I would have to say that this has to be one of the most misunderstood subjects in the Bible. Make no mistake, there are other very difficult to understand Bible topics, but the Old Covenant and New Covenant has to be in the top five. I know theologians that do not understand the relationship between the two. The purpose of this article is make the Old and New Covenant comparisons as clear to understand as is possible.
Let's begin at the beginning. We must first set our premise. Notice the three reoccurring themes in the following texts:
The next day John seeth Jesus coming unto him, and saith, Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world. (John 1:29)
Everyone living on earth will worship it, everyone whose name is not written in the Book of Life. That book belongs to the lamb who was slaughtered before the creation of the world. (Revelation 13:8)
Forasmuch as ye know that ye were not redeemed with corruptible things, as silver and gold, from your vain conversation received by tradition from your fathers; But with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot: Who verily was foreordained before the foundation of the world, but was manifest in these last times for you. (1 Peter 1:18-20)
From the preceding texts several Bible themes are brought to light:
Theme one is that of Jesus as the Lamb of God.
Theme two makes reference to something that the Lamb of God does - He "taketh away the sin of the world."
Theme three brings out what is the most interesting in these texts: And that is WHEN He "taketh away" the sin of the world. Notice that the text points clearly to "the lamb who was slaughtered before the creation of the world."
All of this is in reference to the Plan of Salvation that was a product of the "Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost" (Matthew 28:19; 1 john 5:7) formulated to deal with the problem of sin. A plan formulated before our world was even created! This plan promised that at some point after The Fall, Jesus (Messiah) would be "slaughtered" for the sins of a world. This was a plan devised prior to The Fall of man, by the grace of God, to "taketh away" the sins of an entire world.
One plan for one world.
One plan for all mankind!
One World - One Plan
There is no plan involving salvation for any one group or segment of humanity. There is no plan that applies exclusively to the Jews or those who lived in Old testament times - or even for people living in New Testament time. Every human, from Adam on, that will be saved, will be saved by one plan, founded on God's grace alone!
So, this would be the perfect time to state (with explanation to follow) that this preordained Plan for all humans and the New Covenant of Grace are the same exact thing - the exact same plan.
That's right - the plan formulated "before the the creation of the world" and the New Covenant of Grace are one and the same. Both involves Jesus (The Lamb) being "slaughtered" (or slain) for the sins of the world.
There is only ONE Covenant promise for the entire world:
For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son (The Lamb), that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. (John 3:16)
Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved. (Acts 4:12)
Jesus the Christ (or Jesus the Messiah) is not just the Savior for those living after His incarnation - He is the Promised Savior for all mankind. (And oh what a precious promise God hath given!) One of the major reasons many have problems with this concept is because we are told that what occurred in the Old Testament has no value for those living in New Testament times. Hence, most don't study the Old Testament, which leaves a major void in understanding the Plan of Salvation, and understanding God as well.
Now lets take a moment to examine the term Covenant, as taught in New Covenant theology.
The New Covenant Theology (Promise)
Note that the word covenant means an agreement between two parties. The New Covenant is no different: its an agreement between two parties. What we need to do now is determine the parties involved in the New Covenant agreement, and determine when the covenant was instituted (began).
First, the Plan of Salvation, formulated before the sin problem, involves the redemption of the fallen human race by God. But for God to institute this plan in behalf of the human race, the human race (or a representative of the human race) has to agree to the terms of the plan. In other words, the human race has to want to take advantage of the privileges provided by the plan: God will not force anyone to be saved!
So, let's take a look at God's introduction of salvation to a fallen human race. It can be found in Genesis 3:15.
I will put enmity between thee (Satan) and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel. (Genesis 3:15)
Although there does not appear to be much here, this text is pregnant with information. Know that Moses here recorded a succinct version of the conversation God had with Adam and Eve. God, as He would do with you or me if we would allow Him, took His time to explain to fallen Adam and Eve the nuances of the Plan of Salvation, designed specifically for the fall of mankind and now ready for implementation.
All that was needed was for Adam, acting on the behalf of all humans, to accept the terms of the agreement (covenant of grace). And the central terms of the covenant?: The substitutionary sacrifice of Messiah (Jesus). And from that moment, Adam, Eve and all who chose to believe in that Plan lived with the hope of the promised arrival of Messiah to die for the sins of the world.
Note that this same New Covenant agreement between God and humanity was re-instituted between God and Abraham. Abraham was chosen because of his faith in the New Covenant promise of the coming Messiah (Genesis 12:1-3, Hebrews 11:4-13).
Also note that this covenant was initially instituted by Promise only (Galatians 3:16, 17), but later to be officially confirmed or ratified by blood with the death of Messiah who was eventually born as a human named Jesus. In the New Testament this agreement, which was instituted in the Garden of Eden after The Fall by promise but ratified at the Cross with the blood Jesus, is referred to as the New Covenant.
The Old Covenant
At this point I'm sure there are questions - one in particular: If the covenant established in The Garden of Eden is the New Covenant agreement for all of mankind, what was the purpose of the Old Covenant?
Now what I find amazing here is that when the Apostle Paul was attempting to explain this same subject to Jews in his letter to the Galatians, he wrote that the Jews in their confusion would ask a similar question.
Case and point: In Galatians 3:19 Paul is saying to the Jews "At this point I'm sure all of you who are reading this letter are probably asking the question 'Wherefore then serveth the law?'" Here, Paul is referring to the covenant agreement established at Mt Sinai where God spoke (and wrote) the Ten Commandments. This agreement is referred to in the Bible as the Old Covenant.
To explain the purpose of the events that transpired on Mt. Sinai, here is the simple version:
Adam understood the mechanics of the Plan of Salvation which is the substitutionary ministry of Messiah. So did Noah, Abraham, Issac and Jacob. But for Jacob's descendents, who spent over four hundred years under the rule, and in the idol rich religious system of the Egyptians, their understanding of The Plan of Salvation had become extremely corrupted, mixed heavily with idolatrous practices. By the time of their deliverance Jacob's descendents were more Egyptian than followers of the One True God: they were, in fact themselves, idolaters! (Note that the nation of Israel battled with the problem of idolatry throughout the rest of the Old Testaments).
Understanding this problem, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, put a plan in motion to bring the newly released, idolatrous, children of Jacob (Israel) to a knowledge and understanding of what is today referred to as the Abrahamic Covenant, the original plan for all mankind which, of course, is called in the New Testament the New Covenant of grace.
God's plan? Offer Israel a covenant based solely on perfect human works. In this plan God would give a list of instructions (the Ten Commandments, statutes, ordinances, etc.) to be strictly followed without any missteps; A list that God knew they couldn't keep because of humanity's dark nature - but a list He knew they would agree to because of their self sufficiency (righteousness). Note that there were no provisions for missteps in this agreement; there was no forgiveness, no mercy, and no grace. One sin and the covenant is broken!
Terms of the Old Covenant: Obey or die!
A continuous, perfect, spotless life was required!
Paul expressed the hopelessness of this agreement this way:
For all who rely on doing the works of the law are under a curse, because it is written, “Cursed is everyone who does not keep on doing everything written in the book of the law.” (Galatians 3:10)
Evidence of the children of Israel's ignorance and lack of understanding of humanity's dark nature is in the fact they actually agreed to these impossible terms:
And Moses came and called for the elders of the people, and laid before their faces all these words which the Lord commanded him. And all the people answered together, and said, All that the Lord hath spoken we will do. And Moses returned the words of the people unto the Lord. (Genesis 19:7, 9)
That day, the Old Covenant between God and Israel, based on strict obedience, was established and confirmed (ratified) with the blood of goats.
How long did that covenant last? Less than six weeks! During the forty days Moses was atop Mt Sinai communing with God, Israel made themselves an idol (a molten calf), bowed down to it, and with one voice "said, These be thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt." (You can read all about it in Exodus 32)
This act broke the covenant! (Remember, the first three commandments say "no other gods", "no graven images" and "don't bow to any graven images"!)
Take note here that Israel breaking the covenant was God's plan all alone - He knew before hand this would happen.
Now feeling the full weight and guilt of a broken agreement, plus the depth of their own dark inadequacies, and facing death, Israel is now at a point where God can introduce them to the only plan in place to save mankind - The New Covenant agreement!
At this point God instituted a series of teaching aids (i.e. The Sanctuary, The Lamb without blemish) designed to direct Israels attention to the original New Covenant Substitutionary Plan to save all humanity.
These aids were designed solely to teach - not save!
Over the course of time, though, Israel mis-applied these teaching aids and began using them as a means of qualifying themselves as citizens of the coming kingdom of the Messiah.
(We must always remember there is nothing humans can do to qualify themselves for God's kingdom. Nothing!)
The main point here is that the whole failed Old Covenant agreement was designed by God to get Israel to a point where they would be willing to learn about the good news of the Covenant of Grace for all mankind. God's desire was, and is, to get every human, in both Old and New Testament times, to understand and accept His original New Covenant plan (developed in Heaven before our world was created). Of course every human has to decide for themselves if they want to be a part of this agreement.
Point of Clarification: The covenant plan introduced to Adam after The Fall (Gen 3:15), and later to Abraham, is called the New Covenant only because it was not officially ratified or confirmed with blood until the actual death of Messiah (Jesus) - which took place years after the Mt Sinai covenant which was ratified immediately with the blood of goats, and is now referred to as the Old Covenant.
The Final Word
Paul, writing to the Jews in Galatia about The Old Covenant, says:
was added because of transgressions, till the seed should come to whom the promise was made...Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster. (Galatians 3:19, 24, 25)
Notice here that Paul is making it clear to the Jews that God used the Old Covenant agreement for one reason and one reason only - to lead Israel from idolatry, from self righteousness, from ignorance, to put their trust in God's plan for all mankind. That plan is the New Covenant agreement where God Himself provides everything we need to be saved - namely the Messiah Jesus, who, during Paul's day, had arrived as promised and died as man's Substitute thereby eliminating a need for teaching aids or a "schoolmaster" (i.e. the Sanctuary, killing lambs, feast days, etc.), "nailing [them] to his cross". (Colossians 3:14)
[I want to note here that had Israel actually learned the great story those teaching aids (or schoolmaster) were telling, the Jewish nation's chances of recognizing Jesus as Messiah would have increased tremendously.]
Paul is also making it clear that there is no, and never was, a plan in place exclusively for Jews. He says
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus. And if ye be Christ's, then are ye Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise. (Galatians 3:27, 28)
Paul ends the chapter (Galatians 3) by reminding the Jews that Abraham, considered the father of Jews, lived by faith in the promised Messiah. And that all, both Jew and Gentile, that put their faith in Jesus the Promised Messiah, will be included in the inheritance promised to Abraham's seed for his faith in the plan. A plan originally formulated in heaven by God, later introduced to Abraham, and now referred to as the New Covenant of Grace.
One God, one plan, one covenant for one fallen world.