A New Covenant - Jeremiah 31:31-36

This is a sermon by Melvin Tinker from the evening service on 21st November 1999.

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‘Wilt thou have this woman to be thy wedded wife, to live together after God’s ordinance in the holy estate of matrimony? Wilt thou love her, comfort her, honour and keep her, in sickness and in health; and forsaking all others, keep thee only unto her, so long as ye both shall live?’

The man shall answer: I do. So runs the marriage service in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. And we might well contrast that to this verse written in a Hallmark card: ‘I can’t promise forever. But I can promise you today.’ And what we have in those two contrasting statements are two mutually exclusive views of love. There is Hallmark love, the love of the nineties, unsure, ephemeral, here today and who knows about tomorrow? It is a love which breeds insecurity for it places ourselves at the mercy of the emotional highs or lows of the other person - the fall in love and they fall out of love. Not so holy love - the love of the wedding service. Here love is not a tribute it is a promise, a voluntary, personal commitment to somebody. When the groom and the bride say ‘I will’ to each other, they don’t mean ‘I think you are the best looking babe or the beefiest hunk in the whole wide world. Or even ‘I admire your academic prowess or your culinary abilities.‘ Though those things may well be true. We are not so much paying the other person a compliment as making a personal commitment - a pledge. I will be true to you.

Now it may come as a surprise to some of us to learn that the Bible tells us that is exactly what God is like - he is a God who expresses his love through promises. The Bible calls them ‘covenants’. He performs a vow of eternal love . Why that very phrase appears in the book we are looking at tonight - the prophecy of Jeremiah where he says to his people Israel ‘I have loved you with an everlasting love. ’(31: 3). Just as a husband is totally devoted to his wife, thinking about her night and day, consumed with her wellbeing, beside himself when she is sick, so is God totally devoted to the well - being of his people - you and me. For he has made an indissoluble commitment to them and nothing will deflect him from that passionate concern for them. Nothing.

But that is not the way things look now for the Jews as Jeremiah writes. Just over a hundred years earlier the Northern Kingdom of Israel had been devastated by the pagan power of Assyria. They had been mercilessly butchered and what was left of the people had been transported into forced captivity. Israel had pretty well vanished as a state. Now the southern Kingdom of Judah lay at the mercy of the latest superpower Babylon. Some of the cream of society had already been taken off into captivity in 597BC - leaving the government in effect emasculated. Most of the land had been ravaged by war, very much like Kosovo. But things were going to get worse. Soon Jerusalem itself was going to be destroyed in 587BC and the siege and the ensuing famine was going to be so severe that mothers were to eat their own babies , cooking them on human dung - that is what happened.

So what had gone wrong? What of this irrevocable pledge that God had supposedly made to his people - for better for worse? Where is this husband when you need him most? That was the cry of people living in Jeremiah’s day.

And looking at the state of our country and church today you may feel like asking the same question. As we see people being lost to the major denominations at the rate of a thousand a week, when the nation prepares to see an explosion in illegitimate pregnancies as a result of the Millennium celebrations and we have a whole generation growing up who are ignorant of even the most basic Bible stories. We might well ask: What of God’s promises? His pledge to the church?

Well something had obviously gone wrong. And did you notice what that was in v32 ? ‘They broke my covenant though I was a husband to them. ’That is what had gone wrong. God had found his ‘wife’, Israel in bed with someone else. Openly fornicating, spiritually and morally with other gods - indeed, in his very own temple would you believe? And they couldn’t get enough of it. Like mongrels on heat the were to be found constantly sniffing around the latest idolatries - besotted with the latest ideological fads and trends - like our nation today in fact. You see, in the early days of Jeremiah the southern kingdom had seen something of a major religious revival under the young King Josiah. During repairs to the temple in Jerusalem the Book of the Law, probably Deuteronomy had been discovered. It is really one long sermon about God’s covenant with his people, the one he made at Sinai. How he promised to bless them if they remained faithful, but how would punish them if they forsook him and his ways, for he is a holy God. Well, that is precisely what they had done. So the whole of the people weeping tears of repentance pledged themselves afresh to God, and it must have looked like a new age was about to dawn. Unfortunately it didn’t last even a generation. Like some Christians today they wanted all the blessing of God without any of the cost. In spite of God’s loving appeals to come back to him through the ministry of men like Jeremiah , the people were soon up to their old tricks again. Judges accepting bribes, temples turned into brothels in the name of religion - even Kings sacrificing their own children by burning them alive in the belly of an idolatrous furnace fashioned in the shape of the god called Molech.

In other words it looked as if the divine marriage was over. The wedding photograph lay shattered on the floor, the marriage certificate ripped to pieces. God’s heart was broken, his laws abandoned and his beloved people wallowing in filth. .

But I tell you: this husband is not going to walk away from this marriage. In fact he is going to do something to lift that marriage, that covenant onto an entirely different plane altogether. As he says in v 31 ‘The time is coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah’ - that is the whole of God’s people. . And the word ‘new’ could be rendered ‘renewed’. Now this doesn't mean that God and his people are going to have the equivalent to a renewal of marriage vows which some people do today. No, what God has in mind is a transformation of the covenant which ultimately will extend beyond the borders of Israel and to embrace people from all over the world. What is more the nature of this covenant is to be such that it will succeed in breathing spiritual life into the relationship between God and his people which the old covenant made at Sinai simply could not do . And do you know? We who are here tonight are the main beneficiaries of this promise - of this new covenant.

The prophet writes: ’The time is coming’? And naturally we want to ask : When? And here we are faced with the dual nature of OT prophecy. That is it tends to apply both the near future and the distant future. Now in part this took place in history when Israel was brought back from the Exile. But it is clear that the wholesale spiritual transformation described here didn’t happen then. That was to take place with the coming of Jesus, who ends the world’s spiritual exile. Do you remember how at the Last Supper he spoke of the cup of the ‘new covenant’ pointing forward to his sacrifice on the cross? This is what he had in mind. And the writer to the Hebrews spells this out for us in chapters 8 and 10 where he speaks of Jesus making his people holy by offering his body as a sacrifice once and for all, having risen and ascended to reign in heaven. Then, he quotes these very words of Jeremiah in Heb 10: 16 ‘This is the covenant I will make with them. . I will put my law in their hearts and write it on their minds. ’That is the time when he did this - at Pentecost. What is partially fulfilled during Jeremiah’s time is wholly fulfilled with the coming of Jesus and the sending of the Holy Spirit. He is the sign of God’s pledge to his people. A promise not sealed by a wedding ring of gold, but by a sacrifice of divine blood. God’s love gift to his church is not a new law written on tablets of stone, but the Spirit who writes his truth in hearts of flesh.

So what is this new covenant like? What is so special about it that it required nothing less than the death of God’s own Son to bring it into being? Well, in v32 we are told it is not like the covenant made to their forefathers when God took them by the hand from Egypt. ‘That is the covenant made through Moses at Sinai when the ten commandments were given. And just what that contrast is we see in the positive things the prophet tells us about this renewed covenant.

First this new covenant is based on an individual relationship rather than corporate affinity. It is on individual minds the law is written, in individual hearts it is inscribed, each individual from the smallest to the greatest will know God, says the prophet. And this individual emphasis also comes out earlier in v 29: ‘In those days people will no longer say, ‘The father’s have eaten sour grapes , and their children’s teeth are set on edge. Instead, everyone will die for his own sin; whoever eats sour grapes - his own teeth will be set on edge. ’You see under the Mosaic covenant Israel was treated as a national and religious entity. You were born a Jew, you were brought up a Jew and there was a corporate identity which by virtue of your birth your were bound up in . So, it was possible that while it was one generation that sinned against God, it took several generations for the results of that sin and God’s judgement to work its way through. So some of these people in Jeremiah’s day were suffering not only for their own sin but for that of their grandfathers as well, because God treated the nation as a whole. Hence this proverb - about parents eating sour grapes but it is the children who are left with a nasty taste in their mouth. But that is all going to change with this new covenant. the emphasis is going to be more upon individual response not just collective association. You enter this covenant not by being born into a so called Christian country or even by belonging to a Christian family, but by a one to one individual response. As the great Welsh preacher Martyn Lloyd - Jones used to say: ’God doesn't have any grandchildren - only children. ’So your parents are Christian. So you come to church. So you belong to the FES or Christian Union - that no more guarantees that you are Christian believer, any more than you walking into a garage makes you a car. And yet there are many who think it does. There are plenty of people around who think simply by virtue of entering through these doors they are going to be ensured an unhindered entrance into heaven. That is not so. You enter this spiritual relationship one - to - one - on your knees.

Secondly this new covenant is about an internal transformation and not external conformity. Do you see that in v33, ‘I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. ’This is an internal change that God is speaking of. It involves deep personal understanding - the mind, embracing God’s Word as it comes to us in Scripture, wrestling with it, trying to fathom it, having our horizons expanded by it - instead of paying notional assent to it. It also means a change in direction in the way we live. That is what is meant by the term ‘heart’. Now when we speak of our hearts, we think of our emotions don't we? , so we talk about our hearts being broken. But for the Hebrew it was the kidneys that were thought of as the seat of the emotions. For them the heart was the very centre of a person, the will. And of course it is was a failure to change the heart that the law at Sinai could not do - although even in Deuteronomy God calls his people to be circumcised in their heart - setting themselves apart for him alone. But all that the law did was to show up what failures they were, it was never meant to be a means of salvation, of changing people on the inside. You can try all you like to conform externally to the demands of religion, go through the motions, say your prayers, read your Bibles, go to church without there being any change at the deepest level of our being - the heart, having love infused into us, which is what is needed if this new spiritual marriage is going to work. What would we think of the husband or wife who says, ‘Of course I am married, I went along to the wedding service, we live in the same house, we even sleep in the same bed - but I live my own life my own way. I do not share my husbands values, I do not share my wife’s concerns. But we are still married. ’What sort of marriage is that? Where is the love, where is the commitment - the passion? And yet you know there are many in the church today, and you may well be one of them, for whom that could be said is the case as far as God is concerned. If the truth be known your way of thinking is no different from the average non - Christian. You still sleep together with your boyfriend or girlfriend in an evening while singing in church in the morning. You would not think twice of telling a lie to your tutor if it will get you out of a scrape any more than the next student. That simply means that either you know nothing of this new covenant, or you are living a lie. For here it is by God’s Spirit your mind is sharpened, you understand things now you never understood before - you cant get enough of the Bible, for now it is to you the very voice of God, your husband speaking to you. I well remember dashing down to the pigeon holes at Needler hall when I was a student, to see if a letter had arrived in a bright yellow envelope because I knew that would be from fiancé Heather. I couldn't wait to read it. Why? It was a love letter. Now what about reading God’s love letter to us? Isn’t that a sign of true love? A healthy marriage when the communication is still flowing. Of course it is.

But thirdly, this new covenant involves personal knowledge rather than second hand acquaintance - v 34 ‘No longer will a man teach his neighbour , or a man his brother saying, ‘Know the Lord’ because they will all know me , from the least of them to the greatest. ’You see, if you view religion mainly as a matter of belonging to the right group and that is what guarantees you are in the right with God, then personal knowledge of him is neither here nor there. Just turn up, do what is required and off you go. But here this new spiritual life begins with personal knowledge of God as we come to see him in the face of his Son Jesus and as he dwells within us by his Spirit. And this is true for all God’s people - from the least to the greatest. This personal saving knowledge isn't the exclusive privilege of a few - the spiritual elite who have a different and superior inside track to God dished out at a special weekend away. It is the privilege of all of God’s children. Under the Old Covenant only a few had direct access into God’s presence to intercede - they were called priests. Now through our great High Priest Jesus we are all priests, that’s what this new covenant means.

But you say: how can we be so sure? Well, look at the end of v 34 ‘For I will forgive their wickedness will remember their sins no more. ’The Old Covenant with its laws and rituals, its design of the temple with barrier after barrier sent a clear and uncompromising message. Keep out. Immediate access into God’s presence was simply not possible because of sin. God and sin can no more meet each other that fire and water, light and darkness. Of course the marriage was going to fall apart because of human sin. That has do be dealt with - hence this exile. But now the Good News is that it has been dealt with fully and finally in Jesus as God exhausted his holy wrath on our sin in him, bearing it away so that our relationship with him can never be threatened again. There are no skeletons in the closet to threaten this love relationship with God. No nasty surprises lurking in our past which might cause God to say, ’I am sorry I am not having anything to do with the likes of you.’ There isn’t even anything in our future which will cause God to turn around at the end of the day and say ‘he marriage is over’. Not if we have come , one to one, and knelt at the foot of the cross where god says to us ‘Look here is my pledge to you, I will never leave you nor forsake you, I have loved you with an everlasting love. A love which lies here naked and bleeding for you. Moses used only animals blood to seal the Covenant at Sinai, I use my Son's blood to seal it for you at Calvary. ’

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