What is the correct distinction
between the Old and the New Covenants?

Many wrong practices and doctrines are based on a misunderstanding of the difference between the Old and the New Covenants.

The Old and the New Testaments together form the Holy Scriptures. All Scripture is necessary: “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16, 17).

This does not mean, however, that everything in the Scriptures applies to us as law. Noah was commanded to construct a boat to save his family. His example of faith and obedience is edifying for us, but we do not have to build a boat!

Through Moses, God gave a law to Israel. We can learn much from that law. But it was never given to the church of Christ as a law.

In the first century this point was clarified. Some Jews wanted to obligate non-Jews to keep the law of Moses. “And certain men came down from Judea and taught the brethren, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.’ Therefore, when Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and dispute with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas and certain others of them should go up to Jerusalem, to the apostles and elders, about this question” (Acts 15:1, 2).

The same idea was advanced by certain ones at Jerusalem: “But some of the sect of the Pharisees who believed rose up, saying, ‘It is necessary to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses’” (Acts 15:5).

Peter refuted this: “And when there had been much dispute, Peter rose up and said to them: ‘Men and brethren, you know that a good while ago God chose among us, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. So God, who knows the heart, acknowledged them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He did to us, and made no distinction between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith. Now therefore, why do you test God by putting a yoke on the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear? But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved in the same manner as they” (Acts 15:7-11).

Notice that this applies to all disciples, not just to the Gentiles. Christians are not obligated to keep the law of Moses because it is a yoke that no one can bear.

What then is the value of the Old Testament for Christians? “For whatever things were written before were written for our learning, that we through the patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope” (Romans 15:4).

Jesus said: “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled. Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:17-19).

Although the Old and New Testaments together form the Scriptures, the New Covenant supersedes and replaces the Old Covenant. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus taught many things that are different from the law of Moses. At the same time He emphasized that He was not against the law. The Old Testament had its function in God’s plan. Jesus came to fulfill the old law and bring a new one. Although the law was replaced, that was not a ‘destruction’ because the Old Testament foretold its own replacement!

In Hebrews, Jeremiah 31:31-34 is quoted as proof that the Old Covenant has been replaced: “But now He has obtained a more excellent ministry, inasmuch as He is also Mediator of a better covenant, which was established on better promises. For if that first covenant had been faultless, then no place would have been sought for a second. Because finding fault with them, He says: ‘Behold, the days are coming,’ says the LORD, ‘when 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 when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt; because they did not 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 in their mind and write them on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. None of them shall teach his neighbor, and none his brother, saying, “Know the LORD,” for all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them. For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more.’ In that He says, ‘A new covenant,’ He has made the first obsolete. Now what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away” (Hebrews 8:6-13).

Jesus did not come to destroy the law and the prophets, but to fulfill their predictions. Anyone with true respect for the law of Moses would also accept Jesus and become a Christian. But hypocrites who did not respect the law would also not accept Christ (See John 1:45; 5:45, 46).

In our time, many unchristian practices and doctrines are supported with passages from the Old Covenant: the establishment of central ecclesiastical organizations; the maintenance of a separate priest class; the use of candles, incense and musical instruments in worship; the observance of the Sabbath and the obligation to give a tenth, to mention a few. None of these practices have been given to the New Testament church. But people who want to do such things, or to bind them on others, refer to passages in the Old Testament in an arbitrary manner to support their ideas. I say ‘in an arbitrary manner’ because to be consistent they would have to do everything required under the Old Covenant, but they of course do not want to do that.

Some claim that the ten commandments in the Old Testament still apply as law for believers, even though the rest does not. Their argumentation is: “What? May we murder and steal and commit adultery?” Many are deceived by this superficial argument, but it is not valid.

The ten commandments no longer apply as law because in the doctrine of Christ they are completely superseded. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus demands much more of us than the ten commandments. He not only forbids murder and adultery, but also the causes, hate and lust (Matthew 5:21, 22, 27, 28).

Paul wrote that the ten commandments have been replaced by something much better: “But if the ministry of death, written and engraved on stones, was glorious, so that the children of Israel could not look steadily at the face of Moses because of the glory of his countenance, which glory was passing away, how will the ministry of the Spirit not be more glorious? For if the ministry of condemnation had glory, the ministry of righteousness exceeds much more in glory. For even what was made glorious had no glory in this respect, because of the glory that excels. For if what is passing away was glorious, what remains is much more glorious” (2 Corinthians 3:7-11). The ten commandments, engraved on stones, were a ministry of death that had to disappear. Christ brought something better.

The gospel of Christ encompasses all fundamental, unchangeable values of the ten commandments. Christians certainly may not steal or murder. But they avoid this because of their love for God and fellowman, not just because there is a command: “You shall not kill”.

Certain externals in the ten commandments are not included in the New Covenant. A Christian has not been told, for example, that he may not make a statue; he has been told not to worship idols. According to the ten commandments, however, one may not even make a statue.

Nor is the Sabbath command applicable under the New Covenant: “So let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths, which are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ” (Colossians 2:16, 17).

Although we can learn much from the Old Testament (the Old Testament helps us understand the New), we now live under the New Testament, a covenant of grace.

We are not under the law of Moses, This is stated many times in the New Testament. “For sin shall not have dominion over you, for you are not under law but under grace. What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? Certainly not!” (Romans 6:14, 15). “Therefore, my brethren, you also have become dead to the law through the body of Christ, that you may be married to another - to Him who was raised from the dead, that we should bear fruit to God” (Romans 7:4). “But now we have been delivered from the law, having died to what we were held by, so that we should serve in the newness of the Spirit and not in the oldness of the letter” (Romans 7:6). “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death” (Romans 8:2). “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Romans 10:4). “Therefore the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor” (Galatians 3:24, 25). “But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law” (Galatians 5:18). “For He Himself is our peace, who has made both one, and has broken down the middle wall of separation, having abolished in His flesh the enmity, that is, the law of commandments contained in ordinances, so as to create in Himself one new man from the two, thus making peace” (Ephesians 2:14, 15).

It is important to know when the New Testament went into effect. “For where there is a testament, there must also of necessity be the death of the testator. For a testament is in force after men are dead, since it has no power at all while the testator lives” (Hebrews 9:16, 17). Thus, the New Testament took effect after the death of Christ.

Jesus Himself lived under the Old Covenant: “But when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons” (Galatians 4:4, 5). This means that many things in the four Gospels still relate to the Old Covenant, although Jesus, in anticipation, also taught many things that are part of the New Covenant. If we use our discernment, we can distinguish between the two.

By overlooking the distinction between the old and the new covenants in the Gospels, certain false doctrines are advanced. Some teach, for example: “Jesus kept the Sabbath, we must do the same.” Jesus also kept the Passover and worshipped in the temple. Must we follow these examples? Of course not. The Sabbath, the Passover and the temple service were part of the Old Covenant. Some have claimed that Jesus’ teaching about divorce does not apply to us because He spoke before the New Covenant took effect. From the text it is clear, however, that Jesus was not teaching the law of Moses (his teaching was completely different). He was presenting His own teaching that is part of the new covenant.

All the Scriptures, both the Old and the New Testaments, are useful for our instruction. But we do not now live under the law of Moses or the ten commandments. The gospel of Jesus Christ applies to us; we serve God under the New Covenant.

What did God say from heaven when Peter’s words indicated that he placed Jesus on a par with Moses and Elijah? “Then Peter answered and said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; and let us make three tabernacles: one for You, one for Moses, and one for Elijah’ - because he did not know what to say, for they were greatly afraid. And a cloud came and overshadowed them; and a voice came out of the cloud, saying, ‘This is My beloved Son. Hear Him!’” (Mark 9:5-7).

Let us make a correct distinction between the Old and the New Covenants. “God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us by His Son” (Hebrews 1:1, 2). Amen.

Roy Davison

The Scripture quotations in this article are from
The New King James Version. ©1979,1980,1982,
Thomas Nelson Inc., Publishers unless indicated otherwise.
Permission for reference use has been granted.

Published in The Old Paths Archive