Immediately after God delivered the people of Israel from the clutches of Egyptian slavery, he established a covenant with them. The covenant consisted of a large collection of laws that governed all national and family life, as well as an elaborate system of religious worship and sacrifice.
Through obedience to this covenant, Israel would enjoy God’s blessing and radiate his glory to other nations (Deut 4:6-8). They would be God’s “treasured possession” and become a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex 19:5-6). Israel would be God’s people and he would be their God (Lev 25:12)
Disobedience to the covenant, however, would bring severe curses. Famine, disease, foreign invasion, and a host of other nation-wide afflictions would be the Israel’s portion if they turned from God and his covenant (Deut 28:1-68).
Trouble from the Beginning
While there were glimpses of promise in Israel’s history—international prominence, national wealth, and military peace during the reign of Solomon, for example—there were indications early on that this covenant would be too much for God’s people to bear. Even during the initial delivery of the covenant stipulations Israel violated the most important commandment (“You shall not make for yourself a carved image” [Ex 20:4])—by crafting a golden calf to represent the God who had brought them out of Egypt (Ex 32:1-35). The covenant itself predicted that Israel would experience the curses outlined in the covenant, implying, of course, that they would fail to meet their side of the agreement (see Deut 30:1).
As Moses exits from national leadership and Joshua takes the helm, the problems continue. Disobedience afflicts Israel prior to their entrance into the Promised Land (Josh 7:1; 9:14), and when Israel’s military eventually makes its way into Canaan, they fail to clear out all of the land’s inhabitants (Josh 13:13). As we move into the era of the Judges, Israel’s national life is characterized by this sad refrain: “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 17:6; 21:25).
As we enter the era of the kings, Israel is beset with trouble from the start. Israel’s request for a king is itself a sin (although this request was also predicted within the Old Covenant, see Deut 17:14-20), and Israel’s first king, Saul, proves unfaithful (1 Sam 15:26). David, a man after God’s own heart, begins his reign well but falls into grave sin, bringing judgment upon his family and, by extension, the nation (2 Sam 11:1ff). David’s son Solomon, though also starting well like his father, eventually falls into idolatry and incurs God’s discipline, resulting in a political division between the northern and southern tribes (1 Kings 11:1-12:24). From this point onward, the two kingdoms would occasionally enjoy the guidance of a godly ruler, but most of the time she would suffer under the scourge of kings who didn’t seek the Lord.
The Mosaic Covenant: The Standard of Israel’s Faithfulness
From the initial confirmation of the Mosaic Covenant throughout the rest of Israel’s history, the Law of Moses served as the touchstone of the nation’s faithfulness. Amid the worst kingships Judah (the southern kingdom) ever experienced, the people are reminded of the Mosaic Covenant and the promised blessings for obedience. “And I will not cause the feet of Israel to wander anymore out of the land that I gave to their fathers, if only they will be careful to do all that I have commanded them, and according to all the Law that my servant Moses commanded them” (2 Kings 21:8). The people, sadly, refused to listen.
Throughout their exile, the prophets constantly hearkened back to the Mosaic Covenant in their denunciations against the nation. The main problem? Israel had violated the conditions of the covenant (e.g., Is 5:24; Jer 16:11; Dan 9:10-13; Hos 8:1; Amos 2:4; Mal 4:4; cf. Ps 78:5-10). Upon their return to the land, the first item of business was a call to return to the Mosaic Covenant. Ezra, a faithful priest who had determined to study the law, practice it, and teach it in Israel (Ezra 7:10), exhorted the people toward obedience with the Law of Moses as their benchmark (10:3; cf. Neh 8:1-10; 9:34). Despite these courageous attempts to turn Israel back to her God and faithfulness to the covenant, we know that the nation as a whole rejected their leaders and prophets and continued to walk in spiritual haze and disobedience.
The New Covenant: (Very) Different from the Mosaic Covenant
Embedded within the prophetic exhortations to return to the Mosaic Covenant, however, was word of a new covenant (Jer 31:31-33; cf. Ezek 36:26-28). That the Mosaic Covenant was inadequate was empirically verifiable in the nation’s persistent disobedience. The prophet Jeremiah confirms this observation by contrasting this New Covenant with the Mosaic Covenant. This New Covenant will not be like the covenant God made with Israel after he rescued them from Egypt. Unlike their experience with the Mosaic covenant, God’s people will keep this new covenant. But how would this be possible?
An Internal Law
The first reason why the members of the new covenant will be able to keep the stipulations of the covenant is because God will write his law on their hearts, not merely on tablets of stone (Jer 31:33). The Mosaic Covenant called for an internalization of God’s commandments (Deut 6:6), but it provided no means to accomplish this internalization. The commandments, therefore, remained on the outside of the worshiper and never made an indelible mark on the heart. Such a deficiency explains why faithful priests and prophets could call the nation back to obedience but never get any long-term traction. So long as the law remained outside of God’s people, obedience would be superficial and temporary.
A New Heart
In connection with God writing the law on their hearts is the gift of a new heart. Ezekiel expands on this theme in his book. “And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put in you” (Ezek 36:26). God had already informed Israel that something needed to change deep within their souls if they were ever going to love him the way he commanded them to: they needed to circumcise their hearts (Deut 10:16). Later in Deuteronomy, God informs his people that he will be the one to perform this vital heart surgery (Deut 30:6). Ezekiel picks up on this promise in Deuteronomy and refers specifically to God providing a new heart and a new spirit. God will change his people at the core of who they are so that they will be enabled, by their very nature, to love God and keep his commandments. In other words, their desires would change so that the “ought to” (keep the commandments) would become their “want to.”
The Holy Spirit
Ezekiel also adds another crucial element to this new covenant. The Holy Spirit would now dwell in God’s people in such a way so as to guarantee obedience: “And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules” (Ezek 36:27). Such internal, direct, compelling assistance from the Holy Spirit was not an element of the Old Covenant. In the new covenant, however, God’s people would be assisted in obedience by God himself, working on the inside to bring about the fulfillment of his commandments.
A Regenerate Community
Although the nation of Israel as a whole was party to the Mosaic Covenant, not everyone in Israel knew God. In other words, within this redemptive community, there were believers and unbelievers. Yes, there were those who believed God and sought to walk faithfully to him. But by and large, Israel consisted of unbelievers who, despite their religious appearances, did not have a heart that sought the Lord (see Isa 29:13; 58:1-12). The New Covenant community, however, would be different from the Mosaic Covenant community at precisely this point: only those who know the Lord would be members. In Israel, faithful Jews would need to tell their fellow covenant members to “know the Lord” because the Mosaic covenant allowed for unbelievers to reside within the covenant community (i.e., the nation of Israel). Such exhortations are not necessary in the New Covenant community, however, because “they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest” (Jer 31:34).
Complete and Final Forgiveness
The final element of the New Covenant—and one that provides the grounds for the other elements of the covenant—is one-and-for-all forgiveness of sin. The Mosaic Covenant provided atonement for sin, but it was atonement that needed constant repetition. Priests needed to oversee regular personal sacrifices and annual national sacrifices in order for Israel to experience God’s presence. In the New Covenant, however, forgiveness would be achieved with utter finality. Sacrificial repetition would be a thing of the past, and God’s people would know the wonder of having their sins cleared from their record for all time.
The Glory of the New Covenant
Israel proved that the Mosaic Law was inadequate to deal with the needs of sinful man. The problem wasn’t the covenant per se, but the hearts with which it came into contact (see Rom 7:13; 8:3). When a holy law gets near a sinful heart, the sinful heart runs in the other direction. And, so long as the heart remains sinful and hard, disobedience to the law will remain the rule rather than the exception. What we need is not a larger, more intricate set of laws (the Mosaic Covenant consisted of 613 laws that encompassed every element of national and family life). What we need is a different covenant—a covenant that deals finally with our sin and changes us on the inside rather than merely forcing us to comply from the outside.
Jesus inaugurated the New Covenant by his death on the cross (Luke 22:20). By taking the punishment we deserved, Christ has atoned for our sin once-and-for-all (Heb 9:12; 10:12) granting us full and irreversible forgiveness (Col 2:13). The Spirit changes our nature and gives us a new heart that delights in the law of God and desires to walk in patterns of holiness and obedience (Rom 6:14; Eph 2:8-10). This is why Paul says that the New Covenant possess much greater glory than the Old: In the New Covenant we behold the beauty of the Savior and experience the soul-cleansing, affection-creating work of the Spirit (2 Cor 3:7-18).
Ultimately, God established his covenant with Israel in order to showcase the sufficiency of his Son. Read rightly, the Mosaic Covenant is meant to push you toward Jesus Christ so that you will be justified by faith (Gal 3:23-29). If you have yet to taste of this New Covenant, we pray that the Lord will enable you to turn to Jesus Christ today.