The Old and New Covenants
By Peter Amsterdam
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As Christians, we understand that Scripture teaches that we are to live in alignment with God’s Word. We’re called to be “filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God.”1 The clarion call expressed here is that we apply our knowledge of God’s wisdom and understanding to our lives and bear fruit, further our knowledge of God, and live a worthy life which pleases Him.
Understanding what God teaches through His Word and applying that teaching is what a life that pleases God is all about. But how do we apply the teachings of the Bible to our daily lives? How do we know if our choices align with the teachings of Scripture?
While Christians are not required to live according to the Old Testament law, the Ten Commandments provide a framework for addressing moral and ethical standards for Christians. The apostle Paul wrote, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.”2 Even though Jesus’ life and death fulfilled the Law of the Old Testament,3 Paul considered it to be useful to instruct Christians.
Paul affirmed this point when he wrote: “For the commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,’ and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.”4
While love fulfills the law, that love is manifested by avoiding murder, theft, envy, and all the other applicable moral dos and don’ts found within Scripture. As such, we can look to both the Old and New Testaments for moral and ethical guidance on how to live a life that is pleasing to God.
Scripture teaches that the Bible’s moral and ethical standards are based in the moral character of God, and we are to imitate God’s character. God is good, just, loving, holy, faithful, truthful, merciful, and more. He is morally perfect, and He rejoices to see His moral qualities reflected in us: “As he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct.”5 “You have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.”6
We read in the Old Testament that a new covenant would come: “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.”7 The New Testament explains that the Mosaic covenant which began when God gave the Ten Commandments to Moses was terminated upon Jesus’ death, and that since then, Christians live under a new covenant.
The night before Jesus died, He spoke to His disciples about the new covenant. In Luke’s Gospel we read:
“He took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, ‘This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.’”8
The old covenant was terminated and the new covenant came into effect when Jesus died on the cross.9 The book of Hebrews speaks of the “new covenant,” a better one, with a new high priest, Jesus. “This makes Jesus the guarantor of a better covenant.”10 The old covenant, which included the Laws of Moses, has been replaced and is no longer in effect for Christians. Paul made that point when he said: “Now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.”11
Throughout the New Testament we find further passages which specifically state that Christians are not bound by certain Old Testament laws. Christians don’t need to be circumcised.12 Christians don’t need to offer animal sacrifices at the temple. Rather, we “offer up a sacrifice of praise to God,”13 and we “present [our] bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is [our] spiritual worship.”14 We don’t need to observe the Sabbath or other special religious days.15 We are also not bound by the Mosaic food laws, which declared some foods unclean and not to be eaten. Jesus abrogated the food laws and declared all foods to be clean.16
We are also no longer bound to following the Old Testament laws which regulated the civil government of Israel. The Mosaic covenant established the Jewish people as a nation distinct from other nations of the world. God gave them rules for courts, judges, enforcement of laws and penalties for breaking them. Christians are not under those laws; rather, we are called to obey the civil governments in the lands in which we live.17
Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament Law so that it is no longer binding upon Christians. And yet, while the New Testament writers understood that the Mosaic Law had been fulfilled in Christ and Christians were not legally bound by it, they still referred to it as an important source of valuable wisdom and guidance for living in a godly manner.
The apostle Paul wrote: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.”18 He pointed out that “Whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.”19 “These things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come.”20
Throughout the New Testament, we find teachings which quote or allude to the Ten Commandments, with the exception of the fourth commandment about keeping the Sabbath:
First Commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me.”21 Paul affirmed this when he wrote about people sinning when they “worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator.”22
Second Commandment: “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God.”23 On this point, Paul wrote: “Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.”24
Third Commandment: “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.”25 The apostle Peter wrote: “These, like irrational animals, creatures of instinct, born to be caught and destroyed, blaspheming about matters of which they are ignorant, will also be destroyed in their destruction.”26
Fourth Commandment: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work.”27 The command to rest on the Sabbath is not repeated as an obligation for Christians.
Fifth Commandment: “Honor your father and your mother.”28 Paul quoted this commandment in full in Ephesians 6:2–3. Elsewhere he makes reference to those who dishonor their parents as sinning.29
Sixth Commandment: “You shall not murder.”30 A number of times in the New Testament, murder is included in a list of sins. For example, in the words of Jesus: “Out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander.”31
Seventh Commandment: “You shall not commit adultery.”32 This commandment is quoted in the book of Romans as well as in the book of James.33
Eighth Commandment: “You shall not steal.”34 Paul quoted this command in the book of Romans (Romans 13:9), and throughout the Epistles, we find other verses teaching this commandment.35
Ninth Commandment: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.”36 This commandment is not quoted in the New Testament, but there are several verses which speak against lying and falsehoods. “Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices.”37
Tenth Commandment:“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.”38 When Paul wrote about specific sins, he said: “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: … evil desire, and covetousness.”39
While the New Testament teaches that the Mosaic Law has been fulfilled and Christians are not bound to follow the Law, it also teaches that the principles found within the Ten Commandments are useful as teaching tools to show what kind of conduct is pleasing and displeasing to God.
Originally published October 2018. Adapted and republished August 2021. Read by Reuben Ruchevsky.
1 Colossians 1:9–10.
2 2 Timothy 3:16–17.
3 Matthew 5:17–18.
4 Romans 13:9–10.
5 1 Peter 1:15.
6 Colossians 3:9–10.
7 Jeremiah 31:31.
8 Luke 22:19–20.
9 2 Corinthians 3:10–14.
10 Hebrews 7:22.
11 Romans 7:6.
12 1 Corinthians 7:18–19.
13 Hebrews 13:15.
14 Romans 12:1.
15 Colossians 2:16–17.
16 Mark 7:14–15.
17 Romans 13:1–2; 1 Peter 2:13–14.
18 2 Timothy 3:16–17.
19 Romans 15:4.
20 1 Corinthians 10:11.
21 Exodus 20:3.
22 Romans 1:25.
23 Exodus 20:4–5.
24 Romans 1:22–23.
25 Exodus 20:7.
26 2 Peter 2:12.
27 Exodus 20:8–10.
28 Exodus 20:12.
29 2 Timothy 3:2.
30 Exodus 20:13.
31 Matthew 15:19.
32 Exodus 20:14.
33 Romans 13:9, James 2:11.
34 Exodus 20:15.
35 James 5:4, Titus 2:9–10.
36 Exodus 20:16.
37 Colossians 3:9.
38 Exodus 20:17.
39 Colossians 3:5.