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( HEBREWS 8:10-13) The subject of the two covenants supplies the principal key which unlocks for us the meaning of God’s dispensational dealings with His people here on earth. Its importance and blessedness is not surpassed by anything within the entire range of Divine revelation. Yet, sad to say, it is something which is scarcely known at all today by the majority of professing Christians. Covenant-relationship has always been the basis on which God has dealt with His people. The foundation of all is the Everlasting Covenant, a compact or agreement which God made with Christ as the Head and Representative of the whole election of grace. We would refer the interested reader unto two articles upon it, which appeared in the January and February 1930 issues of this magazine. What we shall here endeavor to treat of is the administration of that covenant, as it was made known by God, and the various forms in which it was established among His saints.
There was an original covenant made with Adam and all mankind in him: see Hosea 6:7 margin. This consisted of an agreement between God and man concerning obedience and disobedience, reward and punishment. To that covenant were annexed promises and threatenings, which were expressed in visible signs or symbols; the first, in the tree of life; the latter in the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. By these did God establish the original law of creation as a covenant. On the part of man, it was required that he should accept of this law. It was a covenant of works, and had no mediator. That arrangement or constitution formed the basis on which God dealt with Adam, but it ceased as soon as sin entered the world.
God had provided a way of salvation for His own elect apart from their personal obligation to sinless obedience as the condition of life, and that through their Surety discharging all their responsibilities in His own person.
This was made known in the first promise God proclaimed: Genesis 3:15. All who receive the grace which is tendered through the promises of the Gospel, are delivered from the curse of that covenant which Adam, their legal representative, broke.
But though this first earthly covenant is no longer administered as a “covenant,” nevertheless, all those of Adam’s descendants who receive not the grace of God as it is tendered to them in the promises of the Gospel, are under the law and curse of the Adamic covenant, because the obedience which it requires of the creature unto the Creator, and the penalty which it threatens and the curse it pronounces upon the disobedient, has never been met for them by a substitute. Therefore, if any man believe not, the wrath of God (not “cometh,” but) abideth on him ( John 3:36), and this, because the command and curse, which result from the relation between man and his Maker, and the inflexible righteousness of God as the supreme Governor and Judge of all mankind, must be fulfilled.
Now the children of Israel were not formally placed under the Adamic covenant absolutely, as a covenant of life, for, from the days of Abraham the promise (a renewal of Genesis 3:15; see Genesis 12:1-3, 17:6-8, etc.) was given unto him and his seed. Let it be carefully noted that in Galatians 3:17 the apostle proves that no “law” would afterwards be given, nor covenant made, that should or could disannul that promise. Had Israel been brought under the Adamic covenant of works it would have disannulled the promise, for that covenant and the promise of Grace are diametrically opposed. Moreover, had Israel come formally under the Adamic covenant of works they were all under the curse, and so had all perished eternally.
That there were other federal transactions between God and His Church before the giving of the law at Sinai, is abundantly clear from the book of Genesis. God entered into covenant with Abraham, making him promises on behalf of his descendants, and appointing a solemn outward seal for its confirmation and establishment. That covenant contained the very nature and essence of what is termed the “new covenant.” Proof of this is found in the fact that the Lord Jesus is said to be “a Mediator of the circumcision, for the truth of God to confirm the promises made to the fathers” ( Romans 15:8). As He was the Mediator of the new covenant, so far was He from rescinding the promises which God made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, that it belonged to His office to ratify and establish them. But it was at Sinai that the Lord entered formally into covenant with Israel as a nation ( Hebrews 8:9), a covenant which had all the institutions of Divine worship annexed to it ( Hebrews 9:1-6).
In contrast from the covenant which God made with Israel at Sinai, Christ is made “the Mediator of a better covenant” ( Hebrews 8:6). This is the covenant of grace, being so called in contrast from that of works, which was made with us in Adam. For these two, grace and works, do divide the ways of our relation to God, being opposite the one to the other ( Romans 11:6). Of this covenant of grace Christ was its Mediator from the beginning of the world, namely, from the giving of the first promise in Genesis 3:15, for that promise was given in view of His incarnation and all that He should accomplish by His future and actual mediation. Christ was as truly the Surety of Abel as He was of the apostle Paul, and God had “respect unto” (was favorable toward and accepted) the one on the ground of Christ’s surety-ship as much as He did the other. To this it may be replied, If such be the case, then wherein lies the superior privilege of the Gospel-dispensation over that of the Mosaic?
In seeking an answer to the above question, it is needful to recognize (as was pointed out in our last article) that the “new covenant” referred to in Hebrews 8 is not the new covenant absolutely considered, and as it had been virtually administered from the days of Genesis 3:15 in a way of promise. For considered thus it was quite consistent with the covenant that God made with Israel at Sinai: in Galatians 3:17 the apostle proves that the renewal of the covenant (as a promise) to Abraham, was in no way abrogated by the giving of the law. Instead, in Hebrews 8 the apostle is treating of such an establishment of the new covenant as demanded the revocation of the Sinaitic constitution. What this “establishment” was, is made clear in Hebrews 9 and 10: it was the ordinances of worship connected with it.
When Christianity had been formally established by God, not only was the old covenant annulled, but the entire system of sacred worship whereby it was administered, was set aside. When the “new covenant” was first given in the way of a promise ( Genesis 3:15, renewed Genesis 12,17, etc.), it did not introduce a system of worship and privileges expressive of the same. But the promise of the new covenant was included in the Mosaic covenant, nor was it inconsistent with its rights and ceremonies, nay not even with them composed into a yoke of bondage. And why? Because all those rites and ceremonies were added after the making of the covenant in Exodus chapters 19 and 24; nevertheless what was added did not and could not overthrow the promise. As the Mosaic system was completed, then all the worship of the Church was to proceed from it and to be conformed to it.
No sinner was ever saved but by virtue of the new covenant and the mediation of Christ therein. The new covenant of grace (in contrast from the old covenant of works made with the human race in Adam) was extant and effectual throughout the Old Testament era. Then what is the “better covenant” with its “better promises” which the death of Christ has inaugurated? We say again, it is not a new covenant absolutely considered.
There are many plain passages in the Psalms and the Prophets which show that the Church of old knew and believed the blessed truth of justification and salvation by Christ, and walked with God in the faith thereof: compare Romans 4:3-9. Let those who have access to the incomparable and immortal “Institutes” of Calvin read carefully chapters 9–11 in book 2. “The Church under the Old Testament, had the same promise of Christ, the same interest in Him by faith, remission of sins, reconciliation with God, justification and salvation by the same way and means that believers have under the New. And whereas the essence and substance of the covenant consists in these things, they are not said to be under another covenant, but only a different administration of it. But this was so different from that which is established in the Gospel after the coming of Christ, that it hath the appearance and name of another covenant” (John Owen).
First , the manner in which the love of God in Christ is made known. The miracle recorded in Mark 8:23,24 illustrates and adumbrates the two states. The Old Testament saints had sight, but the Object set before their faith was seen at a distance, and through clouds and shadows. The New Testament saints “with open face behold the glory of God in a mirror” ( 2 Corinthians 3:18).
Fourth , the extent of the dispensation of Divine grace. Under the Old Testament it was restricted to one nation; now it extends to all nations.
The covenant of grace was the same, as to its substance, from the beginning. It passed through the whole dispensation of times before the law, and under the law, of the same nature and efficacy, unalterable, everlasting, “ordered in all things and sure.” The covenant of grace considered absolutely was the promise of grace in and by Christ Jesus ( 2 Timothy 1:9, Titus 1:2), and that was the only way and means of salvation unto the elect from the entrance of sin. Absolutely, in Old Testament times, the covenant consisted only in promise, and as such is referred to in Acts 2:39, Hebrews 6:14-16. The full and lawful “establishment” of it ( Hebrews 8:6), whence it became formally a “covenant” unto the whole Church, was future only. Two things were needed to change the “promise” into a “new covenant”: the shedding of the blood of the only Sacrifice which belonged to it, and the institution of that worship in keeping therewith.
Whilst the Old Testament Church enjoyed all the spiritual benefits of the promise, wherein the substance of the covenant is contained, before it was confirmed and made the sole rule of worship unto the Church, it was not inconsistent with the holiness and wisdom of God to bring His people under any other covenant, or prescribe unto them what forms of worship He pleased, for they did not render ineffectual the promise before given.
Nor did the institutions of the Mosaic covenant divert from, but rather led to, the future establishment of the promise. Yea, the laws and worship of the Mosaic economy were of present use and advantage to the Church while it remained in its state of minority (Galatians 4). For much of the above we are indebted, under God, to the writings of John Owen (1670 A.D.). We now turn again to our passage. “For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, saith the Lord; I will put My laws into their minds, and write them in their hearts: and I will be to them a God, and they shall be to Me a people” (verse 10). “The design of the apostle, or what is the general argument which he is in pursuit of, must still be borne in mind, while considering the testimonies which he produceth in the confirmation of it. His design is to prove that the Lord Christ is the Mediator and Surety of a better covenant, than that wherein the service of God was managed by the high priests according to the law. For hence it follows, that His priesthood is greater and far more excellent than theirs. To this end he doth not only prove that God promised to make such a covenant, but also declares the nature and properties of it, in the words of the prophets. And so, by comparing it with the former covenant, he manifests its excellency above it. In particular, in this testimony, the imperfection of that covenant is demonstrated from its issue. For it did not effectually maintain peace and mutual love between God and the people; but being broken by them, they were thereon rejected of God. This rendered all the other benefits and advantages of it, useless. Wherefore, the apostle insists from the prophet, on those promises of this other covenant, which infallibly prevent the like issue, securing the people’s obedience forever, and so the love and relation of God unto them as their God” (John Owen).
The apostle is here contrasting the Christian dispensation from the Mosaic.
Having in the previous verse declared in general the abrogation of the old covenant, because of its inadequacy through the weakness of the flesh, he here describes the new covenant which has supplanted it. He shows it to be so excellent in its constitution that none should object against its substitution in place of the old: such is the force of the opening “For.” The formal “this is the covenant” announces that it is the duty of Christians to make themselves distinctly and fully informed in the privileges belonging unto them. It was for this very end that the writings of the evangelists and apostles were added to those of the prophets. This new covenant is made with “the house of Israel,” which we understand mystically, comprising under it all the people of God. It is taken spiritually for the whole Church, the “Israel of God” ( Galatians 6:16). “After those days” is in antithesis from “in the day” of verse 9, which was an indefinite expression covering the interval between God’s sending Moses into Egypt and the arrival of Israel before Sinai. “After those days” means, following the Old Testament era. The dispensation which succeeds that is called “the time of reformation” in Hebrews 9:10. Now just as God’s making of the first covenant with Israel was preceded by many things that were preparatory to the solemn establishment of the same — such as His sending of Moses to announce unto them His designs of grace, His delivering them out of the house of bondage, His miraculous conducting of them through the Red Sea, His making known His law at Sinai — so the new covenant was gradually made and established, and that by sundry acts preparatory for it or confirmatory of it. As this is so little understood we must enter into details.
First , the introduction of the new covenant was made by the ministry of John the Baptist ( Luke 16:16). He was sent to prepare the way of the Lord. Until his appearing the Jews were bound absolutely unto the covenant at Sinai, without any alteration or addition to any ordinance of worship. But John’s ministry was “the beginning of the Gospel” ( Mark 1:1,2). He called the people off from resting in the privileges of the old covenant ( Matthew 3:8-10), and instituted a new ordinance of worship, baptism. He pointed away from Moses to the Lamb of God. Thus, his ministry was the beginning of the accomplishment of God’s promise through Jeremiah.
Second , the incarnation and ministry of the Lord Jesus was a further advance unto the same. His appearing in the flesh laid an axe to the root of the whole Mosaic dispensation ( Matthew 3:10), though the tree was not immediately cut down. By His miracles and teaching Christ furnished abundant proof that He was the Mediator of the new covenant.
Third , the way for the introduction of the new covenant having been prepared, it was solemnly enacted and confirmed in and by Christ’s death: thereby the “promise” became a “testament” ( Hebrews 9:14-16). From that time onwards, the old covenant and its administration had received its full accomplishment ( Ephesians 2:14-16, Colossians 2:14,15), and it continued to abide only in the longsuffering of God, to be taken out of the way in His own time and manner.
Fourth , the new covenant was further established in the resurrection of Christ. The old covenant could not be abrogated till its curse had been borne, and that was discharged absolutely when Christ was “loosed from the pains of death” and delivered from the grave.
Fifth , the new covenant was promulgated and confirmed on the day of Pentecost, answering to the promulgation of the law at Sinai, some weeks after Israel had been delivered out of Egypt. From Pentecost onwards the whole Church of God was absolved from any duty with respect unto the old covenant and the worship of it (although it was not manifest as yet unto their consciences), and the ordinances of worship and all the institutions of the new covenant now became obligatory upon them.
Sixth , the question was formally and officially raised as to the continuance of the obligatory form of the old covenant, and the contrary was expressly affirmed by the apostles under the infallible superintendence of the Holy Spirit: Acts 15:1-29.
But at this point a difficulty, already noticed, may recur to our minds: Were not the things mentioned in Hebrews 8:10-13, the grace and mercy therein expressed, actually communicated to God’s elect both before Sinai and afterwards? Did not all who truly believed and feared God enjoy these same identical blessings? Unquestionably. What then is the solution? This: the apostle is not here contrasting the internal operations of Divine grace in the Old and New Testament saints, but as Calvin rightly taught, the “reference is to the economical condition of the Church.” The contrast is between that which characterized the Judaic and the Christian dispensations in the outward confirmation of the covenant. While there were individuals like David and Daniel, perhaps many such, in whom the Spirit wrought effectually, yet it is evident that the great majority of Abraham’s natural descendants had no experimental acquaintance with the external revelation God had given. “I will put My laws into their minds, and write them in their hearts.” That this is not an experience peculiar to Christians or restored Christians is clear from Psalm 37:30,31, “The mouth of the righteous speaketh wisdom, and his tongue talketh of judgment. The law of His God is in his heart.” So, too in Psalm 19:7,8, we read, “The law of the Lord is perfect converting the soul... the statutes of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart.”
But that the major portion of Israel, or even a considerable number of them, were regenerated, at any period in the lengthy history of that nation, there is nothing whatever to show: instead, there is very much to the contrary. This experience is enjoyed by none save God’s elect, and in every age they have been but a “little flock.” “I will put My laws into their minds.” These words have reference to the effectual operations of the Spirit in His supernatural and saving illumination of our understandings, whereby they are made habitually conformable unto the whole law of God, which is our rule of obedience in the new covenant.
The carnal mind is enmity against God, and is not subject to His law, neither indeed can be ( Romans 8:7). But when we are renewed by the Spirit, He works in us a submission to the authority and revealed will of God. As the Lord opened the heart of Lydia “that she attended unto the things which were spoken of Paul” ( Acts 16:14), so in the miracle of the new birth, the Christian is given an ear to heed and a mind to perceive the holiness, justice, and goodness of God’s law. Yea, that law is effectually applied to him, so that it becomes the former of his thoughts, the subject of his meditation, and the regulator of his ways.
The preacher may announce the law of God to the outward ear, but only the Spirit can engrave it on the mind. The realization of this fact ought to drive every minister to his knees. No matter how diligently he has prepared his sermon, no matter how clearly and faithfully he expounds God’s truth, no matter how solemnly and searchingly he endeavors to press it on the individual’s conscience, unless God Himself gives His Word an entrance into the soul, nothing spiritual and eternal is accomplished. Nowhere is the deadness of the “churches” more plainly evidenced today than by the absence of concerted and definite prayer immediately before and immediately after the Word is preached: the “song service” has been substituted for the prayer service. O that God’s own people might be aroused to the need of their coming together and crying, “Lord, open the eyes of these men” ( 2 Kings 6:20). “And write them in their hearts.” It is this which renders the former part actually effectual. The “heart” as distinguished from the “mind” comprises the affections and the will. First, the understanding is informed, and then the heart is reformed. An active principle of obedience is imparted, and this is nothing else than a love for God Himself. Where there is a real love for God, there is a genuine desire and determination to please Him. The heart of the natural man is “alienated” from God and opposed to His authority.
That is why, at Sinai, God wrote the commandments upon stones — not so much to secure the outward letter of them, as to represent the hardness of the hearts of the people unto whom they were given. But at regeneration God takes away the heart of stone, and gives a heart of flesh ( Ezekiel 36:26) — pliable, living, responsive.
You may sit under a sound and scriptural ministry every Sabbath, but what effect has it upon your inner man? You may be well acquainted with the letter of the Word, but how far is it directing the details of your daily walk? Does your mind dwell most on temporal or eternal things, material or spiritual? What engages your thoughts in your seasons of recreation? Is your heart fixed upon God or upon the world? There are thousands of professing Christians who can talk glibly of the Scriptures, but whose lives give no evidence that God has written His laws in their hearts. Are you one of this class? “And I will be to them a God, and they shall be to Me a people.” This expresses covenant-relationship. It is placed in the center of these promises because it is the spring from which the grace of the other blessings doth proceed. The wicked are living in this world “without God, and without hope” ( Ephesians 2:12), but unto the righteous He says, “I am thy Shield, thy exceeding great Reward” ( Genesis 15:1). “Happy is that people, that is in such a case, happy is that people, whose God is the Lord” ( <19E415> Psalm 144:15). When He says “I will be to them a God” it means that He will act toward His people according to all that is implied in the name of God. He will be their Lawgiver, their Counselor, their Protector, their Guide. He will supply all their needs, deliver from all dangers, and bring them unto everlasting felicity. He will be faithful and longsuffering, bearing with their frailties, never leaving nor forsaking them. “And they shall be My people” expresses both a dignity and a duty. Their dignity is set forth in 1 Peter 2:9; their duty in the verses which follow. “And they shall not teach every man his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: for all shall know Me, from the least to the greatest” (verse 11).
These words point a contrast from the general spiritual ignorance which obtained among the Jews: cf. Isaiah 1:3, etc. “The words in the 11th verse are not to be understood absolutely, but comparatively. They intimate, that under that covenant there shall be a striking contrast to the ignorance which characterized the great body of those who were under the Old Covenant; that the revelation of the Divine will shall be far more extensive and clear under the new than under the old economy; and that there shall be a correspondingly enlarged communication of the enlightened influences of the Holy Spirit. They probably also are intended to suggest the idea, that that kind of knowledge which is the peculiar glory of the New Covenant is a kind of knowledge which cannot be communicated by brother teaching brother, but comes directly from Him — the great Teacher, whose grand characteristic is this, that whom He teaches, He makes apt to learn” (John Brown). “And they shall not teach every man his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord.” During the Mosaic economy, and particularly in the last century before Christ, there was an external teaching of the Law, which the people trusted and rested in without any regard for God’s teaching by the inward circumcision of the heart. Such teaching had degenerated into rival schools and sects, such as the Pharisees, Sadducees, Herodians, Essenes, etc., and they made void the Word of God through their traditions ( Mark 7:13). It was against such the last of Israel’s prophets had announced. “The Lord will cut off... the master and the scholar out of the tabernacles of Jacob” ( Malachi 2:12).
Or, our verse probably has more direct reference to the general knowledge of God which obtained during the Mosaic economy, when He revealed Himself under types and shadows, and was known through “parables and dark sayings.” These were now supplanted by the full blaze of the Gospel’s light. “For all shall know Me, from the least to the greatest.” God is now known in the full revelation which He has made of Himself in the person of His incarnate Son: John 1:18. As we are told in 1 John 5:20, “And we know that the Son of God is come, and hath given us an understanding, that we may know Him that is true”: “know Him” in the sense that we recognize, own, and practically obey Him as God. This spiritual, experimental, vital, saving knowledge of God is now communicated unto all of His elect. As the Savior announced, “They shall be all taught of God” ( John 6:45): taught His will and all the mysteries of godliness, which by the Word are revealed. This “knowledge” of God cannot be imparted by any external teaching alone, but is the result of the Spirit’s operations, though He frequently, yea generally, uses the oral and written ministry of God’s servants as His instruments therein. “For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their iniquities will I remember no more” (verse 12). “This is the great foundational promise and grace of the new covenant. For though it be last expressed, yet, in order of nature, it precedeth the other mercies and privileges mentioned, and is the foundation of the communication of them unto us. This the casual ‘for’ at the beginning of the verse doth demonstrate. What I have spoken, saith the Lord, shall be accomplished, ‘For I will be merciful,’ etc., without which there could be no participation of the other things mentioned. Wherefore, not only an addition of new grace and mercy is expressed in these words, but a reason also is rendered why, or on what grounds, He would bestow on them those other mercies” (John Owen).
In verse 12 a reason is given why God bestows the wondrous blessings enumerated in verses 10, 11. The word here rendered “merciful” is propitious, for it is not absolute mercy without any satisfaction having been taken by justice, but grace shown on the ground of a propitiation: cf. Romans 3:24,25. Christ died to render God propitious toward sinners ( Hebrews 2:17), and in and through Him alone is God merciful toward the sins of His people. Just so long as Christ is rejected, the sinner is under the curse. But as soon as He is received, the blessings described in verses 10-12 become his. Note there are just seven blessings named, which exemplifies the perfection of the new covenant.
It is to be noted that no less than three terms are used in verse 12 to describe the fearful evils of which the sinner is guilty, thus emphasizing his obnoxiousness to the holy God, and magnifying the grace which saves him. “Unrighteousness” signifies a wrong done unto God, against man’s sovereign Ruler and Benefactor. “Sin” is a missing of the mark, the glorifying of God, which is what ought ever to be aimed at. “Iniquity” has the force of lawlessness, a setting up of my will against God’s, a living to please self rather than for His glory. How marvelous is the propitious favor of God toward those who are guilty of such multiplied enormities! The apostle’s object was to point another contrast between the covenants. That which characterized Judaism was a reign of law and justice: that which distinguishes Christianity is the “Throne of Grace.” Note that no “conditions” are here stipulated. But does not the new covenant require repentance and faith? Assuredly: Mark 1:15. But He who requires these has promised also to work them in His people: Acts 5:31. “In that He saith, A new, He hath made the first old. Now that which decayeth and waxeth old is ready to vanish away” (verse 13).
That the translators failed to perceive the drift of the apostle’s reasoning here is evident from their adding the word “covenant” in italics. This was not only unnecessary, but its introduction serves to hide the force of the first half of this verse. In it the apostle draws an inference from what God had said through Jeremiah. He singles out one word, “new,” and on it bases an argument: because Christianity is the “establishment” of the new covenant, then the preceding economy must have grown “old,” and “old” is significative of that which draws near its end! How this shows us, once more, that every jot and tittle of Scripture is authoritative, full of meaning, and of sufficient evidence for what may be deduced from it! “Now that which decayeth and waxeth old is ready to vanish away.” Here is the conclusion of the apostle’s argument. If the first covenant had been adequate no place had been sought for a second (verse 7). But place was sought for the second (verse 8), therefore the first covenant was not faultless. The old covenant had continued for fifteen hundred years, from Moses to Christ; but its purpose had now been served. God gave Israel more than a hint that the Mosaic economy would not last forever, when his providence permitted the nation to be carried down into Babylon. Upon their return from captivity, neither the temple nor its priesthood were ever restored to their pristine glory. And now, as the apostle wrote, in less than ten years Jerusalem and the temple were completely destroyed. If then the Jewish covenant was abolished because it was “old,” how much more ought the “old man” to be put off ( Ephesians 4:24), and the “old leaven” purged out ( 1 Corinthians 5:7)!