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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?

So far, we've been focusing mainly on what isn't new about the new covenant. And what we saw, first of all, is that the benefits of the new covenant aren't something that are new; for the Lord doesn't just forgive sin and change His people in the new covenant. God forgave His people and changed them in the old covenant as well. Neither is the content of the new covenant anything new, since both the old covenant and the new are comprised of both the Law and the gospel. It's not as though the Law is what was written in the old covenant, whereas the gospel will be written in the new—but that a new covenant would be made in which that same Law would be written, though in a different place. And lastly, it's not the extent of the new covenant that's new, as if the old covenant extended corporately to a mixed multitude, but the new is just limited to elect believers. For even in the new covenant church there will be mixed in among God's people some who eat the sour grapes, and die for their iniquity. So, when Jeremiah contrasts the old and new covenants, he's not telling us the new would be different than the old because forgiveness would be new. Nor is he saying the new would be different because God writing His Law on the hearts of His people would be completely new. Jeremiah's not telling us the new would be different than the old because redemption and gospel mercies would now replace the Law. Nor is he saying the new would be different because now God will only deal with individual believers as opposed to dealing with His people collectively, as a whole. And, just in case you may be wondering, Jeremiah's not telling us the new would be different because now we won't need teachers anymore (v34); for not only has the Lord clearly appointed some as pastors and teachers in the new covenant church (Ephesians 4:11-12), but we're also called to teach one another (Colossians 3:16).8

God forgave His people in the old covenant. But the newness has to do with how, and in what way He does so now in the new covenant. For again, whereas in the old covenant there was a promise of forgiveness—it's the new covenant that provides the actual payment. The Lord forgave His people in the old covenant, but He did so on credit. The bulls and goats, whose blood was shed under the old covenant, only had value in that they pointed forward to Christ. They were only shadows—but He is the substance. In the same way, God wrote His Law on the hearts of His people in the old covenant. But the newness has to do with how, and to what degree He does so now in the new covenant. For though the Lord did this in the old covenant, it was on a much different scale, and to a much smaller degree. For under the old covenant, it was the few that were truly changed—but it's the many that will embrace the covenant from the heart in the new. And whereas the Lord wrote His Law in the hearts of His old covenant people, but in a smaller proportion —He will now do so on a much greater scale.

So, what is it that's new about the new covenant? As other theologians have said, it's not the nature of the new covenant that's different from the old—but it's administration. It's not the essence of the new covenant that's being contrasted with the old—but it's form. It's the same Covenant of Grace. The old covenant is no less about Jesus and the gospel than the new. But in the new covenant, Jesus and His gospel are set forth with such clarity, that the knowledge of God among His new covenant people will almost be to such a degree that they won't need any teaching—in comparison with the old. Indeed, if the clarity of gospel knowledge in the old covenant was as a candle—it will be like the sun in the new. And in the new covenant, the forgiveness that Jesus ushers in through the blood that He shed on the cross is as different from the old covenant as a picture is to reality, or as a shadow is to the substance. Indeed, all the pictures and shadows of the old covenant are worthless on their own, for though they promised forgiveness—they never actually purchased it. Lastly, in the new covenant, Jesus now writes His Law in the hearts of His people and pours out His Spirit upon them in such an unprecedented measure and to such a greater degree that it's incomparable with how He did so in the old covenant. Indeed, the old covenant included God's Law written internally on hearts; and the new covenant also includes God's Law written externally on the pages of our Bibles—but the difference is that whereas so few were changed in the old that it was marked and characterized by the external writing on stone, now so many are being changed in the new that it is marked and characterized by the internal writing on our hearts. Again, it's the same Covenant of Grace. The new covenant doesn't differ from the old in its nature or essence. The way it differs is in how, and in what way and degree it's administered.9


1 Roberts dedicated over 200 pages to just these four verses in Jeremiah 31:31-34 (cf. pp1339-1555)! We're not able to give an exhaustive exposition here; other resources can be consulted for that. Our purpose here is to give a succinct exposition and overview of the passage. Roberts finds four primary promises in vv31-34: “God promises: 1) His donation and inscription of His Laws in their inwards, mind and hearts. . . 2) The great federal relation, union, communion and interest between God and His federates. . . 3) His federate people's more excellent and more universal knowledge of the Lord, than formerly under the old covenant. . . 4) Finally, God promises (as a foundation, ground or cause of all the former benefits), His own gratuitous propitiousness in Christ to them in the utter remission and oblivion, forgiving and forgetting all sorts of their sins. . .” (Roberts, pp1342-44). We've simplified these into two (Roberts' #1 and #4), as we've incorporated Roberts' #2 and #3 into #1. As for #2, we've written elsewhere about this already and will come back to it again later in this lesson. Though we've incorporated #3 into #1, we will still deal with the question of what it means that “all” shall know the Lord in our discussion below. Here, we can just mention that the knowledge of the Lord in the new covenant would be much clearer and more abundant than it was in the old covenant. Roberts notes of this three-fold newness: “Here, the mediatory office of Jesus Christ is tacitly implied, in the proper and peculiar fruits of his priesthood, prophecy and kingship; [namely] remission of sins, wrought by His priesthood; knowledge of the Lord, by His prophecy; and conformity of mind and heart to the Law of God, by His kingship.” (p1346).

2 This is indeed how the author of Hebrews clearly interprets the “newness” of forgiveness in Jeremiah 31:34, for he himself quotes Jeremiah 31:34 twice (in 8:12 and 10:17), and comes to this same conclusion as he exposits Jeremiah 31:34 especially in 10:1-18. Roberts notes: “God here promises. . .to be propitious to His people in another manner, and more perfectly, than of old.” (p1441). And again: “The renewed sacrifices were a renewed accusation. . .In the old covenant sins were remembered again every year; but in this new covenant their sins should be remembered no more. . .” (p1441). And later: “That remission of sins under the old covenant. . .did not in essence, substance and kind differ from remission under the new covenant. Remission of sins was essentially, substantially and specifically one and the same under the new covenant and the old. . .As they who lived in the days of Christ, when He was crucified, had remission of sins by faith in Christ then present, so they who lived before Christ was manifested, had remission of sins by faith in Christ, then future, and promised; and we who live since Christ is exalted at God's right-hand, have remission of sins in Christ, now past. . . [Yet,] Remission of sins under the new covenant (though substantially the same, yet) accidentally differs from, and excels the remission of sins which was under the Old Testament. . .in diverse regards.” (Roberts, pp1481-83). Here, Roberts uses the word “accidentally” to mean that the difference between the old covenant and the new isn't one of substance/essence but of administration/form. Palmer Robertson explains Jeremiah 31:34, asking: “But how can the prophet make so much of the forgiveness of sins as an integral aspect of the new covenant? Was not elaborate provision made under the Mosaic covenant for the forgiveness of sins? . . . In what sense may Jeremiah suggest that the unique foundational principle of the new covenant will be the forgiveness of sins? In response to this very legitimate question, it may be indicated that it is just the elaborateness of the old covenant provision for forgiveness that makes understandable Jeremiah's emphasis on the uniqueness of forgiveness under the new covenant. The constant renewal of sacrifices for sins under the old covenant gave clear indication of the fact that sin actually was not removed, but only was passed over. If the sacrifice of the day of atonement actually had established a person once and for all as righteous in the sight of God, why then was the ceremony repeated annually? The blood of bulls and goats inherently had no power to remove sin in the framework of God's just administration of the world. The provisions of the old covenant, founded on such animal sacrifices, could not effect the actual removal of transgressions. Jeremiah anticipates the day in which the actual shall replace the typical. Instead of having animal sacrifices merely represent the possibility of a substitutionary death in the place of the sinner, Jeremiah sees the day in which sins actually will be forgiven, never to be remembered again. The continual offering of sacrifice to remove sin not only provided a symbolical representation of the possibility of substitution. It also inevitably functioned as a very real reminder that sins had not yet been forgiven. By saying that sins would be remembered no more, Jeremiah anticipates the end of the sacrificial system of the Old Testament. . .That forgiveness of sins which was foreshadowed under the old covenant shall find consummate reality in the new.” (pp283, 286). Williams says: “We can liken this to writing a check. A check is a promise of payment, but there must be money in the bank to cover the check in order for it to be good. The entire Old Testament rite of sacrifice was about promise.” (p216). We quoted Rhodes above, who gives the credit card analogy: “This new covenant is the one that will deliver on all its predecessors' promises. To achieve this, it must genuinely deal with the death sentence that has been hanging over God's people. So far, they have been forgiven on credit. Just as when you buy a new TV on a credit card, you initially pay nothing but acknowledge that one day the bill will have to be settled, so for centuries God's people have been doing when they trusted in his covenant gospel. But their sin still needs to be paid for. The new covenant will have to pick up the tab—or rather it will be established by the man who will.”

3 These last two paragraphs are more or less a review of what we learned in Sinai, Part 2: II.6 (Effect). There we also cited other quotes at length that we won't repeat here. Speaking of this difference in effect from the old covenant to the new, Ball writes of Jeremiah 31: “The Law was written in tables of stone, yet so as it was engraven in the tables of the heart, though not in that plenty and abundance that afterward; for under the Old Testament God would have both letter and spirit, but more letter and less spirit. But the Gospel is written in the fleshly tables of the heart, yet so as it is committed to writing; for in the New Testament the Lord would have both letter and spirit, but more spirit and less letter than in the Old Testament.” (p165). And again: “God promises to give a new heart, and to put his Spirit into the inner man. . . And this promise God did fulfill daily in the Church of the Jews, but more sparingly according to the measure of grace, the fullness whereof was reserved unto the times of the Messiah.” (Ball, pp340-41). Roberts says that the nature of the promise of Jeremiah 31 is that “the inward federates. . .that now know God really, effectually, cordially, [and] experimentally. . .shall far excel the inward federates of the old covenant.” (p1418). And again: “In this promise we are not so much to consider the private condition. . .of some particular persons, visible federates under the new covenant; as the public economy and administration of the new covenant. The private condition of many particular persons may possibly be very dark and ignorant, having little knowledge of God or His ways. . .and yet the public administration. . .of the new covenant is for a universal knowledge of God. . .in comparison of which knowledge, that under the Old Testament. . .was as nothing; was gross ignorance rather than knowledge, comparatively.” (Roberts, p1418). And Calvin says of this passage, that Jeremiah “does not expressly deny that God formerly wrote his Law on their hearts and pardoned their sins, but he makes a comparison between the less and the greater. As then the Father has put forth more fully the power of his Spirit under the kingdom of Christ, and has poured forth more abundantly his mercy on mankind, this exuberance renders insignificant the small portion of grace which he had been pleased to bestow on the fathers.” (Hebrews 8:10). He then clarifies in the same place: “If it be objected and said, that the faith and obedience of Abraham so excelled, that hardly any such an example can at this day be found in the whole world; my answer is this, that the question here is not about persons, but that reference is made to the economical condition of the Church.” Again, Calvin says: “We are not to surmise from this difference between letter and spirit that the Lord had fruitlessly bestowed his law upon the Jews, and that none of them turned to him. But it was put forward by way of comparison to commend the grace abounding, wherewith the same Lawgiver. . .honored the preaching of the gospel. For suppose we reckon the multitude of those whom he gathers into the communion of his church from all peoples, men regenerated by his Spirit through the preaching of the gospel. Then we will say that in ancient Israel there were very few—almost none—who embraced the Lord's covenant with their whole hearts and minds. Yet, reckoned by themselves without comparison, there were many.” (Institutes, 2.11.8).

4 Palmer Robertson notes how it's the old covenant that's associated with redemption: “Interestingly, [in contrasting the new covenant with the old in Jeremiah 31:32], the prophet does not refer specifically to the formal inauguration of the covenant that occurred at Sinai. Instead, he refers to the covenant established on the day in which the Lord brought Israel out of Egypt.” (Robertson, p280). And again: “the 'old' covenant with which the 'new' covenant is being set in contrast was a redemptive covenant. Jeremiah mentions specifically that this covenant was established on the day that God redeemed Israel by bringing them out of Egypt. This old covenant cannot be characterized simplistically as a legalistic works-righteousness covenant. . . redemption was involved in this old covenant relationship. The Lord functioned as 'husband' to Israel under this relationship (Jeremiah 31:32).” (p282). As for how the Law continues to be upheld in the new covenant, Roberts notes: “The Law which God promises here to write in their hearts, is God's Moral Law formerly written upon tables of stone. . .So that Jesus Christ, and the moral law are not (as some weakly imagine), inconsistent, incompatible and irreconcileable; but most consistent, suitable and sweetly agreeable one to another. . .[Hence] God's Moral Law is not abolished, but established by His new covenant. Why? Because God's writing of His Laws in the hearts of His federates, is a primary promise, yea the very first article of His new covenant: 'I will give My Laws into their mind, and write them in heart hearts.' Had God intended by His new covenant to have abolished His Moral Law, He would not have new written it, but utterly have expunged it. But in that God undertakes to write His Laws again, and to write them more durably and indelibly than they were written before, not in the long-lasting tables of stone, but in the everlasting tables of mind and heart, hereby He eminently confirms and establishes the Moral Law, as that which shall never be reversed or repealed till the end of this world. . .” (pp1392-93). Roberts further elaborates: “The Lord has taken care to write His Moral Law, for the perpetuating thereof, three several ways, [namely] 1) Naturally, in the heart of Adam before his fall, under the Covenant of Nature, or of Works. 2) Literally, upon tables of stone, and that twice under the old covenant given at Mount Sinai. 3) Spiritually and most efficaciously, upon the spiritual fleshly tables of His people's minds and hearts, under the new covenant. The first writing was perfect, but not durable. The second was complete, but ineffectual. The third is entire, efficacious, and permanent.” (p1394). And again: The first writing was not continuing, but quickly obliterated by the fall; the second writing was not effectual, but only discovered their sin and duty. . . The third writing is both effectual and continuing. . .So that this last inscription of God's Laws in the minds and hearts of the new covenant federates, does far excel all that went before.” (pp1374). John Murray says: “the new covenant is not indifferent to law. It is not contrasted with the old because the old had law and the new has not. The superiority of the new does not consist in the abrogation of that law but in its being brought into more intimate relation to us and more effective fulfillment in us: 'I will put my laws into their mind, and upon their hearts will I write them' (Hebrews 8:10).” (Covenant of Grace). And Robertson clarifies: “Indeed, God shall write his will on the fleshly tablets of the heart, in contrast with the older engraving of his law on stone tablets. But it will be essentially the same law of God that will be the substance of this engraving.” (pp281-82).

5 Calvin notes of 31:33, I will put My Law: “By these words he confirms what we have said, that the newness, which he before mentioned, was not so as to the substance, but as to the form only; for God does not say here, 'I will give you another Law,' but 'I will write my Law,' that is, the same Law, which had formerly been delivered to the fathers. He then does not promise anything different as to the essence of the doctrine, but he makes the difference to be in the form only.” (on Jeremiah 31:33). Francis Roberts says: “Negatively, He declares what manner of covenant this new covenant should not be, [namely] not such a covenant as was the Sinai covenant, that old covenant: 'Not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers. . .” (Hebrews 8:9). This new covenant should not be according to that covenant. . .In all this negative the Holy Ghost seems to have respect to the form and administration. . .not to the matter and substance of the new covenant. . .” (pp1340-41). And again: “Before the time of this new covenant there was some kind and manner of God's writing His Laws in the hearts of His people. . .David himself was a man after God's own heart and himself confesses: 'I delight to do thy will, O my God, yea thy Law is within my heart,' (Hebrew: 'in the midst of my bowels', Psalm 40:8). . .Notwithstanding all this, thus granted, till the time of this new covenant God's Laws were not so written in His people's hearts, as since they have been. . .The efficacy of former administrations, was very weak and small, in comparison of this new covenant administration which is great and powerful. Under those, the Holy Spirit was but as it were sparingly sprinkled upon them. . .But under this, the Holy Spirit is plentifully poured forth as in streams and rivers upon them, and into them. . .Hence, the Spirit is said 'not to be given, till Christ was glorified' (John 7:39); not as if it had not been given at all; but because it was bestowed so sparingly and slenderly, in comparison to what is now, that it might seem not to be given at all.” (Roberts, pp1383-86). And: “The new covenant agrees with the old in matter and substance, although they differ in manner and circumstance. For, 1) The matter and substance of them both, is God's Moral Law. . . 2) The manner and circumstance of writing this Moral Law by God is very different under these two covenants. In the old covenant God wrote it in tables of stone; in the new covenant He writes in the fleshly tables of mind and heart. . .In the old covenant it was written more imperfectly, weakly, literally, ineffectually; though the people's hearts had some impression thereof upon them, yet they remained very stony, stubborn, untractable notwithstanding; but in the new covenant it is written more perfectly, strongly, spiritually, effectually. . .” (Roberts, pp1393-94). And Robertson says: “While the new covenant will be at radical variance with the old covenant with respect to its effectiveness in accomplishing its goal, the substance of the two covenants in terms of their redemptive intention is identical.” (Christ of the Covenants, p282).

6 We could say that Jeremiah's broadest context in speaking of the new covenant extends to the entirely of chapters 30-31. As Robertson notes: “The theme binding together the prophecies of Jeremiah 30 and 31 is indicated plainly in the first 3 verses of chapter 30. The prophet is told to write the words the Lord has spoken to him in a book, for the Lord would restore the fortunes of his people. The two chapters [Jeremiah 30-31] are bound together not only by their common theme, but also by a common introductory phrase: 'For behold, days are coming, says Yahweh. . .” (cf. Jeremiah 30:3; 31:27, 31, 38).” (Robertson, p279). In that sense, we might say that the new covenant passage of Jeremiah properly begins with chapter 30. But in the immediate context of 31:31-34, we can't be faithful to the text without beginning with verse 27. Not only is vv27-30 just before vv31-34, and not only does vv27-30 focus on the same subject and theme of vv31-34, but Scripture itself intentionally binds them together with the same opening phrase: “'Behold, days are coming,' declares the Lord. . .” On the danger of taking the corporate element out of the new covenant, Robertson says: “It is rather tempting to set the individualistic dimension of this covenant over against a corporate concept, and to find the distinctiveness of the new covenant in this specific area. . .But this passage of Jeremiah should not be cited to prove the substitution of the individual for the people of God as a whole in the new covenant. Jeremiah does not set a personal faith-relationship in the new covenant in opposition to a corporate relationship. He maintains both of these features with equal emphasis. The prophet explicitly states that the new covenant shall be made corporately. Not just with individuals, but fully in accord with the whole pattern of God's dealing with his people throughout redemptive history, this new covenant shall be made 'with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah' (Jeremiah 31:31). . .If the new covenant is being fulfilled today, it should be expected that both the corporate and the individualistic elements currently are finding realization. The corporate dimension which played such a vital role in God's old covenant dealings with his people must not be omitted from the present realities of the new covenant.” (pp286-87). The idiom of verse 29 was evidently used by the Jews in or before the exile, and carried the meaning of something like: “We're being punished now because of the accumulated sins of our fathers.” In other words: They're the ones who sinned but we're being punished. Engaging in a sinful lifestyle is akin to “eating the sour grapes” and reaping the punishment of that lifestyle akin to having one's teeth “set on edge.” These Jews were just as much to blame as their ancestors, but they were blaming their punishment on their fathers, hypocritically and falsely protesting their own innocence. God does not affirm this statement as in any way having been true; but only alludes to it being what the Jews had said, declaring this would no longer be repeated in the new covenant.

7 We referenced Jeremiah 6:13 and 8:10; but another passage where we see the same principle is Jeremiah 44:11-14,27-28. Here, the Lord is addressing the people through Jeremiah; and though He has clearly commanded them not to flee to Egypt (in order to escape from the hand of the Babylonians, as their captivity was imminent), He knows many of them will not listen, but will flee to Egypt regardless, in order to seek safety and refuge in Pharaoh (rather than in the Lord). And so, as the Lord addresses them through Jeremiah, He tells them: “Behold, I am going to set My face against you for woe, even to cut off all Judah. And I will take away the remnant of Judah who have set their mind on entering the land of Egypt to reside there, and they will all meet their end in the land of Egypt; they will fall by the sword and meet their end by famine. Both small and great will die by the sword and famine. . .So there will be no refugees or survivors for the remnant of Judah who have entered the land of Egypt to reside there and then to return to the land of Judah, to which they are longing to return and live; for none will return except a few refugees.” (44:11-14). Notice how emphatically the Lord declares over and over again in this passage that they will all be cut off and perish. And yet look how the Lord qualifies it at the end: “. . .except a few refugees.” And the same truth is repeated once again in 44:27-28: “Behold, I am watching over them for harm and not for good, and all the men of Judah who are in the land of Egypt will meet their end by the sword and by famine until they are completely gone. Those who escape the sword will return out of the land of Egypt to the land of Judah few in number. . .” So in both passages, the Lord declares that all will perish. But then immediately we're told that “all” doesn't mean every single individual, for there would still be a few who would escape. And so, “all” and “both small and great” here in Jeremiah 44 is clearly meant to signify the great majority, rather than every single individual. It's the same principle in Jeremiah 31:34: Jeremiah's not saying that it was a mixed multitude in the old covenant but that in the new every single individual among God's people will know Him. That's not a responsible way to interpret Jeremiah's own usage of the phrase “from the least of them to the greatest of them” (cf. again 6:13 and 8:10). No, what Jeremiah's saying is that in the new covenant, the tables would be turned. This is also confirmed by what we read in 31:28, where we're told that in the old covenant, the Lord “watched over them to pluck up, to break down, to overthrow, to destroy and to bring disaster. . .” God didn't always do this in the old covenant (cf. 1:10), but on the whole. And in the same way, the Lord will not only build up and plant in the new covenant, but on the whole, for Revelation 2-3 teaches us that He also sees fit at times to pluck up new covenant churches when necessary; as also branches in the new covenant that bear no fruit He sees fit to cut off and throw into the fire (John 15:2,6). So here in verse 28, we see the same principle in relation to the old covenant, that we do in verse 31 with the new: This isn't an absolute contrast but a comparative one. There were both believers and unbelievers in the old covenant, and there will be unbelievers also mixed in with the new covenant church (v30). But in the days of the new covenant, God will cause those who know Him to be the many rather than the few. What we're guarding against in this section is the notion that in the new covenant, God has abolished the distinction between the visible and invisible church. Some hold to the view that the old covenant church was made up of both true believers (the invisible church) as well as empty professors (included in the visible church but not part of the invisible church), but that in the new covenant, the only members of the church are true believers. We know simply from experience this isn't true, but some are confused about what else Jeremiah could be saying here; and this is why an understanding of this text is so crucial. The truth is, the Lord has in no way done away with the distinction between the visible and invisible church in the new covenant. Again, Jeremiah's not saying that whereas the old covenant church was made up of a mixed multitude, the church of the new covenant would be limited only to elect believers; the contrast doesn't have to do with the extent of the covenant but it's effect.

8 On the meaning of verse 34 about teaching, Roberts notes: “The word not here, is not a simple and absolute negative, as if hereby the new covenant excluded all human teaching; for that is most repugnant to new covenant doctrine. . .But it is rather a comparative. . .importing, that the former teaching under the old covenant should be comparatively as no teaching at all. . .” (Roberts, p1343). And again:, Roberts writes: “Hereby God intimates, that under His old covenant, His people were taught to know Him, by human instruction for the most part, they had comparatively very little of His immediate divine instruction, because His Spirit was very sparingly given till Christ's glorification. But under His new covenant, the knowledge which His federates should have of God should be more divine; God himself would more immediately teach them, 'All their children should be taught of God.' (Isaiah 54:13 with John 6:45). Not that God ever intended by this promise to lay aside all human teaching, public or private, under His new covenant; for God commands and calls for such teaching frequently and vehemently now under His new covenant administration: Ministers must teach the Church and people of God, publicly (Matthew 28:18-20; Ephesians 4:11-13; 1 Timothy 5:17; 2 Timothy 4:1-5). Parents must teach their children, and Christians must teach one another, privately (Ephesians 6:4; Colossians 3:16; Hebrews 3:13). But under the new covenant His people should have more of the Spirit of God poured forth upon them, and more teaching immediately from God, than under the old covenant. . .Moses face was veiled. . .All was under a dark veil. But now under the new covenant. . .the veil is done away . . .and we all with unveiled open face, beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image. . . Notable is that of our Savior's, 'Blessed are the eyes which see the things that ye see: For I tell you, that many prophets and kings have desired to see those things that ye see, and have not seen them; and to hear those things which ye hear, and have not heard them' (Luke 10:23-24). Hereby (as Clavin observes) Christ intimates, that God has shined out more fully by the doctrine of the gospel than formerly. In like sort Christ says, 'He that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than John [the] Baptist' (Matthew 11:11), who yet excelled all the Prophets. John [the] Baptist in his office was more excellent than all the Prophets, and surpassed them in understanding, and yet says Christ, 'the least professor and witness of the gospel is greater than he.' This is not only referred to their persons, nor ought only to be restrained to them, but rather to the clear and plain manner of teaching, which is found in the gospel. . .'Now we have received. . .the Spirit which is of God, that we might know the things that are freely given to us of God' (1 Corinthians 2:12). . .Under the old covenant the federates were as children under age (Galatians 4:1-4); brought up and instructed in rudiments and first elements of divine doctrine. . .they had but an imperfect and child-like understanding of God and divine things; they understood as children; they were but alphabetarians in knowledge. . .But under the new covenant the federates are as grown men come to maturity, put up to a higher form and harder lesson, having a more ripe and complete knowledge of God. . .They have such an anointing as teaches them all things (1 John 2:20,27).” (Roberts, pp1404-07). And Calvin also observes of Jeremiah 31:34: “the Prophet does not wholly deny that they would teach one another, but his words are these, 'They shall not teach, saying, Know the Lord'; as though he had said, 'Ignorance shall not as heretofore so possess the minds of men as not to know who God is.'” (Calvin on Hebrews 8:11). And Calvin again notes: “Here is mentioned another difference between the old and the new covenant, even that God, who had obscurely manifested himself under the Law, would send forth a fuller light, so that the knowledge of Him would be commonly enjoyed. But He hyperbolically extols this favor, when He says that no one would have need of a teacher or instructor, as everyone would have himself sufficient knowledge. We therefore consider that the object of the Prophet is mainly to show, that so great would be the light of the gospel, that it would be clearly evident, that God under it deals more bountifully with His people, because its truth shines forth as the sun at noon-day. The same thing Isaiah promises, when he says that all would become the disciples of God (Isaiah 54:13). This was indeed the case also under the Law, though God gave then but a small taste of heavenly doctrine; but at the coming of Christ He unfolded the treasures of wisdom and knowledge, so that under the gospel there is the perfection of what had been begun; for we know that the ancient people were like children, and hence God kept them in the rudiments of knowledge; now, as we are grown up, he favors us with a fuller doctrine, and he comes, as it were, nearer to us.” (Calvin on Jeremiah 31:34). Ligon Duncan draws out the meaning of Jeremiah 31:34 from 1 John 2:26-27, as he writes: “What is one of the fundamental differences, John says, between those Christians who have continued to abide in the Apostolic teaching and those who have left the teaching of the Church to go back to this Gnostic era? Those who remain are indwelt by the Holy Spirit and hence, taught of the Lord. Now, what is he picking up on? Jeremiah's promise that from the least of them to the greatest, they will not need a teacher to teach them the law of God, it will have been written on their hearts by God, Himself. . .Now does that mean that John doesn't need to teach them anything? No, he wouldn't have written the book, if he hadn't had to do that. He is speaking at a much more fundamental level, of the spirit of discernment which is gained only by those who are indwelt by the Holy Spirit.” (Duncan).

9 Francis Roberts summarizes the differences between the old and new covenants in a succinct way when he writes: “These new covenant promises are so expressed, as virtually to contain in them, the agreement and difference between the old and new covenant, yea the preeminences of the new above the old. This agreement, difference, and preeminence may thus in brief be evidenced, from the words of the covenant: I. The agreement between the old and new covenant, for substance of them, is expressed in two particulars especially, [namely] 1) In the sum and glorious abstract of the covenants: 'I will be to them a God, and they shall be to me a people.' This is the sum of both old and new covenant in express terms. 2) In the Laws of this covenant promised to be written in their hearts: 'And I will give my Laws into their minds, and write them in their hearts.' What Laws? Even the same Moral Laws which were given for a covenant to Israel at Mount Sinai, which was the old covenant. God does not say (as Calvin excellently observes), 'I will give another Law'; but I will write my Law, [namely] the same which was anciently given to the fathers. . . II. The difference also between the old and new covenant is here purposely expressed, and this, more generally, and more particularly: 1) More generally, in those words, 'I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah: Not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt. . .' Here the Lord plainly declares in the general, that He would make a new covenant with them, which should be another manner of covenant, a very different covenant from that old covenant. 2) More particularly, He states this difference in three points expressly, as Calvin has very well noted: A) In the inscription of God's Laws: In both old and new covenant there is a writing of God's Laws; but, in the old covenant they were written in tables of stone, in this new covenant upon the fleshly tables of their mind and heart. That, was only a literal and ineffectual writing, that showed duty but gave no ability; this, is a spiritual and efficacious writing that affords ability for the required duty. B) In the instruction of the federates: In that old covenant they had mostly a human instruction, and that but in principles of the knowledge of the Lord; they were alphabetarians, children under age, capable only of elements and rudiments. But under this new covenant the generality of the federates have a more than human, even a divine teaching promised them touching the Lord, they are come to age, shall be put up into a higher form, and have in sight into higher mysteries. C) In the ablation or taking away of sins: In the old covenant there were many sacrifices for expiation of sin which were repeated every year, every day, being unable to take away sin, but rather becoming renewed remembrances of sin, year by year, day by day; but in this new covenant, Christ by that one sacrifice of himself once offered, and never to be repeated, has purged away the sins of His elect forever, so that they shall need no more sacrifice for expiation, and that God will remember them no more. III. The preeminence of the new covenant also above the old, does stand in all those three points of difference fore-expressed; in all which this new covenant far excels.” (Francis Roberts, Mystery and Marrow, pp1365-66).


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