I want you to imagine that you were in some serious legal difficulty. You hire a lawyer and you discover that he is an expert in Canadian law and he has read every law and every related court case… up to 1920. How would you feel? Pretty good if you were living in 1920, but living in 2012 you might want someone more up to date. Of course there would be much in common, between pre and post 1920 law, but the details of how the law has changed with the years would be very important, especially if it was going to affect your legal standing. What about our standing with God? God gave a Law to Moses on Mount Sinai. It was a covenant between God and the people. A covenant is an ancient form of a contract and was typically used between a king and his subjects. It outlined the responsibilities and the rights of each of the parties. In this case, God promised to be their God, to give them a land and provide for them. In return, the people were expected to follow the Law. Details were given as to the good things that would happen when they were obedient and the bad things that would happen when they were disobedient. It is helpful for us to understand this covenant that was given to Moses. But just as with criminal or civil law, we should know if there have been any important updates. The passage we are looking at in Jeremiah is a prophecy about a new covenant that was to appear. We are going to look at what Jeremiah said about the new covenant and what the New Testament says about the fulfillment of the prophecy.
This prophecy came to Jeremiah at a specific time. Why? It is helpful to understand the context. What was happening at the time? The people had received the old covenant centuries before, with all of its commands to be obedient to God and warnings about the consequences for disobedience. So what had the people done? They had a long history of continual disobedience. I don’t mean minor mistakes in Temple offerings or in the celebration of some festival. Their disobedience was in worshipping other gods and in acts of injustice, especially against the poor and marginalized. God sent prophet after prophet to warn them and the disobedience only went deeper. So instead of just more prophets, God sent an army, a Babylonian army to take the people out of the Promised Land and into exile. Jeremiah’s job was to announce this judgment and to explain its purpose. This left people in a state of despair. Had God really completely forsaken them? Was all lost? In the midst of judgment, there was hope. It was not just that God was going to give them a second shot at the old covenant, he was actually going to give them a new covenant. This is what the new covenant would be like. In some ways it would be similar to the old, in that it was a covenant between God and the people and its purpose was to keep them in right relationship. However, the form of the new covenant would be radically different. It would not be a minor adjustment to a few rules, a tinkering here or there. The new covenant would be different from the old covenant that had been broken by the people. How would it be different? Instead of a list of rules inscribed on tablets of stone or scrolls, this law would be placed on the people’s minds and hearts. What does that mean? Here is what it would be like. Imagine I give you a task and give you a 500 page manual that explains how to complete the task. You completely mess up and instead of giving you a new and improved 1000 page manual, I decide to enter into a relationship with you. We will complete the task together, as I share my knowledge with you in the context of a friendship. That is what the new covenant is supposed to be, an intimate relationship between God and the people. The other part of this new covenant is that it would involve the forgiveness of sins. Being a people on the edge of receiving a good measure of God’s wrath, this would be of interest to the people. The wording of the forgiveness is important. God would remember our sins no more. This is not forgetting, as if God came down with amnesia. Rather it is a choice by God to not remember, in the sense of having the sins in a file somewhere but choosing not to pull them out and go over them. This new covenant had the potential to provide great hope. Unfortunately, it seemed a prophecy for the unknown future. What help is that for us?
While the coming of the new covenant was the future for Jeremiah, it is a past event for us. The coming of the new covenant took place with the work of Jesus Christ. In Hebrews 8, the author quotes the Jeremiah passage and identifies it with what Jesus did. While that is nice that we can thank Jesus for the new covenant, it would be nice to have a little more information. Thankfully, the new covenant is mentioned a few other times. Chronologically, the first mention of the new covenant is by Jesus in the institution of the Lord’s Supper as recorded in Luke and 1 Corinthians. Here Jesus describes the new covenant as being in his blood. When we were looking at the new covenant from Jeremiah’s perspective with a relationship with God and forgiveness of sins, it sounded very pleasant. Now we see that there was a tremendous cost to the new covenant. It was much more than God issuing a memo about a new covenant. God’s own Son had to die in order to establish this new covenant. The author of Hebrews connects the new covenant with the death of Jesus as well. “Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant.” (Hebrews 9:15 ESV) As Christians we use cliches such as Christianity not being a religion but a relationship, or we are not perfect but we are forgiven. There is truth in those statements. However we can state them as if they were something we found in a fortune cookie. The truth is that a relationship with God comes only by the blood of Jesus. The forgiveness of sins comes only through the blood of Jesus. The new covenant only comes through the blood of Jesus. That should cause us to take these truths extremely seriously. But there is one more mention of the new covenant that needs to be looked at. Paul says something important. “And you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts. Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God, who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” (2 Corinthians 3:3–6 ESV) There are two things we need to see here. First is the active involvement of the Holy Spirit. The new covenant is not just a belief that Jesus died, it is actually the work of the Holy Spirit in our life in response to our reaching out in faith. This is how that law gets on our mind and heart. The new covenant is not about doing whatever we want, it is about the Spirit working in us so that we will want what God wants. Paul then speaks of himself and his colleagues as ministers of the new covenant. This is a vital truth. Not only has God done something amazing in the new covenant, he calls us to be ministers of the new covenant, that is people who share the new covenant with others, expressing both the joy of relationship and forgiveness and the seriousness of the blood of Christ. I hope you understand what it means to be a minister of the new covenant. It is not about shoving religion down people’s throats so they will be forced to follow some arbitrary rules. It is about being invited into a relationship with full knowledge of what was needed to make that relationship available.
Have you heard what’s new? The covenant is new. The old covenant was and is important. It gives us an important glimpse as to the nature and character of God. It points us to his holiness and justice and challenges us on our own human limitations. Israel struggled for centuries with the old covenant and eventually they failed, being removed from their land and sent into exile. In the midst of that, God spoke through Jeremiah of a new covenant. This new covenant was about a relationship with God and about forgiveness of sins. That new covenant was fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Not just in his birth or in his teachings but in his death. The new covenant was birthed in blood, blood of the Son of God. Through the death of Jesus on the cross, the way was opened for us to be in relationship with God and have our sins forgiven. This is not just for our personal benefit, we are invited to be ministers of the new covenant, sharing this relationship with others. The new covenant is literally good news.