There are different opinions among theologians about when the New Covenant started. Some believe that it started from the first chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, i.e. from the beginning of the New Testament. Others believe it started from the birth of Jesus, while others date the start of the New Covenant back to when John the Baptist initiated his ministry.
Remember, though, that Jesus Himself said about John the Baptist that he was the greatest “born of women” (meaning that he was the greatest of all the saints that had ever lived up until then) but that the one who is “smallest in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he” (Mt. 11:11).
Paul explained in Colossians 1:13 that God has “delivered us from the kingdom of darkness and conveyed us into the kingdom of the Son of His love”. This means that the smallest believer in Jesus on earth today is greater than John the Baptist. Why? Because today we live in the New Covenant, which John the Baptist did not.
What about Jesus, though? Didn’t the New Covenant start with Him? Well, Jesus is the “mediator of the New Covenant” (Heb. 12:24), so it obviously came about because of Him. During Jesus’ earthly life, before He died on the cross, He gave us a foretaste of the New Covenant by revealing the Father’s heart: by forgiving and giving grace to people, by healing the sick, and by casting out demons from those that were tormented. However, Jesus’ earthly ministry, before He died and was resurrected, occurred during the Old Covenant era.
4But when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, 5to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons. (Gal. 4:4-5)
We see clearly in this Scripture that Jesus was born under the law, which shows us that He still lived in the Old Covenant, before He died on the cross. Why is it important to know then the New Covenant started? Knowledge of this is totally necessary for us to be able to understand, interpret, and apply the Bible correctly today!
When did the New Covenant actually start? The book of Hebrews gives us an important part of the answer. Hebrews discusses the difference between the Old and the New Covenant. In chapter 9 we read:
16For where there is a testament [same word as “covenant” in the original Greek], there must also of necessity be the death of the testator. 17For a testament [covenant] is in force after men are dead, since it has no power at all while the testator lives. (Heb. 9:16-17)
These verses clearly explain that in the same way as an earthly testament (or will) only can come into force after the testator has died, the New Covenant could only come into force after the death of the Jesus, who is the testator of the New Covenant.
The resurrection and glorification (which refers to that He returned to heaven and sat down at the right hand of God the Father on the throne of glory) of Jesus, are also very important events in the establishment of the New Covenant. However, not until the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit fell on the disciples, did the New Covenant come into force in its fullness.
The Jewish people had a celebration during Pentecost in remembrance of the giving of the law of Moses at Mount Sinai. Just as Pentecost originally was the starting point of the Old Covenant, it is also the birthday of the New Covenant. The final event that ushered in the New Covenant took place during Pentecost 2000 years ago when the Holy Spirit fell on the disciples and wrote the law – not on tablets of stones – but on the hearts of the believes.
The New Covenant was thus established by the following events:
- Jesus’ death, resurrection, and glorification.
- The outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost.
Much of what Jesus said before the cross, which we read about in the Gospels, is directly applicable to us today. But on the other hand, many of the things He said were only meant for the people living in that day and age – under the Old Covenant.
A rich young ruler came and asked Jesus, “What good thing shall I do that I may have eternal life? Jesus answered, “if you want to enter into life, keep the commandments”. This rich young ruler thought that he could get eternal life through his own performance, instead of by trusting in Jesus. Jesus knew this and answered the way He did because He was still “under the law” and had to operate under the existing Old Covenant order (see Mt. 19:16-22).
Is there anyone around who claims that this is the message we are to preach today? Have you kept the law of Moses? Come on, there are so many scriptures from the period after the cross showing us that we are not under the law anymore! Like this one, for example:
”For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Rm. 10:4).
What is our message today? When the Apostle Paul, who lived after the cross, received the same question as the one Jesus was asked by the rich young ruler before the cross, his answer was totally different, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, you and your household” (Acts. 16:31). This is our message to the world today. Believe in Jesus! Trust in Him alone, not in yourself and your own performance.
There are several other examples of things Jesus said before the cross that are not applicable to us today. For example, He commanded His disciples to only preach to the “lost tribes of Israel” (Mt. 10:5-6). At that point, Jesus only allowed the disciples to preach to the Jewish people. The Gentiles were excluded. However, after the cross, in the Great Commission He said, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mk. 16:15). We who are Gentile Christians can be very grateful that not everything Jesus said before the cross is applicable today!
What am I trying to say? Simply this: When we read the Bible today we must interpret and apply it based on the reality that exists after the cross, in the New Covenant. Most of Jesus’ ministry on earth, as recorded in the Gospels, happened before the cross, and those scriptures must be understood in the light of that fact.
The understanding that the New Covenant started after the death and resurrection of Jesus and was completed on the day of Pentecost is essential and totally necessary for us to interpret and apply the Bible correctly today!