Lecture 25: The New Covenant
Course: 52 Major Stories of the Bible
Let’s pray. Father, there is nothing that I can do. There is nothing that any individual in this church can do to change the human heart; only You can. There is nothing that I or anyone else in this church can do to empower us to live the kind of life that we were built to live. That alone is your prerogative. Father, may we understand, anew perhaps, that it is you who save, it is you who changes, it is you who empowers as you call us on this journey of discipleship. In Jesus name, Amen.
Since we are near the end of the Old Testament, I thought it would be a good time to quickly review. I want to go back to the opening chapters of Genesis where God promised Abraham land, descendants, and then he promised that through Abraham God would bless the world. In order to achieve this, God established a covenant with Abraham’s descendants through Moses at Mt Sinai, after they were rescued from Egypt. And we can hear the heart of what God wanted in Exodus 19 starting at verse 5. God says, “Now therefore, if you will obey my voice and if you will keep my covenant, then you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples for all the earth is mine. And you shall be to me a Kingdom of priests and a holy nation. Eventually the refrain starts, “I will be their God and they will be my people.” That is the heart of God’s desire for us, that He be our God and that we be His people. Unfortunately, though, most of the history of Israel is how Abraham’s descendants failed. The Northern Kingdom quickly fell into idolatry and God sent them prophets like Elijah who condemned syncretism with Baal. He sent them prophets like Hosea who proclaimed their faithlessness and compared them to a faithless wife. Yet they did not repent, and in 722 B.C. God sent the Assyrian empire to destroy the Northern Kingdom of Israel and punish them for their sin. The Southern Kingdom saw a few glimmers of hope during the Kingships of Hezekiah and Josiah. But they, like their northern sister, also fell into sin and so God sends them prophets like Micah who condemns external religion that it is only a matter of the mouth and not the heart, but they did not listen. God sends them prophets like Isaiah who talks about the holiness of God and the sinfulness of man. He talks about how sins will be forgiven through the work of God’s suffering servant, and yet the Southern Kingdom of Judah did not repent and God raised up the Babylonian Empire and in 586 B.C. sent the Babylonians to destroy the Southern Kingdom of Judah as punishment of centuries and generations of sin. It was about this time that Jeremiah and Ezekiel prophesied. Jeremiah prophesied a little bit before the Babylonians came and Ezekiel prophesied after the people were taken away into the Babylonian captivity. They preached messages of judgment that always included a messages of hope that after the exile, after their punishment, God would bring his children back to their home and that he would restore them and give them a hope.
Theme of the Heart
Within that context, I want to look this morning at one of the specific themes in Jeremiah, which is the theme of the heart. If you just do a word search on the word "heart," you will find many of the references in Jeremiah, 55 references, I believe. Jeremiah understands and expresses, perhaps more clearly than any other prophet, that the heart is what is primary and behavior, while important, is secondary. The relationship between the heart and the behavior is critical to understand if you are going to understand the message of Jeremiah, because the heart is the center of our will. It is the center of our thinking. It is the center of our decision making. It is the center of our passions. That is how the Bible uses the word “heart”. All decisions are made in the heart; our priorities are set, our values are established, and it is where the heart leads, and our feet and our mouths simply follow. It is where our heart leads and that our feet will just follow. That is why in Jeremiah the emphasis is not on some external code of conduct, but the emphasis is on our heart and what is going on deep down inside at the core of our being.
There are always reasons for why we do what we do, even if we do not know the reasons. We will ask our young children, “Why did you do that?” and they shrug their shoulders perhaps and say, “I don’t know”. Regardless, there was something in their heart that was motivating them, that was driving them to respond or to react the way that they did. Jesus understands that when he says, “What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart.” Things start deep inside, and it does not do any good to look at the external, to look at the mouths and to look at our behavior and to say “Well you should do that” or “You should not do that.” That stuff is important, but that is not the starting point in Jeremiah. It is not the starting point in the Bible. The starting point is in our hearts where we make our decisions; where we set our values. That is the key. Jeremiah understands that. It is why he talks so much about the heart. Jeremiah also understands that the human heart is wicked. Jeremiah 17:9 says it most clearly. “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately sick. Who can understand it?” This is a major stumbling block in evangelism. I am really glad that it is not my job to convict you or my neighbors or anyone of their sins. That is the Holy Spirit’s job. But this is a major stumbling block in evangelism because there will be people who you are sharing your faith with and they will not believe that they are, at the core of their being, wicked! Most secular people believe that the heart is basically good, that fixing something external would fix the deeper issues in individuals, communities, and countries. However, the problem is ''not'' external, even if they tell you it is. They are simply wrong! The core of the human dilemma is the wicked, human heart. Jeremiah was right! He is right! The heart was created good by God, but bent by sin and it becomes willful, it rebels against God and left to its own, the human heart will always lead to sin, will it not?
Our Statement of Faith says that we believe that we are sinners by nature and by choice, that the bending of our hearts through the power of sin will ultimately lead us to make sinful choices. If in evangelism the people you are talking to do not accept that, they are simply and sadly wrong. The only solution for the human condition, individually and corporately, is to deal first with the heart and then let that move from the heart out to behavior. That is ''exactly'' God’s solution. It is, in fact, God’s solution in Jeremiah 31. This is the passage that needs to be highlighted in your Bible: Jeremiah 31, starting at verse 31. There are lots of important stuff in Jeremiah, but everything else pales in comparison to Jeremiah’s announcement that there will come a new covenant. Jeremiah 31:31: "Behold the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the House of Israel and the House of Judah. Not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt." (That is the Mosaic Covenant they had made at Mt. Sinai.) "My covenant that they broke though I was their husband, declares the LORD. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD." (Here is your memory verse:) "I will put my law within them and I will write it on their hearts and I will be their God and they shall be my people.” (Exactly the same end purpose of the old covenant.) "And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and teach his brother saying, 'Know the Lord, for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,' declares the LORD, 'for I will forgive their iniquity and I will remember their sin no more.'” A Marvelous promise that things are going to change.
New and Old Covenant
One of the questions in this passage is, how was the new covenant new? How was it new and different from the old covenant under Moses? You need to know that this is an area of debate. Opinions go from one side to the other. Some people say the new and the old covenant are identical. Other people say they do not have one thing in common. I believe that the new and old covenants are more alike than they are different. Their goals are the same. They are both dealing with the heart, I believe. But there is one thing that is radically different about this new covenant, this new agreement, this new relationship that God is going to have with his people, and here it is: the New Covenant comes with power. The New Covenant comes with divine power. That is the point of Jeremiah saying that it is going to be written internally on the heart. It is not some law etched in stone that is outside of me and has no power or ability to help me obey it. Rather, it is going to be written on my heart and that means it is going to come with power. The New Covenant is going to come with God’s power first of all to change my heart. This is the doctrine of regeneration, that through the work of God’s Spirit God is at work in His people changing them, giving them new birth and making them into a new creation.
Jesus says to Nicodemus in John 3, “Unless you are born again you will not see the Kingdom of God.” And Nicodemus says, “I have no idea what you are talking about.” Jesus says, “Unless you are born of the water and Spirit you will not enter into the Kingdom of God.” The regeneration is a necessity, but it is only accomplished by the divine power that comes in the context of the New Covenant, not by you and me working hard at it. It comes with power to change my heart and, secondly, the New Covenant comes with power to help me and you live as obedient children of God. In I John 3:1, John says “See what kind of love the Father has given to us that we should be called children of God." And so we are; we have been changed. Those of us who are disciples of Jesus Christ have become something that we were not before. We were not born children of God, but we have ''become'' children of God through the mighty regenerative power of God’s Spirit. Listen to verse 6 and following: “No one who abides in Him [Jesus] keeps on sinning. No one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him. Little children, let no one deceive you. Whoever practices righteousness is righteous as He is righteous. Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil."
Ezekiel and God’s Spirit
You and I, by the power that comes from God through his Spirit within the context of the New Covenant, is the kind of power that not only changes us and makes us into the children of God, but it is the kind of power that, as we abide with Him, as we live with Christ, as we live in communion with Him and as we live in community with one another, it is the kind of power that breaks the bonds of sin and dysfunction and hurt and pain. It is called sanctification. That is quite a promise in Jeremiah. The question is, how is that going to be achieved? How will God go about giving us a new heart? The answer is in Ezekiel. I am going to look specifically at Ezekiel 36. How will God bring about the New Covenant? He tells us through Ezekiel 36:26. This is God speaking to Ezekiel, “And 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 [(there is your power)] you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers and you shall be my people and I will be your God.” The New Covenant is about a new heart that is given to us through the empowering work of God’s Spirit. And you want to know how powerful God’s Spirit is? If you think of all the shows of power that we have, the beginning of the universe or Mt St. Helens blowing up, they all pale in comparison with the power required to change our hearts, to change our spouse’s heart, our children's heart, our neighbor’s heart. You know how powerful God’s Spirit is? Look at Chapter 37. A bizarre story at first glance. God takes Ezekiel out to a valley and the valley is full of skeletons. Dry bones! These are not people who have recently died. These are people that have died long ago. There is no sinew, there is no muscle, there is no organ, there is no flesh left. There is no moisture in the bones. They are dry. They are dead. They are dead physically and they represent the deadness of the spirituality of the children of Israel at that time as well. I am resisting any temptation to talk about Ezekiel preaching to a dead church, but that is what is going on here, and God tells Ezekiel, “I want you to go out and preach to the bones.” Can you imagine how Ezekiel felt when God said that? "Go out and preach to dead bones." "God, do I not have something better to do than that?" "No, go preach to the bones, Ezekiel, and here is what you are to say." Verse 5: “Thus says the LORD God to these bones, Behold I will cause breath to enter you. [The Hebrew word for breath is also the word for spirit.] Behold I will cause breath to enter you and you shall live, and I will lay sinews upon you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am LORD.” That is how powerful God’s Spirit is, that through the preaching of a prophet God’s Spirit can enter a whole valley full of dry bones. In Chapter 37, the sinews come and the flesh comes and life comes and these skeletons become living, breathing, human beings. In the New Covenant, God’s Spirit is able to breath life into those who are spiritually dead. In the New Covenant, God’s Spirit is able to change and empower those changed lives to live in blissful obedience to Him.
You may have been praying for someone for a long time. You may have been witnessing to a co-worker or a neighbor and absolutely nothing seems to get through. You may know someone who claims to be a Christian, maybe a member of your family, who is living in sin and you find yourself saying, “Are these people ever going to wake up and see the destructiveness of their behavior?” Or, you may be struggling with your favorite sin and wondering when is the cycle going to stop? When is the anger going to stop? When is the critical spirit and gossip and slander going to stop? When will I be able to sit down at my computer and not be driven, lured and driven, to the pornography on the internet?
New Covenant and Jesus
In the New Covenant it is not not human effort, but it is God’s Spirit that is able to breath life into dead bones, to change the heart, to give you a new heart and then empower you to live as you want to live. So that the good you want to do you will do, most of the time. The bad you do not want to do you will not do, most of the time. That is the message of Jeremiah and Ezekiel, that God is in the business of changing hearts and lives. This is the message of hope that carries throughout the rest of the Old Testament. The prophet Joel prophesied that there would be a coming “Day of the LORD when God would pour out His Spirit on all flesh.” The Old Testament ends with the Book of Malachi, and Malachi’s prophesied that, before this “Day of the LORD” would come, Elijah would re-appear and would announce the coming of the “Day of the LORD.” And we move into the New Testament. The word covenant comes through the Latin into the English as “Testament.” The New Covenant is the message of the New Testament. We see the New Testament beginning with John the Baptist coming, heralding the coming of the Day of the LORD, the coming of the Lamb of God. We read through the stories of Jesus and get to the end of his life, and we find out that this New Covenant was, in fact, established on the cross. That this new relationship that we can have with God, that this power that is available to change and then to empower, was made available through what Christ did on the cross. There are many places that we could look at, but one of the best is in I Corinthians 11, where Paul is recounting what Jesus did the night before he was betrayed and then the next day died. In I Corinthians 11, starting at verse 23, Paul writes, “For I received from the LORD what I also delivered to you. That the Lord Jesus, on the night when he was betrayed, took bread and when he had given thanks he broke it and he said 'This is ''my'' body for you, do this in remembrance of me. In the same way, also, he took the cup after supper saying 'This cup is the new covenant [the New Testament] in my blood. Do this as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me. For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” Jesus is redefining the Passover service. It no longer refers back to the salvation of the people of Israel after the 10th plague, but it now is a celebration of the salvation that Jesus was going to effect on the cross. He explains it is now about Him. Just as the Old Covenant was accomplished through the sacrificial death of a lamb and memorialized through the Passover feast, so the New Covenant was accomplished through the death of the Lamb of God, Isaiah’s suffering servant, and memorialized through the Lord’s Supper, which we celebrate near Easter.
The forgiveness that was promised in Jeremiah 31 and the power of God’s Spirit that is present in the New Covenant, is now a reality at the expense of the life and death of Jesus Christ. A few days later, at Pentecost in Acts 2, Joel’s prophesy was fulfilled and God’s Spirit was poured out on all flesh and hearts were changed and lives were empowered to live within the New Covenant guidelines. God’s promise to Abraham of world wide blessing was being fulfilled and the purpose of the Old Covenant is now fulfilled in the New Covenant.
The New Covenant is About Changing People
You remember Exodus 19. The whole purpose was so that God could take, out of all the peoples of the earth, one people. He would make a nation and they would become a kingdom of priests. They would mediate God to the world. They would share God to the world. Through the working of the New Covenant, that is exactly what you and I have become. 1st Peter 2:9: "But you are a chosen race. A royal priesthood. A holy nation. A people for his own possession." Do you like being possessed by God? That is what we are. We are possessed by God. "That you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light." That is what the New Covenant is all about. It is God changing people. You know, Habakkuk’s message of faith must have been difficult for the people of that day and age because Habakkuk says what God requires is faith and that is hard. Hosea’s message of faithlessness must have been hard to those people, because their faithlessness was rampant! How do we live faithful to God? It is too hard! Jesus’ death brought about the New Covenant and the release of power of God’s Spirit to change lives, to give us new birth, to give us a new heart, and then to enable us to live as new creatures so that we can fully obey the Shamah: "Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the LORD is one and you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your strength." Do you know what we are going to sing at the end of time in Revelation 21, when all this mess is wiped away and God makes the new heaven and the new earth? Revelation 21, starting at verse 3, "And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, 'Behold the dwelling place of God is with man and He will dwell with them and they will be His people. And God Himself will be with them as their God and he will wipe away every tear from their eyes. And death shall be no more. Neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain, for the former things have passed away.'"
Finally, God is going to get what He wants. Finally, you and I are going to get what we want. God’s purposes in creation someday will be fulfilled and you can either be on the winning team, or you can be on the losing team. It is as simple as A, B, C. The New Covenant is available, but it must be made yours. And it is through the admission that the heart is deceitfully wicked above all else and that while we are created to have fellowship with God, our heart is bent by sin and we are far from Him and we will die and we will live in hell for ever and ever and ever and ever and then ever. If that does not scare you, I do not know what will. Because of God’s grace and mercy, he sent his son, the suffering servant, to die on the cross so that he can pay the penalty for our sins and we simply have to believe it. You cannot earn it. You cannot work your way into Heaven. It is by faith. Yet the kind of faith that makes use of the New Covenant is the kind of faith that allows God’s Spirit to come in and change us and give us a new heart through the power of the Spirit. Then, through that same Spirit, enable us to live lives that we want to live: the kind of lives that are pleasing to God. My prayer is that everyone within earshot of this building will say Hallelujah when Jesus comes back again, and we get to rejoice in His goodness forever more. Please, do not go hell!
Let’s pray. Father, what you have promised through Jeremiah and Ezekiel came true 600 years later through your son’s death on the cross and our hearts can now be changed, the power of absolute sin can be broken, and we can be empowered to live the kind of life that we were created to live. Father, may the Good News of the cross go out from this pulpit, out from this building, and out from every home represented here. May we understand that there is another option, that we do not have to sacrifice our children. We do not have to sacrifice ourselves, because your son sacrificed himself for us. May your Spirit blow through this place, regenerating and empowering us, because You are our God and we are your people. Amen.
May you go as freed people, for whom the Spirit has freed are free indeed. May you go freed from sin and its absolute bondage, and may you go free from trying to live a good Christian life all on your own because you cannot do it. It is only through the Spirit who calls us to it and we follow. May you go a freed people.
“I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Jeremiah 31:33).
- What are some examples in your own life that show how the heart is primary, and that actions follow the heart? Does your family understands this concept?
- It is hard to think that apart from Christ the heart — the center of our will and emotions — is wicked. For those who are Christians, look back to what you were like and reflect on this truth.
- While it is the Holy Spirit’s job to convict the non-Christian of their sin — the evilness of their heart — how would you go about discussing this fact with a non-believer? Without acknowledging this, it is doubtful they will ever accept the necessity of a new heart.
- Only God has the power to truly change the human heart. And without that change everyone is doomed to hell. How can you explain this to others?
- If God’s Spirit has the ability to breathe life into a valley of dry bones, he has the power to breathe spiritual life into your friends, especially those for whom you have been praying for a long time or perhaps seem unapproachable. How does Ezekiel give you new strength to continue in your prayer and witnessing to them?
- How did Christ’s work on the cross and the Spirit’s work at Pentecost bring about the New Covenant? How is that work replicated in your own life?
- How does God want you to be involved in His work of changing people’s heart and lives?