The Book of Hebrews is a declaration of the absolute supremacy of Jesus Christ. Hebrews tells us that Jesus is superior to the angels (ch. 1–2), superior to Moses (3–4:13), and superior to Aaron (4:14–7). His is a superior priesthood (8–10:18), and He has inaugurated a superior covenant (10:19–13).
Throughout the book of Hebrews, we find this emphasis on that which is new and better. In Hebrews 7:12, for example, we are told that “when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well.” When the former commandment is set aside “a better hope is introduced” (7:18–19). Jesus himself is the guarantor of the “better covenant” (7:22). Hebrews 8:6 explains, “Christ has obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises.” In Hebrews 8:7, we are told that “if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion to look for a second.” And after quoting the promise of a new covenant found in Jeremiah 31:31–34, the author of Hebrews says, “In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away” (8:13).
These remarks in Hebrews, along with others elsewhere, have caused many to ask whether God made a mistake with the old covenant. Was God forced to abandon His original plan and move to an emergency backup plan? Does the fact that the old covenant is the old covenant mean that the new covenant was “plan b”? The answer is no. The fact that God inaugurated a new covenant does not mean that He made a mistake with the old covenant. The reason for this, however, may not be immediately evident.
The answer to the question becomes clearer when we examine Jeremiah 31:31–34, in which the prophet foresees the inauguration of the new covenant. The author of Hebrews quotes this prophecy in Hebrews 8. In order to understand his explanation of the prophecy we have to understand something of the context in which it was written. We have to remember that the book of Hebrews was written to Jewish converts to Christianity who were suffering severe persecution for their faith. They were being tempted to revert back to old covenant forms and ceremonies in order to avoid such persecution. The author of Hebrews is telling these Christians that to return to old covenant ceremonies would be worse than futile because the old covenant administration was never intended by God to be permanent. In order to defend his point, he directs his readers to the Old Testament text of Jeremiah 31.
The author of Hebrews prefaces his explanation of Jeremiah 31 by reminding his readers that “if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion to look for a second” (8:7). What he is saying here is that the very fact that the Old Testament promises a “new” covenant means that the Old Testament itself foresaw the temporary nature of the “old” covenant. There would never be any need for a “new” covenant if God had always intended the old covenant to be permanent. The author of Hebrews makes this point even more clearly in 8:13 when he says of Jeremiah: “In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete.” When Jeremiah promises a “new” covenant, he automatically implies that the first covenant administration is “old” and temporary. In other words, it was always part of God’s plan from the beginning to inaugurate both covenants. God did not make a mistake or have to resort to “plan b.” Each covenant was suited to a particular time in redemptive history.
The fact that God always planned to inaugurate a new covenant raises the question of continuity. If God has inaugurated a new covenant in Christ, is there any continuity between the old covenant and the new? There have been those in the history of the church who have argued that there is little or no continuity between the old covenant and the new. Everything about the old covenant, it is argued, has been completely replaced by the new. Those on this end of the spectrum would argue that virtually nothing in the Old Testament is relevant or directly applicable to Christians today.
There have been others in the history of the church who have argued that there is little discontinuity between the covenants and that the changes made by the inauguration of the new covenant were essentially “cosmetic” changes. Those on this end of the spectrum would argue that much of the Old Testament is directly applicable to Christians today. Some who hold this view would argue that Christians must continue to observe the Sabbath on the seventh day or that Christians must continue to observe the Old Testament feast days. Both extremes should be avoided. There is both continuity and discontinuity between the old and new covenants.
While there are many today who read passages of Scripture, such as those found in Hebrews 8:7 or 8:13, and conclude that there is no continuity between the two covenants, a closer examination of Hebrews 8 and the place of the new covenant in redemptive history reveals that such a conclusion is premature.
One of the most obvious points of continuity between the old and new covenants is found within the very promise of the new covenant itself. The author of Hebrews quotes Jeremiah’s new covenant prophecy in Hebrews 8:8–12. In verse 10, we read, “For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” We find a point of continuity in the words “my laws.” Under the old covenant, God wrote His laws on tablets of stone (Ex. 24:12). Under the new covenant, God will write His laws on the hearts of His people to replace the sin that is presently written there (Jer. 17:1), but that which is written by God on the hearts of His people remains essentially the same as that which was written on tablets of stone. That aspect of the law that most fundamentally reflects God’s own righteous character always remains the same.
Another way to explain the continuity between the old and new covenants is to apply the illustration Paul uses in Galatians 3:24–25. Paul writes, “So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.” The “guardian” (Greek paidagogos), was a slave whose job it was to conduct a young boy to and from school and to supervise his conduct. When the boy grew up, the “guardian” was no longer needed. This analogy can help us understand better the elements of continuity between the covenants.
The point of application to the issue of continuity is this: Once the child has grown to adulthood the guardian is obsolete, but that which the guardian taught the child is not. Paul uses this analogy of growth from childhood to adulthood as a way of viewing the people of God throughout redemptive history. The old covenant administration was intended for the people of God in their “childhood.” When the people of God reach “adulthood,” this childhood “guardian” is no longer needed. It is now “obsolete.” But that which the guardian taught the child (“my laws”) remains the same even after he becomes an adult.
The focal point where the old and new covenants meet is found in Jesus Christ. The old covenant, as a guardian, prepares the way for Him and prepares His people for Him. The old covenant included that which has been traditionally described as “moral law” as well as that which was typical. That which was typical underwent change when the reality to which it pointed arrived. When the dawn came, the shadows disappeared (cf. Heb. 10:1). The people of God are now defined in terms of their relation to Jesus (cf. Gal 3:16, 29) rather than their relation to Jacob/Israel. The Promised Land is now defined in terms of the entire creation (cf. Matt. 5:5; Rom. 4:13) rather than a piece of real estate on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea. The temple is now defined in terms of Jesus Christ and His people (cf. John 2:21; 1 Cor. 3:16; Eph. 2:21) rather than a building of stone and mortar. The ceremonial laws are now defined in terms of the atoning death of Christ (cf. Heb. 9:11–10:11) rather than the blood of bulls and goats.
The moral law, however, — that which sets forth the universal and eternal standards of righteousness — is unchanged. Although it is now written on the hearts of God’s people rather than on tablets of stone, this law remains the same.