Interpreting the New Covenant

Introduction

There is substantial controversy surrounding the proper interpretation of the announcement of a New Covenant between God and Israel and Judah (Je 31:31-34, Ezk 36:24-28).  Both the Jewish and Christian interpreters spin its interpretation to suit their theological views, leaving no consensus.  Let’s see if by working through the texts we can discover the truth.

Jeremiah Background

Jeremiah was a priest (from the line of Abiezer of Anathoth [which in itself is a whole other story for another time]), the son of Hilkiah (likely Josiah’s high priest), and one called by God to be His prophet in 627/626 BC, under the reign of the Judahite King Josiah (in his 13th year), the last of the “good” kings of Judah.

At this point in Israel’s history, the northern tribes had, as a result of their apostasy, been conquered and exiled by the Assyrians.  And now, a hundred years later, the same fate was confronting the southern tribes – the Judahites, this time at the hands of the Babylonians, but for the same reasons.  Judah had not been faithful to their God and had not even attempted to follow the Law of Moses, and so the stage had been set for God to impose his judgment on their apostasy.

So enter Jeremiah, under God’s direction (“Behold, I have put my words in your mouth.”), to call Judah to repentance before their LORD to prevent their destruction and exile.  Alas, Judah didn’t listen.  Jeremiah 13:10-11:

[10] This evil people, who refuse to hear my words, who stubbornly follow their own heart and have gone after other gods to serve them and worship them, shall be like this loincloth, which is good for nothing. [11] For as the loincloth clings to the waist of a man, so I made the whole house of Israel and the whole house of Judah cling to me, declares the LORD, that they might be for me a people, a name, a praise, and a glory, but they would not listen.

Ultimately, Jeremiah pronounces God’s judgment against Judah; (Je 25:11):

[11] This whole land shall become a ruin and a waste, and these nations shall serve the king of Babylon seventy years.

along with all of the surrounding nations (16 are identified, including ultimately Babylon itself, in Je 25:17-26.  None of them obeyed or even acknowledged YHWH.).

God’s Faithfulness to Israel and Judah

Despite this backdrop of rampant apostasy and the resultant decreed destruction of Jerusalem and many of the cities of Judah and the exile of the majority of their surviving inhabitants to Babylon (estimated to be 20,000 people), God nevertheless assures those exiled that they will return to their land after their seventy-year exile, and rebuild.

Jeremiah 29:10-14:

[10] “For thus says the LORD: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. [11] For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. [12] Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. [13] You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. [14] I will be found by you, declares the LORD, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares the LORD, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.

Jeremiah’s “New Covenant”

In chapter 31, following all of the condemnation, all of the judgment including exile, and all of the promises following the exile to return the exiles to their land, we get something completely different.  Jeremiah 31:31-34:

[31] “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] For 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.

There are some obvious characteristics of this announced covenant:

  1. It’s for/in the future relative to Jeremiah; “the days are coming…when I will make”. And again it stipulates “after those days…I will”. What days are “those days”?  Up to this point in chapter 31 God (through Jeremiah) has been poetically speaking of bringing Israel back to the land and the lives they will be blessed with there.  So we can assume that “those days” are the days when Israel has returned.  Sometime “after those days” God is going to implement this Covenant.
  2. The Covenant is a compact God is making with the entirety of the tribes of Jacob – the “house of Israel”, a euphemism for the northern tribes, exiled over a hundred years earlier, and the “house of Judah”, the now-exiled southern tribes. There is no mention of any other nations.  Time and again in Jeremiah we read of God’s “everlasting” ( עוֹלָם `ôlām: A masculine noun meaning a very long time) love for and faithfulness to His people Israel and the promises that He has made to their fathers (including, of course, Abraham).  Twice in Jeremiah God refers to Himself using the metaphor of “husband” to point to His characteristics of faithful caregiver, provider, and giver of love to His betrothed, Israel.  (Je 31:3 speaks of God’s 2617. חֶסֶד ḥeseḏ [A masculine noun indicating kindness, lovingkindness, mercy, goodness, faithfulness, love, acts of kindness] toward Israel.
  3. This Covenant will be different – “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”, clearly a reference to the Mosaic Covenant. So this isn’t just a recommitment to that Mosaic covenant; it is different in type — “not like” it.
  4. Instead of that Mosaic Covenant which was written on tablets and recorded in the scroll of Moses, this one God says He “will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. So this is unilaterally God’s doing.  He’s not asking for obedience and faithfulness as with the Mosaic Covenant.  He will unilaterally embed His law in the hearts of its recipients.
  5. The participants of this covenantshall 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.” Here God says His people are not going to have to be taught or encouraged to “Know the LORD” because (or “for”) “they shall all know me”.  And something about this condition of “knowing” the LORD results from Him forgiving “their iniquity and remembering their sin no more”.  While this is, for now, a bit opaque, it seems what is being said is that because God will have forgiven the recipient’s sin he will be enabled to “know me” without having to be taught.
  6. God here doesn’t demand anything from Israel. It appears to be completely unilateral.  This covenant is all about what He is going to do to change them.  This is crucially important to understand.  This kind of action toward a population is what is called in the New Testament “Grace” (charis).

One comment here before we move on.  The fact that this covenant has credentials as “new”, at least according to God’s word through Jeremiah, does not mean it is a wholesale replacement of the (implied “old”) Mosaic Covenant.  It is “new” in the sense of “another”; “in addition to”.  Nothing in Jeremiah makes any claim to the contrary.

Other New Covenant Prophecy

The prophet Ezekiel and Jeremiah were contemporaries of one another and overlapped in their prophetic ministries for about eight years; from approximately 596 BC to 588 BC.  Interestingly, neither mentions the other in their books.  Following the Babylonian destruction in 587 BC, Ezekiel was exiled to Babylon[i].

So both men were responding to the same God delivering His verdicts against Israel under the same circumstances and, we must assume, inspired by God to articulate not only God’s judgment that would be carried out against Israel, but also His promises to them of redemption, return from exile, and a God-decreed spiritual renewal at some point in the future.

In Ezekiel 11:17-20 the prophet, speaking for YHWH, says this:

[17] Therefore say, ‘Thus says the Lord GOD: I will gather you from the peoples and assemble you out of the countries where you have been scattered, and I will give you the land of Israel.’ [18] And when they come there, they will remove from it all its detestable things and all its abominations. [19] And I will give them one heart, and a new spirit I will put within them. I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, [20] that they may walk in my statutes and keep my rules and obey them. And they shall be my people, and I will be their God.

In this “heart of flesh” promise, we see a connection with Jeremiah’s “law written on their hearts” promise, leading to God’s same desired outcome – “that they may walk in my statues and keep my rules and obey them”.  Ezekiel is proclaiming the same basic promise as Jeremiah; that God is going to see to the transformation of His people such that they will be able to be obedient to His will/”rules”.

Then we have Ezekiel 36:22-28:

[22] “Therefore say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord GOD: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations to which you came. [23] And I will vindicate the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them. And the nations will know that I am the LORD, declares the Lord GOD, when through you I vindicate my holiness before their eyes. [24] 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.

In this passage, we’re given insight into why God has elected to implement His “New Covenant”: “for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations to which you came.”  God is saying that even in their exile in Babylon, Israel had defamed YHWH by their behavior there.  So even after Him exiling them from their land, they persisted in whatever apostasy to Him – idolatry, adultery, etc.  So something is going to have to change, and He’s going to have to do it.  He intends to do it by changing the people so that they “vindicate my holiness before their (the foreigner’s) eyes.”

We then have the ingathering promise repeated followed by the promise to give Israel “a new heart”, echoing Jeremiah, and that He will put a “new spirit within you”.

There is nothing about this covenant that bears any resemblance to the Mosaic.  God is covenanting with Israel to transform them into those who will be (able to be) obedient to His “statutes” and His “rules”.

Finally, we must not overlook a prophecy of the greatest prophet, Moses.  In Deuteronomy chapter 30 he has just finished reciting to Israel in Moab, before they enter the land, the blessings they will experience there for obedience to YHWH (Dt. 27) and the curses they will incur for disobedience (Dt. 28), including their exile to “a nation neither you nor your fathers have known. And there you shall serve other gods of wood and stone” (Dt 28:36).

Then in chapter 30 Moses says that God will bring them back from their exile to their land, and then change them.  Deuteronomy 30:5-6

[5] And the LORD your God will bring you into the land that your fathers possessed, that you may possess it. And he will make you more prosperous and numerous than your fathers. [6] And 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 is interesting (and more than a little controversial) that this prophecy is presented as being given some 700-800 years before Jeremiah’s.

Christian Interpretations

When Christians read these prophecies they near-universally conclude that they are predicting the giving of the Holy Spirit to those who repent and trust God for their lives, as according to the New Testament (NT) many Jews did following the Pentecost event.  They credit Christ and His sacrifice for providing forgiveness of their sins (as prophesied by Jeremiah), and enabling this transformation of their sinful natures to those that seek obedience to God, and the things of God, i.e. based now on knowing Him through His Spirit being provided to them.

Aside from their own empirical evidence of transformation, they cite many passages in the NT claiming Christ as the one Who inaugurates this New Covenant.  For example, at the Last Supper we have Jesus Himself announcing that His blood (i.e. death; then resurrection) is going to be the mechanism that provides Jeremiah’s covenant’s promise of forgiving and remembering the peoples’ sin no more: Matthew 26:27-28

[27] And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, [28] for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.

The author of Hebrews makes a strong case for Christ as the harbinger of Jeremiah’s New Covenant in Hebrews 8.  There, after citing Je 31:31-34 (see above), he concludes, quite controversially: Hebrews 8:13:

[13] In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.

Jews bristle at the claim that Jeremiah was in any way declaring their Mosaic Covenant obsolete.  But as we’ve seen so far, the idea of God transforming those who seek Him so that they can and do know and obey Him is fundamentally, qualitatively different than asking those same people, of their own resources, to know and obey Him.  I think, if nothing else, the Hebrew Bible testifies to the fact that the Jews, as representatives of all humanity, were incapable of living up to that covenant.

So if the old covenant is “obey all of my commands” and “love the LORD with all your heart and with all your mind and all your ‘everything’”, and the New says “now that you’ve proven to Me and yourselves that you’re incapable of doing these things, I’m going to make it possible for you to do so”, I’m not sure the charge of an “obsolete” Mosaic Covenant quite captures the situation.  What God makes “obsolete”(and which seems to have been the case from the very beginning) is my inability to live up to the old covenant, not its purpose of defining how God seeks for me to live.

In addition, there are many Messianic references in Jeremiah that seem to imply that the Messiah is the one Who will bring with Him the promised New Covenant.  For example; Je 23:5:

[5] “Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.

and Je 30:9

[9] But they shall serve the LORD their God and David their king, whom I will raise up for them.

plus Je 30:21, etc.

Jewish Interpretations

Jews don’t see Jeremiah’s prophecy as of a “new” covenant.  To do so would effectively be cultural suicide as the Mosaic Covenant given exclusively to them at Horeb/Sinai, and then reprised and written down by Moses forty years later in Moab, is the basis of their identity as a people.  They see it, rather, as the promise of returning to their land and a renewing of God’s commitment: not just to them, as a people, but to His Mosaic Covenant.

To understand how they see it this way, rabbis tend to focus on the word rendered “new” in Jeremiah 31:31:

    1. חָדָשׁ ḥāḏāš: An adjective meaning new, fresh.

Here’s an example of this opinion on the web.  However, when we look at the 48 occurrences of this word in the Tanakh they all refer to “new”, “new thing”, “new things” or “something new”.  So it is hard to see where they find “renew”.

The Keil and Delitzsch Commentary on the Old Testament provides an interesting insight concerning the necessity of a New Covenant:

“For the proper reason why a new covenant is made is not that the people have broken the old one, but that, though Jahveh had united Israel to Himself, they have broken the covenant and thereby rendered it necessary to make a new one. God the Lord, in virtue of His unchangeable faithfulness, would not alter the relation He had Himself established in His love, but simply found it anew in a way which obviated the breaking of the covenant by Israel. For it was a defect connected with the covenant made with Israel at Sinai, that it could be broken on their part. This defect is not to exist in the new covenant which God will make in after times.”

Since YHWH is committed (as a husband) to his faithless bride Israel, and she has abrogated the relationship between them by her faithlessness, He has to make a new bond between them to preserve their relationship and to uphold His “name” (as indicated in Ezk 36:22) – His honor.

Their second point of dispute with the Christian interpretation is better supported.  In it, they make the obvious point that Jeremiah’s prophecy is directed to “the house of Israel and the house of Judah”.  The wording is clear and unambiguous.  This New Covenant is between God and the Tribes of Jacob.

However, as they themselves admit, this covenant from their perspective remains unfulfilled: not “all” know the LORD so that people still need to be taught about Him and His will; and certainly, the Law is not written on everyone’s heart so that it is their nature to adhere to it (see Ezk 36:27 – “cause you to walk in my statues”).  So their only conclusion is that this covenant is yet to be inaugurated – that it is a feature of their Messianic future.

We’ll return to a resolution of this point, below.

Finally, and amazingly, this article, arguing against a Christ-based interpretation of the New Covenant, complains that since a covenant is between God and a people, and there is never an agreement by people in the NT with that covenant (unlike Israel’s acceptance of the Mosaic Covenant in Ex 19:8), that according to this line of thinking, there isn’t really a valid agreement between God and followers of Christ. I think this is what is known as “grasping at straws” – as if God needs our agreement with His will.

Outstanding Issues

The main issues raised here are: 1) Who is the New Covenant for?; 2) When is it implemented?; and 3) Why have we not seen “all” (Israel and Judah) transformed by it so far?

Answering the first question should lead to simpler answers to the others.  So let’s start there.

Who Is the New Covenant Applicable For?

As we’ve noted, there is no ambiguity in the literal language of the covenant text in Jeremiah (nor Ezekiel, for that matter). Jeremiah intends Judah and Israel as the recipients of the covenant.  But we must also be mindful that there was no implementation of this covenant in the Biblical text throughout the remainder of the Tanakh.  So that leaves the possibility that the rabbis’ interpretation – that it is a yet-future prophecy for the descendants of Israel and Judah (whoever they now may be) to be enacted at the coming of their Messiah (for them, still in the future) — is correct.

Let’s follow that thought.  Certainly, we can’t here repeat all of the NT biblical verses that attest to Jesus being the Jews’ Messiah, nor all of the objections Jews have to Jesus being their Messiah.  All of those are thousands of years old and you can review them at your leisure.

But if Jesus is the Jews’ Messiah, as He Himself attested (Jn 4:25-26), how do we see this covenant being played out?

First, let’s establish that Jesus initially thought of His earthly mission as preeminently to the Jews.  Early in His ministry we have Him sending out his disciples, saying (Mt. 10):

1 Jesus called his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits so they could cast them out and heal every kind of disease and sickness. . . 5 Jesus sent out these twelve, instructing them as follows: “Do not go to Gentile regions and do not enter any Samaritan town. 6 Go instead to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. 7 As you go, preach this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven is near!’”

Later we find Him saying to the Canaanite (Gentile) woman beseeching Him for help for her daughter (Mt 15:24):

“I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel”

These examples show that Jesus’ motivation during His earthly ministry was the redemption of Israel, not gentiles nor Samaritans.

However, He knew His mission was to be enlarged.  At the end of His presence on Earth, we have Him issuing the “Great Commission” to His disciples where He charges them to “make disciples of all nations” (Mt 28:18-20)[ii]:

[18] And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. [19] Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, [20] teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

He tells His disciples that when He’s gone He will send them a “helper” (John 16:7):

[7] Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you.

And what will be the effect of receiving this Spirit? (John 16:13-15):

[13] When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. [14] He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. [15] All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.

An obvious interpretation of this “declare” statement is that God/Christ is going to employ God’s Spirit (our “helper”) to write the knowledge of Him onto “their hearts” – those of its recipients.

Ultimately, we have Peter on Pentecost preaching to those in Jerusalem that day using Joel’s prophecy to explain what it was they were seeing and hearing Acts 2:17

[17] “‘And in the last days it shall be, God declares,

that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh,

and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,

and your young men shall see visions,

and your old men shall dream dreams;

[18] even on my male servants and female servants

in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy.

[19] And I will show wonders in the heavens above

and signs on the earth below,

blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke;

[20] the sun shall be turned to darkness

and the moon to blood,

before the day of the Lord comes, the great and magnificent day.

[21] And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.

[38] And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

The result of the Jews and non-Jews hearing Peter’s message that day was (Acts 2:41):

[41] So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.

We could perhaps be excused for interpreting these foregoing verses as outlining how it is that “all will know Me”.

What Jesus preached He characterized as the advent of the “Kingdom of God/Heaven”.  And that Kingdom was agnostic with respect to its citizens: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, but you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3:28)

We also have the parable of the vine and the branches (John 15:1-17), but we don’t need to belabor the point.  Jesus came first to redeem Israel (its remnant), but following His death, to expand His Kingdom to all who trusted His message from the Father so that they would experience the presence of God’s Spirit within them.

Now, we get to the experiential case.  Many professed Christians today declare that they have been transformed/regenerated by God through their repentance from their former lives and subsequent dedication to God and His ways.

This is precisely the outcome one would expect from “My law” being written on “their hearts”.  The one who has had God’s Law “put within them” no longer has indecision with respect to what God’s will is in any given situation.  They just know.  And they know that it is from God.  So they are not inclined to violate that will.  After all, they are under the influence and animation of God’s Spirit (Ezk 36:26, Phl 2:13).

So as much as Jews might like to restrict the applicability of this covenant to their ancestors in the 6th century BC and themselves, God’s intentions appear to have been different.  Yes, He offered the benefits of His offer to His chosen Israel first.  But He also directed that it be offered to “all nations”, which doesn’t leave many out.  And, the observant Jew should immediately reflect on the promise/covenant given to their father Abraham in Ge 22:18.

So what is the answer to our question as to whom this covenant is applicable?  Everybody who seeks the LORD in faith.

When Is It Implemented?

Based on the foregoing, my answer is that it was implemented at Pentecost when God’s Spirit was freely given to all who believed.

Why Have We Not Seen “All” Israel and Judah Transformed?

This is perhaps the least comfortable question to deal with.  Our assumption has been that Jesus was the Messiah.  He, and all of His disciples, confessed that faith in Him (by which is meant complete abandonment of personal self-interests, to be replaced by interests only in accomplishing the will of the Father) was the predicate for acceptance into His family — His Kingdom.  The result of this repentance was the indwelling of God’s Spirit within the believer – the disciple of Christ.

So, we are led to conclude that Jeremiah’s New Covenant was to be implemented for “all” who wanted it – wanted God’s law written on their hearts; wanted to know Him, and wanted their sins to be forgiven/forgotten.

But wait!, you may complain.  Jeremiah’s covenant didn’t stipulate any conditions like this.  It simply says “all” (of Israel and Judah) are going to have God’s law written on their hearts, and will “know” Him.  This is what the text says.

But here we have to examine just how God makes commitments.  It’s instructive to review what He says in Jeremiah 8:5-10:

[5] Then the word of the LORD came to me: [6] “O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter has done? declares the LORD. Behold, like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. [7] If at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, [8] and if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I intended to do to it. [9] And if at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, [10] and if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will relent of the good that I had intended to do to it.

His message here seems to be “if” you are faithful to Me, I’ll be faithful to you.  But if you aren’t,…

We see one instance of the result of unfaithfulness in Ezekiel 11:21:

[21] But as for those whose heart goes after their detestable things and their abominations, I will bring their deeds upon their own heads, declares the Lord GOD.”

In other words, God is looking for something from those subject to His covenants.  If He doesn’t see that thing – submitted faith, then the offender can be excluded from that covenant, or at least its blessing.

For God, repentance, obedience, and abiding faith seem to be the key characteristics He seeks in His children.  Are they the “all” He was speaking of in Jeremiah?  It seems that the answer is “yes” if we are to successfully reconcile these prophecies and their implementation as experienced by Christian disciples today.

But Jews (with atheists) will remain unconvinced, looking instead for their Messiah to usher in what is for them an unfulfilled promise.


[i] The exile occurred in three waves.  The first followed Nebuchadnezzar’s initial invasion of Judah in 597 BC (one year prior to the start of Ezekiel’s ministry) in response to King Jehoiakim’s refusal to pay Nebuchadnezzar tribute.  The prophet Daniel was part of this deportation. The second occurred in 587 BC accompanying the destruction of Judian cities, while the third and last occurred in 582 BC.

[ii] See also Ro 3:29, Jn 10:16, Is 42:6

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