What does the New Testament mean when it speaks of the Old Covenant? Does it mean an earlier half of the current covenant that is in effect right now? Is it simply an older administration of one covenant that includes an old administration and a new administration of an overarching covenant that is currently in effect? Is it a covenant that was made with Adam and fell away with the covenant that started with Moses?
You see, when you create a double language for things that exist already and change the terms that have already been used by the Bible by giving it new meaning, then you land in foreign territory. The Bible calls the covenant that started with Moses the Old Covenant (not the Old Administration) and the covenant that started with Jesus the New Covenant. By calling the Old Covenant the “old administration” and the New Covenant the “new administration” under one covenant, truth is discarded. By reading the epistle to the Hebrews it is clear that the Bible calls the covenant that was established under Moses with its attendant law, the Ten Commandments, the Old Covenant. It also calls the covenant established by Christ, the New Covenant. So, when it calls the Old Covenant obsolete, it speaks of the covenant that was established with Israel at Mt Sinai.
When we speak of the Old Covenant, it becomes almost impossible to separate it from the Ten Commandments. Making a division between the Old Covenant and the Ten Commandments is purely artificial.
In Ex 34:28 and in Dt 4:13 the Ten Commandments are called the words of the covenant. In Ex 34:28, the Ten Commandments are called “the words of the covenant” and in Dt 4:13, the Ten Commandments are called the covenant itself. The Bible, which is quite able to speak for itself, has established in its own words (the words of God) that the Ten Commandments are the words of the covenant, even the covenant itself. The Ten Commandments are the legal terms of the covenant. Hence, the terms “Ten Commandments,” “covenant” and “words of the covenant” are equivalent terms. By trying to separate these terms from one another and inserting new meaning into them, some have emptied these words of their Biblical, God-given meaning and supplanted these words with non-Biblical meaning. When we do this, do we really believe in Sola Scriptura and the inerrancy of the Bible? Therefore, if we are to use the Bible to speak for itself, we have to conclude that the Ten Commandments are the distinct legal covenant document of the Old Covenant established under Moses (Dt 9:9-11).
What do we learn from Moses’ re-declaration of the Ten Commandments in Dt 5:1-22? We learn, that in fact, Moses made a re-declaration of the covenant that God made with Israel at Horeb. What was this covenant? Once you read this passage you quickly realise that the re-declaration of the covenant is nothing more than the Ten Commandments! The Ten Commandments is the covenant!
What we further learn from the “Ten Commandments” language is that the covenant was made with the nation of Israel alone! (Ex 34:27; Dt 4:13; Dt 5:2-3; 1 Ki 8:9). 2 Chr 6:11 tells us that the covenant, the Ten Commandments written on two tablets of stone, was in the Ark of the Covenant, a covenant that the Lord “made with the people of Israel.” Of course, this passage does not stand alone. In Ex 34:27 the Lord told Moses that in accordance with the words written in the Ten Commandments, the Lord had made a covenant with Israel. Dt 5:2-3 is even more clear. Here Moses declares to Israel that the covenant God had made with them at Horeb was a covenant with them and no one else. To press this point home, in verse 3, Moses makes it clear that even their forefathers were excluded from this covenant. “This covenant is with you! Not with your great-grand-pappy, but with you!”
Did you know that there are two versions of the Ten Commandments, the so-called unchanging, eternal moral law of God, in the Bible (Ex 20:1-17; Dt 5:1-22)? If you did not know that, then it is time you re-read these two passages that declare the Ten Commandments. Seeing that a lot has been written about this already, I will let John Reisinger explain it here!
A question we have to ask ourselves is whether the Old Covenant, of which the Ten Commandments were the legal covenant document, was a covenant of grace. Of course, God showed Israel tremendous favour when He delivered them from the clutches of the Egyptians, but does that act translate to the Old Covenant being a covenant of grace? The fact is that this deliverance was merely a physical deliverance, not a spiritual redemption! No, the covenant made with Israel, of which the Ten Commandments were the words of the covenant, was a conditional, legal, works based covenant which demanded obedience for its promised blessings, and curses for disobedience. Ex 19:5-6 clearly informs us that Israel as a treasured possession of God would only remain so “if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant.” Dt 28:1-68 is even more devastating than the Ex 19 passage! (“if you faithfully obey the voice of the LORD your God, being careful to do all his commandments that I command you today…all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you…if you will not obey the voice of the LORD your God or be careful to do all his commandments…then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you…”)
The Ten Commandments were given to an unregenerate people as a legal covenant of blessings and curses, life and death. Israel was a nation of sinners with a small remnant of regenerate believers. Just because God was gracious in giving the covenant, to establish the physical nation of Israel as His people if they obeyed, does not mean that the covenant itself was gracious! Israel’s’ special national status as God’s people was conditional on keeping (or breaking) the Ten Commandments. We know that Israel did not keep the covenant and was eventually cast off as God’s special people (Ex 19:5-6) and we know from 1 Pet 2:9 that the church inherits those very blessings since Christ has kept the covenant in her place.
Synonyms for the Ten Commandments
There are at least five synonyms of the Ten Commandments used in the Bible.
The Ten Commandments, as the summary document under which Israel’s covenant status was established, are sometimes called the “tablets of stone” (Ex 24:12). The “tablets of stone” contained God’s conditional covenant that Israel had to perform (Dt 4:13). The phrase “tablets of stone” is interchangeable with the word “covenant.” This covenant written on tablets of stone is inferior to the covenant written on the heart (2 Cor 3:3).
The phrase “the testimony” is used more often than any other term or phrase as a synonym for the Ten Commandments (Ex 25:16-17; 40:20). What is interesting about this synonym is that it is a singular term, referring to the Ten Commandments as a covenant document. While the Ten Commandments are also called “testimonies” (Dt 4:45), the Ark of the Covenant is never referred to as the “ark of the testimonies” but to the “Ark of the Testimony” (Ex 25:22), referring to the singular nature of the covenant document in the Ark.
The Ten Commandments are also known as the “words of the covenant” (Ex 34:28), the covenant document of the Old Covenant that God made with Israel, and this was referred to earlier.
Finally, the Ten Commandments are also known as the “tablets of the covenant” (Dt 9:9-15). The entire sacrificial system revolved around the tablets of the covenant, the Ten Commandments (Heb 9:4). The relationship of Israel’s worship and the sacrificial system of the Old Testament were intricately related to the Ten Commandments. All of Israel’s worship with all its sacrifices and laws, rested on the centrality of the Ten Commandments, the “tablets of the covenant.” Without these tablets, and the very “words of the covenant” that were inscribed on them, Israel’s system of worship would have been worthless.
All Old Testament laws became part of the Old Covenant
While the Ten Commandments, clearly portrayed as the “words of the covenant,” were housed inside the Ark of the Covenant as the concise, constitutional law of the covenant, the “book of the covenant” (Jer 34:13-20; 2 Ki 23:21) which were the interpretation and application of the Ten Commandments, lay next to the Ark of the Covenant.
This “book of the covenant,” although separate from the “tablets of the covenant,” was a part of the Old Covenant too. While the Ten Commandments are the summary document of the Old Covenant, the “book of the covenant” is the detailed laws of the Old Covenant. Very much like a constitution and the laws that derive from that constitution. The division of the covenant into moral, civil and ceremonial laws are spurious at best. Jer 34:13-20 makes it clear that these aforementioned so-called divisions of the law, were all considered part of the law of Moses, the Old Covenant.
The “sign” of the Old Covenant
It was customary in Old Testament times for the sign of the covenant to be included in the document that carried the covenant. In the same way, the Old Covenant document, the Ten Commandments, contains its own sign of the covenant.
The sign of the Old Covenant, contained in the “words of the covenant” is the Sabbath (Ex 31:12-18)! In verse 16 we learn that “the people of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, observing the Sabbath throughout their generations, as a covenant forever.” Since the Sabbath was the sign of the covenant, the Sabbath stood for the whole of the covenant. Breaking the sign of the covenant, the Sabbath, meant breaking the covenant itself. And when the sign of the covenant was violated, it meant that that person renounced the covenant relationship and only the death penalty was good enough for that violation (Num 15:32-36).
The covenant was made only with Israel, as we learnt from Dt 5:2-3, and the sign of the covenant, the Sabbath, was given to Israel alone. Ex 31:16-17 makes this very clear: “Therefore the people of Israel shall keep the Sabbath… It is a sign forever between me and the people of Israel.” The heart of the Sabbath was to refrain from work and whoever “does any work on the Sabbath day shall be put to death” (Ex 31:15). The Sabbath was essentially about work and not worship. Ez 20:11-20 backs Moses up that the Sabbath is the sign of the covenant and that it was made with Israel. Here God pronounced His wrath on Israel because they did not keep God’s Sabbaths, making those Sabbaths just as holy as the seventh day Sabbath.
This is important since Col 2:12-17 says that we should not let anyone “pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. The question, of course, is whether the Sabbath (“a Sabbath”) mentioned in verse 16 includes the seventh day Sabbath. “These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.” (vv16-17) The death that Christ died, the curse that He lifted, was not to relieve us from ceremonial laws, so we could eat bacon, but “canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands” (v14), the Ten Commandments. What law, or “record of debt,” stood between God and us? Surely you can see that it was not the ceremonial laws, but rather the Ten Commandments! The fact that Paul tells us in verse 13 that “God made [us] alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses,” is clear evidence that what Paul had in mind was salvation, and that mere deliverance from ceremonial laws was not what Paul had in mind here, hence, “the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands” is the Ten Commandments. The basis of our forgiveness is not the removal of any ceremonial or civil laws, but the law that condemns to death, the Ten Commandments.
The list of Sabbaths that Paul refers to here in Colossians is a known list. In Lev 23, the Lord gave Moses the appointed feasts, “holy convocations” in the ESV (“sacred assemblies” in the NIV). This seems to be the only place in Scripture where we can find a list of “Sabbaths.” What is most important about this list of “Sabbaths” is that the very first one mentioned is the seventh day Sabbath. It is rather clear that Paul would have known about this passage, and it is most likely that this is the very passage that Paul alluded to in Col 2. With the seventh day Sabbath making it to the top of this list, it is not possible to separate it from the rest of the Sabbaths. Each of these Sabbaths included the main requirement of the seventh day Sabbath, no work. That means that all these Sabbaths, the seventh day Sabbath included, are similar in nature.
The Ark of the Covenant
The Ark of the Covenant was so named because the Ten Commandments, the covenant document was housed inside (Ex 25:16; Ex 40:19-20; Dt 10:1-5). The ark of the covenant facilitated sacrificial ministry the Ten Commandments demanded (Heb 9:1-4). Without the Ten Commandments in the ark, the sacrificial system of the Old Covenant would have been based on nothing, since God based it all on His law for the Old Covenant, the Ten Commandments.
Entrance to the presence of the Ark of the Covenant spelt death to anyone until the demands of the tablets of the covenant were fully met. It is for this reason that only the high priest could enter only once a year into the most holy place with sacrificial blood. The demands of the law could only be satisfied by blood, since human beings are incapable of keeping the law perfectly.
The Covenant Document had a Definite Beginning and End
The distinct legal covenant document of the Old Covenant, the Ten Commandments, had its definite beginning on Mt. Sinai when God gave it to Moses (Ex 31:18) to deliver it to Israel with whom alone this covenant was given (Dt 5:2-3). The fact that this covenant, the Ten Commandments (Dt 4:13), was made with Israel alone and not with their forefathers, shows that the Ten Commandments as a covenant document did not exist before, but was established here at Sinai.
Since the first covenant, the Old Covenant, was a covenant of death and “if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion to look for a second.” (Heb 8:7) As a result, the Old Covenant ended with the death of Jesus as our sacrifice. So, “In speaking of a new covenant [not a new administration of an existing covenant], he makes the first one obsolete.” (Heb 8:13) It is in Christ’s death that we are redeemed from the curse of the Law (Gal 3:3-14), the same Law that was abolished in Christ (Eph 2:15).
From this we learn that in the abolishment of the Law and the Old Covenant, the Ten Commandments have served out their purpose as the distinct legal document of the Old Covenant. However, in saying that the Ten Commandments have come to an end, it does not mean that that we can now kill and steal. What it does mean is that we are no longer under the Ten Commandments as a legal document that stands against us. It is not the individual commandments that have been done away with, but the legal document, the covenant document, the tablets of stone. The only commandment that no longer exists is the Sabbath commandment. With the covenant being made obsolete, there is no longer any need to perform this duty, as it was the sign of that old covenant, and without a covenant, the sign has become unnecessary! The fact is that the Sabbath commandment started at Sinai and ended with the death of Christ. No one was ever punished for breaking the Sabbath command before it was given as a commandment at Sinai. Before Sinai, people were punished for all the other commandments, just not for the Sabbath. In the New Testament, all commands have been repeated in one form or another, except the Sabbath command. The Ten Commandments, the Law, as a legal covenant document has ended and is no longer our guardian because Christ has come and we are justified by faith (Gal 3:24-25). The Old Covenant, with its covenant document, the Ten Commandments also came to an end because the priesthood changed (Heb 7:12).
Christ instituted a new covenant “by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands” (Col 2:14). By dying as a ransom and propitiation under the Old Covenant, the resurrected Christ became the mediator of a New Covenant (Heb 9:15). Christ fulfilled the demands of the Old Covenant on our behalf and has inaugurated a New Covenant in which His blood was shed once for all.
For more on New Covenant Theology, go to NCT Friday: Introduction.