A new Covenant
Jeremiah 31:31-37 is the chapter in the Old Testament that speaks of a New Covenant; verses 31-34 is one of the largest portions of the Old Testament to be directly quoted in the New Testament.
Let’s look at a few themes in this chapter:
- everlasting love: Jeremiah 31:3 and 20 tells of everlasting love—and surely it speaks of God’s love (which is not dependant on man’s love), and also of how He preserve those He saves
- salvation: Jeremiah 31:7 and 11 tells about salvation that comes from the Lord, which is like a ransom paid
- father-son relationship: Jeremiah 31:9 and 20 tells about a father-son relationship between God and his people
- secure future: Jeremiah 31:17 tells about a secure future and a land to be inherited
- God’s faithfulness: Jeremiah 31:35-47 tells about God’s faithfulness to never break covenant with his people.
The people broke the covenant
To make all of what we read about in the rest of the chapter possible, something extraordinary must happen: God had to make a new covenant. Or better put: God had to renew the old.
Characteristics of the Old Covenant:
- The Old Covenant was temporary because of the unfaithfulness of the people.
- The blood of animals was insufficient and temporal – over and over again sacrifices were needed to atone for the sins and rebellion of the people.
- The priests as mediators themselves were falling short too: they were just like other sinners and needed blood to atone for their own sins.
But God has not changed regarding the substance of his relationship between Himself and man.
- The Law both demands a perfect life, and shows the way of salvation
- Types and figures of the old covenant pointed to Christ, the Head of the new covenant.
This means that whatever is necessary to know about God and have a relationship with Him is clear right through the Scriptures, even the Old Testament.
“I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. (Jeremiah 31:31–32, ESV)
The expression “husband” here means to be “lord” or master. As master of the unilateral covenant, God exercised his sovereign right in ruling over them, prescribing to them the way they were to live for his glory. Yet, they rejected Him.
That a new covenant was needed, was not because a deficiency in the Law (for the Law was abundantly sufficient); the weakness was in the unfaithfulness of the people.
Chapter 11 of Jeremiah describes the covenant-breaking and the results of it in more specific terms:
They have turned back to the iniquities of their forefathers, who refused to hear my words. They have gone after other gods to serve them. The house of Israel and the house of Judah have broken my covenant that I made with their fathers. Therefore, thus says the Lord, Behold, I am bringing disaster upon them that they cannot escape. Though they cry to me, I will not listen to them. The Lord of hosts, who planted you, has decreed disaster against you, because of the evil that the house of Israel and the house of Judah have done, provoking me to anger by making offerings to Baal.” (Jeremiah 11:10–11,17, ESV)
In short: Israel lived in a state of continual faithless unrighteousness towards God. They broke God’s law and was incapable of doing something to restore their relationship with God.
A universal condition
- All of us are born with the same attitude and heart of stubbornness and rebellion.
“…all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, (Romans 3:23–24, ESV)
- We are by nature corrupt and unable to fulfil the Law of God:
For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. (Romans 3:20, ESV)
- Our only hope is grace: it depends on God.
All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. (Ephesians 2:3, NIV)
- To be restored to God we need someone who can stand between God and us – someone who is perfect, but someone who can take away our sin. That Person is Jesus Christ, our High Priest.
For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathise with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. (Hebrews 4:15, NIV)
The New Covenant promised
Calvin writes about Jeremiah 31:31:
“He now shows a difference between the Law and the Gospel, for the Gospel brings with it the grace of regeneration: its doctrine, therefore, is not that of the letter, but penetrates into the heart and reforms all the inward faculties, so that obedience is rendered to the righteousness of God.” (Calvin, J., & Owen, J. (2010). Commentaries on the Prophet Jeremiah and the Lamentations (Je 31:33). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.)
The Law could not penetrate into the sinful heart to permanently change it; but the Holy Spirit, through the Gospel, applies the righteousness which is from Christ Jesus and brings about the necessary change.
To write the Law on the heart means to make it possible that the Law should rule in our hearts. Our hearts have no inclination to conform and to submit to God without this work of the Holy Spirit. Even if we would decide to obey the Law the best we can by doing good works, we will not attain God’s righteousness. We need the regeneration by the Spirit of God: the Bible calls it “to be born again”:
Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3, ESV)
I will be their God and they my people
In these words, we find the covenant-establishing formula. The same is found in Genesis 17:7
And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. (Genesis 17:7, ESV)
Numerous other references in the Bible confirm this: God restores his people to Himself, He makes a covenant with them, and He binds Himself to the people through the covenant. Jeremiah 7:23-24 is a good example:
But this command I gave them: ‘Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be my people. And walk in all the way that I command you, that it may be well with you.’ But they did not obey or incline their ear, but walked in their own counsels and the stubbornness of their evil hearts, and went backward and not forward. (Jeremiah 7:23–24, ESV)
In these verses, the covenant-breaking disobedience of Israel is pictured. It called for covenant renewal.
They will know Me
The New Covenant is different from the Old Covenant: God would send a fuller light so that they would know and enjoy Him. The Gospel about Jesus Christ under the New Covenant is that bright light. The Gospel of Christ reveals God more openly because its truth shines like the sun at noonday.
John Calvin comments:
People under the Old Covenant were like children, therefore God kept them in the basic principles of knowledge; now under the Gospel, as we are grown up, He favours us with a fuller doctrine, and He comes, as it were, nearer to us. (Calvin, J., & Owen, J. (2010). Commentaries on the Prophet Jeremiah and the Lamentations (Je 31:33). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.)
Under the Old Covenant, there was no perfect sacrifice to bring God’s people closer to Him. A sinful priest who used the blood of animals could not do it, the curtain of the Most Holy separated the people from God. It kept the people at a distance from God.
However, when the perfect sacrifice was offered by a High Priest without sin—Jesus Christ— the curtain of the Most Holy was torn, and sinful people could enter into the presence of God.
And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit. And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And the earth shook, and the rocks were split. (Matthew 27:50–51, ESV)
God removed what kept us at a distance from Him, so we now have communion with God – but only by the blood shed by the Perfect Lamb. There are just no other grounds to go to God.
After the personal sacrifice of Jesus Christ, God gave his chosen people the mercy to approach Him in the Name of Jesus Christ. The copies of the Old Covenant have been superseded by the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ.
Sins are forgiven
Based on Christ’s righteousness God’s people under the New Covenant may know that He set them free from sin by not imputing (no reckoning) their sins to them. This is the foundation of the New Covenant: God reconciles Himself to his people. There is no need for more sacrifices.
Sins are forgotten
“I will remember their sins no more”, says the Lord about the New Covenant.
Under the Old Covenant God forgave the people their sins based on the blood of the sacrificial animal on the altar. But the blood of any animal was not good enough to completely erase the sin out of the mind of God. Once again Calvin writes:
“Whenever then God severely handled his people, He seemed to remember their iniquities; but when He made the new covenant, all iniquities were then buried, and cast, as another Prophet says, into the depths of the sea.” (Calvin, J., & Owen, J. (2010). Commentaries on the Prophet Jeremiah and the Lamentations (Je 31:33). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.
He will again have compassion on us; He will tread our iniquities underfoot. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea. (Micah 7:19, ESV)
The New Covenant confirmed
Remember, our main point in this section is to point to God’s gift of justification: He gives a righteousness which satisfies Him so that we may live in a relationship with Him. Our sinfulness and our sins disable us from doing anything that can meet the wrath of God.
The Good News of the Gospel is that God did something to restore our relationship with Him: He indeed provided our righteousness and justified us in and through the work of Christ.
The passage in the New Testament referring to this passage in Jeremiah in its entirety is Hebrews 8 and 9. Let’s go there now. Hebrews 8.
The primary function of the high priest was to take the blood of atonement on behalf of the people into the Most Holy to the presence of God: God’s wrath on sin had to be satisfied, and the sin of the people had to be forgiven. This is the only basis to live in a relationship with God; only after these conditions are met could they say, “We belong to the Lord.”
Leviticus 16 is the chapter about the Day of Atonement. It speaks of the presence of God, the priest, death, blood, forgiveness, almost in that order.
Hebrew 8 contrasts the Old with the New, and the argument pivots on Jesus Christ, the only One to provide righteousness by which God justifies us.
- The first thing we read about is that the Old was a copy and shadow of what is in heaven (Hebrews 8:5)
- Then, the ministry of Jesus is superior to the Old, because it is founded on better promises (Hebrews 8:6)
- To make sure that we understand that what Jesus Christ did as High Priest, the writer of Hebrews quotes Jeremiah 31 (which we earlier looked at).
- In Hebrew 9:1-10 the writer refers back to the Old Covenant sacrificial system with the tabernacle, the Holy Place and the Most Holy Place with the gold jar of manna, Aaron’s staff that budded, and the stone tablets of the covenant, the mercy seat (or atonement cover). He then concludes saying that those were:
gifts and sacrifices are offered that cannot perfect the conscience of the worshiper, but deal only with food and drink and various washings, regulations for the body imposed until the time of reformation (or “new order – NIV). (Hebrews 9:9–10, ESV)
- When Jesus Christ came
- His tabernacle was “perfect” because it was not “man-made” (9:11, 24)
- He entered into this tabernacle not by the blood of calves and goats, but by “his own blood” (9:12, 23)
- He entered “once for all” – the High Priests had to do it over and over again, year after year (9:12, 25, 28, 10:1-4)
- He gave his blood through his death to cleanse the conscience because his offer is “unblemished” (9:14)
- He, therefore, is the Mediator of the New Covenant, for “He has died as a ransom to set them free from sins committed under the first covenant.” (9:15)
- He ushered the church into the New Covenant because He sealed it with his blood (9:16-22)
- He entered “heaven itself”, not the earthly tabernacle.
- He took away once for all “the sins of many people” and will return to bring to glory those whom He ransom who are waiting for Him (9:28). He does so, and He has the right to do so because he gives them his righteousness; they now have the hope to enter his glory. They are justified in the eyes of God.
- He did the will of the Father by setting aside the Old to bring about the New and made us holy under Him:
“Behold, I have come to do your will.” He does away with the first in order to establish the second. And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. (Hebrews 10:9–10, ESV)
For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified. (Hebrews 10:14, ESV)
- The New Covenant is instituted:
“This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws on their hearts, and write them on their minds. I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.” (Hebrews 10:16-17, ESV)
- Justification is completed, and the relationship between God and his people is restored:
Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin. (Hebrews 10:18, ESV)
1. Read Romans 3:21-26
We are created for one purpose: to glorify God. What does verse 23 teach us about our sinful state?
2. Now go to verse 25:
2.1 What did God do in Jesus Christ?
2.2 What does this verse say about God’s justice?
2.3 Verse 24: On what foundation does our righteousness rest?
2.4 Verse 24: What do we need to pay to acquire God’s righteousness (or: what price tag is there on living in a God-satisfying relationship)?
3. If we are “freely justified” how do we understand faith? Is faith something we do to be justified?
4. In the light of what the Bible says about Christ as the Mediator of the New Covenant (in Hebrews 8-10 as we heard it in the study earlier), how do we understand verse 22?
5. Read Verse 26: What does God do when we have faith in Jesus?
6. Try to explain the agreement between this paragraph and 1 John 1:7-10.
7. Read Romans 5:1-2
7.1 Verse 1: What gives us peace with God?
7.2 Verse 2: What does it mean to have “gained access” through Jesus Christ (do you remember something about Him being our High Priest)? Read also Hebrews 9:24-25.
8. Read 2Corinthians 5:21
God’s righteousness and justice demand that sin is dealt with – exhaustively and eternally. Our problem is similar to the High Priest of the Old Testament: we are all sinful, and therefore we are sinners – we cannot bring a sacrifice good enough. How did God solve our problem?
9. Read Galatians 3:10-14
9.1 The Galatians started out with grace, but soon find themselves on another path. What was it?
9.2 Can good works, apart from faith in Jesus Christ, save anyone?
10. Read Philippians 3:7-11
10.1 What big discovery did Paul make about righteousness?
10.2 What became his overwhelming desire when he realised that his “righteousness” was worth nothing?
10.3 Is Paul’s desire your desire too? Read verse 9-10 again.