By the time of Jeremiah Israel’s rebellion had become so odious that for God to tolerate it further would mean He was not merely patient with sinners, but sympathetic to treason. The nation was so consumed with folly that they positively demanded judgment. Their priests offered incense to statues inside the temple (Ezek 8:11). Their elders bowed to the sun in the courtyard (Ezek 8:16). They, “their kings, their princes, and their priests, and their prophets” were “saying to a stock, ‘Thou art my father’ and to a stone, ‘Thou hast brought me forth’” (Jer 2:26-27). They’d turned away from the good laws which were given to prosper them and instead opted for death. “They have gone back to the iniquities of their forefathers who refused to hear My words; they went after other gods to serve them. The house of Israel and the house of Judah have broken My covenant which I made with their fathers” (Jer 11:10). For this God would bring Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon to visit destruction up upon the faithless priests who’d ceased to offer sacrifices for sins, the Levites who decided to quit teaching the people to love God, and the people themselves for craving wickedness.
This begs the question, “Why did God allow sin to metastasize to the point where He needed to put an end to His people, excepting only a small remnant in exile?” Was it because their desire to do evil had rendered Him powerless to intervene? No. God had (and still has) all the power. As He said, “I am the LORD, the God of all flesh! Is there anything too hard for Me?” (Jer 32:27). But if He’s all powerful then were they allowed to destroy themselves because He’s not all loving? Again, no. As Scripture says, “’Is Ephraim my dear son? Is he My darling child? For as often as I speak against him, I do remember him still. Therefore My heart yearns for him; I will surely have mercy on him,’ says the LORD” (Jer 31:20, RSV).
By giving Israel every opportunity to succeed for a half a millennia God was carefully setting forth the truth that sinners need a savior. Their failure was necessary to show His strength and goodness, just as the bondage of Egypt was necessary to realize the mercy of Sinai, or the flood a necessary precursor to grace. It was only into their emptiness that the message of salvation apart from works could come, and only after they failed to keep the law that they could see salvation is not by human effort but by the work of an all-powerful, all-loving God. Had the priests turned their back on Him? He would send a new priest. Had their instructors refused to teach? He would send a new rabbi. Had men broken His covenant? He would make a new covenant.
In one sense the new covenant is narrower in scope than the old, being about how God will replace the old priesthood with a better one. But because the covenant of revelation is always growing and expanding, the new covenant is also larger and more splendid than the others. It reaches more people, with a greater effect, and in a more glorious way than even Sinai did. Whereas God made the Nohatic covenant with a single family to reveal His justice and grace, the Abrahamic covenant with hundreds to reveal His timelessness and blessedness, the Mosaic with entire nation to reveal His holiness, the new is made with the whole world (Jer 50:5) and reveals all God’s splendid attributes together in such a way that there’s no need for future covenants. It begins, as they all do, with a historic preamble:
“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 broke, although I was a husband unto them, says the Lord. But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days” (Jer 31:31-34).
There are two ideas here: the new covenant will be like the previous one made under Moses, and the new covenant will not be broken.
Firstly, in saying “a new covenant with the house of Israel” God establishes Sinai as the reference point for His new work, since it was then that He “took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt.” This means the previously established themes will make an appearance again. There will be washings, a mediator, a mountain, a tabernacle, a high priest, a prophet, a sacrifice, a celebratory meal, a law, a people. But the new forms will be superior to the old ones. The ark will be forgotten about in the new covenant (Jer 3:16), and unlike the old sanctuary, the new one will never be taken away (Ezek 37:26). The continual sacrifices which pleaded for forgiveness will be replaced with the God-Man giving Himself as a once-for-all sacrifice (Is 42:6, 49:8), and His blood will set the prisoners free from the waterless pit (Zech 9:11). In saying this God is building on, rather than clearing away, all the things He’s previously revealed about Himself.
Yet even though it will be similar to Sinai, the new covenant won’t be identical, as indicated by the phrase “not according to the covenant I made with their fathers.” But it may be asked, “If a covenant is an objective revelation about Christ then how can a new one be unlike an old one? Aren’t they all by nature identical?” To which the answer is, “No, God’s covenants with humanity all display a remarkable diversity.” While both Sinai and the new have the same ends of revealing Christ they don’t have the same means. Sinai is like a missing puzzle piece—the outline shows the shape but gives no detail about what’s on the piece. It’s like a footprint or a negative image, but in contrast, the new covenant is not only a direct revelation of Christ, it’s the perfect and final, once-for-all, never to be repeated promise of His successful work. One requires failure, but the other has no place for it, which is what’s indicated by the words, “which they broke.” Thus the old will pass away, but the new will never be broken or expire.
This new covenant is given in four portions: “I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts. I shall 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” (Jer 31:33-34); each part will be examined in turn.
“I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts”
The first promise recalls how the word given at Sinai was utterly beyond the people. There Moses delivered the Decalogue onto stone tablets, then put them in an ark (Deut 10:2), which killed you if you touched it (2 Sam 6:7), and put that into the most holy place (Ex 26:33) where only the high priest could go once a year (Heb 9:7). The law was literally inaccessible to the people. As a result, the people needed someone to bring it to them before they could understand or obey it. But those who had the job of explaining it had rebelled too, which is why God said, “I brought you into a plentiful country, to eat the fruit thereof and the goodness thereof, but when ye entered, ye defiled My land and made My heritage an abomination. The priests said not, ‘Where is the LORD?’ Those who handle the law knew Me not, the pastors also transgressed against Me, and the prophets prophesied by Baal, and walked after things that do not profit” (Jer 2:8). So owing to sin of the prophets and priests the law was beyond the people.
In response, God promises to send a new and better prophet to deliver the law, a new and better priest to teach His word. This second Moses will not put the law on to some distant stone tablet many miles away, but will put it directly on His listener’s hearts. This time the people themselves will be the ark where God’s word abides, the temple where He dwells (1 Cor 6:19). This time the giving of the law will be invisible, internal, its ordinances not ushered in with fire and earthquakes but with through the quiet workings of God (2 Cor 4:18), given by the perfect pastor and mediator.
Jesus is the new and better prophet sent by God. As He said, “I am not come of Myself, but He who sent Me is true, whom ye know not. But I know Him, for I am from Him, and He hath sent Me… the words that I speak unto you I speak not of Myself, but the Father that dwelleth in Me” (John 7:29; 14:10). This is also why His prayer at the end of His ministry was, “I have declared unto them Thy name, and will declare it, that the love wherewith Thou hast loved Me may be in them, and I in them” (John 17:26). And what was the message He brought? It was that the good news that peace with God had finally come (Mark 1:14): “These things I have spoken unto you, that in Me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation, but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). Jesus, being the perfect prophet, brought the final message in redemptive history.
He also fulfills this promise as the new and better priest, the One who brings a new and better law—for where there is a change in priesthood there is also a change in the law. The old shadows and types which were essential under the Levitical priesthood became obsolete under His ministry, which is why He abolishes the Jewish dietary restrictions (see Mark 7:15-23), and why He says to His disciples “a new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another as I have loved you” (John 13:34). It’s why there are no sacrifices, geologies, or temple duties after His work is finished, because those things belonged to the old, imperfect order which were headed up by imperfect priests.
Lastly, He’s the new and better rabbi, the One who He taught the people true meaning of the law (Matt 5-7). He taught “as one having authority, and not as the scribes” (Matt 7:29) so powerfully that those sent to arrest Him instead sat at His feet and marveled, saying, “Never has a man spake like this man” (John 7:46). He freely poured out words which awaken the soul, which is why He said, “No man can come to Me, except the Father which hath sent Me draw him, and I will raise him up at the last day. It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall be all taught of God.’” (John 6:44-45).
“I shall be their God, and they shall be My people”
The second part of the New Covenant is contained in the promise that the broken relationship between God and man will be restored.
At Sinai the people were told that if they obeyed then God would bless them. If they chose to disobey however God would reject them from being His people and cast them out of His presence (Ex 19:5). In the most basic sense this is because a relationship is a two sided affair and can’t last when only one side is committed to making it work. Without obedience to God men cannot be holy, and without holiness no one can see the Lord (Heb 12:14).
And the problem was that the people were not in any sense obedient. As He’d said, “Say thou unto them, ‘Thus saith the LORD God of Israel: cursed be the man that obeyeth not the words of this covenant which I commanded your fathers in the day that I brought them forth out of the land of Egypt, from the iron furnace, saying, ‘Obey My voice, and do them, according to all which I command you, so shall ye be My people, and I will be your God’” (Jer 11:3-4). The law was not kept because there was anything wrong with it, but because the people were sinners and didn’t want to keep it. “This thing I commanded them, saying, ‘Obey My voice, and I will be your God, and ye shall be My people. Walk ye in all the ways that I have commanded you, that it may be well unto you.’ But they hearkened not, nor inclined their ear, but walked in the counsels and in the imagination of their evil heart, and went backward, and not forward” (Jer 7:23-24). Thus, having no desire to obey God, the people broke His covenant and turned their backs on Him.
Yet God wasn’t about to let His plan of manifesting His glory foiled by human hostility, nor His desire to be with them frustrated by their folly. If mankind found obedience distasteful then He’d send a better man to be obedient in their place. If it was impossible for them to submit to His will then He’d just have to put on humanity and do it for them. This is why there are no ifs in the new covenant promise, only the words “I shall be their God, and they shall be My people.” In the new covenant God will stand on mans side and fulfill the terms of the law in order to merit blessings for His people. Christ is going to be a new and better Israel. A new and better Adam. Through His headship we’ll have a right standing with the Father, and by His living and active obedience He’ll become our righteousness (1 Cor 1:30-31).
This perfect man is Jesus. He was born (Matt 1:18), grew up (Luke 2:52), felt the limitations of the flesh (John 4:6), and died (Mark 15:37) like every man does. More importantly, He submitted perfectly to His Father while doing so, even when doing things like drinking the cup of Gods wrath. Through everything His prayer was, “not My will, but Thine be done” (Luke 22:42). This is even more remarkable considering that He had every right to demand from humanity the love and obedience due Him, yet instead “He thought it not robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, and took upon Him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men. And being found in fashion as a man, He humbled Himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross” (Phil 2:6-8). And as the Psalmist said, “What is man, that thou art mindful of him? The son of man, that thou visitest Him? For thou hast made Him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned Him with glory and honor” (Ps 8:4-5). Jesus clothed Himself in humanity to do what sinful men could not, and by making Himself lower than the angels and obeying for us not only gained great glory and honor for God, but restored the relationship broken long ago by Adam.
The second promise of the New Covenant is therefore seen in the words of Jesus, “I seek not Mine own will, but the will of the Father which hath sent Me” (John 5:30).
“And they shall teach no more every man his neighbor, 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.”
The first promise speaks of a better priest and prophet, the second of a better man, and the third of a better revelation of God. Because God is holy and is “dwelling in the light which no man can approach unto, whom no man hath seen, nor can see” (1 Tim 6:16) the children of Israel never got a clear view of who He is. To overcome this God gave the Levites as teachers, but the problem was that with only a few exceptions (such as when Hezekiah encouraged the Levites in 2 Chronicles 30:22 to pass on the good knowledge of the Lord), the Levites didn’t want to reveal God, and the people didn’t want to know Him. As He said, “They have taught their tongue to speak lies, and weary themselves to commit iniquity. Thine habitation is in the midst of deceit, through deceit they refuse to know Me, saith the LORD” (Jer 9:5-6). And not just a few of them, but everyone from the least to the greatest had turned their back on knowing Him (Jer 6:13).
What do the words “know the Lord” mean exactly? Scriptures uses this phrase to speak of the blessings of the new covenant. Those who know the Lord will be betrothed to Him in faithfulness; they will see His going forth as the morning, for His coming shall be as the rains which give life to the earth (Hos 6:3, 2:20). More to the point, 1 Sam 3:7 speaks of knowing God personally when it says “Now Samuel did not yet know the LORD, neither was the word of the LORD yet revealed unto him.” Since the Word of the Lord wasn’t revealed to his eyes, Samuel didn’t know who He was—which wasn’t unusual considering a visit from Christ was a rare thing in those days (1 Sam 3:1). But according to this promise a day is coming when the Lord will reveal Himself openly and in such a way that everyone will see Him and know Him.
This is the incarnation. It’s the wonder of the baby in the manger being the very God of very God, the carpenter from Nazareth proclaiming, “Before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58). He stands before His disciples on the mount of transfiguration glowing in brightness to show them He’s the creator of heaven and earth wrapped in humanity. He is in the upper room reminding the disciples of this with the words, “If ye had known Me, ye should have known My Father also, and from henceforth ye know Him, and have seen Him… He who hath seen Me hath seen the Father” (John 14:7-9). To look upon Jesus is to look upon the God who set everything into motion, for “in Him dwelleth all the fullness of the Godhead bodily” (Col 2:9), the one who was from the beginning (1 John 1:1). To touch Him is to touch the source of life itself, the light of light. To enable us to know Him God sent Jesus, the perfect once for all revelation of Himself. As it is written, “The Son can do nothing of Himself, but what He seeth the Father do, for what things so ever he doeth, these also doeth the Son likewise” (John 5:19). He’s not just the priest who teaches the people, He is Himself the revelation. His drawing near to mankind a revolution in knowing of God, for to see Jesus is to know God.
“I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”
The last promise speaks of a priest coming to make an offering that successfully satisfies God’s wrath. It’s the most wonderful of the four promises, as it more than any other address the root problem of sin, that thing which kindles God’s anger and brings down His curses. As He’d said, “Thy bruise is incurable, and thy wound is grievous. There is none to plead thy cause, that thou mayest be bound up, thou hast no healing medicines. All thy lovers have forgotten thee, they seek thee not, for I have wounded thee with the wound of an enemy, with the chastisement of a cruel one, for the multitude of thine iniquity, because thy sins were increased. Why criest thou for thine affliction? Thy sorrow is incurable for the multitude of thine iniquity. Because thy sins were increased, I have done these things unto thee” (Jer 30:12-15).
The sacrifices of animals made on the Day of Atonement were incapable of taking away the guilt of sin, and consequently the transgressions of the nation were never really dealt with. Every year the priest made another offering in the hopes that this time the bloody sacrifice would cleanse them of their guilt, but it never did, being only designed to bring to mind the Son of Man who had the power to purge sin. But there is coming a new and better offering, made by a new and better priest.
This promise is fulfilled by the crucifixion. As it is written, “They crucified Him with two thieves, the one on His right hand, and the other on His left. Thus the Scripture was fulfilled which says, ‘And He was numbered with the transgressors…
When the sixth hour had come there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour. At the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” which is, being interpreted, “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?…
After this, Jesus knowing that all things were now accomplished, that the scripture might be fulfilled, said, “I thirst.” Now there was set a vessel full of vinegar, and they filled a sponge with vinegar and put it upon hyssop, and put it to His mouth. And after Jesus had received vinegar, He said, “It is finished!”
And He bowed His head, and gave up the ghost.”(Mark 15:27-28, 33-34; John 19:28-30)
The cross was when Jesus, counted as guilty, bore the equivalent punishment of an eternity in hell, and thus lifted the mandatory death sentence against men, (more on this later).
The new covenant is an objective revelation which promises a new and better priest, sacrifice, teacher, law-giver, prophet, mediator, intercessor, revelation of God and obedient man. It’s the final, perfect expression of the covenant of revelation, the culmination of all the other covenants, and the lens that brings everything into focus.
But even though this covenant tells us what the Son of Man will be like and what He’ll do, it’s also framed entirely in the subjective sense. In the proto-evangel men were almost an afterthought in order to remind them they’re not at the center of the story. But by this point men are front and center in God’s promises to show how merciful He is. This doesn’t mean the promises are first and foremost about us. It does mean however that these promises are to us, and that after finding Christ in the text we ought to find ourselves in Him. It’s a reminder to praise Christ both for who He is and what He’s done, and by giving the covenant in a subjective fashion God underscores the importance of following the objective revelation with a subjective faith. Christians are not to be people who look in a mirror, accept what they see, and go away unchanged. Christians are to be those who show off the full glory of the promises with a living and active faith, for it’s only through the kind of faith that produces the fruit of action that the graciousness, compassion, and tenderness of God can be fully manifest.
It must be mentioned however these four promises are nothing categorically original, they’re only building on what God has already revealed. Men had known they are counted righteous by faith alone since the time of Abraham, but they didn’t know why, because it wasn’t until this point in redemptive history that God could explained its mechanism. The second promise means that because Christ put on a real humanity, He not only took our punishment, but we humans can take His righteousness. The fourth promise means that His death expunged the debt of sin for believers. It also means that justification is a sure, once-for-all pronouncement because Christ’s sacrifice has secured the redemption of the elect beyond their ability to ruin, beyond the ability of anyone or anything to call into question, just as it’s written, “Who shall lay anything to the charge of God’s elect? It is God who justifieth” (Rom 8:33).
The new covenant promises also mean believers are set free from the power and penalty of sin. The indwelling corruption which has twisted and disfigured the mind, will, emotions, volitions, appetites, and reason is dealt a deathblow by the cross. The sin which compels us to do evil and ensures we seek our own glory is broken, liberating us to be what God created us to be. In Christ we are thus enabled to grow in holiness, in love, purity, and goodness. Through forgiveness we can walk in obedience, at which point the law ceases to be our tormentor and instead becomes our guide and our brother.
Forgiveness also means the thing which separated us from God is gone, and our distance from Him is erased. We are reconciled by righteousness, made into His people, adopted into His family. It’s this perhaps more than any other gift of the new covenant which is unbelievable, for it’s one thing to stand before an angry judge after attempting to murder him and hear that you’re freely pardoned because of what his son did on your behalf, but it’s another still for the judge to adopt you into his family with full rights and privileges. Yet that’s what we have in Christ. As it says, “He that overcometh shall inherit all things; and I will be his God, and he shall be My son” (Rev 21:7).
In sum, the new covenant, being a covenant, is a revelation of Jesus, and from that starting point becomes applicable to those united to Him by faith. Believers are now counted righteous by the blood of Christ, wholly forgiven, cleansed, adopted, and brought near to the God who made them.