New Covenant Theology
When Did the Old Covenant End and the New Covenant Begin?
There has been much confusion concerning the New Covenant. Some might think that when the New Covenant began and when the Old Covenant ended is not important. I will show you that it is. Covenant theologians believe that the New Covenant is merely a new administration of the same covenant that is also called the Old Covenant. Thus, believing it all to be one covenant, they don't accept that there was an ending of the Old Covenant and a beginning of a truly fresh, New Covenant.
Dispensational theologians are divided and confused on the subject of the New Covenant. After saying the dispensationalists agree on many topics, dispensational theologian, Rodney J. Decker, admits, "Yet when we come to the new covenant it is challenging to establish consensus as to whether there is one new covenant or two, whether the church is party to the covenant, related only through the covenant mediator, shares similar blessings, or has nothing at all to do with it" ("Why Do Dispensationalists Have Such a Hard Time Agreeing on the New Covenant?"). Some dispensationalists see the New Covenant as dealing with Israel and not the church. Others wonder whether the church may not have something to do with the New Covenant, although they seem not to know what. Thus there is disagreement over whether the New Covenant began at the Cross or whether it is yet to begin with the onset of what dispensationalists believe will be a future millennial reign.
So now, let's look at the Bible's plain answer to this question. Jesus Christ came to do many things. We usually, and quite rightly, focus on the fact that He came to atone for the sins of those who put their trust in Him. But this is really part of a bigger picture. The atonement is one way in which Jesus fulfilled the law. In Matthew 5:17-18, Jesus says, "Don't think that I came to destroy the law or the prophets. I didn't come to destroy, but to fulfill. For most certainly, I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not even one smallest letter or one tiny pen stroke shall in any way pass away from the law, until all things are accomplished" (Matthew 5:17-18). I have explained this Scripture in detail in the article "In what way did Jesus fulfill the law?"). But, briefly, what Jesus is plainly saying is that He did not come to destroy or tear down the law; He came to fulfill its demands. And once He fulfilled those demands—with all that He did in His life and culminating in the Cross—the Old Covenant was completed and thus ended. Jesus ended the Old Covenant by fulfilling the Old Covenant law.
Confusion arises when we don't understand the contrast between the Old and New Covenants. But the Bible tells us:
But now he has obtained a more excellent ministry, by so much as he is also the mediator of a better covenant, which on better promises has been given as law. For if that first covenant had been faultless, then no place would have been sought for a second. For finding fault with them, he said, "Behold, the days come," says the Lord, "that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah; not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers, in the day that I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt; for they didn't continue in my covenant, and I disregarded them," says the Lord. "For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel. After those days," says the Lord; "I will put my laws into their mind, I will also write them on their heart. I will be their God, and they will be my people. They will not teach every man his fellow citizen, and every man his brother, saying, 'Know the Lord,' for all will know me, from the least of them to the greatest of them. For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness. I will remember their sins and lawless deeds no more." In that he says, "A new covenant," he has made the first old. But that which is becoming old and grows aged is near to vanishing away.
Nearer the end of this article, I will explain the aphorism "near to vanishing away." Here, with this Scripture, I want to just point out that the writer is clearly saying that the First Covenant is the Old Covenant and is the one God made with Israel at Sinai and that the New Covenant is the one Jesus established. The Bible makes a distinction between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant.
Made with True Israel
In this passage, the writer of Hebrews has quoted Jeremiah 31:31-34. The writer uses Jeremiah's terminology in saying that the New Covenant will be made "with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah." This refers to true Israel, the body of Christian believers. It does not refer to national Israel, which in Old Testament times was only a shadowy type of the assembly of believers under the New Covenant. As support for this, examine the following:
• Those who have faith in Christ are the children of Abraham (Galatians 3.7; notice the principle in Romans 9:6-8)
• If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's seed (Galatians 3.29)
• The present Jerusalem is in slavery, but the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother (Galatians 4.26)
• Like Isaac, we (believers) are children of promise (Galatians 4.28)
• We are not children of the slave woman—Hagar who represents Sinai, but of the free woman (Galatians 4.31)
• Those who walk in line with the rule that circumcision or uncircumcision means nothing but the new creation means everything (i.e. Christians) are the Israel of God (Galatians 6.15-16)
• A Jew is one inwardly, not outwardly and circumcision is of the heart, by the Spirit, not the letter (Romans 2.28-29)
• We (Christians) are the circumcision (true Israel), who serve God by the Spirit, who glory in Christ Jesus, and put no confidence in the flesh (Philippians 3:2-3)
Old Covenant Israel was the forerunner and shadowy type of the New Covenant reality—the assembly of believers.
So, God made the Old Covenant with physical Israel only: "And Moses called all Israel, and he said to them, Hear O Israel, the ordinances and the judgments! as many as I speak in your ears in this day. And you shall learn them, and guard to do them. The lord your God ordained to you a covenant in Horeb. Not with your fathers the lord ordained this covenant, but only with you; even you here all living today. Face to face the lord spoke to you in the mountain from the midst of the fire" (Deuteronomy 5:1-4, Apostolic Bible Polyglot).
But God has made the New Covenant with spiritual Israel. That's why He can say in the passages in Jeremiah 31 and Hebrews quoted above that he puts His laws into our minds and hearts. It also explains why He says in those places, "They will not teach every man his fellow citizen, and every man his brother, saying, 'Know the Lord,' for all will know me, from the least of them to the greatest of them." Some have said that we cannot be under the New Covenant today because we still teach people about the Lord. But this is not talking about evangelizing the unsaved. It is talking about those who are already in the covenant—the believers. God made the Old Covenant with a nationality, the Israelites. That nationality included believers and unbelievers alike. In fact, most under that covenant were unbelievers. One was in the covenant or not depending on his or her lineage. The few who were believers could evangelize the others, telling them about the Lord.
But God makes the New Covenant with believers only. They are from all nationalities, including Jews, but they must believe in Jesus Christ as their Savior. Within the New Covenant, we do not need to evangelize each other (Hebrews 8:11). We already know the Lord or we would not be in the covenant. And being in the covenant makes us spiritual Israel—a new, non-worldly, spiritual nationality: "But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God's own possession, that you may proclaim the excellence of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light: who in time past were no people, but now are God's people, who had not obtained mercy, but now have obtained mercy" (1 Peter 2:9-10).
Thus, the Old and New Covenants are made with two, completely different sets of people. God made the Old Covenant with physical, national Israel, most of whom were not believers. He makes the New Covenant with spiritual Israel, consisting of only believers who might be of any nationality (Jews and Gentiles alike). The Old Covenant was for national Israel only: the New Covenant is for individual believers from many different nations.
Debunking Some Wrong Ideas
Various theologians, even some New Covenant theologians, have proposed some unbiblical times for when the New Covenant began.
Error 1. The Old Covenant ended and the New began at the juncture of the ministries of John the Baptist's and Jesus. John the Baptist was the last of the Old Testament prophets. Luke 16:16 reads, "The law and the prophets were until John. From that time the Good News of the Kingdom of God is preached, and everyone is forcing his way into it." (For more information, see "The Gospel of the Kingdom of God.") Speaking of Jesus, John also said, "He must increase, but I must decrease" (John 3:30). The Old Testament was nearing its end, but at the time John spoke, it was still in force. John's ministry prepared the way for Jesus, who was the Mediator of the New Covenant (Hebrews 9:15 and 12:24); and, therefore, John's ministry also prepared the way for the coming New Covenant. The juncture of the ministries of John the Baptist and Jesus was a significant time and was an important step toward the New Covenant. But so was the crossing of the Red Sea a significant time and important step toward the coming of the Old Covenant. But it was not the beginning of the Old Covenant, which was ratified with the blood of animals at Mount Sinai (Exodus 24:1-11). Neither was the juncture of the ministries of John the Baptist and Jesus the beginning of the New Covenant.
Error 2. The New Covenant began with Jesus' giving the Sermon on the Mount. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus was certainly giving laws for Christians under the New Covenant. They show the way of love that we are to live. But the giving of the laws is not the ratification of the covenant. God's stating the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai was not what began the Old Covenant. It began with the shedding of blood as shown in this passage:
And He said to Moses, Come up to Jehovah, you and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy from the elders of Israel. And bow yourselves from a distance. And let Moses approach by himself to Jehovah, and they shall not approach. And the people shall not go up with him. And Moses came and told all the words of Jehovah to the people, and all the judgments. And all the people answered with one voice and said, We will do all the Words which Jehovah has spoken. And Moses wrote all the Words of Jehovah. And he rose early in the morning and built an altar below the mountain, and twelve memorial pillars for the twelve tribes of Israel. And he sent young men of the sons of Israel. And they offered up burnt offerings, and offered sacrifices of bulls, peace offerings to Jehovah. And Moses took half of the blood, and he put it in basins. And he sprinkled half of the blood on the altar. And he took the book of the covenant, and read in the ears of the people. And they said, We will do all that Jehovah has spoken, and we will hear. And Moses took the blood and sprinkled on the people, and said, Behold, the blood of the covenant which Jehovah has cut with you concerning these words. And Moses and Aaron went up with Nadab and Abihu, and seventy from the elders of Israel. And they saw the God of Israel. And under His feet was as the work of a pavement of sapphire, and the same as the essence of the heavens for clearness. And He did not stretch out His hand to the nobles of the sons of Israel. And they saw God, and they ate and drank.
Exodus 24:1-11, Literal Translation of the Holy Bible
Similarly, the New Covenant did not begin with the Sermon on the Mount, but with the shedding of blood.
Error 3. The New Covenant began at the Last Supper. At the Last Supper, Jesus inaugurated what is variously called the Lord's Supper, Communion, and Eucharist. Certainly, the Lord's Supper has a relationship to the beginning of the New Covenant. But the Lord's Supper as first eaten at the Last Supper was not the beginning of the New Covenant. It preceded it. In fact, the Lord's Supper at the Last Supper was a teaching lesson. Read Paul's description of it:
For I received from the Lord that which also I delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night in which he was betrayed took bread. When he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, "Take, eat. This is my body, which is broken for you. Do this in memory of me." In the same way he also took the cup, after supper, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink, in memory of me." For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes.
1 Corinthians 11:23-26
Jesus says to take the bread and the cup "in memory of me." He also says that as often as we eat the bread and drink the cup, we "proclaim the Lord's death until he comes." But have you thought of this interesting fact? When the disciples ate the bread and drank the cup that night, Jesus had not yet died and gone. The Lord's Supper is supposed to be a time when, in eating the bread and drinking the wine, we remember Jesus and proclaim (the Greek word is the same word often translated "preach") His death until He comes again. But that night, Jesus had not yet died. So, the Lord's Supper at the Last Supper was Jesus' lesson to His disciples (and recorded in Scripture for our instruction) on how to remember Him and how to proclaim His death after His crucifixion. We might say that it was a rehearsal, like a wedding rehearsal. You go through the moves but it's not yet the real thing.
It is argued that when Jesus said, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood," He was initiating the New Covenant. But the cup did not contain his blood. It merely contained wine. He was teaching that we were to understand that the cup of wine was a symbol of the blood to begin the New Covenant. When He taught this, He hadn't yet shed His blood. After He had shed His blood, the cup of wine would be a memorial of Him and a proclamation of His death until His return and a symbol of the New Covenant in His blood. Jesus had to die for us to proclaim His death in the Lord's Supper; He had to shed His blood for the cup to become the symbol of the New Covenant in His blood. As we will see, it was His dying, His shedding His blood, that was important. The Last Supper was not the beginning of the New Covenant.
Error 4. The Old Covenant ended and the New began at Pentecost. In the Old Testament, we read that Pentecost was the day on which the Jews waved two loaves baked with leaven before the Lord (Leviticus 23:15–17). This was a picture. The two loaves represented the firstfruits of God's people. The reality of this began on the Pentecost after Jesus' resurrection: "There were added that day about three thousand souls.... The Lord added to the assembly day by day those who were being saved" (Acts 2:41, 47). Contrary to what some (e.g. Landmark Baptists) say, this was certainly the beginning of the New Covenant assembly (ekklēsia). But the New Covenant itself had already been ratified.