Notice that although there were two parties involved in this covenant, God, and every living thing on earth, the terms of the covenant involved only one party. It was a promise of what God would do and those who were to benefit from this covenant had absolutely nothing to do. It was theirs regardless of what they did. So this was an agreement that God made with Himself in a sense. It was a promise really, but the Bible refers to it as a covenant. It is important that we understand this, for if we don't understand this concept of a covenant our concept of the New Covenant will most likely be a wrong one.
What is the New Covenant?
Adam was the first man who was saved. He was the first man who was lost and he was the first man who received salvation. So salvation was from the beginning, from the time of the first generation of men who lived on this planet. But let us ask a question; has man ever being saved by any means other than by the New Covenant?
In Ezekiel 36: 25-27 and Hebrews 8:10-11, God explains the terms of the New Covenant. He says,
Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean: from all your filthiness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you. (26) A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh. (27) And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do them. (Ezek 36:25-27)
For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, saith the Lord; I will put my laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts: and I will be to them a God, and they shall be to me a people: (11) And they shall not teach every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: for all shall know me, from the least to the greatest. (Heb 8:10-11)
The terms of this New Covenant are simple. All that God did was to make a commitment that He would write his laws in our hearts and in our minds, a pledge that He would put His spirit within us and give us new hearts.
When Adam repented and received salvation in the garden of Eden, did he have this experience? Did he have God's law written upon his heart and his mind and did God remember his sin and his iniquity no more? Was that promise in Hebrews chapter 8 fulfilled for Adam and Eve?
If we should say that Adam never experienced it then what would be the implications? It would mean that Adam and Eve and all the persons who lived during those early generations did not experience the renewal of the holy spirit, that in fact nobody was born again back in those days, and in fact, we would either have to conclude that nobody from that age could have been saved, or else we would have to believe that there was some other way that God saved them other than the means by which men are saved today.
But we need not be in doubt about this, men have always been saved only in one way, and this is by the new birth (John 3:3), by receiving a new life through the imparting of the spirit of Christ, and so Jesus is said to be, “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.” (Rev. 13:8). What we call the New Covenant really has to do with a new nature. God made a promise that he would impart a new nature or a new life to His people and that is the basis of the New Covenant. Nobody has ever been saved without that experience! So the New Covenant must have been there from the beginning when man first fell.
The everlasting covenant
So instead of saying, “the New Covenant,” it may be more correct to refer to God's way of saving men as “the Everlasting Covenant.” The New Covenant is really the Everlasting Covenant.
But why is God's plan of salvation called “New,” after the time of Christ, and how is it related to the system which is called “Old?” We will look at that in a moment.
Now the everlasting covenant is the means by which God saves men and there has never been any other means of salvation. In this covenant God says, “I will put my life within you, I will put my spirit, my laws within you and I will cause you to walk in my ways, and your sins and your iniquities will I remember no more.” That's the New Covenant. In this New Covenant it is God who does what needs to be done. Man's only part is to believe that God has done it and to accept that it is the truth. The only condition on man's experiencing this New Covenant is that he must believe God's promise.
As we read through the Bible it is clear that many of the faithful men and women of ancient times had a more limited concept of God's nature, God's character and God's ways than we do. But that is why we are saved only by faith. If salvation depended on understanding the law, or upon having an accurate knowledge of doctrine then many of these people could not have been saved. But the New Covenant is based entirely on faith in God's promise. There are no other conditions. Rahab the harlot ignorantly told a lie to demonstrate her faith. The action was faulty, but the motive was right. It was directed by a sincere faith which led her to commit herself to the God of Israel, even though she lied on behalf of the God who never lies. But she is saved because salvation is not based on knowledge of the law. She did not understand the law properly but her faith was in God, and through God, in Christ, and so on the basis of faith she became a partaker of that Everlasting Covenant.
This Everlasting Covenant is the only way that God can justifiably and equitably save people in all cultures, in all ages, because it is not based upon how much a person knows. If a person lived a thousand years ago his knowledge of God's ways was likely to be very different from ours and especially if he never had the Bible. But everybody can have some kind of experience where they can find faith in God and that is the only thing required under the Everlasting Covenant. So we can understand then why God puts salvation on the basis of faith and not works or knowledge.
The basis of the Old Covenant
Now then, we come to the question, what is the Old Covenant? The Old Covenant is referred to in several ways in the Bible, but it is important that we recognize that one of the terms which refers to this Old Covenant is, “the law,” or “the law and the prophets.” Generally speaking, the entire system of worship and government which existed from the time of Moses until the time of Christ was called “the Old Covenant,” or “the law.” (Gal. 4:24-25; Jer. 31:32). When we see the word “law,” here, we are to understand that Paul is speaking of the Old Covenant. That entire system with its rules, its worship, its illustrations, its teachings, its lifestyle and its people.
In Exodus 19 we find the beginning of the Old Covenant and we get an understanding of the principles on which this covenant was based. God introduced this covenant to Moses with the following words:
Now therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people: for all the earth is mine: (6) And ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation. These are the words which thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel. (Exo 19:5-6)
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. (Exo 19:8)
This covenant was not like the covenant which God made with the earth in Noah's day and it was not like the Everlasting Covenant which was strictly based on God's promise, with no requirement of the people except to believe. This covenant required to people to do something before they received any benefit. Paul further reinforces this point in the following verse:
And the law is not of faith: but, The man that doeth them shall live in them. (Gal 3:12)
God made a promise here that they would become a peculiar treasure unto Him above all people and that they would become a kingdom of priests, but there were conditions. They had to obey His voice and keep his covenant and on that condition He would make them a peculiar treasure unto himself above all other people. This covenant included the entire system of worship and lifestyle which was given to Moses on Mount Sinai, represented by the Ten Commandments as the following verse clearly shows:
And he was there with the LORD forty days and forty nights; he did neither eat bread, nor drink water. And he wrote upon the tables the words of the covenant, the ten commandments. (Exo 34: 28)
This is why the box which was built to contain the ten commandments was called, “the ark of the covenant.” So when God told them to keep His covenant, it is clear that He was referring to obedience to all the law, including the Ten commandments. Under this Old Covenant, this was the condition on which He would bless them and accept them as His people.
The question is, did God expect them to first obey the covenant by keeping His commandments before He blessed them? The answer has to be no. Man cannot do good in order to be accepted of God. It is an impossibility. It can work the other way around, man can first be accepted of God in order that he may do good, but he cannot do good first in order that he may be accepted. If that was what God truly required of men in order that He might save them, then no person could ever be saved. Yet, these are the terms of the Old Covenant.
I should mention at this point that several persons including no less a person than E.J. Waggoner, have suggested that it was not God, but the Israelites who instituted the Old Covenant. I have examined this idea, but I cannot reconcile it with what the Bible says. The very first mention of this covenant is found in Exodus 19:6-8, and the terms are very clear. Right from the very beginning God asks for obedience and makes a condition. He says, “if you will do … then this will be your reward.” It was a covenant which began with a requirement for the people to do something. They had to obey, they had to keep it.
So it seems very clear to me that it was God who instituted this covenant and of course, the question immediately arises, “why did He do this? If the Everlasting Covenant already existed and is the only way of salvation, why then did God institute something which could not save and which clearly could not be fulfilled by those who promised to fulfill it? Why didn't He simply emphasize the Everlasting Covenant and lead the people in that way? The Bible gives us several reasons. Let us see what they were.
Reasons for the Old Covenant
The purpose of the law was:
a . To reveal evil, to make men know right from wrong. (Rom. 7:7,13)
b. To make man know his incapability (Rom. 7:21-23)
c. To make man know his need. (Rom. 7:18, 24)
d. To make man know he is lost. (Rom. 5:20)
e. To promote physical and temporal benefits (Lev. 26:3-12)
f. To restrain the spread of iniquity (Gal. 3:19)
g. To illustrate heavenly realities. (Hebrews 9:23)
h. To illustrate future events. (Colossians 2: 16, 17)
i. To bring men to Christ (to the new covenant) ( Gal. 3:24)
The final text listed above tells us that the law was intended to be our schoolmaster, and this perhaps sums up all the other points. The purpose of the law or the Old Covenant, was to lead men to Christ. In God's plans, everything has it's proper place, everything works step by step in the accomplishing of God's ultimate purposes. God wants men to come to Christ but in order for them to come to Christ they have to first of all recognize their need. So what does God in his wisdom do? He sets up a system that is bound to let them recognize their need because this is an absolute necessity before they can come to the next stage.
Made for the unrighteous
Now as we have seen, the New Covenant was always there. But let us consider an important question: Who are the only people who can experience the New Covenant? Of course, the answer is, only God's true people! They are the only ones who have the spirit of God in them, enabling them to walk in the ways of God.
On the other hand, who is it that the law leads to Christ? And of course, the answer is, those who are not God's people. So if we follow this reasoning we can clearly see that the Old Covenant is not for God's true people. The Old Covenant is for those who are not God's people. (1 Tim. 1:9)
Now when you understand that the everlasting covenant or the New Covenant has always existed then something else begins to come into your mind. If the Old Covenant is God's appointed way to lead people to Christ then it stands to reason that the Old Covenant must always have existed along with the New Covenant. If there was always the New Covenant from the beginning, then there must have also been a way that men could have been led to Christ from the beginning, as well. So in a sense, both covenants are not limited to certain periods of time, but are more related to two different experiences. One of them is the experience out of Christ, while the other has to do with the experience in Christ. So it is clear that both these experiences have always been present throughout the ages.
So the question then is, why did God take a group of people (The Israelites) and as a people set them under the Old Covenant system, which in actual fact, signifies the experience outside of Christ. The very fact that they, as a group, were under the Old Covenant means that they, as a group, were outside of Christ.
Not for God's people?
What does it mean to be God's child? It means to be born again. It means to have partaken of Christ's Spirit (Rom. 8:9). Were Israel as a nation God's children? Were they, as a nation, born again in reality? The fact is, they never were God's people in the true sense! So whatever God gave to Israel as a nation, whatever covenant God made with Israel as a nation it was not on the basis of them being truly His people. God's people have eternal life. Did the Israelites as a nation have eternal life? No! And God never promised them eternal life. Examine the Old Testament and see if God ever promised them eternal life. Read what God promised those people and you will see that He never promised them eternal life because the Old Covenant does not deal with eternal things, the Old Covenant only deals with benefits in this temporal world.
When Paul says, “we were under the elements of this world (Gal. 4:3),” he was quite right because that is all the Old Covenant could deal with, this world and the benefits of this world. If they carried out a certain kind of behaviour then God would give them certain benefits, temporal benefits. The Old Covenant brought temporal benefits, the New Covenant brings eternal benefits. So when God set up that covenant with the nation of Israel it was not on the basis that they would receive eternal life. You will never find eternal life promised to the Israelites anywhere in the covenant God made with them, because what God set up was not salvation. It could not bring salvation, but was only a symbol of salvation.
Was it possible for any of those Israelites to obtain true salvation? Of course it was possible. anybody in that nation could have found true salvation through true faith, but that had nothing to do with the system that was set up, because as a system, as a people, God set up a school, a teaching aid based upon a principle of, “obey and live.” His promises were, “Honour your father and your mother that your days may be long upon the land which the Lord giveth thee; I'll take you to a land flowing with milk and honey.” That was what they were promised! They were never promised everlasting life on the basis of obedience. God promised them temporal benefits only, because the only condition on which you receive everlasting life and eternal benefits is faith and that is not the basis of the Old Covenant. (Gal. 3:12)
Are we saved in groups?
Many of us are always speaking of God's people, “as a group.” We think of the Israelites as a nation belonging to God and we tend to think in those same terms when we think of God's people today. But when we say, “as a nation,” we put our finger on a critical bugging point that confuses and deludes many Christians. Nobody is saved “as a people.” God does not save people corporately, God only saves people as individuals so there is no way that God could have established the everlasting covenant with people, “as a people.” Impossible! God only establishes the everlasting covenant with individuals, because faith must be exercised individually. It cannot be done “as a people,” on a corporate basis. That is why no church group can be truly said to be “God's people,” as a church. They may be an instrument in God's hand, used by him to accomplish a certain purpose, but not His people in the sense of having a saving relationship with Him. This can only be experienced on an individual basis.
But God definitely established, and used the Hebrew nation, under the Old Covenant to be a teaching aid to the world. From the moment that Old Covenant was established, those who understood its purpose were able to benefit from it, and even today, every individual in the world who sees that system and studies it carefully is able to see Christ through it. In their carnal self-centeredness, the Hebrews thought the system was established only for their benefit, because they were better than other nations, but God's purpose was to use them to bless the world in helping the world to find the Messiah. The whole system was just an illustration to demonstrate the realities which are in Christ.
The Israelites became thoroughly confused, and many Christians today have joined them in that confusion, thinking that in that system itself, there was salvation and that God had a greater desire to save the Jews than other people. But God was trying to bless the world by putting, somewhere on this planet a school where people could look and see the way to Christ and see why we needed Him.
Using our misconceptions
God has always been working to save men, by any means possible, sometimes even in the most unexpected ways, and from the very beginning God has used man's misconceptions as a means of bringing him to Christ. There was always the concept among people that if they could only obey and do what was good, then God would be pleased. Those who were honest and sincere soon recognized that all their efforts were getting them nowhere and that they needed help. God used this as a means of bringing them to the place where they could recognize their need of Christ and, through faith in Him, could receive His life and be born again.
Even today the law serves that purpose. It certainly has done that in my life many times. Many times I tried so hard, and why was I trying so hard? Because I was trying to live up to God's standard and having failed I ended up talking to God and saying, “oh help me! I can't do it!” It still serves as a schoolmaster. The false idea that we need to obey in order to obtain God's favour is deeply rooted in man's psyche and God still uses this false idea, many times to drive us to the end of our rope so we can turn to Christ. The law still serves that purpose.
So in actual fact, both the old and the new (everlasting) covenants co-exist right down to the end of time. But at a certain point in the world's history, God established a system on a global level as a teaching tool, where one age and one entire nation was established upon this idea of living by obedience. When Christ came the world stepped into another age where the full light of faith and what it means to believe and live became evident.
Who hath saved us, and called us with an holy calling, not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace, which was given us in Christ Jesus before the world began, (10) But is now made manifest by the appearing of our Saviour Jesus Christ, who hath abolished death, and hath brought life and immortality to light through the gospel: (2 Tim 1:9-10)
So we divide time into two ages, the age of the Old Covenant and the age of the New Covenant, but in actual fact it does not mean that there are two ways that people could be saved. This is how some people interpret it. They say that because there was an Old Covenant and now there's a New Covenant, God has two different ways of saving people. First he saved them by the Old Covenant, and now He saves by the new, but that is not true! This is a false idea which must be guarded against. Man was ever only saved by the New Covenant, whether in this age, or in any age since the beginning of time.
Only of this world
So this brings us to certain conclusions which we need to remember. Nobody could receive everlasting life through the old covenant. Nobody! It never happened, it never will and God never intended that it should be that way. God's blessings under the Old Covenant were only temporal, they had to do with this world and so the commandments associated with this covenant were referred to as, “carnal.” (Heb. 7:16). Paul referred to them as, “the elements of the world,” (Gal 4:3) “the rudiments of the world.” (Col 2:20).
Paul says that under the Old Covenant, we “were in bondage under the elements of the world (Gal 4:3),” referring to the many laws and rules which were given to the Israelites. Many Christians say this could never be referring to the laws given by God. They say that God could never set something in place which could be referred to as being carnal, as being of this world, as being elements of the world. But the fact is, this is all that the Old Covenant was, because the only benefit to be gained from that covenant had to do with this life, with physical things. There was nothing eternal in it, so it is perfectly right to refer to it as “carnal,” and “temporal” and as being “of the elements of this world.” It did not deal with eternal realities, in spite of the fact that it was a necessary teaching tool to lead men to those eternal realities.
The Jews felt that salvation was present in the observance of these things. So then they had to bring God down to that level. If you believe that God is going to give you eternal life because you kill some sheep, and because you fix copies of the law onto your forehead, and you observe the ten commandments, what kind of God are you making Him out to be? Your concept of God is bound to be warped.
It is only when you can see that in these things salvation was only illustrated but not realized in reality, that you can look beyond the sheep, you can look beyond the observances of the feast days, the rituals, the letter of the commandments, and you can look at the greater reality and say, “God is a God who deals with realities not with form.” But if you think that form and ceremony is what satisfies God, then you bring God down to the baby level, and make Him out to be somebody who does not have much more sense than a human being.
Limited penalties and rewards
Now here is a final point for us to consider: Since the Old Covenant pertained to this world and the elements of this world, then the penalties and the promises associated with that covenant were also only temporal. Now please consider carefully what I am about to say, because at this point, some people put on the brakes and refuse to go any farther. We say the promises were only to do with this life, but what about the penalties, were they only temporal or were they eternal? If the promises were temporal what about the penalties?
They had to be temporal also! So if a man was stoned to death because he was picking up sticks on the Sabbath day does it necessarily mean that he has lost his eternal life? Not necessarily! Of course if a man was so much out of touch with God that he would deliberately go and pick up sticks on the Sabbath day this very definitely demonstrates that such a man did not have much of a relationship with God. But suppose that man's wife was at home sick and he went and picked up sticks on the Sabbath day to light a fire in order to make a warm brew, and they caught him, what would they do? They would stone him! Under the Old Covenant this man would die as a sinner! But what about under the everlasting covenant? If this man's faith was right this man would have eternal life, even though he might have been stoned to death under the Old Covenant as a transgressor. This is what nearly happened to Mary the sinner. This is what happened to the thief on the cross. So we are not to look at the killings that took place under the Old Testament and the benefits that people got under the old testament and think that these are necessarily an indicator of the final destinies of people. Much of it was only illustration and type.
So when we look at the question of people's eternal destiny, we have to go beyond what we see based on the Old Testament. That's why Paul could say, “Rahab is saved,” even though she was somebody most people wouldn't expect to see in heaven. When you look at the behaviour of some of these people it makes you want to ask, “what kind of people were these?” But God sees on a different level and we also have to learn to see on that level if we're going to understand God's purposes.
People who remain under the Old Covenant never change. It is only the outward behaviour which changes. Under it, they always remain bound to this earth and its ways. It is only when they have experienced Christ in the New Covenant that real change takes place and they truly become inheritors of eternal things.