There is a presumption among many Christians today that the “new covenant,” one that supposedly came with the arrival of Jesus, was established between God and Christians. Is that what history tells us? If it does, then what does the new covenant entail? If it does not, then what is the new covenant and how did it come to be perceived as a Christian covenant? Let’s start our historical investigation with a bit about the terminology.
What is a covenant? The Hebrew term is beriyth (ber-REETH), the Greek is diathḗkē (dee-ath-AY-kay). Both refer to an alliance, settlement, pledge, treaty, arrangement, or agreement between two parties. The terms can also indicate a disposition or will, in other words, a testament. Thus, the Christian Old and New Testaments actually reflect a Christian belief in old (Jewish) and new (Christian) covenants. What is such a division meant to imply? Let’s begin to answer these questions by surveying each of the covenants enacted between God and humans that are recorded in the Bible.
The earliest covenant appears in Torah’s book of Genesis. There, God made a covenant with Noah (Gen. 6:18) which followed God’s instructions that Noah collect two of every species of living creature on earth and place them in the ark. God made this covenant not only with Noah but with his descendants and “with every living creature.” God agreed that “never again will all living things be wiped out by the waters of a flood” (Gen. 9:9-11). The sign of the ratification of this covenant was the rainbow. Note that this covenant is a “perpetual” covenant – that is, it has no end (Gen. 9:16).
The next covenant also appears in Genesis (ch. 17). This time it was made by God directly with Abraham but also applied to his future son Isaac as well as Abraham’s lineal descendants through him. In this covenant, God promised both land and people, that is the land of Israel and a multitude of descendants through Abraham’s wife Sarah. The sign of the ratification for this covenant was circumcision (Gen. 17:11-13). Note once again that this covenant is “perpetual”; it will have no end (Gen. 17:7, 19).
After a time, these covenant people, descendants of Abraham, found themselves enslaved in Egypt. Moses was chosen by God to liberate them and take them back to the land originally promised to Abraham and his descendants. Along the way, God gave the Torah, the “instructions,” to the covenant people through Moses. This Torah is also called the Book of the Covenant (Ex. 24:7). The sign of the ratification of this covenant was blood taken from a number of bulls which Moses took and splashed on the makeshift altar he constructed. In response, the covenant people chanted, “We are willing to do and obey all that the Lord has spoken” (Ex. 24:7). Moses then sprinkled the same blood on the people themselves saying, “This is the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words” (Ex. 24:8). An additional sign of this covenant was to be the keeping of the Sabbath (Ex. 31:13). Once again, this covenant is described as perpetual, that is, everlasting (Ex. 31:16). This newer covenant is between God and the covenant people (Ex. 34:27).
We should pause here and note that none of these covenants superseded or replaced previous ones. All remained valid. God is quoted as looking back and saying to Moses, “I will remember my covenant with Jacob and also my covenant with Isaac and also my covenant with Abraham and I will remember the land” (Lev. 26:42). After threatening punishment to those who might break the covenant, God assures Moses that God will always remember the covenant(s): “I will not reject them and abhor them to make a complete end of them, to break my covenant with them…I will remember for them the covenant with their ancestors whom I brought out of the land of Egypt” (Lev. 26:44-45). According to Deuteronomy, God “is a merciful God, he will not let you down or destroy you, for he cannot forget the covenant with your ancestors that he confirmed by oath to them” (Deut. 4:31). Remember: the covenants are perpetual. God keeps the “covenant faithfully with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations” (Deut. 7:9).
There is yet one additional covenant that should be mentioned. When King David replaced Saul as the leader of the twelve tribes, a covenant was made between God and the new king concerning his dynasty. David said “my dynasty is approved by God, for he has made a perpetual covenant with me, arranged in all its particulars and secured” (2 Sam. 23:5). The Psalms, supposedly written by David, add emphasis to the “particulars.” Psalm 89 quotes God as saying “I have made a covenant with my chosen one; I have made a promise on oath to David…I will give him an eternal dynasty, and make his throne as enduring as the skies above.” Note the perpetual nature of this covenant as well: “I will give you an eternal dynasty…I will always extend my loyal love to him, and my covenant with him is secure.”
Why have we spent so much time reviewing these Biblical covenants? We have done so to establish certain consistent features among them. First, covenants are between God and the Jewish people or their forerunners (the people of the covenant): Noah, Abraham, Moses, David. Second, the covenants are perpetual; they do not end. Neither do they supersede or replace earlier covenants. The covenant with David, for example, does not invalidate those made with Noah, Abraham, or Moses. Third, each succeeding covenant can be called “new” without impacting negatively on the one(s) that went before. They achieve different ends but work together to achieve a more complete arrangement between God and God’s covenant people.
The idea of yet another “new” covenant is broached by the mid-7th-century BCE prophet Jeremiah. It was during his lifetime that the Babylonians conquered the Kingdom of Judah, the southern kingdom of the land promised to Abraham that was formed when the twelve tribes broke apart following the kingship of Solomon. Eleven tribes combined to form the northern Kingdom of Israel, conquered in the 8th-century BCE by the Assyrians. One hundred and twenty-five years later, Jeremiah watched as the wealthy, educated leadership of Judah was taken into exile in Babylon. He saw how the Babylonians had destroyed Jerusalem and demolished the Temple originally built by Solomon. He bewailed what he considered the sinful (politically inadvisable) acts of the Judean leadership that he believed were now being punished by God. In that context he looked forward to yet another covenant, “a new covenant with the people of Israel and Judah” (Jer. 31:31). It would be issued differently from (but would not replace) the Mosaic covenant that he believed had been violated by the leaders. This new covenant would be made “with the whole nation of Israel after I plant them back in the land,” that is, when they returned from Babylon. With this covenant, God would put his Torah “within them and write it on their hearts and minds” (Jer. 31:33). In other words, God would “forgive their sin” and ensure that Torah would not be broken again. Just to be clear, Jeremiah quoted God as saying, “The Lord has made a promise to Israel…The descendants of Israel will not cease forever to be a nation in my sight…I will not reject all the descendants of Israel because of all that they have done. That could only happen if the heavens above could be measured” (Jer. 31:37), which of course they couldn’t be. In other words, the promises to Israel would never be forgotten.
That brings us to the first mention of the new covenant by a believer in the messiahship of Jesus: the apostle Paul. Yes, Paul. Paul’s letters are the earliest literature by a Christ-confessor yet discovered. They were written decades before the gospels.
Paul is often characterized as the “founder of Christianity,” and/or a “Jewish apostate” who found no absolution for his sins until the coming of Christ. This is all supersessionist nonsense and I have refuted these points in other posts. Paul was actually a faithful, observant Jew for his entire life, who, like all Jews, found forgiveness for his sins in the provisions of Torah. As an observant, Christ-confessing Jew, he brought to the pagan world what he believed was a divinely-instituted means by which Gentile sins could be redeemed enabling them to become children of God and be saved from the wrath that would soon accompany the end of the age. For now, let’s concentrate on Paul’s references to the new covenant.
Paul specifically mentions the new covenant twice. In 2 Corinthians 3:6 he speaks of himself and unnamed others as “servants of a new covenant not based on the letter but on the Spirit.” He adds that the “letter kills but the Spirit gives life.” It is important to understand that all of Paul’s letters are addressed to Gentiles and their particular needs in light of the coming “wrath” (Rom. 2:5; 1 Thess. 1:10, etc.). Much of Paul’s mission has been to correct the impression held by some Gentiles that merely by observing certain provisions of the Jewish Torah (“Judaizing”) they could be made righteous before God. As non-Jews, it is impossible to adequately follow Torah. Not only that, they did not have the proper faith (the faith of Abraham). Indeed, “the letter” of the law (written Torah) kills Gentiles.
Now that Christ has come and died to redeem their sins, Gentiles have a pathway to salvation. They can share in the faithfulness of Christ and obey the Torah as appropriate for them by the guidance of the Spirit (“the Spirit gives life”). How did this happen?
Paul believes that Christ announced the new covenant, the one prophesied by Jeremiah, that “writes” the Torah on people’s hearts and minds. In Paul’s view, the Spirit will now instruct everyone, Jew and Gentile, as to how best each group should obey Torah. Remember, Paul never invalidates the Torah in his letters (Rom. 7:12) and he demands obedience to elements of the Torah for his non-Jewish audiences (1 Cor. 5:11; 6:9-10; 2 Cor. 12:20-21; Gal. 5:19-21; Rom. 1:29-31; etc.). Paul’s formula for salvation for both groups is always: faith plus obedience equals salvation.
Paul refers to Jeremiah’s new covenant language again in Romans 11:27 directly quoting the prophet: “and this will be my covenant with them when I take away their sins.” Who is “them”? Note that this quotation of Jeremiah follows Paul’s declarative (and often ignored) statement: “And in this way all Israel will be saved.” Paul understood that the covenants are with the covenant people, not with non-Jews/Gentiles. The fact that Gentiles have now become eligible for redemption, as Paul proclaims, has nothing to do with their entering into a separate covenant with God. As Paul says earlier in Romans: “my fellow countrymen…are Israelites. To them belong the adoption as sons, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the temple worship, and the promises” (Rom. 9:3-4). Paul also understood that additional covenants did not invalidate previous ones (Gal. 3:15-17). This new covenant, proclaimed by Jeremiah, was interpreted by Paul, at least, as one that would begin at the dawn of the new age (not at the return of the Jewish leadership from Babylon as Jeremiah anticipated). Paul knows that this new covenant is, like all the others, between God and “the nation of Israel” (i.e., Jews) as Jeremiah said; it is not between God and pagans, former or otherwise. The effects of the new covenant may impact non-Jews but they are not signatories to it. As John 4:22 makes clear, “salvation comes from the Jews.”
A final word about the new covenant and Jesus. Paul claims to recite words that he says he “received from the Lord,” words that were said “on the night when he was betrayed” (1 Cor. 11:23). Paul quotes Christ as saying “this cup [of wine] is the new covenant in my blood” (1 Cor. 11:25). Remember the signs of ratification of the covenants we looked at above: rainbow, circumcision, blood (of the bulls), an everlasting dynasty. This sign is also blood, the blood of Jesus sprinkled on the cross and symbolized (sprinkled among the people, as it were) through the wine served at the Eucharist. It signified (for Paul and others) Jeremiah’s new covenant in which the Spirit would instruct the faithful about the requirements of Torah. In Paul’s hands, Jeremiah’s prophecy has been fulfilled eschatologically, another indication that the new age was dawning (this, as we saw, was not Jeremiah’s thinking). Paul’s “words of the Lord” were later picked up in three of the four gospels and located in the story of Jesus’s last supper (John never uses the word “covenant” and does not feature Paul’s “words of the Lord”).
In short, the new covenant, whatever else Christ-believing Jews said it was, whether Paul or the gospel writers, was never suggested to be an agreement between God and pagans or between God and Christ-believing Gentiles. It did not supersede or replace any previous covenant. All remained operative working together according to God’s plan. The covenants remain with Israel. The Jewish messiah, according to Paul, announced a new covenant with the Jewish faithful, some of whom were seated around him “on the night in which he was betrayed,” to be ratified in his blood. It announced the coming of the Spirit who would write the laws of God on the hearts and minds of those who love God. Paul believed that Gentiles could be among them.