The New Covenant–Old Testament
A huge theme that pervades all of scripture is the theme of promise and fulfillment. In the Old Testament, many promises were made to the nation of Israel that anticipated future fulfillment. One very significant example would be the promise and provisions of the New Covenant (i.e., Jeremiah 31:31-34 and Ezekiel 36:22-36).
Now the Old Testament, without any exceptions, explicitly affirms that the parties of this covenant will be God and Israel (i.e., Jeremiah 31:33). That’s key to our discussion, so allow me to state it again. The Old Testament promises that the New Covenant will be made between God and Israel.
The New Covenant–New Testament
But a normal, simple, natural, and literal reading of various texts in the New Testament reveals that the Church participates in the New Covenant. For example, the Lord’s Super, an ordinance of the Church, refers to the to cup of the New Covenant (Luke 22:19-21; Matthew 26:27-28; Mark 14:24; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26). Paul, the self-proclaimed apostle to the Gentiles (Romans 11:13) and minister of the mystery of the Church (Ephesians 3:6-8), called himself a minister of the New Covenant (presently), saw the New Covenant as having presently superseded the Old Covenant, and spoke of the New Covenant ministry of the Spirit as a present reality (2 Corinthians 3). And the author of Hebrews is explicit about the present reality of the New Covenant and Christ’s present ministry as the mediator of this New and better Covenant (for a brief sampling see Hebrews 7:22; Hebrews 8:6-13; Hebrews 9:15; Hebrews 10:16-17; Hebrews 12:24).
And lastly, the blessings that the Church (which includes Gentiles) receives in salvation remarkably parallel the provisions of the New Covenant that were promised in the Old Testament. I mean, it’s just Biblically undeniable that Gentiles are now members of the New Covenant. If you’re forgiven of your sins, you’re saved by the mediator of the New Covenant (Heb 8:6-13; Heb 9:15; Heb 12:24) who bore the Cup of the New Covenant for you (OT – Jeremiah 31:33; Ezekiel 36:25 || NT – Luke 22:19-21; Matthew 26:27-28; Mark 14:24; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; Ephesians 1:7). And the list goes on as summarized quite nicely by the chart below.
Paul gets to the heart of the issue in Ephesians 2:11-22:
Hey Gentiles, remember that you were at one time separated from this Jewish Messiah (Jesus Christ) and excluded from Israel and their Covenant promises. But now you’re not. You’ve been brought near, made citizens, and now have the promised Spirit as well. Christ has replaced the two separate groups, Israel and Gentiles, by bringing them together as one new body–the Church. (My paraphrase/summary).
And then he provides a fantastic summary in 3:6, “Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” As Gentiles, we’ve been grafted in (Romans 11:17, 19, 24).
The Interpreter’s Predicament
You might be asking, “So what? What’s your point in all of this?” Do you recall that vital point I emphasized at the beginning of this essay–“The Old Covenant promises that the New Covenant will be made between God and Israel.” You see, the fact that the New Covenant is originally promised to Israel causes theologians to go in different interpretative directions when it comes to these New Covenant references, allusions, and implications made in the New Testament in regards to Gentiles and the Church.
First, there are/were many who have argued with the following logic:
- In the Old Testament the New Covenant is promised to Israel.
- In the New Testament, however, the New Covenant is ratified with the Church.
- Therefore, the Church is the “true, spiritual Israel” while Israel, on the other hand, has lost and forfeited the promises
In other words, they have argued that the Church has replaced physical Israel as the actual, real, spiritual “Israel” and this is why the Church is the recipient of the New Covenant which was promised to Israel. Continuing on this theme, they continue by asserting that ethnic Israel is permanently cast off from God’s purposes. Israel has been entirely replaced by the Church. This is the first extreme.
The other extreme, which is/was held by significantly less interpreters, is the interpretation of “classical dispensationalism.” This view argues from the following logic:
- In the Old Testament the New Covenant is promised to Israel.
- Therefore, the New Testament does not teach that the Church participates in this New Covenant whatsoever because it cannot teach that any party except Israel may participate in the New Covenant.
Now, in light of the New Testament data concerning the Church’s rather blatant relationship to the New Covenant, this view certainly bears a burden of proof. Classical dispensationalists have tried to escape this burden in two ways, generally speaking. First, some just straight up deny that the Church has any relationship to the New Covenant. The Church’s relationship to it is solely as a spectator. Others, interestingly enough, have decided to claim that there are in fact two New Covenants–one for Israel (the one promised in the Old Testament and yet to be fulfilled) and one for the Church (i.e, the one spoken of in the New Testament).
Luckily most don’t hold to any of these extreme views anymore but fall somewhere in the middle. Many interpreters who call the Church the “new, spiritual Israel” (e.g., John Piper, D.A. Carson, Douglas Moo) still believe that ethnic Israel still has a future in the purposes of God as spoken of all throughout the Old Testament and reenforced in Romans 9-11. And likewise, now days most who fall under the “dispensationalist” banner have abandoned the “classical dispensational” views presented above and recognize that the Church participates in New Covenant blessings in at least some sense (e.g., Charles Ryrie who once held to the “2 New Covenants” hypothesis).
So what has caused so many interpreters to gather closer together in this “middle ground”–recognizing national Israel’s future in God’s plan as well as recognizing the Church’s relationship to the New Covenant? Meet Mr. Complementary Hermeneutics!
“Complementary Hermeneutics” is a term coined by Progressive Dispensationalists that refers to the interpretive principle that recognizes that God can do more than what He promised, but not less. In the case of the New Covenant, if God does not literally fulfill His promises to Israel, He proves unfaithful (Rom 9-11). But that is not to say He cannot enlarge His promises, graft new individuals into these promises, and expand “Israel.”
To provide an example, let’s say that I promise David Morse that I will buy him a slushy sometime in the future. But the next day, I come with a slushy and give it to Shane Saxon. Now one observer (representing the first extreme view I presented above) might try to rationalize what I’ve done by stating, “Shane is the “new” David. He replaced the true David. The physical David has now lost his promised slushy.” But then another observer (representing the “classical dispensationalist”) might object, “Hardly! Don’t you see, Kirk hasn’t given Shane a slushy. That’s an Icee–big difference.” But both individuals would be wrong. If I was to keep my promise to David, I would have to give David a slushy. But that doesn’t exclude me from buying one for Shane as well.
Now, every illustration breaks down at some level (including this one); but I believe you’ve gotten my point. In regards to the New Covenant, the fact that the New Covenant is originally promised to the nation of Israel does not mean its blessings/provisions are necessarily limited to ethnic Israel. (This would only be true if the Old Testament stated that the New Covenant would be exclusively for Israel; however, what is stated is Israel’s inclusion). And likewise, the inclusion of Gentiles in the New Covenant (“already”) does not mean that a literal, ultimate fulfillment of the New Covenant promises to Israel are now canceled or replaced (“not yet”)–the “already/not yet” view of fulfillment.
Now finally, you should understand that this principle isn’t just some clever human invention. It’s rooted in the progressive nature of special revelation. For example, the New Covenant itself is a progressive implementation rooted in the Abrahamic Covenant. In other words, it adds or expands upon what was already promised in the Abrahamic Covenant. Or similarly, the Old Testament talks about a future kingdom, but not until Matthew 13 are the “mysteries of the kingdom” revealed and not until Revelation 20 are we informed of the 1,000 year aspect of the future kingdom. Or again, it wasn’t explicit that the Messiah was going to come in two separate advents until the New Testament. However, although two distinct comings of Christ are not blatantly seen in the Old Testament, from a New Testament perspective we can now certainly identify them. The inclusion/grafting in of Gentiles revealed in the New Testament works in a similar way. It is progressive (or additional) revelation.
The Old Testament promises the New Covenant for Israel. The New Testaments reveals the New Covenant for the Church. Can I suggest that rather than imposing one testament upon the other, as the extreme views do, we instead seek their harmonization?
 It should be noted that certainly not all, in fact not most, who refer to the church as the “true Israel” fall into the class I am trying to describe, a view which is called “Supersessionism.”
 Other dispensationalists (“revised” or “traditional”) argue that the church sort of “gleams” off of some of the blessings of the New Covenant without actually participating in it. One might describe this view as “having your cake and eating it too.” In other words, receiving covenant blessings implies covenant membership.
 At this point is should also be noted that several Old Testaments texts even begin to reveal a future inclusion of Gentiles (e.g., Psalm 87; Zechariah 2:11).