THE BEST YET TO COME:
The Promise of a New Covenant
Jeremiah 31–33; Hebrews 8–10
• Jeremiah’s role in history
• Features of the New Covenant (Jeremiah 31)
• Jesus and the New Covenant
• What’s “New” about the Covenant? (Hebrews 8–9)
• Has the best come yet? (Acts 3:19–21)
• Salvation and the New Covenant (Romans 11:25–27)
• Claiming New Covenant blessings (Hebrews 8)
The fall of Judah and Jerusalem in 586 b.c. was a devastating blow to the Israelites. The one sure foundation of their lives had been God’s covenant with Abraham and its promise of their homeland. Suddenly the citizens of Judah were torn from that land, even as their brothers in Israel had been sent into exile in 722 b.c. Was Israel still the chosen people? Had God finally rejected Abraham’s descendants?
The Exile should have come as no surprise. In Deuteronomy 28, God had spelled out the consequences of repeated violation of the Law given on Sinai. Under the Law Covenant, the Lord was committed to bless those generations of Israelites that were faithful to Him. During the centuries that Judah had existed as a nation, national revivals had taken place under rulers like Hezekiah and Josiah. And those revivals, marked by renewed dedication to God and recommitment to keeping His Law, had in fact led to national blessing.
But the Law Covenant also committed God to punish the nation for apostasy. Rulers of Judah had often been disloyal to the Lord, as the nation turned to idolatry and injustice. In particular, the 55-year reign of Manasseh (697–642 b.c.) had set the nation on a downward course which, despite a brief revival under Josiah, was continued by succeeding rulers.
God had stated in the Mosaic Covenant that such apostasy would lead to exile from the promised land. When the Babylonians launched their final invasion of Judah in 586 b.c., God’s warning of the Law’s ultimate national punishment was fulfilled.
And it shall be, that just as the Lord rejoiced over you to do you good and multiply you, so the Lord will rejoice over you to destroy you and bring you to nothing; and you shall be plucked from off the land which you go to possess. Then the Lord will scatter you among all peoples, from one end of the earth to the other, and there you shall serve other gods, which neither you nor your fathers have known; wood and stone. And among those nations you shall find no rest, nor shall the sole of your foot have a resting place, but there the Lord will give you a trembling heart, failing eyes, and anguish of soul (Deut. 28:63–65).
The Law, which God had given to godly generations to enable them to experience the blessings promised to Abraham at history’s end, had become a curse. Judah’s disloyalty had led the Lord to cleanse the promised land of His sinning people.
Later a small group of Jews would return to their homeland. Yet from 586 b.c. to a.d. 1948, no truly independent Jewish state would exist on the land God had promised to Abraham. Even today, there are more Jews scattered among the nations than dwell in Israel.
Just before the Babylonian armies swept into Judah for the last time, the prophet Jeremiah delivered a message of hope to those about to be torn from their homeland.
Through Jeremiah, God told of a New Covenant.
Jeremiah lived and prophesied during the last 40 years of Judah’s existence. He predicted the destruction of Jerusalem and urged his people to surrender to the Babylonians, and thus save many lives. His messages from God were ignored in his own day. But imbedded among the warnings of disaster were words of encouragement for future generations. “I know the thoughts that I think toward you,” God told His people through Jeremiah. “Thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope” (Jer. 29:11).
God promised that a day would dawn when
you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart. I will be found by you, says the Lord, and I will bring you back from your captivity; I will gather you from all the nations and from all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord, and I will bring you to the place from which I cause you to be carried away captive (Jer. 29:13, 14).
The Israelites’ expulsion from Canaan did not mean that God had gone back on His covenant promise to Abraham. One day God would restore His people to their land, and keep every promise He had made.
But Jeremiah had an even more exciting message to share. Through Jeremiah, God revealed more about how He would keep His promises to Abraham. God would replace the Mosaic Covenant with a “New Covenant.”
THE NEW COVENANT PREDICTED BY JEREMIAH
When reading Jeremiah’s words, it’s important to remember that the prophet was predicting a New Covenant. God did not actually bring that covenant to fulfillment in Jeremiah’s time.
The promise of a New Covenant is found in Jeremiah 31, as part of a longer promise concerning the future. God promised those about to go into exile that He would continue to be God for the families of Israel (Jer. 31:1). What is more, God would bring both Judah and Israel back to the promised land (Jer. 31:3–26)! Jeremiah’s good news for Judah is that they “shall come back from the land of the enemy. There is hope in your future, says the Lord” (Jer. 31:17).
This promise of a return, expressed unequivocally in Jeremiah 31:27, 28, was to take place when God kept a New Covenant which He had yet to make with His people. That covenant is described in Jeremiah 31:31–34,
Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when 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 lead them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, though I was a husband to them, says the Lord.
But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.
No more shall every man teach his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, “Know the Lord,” for they all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them, says the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more (Jer. 31:31–34).
These few verses found in Jeremiah are among the most significant in Scripture. We can outline the key elements of this revelation as follows.
“The days are coming” (Jeremiah 31:31).The promise given through Jeremiah was not the New Covenant itself. Instead, Jeremiah described a covenant that God would make in the future.
“I will make” (Jeremiah 31:31).The maker of this covenant is the Lord. God Himself, the guarantor of the Noahic and Abrahamic covenants, will guarantee the New Covenant as well. As God has faithfully distributed the appropriate blessings and curses due Israel under the Law Covenant, so God will faithfully keep the promises incorporated in the New Covenant.
“A New Covenant” (Jeremiah 31:31).This is the name of the covenant that Jeremiah promised God would make one day. The name echoes through the New Testament, for that covenant was implemented by Christ on the cross (see Matt. 26:26–28; Luke 22:19, 20; Rom. 11:27; 1 Cor. 11:23–25; Heb. 8:6; 10:14–18).
The parties to the covenant (Jeremiah 31:31).Jeremiah stated specifically that the New Covenant was to be made “with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah.” Like the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants, the New Covenant was made with the descendants of Abraham. Paul celebrated this role of the Jewish people as covenant bearers in Romans 9:4–5. There he wrote of “the Israelites, to whom pertain the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the service of God, and the promises; of whom are the fathers and from whom, according to the flesh, Christ came, who is over all, the eternally blessed God.”
It has always been God’s intention to bless the entire human family through the covenants He made with Abraham and his descendants.
The covenant contrasted (Jeremiah 31:32).The New Covenant was specifically said to be “not like” the covenant God made when He led Israel out of Egypt. It is clear that Jeremiah was speaking of the Mosaic, or Law Covenant. In fact, that covenant was severely criticized here and in Galatians.
Because blessing under the Mosaic Covenant depended on Israel’s obedience, blessing could not be guaranteed by God. Indeed, Jeremiah reminded the Israelites that they broke that covenant (Jer. 31:32), even though God “was a husband to them” (i.e., met His commitment to be loyal to them and supplied all their needs).
There was nothing wrong with the standards expressed in the Mosaic Law. The problem lay in human nature. Law was an objective, external expression of God’s will. But Law could not provide the spiritual life so essential to true heart-response to God (Gal. 3:21).
The fact that the Covenant was “new” implied that the Law would be replaced. One day God’s people would relate to Him in a new and living way.
The heart of the New Covenant (Jeremiah 31:33, 34).The heart of the New Covenant was God’s promise to transform. Rather than etching His Law in stone tablets, God said, “I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts.” With this inner transformation, Israel would come into a relationship with the Lord in which “I will be their God, and they shall be My people” in a new way. Indeed, Jeremiah said, “They all shall know Me.” The key to this new relationship with the Lord will be the forgiveness of sins: “For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.”
Under the Mosaic Law, the blood of sacrificial animals effected “atonement.” The Hebrew word kapar means “to cover.” Sins that had been atoned for were thus covered over, but they still remained. Yet, in the Old Testament God also spoke of forgiveness. This Hebrew word nasa´ means “to lift up” or “take away.” When the New Covenant was executed, it would become clear just how God would remove sins that under the Law could only be covered over.
The immutability of the New Covenant (Jeremiah 31:35–37).After promising to make a New Covenant with Abraham’s descendants in the future, God reaffirmed His earlier commitments to Abraham’s descendants. The present exile did not mean the Lord had cancelled the covenants or abandoned Israel.
“If heaven above can be measured, And the foundations of the earth searched out beneath,
I will also cast off all the seed of Israel For all that they have done, says the Lord” (Jer. 31:37).
The link to the Abrahamic Covenant (Jeremiah 31:1–30, 38–40).
While the New Covenant will replace the Mosaic Covenant, it does not alter the Abrahamic Covenant. God had promised Abraham to bless him and his descendants. He had promised that in Abraham all the families of the earth would be blessed. The New Covenant promises of forgiveness, intimate relationship with God, and inner transformation define how God intends to fulfill those promises.
It is also important to note that through Jeremiah God also reaffirmed His commitment to keep the promise to Abraham that his descendants would inherit Canaan and that a Jewish nation would be established there. This is stated in the strongest terms.
“It shall come to pass, that as I have watched over them to pluck up, to break down, to throw down, to destroy, and to afflict, so I will watch over them to build and to plant, says the Lord” (Jer. 31:28).
“Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, that the city shall be built for the Lord” (Jer. 31:38).
The link between the Abrahamic Covenant and the New Covenant is also seen in Ezekiel, a contemporary of Jeremiah.
Thus says the Lord God: “I will gather you from the peoples, assemble you from the countries where you have been scattered, and I will give you the land of Israel. … Then I will give them one heart, and I will put a new spirit within them, and take the stony heart out of their flesh, and give them a heart of flesh, that they may walk in My statutes and keep My judgments and do them; and they shall be My people, and I will be their God” (Ezek. 11:17, 19, 20; see also Ezek. 36:24–28).
The Lord gave His guarantee (Jeremiah 31:31–40).
In these verses the words “says the Lord” occur eight times. God was fully committed to accomplish what He promised to do when the New Covenant is fulfilled and Israel has turned back to Him.
THE NEW COVENANT WAS EXECUTED BY JESUS
Through Jeremiah, God promised that He would make a New Covenant with His people one day. Over 600 years passed before God kept that promise.
In the interim, the Jewish people were scattered throughout the Mediterranean world. A total of 42,360 Jews returned to Judah in 538 b.c. to rebuild the Jerusalem temple, and much smaller groups returned in 458 b.c. under Ezra and in 444 b.c. under Nehemiah. But still Judah existed only as a tiny district in a minor province of the Persian Empire.
In 143 b.c. a struggle which was both a civil war and war of liberation from the Seleucid Empire brought the Jews a form of independence. But during this period a family of priests, the Hasmoneans, governed. No national state under a king was ever established. Then, in 34 b.c. the Jewish people and lands were incorporated into the mighty Roman Empire. By the first century a.d., only a few hundred thousand Jews lived in their homeland. By contrast, it has been estimated that some 10 percent of the population of the Roman Empire was Jewish, settled in cities throughout Roman lands. Over a million Jews lived in Alexandria, Egypt, alone!
Clearly, God’s promise of restoration to the promised land had not yet been fulfilled. Just as clearly, no New Covenant between God and His people had yet been executed.
JESUS ANNOUNCED THE NEW COVENANT
During His years of public ministry, through public announcement and miracle, Jesus presented Himself to Israel as the promised Messiah. The response of God’s people was marked by hesitancy and hostility.
While a small group responded to Jesus and followed Him, the nation as a whole concluded that Christ was nothing more than a great prophet (cf. Matt. 16:13, 14). The leaders, however, decided that Jesus was a threat to the established faith and their own position, so they determined to bring Him down. As the hostility of the leaders became more open, Jesus began to teach His followers that He must be put to death by His enemies.
This teaching shocked His disciples (cf. Matt. 16:21, 22). They could not imagine that God would permit this to happen to one whom they recognized as the promised Messiah and Son of God. Not until the night before His crucifixion did Jesus explain the meaning of what was about to happen.
The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke reported Jesus’ words to His most intimate followers.
“For this is My blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins” (Matt. 26:28).
And He said to them, “This is My blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many” (Mark 14:24).
Likewise He also took the cup after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood, which is shed for you” (Luke 22:20).
In these words to His disciples, Jesus told them for the first time the true significance of the Cross.
The Cross marked the making of the promised New Covenant. Jeremiah had promised that God would one day make a new covenant with the house of Israel. Jesus announced that he was about to fulfill that promise. The New Covenant would be established the next day, sealed in Jesus’ blood.
The Cross was the sacrifice that sealed the New Covenant.Sacrifice was the means by which the Noahic, the Abrahamic, and the Mosaic covenants were established as legally binding instruments. The New Covenant was to be established by a sacrifice as well. But the blood that formally instituted the New Cove-nant would not be that of a sacrificial animal. It would be the blood of God’s own Son.
The sacrifice on Calvary served as the basis of the forgiveness promised under the New Covenant.The Old Testament constantly linked forgiveness to sacrifice. God said of the Old Testament sacrificial system, “The life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that makes atonement for the soul” (Lev. 17:11).
The blood of sacrificial animals had covered sins committed under the old agreement. The blood of God’s Son would pay for sins in full. Jesus’ blood would satisfy the demands of justice and provide a basis for once-for-all forgiveness.
So it was by the death of Jesus on Calvary that God executed the promised New Covenant. The New Covenant promises that were made there have yet to be fulfilled. But even today, all who believe in Jesus can experience the promised blessings of God’s New Covenant.
At the Last Supper, Jesus connected the Cross and the New Covenant.
THE NEW COVENANT IN THE NEW TESTAMENT
The book of Hebrews develops the significance of the institution of the New Covenant. The writer, a Jew, set out to demonstrate to other Jews that relating to God through Jesus was far superior to trying to relate to God through the Law.
To show the superiority of Jesus, the writer contrasted the New and Mosaic covenants, as seen in the chart below.
What, specifically, does the writer of Hebrews say about the New Covenant?
The promise of a New Covenant implied fault in the Mosaic Covenant (Hebrews 8:8).The writer points out that “if that first covenant had been faultless, then no place would have been sought for a second” (Heb. 8:7). The very fact that God through Jeremiah promised “I will make a new covenant” and specified “not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day when I took them … out of the land of Egypt,” proves the Old Covenant was flawed.
The writer of Hebrews goes on to pinpoint the problem. Israel broke the Old Covenant. But God says of the New Covenant “I will put My laws in their mind and write them on their hearts … for all shall know me” and “their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more” (Heb. 8:10–12).
The New Covenant does not depend on human beings or their actions. The New Covenant is a covenant of promise, whose “I will” statements describe what God Himself will surely do!
Israel and Judah violated the Old Covenant and were punished for their sins. Under God’s New Covenant, He will give His people a heart that is fully in tune with His own, so that His character, once expressed in stone, will be expressed in the lives of believers.
Jesus’ blood “made” the New Covenant (Hebrews 9:14, 15).The text leaves no doubt. It was Jesus’ blood, His life offered in place of our own, which cleanses dead works and enables us to serve God. “For this reason, He is the Mediator of the new covenant, by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions under the first covenant, that those who are called may receive the promise of eternal inheritance” (Heb. 9:15).
The Mosaic Law defined sin. Failure to keep that law makes one guilty, and demonstrates the fact that all are sinners.
Jesus died to pay the penalty for our sins.
When we respond in faith to Him, we “receive the promise of eternal inheritance.”
Issue: Mosaic Covent: New Covenant:
Mediator Angels God’s Son, who is superior to angels
Agent Moses, a faithful servant Jesus, heir & owner of God’s House
Priesthood Aaron’s sons, ordained by God Jesus, ordained God
Priesthood Held by mortal men Exercised by one who lives forever
Service In a material sanctuary In heaven itself
Quality Faulty, to be replaced Perfect, provide absolute forgiveness
Access Did not provide Worshiper Provides free access to God
Sacrifices Repeated, thus inadequate Offered once, adequate
Sacrifices Blood of Bulls and Goats Blood of Jesus, Wins full Remission
THE NEW COVENANT AS AN ESCHATOLOGICAL COVENANT
We’ve noted before that God’s covenant promises look ahead to history’s end. This is true of the New Covenant as well as the Abraham and Davidic covenants. But how does the New Covenant relate to them?
The eschatological covenants and corporate Israel.We noted earlier that God’s covenants treat Abraham’s descendants as a group rather than as individuals. We also saw that the promises tell what God will do for Abraham’s descendants at history’s end.
Under these covenants, God will at last plant the Jewish people in Canaan, where they will live under the Messiah, a ruler to emerge from David’s family line. The New Covenant adds to this picture images of a forgiven, converted, and holy people who do God’s will and live in intimate personal relationship with Him.
The New Testament reveals an unexpected aspect of God’s plan. Before He could rule, the Messiah, Jesus Christ, had to die and in His death make possible the inner transformation promised in the New Covenant. The New Testament also predicts Jesus’ return. When Christ comes back, all the covenant promises of God will be fulfilled in Him.
It is important to understand that God never promised that the land granted to Abraham would be possessed by every generation of Jews. In fact, for most of the past 2,500 years, no Jewish nation has existed in Palestine. This fact in no way indicates that God has been unfaithful to His people. Rather, it indicates that His Old Testament people have not been faithful to Him!
Before the Israelites were brought into the land given to Abraham, they were given the Mosic or Law Covenant. In that covenant, God made them an “along-the-way” promise. If a given generation was loyal to the Lord and kept His Law, God promised to bless that generation and let them enjoy some of the blessings promised in the Abrahamic Covenant. And God did just that. But the Lord also stated that if a given generation was not loyal to the Lord and if it broke His commandments, that generation would be punished with natural disasters, diseases, and foreign invasions. Ultimately, if generations remained disloyal, God would uproot His people from the promised land and send them into exile. This has also happened, and for most of their history the Jewish people have lived in exile.
The New Covenant, like the Abrahamic and the Davidic covenants, is essentially an eschatological covenant. It reveals more of the purposes God intends to achieve by history’s end. When history reaches its intended culmination, God’s own people will be forgiven and renewed. Sin itself will be banished, and God’s Law will be written on the hearts of men and women who know and love Him. Jesus Christ, who secured our salvation on Calvary, will rule as David’s greater Son.
It is no wonder then that the first preaching of the apostles linked Christ’s death and a national conversion with the fulfillment of the Old Testament’s covenant promises. Speaking in Jerusalem, Peter declared,
Repent therefore and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that He may send Jesus Christ, who was preached to you before, whom heaven must receive until the times of restoration of all things, which God has spoken by the mouth of all His holy prophets since the world began (Acts 3:19–21).
No national conversion took place at that time. Yet the apostle Paul warned Gentile believers not to be ignorant of the fact that national Israel had been set aside, “until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in” (Rom. 11:25). Then, Paul said, “All Israel will be saved, as it is written,
The Deliverer will come out of Zion, And He will turn away ungodliness from Jacob; For this is My Covenant with them, When I take away their sins (Rom. 11:25–27).
The covenant promises recorded in the Old Testament will yet be kept, for Paul reminds us, “The gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (Rom. 11:29).
Peter’s first sermon linked Jesus and the covenants.
The eschatological covenants and the believing individual.While God’s covenant promises were made with the Hebrew people as a whole, and will be kept with national Israel, the covenants have always had great implications for the individual.
Individual blessing.While the experience of individuals was always linked with the fate of the nation, God did make a distinction between the believer who loved and obeyed Him and the rebellious or indifferent. Thus, Psalm 84 celebrates the fact that
Blessed is the man whose strength is in You,
Whose heart is set on pilgrimage (Ps. 84:5).
And Psalm 1 contrasts the consequences of a person’s decision to follow or abandon the Lord.
Blessed is the man Who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly, Nor stands in the path of sinners,
Nor sits in the seat of the scornful; But his delight is in the law of the Lord, And in His law he mediates day and night. He shall be like a tree Planted by the rivers of water, That brings forth its fruit in its season, Whose leaf also will not wither; And whatsoever he does shall prosper.
The ungodly are not so, But are like the chaff which the wind drives away. Therefore the ungodly shall not stand in the judgment, Nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous. For the Lord knows the way of the righteous, But the way of the ungodly shall perish (Ps. 1:1–6).
While the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants had both been made with the nation, the individual who lived by God’s Law could expect to be blessed.
Personal salvation.While the covenants were made with corporate Israel, salvation was always an individual matter. Abraham believed God’s promise, and it was “accounted to him as righteousness” (Gen. 15:6). It was the same for individual Israelites. The person who heard God’s promise and responded with faith was credited with righteousness. As Paul argued in Romans, a “true” Israelite was not just a biological descendant of Abraham, but one who had Abraham’s kind of faith. Salvation was never a matter of keeping God’s Law.
The Psalms especially reflect the true believer’s sense of personal relationship with the Lord. They also reflect the true believers’ realization that this relationship is not rooted in their own merits, but in God’s grace to sinners. David, after his involvement with Bathsheba and the conspiracy which led to the death of her husband, cried out to the Lord.
Have mercy upon me, O God, According to Your lovingkindness; According to the multitude of
Your tender mercies, Blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
And cleanse me from my sin. For I acknowledge my transgressions, And my sin is always before me. Against You, You only, have I sinned, And done this evil in Your sight (Ps. 51:1–4).
In Old Testament times, as in our own, individuals who turned to God as David did, trusting Him to forgive and cleanse, found a personal salvation which is like that found today by those who come to Jesus through the gospel’s good news.
In a sense, the blessings promised the nation Israel at history’s end pale in comparison with the blessings intended for individual believers. While the Old Testament does not emphasize resurrection, it does teach it. Old Testament saints, like New Testament believers, will be raised from the dead.
One authority pointed out:
The OT emphasizes the blessings of living on earth in obedient, intimate relationship with the Lord. In most cases, the “salvation” spoken of in the OT is deliverance from some present enemy or trouble. Yet it would be a mistake to conclude that the OT is a stranger to the doctrine of resurrection, or that OT saints enjoyed no such hope. In fact, saints who “died in faith” did look forward to a better country, to a city God would one day found (Heb. 11:8–16).
Many OT references may allude to the possibility of resurrection (cf. Gen. 5:22–24; Deut. 32:39; 2Kings 2:11, 12). Other statements, whose meaning may not be perfectly clear, still make sense only in the context of a belief in resurrection (cf. Job 19:25–; Ps. 16:9–11).
When we reach the prophets, we see this belief expressed clearly and confidently. One day death will be defeated (Isa. 25:8), and “your dead will live” as their bodies rise when “the earth gives birth to her dead” (Isa. 26:19). Daniel is very explicit. Those who “sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt” (Dan. 12:2).
When reading the OT, with its emphasis on God’s blessings in this life, and with its majestic prophetic view of a cleansed and purified earth, it is good to remember that God does not forget the trusting individual. The saints of old will join us, sharing with us in the resurrection won for us all by Christ Jesus (Richards’ Complete Bible Handbook, Word, p. 299).
It is in the resurrection that the full benefits of the New Covenant will be known. Then, God’s law will be in our hearts and we will be fully like Him at last (1 John 3:2).
The promises stated in the New Covenant will be ultimately fulfilled not only in the conversion of corporate Israel, but also in the resurrection and ultimate transformation of believers at history’s end.
THE NEW COVENANT AS AN EXPERIENTIAL COVENANT
In the chapter on the Mosaic Covenant, we saw that the Law functioned as a doorkeeper. Any generation which obeyed the Law was given access to many of the blessings guaranteed to Abraham’s descendants at history’s end. There we used the analogy of a person for whom $100 million was placed in trust, to be given to her at age 50. Though promised wealth in 25 years, such a person might live in poverty in the meantime!
Continuing the analogy, we supposed that there might be some way for her to get the interest on the $100 million now. If that could be done, she would live extremely well now, and the vast fortune would still be hers at age 50!
What the Law did for corporate Israel was to provide access to the “interest” on the covenant promises God made to Abraham. If the nation was loyal to the Lord and kept His Law, God would be with them and bless them, and they would prosper in the promised land.
In a similar way, individuals had access to blessing. Persons who trusted the Lord and sought to obey Him could expect personal blessing in this life, and not simply in the resurrection to come at history’s end. The eschatological covenant had an experiential aspect. Promised future blessings could be experienced now.
The nature of the New Covenant blessings (Jeremiah 31; Hebrews 8).Looking back at the original statement of the New Covenant and at its review in Hebrews, we realize that the blessings promised in the New Covenant are spiritual.
The Abrahamic and Davidic Covenants emphasized prosperity of the nation in Canaan. The New Covenant emphasized personal relationship with God and spiritual renewal.
God’s Laws in mind and heart (Hebrews 8:10).God intends to transform us from within. The first function of the Law is to reveal the character of God. By saying He will write His Law in our minds and hearts, God promises true inner transformation.
The Bible says that in the resurrection we will be like Jesus (1 John 3:2). This is the eschatological hope that the New Covenant offers. But the Bible also says that even now “we are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord” (2 Cor. 3:18). This is one experiential promise that is ours now under the New Covenant. We no longer have to be bound by the passions of our sin nature. God the Holy Spirit is at work within our hearts, to free us from sin’s grip and to make us more and more like Jesus.
Direct access to God (Hebrews 8:10).Another New Covenant promise is that “I will be their God, and they shall be My people.” Revelation promises that the resurrected believer “shall see His face” (Rev. 22:4). We will live in and enjoy the very presence of God. This is the eschatological hope expressed in the New Covenant.
But the Bible also invites us to “come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need” at this very moment (Heb. 4:16)! Right now we have immediate access to the Lord. We can come to Him in prayer, whether for mercy (forgiveness) or grace to help (strength). This is another New Covenant blessing that we can experience today.
Believers have direct, immediate access to God.
Knowing God personally (Hebrews 8:11).
In the Hebrew language, “know” is a rich concept. It moves us beyond intellectual knowledge to personal experience. It moves us from acquaintance to intimacy. In promising that “all shall know Me,” God’s New Covenant points us beyond knowing about God to a wonderful personal relationship with Him. This also is an eschatological hope.
Writing in Colossians, Paul reminds us that we can know God intimately and personally today. As we learn more about His will as revealed in Scripture and let our steps be guided by Him, we are promised fruitful lives. We will also grow to know God better (Col. 1:9–11).
Coming to know God is another of the New Covenant promises which we appropriate today. We can experience God, not as a distant deity, but as a friend who is deeply involved in our daily lives.
No remembrance of sins and lawless deeds (Hebrews 8:12).
Under the New Covenant, the community of Israel is promised future forgiveness of sins. In saying that He will no longer “remember” sins and lawless deeds, God is making a significant statement. In the idiom of the Old Testament, to “remember” something is to act in accordance with it.
This New Covenant promise looks forward to a time when sins are paid for and gone and the demands of justice are met. In that time, God will treat His people graciously, for the guilt of their sins will be removed.
How wonderful that right now “we have redemption through His [Christ’s] blood, the forgiveness of sins” (Col. 1:14). When Jesus instituted the New Covenant on the Cross, He paid for all our sins—past, present, and future. God now is free to treat us graciously and with mercy—not as our sins deserve.
And, because God is at work in our lives, writing His Law on our hearts, we who have experienced forgiveness are motivated to live lives that are pleasing to Him.
New Covenant blessings are spiritual in nature. And these blessings are available to us in Jesus today.
Establishing a New Covenant relationship with God.
Jeremiah wrote that God would one day make a New Covenant “with the house of Israel.” The New Covenant, like the Davidic Covenant, is a further development of the covenant that God made with Abraham and his descendants.
Who was the gospel for?One of the promises imbedded in the Abrahamic Covenant was that all families on earth would be blessed in Abraham. In making the Abrahamic Covenant and the New Covenant, God had more than the Jewish people in mind! God was thinking of everyone.
When the early church was first formed, it was composed of Jewish believers. Within a few years, many Gentiles had also responded to the gospel. When Cornelius, the first Gentile to become a Christian, was saved, the Jewish believers “glorified God, saying, ‘Then God has also granted to the Gentiles repentance to life’” (Acts 11:18).
Through the missionary work of the apostle Paul, the Gentile church exploded. A council was held in Jerusalem because of this rapid growth. After listening to the report of the missionaries about what God was doing among non-Jews, James summed up a conclusion that had been inescapable since Simon Peter had reported the conversion of Cornelius.
Men and brethren, listen to me: Simon has declared how God at the first visited the Gentiles to take out of them a people for His name. And with this the words of the prophets agree, just as it is written:
After this, I will return And will rebuild the tabernacle of David, which has fallen down; I will rebuild its ruins, And I will set it up; So that the rest of mankind may seek the Lord, Even all the Gentiles who are
called by My name, Says the Lord who does all these things (Acts 15:13–17).
It was clear to the early church that the good news of Jesus, along with access to the New Covenant blessings, was given to Gentiles as well as to Jews. This development was in full harmony with the Old Testament’s teachings.
The gospel was for all.
How was a New Covenant relationship with God established?
The answer to this question was evident from the beginning. As Abraham responded to God’s promise with faith, we are to respond to the gospel’s promise of personal salvation.
While on earth, Jesus told Nicodemus, “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). This simple message was preached by the apostles after Jesus’ resurrection. “To Him all the prophets witness that, through His name, whoever believes in Him will receive remission of sins” (Acts 10:43).
This message is still preached today. It is by faith in Jesus that we establish a New Covenant relationship with God. By faith, all the spiritual blessings described in that covenant are poured out on us.
Experiencing New Covenant blessings today.
In Old Testament times, keeping God’s Law was the way that a generation of Israelites or an individual believer gained access to covenant blessings. But the problem with the Law was that failure to keep it not only cut a generation off from blessing; failure to keep the Law brought God’s curse!
Because human beings are by nature sinners, being under the Law was inevitably a curse to His Old Testament people. This is one reason why Paul wrote in Romans 6:14 that “sin shall not have dominion over you, for you are not under law but under grace.” Human failure meant that sin ruled, for its power brought judgment after judgment upon Israel.
So while the Law did in theory provide access to blessings promised in the Abrahamic Covenant, in practice the Law was much more likely to bring punishment and pain.
In saying that we are no longer under the Law but under grace, Romans reflects the fact that the Mosaic Covenant of Law has been replaced by the New Covenant. The question then is, How do we gain access to the blessings promised in the New Covenant, if not by trying to keep God’s Law?
The answer is not given in a single passage but in a series of images found in different New Testament books.
Abide in Jesus (John 15:1–5).
Jesus pictured Himself as a grapevine, and described believers as branches. Power for a godly life and the ability to bear spiritual fruit flows through the vine to its branches. Thus the key to spiritual vitality is to abide in Jesus—a phrase which means “stay close to Him.” We stay close to Jesus by putting His teachings into daily practice. As we do, the Lord strengthens us and enables us to do His will.
Know, reckon, yield (Romans 8:4–13)
In Romans 6, Paul pointed out that believers have been united to Jesus. We “died” in His death, and we were “raised” with Him in His resurrection. Thus, Jesus provides us with His own resurrection power, which enables us to live a new kind of life. We are to know what has happened to us through our union with Jesus, to reckon (count on) the power He provides, and to yield ourselves to the Lord, making each choice out of a desire to do His will.
Jesus explained God’s salvation plan to Nicodemus.
Walk in the Spirit (Galatians 5:16).Galatians 5 contrasts “fruit” of the sin nature (adultery, uncleanness, hatred, jealousies, etc.) with “fruit” produced in the believer’s life by the Holy Spirit (love, joy, peace, etc.). The imagery suggests a struggle between competing desires. We are pulled in one direction by desires rooted in the sin nature. We are pulled in another direction by desires prompted by the Holy Spirit.
To “walk in the Spirit” means to respond to the Spirit rather than to sin’s urgings.
While there are other similar images in Scripture, these three highlight a central truth. The Christian experiences the blessings of the New Covenant by nurturing a deeper personal relationship with Jesus. It is not by trying to keep an external law that we find blessing, but by growing to love God more and more, and responding to Him as a person.
St. Augustine taught, “Love God and do as you please.” The person who is truly in love with God will want to do what pleases Him. And when we want to do what pleases God, the Holy Spirit enables us to succeed! As we walk close to the Lord, the New Covenant’s blessings are poured out on us in our own day.
Richards, L. (1998). Every promise in the Bible. Includes indexes. (68). Nashville: T. Nelson Publishers.