The New Covenant
The New Covenant
Keith G. Ball - Minister, the church of Christ at Delaware, Ohio
Reference Text: Jeremiah 31:31-34; Hebrews 8:7-13
It is an understandable and acceptable practice that when material possessions become old they are replaced. The old suit, in spite of how good we looked in it in days gone by, must be discarded. Most of us are sentimental people. We become attached to material possessions. We are also creatures of habit who become comfortable with performing activities in a given way and thereby often resist change.
The word of God plainly declares that there have been two major covenants. Of these two covenants, one is in effect today. The former covenant is referred to as being "old" and "obsolete" (Hebrews 8:13). The present covenant is "better" than the former covenant (Hebrews 8:6). Actually, the covenants are better compared using the superlatives "good, better, and best" with the old covenant being considered "good" and the new covenant considered "best." Even then, "best" does not do justice nor describe the new covenant, for words like "superior" and "excellent" are more adequate adjectives.
Approximately 500 years before the birth of Christ, God informed Jeremiah the prophet that a new covenant would be established with Israel and Judah. "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 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: for I will forgive their iniquity and I will remember their sin no more" (Jeremiah 31:31-34 KJV). The Hebrew word berith means "league, compact" and is translated in most English bibles as "covenant." This Hebrew word also carries with it the meaning of "fetters" or "to bind." The promise of this New Covenant would have been a breath of fresh air to Jeremiah and should have been the same for his contemporaries. Here God gives Jeremiah a glimpse into the future, enabling him to see a portion of God's eternal purpose. This eternal purpose has been that all men be considered His children by faith in Christ and heirs according to the promise given to Abraham (Galatians 3:26-29). In the New Testament, the Hebrews writer quotes the aforementioned text from Jeremiah. The Greek work diatheke is used and is likewise translated "covenant." There is significance in this Greek word in that it denotes a non-negotiable relationship. God initiated the relationship and defined the terms. It is man's duty to obey and keep the covenant.
What is wrong with the Old Covenant?
The Hebrews writer states unequivocally that the First Covenant was faulty (Hebrews 8:7). "For if that first covenant had been faultless, then should no place have been sought for the second." This covenant was faulty in that it did not make provision for the removal and forgiveness of sins. This is not to say there was not forgiveness under the Old Law. Moses repeatedly interceded for the people, asking God to forgive them and God forgave. "Pardon, I beseech thee, the iniquity of this people according unto the greatness of thy mercy, and as thou hast forgiven this people, from Egypt even until now. And the Lord said, I have pardoned according to thy word:" (Numbers 14:19, 20). David prayed a similar prayer; acknowledging that God had forgiven him (Psalm 32). However, because of the limitations of animal sacrifices the sins of the old covenant worshipper were not completely forgiven. The Hebrews writer sheds light on the true purpose of the Old Covenant sacrifice. "But in those sacrifices there is a remembrance again made of sins every year. For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sins" (Hebrews 10:3, 4). It is probably better stated that under the Old Covenant the God-fearing worshipper did not enjoy complete or absolute forgiveness of sins. What they did enjoy was a relationship with God as a result of their obedience in doing what was commanded of God. However, God was not completely forgiving their sins "at that point." Paul describes what God did as, "Ébecause in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed" (Romans 3:25b, NKJV). This then should help answer the query as to how the Old Covenant worshipper could enjoy a complete forgiveness of sins. The answer is through the blood of the perfect Lamb of God, Jesus Christ. The blood of Jesus Christ was retroactive to all that faithfully endeavored to walk according to God's ways before Calvary. The Old Covenant sacrifices were anticipatory to something better, which was fulfilled in Jesus Christ.
A second reason the Old Covenant was faulty and a reason given to Jeremiah for the old to be replaced was that the people broke the covenant (Jeremiah 31:32). In spite of all that God had done for them, the children of Israel were covenant breakers. God had "taken them by the hand" and brought them out of Egypt. These words are reminiscent of the loving way in which a father leads his children through danger. God had been a "husband" to them. Again we have words which express love and protection. In spite of all this, these chosen people were covenant breakers. In fact, on the very day the law was given at Mt. Sinai, the people were breaking the commandments. Isaiah describes the people saying, "Éthey have transgressed the laws, changed the ordinance, broken the everlasting covenant" (Isaiah 24:5b). They were a people who had been eyewitness to countless evidences of God's love and protection. They had seen everything from easy victories over their enemies to the miraculous provision of food and clothing, yet they remained faithless, fearful and unbelieving. Throughout recorded Bible history they were stiff-necked and uncircumcised of heart, covenant breakers. Israel can best be described as spiritual fornicators, a truth that scriptures bring forth in Numbers 25, a truth that can be seen in Jeremiah 3:6-11 as well as in the book of Hosea. In fact, our text of Hebrews 8:9b brings this truth to light. "Ébecause they continued not in my covenant, and I regarded them not, saith the Lord." Israel had not been a faithful, trustworthy bride in the nuptial covenant with God. She had not remained at home and was guilty of breaking her vows and commitments. It was at Mt. Sinai that the people said to Moses, "É all that the Lord hath spoken we will do. And Moses returned the words of the people unto the Lord" (Exodus 19:8). However, it was not long before Israel had broken this vow and had gone whoring after other gods.
We must also realize that the Old Covenant was faulty in that it was limited in scope. It was a covenant that was designed for and given unto the house of Israel. Deuteronomy 5:1-3 bears record that the giving of the law was exclusively unto Israel. "The Lord made not this covenant with our fathers, but with us, even us, who are all of us here alive this day" (Vs. 3). This excluded all those who lived before the time of the people of Israel including great men of faith like Noah and Abraham. This further excluded the contemporaries of the Israelites such as the Moabites, Midianites, Amorites and Philistines. It excludes us today for two reasons. First, we are not Israelites by physical birthright and secondly, even if we were Israelites by birth, this covenant is no longer in force. It is obsolete, abolished, nailed to the cross and completely taken out of the way (Colossians 2:4; Ephesians 2:14-17). It was God's plan not to renew nor to restore the first covenant but to completely replace it with a new and better covenant. Thus the Levitical system of worship is completely void and of no affect today. It is for these reasons that today's worshipper should not look to Old Testament covenant practices and principles in order to please God. The Old Covenant, designed by God, served an extremely important role as tutor and schoolmaster (Galatians 3:24, 25). Even though it was God's design, it was wisely designed with intrinsic inadequacies meant to accomplish God's plan of perfection in Christ Jesus. God's design of the Old Covenant allowed the worshiper to become educated to the need for atonement, substitution and the shedding of blood to bring about forgiveness.
What is right with the New Covenant?
If the Old Covenant was faulty, the New Covenant has to be faultless or perfect. God promised Jeremiah that He would put His law in the minds and hearts of His people. The first covenant, "ministration," was written in stone (2 Corinthians 3:7). Even though it was commanded to be read and rehearsed at every opportunity (Deuteronomy 6:6-9) it simply became little more than a mechanical list of do's and don'ts. However, the New Covenant targets the fountainhead of man's core, his heart, soul and mind. In order for an individual to come into a relationship with God today he must have allowed the word of God to penetrate his heart. Herein lie the fundamentals of belief. Without belief there is nothing else an individual can do to profit himself spiritually. Lydia is an excellent example of conversion in the New Testament. According to Acts 16:14, we find that the Lord opened Lydia's heart. Nothing miraculous took place here. This woman learned the soul saving, powerful word of God (Romans 1:16) and as a result was obedient unto the Lord.
The New Covenant provides a closer relationship with God. "ÉI 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." (Jeremiah 31:33b). Under the Old Law there were many great men of faith such as Abraham, Moses, and David. These and faithful men like them enjoyed a relationship with God. He was their God and they were His people. In Leviticus 26:12 God promised Israel, "And I will walk among you, and will be your God, and ye shall be my people." This was conditional upon Israel's obedience, at which we know they failed miserably. However, what God promised Jeremiah and those under the New Covenant was an ever-closer communion and relationship. We may better understand this relationship by thinking of the Old Covenant as a formal, rigid relationship with God whereas the New Covenant consists of a spiritual relationship with God. (John 3:5). We cannot help but believe that our relationship with God will take on yet a heightened level and dimension when we surround the throne in heaven (Rev. 21:1-4).
What further is "right" about the New Covenant is that grace, mercy and forgiveness of sins can be experienced in a way that they had never been known or enjoyed before. It is in Christ Jesus that the Christian can rejoice for there is no condemnation (Romans 8:1) because of sins. Jesus Christ, the perfect Lamb of God, died for the sins of mankind, thus making atonement for sin by the perfect gift of himself. Jesus Christ was perfect, sinless (Hebrews 5:9) yet he became sin for us that we might stand before God the Father, pure, innocent and without blemish as adopted sons of God (1 John 3:1,2). The Hebrews writer reveals that under the New Covenant, God will be merciful unto the unrighteous (Hebrews 8:12). The subjects of mercy and grace are often linked in our minds yet the subtle differences help us to attain a better understanding of these concepts. Simply stated, mercy involves not receiving what we deserve whereas grace involves receiving what we don't deserve. Under the Old Covenant individuals received the gifts of grace and mercy however they were never able to enjoy them to the fullness to which we are able under the New Covenant. Just as they were not able to enjoy complete satisfaction for sins, we today are able to rejoice in the truth of, "I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sins no more" (Jeremiah 31:34).
It may seem strange that under the New Covenant there exists the clause, "Éthey shall not (emphasis mine-KGB) teach every man his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, know the Lord: for all shall know me, from the least to the greatest" (Hebrews 8:11). Teaching is a very important part of the New Covenant. In the great commission, the disciples were to "go teach" and then "teach them to observe all things" that had been instructed by Jesus (Matthew 28:19, 20). Had it not been for the faithful teaching of Lois and Eunice, the young Timothy would not have grown up to be the great soldier of the cross. However this is not the point that the inspired writer of Hebrews wishes to make in regard to the differences between the two covenants. Under the Old Law, the Hebrew child, at birth, came into a covenant relationship with God. As the child grew he had to be taught the law and covenant into which he had been born.
The meaning of the word that is translated "neighbor" in Hebrews 8:11 is better translated "fellow-citizen." This translation gives us a more thorough understanding of this verse in that we are speaking of individuals already within the household of faith, for those who have entered the covenant relationship with God have done so because they have conscientiously made the decision to do so. It is not by physical birth that we have entered the kingdom but by the spiritual birth that we have come into the family of God (John 3:5). Therefore, it is impossible to find someone in the church who does not know how they came to be there or how they came to be a recipient of God's grace.
When the law was given at Mt. Sinai, God made his presence known through smoke and the violent shaking of the mountain to all Israel. In an earlier situation God made himself known and sealed a covenant promise in a rainbow (Genesis 9:16). Today, under the new and better covenant, Christ has sealed the covenant by his death and has given us his body and blood as the sign of that sealed covenant (Matthew 26:26-28).
God has lovingly given us a new and better covenant. It is vitally important that we be covenant keepers! It is a non-negotiable covenant. Love, grace and mercy are ever present. Let us never be guilty of haphazardly "despising" this most holy covenant, given and ordained by God. "He that despised Moses' law died without mercy under two or three witnesses: Of how much sorer punishment, suppose ye, shall he be thought worthy, who hath trodden under foot the Son of God, and hath counted the blood of the covenant, wherewith he was sanctified, an unholy thing, and hath done despite unto the Spirit of grace? For we know him that hath said, Vengeance belongeth unto me, I will recompense, saith the Lord. And again, The Lord shall judge his people. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God" (Hebrews 10:28-31).