A New Covenant: An Exegesis of Jeremiah 31.31-34
13 Mar 2013 Todd Pylant 0
It is hard to overstate the significance of Jeremiah 31.31-34. Some believe these four verses to be Jeremiah’s greatest contribution to biblical truth. It is the only place in the entire Old Testament where the phrase “new covenant” is used. It is the longest Old Testament passage quoted in block form in the New Testament (see Hebrews 8). It provides the Old Testament framework for the Last Supper Jesus shared with His disciples (“the new covenant in my blood”). And, it is the reason why we label the 27 apostolic writings as the “New Testament,” thanks to Origin (an early church leader who died in 254 AD) who labeled them as such because of Jeremiah 31.31.
But just because it is undeniably significant does not mean that it is lacking in exegetical challenges.
“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, 32not 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. 33But 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. 34And 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.” (Jeremiah 31.31-34)
We would do well to remember that these verses are located in the Book of Consolation (Jeremiah 30-33), a section of Jeremiah’s prophecy that focused on the restoration and consolation of Israel after the exile.
“The days are coming” indicates that the words to follow are to be located in prophetic time, in the eschatological future. The ‘coming days” speak of either the return of the exiles to Jerusalem, of the first coming of the messiah, or of the second coming of the messiah. And as with any prophetic passage, the challenge is to locate “the days.” The apostles and Jesus Himself definitely understood these days to be the new covenant of grace ushered in by the first coming of the messiah, as will be made clearer in a few moments.
The covenant is described as “new,” a word that seems simple enough, but one that has generated much discussion. The word chadesh means “a new thing, fresh,” but some scholars claim that it can also mean “renewed.” The question at hand is to what degree the “new covenant” is related to the “old covenant.” Is this a renewing of the old or something brand new?
Jesus Himself identified His blood with this “new covenant.”
And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” (Luke 22.20)
For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, 24and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 25In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. (1 Corinthians 11.23-26)
But without a doubt, the single greatest New Testament explanation and application of Jeremiah 31.31-34 is found in the book of Hebrews. Of the 13 verses in chapter 8, five of them are a direct quotation of this passage, the longest direct quote of an Old Testament passage by a New Testament writer. In Hebrews 8, the writer applies the words of Jeremiah to a “new” covenant, one that makes the first one “obsolete” (see Hebrews 8.13). Christ’s ministry was better than the old covenant. And because the old covenant was not faultless, the prophet was looking for a second one (see Hebrews 8.7). Furthermore, the writer of Hebrews wrote,
…and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. (Hebrews 12.24)
It was the appearance of this word “new” that lead Origin to name the last 27 books of the Bible the “New Testament” in contradiction to the “Old Testament.” In other words, the new covenant spoken of by Jeremiah was explained, fulfilled, and described in the 27 apostolic writings that we now know as the “New Testament.”
“With the house of Israel and Judah.” The mention of the houses of Israel and Judah have led some to locate this prophecy in the days of the restoration of Israel after the exile. However, the majority of scholars understand that the promise of the new covenant was offered to the new Israel, those who are children of Abraham by faith (see Galatians 3.7). In fact, the glory of the new covenant is that the dividing wall of hostility (the law of commandments) between the Jews and the Gentiles has been abolished, making one new man in the place of two (see Ephesians 2.13-16). The Gentiles have been grafted in to the tree of Israel by grace through faith (see Romans 11.11-24).
“Not like the covenant I made with their fathers.” The new covenant is fundamentally different than the Mosaic covenant. Indeed, as the message of Jeremiah has made clear, Israel broke the covenant through their spiritual adultery, but in what way is the new covenant “not like” the old covenant? The difference, according to Jeremiah, is…
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. 34And 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. (Jeremiah 31.33-34)
“I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts.” One of the key differences between the old covenant and the new covenant is that the Lord would write His laws on the tablet of their hearts instead of merely upon the tablets of stone. The prophet Ezekiel echoed this hope,
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. 26And 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. 27And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. (Ezekiel 36.25-27)
How is it that the people will be able to carefully obey God’s rules when they failed so miserably in the past? They will be able to obey because God will put His Spirit within His people. In the New Testament, the apostles understood this to be a key element of the new covenant. Consider the following.
And you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts. 4Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. 5Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God, 6who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. 7Now if the ministry of death, carved in letters on stone, came with such glory that the Israelites could not gaze at Moses’ face because of its glory, which was being brought to an end, 8will not the ministry of the Spirit have even more glory? 9For if there was glory in the ministry of condemnation, the ministry of righteousness must far exceed it in glory. 10Indeed, in this case, what once had glory has come to have no glory at all, because of the glory that surpasses it. 11For if what was being brought to an end came with glory, much more will what is permanent have glory. (2 Corinthians 3.3-11)
Paul was a minister of the new covenant, a ministry of the Spirit where the Spirit wrote on tablets of human hearts. And the glory of this covenant was much greater than the glory of the former covenant because the letter kills but the Spirit gives life.
Or consider the words of Paul in the book of Romans.
For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. 3For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, 4in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. 5For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. 6To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. 7For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. 8Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. 9You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. 10But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 11If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you. (Romans 8.2-11)
Again, Paul echoed the very prophesy of Jeremiah and Ezekiel. In the new covenant, the Lord wrote His laws on the hearts of His people. His people will be able to obey the commandments because He will put His Spirit within them. Without the work of the Spirit, it is impossible to submit to God’s law. The righteous requirements of the law are only fulfilled by those who walk according to the Spirit and not according to the flesh.
In fact, the primary problem with the old covenant was not with the covenant itself but with the people. The old covenant consisted of 613 rules that covered every aspect of life: how one worked, what one did with their free time on the weekends, what one could wear and eat, etc. But as restrictive and nitpicky as the law seems to us today, the problem was not with the law but with the people. Consider how the writer of Hebrews applied the new covenant of Jeremiah 31,
But as it is, Christ has obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises. 7For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion to look for a second. 8For he finds fault with them when he says: “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah…” (Hebrews 8.6-8)
Indeed, the first covenant was not faultless, but the fault was not with the law but with the people. “For he finds fault with them…” (ESV, NASB, NRSV, KJV). “But God found fault with the people” (NIV, HCSB). The old covenant was faulty because the people were faulty. It was the sin nature of the people that prevented them from being able to obey the commandments. But in the new covenant, with God putting His Spirit within us, the people are made new so that it is possible for them to obey His commands.
The New Testament is full of statements that describe this new life, new heart, new covenant in various ways.
Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (John 3.3)
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. (2 Corinthians 5.17)
For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation. (Galatians 6.15)
The only thing that counts is being a new creation with a new heart. Even the single most important mark of the old covenant, circumcision, is rendered meaningless. In the new covenant, what matters is having a new heart produced by the Spirit of God.
“And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor.” One of the interesting aspects of the new covenant is that each individual will have unmediated access to God. Since the New Testament continues to affirm the importance of teaching and the role of preachers and teachers, Jeremiah is not prophesying that these gifts of the Spirit will cease. But rather, in the new covenant, each believer has full access to the Father eliminating the need for any earthly mediators (1 Timothy 2.5). Access to the holy of holies is now open to all through the new and living way through the blood of Jesus (see Hebrews 10.19-25). The Spirit Himself will guide all believers into the truth (see John 16.13). No longer will the priests have sole access to the presence of God. In the new covenant, access is open to all.
“I will remember their sin no more.” The ultimate beauty and greatness of the new covenant is the eternal forgiveness of sins. Through the new covenant of His blood, our sins have been taken away. Consider the words of the writer of Hebrews,
For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near. 2Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, since the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have any consciousness of sin? 3But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sin every year. 4For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. (Hebrews 10.1-4)
In the old covenant, the law could never make perfect those who drew near to God. The sacrifices of the old covenant could never take away sins. But notice how the writer continues with this train of thought,
And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. 12But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, 13waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. 14For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified. 15And the Holy Spirit also bears witness to us; for after saying, 16“This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws on their hearts, and write them on their minds,” 17then he adds, “I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.” (Hebrews 10.11-17)
Of course, the words of Hebrews 10.16-17 ought to look very familiar by now. Again, the writer quotes from Jeremiah 31. How is it that God would remember their sins no more? Through the once and for all sacrifice for sins offered by Jesus Christ Himself.
As you can see, these four verses in Jeremiah are indeed monumental in our understanding of the work of Christ and the significance of the new life in Christ.
May the Lord bless the reading of His word.
(Dr. Todd Pylant is the Senior Pastor of the First Baptist Church of Benbrook in Fort Worth, Texas, and the author of Word of God Speak and If: the Conditionality of the Gospel and the Danger of Apostasy.)