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The Hebrew scriptures point toward a new covenant that God will make (Jeremiah 31:31-34), and the New Testament interprets this as realized in Jesus (Hebrews 8).

However, in Galatians 3, it almost reads like Jesus was the first covenant. Paul says that the covenant that God made with Abraham, 430 years before the law, was referring to Christ.

Galatians 3:16-17 (ESV)
16  Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ. 17  This is what I mean: the law, which came 430 years afterward, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to make the promise void.

Paul then refers to the law as a temporary guardian, until Christ came.

Galatians 3:19 (ESV)
19  Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made, and it was put in place through angels by an intermediary.

Galatians 3:24 (ESV)
24  So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith.

A possible interpretation would seem to be that God's covenant with Abraham is what we refer to as the New Covenant, and the law is the Old Covenant. However, this doesn't quite seem to work with Jeremiah:

Jeremiah 31:31 (ESV)

31  “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah,

God seems to have been saying that He will make a new covenant in the future, and this was clearly written after His covenant with Abraham was made.

So I have two questions:

  • What is the "Old Covenant"? Is it the law?
  • Does this imply that the "New Covenant" was made before the "Old Covenant"? If so, is it only called "New" because it was fulfilled later than the "Old"? In that case, what of the passage in Jeremiah?
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Eric, I found this page today here is your answer: missiontoisrael.org/yahs-laws-1.php –  user922 Dec 19 '12 at 14:40

2 Answers 2

Several things helpful to understanding this:

  • The usage of new in the Bible. It often does not indicate an absolute ontological break with what preceded. A self-explanatory example:

    [Your mercies] are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. —Lamentations 3:23

  • Covenant Theology. This is the reason why I had not yet given an answer to this question; there is so much to say. Several basic points:

    1. All covenants go back to a covenant made between God the Father and God the Son, in which God the Son is the centerpiece.
    2. The Old Covenant is also contexted by grace; it is not actually a covenant of works. This is what Paul is getting at; he is saying that the Covenant of Grace underlies both the Old and New Covenant. The Covenant of Grace is fundamentally about Christ. However—
    3. Having Christ by way of promise is not the same as his already him through fulfillment. Abraham had Christ by way of promise (this is Paul's own terminology). At the coming of Christ there is an opening, a revealing, a fullness, a fulfillment of promise. He inaugurated the age of the Spirit; thus the New Covenant.

I hope this is helpful. I feel overwhelmed on how to get an answer to a question with such massive biblical-theological implications into one post.

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Thanks - so, if I understand correctly, God's covenant with Abraham is the old covenant, and the fulfilment of that promise in Christ is the new covenant? –  Eric May 23 '12 at 17:05
    
@Eric Yes, Abraham was under the old covenant, though not of course under the Mosaic covenant, which is the particular covenant Paul is examining in this passage (and is one administration of the Old Covenant). –  Kazark May 23 '12 at 17:30

Abstract

Paul is making an argument in Galatians that the Gentiles are recipients of God's promise to Abraham via Jesus. The "Old Covenant" is "old" because it has been replaced by the prior covenant. Similarly, the "New Covenant" was given to Abraham first, but only implemented in Christ later.


The timeline is:

  1. Abram received the promise off becoming a great nation (Genesis 12).
  2. God made the covenant of circumcision with Abraham (Genesis 17).
  3. Abraham's great grandchildren moved to Egypt (Genesis 47).
  4. 430 years later, God brought Israel out of Egypt and established His law (Exodus 12).
  5. Jesus fulfilled the promise to Abram in #1 and extended it to Gentiles.

Paul is eager to connect Jesus to this promise:

Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”—Genesis 12:1-3 (ESV)

Via this phrase:

Then the LORD appeared to Abram and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built there an altar to the LORD, who had appeared to him.—Genesis 12:7 (ESV)

Paul doesn't actually use the phrases Old Covenant or New Covenant in this text, but they do show up in 2nd Corinthians.


Now if you buy into Paul's argument that Christ was the fulfillment of the Genesis 12 promise, circumcision and the law has served its purpose and no longer is needed. It's a bit like product packaging: the product is created first, then it's wrapped in plastic or a box, and when it finally reaches the end user, the wrapper is thrown away.

To put it another way, the traditions of Judaism are very powerful preservers of the culture God instituted with Abraham. But faith in Christ and the Holy Spirit create an even stronger bond between humanity and God. (See Galatians 3:1-9.) Holding onto the Jewish traditions actually hinders the bond between the Church and God because it creates divisions and distractions. (See Galatians 2.)

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Thanks. One thing that's still confusing is there Jeremiah passage that I referenced: "Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah". Why does God say that he will make a new covenant if it has already been made with Abraham? –  Eric May 23 '12 at 0:26
    
@Eric: That's a good question. One of the problems I had answering this question is that Paul didn't use those terms here. I'll have to sleep on it and see if I can update this answer tomorrow. In the meantime, would you mind editing this question to include the Jeremiah quote? –  Jon Ericson May 23 '12 at 0:35
    
+1 For the packaging analogy. –  Kazark May 23 '12 at 16:34

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