The Gospel of Israel, part 3 (Jeremiah's '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."
It also seems equivalent to Ezekiel's promise of post-exilic restoration for IsraelDeuteronomy 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.
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.
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.
- 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.