Many believe that the Old Covenant refers to a harsh Ten Commandments law, while the New Covenant pertains only to grace and promises not based on law or obedience. Although popular, such traditional concepts are completely wrong. Professing Christianity has never understood the significance of the two divisions of God’s Word.
Yet, the Bible reveals the true meaning and significance of these divisions, known as the Old Testament and the New Testament.
When God created man, He made him to appear as a physical image of Himself. Man was physically complete, but spiritually incomplete. God’s overall plan of salvation calls for all (at some point in the order He has predetermined) to receive the Holy Spirit in order to grow to become spiritually complete. This Plan is being implemented in carefully planned stages, with the vast majority of humanity not being called in this age.
Ancient Israel’s track record well illustrates that they stumbled spiritually without God’s Holy Spirit. Their spiritual blindness is expressed in Deuteronomy 5:29:
“O that there were such a heart in them, that they would fear Me, and keep all My commandments always, that it might be well with them, and with their children forever!” The reason that ancient Israel was not inclined to obey is that the natural, normal carnal mind is hostile against God, not subject to His laws (Rom. 8:7).
Yet, the overall experience of Israel demonstrates that it is impossible for mankind to obey God’s laws without His Holy Spirit. Nothing short of God’s miraculous divine intervention is required to open the mind and grant the willpower to begin keeping God’s laws—to deeply desire to be in harmony with every aspect of His will.
The Old Covenant documented the instructions given to all of Israel and their failure to live up to what they had promised to do. They had been instructed by God’s servants and had witnessed numerous divine miracles from God. However, without His Holy Spirit leading and guiding them from within, they could not obey God, much less overcome weaknesses of the flesh. Their experience demonstrates that man cannot obey or please God with his natural carnal mind.
Such a lesson could not be condensed into one proverb or even one episode. It required the experiences of many thousands of people, over many centuries, to make such an all-encompassing point. The lesson had to be written in blood, so to speak, requiring many books of the Bible, with the experiences of many generations interwoven with God’s commands and counsel.
We will find that in all those recorded experiences, Israel failed to live up to the covenant they had made with God—the Old Covenant. The problem was not the laws of God—as many professing Christians declare—but rather the failure of carnal people with natural minds.
In studying this lesson, be sure to write down each of the verses from your own Bible. Upon finishing the lesson, it is helpful to review it from time to time. This helps to put into better perspective the understanding gained.
“Covenant” vs. “Testament”
(1) Using a dictionary, write down the definition of “covenant.”
Comment: The following general definition should be similar to that in any given dictionary: “An agreement between two or more persons to do or refrain from doing some act; a compact.”
(2) What was the covenant God made with Noah? Genesis 9:11.
Comment: The covenant mentioned in Genesis 9:11 is somewhat of an extension of the same covenant mentioned in Genesis 6:18, in which Noah was to enter the ark God had him build (Gen. 6:14). The part of the covenant in which God promised never to destroy the earth again in this manner was accompanied by a token—a rainbow (Gen. 9:12-13).
(3) Did God also make a covenant with Abraham? Genesis 17:2.
Comment: Because Abraham obeyed God, the covenant God made with him promised blessings in return. We find that Abraham’s descendants were to become a great nation (Gen. 12:2), and that he was to be the father of many nations (17:4). This covenant agreement was basically, “You do your part and I will do mine.” Notice also that this covenant was accompanied by a token, as explained in Genesis 17:10-11.
(4) Using the dictionary again, write down the definition of “testament.”
Comment: The general definition that follows should also be similar to the one in your dictionary: “A will; a formal declaration, usually in writing, of a person’s wishes as to the disposition of his property after his death.” Note that the definition of testament hinges upon death, whereas a covenant is a mutual agreement in which death is not necessarily a factor.
(5) Are those who follow Christ to be inheritors of a testament that He made? Genesis 22:18; Galatians 3:16, 29; Hebrews 9:15-17.
Comment: It was God’s will to make eternal inheritance in His kingdom available to all who would desire it. The will or testament that Christ made is spelled out in the last fourth of the Bible—the New Testament. It teaches how to become an heir to the promises of eternal inheritance in God’s kingdom, soon to be established on the earth. One of the purposes of Christ’s death was to make this inheritance possible.
The Covenant Made with Ancient Israel
(1) Before the Ten Commandments were given at Sinai, what did God first propose to Israel? Exodus 19:4-6.
(2) After God had proposed this covenant to Moses, Moses came down from the mountain and presented it to the leaders and elders of Israel. What was the response of the elders of Israel? Exodus 19:8.
Comment: After Israel had promised to abide by the covenant proposed by God, the Ten Commands were given—being the central basis for all of the lesser and more detailed civil laws, judgments, statutes and precepts. The first five books of the Bible—the books of the law—deal primarily with the instructions for Israel pertaining to the covenant made with God. The majority of what is called the Old Testament pertains to the historical accounts of Israel, as well as other writings and prophecies pertaining to Israel, past and future. These books pertain primarily to Israel and their track record with respect to the covenant previously made to God.
The major part of the Bible has been misnamed the “Old Testament” when the proper name is the “Old Covenant.” Here is how it came to be misnamed:
When Catholic scholars translated the Bible into Latin in the fourth century, the word testamentum was the term used, which could have meant either “covenant” or “testament.” When the term was later translated into English, testamentum was retained as “testament.” This is why the part of the Bible containing the Old Covenant is misnamed unto this day in English Bibles.
It is interesting that the only place the term “Old Testament” is found in the Bible is in II Corinthians 3:14. Even here, the Greek term diatheke was translated as “testament,” to coincide with the misnomer already erroneously accepted. The term could have (and should have) been translated as “covenant.” The Old Covenant section of the Bible contains the same books (although not in the correct order) as they were referred to in the New Testament as “the law and the prophets,” and sometimes “the law, the prophets and the psalms (or writings).”
In light of this information, recall the dictionary definition already discussed in which the term, “testament” applies only to the death of the primary party in order to be in effect. Death was not mentioned with respect to the covenant God made with Israel in order for it to be in effect. Basically, the covenant called upon Israel to obey God’s laws, which would result in material blessings—while disobedience would bring curses. It is quite obvious how the term “Old Covenant” is most appropriate and that “Old Testament” is a misnomer.
(3) Does the Bible explicitly tell us whether the ancient Israelites had access to God’s Spirit? John 7:37-39.
Comment: As verse 39 indicated, the Holy Spirit was not given until Jesus had been glorified (after His death, burial and resurrection). Those of ancient Israel were not given God’s Spirit except for the very few, such as the patriarchs, and later Moses, Joshua, Samuel, David and others—the prophets in particular. Although God left mankind to learn lessons through bitter experience in the ways of carnality, He reserved the right to call a selected few specific people across time according to His own purpose.
(4) Did the people of Israel feel they were capable of fulfilling their part of the covenant God made with them? Exodus 24:7-8.
Comment: After the people affirmed that they would perform “all the Eternal had said” and would be obedient to him, the covenant was ratified with blood as written in verse 8. The people somehow equated that being in the proximity of God—as His power and presence were manifested at Mount Sinai—would give them the inspiration and power to obey Him. Yet, they were incapable of living up to their promise of obeying God, as experience would clearly show. Just as people today, they were crippled by the absence of the Holy Spirit, although oblivious to that fact. Remember, the Holy Spirit was not yet available to all humanity, including Israel.
(5) What verses best summarize the experiences of Israel recorded in the Old Covenant? I Corinthians 10:11; Romans 15:4.
Comment: The experiences of ancient Israel serve as lessons for true Christians today.
The Administration of Death
The Old Covenant consisted of distinct parts, the central part being the Ten Commandments. They preceded the Old Covenant and also transcend it. Other distinct parts of the Old Covenant were the civil laws and judgments, which gave detailed applications of the Ten Commandments.
(1) What was the meaning of the set of judgments that called for “life for life, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth?” Exodus 21:23-24.
Comment: Although the context of these verses pertained to the protection of pregnant women (as in verse 22), the judgment applied to many other situations, in principle. A sentence was a certainty for any infraction. The offender paid a penalty that was equivalent to the damage he had caused.
(2) What was the penalty for someone committing murder? Genesis 9:5-6; Exodus 21:12.
Comment: Immediately after the Flood, God instituted the administration of death as punishment for murder (Gen. 9:5-6). As one of the Ten Commandments in force since the creation of man, it was spelled out in detail in the civil judgments (Ex. 21:12).
(3) Was this administration of death called glorious? II Corinthians 3:7-8.
Comment: The administration of death was the civil execution of punishment for violation of laws of the civil code that expanded on the Ten Commandments. Such laws requiring the death penalty usually involved such violations as murder, kidnapping or adultery.
The Israelites sinned on a regular basis and were continually reminded of it. Their example serves to make us realize our weaknesses and limitations, as well. It underlines our need for help through God’s Spirit to overcome our own human nature. The administration of the death penalty served to emphasize this valuable lesson.
If the Israelites had been able to fulfill their part of the covenant by keeping the letter of the law, they would have received only material blessings. Eternal life was never a promise associated with the Old Covenant.
The “ministration of death” (II Cor. 3:7) was temporary until the time of the “ministration of the spirit” (II Cor. 3:8), to be permanent. The new administration of the same laws is to be implemented by those who, with the help of the Holy Spirit, overcome and qualify in this life. They will rule in the government of God as spirit beings—a spiritual administration!
The Old Covenant—a Marriage Covenant
Many have never heard that the Lord—the Eternal, the God of the Old Covenant—who later became Jesus Christ—had actually entered a marriage covenant with Israel. Jesus Christ, who had created all things (John 1:3) and thundered the Ten Commandments and led Israel through the wilderness (I Cor. 10:4), had married ancient Israel.
(1) Did the Lord who later became Jesus Christ explicitly state that He was married to Israel? Jeremiah 3:14.
(2) Was Christ the husband of Israel? Jeremiah 3:20; 31:32; Isaiah 54:5.
(3) Did Christ enter into a covenant of marriage with Israel? Ezekiel 16:8.
(4) What were to be the blessings upon Israel for remaining faithful to their covenant with God? Leviticus 26:1-3.
Comment: To get an overview of these promised blessings, read verses 4-13. This is equivalent to Deuteronomy 28:1-14. You should become acquainted with these two chapters (Lev. 26 and Deut. 28), since they spell out the blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience to God’s laws, upon which the Covenant with Israel was based.
(5) What were to be the curses upon Israel for being unfaithful to their covenant with God? Leviticus 26:14-16.
Comment: Read verses 17-39 for more insight and overview of the curses for disobedience. These verses are being fulfilled to this very day concerning the nations of modern Israel.
(6) Did the apostle Paul indicate that the marriage covenant is based upon law—God’s Law? Romans 7:1-3.
Comment: These verses plainly indicate that neither party of a marriage is bound to the law. Rather, each party is bound to the other mate by the law. Notice that the law does not cease to exist when one of the parties dies. Only the marriage covenant, which was based upon the law, becomes dissolved by the death of one party.
Likewise, Christ’s marriage with ancient Israel was dissolved, yet the law upon which it was based still continues. Rather than Christ doing away with the law, it was the sins of humanity in breaking God’s perfect law that did away with His life. He had to give His life in order to redeem all humanity since, as Creator, His life was of greater value than all the cumulative lives of those who have ever lived.
(7) Is it the destiny of all who overcome and become spirit beings at the First Resurrection to enter into a marriage covenant with the glorified Christ? Romans 7:4.
Comment: This marriage covenant, based upon God’s spiritual Law, will be under the terms of the New Covenant, to be discussed in the next lesson.
It should be reinforced here that the law of works—the sacrificial system—was not inaugurated at the time the Ten Commandments were given, but began nearly a year later as a separate and distinct part of the Old Covenant. In order to better remember this pivotal scripture, write out Jeremiah 7:22-24, as well. The sacrificial rituals became a distinct part of the Old Covenant, yet separate from the Ten Commandments.
The Old Covenant, usually misnamed as the Old Testament, was based upon material blessings for Israel keeping the letter of the Law—which Israel miserably failed to do. Remember that the Old Covenant was made with Israel only. The Old Covenant was not only material, but also only temporal. Yet the spiritual law upon which it was based is eternal.
While Israel never lived up to their terms of their Covenant with God, there were certain revivals in the kingdom of Israel in which certain kings were righteous, resulting in blessings for Israel in the short term as they followed their examples. This occurred during (and shortly after) the reign of David, and in the reigns of Hezekiah, Josiah, and a few others to a lesser extent. Such revivals were the exception to Israel’s usual track record.
Various other aspects of the Old Covenant will be further covered in the next lesson, which will also introduce the terms of the New Covenant. Meanwhile, our article “Are Christians Freed From the Old Covenant?” will prove beneficial, as it provides a unique overview of the subject.