Purchased But Not Yet Completed

This is the fourth question I’m asking and answering about Jeremiah 31:31-40: When was the New Covenant fulfilled?

The question is somewhat misleading. If you’ve been tracking so far with what we’ve read from Jeremiah 31 and Ezekiel 36, then you know that the answer is: the New Covenant has not been fulfilled yet in its entirety.

Jesus told His disciples that “this cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20). As with every covenant, sacrifice was required, and this time Jesus Himself provided the sacrifice rather than grain or goats or bulls. The apostles certainly understood that the Holy Spirit not only was moving, but was also indwelling believers after Pentecost. The covenant was purchased and it appeared that it was time for the covenant to be completed.

After His resurrection and before Pentecost Jesus spoke about the kingdom of God to His disciples. They asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6), as in, Is now the time for the Spirit and the land and our King? Jesus said No. They would be His witnesses, but they did not get to know “the times or the seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority” (Acts 1:7). But Jesus also did not say, “Actually, guys, now that you mentioned it, it’s going to be different than you’re thinking….”

The death of Jesus started to bear new covenant sort of fruit in Acts, and we continue to be fruit of His promise as well as declare His saving work among the Gentiles. There is an element of “mystery” in this as Gentiles share in some of the benefits of the promise. But the promise was not made to us—Gentiles, we—the Church—do not inherit the land of Israel, and the house of Israel must still be part of His plan or else the word of His promises cannot be trusted.

To Sum Up

In answering these questions we’ve also answered the Who, What, Where, and Why questions of the new covenant. We’re missing the When, and some of the means to the How.

Dispies believe that these all promises to Israel—the nation—will be fulfilled when Christ reigns on earth for a thousand years before Gog and Magog and the ends of the earth come to battle and lose. Then the devil and the beast and false prophet will be thrown into the lake of fire and the great white throne judgement will take place (Revelation 20). Then comes a new heaven and a new earth (Revelation 21). That is the general When. In an upcoming post I’ll try to show how we are part of God’s means to the How.

My point for now is not to describe in what ways we as non-Jews partake of the new covenant. We do partake of it in Christ, we do partake of it by faith, we are grafted in like branches as Paul wrote in Romans 11. God has granted repentance, and new hearts, to the Gentiles (Acts 11L18). But God’s grace to extend the saving blood of Christ among the Gentiles does not nullify His guarantee to apply it to the house of Israel. Except for a remnant, their hearts are still hard and they are currently still rejecting their Messiah. This must change in the future, or else God has redefined the “house of Israel.” And if God has redefined that, what else has He redefined?

One-Sided Good News

In this series of questions about Jeremiah 31:31-40, here is the third: What guarantees the New Covenant? Or, on whom does the New Covenant depend?

Covenants are often distinguished between those that are conditional, “If you do this, then I’ll do this,” and those that are unconditional, “I will do this no matter what.” God’s covenant with Abram in Genesis 15, when God put Abram to sleep and walked between the dead animal halves alone, showed God’s commitment to act for Himself. Abram participated by receiving, not by contributing. It is the same sort of language in Jeremiah 31 and Ezekiel 36.

The guarantee of these promises is the word of the LORD. He has said it, and He has said it for His own sake. He has also confirmed the likelihood of His completing the promises by comparing them to “this fixed order.”

The new hearts and the fruitful land for the house of Israel are as certain as planets in orbit and the ocean tide. “If this fixed order departs from me, declares the LORD, then shall the offspring of Israel cease from being a nation before me forever” (Jeremiah 31:35-36). The LORD adds also that if the heavens can be measured and the center of the earth found, so will Israel be done (verse 37).

Ezekiel also makes it clear. “It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name” (Ezekiel 36:22). “I will vindicate the holiness of my great name” (verse 23), “I will vindicate my holiness” (verse 24). “It is not for your sake that I will act, declares the Lord GOD; let that be known to you” (verse 32). “I am the LORD; I have spoken, and I will do it” (verse 36).

Has God changed His mind about these promises to act for His own name among the house of Israel? If it does not depend on them, if the whole point of this covenant is in fact that it depends solely on God, then when Israel rejected Jesus as their Messiah on the whole, how could that change the covenant? They hadn’t obeyed the 10 Commandments either. All the Israelites ever offered were hard-hearts, but, by God’s grace, soft hearts weren’t the condition of the covenant.

This is a one-sided promise made by God, kept by God, and for God. That makes it really good news.

Terms Without Conditions

When it comes to the new covenant promise in Jeremiah 31:31-40, there are four questions that we should ask about the text. The first question was, who is the New Covenant between? The second question is, What does the New Covenant include?

The new covenant is something new and Jeremiah explicitly stated that it is “not like the covenant” the LORD “made with their fathers” coming out of Egypt. This is not just an agreement with requirements and benefits, this is an agreement wherein God gives the additional benefit of causing Israel to fulfill the requirements for sake of receiving the other benefits. That is new, and significantly different.

Instead of stone tablets, “I will put my law within then, and I will write it on their hearts” (Jeremiah 31:33). Ezekiel described it as, “I will give you a new heart and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules” (Ezekiel 36:26-27). This is exactly what they could not do on their own. They could not give themselves new hearts. The theological label for this is regeneration, spiritual life, and the in-dwelling of the third Person of the Trinity. This is salvation.

The covenant includes forgiveness: “I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more” (Jeremiah 31:34). The covenant includes righteousness: “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleanness, and from all your idols I will cleanse you” (Ezekiel 36:25, 29, 33).

The fulfillment of these promises does not depend on Israel’s repentance, the promise is that God will grant Israel repentance. There is no condition for Israel to meet. The entire point of the new covenant is that God will do everything necessary to save Israel because they have not obeyed what He said previously.

These are not the only parts of the new covenant, however. Connected to this covenant is that “the city shall be rebuilt for the LORD” (Jeremiah 31:38), with specific place names mentioned (“from the tower of Hananel to the Corner Gate”) to leave no doubt that the LORD means Jerusalem, and even how big Jerusalem will be. In verse 40 God includes the valley and fields outside of the city that “shall be sacred to the LORD” (verse 40).

Ezekiel is just as specific. Immediately following the promise to “cause you to…be careful to obey my rules,” the LORD says, “You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers” (verse 28). Then, “I will deliver you from all your uncleannesses. And I will summon the grain and make it abundant and lay no famine upon you” (verse 29, also verse 30). Then “says the LORD God: On the day that I cleanse you from all your iniquities, I will cause the cities to be inhabited, and the waste places shall be rebuilt. And the land that was desolate shall be tilled” (verse 33). “They will say, ‘This land that was desolate has become like the garden of Eden, and the waste and desolate and ruined cities are not fortified and inhabited’” (verse 35). The New Covenant promises new hearts that will desire to obey God’s laws as well as all the material/earthly blessings promised by the LORD to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob: land, a city, fields, grain in abundance.

I have heard it argued that the “land of their fathers” just represents that God’s people—all believers both Jew and Gentiles—will inhabit the whole earth. It’s said that a Jew who heard the new covenant promises would have understood the promise of grain and of no famine as symbolic of having plenty, not has having anything specific to do with where such fruitfulness came from. It could be in China, or Alaska, and a believing Israelite would have been fine with that. But what makes us think God has changed His terms?

Defining the Parties

Photo by Foundry Co on Pixabay

When it comes to the new covenant promise in Jeremiah 31:31-40, there are four questions that we should ask about the text. First, Who is the New Covenant between?

The passage itself identifies the two “parties” of the contract, multiple times, and the context of the entire chapter and book leave no doubt.

Jeremiah prophesied about both the destruction and rebuilding of Jerusalem. Chapter 31 comes after fourteen messages of condemnation on Judah’s idolatry, apostasy, and moral decay. Jeremiah’s people, the Jews, had been rebelling against God, and God is predicting two things for them: judgment and then salvation. The two parties are, therefore, 1) the LORD and 2) Israel.

Verse 31: “the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.” The nation was divided at this point in their history into the northern and southern kingdoms. Yet Israel and Judah were still family. They are the ones descended from “their fathers” (verse 32). Which fathers? The ones that the LORD brought out of the land of Egypt, the sons of Jacob—the Twelve Tribes of Israel (the rest of verse 32).

To that growing group the LORD gave laws, also called the Mosaic covenant, summarized in the Ten Commandments. In the desert, and also once they began to occupy parts of the Promised Land, Israel disobeyed those laws. Would God move on to another people? No. “This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel” (verse 33). They did not obey, their hearts were hard against Him, and this new covenant promises to get to the root of the problem. The LORD said, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts” (verse 33).

After He finished making the promise, the LORD made a comparison about what it would take for these promises not to take place. We’ll look at those specifics shortly, but verses 35-37 repeat the parties: “Thus says the LORD,” “the LORD of hosts” (verse 35), “declares the LORD,” “the offspring of Israel being a nation,” (verse 36), and again, “says the LORD,” “all the offspring of Israel,” “declares the LORD” (verse 37).

The parallel passage in Ezekiel 36 is just as clear, and perhaps even more so as it distinguishes the “house of Israel“ (verses 22, 32, 37) from “among the nations” (verses 22, 23, 24, 30, and 36). There are three groups: the LORD, His chosen nation Israel, and all the other nations. The new covenant that the LORD made is not with any of the other nations than Israel.

It makes a Bible-reader wonder, as just one example, about the following note in the ESV Study Bible: “Do the terms in Jer. 31:27, 31, 36-37 focus the prophecy on ethnic Israel or on a redefined Israel (the Jewish-Gentile church)?” (page 1431, emphasis mine). Where is the warrant to redefine “Israel”? Would an Israelite accept such redefinition of terms?