The Nature of the New Covenant and Its Progressive Fulfillment in History, Part 1

The New Covenant confirms God’s faithfulness to His people. Jeremiah 31:31-34 is the most consequential prophecy made by the prophet Jeremiah. In this passage the Lord declares that there will be a time when all Israel will know Him, from the least to the greatest. In the words of Ernest Nicholson:

The new covenant passage announces that God himself will graciously bring about the necessary change in his people’s inner nature so that their past failure to obey his laws will be replaced by both the will and the ability to do so. ((Nicholson, E. W. Jeremiah. CBC. 2 vols. Cambridge, 1973 -75, pg. 71.))

This text is often used by those who pose a sharp dichotomy between the Old and New Covenant. In fact, despite the many prophetic passages in the Older Covenant, these few verses are often where disputes between Paedobaptist and Credobaptist, Premillenialist and Postmillennialist, Dispensationalist and Covenant Theology and many others arise.

The first clear premise from this text is that it was God’s own purpose to establish this new relationship. He was also the one who established the first relationship, but this new one would be different. This New Covenant will not lead to more disobedience of the law, for all Israel will know the law of God. Walter Brueggeman, in his insightful commentary, writes:

The contrast between old and new covenant will not be resisted, because the torah—the same commandments at Sinai—will be written on their hearts. That is, the commandments will not be an external rule which invites hostility, but now will be an embraced, internal identity-giving mark, so that obeying will be as normal and as readily accepted as breathing and eating. Israel will practice obedience because it belongs to Israel’s character to live in this way. (( Brueggemann, W. Jeremiah 26–52: To Build, To Plant. ITC. Eeerdmans, 1991, pg. 71.))

The New Covenant promises that stiff-necked Israel will be transformed into an obedient nation wholeheartedly willing to love God’s commandments.

The idolatry of Israel is a central theme of the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 4:15; 12:29; I Samuel 15:23; 2 Kings 17:7). The nation of Israel, God’s chosen people, committed spiritual and physical fornication with the pagan nations. Their disobedience caused great curses upon them (Deuteronomy 28 ) as they repeatedly broke the covenant God had made with them as their husband (Jeremiah 31:32). The New Covenant, however, promised a different picture. The promise of becoming a renewed people, an obedient and covenantally loyal people was not fulfilled during the days of Jeremiah. Nevertheless, the promise is given and will be fulfilled.

The covenant God made with Israel is found in the preface to the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20. Indeed, the basis for that covenant was rooted in God’s deliverance of Israel from the bondage of Egypt. In Deuteronomy 7 God provides a background to His election of Israel:

For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the Lord set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the Lord loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. ((Deuteronomy 7:6-9))

The Deuteronomic promise of blessings and curses (Deuteronomy 27-28 ) is reiterated in various places. In fact, this is the background of the first 29 chapters of Jeremiah. The people bring upon themselves curses for the disobedience of not responding appropriately to God’s commands (11:1-13; 14:21; 22:9). The idolatry and fornication of Israel with the baals (1:16; 2:13 etc.) was common in Israel’s history. ((Professor Greg Beale has argued that idolatry is the central motif of all of Israel’s history, leading to severe punishment (Lectures delivered at the 2007 Kistemaker Series at Reformed Seminary in Oviedo). For further reference see: Beale, Gregory, The Book of Revelation”. New International Greek Testament Commentary Series; ed. by I. H. Marshall and D. Hagner (Eerdmans, 1998).)) John Bracke comments, “The word ‘baal’ also means husband or master. So God’s covenant with Israel established God as Israel’s master (husband, ‘baal’) but Israel forsook their rightful master for another.” ((Bracke M. John. Jeremiah 30-52 and Lamentations. Westminster, John Knox Press, 2000, pg. 22.)) Despite this continued idolatry, God promises a new covenant with Israel and Judah, which will succeed because God has secured its ultimate fulfillment. ((Though God established the first covenant with Israel in Exodus 20-24, He did not promise that they would remain faithful. In the New Covenant, a promise is made.)) In this respect, this New Covenant is somewhat parallel to the Noahic Covenant. In Genesis 6 God promised a deluge that would destroy humanity due to their idolatry. The text says that God removed His Spirit because of the wickedness of man. In Genesis 9 a new humanity emerges. Though there are extraordinary elements in this new humanity, such as the clear application of the death penalty (Genesis 9:6), ((The death penalty is here applied for murder. The Lex Talionis is forcefully commanded unlike the days of Cain. It is important to acknowledge that even then, Cain knew that he deserved death for he was aware that another could shed his blood.)) it was also destined to failure and idolatry.

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About Uri Brito

I am the Pastor of Providence Church (CREC) in Pensacola, Fl.
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