Particularly interesting in these two verses is the mention of two, and only two, covenants, designated “the first” and “the second.”
- God made a covenant with Noah (Genesis 6:18; 9:9)
- Two covenants with Abraham (Genesis 17:2,10; 15:18ff)
- A covenant of salt (Numbers 18:19; Leviticus 2:13)
- A covenant of the everlasting priesthood (Numbers 25:13)
But the “first covenant” of these verses is none of these covenants.
It is the covenant so great and extensive that it overshadows all such lesser covenants and is known as “the first covenant.”
We need to identify that first covenant in order to know which was annulled.
That first covenant was made with the house of Israel and the house of Judah (Jeremiah 31:31ff), the mention of the house of Judah being significant to distinguish that first covenant from anything pertaining exclusively to the priesthood, the covenant of the priesthood having been made with the house of Levi, not with the house of Judah.
Note, “And he declared unto you his covenant, which he commanded you to perform, even ten commandments; and he wrote them upon two tables of stone” (Deuteronomy 4:13).
This ten commandments covenant, the first and old covenant, is the one in view by the author of Hebrews is evident and becomes certain in the light of his mention of “the tables of the covenant” being placed within the ark of the covenant (Hebrews 9:4).
The first covenant was identified by Jeremiah (Jeremiah 31:31ff), as the one made when God took Israel by the hand to lead them out of Egypt.
See our recent blog post: THE NEW AND BETTER COVENANT – Part 1
And the Lord said unto Moses, Write thou these words; for after the tenor of these words I have made a covenant with thee and with the house of Israel. And he was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights; he did neither eat bread nor drink water.
And he wrote upon the tables the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments (Exodus 34:2,28).
Summarizing these marks of identification of “the first covenant,” the one which was annulled, we have the following:
- (1) It was the one made with Israel AND JUDAH.
- (2) It was the one that had the Decalogue as a basic component.
- (3) It was the one made at the time of Israel’s coming out of Egypt.
- (4) It was the one said by God himself to be with Moses (with “thee”), as well as with Israel (Exodus 24:27).
Therefore, “the first covenant,” as used in these verses, means the whole religious system of the Jews, the Decalogue, the priesthood, the sacrifices, the tabernacle ritual, the temple services (as later developed), the statutes, and the judgments, and the commandments, and embracing the entire ceremonial and moral constitution of Judaism.
The thesis of the author of Hebrews in the verses before us is that a second, or new, covenant has superseded and replaced the first, or old, covenant.
Whatever moral precepts of the Old Testament were brought over into the New Testament (and there were many of these, such as prohibitions against murder, adultery, theft, covetousness, etc.), THOSE PRECEPTS NOW DERIVE THEIR AUTHORITY FROM CHRIST, NOT MOSES.
Just so, those things of the Old Testament that did not find their place in the new institution, such as sabbath keeping, animal sacrifice, burning of incense, etc., are therefore now void of any authority at all and are to be totally rejected.
The author of Hebrews at this point defends himself against a reaction of shock in the minds of his readers at so bold and forthright a proposition that the entire old covenant had been abolished; and he does this by an appeal to Jeremiah’s famous prophecy which had foretold this very thing.
The author will now quote Jeremiah’s prophecy; but before taking up a discussion of it, one other matter should be noted, and that is the implication of fault in the old covenant.
How could it have been at fault, seeing God himself had given it?
Just as a contractor first builds a scaffold around a building to be erected, removing the scaffolding when the building is completed; just so, God erected the law as a scaffold which, from the first, was designed to be removed as soon as “the seed” which is Christ should appear.