Old Covenant vs. New Covenant

See how Jesus Christ fulfilled the Old Testament law

A christian bible

 boonchai wedmakawand / Getty Images

Old covenant vs. new covenant. What do they mean? And why was a new covenant needed at all?

Most people know the Bible is divided into the Old Testament and New Testament, but the word "testament" also means "covenant," an oath-bound contract between two parties. The covenant concept is a central theme of Scripture, establishing and defining God’s relationship with humans in every age of history.

Old Covenant vs. New Covenant

  • A covenant is a binding contract between two parties, ratified by swearing an oath.
  • The word "testament" and "covenant" are interchangeable.
  • The Old Testament (old covenant) was a foreshadowing of the New, a foundation for what was to come.
  • From the book of Genesis on, the Old Testament pointed forward to a Messiah or Savior.
  • The New Testament describes the fulfillment of God's promise by Jesus Christ.

Old Covenant: Between God and Israel

The Old Covenant was established between God and the people of Israel after God freed them from slavery in Egypt. Moses, who led the people out, served as the mediator of this contract, which was made at Mount Sinai:

Then Moses took the blood from the basins and splattered it over the people, declaring, “Look, this blood confirms the covenant the Lord has made with you in giving you these instructions.” (Exodus 24:8, NLT)
Moses with the New Tablets (Exodus 34, 29-33)
ZU_09 / Getty Images

God promised that the people of Israel would be his chosen people, and he would be their God:

I will claim you as my own people, and I will be your God. Then you will know that I am the Lord your God who has freed you from your oppression in Egypt. (Exodus 6:7, NLT)

God issued the Ten Commandments and the laws in Leviticus to be obeyed by the Hebrews. If they complied, he pledged prosperity and protection in the Promised Land.

Altogether, there were 613 laws, covering every aspect of human behavior. Males had to be circumcised, sabbaths had to be observed, and people had to obey hundreds of dietary, social, and hygiene rules. All these regulations were intended to protect the Israelites from their neighbors' pagan influences, but no one could keep so many laws. To address the people's sins, God set up a system of animal sacrifices, in which the people provided cattle, sheep, and doves to be killed. Sin required blood sacrifices.

Under the old covenant, those sacrifices were carried out at the desert tabernacle. God installed Moses' brother Aaron and Aaron's sons as priests, who slaughtered the animals. Only Aaron, the high priest, could enter the Holy of Holies once a year on the Day of Atonement, to intercede for the people directly with God.

After the Israelites conquered Canaan, King Solomon built the first permanent temple in Jerusalem, where the animal sacrifices continued. Invaders eventually destroyed the temples, but when they were rebuilt, the sacrifices resumed. 

New Covenant: Between God and Christians

That system of animal sacrifice lasted hundreds of years, but even so, it was only temporary. Out of love, God the Father sent his only Son, Jesus, into the world. This new covenant would resolve the problem of sin once and for all. 

Jesus blessing little children
Culture Club / Getty Images

For three years, Jesus taught throughout Israel about the kingdom of God and his role as Messiah. To support his claim as Son of God, he performed many miracles, even raising three people from the dead. By dying on the cross, Christ became the Lamb of God, the perfect sacrifice whose blood has the power to wash away sin forever.

Some churches say the new covenant began with Jesus' crucifixion. Others believe it started at Pentecost, with the coming of the Holy Spirit and founding of the Christian Church. The new covenant was established between God and the individual Christian (John 3:16), with Jesus Christ serving as mediator.

Besides serving as the sacrifice, Jesus also became the new high priest (Hebrews 4:14-16). Instead of physical prosperity, the new covenant promises salvation from sin and eternal life with God. As high priest, Jesus constantly intercedes for his followers before his Father in heaven. Individuals may now approach God themselves; they no longer need a human high priest to speak for them.

Why the New Covenant Is Better

The Old Testament is a record of the nation of Israel struggling—and failing—to keep its covenant with God. The New Testament shows Jesus Christ keeping the covenant for his people, doing what they cannot do.

Theologian Martin Luther called the contrast between the two covenants law vs. gospel. A more familiar name is works vs. grace. While God's grace frequently broke through in the Old Testament, its presence overwhelms the New Testament. Grace, that free gift of salvation through Christ, is available to any person, not just Jews, and asks only that a person repent of their sins and believe in Jesus as their Lord and Savior.

The New Testament book of Hebrews gives several reasons why Jesus is superior to the old covenant, among them: 

  • Jesus is superior to Moses as a mediator;
  • Jesus is a high priest forever, seated next to God in heaven;
  • Jesus' sacrifice was once for all, perfecting believers for eternal life.

Both the Old and New Testaments are the story of the same God, a God of love and mercy who gave his people the freedom to choose and who gives his people the opportunity to come back to him by choosing Jesus Christ.

The old covenant was for a specific people in a specific place and time. The new covenant extends to the entire world: 

By calling this covenant "new," he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and aging will soon disappear. (Hebrews 8:13, NIV)


  • Gotquestions.org. https://www.gotquestions.org/difference-old-new-testaments.html.
  • International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, James Orr, General Editor.
  • The New Compact Bible Dictionary, Alton Bryant, Editor.
  • The Mind of Jesus, William Barclay.
mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Zavada, Jack. "Old Covenant vs. New Covenant." Learn Religions, Dec. 6, 2021, learnreligions.com/old-vs-new-covenant-700361. Zavada, Jack. (2021, December 6). Old Covenant vs. New Covenant. Retrieved from https://www.learnreligions.com/old-vs-new-covenant-700361 Zavada, Jack. "Old Covenant vs. New Covenant." Learn Religions. https://www.learnreligions.com/old-vs-new-covenant-700361 (accessed June 2, 2023).