The New Covenant

adapted from PCC Prayer Meeting Exhortation on 9 Sep 2010


“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…” (Jeremiah 31:31ff).

The prophet Jeremiah is known as the weeping prophet not without reasons. He ministered in Judah round about the time of the Babylonian conquest, about 600 years before the Lord Jesus Christ was born.

In the year 586 BC, Jerusalem was razed, the temple was destroyed and God’s people were sent to exile. All these happened just as God had warned through Jeremiah. And to make matter worse, some of the sufferings of the people were no doubt deepened by their refusal to heed God’s word through Jeremiah.

Jeremiah’s ministry was therefore a very heart-wrenching one. It was full of sadness and tears.  So grieved was Jeremiah that he was tempted to give up the ministry altogether.

But lest we misunderstand, let us realise that Jeremiah’s ministry was not entirely of gloom and doom. In fact, on the balance, the message of the book of Jeremiah is really one of hope for the future; and some of the greatest promises in the Bible may be found in this book. We may say that it was out of the darkest moments of Jeremiah’s ministry that the brightest promises and prophesies for the future shone.

In this study, as part of our series on the great and precious promises of God, we must consider what is perhaps the most important promise in this prophecy, namely, the promise of the New Covenant as given in Jeremiah 31:31-34.

Let us consider three things. First, what is a covenant? Secondly, what is special about the New Covenant? Thirdly, what do we do with this privilege?


1. What is a Covenant?

31 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…

Before we even attempt to understand the significance of this prophecy and promise, it is essential for us to ask: What is a covenant?

Some say that a covenant is simply a contract or agreement between two parties. But when the Scripture uses the term “covenant”, it usually means much more than a contract or agreement. Rather, it refers to a bond of love between two parties that is confirmed by oath.

There are four key elements in a covenant: First, there are two parties; secondly, there is a promise or condition; thirdly, there is a blessing; and fourthly, there is a curse.

The best example of a covenant is marriage. In marriage, there are two parties: the husband and the wife. They are more than friends. They are in a covenant bond with one another. They have made a promise to love one another till death parts them. If they keep their promise, the blessing will be immense. They will enjoy one another. They will share their life with one another and have children together. But if either party fails to keep the promise, there is also a curse. He or she cannot simply walk out of the relationship without suffering the consequences. No, no, there will not only be the pain of separation; but the aggrieved party reserves the right to seek punitive sanctions. So it may involve loss of property; loss of name; loss of access to children etc.

Now, no one who reads the Scriptures objectively will fail to see that God deals with his people covenantally. But in a divine covenant God dictates the terms, unlike human covenants where both parties agree on the terms. So God speaks of the covenant with His people as being His covenant. We see that throughout the Old Testament. For example, God said to Abraham in Genesis 17—

7 And I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee.

Now, those who study God’s covenantal relationship with His people as revealed in the Scripture will quickly realise that in order to make sense of what the Word of God is saying, you have to understand that the Scripture speaks of the covenant from two perspectives: firstly, from an unchanging, eternal perspective; and secondly from a historical perspective. God’s elect are related to God eternally and internally in the covenant. But it is possible for God’s people in the visible church to be related to Him historically and externally only.

Let me explain the two perspectives a little. Think of the covenant as a man walking through time. Think of the man himself as the eternal aspect of the covenant and the clothing he wears as the historical aspect.  Now, think of this man at the start of the journey wearing multiple layers of outer coat, each one of a different colour. The man starts his journey with a black coat. Those who met him at that time saw him wearing a black coat. Then as he walks along, and he strips off the black coat, and underneath it is a red coat. And so those who saw him at that time saw him as a man wearing a red coat. Then he walks further and he sheds off the red coat. And so on. Think of him shedding off one outer coat after another until by the time he reaches the end of his journey, he is no longer wearing any outer-coat, but only a glorious garment which reveals what kind of person he is.

This is what God’s covenant is like. There is an unchanging eternal aspect. The Scripture is directly referring to this unchanging eternal aspect when it refers to the covenant as “an everlasting covenant” (such as in Gen 17:7; 2Sam 23:5; Ps 105:10; Isa 55:3; Heb 13:20 etc).

What is the essence of this everlasting covenant? Well, it is the purpose of God that is declared in verse 33 of our text, namely: “I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” This theme is repeated everywhere in various forms. This is the unchanging aspect of God’s covenant. It speaks of God determining from before the foundation of the world to redeem a people unto Himself that they might enjoy fellowship with Him forever.

So who are the parties in the everlasting covenant of grace? It is God the Father representing the Trinity on the one hand, and the Lord Jesus Christ representing the elect on the other hand. It is Christ who would keep the promise or condition of the covenant on behalf of the elect!

But, secondly, there is the historical aspect of the covenant. This is represented by the outer coats of the man walking through time. Or to put in another way: the one everlasting covenant is manifested to God’s people in phases, which we may call: “historical manifestations of the covenant of grace.” Now, when we look at the covenant this way, we see that God reveals and emphasises different aspects of his relationship with His people at different times in the history of His people. For example,

i. God indicated to Adam that Christ will come, and will give victory to His people over Sin and Satan.

ii. Then God indicated to Noah that the earth would be preserved until all the people He intends to save will be saved in Christ. 

iii. Then God indicated to Abraham that a multitude of people will be redeemed and united together in Christ and that those who are His people must mark themselves out by the appointed sign and seal of the covenant, which at that time was circumcision.

iv. Then God indicated to Moses that His people must live according to His moral laws; and in so far as they will fail because of their sin nature, He teaches them to look forward to Christ the Lamb of God who will die for their sin.

v. Then God indicated to David that Christ would be a King, and would be one of his descendants.

Now, if you look at all these expressions of the covenant, you will realise that they all look forward to Christ. And since Christ was not yet revealed, they were all in some sense incomplete.

When you realise that this is the case, you will understand that the New Covenant that Jeremiah is referring to, is not entirely new! It is a historical manifestation of the everlasting covenant, just as there were historical manifestations of it during the time of Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, etc. Only that at the New Covenant, all the outer-coats has been shed off to reveal the glorious Lord Jesus Christ and how He would lay down His life in order to fulfil the heart of the covenant as expressed in verse 33: “[I] will be their God, and they shall be my people.” So then, like all the other expressions of God’s everlasting covenant, the New Covenant is centered upon Christ!

So…


2. What is Special About the New Covenant?

Well, fundamentally, the New Covenant is special because Christ has been revealed, and has kept the condition of the covenant! And He has lived and He has died in order that we might be reconciled to God and have fellowship with Him.

The Lord Jesus, at the institution of the Lord’s Supper, points out that His going to the Cross was part of the outworking of the everlasting covenant. He says: “This cup is my blood in the New Covenant which is shed for you, for the remission of sin” (cf. Mt 26:28; Mk 14:24; Lk 22:20)

Now, this is confirmed by the apostle to the Hebrews. He speaks of the blood of Christ shed at Calvary as the “blood of the everlasting covenant” (Heb 13:20-21). Indeed, the apostle quotes directly from our text to show that since Christ has come and has completed His work of redemption, we have entered into a new era of God’s covenantal dealings with man.

Consider the inspired words of Hebrews 8—

3 For every high priest is ordained to offer gifts and sacrifices: wherefore it is of necessity that this man [Christ] have somewhat also to offer.…

6 But now hath he [Christ] obtained a more excellent ministry, by how much also he is the mediator of a better covenant, which was established upon better promises.  7 For if that first covenant had been faultless, then should no place have been sought for the second. 8 For finding fault with them, he saith, Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah

You will recognise, I am sure, that verse 8 refers to Jeremiah 31:31; and you may realise that verses 9-12 is really a quotation from Jeremiah 31:32-34.

Notice that although Jeremiah speaks of the covenant as being made with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, Paul applies those terms directly to the church. The church is the house of Israel and the house of Judah today. I think the point is clear. The New Covenant is new and better because the Lord Jesus Christ has completed the work of redemption and therefore opened the way for His church to come unto God boldly.

The way of approaching God through Christ was not a new doctrine. It was taught in the Mosaic Laws, or in the manifestation of the covenant of grace that God made with the fathers in the day that He took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt (v. 32). But under the Mosaic Laws, Christ was portrayed in shadows and types. He had not yet been revealed in clear

All that the Old Testament saints had were photographs of Christ and a promissory note that He would give them the benefits of redemption. But now Christ has come. He lived and He died and He rose again and He ascended into heaven again. Instead of the pictures, we have Christ Himself. Instead of the promissory notes, we have the actual blessings that were promised.

What are the blessings included?

Well, principally three things: a. the grace of regeneration; b. the gift of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit; and c. the assurance of forgiveness in the blood of Christ.

a. The grace of regeneration is expressed in the words:

33 …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.

From verse 32, we can see that the New Covenant is contrasted particularly with the Mosaic Covenant—the manifestation of the covenant which God made with Israel when He led them out of Egypt. The Mosaic covenant places a lot of emphasis on the external acts of God’s people: the keeping of the law, the sacrifices, the rituals, and the feasts.

Under the New Covenant, however, the emphasis has changed. The ceremonial laws have been fulfilled in Christ and abrogated. What about the Moral Law? The Moral Law, which is summarised in the Ten Commandment, is still applicable as it is universal and perpetual. This is the law referred to in verse 33.

But there is a difference. Under the old economy, the Law of God was largely external. This is what the apostle Paul is trying to emphasise when he points out that the old covenant was “written and engraven in stones” (2 Cor 3:7). The old covenant simply declared what the law was; it had no provision to help the covenant people keep the law.

On the other hand, under the New Covenant, the Law of God has been internalised and power is given to keep it through the work of regeneration. This is what the Lord is saying through Jeremiah when he says—“I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts” (v. 33).

b. Not only do we have the grace of regeneration, we have the Holy Spirit to indwell us so that we can discern spiritual things, since spiritual things are spiritually discerned. This is what is meant by verse 34:

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:

Of course, Jeremiah is employing a hyperbole: it does not really mean that we will know perfectly. But with the illuminating help of the Holy Spirit we would indeed know much more than the average person under the old economy!

c. And not only so, but under the New Covenant, we have the assurance of forgiveness of sin given to us in a way that the Old Covenant saints did not enjoy:

34b for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.

Old Covenant saints needed to offer animal sacrifices regularly for their sin and yet the blood of animals cannot wash away their guilt. As New Covenant saints we no longer need animal sacrifices, for the Lamb of God has been slain, and we know that our sins have been paid for.

Did Old Covenant saints enjoy regeneration, indwelling of the Holy Spirit and forgiveness of sin? Sure they did, for remember that the inner layers of the covenant is unchanged as the outer layers were stripped off. God’s people were always looking forward to Christ and what He would do.

But regeneration, indwelling and forgiveness were not the features of the Old Covenant. They were enjoyed by very few and never to the extent that we enjoy today, now that Christ has come, suffered and died for our sin, and ascended to heaven and the Holy Spirit has been poured out in great measure.

Because of the New Covenant, a far greater percentage of God’s people in true churches would be in union with Christ and in fellowship with God internally and eternally than was possible in Old Covenant Days.

Well, what do we say to these things?


3. What Should We Do With this Privilege?

What a privilege it is for us who live under the New Covenant, when everything needful for our redemption has been accomplished by our Saviour. What a privilege it is for us that the Holy Spirit has been poured out, for had the Spirit not been poured out on account of Christ’s finished work, we would still be in darkness.

But what do we say to these things. Well, let me suggest briefly, 5 responses:

G-ratitude: Let us be ever grateful to the Lord Jesus that He kept the condition of the covenant for us. Let us express our gratitude not only in words, but in every aspect of our Christian life. Let us for example seek to do everything for the Lord out of gratitude and love towards Him rather than out of fear or desire for reward.

R-un: Christ the captain of our salvation has completed the race in order to ensure a place for us in the heavenly podium. And not only so, but He has given us the Spirit to regenerate us. Therefore, let us lay aside every weight and sin that so easily entangle us and let us run the race in His strength, looking unto Him who is the Author and Finisher of our race.

A-ssurance: One of the blessings of the New Covenant is the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is known as the Spirit of Adoption by the apostle Paul. By the Spirit we are enabled to recognise God as our “Abba Father.” Let us seek not to lose this assurance of God’s Fatherly love by grieving the Holy Spirit through sin and neglect of the means of grace.

C-hastisement: The assurance of forgiveness is another blessing of the New Covenant. Since we know we are forgiven, let us understand that the Lord does not punish us for our sin, though He may chastise us out of love. Therefore, let us count it all joy and never doubt the Lord’s purpose whenever He brings us through trials.

E-vangelise: Since the Holy Spirit has been poured out, and God’s elect is now to be found everywhere, let us not fail to be the Lord’s witness and to call upon our friends and relatives to come hear the Word of God—for who knows if they might be one of the elect for whom Christ died for.


Conclusion

We must conclude. In this study, we have considered one of the most important promises of the Old Testament, namely the promise of the New Covenant. As New Covenant saints, we are already enjoying the blessing of the promise. The promise of the blessing is being fulfilled because Christ our Saviour kept the promise of the covenant on our behalf. He lived, suffered and died for us. May the Lord make us a joyful, loving and grateful people for His sake. Amen. Ω