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Robin Parry is the husband of but one wife (Carol) and the father of the two most beautiful girls in the universe (Hannah and Jessica). He also has a lovely cat called Monty (who has only three legs). Living in the city of Worcester, UK, he works as an Editor for Wipf and Stock — a US-based theological publisher. Robin was a Sixth Form College teacher for 11 years and has worked in publishing since 2001 (2001–2010 for Paternoster and 2010– for W&S).

Wednesday, 6 August 2008

The Gospel of Israel, part 3 (Jeremiah's 'New' Covenant)

The ‘New’ Covenant
Israel’s persistent failure to obey the Law indicated that a deeper solution was needed to their failure – a heart solution. Writing at the start of the Babylonian exile the prophet Jeremiah wrote of this solution:

Jeremiah 31:31-36 "Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, 32 not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD. 33 But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, 'Know the LORD,' for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more." 35 Thus says the LORD, who gives the sun for light by day and the fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night, who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar- the LORD of hosts is his name: 36 "If this fixed order departs from before me, declares the LORD, then shall the offspring of Israel cease from being a nation before me forever."

God promised them that after he restored them from exile he would put his Law and his Spirit within them. This seems to be the equivalent of the promise in Deuteronomy when Moses promised that after the exile
Deuteronomy 30:6
the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.
It also seems equivalent to Ezekiel's promise of post-exilic restoration for Israel

Ezekiel 36:24-28 I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. 25 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. 26 And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. 28 You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God.

Christians are used to talking about the New Covenant but if we are really to appreciate what it is about we need to get to grips with its background in the hopes of Israel. The following points stand out.
  • This ‘new’ covenant was to be made with the Israelites - the house of Israel and the house of Judah - not the Gentiles (re-read the passages if you don't believe me). Indeed the 'new' covenant oracle is immediately followed by a divine promise that Israel will continue as a 'nation' before God forever (Jer 31:35-36 above). Any Christian appropriation of the new covenant motif needs to bear this in mind (we will consider in a later post how it is that Gentiles like me get to share in the blessings of Israel's NC).

  • it was not thought of as a replacement for Law of Moses so much as an internalization of it. Its purpose was to makes obedience to Torah an actuality. So there is both continuity and discontinuity between the 'old' covenant (the Sinai covenant) and the 'new' covenant.
  • We Christians, in our zeal to emphazise the stunning contrasts between the old and new covenants, are sometimes in danger failing to recognize the continuity between them. The NT contrast is perhaps best thought of not as one between the Law of Moses per se and the 'new' covenant (though it might sometimes look that way). Rather it is between the Old Covenant (i.e., Law of Moses + sinful human nature [=death]) on the one hand and the New Covenant (Law of Christ - in my view, the Torah as mediated via Christ - internalized by the Spirit [=life]). When seen like that the contrasts that Paul makes between the two covenants make sense without in any way undermining Torah. Paul's problem was never with the Torah as such but with 'the flesh' that was unwilling and unable to obey the Torah and, as a consequence, brought curse and death. Torah + flesh = 'the law of sin and death' but Torah + Spirit = 'the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus' (Rom 8:2). In 2 Cor 3 it is the Spirit that makes the difference in the new covenant and not the loss of the Torah.
  • (As an aside, I wonder if it is best to think of the NC in terms of the now/not yet tension of the NT's inaugurated eschatology. The NC is part of the present experience of the Church but it is not here in its fulness. If it was here in its fulness Christians would not sin. Well, I don't know about you but ...)

  • it would not become a reality until the exile ended.

The ‘new’ covenant would allow Israel to at last carry out its mission to the nations.

14 comments:

David Reimer said...

Hi Robin - You might enjoy (or you might not!) reading this St Andrews PhD thesis which attempts an "Augustinian" reading of Jer. 31:31-34. Fascinating stuff.

(If the link above doesn't work, this Google search should find it.)

Maybe you want to publish it. ;)

David Reimer

Robin Parry said...

David

I don't have security clearance to get past the firewall but if readers are interested here is a link to a blog summarizing the thesis (David - is this the same thesis that you had in mind?).

http://www.danieldriver.com/blog_files/jan-2008.php

Love him or hate him (or both), you can't ignore Augustine. :-). Thanks for the link.

Robin

Teresita said...

This ‘new’ covenant was to be made with the Israelites - the house of Israel and the house of Judah - not the Gentiles (re-read the passages if you don't believe me).

A covenant consists of obligations and promises. Even in the Old Covenant, the promises were not awarded as a consequence of observing the obligations. For the non-Jewish strangers who lived in Israel were obliged to observe the Law as well. Numbers 15:15 One ordinance shall be both for you of the congregation, and also for the stranger that sojourneth with you, an ordinance for ever in your generations: as ye are, so shall the stranger be before the LORD.. At the same time, the Promise passed from Abraham to Isaac to Jacob to Judah, thence to the Kings of Judah, and finally rested (Christians believe) on the Son of Man, Jesus Christ. And Christians partake of this Blessing simply by allowing Christ to abide within us, to literally live his risen life through us.

it was not thought of as a replacement for Law of Moses so much as an internalization of it. Its purpose was to makes obedience to Torah an actuality. So there is both continuity and discontinuity between the 'old' covenant (the Sinai covenant) and the 'new' covenant.

Paul speaks of the holy heathens, who knew not the Law, yet lived according to its precepts based on the dictates of their own conscience. He says there is no sin imputed where there is no Law. After Calvary, as a side-effect of the redemption of the world (1 John 2:2) there no longer remains an excuse for sin based on ignorance of the Law. It's essence is now encoded within the human heart.

The NC is part of the present experience of the Church but it is not here in its fulness. If it was here in its fulness Christians would not sin.

According to St. John, sin is the transgression of the Law. For Christians, it is the transgression of the moral Law, since the ceremonial aspects of the Law were "nailed to the cross" (Col. 2:14). Some theologians say in the Kingdom Christians will not sin, but this is stated by the Christians in the Reformation tradition as a purely legal definition which is imposed on us, forensically, by decree, from above, rather than the bottom-up objective sanctification of the soul which is the result of man freely cooperating with grace. In the former view, the New Covenant is seen as a global but staged process because as you point out, sin is still present in Christians at this time. In the latter view, the New Covenant is a completed work by Christ on the cross, but is always "under construction" in its practical application to the individual Christian as we individually become refined like gold until all impurity is gone. At that point, we retain our free will and the possibility of committing sin, but we won't sin because it would go against our transformed nature.

The ‘new’ covenant would allow Israel to at last carry out its mission to the nations.

Christ was the founder of an innovative sect of Judaism which was proslytizing in character. Until his ministry, all sects of Judaism were triumphalist and self-contained, provincial to the point of forbidding even marriage outside of the cult in the extreme, and outside of the House of Israel at the very least. Never were procedures for a proslytizing "mission" stated in the Old Testament, only prophecies that the family of nations would come to Mount Zion to worship, somehow drawn by the light. The Great Commission, then, represents a new command from the Father, communicated to us by the Son on the cusp of his return to glory.

Chris Donato said...

"As an aside, I wonder if it is best to think of the NC in terms of the now/not yet tension…"

I think so. Absolutely. How I wish discerning and doing the will of God was automatic, like Jer. 31 suggests. Surely we're enabled by God's Spirit now to in some way fulfill this, but we've not yet done so in the way such oracles promise.

Chris Donato said...

Teresita wrote: "Paul speaks of the holy heathens…."

This is a misreading of Romans 2. Paul clearly has in mind those who have begun to fulfill the promise of the new covenant (Jer. 31), i.e., Gentile Christians, who had not the Torah "by heritage" (Rom. 2:14). Its essence—the love command—has been encoded on the Christian's heart by the Holy Spirit.

Teresita: "Christ was the founder of an innovative sect of Judaism…"

I think this works only if we keep in mind that despite the fact that it appears sectarian from a first-century perspective, it actually shows itself to be more true than all other messianic attempts because it's more in-line with all the Law and Prophets that preceded it.

Teresita said...

Chris Donato: This is a misreading of Romans 2. Paul clearly has in mind those who have begun to fulfill the promise of the new covenant (Jer. 31), i.e., Gentile Christians, who had not the Torah "by heritage" (Rom. 2:14). Its essence—the love command—has been encoded on the Christian's heart by the Holy Spirit.

I believe scripture does not confine this "encoding" of the spirit of the Law we both speak of to people who have already been adopted into Christ's Church by baptism nor to those who have learned the Law from their youth. There is the story in Acts 10 of the Roman centurion Cornelius, a gentile "of good report" who demonstrates to Peter's satisfaction that he has been called by God to unite himself with the Church, prompting Peter to say, "Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons: But in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him.

The Pook said...

(Bible Trivia) Jeremiah's promise of a new covenant is the longest OT quote in the NT (in Hebrews 8).

The way the NT treats the promise of the New Covenant is to apply it to Jews and Gentiles together (eg. Lke 22:20 cf. 1 Cor 11:25; 2 Cor 3:6). Which is reasonable to conclude even from the OT when you combine Jeremiah 31 with Isaiah 49, which says things like "“It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles,
that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.”
and "This is what the Sovereign LORD says: “See, I will beckon to the Gentiles, I will lift up my banner to the peoples; they will bring your sons in their arms
and carry your daughters on their shoulders.""

Not to mention the promises to Abraham again - the reason for Israel's election was to bless the nations.

So I don't think the New Covenant was for literally only Israel and Judah.

Chris Donato said...

I'm not intending to deny a lex naturae or sensus divinitas in all humankind, Teresita. Indeed, it is this that fundamentally judges all people when it's not attended to. On the other hand, it's also that which Christians, by the power of God's Spirit, are daily being conformed to (which in the new covenant is called "the law of Christ").

The bit about Cornelius doesn't, it seems to me, say anything about Torah and how its sum and essence had been written upon his heart before responding faithfully to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

If everything was okay with Cornelius (if the sum and essence of Torah was already written upon his heart), why did God send St. Peter to him? Why speak the gosple to him? Why subsequently baptize him? Was his coming to have faith in the promises of God in Christ irrelevant?

Teresita said...

Chris Donato: The bit about Cornelius doesn't, it seems to me, say anything about Torah and how its sum and essence had been written upon his heart before responding faithfully to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Cornelius was a Roman proslyte of the Jews, uncircumcised but observing many of the laws in the Torah. He was, therefore, a gentile man who desperately sought a close relationship with God, and only the fact of his foreign birth stood as a barrier between him and God. Jews such as Peter were forbidden by the Law to even draw near to gentiles such as Cornelius, yet Cornelius wished to draw near to the Jews by observing such written laws as he could, hoping in this way to draw that much closer to their God. But Christ had intervened through his death. The prayers and almsgiving of Cornelius were noticed by God, and there was sent an angel to help get him together with Peter, which they finally did at Caesarea. Only then, in Acts 10:36 etc. did he hear the gospel of Jesus Christ and begin to speak in tongues with the coming of the Holy Spirit upon him, which was sufficient for Peter to baptize him.

The Pook said...

Perhaps the key to reconciling Teresita's and chris donato's comments lies in remembering that Cornelius is a God-fearing Gentile living in the overlap of the ages that occurs during this early period of the church, where the gospel of Jesus is going out first to the Jew then to the Gentile (from Jerusalem to all Judea and Samaria to the ends of the earth - Acts 1:8). This overlap time continues until the destruction of the Temple during the Roman-Jewish war. The theological point that Luke (and Peter) is making with this story of Cornelius is that Jews living under the Old Covenant and Gentiles living under the Old Covenant are accepted by God on an equal footing through faith in Christ, and given the same Spirit as evidence of that standing before God. Acts goes further of course (as do the epistles) to show that even complete heathen are accepted the same way, without having to become Jews or even 'God-fearers' like Cornelius.

James Pate said...

I have a question here:

In many parts of the New Testament, Paul acts as if Gentiles were once under the Old Testament law. In Galatians 4 (I believe), he says that people were under the law as a schoolmaster before Christ came. And he's writing to Gentiles here.

The problem is that Gentiles were not technically under the law, since it was given to Israel. Romans 2 says those who have sinned apart from the law are judges apart from the law. Gentiles have their conscience. And, yes, I agree with Teresita on this, since Paul's aim is to show the Gentiles that they're without excuse even though they don't have the Torah.

So my question is: What do you do with all this?

Robin Parry said...

Pook

I think that the NT does include Gentiles in the new covenant. The Q is how it does so given the clear limitation of the NC to Israel in the OT.

I suspect that the answer would lie in the way in which believers are united with Christ by the Spirit. Christ represents Israel and so 'in Christ' Gentiles are united to Israel's story, plugged into its covenant life and blessings, etc, etc. We are the wild brances grafted into Israel. We remain wild brances (i.e., Gentiles and not Jews) but also are part of the one, diverse, escahtological people of God. So it is that we come to share in the new covenant even though it was made with Israel.

Just a thought

Robin Parry said...

James

I always thought that Paul was speaking about Jews in that part of Galatians (for the very reason that you give). There is, of course, debate on when the 'we' is 'we Jews' and when it is 'we Christ-believers'. I'd need to look at Galatians again.

The challenge for me in that text is whether Paul is saying that the role of the Torah is temporary (or if he is saying that certain aspects of its role are temporary).

Galatians is on my to-look-at-yet-again list of texts.

Robin

James Pate said...

Hi Robin,

What you said highlights another issue: Does Paul believe that the Jews have to keep the Torah? In Acts, as you pointed out, he's clear that he's not trying to discourage them from their customs. Yet, in Galatians, he calls Judaism in Jerusalem "slavery," as he associates Hagar with Sinai. And if he's telling Jews that the law was their schoolmaster, then he's also telling them that they're no longer under that schoolmaster.