Matthew 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:17-20
After supper he took another cup of wine and said, "This cup is the new covenant between God and his people – an agreement confirmed with my blood, which is poured out as a sacrifice for you." – Luke 22:20 NLT
Those words, "A new covenant," would have sounded strange to the ears of the disciples, because, as God's people, they already had a covenant with God. It had been given by God to the people of Israel through Moses. We find it recorded in Exodus 24. "Look, this blood confirms the covenant the Lord has made with you in giving you these instructions.” God had made a covenant with His people, confirmed by blood. It was to be a binding agreement. And according to the definition of a covenant, the people could accept or reject it, but could not alter it. So to hear Jesus talk of a new covenant would have probably seemed odd and even a bit sacrilegious to them. As with a lot of things Jesus seemed to say to them, it would have made little or no sense. For us, as Christ-followers, living on this side of the resurrection, it has a meaning all its own, but it probably lacks a proper foundation. In other words, because we do not fully understand the old covenant, we fail to fully appreciate the new one.
So, in order to understand just what Jesus said that night and what that new covenant should mean to us, we need to take a look at the historical and spiritual significance of just what was happening. As stated earlier, a covenant was an arrangement made by one party, which the other party involved could accept or reject but could not alter. It was NOT a contract agreed upon and signed by two co-equals. This covenant was authored by God and was not something to be taken lightly.
To see the old covenant in its full context, take a look at Exodus 24:1-8.
Then the Lord instructed Moses: “Come up here to me, and bring along Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and seventy of Israel’s elders. All of you must worship from a distance. Only Moses is allowed to come near to the Lord. The others must not come near, and none of the other people are allowed to climb up the mountain with him.”
Then Moses went down to the people and repeated all the instructions and regulations the Lord had given him. All the people answered with one voice, “We will do everything the Lord has commanded.”
Then Moses carefully wrote down all the Lord’s instructions. Early the next morning Moses got up and built an altar at the foot of the mountain. He also set up twelve pillars, one for each of the twelve tribes of Israel. Then he sent some of the young Israelite men to present burnt offerings and to sacrifice bulls as peace offerings to the Lord. Moses drained half the blood from these animals into basins. The other half he splattered against the altar.
Then he took the Book of the Covenant and read it aloud to the people. Again they all responded, “We will do everything the Lord has commanded. We will obey.”
Then Moses took the blood from the basins and splattered it over the people, declaring, “Look, this blood confirms the covenant the Lord has made with you in giving you these instructions.” – Exodus 24:1-8 NLT
God had made a covenant with the people and confirmed it with the shedding of blood. This "book of the covenant" contained God's written laws for living life in this world on His terms. It contained the Ten Commandments, but a list of other rules and regulations regarding human conduct. This old covenant revealed the holiness of God by articulating His righteous standards and requirements for human interaction. And this was a bilateral, conditional covenant. In other words, it placed requirements on both parties. It required obedience on the part of the people. “Now if you will obey me and keep my covenant, you will be my own special treasure from among all the peoples on earth; for all the earth belongs to me” (Exodus 19:5 NLT).
God told the people that as long as they obeyed it, they would be blessed (Deuteronomy 28:1-14). But if they chose to disobey it, they would be cursed (Deuteronomy 28:15-68). This old covenant was what the Israelites had lived under for generations. It was demanding and difficult. It was impossible. So why did God give them a set of rules they could never keep? Why did He demand from them what they couldn’t deliver? Why would He give them a law they couldn’t obey? This is key to understanding all that goes on in the New Testament. It is essential to understanding all that took place during Jesus’ 3-1/2 years of ministry.
Over in Romans 7, Paul gives a better understanding of just why the law or old covenant was given by God.
Well then, am I suggesting that the law of God is sinful? Of course not! In fact, it was the law that showed me my sin. I would never have known that coveting is wrong if the law had not said, “You must not covet.”But sin used this command to arouse all kinds of covetous desires within me! If there were no law, sin would not have that power. At one time I lived without understanding the law. But when I learned the command not to covet, for instance, the power of sin came to life, and I died. So I discovered that the law’s commands, which were supposed to bring life, brought spiritual death instead. Sin took advantage of those commands and deceived me; it used the commands to kill me. But still, the law itself is holy, and its commands are holy and right and good. But how can that be? Did the law, which is good, cause my death? Of course not! Sin used what was good to bring about my condemnation to death. So we can see how terrible sin really is. It uses God’s good commands for its own evil purposes. So the trouble is not with the law, for it is spiritual and good. The trouble is with me, for I am all too human, a slave to sin. – Romans 7:7-14 NLT
The law, which is holy and righteous, produced unholiness in men. The law, or old covenant, revealed God's standard. It established a non-negotiable criteria for acceptance with God. Because God is holy, He demands holiness from His people. The law made holiness measurable and God’s standards for holiness tangible. The law was good, but our sin used it against us. Sin is rebellion against God. Sin is refusing to live life according to God’s standards or law.
The Promise of God
There is another important aspect of God's plan that we need to understand. Long before God gave Moses the covenant, He had made a promise to Abraham. We find it recorded in Genesis 12:7: "And the Lord came to Abram, and said, I will give all this land to your seed; then Abram made an altar there to the Lord who had let himself be seen by him" (Genesis 12:7 BBE). The apostle Paul helps us understand the significance of this promise. "Dear brothers and sisters,here’s an example from everyday life. Just as no one can set aside or amend an irrevocable agreement, so it is in this case. God gave the promises to Abraham and his child. And notice that the Scripture doesn’t say ‘to his children,’ as if it meant many descendants. Rather, it says ‘to his child’— and that, of course, means Christ" (Galatians 3:15-16 NLT). God had made a promise to Abraham that would be fulfilled through his "offspring" – singular, not plural. Paul makes it clear that this was a reference to Jesus. He goes on to say, "This is what I am trying to say: The agreement God made with Abraham could not be canceled 430 years later when God gave the law to Moses. God would be breaking his promise. For if the inheritance could be received by keeping the law, then it would not be the result of accepting God’s promise. But God graciously gave it to Abraham as a promise" (Galatians 3:17 NLT). The original covenant was based on the promise of God and would be fulfilled through the Son of God. If man could have kept the law, the promise would have been unnecessary. If the people could have kept the law and EARNED the inheritance, Jesus would never have come. But He did. So why was the law given? GREAT QUESTION! And Paul has a great answer.
Why, then, was the law given? It was given alongside the promise to show people their sins. But the law was designed to last only until the coming of the child who was promised. God gave his law through angels to Moses, who was the mediator between God and the people. Now a mediator is helpful if more than one party must reach an agreement. But God, who is one, did not use a mediator when he gave his promise to Abraham. – Galatians 3:18-20 NLT
The new covenant would be a unilateral covenant, NOT a bilateral one. This covenant would be based on God’s grace, mercy, and faithfulness, not man’s obedience.
Is there a conflict, then, between God’s law and God’s promises?Absolutely not! If the law could give us new life, we could be made right with God by obeying it. But the Scriptures declare that we are all prisoners of sin, so we receive God’s promise of freedom only by believing in Jesus Christ. – Galatians 3:21-22 NLT
The law was never intended to save us. Keeping it could not make us right with God, because we could not keep it.
Before the way of faith in Christ was available to us, we were placed under guard by the law. We were kept in protective custody, so to speak, until the way of faith was revealed. Let me put it another way. The law was our guardian until Christ came; it protected us until we could be made right with God through faith. And now that the way of faith has come, we no longer need the law as our guardian. – Galatians 3: 23-24 NLT
The law was our guardian or tutor. It revealed the righteousness of God. It articulated the expectations of God. "But when the right time came, God sent his Son, born of a woman, subject to the law. God sent him to buy freedom for us who were slaves to the law, so that he could adopt us as his very own children" (Galatians 4:4-5 NLT). This was the new covenant in a nutshell. God was going to fulfill the promise He had made to Abraham. When He had told Abraham that "all the families on earth will be blessed through you," He was speaking of His own Son. Jesus, was born of a woman and, as a result, was subject to the law. He came to do what no other man had ever done or would ever be able to do – He kept God's law perfectly and completely. Which meant that He was unblemished and sinless, and therefore was the perfect sacrificial "lamb" to shed His blood for the sins of mankind. This new covenant would be based on His blood. His death would guarantee our life. This new covenant in His blood would eliminate the need for the old covenant. Jesus' death would provide a new way for men to have access to God and a new means by which they might be restored to a right relationship with God. No more works-based righteousness. No more attempting to earn favor with God through human effort. But was we read earlier, "If the law could give us new life, we could be made right with God by obeying it. But the Scriptures declare that we are all prisoners of sin, so we receive God’s promise of freedom only by believing in Jesus Christ" (Galatians 3:21-22 NLT). Jesus was going to pour out His blood as a sacrifice and, as a result, mankind could be made right with God based no His obedience, not our own. That is the significance of the new covenant. It was a new ballgame. It was a new day. The old was passing away and the new had come. The disciples didn't understand it at the time, but they would. And it is on this new covenant that the Church has been built. It is our foundation, hope, and the heart of the Gospel we believe, teach and share.
Father, I can't thank You enough for the new covenant. It is only as I realize that without it, I would be living under the weight and requirement of the law, unable to save myself anymore than the people of Israel could. But because Jesus came, lived, died and rose again, I have eternal life through His shed blood. I live because He died. I am covered in His blood and purified by His obedient, sinless sacrifice. Thank You! Amen.
Ken Miller Grow Pastor & Minister to Men firstname.lastname@example.org