Announcing the New Covenant

The fall of Jerusalem in 586 BC was the most drastic turning point in the history of Israel. We will now see that it was also a major turning point in God’s redemptive plan for the world. Prior to this devastating calamity, God not only promised that He would restore the fortunes of Israel (Jeremiah 30:1-3), but God also announced that He was going to replace the Mosaic Covenant with the New Covenant (see Jeremiah 31:31-34). In other words the nation would be restored to another, a new and better, covenant.

What is new about the New Covenant was actually already revealed through Moses when the Mosaic Covenant was renewed at Shittim with the generation of Israelites that entered the Promised Land. God had known even then that the nation would fail to circumcise their own heart as commanded (Deuteronomy 10:16; cf. Jeremiah 4:3-4), and thus become unrepentant in breaking the Mosaic Covenant. So in anticipation that they would eventually be exiled, God promised that if, when in exile, they would repent and return to Him with all their heart, He would not only restore their fortunes but He Himself would circumcise their heart (Deuteronomy 30:1-6). What does this mean?

Under the Mosaic Covenant God’s Law in the form of the Ten Commandments was inscribed on two tablets of stones, which were placed in the Ark of the Covenant at the Temple. In announcing the New Covenant God said it would not be like the Mosaic Covenant specifically in that “I will put My Law within them [not the Ark] and on their heart [not tablets of stones] I will write it” (Jeremiah 31:33).

This contrast with the Mosaic Covenant is radical. First of all the location of God’s Law is changed from the Ark in the Temple to the human heart. But this does not mean that under the Mosaic Covenant God’s Law was just an external code that would not strike a responsive chord in their heart. For otherwise it would be unjust for God to require them to circumcise their own heart, which means, obey God from the heart, and then hold them accountable for failing to do so.

As Paul affirms, God’s Law has already been written in some way on every human heart (Romans 2:14-16). The evidence is that the conscience of even a person who has never heard of the Ten Commandments can testify to what is morally wrong, as though he has these commandments in his heart. We have already noted that even atheists recognize the Golden Rule, which summarizes the Ten Commandments.

The writing of God’s Law on the heart under the New Covenant refers to something new and different from what Paul says about every human heart. A word or phrase can have different meanings in different contexts, as in: “Demas loved the (present) world” (2 Timothy 4:10) versus, “God so loved the world” (John 3:16). What more a figure of speech like writing something on the heart, which can certainly have different meanings in different contexts. In the context of the New Covenant it refers to a specific operation of God on the heart of New Covenant believers (“circumcise” it). What then does this mean?

Note that, “I will write My Law on their heart” goes hand-in-hand with, “I will give them a heart to know Me” (Jeremiah 24:7). Hence under the New Covenant a believer’s heart not only actively recognizes God’s Law but also knows God personally. In New Testament terms, Paul is referring to the heart every human being is born with; Jeremiah is referring to the heart every believer will be “born again” with (John 3:7).

After the fall of Jerusalem, God elaborated on the nature of this heart: “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 36:26). Hence, the conscience we are born with to nudge us to do good and to avoid evil (the “writing” of God’s Law in every human heart) is regenerated with a new intention (“new heart”) and a new motivation (“new spirit”) towards obeying God’s Law (the “writing” of God’s Law under the New Covenant). Paul calls such a “born again” person a “new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17; Galatians 6:15).

God then added, “I will put My Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in My statutes and be careful to obey My ordinances” (Ezekiel 36:27). Hence not only the location of God’s Law is changed from the Temple to the human heart, even the dwelling place of God Himself is changed from the Temple to the human person, making believers the “temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 6:19; 2 Corinthians 6:16).

Of particular significance with respect to God’s Law is that, on top of giving believers a new heart (intention) and a new spirit (motivation), God will put His Spirit within them particularly so as to “cause you to walk” in His Law. This refers to God’s empowering presence within believers to actualize the new intention and new motivation to observe God’s Law. This is obviously to address the weakness of the Mosaic Covenant.

In other words, the New Covenant is specifically designed to enable believers to observe God’s Law already revealed through the Mosaic Covenant. Paul elaborates on this theme saying that believers “who walk according to the Spirit” would have “fulfilled the requirement of the Law” (Romans 8:3-4). And the “requirement” (singular in the Greek text) of the Law is, “love your neighbor as yourself,” the Golden Rule (Romans 13:8-10; cf. Galatians 5:13-24).

Turning now to the new heart with respect to knowing God, unlike under the Mosaic Covenant, “they shall no longer teach, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, “Know the LORD,” for they shall all know Me …. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more” (Jeremiah 31:34).

Under the Mosaic Covenant, though anyone born an Israelite was automatically a member of this covenant, he did not automatically know God. He still needed to be taught to know God through understanding God’s Law as revealed in Scripture. This involved circumcising his own heart and thus living a life of repentance from sin and faith in God. In practical terms, this meant having a positive attitude and intention towards keeping God’s Law, as well as seeking forgiveness through offering an appropriate sacrifice at the Temple to atone for one’s violation of God’s Law. And God made it clear through Jeremiah (22:15-16; cf. 9:23-24) that one who truly knew Him would seek to live according to His Law (cf. Allen 2008: 15). It turned out only some of the people, but not the nation as a whole, knew God.

Under the New Covenant one does not automatically become a member of the covenant through physical birth. One needs to be “born again” through a spiritual birth, which results in one’s heart being circumcised by God. Once a member, he knows God because the circumcised heart is one that knows God. The new birth involves forgiveness of sin received through one’s repentance from sin and faith in God in response to the teaching of Scripture, especially concerning the New Covenant. This is obviously a better covenant, and one which ensures that the goal of the Mosaic Covenant is reached.

However though every true member of the New Covenant knows God, not everyone who professes to be a member of the New Covenant knows God. For it is possible for a person to intellectually accept what Scripture teaches about the New Covenant and then “by faith” claim the benefits promised (such as “eternal life”) without truly repenting from his sin; his “faith” is not in God Himself but only in what God has promised in the New Covenant.

We have elaborated on what it means to have faith in God, which is the same throughout Scripture, in our exposition on Abraham and faith development. In practice one cannot have this kind of faith without also repenting from sin, which is also the same throughout Scripture—a change in one’s attitude and intention towards sin resulting in a change in attitude and intention towards God’s Law. For one cannot have faith, or trust, in the Holy God, who hates sin, and be indifferent towards sin and His Law.

Having now highlighted the difference, or discontinuity, between the Mosaic Covenant and the New Covenant, we now highlight the similarity, or continuity, between them.

We have just noted the continuity in terms of the means to experience the benefits of each covenant: repentance from sin and faith in God. And we have stressed earlier how the New Covenant will enable God’s people as a whole to do what the Mosaic Covenant could not: fulfil the requirement of the Mosaic Law, which is to love their neighbor as themselves. So both covenants share the same goal. Also in our exposition on Covenant and Grace we have elaborated on the continuity in terms of God’s grace expressed in and through each covenant.

However we have not yet considered a theme in the Old Testament that will help us see that the continuity between the two covenants is actually systemic: the Covenant Formula (for a systematic treatment of this theme, see Rendtorff 1998).

The Covenant Formula in its full form, that is, “I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (and its equivalents), is integral to the New Covenant as expressed in the three prophetic texts considered above, thus formally unifying them all (see Jeremiah 24:7; 31:33; Ezekiel 36:26-28). The formula may also be expressed in one of its partial forms: “I will be their God”; “They shall be my people”; or their equivalents.

The first time the formula occurs is in Genesis 17, in the context of God reaffirming the Abrahamic Covenant (Genesis 12:1-3) as an everlasting covenant to Abraham and his descendants. And it spells out for the first time God’s intention for the covenant hitherto not yet revealed: “in order to be God to you and to your descendants after you” (verse 7). Only the partial form, the equivalent of “I will be your God,” is introduced here because, as explained below, at this point God could not have said, “and they shall be my people.”

This particular reaffirmation of the Abrahamic Covenant highlights God’s promise that He would give the land of Canaan to Abraham’s descendants as an everlasting possession. And the promise is here coupled with a repetition of the Covenant Formula: “I will be their God” (verse 8). This means God would be God only to those of Abraham’s descendants who would eventually possess the Promised Land, that is, the Israelites.

This brings us to Exodus 6, where the Covenant Formula occurs next, in the context of God calling Moses to lead the Israelites out of bondage in Egypt to form in Canaan the “great nation” God had promised Abraham. God specifically said it was through this exodus of the Israelites from Egypt to Canaan that “I will take you for my people, and I will be your God” (verse 7).

This is the first occurrence of the full form of the Covenant Formula, here with emphasis placed on the equivalent of “you shall be my people.” This full form “could not appear earlier because it is only now that Israel has become a people” (Rendtorff 1998: 17). So God could not have said, “you shall be my people” in Genesis 17. And God made it clear that He took Israel as His people because He remembered the covenant with Abraham to give them the land of Canaan (verses 5 and 8).

In other words the Covenant Formula, which expresses God’s unique relationship with Israel, is based on the Abrahamic Covenant, which we have seen was made with Abraham by grace. And it is important to take note that, at this stage of God’s redemptive plan, God’s people forming a nation in Canaan was integral to the formula.

Hence Israel became God’s people and was called to form a nation in Canaan by grace (unconditional). However it did not mean they could then build their nation and live anyway they liked. For God said, “I am the LORD, who brought you up from the land of Egypt, to be your God; thus you shall be holy for I am holy” (Leviticus 11:45; see also 19:2). In fact we can surmise that the whole point of giving them Canaan was so that they could become an independent nation in their own land with the freedom to become what God called them to be, that is, a holy nation, so that they could indeed be God’s people, and God would indeed be their God. This explains why the Promised Land was integral to the Covenant Formula under the Mosaic Covenant.

Therefore though Israel became God’s people by grace, she must be holy because her God is holy. This is all the more so because for Israel to be truly God’s people, and for God to be truly her God, the Holy God will not only dwell in her midst (Exodus 29:45-46) but “will also walk among you” (Leviticus 26:11-12), thus rendering the Promised Land the Holy Land. And we have seen that to be holy as God is holy involves both moral and ritual purity (Leviticus 19:1-37). Recognizing this is important to understanding not only the Mosaic Covenant but also the New Covenant.

God made the Mosaic Covenant with Israel at Mount Sinai and required them to observe the Mosaic Law in order that they would be holy both morally and ritually (see Exodus 19:4-6), warning them that if they became unrepentant in violating it, they would have to be exiled (Leviticus 26:27-33).

However God assured them that when in exile, despite their soul having previously abhorred and rejected His Law, “if their uncircumcised heart becomes humbled so that they make amends for their iniquity” He would “remember” His covenant with Abraham to be their God as well as remember the land, and so restore them accordingly (Leviticus 26:40-45). As we have been reminded above, this assurance was reiterated in Deuteronomy when the next generation renewed the Mosaic Covenant with God at Shittim prior to their entering the Promised Land, with the additional promise that God Himself would then circumcise their heart (30:1-6).

This brings us back to the New Covenant, which is about God circumcising the heart of His people. This is to rectify the weakness of the Mosaic Covenant because God promised to “remember” His covenant with Abraham to be their God, which was made by grace for the sake of Abraham’s descendants (and ultimately the world). So the New Covenant was given to replace the Mosaic Covenant on the basis of God’s covenant with Abraham to be their God so that they would be God’s people. This explains why the Covenant Formula is integral not only to the Mosaic Covenant but also the New Covenant, which further explains why both covenants share the same goal: God’s people be holy as their God is holy (Leviticus 19:2; 1 Peter 1:16).

In our exposition on the Sabbath System we considered how, under the New Covenant, God’s people are to be ritually pure in view of God dwelling within them instead of within the Temple. What needs further elaboration is how God’s people are to be morally pure under the New Covenant in a way that fulfils the goal of the Mosaic Covenant in all its dimensions—spiritual, moral, social, economic and political.

Before that, it will further help us see the systemic continuity between the Mosaic Covenant and the New Covenant to consider why God, in anticipation that they would fail to keep the Mosaic Covenant, would even promise them in advance the New Covenant. This implies that should the Mosaic Covenant fail, replacing it with the New Covenant was a given.

We have seen how seriously committed God was to fulfill everything He promised Abraham when He swore the oath by His own name that He would surely uphold the Abrahamic Covenant (Genesis 22:15-18; Hebrews 6:13-18). This means God being God to Abraham’s descendants and they being God’s people to Him was an inviolable divine promise, regardless of what happened to them.

This is most dramatically expressed in the words of Jeremiah following the announcement of the New Covenant: “Thus says the LORD, who gives the sun for light by day, And the fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night, Who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar—the LORD of hosts is His name: ‘If this fixed order departs from before Me, declares the LORD, Then shall the offspring of Israel cease from being a nation before Me forever’” (Jeremiah 31:35-36).

So it was a given that should the Mosaic Covenant, which was the means God used then to help actualize this promise, failed to reach its goal of helping God’s people to be holy, it had to be replaced by a new and better covenant, one that would ensure that the goal will be reached.

To help those in exile to recognize that it was their violation of the Mosaic Covenant that landed them in captivity and to believe that they would certainly be restored to the New Covenant, so as to encourage them to repent from their iniquity and turn to God with all their heart, God said to them: “It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for My holy name, which you have profaned among the nations where you went” (Ezekiel 36:22; cf. Isaiah 48:11).

And to assure them that Israel would certainly be restored not only to the Promised Land, but also to God Himself, God gave Ezekiel a vision of a renewed Jerusalem in which a new Temple plays a central role (Ezekiel 40-48). In view of the earlier vision of the Glory of God departing the Temple (Ezekiel 8:1-6; 9:3; 10:18-19; 11:22-23), nothing could be more reassuring than the vision of the Glory of God returning to and filling the (new) Temple (Ezekiel 43:1-5).

God’s holy name was profaned among the nations because though their captivity in foreign lands was due to their iniquity, it gave the nations the impression that their God was not able to protect them from falling into the hand of their enemies. In the thinking of their time it meant the gods of the conquering nations were more powerful than the God of Israel (cf. Isaiah 36:18-20). Today it is like agnostics and atheists, and even some believers, asking in the face of a devastating calamity, “Where is God?”

For the sake of His own holy name, God would not only restore Israel to the Promised Land and to Himself, but also (at the end of history) demonstrate to the nations that it was never the case that He could not protect His people (Ezekiel 38-39). “The nations shall know that the house of Israel went into exile for their iniquity because they acted treacherously against Me, and I hid My face from them and gave them into the hand of their enemies, and they all fell by the sword” (39:23).

The implication for us today is that people who do not accept the teaching of Scripture on the meaning of history will have to wait till the end of history to see for themselves the meaning of the twists and turns of history.

Since the ministry of Jeremiah and Ezekiel was to the nation of Israel in the context of her actually experiencing the Exile, Israel’s own restoration was the focus of their attention. So these two prophets did not pay attention to the ultimate fulfillment of the Abrahamic Covenant—all the nations of the world will be blessed through (the restored) Israel. It was mentioned in passing by Jeremiah that the restoration of Israel would lead to the nations being blessed (Jeremiah 4:1-2; cf. 3:17); Ezekiel, who was himself in exile and whose ministry was entirely in exile, was silent on the subject (cf. Wright 2006: 350-52).

As we shall see, the prophet Isaiah, who had much to say about the New Covenant without calling it as such and did mention God’s Spirit being “poured out from on high” as an integral blessing (Isaiah 32:15; cf. Luke 24:49; Acts 1:8), paid much attention to the ultimate fulfillment of the Abrahamic Covenant (cf. Joel 2:28-32, which clarifies that under the New Covenant God’s Spirit will be poured out on “all humanity,” and not just Israel). This is evidently because he prophesized a century before the Exile and was thus not constrained in any way by the immediate concerns of the people in exile. In other words, taking the Prophetic Books as a whole, God had to restore Israel to the New Covenant for the sake of the nations also.

All this then begs the question: Why did God not give Israel the New Covenant at Mount Sinai instead of the Mosaic Covenant? This would have saved them from the Exile, and all the nations of the world would have begun to be blessed through them sooner. This question shall be answered in the Postscript. For now we will move on to consider the Messiah and how the New Covenant would be fulfilled through Him.