The Two Covenants
Issue No. 316
The Apostle Paul recognized two covenants in the story of Abraham. He wrote in Gal. 4:22-26,
22 For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the bondwoman and one by the free woman. 23 But the son by the bondwoman was born according to the flesh, and the son by the free woman through the promise. 24 This is allegorically speaking; for these women are two covenants, one proceeding from Mount Sinai bearing children who are to be slaves; she is Hagar. 25 Now this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia, and corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. 26 But the Jerusalem above is free; she is our mother.
Paul explains that this prophetic allegory shows that Jerusalem is Hagar and the heavenly Jerusalem is Sarah. The children of those cities, corresponding to Ishmael and Isaac, are the adherents of Judaism and Christianity. In other words, Jews considered the earthly Jerusalem to be their “mother,” while the Christians claimed the heavenly Jerusalem as their “mother.”
Many Christians are confused by Paul’s teaching here, because they do not see how Jerusalem could be Hagar or how the Jews could be Ishmael. But Paul was not speaking genealogically, but “allegorically.” The Jews do not have to be physically descended from Hagar to be Ishmaelites.
From the allegorical perspective, which is based on law and prophecy, Mount Sinai was the place of the Old Covenant which put Israel into bondage (or slavery). It enslaved Israel, because this covenant made their salvation conditional upon their ability to keep it.
The law was not the problem; the problem was their inability to keep their vow in Exodus 19:8. The blessings (salvation) of God depended upon their ability to be obedient (Deut. 28:2), and if they sinned, God was obligated to judge them (Deut. 28:15).
Because “there is none righteous, not even one” (Rom. 3:10), the law could only bring judgment upon them for their disobedience.
Fortunately for the true believers, another covenant had already been given in Genesis 15, by which they might be saved. This was a covenant that did not require men to make vows that they could not fulfill. God Himself made the vow, putting Abraham to sleep so that we might clearly under-stand that it was not based upon men’s works. Neither did it depend upon men’s vows or his ability to keep those vows. It depended fully upon God’s ability to keep His vow.
And so, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Joshua, and all other believers were saved by faith in God through this covenant. Some (who do not understand this) have said that no one could be saved until Christ’s death and resurrection. Such people do not understand that the New Covenant was established even before the Old Covenant under Moses.
Being a prior covenant, the New Covenant takes precedence over the Old Covenant. It is true that no one has ever been saved by the Old Covenant, but all of the Old Testament saints were saved by the New Covenant. Hebrews 11 gives us a partial list of those saints who walked by faith under the New Covenant.
The Old Covenant was given to prove that no man has the ability to be saved by his own ability to keep his vow of obedience to God. Those who persist in this vain pursuit remain in bondage to the law, because the law can only judge the disobedient.
This is how Old Covenant religion enslaves men today, not only Jews but also Christians who think that their salvation is based upon their vow to follow Christ. I spent many years in my early life repenting each night for failing to keep my vow. I had to get saved again and again every night for many years—or so I thought—because I had been taught that my decision to follow Christ had saved me.
I thought that my faith was based upon my decision to follow Christ. My vow was an expression of my faith, and when I broke my vow during each day, I had to be saved again and again every night. I had been thoroughly enslaved by the Old Covenant without realizing it, because my parents and teachers confused the two covenants.
What I did not understand in those early years was that I had been saved by God’s vow, not my own vow. My faith was to be in His ability to save me in spite of myself, not in my ability to keep my vow of obedience.
It took many years of searching the Scriptures to see the difference between the two covenants. Only then did my faith shift to a proper focus, where my faith was in God’s vow and promise.
So also was Abraham, Moses, and Joshua saved, not by their own vows to God, but by God’s vow to them.
The Deuteronomy Covenant
Israel’s wilderness journey was prophetic of the Church and also provided the model for us as individual believers. Acts 7:38 calls Israel “the church in the wilderness.” At the beginning of this journey, we read of Israel’s vow that ratified the Old Covenant in Exodus 19:8.
At the end of this journey, God gave them a second covenant, as we read in Deut. 29:1,
1 These are the words of the covenant which the Lord commanded Moses to make with the sons of Israel in the land of Moab, besides the covenant which He had made with them at Horeb.
This second covenant was God’s vow to the people, not just Israelites but also the foreigners among them. The universal application of this covenant is seen in verses 10-13, where Moses tells them,
10 You stand today, all of you before the Lord your God; your chiefs, your tribes, your elders, and your officers, even all the men of Israel, 11 your little ones, your wives, and the alien who is within your camps… 12 that you may enter into the covenant with the Lord your God, and into His oath which the Lord your God is making with you today, 13 in order that He may establish you today as His people and that He may be your God, just as He spoke to you and as He swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
Notice that this covenant was made not only with physical Israelites but also with “the alien who is within your camps.” Secondly, the whole nation, including aliens, were to enter into “His oath which the Lord your God is making with you today.” God’s oath was not just for physical Israelites but for the whole nation of Israel which included foreigners. We see that God’s oath was designed to establish all of them equally as His people.
Furthermore, Moses says, this covenant was simply a reiteration of the promise God had made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, which too was based upon God’s vow. Hence, we see the two covenants in the contrast between Abraham and Moses, and again in the contrast between the Exodus and Deuteronomy covenants.
These two covenants are further illustrated by Hagar and Sarah, the wives of Abraham, as well as in Leah and Rachel, the wives of Jacob.
Moses then continues, speaking the words of God in regard to this (new) covenant in Deut. 29:14, 15,
14 Now not with you alone am I making this covenant and this oath, 15 but both with those who stand here with us today in the presence of the Lord our God and with those who are not with us here today.
Those who were standing there that day are all those mentioned in the previous verses, whether physical Israelites or aliens who had joined themselves to the covenant as national citizens of Israel. It included leaders, women, and children.
Yet those standing there were only a tiny cross-section of humanity on the earth. God intended to include all who were NOT present as well. The New Covenant, then, is God’s vow to those present and to those not present—in other words, to all of mankind.
Is God Able?
Most Christians today, however, do not have faith in God’s ability to keep His vow to all of mankind. They think that men’s sin and inability to be obedient is a hindrance to God’s ability to keep His vow to establish all of mankind as “His people” and to become the God of all men.
As we look at the world of men and the depravity in which they have fallen, it seems impossible for God to fulfill His New Covenant oath. Surely, that oath must be conditional upon men’s obedience or faith, they say. Multitudes of evil men have lived and died without confessing Christ as their Savior and Lord. Scripture speaks of divine judgment upon them at the great Judgment Day. So how could God make such a vow when it seems to be impossible for Him to fulfill it? Surely God should never have made such an oath!
There was another occasion where God’s ability to keep His oath was questioned. We read of this on the occasion where the Israelites believed the evil report of the ten spies and rejected the good report of Caleb and Joshua. God had promised to give them the land of Canaan, but the people doubted His ability to keep His promise. The fact that Israel was the church in the wilderness tells us that the same lack of confidence has been seen in the Church as well during the past 1900 years.
God then threatened Israel with disinheritance in Num. 14:11, 12,
11 And the Lord said to Moses, “How long will this people spurn Me? And how long will they not believe in Me, despite all the signs which I have performed in their midst? 12 I will smite them with pestilence and dispossess them, and I will make you into a nation greater and mightier than they.”
Moses then reminded God of something that He seemed to forget.
13 But Moses said to the Lord, “Then the Egyptians will hear of it, for by Thy strength Thou didst bring up this people from their midst, 14 and they will tell it to the inhabitants of this land. They have heard that Thou, O Lord, art in the midst of this people, for Thou, O Lord, art seen eye to eye, while Thy cloud stands over them in a pillar of cloud by day and in a pillar of cloud by night.”
Notice that the presence of God was in the midst of Israel even though they lacked confidence and faith in God’s ability to keep His promise. In fact, even though God’s threat was real—at least in theory—we know that God did not intend to destroy Israel, for He could not set aside His earlier promises without violating His own will.
Moses knew this, because He knew God quite well. So Moses continued, saying,
15 “Now if Thou dost slay this people as one man, then the nations who have heard of Thy fame will say, 16 ‘Because the Lord could not bring this people into the land which He promised them by oath, therefore He slaughtered them in the wilderness’.”
In other words, the nations would say that God could not keep His oath to bring Israel into the land of Canaan, so He got angry with them and killed them all. But is God ever so weak that He must resort to mass destruction to relieve himself of frustration? Is the will of the sinner stronger than the will of God? Was Israel’s lack of faith truly a hindrance to God’s ability to keep His oath?
No, of course not. And so when Moses interceded for the faithless nation, God told him in Num. 14:20, 21,
20 So the Lord said, “I have pardoned them according to your word; 21 but indeed, as I live, all the earth will be filled with the glory of the Lord.”
God will not only bring Israel into the Promised Land, but will also fill the whole earth with His glory! In other words, the promise of God is for all people in the entire earth.
The Outrageous Love of God
How could people receive a divine pardon when they were yet in their faithless condition? The answer is seen in Paul’s explanation of the love of God when he writes in Rom. 5:8 (The Emphatic Diaglott),
8 But God recommends His own love to us, because we being yet sinners, Christ died on our behalf.
The Concordant Version reads similarly,
8 Yet God is commending this love of His to us, seeing that, while we are still sinners, Christ died for our sakes.
Paul’s statement shows the love of God by contrasting it to men’s limited concept of ideal love. Men are willing to love others whom they respect as being good men. Jews would die for Moses; Muslims would die for Mohammed; Christians would die for Christ; but who among them would die for a sinner or an enemy?
Here is where the love of God stands higher than seen in most religions (including Christianity as a religion). Most Christians know that Christ died for the sin of the world while men were still ungodly, but they find it hard to believe that Christ’s death would actually benefit the ungodly unless they profess Christ during their life time. Yet we read in 1 John 2:2,
2 and He Himself is the propitiation [hilasmos, “expiation”] for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world.
Hilasmos is the Greek translation of the Hebrew word kaphar, “covering, atonement.” (See Lev. 25:9; Num. 5:8.) Propitiation is to appease. To expiate is to make atonement for sin. God does not appease us, but atones for our sin.
John tells us in the verse above that Jesus atoned for the sin of the whole world—not just for our sins as believers. Such love is outrageous in the eyes of world religions, including most of Christianity.
The love of God drives Him to find a way to save all of humanity. His justice appears to be a hindrance to His love, but this perception comes only when we fail to understand His justice as set forth in His law.
Divine justice is always limited. Liability for major crimes is limited by the law of Jubilee, for at the end of 49 years all debts are cancelled, and every man returns to his inheritance, whether he deserves it or not.
Liability for lesser crimes is limited by the amount of restitution prescribed by law in Exodus 22:1-4 or by a beating of up to 40 stripes (Deut. 25:1-3). In the divine law there is no such thing as perpetual (“eternal”) punishment. Even the death penalty is limited by resurrection.
Divine Judgment is Limited by Love
The Hebrew word olam, often translated “everlasting” or “for ever,” actually refers to an indefinite period of time. The root word alam means “hidden, obscure.” It can refer to the prophet’s three-day time in the whale’s belly, as in Jonah 2:6, or to the 400-year duration of the Phinehas priesthood after God made an “everlasting covenant” (KJV) with him in Num. 25:13. The NASB renders it “a perpetual priesthood,” even though his priestly dynasty ended in the early days of Solomon (1 Kings 2:27).
The Greek equivalent of olam is aionian, which again does not mean everlasting, but rather an indefinite period of time. Hence, all the passages which appear to teach that God will punish people eternally or perpetually with no end and without hope of salvation are misunderstandings of Scripture. God’s law of Jubilee sets forth the mind of Christ, extending hope to all creation of its ultimate release into the glorious freedom of the children of God (Rom. 8:19-21).
God’s justice and love are neither contradictory nor do they put God at cross purposes with Himself. Many have been told that God loves the world and does not want anyone to be lost, but that His justice demands everlasting punishment. Hence, the justice of God thwarts His love.
But 1 John 4:8 says that “God is love.” We know, of course, that He is also a God of justice, but nowhere do we read that God is justice. This suggests that love takes precedence over justice, or, as James 2:13 says, “mercy triumphs over judgment.”
For this reason we see that mercy is built into the law of God, not that it condones sin, but that it puts a limitation on the amount of judgment that men may receive. While men may call for never-ending judgment even for the tiniest of sins, God does not think this way. The judgment always fits the crime, “eye for eye, tooth for tooth,” and when payment is too much for men to pay, it is limited by forty stripes, the Jubilee, or the resurrection of the dead.
Because the amount of judgment is limited and finite, it is possible for God to fulfill His oath to save all mankind by the New Covenant. Most people, of course, are not saved during their life time on earth, but death is not a divine deadline for salvation. Many have done violence to Heb. 9:27, which says,
27 And inasmuch as it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment…
This verse says only that after a person dies, he is brought to justice at the Great White Throne. It does not say that he can no longer be saved. Only by assuming that judgment upon unbelievers is unending can one conclude that there is no salvation after death. But the verse does not say that. In fact, Paul quotes Isaiah in Phil. 2:10, 11,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those who are in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth, 11 and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
This will occur at the Great White Throne. Paul referred to Isaiah 45:23-25, who prophesied of the New Covenant:
23 I have sworn by Myself, the word has gone forth from My mouth in righteousness and will not turn back, that to Me every knee will bow, every tongue will swear allegiance. 24 They will say of Me, “Only in the Lord are righteousness and strength.” Men will come to Him, and all who were angry at Him shall be put to shame. 25 In the Lord all the offspring of Israel will be justified and will glory.
This is God’s oath to Israel and to all who were not present to hear Moses reveal that oath. Hence, not only will “all the offspring of Israel” be justified, but also “every knee will bow, every tongue will swear allegiance.” Everyone will confess that “only in the Lord are righteousness and strength” and will be embarrassed that they ever had been “angry at Him.”
These former unbelievers will still have to grow into spiritual maturity through the baptism of fire, called in Rev. 20:15 “the lake of fire.” Daniel pictures this fire coming from under the throne of the Ancient of Days (Dan. 7:9, 10), for a throne is a symbol of law by which the king rules and judges. The law is an expression of divine character, and so the “river of fire” is the judgment of the law. Yet as I have shown, that law is not an unending punishment but a time of correction and discipline that is designed to teach sinners righteousness (Isaiah 26:9). At the Creation Jubilee, all judgment will cease and all creation will be free in Christ.