Does the Bible say the first covenant is obsolete?

Does the Bible say the first covenant is obsolete? February 8, 2016

On several recent trips to Israel an old friend Sara has come along.  She has studied the Bible for forty years and has led many studies herself.  She was schooled in supersessionism and has a difficult time breaking out of it.  Even after hearing most of the material I have presented orally or in writing, she still struggles with New Testament passages that seem, to her, to support supersessionism.

For example, she asks about the book of Hebrews. It states clearly that the first covenant is obsolete (Heb 8:13).  Doesn’t that undermine everything you have been saying, she asked me, about the continuing importance of the Abrahamic covenant?

Let’s take a look at this verse (Heb 8:13).  Here is my translation from the Greek: “When God said ‘new’ he made obsolete the first covenant.  For that which is becoming old and aged is near to disappearing.” 

There are four things necessary to understanding this verse.  First, this verse comes just after a long quotation from Jeremiah, the famous passage (Jer 31:31-34) in which the Old Testament prophet said the days were coming when God would establish “a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah.”  The word for “new” is better translated “renewed.”  This is possible and in fact probable because a) the Hebrew word in Jer. 31 can be translated both ways—“new” and “renewed,” and 2) the concept of covenant renewal is found throughout the Old Testament.  When righteous leaders took power after times of religious decline, they would often lead the people of Israel in ceremonies of covenant renewal.  Leaders and people would listen to the Law afresh, ask forgiveness for past disobedience, and rededicate themselves to God and the covenant.  We see these covenant renewals under leaders such as Joshua, Josiah, Hezekiah, Ezra and Nehemiah.  So it is most likely that Jeremiah was describing a deepening of the covenant between Yahweh and his people.  Instead of merely re-telling his laws to his people, God said he would “put my laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts” (Heb 8:10).  It would be the same covenant, but taught at a deeper level.

Second, the reference here is to the Mosaic law.  The verse I just quoted refers to “laws” in the plural.  This no doubt means the many commandments in the Mosaic legislation in the Pentateuch.  What is new is not the content of the law but the fact that it now would be internal rather than external: now God would write it on their hearts.  But it is the same set of laws.    Another piece of evidence that this is the Mosaic law is that Jeremiah refers to “the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them out of the land of Egypt” (8:8).  This again clearly refers to the Mosaic legislation given by God to Israel in the wilderness, after taking them out of Egypt.

Third, the context is the Hebrews author’s focus on sacrifices and priesthood.  Chapters 7 and 8 of Hebrews argue that Jesus is the new High Priest and his sacrifice makes unnecessary the sacrifices in the Temple: “It was fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, innocent, unstained . . . exalted above the heavens.  He has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily . . . since he did this once for all when he offered up himself” (7:26-27).  So the “first” covenant mentioned in v. 13 is the Mosaic system of sacrifices and priesthood.  This is the system that is becoming obsolete.  He had in mind the Temple system of sacrifices that was fulfilled and is now therefore obsolete–now that Jesus had made his perfect sacrifice.

But fourth, notice the tense in the second half of the verse: “that which is becoming old and aged is near to disappearing.”  It is present tense.  The system had not been completely done away with yet.  In chapter 9 the author speaks of the priests “regularly . . . performing their ritual duties.”  It seems they were still in existence at the Temple at the time this letter was written, so this was probably composed before the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD.  The author’s point is that the Temple sacrifices were made obsolete by Jesus’ sacrifice, and the Jewish high priests were now made obsolete by the perfect High Priest.

The point for our purposes is that this verse does not make the Abrahamic covenant obsolete.  Only the Mosaic one—insofar as its animal sacrifices and priests performing those sacrifices were once necessary—has been transcended. Rather than denigrating the basic (Abrahamic) covenant God made with Israel, it simply puts it in its new context: the messiah of Israel has come, and now shows the deeper meaning and fulfillment of the Mosaic law.  Therefore the implementation of the Abrahamic covenant has moved to a new stage.  While its application to Jews was shown through Moses’ law, now its application to all the world is being enacted by Jesus’ renewing and deepening it.

 

 

[i] Brad Young, Meet the Rabbis: Rabbinic Thought and the Teachings of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Baler Academic, 2007), 43.


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