A New Covenant (Jeremiah)

This morning, in our study through the Bible, we come to the book of Jeremiah.  I told Scott last Sunday that I wasn’t sure yet what my specific topic would be, but that it would probably be pretty sad, because there’s not much joy in the book of Jeremiah.  He’s not called the “weeping prophet” for nothing. 

            For starters, Jeremiah lived at a time when the Lord’s prophet was the most unpopu­lar person in the nation.  The prophecies that he was required to give made him appear to be unpatriotic, and at times, a traitor to his own government.  He rebuked the people for their sins and predicted their utter destruction.  Jeremiah prophesied for about 50 years, and during that time, nobody, and I mean nobody, listened to anything he had to say. 

            On one occasion, the king took Jeremiah’s scroll that was filled with his prophecies, cut it up into little pieces and burned it in a fire.  His enemies laughed at him and persecuted him in every way possible.  Jeremiah spent much of his time in a pit, a dungeon.  He often cried out to God in anguish.  The job that God gave him to do was so difficult that Jeremiah cursed the day he was born and cursed the man who brought his father the news of his birth.

            So, there’s not much positive there to talk about.  I thought about preaching about the potter and the clay, which is a beautiful story in Jeremiah 18 and 19 about how God shapes us and molds us.  But even that story doesn’t have a happy ending, because what God was shaping them for was destruction, and Jeremiah demonstrated that by taking a piece of pottery and smashing it on the ground as he says, “Here’s what God is going to do to you.”

            So, you can understand why Scott wasn’t too thrilled about having to pick out songs for this morning’s service.  But, in the end, I decided to focus on a glimmer of hope that appears in Jeremiah 31.  Yes, God would destroy the nation of Judah because of their rebellion, but God refused to give up on his people.  Jeremiah was called to lead Judah through a time of lament, of weeping and mourning.  But he also called for their repentance. And in the midst of it all, Jeremiah revealed some hope and promise for God’s people

            And so, God promised the Jews that the day was coming when he would establish a new covenant with his people and God’s relationship with his people would look much, much different.  In fact, it would be something beautiful.

            So, this morning, I want us to take a look at that promise in Jeremiah 31.  But first, let’s take a look at this overview of the whole book of Jeremiah and then I’ll be back to explore the significance of this new covenant.

            VIDEO (Jeremiah)

            In Jeremiah 31, beginning with verse 31, Jeremiah said, “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, 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. 

            “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. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 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. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” (Jeremiah 31:31-34).

            There are several significant things about this passage.  First of all, this is the longest section in the Old Testament that is quoted in the New Testament.  Also, this is the only passage in the Old Testament that talks about the new covenant.  Now, of course, when we get to the New Testament, this idea of the new covenant is very important. 

            For example, we remember the words of Jesus at the Last Supper when he said, This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” (Luke 22:20).  Paul makes reference to the new covenant in 2 Corinthians, and the Hebrew writer spends a lot of time talking about the importance of the new covenant and how it was better than the old covenant.  So, what Jeremiah says here is very significant.

            Someone has put it this way.  If God describes his relationship with the church as a marriage, then Jeremiah 31 could be considered his wedding vows.  So, let’s try to unpack Jeremiah’s words and take a look at what’s so wonderful about this new covenant.

1.         The Idea of Covenant

            We begin with verse 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.” (Jeremiah 31:34).  The first thing I want you to notice here is that God is the one who is going to initiate this new covenant.  He doesn’t say, “This is something I want Israel to do.”  Rather, God says, “I am going to make this new covenant.”  But before we go any further, we need to define what a covenant is.

            At its most basic level, a covenant is an agreement in which two parties make promises under oath to perform or refrain from certain actions.  So, for instance, a Christian marriage with wedding vows would fall under this general definition.  Yesterday, James Chapman and Tori Haynes got married.  And I’m sure that both James and Tori made promises to each other.  They promised to love each other through good times and bad, to be faithful to one another, and to do all this until death.  That’s a covenant relationship. 

            But in the ancient Near East, covenants were a little different.  Covenants back then were usually political and, as part of their ceremonies, they would slaughter animals and arrange the pieces on either side of a pathway for the two parties to walk through.  And by walking through those dead animals, the rulers or whoever was making the covenant, in effect was saying, “If I don’t keep the promises that I have made in this covenant, you have the right to do to me what we have done to these animals.”  It’s not a very romantic thing, so it’s probably a good thing we don’t do this at our wedding ceremonies.

            Now, in the Old Testament, God made several different covenants.  He made a covenant with Noah, a promise that he would never again flood the world.  He made a covenant with Abraham that he would make a great nation from his descendants, he would give them the land of Canaan, and eventually, one of Abraham’s descendants would bless the whole world.  God made a covenant with David that his descendants would stay on the throne of Israel, and eventually, one of his descendants would be a king who would bless the whole world.

            But the most important covenant in the Old Testament was the covenant that God made with the nation of Israel through Moses.  When God promised to make a new covenant in Jeremiah 31, he said it would not be “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.” (Jeremiah 31:32)

            That Old Covenant is sometimes referred to as the Mosaic Covenant, because it was the covenant that God established with Moses and the Israelites at Mount Sinai after he led them out of the land of Egypt.  The terms of this covenant are spelled out in the book of Exodus, and it’s very long.  It contains not only the Ten Commandments but regulations concerning their civil affairs, religious life, and even the calendar.  It was a two-sided covenant where God promised to be Israel’s God and Provider in the Promised Land, and Israel pledged total obedience to the Lord as his people, living by his rules.

2.         Israel Broke the Old Covenant

            But, as the Lord said of this old covenant, it was my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord.” (Jeremiah 31:32).   The wording here suggests that not only did the Israelites break this covenant, but they also broke God’s heart.  God made a covenant with his people the way a husband makes a covenant with his wife. But Israel committed spiritual adultery, and had relationships with idols and other religions. They had bowed down to Baal, to Asthoreth, to Molech and other heathen gods.

            In fact, the Jews broke this covenant almost from the moment they entered into it.  Moses didn’t even get back down the mountain before they had bowed down to a golden calf (Exodus 32).  And then they continued to break this covenant almost without interruption for 1200 years, finally resulting in their exile to Babylon.

            Forget about the whole covenant.  The Israelites couldn’t even keep the very first of God’s laws, “You shall not have other Gods before me,” much less all 613 statutes of the Old Covenant. 

            But in spite of Israel’s unfaithfulness, God refused to give up on his commitment to his people (although, he had every right to do so).  Instead, after allowing his bride, Israel, to experience the negative consequences of choosing to follow other gods, God then spoke with mercy and compassion and tenderness.  He refused to leave his people in the dark place where they ended up, but instead did everything in his power to make reconciliation possible, and to create a new relationship with his people based on a new covenant. 

            It was like a married couple that’s on the verge of splitting up, but they decide instead to renew their wedding vows.  And that’s what God says to Israel, “You were unfaithful to me, but I don’t want to let you go.  I want to renew our vows.  I want to make a new covenant with you.”

            But that raises the question, how is a new covenant going to help?  Because the problem wasn’t with the Old Covenant, the problem was with the Israelites.  And we’re no better.  How many times have we made a promise to God, “I’m never going to make that mistake again!  I promise I’ll do better.”  But then, we find ourselves messing up once again and we’re back making the same promise to God all over again.  And so, if this new covenant is going to be based on our ability to keep the covenant, then it’s never going to work!  How are we supposed to keep up our end of the covenant if we fail time and time and time again?

            When we think of God’s covenant with us, his expectations, we tend to make one of two mistakes.  We either think that our relationship with God is conditional on our perfect obedience to God’s law, that we’ve got to keep it all perfectly or else, God doesn’t want anything to do with us.  Or, on the other hand, we think that our relationship with God is simply a relationship of love where we don’t really need to follow God’s law.  In fact, what God tells us is more of a suggestion than a real command.  It doesn’t matter you do.  God’s going to loves you no matter what and everything’s wonderful no matter how much you mess up.

            Isn’t that what happens?  On the one hand, there are some people who can only feel good about their relationship with God if they feel like they’re doing everything right.   And so, they feel close to God when they’re feeling pretty good about how much they’ve done lately, but they feel distant from God whenever they sin. 

            And I think there’s a little bit of that in all of us.  There are times when we feel closer to God when we are feeling spiritual.  And if we fall into sin, we have difficulty praying to God until we have proven to God that we can resist that sin.  We cringe every time we think about what James said in James 2:10, “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it.”

            On the other hand, there’s another part of us that isn’t really all that bothered by sin because we know God is love and God will forgive us.  We take comfort from Romans 5:20 where Paul said, “Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.”  And so, we don’t worry too much about what we may done wrong because after all, God’s grace will take care of it.

            Now, is it wrong for us to try to follow God’s law and feel bad when we fail?  No, I don’t think so.  God wants us to take his law seriously.  He wants us to take our covenant promise with him seriously.  Is it wrong for us to take confidence in God’s love and forgiveness?  No, I don’t think so.  Our God is a God of grace.  The problem comes when we choose to ignore either God’s love or his law.  When we choose to focus on one without the other.  And that’s why the new covenant is so very important, because it combines both God’s law and his love.

            Let’s notice three things that God says about this new covenant:

a.         Under the new covenant, God’s law will be written on our hearts

            God said in verse 33For 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. 

            What does it mean that God puts his law in our hearts?  Let me use this illustration.  As of 2017, the United States Tax Code was 6,550 pages long.  If you are like the vast majority of Americans, you have never read that document and you never will.  And even if you do, good luck keeping it all straight without the help of some accountants.  So there’s a good possibility that you are probably in violation of some section or subsection somewhere in that tax code and you don’t even know it.  

            But suppose Uncle Sam said, “This isn’t working!  We’re going to write a new tax code, completely unlike the old one.  Here’s the deal: it’s going to be a completely voluntary contribution.  No need for turbo tax, no need for itemized or standard deductions, no more W2’s. Just take a few minutes to think about the advantages of being an American and what it must cost to protect this nation and hold onto our freedoms, and then just pay whatever you want.  We are so confident that every citizen will pay their fair share that we are abolishing the IRS and forgiving any back taxes and penalties you may owe.”

            I think you would agree that that would definitely be considered true tax reform!  I think you would also agree that it would be disastrous.  The only way we could put the tax law on our hearts and us do the right thing is if someone were to change our hearts, it we could be transformed into a group of people who truly desire what’s best for this country. 

            And that’s exactly what God did when he established this new covenant.  He didn’t just give us a new set of laws that were better than the old laws.  He changed our hearts.  He changed who we are.

            This new covenant brings an inner transformation, so that the law of God is no longer only just a list of rules.  God intended to change our hearts.  Now, this is important.  The new covenant doesn’t do away with the concept of law.  Instead, it makes God’s law more important by setting it in our hearts, instead of on a stone tablet or a written page.

            It’s like the way things are in our families.  Do parents have rules for the house?  I would hope so.  Rules like no rough-housing.  Brush your teeth.  Always tell the truth.  Eat your dinner before you get dessert.  Go to bed at a certain time.  The list of rules can get pretty long.

            But as a parent, you don’t want to raise kids who are simply focused on the rules.  “I’ve got to do these 23 things today or else my parents will be upset with me.”  No, you want to reach a point where those laws are in their hearts.  They don’t do them just because they’re on a list, but because they promote the values of their parents whom they love and respect.  So, you put your law within them and write it on their hearts.

            And that’s what God does with us.  You see, law is not just a list of rules.  It’s God’s way of telling what’s important to him.  Being honest with one another is important because truth is important to God.  Keeping our commitments is important because faithfulness is important to God.  This idea of having God’s law on our hearts and minds isn’t just a matter of memorizing a list of moral commands, but it’s seeking to do those things that promote the values of a God whom we love and respect.

            And we don’t always do it perfectly.  But God places his Holy Sprit within us to help us to keep his covenant.  And under this covenant, people obey God because they want to.  Doing what God wants us to do becomes a joy to us, because God has changed our hearts.

            And so, it’s not a matter of getting rid of law or getting rid of love.  They’re both important.  In fact, they’re merged together.   As Jesus put it, “If you love me, keep my commandments(John 14:15).   Incidentally, I think that says something about how we should evangelize those outside the church: love for Christ comes before obedience.

            But it’s a beautiful cycle of love and law.  If we love Christ, we will keep his commands, and those commands will lead us to show love to others and bring us back around to our love for Christ.  Jesus knew that law and love go hand in hand.

b.         Under the new covenant, we will all know God

            “And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 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.” (Jeremiah 31:33-34)

            This new covenant brings a new relationship with God.  Those people who are connected to God by the new covenant have a close personal relationship with God that they didn’t have before.  They will all know him.

            I think sometimes we take for granted the fact that we can know God.  We’ve grown up in the church learning that God wants to have a close relationship with us.  But this was revolutionary for the ancient world.  The pagans certainly didn’t have a close relationship with their gods.  They didn’t everything they could to appease the gods, to keep them from getting angry.  They never considered the possibility that those gods might be their friends.

            And even, in the Old Testament, you don’t see this kind of close relationship between the Israelites and God.  They kept God locked up in a little room in the temple and you don’t dare get close.  For Abraham to know God and for Moses to converse with God was revolutionary.  It was just a glimpse of what God intended to have with all his people under the new covenant. 

            The new covenant is not one of reverent distance, but of intimate closeness.  We come to God through Jesus Christ as we experience the divine in human form, and we move forward in ever-increasing knowledge.  Not factual head knowledge but, a growing familiarity with Jesus as a person.  Under the new covenant, we can know God and have a close relationship with him.

            And the reason we can do that is the third point….

c.         Under the new covenant, God forgives our sins

            Verse 34, “For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” (Jeremiah 31:34)

            And this is what makes all the difference in the world between the old and new covenant.  The new covenant brings true cleansing from sin. The sacrificial system under the old covenant could only cover sin and its guilt.  The new covenant brings forgiveness so complete that it could be said that God no longer remembers the sin of those connected with him through the new covenant.

            What an amazing truth that God can cause himself to forget.   We may still be haunted by sins that have changed the course of our lives, but God looks at us and says, “I don’t see any of it.”  If you have entered into this covenant relationship with God, he has forgotten your sin!  Because of the blood of Jesus Christ, he sees us not with the filth of what we have done, but the purity of Jesus.   That’s wonderful news.

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