessary, but its introduction serves to hide the force of the first half of this verse. In it the apostle draws an inference from what God had said through Jeremiah. He singles out one word, "new," and on it bases an argument: because Christianity is the "establishment" of the new covenant, then the preceding economy must have grown "old," and "old" is significative of that which draws near its end! How this shows us, once more, that every jot and tittle of Scripture is authoritative, full of meaning, and of sufficient evidence for what may be deduced from it! "Now that which decayeth and waxeth old is ready to vanish away." Here is the conclusion of the apostle's argument. If the first covenant had been adequate no place had been sought for a second (verse 7). But place was sought for the second (verse 8), therefore the first covenant was not faultless. The old covenant had continued for fifteen hundred years, from Moses to Christ; but its purpose had now been served. God gave Israel more than a hint that the Mosaic economy would not last forever, when his providence permitted the nation to be carried down into Babylon. Upon their return from captivity, neither the temple nor its priesthood were ever restored to their pristine glory. And now, as the apostle wrote, in less than ten years Jerusalem and the temple were completely destroyed. If then the Jewish covenant was abolished because it was "old," how much more ought the "old man" to be put off ( Ephesians 4:24), and the "old leaven" purged out ( 1 Corinthians 5:7)!

* From: AN EXPOSITION OF HEBREWS by Arthur W. Pink (1954), Chapters 37-38