A new & better covenant | Jeremiah 31:31-34

“Behold, days are coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I had married myself to them,” declares the LORD. “This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the LORD. “I will put my instruction amongst them / within them and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. 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,” declares the LORD. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”

After 500 years in the Land it was clear that Israel had failed to abide by the terms of the Sinai covenant, and this placed the nation under the curses prescribed for disobedience.

Moreover all these curses shall come upon thee, and shall pursue thee, and overtake thee, till thou be destroyed; because thou hearkened not unto the voice of the LORD thy God, to keep his commandments and his statutes which he commanded thee: And they shall be upon thee for a sign and for a wonder, and upon thy seed for ever (ad olam) (Deuteronomy 28:45-46, and more fully described in verses 15-68).

Jeremiah’s unenviable task was to announce to Israel that God’s punishment for its sins was imminent and unavoidable. But it was at this very time – when the Temple was soon to be destroyed, the Land pillaged and the survivors of Judah taken captive into Babylon, when all was seemingly lost to Israel – that God introduces the hope of a New Covenant (brit chadasha).

To those who understood both the severity of Israel’s sin and the immutability of God’s Word, there could be no greater comfort: that the covenant that bound a sinful nation to a perpetual curse would be superseded by one in which God would forgive their wickedness and remember their sins no more.

The prophet then states the terms of that New Covenant:

(1) “I will give my instruction among them / within them”

The instruction (torah-ti) spoken of here is not the torah given under the Sinai covenant, as is sometimes taught, but rather the instruction that comes through the Messiah and by the Holy Spirit.

(a) Under the influence of the rabbis, the term torah has become synonymous with the torah of Moses. The term is typically used with the definite article and a capital letter (“the Torah”) – thereby suggesting that God gave one universal instruction which remains unaltered for all time. The Babylonian Talmud at Yoma 28b claims that Abraham kept the torah of Moses 600 years before it was given at Sinai (cf. Gen. 18:8).

Scripture uses the term ‘torah’ much more loosely, to refer to any form of instruction, including that of a parent to his or her children (see Prov 1:8, 3:1, 4:2, 7:2, etc. which all use words related to the Hebrew ‘torah’).

God’s instruction to man varied according to circumstances and through the generations. God’s instruction (torah) to Adam before the fall was for Adam to work the garden (Gen 2:16), to procreate and exercise dominion over creation (Gen 1:28) and to refrain from eating from the tree (Gen 2:17).

Whereas Adam was naked and not ashamed (Gen 2:25), Ham was later cursed for gazing upon his father’s nakedness (Gen 9:25) and the torah of Moses takes pains to ensure that a priest’s nakedness should not be revealed on his way to the altar (Exodus 20:26).

As Daniel reflected on Israel’s sin, he lamented: “Neither have we obeyed the voice of the LORD our God, to walk in his laws which he set before us by his servants the prophets. Yea, all Israel have transgressed thy law, even by departing, that they might not obey thy voice; therefore the curse is poured upon us, and the oath that is written in the law of Moses the servant of God, because we have sinned against him” (Daniel 9:10-11).

Daniel refers here to three different sets of torah: (i) God’s instructions received through the prophets (torah-tav asher natan b’yad evadav hanevi’im), (ii) the instruction that comes through hearing the voice of God (tora-techa shmoa b’qolecha) and (iii) the instruction of Moses (torat Moshe).

Not all of God’s instruction would have the same purpose. Some would test faithfulness (Gen 22:1, cf. 26:5), some would reveal God’s will for a particular circumstance and situation (Isa 1:10,13 et seq. Isa 51.4), and in the case of Moses the instruction (torah) would – uniquely – set out the terms of a covenant (Deut 29:1).

(b) It is with reference to this covenant, the Covenant of Sinai (brit ha’torah), that it is expressly stated that the New Covenant would “not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt”(verse 31).

(c) The torah of the New Covenant would be the torah of Messiah. This appears from the prophecies of Isaiah:

Behold My Servant, whom I uphold; My Elect, in whom My soul delights. I have put My Spirit on Him; He shall bring out judgment to the nations … and the islands shall wait for His instruction (torah-to). So says the LORD God … I, the LORD, have called You in righteousness, and will hold Your hand, and will keep You, and give You for a covenant (l’brit) of the people, for a Light of the nations … Behold, the former things are come to pass, and new things do I declare: before they spring forth I tell you of them (Isa. 42:1-7).

Jesus was the Prophet like Moses who spoke the words of God:

I will raise them up a Prophet from among their brothers, one like you, and will put My words in His mouth (v’natati dvarai b’piv) . And He shall speak to them all that I shall command Him. And it shall happen, whatever man will not listen to My Words which He shall speak in My name, I will require it of him (Deut 18:18-19).

Jesus professed: “I have come in my Father’s name …(Jn 5:43); The words I speak to you are not my own. Rather it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work … He who does not love me does not obey my instruction. These words you hear are not my own, they belong to the Father who sent me” (Jn 14:10, 24).

(d) The Hebrew word b’qirbam could either mean “within them” or “among them”.

A similar dual meaning is found in Luke 17:21, where Jesus says: “The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is within you / amongst you.”

We can assume that the dual meaning is intentional, since Jesus was at first present with us in physical form (i.e. “among us”) and subsequently indwells all who receive him through the Holy Spirit (thus “within us”).

Jesus explained before his assent: “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever – the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you” (Jn 14:16).

(e) The instruction that God gives within us is clearly distinguished from the statutes of the Sinai covenant, which were always described as being set “before you” (liphaneichem). For example: “And you shall be careful to do all the statutes and judgments which I set before you today” (Deut 11:32).

The torah of Moses operated as an external code. It set a standard that the faithful would strive towards, but never attain. Those who are today trying to observe the torah of Moses (according to the precepts of the rabbinical religion) can only practically adhere to one third of the 613 commandments. Yet even this is something that no man can achieve.

The purpose of the Law could only be served by failure, for it was intended to heighten the awareness of sin (Rom 3:20, 5:20), to dispense with all self-righteousness (Rom 2:17-24), and bring everyone to put their faith in the Redeemer (Gal 3:24).

The Covenant of the Torah is thus described as a covenant of bondage and slavery, which would be dispensed with once the Covenant of Faith was revealed:

For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the slave woman and the other by the free woman. His son by the slave woman was born in the ordinary way; but his son by the free woman was born as the result of a promise. These things may be taken figuratively, for the women represent two covenants. One covenant is from Mount Sinai and bears children who are to be slaves: This is Hagar. Now Hagar stands for Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present city of Jerusalem, because she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother. For it is written: “Be glad, O barren woman, who bears no children; break forth and cry aloud, you who have no labour pains; because more are the children of the desolate woman than of her who has a husband.”
Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise. At that time the son born in the ordinary way persecuted the son born by the power of the Spirit. It is the same now. But what does the Scripture say? “Get rid of the slave woman and her son, for the slave woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with the free woman’s son.” Therefore, brothers, we are not children of the slave woman, but of the free woman
(Gal. 4:22-30).

The Holy Spirit is referred to as “the Comforter” because the instruction that comes through the Spirit is based on affirmation rather than aspiration.

Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death (Rom 8:1-2).

For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory (Rom 8:12-17).

The same Holy Spirit who comes to the unbeliever “to convict him of guilt”(John 16:8) becomes to the believer the spirit of adoption and affirmation of sonship.

(2) “I shall give my instruction in their hearts”

Contrasted with the instruction cast in stone is the instruction given in the heart.

Jesus said, “a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever” (Mat 8:25). Since under the New Covenant we receive the spirit of adoption, we are now in the relationship of a son, and we should thus be occupied, as Jesus puts it, going “about our Father’s business” (Luke 2:49). Whereas a Master would relate to a slave by way of threats, demands and punishments, the Father relates to the son by appealing directly to his conscience.

By writing His instruction on our hearts, God is prompting us in a direct way – not in accordance with a static rule, but in accordance with His Spirit. Even under the torah of Moses, God’s direct Word (dvar adonai) would take precedence over any general instruction. Thus, for example, God instructed the prophet Hosea to marry an adulteress (Hos 1:2) while His torah to Moses was that any such woman be put to death (Lev 20:10, Deut 22:22).

God promises His Spirit to everyone who responds to the offer of adoption, obtained for us through the death and resurrection of Jesus, by repentance and baptism (Acts 2:38). Peter explains that we are saved through baptism, not by the cleansing of the water, but “by the pledge of a good conscience toward God” (1 Peter 3:21).

Concerning the Holy Spirit, Jesus promises that “the Counselor … whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you” (John 14:26).

The combined effect of our pledge of a good conscience to God – to honour His will in all we do and commit ourselves to His purposes, as a son to a Father – and His indwelling us by the Holy Spirit which leads us into all truth – is that “he becomes part of us and we become part of him” (John 17) – so that His living Word, ie. the torah of the New Covenant, is written on our hearts.

Jesus says, “On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you” (John 14:20).

With the law written on our hearts, we are no longer judged by our compliance with a written code, but our own conscience either condemns or exonerates us before God.

Paul writes to the Romans: “As one who is in the Lord Jesus, I am fully convinced that no food is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for him it is unclean” (Rom. 14:14), and to the Corinthians: “Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat such food they think of it as having been sacrificed to an idol, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled” (1 Cor 8:7).

For this reason also we are told not to pass judgment on disputable matters (Rom 14:1) and not to judge our brothers, “for we will all stand before God’s judgment seat” (Rom 4:10). Again Paul says, “My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait till the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men’s hearts. At that time each will receive his praise from God” (1 Cor. 4:4).

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God! (Mat 5:8)

Although there are certain things which are clear to everyone’s conscience the Galatians are told that the acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, drunkenness, selfish ambition, fits of rage, etc.), it is part of our commitment to God to seek an ever deeper understanding of His ways. We have an obligation to inform our conscience, to develop it in accordance with the full revelation of God.

And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ-to the glory and praise of God (Phil 1:9-11).

The torah of Moses continues to inform our conscience, but – since it is no longer binding as a covenant – it does so not as a demand for obedience to a static rule, but rather in terms of its ultimate motivation and purpose: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbour as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Mat 22: 37-40).

There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus and we need no longer fear – that is, in the sense of failure – because we are no longer being measured against a set of rules that is always “before us”, but against the pledge of our own good conscience, with our very spirit testifying with God’s spirit that we are his children, or that – alas – we are not living by the spirit of Christ.

(3) I will be their God and they shall be my people

Even though God is “the God of all mankind” (Jer 32:27), He is God in a different way to those who are in covenant with Him, who are destined to reflect his glory.

(a) This promise had already been made to the descendants of Jacob (Lev 26:12, cf. Jer. 11:4), but was conditional on obedience to the torah of Moses. The promise, as it is repeated here, is unconditional and applies to the people of the New Covenant.

The New Covenant will come “after those days” (verse 33), i.e. it would chronologically supervene the Sinai covenant, so that the people in respect of which “I will be your God and you shall be my people” would no longer be defined in terms of the Sinai covenant, but by the covenant which is promised.

(b) The New Covenant would be established with “the house of Israel and with the house of Judah” (verse 31) as a tribute to God’s faithfulness to a people who had broken the Sinai covenant, “even though I married myself to you” (verse 32).

“The proper reason why a new covenant is made is not that the people have broken the old one, but that, though Jahveh had united Israel to Himself, they have broken the covenant and thereby rendered it necessary to make a new one. God the Lord, in virtue of His unchangeable faithfulness, would not alter the relation He had Himself established in His love, but simply found it anew in a way which obviated the breaking of the covenant by Israel” (Keil and Delitzsch, Commentary).

While the posterity of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob would be the beneficiaries of this grace, the re-established Israel promised by Jeremiah and the other prophets would henceforth be comprised of those who faithfully took hold of the New Covenant.

By the solemn undertaking that: “Only if the heavens above can be measured and the foundations of the earth below be searched out will I reject all the descendants of Israel (col zera yisrael ) because of all they have done,” declares the LORD (Jer 31:37), we must firstly understand that, as immutable as the laws of nature, so is God’s undertaking to preserve a remnant of faithfulness from amongst Jacob’s descendants. But secondly, as a necessary corollary to this undertaking, that the balance would most certainly be rejected and excluded (cf. Jer 50:20).

This was the unavoidable conclusion of the believers in Jesus Messiah, who rendered God’s prophetic warning in Deuteronomy 18:18 as follows: For Moses said, ‘The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you must listen to everything he tells you. Anyone who does not listen to him will be completely cut off from among his people’ (Acts 3:22-23).

The seemingly overwhelming reception of God’s grace by the Gentiles – while a majority of the natural descendants rejected it – compelled Paul of Tarsus to offer this reassurance:“It is not as though God’s word had failed. For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel” (Rom 9:6).

As Jeremiah had also prophesied: Turn, O backsliding sons, says the LORD; for I am married to you; and I will take you one from a city, and two from a family, and I will bring you to Zion (Jer 3:14).

It was this remnant with which the New Covenant was established and by whose testimony the good news of Messiah brought salvation to the ends of the earth.

For, as it is written: You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm; to a trumpet blast or to such a voice speaking words that those who heard it begged that no further word be spoken to them, because they could not bear what was commanded: “If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned.” The sight was so terrifying that Moses said, “I am trembling with fear.”

But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. See to it that you do not refuse him who speaks (Hebrews 12:18-25).

And: “Shout and be glad, O Daughter of Zion. For I am coming, and I will live among you,” declares the LORD. “Many nations will be joined with the LORD in that day and will become my people (hayoo li l’am). I will live among you and you will know that the LORD Almighty has sent me to you” (Zec 2:10-11).

(c) As a further consequence of the New Covenant, the descendants of Jacob would no longer suffer corporately for the sins of its members (according to the example of Achan and the consecrated items, and David’s numbering of the hosts – Joshua 7 and 2 Samuel 24). The torah by which the sins of the fathers would be vested upon the children (Ex 20: 5-6, Ex 34:7), would no longer apply in the New Covenant era. As Jeremiah prophesied: In those days they shall say no more, The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge. But every one shall die for his own iniquity: every man that eats the sour grapes, his teeth shall be set on edge (Jer. 31:29-30).

Similarly, salvation would not vest corporately but be founded on individual faithfulness: He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God – children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God (John 1: 11-13).

(4) 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

(a) Those who deny that Jesus brought in the New Covenant point to the practice of teaching within the church as evidence that its terms have not been met.

In Hebrew leda’at means to know – not by hearsay or acquired knowledge, but by seeing. In other words, face to face. Strong’s dictionary renders the meaning : to know (properly to ascertain by seeing) …”.

This aspect of the New Covenant promise is referring very specifically to the personal knowledge or relationship knowledge of God.

God revealed to Moses, “I am the LORD. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob as God Almighty, but by my name Jahveh I did not make myself known to them” (Ex 6:2-3), but of Moses it is said that he spoke to God face to face, as one would with a friend (Ex 33:11).

It is a natural limitation of a purely spoken or written Word that its author is not personally known, so that only the living Word which participates and interacts with its hearers can fulfill the requirement of a personal God.

Jesus is the tangible expression of the invisible God (Col 1:15), the Word become substance, who “made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).

Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.” Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father …” (John 14:9).

For it is God who said, “Out of darkness Light shall shine;” who shone in our hearts to give the brightness of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Cor 4:6).

(b) Under the Sinai Covenant the anointing of God’s spirit was given only to priests and prophets and kings, so that the bulk of the people had no direct contact with, or relationship with God. “Generally, access to the Lord was denied to individuals, and His grace was only obtained by the intervention of human mediators. This state of matters has been abolished under the new covenant, inasmuch as the favoured sinner is placed in immediate relation to God by the Holy Spirit” (Keil and Delitzsch).

That they should “all know me, from the least of them to the greatest” was thus a unique feature of the covenant of which the prophet Joel also testified: And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions: And also upon the slaves and upon the handmaids in those days will I pour out my spirit (Joel 2:28-29).

The same Holy Spirit is promised to all who repent and are baptised in the name of Jesus for the forgiveness of their sins (Acts 2:28).

(5) For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more

(a) “For” (verse 34) indicates a causal nexus with the earlier statement, meaning that the promised forgiveness would be the means by which we come to know God in a personal way. As sin and guilt are a personal reality to every individual, so too, the assurance of forgiveness is a personal grace which is experienced by every believer as an act of God’s individual and personal mercy.

When the prodigal son (Luke 15) asked his father to advance him his share of the inheritance – to go and live a drunken and debauched life with prostitutes – he did not know his father in the manner in which he did later: through the open arms of mercy at the end of the long and dusty road to repentance.

After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything. When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.’ So he got up and went to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found’ (Luke 15:14-24).

Love is only truly appreciated when it is undeserved, and how much more we value the thing once taken for granted, when after losing it, it is regained. We only get to know our Father, when, despite our own treachery He covers our filth and nakedness with his righteousness, for it is written “he makes us holy through his own blood” (Heb 13:14): I delight greatly in the LORD; my soul rejoices in my God. For he has clothed me with garments of salvation and arrayed me in a robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom adorns his head like a priest, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels (Isa 64:10).

The ring restores our dignity, renews our authority, and re-establishes us as heirs to His kingdom. And with the sandals He affirms our redemption.

It was said of the Jews who had crossed to the other side of the Jordan to be baptised by John (John 1:28, cf. Joshua 1:2-3): All the people, even the tax collectors, when they heard Jesus’ words, acknowledged that God’s way was right, because they had been baptised by John. (But the Pharisees and experts in the law rejected God’s purpose for themselves, because they had not been baptised by John) (Lk. 7: 29-30).

The symbolic act of receding beyond the Jordan – whereby these men and women acknowledged that their inheritance under the Sinai covenant had been squandered through disobedience – opened their hearts to the promised redemption.

The true appreciation of sonship is only for those who – having forfeited it – are restored into it. For, “God commends his own love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us”(Rom 5:8), and “Israel is saved in the LORD with everlasting salvation. You shall not be ashamed nor disgraced unto the forevers of eternity” (Isa 45:17).

Messiah redeemed us from the curses imposed under the Sinai covenant by taking the curse upon himself. For as it is written; “Cursed is anyone who hangs on a tree” (Deut.21:23).

Barnes says, in his commentary: “It is the sense of this full unmerited love which so affects the heart as to make obedience henceforward an inner necessity”.

Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds (Heb 10:19-24).