How do you view things that are new? In many cases, we have become skeptical of things that are new. Products that are advertised as being “new and improved” we learn are actually improved only in that they are packaged more elaborately and they are new in the higher price. “New” is not necessarily better. Jeremiah 31 speaks of a “new covenant” that God promises to make with the people. Very early in the Old Testament, God promised to be a God to His people and to bless them. But throughout history, God’s people had failed to live according to the obligations of the covenant. God continued to be faithful but the people had not kept their part. And so now God promises a new covenant. Is this a “new and improved” version of the old covenant?
When I was on my sabbatical, I heard a sermon in a church in town that seemed to propose this kind of view. In this sermon, the pastor said that God tried a covenant with Adam and that didn’t work; then he tried a covenant with Noah and that didn’t work; then with Moses and then David and those didn’t work. Finally, God sent Jesus and that worked! However, God is not a trial and error God who tried over and over to find something that would work. Remember already in the Garden of Eden, God said where the covenant was going to end up: Jesus, the son of Eve who would crush the serpent’s head. This is not a cancellation of the Old Testament covenant but a teaching that prepares the people for the new covenant that fulfills the old in every way. In Jeremiah 31:31-34, we find that the new covenant will indeed be powerfully new because of Jesus. Let’s read Jeremiah 31:15-34
I. The need for a New Covenant is seen in verses 31 and 32.
Again, the problem was that the people in the old covenant simply were not keeping their obligations. God wanted the people to be in a special, personal relationship with Him. He wanted them to love Him as He loved them. He wanted them to be loyal and faithful to Him as He was to them but they were not obeying. The problem wasn’t with the covenant itself. It wasn’t that God had somehow drafted a flawed document. The covenant itself was beautifully clear and perfect.
The problem was that the people responded to the covenants God had made with them by breaking them. One of the more flagrant examples of breaking the covenant occurred right after God made the covenant with the people on Mount Sinai where God gave Moses the law and all the promises of the covenant. And the people all said, “We will do what the Lord has said.” However, in Deuteronomy 9:15-16, Moses reports what happened next: “So I turned and went down from the mountain while it was ablaze with fire. And the two tablets of the covenant were in my hands. When I looked, I saw that you had sinned against the LORD your God; you had made for yourselves an idol cast in the shape of a calf. You had turned aside quickly from the way that the LORD had commanded you.” With the promise of obedience still hanging in the air, the people flagrantly disobey God.
When the people are becoming established in the land of Canaan we read in the book of Judges that the people disobeyed by not ridding the land of all the pagans who lived there. Judges 2:20-21 says: “Therefore the LORD was very angry with Israel and said, “Because this nation has violated the covenant that I laid down for their forefathers and has not listened to me, I will no longer drive out before them any of the nations Joshua left when he died.” They didn’t obey the covenant and God had to punish them.
Later on when the kingdom of Israel was established and King David’s son, Solomon, ruled, Solomon and the people again fell into sin. 1 Kings 11:11 – “So the LORD said to Solomon, “Since this is your attitude and you have not kept my covenant and my decrees, which I commanded you, I will most certainly tear the kingdom away from you and give it to one of your subordinates.” Even later, after the kingdom was split and the northern kingdom fell into great wickedness, God raised up the prophet Elijah. Elijah summarized what had happened to Israel in 1 Kings 19:10 in his prayer to God. Elijah prayed, “The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.”
This is the history of the people of Israel: they have repeatedly broken the covenant God made with them. In Jeremiah 11:7-10, we find this summary from the mouth of God: “‘From the time I brought your forefathers up from Egypt until today, I warned them again and again, saying, ‘Obey me.’ But they did not listen or pay attention; instead, they followed the stubbornness of their evil hearts. So I brought on them all the curses of the covenant I had commanded them to follow but that they did not keep.’ Then the LORD said to me, ‘There is a conspiracy among the people of Judah and those who live in Jerusalem. They have returned to the sins of their forefathers, who refused to listen to my words. They have followed other gods to serve them. Both the house of Israel and the house of Judah have broken the covenant I made with their forefathers.’” Sin made it impossible for the people to obey God as was required in the covenants.
We may try to delude ourselves, but the fact remains that we are sinners and we cannot obey God as He demands. However, the good news this morning is that there is true and real hope. The hope comes in the promise that God will establish a new covenant. Because of this new covenant we are able to have the kind of life with God that God requires and desires.
II. Let’s look next at the coming of a New Covenant.
Now God announces what the new covenant will be like in Jeremiah 31:31-34. The problem before was that the law was external, only skin deep. The law was perfect, but because of sin the people couldn’t incorporate it into their inner hearts. Now, in verse 33, God says, “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts.” No longer will the law be outside trying to work its way inside. Now God’s law will become something that is completely part of them. Before the covenant was written on stone or paper; now it will be written on hearts of flesh.
Verse 34 says, “No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord.’” Before they had to have teachers and leaders like Moses to teach them and explain to them what it meant to be God’s special covenant people. Now “knowing the Lord” will be a natural part of their lives. Now in the new covenant God says that “they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.” The new covenant means that God and His people will live together in the special covenant relationship God had intended from the very beginning.
And now the most important question: how did God bring about this new covenant? This was brought about first through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus Himself said His blood was the blood of the new covenant. The shedding of blood, symbolizing the punishment of sin, was the basis of the covenant. When Jesus died, a new and perfect basis for the covenant was established. Jesus’ death removes the barrier of sin that made life under the old covenant impossible. Then the Holy Spirit fills us and writes God’s law in our hearts and minds.
First, there will be a restored relationship between God and God’s people. Verse 33 says that God will be their God. In the covenant, God had always promised to be their God. He would always be with them and go with them in all they did. This is now possible as never before because of Jesus and the Holy Spirit. And that means that they will know the Lord. This is more than just a head knowledge, an intellectual knowing. This is the Bible’s special word “know.” This is the word that describes a very intimate and personal relationship with someone. The people will know God in an intensely personal and intimate way.
As those who believe in Jesus as Savior and Lord, we too can and should know the Lord. God is One whom we know personally and intimately. We can speak to Him and should speak of Him to others in ways that reflect that personal relationship. Certainly God is Holy and great and we should bow before Him in humility. But God also longs to know us and live with us personally. Is that personal relationship reflected in our daily lives? It was said of John Wesley that 15 minutes never went by without his thinking of God. Is that true of us? Is the fact that we are living in God’s presence that much of a reality? In a close human relationship, you think of that person constantly; you can’t help it! The new covenant means that we have a friend in Jesus who is closer than a brother and we need to be willing to consciously live in His presence.
A second benefit is that we can now receive complete forgiveness. God says, “For I will forgive their wickedness will remember their sins no more.” Our past disobedience will be completely forgiven and forgotten. We all have done some pretty dumb things in our lives; things that embarrass us. Wouldn’t it be great if the dumb things we have done could be such that no one ever remembered them? Our forgiven sins by God are viewed as if they had never happened.
How can this be true for us? What are our covenant obligations in the new covenant? First, we must believe that Jesus is our Savior and Lord and we must believe that Jesus died on the cross to remove and forgive my sins. Then we must confess our sins to God and tell God about all of our sins and tell God that we are sorry we have done them. And then we may ask God to forgive and forget in Jesus name. And what is remarkable is that God will forgive because Jesus brings about the new covenant. Now what God had promised long ago through Jeremiah, becomes a reality. God will now be our God and we will be His true people.
We were voting on women as deacons for the first time and I explained the reasoning for doing this and in the process, Dave (not his real name) was not chosen. He was hurt and had blamed me. When we went back a couple of years later, he was still cool toward me and I figured things were going to be the same a year and a half ago and I was really dreading this. On a Saturday night, each of the former pastors had the opportunity to say a few things and I spoke about a few memories and thanked them for their kindness to their rookie pastor. After each pastor spoke there was a slide presentation of that era narrated by one of the members. After I finished, Dave stood up to narrate my tenure there and began by telling everyone that there was something he needed to say; I cringed and braced myself. He went on to tell everyone that if it had not been for me and my persistence in his life, he would never have become a Christian and he thanked God for me. I was stunned and I thanked God for this kindness from Dave. I don’t know if he remembered my offence or not, but it may be that he chose to remember the positive and the more important part of his relationship with me and not the offense.
I wonder if that is what it is like with God. Clearly God has the ability to remember all of our sins, but he chooses to remember the positive. And so God looks at all of our sin and could recount them all, but instead he looks at the positive life of Jesus and how when Jesus died, we received Jesus’ perfect obedience. God remembers what Jesus did and gives us the credit for what Jesus did instead of remembering our sins.
Today, let’s thank God that Jesus has brought about the new covenant through His death on the cross. What God promised long ago through Jeremiah is now a reality. This morning, let’s celebrate that life and consider once again how we are to live with God in that new covenant as we live out our lives of gratitude to God.