Old Covenant, New Covenant. Red covenant, blue covenant. We’re halfway through this comparison of the Old and New Covenants, the stated purpose of which is to answer the following question: “Do these covenants have the same substance?” If you need to review what that means, do take a look at the previous articles, particularly the first one. I will now move on to consider the next question within a question.
Was the Old Covenant Completely Broken?
A covenant is essentially a contractual agreement. It has at least two parties. It includes benefits, but it also includes responsibilities. The covenants between God and man can be compared in many ways to the treaties that existed in the Ancient Near East between suzerains and vassals. (Read a summary of this concept here.) Alternatively, they have something in common with the feudal relationships of medieval Europe. If you are not familiar with either of those, have no fear! The basic idea is that there is someone greater (in this case God) who condescends to enter a contractual relationship with someone lesser (in this case a human or humans). The greater person, who is comparable to the lord in a feudal relationship, agrees to provide certain benefits—protection, land, legal rights, etc.—while the lesser person, who is comparable to a serf, agrees to obey and serve the greater one.
In the case of the Old Covenant, by which I here mean the Mosaic Covenant, God approached the nation of Israel through the mediator Moses. He invited them into a covenant relationship, and they agreed.
In the third month after the sons of Israel had gone out of the land of Egypt, on that very day they came into the wilderness of Sinai. When they set out from Rephidim, they came to the wilderness of Sinai and camped in the wilderness; and there Israel camped in front of the mountain. Moses went up to God, and the Lord called to him from the mountain, saying, “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob and tell the sons of Israel: ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings, and brought you to Myself. Now then, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you shall speak to the sons of Israel.” So Moses came and called the elders of the people, and set before them all these words which the Lord had commanded him. All the people answered together and said, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do!” And Moses brought back the words of the people to the Lord. The Lord said to Moses, “Behold, I will come to you in a thick cloud, so that the people may hear when I speak with you and may also believe in you forever.” Then Moses told the words of the people to the Lord.
Notice the agreement that was made. God invited the nation of Israel to be “My own possession among all the peoples”, “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation”. This was conditional on the following clause: “…if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant…” The people answered together, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do!” This was the initial verbal agreement. The Lord then revealed the commandments that were contained within the covenant to Moses, who was acting as mediator. This is what happened next.
Then Moses came and recounted to the people all the words of the Lord and all the ordinances; and all the people answered with one voice and said, “All the words which the Lord has spoken we will do!” Moses wrote down all the words of the Lord. Then he arose early in the morning, and built an altar at the foot of the mountain with twelve pillars for the twelve tribes of Israel. He sent young men of the sons of Israel, and they offered burnt offerings and sacrificed young bulls as peace offerings to the Lord. Moses took half of the blood and put it in basins, and the other half of the blood he sprinkled on the altar. Then he took the book of the covenant and read it in the hearing of the people; and they said, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient!” So Moses took the blood and sprinkled it on the people, and said, “Behold the blood of the covenant, which the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words.”
Moses relayed God’s commands to the people and wrote them down in a book. They once again verbally agreed, “All the words which the Lord has spoken we will do!” Then came the real initiation in blood. Sacrifices were made and Moses sprinkled the blood on both the book and the people. They all swore again, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient!” Moses declared, “Behold the blood of the covenant, which the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words.” The word that is translated as “made” there is karath, which means that a covenant was cut or inaugurated.
This is all very nice, but the Mosaic Covenant was in a sense doomed from the start. The people who were commanded to perfectly obey God had sinful natures. Long before this point, their forefather Adam had failed to keep the Covenant of Works: the original commands given by God to man. In so doing, Adam passed on his covenant guilt to his descendants. All of us are subject to that same Covenant of Works, and we have all failed, as the Apostle Paul taught.
Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned—for until the Law sin was in the world, but sin is not imputed when there is no law. Nevertheless death reigned from Adam until Moses, even over those who had not sinned in the likeness of the offense of Adam, who is a type of Him who was to come.
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened.
But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith.
Why bring all these verses together? To demonstrate that there is both a righteousness and unrighteousness that is separate from the Mosaic Law. On account of Adam’s sin, we are all born guilty, even though we have not sinned in the likeness of Adam (who sinned without a previous sin nature and as a federal covenant head). There is a certain revelation of God to all mankind, on account of which we are without excuse. In Jesus Christ, by faith, the righteousness of God is now manifested apart from the Law. All of this is to say, there was a Covenant of Works at the beginning of time, and because Adam failed to keep it, we are all born guilty and bound to a sinful nature. We are natural lawbreakers.
Therefore, there was no chance that the people of Israel would be able to keep the demands of the Mosaic Covenant, for they came into it already possessing sinful natures. No sooner had they entered into that covenant with God, then they immediately broke it. While Moses was up on the mountain receiving commands, they turned to idolatry.
Now when the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people assembled about Aaron and said to him, “Come, make us a god who will go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” Aaron said to them, “Tear off the gold rings which are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” Then all the people tore off the gold rings which were in their ears and brought them to Aaron. He took this from their hand, and fashioned it with a graving tool and made it into a molten calf; and they said, “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt.” Now when Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made a proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a feast to the Lord.” So the next day they rose early and offered burnt offerings, and brought peace offerings; and the people sat down to eat and to drink, and rose up to play. Then the Lord spoke to Moses, “Go down at once, for your people, whom you brought up from the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves. They have quickly turned aside from the way which I commanded them. They have made for themselves a molten calf, and have worshiped it and have sacrificed to it and said, ‘This is your god, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt!’” The Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, and behold, they are an obstinate people. Now then let Me alone, that My anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them; and I will make of you a great nation.”
God’s reaction to Israel’s disobedience was to say “let Me alone, that My anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them…” That may seem harsh, but it was the true nature of the covenant. The blessings that God offered to Israel in the Mosaic Covenant were dependent on their perfect obedience. It was an entirely conditional arrangement. Note these words from the Book of Leviticus.
‘But if you do not obey Me and do not carry out all these commandments, if, instead, you reject My statutes, and if your soul abhors My ordinances so as not to carry out all My commandments, and so break My covenant, I, in turn, will do this to you: I will appoint over you a sudden terror, consumption and fever that will waste away the eyes and cause the soul to pine away; also, you will sow your seed uselessly, for your enemies will eat it up. I will set My face against you so that you will be struck down before your enemies; and those who hate you will rule over you, and you will flee when no one is pursuing you…‘And if by these things you are not turned to Me, but act with hostility against Me, then I will act with hostility against you; and I, even I, will strike you seven times for your sins. I will also bring upon you a sword which will execute vengeance for the covenant; and when you gather together into your cities, I will send pestilence among you, so that you shall be delivered into enemy hands. When I break your staff of bread, ten women will bake your bread in one oven, and they will bring back your bread in rationed amounts, so that you will eat and not be satisfied. ‘Yet if in spite of this you do not obey Me, but act with hostility against Me, then I will act with wrathful hostility against you, and I, even I, will punish you seven times for your sins. Further, you will eat the flesh of your sons and the flesh of your daughters you will eat. I then will destroy your high places, and cut down your incense altars, and heap your remains on the remains of your idols, for My soul shall abhor you. I will lay waste your cities as well and will make your sanctuaries desolate, and I will not smell your soothing aromas. I will make the land desolate so that your enemies who settle in it will be appalled over it. You, however, I will scatter among the nations and will draw out a sword after you, as your land becomes desolate and your cities become waste.
Leviticus 26:14-17, 23-33
The Lord assigned terrible penalties for anyone who did not “carry out all My commandments”. These included a wide array of physical curses and torments, not all of which I have quoted here. Perhaps the most chilling is the warning that, “Further, you will eat the flesh of your sons and the flesh of your daughters you will eat.” This pointed forward to a time when Jerusalem would be besieged and the people would be forced to eat each other or starve. (Lamentations 2:20, 4:10) What really links these curses together is the phrase, “I will also bring upon you a sword which will execute vengeance for the covenant…” A violation of the covenant necessarily incurred a punishment. Those people fell under the covenant curse. (Deuteronomy 11:26-28)
Please also note the word “break” that is in bold. This is a special Hebrew word: parar. (All future bolded words in the block quotes are translations of this Hebrew term.) It only occurs 50 times in the Old Testament, and thus it is more specific than some of the other terms we have considered. It means to break, make void, annul, etc. There are other Hebrew words that refer to generally breaking, damaging, or otherwise destroying something. This word parar implies that some kind of agreement has been broken, perhaps even irretrievably.
What exactly did it mean that the people broke the covenant? We saw that they did so immediately upon receiving God’s commands from Moses, and the Lord threatened to completely destroy them. This would have been just according to the covenant Law, but after Moses mediated for the nation, God did not bring upon them the full consequences of their actions: at least, not immediately. In mercy, He reestablished the Mosaic Covenant beginning in Exodus chapter 34. However, even this did not bring about the people’s complete obedience. On account of their unbelief, God allowed them to wander in the wilderness for 40 years, until that entire generation died. He then reestablished the covenant (again) with the generation that was to take possession of the Promised Land. (Deuteronomy chapter 5) Did these people keep the covenant perfectly? No, they did not.
We must therefore consider what exactly was involved in breaking the covenant, and whether or not it could be so thoroughly broken that it was completely annulled. The first principle we must establish is that a single person could break the covenant. The Lord spoke of such a man when He said, “Because he has despised the word of the LORD and has broken His commandment, that person shall be completely cut off; his guilt will be on him.” (Numbers 15:31, using the words parar and karath) Second, the entire nation could break the covenant, as demonstrated in this passage. “The LORD said to Moses, ‘Behold, you are about to lie down with your fathers; and this people will arise and play the harlot with the strange gods of the land, into the midst of which they are going, and will forsake Me and break My covenant which I have made with them.’” (Deuteronomy 31:16, again using parar)
While either an individual person or the entire nation could break the Mosaic Covenant, the Lord God never would. Recall that passage in Leviticus that listed the covenant curses for repeated and unrepentant sin. Immediately following that we find these verses.
‘If they confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their forefathers, in their unfaithfulness which they committed against Me, and also in their acting with hostility against Me—I also was acting with hostility against them, to bring them into the land of their enemies—or if their uncircumcised heart becomes humbled so that they then make amends for their iniquity, then I will remember My covenant with Jacob, and I will remember also My covenant with Isaac, and My covenant with Abraham as well, and I will remember the land. For the land will be abandoned by them, and will make up for its sabbaths while it is made desolate without them. They, meanwhile, will be making amends for their iniquity, because they rejected My ordinances and their soul abhorred My statutes. Yet in spite of this, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not reject them, nor will I so abhor them as to destroy them, breaking My covenant with them; for I am the Lord their God. But I will remember for them the covenant with their ancestors, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt in the sight of the nations, that I might be their God. I am the Lord.’”
Although He was seemingly not obligated to do so, God graciously states that if (that is, when) Israel breaks the Mosaic Covenant, but they then repent and return to Him, He will restore them. Moreover, even when they are sent into exile under the covenant curses, He will remember the promises made to Abraham: that he would father a great nation that would occupy the Promised Land. The Lord pledges here that even if Israel breaks the covenant, He will never do so. His covenant faithfulness is forever.
This might lead us to believe that despite all the disobedience that followed and the eventual pain of the Exile, the Old Covenant was never actually annulled. However, I think there is more evidence we need to consider before reaching a firm conclusion on this point. For one thing, the word parar certainly has the connotation of something being annulled, to the point that it is used to speak of a husband negating his wife’s vow. “But if on the day her husband hears of it, he forbids her, then he shall annul her vow which she is under and the rash statement of her lips by which she has bound herself; and the LORD will forgive her.” (Numbers 30:8)
That is quite strong language. We are not talking about the covenant being slightly damaged. We are talking about something that possibly negates its promises entirely. There are certainly verses that suggest this might have taken place with regard to the Old Covenant, all of them using the word parar. The Lord said through the Prophet Jeremiah, “They have turned back to the iniquities of their ancestors who refused to hear My words, and they have gone after other gods to serve them; the house of Israel and the house of Judah have broken My covenant which I made with their fathers.” (Jeremiah 11:10)
When the New Covenant is spoken of in this same book, God says it is “‘…not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,’ declares the LORD.” (Jeremiah 31:32) Ezekiel likewise proclaimed, “For thus says the Lord GOD, “I will also do with you as you have done, you who have despised the oath by breaking the covenant,” (Ezekiel 16:59) and, “Therefore, thus says the Lord GOD, ‘As I live, surely My oath which he despised and My covenant which he broke, I will inflict on his head.” (17:19) Ezekiel also related the following.
You shall say to the rebellious ones, to the house of Israel, “Thus says the Lord God, ‘Enough of all your abominations, O house of Israel, when you brought in foreigners, uncircumcised in heart and uncircumcised in flesh, to be in My sanctuary to profane it, even My house, when you offered My food, the fat and the blood; for they made My covenant void—this in addition to all your abominations.’”
When God says that the house of Israel has made the covenant void, He is again using very strong language. It is perhaps worth considering if we should take this language to its logical end: that despite His own covenant faithfulness, God was forced to completely void the promises of the Old Covenant due to Israel’s covenant disobedience. Ah, but wasn’t God’s faithfulness stronger than the people’s unfaithfulness? Were his promises to the patriarchs not greater than all? When God chooses a people, can they negate that due to something within themselves?
“For the LORD of hosts has planned, and who can frustrate it? And as for His stretched-out hand, who can turn it back?” Isaiah asks. (Isaiah 14:27) The word translated there as “frustrate” is actually parar. That verse certainly suggests that no matter what human beings do, the plans of God will not be overturned. But what exactly were His plans? Jeremiah gives us some idea.
“Thus says the LORD, ‘If you can break My covenant for the day and My covenant for the night, so that day and night will not be at their appointed time, then My covenant may also be broken with David My servant so that he will not have a son to reign on his throne, and with the Levitical priests, My ministers.”
This passage suggests that a descendant of David will always rule over the land of Israel, and the Levitical priests will always be ministering in their capacity. Regardless of whether or not these two oaths should be considered subservient to the Mosaic Covenant, as some have argued, God says that breaking those promises would be like reversing the very laws of nature: it will never happen. We could infer from this that a similar level of eternality should be assigned to the Mosaic Covenant as a whole.
To reach such an assumption based on that passage may well be a mistake, for it must be viewed in context. This is what came directly before that quotation.
‘Behold, days are coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when I will fulfill the good word which I have spoken concerning the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch of David to spring forth; and He shall execute justice and righteousness on the earth. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will dwell in safety; and this is the name by which she will be called: the Lord is our righteousness.’ For thus says the Lord, ‘David shall never lack a man to sit on the throne of the house of Israel; and the Levitical priests shall never lack a man before Me to offer burnt offerings, to burn grain offerings and to prepare sacrifices continually.’”
These verses strongly suggest that the eternal promises to David and the Levitical priests are fulfilled under the New Covenant through the perfect king and high priest, Jesus Christ. Not only is His kingdom forever (Revelation 11:15), but His one perfect sacrifice saves us forever. (Hebrews 7:25, 10:14) That is what it means in this case when the Lord says that His covenant will never be broken.
Perhaps it seems odd to say that something that was meant to be eternal has been changed, replaced, or fulfilled. The Hebrew word that is usually translated as “everlasting” in the New American Standard Bible is ‵owlam, which implies a long duration of time, possibly perpetual. It can also mean that something is “from of old”. This term is very common in the Old Testament and takes on slightly different meanings depending on the situation. It is translated variously in the NASB as everlasting, eternal, forever, perpetual, and ancient. However, we have a tendency to always view it in the sense of something that has no end.
What does it really mean to be eternal? We often speak of things being eternal that either have an ending point, or more probably, had a beginning. That means they are not eternal in the fullest sense of the term. Add to this the fact that ‵owlam really just means something closer to “going on and on”. It may seem like a small difference, but it can actually be an important one. The table below lists things that are described as ‵owlam in the Old Testament. I will make a daring attempt at stating which ones are still in force in the same form, which have been fulfilled, and which are yet to be fulfilled. Take it with a grain of salt.
Please note the items marked with asterisks. It is my contention that all of these promises contain some sort of typological element: that is, they have been or are being fulfilled, but not in thesense that was likely envisioned by those who first heard them. For example, David was promised that he would always have a descendant on the throne. In fact, his descendants were removed from their throne by the Assyrians and Babylonians, and to this date there has never been a descendant of David ruling over that land as king in a literal, political sense. However, Jesus Christ is a descendant of David and rules from His heavenly throne. Likewise, the land promises, sacrifices, Levitical priesthood, circumcision, and even the Tabernacle itself were all types that pointed forward to the work of Jesus Christ and the New Covenant. (See my earlier article on types and shadows for more information on this topic.)
Some people will object to my designations, and that is fine. However, I think we can all agree that these everlasting promises were not all fulfilled in a literally eternal manner. The Jewish people were exiled from the land of Canaan in 722 B.C. (northern kingdom) and 586 B.C. (southern kingdom) Solomon’s Temple was razed to the ground. Peace offerings likewise are no more. Not every Jewish person is regenerated by the Holy Spirit. God only knows what happened to those memorial stones by the Jordan. Are the Levites offering sacrifices? They are not.
I camp on the meaning of the word ‵owlam because it has relevance for our consideration of the covenants. Many, if not all, of the “everlasting” things in the Old Testament that do not literally exist in the same form at the present time have actually been fulfilled rather than abolished. This is an important difference. If God pledges to do something and then totally reneges, we might be right in questioning His faithfulness. If what He actually does is fulfill that promise in a way that is even better than what we imagined, then He is not only faithful, but also loving, gracious, omniscient, and perfect. He has taken the flaws and failures of sinful humanity and weaved His plan right through them, bringing everything to a foreordained completion.
The Old Covenant was in fact broken. The entire nation of Israel deserved to be cut off from God’s favor and His promises. This required drastic action. Two passages in the Book of Zechariah seem to speak to this. The first suggests the severity of Israel’s disobedience. The second suggests the extent of God’s mercy. Keep in mind that what you are about to read was written after the remnant of Judah returned from their Babylonian Exile.
Thus says the Lord my God, “Pasture the flock doomed to slaughter. Those who buy them slay them and go unpunished, and each of those who sell them says, ‘Blessed be the Lord, for I have become rich!’ And their own shepherds have no pity on them. For I will no longer have pity on the inhabitants of the land,” declares the Lord; “but behold, I will cause the men to fall, each into another’s power and into the power of his king; and they will strike the land, and I will not deliver them from their power.” So I pastured the flock doomed to slaughter, hence the afflicted of the flock. And I took for myself two staffs: the one I called Favor and the other I called Union; so I pastured the flock. Then I annihilated the three shepherds in one month, for my soul was impatient with them, and their soul also was weary of me. Then I said, “I will not pasture you. What is to die, let it die, and what is to be annihilated, let it be annihilated; and let those who are left eat one another’s flesh.” I took my staff Favor and cut it in pieces, to break my covenant which I had made with all the peoples. So it was broken on that day, and thus the afflicted of the flock who were watching me realized that it was the word of the Lord. I said to them, “If it is good in your sight, give me my wages; but if not, never mind!” So they weighed out thirty shekels of silver as my wages. Then the Lord said to me, “Throw it to the potter, that magnificent price at which I was valued by them.” So I took the thirty shekels of silver and threw them to the potter in the house of the Lord. Then I cut in pieces my second staff Union, to break the brotherhood between Judah and Israel.
In this passage, the Prophet Zechariah is instructed to metaphorically shepherd God’s people, but as is sometimes the case in the prophetic books, his actions are so typological that it is difficult to distinguish Zechariah’s words from God’s and His mission from that of Jesus Christ. Thus when Zechariah says, “I took my staff Favor and cut it in pieces, to break my covenant which I had made with all the peoples,” we sense that it is truly the word of the Lord. Does this mean that God actually broke (i.e. annulled) the Mosaic Covenant?
Once again, we cannot come to such a conclusion without examining the context in which the passage appears. The prophecies of Zechariah were not all doom and gloom. Although a remnant had been restored to the Promised Land, it was clear that they were not fully devoted to the Lord in their hearts. Thus, we find messages of encouragement as well as messages of condemnation. Those verses I just quoted from chapter 11 should probably be viewed in light of the following passages that come later in the book.
In that day the Lord will defend the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and the one who is feeble among them in that day will be like David, and the house of David will be like God, like the angel of the Lord before them. And in that day I will set about to destroy all the nations that come against Jerusalem. “I will pour out on the house of David and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the Spirit of grace and of supplication, so that they will look on Me whom they have pierced; and they will mourn for Him, as one mourns for an only son, and they will weep bitterly over Him like the bitter weeping over a firstborn.
“Awake, O sword, against My Shepherd,
And against the man, My Associate,”
Declares the Lord of hosts.
“Strike the Shepherd that the sheep may be scattered;
And I will turn My hand against the little ones.
It will come about in all the land,”
Declares the Lord,
“That two parts in it will be cut off and perish;
But the third will be left in it.
And I will bring the third part through the fire,
Refine them as silver is refined,
And test them as gold is tested.
They will call on My name,
And I will answer them;
I will say, ‘They are My people,’
And they will say, ‘The Lord is my God.’”
You may have noticed some familiar phrases among those verses, because both passages are quoted in the New Testament. John 19:37 quotes, “They will look on Him whom they have pierced,” in reference to the piercing of Christ’s side. Parallel verses in Matthew 26:31 and Mark 14:27 quote, “I will strike down the Shepherd, and the sheep of the flock shall be scattered,” once again referring to the death of Christ. This helps us to interpret the two prophecies.
Jesus Christ was pierced on behalf of the Jewish people. When they had all failed to keep the commands of the Mosaic Covenant, He was born and lived among them that He might keep those commands perfectly. He then stood in as their representative and took their curse, being cut off by God. No, the Old Covenant was not abolished, even though it would have been just for God to do so. The whole nation deserved to be cut off, yet He made a way for it to be fulfilled: not abolished, but fulfilled. As Jesus said Himself, “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill.” (Matthew 5:17)
Returning to those passages from Zechariah, we see that a portion of the Jewish people (those who had the Spirit) would look on the One they had pierced and mourn for Him “as one mourns for an only son”. (12:10) While much of the nation of Israel would be subject to the covenant curse, that would not be the case for all of them. Two parts would be “cut off and perish” (13:8, using the word karath), but a third part would be brought through the fire as gold or silver that is refined. This is the righteous remnant that would be joined to Christ in the New Covenant, along with all those who are not Abraham’s physical descendants but are nevertheless his spiritual descendants through faith. (See the earlier essay on covenant members.)
Therefore, I conclude on weight of evidence that although there was every reason for the Old Covenant to be justly annulled from a human standpoint, God in His covenant faithfulness did not forsake His people. He knew that they would never fulfill the covenant demands, so He became incarnate as a man under this covenant and fulfilled it Himself. Not only that, but He also fulfilled the righteous demands of the original Covenant of Works, thus providing salvation for all mankind: those who were under the Law and those who were not. Here is what the Apostle Paul writes.
I say then, God has not rejected His people, has He? May it never be! For I too am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin. God has not rejected His people whom He foreknew. Or do you not know what the Scripture says in the passage about Elijah, how he pleads with God against Israel? “Lord, they have killed Your prophets, they have torn down Your altars, and I alone am left, and they are seeking my life.” But what is the divine response to him? “I have kept for Myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal.” In the same way then, there has also come to be at the present time a remnant according to God’s gracious choice. But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace is no longer grace. What then? What Israel is seeking, it has not obtained, but those who were chosen obtained it, and the rest were hardened…For I do not want you, brethren, to be uninformed of this mystery—so that you will not be wise in your own estimation—that a partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in; and so all Israel will be saved; just as it is written,
“The Deliverer will come from Zion,
He will remove ungodliness from Jacob.”
This is My covenant with them,
When I take away their sins.”
From the standpoint of the gospel they are enemies for your sake, but from the standpoint of God’s choice they are beloved for the sake of the fathers; for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. For just as you once were disobedient to God, but now have been shown mercy because of their disobedience, so these also now have been disobedient, that because of the mercy shown to you they also may now be shown mercy. For God has shut up all in disobedience so that He may show mercy to all.
Romans 11:1-7, 25-32
Paul assures as us that “God has not rejected His people whom He foreknew”. In context, I understand this to be the nation of Israel, i.e. Abraham’s physical descendants. They were indeed chosen to be a nation set apart, and they were involved in a special relationship with God through the Abrahamic and Mosaic Covenants. Paul indicates that while some of these physical descendants of Abraham were indeed cut off from that covenantal relationship (see, for example, verses 17-24 of this chapter), there is still “a remnant according to God’s gracious choice”. These are the Jews who are also children of Abraham by faith. They trusted in the promise of a coming Messiah, or in the case of those who lived after Christ’s ministry, they trusted in the completed gospel message that they received, acknowledging Christ as Messiah.
In addition to this, there are also many among the Gentiles who are Abraham’s spiritual descendants. Paul says that “a partial hardening has happened to Israel” that these Gentiles might be brought into a covenant relationship with God. In the New Covenant, there are both Jews and Gentiles. I believe that is what Paul means when he says “all Israel will be saved”: he means the true Israel, which is Abraham’s spiritual descendants of all nations. (Romans 9:6-8)
What was the difference between those Jews who were hardened and those who were not? “What Israel is seeking, it has not obtained, but those who were chosen obtained it, and the rest were hardened…” (Romans 11:7) That is, those who sought salvation through the works of the Law did not obtain it, but those who had the faith of Abraham received the greater promise of Abraham, for salvation is by faith. Yes, their faith was borne out in their obedience to the Law, but they were looking to the greater sacrifice and the perfect redemption of God that was still to come.
In a later article, I will consider whether or not it is possible for the New Covenant to be broken. I will also give a proper treatment to the olive tree metaphor that appears in Romans chapter 11. For now, I will simply conclude that while the Old Covenant was indeed broken by every descendant of Adam who was a member of it, Jesus Christ in His covenant obedience allowed the covenant to be fulfilled rather than abolished. Because of this, those who were chosen by God were spared the covenant curses, Christ having become a curse for them. (Galatians 3:10-14) In the same manner, Christ’s perfect obedience under the Covenant of Works made Him, as the second federal head of humanity in the Covenant of Grace, a perfect Savior who could free both Jews and Gentiles from the curse of sin. Thank God for that!
All scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright The Lockman Foundation.