Have you ever sat through an entire classroom teaching without having any idea of what the teacher was talking about? Perhaps you were listening to what was said but for some reason, you just didn’t know what it meant. Of course, The Doctor spent four years of High School in that very situation but that’s besides the point.
Anyway, The Doctor has found that this sort of thing can happen in church too. People can often sit in church, listen to a sermon message and then walk out without having any idea of what the preacher was talking about. Now to be honest, this sometimes happens because preacher-types don’t always do a good job of explaining religious terms and what they mean. A little explanation can often go a long way in making those hard-to-understand topics a lot less difficult.
Here’s an example: In 2 Corinthians 3:4-6 the Apostle Paul talks about something that he calls a “new covenant.” Now this word “covenant” is an important term that is often poorly understood because it doesn’t always get explained very well. What exactly is this “new covenant” that Paul talks about and what does it mean to us today?
Well, Luke 22:20 says that during Jesus’ last meal with His disciples before going to the cross, He took a cup of wine and said, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you” (NIV). Now before we look at what this “new covenant” means let’s talk about what a covenant is first.
A “covenant” is a certain type of agreement made between two sides. To be more specific, it is an agreement put forth by one party that the other side could accept or reject but could not change. In other words, one side wasn’t allowed to go through the agreement and rewrite certain parts of it. A covenant was an “all or nothing” arrangement which was binding on both sides once they both agreed.
Now the idea of a Biblical covenant was certainly not a new one. You see, God had already made a number of covenants in the days of the Old Testament. For example, God made a covenant with Noah before the great flood (Genesis 6:17-22). God also made a covenant with Abraham (then known as Abram) when He promised to make him the father of many nations (Genesis 17:1-9). God made another covenant with King David when He promised that the future members of his family would be kings over Israel (Psalm 89:3-4).
Perhaps the most famous Old Testament covenant was made by God with Israel through Moses…
“And (Moses) read to the people the Book he had written– the Book of the Covenant– containing God’s directions and laws. And the people said again, “We solemnly promise to obey every one of these rules.” (Exodus 24:7-8)
This agreement (or the “Old Covenant” as we call it today) made it possible for people to get right with God though a system of animal sacrifices. You see, whenever there is wrong-doing (or sin) against God, the punishment is death (see Genesis 2:17 & Ezekiel 18:4). But as part of the Old Testament agreement, God accepted the death of an innocent animal instead of the person who did wrong.
The person offering the animal for sacrifice had to personally identify with it by placing his hand on the head of the animal (Leviticus 1:4). Then the animal would then be put to death in place of the person who brought it in order to atone (or “make up for”) their sins.
A closer look at Deuteronomy 28:1-2 gives us some important details of this covenant and tells us what God wanted to do for the people through it…
“If you fully obey all of these commandments of the Lord your God, the laws I am declaring to you today, God will transform you into the greatest nation in the world.
These are the blessings that will come upon you: Blessings in the city, Blessings in the field; Many children, Ample crops, Large flocks and herds; Blessings of fruit and bread; Blessings when you come in, Blessings when you go out. The Lord will defeat your enemies before you; they will march out together against you but scatter before you in seven directions! The Lord will bless you with good crops and healthy cattle, and prosper everything you do when you arrive in the land the Lord your God is giving you.
He will change you into a holy people dedicated to himself; this he has promised to do if you will only obey him and walk in his ways. All the nations in the world shall see that you belong to the Lord, and they will stand in awe. The Lord will give you an abundance of good things in the land, just as he promised: many children, many cattle, and abundant crops. He will open to you his wonderful treasury of rain in the heavens, to give you fine crops every season.
He will bless everything you do; and you shall lend to many nations, but shall not borrow from them. If you will only listen and obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am giving you today, he will make you the head and not the tail, and you shall always have the upper hand” (Deuteronomy 28:1-13).
Hey, that sounds pretty good, right? Who wouldn’t turn down a deal like that? But while all these blessings sound really great, there was a second part of this covenant that shouldn’t be overlooked…
“But each of these blessings depends on your not turning aside in any way from the laws I have given you; and you must never worship other gods. If you won’t listen to the Lord your God and won’t obey these laws I am giving you today, then all of these curses shall come upon you: Curses in the city, Curses in the fields, Curses on your fruit and bread, The curse of barren wombs, Curses upon your crops, Curses upon the fertility of your cattle and flocks, Curses when you come in, Curses when you go out.
For the Lord himself will send his personal curse upon you. You will be confused and a failure in everything you do, until at last you are destroyed because of the sin of forsaking him” (Deuteronomy 28:15-20).
Actually, the list of consequences for violating this agreement goes on for another 48 verses but The Doctor is pretty sure that you get the point by now.
Anyway, if you read throughout the Old Testament, you’ll see the unfortunate fact that God’s people failed to keep their end of this agreement over and over again. As a result, all these terrible things did eventually come upon them just as God said they would.
Over time it started to become clear that people just couldn’t fulfill their end of this agreement. But this wasn’t the only problem. Hebrews 9:9 tells us that “…under the old system, gifts and sacrifices were offered, but these failed to cleanse the hearts of the people who brought them.” In other words, these animal sacrifices couldn’t do anything to change the hearts and attitudes that caused the people to have to bring those sacrifices in the first place.
Clearly, something better was needed- a new agreement (or a “New Covenant”) had to be established between God and humanity. God, of course, knew this would be the case which is why He said this to the prophet Jeremiah…
“‘The day will come,’ says the Lord, ‘when I will make a new contract with the people of Israel and Judah. It won’t be like the one I made with their fathers when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt– a contract they broke, forcing me to reject them,’ says the Lord.
‘But this is the new contract I will make with them: I will inscribe my laws upon their hearts, so that they shall want to honor me; then they shall truly be my people and I will be their God. At that time it will no longer be necessary to admonish one another to know the Lord. For everyone, both great and small, shall really know me then,’ says the Lord, ‘and I will forgive and forget their sins'” (Jeremiah 31:31-34).
One of God’s purposes for the Old Covenant was that it should point people towards this new, better agreement that He foretold to Jeremiah (see also Galatians 3:24-26 and Hebrews 9:10). So what’s the big difference between this New Covenant that God describes above and the old one? Well, the big difference is that this New Covenant would not be based on what people would do for God, but on what God would do for people!
This new agreement was eventually and completely fulfilled through Jesus’ death on the cross for our sins. Instead of an innocent animal suffering the punishment of death for someone’s sin, Jesus offered His own life once for everyone (see 1 Peter 3:18 and especially Hebrews 10:1-18). The Apostle Paul explains it this way in 1 Corinthians 11:23-26…
“For this is what the Lord himself has said, and I pass it on to you just as I received it. On the night when he was betrayed, the Lord Jesus took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way, he took the cup of wine after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant between God and you, sealed by the shedding of my blood. Do this in remembrance of me as often as you drink it'” (NLT).
This new agreement will never fail because it doesn’t depend on mistake-prone human beings to carry it out. This is why Hebrews 7:25 says… “He is able to save completely all who come to God through him. Since he will live forever, he will always be there to remind God that he has paid for their sins with his blood.”