Confusing the New Covenant with the New Testament is a lazy habit of interpretation. Many people see the words “New Testament” whenever their eyes scan over the words “New Covenant.” Unfortunately this is not helped by the tradition in early Messianic Judaism, which many MJ congregations still follow, of calling the New Testament the B’rit Hadasha (various spellings, B’rit Chadasha, equals “New Covenant”).
It is common for people to think “there was a collection of writings called the ‘Old Testament’ or ‘Old Covenant’ and now we have the ‘New Testament’ or ‘New Covenant.’” It is common for people to have a vague, fuzzy notion of what New Covenant means: “What Jesus did to change things … the replacement for the old covenant … everything after the cross … etc.”
The New Covenant is a future promise. The New Testament is a collection of writings. The New Covenant is God’s way of relating with people in the future age. The New Testament is a fourfold Gospel, a collection of letters, and an apocalypse. The New Covenant is made with Israel and Judah. The New Testament is written to a growing Yeshua-movement mostly composed of Gentiles. The New Covenant does not contain a new lawcode, but specifically claims to be based on the existing lawcode of Torah (though I would argue it means perfected or ideal Torah). The collection of New Testament writings does not contain any lawcode, but is based on the existing Torah and the teachings of Messiah which interpret the Torah.
How did a collection of writings come to be called “the New Testament”? What could be a better name for the New Testament collection? What is the New Covenant exactly? Has it begun? How is it related to the covenants which came before it? What is “better” about the New Covenant? Is it a new Law? What did Yeshua mean at the Last Supper when he brought it up? What points is Hebrews 8 making about it?
ORIGIN OF “NEW TESTAMENT”
The terms “Old Testament” and “New Testament” have their origin, best we can tell, in the second century. The anti-Semitic Melito of Sardis about the year 170 CE referred to “the books of the Old Testament” (Letter to Onesimus). Hippolytus (c. 230 CE) compared the Church to a ship whose “two tillers are the two testaments” (On Christ and Antichrist). Cyprian (c. 248) spoke of “the scriptures, old and new” (Treatise XII). Athanasius (c. 367) spoke of “the scriptures of the New Testament” (39th Pashal Letter).
The thing is, this choice of terms was very unwise. There are multiple covenants or testaments in the Hebrew Bible, so calling it THE Old Testament is misleading no matter how you try to explain it. Is the Abrahamic Covenant “old” or the Davidic? Most of the time what people mean is that the Sinai or Mosaic Covenant is “old,” because in their theology it is obsolete and abolished.
The terminology “Old and New Testament” is also unwise because there is no covenant at all in the New Testament. Please feel free to comment if you think I am wrong about this. I look forward to pushbacks and creative attempts to find covenants in the New Testament.
What could have been more helpful names for the parts of the Bible? Well, for starters, we could have called each section by its name: Torah, Prophets, Writings, Gospel, Letters, Apocalypse. If I could go back in a time machine, that is the nomenclature I would try to create in history. If we insist on making the sharp divide between “before Jesus and after Jesus,” then I suppose Hebrew Bible (or Jewish Scriptures) and Apostolic Writings is a decent way of naming the parts. The thing is, I hate to see the Gospels relegated to the term “writings” since I believe they are as foundational and central as Torah. Some regard the Writings (ketuvim) of the Hebrew Bible as the least important section. The Gospels, though, stand with Torah in importance.
WHAT IS THE NEW COVENANT?
The New Covenant is God’s way of relating to people in the future age which is characterized by three things: a perfect Torah, an atoned people, and a people transformed so that they are able to keep that Torah.
Although the term “a new covenant” is first used in Jeremiah 31:31, its origin as an idea is in Deuteronomy 30:6. This Deuteronomy text is the initial promise of a future age, when Israel has been exiled and regathered, and God changes something in the nature of these regathered Israelites, circumcising their hearts so that they will be able to love him with all their heart.
There are little-known facts about Jeremiah’s new covenant. When it comes, every person in the world will believe in God. It is a covenant made with Israel and Judah (the Jewish people). It includes the commandments already given in the Torah but says they will be placed in the inner person, written on the heart. It is different than the Sinai covenant in that it has greater promises, not that it annuls commandments. It includes the strengthening of the bind between Israel (Jewish people) and God. It includes forgiveness of sins.
In the following description, I will assume that New Covenant promises are not intended to be limited to Israelites, although all specific references are to Israelites. In the New Covenant, human hearts will be circumcised (Deut 30:6), replaced from their stony nature with a softer one (Ezek 36:26), the spirit of people will be filled with the divine Spirit (Ezek 36:27), all people will know God (Jer 31:34), the commandments will be followed (Ezek 36:27), the commandments will be written on human hearts (Jer 31:33), Israel will be restored in the land (Jer 31:33; Ezek 36:28), and there will be forgiveness of sins (Ezek 36:25, 29; Jer 31:34). The books we collectively call the New Testament are not what is being referred to.
Why do I connect Deuteronomy 30:6 with Jeremiah and Ezekiel’s “new covenant” texts? All three concern a future time when people will be transformed and possess remarkable powers of love and goodness. Ezekiel does not use the term “new covenant,” but the future phenomena he is describing match Jeremiah’s description. And there are other texts about a change in human nature in the future age as well.
HAS THE NEW COVENANT BEGUN?
Yeshua spoke of his death at the Last Supper and said it “is the New Covenant” (Luke 22:20, see also Mark 14:24, and see below, “What Did Yeshua Mean at the Last Supper?”). Does this mean, on our side of the lifetime of Yeshua, that the New Covenant is already in effect?
To say the New Covenant is already here is like saying “we have been raised with Messiah.” It is a reality by faith, something that is as good as done, but we have not actually experienced resurrection to new bodies yet. It is now and not yet, guaranteed but not materialized. We cannot say that it is now unnecessary for a person to tell his neighbor about God. We cannot say that people are able to walk in God’s ways now any more than Israel was able to walk in God’s ways. Our atonement is not completed and our nature is not transformed.
HOW DOES IT RELATE TO EARLIER COVENANTS?
Jeremiah’s “a new covenant” is related primarily to the Sinai (Mosaic) covenant which I define this way: God commands Israel to follow a specific constitution called Torah and if they do, he promises to make the land of Israel a paradise on earth.
Why do I say the New Covenant is related mostly to the earlier one made at Sinai? Well, Jeremiah says “not like the covenant I made with your fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt.” In other words, there are some things about the New Covenant that are not like the Sinai agreement. And Jeremiah says one of those things is “I will put my Torah within them, and write it on their hearts.” The New Covenant includes Torah, as Ezekiel also says, “I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules” (36:27).
WHAT IS BETTER ABOUT THE NEW COVENANT?
It is a common assumption that the New Covenant is better because the requirements of the “old” were supposedly difficult and burdensome, but the new is easier. I would challenge people to show me where there is a list of new covenant requirements other than in Torah. I would challenge people to show me what in Torah is supposedly difficult compared to the expectations of Yeshua and the apostles. It seems to me the hardest commandment is to love God with all of our hearts. The “love your neighbor” command is also something we find virtually impossible to fulfill.
No, what is “better” are the promises, not the requirements. This is what Hebrews 8:6 says, “Messiah has obtained a calling that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises.” Specifically speaking, the New Covenant promises a total transformation of people and the completion of atonement. We will be able to live according to God’s ways of perfect goodness. And perfect humanity keeping ideal Torah with the complete removal of all guilt is something very good, better than the Sinai Covenant just as it is better than the lives we are living right now.
IS IT A NEW LAW?
The New Covenant passages never say anything about a change in the requirements, but refer back to the existing Torah.
Why, then, have I said in my definition of the New Covenant that it has a perfected or ideal Torah? This is because when you study Torah itself you find it was meant to change. This is a deep point which I am only going to introduce here and not explain fully. Torah contains some things which are very much bound to time and place, some things which are accommodations to human evil, some things which change within Torah itself. Some things in Torah undermine other things, so that it becomes obvious there is a higher Torah, an ideal Torah, which is about “be holy as I am holy.”
WHAT DID YESHUA MEAN AT THE LAST SUPPER?
Yeshua said, “This is my blood of the covenant which is poured out for many” (Mark 14:24) and “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20). He meant that his death (the cup poured out) would inaugurate (but not complete) the New Covenant. He meant that the beginning of the New Covenant promises would arrive in his death. He meant that the new covenant was now and not yet. He meant the kingdom was now but that we would wait for it. He meant that light had dawned but day was not fully arrived. He did not mean, “from now on all that is old is obsolete.” He meant what was promised long ago is moving forward.
In brief, Hebrews is not saying anything about replacement, is not saying the Sinai Covenant has been replaced by the New Covenant. It is saying the Sinai Covenant has been taken to the next level, which is expansion and not replacement. Hebrews 8:13 means something like “the Sinai Covenant by itself is becoming obsolete because the better promises of the New Covenant make what came before inadequate by itself.”
I compare it, in Yeshua Our Atonement, to computer software:
When you buy version 2.0 you are not saying version 1.0 had nothing good in it. Why would you buy 2.0 if 1.0 was awful? You see, 2.0 is an expansion of 1.0 and includes the functionality of 1.0 within it. If you already have 1.0, you only need an upgrade. And the upgrade won’t work if you uninstall 1.0. The New Covenant is an upgrade to the Abrahamic and Sinai Covenants, and you must retain the first ones to benefit from the later covenant.
I propose that in every case in Hebrews, the issue is that 1.0 (the way his/her Jewish audience practiced their faith before knowing Yeshua) has been greatly improved by 2.0 (the better promises, the way into the holiest place being open, the better priest, etc.). If the old priests were bad, why would we simply want a better version of something bad? The old priests were doing something good. Yeshua is doing something best. It is expansion and improvement, not replacement. Once 2.0 comes out, it is as if 1.0 is obsolete. Once Yeshua has improved the position of the audience of Hebrews, why would they go back to the old version? So it happens that 1.0 (the old) is insufficient by itself (minus the new).
SUMMARY AND CONCLUSIONS
- The name “New Testament” was given by the church to a collection of writings.
- The term “a new covenant” is Bible language for God’s ways with humankind in the future age.
- The New Covenant has three things: a perfect Torah, an atoned people, and a people transformed so that they are able to keep that Torah.
- Nothing was wrong with the Sinai Covenant, but the promises of the New are better and it was always the intention than what happened at Sinai would lead to the New Covenant.
- The New Covenant is not a new Torah or a new Law; it does, however, contain the ideal Torah that already exists.
- Yeshua’s death and resurrection, because these are key moments in the progress of God’s work of atonement, brought the New Covenant in the same way we could say it brought full atonement and even resurrection: it is here, but not completely, begun, but not fully arrived.
- The promises of the New Covenant have not been fully realized yet and Torah is not completely written on our hearts.