Is the Old Covenant “Obsolete and Gathering Dust?”

The author of the book of Hebrews also compares and contrasts the old and new covenants.  His conclusion is found at the end of chapter 8.  But let’s start with some background to the book of Hebrews.

The newly-believing, Christ-following Jews of the first century were tempted to go back to an old covenant system that they were familiar with.  The author of the book of Hebrews, apparently in response to this, does a painstaking job of explaining all the new and improved of the new covenant.

The word “better” is a prominent theme in the comparison between the old and new covenants in the book of Hebrews.  Jesus the personification of the new covenant is better than Moses the personification of the old (Heb 3:2-6).  Jesus gives us a better hope (Heb 6:19-7:19).  Jesus is a better priest than the priesthood of Aaron and the Old Testament (Heb 7:21-8:2).  Jesus is a better sacrifice than the goats and calves of the old covenant (Heb 9:11-28).  Jesus is a better offering (Heb 10-1:16).  And it all adds up to Jesus “becoming the guarantee of a better covenant” (Heb 7:22).

In Hebrews chapter 8, we have the most detailed explanation of the covenants.  “But now Jesus 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” (Heb 8:6).  Jesus ushered in a better covenant enacted on better promises.  It really is new and improved in the fullest sense of the phrase.

The author continues, “For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion sought for a second.  For finding fault with them God says [now quoting from Jeremiah], ‘Behold days are coming when I will effect a new covenant…’ ” (Heb 8:7-8).  (We believe this is the new covenant promised by Jesus in Luke 22 that came to us through His blood.)

The writer continues his long quote from Jeremiah in verses 8 through 12 about the promise of the new covenant and concludes with this thought in verse 13, “When God said, ‘A new covenant,’ He has made the first obsolete.  But whatever is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to disappear”  (Heb 8:13).

The Message Bible says it this way, “By coming up with a new plan, a new covenant between God and His people, God put the old plan on the shelf.  And there it stays, gathering dust” (Heb 8:13).  There it stays, gathering dust.  What a word picture.

So I think we can see in the New Testament a clear message that the Old Testament, the Old Covenant, the old arrangement is over.  So what do we do with that information?  Do we just tear out the obsolete and outdated Old Testament from our Bibles and move on?  We will talk about it next time.

The New Covenant

The New Testament is the message of the New Covenant; a brand new arrangement between God and man.  The new covenant is not an add-on to the old covenant (the old arrangement of the Law) that we discussed last time.  It is something brand new, never before seen or imagined.

Jesus introduced us to the idea of the new covenant in the gospel of Luke.  “Jesus took the cup after they had eaten, saying, ‘This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood’ ” (Lk 22:20).  In this one sentence, we learn that the new covenant will be ushered in somehow through Jesus’ blood.  And the rest of the New Testament unpacks the how’s, what’s, why’s, and promises of the new covenant.

In summary, the new covenant has two parts.  In part 1, Christ’s shed blood on the cross set us free from the penalty of sin.  When we agree to God’s new arrangement by acknowledging our guilt, accepting the free gift of Christ’s death in our place, and embracing what Jesus says as true, we have been set free from the requirements of the old arrangement (the Law).  We have been set free to eternal life.

In part two of this new arrangement, Christ’s shed blood on the cross set us free from the power of sin to live a new life in the freedom and the power of the Spirit and the new nature God has given us.  And we have been set free from the ongoing condemnation of the old arrangement.  We have been set free from the, “you are never going to be enough, never going to do enough” to win God’s favor.

You have a new identity, a new purity, a new disposition, and a new power as part of the promise of the new covenant.  The condemnation of the Law as it affects living the life is over.  “Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom 8:1).

With that in mind, let’s turn now to a comparison of the two covenants – the old and the new – in II Corinthians chapter 3.  Paul uses the words “New Covenant” in verse 6 to describe his ministry.  Then the apostle goes into a long comparison where I have added parenthetical labels to help us identify when Paul is talking about the old covenant and when he is referring to the new covenant.

“God made us ministers of a New Covenant, not of the letter (Old Covenant), but of the Spirit (New Covenant); for the letter (Old Covenant) kills, but the Spirit (New Covenant) gives life.  But if the ministry of death (Old Covenant), in letters engraved on stone (Old Covenant), came with glory, so that the sons of Israel could not look intently at the face of Moses because of the glory of his face, fading as it was, how shall the ministry of the Spirit (New Covenant) fail to be even more filled with glory?  For if the ministry of condemnation (Old Covenant) has glory, much more does the ministry of righteousness (New Covenant) abound in glory.  Indeed, in this case, what once had glory (Old Covenant) has come to have no glory at all, because of the glory (New Covenant) that surpasses it.  For if what was being brought to an end (Old Covenant) came with glory, much more will that which remains (New Covenant) have glory” (II Corinthians 3:6-11).

The old covenant is a ministry of the letter, the law, of death, of condemnation; and has come to an end.  The new covenant is a ministry of the Spirit, of righteousness, of life, of surpassing glory; and is ongoing.  “Brought to an end” in verse 11 is a powerful Greek word, katargeō.  And it is a clear picture that the old covenant has ended.

So what does the “old covenant ended” mean?  And specifically, what does it mean for us today?  We will investigate next time.

The Old Testament

Because the theme of this blog is the New Covenant and all the promise and power that come with it for living the Christian life, you haven’t seen much about the Old Testament on these pages.  So where does the Old Testament fit into our new identity in Christ? How are we to read the Old Testament?

Let’s start with the word “testament”.  I don’t know about you, but “testament” is not a word I commonly use or hear in daily conversation.  And I don’t think it appears in the actual pages of Scripture as far as describing the two parts of our Bible.  So a word I prefer is “covenant”.  It is a word that the Bible itself uses referring to the Old Testament as the Old Covenant and the New Testament as the New Covenant.

So the words “testament” and “covenant” are basically interchangeable, such that our Bible can be summarized like this.  The Old Testament is describing the Old Covenant between God and man.  And the New Testament is describing the New Covenant between God and man.  But just as with “testament”, “covenant” is also a fairly uncommon word.

So a third word that I find helpful is “arrangement”.  The Old Testament = the Old Covenant = the Old Arrangement.  The Old Testament is describing the old arrangement (prior to Christ) between God and man.  And the New Testament = the New Covenant = the New Arrangement.  It describes the new arrangement (after Christ) between God and man.

And arrangement is a good word to use.  It is word that is commonly understood and it fits what a testament is.  Think about a last will and testament.  It is a description of how someone wants their affairs “arranged” after their death.  So what kind of old and new arrangement with God are we talking about?

Put in its simplest form, the old arrangement is the Old Testament Law.  When God had led His people out of Egypt, He established a law arrangement with them on Mount Sinai.  Just prior to writing the Ten Commandments on stone tablets, God described this law arrangement to Moses and the people in Exodus chapter 19.

And the people agreed to this arrangement.  “So Moses came and called the elders of the people, and set before them all these words which the Lord had commanded him. And all the people answered together and said, ‘All that the Lord has spoken we will do.‘ “ (Ex 19:7-8).  The old arrangement was the Law.  And the children of Israel agreed to this arrangement.

Now we know that the rest of the Old Testament is essentially the story of the children of Israel not keeping their part of the arrangement.  But that history lesson is for another day.  For now let’s just park on the fact that the Old Testament, the Old Covenant, the old arrangement was the Law.

So what about the new arrangement?  What about what comes next?  What did Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection have to do with blowing up the old arrangement?  Or did it?

Imitating the Father

As we reach the end of Ephesians chapter 4, let’s review where we have been.  Paul’s instruction to “lay aside the old self” (vs 22) and “put on the new self” (vs 24) is followed by specifics of what this laying aside and putting on looks like.

Putting on the new self means … laying aside falsehood and speaking truth with each other (vs 25); not falling into sin when anger comes upon us (vs 26); working instead of stealing, not just to meet our own needs, but to have something to share with others (vs 28); speaking only words of edification (vs 29); embracing the Holy Spirit’s presence and work in our lives (vs 30); replacing bitterness and its cousins with kindness, tender hearts, and forgiveness (vs 31-32).

This life of putting on the new self and having it reflected in these attitudes is not difficult…IT IS IMPOSSIBLE!  Yes, it is impossible apart from Christ’s presence in us.  It is only possible because Christ has put His new nature in us.  And it is only in “Christ in and through us” that we can express this new self to the world.

We can only do this because we carry God’s seed inside us (I Jn 3).  So when we act in ways consistent with our new nature, we demonstrate our family likeness as children of God.  Paul continues into the next chapter in Ephesians, “Therefore be imitators of God as beloved children” (Eph 5:1).  When we walk in the new nature, the new self, we are imitating God just as a child imitates their father.

We imitate God by “walking like God” and the next verse teaches us that the number one way we imitate God is to “walk in love” (Eph 5:2).  Because the new self was created in God’s likeness, His incredible love (the very essence of His character) is the ultimate expression of the new self.  I find it fascinating the the number one reason Scripture gives for why we should love our brother is not just because it is the right thing to do.  Our number one motivation is that this is what God is like.

We love because God loved us.  “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.  Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (I Jn 4:10-11).

Likewise, the number one reason Christ gives for why we should love our enemies is not just because it is the right thing to do.  Our number one motivation is that this is what God is like.

Jesus said, “Love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for He Himself is kind to ungrateful and evil men.  Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Lk 6:35-36).  We love because that is what God is like and we are His children, imitating the Father.

Love is the best expression of walking in the new self.  Why?  Because that is what Christ did.  “Walk in love, just as Christ also loved you, and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma” (Eph 5:2).  Christ’s sacrifice in our place was a beautiful aroma.  And when we love as God loves, we become a fragrant aroma as well to those in our path.

Putting Away the Bad Stuff

“Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.  And be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you” (Eph 4:31-32).  A specific aspect of “laying aside the old corrupted self” (Eph 4:22), is to literally “put away” bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, slander, and malice.

These actions, these sins really, are to be in your past.  We are to lay them aside.  Of course, this is easier said than done.  But “done” is exactly what Christ is calling us to do.

Look at this similar admonition, “To live the rest of your lives no longer for the lusts of men, but for the will of God.  For the time already past is sufficient for you to have carried out the deeds of the flesh, having pursued a course of sensuality, lust, drunkenness, carousals, drinking parties, and abominable idolatries” (I Pet 4:2-3).  “The time already past is sufficient” means these activities should be in your past; in your rear view mirror.  There was plenty of time in your past to pursue this lifestyle; there should be no time in your present for this.

Now, it is well and good to say this about relegating bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, slander, malice, etc to our past, but where do we get the power, the energy, the want-to, to put these in our past?

The power to put these sins aside, is found in what is replacing our old self; your new self.  Your new self “which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness” (Eph 4:24).  As we let more of our “new self”, our Spirit-filled Christ-energized self, emerge and rule, our old self will lose its power.  And the sins reminiscent of our old self will be replaced with kindness, tender hearts, and forgiveness.

This is what the new self looks like.  These three – kindness, tenderness, and forgiveness – are such great witnesses of God’s power in our lives.  And one reason they are such clear pictures of God’s power in our lives is because they are so rare.

The world looks at these as weak.  But they actually require great power to put into practice.  To be kind instead of lash out; to be tender instead of hard and cold, to be forgiving instead of holding a grudge or using your hurt as a power play over someone who has harmed you.

Yes, these beautiful attributes are rare in the world.  But they should be common among us.  Why, because we are the children of God.  As those who literally carry the “seed of God” (I Jn 3:9) inside us as His children, we should practice God’s moral attributes.  What is said of God that He is kind, tender-hearted, and – as we learn in our passage – full of forgiveness, should be said of us.

All of these righteous actions come down to us imitating our heavenly Father.  “Forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you” (Eph 4:32).  We extend grace to others in any way possible, because God has extended His grace to us through Jesus Christ our Lord.