On the night that Jesus was betrayed He took the cup after supper and spoke words that any Jewish person familiar with the Old Testament would have marveled to hear, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood, which is shed for you” (Lk. 22:20b). At long last the time had come! The covenant spoken about approximately six hundred years earlier via the prophet Jeremiah was about to be implemented and ratified with the shedding of Jesus’ blood on the cross. This was, and is, cause for celebration. But such celebration must be fueled by understanding (cf. Ps. 47:7b). And if we are to understand and appreciate this New Covenant it is good to begin by setting it against the backdrop of the Old Covenant – at least that’s how Jeremiah presented it in the passage before us.
First, you will notice that Jeremiah called the people’s attention to this startlingly gracious reality by saying, “Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah” (Jer. 31:31). Jeremiah’s first hearers and readers would be quickly made aware of the fact that this gracious promise was not for the present time; rather, it was for a future time (“Behold the days are coming…”).
Next, we see what was coming – a new covenant, and then the party with whom the covenant would be made – the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. At this point it’s important, I think, to avoid two potential mistakes a reader of Jeremiah 31 could make. A gentile Christian reader could mistakenly think, ‘Wait a minute, if the promise of the new covenant was made with the house of Israel and the house of Judah what, then, does it have to do with me? After all, I’m not Jewish.’ True, a gentile is not ethnically Jewish, but if he or she is a Christian they are “grafted in” (Rom 11:19) to the olive tree that is true Israel (vs.16-24). There is glorious soteriological unity between believing Jews and believing Gentiles through the blood of Christ. All who believe in Christ are “the sons of Abraham” (Gal. 3:7; cf. 3:29) and partakers of the blessing of the Abrahamic covenant (vs.8-9).
But there is, in my opinion, a second mistake that can happen; namely, to think that this promise, made to a specific people, does not have application to the specific people that it was made to. In that vein, some would say, ‘There is no promise for the house of Israel and the house of Judah, nationally speaking, because Israel has been replaced by the church.’ For starters, it’s worth noting the specificity of the language in Jeremiah 31:31-32. God not only said that He would make this new covenant with the “house of Israel and with the house of Judah” but, lest we replace Israel and Judah by saying that while God spoke of them what He really meant was the church, He goes on to specify the identity of that group by saying, “not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, though I was a husband to them“ (vs.32). This specification targets the nation of Israel. The nation was under the Old Covenant and it appears that there will come a time when the nation is under the New Covenant. This idea appears to have been reinforced in Romans 11:26-27 where, after speaking about the conclusion of the partial blindness that has come upon Israel (Rom. 11:25), Paul writes that, “all Israel will be saved” (vs.26). But we must not stop there. Yes, it is important to note that the Israel who was spoken of as being partially blind is implicitly spoken about as having their blindness removed, e.g. “blindness in part has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in” (vs.25b emphasis added), and yes they are described as being saved (vs.26), but notice what follows. Paul writes,
just as it is written,
“The Deliverer will come from Zion,
He will remove ungodliness from Jacob.”
“This is My covenant with them,
When I take away their sins.” (Rom. 11:26b-27)
The quotation from verse twenty-seven appears to be none other than a reference to Jeremiah 31:34, and the reference to a covenant, a reference to a new covenant. Therefore, I think the Scriptures suggest a both/and application of the New Covenant promise of Jeremiah 31:31-34, to all believers, Jews and Gentiles alike, and to a future restoration of a believing national Israel that does not abrogate or minimize the soteriological unity of Jews and Gentiles.
Back to the New Covenant and its Distinct Nature
So this covenant is not like the Old Covenant – that covenant which was broken by Israel and Judah alike (Jer. 31:32). To be clear, though Israel and Judah are in immediate view, no fallen man ever kept God’s law perfectly. Granted, someone could live under the Old Covenant, justified by faith, and keep the ordinances of the Mosaic Law in obedience to God’s commands, but they could never earn forgiveness through it. Old Testament justification was by faith even as New Testament justification is by faith. But with that being said, no one ever kept the Old Covenant perfectly without breaking it until Jesus came. He, the true vine, not only succeeded where the first man failed, He succeeded where Israel had failed. And because He kept the Old Covenant perfectly, He could thereby install the New Covenant. The Old Covenant was a “Thou shalt” covenant. The people had to keep the laws, and a primary reason for those laws was to let the people know that they couldn’t keep the Law! All the “Thou shalts” were meant to lead the people to say “I can’t.” Upon seeing the holiness of God’s law and their inability to keep it, they ought to have thrown themselves at His feet, beseeching Him for mercy. And mercy would be personified, if you will, in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Jesus kept the Old Covenant with perfect obedience and He would bear the covenant curse of disobedience on behalf of His people. And because He was going to do that, the New Covenant described through Jeremiah could be enacted and ratified:
33 “But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. 34 No more shall every man teach his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them, says the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.” (Jer. 31:33-34)
After describing the New Covenant negatively, i.e. ‘it was not like the Old Covenant’, God described it positively in these ways: (1) the laws of God would be internalized on all His covenant people, (2) all who are a part of this New Covenant would know the LORD, and (3) all of this would be based upon the forgiveness of their sins.
This was in stark contrast to the Old Covenant! You could be part of the Old Covenant and have only known God’s laws as an external requirement; you could be part of the Old Covenant and have one Israelite telling you “Know the LORD” because, even though you were under the Old Covenant, you didn’t know the LORD. You could have been under the Old Covenant offering sacrifices while still being dead in trespasses and sins. Yet everyonewho is part of the New Covenant has God’s Spirit graciously impressing God’s truths on their hearts (vs.33); everyone who is a part of the New Covenant has the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit and knows the one true God and His Son Jesus Christ (vs.33b-34a); everyone who is a part of the New Covenant experiences the forgiveness of sins where the God who knows all remembers their sin no more (vs.34b).
So when you come to the Lord’s Table to remember Jesus’ body which was given for you and His blood that was shed for you, you can also remember how the New Covenant He installed is much better than the Old Covenant. And if you want to read more reasons why this New Covenant is so much better, you can turn from Jeremiah 31 ahead to Hebrews 9 and 10.