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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: Why Is the Bible So Special?

Don Stewart :: Why Are the Two Divisions of the Bible Called the Old and New Testament?

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Question 4

Why Are the Two Divisions of the Bible Called the Old and New Testament?

The Bible is divided into two testaments ? the Old and the New “Testament.” What is the purpose for the division? Why are they called “testaments?”

A Testament Is a Covenant or Agreement

Testament is an old English word that means, “covenant,” or “agreement between two parties.” It was derived from the Latin testamentum. This term was used to translate the Greek and Hebrew words for covenant; berit in Hebrew and diatheke in Greek. Hence the Old and New Covenants became the Old and New Testaments. This is the ancient meaning of the term.

However, the two parts of Scripture are not “testaments” in the modern sense of the word ? a last will and testament. Rather, the term speaks of an agreement, covenant or contract. Consequently, it is unfortunate that the English word “testament” is still used to describe the Old and New Covenants that God has made with His people.

Before Jesus came to the earth there was only one group of sacred writings ? there was no “Old” Testament. However, after it was recognized that God had given further sacred writings to humanity, believers began to distinguish between the two groups of written Scripture.

There Are a Number of Covenants Recorded in the Old Testament

In the Bible, the word “covenant” usually has the idea of an agreement between two parties where one party is superior to the other; it is not an agreement between equals. The superior party makes a covenant in which he agrees to give certain things to the inferior party. This is the idea behind the agreements that God has made with the human race.

One of the central themes of the Old Testament is the idea of a covenant, or agreement, between God and humankind. The Bible lists a number of covenants that God instituted. They include the following:

  1. The Covenant God Made with Adam and Eve

    The first covenant in Scripture is the one God made with Adam and Eve. The Bible records it in the following manner:

    The LORD God took the man and placed him in the orchard in Eden to care for and maintain it. Then the LORD God commanded the man, “You may freely eat fruit from every tree of the orchard, but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will surely die.” (Genesis 2:15-17 NET)

    As long as Adam and Eve obeyed God, they would live in paradise without any sin or evil in their lives. When Adam and Eve broke their part of the covenant, sin entered into the world.

  2. The Covenant God Made with Noah

    After the Flood, God made a covenant, or agreement, with Noah. The Lord said to him:

    But I will establish My covenant with you; and you shall go into the ark - you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives with you. (Genesis 6:18 NKJV)

    The New English Translation translates the verse this way:

    But I will confirm my covenant with you. You will enter the ark?you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives with you. (Genesis 6:18 NET)

    In this covenant with Noah, God promised that He would never destroy the earth again by means of a flood. As a token of the covenant, the Lord gave an external sign; the sign of the rainbow.

  3. The Covenant God Made with Abraham

    God made a covenant with a man named Abram (his name was later changed to Abraham). In this agreement, He promised to bless Abraham’s descendants. The Bible records what happened:

    Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go out from your country, your relatives, and your father’s household to the land that I will show you. Then I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you, and I will make your name great, in order that you might be a prime example of divine blessing. I will bless those who bless you, but the one who treats you lightly I must curse, and all the families of the earth will pronounce blessings on one another using your name.” (Genesis 12:1-3 NET)

    This was the beginning of what would later become the nation of Israel. The token of the covenant with the descendants of Abraham was the circumcision of the male children. This was the external sign that these people belonged to the Lord.

  4. The Covenant God Made with Moses

    The Old Testament, or Old Covenant, derives its name from the agreement that God made with the nation of Israel at Mt. Sinai. The Bible explains it as follows:

    On the third new moon after the people of Israel had gone out of the land of Egypt, on that day they came into the wilderness of Sinai. They set out from Rephidim and came into the wilderness of Sinai, and they encamped in the wilderness. There Israel encamped before the mountain, while Moses went up to God. The Lord called to him out of the mountain, saying, “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the people of Israel: You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel.” (Exodus 19:1-6 ESV)

    God emphasized that He would have a personal relationship with His people. He said:

    And I will walk among you and will be your God, and you shall be my people. (Leviticus 26:12 ESV)

    Israel was the only nation that would have a special relationship with the Lord; they were His chosen people. They were to worship Him exclusively.

  5. The Covenant God Made with David

    Later in the history of Israel, God made a covenant with King David. The Bible records it as follows:

    When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son. When he commits iniquity, I will discipline him with the rod of men, with the stripes of the sons of men, but my steadfast love will not depart from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you. And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever. In accordance with all these words, and in accordance with all this vision, Nathan spoke to David. (2 Samuel 7:12-17 ESV)

    In this covenant, God promised David that one of his descendants would build a house for the Lord and rule forever as king over the nation Israel. The initial fulfillment of this promise was found in David’s son Solomon. He is the one who built the temple for the Lord and ruled over the nation, but he certainly did not rule forever.

    Indeed, there are promises listed in this passage that go beyond that which was fulfilled by Solomon. The agreement God made with David found its ultimate fulfillment in Jesus. The Bible records the visit of the angel Gabriel to the virgin Mary who explained how this covenant is fulfilled in Jesus. The Bible says:

    In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” (Luke 1:26-33 NRSV)

    Jesus is the ultimate fulfillment of the promise to David that one of his descendants would rule forever. Jesus, the Son of David, will rule the world from David’s throne when He comes again.

    This brings up an important distinction that we find in the Old Testament, or Old Covenant. There were two lines of teaching in the Old Testament about the Promised Deliverer or Messiah. One emphasis was that David’s son, the Messiah, would restore humanity to a right relationship with God. This would occur by Him being an offering or sacrifice for sin.

    Another line of teaching had David’s son ruling over the nations. Israel is restored as God’s chosen people with David’s son ruling as king.

    Each of these purposes is seen in prophetic pictures in the Old Testament. The New Testament says part one was fulfilled at the first coming of Christ, while part two will be fulfilled at His second coming.

A New Covenant Is Promised

In the Book of Jeremiah we find a new covenant, or a new contract, promised to the people of God. It says:

“The day will come,” says the LORD, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and Judah. This covenant will not be like the one I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand and brought them out of the land of Egypt. They broke that covenant, though I loved them as a husband loves his wife,” says the LORD. “But this is the new covenant I will make with the people of Israel on that day,” says the LORD. “I will put my laws in their minds, and I will write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.” (Jeremiah 31:31-33 NLT)

The new covenant promised that the Law of God would be written on the hearts of the people. The Lord promised that this new covenant would take the place of the old one making the old covenant unnecessary.

The New Covenant Is Instituted by Jesus Christ

Jesus instituted the New Covenant, or the New Contract, on the night in which He was betrayed. The Gospel of Matthew records what took place. It says:

Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (Matthew 26:26-28 ESV)

The Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians about the new covenant. He explained it in this manner:

Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God. He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant - not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. (2 Corinthians 3:5-6 TNIV)

Believers today are ministers of a new covenant.

Some Important Points about the New Covenant

Five points need to be made about the “New Covenant.” They are as follows:

  1. The New Covenant Was Instituted by the Death of Jesus Christ

    The new covenant is based upon the death of Jesus Christ on the cross of Calvary. Paul wrote about Jesus instituting it on the night in which He was betrayed. He said:

    In the same way He took the cup also after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood; do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.” (1 Corinthians 11:25 NASB)

    The New Living Translation renders this verse as follows:

    In the same way, he took the cup of wine after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant between God and you, sealed by the shedding of my blood. Do this in remembrance of me as often as you drink it.” (1 Corinthians 11:25 NLT)

    Jesus’ death brought about this new covenant relationship between God and His people. The bread and the wine are memorials of this New Covenant. The wine represents the blood of the covenant. The Bible records Jesus saying:

    “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many,” he said to them. (Mark 14:24 TNIV)

    This would remind the people of the words of Moses when God made a covenant with the children of Israel at Mt. Sinai. The Bible says:

    Moses then took the blood and flung it over the people, saying, ‘This is the blood of the covenant which the Lord has made with you on the terms of this book.’ (Exodus 24:8 REB)

    Jesus’ blood is the token of the New Covenant.

  2. God Now Deals Exclusively with Humanity Through the New Covenant

    The major theme of the New Testament is how God now deals with humanity through the new covenant. In the New Testament, the Old Testament writings are called the old covenant. Paul wrote:

    But their minds were hardened; for until this very day at the reading of the old covenant the same veil remains unlifted, because it is removed in Christ. (2 Corinthians 3:14 NASB)

    Jesus’ death on the cross put an end to the sacrificial system. In the Old Covenant, with the old system, the sin problem was dealt with through animal sacrifices. These sacrifices are no longer necessary.

  3. The Old Covenant Is Now Obsolete

    Because God is now dealing with humanity on the basis of the “new covenant,” the first covenant is now obsolete and outdated. The writer to the Hebrews stated:

    By calling this covenant “new,” he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and outdated will soon disappear. (Hebrews 8:13 TNIV)

    We also read in Hebrews about how the first covenant has been cancelled:

    Then he added, “Look, I have come to do your will.” He cancels the first covenant in order to establish the second. (Hebrews 10:9 NLT)

    God is now dealing with humanity through a New Covenant ? the one that was instituted by the death of Jesus Christ. Everyone who participates in the New Covenant must personally believe that Jesus Christ died on the cross for their sins and then rose from the dead. This is the only way that they can have a personal relationship with God.

  4. The Old Covenant and the New Covenant Gave Rise to a Group of Holy Writings

    There is another thing that should be mentioned about the Old Covenant and the New Covenant. Each covenant launched a great spiritual work of the Lord. The Old Covenant was God’s unique workings with the nation Israel. The New Covenant extends to all people throughout the world. These covenants gave rise to a body of sacred literature. Once each covenant was instituted, a number of sacred writings were given by God to explain the meaning of the covenant.

    Our Old Testament consists of the books of the Old Covenant, while the New Testament books are writings that are based upon the new covenant God has made with humanity.

  5. The Law of God Is Presently in the Hearts of the People

    The writer to the Hebrews said that God would put the law into the hearts of people under the new covenant. He wrote:

    And the Holy Spirit also testifies that this is so. First he says, “This is the new covenant I will make with my people on that day, says the Lord: I will put my laws in their hearts so they will understand them, and I will write them on their minds so they will obey them.” Then he adds, “I will never again remember their sins and lawless deeds.” (Hebrews 10:15-17 NLT)

    The wonderful promise of God made possible through the death of Jesus, is that God’s law is now placed in the hearts of those who believe in Him. Under the New Covenant, God gives His people the ability to carry out the terms of the covenant. The token of this covenant is the Holy Spirit who lives inside each believer. He empowers believers to follow Christ and to obey the terms of the New Covenant.

    As we examine the various agreements that God has made with humanity, we find that God has always kept His part of the agreement. Unfortunately, the same thing cannot be said about the response of humans. We have miserably failed. This is why a Savior is desperately needed.

Summary - Question 4
Why Are the Two Divisions of the Bible Called the Old and New Testament?

The Bible is divided into two testaments, or covenants—the old and the new. “Testament” is not the best word to describe these parts of Scripture. They are not part of a last will or testament, but rather an agreement, or contract, that God has made with His people.

In the Bible, the covenant is usually seen as an agreement between a superior and one who is inferior; it is not an agreement between equals. The superior member grants certain rights and privileges to the inferior member. This is illustrated by the various covenants that God has made with His people.

The Bible speaks of different agreements that God made with humanity. Indeed, the entire flow of biblical history, the unfolding drama of God’s redemption of the human race, is based upon the covenants that God has made with humankind.

In the Bible, we find covenants made with Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses and David. Certain of the covenants came with visible signs. For example, God gave Noah the sign of the rainbow as a reminder of His agreement with Noah; He would never again destroy humanity with a flood. The descendants of Abraham were to be circumcised to demonstrate their willingness to fulfill their covenant.

Through the prophet Jeremiah God also promised a new covenant. Jesus Himself is the one who instituted the new covenant. His broken body and His shed blood are the tokens of the New Covenant. The Old Testament, or Old Covenant, is now obsolete. Both covenants have given rise to a new spiritual movement as well as to a body of sacred literature; the Old and New Testament. Each of these testaments explains the terms of the covenant.

The good news is that the law of God is now written on the hearts of the people of the New Covenant; those who believe in Him. God has given His Holy Spirit as a token, or sign, of this New Covenant. This gives Christians the ability, as well as the desire, to carry out the terms of the covenant.

God has kept His part of the bargain in all of these covenants. However, humanity miserably failed to keep their part. This is why a Savior is desperately needed.

What Special Terms Does the Bible Use to Describe Itself? ← Prior Section
What Value Does the Old Testament Have? Next Section →
CONTENT DISCLAIMER:

The Blue Letter Bible ministry and the BLB Institute hold to the historical, conservative Christian faith, which includes a firm belief in the inerrancy of Scripture. Since the text and audio content provided by BLB represent a range of evangelical traditions, all of the ideas and principles conveyed in the resource materials are not necessarily affirmed, in total, by this ministry.

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