Speaking Smooth Things About . . . The Two Covenants

By Frank Jamerson

The apostle Paul said: “For these are the two covenants: the one from Mount Sinai . . .(the other from) the Jerusalem above” (Gal. 4:24). That should be sufficient to prove that there is more than one covenant, but further study will show that there are many covenants mentioned in the Bible, and though fellowship with God was always available to men, all were not under the same covenant.

According to “Quick Verse” there are 292 uses of the word “covenant,” fifteen uses of “everlasting covenant,” two of “perpetual covenant,” and there are many other covenants not specifically so called. The word covenant is defined as: “between nations: a treaty, alliance of friend- ship; between individuals: a pledge or agreement   . . . between God and man: a covenant accompanied by signs, sacrifices, and a solemn oath that sealed the relationship with promises of blessings for keeping the covenant and curses for breaking it” (Theological Workbook of the O.T. I:128). W.E. Vine says the word may refer to “a promise, or undertaking, human or divine . . . an agreement, a mutual undertaking, between God and Israel —  see Deut. 29 and 30 (described as a ‘commandment,’ Heb. 7:18, cp. ver. 22).” Hebrews 7 says “there is an annul- ling of the former commandment . . . for the law made nothing perfect . . . (and) Jesus has become a surety of a better covenant” (vv. 18, 19, 22). Here the law of Moses is called the former commandment that was weak, and is contrasted to the better covenant given through Christ. Thayer says: “a disposition, arrangement, of any sort, which one wishes to be valid . . . we find in the N.T. two distinct covenants spoken of (Gal. 4:24), viz. the Mosaic and the Christian . . . diatheke is used in 2 Cor. 3:14, of the sacred books of the O.T.” (136, 137). A covenant may refer to a promise, or a purpose of God. God’s eternal purpose (salvation of man in Christ, Eph. 1:3-11) has never changed, but a covenant may also refer to instructions, or law. Moses said, God “declared to you His covenant which He commanded you to perform,” and that covenant included the Ten Commandments (Deut. 4:13; 5:2, 3).

God was in relationship (or covenant) with Adam and Eve, but their relationship was severed because they violated his instructions (or covenant). Hosea said Israel “like Adam, transgressed the covenant” (Hos. 6:7, NASV). Circumcision was both a “covenant” (a command of God) and a “sign of the covenant” (the special relationship) between God and Abraham (Gen. 17:9-11). It was also included in the covenant God made with Israel (Lev. 12:3), thus, a sign of a special relationship between God and one nation, but it was also a law (Acts 7:8; Gal. 5:3). The Sabbath was a sign of God’s special agreement with Israel (Exod. 31:16, 17). It was also part of “His covenant . . . the Ten Commandments” (Deut. 4:13, 23), or “the law of commandments” (Exod. 24:12; Deut. 4:44).

When Hilkiah “found the Book of the Law of the Lord given by Moses” (2 Chron. 34:14), King Josiah, “made a covenant (agreement) before the Lord, to follow the Lord, and to keep His commandments and His testimonies and His statutes with all his heart and all his soul, to perform the words of the covenant that were written in this book” (v. 31). The “words of the covenant” were read in “the book of the law.” Covenant here refers to the revelation of God’s will, his law. There are many covenants, and more than a half dozen called “everlasting,” but my assignment is to discuss the two major covenants — the Old and the New (2 Cor. 3:6, 14), the First and the Second (Heb. 8:7), the one given through Moses (John 1:17; Gal. 3:19) and the one given through Christ (Heb. 8:6). We will affirm that God predicted the passing of the first covenant before it was given, at the very time it was given and while it was in effect.

Before The Old Covenant Was Given

Long before the Old Covenant was given, God gave a picture of its demise. While the promise to Abram was waiting to be fulfilled, Sarai suggested that her husband go into Hagar and bear children (Gen. 16:2). After Isaac was born, Sarah told Abraham to “cast out this bondwoman and her son; for the son of this bondwoman shall not be heir with my son” (Gen. 21:10).

Paul said those who “desire to be under the law” (of Moses), need to hear what the law said. Then he referred to this story and said “which things are symbolic. For these are two covenants: the one from Mount Sinai (represents bondage of the law) . . . but the Jerusalem above is free, which is the mother of us all . . . So then, brethren, we are not children of the bondwoman but of the free” (Gal. 4:21- 26, 31). If the covenant that was given on Mount Sinai is still binding, we are still children of the bondwoman!

At the Time the Old Covenant was Given

When God gave the Old Covenant, Moses came down from the Mount, and “did not know that the skin of his face shone,” and the children of Israel “were afraid to come near him.” He called them to him and “gave them as commandments all that the Lord had spoken with him on Mount Sinai. And when Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil on his face” (Exod. 34:29-33).

The Holy Spirit used the passing of the glory on Moses’ face as figurative of the “ministry of death, written and en- graven on stone” passing away (2 Cor. 3:7). The concealing of the fading of the glory was symbolic of the fact that some whose “minds were hardened” still did not see that the Old Covenant had passed away. “For to this day, when they read the Old Covenant, the same veil remains unlifted” (v. 14, RSV). Paul said God “made us sufficient as ministers of the new covenant” (v. 7). The Old Covenant was glorious, but the New is more glorious! The Old “passed away,” the New “remains”!

God never intended for the law given through Moses to be permanent. Paul said it “was added because of transgressions, till the Seed should come to whom the promise was made” (Gal. 3:19). Like Ishmael, when the promised Seed came, it was “cast out.” It served its purpose as a tutor (or bus driver) to “bring us to Christ,” but after “faith,” (or “the faith”) came, we are “no longer under the tutor” (Gal. 3:23- 25). Paul was not talking about “Judaizing of the law,” but the basic purpose of the Old Covenant. It served its purpose, and is still valuable (Rom. 15:4), but as surely as “the faith” has come, we are “no longer under the tutor.”

While the Old Covenant Was In Effect

God, through Jeremiah said: “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 that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt (cf. 2 Chron. 5:10), My covenant which they broke, though I was a husband to them, says the Lord . . . for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more” (Jer. 31:31-34).

Those who advocate one covenant assert that this was fulfilled (simply “renewed”) in the restoration from Babylonian captivity and again under Christ. It is true that the basic principles stated, existed under the first covenant (the law of Moses), just as many of the things in the first covenant existed before Mount Sinai, but that does not prove that the new covenant was established upon the return from Babylon.

The prophecy of Jeremiah is quoted twice in the book of Hebrews. After the first quotation (Heb. 8:8-12), the writer concluded: “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” (v. 13). Before the New Covenant could come into existence the first had to become obsolete, or vanish away. When Jeremiah prophesied a New Covenant it implied that the current one would become old and obsolete. Jim McGuiggan commented: “Hebrews 8:13 doesn’t say the old covenant was ‘becoming old.’ It specifically says ‘In that he saith, A new covenant, he hath made (perfect tense denoting completed action with results continuing in the present — the first covenant stands ‘having been made old’)” (The Reign of God 91). The first covenant became obsolete, not “renewed,” and the new was given! If the New Covenant was given during the post-exile period, why did Haggai exhort the people to keep the word that the Lord covenanted with them when they “came out of Egypt” instead of when they came out of Babylon (Hag. 2:5)? Ezra told those who had returned, and married foreign wives, to “put away all these wives and those who have been born to them.” Is this part of the New Covenant? Should we tell those who marry “foreign wives” (or those not in the covenant), to put them away? Ezra said “let it be done according to the law” — not ac- cording to the New Covenant (Ezra 10:2, 3; Deut. 7:3)! The Old Covenant was given through Moses to one nation (Deut. 5:2, 3). The New Covenant was given through Christ to the whole world (Mal. 3:1; Matt. 28:18-20).

Jeremiah 31 is quoted again in Hebrews 10:16, 17. The writer then concludes: “Now where there is remission of these, there is no longer an offering for sin” (v. 18). If the remission of sins that Jeremiah prophesied was fulfilled in the post-exile period, why did Malachi condemn the Jews for not sacrificing the proper animals? Did animal sacrifices cease during the post-exile period? (There was a sense in which sins were forgiven under the Old Covenant, when people offered animal sacrifices [Lev. 17:11], but this is not what Jeremiah prophesied. The Hebrew writer said the law “can never with those same sacrifices which they offer continually year by year, make those who approach perfect . . . For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats could take away sins . . . for the law made nothing perfect . . . God having provided something better for us, that they should not be made perfect apart from us” [Heb. 10:1, 4; 7:19; 11:40]. Christ died “for the redemption of the transgressions under the first covenant” [Heb. 9:15], not because they had been forgiven!)

When Jesus died on the cross, he “broke down the middle wall of division between us, 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” (Eph. 2:14, 15). The law, having been given to the Jew and not the Gentile (Deut. 5:2, 3; Rom. 2:14; 3:1, 2), brought enmity, but it was taken away and a New Covenant made with the Jew first (as Jeremiah prophesied), and then the Gentile (Rom. 1:16). Yes, many of the principles in the Old are repeated, but it is a New Covenant.

The Blood of Animals Versus the Blood of Christ

“Then he took the Book of the Covenant and read in the hearing of the people. And they said, All that the Lord has said we will do, and be obedient. And Moses took the blood, sprinkled it on the people, and said Behold, the blood of the covenant which the Lord has made with you according to all these words” (Exod. 24:7, 8). The Hebrew writer tells us that the first covenant was not “dedicated without blood. For when Moses had spoken every precept to all the people according to the law, he took the blood of calves and goats, with water, scarlet wool, and hyssop, and sprinkled both the book itself and all the people, saying, This is the blood of the covenant which God has commanded you” (Heb. 9:19, 20). This “blood of the covenant” was “blood of calves and goats,” not the blood of Christ! Though Jesus died for the transgressions under the first covenant (Heb. 9:15), he did not dedicate that covenant with his blood. His covenant went into effect when the appointed sacrifice was made — his death (Heb. 9:15-17). A man who “rejected Moses’ law” is contrasted with one who “counted the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified a common thing” (Heb. 10:28, 29).


Many teachings found in the Old Covenant are also found in the New, but the Old was dedicated with the blood of animals, and the New with the blood of Christ. Understanding this basic biblical distinction frees us from the impossible task of determining whether every practice in the Old Covenant is moral, or ceremonial — which is an accommodative human distinction. When Paul told the Romans, “you also have become dead to the law through the body of Christ” (his death), he included the law that said “thou shalt not covet” (Rom. 7:4, 7). To the Corinthians, he said “the ministry of death, written and engraved on stones” passed away (2 Cor. 3:6-11). Both of these passages contain what is called “moral law,” but we died to it, and it passed away! We grant that many moral principles have not changed. Some before Sinai were incorporated into the Old Covenant, and some in the Old Covenant were incorporated into the New Covenant, but if it is not in the New Covenant, it has not been dedicated by the blood of Christ. What God spoke “through angels proved steadfast” (Heb. 2:2; Gal. 3:19), but “the great salvation” was “first spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed to us by those who heard Him” (Heb. 2:3). Let us hear Christ!