Seven Expressions for the New Covenant

Michael Hardt

T&T 2014 Q4

In looking at the Epistle to the Hebrews I found seven different expressions for the new covenant:

1) ‘a better covenant’ (7:22; 8:6);

2) ‘the second [covenant](8:7);

3) ‘a new (Greek: kainos) covenant’ (8:8; 9:15);

4) ‘the covenant that I will make … after those days’ (8:10; 10:16);

5) ‘the covenant, wherewith he was sanctified’ (10:29);

6) ‘the new (Greek: neos) covenant’ (12:24); and

7) ‘the everlasting covenant’ (13:20).

Each of these expressions refers to the same covenant, but with a different shade of meaning.

A better covenant (7:22; 8:6)

Twice in Hebrews the new covenant is referred to as ‘a better covenant’. The word ‘better’ is characteristic of this letter designed to persuade Christians of Jewish background not to return to the old system of Jewish rites and worship. As Christians they had received something far better: not shadows but reality. But we should not jump to the conclusion that the new covenant is made with Christians. Admittedly, this would have been far better than being under the old covenant (as we will see) but Christianity is better still: we are linked with the one who is the ‘surety’ and the ‘mediator’ of this better covenant and invited to ‘consider’ Him (3:1).

In order to be a mediator (or, as is sometimes said today, to ‘broker a deal’) you need to have access to, and be able to relate to, both parties. Moses was the mediator of the old covenant. One is struck by the way in which he was singled out as the mediator. He alone was allowed to draw near to God (Ex. 24:1–2). This was a great honour for him. Only through him could the people of Israel receive the covenant. But Christ is mediator of ‘a better covenant, which is established on the footing of better promises’ (8:6). These promises are better because they are unconditional and include the blessing of forgiveness, which, as we will see, is central to that better covenant. He only could establish that covenant because He was ready and able to lay the foundation for its blessings — on the cross. We will find yet another striking reason for the superiority of the new covenant when we come to Hebrews 8:7, but when it comes to Christ being the surety (7:22) we cannot point to Moses, or anyone else, by way of illustration. No surety existed for the old covenant. The ‘deal’ was done, both parties consented, and God would never fail to meet His obligations — but no-one could guarantee that the people would meet theirs.

Now, Christ, as surety in relation to the new covenant, takes the entire obligation upon Himself. He commits to making sure that Israel will be brought into blessing. And we are pointed to Him. This is emphasised by the fact that the definite article is not actually used in chapter 7:22 or 8:6. The attention is drawn to Christ, the surety and the mediator, not to the covenant as such.

A second [covenant] (8:7)

This verse presents a marvellously disarming argument: ‘For if that first was faultless, place had not been sought for a second’. The very need of a second, or new, covenant demonstrated the imperfection of the first or old! Anyone familiar with Jeremiah’s message understands this. He had to deliver a hard message: the people had disobeyed, they would lose the land, and become captives — and all this because they had been unfaithful under the old covenant (Jer. 31:32). It was the breakdown of the first covenant that gave occasion to the second.

But how was it possible that the old covenant, given by God, was not ‘faultless’? Because the fault lay with the sin and weakness of one party to the covenant: Israel. As with the law as a whole, there was no problem with what God had given (the law was good) but with the weakness of the flesh (Rom. 8:3). The new covenant was occasioned by the very failure of the old. This is brought out again, very powerfully, in the next verse: ‘For finding fault, he says to them … I will consummate a new covenant …’ (Heb. 8:8). It was in ‘finding fault’ that the new covenant was given — as is set out so plainly in Jeremiah in chapters 2 to 29 and 31:31–34.

A new (kainos) covenant (8:8)

The Greek word used for ‘new’ in this verse (and on most other occasions in which the ‘new covenant’ is mentioned) is ‘kainos’ (new in kind, in contrast with what has been before), as opposed to ‘neos’ (recent or young). The new covenant is of a different character: God takes all responsibility and bestows blessing. Hence the use of ‘I will’ in this verse (and frequently in Jeremiah 30–32). This meaning of ‘kainos’ is further confirmed in Hebrews 8:13: ‘In that he says New, he has made the first old; but that which grows old and aged is near disappearing’.

Note that our verse (8:8) quotes from Jeremiah 31:31, but with a slight variation: instead of saying ‘with’ it says ‘as regards’ the house of Israel. This makes clear that Israel is a beneficiary of the new covenant rather than a party to it in the sense of being put under an obligation (see also Heb. 10:16). Yet it is also clear that it is ‘as regards’ the house of Israel and the house of Judah, and not the church.

Now, what are the blessings of this new covenant? To get the full picture we need to read Jeremiah 30–32 where we find a large number of blessings to do with the land, its possession in peace, etc. But four blessings are singled out in chapter 31:31–34 and quoted in Hebrews 8:10–12:1) God’s law in the heart; 2) relationship with God as His people; 3) knowledge of God; and 4) forgiveness.

For Israel these blessings will mean a complete reversal of their current ‘Lo-Ammi’ situation. As Christians, on the other hand, although the new covenant is yet future and ‘as regards Israel’, we already possess these four blessings — but in a deeper sense: Christ (not the law) is written on our hearts (2 Cor. 3:3; Rom. 12:2); we have a relationship with God and are ‘a people for his name’ (Acts 15:14); we have the knowledge of God — but as Father (1 John 2:13); and we have received the forgiveness of sins — but as a known fact and ‘for his name’s sake’ (1 John 2:12), and based on a finished work. This fourth blessing, forgiveness, is central and foundational to the new covenant. The Lord Himself pointed out, in connection with His supper, that the blood of the new covenant speaks of forgiveness, not of judgment or revenge like that of Abel (Gen. 4:10). What grace!

Covenant and testament (9:15–16)

In this passage we are again pointed to Christ, here as ‘mediator of a new covenant’. We have seen Him as mediator (of a ‘better covenant’) in chapter 8:6, and the significance of the term ‘a better covenant’ in chapter 8:8. But what is brought out here in a striking manner is that death was necessary for the Lord Jesus to become the mediator.

The connection between these two verses is not obvious to the reader of the English text at first sight. What is the relationship between the new covenant[1] in verse 15 and a testament in verse 16? The answer lies in the fact that the same Greek word, diatheke, is capable of either meaning. The Holy Spirit takes advantage of this double meaning to make a very important point: the new covenant was founded on death. Only through death could redemption take place, transgressions be dealt with, and blessing be given.

The words of Jeremiah 31:31–34 must have puzzled the prophet and his hearers alike: what was the basis for this covenant, for God’s ‘I will pardon’ and ‘their sin will I remember no more’? How could He remain righteous and yet ‘remember no more’? Centuries later, this question was answered by the Lord Jesus Himself when He said, ‘this is my blood, that of the new covenant’ (Matt. 26:28). He was about to accomplish the work of redemption and thereby lay the basis for the new covenant: His own blood.

Hebrews 9:16 uses the second meaning of diatheke to show that death was necessary — and not just any death but the death of the testator, the one who bestows the blessing. Otherwise the testament would have no validity whatsoever and no benefit could be transferred. And in this sense the reality exceeds even this divinely given illustration: in the normal course of events death is unavoidable and the validity of the testament is a consequence, but our blessed Lord endured death in order to be able to bestow the blessing! His death is the end of the old covenant (man no longer being tested by God on the ground of responsibility) and at the same time it validates the new.

‘Whence neither the first was inaugurated without blood …’ (Heb. 9:18–20). The connecting ‘whence’ shows that this general principle (death being required for the validity of a testament) also applied to the old covenant, which was also inaugurated with blood. This is a clear parallel between both covenants, and yet what a contrast! The blood of the first covenant testified that anyone breaking it would merit death. The blood of the new covenant tells us that the mediator has paid the price: His blood was shed.

The covenant which I will establish towards them (10:16)

Here the subject is the value of the sacrifice of Christ. We read that ‘by one offering’ Christ ‘has perfected in perpetuity the sanctified’ (v. 14). The writer goes on to show that the notion of a perfect sacrifice was already implied by the promise of the new covenant in Jeremiah 31:31–34. By giving this scripture the Holy Spirit also ‘bears us witness of it’ (Heb. 10:15). How is this possible? The divine answer is clear: ‘But where there is remission of these, there is no longer a sacrifice for sin’ (v. 18). Where there is real forgiveness the sacrifices must cease. Redemption must be accomplished. Therefore — this is the argument — as the new covenant provides full forgiveness, a perfect sacrifice must have occurred!

This paves the way for the encouragement to ‘draw near’ (vs. 19–22). The promise of forgiveness under the new covenant tells us that Christ’s work is perfect, and this allows us to approach God in worship without fear. But we also find a warning.

The covenant, whereby he has been sanctified (10:29)

Having considered the value of the sacrificial death of Christ, the writer pronounces a solemn warning. If someone knows about the blood of Christ — which has such great value that God can found on it all the blessings of the new covenant — and despises it or regards it as ‘common’, that is if someone turns away from Christ as the way of salvation, there can only be righteous judgment for such a person.

When it says that such a person had been ‘sanctified’ by the blood of the covenant, we need to bear in mind that ‘sanctified’ means ‘set apart’. The letter was addressed to Hebrews. They had been set apart from other nations. This privilege was an outward or external one (as opposed to saving faith), but being a privilege it made the sin of despising the blood of Jesus so much more solemn.

Mediator of a new (neos) covenant (12:24)

Again, this verse points us to Christ Himself rather than the covenant as such, but here it is not kainos but neos: new in the sense of recent or young. Accordingly, the emphasis is not the contrast with the old covenant but the fact that this covenant will always remain new and never grow old.

The eternal covenant (13:20–21)

Here we find the lasting and enduring character of this covenant. The first covenant was broken before the ‘tables of the covenant’ could be handed over by its mediator. The new covenant is a lasting and enduring one (cf. Jer. 31:35–36), based on an unshakable foundation. The desire expressed is that ‘the God of peace, who brought again from among the dead our Lord Jesus … in the power of the blood of the eternal covenant, perfect you in every good work’. We are encouraged to do God’s will and to live in obedience to Him — voluntary obedience characteristic of the new covenant — from the heart.

Michael Hardt[2]


[1] The King James Version uses ‘testament’ in verses 15 and 16 but, clearly, the new covenant is in view in verse 15.

[2] Adapted from The New Covenant in Hebrews.