MOVE ON TO THE NEW COVENANT
In God's dealing with people, He has moved over from the old covenant to the new, making the old covenant obsolete (Heb.8:13;10:9). If we do not understand this and the changes He has made under the new covenant compared to the old, it is possible that we may become quite confused in our relationship with God. God does not deal with us now as He did with the people of Israel under the old covenant. Our relationship with Him is quite different, and His dealings with us are also different.
By calling the two divisions in the Bible as the Old Testament and the New Testament, we have made the differences between the two covenants more obscure. We should have called those divisions 'Before Christ' and 'After Christ' merely to indicate when the books were written. The section called Old Testament contains many prophecies about the new covenant, and section called New Testament mentions many things from the old covenant. The old covenant itself began with the giving of the law (represented mainly by the Ten Commandments) through Moses at Mount Sinai, and the new covenant began with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is interesting to note that before Jesus died, the Jews including Jesus were still under the old covenant, and many of the things Jesus spoke and did were according to that covenant, even though they are written in the New Testament!
Phases In God's Dealings With Men
We see that God went through different phases from the beginning in His dealings with people. He created Adam and Eve innocent and wished for them to live in fellowship with Him and multiply. But they sinned and mankind became sinful. Things became so bad that God decided to wipe out man with the Flood and start afresh with righteous Noah and his family. But men became evil again. Then God called out Abraham from his people and started making a separate nation (Israel) which could serve as a model for the rest of the world. He gave them the old covenant which gave them clear boundaries about what they should and should not do. Israel could not keep the covenant, and strayed away from God to idols and sinful living. Even though God continued disciplining Israel and warned them through prophets, He knew that men needed a new covenant altogether if they were to fulfil His plans for them. This new covenant came into being through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Soon afterwards this new covenant was opened up to the whole of mankind, going beyond the coverage of the Jews. Now God is dealing with us through the new covenant, and not the old.
The Old Covenant
This was a performance-based covenant with God promising to bless Israel if they obeyed His commandments, and threatening to bring curses upon them, if they disobeyed (Deut.28). The Ten Commandments were the backbone of this covenant, with additional laws and regulations for the new nation of Israel in relation to their temple worship, religious ceremonies, hygiene, law and order, jurisdiction, interpersonal relationships, etc.
When we look at the whole of God's dealings with man, we see that the old covenant was not ever meant to be satisfactory by itself, but it was meant only to be a stepping stone towards the coming of the new covenant. Paul compares this to a situation where the young son of a family is kept under a tutor who trains him till he attains the mature age when he can become a full heir to the family's assets and responsibilities (Gal.3:21-25). The writer to the Hebrews compares and contrasts the new covenant with the old covenant to point out that the new covenant is a far better covenant and has come to replace the old.
When we view the old covenant with this understanding, we can see that it had many limitations. It was a covenant given to a new nation just coming out of slavery in Egypt, with most people in the nation not having any clear idea about God or His nature. Therefore, the covenant had a standard that was at their level; in other words, people could keep all the commandments of the old covenant if they wished to. The Apostle Paul said he was blameless according to the Law. (The problem was, very few of them had the inclination to keep the commandments; they were born in sin and had a natural inclination to sin. Those who desired to obey God sought Him and He helped them in special ways. But the majority kept going away from God to idol worship and living for pleasure.)
The commandments pertained to external behaviour. For example, people were to acknowledge and worship only Jehovah as God, and making and worshipping idols was punishable. But there was no punishment for those who did not love God in their heart! Committing adultery or murder was punished, while lusting in one's heart or hating someone could not be punished.
The blessings for keeping the commandments were material, and the curses for disobedience also pertained to the earthly life (Deut.28). In other words, the old covenant touched one's external life, and there was very little demand on the inward life. Certainly there were commandments to love God with all one's heart, and also not to covet what belonged to the others. But these were not punishable offences unless they resulted in some wrong behaviour.
There was also another aspect of the old covenant that contrasts it against the new covenant. Paul refers to this by saying that the old covenant was only a shadow-or in other words, only a foretaste-of the new covenant that was to come through Jesus (Col.2:16,17). The old covenant practices foreshadowed the perfection that was to come through the new covenant. Things in the old covenant found their ultimate fulfilment only in the new covenant. We shall look at these after we have addressed the new covenant.
The New Covenant
If the old covenant demonstrated through Israel man's inability to keep the covenant, the new covenant was God's way of empowering man to reach where God wanted him to be. Here all the 'Thou shalt' and 'Thou shalt not' from God to man are replaced by 'I will' from God. God promises to take away our heart of stone and give us a new heart (being born again). He will put a new spirit within us, write His laws upon our heart and cause us to walk in His ways. He will forgive us our sins and wipe them out so totally that He will not remember them (hold them against us) anymore. He will teach all of us from the smallest to the greatest to know Him personally (Jer. 31:31-34, Ezek. 36:23-30 and Heb. 8:7-13).
God points out in Ezekiel 36:22 that He was doing this for the sake of His holy name and not because of some merit on our part. What we receive is God's undeserving, unmerited favour towards us-grace! He does this for us because He loves us and not because we qualify by our good works.
Acceptance by grace is an outstanding feature of the new covenant, that should take away our being scared of God and being uncertain about our salvation, and give us boldness to walk into God's presence (Heb.10:19-22) with worship, praise, thanksgiving and requests. God has become our Father and not a fearsome being up there somewhere. He loves us like no one else, even though He knows all about us. He will never leave or forsake us (Heb.13:5).
The new covenant is essentially a heart-to-heart relationship. When God does a work inside us through His Spirit, we become enabled to love God and walk in His ways in a deeper and closer way (Phil.2:12,13). We change over from doing things in order to please God (the old covenant) to loving God and obeying Him because He loves us (new covenant). This is a work of the Holy Spirit in us.
If we look at the promises of the new covenant, we see that there is a marked shift from the external life to our inward being. The promises are related to our inner transformation into the likeness of Jesus Christ. If we remember that in the old covenant the promised blessings were things such as prosperity, freedom from sickness, dominion over enemies, etc., we find that Jesus tells His disciples that there will be lots of trouble for us in this world (Jn.16:33)! But He tells us that He has authority over everything and promises to be with us till the end of the world (Matt.28:18,20). His kingdom is characterised by righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit rather than earthly wealth, comfort or greatness (Rom.14:7).
The Shadow And The Fullness
What the old covenant brought forth from God to man as a foretaste became fully known under the new covenant. The big difference was that, in the new covenant, God undertook to supply His strength to deal with man's weakness (Rom.8:3). He would change our hearts, give us His Spirit to dwell in us and enable us to walk in His ways. Let us look at some other points that will highlight the transition from the old covenant to the new.
The Old Testament commandment not to murder has given place to not hating someone in our heart (Matt.5:21,22). Under the new covenant, it goes beyond not committing physical adultery to ceasing from lusting for women in our heart (Matt. 5:27,28). We now go from not worshipping idols to loving God with all our heart. Instead of having one day in a week as a Sabbath for God and spending the rest of the week for ourselves, we now move to devoting all the days of the week to doing the will of God in every part of our life. In the place of giving a tenth of our income to God and thinking that we can spend the rest as we like, we recognise that all our income belongs to God and that we need to spend all of it as stewards of God. From worshipping God only in Jerusalem and only on festival days, we move on to worshipping Him in truth and spirit wherever we are and whatever day or time it is.
In short, we move from living our own lives with a little help from God to living our lives for God. He has purchased us with the blood of Christ, and we do not belong to ourselves anymore. All that we are and have belongs to God. This is a total paradigm shift from the old covenant.
It is not as if we need to do nothing and God will do everything for us. The more we love God and yield ourselves to Him the more He will be able to do in us. What God is trying to do in us will not happen automatically, unless there is cooperation from our side. There is certainly a place for growth and development here, as well as a possibility for neglect and loss.
Confused Between The Covenants
When we are not clear about these changes, our lives are confused by trying to live according to both covenants. We preach grace, but we live lives that are struggling to find acceptance with God. We talk of sins washed away and our names in the book of life, but live in fear of death. We confess that God has purchased us, but we still make separate compartments of our spiritual life and secular life. We make much of ceremonies and special days, and we fail to take godliness into the depths of our heart. We still keep asking, "Is this right or wrong?" instead of asking, "What does God want me to do?" We still content ourselves with tithing and Sabbath days.
As a result, we remain stunted in our spiritual growth even though we have great promises from God to be fulfilled in us. Shall we not put behind what belongs to spiritual infancy and press on to maturity?
The new covenant promises us better things-far better-compared to the old covenant. God promises to do things in us and through us that we could not have done by ourselves. Now if we trust Him and give Him the full ownership of our lives, we can also enjoy the fullness of His blessings upon us.