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?
  • Eric, I found this page today here is your answer: missiontoisrael.org/yahs-laws-1.php
    – user922
    Commented Dec 19, 2012 at 14:40
  • Keep reading in Jeremiah, v32 "not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD." Paul is not speaking of the Abrahamic covenant when he moves on to speak of laws. The laws that came after were the Mosaic covenant given after God brought them out of Egypt.
    – Joshua
    Commented Dec 4, 2015 at 17:58
  • A quick observation, from the verses you quote: You seem to refer to three different covenants in Hebrew Scripture: the covenant with Abraham, the covenant that God made with Israel, and a second covenant God would make / made with Israel. Perhaps the covenant with Abraham was intended to be "Everlasting" - while the one with Israel would have to be exchanged? Commented Jun 24, 2017 at 19:24

4 Answers 4



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.)

  • 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?
    – user474
    Commented May 23, 2012 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? Commented May 23, 2012 at 0:35

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.

  • 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?
    – user474
    Commented May 23, 2012 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
    Commented May 23, 2012 at 17:30
  • Additional support of the usage of "new" not always being straight forward: "Brethren, I write no new commandment unto you, but an old commandment which ye had from the beginning. The old commandment is the word which ye have heard from the beginning. Again, a new commandment I write unto you, which thing is true in him and in you: because the darkness is past, and the true light now shineth. - 1 John 2:7-8"
    – Xeoncross
    Commented Jan 19, 2015 at 1:43
  • @Kazark, what covenant between the father and the son are you referring to? What chapter and verse?
    – user10231
    Commented Oct 11, 2015 at 7:07
  • @ruminator. How do you mean "worldly philosophy " Commented Oct 22, 2019 at 9:41

Paul's point in Galatians is that God's covenant with Abraham was made before the law was given hundreds of years later and is in no way dependent on the law. This argument stands by itself and does not speak of the new covenant at all:

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.

Jeremiah 31 speaks of a new covenant which was only necessary because the Sinai covenant (the law of Moses) had turned the sins of the Jews into transgressions that had to be dealt with. (In the absence of law sin occurred but in the absence of a law they were not considered crimes. For example, in the USA it may be a sin to curse God but since there is no law against it it is not a crime. In order to turn a sin into a crime there must be a law against it. "Transgression" maps pretty well to our term "crime".

So the while both the Jews and the gentiles were wallowing in sin only the Jews were transgressors. This is why the new covenant was made only with the Jews:

Jer 31:31"Behold, days are coming," declares the LORD, "when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, 32not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them," declares the LORD.… New American Standard Bible

BSB Heb 9:15Therefore Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, now that He has died to redeem them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant.

The Sinai and the new covenant are bookends of a period of law for the Jews:

NIV Gal 3: 19 Why, then, was the law given at all? It was added because of transgressions until the Seed to whom the promise referred had come. The law was given through angels and entrusted to a mediator. 20A mediator, however, implies more than one party; but God is one.

21Is the law, therefore, opposed to the promises of God? Absolutely not! For if a law had been given that could impart life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law. 22But Scripture has locked up everything under the control of sin, so that what was promised, being given through faith in Jesus Christ, might be given to those who believe.

23Before the coming of this faith,we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed. 24So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. 25Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.


The correct answer the original question is as follows:

Short version: the only thing that makes the covenant new is that there is no longer any animal sacrifices to atone for sins, but faith that the messiah forgives your sins. The word paul uses for "new" is kainos(strongs 2537), which means new, as in refreshed, not brand new. Neos means brand new. We are under a refreshed covenant not a brand new one. Paul uses kainos for a reason.

Explanation: there are 3 parts of the law- commandments, statutes, and ordinances. Paul is almost always referring to the the "ordinances" of the law...i.e. "The sacrificial system" (the works of the law), which were later added to the previous commandments and statues, through moses.

The commandments and statutes were way before moses. Even abraham followed them (Genesis 26:5), as well as Isaac, and then Jacob, before he and the whole family moved into Goshen (Genesis 46:28-29, 47:1). There was no tabernacle/temple sacrificial system when they (the hebrews) went into Egypt. The sacrificial system was added 430 years later, after coming out of Egypt, because they had been breaking the previously established commandments and statutes and needed an atonement for their sins. That's one reason Yahweh gave it to them.

Yahweh said "the soul that sins, it shall die" - Ezekiel 18:20. However, these "ordinances/animal-blood sacrifices" given by Yahweh postponed the death penalty (just as it did for Adam and Eve when Yahweh killed an animal for them). The added sacrificial system was also a way to prepare the minds of those coming out of Egypt, for the idea of the spilling of innocent blood being able to atone for the breaking of the previously established commandments & statutes (given and followed before Moses)...sin - I John 3:4.

The sacrificial system was the tutor/the schoolmaster/the thing that pointed to the messiah! The messiah's innocent blood was spilled, and he died as the final sacrificial lamb. Because of this, "the bond written in ordinances" was blotted out- Colossians 2:14. Notice Paul didn't say commandments or statutes...only ordinances. At the time, the temple was still standing and the sacrifices were still being done. That's why Hebrews 8:13 says: 'in that he says, a new (kainos) covenant, he has made the first old. Now that which decays and grows old is ready to vanish away." The new covenant is signified by the vanishing of the temple animal sacrificial laws...not the rest of the laws (commandments and statutes).

This is why people are in error about Paul saying: "we are not being under the law, but under grace". Paul was only ever talking about the sacrificial law not the rest. That confusion happened during his time as well, and to this very day Paul is still being interpreted wrong...read Acts 21:21-24 - "they are under the impression that you teach all the Jews who live among the gentiles to forsake the law of Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or observe our jewish customs. What should we do? They will certainly hear that you have come. Here's what we want you to do. We have four men here who have completed their vow (Numbers 6). Go with them to the temple and join them in the purification ceremony, paying for them to have their heads ritually shaved. Then everyone will know that the rumors are all false, and that you yourself observe the jewish laws."

If you don't know the Old Testament laws, you will not easily understand Paul...(II Peter 3:16). He was writing to people whom he had been commissioned to talk to in person, about following the law of moses (Acts 15:20). Therefore they knew what he meant in his letters when he used the term "the law"...meaning the sacrificial laws/ordinances...(Though sometimes circumcision as in Galatians).

There are no more animal sacrifices and no more temple. We must now have faith in the messiah Yahshua that our unintentional sins are forgiven. This is when we "mistakenly" overstep the boundaries of the commandments and statutes...not when on purpose. Sin is "the transgression of the law (commandments & statutes)...(I John 3:4). However, if you can read your bible, learn the commandments and statutes, but still break them, "there remains no more sacrifice for sin..."(Hebrews 10:26). If you love him, you will keep his commandments...(I John 5:3). If you are "of Yahweh" and not the devil, you will not break them...(I John 3:8-9). The commandments & statutes are in the Old Testament...(I John 2:7). We must love one another, "but" we are only loving one another biblically (not humanly/emotionally), if we follow his commandments/the law. Shalom.

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