In his prayer, Nehemiah refers to the Lord as one keeps covenant (Nehemiah 1: 5.) What was Nehemiah referring to? The following insight may answer that question. It was initially published on March 6, 2003, for that week's quarterly, entitled: "The New Covenant."
This week's Sabbath School lesson's topic for discussion is the new covenant. Much confusion exists regarding the old and new covenants. The objective of this quarter's lessons is to clarify the confusion and bring us to a greater understanding of God's plan of salvation. To accomplish this, we need to come to grips with some basic concepts.
* When did the old covenant end?
* When did the new covenant begin?
* Another valid question that we often overlook is: When did the old covenant begin?
* Is there a difference between a "covenant" and a "contract"?
Contract and Covenant Contrasted
Many confuse the meaning of the word "covenant," thinking that it is the same as a "contract." When a man enters into a contract with someone, it is for the mutual benefit of both parties. "I will do thus and such if you will do so and so." A contract is negotiated and is "thing" oriented. We want something that the other party has, and we feel that we have something to offer in return. A contract is self-centered--what can "I" get out of the deal?
Once both parties agree to the terms, the contract is signed and made legally binding on both of them. Each participant must keep his side of the bargain, or some a penalty or forfeiture will occur as a result. A contract is, therefore, a mutual affair, but are we on equal terms with God? Can we make bilateral agreements with God based on equal terms? "The carnal mind is enmity against God." "There is none righteous, no, not one" (Rom. 8:7; 3:10). God is righteous; we are unrighteous. God is holy, divine; we are unholy, carnal.
Where is there any basis of equality for us to begin our bargaining with God? What have we to negotiate with when we come to God to make a contract? Only our "filthy rags," our sins, our "works of the flesh." Of ourselves, we cannot offer obedience to a single commandment because the carnal mind will not let us obey God's law (Rom. 8:7). We cannot make a contract with God because we have nothing to bring to the bargaining table except our sinful selves--which is worthless.
In contrast to this idea, a covenant would adequately be defined as a promise or a pledge. It is "person" oriented, made TO someone BY someone. The stronger individual always makes it to a weaker individual. A covenant involves loyalty, care, and concern from the individual who made it to the other person. Genesis 15 clearly illustrates the concept stated above. The covenant God made to Abraham was intended to be one-sided. God promised to give Abraham a child that would be born of his wife Sarah when both Abraham and Sarah were well past child-bearing age. There was nothing Abraham or Sarah could do to make this promise a reality in their lives, except believe that God was able to fulfill what He had told them. Abraham's faith in God's promise (he could only say "amen"--verse 6, Hebrew) was as "new covenant" as it gets!
A Biblical Illustration
Perhaps starting the lesson off with a cartoon illustration has set our feet headed down the wrong path. We must investigate Bible truth through an inspired lens. Paul gives us an excellent illustration of the two covenants.
"For it is written, that Abraham had two sons, the one by a bondmaid, the other by a freewoman. But he who was of the bondwoman was born after the flesh, but he of the freewoman was by promise. Which things are an allegory: for these are the two covenants" (Gal. 4:22-24).
Paul explains what the two covenants are, using the illustration of the two women, Sarah and Hagar. Hagar was an Egyptian slave woman, servant to Sarah. The children of a slave woman are slaves, even though their father is free. Hagar could only bring forth children that were under bondage. Scripture tells us that, "They which are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God: but the children of the promise are counted for the seed" (Rom. 9:8).
These two covenants exist today. "The two covenants are not a matter of time, but the condition of the heart. Let no man flatter himself that he cannot be under the old covenant, thinking that its time has passed." So long as we try of ourselves, in our own strength to keep those promises which God Himself has made to us, then we are under the old covenant. (E. J. Waggoner, Glad Tidings, pp. 99-100). It is only when we wholeheartedly believe God, that we are set free to live under the new covenant.
Where Does the "Old" End and "New" Begin?
If the new covenant is not tied to the New Testament, where does it begin? The "new" covenant has been with us since Eden. God promised the fallen pair that He would place enmity between them and the serpent who had led them into sin (Gen. 3:15). The "new" covenant and the "everlasting" covenant are one and the same thing. It has always been God's promise to save us without any works of our own. The new or everlasting covenant was put in place first--before the old.
Then where does the old covenant first come into view? At the very gates of Eden. The "old covenant" has been in existence in the heart of humanity since sin entered. It existed long before God gave the ceremonial laws at Mount Sinai. It has nothing to do with "time" and everything to do with the condition of our hearts as we strive to save ourselves.
When God instructed Adam to bring the sin offering, it was to be a lamb without blemish from his flock. God instructed Adam that this animal symbolized the Messiah that was to come (see Rev. 13:8; 1 Peter: 18-20). Through faith in the promise of God, Adam taught his sons to do the same.
"And in the process of time it came to pass, that Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering unto the Lord. And Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock . . . And the Lord had respect unto Abel and to his offering: but unto Cain and to his offering He had not respect" (Gen. 4:3-5).
Why did the Lord "not respect" Cain's offering? Because "without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sin." (Heb. 9:22). Cain was trying to save himself by his own methods. He thought that his offering of fruits should be just as good as the required offering. Had he not worked to produce them? Was this work of his hands not sufficient for the Lord? Cain would not believe God's promise and took the burden of his life upon himself. His subsequent history is the lesson of the results of the old covenant way of doing things.
What is the "Better" Covenant?
This week's lesson also discusses the "better covenant." While persisting in its misunderstanding of the old and new covenants, it rightly states that the "problem" was the people's failure to "grasp" God's promise by faith. There has never been a failure or deficiency in God's promise to humanity.
The "better" covenant Paul tells us about in Hebrews 8:6 is God's everlasting covenant made from the foundation of the world. This covenant is "better" than man's promises to obey God. Why? Because it is "established upon better promises"--the promises of the Godhead to save humanity from sin. "The salvation of human beings is a vast enterprise, that calls into action every attribute of the divine nature. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit have pledged themselves [promised] to make God's children more than conquerors through Him that loved them." Ellen G. White, Review and Herald, January 27, 1903 (emphasis supplied).
The Gospel is called the "good news of God's salvation." It is God's promise to us that He will save us "from our sins," not in them (Matt. 1:21). He has told us through the Word that He will "provide a way of escape" from every temptation (1 Cor. 10:13). When we believe that this is so, then it becomes a reality in our lives. "The gospel is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth" (Rom. 1:16).
What is the "new covenant" God wishes to "make" with us, of which Jeremiah speaks in 31:31? God has always had only one objective for His creatures--that we would believe His "better" promise to save us from our sin. He longs for the day when His people will heed His loving call to turn around, leave their folly, and believe wholeheartedly in His power to save "to the uttermost" all who will believe His promise. Instead of relying on our sadly deficient promises to obey, when we believe God's word to us and by faith allow Christ to live in us, we will be living under the better promise of the new and everlasting covenant (see Glad Tidings, pp.57-60).
It is Indeed a Work of the Heart
Sadly, as we stand at the "foot of the mount" we are prone like the children of Israel to say, "All the Lord has spoken, we will do" (see Ex. 19:7, 8). We promise the Lord when the Lord has not asked us to promise anything. He knows that our promises are as insubstantial as ropes of sand. All He asks is that we believe His promises to us. "If ye will [hear] My voice indeed, and [cherish] My covenant (previously made with their father Abraham), then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto Me above all people" (Ex. 19:5--literal translation of Hebrew words in brackets).
When we believe that we are the adopted children of God, then we will respond appropriately. Instead of behaving like rebellious heathens, we'll respond as if we were the children of the King of the universe. Not as a servant, will we obey, out of duty or debt, but from the heart will come the desire to follow God everywhere He leads us. Obedience to all the commandments of God is the natural result of this understanding.
What God promises He produces through the power of His Holy Spirit and faith in His word. When we believe God's promises, we are enabled to do those things which we were unable to do previously by our own strength (see Gal. 5:16, 17; and Christ's Object Lessons, p. 333). Faith brings us under the new covenant of God's better promise.
When we truly appreciate all that He has done to save us, we will respond as God wants us to respond. We will see the Ten Commandments as ten glorious promises, not ten fetters that bind us as we toil and struggle to keep them. Commandment keeping will become a heart response to the love of God revealed on Calvary. As adopted sons and daughters of God, we will go forth with rejoicing, gladly willing to obey our gracious Father.
We do not need to live under the old covenant. God's promises are sure. Faith makes all the promises of God a reality in our lives. We need not wait one moment longer. "Now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation" (2 Cor. 6:2).