At the start of a new year, people often reflect on the past and look ahead to the future. In this article we look at the promise of the “new covenant”, which was given in the past and looks ahead to the future.
A covenant is an agreement or a promise between individuals or groups of people. The first covenant, or the old covenant, was the law that was given to the Children of Israel via Moses at Mt Sinai. It promised blessing for obedience but threatened death for disobedience. The law was a covenant of works. But because it depended on people’s obedience, it could not produce righteousness. The new covenant was given so that people would become conscious of their sin (Rom. 3:20; 7:7). It showed them they could not keep it, so they would then be ready to receive a Savior.
The phrase “new covenant” is mentioned first in Jeremiah 31:31-34, which is quoted in Hebrews 8:8-13.
“This is the covenant I will establish with the people of Israel after that time, declares the Lord. I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more” (Heb. 8:10-12NIV).
This covenant was “new” (the Greek word commonly used meant “unique”) because:
- It depends on God, not people (“I will”, v. 10, 12); being unconditional, whereas the law was conditional on people’s obedience (v.9); and emphasises what God will do, not what people must do.
- God’s laws will be in their minds and on their hearts (v.10a), so that everyone will know the Lord and have a close relationship with Him (v.10b, 11).
- People receive forgiveness of sins and an eternal inheritance (v.12; Heb. 9:15).
The new covenant was announced at a low time of Israel’s history; the nation had largely turned from God to idolatry. At this time God used prophets to announce that the Jewish people would be captured by the Babylonians and scattered amongst other nations but afterwards they would be restored to their land of Canaan. The new covenant is characterised by everlasting peace and prosperity (Is. 54:9-10; 55:3-13; 59:20-21; 61:1-8; Jer. 50:4-5; Ezek. 16:60-63; 34:25-31; 37:15-28; Hos. 2:14-23). At this time the Jewish people will prosper in their own land under Christ’s rule.
When we look at the Old Testament references, we see that the blessings of the new covenant are both physical and spiritual. They are “better promises” than the old covenant (Heb. 8:6).
The promise of the new covenant was given to the Jews (Heb. 8:8) and will be fulfilled when the Lord comes to set up the Millennial kingdom (Rev. 20:2,4). “I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers and sisters, so that you may not be conceited: Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in, and in this way all Israel will be saved” (Rom. 11:25-26a). The mystery (a new revelation) is that the largely Gentile church must first be gathered in the rapture, before the spiritual hardness of Israel is healed when a Jewish remnant will be saved out of the coming great tribulation to live in God’s kingdom on earth.
Lessons for us
What has this promise, given to the Jews, got to do with us today? Because the Jews rejected the Messiah, the gospel was offered to the Gentiles. The Gentile church was another mystery that was revealed to Paul and he used the term “new covenant” to describe the gospel of God’s grace (2 Cor. 3:6).
In the Lord’s Supper, Jesus said that the cup of wine represented “the new covenant in my blood” (1 Cor. 11:25). The death of Christ forms the basis of spiritual blessings for the Church as well as the covenantal physical and spiritual blessings promised to the nation of Israel. Christ was a mediator for both Old Testament and New Testament believers and for those who will believe and enter the Millennial kingdom. In the meantime, some of the blessings of the new covenant are enjoyed by all believers— the spiritual blessings, not the physical ones. For example, we have forgiveness of sins, a close relationship with the Lord and the indwelling Holy Spirit
In the future Israel will be blessed under the rule of the Lord in the Millennium (Hos. 3:5); while believers will reign with Him over the universe (Eph. 1:22-23). What wonderful promises!
Written, January 2009