The Mosaic (Sinaitic) Covenant
Abraham and his descendants had never been told in any detail when or how the promises to them of land, a great nation, numerous descendants and being a blessing to the whole earth would be fulfilled.
The children of Israel could have easily surmised that God had forgotten them as they languished in Egypt for about 400 years. But God rescued them in Moses’ day and brought them to Mt Sinai. There, God gave Moses the Ten Commandments and the rest of the Law (Torah). Because of their disobedience afterward, they had to wander for 40 years in the wilderness, but God eventually brought them under Joshua to the edge of the promised land with a second giving and updating of the Law.
The covenant with Moses was a conditional one, based on a sovereign-vassal treaty form developed in the second millennium BC, which the whole of Deuteronomy closely follows. Deuteronomy 28–29 rehearse in detail the stipulations and the rewards for the Israelites’ obedience to the Law and the punishments for their disobedience. Long life, prosperity, safety and freedom from foreign oppression would flow from keeping the Law. Disasters, tragedies, warfare, exile and foreign occupation would eventually come after repeated, flagrant disobedience.
To be clear, the Mosaic covenant was about temporal prosperity not eternal salvation. God had already “saved” his people in the exodus – in the crossing of the Red Sea – and in bringing them to the promised land. However, the law detailed how they were to live out a life of pleasing God now that he had rescued them. Their success and failures is found in the rest of the historical books of the Old Testament which details the cycles of prosperity and punishment of the Israelite people based on their behavior.
The Coming New Covenant
“The days are coming,” declares the Lord,
“when I will make a new covenant
with the people of Israel
and with the people of Judah.
It will not be like the covenant
I made with their ancestors
when I took them by the hand
to lead them out of Egypt,
because they broke my covenant,
though I was a husband to them,
declares the Lord.
“This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel
after that time,” declares the Lord.
“I will put my law in their minds
and write it on their hearts.
I will be their God,
and they will be my people.
No longer will they teach their neighbor,
or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’
because they will all know me,
from the least of them to the greatest,”
declares the Lord.
“For I will forgive their wickedness
and will remember their sins no more.”
The prophet Jeremiah’s description of a new covenant demonstrates that the Mosaic covenant was never intended to be everlasting in its original form. The apostle Paul picks up on this as well in where he speaks of three purposes of the Law.
1. While it was in effect, it functioned in a custodial fashion acting as a deterrent to sin. (Galatians 3:21-4:7)
2. It also highlighted people’s sinfulness, showing them their need for one who could fully save them. (Romans 7:13–25)
3. For the Christian, the Law is fulfilled in Jesus (Matthew 5:17–20). We understand how the coming of the Christ and the teaching of the New Testament have changed the application of each part of the Law. It still though functions as a moral guide for believers (Galatians 5:13-6:10).
The New Covenant Fulfilled
The old Mosaic covenant was doomed to failure because of congenital human inability to fulfill its requirements. But with incalculable mercy and love God resolved this fundamental relational problem by becoming a human being himself, through Jesus Christ, to do for human beings what they could not do for themselves: perfectly fulfill the relational demands of God’s covenant by his perfect obedience and pay the steep price for everyone else’s disobedience. All who put their faith in this Godman have these immeasurable benefits applied to them. The consequent divinehuman relationship is now secure because, in essence, God is on both sides of the relationship—the divine originator of the covenant and the one who fulfills it.
The prophet Jeremiah provides the essential details of the new covenant. He says it will not be like the old covenant in that the law would now be put in the minds and written on the hearts of God’s people. Consequently, there will be an intimate, personal knowledge of God shared by every segment of society.
This new relationship with God is made possible because of his forgiveness of sins. The New Testament makes clear that all of these details of the new covenant find their fulfillment in Jesus (Luke 22:20). He makes possible a relationship with God in which believers have the law in their minds and on their hearts by means of the indwelling Holy Spirit who facilitates intimate fellowship with and personal knowledge of God (compare Romans 8:1–11; John 14:23) all possible because of the selfsacrifice of Christ for the forgiveness of sins (Hebrews 10:11–18).
Drawn from study material in the NIV Study Bible, Fully Revised Edition.