‘In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you”.’ [Luke 22:20]

The letter to the Hebrews teaches us how superior to the old covenant this new covenant is:

The old covenant was established and ratified in the symbol of God’s presence (the tabernacle, and later, the temple): the new covenant is established and ratified in the real presence of God:

The old covenant was ratified in “a sanctuary that is a copy and shadow of what is in heaven”.

The new covenant in “… the sanctuary, the true tabernacle set up by the Lord, not by man …”, “the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not man-made, that is to say, not a part of this creation”;

“Christ did not enter a man-made sanctuary that was only a copy of the true one; he entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God’s presence.” [Hebrews 8:5,2; 9:11,24]

The old covenant is mediated through multiple, fallible priests: the new covenant is mediated through one perfect priest:

“Others became priests without any oath, but he became a priest with an oath when God said to him: ‘The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind: “You are a priest forever.” ’ Now there have been many of those priests, since death prevented them from continuing in office; but because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood. Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them. … For the law appoints as high priests men who are weak; but the oath … appointed the Son, who has been made perfect forever.” [Hebrews 7:20-25,28]

The old covenant is secured through the blood of animals: the new covenant is secured through the blood of Jesus Christ:

“He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood …” [Hebrews 9:12]

These old covenant sacrifices had to be repeated again and again and again, they were temporary: the sacrifice that secures the new covenant is once for all time, it is eternal and permanent:

“Nor did he enter heaven to offer himself again and again, the way the high priest enters the Most Holy Place every year … he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself … Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people.” 

Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices … But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God.” [Hebrews 9:25,28; 10:11,12].

The old covenant provided only ceremonial, ritual cleansing: the new covenant provides perfect cleansing of the conscience:

“The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean. How much more, then, will the blood of Christ … cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death …”

 “… we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all … Day after day every priest … offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But … this priest … by one sacrifice … has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.” [Hebrews 9:13-14; 10:10-14]

This new covenant established in and through Jesus Christ is thus very different from the ‘old’ covenant. But this difference is not the difference of conflict. Rather it is the difference of deliberate, intended contrast:

The old was a shadow, sign or symbol of a greater reality: the new is that greater reality.
The old was prophetic of a grand and glorious act of God: the new is that grand and glorious act.
The old was intentionally temporary, pending the revelation of the eternal and absolute: the new is that final revelation.

Any significance or power possessed by the old, the symbolic, was borrowed from the new, the real.
Any truth revealed by the old, was just a shadow, a reflection, of the truth contained in the new.
The purpose of the old was simply to point the way to the new.

The new is thus not the enemy of the old, rather it is the reason for the existence of the old, it is, in fact, the deep, hidden meaning of the old. Embedded deep within the symbolism of the old covenant is the power and purpose of the new. Just as all the beauty of a full-blown rose is compacted and hidden tight within the bud … even so the old covenant held hidden within its symbolism all the glory of Christ waiting to burst forth when he came and established the new covenant in his blood.

Our problems regarding the old and new covenants stem from our tendency to see them as alternative routes to God. These problems dissolve when we realize that the whole purpose of the old covenant, is not to be an alternative to the new, but to tell us ‘Jesus is coming’ and thus to point us to him who is the focus and mediator of the new.

© Rosemary Bardsley 2012