What is New Covenant Theology (NCT)? It is a system of theology that addresses how the old relates to the new in Scripture. In particular, it addresses the issue of the cross and its place as the centerpiece of the entire Bible. Our point of view is that everything in the Old Testament prepares us for the coming of Jesus and the New Covenant era. It is the cross, the suffering and death of Jesus, which purchases the real people of God and is the climax of biblical history. New Covenant Theology is a cross centered system of theology through which we gain a biblical understanding of covenants, Israel, and law.
New Covenant Theology can be understood as beginning with the covenant with Abraham. In this covenant God is revealing his plan, which is to have a people and to take them into his land. Abraham is told that God will provide him with a “seed” and then a land that will be given to the descendants of that seed. From the point of view of the Old Testament the fulfillment of this covenant is the Old Covenant that God made with Israel on Mount Sinai. Israel comes from the physical seed of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and Jacob’s 12 sons. The Old or Mosaic Covenant is a works covenant that God established with Israel on Mount Sinai that can only produce unbelievers. The Old Covenant produced a temporary, unbelieving, picture of the people of God. They were given the land of Canaan, the Promised Land in which to live.
From the point of view of the New Testament the fulfillment of the covenant with Abraham is the New Covenant. The New Covenant is the suffering and death of Jesus on the cross to purchase a people and to take them into a land that will not end. The New Covenant produced a “spiritual” Israel that replaced the “physical” Israel as the real people of God. The seed of Abraham is seen as Jesus, the Messiah, who by his death on the cross purchased a people who have their sins forgiven and a radical work of the Spirit of God within them. The land promise to Abraham’s seed was first fulfilled by the land of Canaan under the Old Covenant was ultimately fulfilled by heaven and the new heaven and earth.
The era of the Old Covenant (Mount Sinai until the cross) had a version of God’s law that is found in the Ten Commandments and Mosaic Law. The Ten Commandments are a summary of the requirements of a works covenant. The era of the New Covenant (Pentecost until the 2nd Coming) had a different version of the God’s law called the Law of Christ. This version of God’s law was uniquely suited to accomplish God’s plan in the New Covenant era.
The Old Covenant functioned as a picture of what was accomplished by the New Covenant. Picture/Fulfillment is how the old relates to the New.
What is a Covenant?
There is no debate that the concept of the covenant is a significant idea in Scripture (1 Corinthians 11:25, Hebrews 8, Galatians 4:21-31). But there is much debate concerning what is a covenant and how we are able to identify a covenant.
Let’s first tackle the question as to exactly what is a covenant? I would say that a covenant is some sort of an arrangement between two parties. In saying what I have said I am very aware that my definition is a bit vague, but it is vague by design. In Scripture there are a variety of types of covenants. We will examine each covenant in its biblical context and allow Scripture to interpret itself, or to say it another way, to allow God to interpret his own word. We must remember that the final determiner of meaning is the context of the passage or concept in question.
As to the identification of a covenant much needs to be said. To say that something is a covenant you need to have it described as a covenant in its original context or you need it described as a covenant in another passage of Scripture. The Davidic Covenant is a clear example. In its original context there is no mention of the word covenant (2 Samuel 7:1-16). In 2 Samuel 23:5 David himself describes the promise that God had made with him in 2 Samuel 7 as a covenant.
Is not my house right with God? Has he not made with me an everlasting covenant, arranged and secured in every part?
But what should you do when you think something is a covenant but there is no mention of it as a covenant in its original context and there is also no mention of it as a covenant in any other passage of Scripture. If this is the case then we must conclude that if the divine author of Scripture wanted us to understand something as a covenant then he would give us clear language to come to the conclusion that it was a covenant. Without God interpreting his own word we are left to the mercy of guessing, and guessing has no place in interpreting of the word of God. So… if it is not called a covenant then it is not a covenant.
Covenant in the Garden?
Now let us look at Adam in the Garden of Eden. Was there a covenant established between God and Adam? According to the system of Covenant Theology, as expressed in the Westminster Confession of Faith (1646) there was a covenant in the Garden of Eden.
The first covenant made with man was a covenant of works, wherein life was promised to Adam; and in him to his posterity, upon the condition of perfect and personal obedience.
As we read the account of Genesis 2 we see no mention of a covenant. All that we see is that God is telling Adam that he is free to eat the fruit of any of the trees in the garden except the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. If he should eat any fruit of that tree he will die.
The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. And the Lord God commanded the man, “ You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.” 
While there is no mention of a covenant in Genesis 2 there might be a covenant mentioned in some other portion of Scripture that describes a covenant as being established in the Garden of Eden with Adam. In Romans 5:12-21 we are told by the Apostle Paul of a relationship with Adam and all mankind.
Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people.
When Adam sinned in the Garden of Eden he represented everyone. This means that we are all blamed and held guilty for Adam’s one sin, his trespass, in the garden. We are blamed for something that we did not do. In this portion of Romans Paul is teaching that the method by which we get accepted by God is by representation. Adam represented all men, except Jesus, and Jesus represented all those for whom he died. While we agree that there is a relationship between Adam and everyone else it is never described in terms of a covenant. In fact, I would go so far as to say that there is nothing in the language of Genesis 2 that would give anyone the clue that a covenant was being established between God and man.
In seeking to defend the view that there is a covenant in the garden writers read between the lines and then draw conclusions that defend their point of view. In this instance I see nothing in this context that says anything about a covenant. The only way that you could find a covenant in Genesis 2 is to believe that you are compelled to find it by other Scripture.
Let us now turn to the Old Testament where we do find one mention of covenant with the name Adam. It is found in the book of Hosea.
As at Adam, they have broken the covenant; they were unfaithful to me there.
But like Adam they transgressed the covenant; there they dealt faithlessly with me.
The context of this passage is describing the on-going rebellion of Israel as they live under the Old or Mosaic Covenant. The problem with interpreting this text of Scripture is that it is capable of so many different meanings. Here are some of the options that are available to us.
- Following the NIV Adam would refer to a location. Verses 8 and 9 refer to examples of Israel’s rebellion at both Gilead and Shechem. It should also be noted that “Adam” as a place location is mentioned in Joshua 3:16, but it should also be noted that no mention is made of any specific rebellion by Israel at that location. The covenant that is mentioned would then be the Old or Mosaic Covenant.
- Following the ESV Adam could refer to mankind in general, since the Hebrew word could refer either to mankind or Adam as a proper name. If Adam refers to mankind in general then Hosea would be saying that Israel is rebellious like the rest of the world. That in spite of Israel’s covenant relationship with the Lord, which marked them out as a special people, they were still acting like the Gentiles and are covenant breakers. It is also possible to say that the reference to mankind would refer to their breaking the Covenant of Works in the garden.
- If you take “Adam” as referring to the historical Adam from the Garden of Eden then you could be saying that Israel broke the Old Covenant just like Adam broke the Covenant made with him in the garden.
- You could also say that Israel broke the Old Covenant and they were faithless just like Adam was disobedient in the garden. In this case you would not be referring to covenant breaking by Adam but to disobedience to the one law given to him by God in the garden.
In light of the above it is hard to be absolutely certain of the meaning of this passage. We would need some other passage to tell us about a covenant with Adam in the garden. God has to interpret his own word. Unfortunately, there is no such passage of Scripture. Therefore, since there is no clear mention of a covenant with Adam in the garden it would be wrong to make an educated guess and then declare there to be a covenant in the garden as a foundational truth upon which we can build our understanding of God’s plan of salvation. Even John Calvin saw the problem of taking Hosea 6:7 as referring to a covenant with Adam.
Others explain the words thus, “They have transgressed as Adam the covenant.” But the word, Adam, we know, is taken indefinitely for men. This exposition (the view that he is disagreeing with) is frigid and diluted, “They have transgressed as Adam the covenant;” that is, they have followed or imitated the example of their father Adam, who had immediately at the beginning transgressed God’s commandment. I do not to refute this comment; for we see that it is in itself vapid.
Another Covenant Theologian, John Murray, also states that there was no mention of a covenant with Adam in Hosea 6:7 or in the garden.
It is not designated a covenant in Scripture. Hosea 6:7 may be interpreted otherwise and does not provide the basis for such a construction of the Adamic economy. Besides, Scripture always uses the term covenant, when applied to God’s administration to men, in reference to a provision that is redemptive or closely related to redemptive design.
So as I conclude this segment let me summarize what we have found in the opening chapters of Genesis. In Genesis 1 it is stated that God made Adam and Eve in the image of God. It then states that God gave them responsibility to rule over all the earth as well as all animal life. In Genesis 2 Adam is given the role of taking care of the Garden of Eden. Adam is given a partner in Eve who was made out of a rib of Adam. God does give Adam one command, not to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and a consequence, which is death, for disobedience to his command.
Without reading into these first two chapters of Genesis, that is seeing something there that is not stated but is assumed from other Scripture passages, we are left with no other conclusion then that there is no covenant made with Adam in the garden. Clear Scripture in context must establish every truth of our system of understanding of how the Bible fits together.
Definition of the Noahic Covenant
The Noahic Covenant is a promise of God never to destroy the earth until his work of saving a people has been accomplished. This is a covenant of preservation.
The first mention of the word “covenant” is found in Genesis 6:18 where we find God giving Noah instructions regarding the upcoming flood.
I am going to bring floodwaters on the earth to destroy all life under the heavens, every creature that has the breath of life in it. Everything on earth will perish. But I will establish my covenant with you, and you will enter the ark—you and your sons and your wife and your sons’ wives with you. Two of every kind of bird, of every creature that moves along the ground will come to you to be kept alive.
The full statement of the covenant God made with Noah is found in Genesis 9:8-11.
Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him: “I now establish my covenant with you and with your descendants after you and with every living creature that was with you—the birds, the livestock and all the wild animals, all those that came out of the ark with you—every living creature on earth. I establish my covenant with you: Never again will all life be destroyed by the waters of a flood; never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth.
The Noahic Covenant is a covenant of preservation. It is not a salvation covenant, but it does guarantee that our God will not destroy this world until his plan to save a people has been accomplished. This is a covenant made with all living creatures. It is like going to a football game where the game is being played on the field. The field is not the game, but you cannot have a game without the field. The Noahic Covenant could be described as the guarantee that there will be a field for the game of salvation to be played.
One question that is commonly asked is, “Is the Noahic Covenant a promise by God that the earth will not be destroyed, or is it only a promise that it will not be destroyed by a flood?” This question can be answered by reading carefully the account in the giving of the Noahic Covenant in Genesis 8,9. In Genesis 8 we read that the Lord will never again curse the ground because of man.
Then Noah built and altar to the Lord and, taking some of all the clean animals and clean birds, he sacrificed burnt offerings on it. The Lord smelled the pleasing aroma and said in his heart: Never again will I curse the ground because of man, even though every inclination of his heart is evil from childhood. And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done. As long as the earth endures seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, will never cease.
It would seem that the flood was the example of destruction that the Lord would bring on the earth that would result in the death of all mankind and the animal that inhabit the earth. The promise of the Lord is that he will never destroy the earth again. The flood would seem to be God’s chosen method (Genesis 9) to destroy all mankind because of their sin. But the promise is that the earth will not be prematurely destroyed until the Lord’s plan to save a people is accomplished. 
Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will remember my covenant between me and your and all living creatures of every kind. Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life.
One writer, Peter Gentry, who embraces New Covenant Theology, has described the Noahic Covenant as a restatement of the covenant made with Adam in the garden.
When God says that he is confirming or upholding his covenant with Noah, he is saying that his commitment to his creation, the care of the creator to preserve, provide for, and rule over all that he has made, including the blessings and ordinances that he initiated through and with Adam and Eve and their family, are now to be with Noah and his descendants.
Peter Gentry seeks to make his case for a covenant in the garden by saying that the word for covenant in Genesis 6 and 9 assumes an understanding that the covenant with Noah is a renewal of a previously established covenant that God made with Adam. I will let you read his extensive argument in his book in order to understand his perspective. My disagreement with Peter Gentry is one of interpretation or hermeneutics. The value of the original languages is that they will tell us what are the possibilities of what something might mean. But it is the context that is the final determiner of the meaning of a word as the author is using it. If the Noahic Covenant is a reaffirmation of an earlier established covenant then we would expect to find some evidence that this is so. Instead, we find no mention of a covenant in the garden and a very specific detailed discussion of a covenant made with Noah and all creation. It should also be mentioned that the restatement of the call to populate the earth which was first mentioned in Genesis 1:28 and then restated in Genesis 9:1 does not necessarily mean that there were two covenants or the restating of a covenant in the garden. Since there is no mention of a covenant in the garden the simple explanation is that there was an obvious need to populate the earth after the flood.
In Genesis 6:18 the only thing that is mentioned is that God is establishing his covenant in order to preserve the life of Noah and his family and all the animals in the ark. In Genesis 9:8-11 the covenant only focuses on the promise to never destroy the earth again. In Genesis 9:14-15 the rainbow is designated as the sign of the covenant.
Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures of every kind. Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life.
The covenant made with Noah referred to the preservation of all life on the earth. For there to be more to this covenant one would have to find other Scripture to speak to this issue. One such verse is found in Isaiah 24:5.
The earth is defiled by its people; they have disobeyed the laws, violated the statutes and broken the everlasting covenant.
The context of this passage does refer to the Lord’s destruction of the earth at the end of time. Therefore we cannot limit it to Israel under the Old Covenant. The Old Covenant was introduced at Mount Sinai and it came to an end at the cross (Hebrews 8:13). The covenant that is mentioned is said to be an everlasting covenant. The term everlasting covenant is exactly how the Noahic Covenant is described in Genesis 9:16.
Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth.
The Noahic Covenant is everlasting in the sense that it is in force until this present heaven and earth are destroyed (2 Peter 3:10-13). Once that happens the Noahic Covenant has fulfilled its purpose and it comes to an end. Isaiah 24:5 also states that mankind has broken the Noahic Covenant. This would mean that there are other things that are a part of the Noahic Covenant other than the preservation of the earth that can be broken. Here is a list of what is included in the Noahic Covenant:
- The command to repopulate the earth (Genesis 9:1).
- The animals will now fear mankind (Genesis 9:2).
- God gives meat and fish (everything that is on the earth or in the water or in the air) as food for mankind (Genesis 9).
- Mankind is not allowed to eat anything that still has its blood in it. (Genesis 9:4).
- Since man is made in the image of God he must give his life if he takes the life of another who is also made in the image of God (Genesis 9:5-6).
These items that are a part of the Noahic Covenant are still in force today since the covenant of which they a part is in force until the end of this age and the 2nd Coming of Jesus Christ who will usher in the New Heaven and earth of the eternal state. They are not like the laws of the Old Covenant which are time-bound to the Old Covenant era, which embraces the time span from Mount Sinai until the cross.
Like all other laws the attachments to the Noahic Covenant were also not followed by mankind and therefore contributed to their being cursed by a holy and righteous God. It should also be noted that there does seem to be evidence that other laws were given to mankind that are not mentioned in the creation account. But these laws are never mentioned as tied to any particular covenant.
Peter Gentry also agrees that the Isaiah passage refers to the Noahic Covenant. Here are his comments on this passage.
Since the reference is to all humans breaking the “everlasting covenant,” the Mosaic covenant given to Israel at Sinai is hardly in view. The most probable referent is the covenant made with Noah, which in reality reestablished and upheld the covenant with creation in Genesis 1, reaffirming the commitment of the Creator to his creation and the responsibilities placed upon humans at that time. Isaiah’s oracle predicts complete desolation upon the earth because its people have violated the instructions and terms of the Noahic covenant.
In order to comment on Peter’s argument we must first of all make some observations about Adam in the garden. As we have stated before Adam was only given one command beyond the instruction to populate the earth with Eve as his wife and to rule over all living creatures (Genesis 1:28). There are no other laws mentioned and there is no covenant mentioned. Therefore, it seems to me that there is no evidence before the fall of any covenant being established and there is no basis for saying that the Noahic Covenant is a restatement of the an earlier covenant made with Adam in the garden. I would certainly agree with Gentry that Isaiah 24:5 refers to the Noahic Covenant.
The sign of the covenant is the rainbow in the sky. This is the perpetual reminder that there will be no premature ending of this earth until all those for whom Jesus died are brought to saving faith (Matthew 24:31). This is a covenant of preservation. This earth will come to an end when it is burned up and a new heaven and a new earth is created (2 Peter 3:10-13). Our Father’s plan will be fully accomplished and nothing can stop it (Hebrews 10:14).
And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all generations to come: I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth. Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will remember my covenant between me and you all living creatures of every kind. Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life. Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth.”
Definition of the Abrahamic Covenant
The Abrahamic Covenant is the first unveiling of God’s plan to have a people and to take them into his land. This covenant embraces both the Old and the New Covenants. The Old Covenant, made with Israel on Mount Sinai, functions as a temporary picture of what the New Covenant, the work of Jesus Christ on the cross, is all about. From the point of view of the Old Testament the fulfillment of the Abrahamic Covenant is found in the Old Covenant. From the point of view of the New Testament the fulfillment of this covenant is found in the New Covenant.
The first mention of the word covenant with regard to Abraham is found in Genesis 17.
I will confirm my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers.
But the first mention of the covenant with regard to its content is found in Genesis 12.
The Lord had said to Abram, “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and your will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.
When we view Genesis 12 in light of Genesis 17 we have God interpreting his own word. We would not know that Genesis 12:1-3 is speaking of a covenantal relationship between Abraham and God unless we were told that it was so in Genesis 17.
God is promising to make Abram (for his name had not yet been changed to Abraham) into a great nation. It is Israel under the Old Covenant that is called the children of Abraham. The promise of the land of Canaan, which will be the home of the children of Abraham, will not be discussed in detail until Genesis 15, but it is discussed in brief form in Genesis 12:7 where God told Abram that his offspring would be given the land of Canaan.
Abram traveled through the land as far as the site of the great tree of Moreh at Shechem. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. The Lord appeared to Abram and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built an altar there to the Lord, who had appeared to him.”
God next says that he will bless Abram. This blessing is described as making Abram’s name great. This can be ultimately seen in the description of Abraham as the “father of all who believe.” Abraham becomes the example of what true faith is all about. For us who live on this side of Pentecost the blessing of Abraham is all about the gospel message going out to the entire world.
The Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: “All nations will be blessed through you.” So those who have faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.
It is also true that God blessed Abraham physically with many descendants. This is fulfilled primarily through Isaac and Jacob and the nation of Israel, but also through his other son Ishmael and Jacob’s brother Esau. The ultimate fulfillment is found in the true people of God, the church. They are the true children of Abraham.
Understand, then, that those who believe are children of Abraham.
The promise that God would curse all those who curse Abraham can be understood first in its most basic sense as referring to God’s treatment of anyone who is against Abraham. Ultimately, to reject Abraham is to reject the God of Abraham, and this results in eternal punishment, which is the ultimate curse of God.
It is only when we get to chapters 15 and 17 of Genesis that we get a clear understanding that Abraham was brought into a covenantal relationship with the God of heaven and earth. Without passages like Genesis 17:1-2 and Galatians 3:15-16 we would not be able to say that Genesis 12:1-9 is telling us about the content of a covenant that God made with Abraham.
It is with Genesis 15 that we find the covenant between God and Abraham being formally established. The chapter begins with the promise of God to provide an heir for Abraham. At this point in the story Abraham’s name was Abram and Sarah’s name was Sarai and they were not able to have children. God not only promises to give Abraham an heir, but through that heir he would give him many descendants. This is fulfilled through Abraham’s son Isaac and the nation of Israel, which was descended through the line of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
Then the word of the Lord came to him: “This man will not be your heir, but a son coming from your own body will be your heir.” He took him outside and said, “Look up at the heavens and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.”
From the perspective of the book of Galatians Jesus the Messiah fulfilled God’s promise of an heir or seed for Abraham.
Brothers, let me take an example from everyday life. Just as no one can set aside or add to a human covenant that has been duly established, so it is in this case. The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. The Scripture does not say “and to seeds,” meaning many people, but “and to your seed,” meaning one person, who is Christ.
If we only had the Old Testament we would have no hesitation in saying that Isaac was the seed that God promised to Abraham. But, since we do have the teaching passages of the New Covenant era we must revise our understanding of the ultimate fulfillment of the seed promise to Abraham. In Paul’s letter to the church in Galatia we are confronted with God interpreting his own word. In other words, we conclude that we must interpret the old through the lens of the new. Paul’s interpretation of the seed promise to Abraham is the final word from our God as to what that promise was all about. Isaac and his descendants, the Israelites, functioned as a temporary picture of what was the true fulfillment, Jesus the Messiah.
In addition to the promise of an heir and many descendants Abraham is also promised the land of Canaan.
On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram and said, “To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates—the land of the Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaites, Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashtes, and Jebusites.
Here again we find the God of Scripture explaining the ultimate fulfillment of the land promise to Abraham. In the book of Hebrews the promise of the land is described as being fulfilled by a land that does not end.
For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken later about another day. There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enter God’s rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from his. Let us therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will fall by following their example of disobedience.
The physical land of Canaan, the promised land, is only a temporary picture of a land that does not end. The ultimate fulfillment of the land promise to Abraham is found in heaven and the new heavens and earth, which all believers, spiritual Israel, will inherit for eternity.
It is at this point in the story that Abraham asks a question regarding the promise of the land, “O Sovereign Lord, how can I know that I will gain possession of it?” that God takes an oath where he promises to curse himself if he does not keep his promise to Abraham. This promise is called a self-maledictory oath. God is calling a curse on himself if he does not do what he promised. This oath is visibly portrayed to us in a ceremony.
So the Lord said to him, “Bring me a heifer, a goat and a ram, each three years old, along with a dove and a young pigeon.” Abram brought all these to him, cut them in two and arranged the halves opposite each other; the birds, however, he did not cut in half. Then the birds of prey came down on the carcasses, but Abram drove them away. As the sun was setting, Abram fell into a deep sleep, and a thick and dreadful darkness came over him. Then the Lord said to him, “Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and mistreated four hundred years. But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions. You, however, will go to your fathers in peace and be buried at a good old age. In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure. When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking firepot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces. On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram and said, “To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates—the land of the Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, Hittites, Perizzites, Raphaites, Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites and Jebusites.”
When God calls on himself a curse if he does not keep his promise he is saying that the death of the animals functions as a picture of what will happen to him if he does not keep his word. We do know that God cannot die. But this covenant making ceremony illustrates the fact that it is not remotely possible for God not to keep his word.
What can we say regarding the significance of the animals that were used to establish this covenant? It is true that the kinds of animals that were used were the same types that were used to perform the sacrifices of the Old Covenant. Beyond this observation not much can be said. I would only be guessing for there is no explanation in Scripture as to the significance of these particular animals that were used. What I just said would also apply to the description of Abram driving away the birds of prey from the animals prepared for the covenant ceremony.
Abram brought all these to him, cut them in two and arranged the halves opposite each other; the birds, however, he did not cut in half. Then birds of prey came down on the carcasses, but Abram drove them away.
Gordon Wenham, in his commentary on Genesis interprets the birds of prey as the Gentile nations who are seeking to attack Israel. Abram’s actions of driving away the birds of prey are a picture of God’s care for Israel. While this may be a plausible explanation I am not aware of any Scripture that could be used to prove that this is what God intended by this account. It does seem as though Wenham is making an educated guess, which is still just a guess, and nothing ought to be established on the basis of a guess.
What is the significance of the age of the animals, 3 years old, that Abram was required to provide? Peter Gentry quotes Wenham’s commentary that the age of the animals corresponds to the generations of Israelites that were in Egypt before the exodus under Moses. It is possible that this would be its meaning. We find that the age of the sacrificial animal can refer to the historical situation of the one doing the sacrifice. This appears to be so in the account of Gideon’s sacrifice of a bull in Judges 6:1,25, though the translation for the meaning of the phrase, “the one seven years old” could also be translated to mean “mature bull.” The problem is that the account in Genesis 15 would have to be saying that each generation is to be understood to be 100 years in length. I am not aware of any other passage in Scripture that would allow us to understand a generation in this sense. At the end of the day you still only have something that could be probably true. If our Lord wanted us to know what the age of the sacrifice meant he would have told us. I can only assume that the meaning of the age of the sacrificial animals is not really that important.
Finally, we must discuss the smoking firepot and the blazing torch that are used to signify God in the covenant making ceremony. Here we do have more biblical information to help us understand the significance of these items. I am indebted to Peter Gentry for his work on this issue.
In the vision given to Abram, a “smoking firepot and a blazing torch” pass between the dead pieces. What would these represent? When we remember that Genesis was a book given to the Israelite people at the time of entering the land of Canaan, we can see from that perspective, i.e., after the exodus event, that smoke and fire are symbols of God’s presence. The angel of the Lord first appeared to Moses in the flames of a burning bush (Ex. 13:21). At Mount Sinai, his presence is manifested by smoke and fire (Ex. 19:18; 20:18).
As we come to Genesis 17 we come to what is called a “confirmation” of the covenant between Abraham and the Lord.
I will confirm my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers.
In this further explanation of the Abrahamic Covenant the Lord repeats what he had said earlier to Abram but now adds the rite of circumcision as the sign of the covenant.
This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you.
In what sense is circumcision a sign of the Abrahamic Covenant? For Abraham his circumcision was an outward sign that he was a true believer.
And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. So then, he is the father of all who believe but have not been circumcised, in order that righteousness might be credited to them.
But then Abraham was told to circumcise all the males of his household.
This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner—those who are not your offspring. Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised.
Belief had nothing to do with the males of Abraham’s household receiving circumcision, the sign of the Abrahamic Covenant. For Abraham his circumcision was a sign of his belief, but for the males of his household belief had nothing to do with their receiving the sign of circumcision. This distinction is not explained until we get to the teaching passages of the New Covenant era. Here we are told that physical circumcision (which was given to unbelieving Israel) functions as a picture of spiritual circumcision (the new heart) that all true believers experience. Abraham is called the father of all who believe.
It is not as though God’s word had failed. For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. Nor because they are his descendants are they all Abraham’s children. On the contrary, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” In other words, it is not the natural children who are God’s children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham’s offspring.
In him you were also circumcised, in the putting off of the sinful nature, not with a circumcision done by the hands of men but with the circumcision done by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.
In the New Covenant era we give water baptism to all those who give evidence that they have been circumcised by Christ (spiritual circumcision). This is why we only give water baptism to those who profess to believe the gospel message. Saving faith is the evidence that one has been circumcised by Jesus Christ. It is those who embrace Jesus Christ as their Savior and Lord who are the true promised children to Abraham.
If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.
It is also in this chapter of Genesis that God changes the name of Abram to Abraham. His plan is for Abraham to be the father of many nations. This account took place when Abraham was 99 years old. This would seem to be a clarification of the promise made to Abram in Genesis 15 that he would have many descendants. God also tells Abraham that the covenant that has been established between he and God also applies to Abraham’s descendants. It will be in later chapters in Genesis that the specific details as to which of his descendants he is referring to is made known.
In what sense is Abraham the father of many nations? To answer this question we must go to the teaching passages of the New Covenant era. For it is in Paul’s letter to the church in Rome that he refers to the promise to Abraham and describes how it is fulfilled by those who truly believe.
Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring—not only to those who are of law but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all. As it is written: “I have made you a father of many nations.” He is our father in the sight of God, in whom he believed—the God who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were.
Once again the promise of the land of Canaan is repeated to Abraham. The land promise is a necessary part of the Abrahamic Covenant since the Abrahamic Covenant is the unveiling of God’s plan to have a people and to take them into his land.
I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you. The whole land of Canaan, where you are now an alien, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God.
Every aspect of the Abrahamic Covenant is said to be everlasting, including the land promise. This understanding of the “everlasting”
Abrahamic Covenant will be discussed in detail when we examine the New Covenant. It is only in the New Covenant that the promises become everlasting.
It is in this chapter that Sarai receives a name change from the Lord.
God also said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you are no longer to call her Sarai; her name will be Sarah. I will bless her and will surely give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she will be the mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her.”
Once again the promise of a numerous offspring is mentioned and this time Sarah is the focus of attention. Sarah already had a son through Hagar and his name was Ishmael, but this was not the son that the Lord was referring to. He was speaking of Isaac whom the Lord was going to give to Sarah through her own body, even though she was around 99 years old.
Then God said, “Yes, but your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you will call him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him. And as for Ishmael, have heard you: I will surely bless him; I will make him fruitful and will greatly increase his numbers. He will be the father of twelve rulers, and I will make him into a great nation. But my covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah will bear to you by this time next year.” When he had finished speaking with Abraham, God went up from him.
Genesis records that from Ishmael’s line come 12 tribal rulers. His descendants were indeed numerous, but they were not part of the promised offspring to Abraham.
In Genesis 22 we have the account of Abraham attempting to offer up his son Isaac as a sacrifice on Mount Moriah. Abraham was kept from offering his son by an angel and was then told by that same angel that as a result of his obedience the promises that were made to him in the Abrahamic Covenant would be fulfilled.
The angel of the Lord called to Abraham from heaven a second time and said, “I swear my myself, declares the Lord, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.
More details are revealed concerning this covenant with Abraham. The first bit of information addresses the physical descendants of Abraham and the defeat of their enemies and the possession of their cities. The second bit of information restates what was previously stated in in the preliminary revealing of God’s covenant with Abraham that all nations would be blessed through Abraham. As was said earlier this aspect of the Abrahamic Covenant is fulfilled in the gospel going to the world in the New Covenant era.
Genesis 26 and 28
In Genesis 26 Isaac is named as a recipient of the covenant that was made with Abraham. Here we see a narrowing of the promise from Abraham to Isaac. Abraham’s other son Ishmael is not included in this promise. The occasion of this exchange between God and Isaac is the famine in the land of Canaan.
The Lord appeared to Isaac and said, “Do not go down to Egypt; live in this land for a while, and I will be with you and will bless you. For to you and your descendants I will give all these lands and will confirm the oath I swore to your father Abraham. I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and will give them all these lands, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because Abraham obeyed me and kept my requirements, my commands, my decrees and my laws.”
This narrowing of the covenant continues with Isaac’s descendants. Isaac has two children, Jacob and Esau. Jacob is chosen to be the person through whom the covenantal promises are applied and not Esau. This can be seen when God speaks to Jacob in a dream at Bethel in Genesis 28.
He had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. There above it stood the Lord, and he said: “I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring.
Is the Abrahamic Covenant Conditional or Unconditional?
When think of the Abrahamic Covenant we seem to naturally think of it as an unconditional covenant. God simply tells Abraham what he is going to do for him. But in the midst of this we find recurring statements of God requiring obedience of Abraham in response to the Abrahamic Covenant.
Then God said to Abraham, “As for you, you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you for the generations to come. This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised.”
For I have chosen him, so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just, so that the Lord will bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.
And through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.
What are we to make of this? The obedience that God requires is going to be provided by his Sovereign will and yet at the same time Abraham and his descendants are required to obey their Lord. This is exactly what we find when we look at the New Covenant. It is quite clear that the salvation that Jesus accomplished by his death on the cross was salvation by grace.
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.
Yet, believers in Jesus are required to obey God’s law. Being saved by grace does not eliminate the obligation to live for your Lord.
And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us. Those who obey his commands live in him, and he in them.ˆ
Even the faith by which we trust in Jesus alone to save us by his payment for our sins on the cross is described as a work that we must do to be saved.
Then they asked him, “What must we do to do the works God requires?” Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.
By using the word “work” Jesus is emphasizing that this is something that we are responsible to do, yet at the same time it is quite clear that we are not allowed to take credit for our saving faith. This also applies to our pursuit of a life of obedience that is required of a believer, and yet this obedience is not the basis or cause of our acceptance with the Father. It is only work of Jesus on the cross that saves us.
For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
The Abrahamic Covenant is the unveiling of God’s plan that was fixed in eternity past and is certain to come to pass. Yet, all those who are in the Abrahamic Covenant are required to live for their Lord. In saying this it must also be said that the Abrahamic Covenant embraces both the old and new covenants. The new covenant is all about the work of Jesus on the cross while the old covenant is a temporary works covenant. It is from this point of view that Paul in Galatians describes the new covenant, which is the true fulfillment of the Abrahamic Covenant as a covenant of promise, while he describes the old covenant as a covenant of law. As a covenant of law the old covenant is a works covenant.
Is the law, therefore, opposed to the promises of God? Absolutely not! For if a law had been given that could impart life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law.
So when we think of unconditional versus conditional covenants we are not to think of unconditional covenants as having nothing required of those who are in them, for that is certainly not true.
Definition of Old Covenant
The Old Covenant is a works covenant that God made with the nation of Israel at Mount Sinai. Physical blessing was promised if the Israelite perfectly obeyed the Mosaic Law. Physical cursing or judgment was promised if an Israelite did not obey the Mosaic Law perfectly. This covenant was never given as way to gain eternal life. 
God was Gracious to Israel
When I call the Old Covenant a works or legal covenant I do not want to ignore the grace that God showed to Israel when he brought her out of Egypt in the exodus. Israel did not deserve to be saved from its slavery in Egypt, but God graciously brought them out under Moses and took them through the Red Sea to Mount Horeb or Mount Sinai, the mountain of God. Every part of the exodus was an exercise in grace towards the Israelites. But in saying all of the above it should be clearly stated that God’s gracious dealings with Israel in the exodus are not the covenant that was made with Israel on Mount Sinai.
You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.
Old Covenant is a Works Covenant
The covenant that God made with Israel on Mount Sinai was conditioned on their perfect obedience to the Ten Commandments and the Mosaic Law.
Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all the nations you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites.
Then the Lord said to Moses, “Write down these words, for in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel.” Moses was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights without eating bread or drinking water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant—the Ten Commandments.
Just as Israel was about to enter the promised land under Joshua God gave instructions to Israel through Moses. This instruction stated that the Israelites, after they had crossed the Jordon River, were to divide up on two mountains, Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim. They were to recite to each other the blessings and curses of the Old Covenant.
If you fully obey the Lord your God and carefully follow all his commands I give you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations on earth. All these blessings will come upon you and accompany you if you obey the Lord your God:
However, if you do not obey the Lord your God and do not carefully follow all his commands and decrees I am giving you today, all these curses will come upon you and overtake you:
The requirement for blessing was complete obedience. On the other hand, anything short of complete obedience resulted in the curses of the covenant. We should not make the mistake of reading into the account the idea that the evidence of a believer is a changed life that results in good works. God through Moses is not talking about a changed life but a perfect life. That is why the Old Covenant must be viewed as a works covenant.
The Old Covenant can only produce Unbelievers
If the Old Covenant were a works or legal covenant then it would only natural to conclude that that type of covenant could only produce unbelievers. That is exactly what we find when examine how the teaching passages of the New Covenant era describe the Old Covenant.
For if there had been nothing wrong with that first covenant, no place would have been sought for another. But God found fault with the people and said: “The time is coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with house of Israel and with the sons of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they did not remain faithful to my covenant, and I turned away from them, declares the Lord.
These things may be taken figuratively, for the women represent two covenants. One covenant is from Mount Sinai and bears children who are to be slaves: This is Hagar. Now Hagar stands for Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present city of Jerusalem, because she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother.
Both of these passages describe a works covenant that can only produce unbelievers. In the Hebrews 8 passage a New Covenant is being made since the Old Covenant could only produce individuals that God found fault with. God finds fault with the people produced by the Old Covenant because they are unbelievers. They did not have their sins forgiven and they did not have a new heart. In the Galatians allegory passage Paul is comparing and contrasting the Old and New Covenants. The believers in the church at Galatia were the result of the New Covenant and not the Old Covenant. Since the Old Covenant was a works covenant it could only produce individuals who were still in slavery to their sin. This is just another way of saying that they are unbelievers.
The Old Covenant cannot pay for our Sins
In the book of Hebrews the author repeatedly makes the claim that the sacrifices of the Old Covenant could never take away the sins of the Israelites. The sacrifices were only a temporary picture of a sacrifice to come through the death of Jesus on the cross.
The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. If it could, would they not have stopped being offered? For the worshippers would have been cleansed once for all, and would no longer have felt guilty for their sins. But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sin, because it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.
Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God. Since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool, because by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.
The sacrifices were only “ceremonial washings” that functioned as a picture of the work of Jesus Christ on the cross to come.
When everything has been arranged like this, the priests entered regularly into the outer room to carry on their ministry. But only the high priest entered the inner room, and that only once a year, and never without blood, which he offered for himself and for the sins the people had committed in ignorance. The Holy Spirit was showing by this that the way into the Most Holy Place had not yet been disclosed as long as the first tabernacle was still standing. This is an illustration for the present time, indicating that the gifts and sacrifices being offered were not able to clear the conscience of the worshipper. They are only a matter of food and drink and various ceremonial washings—external regulations applying until the time of the new order.
The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify then so that they are outwardly clean. How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!
If the sacrifices of the Old Covenant did not really forgive sins then how come the language of the book of Leviticus repeatedly says that if you commit a particular sin and you do the sacrifice that is prescribed for that sin then you are forgiven. Let us examine one of these statements that address a sin of a leader in Israel and the particular sacrifice that the priest must offer in order for the leader to gain forgiveness of his sin.
Then the priest shall take some of the blood of the sin offering with his finger and it on the horns of the altar of burnt offering and pour out the rest of the blood at the base of the altar as he burned the fat of the fellowship offering. In this way the priest will make atonement for the man’s sin and he will be forgiven.
In what sense is the Israelite leader forgiven for his sin? He is forgiven ceremonially. By the sacrifice of the priest the leader is restored to Israel in good standing, but the God of Israel has not forgiven his sin. We must remember that Israel, under the Old Covenant, is a temporary, unbelieving picture of the people of God.
Once again the author of Hebrews helps us out by comparing the sacrifices of the Old Covenant with the death of Jesus on the cross, which is the sacrifice of the New Covenant
First he said, “Sacrifices and offerings, burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not desire, nor were you pleased with them (although the law required them to be made). Then he said, “Here I am, I have come to do the first to establish the second. And by that will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.
If anyone is relying on the sacrifices of the Mosaic Law to get their sins forgiven and achieve unconditional acceptance with the Father then God is not pleased with them because those Old Covenant sacrifices were never intended to actually forgive sins. They only functioned as a picture of the work of Jesus to come. They were required of the Israelites under the Mosaic Law but their purpose was not to save but rather to illustrate.
The Relationship between the Old Covenant and the Abrahamic Covenant
In the covenant that God made with Abraham he promised to give him many descendants and to take them into the land of Canaan. It does seem quite clear that the fulfillment of this covenant, from the perspective of the Old Testament, is found in the Old Covenant with Israel.  Yet, when one goes into the New Testament, and especially the teaching passages of the New Covenant era one finds that the true fulfillment of the Abrahamic Covenant is found in the New Covenant, the death of Jesus on the cross. Here we see the problem with saying that the original mention of a promise in Scripture establishes the ultimate meaning of the promise. The fulfillment of the promise of the Abrahamic Covenant in its original context is not what it seems to be. The nation of Israel and the land of Canaan of the Old Covenant are only a temporary picture of what the work of Jesus on the cross, the New Covenant, was going to accomplish. Jesus, by his death on the cross, purchased a people from every tribe, language, people and nation. He also promised to take all those for whom he died into a land that will never end. This is eternal life with God, first in heaven and then in the new heavens and earth. Here we see that with regard to the Abrahamic Covenant we are to interpret the old through the lens of the new.
The Old Covenant is a Covenant of Death
In 2 Corinthians 3 the Old Covenant is described as a “the ministry that brought death” and “the ministry that condemns men.” The apostle Paul is making a defense of his apostleship. His argument is that the changed life of the Corinthian believers is not result of the Old Covenant but the New Covenant, which is the work of Jesus on the cross.
You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.
The tablets of stone are the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments are “words of the covenant.” This is a way of saying that the Ten Commandments are the summary of the requirements of the Old Covenant. The Old Covenant demands for the Israelites perfect obedience to the Mosaic Law. Less than perfect obedience earns the curse of God. The Old Covenant is a works or legal covenant that was never intended to save any Israelite. As a works covenant it was only able to produce unbelievers.
One covenant is from Mount Sinai and bears children who are to be slaves: This is Hagar. Now Hagar stands for Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present city of Jerusalem, because she is in slavery with her children.
This is why the Old Covenant is a ministry of death and condemnation. It was never intended as a means of salvation. It produced a temporary, unbelieving picture of the people of God, the nation of Israel.
The Old Covenant is Weak and Useless
In the midst of a discussion in the book of Hebrews on the comparison between the priesthood of the Old Covenant with that of the New Covenant the author of Hebrews states that the priesthood of the Old Covenant, the Levitical or Aaronic Priesthood, is “weak and useless.”
The former regulation is set aside because it was weak and useless (for the law made nothing perfect), and a better hope is introduced, by which we draw near to God.
The creation of the Old Covenant priesthood by the Mosaic Law was only for the purpose of providing a picture of what the priesthood of Jesus, the Melchizedek priesthood, was going to accomplish. Jesus purchased a people for eternal life by his suffering and death on the cross. The sacrifices of the priests of the Old Covenant did not pay for the sins of the Israelites.
But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins, because it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.
Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins.
The argument of the writer of Hebrews is that the sacrifices of the priests of Israel were not sufficient to satisfy God’s just demands. So, if they were depending on the sacrifices to gain God’s forgiveness they would be offering sacrifices that God was not pleased with.
First he said, “Sacrifice and offerings, burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not desire, nor were you pleased with them (although the law required them to be made). Then he said, “Here I am, I have come to do your will. He sets aside the first to establish the second. And by that will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.
Only a perfect human being, a lamb with blemish, could qualify to take the place and suffer the punishment for all those whom the Father chose to save. Jesus, the God-man, by his suffering and death on the cross satisfied the demands of a perfect holy and just God.
Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin.
For you know that it was not with silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect.
Even though it is said that the sacrifices of the Old Covenant priests were “weak and useless” why does the Old Testament continually tell us that the designated sacrifice for a particular sin will achieve forgiveness for the one who had sinned?
In this way the priest will make atonement for the man’s sin and he will be forgiven.
The forgiveness that the sacrifices of the Mosaic Law under the Old Covenant secured for the one for whom the sacrifice was given was a ceremonial forgiveness. The offending Israelite was restored to good standing in the nation of Israel by the designated sacrifice demanded by the law. But, the Israelite was not forgiven by the God of Israel and so remained under his wrath.
This is an illustration for the present time, indicating that the gifts and sacrifices being offered were not able to clear the conscience of the worshipper. They are only a mater of food and drink and various ceremonial washings—external regulations applying until the time of the new order.
The Old Covenant sacrifices only served as a temporary picture of the saving work of Jesus, our high priest, who by his death secured completely forgiveness for all those who will believe on him.
The Old Covenant was Faulty
In the book of Hebrews the writer, whomever he may be, tells us that the Old Covenant is the first covenant and that as a covenant it was faulty and it produced a people that God was not pleased with.
For if there had been nothing wrong with that first covenant, no place would have been sought for another. But God found fault with the people and said:
This statement goes a long way toward informing us of the purpose and content of the Old Covenant. This passage also is helpful to us in revealing the role of the Old Covenant in God’s unfolding plan of salvation.
Why would the author of Hebrews call the Old Covenant the first covenant? When you examine the order in which covenants are revealed in the Old Testament we find that the first covenant is the Noahic and the second is the Abrahamic. The Old Covenant occupies third place in the unfolding of covenants in the Old Testament.
How do we know that the author of Hebrews is referring to the Old Covenant when he refers to the first covenant? In verse 9 in the midst of the quotation of Jeremiah 31:31-34 the Lord states that the New Covenant will not be like the covenant that was made with the nation of Israel that was brought out of Egypt.
It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they did not remain faithful to my covenant, and I turned away from them, declared the Lord.
In this context the covenant that is mentioned is the one that God made with Israel at Mount Sinai. It is the Old Covenant.
So, in what sense is the Old Covenant the first covenant? It would seem that the only sense in which the Old Covenant could be seen as the first covenant would be from a picture/fulfillment perspective. The Old Covenant produced a temporary, unbelieving picture of the people of God but not a real people of God. This will be discussed in the section of the book that addresses “Israel.” It is the New Covenant that produces the real people of God, the spiritual Israel, by means of the suffering and death of Jesus Christ on the cross. This will be discussed in great detail in the next section of the book that will address the “New Covenant.” The Old Covenant functions as the “picture” of what the Messiah is going to accomplish through the New Covenant, which is the fulfillment of God’s plan to save a people and take them to be with him in a land that does not end. To use an analogy of a football game it could be said that the Old Covenant era (from Mount Sinai to the cross) functioned as the picture and the first half of God’s historical plan of salvation. The New Covenant era (from Pentecost to the 2nd Coming) functioned as the Fulfillment of his plan and the second half of the game. So, God’s plan can be viewed as a 2-part plan and the Old Covenant era is the first part. This would seem to be why the author of Hebrews calls the Old Covenant the first covenant.
Now let us examine why the Old Covenant would be called “faulty.” In the context of the book of Hebrews you have Jewish professed believers who after much persecution for their faith are now considering going back under the Mosaic Law and the Old Covenant in order to avoid further persecution. They are seeking to gain forgiveness of sins from a covenant that was never intended to give them forgiveness. In this sense the Old Covenant is faulty. It functioned as a picture of what Jesus was going to accomplish through the New Covenant. The Old Covenant could be understood in terms of a Thanksgiving dinner analogy. When you enter the house for the Thanksgiving dinner you are confronted with a glossy, full color, poster size picture of the amazing dinner that is sitting on the dining room table. The poster does a wonderful job of showing you what is on the table but it is unable to satisfy your hunger since it is only a picture. That is how we are to view the Old Covenant and its relationship to the New Covenant.
Because the Old Covenant was “faulty” and could not provide true forgiveness of sins it only could produce unbelievers. This is why God found fault with those produced by the Old Covenant, the nation of Israel. This is described in the allegory of Hagar and Sarah in chapter four of Galatians.
These things may be taken figuratively, for the women represent two covenants. One covenant is from Mount Sinai and bears children who are to be slave: This is Hagar. Now Hagar stands for Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present city of Jerusalem, because she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother.
Since the Old Covenant was a works or legal covenant it could only produce unbelievers. If an Israelite were to be a true believer then it would have to be on the basis of the New Covenant. The description of physical Israel, under the Old Covenant, is of a people who “are to be slaves.” The comparison in the allegory is with the Sarah who represents the New Covenant, the “Jerusalem that is above” which produces children who are to be free. This comparison of two peoples corresponds to the state of the heart of unbelievers and believers. The unbeliever is a slave to his sin while the believer has been freed from the control of sin and is a slave to righteousness. Israel under the Old Covenant was a temporary, unbelieving picture of the people of God. This will be discussed in great detail in the section on “Israel.”
Why is the Old Covenant called a “Covenant of Love”?
Up to this point we have been discussing the Old Covenant as a legal or works covenant. But, there is a repeated phrase throughout the Old Testament that views the Old Covenant as a covenant of love. I have included both the NIV and ESV versions of this phrase.
Know therefore that the Lord your God is God; he is the faithful God, keeping his covenant of love to a thousand generations of those who love him and keep his commands. But those who hate him he will repay to their face by destruction; he will not be slow to repay to their face those who hate him.
Know therefore that the Lord your God is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations, and repays to their face those who hate him, by destroying them. He will not be slack with one who hates him. He will repay him to his face. You shall be careful to do the commandment and the statutes and the rules that I command you today.
It is very true that if the requirements of the Old Covenant are met then the God of Israel will give to the Israelite all that is promised. Unfortunately, the requirement of the Old Covenant is perfect obedience to the Mosaic Law and no Israelite is able to perfectly keep this law. It is also true that Israel experienced great love from God even though they did not obey his law. This is described in great detail in the book of Hosea. This love of God that is guaranteed to those who in Israel perfectly keep the law of the Old Covenant will perfectly care for them but it is not a love that is based on grace. This is a works based love that is secured through perfect obedience.
If you pay attention to these laws and are careful to follow them, then the Lord your God will keep his covenant of love with you as he swore to your ancestors.
And because you listen to these rules and keep and do them, the Lord your God will keep with you the covenant and the steadfast love that he swore to your fathers.
No one naturally is able to be a God-lover apart from the work of the Holy Spirit in conversion. True believers have new hearts and are God-lovers that desire to obey the commandments of the Lord, but our acceptance is not based on our performance but on the work of Jesus Christ on the cross. The work of Jesus on the cross is the New Covenant and this is a grace-based covenant from beginning to end.
 2 Samuel 23:5 NIV  Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter 7, paragraph 2  Genesis 2:15-17 NIV  Romans 5:18 NIV  The argument of Romans 5:12-21 will not tell us exactly who Jesus represented, but it will tell us what he accomplished by his death on the cross. To determine who Romans 5:18 is referring to we will have to go to 1 Corinthians 15:20-22 where it is stated that the “all men” refers to “those who belong to him.” Therefore by letting God interpret his own word we understand that Jesus only died for those who will believe the gospel message. These are those that the Father chose to save. Ephesians 1:3-5  Hosea 6:7 NIV  Hosea 6:7 ESV)  John Calvin, HOSEA, The Minor Prophets: Volume 1, The Banner of Truth Trust, 1986, page 235. The dictionary would define “vapid” as something that is not interesting. Calvin did not give this interpretation a high rating.  John Murray, Collected Writings of John Murray, Volume 2: Systematic Theology, The Banner of Truth Trust, 1977, page 49.  Genesis 6:17-21 NIV  Genesis 9:8-11 NIV  Genesis 8:20-22 NIV  God’s plan to save a people is a plan that was determined in eternity past and it will come to pass. That is why I said that the Noahic Covenant will be in effect until God’s plan is accomplished. Romans 8:30  Genesis 9:14-15 NIV  Peter J. Gentry and Stephen J. Wellum, Kingdom Through Covenant, published by Crossway, 2012, clothbound, page 156.This volume is written from a New Covenant Theology perspective but it does not share the same point of view on whether there is a covenant in the garden as the author of Promise – Fulfillment.  Read pages 155-165 for a full treatment of Gentry’s argument regarding his understanding of the meaning of “covenant” in the account of the Noahic Covenant.  This would not be referring to the final destruction of the heavens and the earth. The final destruction of the earth will only take place when God’s plan to save a people has been accomplished. 2 Peter 3:10-13  Genesis 9:14-15 NIV  Isaiah 24:5 NIV  Genesis 9:16 NIV  This particular command is also included in the Mosaic Law (Leviticus 17:10-14). In the account in Leviticus it is mentioned that blood represents the life of the animal.  This is the biblical basis for capital punishment. Please take notice that the reason for the taking of a life has nothing to do with deterrence but has only to do with the value of the human life, since all mankind is made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27).  Instruction regarding sacrifice (Genesis 4:1-5) and the introduction of the concept of clean and unclean animals (Genesis 7:2) is found in Scripture but we have no passage that talks of God giving additional laws to mankind.  Gentry and Wellum, Kingdom through Covenant, page 172.  Genesis 9:12-17 NIV  The Abrahamic Covenant is revealed in four stages: Genesis 12:1-7, 15:1-19, 17:1-27, 22:15-18  Genesis 17:2 NIV  Genesis 12:1-3 NIV  The name change from Abram to Abraham does not take place until Genesis 17:5.  Psalm 105:6, Matthew 3:9, Acts 13:26  Genesis 12:6-7  Romans 4:11 NIV  The discussion as to why there is no “Great Commission” in the Old Testament will be discussed when we take up the subject of the New Covenant.  Galatians 3:8-9  Genesis 17:6-8  Genesis 21:14-21 NIV  Genesis 36 NIV  Galatians 3:7 NIV, see also Galatians 3:29 and Romans 9:6-9  John 3:36, Matthew 25:46, Jude 7-8, Revelation 20:15 NIV  Genesis 17:3-5 NIV  Genesis 17:15-16 NIV  Genesis 15:4-5 NIV  Galatians 3:15-16  Genesis 15:18-19 NIV  Hebrews 4:8-11 NIV  The true people of God are not to be identified as the physical nation of Israel. The true or spiritual Israelites are believers in Jesus (spiritual Israel is made up of both believing Jews and Gentiles). Romans 2:28-29, Galatians 4:29, Galatians 6:16  Genesis 15:9-21 NIV  1 Timothy 1:17 NIV  In Leviticus 9:1-4 we find a list of various animals that were to be used in the various offerings in the setting apart Aaron and his sons as priests. You can also examine the types of animals used in the various offerings in the first seven chapters of Leviticus.  Genesis 15:10-11 NIV  Gordon J. Wenham, Word Bible Commentary: Genesis 1-15, Thomas Nelson, 1987, page 332.  Gentry and Wellum, page 252.  Judges 6:25 NIV  Gentry and Wellum, page 251.  Genesis 17:2 NIV  Genesis 17:10-11 NIV  Romans 4:11 NIV  Genesis 17:10-12 NIV  Romans 9:6-8 NIV  In the NIV the phrase “sinful nature” is used instead of the word “flesh.” In this context it refers to someone becoming a believer in Jesus Christ. When you become a believer you are changed from being someone who is controlled by sin (the flesh or the sinful nature) to someone who has a new heart and is a God-lover. Romans 6:17-18  Colossians 2:11-12 NIV  1 Peter 3:21 NIV  Galatians 3:29 NIV  Genesis 17:1 NIV  The descendants of Abraham who are included in the Abrahamic Covenant include Isaac and Jacob as well as the nation of Israel, which is the result of Jacob’s 12 sons. Genesis 17:19-22, Genesis 22:15-18, Genesis 24:6-9, Genesis 28:10-15, Exodus 2:4.  Romans 4:16-17 NIV  Genesis 17:7-8 NIV  The Abrahamic Covenant is everlasting in the sense that it is ultimately referring to the New Covenant, which is everlasting. We would not understand this if we only read the book of Genesis. We must interpret the old through the lens of the new. The promise of the land is also tied to the New Covenant, for it is only in the New Covenant that we find the promise of the land being eternally fulfilled. Galatians 3:15-18,
Hebrews 4:1-11 Galatians 3:15-16, Galatians 3:29, Romans 9:6-9  Genesis 17:15-16 NIV  Genesis 17:19-22 NIV  Genesis 25:12-18 NIV  Mount Moriah is the same location as the present day Dome of the Rock mosque in Jerusalem (2 Chronicles 3:1). This is the same location for the temple that was built by Solomon.  Genesis 22:15-19 NIV  Genesis 12:2-3  Galatians 3:6-9  Genesis 26:2-5 NIV  Genesis 28:12-14 NIV  Genesis 17:9-10 NIV  Genesis 18:19 NIV  Genesis 22:18 NIV  Ephesians 2:8-9 NIV  I John 3:23-24 NIV  John 6:28-29 NIV  Ephesians 2:10 NIV  Galatians 3:21 NIV  Galatians 3:21-31, Galatians 3:17-18, Exodus 19:3-8, Deuteronomy 28  Exodus 19:4 NIV  Exodus 19:5-6 NIV  Exodus 34:27-28  Deuteronomy 28:1-2 NIV  Deuteronomy 28:15 NIV  1 John 3:9-10 NIV  Hebrews 8:7-9 NIV  Galatians 4:24-26 NIV  Hebrews 10:1-4 NIV  Hebrews 10:11-14 NIV  Hebrews 9:6-10 NIV  Hebrews 9:13-14 NIV  Leviticus 4:25-26 NIV  Hebrews 10:8-10 NIV  Genesis 15  Joshua 21:43, Deuteronomy 1:8  The phrase “teaching passages of the New Covenant era” refers to the final word from God as to what all that has come before in Scripture ultimately means. This is interpreting the old through the lens of the new. This will be discussed in greater detail in the discussion of the New Covenant.  Galatians 3:15-18  Revelation 5:9-10  Hebrews 4:1-11  2 Corinthians 3:7  2 Corinthians 3:9  2 Corinthians 3:3 (NIV)  Exodus 34:27-28  Exodus 19:5-6, Deuteronomy 28  Galatians 3:17-18  Galatians 4:23-25 (NIV)  Hebrews 7:18-19 (NIV)  Hebrews 10:3-4 (NIV)  Hebrews 10:11 (NIV)  Hebrews 10:8-10 (NIV)  Hebrews 4:14-15 (NIV)  1 Peter 1:18-19 (NIV)  Leviticus 4:26b  Hebrews 9:9-10 (NIV)  Hebrews 8:7-8a (NIV)  Hebrews 8:9 (NIV)  Exodus 34:27-28  Hebrews 10:8-10  Galatians 4:24-26 (NIV)  Romans 6:17-18  Deuteronomy 7:9-11 (NIV)  Deuteronomy 7:9-11 (ESV)  Deuteronomy 28:15-19  Hosea 11:1-11  Deuteronomy 7:12 (NIV)  Deuteronomy 7:12 (ESV)  Romans 3:9-12 and Romans 8:1-9  Romans 5:1, Hebrews 10:14-18  Ephesians 2:8-10.