A pastor friend whom I’ll call Dave has been studying the New Covenant lately. We’ve had a few excellent conversations about it. I thought I’d share some of the insights here.
The New Covenant is an everlasting covenant (Isa 61:8-9; Ezek 16:60; 37:26) that will be made with Israel in the future, as many OT prophets indicate (see esp. Jer 31:31-34). See this article from Israel My Glory.
If the NT did not mention the New Covenant, we would be certain that the New Covenant is not in effect today. It is, after all, a covenant that God will make with Israel.
But the NT does speak of the New Covenant. More on the NT references shortly.
This has led to multiple ways of explaining how church-age believers are related to the New Covenant.
Option 1: There is one New Covenant that was originally intended for Israel but was transferred to the Church due to Israel’s unfaithfulness.
Option 2: There are two New Covenants, one for Israel and a separate one for the Church.
Option 3: There is one New Covenant that is for Israel in the future and for the Church now.
Option 4: There is one New Covenant that is for Israel only; however, church-age believers serve in the light of this coming covenant.
The first option is taught by covenant theology, which is Reformed theology. Reformed theology believes that the Church has replaced Israel as God’s people (= replacement theology).
Views two through four are dispensational views. These views teach that Israel is God’s chosen people, and that Jesus will rule the earth from believing Israel during the Millennium, then from the New Jerusalem on the new earth.
Let’s consider the NT evidence.
At the Last Supper, the Lord said that the wine represented “the blood of the new covenant” (Matt 26:28; Mark 14:24; Luke 22:20; 1 Cor 11:25). Many think He was saying that the New Covenant would be inaugurated when He shed His blood on the cross.
In 2 Cor 3:6, Paul said that he and his fellow apostles were “ministers of the new covenant.” Lowery suggests that “the church today shares in the soteriological aspects of that covenant, established by Christ’s blood for all believers [cf. Heb. 8:7–13])” (“2 Corinthians,” BKC, p. 561).
Hebrews 8:7-13 confirms that the New Covenant is yet future and that it is “with the house of Israel and the house of Judah” (v 8), but the passage also mentions some of the New Covenant blessings including 1) having God’s laws “in their minds,” 2) being His people, 3) knowing the Lord, and 4) having the forgiveness of sins (vv 10-12). Many dispensationalists, including my friend Dave, suggest that since all four of those blessings are also enjoyed by church-age believers, then the New Covenant is for them, as well.
Here is a summary of the evidence: Jesus’ shed blood on the cross is the blood of the New Covenant. The apostles were ministers of the New Covenant, and presumably, we are as well. Four of the blessings of the New Covenant are experienced by believers today.
In his commentary on Matthew, John Nolland suggests that the New Covenant is a reference to Jesus’ coming kingdom:
Jesus does not otherwise use covenant language, but despite the difference of imagery, to speak of God freshly establishing his covenant with his people is not very different from speaking of the coming of God’s kingdom. It is notable that the other saying of Jesus that survives from his last meal with his disciples, Mt. 26:29, anticipates the coming of the kingdom. With its background in the experience of the Exile, the covenant language in Mt. 26:28 also has connections with the beatitudes of Mt. 5:3–10 with their message of fresh hope to those who have been chastened by the humiliation of ‘exile’ (see discussion at 5:3–10) (Matthew, p. 1080, italics added).
In other words, being a minister of the New Covenant can be understood as being one who proclaims the soon return of Christ to establish His kingdom. That fits with Lowery’s suggestion that the apostles preached Jesus’ promise of everlasting life, which resulted in those who believe in Him becoming citizens of the coming kingdom (Eph 2:19; Phil 3:20).
I do not think the evidence suggests that the New Covenant was inaugurated when Jesus shed His blood on the cross. If it was inaugurated at that time, then Jesus’ kingdom is already taking place. (That is a view widely held today. It is called already, not yet. I agree with Dr. Stan Toussaint who said at our annual conference about ten years ago, “The kingdom is not yet. And the kingdom is not yet.”) The kingdom requires the shed blood of Christ. There would be no kingdom apart from the blood of the covenant. But the kingdom is not yet here.
The four New Covenant blessings of Heb 8:7-12 are only partially experienced by believers in the church age. First, believers in this age do not automatically have God’s laws in their minds. If they sit under solid Bible teaching, then their minds are renewed (Rom 12:2; 2 Cor 3:18). Second, while Christians are God’s people, they are not the nation of Israel to whom the New Covenant is addressed. Third, there is a sense in which church-age believers know the Lord. But the New Covenant’s promise is that 100% of Jewish adults will know Him. Fourth, the forgiveness of sins has been true in every Dispensation and is not unique to the New Covenant.
I hold to view four. The New Covenant will be with Israel in the future. The New Covenant is not in force today. But we minister in light of that coming covenant, and we enjoy some of the blessings Israel will enjoy in the kingdom. Practically speaking, views two and three are quite similar, though view three implies that the kingdom is in some sense already here, which I do not believe is true.
P.S. After I published this blog, Dix Winston reminded of an outstanding 2008 journal article on the new covenant by Dr. Steve Lewis entitled, “The New Covenant: Enacted or Ratified?” See here for that article which takes the same view as I do.