She was no longer the beauty she had once been. Now the ageing film star, anxious not to lose her appeal, had resorted to major cosmetic surgery, and as the first pictures appeared in celebrity magazines, readers commented, ‘Mmm. She looks the same—but different.’ Fair comment. ‘The same’ because she was the person she had always been, but ‘different’ because she had been tweaked by the surgeon in ways intended to make a difference. The ‘old’ film star and the ‘new’ were in fact one and the same—but different.
Here we have an illustration of how God handles ‘old’ and ‘new’. He doesn’t obliterate the old and then start again; instead, he remodels the old to transform it into the new. Like the potter whom Jeremiah observed, God takes the clay of the original marred pot and reshapes it into a new one: same clay, different product. The substantial element of continuity from the one to the other mingles with some elements of discontinuity, so that the later version, while in some respects the same as the earlier one, is also different.
Consider, for example, the world before and after the Flood in Noah’s day. Peter records that ‘by these waters…the world of that time was deluged and destroyed’. In what sense ‘destroyed’? Certainly not zapped into non-existence. Mount Ararat was still there afterwards, much the same as it had been before. God didn’t undo creation—rewinding the tape, so to speak—and start again from scratch. No, the original earth remained, but the receding waters revealed a new earth, that is, one so radically reworked by the Flood that it was fair to say the old earth was gone.
This way of divine working applies also to us at a personal level where, according to Peter, the Flood illustrates our new beginning as a Christian in general and our baptism in particular. Paul describes this spiritual surgery in strong language: ‘If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!’. The radical reworking here is spiritual and on the inside. ‘The old has gone’, yes, but you are still you, with the same body and the same personality. ‘The new has come’, yes, though it’s going to take a while for those deep inner changes to show on the outside. You’re the same but different, and the fact that there is an element of ‘the same’ doesn’t stop Paul describing the whole thing as ‘a new creation’.
We have every reason to believe that God will take the same approach in the future. He will apply this ‘remodelling’ principle—producing something that is ‘the same but different’—to the wider ‘new creation’ that will take place at Christ’s return. Peter says as much when, in his ‘Flood’ passage, he goes straight on to say: ‘By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men’. So it will be by fire this time, not by water, that the radical reworking takes place, as Peter goes on to explain: ‘The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare…That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness’. Again it’s the old giving way to the new, and we should expect this destruction, like that of the Flood that it parallels, to be a remodelling, rather than annihilation followed by a restart from scratch. A close examination of Peter’s vocabulary supports that thesis.
This reminds us that our own situation in the age to come will be much more ‘earthy’ than traditionally portrayed. The disembodied existence that some teach is not a biblical idea at all; its roots lie in Greek philosophy. But the common alternative isn’t much better—I’ve never really fancied parading through 24-carat gold-paved streets ‘up there’ in a long white robe and twanging a harp. No, our future will be on a renewed earth  with, no doubt, plants and animals, mountains and streams and everything that makes it so marvellous even in its fallen state.
Some, I know, expect this ‘earthy’ phase of future existence to last for only the thousand years of an alleged millennium after which, they believe, a more ‘floaty’ period will kick in and last for ever in heaven as distinct from on earth. But I’ve long been convinced that the ‘earthy’ bit is in fact the eternal state, where the earth will be the ‘same’ as today’s earth but ‘different’ thanks to its purging by fire and God’s dwelling having descended to be among us here . I love and enjoy this earth now and look forward to enjoying it even more in its cleansed and remodelled form.
Our bodies in that coming age will match it: they will be like Jesus’ body after his resurrection  And how did his resurrection body compare to the body he had had before? Again, it was the same but different: the same in that, according to the Gospels, Jesus was readily recognised by those who knew him. He looked the same, and they could talk to him and touch him. Yet at the same time his body was different, with new powers, like being able to appear in a locked upper room and disappear again without anyone unlocking the door. His resurrection body showed both continuity and discontinuity with his original body, sameness and difference, just like the earth after the Flood. And, as the firstfruits of the full harvest to come, Jesus in his resurrection body sets the pattern for the renewed state of affairs to be enjoyed after his return by the whole created order: the same but different.
This principle of ‘the old remodelled into the new’ holds good also in other respects, like the old covenant and the new covenant. Strictly, of course, the old one is the Abrahamic covenant with its promise of worldwide blessing, and this gets remodelled in Christ and the new covenant. The Mosaic covenant was a later, temporary expedient by which God related to Abraham’s Jewish descendants and it was meant to help in the outworking of the Abrahamic covenant, not to replace it. But in the thinking of many, ‘old covenant’ means Moses and the law, so let’s run with that for the moment.
The Mosaic covenant and the new covenant in Christ are two, yet they are one, with elements of both continuity and discontinuity. Some would challenge that, arguing that the two remain utterly separate, one a covenant of law, the other a covenant of grace, one based on works, the other on faith. But the overall message of the Bible is that the new covenant is— in line with the pattern we have observed—a radical reworking of the old one rather than a total replacement for it. The differences, such as works and faith, are merely to do with their respective outworking, and therein lies the aspect of discontinuity, but any covenant between God and his estranged creatures has to be an expression of grace, and that element of continuity remains the key one. So the new covenant is the old one remodelled and vastly improved, no longer restricted to Jews but made available to the expanded people of God that is the church.
Such a view of the covenants is confirmed by a closer look at the word ‘new’ in this context. ‘New’ as in ‘new covenant’—and in ‘new heavens’, ‘new earth’, ‘new creation’ and ‘the new has come’—is the Greek kainos, which has a different emphasis from another Greek word for ‘new’: neos. In general, the first indicates new in terms of quality, with the implication of ‘better’, and the second new in terms of time. The New Testament in fact uses both with ‘covenant’. The covenant ratified by Christ’s blood is neos in Hebrews 12:24 (and only there), emphasising that it is more recent than the old one, but everywhere else it is kainos, which points to its being not just a later development of the old one but also a new, improved version, a radical reworking of God’s way of dealing with his creatures.
This understanding of the relationship between old and new has far-reaching implications. Those who like to keep the covenants separate emphasise that God’s dealings under the old covenant were with the people of Israel, whereas his dealings under the new are with all who believe, which is true. But the two covenants, they hold, are in separate, water-tight compartments. On that basis, every ancient promise to the Jews has to be literally fulfilled because, in their view, the old covenant continues to run parallel to the new one and God remains obliged to fulfil its promises to the letter. So events in the Middle East since 1948, for example, are seen as the fulfilment of God’s old-covenant promise of the land to the Jews.
But if the new covenant, in line with the principle we have identified, is in fact a radical reworking of the old one, we are forced to different conclusions in respect of the Jews and the land, for the new is bigger and better, at the same time both redirecting and reinterpreting the promises of the old one—which is exactly what the New Testament teaches. Just as the post-diluvian world superseded its antediluvian counterpart, the arrival in Christ of the new and better covenant signals that the old one has now been superseded—by being swallowed up into the new rather than continuing to run alongside it: ‘By calling this covenant “new”, he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and ageing will soon disappear’.
God deals no longer with Middle Eastern territory; his programme has gone global—as was always his intention. The old Israel has been superseded by the worldwide new Israel that is the redeemed community. This is the new order of things in Christ, bigger and better in every respect. The butterfly of the new covenant has emerged from the chrysalis of the old and it is right and proper that we lose sight of that brown old obsolete thing as we rejoice in its remodelling into the beauty of the new.
- See Jeremiah 18:1-4
- 2 Peter 3:6
- 1 Peter 3:20-21
- 2 Corinthians 5:17
- 2 Peter 3:10-13
- This is the language of the book of Revelation. It reflects John’s efforts to find the most superlative language of his era to describe the indescribable wonders of the coming age, and as such is to be taken figuratively.
- Romans 8:19-21
- Revelation 21:1-3
- 2 Corinthians 5:1-4; Philippians 3:21
- For a detailed comparison of the two words see R.C. Trench, Synonyms of the New Testament.
- Hebrews 8:13. And notice how the NT takes several OT promises which, under the old covenant, referred to the Promised Land and reinterprets them under the new covenant to refer to the whole earth. See Romans 4:13; Matthew 5:5; Ephesians 6:2-3.