The New Covenant: God’s promises and our response

Scriptures: Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 119:9-16; Hebrews 5:5-10; John 12:20-33

Today we move into the fourth and last part of this series on covenants, God’s promises and our response. I’d like to touch on a little bit of review, as I am wont to do, about how the covenants built on one another, not replace its predecessor.

We have the Abrahamic Covenant, which was an all-encompassing promise of a future nation and land – if he can faithfully follow God. There is very little in specifics.

Abraham could not do it, which God knew was going to happen. That’s why He went through the blood ritual on Abraham’s behalf, so that the penalty fell upon God. This was God’s love and grace in action. Abraham did nothing to merit God’s choice. God chose him, to make His people from Abraham.

The Mosaic Covenant was second. After spending years being visibly present in some form or another with His chosen people, God – at their request, mind you – makes another covenant through Moses. It’s far more specific, and reveals more of what God expects in terms of relating to Him and to each other.

It was written in stone, as the liturgist noted. They were to love as God has loved. If they did so, God’s hand would be upon them, and they could be assured of His presence. In other words, they would be blessed.

Now, they failed this one before the coffee had even cooled. They were already failing it when Moses brought down the ten tablets, and he had to go and get another set, because he was so mad he busted them.

Therefore God gave them the sacrificial system of atonement, knowing that they would fail. It models and points to God’s future plan for salvation that is going to be fulfilled and was fulfilled in Jesus Christ, and recognizes the fact that, as human beings with a sin nature, we simply cannot succeed in fulfilling God’s law.

Finally, we have the Davidic Covenant, the third one, and it builds on the first two. Leaving the sacrificial system in place from Moses, leaving the nation of Israel as the chosen people of God, but promising not only once again the land and nation that God had promised to Abraham, but also that God would never stop loving and caring for His chosen people, even when they were disobedient and being chastised. What we have here is the assurance of God’s love and plan of salvation further revealed. Even though we fail, God is with us.

Now we have the new covenant, or as the liturgist mentioned, possibly the “renewed” covenant. First mentioned in Jeremiah, it tells us ultimately how God intends for our salvation to be worked out.

Now, Jeremiah was an interesting character. He wrote both Jeremiah and the book of Lamentations, and he was known as the “weeping prophet.” He was known for his emotional expression – both physical and verbal. It says at one point that he went around for three years with an ox yoke around his shoulders, to make an example of the bondage that Israel was suffering to its own nature and politics rather than God.

Jeremiah was well aware of his reputation. In fact, at one point in Jeremiah itself, he complains to God that all God ever used him for was to deliver bad news. Well, what we have here in Jeremiah 31 is a seminal change, because we have good news.

This good news actually starts in verse 28, with the promise of a new time where Israel is built up rather than torn down and oppressed, and that justice will be served. We see that in verse 30 where it talks about “all shall die for their own sins, and the teeth of everyone who eats sour grapes shall be set on edge.”

We have a promise of building up and justice. Then it moves on further to explain that promise. As we look at Jeremiah 31:31-34, he talks about this new covenant. He says, “the time is coming.” Now, that was over four hundred years later, but what is that to God? “Surely I will make a renewed covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.” (They were split at the time of Jeremiah’s prophecy.)

“It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors.” It will not be made on stone. It will not be made of ritual actions. “’The covenant they broke, though I was their husband,’ says the Lord.” God frequently uses that marital imagery when trying to describe His relationship with His chosen people.

God feels like He is the husband, and He asks for faithfulness. Every time Israel would go and worship false idols, they were having an affair, and they were being unfaithful to God, Israel’s husband. We, too, are called the bride of Christ. We have a responsibility to be faithful.

He says, even though they broke that other covenant, that in the later days, “I will put my law in them, and will write it on their hearts. I will be their God and they shall be my people. And all shall know me, from the least of them to the greatest. For I will forgive their iniquity and remember their sin no more.”

So He promises that every one of us individually would know God. And He gives us that wondrous promise, since we know we’re going to fail, that He would forgive our sins, and remember our sins no more.

The law described in the Mosaic Covenant will be written on our hearts. Now let me ask you a series of questions. How can that happen, unless things change between us and God, and also within each one of us? And if the promise is with Israel, wow do we even get included?

Well, for the first thing, in terms of changing relationship between us and God, we have atonement that achieves reconciliation between us and God. That atonement was done in the Mosaic covenant by the slaying of animals.

But no matter how unblemished the calf may be, no matter how unblemished the bull may be, no matter how unblemished the goat may be, it wasn’t enough. It tells us that in Hebrews. It wasn’t enough because, let’s face it, an animal is not worth as much as a man – the people at PETA notwithstanding.

They couldn’t do it, and that’s why they had to re-offer their sacrifices again and again. They had an imperfect animal sacrifice, but it was a perfect sacrifice that came through Christ in the incarnation. Christ became both fully human and fully God, and as a human he perfectly lived out God’s law. He did exactly what we were supposed to do in the covenant. He fulfilled it for us.

Then, having done that part of it, he suffered terrible things, and was hung on a cross to die. He became sin for us, Paul says, at that moment on the cross, and God the Father turned His face away. And after that, Jesus said, “It is finished.”

It was a triumphant shout, because he had done everything that God had brought him here to do. No matter how much trepidation he was feeling in the Garden of Gethsemane, when he said, “Take this cup from me if possible, but nevertheless let Thy will be done,” he turned around, and was able to stay up there for you and for me, because he loved us.

In that shedding of his blood and his very life, he cleansed us of our sin, and made a way for us to be reconciled with God. That reconciliation, then, was completed. This is what Jesus pointed to in the Last Supper, when he said, “This is my body, which is broken for you.”

If you remember, a couple of weeks ago, when we had Communion, I mentioned that Communion – the Eucharist – is a two-part thing. You have the bread, of which he said “This is my body, which is broken for you,” and pointed to the sacrifice that needed to occur, the cleansing that would only occur through the shed blood of Jesus. That tells us just how much we need Christ. We can’t do it on our own.

Then we have the cup, which sometimes when they distribute, they say “the blood of Jesus shed for you.” I like to say “the cup of salvation,” if you’ve ever heard me when I’m serving the elders. Because to me, the cup points to the victory that was achieved in Christ. The blood seals the new covenant, which was shed for the remission of sins. It points to the victory Christ gained on the cross, and then in the grave, for us, as he was resurrected.

So he pointed to this new covenant and its purpose in the Last Supper. When he was raised again, and was glorified, we too had the opportunity to become new creatures with a new heart. You see, that’s how we achieve that reconciliation. Reconciliation was achieved on the cross. And then we achieve the change within ourselves. That’s how we have God’s law written on our hearts. We’re new creatures in Christ.

Paul says that we die in our baptism, we die with Christ, when we come out of the water again into new life. So what does it mean that we’re a new creature? Because, you know, it doesn’t really matter what age you are, from seven on to seventy, and more. You can always become a new creature if you accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior.

What does that mean? Well, what it means is that having been washed clean of our sin, having had a clean slate provided, we then become a new identity in Jesus Christ. I like to tell people that in baptism we only use given names.

We never use the last name, and there’s a reason for that. It’s because the last name is assumed to be “Christian,” or follower of Christ. You’re part of a new family, a new people. You’re a new creature. In God’s eyes, you have been fundamentally transformed at some level, even thought you may not feel it at this moment.

This goes all the way back to the Jewish understanding, when they would baptize foreigners who would convert and go all the way with circumcision and everything, and they would baptize them and they would call them new people. They would cancel all their old debts that were owed. Everything was wiped clean, as they started a new life. And in that new life we have a new liberty.

Paul tells us that we have liberty. Not liberty and freedom to sin, but liberty and freedom to not sin. You see, sin is no longer our master. We have a new heart. Jesus achieves this in the resurrection, and then seals it on Pentecost, as the promise of the Holy Spirit’s coming was fulfilled.

We don’t do it on our own merits, just because we’re new creatures and because we have new hearts. We do it through the power of the Holy Spirit who indwells us and comes to live within us. So that we too can fulfill the covenant.

You see, so often in the Old Testament, the primary way that they showed the love of God was through fear. We don’t need to fear God. Honor Him? Yes. Be awestruck by Him? Absolutely. He is a wondrous God, a great God, an awesome God. But we don’t need to fear Him, so that we only do things because we’re afraid of the consequences.

No, we have a new heart so that we can love God, in all His awesomeness, so that we can turn to Him in all of our brokenness, and we can trust in Him, that He will never leave us or forsake us, and will give us what we need.

Now what about that third question, about Israel? As I noted, when we’re baptized, we’re baptized into a new family. We’re baptized into the people of God. We have received a new citizenship. I mean, I’m a citizen of the United States of America, with all the rights and privileges that go along with it. But I also have a higher citizenship. I belong to the Kingdom of God, which is far superior to any human nation or government.

Now some might say, “Wait.” That still doesn’t explain what Jeremiah says, “I will make my covenant with the house of Israel.” I’m not an Israelite. I wasn’t born of Israelite parents, and neither were most of you. You and I are people that in Jesus’ day would have been called Gentiles. Though if we are Gentiles, how can we take part in this new covenant? We’re not a naturalized citizen of Israel.

Well, Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians, chapter 2, says this:

Therefore remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth, and called uncircumcised by those that call themselves the circumcision, that done in the body by the hands of men, remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Jesus Christ, you who were once far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him, we both have access to the Father by one Spirit. Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself the cornerstone.

Now I’ll summarize all that up, because I went through that really fast and you didn’t have time to go to your Bibles and look it up. Ephesians 2:11-20, if anyone wants it for after ward. What Paul is telling the Ephesians is “Once you were just Gentiles. You were separated from Christ. You were excluded from citizenship with Israel. You were foreigners to the covenant. You were without hope and without God. But it’s not true anymore. Because in Christ Jesus, you who were once far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ.”

We have a new citizenship, once we are baptized in our hearts, born of the water and of the Spirit. I am part of the new covenant with Israel because, where I once was excluded from citizenship with Israel, I am now part of Israel. Because of this new relationship and new citizenship, I now have a new heart and a new spirit within me. I am a new person.

Let me tell you, share with you, this is not talking about Israel in terms of the geopolitical country that’s down in the Middle East and in the news everywhere. This new Israel, this Israel that we are part of, this citizenship in this kingdom of God’s chosen people that we are part of, is a spiritual one. Jesus himself said to Pontius Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world.”

We partake. Israel has always been the people of God. We are accepted as part of the people of God. He has laid claim upon us. He has selected us to be His own. And so we’re new.

There was a man who approached a woman in a restaurant. With a broad smile, he said, “Dorothy! It’s so good to see you. I really love what you’ve done with your hair, and your clothes style is really great.” The woman was blushing and she said, “Sir, I think you’ve mistaken me for someone else. My name is Helen.” The man paused for a moment, then said, “Oh! You’ve changed your name too.”

That was a case of mistaken identity, but with Christ’s blood there is no mistake. We are children of God. We are remade and reborn with a new identity. We have a new lease on life in the covenant that God made. Because that’s what Jeremiah means, when he says, “I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”

God remembers our sins no more. We are made new creatures. And even during this time of Lent, Lent is a time of reflection and preparation. We reflect on what we’ve done that put Christ on the cross, and see the ways our lives might be changed, how we can better adhere to the covenant that God has made with us.

Let us never forget that the covenant doesn’t stop on Good Friday, with Jesus dying. It goes on, through Easter and the resurrection, and then Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit. And so we also during this time of Lent have hope, because we see what’s going on. We know what the future is. We don’t need any kind of swami’s hat or crystal ball. God has told us in His Word.

The day will come when Jesus Christ comes back and every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that He is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. At that time, we shall know God face to face, and we’ll celebrate. And all the trials of this world will pass away and will seem inconsequential to the glory that we receive in Jesus Christ.

And what we now see partly, through a glass dimly, we will see clearly, face to face. We will celebrate with joy that time when all things are made new. Paul talks in Thessalonians about how when Christ comes again, we’ll all be changed in the twinkling of an eye.

I love that metaphor, and the thought that I don’t have to deal with my knees, and my hip, and my ankle, and my sinuses, and my asthma, and so much other stuff that is just part of being a human being. Also, my sinfulness and my tendency to failure. Things will be made new. That’s an exciting future that we have been guaranteed, because of the love of God, and the grace that we receive, the mercy that we receive in Christ Jesus.

So even as we go through this Lenten time, and we remember how the light of Christ was snuffed, and we remember how we put him there on the cross, and we dwell on that purposefully, to help us understand the depth of God’s love for us, we also remember the hope, and celebrate the victory that ultimately is ours through Him.

We’re coming up on Holy Week. We’re coming up on Palm Sunday and then Holy Week. It’s going to be a time of intense emotion, a time of intense feeling, as we go through the moving days, and we remember the final days of Christ as a man here on earth.

But take hope, during this time of Lent. Take joy, wherever you can, as you remember that God is faithful and will always be with us, even if we fail. Live in that hope and joy from the promise from God.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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