The Old Covenant
As noted in the history section, the Ten Commandments were part of God’s covenant with Israel (Exodus 34:28). The Ten Commandments were the “rules” that would govern the covenant relationship. The purpose of the rules were that of maintaining right relationship with God and one another as an example to the world of the existence and character of Jehovah God. Israel’s commitment to God’s covenant brought his blessing upon Israel. God’s sole purpose with Israel was to bring forth a Light that would bring salvation to the world.
“I, the LORD, have called you in righteousness; I will take hold of your hand. I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles, (Isa. 42:6).
“he says: “It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.” (Isa. 49:6)
“Listen to me, my people; hear me, my nation: The law will go out from me; my justice will become a light to the nations.” (Isa. 51:4)
God’s covenant with Israel was a foreshadowing of the new covenant that would be established in Jesus Christ. Through God’s covenant with Israel, God captivated the world with His blessings upon Israel, His judgments, and His power. The prophecies of a Savour who would bring salvation even to the gentiles (non-jewish people) was proclaimed to the world through Israel. God chose Israel to be His light set upon a hill that could not be hidden.
God commanded Moses to place the Ten Commandments in the Ark of the Covenant (Exodus 25:16; Deut. 31:25-26; Heb. 9:4). The ark of the covenant was put in the tabernacle in the holy of holies. It was placed just under the mercy seat and it was the place God said He would meet with Moses. Throughout Israel’s history, the ark symbolized the presence of God. It was in keeping covenant with God that His presence was also with Israel. God’s existence was revealed to the world through His covenant with Israel.
The Ten Commandments were tablets of testimony (Exodus 34:28). In Hebrew testimony means witness. The first books in the Bible are called the Old Testament [testimony] because they are about the first covenant. The Ten Commandments were evidence of the covenant God had established with Israel. Located in the tabernacle in the center of the camp (where the presence of God was) they would serve as a constant reminder of God’s covenant with Israel. Throughout Israel’s wanderings in the wilderness and subsequent inheritance of the promised land, knowledge of the testimony of the covenant was not confined to the borders of Israel. Israel’s“testimony” preceded them. Other nations knew they could not stand against the God of Israel.
God’s covenant was with Israel specifically, but this fact did not exclude non-jews from making the God of Israel their God too (Ie: Rahab the harlot, Ninevah, Nebuchadnezzar, Ruth). Gentiles who were converted to the God of Israel (Jehovah) were called proselytes. These could be participants in God’s covenant. God’s covenant was made with Israel but was a witness to all people. And through Israel all people would be introduced to the Savour of all mankind – Jesus Christ.
When Israel disobeyed God’s Ten Commandments it was synonymous with breaking covenant. Israel was often accused of unbelief and rebellion. These attitudes and accompanying bouts of disobedience and disregard for the law, brought severe punishment from God. Israel’s disobedience and unbelief reflected on God’s reputation. God desired Israel’s’ obedience so they could continue to be God’s light.
Under the old covenant people were still saved by faith. Israel was bound to keep the law because it was the covenant way of life. But the Ten Commandments by themselves did not bring them salvation. When God first established His covenant verbally with Abraham, Abraham believed God and it was counted to him for righteousness. As noted in the history section, God’s covenant with Israel included the promise of a Savour who would bring salvation to all mankind. Those who kept the covenant by faith were those who looked ahead and believed in God’s word for those thing which were not yet seen.
The old covenant through the Nation of Israel was setting the stage for the institution of the new covenant in Jesus Christ.
“Brothers and sisters, let us think in human terms: Even an agreement [covenant] made between two persons is firm. After that agreement [covenant] is accepted by both people, no one can stop it or add anything to it. God made promises both to Abraham and to his descendant. God did not say, “and to your descendants.” That would mean many people. But God said, “and to your descendant.” That means only one person; that person is Christ.
This is what I mean: God had an agreement [covenant] with Abraham and promised to keep it. The law, which came four hundred thirty years later, cannot change that agreement and so destroy God’s promise to Abraham. If the law could give us Abraham’s blessing, then the promise would not be necessary. But that is not possible, because God freely gave his blessings to Abraham through the promise he had made.
So what was the law for? It was given to show that the wrong things people do are against God’s will. And it continued until the special descendant [Jesus Christ], who had been promised, came. The law was given through angels who used Moses for a mediator to give the law to people. But a mediator is not needed when there is only one side, and God is only one.
Does this mean that the law is against God’s promises? Never! That would be true only if the law could make us right. But God did not give a law that can bring life. Instead, the Scriptures showed that the whole world is bound by sin. This was so the promise would be given through faith to people who believe in Jesus Christ.” (Gal. 3:17-22 NCV)
It is critical to know the context of the Ten Commandments in the old covenant, so we can understand its purpose today.