When you turn on a flashlight outside on a cloudless day, it likely won’t do much. Actually, you probably won’t be able to even tell that it’s turned on. The light of the sun is so much greater than the light of your little LED-bulb that the latter is rendered almost imperceptible by the former. It would be a mistake, however, to thus assume the flashlight isn’t working or producing any light.
Many people misunderstand the Old and New Covenants in much the same way. The light of the risen Christ is so great that it can cause the light God gave in the Old Covenant to be difficult to perceive. Because of this, some people assume that the Old Covenant was deficient and broken—that it didn’t show people Christ or administer grace. As we’ve seen, however, that simply isn’t the case. Men and women have always been saved by faith in Christ. If a man can’t see Christ in the Old Covenant, the deficiency is in the man, not the covenant.
The difference between a flashlight and the sun is not in function. They both shine light, but they do so in vastly differing degrees. Likewise, the fundamental difference between the Old and New Covenant is degree, not function. The Old Covenant declares a coming Lamb of God through a yearly sacrifice of lambs. The New Covenant shows us God’s Lamb, broken and bleeding as He absorbs our punishment on the cross. The Old Covenant presents a shadow, yes. But it presents the shadow of a Lamb, not a giraffe.
Scripture speaks of contrast between the Old and New Covenants, but it also draws parallels. We need to make sure we pay attention to both of these as we move forward.
The first similarity is the same similarity a photograph bears to its subject. Although a photo is flat and stationary, you can still tell what it’s supposed to resemble. So likewise, while Christ wasn’t given in the Old Covenant, His likeness was. The people were instructed by God’s Law—especially through ceremonies and sacrifices—about the coming Christ. To state it simply: in the Old Covenant, God revealed Himself in Christ through ordinances, ceremonies, sacrifices, and the rest of it. In the New Covenant, God reveals Himself in Christ without the middle-man. Either way, though, God is still revealed in Christ.
That brings us to our next similarity, which we’ve already covered at some length in past posts. At no time has anyone ever been saved by anything but faith in Christ—though many have been saved prior to His coming without knowing His Name or the details of how He would save. Salvation has always been through Christ, not through the works of the Law. This was just as true in Moses’ day as it is in ours.
Another similarity is the possibility of apostasy. Paul says that the people of Israel experienced, in a sense, the same baptism that we did. They drank of water from the rock that was Christ, just as we drink living water from Christ. They were in God’s covenant. Yet with some of them, God was not pleased and they did not endure (1 Corinthians 10:1–5). Paul uses this example to teach us that we should be careful not to sin as Israel did, which means it is possible for us to fall away from the New Covenant, just as it was for Israel to fall away from the Old Covenant (1 Corinthians 10:6–13). The righteous one will live by faith (Habakuk 2:4).
You see, believers and unbelievers can partake in the blessings of God’s people. In the Old Covenant, this would have included circumcision, being able to visit the temple and worship God, hearing God’s Word, life among God’s people, and more. In the New Covenant, these include baptism, communion, fellowship, hearing and reading Scripture, preaching, and more. But salvation has always been covenantally dependent on faith, not participation in signs and blessings. There are members of both covenants who receive many of the blessings, but ultimately fall away because they never had faith.
The first similarity is also the first difference. While the types and shadows resembled Christ the substance, they clearly were not Christ the substance. One of the errors of the Pharisees was to act as though the signs were the thing signified and not to wait in faith for something greater. The Old Covenant spoke of Christ, but the New Covenant strips away the signs (except baptism and communion) and gives Christ to us in no uncertain terms.
The next difference concerns the approachability of God. The author of Hebrews makes the point that New Covenant believers have not come Mount Sinai, where the Law was given. Sinai was so terrifying that the people pleaded for God to stop talking to them. Moses became Israel’s mediator, but even He was terrified of God (Hebrews 12:18–21).
In the New Covenant, there is no mediator. There is no Moses between us and God. We stand covenantally before God in the heavenly Jerusalem with the assembly of the saints each Lord’s Day in corporate worship (Hebrews 12:23–24). The difference isn’t that God isn’t as scary anymore; we should still stand in reverent fear, understanding that if we come before God apart from faith in Christ, we stand condemned (Hebrews 12:25). The difference is in the lack of a Moses. In the New Covenant the whole congregation, not just a mediator, stands before God to worship Him—closer than anyone but the high priest could ever get in the Old Covenant (and he but once a year). This should inspire in us fear, humility, and worship every Lord’s Day.
The third difference is the presence of the Holy Spirit. While the Holy Spirit still regenerated men and worked in them under the Old Covenant, He works to a greater degree in the hearts of New Covenant believers. By the Spirit’s presence, Christ’s church is empowered to keep God’s Law in a way that Old Covenant Israel could not (Jeremiah 31:31ff).
The last difference we’re going to cover here is the scope of the covenants. While the Old Covenant enabled circumcised Israelites to approach God in limited ways, the New Covenant opens the way for all nations to boldly approach the throne of grace through the blood of Christ. A gentile proselyte to Judaism could only get to the outer court of God’s Temple, but New Covenant believers are brought into God’s presence from every people.
The Old Covenant was a gracious covenant, but it was not sufficient because the people didn’t get it (Hebrews 8:8). The first covenant was designed to point God’s people to Christ, but they refused to learn. The New Covenant reveals Christ perfectly; it shouts at us in clear terms without shadows and pictures. Moreover, it brings believers into closer fellowship with God and with one another and empowers God’s people to fulfill His Law and the great commission.
Next, we’ll be discussing the great commission and how it relates to the New Covenant.