How Covenants Work in the Bible

Why did God abolish the old covenant laws?

I don’t know if “abolish” is the proper word for it. This may be a more recent term used by scholars and people who write books about the Bible. It may be a common term within systematic theologies as well.

But it’s beneficial to lean on the words the Bible uses to describe the covenants before the new covenant. Of course, the new covenant is the most recent and final covenant. There will be no more after it. And this is the covenant under which we all live now.

The reason I don’t like the word “abolish” is that it gives the impression that God destroyed it and may not have even liked it when he made it. But this is not the case. Two words I prefer to use instead are “fulfill” and “obsolete.” Both of these words can be found within the pages of Scripture and may better explain what happened to the covenants.

All of the covenants from the first one God made with Adam and Eve (Fill the earth and subdue it) to the last, the new covenant described in passages like Jeremiah 31:31-34 are still active. What I mean by this is that these covenants are still in place.

A covenant is an agreement made between two parties. But the party that initiates the covenant decides when it ends. Most covenants ended at the moment of the initiator’s death.

In the Bible, God is the initiator of every covenant between himself and humanity. And there is no indication from Scripture that any of these covenants have ceased by his command. Since God cannot die, that infers that every covenant is still in place and active.

If this is the case, we need to find other ways besides thinking about Old Testament covenants as being abolished or gotten rid of. I like the word “fulfilled” because Jesus tells us in Matthew 5:17-20 that he came to fulfill the law. All of the New Testament presumes this. Every New Testament writer sees Jesus as the fulfillment of the law.

Hebrews uses the word “obsolete” to describe the old covenant in light of the new (Hebrews 8:13). But even this writer does not say that the old covenant has been abolished or doesn’t mean anything or isn’t active.

We call them classic cars nowadays, but there are certainly obsolete compared to the technology in our new cars. I don’t know too many people who don’t have at least a respect, if not admiration, for those old cars of the 60s and 70s.

Obsolete is a slightly better term because it shows that the old covenant is not gone. Its commands and teachings are still in place. If the old covenant laws were abolished, like we abolished slavery in the 1800s, then the moral laws included like the Ten Commandments would no longer be a guide for us.

But Jesus preached about these commandments and even enhanced them, internalizing them in us. I have taught that if a commandment is in the Old and New Testament, is still in place for us. It goes beyond the laws of Israel.

The writer of Hebrews uses the word “obsolete” not because the old covenant is no longer useful or in place but because Jesus has made it obsolete through his sacrifice. A sacrificial system and laws that call people to regularly sacrifice animals falls short when the sinless, perfect, and innocent Son of God gave his human life once and for all for all sins. Sacrificing animals seems obsolete when he has already fulfilled all of those requirements.

Paul talks about the Old Testament laws as a guardian (Galatians 3:24-28). But because of Jesus, there are no distinctions among us any longer. God made the law for Israel to show it as his people in the midst of the peoples of Canaan. The distinctions the law makes are no longer in place. Everyone comes to God through faith in Christ.

I have described the Christian understanding of three types of laws in the old covenant. I will explain the difference between these laws and then how we can apply them as Christians below.

  1. Civil Laws – laws that governed Israel telling them how to treat one another and how to use the land God gave to them. Example: the goring of oxen.
  2. Ritual/Ceremonial–Laws – like the Levitical laws that governed how the priests performed sacrifices and priestly duties in and around the temple. Example: how to cut up a sacrificial animal and which parts to eat or burn.
  3. Moral Laws – laws that governed the conduct of Israel and show God’s high standards and requirements for holiness. Example: the Ten Commandments.

Civil laws were meant for Israel, not for Christians. But from these, we can understand the second greatest commandment to love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:39; Leviticus 19:18). In so doing, we honor God’s creation and his image he has placed in every human being (Genesis 1:26-27).

Ritual laws were only in place for the Temple and the sacrificial system. Even today Jewish people concentrate on learning Torah in place of these laws until the Temple exists again. They cannot be practiced outside of the priesthood or the Temple. The Temple was destroyed in 70 A.D. by the Romans. Jewish people have relied on synagogues even before the temple’s demise.

Finally, moral laws do not apply to one people. They apply to the entire human race. These are God’s laws, high standards, that he has placed in all of us. But we must not only follow the letter of these laws. The spirit of the laws is just as important. Finding them in both Testaments and seeing Jesus teach and preach with the Old Testament laws, we must see the importance of these laws for everyone today.

Besides all of this, Jesus fulfills all of these laws. He treated everyone with complete righteousness, whether they were his neighbors or not. He also was the perfect sacrifice that all of the sacrificial laws look forward to. And Jesus was innocent in his morality. Through his sacrifice, he has fulfilled the old covenant for himself and us.

God has not abolished any of the old covenants. Through his son Jesus, he has fulfilled them and made a way for us to know him through obedience to his Holy Spirit. This obedience affords us a relationship with a holy God as his holy people.

Image by Jondolar Schnurr from Pixabay

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