Our Bibles are split into Old and New “Testaments”. The word “Testament” is really the same as “Covenant”, which is really what the Old and New Testament division is about. God, in the Bible, made various Covenants with mankind and the nation of Israel. One in particular is what we consider the “Old Testament”. And when Christ came, He established a new covenant, which is why our Bibles are divided into the Old and New Testaments, or Covenants.
So what is a covenant? And what is the “Old Covenant” - we'll need to understand a little bit about that in order to understand what's new about the “New Covenant”. In simplistic terms, in order to be brief, the Biblical covenants are a sort of formal relationship between God and man. In the Old Covenant, God gave Moses the Ten Commandments, and He said that if Israel would obey those laws, God would bless the nation. But if they would break those laws, God would curse the nation – they would suffer poor crops, defeat in battle, and ultimately, if they would continue to be unrepentant, they would be driven from the land altogether, just as the Canaanites were when Israel conquered them. Now, we'll talk more about these laws at another time, but for now we need to understand this key point... Every nation needs laws. But I'm sure you know the attitude that so many people have... that they will break the law for as long as they can until they get caught; and then they'll suffer the consequence and go right back to breaking the law again. You see this with people who always speed in their cars... if they get a fine, they'll pay it, but it doesn't change their behaviour at all. Getting caught is just a hassle one has to deal with. I'm not trying to be pessimistic, and I know that people can be moral and law abiding because they genuinely believe in the law and want to do what's right. But you'll agree that no government would be in their right mind if they simply said “This is the law...” and didn't also establish a police force to enforce that law. The fact that we need police shows us that to merely state a law, even one that we all agree to (for even those who speed agree that speeding is dangerous), won't change the behaviour of people. Well, this is precisely what the Old Covenant was designed to show. God had given the law to Israel, and the entire history of Israel demonstrates failure after failure to keep the law, even despite the promise of blessings if they were obedient, and the deterrent of cursings if they didn't. They would fall into idolatry, God would punish them, they would repent, and then before you know it they had fallen back into idolatry again... until finally they suffered the harshest of God's "cursings"; they were conquered and driven out of the land, first by Assyria, and then by Babylon.
So what's new and different about the New Covenant? We read of the New Covenant which was promised to God's people in the prophetic writings of Jeremiah...
Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers ... I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. (Jeremiah 31:31-33)
This is an incredible promise. What the Old Covenant did not provide was the internal desire to obey the law of God. Where it says that God will write the law on their hearts, it signifies that God will give them that internal desire and ability to be obedient to the law of God. Jesus said “For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery...” (Mark 7:21). That is, our behaviour is a result of who we really are on the inside. We might comply with the law to avoid getting caught, but if there were no chance of getting caught, we would do whatever is in our hearts to do. God is saying that this New Covenant, which was yet to come at the time of Jeremiah, would give people a genuine desire to be obedient to God's laws from their very heart. We've spoken about this before a few days ago where I spoke about “regeneration”.
What we also find new about the New Covenant is something we call the “indwelling of the Holy Spirit.” Ezekiel, who also prophesied regarding the New Covenant, wrote this:
And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. (Ezekiel 36:26-27)
Speaking clearly of the same New Covenant, Ezekiel says that “[God] will put [His] Spirit within you...” This “indwelling” of the Holy Spirit we shall explore tomorrow. Until then...
And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you. (John 14:16-17)