Eschatological stage of salvation history in which God, through the work of the Messiah and the Spirit, would unconditionally bring about Israel's full salvation.
The Old Testament. The only explicit reference to the new covenant in the Old Testament is found in Jeremiah 31:31-34. The prophet contrasts the existing covenant made with the fathers when he brought them out of Egypt (cf. Exod 24:8 ) with a covenant that God will make with the house of Israel and Judah in the latter days. The new covenant is distinguished from the older covenant in four ways: (1) God will write the law in the minds and on the hearts of those in the new covenant; (2) God will be the God of those in the new covenant and they will be his people; (3) those in the new covenant will know God; (4) God will forgive the iniquities and the sins of those in the new covenant. The new covenant, therefore, has two basic characteristics: an internal spiritual transformation resulting in a new relationship with God and a new possibility of obedience and forgiveness of sins. Jeremiah 31:31-34 falls into the context of the promise of the future regathering of Israel and its restoration to the land, which Jeremiah 29:10 says will take place after seventy years of exile.
Synonyms for the new covenant appear in other Old Testament texts. In Jeremiah what is denoted as the new covenant in 31:31-33with the exception of the explicit promise of the forgiveness of sins is also called an everlasting covenant ( 32:37-41 ; 50:5 ). Ezekiel 16 contrasts Jerusalem's (a metonymy for all Israel) present state of unfaithfulness with its beginnings and its future. Like an exposed child Israel was helpless until Yahweh adopted her. But she grew up to be a prostitute, unfaithful to her original benefactor. Nonetheless, Yahweh will both remember the covenant made with Israel in her youth and establish an everlasting covenant with the nation, making expiation for all that it has done. God speaks through Isaiah, saying that he will make an everlasting covenant with his restored people ( 61:8 ).
In Ezekiel 34:25, God promises that he will gather his sheep Israel and place his servant David over them as their shepherd; then he will make a covenant of peace with them, so that Israel will live in the land in safety and prosperity. In Ezekiel 37:24-28, God promises that he will make a covenant of peace with a restored Israel under a Davidic king. The people will obey God; he will be their God and they will be his people. This covenant of peace is also called an everlasting covenant. In Isaiah 54:8-10, Yahweh promises that when he restores Zion he will never again become angry, but will have compassion on his people. His covenant of peace will not be removed.
In the prophets the promises of restoration, the new possibility of obedience, and national forgiveness of sin occur frequently without being connected to the concepts of the new covenant, eternal covenant, or covenant of peace. It should be noted also that in Ezekiel 36:26-27 the new possibility of obedience given at the restoration is associated with the giving of the Spirit (cf. also Isa 32:15 ; 44:3 ; Ezek 37:12-13 ; 39:29 ; Joel 2:28 ).
Isaiah's Servant of the Lord plays a role in the realization of the (new) covenant. Yahweh says of his Servant in 42:6 that he will make the Servant a covenant for the people and a light for the nations. Similarly in 49:6-8 the Servant is said to be appointed to restore the tribes of Jacob, be a light to the nations, and become a covenant for the people. The "people" likely denotes Israel as opposed to the nations, which denotes the rest of humanity. Gentiles will benefit from God's eschatological saving act.
The Second-Temple Period. Insofar as it denotes Israel's eschatological salvation, the concept of the new covenant permeates Jewish literature of the second temple period. The restoration under Ezra and Nehemiah was seen as only the precursor to the salvation promised by God through the prophets and did not exhaust these promises. There are, however, only a few instances where Jeremiah 31:31-34 and related passages have had direct influence on the conceptualities of the extant literature of the second temple period. Jubilees 1:22-25 speaks of the new possibility of obedience to be given at the restoration. Baruch 2:30-35 says that God will make an everlasting covenant with his people at the restoration, so that he will be their God and they will be his people. In the same work (3:5-7) it is implied that this new possibility of obedience was given to the exiles even before the restoration. In two places in the Damascus Document (text A) it is said explicitly that those who belong to the community have actually entered the new covenant (6:19; 8:21; cf. also 20:12 text B). Because of their disobedience, the members of the covenant of the forefathers came under the wrath of God, which culminated in the exile; in contrast God made a covenant forever with the remnant who held fast to the commandments, revealing to them the hidden things in which Israel went astray (3:10-14). It is not so much that there exists in God's purposes two different covenants, but rather one covenant with two different phases: a preliminary phase ending in failure and an eschatological phase ending in God's final victory over all wickedness, beginning at some point after the exile. In 1QH 4:10-12, the author speaks of the Torah engraved upon his heart, possibly implying that the promise of internal spiritual transformation in Jeremiah 31:31-34 and related passages has been realized; there is also a probable reference to the new covenant in 1QHab 2:3.
Although the Feast of Weeks was understood by some Jews of the second temple period as the time when God made covenants with human beings and became, therefore, the occasion of the annual renewal of the covenant (cf. Jub. 6:17; 1QS ), the new covenant by implication came to be associated with Passover, since Passover was seen as the day of eschatological salvation.
The New Testament. At his last Passover meal Jesus said of the cup of blessing that it was the blood of the covenant poured out for many ( Mark 14:24 ); the blood of the covenant poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins ( Matt 26:28 ); the new covenant in my blood ( 1 Cor 11:25 ); the new covenant in my blood poured out for you ( Luke 22:20 ). In so doing he was affirming that his death was the means by which the new covenant the kingdom of God would come about. That Jesus did this on Passover is also significant, since Passover and eschatological salvation were salvation-historically related concepts. Jesus likely conceived himself as the eschatological Passover sacrifice bringing about the eschatological salvation of all Israel, typologically parallel to the original exodus. In addition, Jesus probably understood his death and its salvation-historical significance in light of the Servant of the Lord passages. As the servant, Jesus would be a covenant for the people and a light for the nations, but only by means of his vicarious and expiatory death.
Apart from its occurrence in the words of institution quoted by Paul in 1 Corinthians 11, the concept of the new covenant is found only twice in Paul's writings. Paul understood the new covenant as having been realized through the death and resurrection of Christ and the giving of the Spirit, and contrasted this salvation-historical phase with that of the law. In Galatians 4:21-31 he contrasted two covenants represented by Hagar and Sarah and their sons Ishmael and Isaac. The former produced slavery to the law (represented by Mount Sinai/present Jerusalem), whereas the latter produced freedom from the law and correlatively life in the Spirit (represented by Jerusalem above). In 2 Corinthians 3:3-18 Paul similarly contrasted the old covenant that condemned (identified with the law or letter) with the new covenant that brought righteousness (identified with the Spirit). Paul's statement in 2 Corinthians 3:3 that the Corinthians were a letter of Christ written with the Spirit on the fleshy tablets of the heart evokes the Old Testament promise that God would write the law upon the hearts of his people.
The author of Hebrews explicitly asserted that Jeremiah 31:31-34 was fulfilled by means of the death of Jesus, who was both the greater high priest and better sacrifice. Jesus as mediator of the new covenant was superior to the Aaronic high priests, the mediators of the first covenant; likewise, as the better sacrifice, Jesus truly expiated guilt unlike the blood of animals. The focus of the letter is on the forgiveness of sins promised in the new covenant; the author's purpose is to prove that the levitical sacrificial system, the means of obtaining forgiveness in the first covenant, has been rendered obsolete and will soon disappear. Jesus' blood is said to be the blood of the covenant parallel to the blood of the first covenant in Exodus 24:8.
Two questions arise from the New Testament's statements about the new covenant: How does the new possibility of obedience said to consist in conformity to the law relate to Paul's and other New Testament authors' claim that at least parts of the Torah are obsolete? Why when speaking about the realization of the new covenant is the New Testament silent about the promise of Israel's restoration to the land? Dispensational theology distinguishes two fulfillments of the promise of the new covenant, one relating to the church as a present reality and the other relating to a restored Israel as a still future reality. The benefits of the new covenant received by the church are forgiveness and the Spirit (the means of the internal spiritual transformation) whereas restored Israel will receive in addition the promised land under the Messiah's kingship and will be subject to the law (written on the heart) as the governing code of the messianic kingdom. (In the church age believers are not under the law.) Paul's citation of Isaiah 59:20-21 in reference to the future salvation and forgiveness of empirical Israel can be interpreted as meaning that Paul believed that the new covenant had yet another future fulfillment. Covenant theology, on the other hand, has been willing to spiritualize the new covenant promises and to see their nonliteral fulfillment in the church. The law written on the heart is the moral law to which Christians are subject and the promises of Israel's future restoration and prosperity relate symbolically to the church. The historical premillennial view offers something of a compromise between these two positions, allowing for the possibility of both the transmutation of the Old Testament promises and their literal fulfillment.
Barry D. Smith
Bibliography. J. Fischer, Ev R Th (1989): 175-87; J. Hughes, NovT 21 (1979): 27-96; J. A. Huntjens, Revue de Qumran 8 (1972-75): 361-80; S. Lehne, The New Covenant in Hebrews; W. E. Lemke, Int 37 (1983): 183-87.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'New Covenant'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".