The New Covenant for a new era

Readings in the church calendar for March 18 (Lent 5)

Jeremiah 31:31-34

Psalm 51:1-13

John 12:20-33

Hebrews 5:5-10

Jeremiah foresees a covenant of heart rather than statute

MONDAY, MARCH 12
Jeremiah 31:31-34

The law, so inflexible and easily broken, will now become a spiritual motivation to live a godly and righteous life

31  “The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah.

31  “The days are coming” – looking ahead to the coming of the Messiah, a new era.

31  This is the only explicit reference to the New Covenant in the Old Testament.

32  It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke My covenant, though I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord.

32  The Sinai covenant, unlike the early covenants with Noah and Abraham, were conditional. It was like a marriage, with the expectation that the Israelites would be a faithful partner to God, the husband, provider and protector.

32  It was a covenant that could be broken – and they broke it continually. That the Old Covenant would one day end in failure and exile was revealed to Moses and foretold in Deuteronomy 30:4-6.

For further study, see Deuteronomy 28-30 and read Deuteronomy 30 alongside this passage.

32  “Not like the covenant I made with their ancestors…” Jeremiah is foreseeing a new age characterised by divine grace and the covenant made with Moses is too inflexible for this new relationship to come.

33  “This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the Lord.

“I will put My law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be My people.

33  As had been foretold in the time of Moses, a way of changing hearts to know and want to follow God’s ways, would be needed. Only the Holy Spirit of God received into the heart, could make this fundamental, regenerative change.

34  No longer will they teach their neighbour, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest,”declares the Lord.

“For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”

34  One of Jeremiah’s memorable sayings is that the heart is deceitful and beyond cure, Jer. 17:9. Only a change from a law written externally on stone tablets, to being ‘written’ internally on hearts as an internal covenant and a principle of life, Romans 8:1-4, would be effective.

The new covenant would also amount to the gift of a new heart, Ezekiel 36:25-27.

Application

The Old Covenant was a way of living expressed in charter form which would keep tribespeople, relatively ignorant of God’s ways and God’s word, on the right track with the help of the priests. When they went off the track, a system of penalties provided a way to get right with God.

All the time there was good leadership, submitted to God, and a disciplined priesthood, this worked. But the inflexible system had limitations. It did not adequately represent God’s grace and the Israelites and their expectations were evolving. The intention was that the tribes would be separated to God and guard their own values and culture from pagan (and horrible) influences around them. At the same time, they were to be a witness of the true God to those around them.

At the end of a long prophetic ministry and reflecting on the fall of Jerusalem, Jeremiah heard from God and saw in the Spirit an entirely new kind of covenant, a covenant of the heart and spirit rather than a covenant of precepts to be learned. This foreshadowed the coming of the Messiah, Jesus, the Son of God, who fulfilled the law and the priesthood in becoming a sacrifice for all time by dying on a cross while remaining sinless.

What does this immediately mean for us? Unearned redemption by God’s grace in Jesus Christ changes everything – “The old has gone, the new has come”, 2 Cor. 5:17. So either we are hanging on to an outdated system, trying to live the best life we can and perform the necessary religious requirements to please God – or we take hold of the truth that God loves us, is for us, and has given us His Holy Spirit to be our guide and enabler in holy living.

Trying to do both doesn’t work. We can’t be set free from the law – it is for freedom that Christ has set us free – and still look to live by a framework. That is saying we are free but living all bound up. Jeremiah would say, make your mind up – but the New Covenant doesn’t break and is much better. And Paul would say to us, “The old has gone…”

For reflection or as a discussion starter

How much are we still constrained  by old covenant thinking? Why is that?