The Bible is divided into two parts, known as the "Old Testament" and the "New Testament." By definition, a testament is a statement of belief. In a court of law when someone testifies about what they believe to be true these statements of belief are written down in what is called a deposition. When viewed in this sense we can say that the Bible is a compilation of testimonies written by the prophets concerning what they believe is true about God.
But, if that is so, then why is there an "old" and a "new" testament? In other words, if the God of the New Testament is the same as the God of the Old Testament, shouldn't there be just one collection of testimonies rather than dividing them into two categories? By putting the terms "old" and "new" to this compilation it would seem to suggest that the testimony of the prophets that came in olden times before the birth of Christ has been replaced or done away with by the testimony of the newer prophets that came after Christ. And, indeed, that is exactly how some understand the Bible, especially given what Paul wrote in the book of Hebrews.
However, the word "testament" as used in our Bible is a misnomer. The better translation should be "covenant." Therefore, the Bible is really divided into the Old Covenant and the New Covenant.
But this understanding then raises a different set of questions. What is the old covenant and how is the new one different from the old? If the new covenant replaces the old does that mean we're no longer obligated to honor the old covenant? Paul explained that the new covenant, of which Jesus is the mediator, is "established upon better promises" (Hebrews 8:6). What are those better promises and why are they better than the ones found in the old covenant?
These are questions that theologians have argued about down through the centuries but members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have no such confusion because many of the missing pieces of information that have clouded this issue have been restored by revelation from God. Today, we have a clearer understanding of what covenants God makes with people and the purpose of those covenants. Yet, even so, there are still some misconceptions about them.
Among LDS members it is common to hear people say that a covenant is like a contract or promise that two or more people enter into with one another. In such an arrangement the promise made by one party is binding only if the other party lives up to their agreement. In other words, when we make a covenant with God, He promises to give us certain blessing but only if we fulfill our promise to do certain things. But, if we fail to keep our promise to God as made in the covenant then God is relieved of any responsibility to honor His promise to us. While this is certainly one type of covenant, it is by no means the only kind that God makes.
When Adam and Eve lived in the garden of Eden, they were given strict instructions not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. However, in time, Satan, in the form of a serpent, beguiled Eve into disobeying this commandment. When God learned of this trickery He condemned the serpent saying, "I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel" (Genesis 3:15).
Most theologians generally agree that this statement by God is a prophecy about Christ. What He is saying is that while Satan may have the power to bruise mankind with sin yet, in the end, through one of Eve's children, Satan will eventually be crushed. As Christians we believe the person who has crushed Satan's power is Jesus Christ whose atonement destroyed the power of sin to separate man from God eternally.
Although Adam and Eve were evicted from the presence of God when they sinned and mankind has been separated from God ever since, nonetheless God made them and their children a promise that He would send a Savior to redeem them from their fall. Throughout both the Old and New Testament, this promised redemption is spoken of frequently. This promise was a covenant or contract God made with all of mankind, but it was a unilateral promise. That is to say, God made this promise with no conditions attached. God didn't promise to send a Savior only if mankind did certain things. God didn't make this promise to Adam and Eve because of anything good they had done to deserve it. This covenant was a promised blessing that God would give regardless of what man did or didn't do.
After the flood, "God spake unto Noah, and to his sons with him, saying, And I, behold, I establish my covenant with you, and with your seed after you; and with every living creature that is with you, of the fowl, of the cattle, and of every beast of the earth with you; from all that go out of the ark, to every beast of the earth. And I will establish my covenant with you; neither shall all flesh be cut off any more by the waters of a flood; neither shall there any more be a flood to destroy the earth. And God said, This is the token of the covenant which I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for perpetual generations: I do set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between me and the earth. . . And I will remember my covenant, which is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall no more become a flood to destroy all flesh" (Gen. 9:8-15).
First of all, it should be noticed that God didn't make this covenant or promise just to Noah and his family. He also made it "with every living creature" as well. What God promised or covenanted to do was never to destroy all flesh with water again. And as a sign of that promise he set a "bow in the clouds", which most people understand to be the rainbow. Thus, every time we see a rainbow it is a token or sign of that covenant God made with Noah.
But secondly it should be noted that this was a unilateral covenant that didn't require man or animal to do anything to receive its blessings. God made a promise and He intends to keep that promise no matter what else happens. It is a covenant God made with us that we cannot change no matter what we say or do.
Then there is also another kind of covenant that God makes with man where no conditions are attached. Throughout his life Abraham faithfully kept God's commandments and the Lord blessed him accordingly. However, because Abraham was so diligent in serving the Lord, "the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, Unto thy seed have I given this land, from the river of Egypt unto the great river, the river Euphrates" (Gen. 15:8).
This was a promise God made with Abraham and his posterity that neither he nor they could break. Abraham didn't ask for this promise and neither did he enter into an agreement with God for it. Instead, this was a unilateral promise God made simply because Abraham had been so faithful. If you will, God was offering Abraham a surprise reward for his diligent service and it was given to him by way of a covenant.
Then there is yet another kind of covenant God makes with man. "And when Abram was ninety years old and nine, the LORD appeared to Abram, and said unto him, I am the Almighty God; walk before me, and be thou perfect and I will make my covenant between me and thee, and will multiply thee exceedingly…. behold, my covenant is with thee, and thou shalt be a father of many nations" (Genesis 17:1-4).
In this case, God made a covenant with Abraham that if he continued to walk uprightly before the Lord and to live perfectly then, in return, God promised to make him the "father of many nations." Since Abraham had only one son it is clear that this blessing of having many children pertains more to his posterity than it did to him personally. That means God continued to bless Abraham's children down through the ages, not because of anything they did but because of what Abraham did. Thus, it is possible for us to receive the promised blessings of a covenant solely on what someone else has done to fulfill the terms of that covenant.
And then there is the usual kind of covenant we think of that is typified by the law God gave Moses which states that if people promise to keep His commandments then God promises to give them specific blessings in return (Leviticus 26:3-7).
However, while acknowledging that God had made numerous covenants with a variety of people in the past, the Jews in the days of Jesus and Paul considered the law of Moses to be the covenant God had made with Israel. Therefore, when the early Christians talked about the "old" covenant they almost always were referring to that covenant God made with Moses on mount Sinai. This covenant not only included the Ten Commandments but hundreds of other requirements that God considered to be just as sacred and just as essential to follow. And a large number of those commandments had to do with the rituals that were to be performed in association with the offerings made in the temple.
Paul explained that the purpose of the Law of Moses was to be a schoolteacher to bring people to Christ (Galatians 3:24). It was to help them look forward to the time when their sins would be forgiven through the shedding of blood by someone who was sinless. And, in fact, the Jews were indeed looking forward to the coming of their Savior and Redeemer. As such, the law God gave to Moses was meant to prepare the Israelites to receive their Messiah. That is why it is called the prepatory gospel.
However, by definition, a prepatory gospel cannot contain a fullness of knowledge. Instead, it is only meant to teach the basics of the gospel to help prepare people to understand and accept higher and more complex principles of salvation. The law God revealed from Adam all the way through to Moses was designed to bring people into the full presence of God, but when the Israelite people rejected God by worshipping heathen gods after being delivered from their Egyptian slavery, God decided they needed to be taught how to live the basics of their religion before giving them the full knowledge of salvation as He had done with their forefathers. That is why God gave them the Law of Moses. It was a law based on carnal commandments to help prepare them to someday live the spiritual commandments (Hebrews 7:16). By the time Christ did come there were many Jews who were prepared to accept and live according to His teachings. Thus, the Law of Moses did have a beneficial effect of preparing at least some of the Jews to receive their Messiah.
When God first gave the Ten Commandments to Moses, He wrote them on tablets of stone which were later placed in a specially made box called the ark. Since these commandments were included in the covenant God made with Israel, the box in which they were kept was referred to as "the ark of the covenant" (Deut. 31:26; 1 Kings 8:6; Hebrews 9:4). This then is what the Jews refer to as the 'old" covenant. However, when Christ revealed the higher or fuller knowledge of the gospel it made the need for a prepatory gospel unnecessary. That is why Paul said that when God instituted a "new" covenant, He made the old one obsolete.
However, in saying that, we don't disregard everything the old covenant taught us. Just as pre-algebra prepares someone to be taught algebra, which, in turn, prepares someone to be taught calculus, so also the old covenant prepared the Israelites to be taught the higher principles contained in the new covenant. Yet, those principles don't replace the old but rather build upon them. Just as calculus contains everything learned in algebra, so also the new covenant includes all the teachings contained in the old covenant plus more that were not in the old.
Just as pre-algebra math cannot solve problems that calculus can, in the same way the old, prepatory covenant could not do what the new covenant could, which is to bring us into the full presence of God. The old covenant was based on the priesthood of Aaron and the Levites while the new covenant is based on the priesthood of Melchezidek which Christ held (Hebrews 5:6,10;7:11-12). Under the Aaronic priesthood the old covenant could only promise to save us from our sins but the new covenant, under the authority of the Melchezidek priesthood, can exalt us. That is the better promise Paul was referring to.
But those promises are linked exclusively to a belief in Jesus Christ as our Savior and Redeemer. Without that belief there can be no true salvation, let alone exaltation, and the old covenant taught that principle. However, there is one significant difference between the old and new covenant, which is in the rituals performed in both of these covenants.
When a person is taught algebra they are given homework assignments for the purpose of helping them learn the lessons currently being taught. Even though people learning calculus are also given homework assignments they are not the same as with algebra. In the same way, we can think of the rituals required under the Law of Moses as homework assignments that were meant to help people learn the lessons being taught. Since the old covenant was our schoolmaster to bring us to Christ, when Christ instituted the new covenant there was a necessary change in the form of the homework assignment. Instead of being taught the need for a blood sacrifice we now need to move on to learning about how Jesus was the one who sacrificed His blood for our sins and our need to be obedient to His commandments.
That then required there to be a change in the rituals performed under the new covenant as opposed to those carried out under the old covenant. For example, instead of sacrificing the blood of animals, we now take the emblems of Christ's body and blood. Both are rituals meant to teach us important truths but the rituals in these two covenants are different from one another because the lessons being taught are different.
With this understanding, we can now better understand another covenant God made with Israel.
From before the time of Moses up to the reign of King Solomon the Israelites were a united people. But after the death of Solomon, the nation split in two with the northern portion calling themselves the Kingdom of Israel and the southern portion calling themselves the Kingdom of Judah. The Lord warned both kingdoms that if they did not keep His commandments they would lose their land and their freedom. And, indeed, in time that is exactly what happened to both of them.
However, the Lord also made a covenant with both kingdoms that He would not forget them and that at sometime in the future He would again bring them back to the land of their inheritance and make them one nation again. This promise is reiterated many times throughout the books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel as well as throughout the entire Book of Mormon. But this is a unilateral covenant God made with them. That is to say, God has placed no conditions on Israel in order for them to someday receive this blessing. God intends to keep this promise regardless of what the people of Israel do or don't do.
It was God who gave the command (ordinances) for the sun, moon, and stars to give their light and who divided the land from the sea, and it was this same God who said that only should these ordinances be revoked will Israel "cease from being a nation before me." He also said that if they can measure the heavens above and search out the earth below only then will He "cast off all the seed of Israel for all that they have done" (Jeremiah 31:35-37).
Since these things were an impossibility back in the days when Jeremiah wrote these words, the point God was trying to make is that it is just as impossible for God to cast off the people of Israel and destroy then as a nation forever. As such, the Lord has promised with an unbreakable oath (covenant) that He will bring them together again as a nation. And He has further promised that when He does, this time they will become a people who will love and serve the Lord their God with all of their heart.
The Lord declared, "Behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah: Not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt; which my covenant they brake, although I was an husband unto them, saith the LORD: But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those days, saith the LORD, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people. And they shall teach no more every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the LORD: for they shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the LORD: for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more" (Jeremiah 31:31-34).
The old covenant God made with the house of Israel when He brought them out of Egypt was written on stone tablets. Nevertheless, they broke every one of those commandments even though God was like a "husband unto them" and provided for all their needs. But God has promised that the time will come when He will gather these scattered people back again and return them to the land He promised their Abraham. He also promised that at that time He will make a new covenant with both the house of Israel and the house of Judah. However, this time, instead of writing it in stone as He did before, He "will put [His] law in their inward parts and write it in their hearts." And when He does then they will no longer have to teach one another to know the Lord because everyone will already know Him.
When God gave His Law to Moses, the Israelites were spiritually weak. Rather then serving the God of their fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, with all of their heart, they were prone to worship other, false gods. Rather than being grateful to God for His goodness toward them, they practically had to be forced into keeping His commandments. In other words, their heart wasn't really in it. Serving Jehovah wasn't something they really wanted to do. It was something they were made to do. It was a duty they had to perform rather than a gift they desired to give.
However, God has promised that the time will come when He will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel but this time their desire to serve Him will come from the inside - from their heart - rather than from someone or something on the outside forcing them to live a life they don't want to live. And when that day comes, no one will have to teach them to keep the commandments of God because they will do it without being told.
But that then raises the question of how will God do this.
The old covenant was based on the Law of Moses, while the biblical new covenant is based on the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ. The old covenant looked forward to the coming Messiah while the new covenant commemorates the Messiah's arrival. To help the Israelites recognize and accept their Messiah when He came the old covenant relied on the outward performance of a strict set of rituals, while the new covenant depends on an inward attitude of the heart aided by God's Holy Spirit.
Paul said that love is the fulfilling of the law (Romans 13: 8,10). He also taught that the law is fulfilled when we love our neighbor as ourselves (Galatians 5:14). That is how we keep the law of both the old and the new covenant. If we truly loved our neighbor as ourselves we wouldn't lie, cheat, steal, bear false witness or covet what our neighbor has. If we truly loved God we wouldn't have any desire to worship anyone or anything else nor take His name in vain. Instead we would do only those things we thought would please Him. Thus, when we come to truly love God and our neighbor no one has to tell us how to behave because we will instinctively and automatically keep all the commandments that God desires of us.
When we compare the new covenant of Christ with the new covenant God promised to make with the house of Israel we find that they are nearly identical. Thus, the way God will gather the house of Israel in preparation for returning them to the land of their inheritance is by bringing them to a knowledge of Christ. And the way that will happen is when God again sends the gospel of Jesus Christ to the house of Israel once more. But this time they will truly come to understand who their anticipated Messiah really is and will turn to the God of their fathers to worship Him with all of their hearts.
The very purpose of the Book of Mormon, as stated in its title page, is to convince both the Jew and the Gentile that Jesus is the Christ and is intended to lead all men to Him. And the reason why is because before the house of Israel can be restored to the land of their inheritance they must first be restored to their God. That was what the old covenant sought to do but the house of Israel refused to come to Him. However, even though God chastised His people by scattering them among all the nations of the earth for their lack of faithfulness, He has made a vow that He will not cast them off forever but will yet bring them unto Him. This was not only God's promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but it is also God's covenant with Israel.