Modern people live for the new—a new car, a new jacket, a new career—even though the new quickly fades. The new star of the team is suddenly washed up. The new pop idol is soon passé. Indeed, our jaded culture, addicted to fads, is swiftly bored with the latest and the greatest.
Is Christian faith subject to such changing fashions? When the Apostle declares that Jesus’ death on the cross is nothing less than “the new covenant” in Christ’s blood (1 Cor. 11:25), is that a fickle fashion change, covenantal style? We face a fundamental question when we open our Bibles and discover a two-part story: an Old Testament and a New Testament. Is the Old Testament passé, washed up, stale? Does the New Testament render the Old obsolete? If there is a foundational unity between the testaments in Jesus Christ—for Jesus tells us in Luke 24 that the Old Testament is truly about Him—then what is so new about the new covenant? What are the “new things” this covenant brings?
Among Reformed writers there has never been complete uniformity of expression on how to treat the Old Testament in relationship to the New Testament, except to say that there has never been serious dispute over the essential unity between the testaments. This means that the way of salvation is the same for an Old Testament believer and a New Testament believer, and that way is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Old Testament believers put their hope in gracious salvation as promised, while New Testament believers trust in gracious salvation as fulfilled. In both testaments of God, however, the way of salvation is one and the same.
Therefore, what makes the new covenant in Christ’s blood new over against what is old is precisely the idea of fulfillment of the promise. When an artist wants to create a painting, he or she will first sketch rough lines. These lines anticipate the more precise and defined strokes of the paintbrush. When the paint is applied to the canvas, the rough lines have served their purpose. They are obsolete but nonetheless part of the painting and in unity with the finished product.
In a similar way, we may speak of the Old Testament in its relationship to the New Testament. The rough sketches of grace, which so characterize the Old Testament, have served their purpose and are now incorporated into the richer painting of salvation depicted in the New Testament. This new covenant, being the covenant about which Jeremiah prophesied (Jer. 31:31–34), is superior to the covenant of Moses (v. 32), yet it does not negate the law or the Abrahamic promise. Rather, it fulfills each of them so that the law is now written on our hearts, and, as for the promise, God continues to be our God and we continue to be His people (v. 33). Moreover, divine forgiveness triumphs (v. 34). This new covenant is what the author to the Hebrews calls the “better covenant” (Heb. 7:22; 8:6). It is “new” and “better” in the following ways:
First, the promise has arrived. Christ Himself, the incarnate Word, the substance of the promise, has come. He is the turning point of human history and His cross is the focal point of all faith. Everything prior was leading up to this, and everything afterward must be judged in reference to it. In other words, the covenant of grace reaches its culminating expression in the new covenant He has inaugurated, the new covenant wherein He—the mediator, God-man, and testator—dies for us and our guilt is canceled once and for all (Col. 2:14; 1 Tim. 2:5; Heb. 8:6; 9:15–17; 12:24). Indeed, the old dispensation—from Abraham to Moses to David to the initial ministry of John the Baptist—could not boast this mediator in the flesh. Consequently, the Mosaic covenant is obsolete, along with the temple and the Levitical priesthood; the sacrifices and ceremonies; and the civil laws that governed Israel as a nation. Or, a better way of thinking about it: this guardianship under the law of Moses has served its purpose, for Christ is the end (the telos, or goal) of the law (Rom. 10:4). The fruit of the Old Testament ripened, maturing unto Christ, and came to harvest. The dusk of the Old Testament ushered in the dawn of the New Testament, with the Sun of Righteousness coming in the flesh, with healing in His wings (Mal. 4:2; John 1:14–17). Indeed, the obsolescence of the Old Testament is marked by the curtain in the temple being torn in two (Matt. 27:51).
Second, this covenant is new in its superiority over the old, for the new covenant in Christ’s blood is superior in liberty and clarity. It is superior in liberty inasmuch as the old covenant ordained sacraments, seals of the divine promise, that involved burdensome ceremonies, sojourns, and bloody and messy rituals, but the new covenant is sealed by the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper—easy rites of water, bread, and wine (Matt. 11:28; Col. 2:14). The new, then, ushers in a marvelous freedom of worship unknown under the old covenant. What is more, the new covenant is superior in clarity over the old, given that the old covenant only obscurely manifested the Christ to come (2 Cor. 3:13–14; Heb. 9:8). Under the old covenant, Christ was dimly prefigured and the Holy Spirit distilled, as by drops. But the new covenant makes Christ known plainly, and the Spirit is poured out in a great effusion (Joel 2; John 1:17; Acts 2; Heb. 8:10). This must not be underestimated. The grand angelic birth announcement of Christ in itself makes matters clearer in this regard than the Old Testament (Luke 2:8–14), and the gift of the Holy Spirit continues the work of Christ for the building of the church and the spread of the gospel (Acts 2; John 14:15–31). Because of the work of the Holy Spirit, the church’s ministry and labors are not in vain. On the contrary, the valley of dry bones that is the spiritual death of this world comes to life and breathes the vitality of divine life (Ezek. 37; Rom. 8:11). And then, while the old covenant bore witness to the blood of Christ in shadows, through the blood of bulls and goats (Heb. 9:18; Ex. 24:5, 8), the new covenant is sealed in full sunlight, in the blood of Christ Himself, the very Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (Zech. 9:11; Matt. 26:28; John 1:29; Heb. 9:12; 10:4). Both baptism and the Lord’s Supper, as visible signs of the new covenant, testify to this invisible reality.
Third, the covenant in Christ’s blood is new in its latitude, for the new covenant is much broader in scope than the old covenant in regard to persons, places, and times. In regard to persons, the new covenant is new since the old covenant was limited to the Jewish nation (Ps. 76:1). Only those of that nation (and proselytes) participated in the promise of salvation. As a result, there was an enormous divide between Jew and Gentile. The new covenant, however, fulfills the promise to Abraham, so that the promise of salvation extends to all nations (Gen. 22:17–18; Acts 2:8–11; Rev. 7:9). Thus, the church, formally given birth at Pentecost, is inclusive of all peoples and tongues, every tribal entity, every ethnic constellation. The nations walking in darkness have seen a great light (Acts 26:17, 18; John 1:9). And now, where there was once hostility, the new covenant brings union, making the Jew and Gentile one in Christ Jesus (Eph. 2:11–22). With regard to places, the new covenant has burst the confines of the Palestinian geography, for all lands and places are included in the redemptive blessings of God (Matt. 28:18–20). And then, too, in regard to time, the new covenant, unlike the old, enjoys an everlasting duration. The old covenant was established unto the arrival of Christ, and so was temporary, but the new covenant is eternal, its blessings being perpetual and therefore carrying over into glory (Heb. 7).
Fourth and finally, the new covenant in Christ’s blood is new in regard to the truth—not that the old covenant was false but in that it was not the full reality. Thus, the new covenant gives us the One who is Himself the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6); He is the true prophet, priest, and king (Rev. 5); the true servant of the Lord (Isa. 42:1– 9; 49:1; 50:4–11; 52:13–53:12); the true expiation of sins (Rom. 3:25); the true sacrifice (Eph. 5:2); the true circumcision (Col. 2:11); the true Passover (1 Cor. 5:7); and therefore His people are the true seed of Abraham (Rom. 9:25–26), the true people of God, and the true temple. This covenant, since it is true and new, brings us the new heavens and the new earth (Rev. 21:1); the new Jerusalem as the city of God (21:2); and makes all things new (21:5); Jesus also gives each of us a new name (2:17). Therefore, we will sing a new song (5:9; 14:3).