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The New Covenant

COVENANT, THE NEW (בְּרִית, H1382, διαθήκη, G1347, testament). The legal disposition of Jesus Christ for the redemption of men, esp. when viewed as the goal or accomplishment of God’s older, OT covenant(s).


OT anticipation.


In the year 597, after the commencement of Jerusalem’s depopulation (Jer 29:1, 2), God revealed through Jeremiah the more detailed truth of His new testament (31:31-34). After declaring its name (v. 31), the prophet proceeded to identify four primary elements in the new b’rith (see below, B), the anticipation of which represents perhaps the highest point in the whole sweep of OT theology.


Though Christ would endure judgment, His work yet constitutes a triumph and accomplishes another feature of Jeremiah’s new testament, namely, a direct personalness to faith. By His acceptance of Israel’s punishment, He would fulfill the typical institutions of the older testament and cause the Mosaic offerings to cease (Dan 9:27), replaced by a direct access of men to God. It was only thus that the way into the holy place could be made manifest (Heb 9:8), that God’s elect might “all know me [not just the priests, who served in their ceremonies as types of Christ, but] from the least of them to the greatest” (Jer 31:34). At the close of the 8th cent. Isaiah anticipated a corresponding, universalistic outpouring of the Holy Spirit (44:3); and even earlier Joel had described how God’s Spirit would fall directly “on all flesh, your sons and your daughters” (Joel 2:28), whether of priestly descent or not.

While divine judgment brought about the forgiveness and the non-typical directness of Jeremiah’s new testament, it was God’s positive works of mercy that accomplished its other two characteristics, of reconciliation and of internality. Concerning the former, God spoke through the prophet, “I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Jer 31:33), the same promise that is found in all other revelations of the testament, from Genesis 17:7 to Revelation 21:3. By “removing the guilt in one day” (Zech 3:9), the Messianic Branch would accomplish the fundamental restoration for which mankind had been longing since the disaster of Eden—He would put enmity between Satan and the seed of the woman (Gen 3:15); He would bring into being that reconciliation with God which constitutes the essential inheritance of the testament; and he would betroth Israel to Himself as His bride forever (Hos 2:19), truly to know the Lord (v. 20).

Intertestamental deviation.

Speculation upon the concept of the new covenant receives documentation from the Dead Sea Scrolls of Qumran. Produced by a sectarian community that existed for c. 200 years, up until a.d. 68, they bear witness to an intertestamental belief that though the בְּרִית אֵל, “God’s covenant,” with the Heb. patriarchs had been violated by sinful Israel (CD, i), God would continue to “make good his everlasting covenant” with the faithful remnant (iii, 12) in accordance with Deuteronomy 7:9 (viii, 5). They refer specifically to His “new covenant in the land of Damascus” (vii, 9-viii, 21), by which they identified their own sect at Qumran, perhaps fig. designated as “Damascus” (cf. Amos 5:27, though a literal Syrian exile has also been proposed). The “covenanters” as God’s true Israel thus laid claim to the prophecy of Jeremiah 31, but with an unresolved tension. On the one hand they rightly appreciated the new b’rith as a divine enactment, on the basis of which God would forgive the iniquities (iv, 10) of those whom He had “chosen to be the partners of His eternal covenant” (I S, iv, 22); yet on the other hand, Qumran’s stress upon rigid observance of the Sinaitic law (CD, iv, 8) accords more closely with Pharisaic legalism than with the internal religion anticipated by Jeremiah; and they could speak of their own “entering into a covenant, in the presence of God, to do according to all that He has commanded” (1 S, i, 16), namely to observe the Qumranic discipline. To “be admitted to the covenant of the community” (iii, 16) thus came to mean simply to join the sect (cf. H. Ringgren, The Faith of Qumran, p. 128). In their rituals they might indeed confess their sins and invoke upon themselves the bles sings, or curses, of God (I, 16-ii 18); but the covenant became a mere human oath, representing either initiation or subsequent annual resubscription (per Jub 6:17) to the life of the community. While the concept of “the new covenant” may thus be said to sum up the beliefs of Qumran, it does this not as a God-given arrangement for redemption but as a membership pledge to a secret society which had deviated into self-righteousness.

NT fulfillment.

Abrogation of the old.


On Easter morning, moreover, Christ “was raised for our justification” (Rom 4:25), assuring all Christians of His ever-living presence and His triumph over sin and death. Just as the OT had appealed to the saving event of the Exodus—“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt” (Exod 20:2)—so the NT would appeal to the resurrection: “he that raised up Christ Jesus from the dead shall give life also to your mortal bodies” (Rom 8:11 ASV). Here was achieved that reconciliation with God which Jeremiah had long before described. As B. Weiss, commenting on 1 Peter 1:2, which is in turn based on Exodus 24:8, has asserted, “God concluded the old covenant with the children of Israel at Sinai...so believers are described as being elect unto obedience and sprinkling with the blood of Jesus Christ...to be the peculiar people of the new covenant...to be cleansed from the stain of guilt which hinders them from enjoying perfect fellowship with God” (Biblical Theology of the NT, I: 234).

Relationship to the testament of peace.

Even as Jeremiah 31:31-34 had spoken of “the new b’rith” written in men’s hearts, so Ezekiel 37:24-28 had developed the concept of “the b’rith of peace” when the nations of the world should acknowledge God, permanently present in His sanctuary in the land of Israel; see COVENANT IN THE OT. The relationship, however, that is sustained between these two programs, particularly in their applicability to the present Christian Church, has been defined in at least four major ways.


Negative critics of the OT tend to limit the sphere of predictive prophecy to situations contemporaneous or immediately future to the prophets themselves; predictions lacking such immediately observable accomplishment as appears, for example, in Jeremiah 31:27-30, with its anticipation of the Exile and the postexilic restoration that followed it, are relegated to the category of pious but essentially false pronouncements. As M. Noth has concluded, “Shortly before the collapse of the Judean kingdom...the saying about the future new covenant explicitly assumed that the covenant made at the Exodus from Egypt was now at an end....However, the heralding by Jeremiah and Ezekiel of a new covenant seems to have played no special role in later times; it faded before the hope of a speedy restitution of the old order” (The Laws in the Pentateuch, pp. 63-67). The Church is thus divorced from the OT: the prophets were no more describing the Church of the NT than was Jesus really serving as the testator whose death was proleptically providing salvation for the saints under the older testament. Liberal scholars will concede that Christ and His apostles taught these views, but they are unwilling to accept them themselves.


Among evangelicals, Bible believing exegetes yet fall into three distinct categories of Scriptural interpretation. Those who hesitate to affirm a literal (millennial) fulfillment for the OT prophecies of a future earthly kingdom tend to equate the spiritual existence of the Christian Church with the achievements anticipated, not simply by Jeremiah’s internal new testament, but also by Ezekiel’s more external and earth-centered testament of peace. As an amillennial neoorthodox writer has put it, “God would make with Israel, forgiven and restored, a new and everlasting marriage covenant (Ezek 16:60-63). The NT writers think of this prophecy as having been fulfilled in the marriage covenant between Christ and his church” (Richardson, op. cit., p. 257). Jeremiah’s new b’rith is thus identified with Ezekiel’s and becomes the final word in testamentary revelation, “not to be displaced by any other more complete realization of what covenant grace embodies” (J. Murray, NBD, p. 267).

Traditional millennialism.

Interpreters who favor a more literal realization for the earthly (millennial) kingdom prophecies of the OT recognize that the newer diathēkē in Christ’s blood is an “eternal covenant” (Heb 13:20); but they insist also that an eternal program may, at the same time, exhibit a series of progressive developments. Thus, it is maintained, that at the Second Coming of Christ the four features of Jeremiah’s presently existing, church-centered new testament—its internal character, accomplished reconciliation direct faith, and explicit forgiveness—will be, not transcended, but rather expanded, brought to fulfillment, and rendered determinative for life throughout the entire world, under Ezekiel’s testament of peace. Specifically, men’s internal religion will become productive of a totally consistent external pattern of conduct (Ezek 37:24); their reconciliation with God, expressed at all points in history by the Biblical promise, “I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (v. 27), will then eventuate into the fullness of divine fellowship; the Christian’s present blessing of direct faith will become that of direct sight (v. 26); and the explicit forgiveness that is now granted to the saints will be honored by the whole creation together (v. 28). The testament of peace will then, after the final judgment, be resolved into the new heavens and the new earth of Revelation 21, 22.


A final segment of evangelicalism seeks to locate both Jeremiah’s new testament and Ezekiel’s testament of peace in the future kingdom of the millennium. Dispensational interpretation springs from J. N. Darby’s doctrine of the discontinuity of the church, which forbids its mention within the pages of the OT (C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism Today, p. 133). Discussion then centers about the quotation of Jeremiah 31:31-34 in Hebrews 8-10, with Darby’s followers stressing two main points.

(2) Dispensationalism then understands the quotations in Hebrews as descriptive, not of God’s present relationship with the Church, but of His future relationship with Israel. It is granted that the Church receives similar blessings and that the “better testament” mentioned in Hebrews 8:6, of which Christ is the Mediator and which supersedes the older testament of Moses, refers to the Church. But this better testament is then distinguished from the “second testament” in the verse that follows (Heb 8:7), namely Jeremiah’s new testament with Israel, which is then cited at length (in vv. 8-12). The prophet’s words are said to have been quoted in Hebrews to show that, since in the millennium there will be a superseding of the older testament by the new testament which will then be made with the nation of Israel, it is not impossible now to think of a superseding of the old by the better diathēkē of the Church (ibid. pp. 117-121).


B. Weiss, Biblical Theology of the NT (1883), I: 102, 103, 234, 235; II: 166-182, 202-234; G. Vos, “Hebrews, the Epistle of the Diathēkē,” PTR, 13 (1915), 587-632, and 14 (1916), 1-61; R. Bultmann, Theology of the NT (1951), esp. I:146-151, 278, 308-310; A. Richardson, An Introduction to the Theology of the NT (1958), 229-232; J. B. Payne, Theology of the Older Testament (1962), 115-119, 463-478; E. Stagg, NT Theology (1962), 249; cf. Covenant (in the New Testament), Bibliography.