The New Covenant

Reading: Jeremiah 31.31-34
I remember well someone's reaction on hearing one of the stormy oracles from Isaiah's prophecy - "Looks as if he must have been baptised in vinegar!"

Quite an understandable reaction! Yet time and again through the prophets we see a flash of hope. One of the ill-effects of our present age of Biblical criticism is that we automatically tend to regard the stern writings as the burden of one prophet, while any messages of hope and consolation must come from the pen of some later prophet or prophets. In this way we seriously underrate the depth of the prophetic message - and its origin in the mind and heart of God.

The prophets would have had a low concept of God if they could relentlessly proclaim his judgments upon Israel and the nations without ever any offer of mercy. But in Jeremiah 20 we read of the compulsion with which the prophet spoke a message which was against his natural inclinations, so as to wring from him such cries as:

and But the prophet's censure of the people's sins was by no means all his message, even though it took so much of his time. The Lord's purpose was to bring his people to repentance, even when there seemed little hope that this would happen. The moral reforms of his day and even the simple call to repentance could not change the people. There needed to be a new "covenant" - a new relationship of mutual obligation, involving not simply forgiveness but a changed people who have come into a new and deeper knowledge of God.

As we look at Jeremiah 31.31-34, we must consider the old covenant and the new - and the way the Lord has fulfilled his promise.

The Old Covenant

God has made the old covenant with the children of Israel, when he "took them by the hand and led them out of Egypt."

The basis of this old covenant is clearly seen in the Exodus account (24.6-8): "Moses took half the blood of the animals and put it in bowls; and the other half he threw against the altar. Then he took the book of the covenant, in which the Lord's commands were written, and read it aloud to the people. They said, 'We will obey the Lord and do everything that he has commanded.' Then Moses took the blood in the bowls and threw it on the people. He said, 'This is the blood that seals the covenant which the Lord made with you when he gave all these commands'."

There were two sides to the covenant. On the one hand, God was promising to be their God, to prosper, protect and deliver them. In turn, they were to be his people, to obey him and keep his law at all times.

But Jeremiah characterises this covenant by the words - "Although I was like a husband to them, they did not keep that covenant" - more literally, "my covenant which they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord". How true this was! By this covenant God was bringing the people into a close personal relationship with himself - so close that the marriage bond is a fitting symbol. Yet like an unfaithful wife they had broken their vows.

Right at Mount Sinai where it was given they were breaking it. Together they came to Aaron and said, "We do not know what has happened to this man Moses, who led us out of Egypt; so make us a god to lead us" (Ex. 32.1). Countless times in the history of Israel this was the chief feature of the covenant - it was broken!

Paul, brought up in the strictest sect of the Jews and outwardly an exemplar of the old covenant, wrote these revealing words of his earlier life as a Jew - "I don't do the good I want to do; instead, I do the evil that I do not want to do" (Rom. 7.19). He found himself lacking in the power to do what the Law required. What the demands of the Law did show was that his nature was so warped and twisted that he was beyond self-help. The Law could and did bring this consciousness of sin, but it couldn't make people lovers and cheerful doers of God's will.

That is how it is today with those who seek to come to God on the basis of the old covenant. Too often we think that God must look favourably on us because of our decency, our deeds of kindness, even our offerings of worship to him. But we are people of such mixed motives. How often we sense that the one who professes strict adherence to the letter of the law is far from manifesting its spirit. How often we are like the child who runs the messages for ice cream and not for love. Alas, it is true for us also! "My covenant which they broke."

The New Covenant

It was to this very situation that the prophet spoke these words of hope - that God, whom they had wronged, whose name they had disgraced among the nations, was going to make a new covenant with them, to forgive and renew them so that in a deeper relation to himself they would in fact do his will. Then it would be true not in name only but in practical reality - "I will be their God, and they will be my people."

The basis of this new covenant was to be God's complete forgiveness of their sins - "I will forgive their sins and I will no longer remember their wrongs."

So many of our present frustrations come from our past misdeeds. Much as we would sometimes start afresh, we live in the wake of our own failures. We dare not face God, for we are afraid he will not accept anyone who has done what we have done. Indeed, well might the people of Israel or we ourselves be afraid of God, considering our solemn professions of loyalty and obedience. We are haunted by that awful sense of failure that made the prodigal in Jesus' story say to his father, "I am no longer fit to be called your son…" It is God himself who opens the way to a new relation with himself - by his forgiveness of our sin.

Yet immediately we sense that this is not enough. The trouble is not simply with what we have done, but with what we are. True, in large measure it is the habits and deeds of the years that lead us to break our New Year resolutions. Yet what we need is not just a new leaf, but a new life. Unless we are different people, unless in some way we are changed, there is no power in us to fulfil God's law in its depth. This too is promised in the new covenant - "I will put my law within them and write it on their hearts." What do these strange words mean? Surely this - that no longer will our lives be governed by our sinfulness, but by God's law. No longer will sin be the natural though unfortunate consequence of our lives - it will be possible and natural for us to live in conformity with God's will. God's will, instead of being an external standard to which we strive, will be the inward principle by which we live.

We wouldn't expect a hippopotamus to stand up like a man, walk like a man, and in other ways live and behave like a man. It is not his nature, not his mode of life. On the other hand, if we saw a full-grown adult human being wallowing in the river mud, and carrying on generally in hippopotamus ways, we would rightly suspect that there was something seriously wrong with him. It is not his nature, not the way we expect a normal adult human being to act.

Even so under the new covenant. Sin is not the unfortunate and inevitable, but rather the unnatural. Though sin has formerly characterised our lives and been in practice our nature, we are a new, a different creature, whose inward principle of life is now the law of God.

Forgiveness and renewal open the way to the third and perhaps the greatest aspect of the new covenant, expressed in the words - "None of them will have to teach his fellow-countryman to know the Lord, because all will know me, from the least to the greatest."

Here we see our God as the one who calls his people into fellowship with himself. This was meant to be the case under the old covenant - "I was like a husband to them." But now the forgiveness of sins past and the effective dealing with the continuing problem of sin makes this personal knowledge of God possible.

Amid all our notions of what eternal life is, Jesus himself says, "Eternal life means knowing you, the only true God, and knowing Jesus Christ, whom you sent" (Jn 17.3). This is not the knowledge of certain new theological facts about God - for example, his Fatherhood - but a personal knowledge of God himself.

This, then, is God's promise - to forgive our sin, to put his law within us, to bring us to know himself.

The Fulfilment

God has fulfilled this promise in the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The new covenant is that covenant in his blood which we remember every time we celebrate the Lord's Supper. In him God offers us complete forgiveness of our sins. In him we have new life. He is the one who reveals the Father to us by bringing us to the Father. "No one goes to the Father except by me", said Jesus. By him we come to the Father and are brought into that knowledge of him which is the essence of life eternal.

Some theologians have insisted on the one-sidedness of God's covenant with the human race. It is true that it is God in his love and mercy who has made it available to us. But the New Testament also emphasises the need for our response - not simply by linking ourselves with the covenant-people - the Jews were quite happy to be God's people, even when they were in fact breaking the covenant!

We need so to believe in Jesus Christ that our sins are forgiven, that we receive a new power to live in God's will and to enter into the knowledge of God himself.

God has promised - he is faithful. Already he has established this new covenant in Jesus Christ. God calls us to enter in - so to believe in Jesus Christ that he can work out all his good purposes in us. By God's grace may we so believe.

© Peter J. Blackburn, Maroochydore Uniting Church, 2 May 1999
Except where otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from the Good News Bible, © American Bible Society, 1992.
Back to Sermons