What are the differences between the old covenant and the new covenant?The "old covenant" is a term used to refer to God's covenant with Israel given through Moses at Mount Sinai. In a broader sense, it correlates with the books of the Old Testament. The "new covenant" refers to the covenant mediated by Jesus through His death and resurrection (1 Timothy 2:5–6). Jesus perfectly fulfilled the old covenant and ushered in the promised new covenant (Matthew 5:17–18; 27:26–29; Hebrews 8:6). In a broader sense, the new covenant correlates with the books of the New Testament.
Let's take the old covenant first. Starting in Genesis 12, God began to call out a people that He would form into a nation through whom He would make Himself known. They were to be set apart from other nations, thereby demonstrating the holiness of God. More importantly, the Messiah who could rescue the entire world from sin (Jesus) would be born from their genetic line (Galatians 3:16). God told Abraham, "Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. And I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing" (Genesis 12:1–2). In chapter 15 of Genesis, God formalizes the covenant through a sacrifice by Abraham and a vision (Genesis 15:1–20). In Genesis 17 God gives the sign of circumcision; all of Abraham's male descendants were to be circumcised eight days after their birth. Any male who wanted to be part of the Israelite community would also need to be circumcised.
What is most often thought of as the old covenant is more specifically the Mosaic law—the covenant God made with the Israelites (Abraham's family line) after He delivered them from slavery in Egypt. The Ten Commandments, complete with the sign of the Sabbath, form the basis for this covenant. Notably, God speaks these Ten Words in the hearing of the entire Israelite community. He begins by stating who the parties of the covenant are and their relationship to one another: "I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery" (Exodus 20:2).
God gave Moses more specific details regarding this covenant. As He'd promised when the Israelites were still in Egypt, He would bring His people into the land He had promised to Abraham centuries before (Exodus 6:2–8). The covenant outlined expectations for their lives there. This included things like civil laws to help ensure justice among the people and regulations about hygiene and food. God instituted annual festivals of remembrance, celebration, and worship (Leviticus 23). Most importantly, God gave the Israelites regulations to properly worship Him. He provided detailed instructions regarding the structure of the tabernacle where the people were to come to make sacrifices for their sins and offerings for worship. God established a priesthood through Aaron's line to act as mediators between Himself and the people. He also provided all the Israelites needed to build and supply the tabernacle. The interior of the tabernacle, called the Holy of Holies, housed the ark of the covenant, on top of which was the mercy seat where God's presence symbolically dwelled. Only the high priest was allowed to enter there, and only once per year on the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16). If the people obeyed God, He would bless them with things like fruitful wombs, fruitful crops, prosperity, and defeated enemies. If they broke the covenant, they would be cursed with things like disease, drought, and defeat (Deuteronomy 27—28).
The old covenant was not intended to be permanent. Jeremiah the prophet wrote, "Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, 'Know the LORD,' for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more" (Jeremiah 31:31–34; cf. Hebrews 8:6–13).
The New Testament book of Hebrews gives a detailed explanation of the differences between the old covenant and the new covenant, explaining how Jesus fulfilled the old covenant and ushered in the new. Hebrews 10:1 says, "the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities." The elements of the old covenant pointed toward their ultimate fulfillment in Jesus. Rather than continual animal sacrifices to make payment for sin, Jesus "offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins … For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified" (Hebrews 10:12, 14). Rather than a priest who needed to sacrifice for his own sins first, Jesus "has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people, since he did this once for all when he offered up himself" (Hebrews 7:27). Rather than restrictions around the ark of the covenant and God's presence, "we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water" (Hebrews 10:19–22).
Notably, the Gentiles are freely welcomed into this new covenant apart from circumcision (Galatians 5:2–6; 6:15). Paul explains, "For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus" (Romans 3:20–26). Similarly, Paul writes, "Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, 'In you shall all the nations be blessed.' So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith" (Galatians 3:7–9).
Another key distinction is the indwelling Holy Spirit. Whereas under the old covenant relationship with God was mediated through a sacrificial system, now all who put their faith in Jesus receive the indwelling Holy Spirit. Rather than a physical temple where God's presence dwells, His Spirit dwells in us (Galatians 3:14; 4:4–7; Ephesians 1:3–14; 1 Corinthians 6:19–20).
It is important to recognize that the old covenant itself was never a means of salvation. It pointed to God's holiness, revealed humanity's sinfulness, preserved a family line through whom Messiah would come, and gave civil regulations for a nation. Salvation has always been by God's grace through faith. Atonement for sin has always depended on Jesus' work on the cross. Under the old covenant, faith was demonstrated by obedience to God's laws. Under the new covenant, our faith is in Jesus Christ. The old covenant pointed forward to Jesus' work. The new covenant looks back to His work and enters into the godly life made possible because of it.
Jesus beautifully demonstrated the relationship between the old covenant and the new covenant the night before His crucifixion. The Passover meal was the annual remembrance of God's rescue of Israel from slavery in Egypt, particularly the final plague in which God killed the firstborn of the Egyptians. With the blood of a sacrificial lamb on their doorposts, the Israelites were spared. That lamb ultimately represented Jesus—"the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world" (John 1:29; cf. 1 Peter 1:18–21). When Jesus took the bread that night, He said, "'Take, eat; this is my body.' And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, 'Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins" (Matthew 26:26–28). Jesus fulfills the old and has ushered in the new. May His name be praised!
Old Testament theology – What is it?
New Testament theology – What is it?
The Mosaic covenant — What is it?
The new covenant — What is it?
What are the different covenants in the Bible?
Truth about Theology