It is easy to think of the prophet Jeremiah as all “doom and gloom.” We have seen the pictures of the broken cistern in chapter 2 and the potter and the clay in chapter 18 and the warnings against empty religion in chapter 7. But not all of Jeremiah is so gloomy and negative. Last week we saw the wonderful promise of hope in chapter 29.
11 For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. 12 Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. 13 You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. 14 I will be found by you,” declares the LORD, “and will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,” declares the LORD, “and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.”
And following shortly after that promise of hope, Jeremiah brings one of the most exciting and important promises in the whole of the Old Testament – the promise of a new covenant.
Jeremiah 31 begins with God assuring the nation of Israel of his love for them.
3 the LORD appeared to him from far away.
I have loved you with an everlasting love;
therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you.
4 Again I will build you, and you shall be built, O virgin Israel!
Again you shall adorn yourself with tambourines
and shall go forth in the dance of the merrymakers.
God promises to bring his chosen people back from exile to their own land once again.
13 Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance,
and the young men and the old shall be merry.
I will turn their mourning into joy;
I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow.
14 I will feast the soul of the priests with abundance,
and my people shall be satisfied with my goodness,
declares the LORD.”
More than that, God will restore to Israel all the blessings he ever promised them through Abraham and Moses and David.
27 “Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of man and the seed of beast. 28 And it shall come to pass that as I have watched over them to pluck up and break down, to overthrow, destroy, and bring harm, so I will watch over them to build and to plant, declares the LORD.
But when God brings the exiles back and rebuilds the nation again, the most important thing He is promising to do is this
31 “Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah,
A new covenant. Throughout human history the relationship between God the Creator and human beings as the crown of His Creation had always been expressed in covenants. A covenant is a contract, or a treaty, or an agreement, which spells out on the one hand the promises made by Almighty God and on the other hand the obligations God places on human beings. In one way the first covenant was between God and Adam and Eve – all the blessings of Eden, as long as they did not eat the forbidden fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Then there was the covenant with Noah after the flood – that God would never again bring judgment in a worldwide flood. There was the covenant with Abraham – blessings of protection and descendants becoming a great nation with their own promised land. And of course the covenant on Sinai with Moses – the escaped slaves united into a very special nation, God’s chosen people, set apart to know and serve and worship God and given the commandments to show them how they can please God.
All those promises had been renewed with great King David and his descendants. But for centuries the people of Israel had broken God’s covenants. They had claimed the blessings but ignored their obligations to be a special people, set apart for God. To deal with the problems of human sinfulness and pride a new covenant was needed.
31 “Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, 32 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.
But how would this new covenant be different? In what ways would it be new?
33 For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts.
The New Covenant is a law within us, written on our hearts
The Old Covenant was expressed in the Jewish Law, The Torah, summed up in the 10 Commandments written on stones on Mount Sinai and expanded in the first five books of the Bible the Pentateuch. Here were lists of rules to obey, written down and memorized and passed on by the Scribes and the Rabbis. But these rules were mostly concerned with actions, things to do to please God and sins to avoid because they made God angry. This Jewish Law was concerned with externals.
But the New Covenant would be different. The Law would be written in the hearts and minds of God’s people. It would bring an inward knowledge of what pleases God, written in the conscience of each individual. Indeed it would be the presence of God the Holy Spirit inside each believer, guiding and leading and strengthening. It would bring a religion based on joy and love and not just duty.
The prophet Ezekiel delivered a similar message at around the same time.
Ezekiel 36 24 “ ‘For I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land. 25 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. 26 I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. 28 You will live in the land I gave your forefathers; you will be my people, and I will be your God.
So God would give His people not only a knowledge of what they should do but also by the Holy Spirit the strength to be obedient. An internal and inward law affecting not only words and actions but motives and attitudes.
As Christians we live under this New Covenant. But sometimes we can live as if we were still trapped in the Old Covenant. As if we were under Law rather than under grace. For some Christians the Bible is just a book of rules showing us how to live. But John Stott describes the Bible as God’s love letter to the church, revealing to us Jesus who should be our first and greatest love and our heart’s desire.
From the Early Church to the present day there have been groups of Christians who have been trapped in legalism – trying to earn their salvation by keeping rules. But the heart of the New Covenant is a relationship with God as Father, mediated by the Holy Spirit inside us. The Christian life is not about legalism but a relationship of love.
The New Covenant is an individual and personal relationship with God.
Jeremiah 31:33 And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD.
Under the Old Covenant, ordinary individual Jews did not have a personal relationship with God in the same way as every Christian can. They could only approach God through priests and sacrifices. Theirs was a “second hand” religion. God was at arm’s length from the ordinary people.
But under the New Covenant every believer can know God directly and personally through the only mediator we need, Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit living inside every Christian brings every one of us a deep first-hand personal knowledge of God. We don’t just know about God – we know God. We don’t need another human being to put us in touch with God – each of us knows God for ourselves.
34 And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD.
Christians live under the New Covenant. But sometimes we can feel as if we are still under the Old Covenant. Sometimes we can feel as if we can’t come directly into God’s presence but we need mediators to put us in touch with God.
The Jews relied on their Temple – we can rely on special PLACES to bring us close to God: our church buildings. Church buildings can be helpful to worship and prayer – but if we just can’t worship God or pray anywhere else then we are trapped in the Old Covenant.
The Jews had their system of sacrifices – we can rely on particular RITUALS to bring us to God. Certain forms of service or styles of music or set liturgies can be helpful – but if we can’t draw near to God without these kinds of things then we are trapped in the Old Covenant.
The Jews had their priests – we can rely on particular people to bring us close to God, whether own minister or celebrity preachers at Spring Harvest or on God TV, or Christian friends. Other people may help us meet with God but if we can’t meet God without them then we are trapped in the Old Covenant.
Places or Rituals or People can help us get closer to God – but we shouldn’t need them, because the New Covenant has only One Mediator and that is Jesus Christ. Under the New Covenant, they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. Our knowledge of God should be first hand, not second hand or third hand!
Then The New Covenant brings forgiveness and new life.
The Old Covenant rested on an endless stream of sacrifice upon sacrifice, year after year. In particular every year the High Priest had to celebrate the day of Atonement and sacrifice the Passover Lamb, year after year.
Under the New Covenant there would be only one perfect sacrifice, Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.
Jeremiah 31:34 For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”
One sacrifice, once, for all.
2 Corinthians 5:21 Christ was without sin, but for our sake God made him share our sin in order that in union with him we might share the righteousness of God. (Good News Bible)
So by His death on the cross Jesus has completely replaced the Old Covenant and the old Jewish Law. God has forgiven our iniquity, our wickedness, our inbuilt tendency to sin. And He has also forgiven our sins – all our disobedient words and actions. God has dealt with our attitudes as well as our actions.
As Christians we live under the New Covenant. All our sins have been forgiven! But sometimes we live as if we were still under the Old Covenant. We can live as if our sins have not yet been forgiven yet. As if we need another sacrifice or another act of repentance or another prayer of confession before we are properly forgiven. We don’t! Christ has done everything that needs to be done. We are already completely forgiven! We have been cleansed, totally, forever.
Romans 8:1 Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, 2 because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death.
Then sometimes we live as if we are powerless to fight sin and overcome temptation. But that is not the case. God has promised to help us live holy lives. He has given us His Holy Spirit. Remember the words of Ezekiel 36
26 I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.
God gives us His grace, His strength to live victorious Christian lives. The Israelites under the Old Covenant had to fight the battle by themselves but as Christians under the New Covenant we don’t have to struggle on alone. We have the Holy Spirit inside us helping us!
Through Jeremiah God promised the New Covenant. His Law inside us, written on our hearts, an individual and personal relationship with Go where all our sins and wickedness have been forgiven through Jesus’s death on the cross. And Jesus invites us all to experience this wonderful new life.
Matthew 26:26 While they were eating, Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take and eat; this is my body.”
27 Then he took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. 28 This is my blood of the (new) covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.