The Messiah Would Bring in a New Covenant
The expression “new covenant” appears seven times in the New Testament, and the new covenant is even more frequently referred to simply as the “covenant,” with the context showing what is meant. References to this covenant are especially frequent in the book of Hebrews, but also occur during Jesus’ final Passover meal (the Last Supper) and in other passages as well.
All these occurrences go back to Jeremiah 31:31-34, where God promises to Israel that He will initiate a new covenant. God characterizes this new covenant as “not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt” (verse 32) – in other words, “not like” the Mosaic covenant, the Law of Moses.
The first big question is, when will this covenant begin to take effect? Jesus, at the Last Supper – his final Passover meal – declared that it was going to begin with his sacrificial death:
Likewise [he took] the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.”
In case there is any question, in Matthew Jesus clarifies that his death is indeed for the atonement of our sins:
This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.
Paul also refers to this same occasion when he reminds the believers in Corinth that:
In the same way also [Jesus] took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”
Among other things, the covenant made with Israel through Moses was a reminder of the Exodus from Egypt, as seen in these verses:
You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine.
As Messiah, Jesus brings in a greater Exodus, yet one that follows the pattern of the Exodus from Egypt. This was the expectation of the Hebrew Bible also – that there would ultimately be a new Exodus greater than the one from Egypt. Because of the redemption Jesus provides, the cup at his final Passover was also meant to be drunk, whenever it was partaken of, in remembrance of him and his redemption.
But it is in the book of Hebrews, written to Jewish believers in Jesus, that the idea of the new covenant is especially emphasized. Coming in for special emphasis is that it will be a better covenant than the Mosaic covenant. Jeremiah said as much in his prophecy, and Hebrews in turn quotes from him as well as making other mentions of the new covenant. Here are the relevant verses from Hebrews:
This makes Jesus the guarantor of a better covenant.
The context is the priesthood; Jesus is our kohen or priest, the intermediary between us and God. According to the previous verses, his priesthood is guaranteed by God, making the covenant he brings in better than the Mosaic covenant. In fact, the priests in the centuries leading up to Jesus and in his own day had the reputation – often well-deserved – of being corrupt. Jesus’ priesthood is not subject to corruption or the ups and downs of the human beings who happen to occupy the priestly office at the time. Guaranteed by God Himself, Jesus’ priesthood is forever exercised ethically, in purity and on our behalf. And this is because his priesthood is in the context of a better covenant.
In the following chapter, Hebrews quotes the Jeremiah passage directly:
But as it is, Christ has obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises. For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion to look for a second. For he finds fault with them when he says:
“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord,
when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel
and with the house of Judah,
not like the covenant that I made with their fathers
on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt.
For they did not continue in my covenant,
and so I showed no concern for them, declares the Lord.
For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel
after those days, declares the Lord:
I will put my laws into their minds,
and write them on their hearts,
and I will be their God,
and they shall be my people.
And they shall not teach, each one his neighbor
and each one his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’
for they shall all know me,
from the least of them to the greatest.
For I will be merciful toward their iniquities,
and I will remember their sins no more.”
In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.
This passage shows first, that Israel violated the Mosaic covenant and in response, God planned to institute a better one; and second, that the better covenant has come through Jesus. The writer says that the old covenant is “ready to vanish away,” perhaps because he is writing with the destruction of the Temple shortly ahead or already behind him.
Additional passages to consider are 2 Corinthians 3:6; Hebrews 9:15; 10:14-18 and 12:24.
So the first big question was about when the new covenant would begin to take effect. The second is, what is the new covenant like? Though it is “not like” the Mosaic covenant, it is not a destruction of that covenant, but its fulfillment. Jesus said in Matthew 5:17:
Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.
In practice, this means that all the ethical and moral principles of the Mosaic covenant are still with us. They reflect God’s character, which is unchanging. What the new covenant brings is an internal awareness of God’s law and the forgiveness of sins. Just as Jesus has brought God’s kingdom in a preliminary but not yet final way, so with the covenant he brings in. Believers, through God’s Holy Spirit, have an internal awareness of God’s requirements, along with atonement for their sins. But that internal awareness is not as complete as it will one day be.
It’s helpful to compare what Jewish tradition says about the Torah, the Law of Moses. For traditional Judaism, the centrality and eternal nature of the Torah are virtually axiomatic. Traditional Jews believe the Torah as we have it now will never be changed or done away with.
Yet that is not the opinion of all of Jewish tradition. Speaking of Maimonides’ Thirteen Articles of Faith, compiled in medieval times and a bedrock for much of traditional Judaism, scholar Marc B. Shapiro says:
ninth principle teaches that the Torah will never be abrogated, in whole or part, and that God will never give another Torah. Maimonides repeats his insistence that the biblical mitsvot [commandments] and the Oral Law will never be abrogated, not even in messianic days, in a few other places. While this is certainly a popular position among rabbinic authorities, and has a talmudic source, it is hardly unanimously accepted.1
There are various rabbinic opinions that in the “World to Come” or in messianic times, there will be great changes in the Torah. For example:
R. Joseph: “The mitsvot will be abolished in the Time to Come.”
– Babylonian Talmud, Nidah 61b
R. Abin ben Kahanah proclaimed: “The Holy One, blessed be He, said: ‘A new Torah shall go forth from me,’ that is, a new Torah law shall issue from me.”
— Leviticus Rabbah 13:3
“. . . new Torah which will be given through the messiah.”
— Yalkut Shimoni, On Isaiah, no. 429
We absolutely do not admit that which Maimonides laid down, that the entire Torah will not change, for there is no decisive proof for this – neither from reason and logic nor from the Bible. Verily, the Sages tell us that the Holy One will give a new Torah in the future. If our King should wish to change the Torah, or exchange it for another, whatever the King wishes, whether it be to descend on Mount Sinai or another of the mighty mountains, or even a valley, there to appear a second time before the eyes of all the living, we would be the first to do His will, whatever be His bidding.
— R. Jacob Emden [18th c. rabbi], Migdal oz, 26b-c and Translation in Naor, Post-Sabbatian Sabbatianism, 8-9.
In the future the mitsvot will no longer have a physical component but only a spiritual one. So, for example, one will be able to wear wool and linen as this is only the external form of the mitsvah, which in the future will be obsolete. Only the spiritual component of the mitsvot is eternal.
— Shapiro’s summary of R. Jacob Joseph of Polonnoye (died c. 1782)
As Shapiro concludes, “From what we have seen so far, it is obvious that there is a significant rabbinic position which declares that the commandments will be abolished in messianic days.”2
If Jesus is indeed the Messiah – as his followers believe – then there is every likelihood that the new covenant of Jeremiah has begun with his sacrificial death and his resurrection, as he himself taught and as emphasized in the book of Hebrews. If so, then we can expect that the Law of Moses as we have in the Torah, has changed as well. Followers of Jesus understand that the moral principles contained in all the 613 commandments of the Torah are still valid, but their expression has changed for a new era. Many of the ceremonial laws and laws that pertained to Israel as an ancient society no longer apply in this new age since the coming of the Messiah, while others have deepened or extended in their application. With this, it seems, many sages in Jewish history would have agreed.
And the knowledge of God has come to us in a new and deeper way, along with the forgiveness of sins, and has overflowed the bounds of Israel to encompass all people from all nations who put their faith in Messiah Jesus. Now that is certainly something “new”!
1. Marc B. Shapiro, The Limits of Orthodox Theology: Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles Reappraised (Oxford; Portland, OR: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2004), p. 122.
2. Ibid., p. 130.