We close this month with Old Testament passages dealing with the covenant. In Jeremiah 31:31-34 we have a promise of a new covenant. We read:
Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that 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 that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt; which my covenant they brake, although I was an husband unto them, saith the Lord: But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those days, saith the Lord, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people. And they shall teach no more every man his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: for they shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the Lord: for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.
You might remember that we have defined the covenant as a relationship of friendship that God establishes with His elect people in Jesus Christ. We have in our text a promise of a new covenant. This promise is superior to all the other Old Testament promises. It was (you will notice in verse 31) a promise to the house of Israel and to the house of Judah. Israel, that is, the ten tribes, had already been taken away into captivity for their sins. Especially in Israel was there rejection of the house of David, which was really a rejection of Christ Jesus. They said, “What part have we in the house of David?” A terrible sin! Judah was still in Jerusalem but would be made captive in Babylon for seventy years. Why? Because they were hopelessly lost in their sin and, therefore, under the judgment of God.
With this promise of a new covenant, their mourning will be turned into joy. We read that Rachel will stop weeping. God will bring back her children, even penitent Israel, for Ephraim will be brought back. So we have a promise of restoration of what was lost. It is superior to that. Not only will they be brought back to what was lost, but God will make new. There is the promise of a new covenant. The covenant made of old will come to its greatest manifestation. That is why the Bible is divided between the Old and New Testaments, or in other words, the Old and New Covenants. This is why Peter writes in I Peter 1:10 and 11: “Of which salvation the prophets have enquired and searched diligently who prophesied of the grace that should come unto you: searching what, or what manner of time the Spirit of Christ which was in them did signify, when it testified before hand the sufferings of Christ, and the glory that should follow.”
A new, better covenant with the holy and perfect law of God? It is the new covenant realized in Jesus Christ. Compared in our text is the covenant made with Israel in Mount Sinai. There Israel did not dare to be addressed by God. They told Moses: “You go up and talk to God for us.” The law was given at Sinai. There was the moral law, the ceremonial laws, and the civil laws. Read through Exodus and especially Leviticus. There was law upon law upon law. Of Israel, we read in our text (v. 32), “which covenant they brake.” This means that Israel, God’s people, violated the covenant. They did not keep the obligations of it. It does not mean that the covenant is abolished. But rather it is, like a marriage—even though one partner might violate the obligations, they are still married. That is why God says in the text “although I was an husband unto them, saith the Lord.”
So with this promise of a new covenant, we need to distinguish between the old covenant and the new covenant. This is a thorny issue in Reformed churches. There is a lot of disagreement. I want you to notice, first of all, that there is similarity between the covenants. What is the one issue of the covenant? It is: I will be a God unto thee and you will be my people (v. 33). So, there is similarity. It underscores what is a covenant, what is God’s covenant. There is the unchanging core, it is essentially a relationship, a covenant of friendship between God and His people in Christ Jesus. So there is one covenant of God through all history—from Adam even until and through eternity. This is where the disagreement comes in between theologians and various church doctrines. There are those who wrongly distinguish between a covenant of works and a covenant of grace. They are really saying there is one way to be saved in the Old Testament, that is, by obedience to the law, and now a new way is given through faith. There are those who look at these verses and conclude that the Old Testament was bad, inherently bad, and the new covenant is good.
I pointed out earlier the similarity of the two covenants, and our text proves it in verse 32: “I was an husband unto them.” In marriage, that is an unbreakable covenant. In verse 33, we have the essence of the covenant: “I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” The author of Hebrews, in chapter 8 verse 6, makes a comparison between Moses and Jesus Christ. So it is a comparison between the Old Testament type and the New Testament anti-type. Jesus is a “mediator of a better covenant, which was established upon better promises.” The fault of the old covenant was with God’s people. We read, “If that first covenant had been faultless, then should no place have been sought for the second” (v. 7). For, finding fault with them, God said, “Behold, the days come…when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah” (v. 8). So the new covenant is the old covenant brought to perfection. The promises realized. That the people broke the old covenant does not mean that they were severed from God because they did not keep conditions of obedience. No, they transgressed and violated the law of God.
So, it is the same covenant, the essence is the same, but the form of the covenant was changed. The ordering of the covenant is changed; the experience of the covenant is changed. Let me use an illustration. Let us say there is an old, old building and the owners have let it go. It is deteriorating. It is filled with mold and rot and dust. Then someone comes in and renovates it, changes it, enhances it, renews it, so that it becomes a beautiful building. That is true with the covenant.
How is the covenant new or better? Number one: God’s people are given new hearts. The old covenant treated God’s people as little children: rule upon rule, law upon law. And these rules or laws came from the outside. They were written on tablets of stone. Is that bad? From II Corinthians 3:7 we read that the law was good, but the people were sinful. The law could not change the heart. The law only condemned, and therefore it was a minister of death. In Galatians 4:4 and 5 we read: “But when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law [why?] to redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons.” In the new covenant there would be a deeper knowledge of God enjoyed by every one of the people. We read in Jeremiah 31:34, “And they shall teach no more every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: for they shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the Lord.”
In the Old Testament, the only way to know God was through the prophets. God came at Sinai and spoke with Moses, and then Moses spoke to the people. In Old Testament history, God spoke with His prophets, and the prophets would then communicate God’s Word to His people. It was still a dim knowledge, rather shallow, all in types and shadows. But in the new covenant, God would speak to all of His people through Jesus Christ and through Christ’s Word by His Holy Spirit. In the New Testament, God’s people would know their forgiveness of sins. There was forgiveness in the Old Testament, but could those saints have the certainty, the assurance that they were really forgiven? The blood of bulls and of sheep had to continually be slain, because those bulls and goats and the other blood could not take away the sins. Now we read (in verse 34), “I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” How is that? By Jesus’ blood alone. Jesus’ blood, shed on Calvary’s cross, takes away sin.
So, forgiveness in the Old Testament was not a given reality. It was only pictured by those oxen and lambs that were slain. Jesus had not yet come and Jesus had not yet shed His blood. In the Old Testament, God’s people could not find forgiveness themselves. Always, they would have to go to the temple, they would have to go to the priests, they would have to bring a lamb. They did so on the basis that the Messiah, the Christ, would, one day, come. In the Old Testament, God’s people could not come directly to God. God’s presence was symbolized by the Ark of the Covenant and the Mercy Seat. But there was a great, heavy veil that kept them from access to God. Now, in the New Testament age, you and I can come directly to God in heaven through our Lord Jesus Christ, for we read in Hebrews that our High Priest hath entered into the veil.
In the new covenant, Christ Jesus is our Prophet, Priest, and King. The Old Testament prophets would bring God’s Word, but they could not affect a change in hearts and lives. The Old Testament priests could offer lambs and bullocks, but they did not remove sin. The Old Testament kings could and did bring reformation in the nation, but there was often not a change in the hearts and the lives of the people. Jesus Christ is the Prophet who is greater than Moses, who powerfully brings His Word efficaciously, working in our hearts. Jesus Christ is the Priest who gave Himself a sacrifice for our sins once for all, never to be repeated. Jesus Christ is the King who rules in the hearts and the lives of His people by His Spirit.
This is very fundamental. In the Old Testament, of course, the Spirit did some work in the hearts of the people. They did have some knowledge, they did know some kind of forgiveness of sins, but this promise of the new covenant was fulfilled on Pentecost. The new covenant was realized. Now powerfully, the Spirit works in the hearts of all God’s elect people. He is the Spirit of Christ. In the Incarnation of Christ, all of our sins and guilt were imputed to (that is, laid on) Him. He suffered the punishment for our sins. And He kept the law perfectly, not as a private person, but as the Head of all of His people—those who were given to Him in eternity. He obeyed as the Mediator of the covenant. That perfect obedience of Christ is now given to us by faith. The Spirit of Christ assures us of our justification. We are made right with God. The Spirit of Christ writes on our hearts. The law is there, not as a way to save ourselves but as the way that we show our thankfulness for our salvation.
What wonderful freedom is given to us! Not law upon law upon law and rule upon rule. The civil and ceremonial laws of Israel fall away. There is no longer law upon law. Because of Pentecost, we have a deeper knowledge of God and His Christ.
Did I say earlier that this is one of the most blessed promises of God? God as our husband takes His wayward wife closer to Himself. He does so through the blood of Jesus Christ. God, by His Spirit, writes His law on our hearts so that we willingly and wholeheartedly serve Him in thanksgiving. We experience the fellowship of our God in His Son Jesus Christ. We experience that now already, but especially we will realize it in the new heavens and the new earth when Jesus Christ comes again.
What a promise! A new covenant in Christ Jesus. He would come. And Christ, by His Spirit, makes us citizens of His kingdom. Are you ready to thank God for this new and better covenant, a covenant in Christ Jesus who has come, who has shed His blood, and has poured out His Holy Spirit to dwell in us so that we conduct ourselves as God’s people in the midst of a wicked world?
Let us pray.
Father in heaven, we thank Thee for the improvement; we thank Thee for the better covenant, that covenant that was realized when Jesus Christ came into this world. We thank Thee that He has come and that He has now given the one sacrifice for our sins so that we are assured that we are forgiven. And we thank Thee for His Spirit, who has written His law on our hearts so that we know how we are to live as Thy people, to be children of the light, children who are obedient. And in the way of our obedience, we experience Thy favor and Thy love. Bless now the Word that has been brought. Use it to cheer Thy people to live as God’s particular people, showing forth the praises of Him who has called them out of darkness into His marvelous light. Amen.