Old vs. New Covenant

by Joel Ramshaw (2008)

This study will examine some of the ways that God dealt with his people under the old covenant, and contrast it to the way that He began to deal with us ever since the new covenant began. The book of Hebrews gives a great deal of important information on this, since it was written to help the Jews understand the new covenant better.

Differences in atonement in between the two covenants:

            In the old covenant, Christ had not yet died for anyone. When God looked at people, He saw them with all of their sin present. To solve this, God gave detailed instructions to the Israelites, for how to atone for their sin. They had to make countless animal sacrifices to atone for the sins that they would commit. Through all of the sacrifices, their sins would appear to be “covered” before God. In fact, that is what the word “atonement” literally means— covering. The sacrifices did not remove the sin of the Israelites. They only “covered” the Israelites sin, so that God would overlook it. When Jesus died for our sin, and initiated the new covenant though. He did not just cover our sin, he removed it completely.[1] This is shown in Hebrews chapter 10. Verses one to four say, “For the law, having a shadow of the good things to come, and not the very image of the things, can never with these sacrifices, which they offer continually year by year, make those who approach perfect. For then would they not have ceased to be offered? For the worshipers, once purified, would have no more consciousness of sins. But in those sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year. For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats could take away sins.”

            These verses are an excellent example of how, because of Christ, God has become more gracious to us ever since the new covenant began. Of course this does not mean that God will overlook everything that we do. The story of Ananias and Sapphira proves this to be untrue. Still though, God generally acts much more gracious to us since the new covenant. As the passage in Hebrews says, the old covenant people could not make themselves perfect by offering the animal sacrifices. Through Christ though, God sees us as being perfectly righteous when he looks at us. The apostle Paul talks about this in 2 Corinthians 5:21, “For He (God) made Him (Christ) who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” This verse shows that, unlike the people of the old covenant, in this new covenant God sees us as being perfectly righteous through Christ. We do not simply have our sins covered. We have them taken away completely. In addition to this, under the new covenant we have our mind transformed to serve God. Hebrews 9:13 says, “For if the blood of bulls and goats and the ashes of a heifer, sprinkling the unclean, sanctifies for the purifying of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?” From this verse it can be seen that unlike the people of the old covenant, under the new covenant we can have even our consciences cleansed from dead works, and transformed to serve God.

More mercy is found in the new covenant:

In the old covenant, God would become angry at a person if they sinned, regardless of whether or not it was intentional. To remove this anger, the sinner needed to offer a sacrifice to God. An example of this is in Job. Job’s friends were trying to help him out by giving him advice. They did not know that their advice was misleading. Regardless of their intentions though, God still became angry with them. He required them to sacrifice fourteen animals, besides getting Job to forgive them. This was how seriously God treated unintentional sins. Even worse than this was intentional sin. Under the old covenant there was no sacrifice at all for intentional sin. The sinner had no choice but to bear the punishment of God himself.

            Fortunately, things have changed since the new covenant began. Through repentance and faith, we can be forgiven of both intentional and unintentional sin. When the Pharisees were about to execute the death penalty upon the adulterous woman, Jesus forgave her of her sin. She knew that her lifestyle was sinful, but she had remained in it anyways. Jesus still forgave her though. This is one of the major differences between the new and old covenants. Under the old covenant, she should have been put to death. Under the new covenant however, she was forgiven. This is a great example of the abundance of mercy that is now found in the new covenant. The author of Hebrews calls the new covenant a “better covenant” based on “better promises.”[2][3]

The Holy Spirit is poured out universally in the new covenant:

            There are several more benefits to the new covenant as well. In the new covenant, God has now made the Holy Spirit available to all Christians. Under the old covenant, God only very rarely filled people with the Holy Spirit.[4] There are a few prominent examples such as the time the elders with Moses were filled,[5] the instance of Gideon,[6] and the example of Elijah. Other than this though, it was very rare. This all changed when the new covenant came around though. In the book of Joel it was prophesied that in the last days God would pour out His Spirit universally. Peter, in the second chapter of Acts, interprets this as having been fulfilled at Pentecost. Jeremiah also prophesied of this event. This author of Hebrews quotes Jeremiah 31:31, where it says, “Behold the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah--- not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, . . . But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. No more shall every man teach his neighbour and every man his brother saying, “Know the Lord,” for they all shall know me, from the least of them to the greatest of them, says the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.”

            This portion of scripture is the longest biblical quotation made in Hebrews.[7] This passage is very important in understanding the new covenant. It tells of how God now writes His laws on our hearts. This is now possible, since the Holy Spirit is now present universally among Christians. The Holy Spirit is now able to perform sanctification to a higher degree than was possible under the old covenant. We are empowered by Him to obey Christ now. Because the Holy Spirit is in us, we do not have to try to obey God in our own strength. The old covenant was different in this regard. The people of that covenant had to try to obey its laws with their own human strength. Of course this was impossible for them to do. In Acts 15:10, Peter calls the law of Moses “a yoke which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear.” They not only had to follow more minute laws and ordinances than people of the new covenant, but they also were not empowered by the Holy Spirit to keep the laws. In the new covenant, we are empowered by the Holy Spirit to obey God.[8] Romans 8:13 says, “For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” We are encouraged here to, by the Spirit, cease from a sinful life. This shows that the Holy Spirit has involvement in helping us to stay out of sin. Although He does not remove the potential of sin from out lives, the Spirit nonetheless will assist us greatly in living a holy life.


            After examining several major changes it can be clearly seen that there are many differences between the new and old covenants. The old covenant was not a bad covenant. It was far better than anything else at that current time. Still though, God has given us a far better relationship with him now that the new covenant has been inaugurated. We now are under more grace, and the Holy Spirit has been given universally to Christians. In addition, we no longer have to rely on countless sacrifices. We rely on the sacrifice of Christ for our salvation. As it says in Hebrews 8:6, we are now under a better covenant based on better promises.

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[1] Becky Combee Ministries, Inc. http://www.beckycombeeministries.com/PDF/Dec2007.pdf.

[2] Unless noted otherwise, all Bible citations used in this paper have been taken from the New King James Version.

[3] Hebrews 8:6.

[4] Gordon Moyes, the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament, http://www.gordonmoyes.com/2005/03/21/the-holy-spirit-in-the-old-testament/.

[5] Numbers 11:25.

[6] Judges 6:34.

[7] Tom Write, Hebrews for Everyone, (Great Britain: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2004), 87.

[8] B. H. Carroll, An Interpretation of the English Bible, Hebrews, (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House: 1948), 249.