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Hebrews 8:6 tells us the New Covenant is "a better covenant, established on better promises.” So what are these "better promises", and what makes them better than the promises made at Mount Sinai with the nation of Israel, which are referred to as “old” in verse 13?
Hebrews 8:7 notes there was a fault with the Old Covenant, otherwise there wouldn't have been a need for the new. Many believe the New Covenant replaced or supplanted the law with grace and faith. This line of reasoning leads some to conclude observing the weekly Sabbath and annual Holy Days, tithing and distinguishing between clean and unclean meats have been rendered obsolete by the New Covenant and therefore do not apply to Christians.
Paul addressed this concept in Romans 3:31: "Do we then make void [Greek katargeo, meaning 'destroy' or 'abolish'] the law through faith? Certainly not! On the contrary, we establish the law." Some 25 to 30 years after Jesus Christ's death and resurrection, Paul said he believed "all things which are written in the Law and in the Prophets" (terms used for the Old Testament) and had done nothing against the law! (Acts 24:14; 25:8).
The Old Covenant was an extension of earlier promises God made to Israel's forefathers: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Genesis 15:13-14; Exodus 2:24-25; 6:4-8). God determined, in light of these promises, to bring Abraham's descendants out of Egypt and make them His model nation (Exodus 19:5-6) upholding God's way of life. After the law, commandments, statutes and judgments had been given in Exodus 19-24, the Israelites responded with a commitment to obey (Exodus 24:7), but the history of Israel is characterized by a rejection of the covenant and a way of life contrary to God's laws.
Hebrews 8:7-8 helps us understand why Israel failed and what the fault of the Old Covenant was. God plainly says He found fault not with the law, or the Ten Commandments, but with the people themselves. However, Paul explains the problem was not with just the nation of Israel. Sin is a universal problem for all humanity (Romans 3:9; Galatians 3:22) and in Romans 7:7 he tells us man would not recognize sin if it were not for the law.
More than 25 years after the death of Jesus Christ the Apostle Paul wrote "the law is holy, and the commandment holy and just and good" (Romans 7:12). God’s law is an expression of God's character, which is holy, just and good, and it convicts man of his sinfulness (Romans 5:20), leading to much-needed forgiveness and reconciliation through Jesus Christ (Romans 5:6-12).
Although we may recognize what is right and good, we all too easily succumb to the selfish pulls to gratify the flesh. This was Israel's dilemma under the Old Covenant, and it is the dilemma of all human beings. Paul asked the universal question: "O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?" (verse 24).
When the prophet Jeremiah went to the Kingdom of Judah urging national repentance the people despised him. The solution to the problem of sin God revealed at that time is the same one proclaimed hundreds of years later in the book of Hebrews. God inspired Jeremiah to proclaim a New Covenant would be established that would have a better outcome than the Old: "But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel…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…for they all shall know Me from the least of them to the greatest of them…I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more" (Jeremiah 31:33-34).
This New Covenant would have the additional dimension of the Holy Spirit, giving us the ability to keep God's law through Christ working in our lives. "I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me" (Galatians 2:20).
Sadly, that law, which reflects the very character of God, did not become a part of the lives of the people of ancient Israel. The same thing occurs today if the Bible gathers dust on the shelf and we do not change our lives. But, if we allow God's Spirit to work in our minds and lives, God's law—the same law written on the tablets of stone—becomes a permanent part of our lives as Christians. It manifests itself in thoughts, words, deeds and character that reflect God.
Through Jesus Christ we are forgiven of our sins, and justified (made righteous, or forgiven) by grace through faith. Then, through the indwelling power of God's Spirit, Jesus works in us to help us conquer sin to create a "new man" enabling us to "put off the old man," our previous self-oriented way of life (Colossians 3:5-10). Then we are promised not just physical blessings as with the Old Covenant, but eternal life: "The earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God" (Romans 8:19). The New Covenant offers better promises (Hebrews 8:6) and a better hope (Hebrews 7:19)—that of eternal life.
The Good News magazine (May-June 1997)