We have overviewed the covenant. The whole Bible contains its structure and content. The fact that the New Covenant is called a “covenant” indicates continuity. But, does this mean there are no differences between the Old and New? No. Hebrews 8 is a chapter that helps us to summarize the similarities and dissimilarities. But before we engage in this comparison, I should explain the designation: Old and New Covenants.
The Two Covenants
There are two and only two covenants in the Bible, and they are called Old and New. Immediately, two issues are raised. How do we determine the number of covenants? And, what distinguishes these covenants from each other?
First, as to the number of covenants, the Bible only speaks of two. Some students of the covenant have tried to specify more because covenants are made with specific individuals such as Noah, Abraham, and David. But these are merely the reestablishment of the first covenant made with Adam, the Old Covenant. For example, God says to Noah according to the New American Standard Version, “I will establish My covenant with you” (Gen. 6:18). But the Hebrew (“heqim” not “karath”) should be properly translated, confirm. So God “confirmed” an already existing covenant. This means that covenants exist in the Bible where the literal word “covenant” is not used.
More importantly, the original covenant made with Adam is repeatedly “confirmed” with replacement ”Adams” (Noah, Abraham, etc.) so that there is essentially one covenant (the Old Covenant) until a true different and New Adam (Jesus) arrives. Some of the confusion results from the fact that each of these newly confirmed covenants anticipates with greater clarity the New Covenant. They are progressive in nature. Although the covenantal head (i.e. David etc.) has a fall and dies like Adam, each one progressively reveals more about the Christ to come. So, David was still part of the Old Covenant because he fell and died, but he was also the culmination of the greatest type of Christ. Every time God confirms the first covenant with a new individual, He adds more revelation until the final Revelation comes and transforms the Old Covenant into the New.
Second, as to the distinguishing features of the covenants, many explanations have been attempted by theologians. Perhaps the most common is “covenant of works and covenant of grace,” found in the Westminster Confession of Faith (VII.2), the standard confession of the historic Presbyterian Church. “Covenant of works” refers to the period before the Fall of Adam. Supposedly, he related to God according to works. After the Fall, however, God implemented the “covenant of grace.” This distinction is extremely misleading. “Covenant of works” is simply not adequate to describe Adam’s relationship to God. Meritorious salvation before the Fall is not in question because Adam was already saved. So then it becomes “works” in the sense of obedience. Adam was supposed to obey to receive the blessing of God, but so is the post-Fall man. God always deals with man on the basis of grace, and grace always involves faithfulness.
It is much better to stick with Biblical distinctions. Scripture explains the differences between the covenants around the two heads or Adams: Adam and Christ. The Old Covenant was made with Adam, and the New Covenant was made with Christ. To be more specific, we can apply the five-fold covenantal model. Since Hebrews 8 uses the designations “first” or “former” (by implication “old”) and “new,” it is a logical place to examine the differences. The shortness of the chapter makes it easy to write it in full below. I have placed the basic outline in the text. Notice how the word “for” forms a grammatical boundary for many of the segments, helping us to see that even the comparison between two covenants in this chapter has the covenantal structure.
The Covenantal Structure of Hebrews 8
Now the main point in what has been said is this: we have such a high priest, who has taken His seat at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens, a minister in the sanctuary, and in the true tabernacle, which the Lord pitched, not man. For every high priest is appointed to offer both gifts and sacrifices; hence it is necessary that this high priest also have something to offer. Now if He were on earth, He would not be a priest at all, since there are those who offer the gifts according to the Law; who serve as a copy and shadow of the heavenly things, just as Moses was warned by God, “See,” He says, “that you make all things according to the pattern which was shown you on the mountain.”
But now He has obtained a more excellent ministry, by as much as He is also the mediator of a better covenant, which has been enacted on better promises. For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion sought for a second. For finding fault with them, He says, “Behold, days are coming, says the Lord, When I will effect a New Covenant with the House of Israel and with the House of Judah; Not like the covenant which I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt; For they did not continue in My covenant, and I did not care for 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 minds. And I will write them on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be My people.”
”And they shall not teach everyone his fellow citizen, and everyone his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord.’ For all shall know Me, from the least to the greatest of them.”
“For I will be merciful to their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.” When He said, ”A new covenant,” He has made the first obsolete. But whatever is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to disappear.
- True Transcendence (1-5)
Hebrews 8 begins with the transcendence theme. The High Priest of the New Covenant sits in the heavens in a heavenly temple “which the Lord pitched, not man” (Heb. 8:1). The contrast between the Old and New Covenant is the contrast between an earthly temple, priesthood, and sacrifice, and a heavenly temple, priesthood, and sacrifice. The first is a copy, and the second is the original (Heb. 8:5). Heaven and earth are distinguished from one another, just as we have seen that God and the creation were distinguished in the Deuteromic covenant. The “heavenly” character of the original gives it transcendence.
In the first covenant, the garden was a copy of the heaven around the throne of God, called a “glory cloud” (Ezek. 1:4-28). Earth was a copy of heaven. How do we know? The tabernacle and temple were simultaneously pictures of earth and heaven (Exod. 25-27). Inside the tabernacle, a blue ceiling represented the blue sky. Trees that symbolized people lined the walls (Ps. 1:3). In the center of the Holy of Holies stood the ark, the throne of God. So the tabernacle was a picture of what the world was supposed to be, ordered space around the throne of God. The garden was supposed to have been the same. Originally, it was. Everything was arranged around the Tree of Life, God’s throne.
But even though the garden was the throne of God, it was still only a copy. Its transcendence was reflective, not original. The garden was heavenly, not heaven. The difference is quite significant. Heavenly means influenced and characterized by heaven. Heaven is the source. The serpent tempted Adam and Eve with original transcendence, deification (Gen. 3:5). He wanted to make earth into heaven, a utopia. Adam and Eve bought his proposition with all that God had given them. They set out to make earth into heaven instead of carrying out the cultural mandate, which would have made earth like heaven, a reflection, not the original. They wanted earth to be the original. Consequently, they fell into sin and death and with their every effort marred what imaged God. The heavenly garden became earthly.
God restored them and provided models of a heavenly world. As I have already pointed out, the tabernacle and the temple were microcosms of a world controlled by heaven. But they were never able to restore creation. The Old Testament told the story of man’s Fall over and over again. Even when Christ came, He found a land that was anything but space controlled by heaven. Israel was demon-possessed and controlled from below! The chosen people had become earthly.
Hebrews 8 says that God provided a better covenant because this covenant is “heavenly,” meaning truly transcendent. Christ is the New Covenant: the temple, sacrifice, and High Priest. He restores heavenly rule to the earth again. Since the temple is in heaven, all men have access; there are no zones of holiness kept from the common member. The throne of God is open and available. Thus, man can go straight to the origin of transcendence. Moreover, he can act as a true image (copy) of original transcendence. The “heavenlyness” of the New Covenant draws out the first contrast between the Old and New Covenants.
- Hierarchy (6-9)
The hierarchical section of Hebrews 8 begins, “He [Christ] is a mediator of a better covenant” (Heb. 8:6). We have seen that hierarchy has to do with the mediation of judgment to history through representatives. In the Old Covenant, Moses and sacrifices mediated life and death. In the end, they all mediated death because the Old Covenant ends in the death of Christ. But Christ is the new mediator. Through His priesthood the Church, He mediates life to the world through the Word and sacrament. His mediation is far superior to the old mediators. All men have direct access to Him, and His sacrifice is permanent and complete.
The second section of Hebrews 8 also weaves the issue of authority into it. As we have already seen time and again: history and authority have a dynamic relationship to one another. Just like the second point of the covenant in Deuteronomy, the writer speaks to Israel’s rejection of God’s authority and their subsequent excommunication (I Cor. 10:8). He refers to the days of the Exodus when Israel apostatized and was cast out, whereas the New Covenant is different. What is the difference? This will not happen to the New Covenant Bride and people.
The first covenant had a “fault.” Notice that the flaw is not in the covenant itself, but in the people. The text says, “Finding fault with them” (v. 8), meaning the “new” Adams of the Exodus who turned out to be just like the “old” Adam, they were no longer “cared” for (v. 9). The New Covenant, however, is more permanent. The implication is that God would never throw off the true New Adam, Jesus Christ, and His Bride, the Church. The contrast in historical situation is really between an age dominated by Adam, and an age dominated by Christ.
The historical comparison by age is critical to understanding how the New Testament often speaks of the Old Covenant. Serious theological errors can be made if this is not understood. For example, how often have modern Christians heard that the Old Testament man as an “individual” was not filled with the Spirit? This section of Hebrews 8, however, demonstrates that Old and New Covenant comparisons do not focus primarily on individuals. There were individuals who did not fall away in the wilderness and were saved by faith, like Joshua and Caleb. And, there are individuals who get excommunicated in the New Covenant, like the incestuous man in I Corinthians 5. Often when the Old Covenant and New Covenant are compared, it is not in the sense of the individual per se. The entire age is being contrasted to another age. Given this rationale, Pauline language takes on fresh meaning. Paul talks about the age of the “letter” which is “fleshly” and kills, in contrast to the age of the Spirit which creates life (II Cor. 3:1ff.). Does he mean the Old Testament Divine Law is sinful and wicked because it “kills”? No. He is merely describing the Old Covenant period as a whole, which rejected the Spirit of God and died out. On the level of individuals, there were “Spirit-filled people” who were saved in the Old Testament (Ps. 51:11). Yet, the historic situation was different, because prior to Christ, the Spirit had not been released in a new sense. As an age, the New Covenant period depicted the Spirit as being poured out on the whole table of nations (Acts 2:9-11).
So, the historical difference is that God’s first bride was Israel of the Old Covenant. As a people, she was divorced and excommunicated. Since God could never do this to His own Son on a permanent basis – even when Christ died and was cut off, God raised Him from the dead – the New Covenant Bride will never be cast aside. Individuals may fall away, but the Church became God’s final bride. The Church as the Church will never apostatize!
From the historic point of view there are two Israels, yet one true Israel. How so? The writer says God will make a “new” covenant with Israel and Judah (v. 8). In one sense this “newer” covenant was made with Israel when they returned from captivity in Babylon (Jer. 31:32). Remember, the writer to the Hebrews is quoting Jeremiah who prophesied before and during the captivity. But in a strict sense, the New Covenant was made with the Church. When Jesus inaugurated the Lord’s Supper He said, “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood” (Lk. 22:20). This means the “Israel and Judah” of the New Covenant is the Church. The Church is the true son of Abraham and the new “Israel of God.” Paul says, “If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise…. Neither is circumcision anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation. And those who walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God” (Gal. 3:29; 6:16). Paul’s comments lead us to believe that there is only one true Israel through history, the “faithful!” There are two historic Israels, but one true covenantal Israel.
This brief section in Hebrews has helped us to see a very important historic difference between the covenants. One was made with Adam and was temporary. The second was made with Christ and became permanent. The latter mediates a better judgment in history.
- Ethics (10)
The principle of comparing Old Covenant age to the New Covenant age carries into the ethical. Remember, the ethics section of Deuteronomy speaks of the heart of the covenant as being the fulfillment of righteousness. This concept is pulled into the New Covenant. Jeremiah says the Law of God will be written on the “heart” of the New Covenant man (Jer. 31:33). Does this mean the law is not on the heart of those in the Old Covenant? No. David says, “I delight to do Thy will, O My God; Thy Law is within my heart” (Ps. 40:8). What is so unique about the New Covenant?
The law was not “incarnated” in Adam. Christ became the embodiment of the Law of God: the Word made “flesh” (In. 1:1, 14). He carried the Law in His person, unlike Adam, and became the incarnated Law! Again it should be stressed that there were individuals who had the law written on their heart in the Old Testament (Ps. 40:8). But as an age, the law was far from them because it was the age of the first Adam. Before the historic outpouring of the Spirit, there was no power to implement the law in its fullness. The New Adam, Jesus Christ, brought a change. Since He incarnated the Law, His followers were much more “law oriented,” God’s standard being more deeply imprinted on them in Christ.
Christ is therefore the key to understanding the similarities and differences between the ethics of the Old and New Testaments. The similarities are in Christ. A question, however, is provoked by Pauline literature. Paul says that the Law is nailed to the cross (Col. 2:14). Does this mean the Old Testament Law is no longer binding on a New Testament Christian? No. There was no piece of paper on the cross with the Ten Commandments written on it. Where were they written? They had to be in the Person of Christ. So, when He died they died with Him. But when He was raised, they were raised with Him. Only, the Law of God was raised in greater glory and power. Now when someone breaks a commandment, he is violating Christ, not just a tablet of stone!
All of the law dies with Christ and all of it is raised with Him. So, how do we account for differences, like clean/unclean boundaries, food laws, and sabbath days? Christ is raised with a “transfigured” body. Thus, the incarnated law is also transfigured, or changed. How do we keep straight what is altered?
One, the hermeneutical principle. Old Testament law carried through, unless the New Testament made a change. For example, Old Testament food laws were changed. All of these pointed to the death of Christ and created boundaries that were altered because of His death. The Jew/Gentile boundary had to be maintained to protect the priesthood (the Jews) from being corrupted. But after Christ came in history, and the power of the Spirit was poured out in greater measure because of His Resurrection, the boundary was broken down. It was no longer needed (Eph. 2:11ff.). Peter was shown a giant tablecloth with all kinds of Gentile animals on it and told to eat. Then he helped Cornelius, a Gentile (Acts 10:lff.). The food laws changed, but there was still a food law in the New Covenant. It became the Lord’s Supper. The Church was commanded to eat this food and not to participate in any other pagan “communion meal” (I Cor. 10:19-20). Furthermore, it was told that “all” things had become clean. God told the Church to eat everything just as the Gospel would consume all things!
Two, the historical principle. The historical situation changed. Christ redeemed the whole world. The Promised Land was no longer “holy” ground exclusively. Thus, laws endemic to a Hebrew republic were no longer necessary, while laws conducive to a Christian republic carried over; the redemption of Christ facilitated the spread of the kingdom into the nations. Actually, laws tied to the Hebrew family dropped off, whereas laws with a multi-national character extended forward. How so? The Old Covenant was styled around the family-unit. The Hebrew people were actually one large extended family: hence, laws like the law of the “kinsman redeemer” and nearest of kin “avenger of death” were important. Cast as such, both were closely connected with the preservation of the Hebrew seed-line through which the Messiah came. Essentially, they ended with Him.
But the avenger of death concept demonstrates the shift from family to multi-national organization in the New Covenant. The New Testament drops the family avenger of death concept. In its general equity (general equivalent), however, it pulls through. Paul argues in Romans that the “avenger” is the State. Notice the slide from family to nation. The historic situation of the New Covenant changes. The family of God expands from a nuclear unit to the people of God, multi-national in scope. The Church replaces the role of the original Adamic family by “making disciples of the nations” (Matt. 28:19-20). Thus, the historic change of situation pulls over the general equity of Old Testament law.
Three, the personal principle. Personal commitment to the law of God deepens in the New Covenant. Quoting Jeremiah, Paul says, “I will write them [Old Testament laws] on their hearts” (Heb. 8:10). Transfigured Torah is etched on the heart of every New Covenant believer (Jer. 31:33). Since David is an example of an Old Testament man who internally possesses the law, the New Covenant intensifies the internalization of the law of God through the dramatic work of the Spirit of God. It comes in greater fullness in the New Covenant.
Keeping in mind the relationship between Old and New Covenant, fulfillment of righteousness is clarified. It is in and through Christ. Yet, the covenant is still ethical at its center. Man comes to God through Christ’s fulfillment of righteousness, and then having done so, is expected to “keep His commandments” (I John 2:3-4).
1:. Sanctions (J1)
In Deuteronomy, the sanctions are focused through a self-maledictory oath taken by the Lord of the covenant and consigned to the vassal. At this point, our attention is not drawn toward the contrast between circumcision and passover in the Old Covenant and baptism and communion in the New Covenant. I devote appendixes 8 & 9 to this subject. But Hebrews 8 has a broader contrast of the sanctions. What does the conversion of the nations (8:11) and the death of Christ have to do with sanctions (Heb. 8:12)? Let us begin with Hebrews 8:11.
Conversion of the nations. The promise of world-wide dominion of the Gospel is itself a sanction. The writer’s comments about the far-reaching effect of the New Covenant – that so much success would result that there would be no need to ask people if they are Christians – is the unfulfilled Old Covenant blessing of dominion over the nations of the world. At one of those key transferal-of-blessing points, Jacob blessed his sons (Gen. 48:1-49:33). Remember, the blessing was seed and environment: the latter necessitating some kind of international influence of the covenant. He said to Judah, the ancestor of Jesus, “The Scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until Shiloh [Jesus] comes, and to Him shall be the obedience of the peoples” (Gen. 49:10).
It is the same blessing given in Deuteronomy, “The Lord will open for you His good storehouse, the heavens, to give rain to your land in its season and to bless all the work of your hand; and you shall lend to many nations…. And the Lord shall make you the head and not the tail” (Deut. 28:12). The blessing is that through the application of the covenant, other nations of the world would have to come to Israel. This was fulfilled in the days of Solomon when nations came for counsel and wisdom (I Kgs. 10:1). But Solomon apostatized, and even though he returned, Israel of old never again returned to this glory.
Multi-national success was promised to another. Isaiah was told, “Now it will come about that in the last days, the mountain of the house of the Lord will be established as the chief of the mountains, and will be raised above the hills; and all the nations will stream to it” (Isa. 2:2). When were those “last days”? Hebrews says, “In these last days [He] has spoken to us in His Son” (Heb. 1:2). Who is the mountain of Isaiah’s prophecy? The writer to the Hebrews says it is Mount Zion – that is, Jesus Christ (Heb. 12:22-29).
Thus, there is no doubt that what was promised to the Old Covenant by way of sanction was fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Israel failed to dominate the peoples of the world, only experiencing brief success. But the sanction of the New Covenant promises blessing that accomplishes the dominion which Isaiah referred to. Beginning with the dominion success of Christ on the cross, the Gospel conquers the nations of the world. Whereas the Old Covenant had dominion through the application of the Law, the New Covenant has dominion by applying the Law through Christ. The Church takes Christ to the nations, and thereby brings them to faith, “baptizing and teaching them” the “commandments” (Matt. 28:19-20). The blessing sanction of world-wide conversion has to occur before Christ can come back. The Psalmist says, “The LORD says to My Lord, ‘Sit Thou at My right hand until I make Thine enemies a footstool under Thy feet'” (Ps. 110:1).
Even though the word “blessing” is not used, it is clear that Hebrews 8:11 is an application of the fourth sanctions point of covenantalism. The next verse is more obvious.
Blessing of forgiveness. Hebrews 8:12 also fails to use the specific word “blessing.” But it clearly talks about forgiveness, “I will remember their sins no more.” What does this have to do with the sanction of blessing? For one, David expressly calls forgiveness a blessing, “How blessed is he whose sins are forgiven, whose sin is covered [same as “not remembered”]! How blessed is the man to whom the LORD does not impute iniquity” (Ps. 32:1-2). For another, God’s self-maledictory oath called down the sanction of cursing on Himself. God did not actually break the covenant, but He deliberately took the curse sanction Himself to atone for His people’s sin. Thus, the comments of Hebrews 8:12 categorically refer to the sanctions section of Deuteronomy.
The great difference between the Old and New Covenant sanctions is the unlimited complete success of blessing. The senses of Hebrews 8:11-12 could not take place in the Old Covenant, even though they were anticipated. Here is another expression of the similarity and dissimilarity of the covenants. The sanctions of the Old Covenant are fulfilled in the New: continuing forward (similarity), yet differing in that they come to their fullest expression through Christ (dissimilarity).
- Continuity (12-13)
The last point made in this section speaks of continuity. How? By the displacement of the Old Covenant world. The last verse of Hebrews 8 reads, “When He said, ‘New Covenant,’ He made the first obsolete. But whatever is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to disappear” (Heb. 8:13). What was getting ready to disappear? Within a few short years, in A.D. 70, the Temple and Jerusalem would be destroyed. On the basis of Christ’s death, the place of the old sacrifice was going to be removed. What was so significant about this? Both represented the entire Old Covenant. Remember, it was made with Adam and through him with the “created world.” By sacrifice he was covered for his sin. The Old Testament system was primarily a world of animal sacrifices, all an extension of the one that temporarily atoned for Adam’s sin. When the Temple was destroyed, the whole world of Adam was definitively wiped out.
A “new creation” had already begun. The Old Heavens and Earth were definitively replaced at the cross by the New Heavens and Earth. Paul says, “Therefore, if any man is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come” (II Cor. 5:17). The “new things” are the new heavens and earth referred to by Isaiah the prophet (Isa. 65:1ff.). What are they? The created world is transformed by a new ethical order. For example, Christ calls the Church a “light on a mountain” (Matt. 5:14-16), and Paul calls Christians “stars” (Phil. 2:15). How can this “cosmic” terminology be applied to people? The “new heavens and earth” is the old made new through the Death and Resurrection of Christ. The fall of Jerusalem marked an end of the old system. These were the “last days” that the Bible had been referring to for thousands of years (Gen. 49; Dan. 2; Heb. 1:1-2). The new beginning had come in history. But what really happened when Jerusalem fell was the displacement of the old order. The “apostates” no longer had a world or a place to sacrifice. Continuity was given to the New Covenant people. Amazingly, the Church did not have to lift the sword. All of this was accomplished through the application of the covenant. Old Israel was no longer the legitimate heir, but the Church, God’s new Bride. The Old Covenant had tried to establish its heirs on the basis of human procreation and bloodshed. Each time, God had thwarted these “Cainish” attempts. The inheritance, continuity, and everything else finally came through the covenantal faithfulness of Christ. Dominion came by covenant.
We end with Christ. Christ is the main difference between old and new. In each category we have found that He made the significant change through His death. He is the key to the similarities as well as the differences. But we have discovered that the five points of covenantalism were not changed. The form and substance were altered by Christ, but the principles we began with have remained intact. How did dominion finally come? It came through the covenant made with Christ. As this covenant is lived out and applied everywhere and to every institution, we can conclude that dominion is by covenant.
 Warren Gage, The Gospel of Genesis (Winona Lake, Indiana: Carpenter Books, 1984), p. 30.
 Meredith Kline, Images of the Spirit (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1980), pp. 13-26.
 Richard B. Gaffin, Centrality of the Resurrection (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1978), pp. 107ff. Gaffin, building on G. Vos, “The Eschatological Aspect of the Pauline Conception of the Spirit,” Biblical and Theological Studies by the Members of the Faculty of Princeton Theological Seminary (New York: Scribner’s Sons, 1912), pp. 209-255, refers to Paul’s use of “flesh” (sarx) in the sense of an “age,” making it equivalent in many references to the “old age,” Old Covenant. Vos says, “It (sarx) is an organism, an order of things beyond the individual man, even beyond human nature”(p. 255).
 Law of the Covenant, pp. 11ff.