RUIN & REDEMPTION

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Jeremiah 31 and the New Covenant (Lesson 9.5)


In this last section, we've been looking at what the Prophets announced to Israel during their time in exile. We've discussed the major themes in their prophecies (place, prince, people, peace, presence) and how each of these themes ultimately finds its fulfillment in Christ. And we've mentioned that the new covenant is associated with all these things God would do for His people when He brought them back from exile. But though all these passages are speaking of the new covenant, they don't use that particular phrase. In this section, we're going to look at the one place in the Prophets that does:

31 “Behold, days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, 32 not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord. 33 “But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the Lord, “I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. 34 “They will not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, 'Know the Lord,' for they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,” declares the Lord, “for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.” (Jeremiah 31:31-34).

What is Jeremiah saying in these four verses? We get to his meaning by asking three fundamental questions:

I. The FIRST Question: How do we make any sense of Jeremiah?

Here in Jeremiah 31, God is declaring He would make a “new covenant” with His people. This new covenant would be different than the covenant He had made with Israel at Sinai. How so? It seems in two ways, especially: First, God would put His Law within His people. Whereas God had written His Law on tablets of stone at Sinai, now, in the new covenant, He would write it on the hearts of His people. Indeed, God's people would no longer need to teach one another to know the Lord, for they would know Him already. Secondly, God would forgive Israel's iniquity and remember it no more.1

In short: God would forgive His people, and He would change His people. We've already discussed both of these promises in the section above. And there we also saw how both of these promises find their fulfillment in Christ. But there's a question that arises here: Didn't God already do these things for His people? It sounds very poetic to say God wrote the Law on stone tablets at Sinai but now He would write it on human hearts. But didn't the Lord write His Law on the hearts of His people in the Old Testament? What about David? Was not God's Law in his heart (Psalm 40:8)? Or what about the composer of Psalm 119, who wrote: “Your law is my delight” (verse 174)? Further: Did the Lord only begin to forgive His people in the new covenant? Was there no forgiveness for God's people in the Old Testament church? Had not Scripture already said: “there is forgiveness with You, that You may be feared” (Psalm 130:4)? So then: If God had already been forgiving and changing His people long before Jeremiah 31, how are we to make any sense of what's “new” about the new covenant?

A) FORGIVENESS: We've mentioned that the Hebrew word translated “forgive” here in Jeremiah 31:34 represents the effect or result of atonement in the Levitical sacrifices. When an Israelite had sinned, he was to bring an animal without defect to the tabernacle, lay his hand its head, and slay it. The priest would then apply the blood to the altar, and Scripture tells us: “Thus the priest shall make atonement for him, and he will be forgiven.” (Leviticus 4:26). We pointed out there's a connection here between forgiveness and atonement, specifically: Forgiveness happens through atonement. The way God forgives sins is through the blood of atonement. So far, so good. But now what we need to understand is what the author of Hebrews clarifies for us when he writes that “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” (10:4). In other words: The atonement that forgives sins was never wrought through the blood of bulls and goats. Why not? He tells us again: “For the Law . . .has only a shadow of the good things to come and not the very form of things. . .” (Hebrews 10:1).

Here's what Scripture's telling us: The atonement wrought in the old covenant with the blood of bulls and goats was only a shadow of the real atonement God would accomplish for us in Jesus. And that's why there was a sense in which it could never really forgive sins. It was only a picture of atonement; not the real thing. It's almost as if all the sacrifices of the old covenant were like God writing a check. When you write a check, you're promising to make payment—but you have to actually have money in the bank to cover the amount. Or think of a credit card: Under the old covenant, God's people had been forgiven—but they were forgiven on credit. For centuries, they had tallied up a massive amount of sin-debt, putting it on credit, as it were, all the while knowing that “one day the bill will have to be settled.” Well, if the old covenant was about God promising to pay for our sins, the new covenant is God actually making that payment. This is what the Lord meant when He said through the prophet Zechariah: “behold, I am going to bring in My servant the Branch. . .and I will remove the iniquity of that land in one day.” (3:8-9). And it's for this reason that the author of Hebrews tells us: “but now once at the consummation of the ages [Christ] has been manifested to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself.” This is how the forgiveness of sins would be something that's “new” in the new covenant.2

B) INWARD CHANGE: God wrote His Law on the hearts of His Old Testament people. There's no denying it. In fact, the Lord engraved His Law so deeply in the hearts of men such as David, that we can rightfully wonder if it's true to say God's Law is written in our hearts to a greater degree! But though many of God's people in the old covenant had God's Law written on their hearts, many more did not. Even going back to the day that the Lord had brought Israel out of Egypt, the people of God were characterized as “a perverse and crooked generation” (Deuteronomy 32:5). And even up to the brink of the exile, we still find the Lord protesting that “all the nations are uncircumcised, and all the house of Israel are uncircumcised of heart.” (Jeremiah 9:26). Though it was true there were many in the old covenant who had embraced the gospel from the heart, it seems this was the exception, rather than the rule. Though many in the old covenant knew the Lord—many more remained unchanged.

And this is what Jeremiah is saying would be different in the new covenant. The contrast he's making isn't absolute—it's comparative. Jeremiah's not saying God never wrote His Law on the hearts of His old covenant people. He's saying that whereas God's people in the old covenant were characterized as having uncircumcised hearts; God's new covenant people would now be characterized as a people who know the Lord. Whereas in the old covenant, there were comparatively few who were changed by the gospel; now in the new covenant, we wonder if any will be left unchanged. Whereas it seems to have been the relative minority that embraced Christ under the old covenant, the Lord would now apply His Word to the hearts of His people on a much greater scale. So again, it's not that God had never written His Law on the hearts of His people; He had. And it's not that there were never times when God poured out His Spirit on His people in remarkable ways; there were. But the comparison is between the old and new covenants in general: Scripture is contrasting the two dispensations on the whole; and the point is that whereas the old covenant was characterized by the writing of God's Word externally on stone, the new covenant would be characterized by the writing of God's Word internally on the hearts of His people. The same gospel was preached (Hebrews 4:2); but in the new covenant it will have a much greater effect; and it's precisely this effect that will be “new” in the new covenant.3

II. The SECOND Question: What are the things that are old in the new covenant?

This passage in Jeremiah 31 is incredibly rich; but it's also easy to misunderstand. It's such a familiar section of Scripture that we tend to assume we know what it means without actually thinking through it. But if we want to understand this passage on the new covenant, we need to pay close attention to what Jeremiah is saying—and to what he's not saying. In particular, if we want to understand the new covenant, we need to begin by taking note of all the things in this covenant that aren't new. The best way to understand Jeremiah 31 is by asking: What are the things in the new covenant that are old?

A) The ESSENCE of the Covenant: For some of us, when we read through Jeremiah 31, we tend to automatically assume that the contrast Jeremiah's making is that of Law and gospel. It's a no-brainer! What's the difference? The old covenant was a covenant of Law, but the new covenant is about the gospel. But look at the text. Notice, first of all, that it's actually the old covenant that's associated with redemption. When the Lord refers back to the old covenant, He describes it as “the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt” (verse 32). Now, the old covenant was formally inaugurated after God had brought His people out of the land of Egypt; with the giving of the Law at Mount Sinai. But here, when the Lord refers back to the old covenant, He doesn't even mention Sinai. Instead, the Lord traces the old covenant back to the redemption He wrought for His people when He delivered them from Egypt. Isn't that amazing? It's the old covenant, not the new, that's being associated with redemption. And notice, secondly, that it's actually the new covenant, not the old, that's associated with the Law. It's of the new covenant that the Lord declares: “I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it. . .” (verse 33). We automatically think of the old covenant as being the covenant of Law. But here in this passage, it's the new covenant that's being identified with the Law; not the old. So then, Jeremiah's not telling us that whereas the old covenant was a covenant of Law, the new covenant would be about redemption and the gospel. No, the old covenant was just as much about redemption, and the new covenant is just as much about the Law. But in the new covenant, that same Law would be written in a different place.4

We know there's a contrast between the old and new covenants. That's the easy part. God is going to make a new covenant with the house of Israel that is not like the covenant He made with them when He brought them out of Egypt. The question is: What's the nature of this contrast? And what we just discovered is that the contrast Jeremiah's making is not one of Law and gospel. Jeremiah's not saying the old covenant was about Law, but the new covenant is about redemption and the gospel. Because again, the covenant that's most associated with Law here in Jeremiah 31 is actually the new covenant; not the old. And the covenant most associated with redemption is actually the old covenant; not the new. The truth is, both the old and new covenants are established upon redemption and yet branded with the eternal will of God as expressed in His Law. They're both crafted after the same pattern: In the old covenant, God redeemed His people, then gave His redeemed people His Law. It's the same thing in the new covenant. Indeed, there's both Law and gospel in both the old and new covenants; and they function in exactly the same way. So, when we read in verse 32 that God's people broke the old covenant, we're not to think the meaning is that they broke the Law. It's not that the old covenant with Israel was a strict arrangement of Law, wherein the Lord was like a task-master—but that now He enters into a new covenant with us based on grace and redemption. No, God wasn't a task-master to Israel in the old covenant; He was “a husband to them” (verse 32). The covenant Israel broke was a covenant of gospel mercies. So, when Jeremiah tells us they broke the covenant, he's not saying they broke the Law—but that they failed to embrace the covenant from the heart, by faith. And this is what will be different in the new covenant, for God will now write His Law on their hearts. So then, it's not that the old covenant differed from the new in its essence; the way they differed was in their effect.5

B) The EXTENT of the Covenant: Some take the contrast Jeremiah's making in a different way; as being that of corporate versus individual. What's the difference between the old and new covenants? The old covenant was made with Israel as a corporate whole; it was established with the entire nation collectively; and as a result, it was also mixed. Since it was established with the whole nation, the old covenant was made up of both believers and unbelievers. But this is what would be different with the new covenant, for in the new covenant, “they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them” (verse 34). So, this is how others understand Jeremiah's contrast: Whereas the old covenant extended to a mixed multitude, the new covenant is limited to elect believers. And at first glance, this may seem to be what Jeremiah is saying. But notice, first of all, that this passage explicitly tells us that the new covenant is a corporate covenant. In fact, the only covenant in Jeremiah 31 that is explicitly corporate is the new covenant; for it's the new covenant—not the old—that's said to be made “with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. . .” (verse 31; cf. v33). This is corporate language. So we can't say that whereas the Lord had established the old covenant with His people collectively, the new covenant is now only made with individuals. No, the new covenant is no less corporate than the old. And notice, secondly, that the new covenant is no less mixed than the old. No one would argue that this passage about the new covenant properly begins in verse 27. And in the opening verses of 27-29, we find the Lord describing the abundance of blessing that would rest upon His people in the days of the new covenant. But in the same breathe, the Lord also says in verse 30: “But everyone will die for his own iniquity; each man who eats the sour grapes, his teeth will be set on edge.” The Lord is using a metaphor here to convey the truth that He will judge His people individually in the new covenant. But as He does so, we learn something extremely important: Even in the new covenant church, there will be mixed in among God's people those who yet eat the sour grapes—and die for their iniquity.6

If this is all true, how are we to understand verse 34, where the Lord tells us that in the new covenant, “they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them. . .”? Well, even in the phrase being used here, Scripture itself is giving us a clue. This isn't the only place where Jeremiah uses this phrase, “from the least of them to the greatest of them”; and it's in discovering how the prophet uses this idiom elsewhere that we come to understand what he means as he uses it here. Along with using this phrase in 31:34, Jeremiah also uses this same idiom in two other places: Speaking of the people of Judah, Jeremiah says in 6:13, “For from the least of them even to the greatest of them, everyone is greedy for gain, and from the prophet even to the priest everyone deals falsely.” And again, the Lord declares to Jeremiah in 8:10: “Therefore I will give their wives to others, their fields to new owners; because from the least even to the greatest everyone is greedy for gain; from the prophet even to the priest everyone practices deceit.” Now, when we see this same idiom used in Jeremiah 6:13 and 8:10 to describe the wickedness of the people, it becomes much clearer what it means and what it doesn't mean. Surely Jeremiah isn't saying there wasn't a single person who knew the Lord. Surely Jeremiah isn't telling us that each and every individual in Judah, without exception, had turned away from God. This can't be true; because we know that—at the very least—Jeremiah himself, along with Baruch the scribe as well as a faithful man named Ebed-melech knew and trusted the Lord (cf. 39:15-18; 45:1-5). No, when Jeremiah declares that God's people in the old covenant had turned away from Him “from the least even to the greatest”; he's making a relative contrast in absolute terms. Jeremiah's not saying that every single person without exception had turned away from the Lord; he's rather characterizing the vast majority of them. The idiom is meant to generalize the people as a whole, collectively. And this is exactly what Jeremiah is saying in 31:34 about the new covenant: He's not telling us there were no individuals who knew God in the old covenant, nor that every individual would know Him in the new. But that, whereas on the whole, God's people had turned away from Him in the old covenant, they will know Him now in the new. It's not the extent of the covenant that will differ; but the effect.7

III. The THIRD Question: So what is it that's new about the new covenant?