Wed Night Lent 4 – Pr Smith

Msg for 3/13 Jer 31:31-34

CT: “God promises His people a new relationship, not based on the Law of Moses but on grace and faith. The promise finds fulfillment in Jesus and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in the NT.”

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

If you want to know what God is like, even the OT God, as people like to call Him, look at our reading for tonight. If you want to know what the NT authors thought of this passage, know that it is the longest OT text quoted in the NT. These verses are quoted three distinct times in Hebrews chapter 8, chapter 9, and again in chapter 10. Understanding Jer 31 as it related to the coming of Jesus was considered foundational for being a believer in Jesus. We also think that Jesus was referencing this passage when He spoke of the new testament in His blood at the Last Supper (Lk 22:20; 1 Cor 11:25). The same “new covenant/new testament” language is used. And again Jeremiah 31 seems to be in the kernel of Paul’s thinking in his second letter to the Corinthians, chapter 3. We say the OT and the NT complete the one Testament of God and our reading tonight is definitely one on which the whole of Biblical theology rests. And so tonight, I want to look a little more closely at the passage with you and highlight the main connection points for believers in Jeremiah’s hearing, then, in Jesus’ day, and for us today.

We might as well be on a mountain top tonight, standing face to face with God Himself in this text. We could have no clearer picture of His heart, of what He wants for people, what He wants for all people. “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.” God is promising His people a new relationship.

This is the only place in the OT where God uses the phrase “new covenant.” Elsewhere He promises an “everlasting covenant” (Jer 32:40; 50:5; Isa 24:5; 55:3; 61:8; Ezek 16:60; 37:26). And in Ezekiel He promises His people a “new heart and a new spirit” (Ezek 11:19; 18:31; 36:26; Jer 32:39 lxx). The Hebrew for new here can mean, brand spanking new, as we might say, or it can also mean renewed. And I point this out because there seems to be so much confusion among Christians about the “new covenant.” A quick look at the new covenant God wants to make with His people reveals that three quarters of the new covenant is a repetition of previous covenants God made with Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David. God is making a new covenant that lies largely within the lines of the previous because without a new covenant the same pattern of disobedience, judgment, and transitory repentance followed again by disobedience and judgment would be endlessly repeated. God’s only redemptive recourse, then, was to change the nature of the covenant and thereby change the nature of his people. Even in the new covenant, the people will be obedient to God but not out of compulsion to the letter of the Law as much as out of joy by the Holy Spirit dwelling in people’s hearts. This goes to show that the fault of the old covenant was not with the covenant but with the people. God is promising His people a renewed relationship not based on the Law of Moses but on grace.

The new covenant will not be like the covenant that God made with the elders of Israel at Mt. Sinai. That covenant, God’s people broke over and over again, “Though, [God says] I was their husband.” God is reminding Israel that He has been a faithful husband while reminding Israel of their idolatry, aka spiritual adultery. Now, if you’ve ever read Hosea, you know this metaphor of Yahweh as husband and Israel as wife. Jeremiah has already used it back in chapter 3. But because I know you expect quality when you hear a message from this pulpit, I want you to point out some Hebrew word play going on here. The vocabulary for husband here, in Hebrew is baalti. If that sounds to you like the baals, the Canaanite gods Israel is not supposed to worship, you’re right. Dr. Egger, the new president of Concordia Seminary, pointed out in a Bible study just this, that instead of being faithful to their true husband, Yahweh, Israel was known for fooling around with the ba’als. But even thought they’ve been unfaithful, God is promising a renewed relationship with His all His people.

God is making His promise not only to the house of Judah, which lies in tatters after the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of the Judahites into Babylon, He is making His promise to the house of Israel too, which fell some 175 years earlier to the Assyrians. It would be hard to find any folks from the tribe of Israel left because they were carried off never to return to the Land. In fact most theologians believe that this promise applies not just to the tribes of Judah and Israel but to all the tribes and to all people in a new or renewed Israel.

And what does God promise? Look for all the places where He says what He will do.

1. “I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah,”

2. “I will put my Torah in their minds,”

3. “I will be their God,” and

4. “I will forgive their iniquities.”

This covenant is all God’s doing. The initiative and the responsibility for carrying out this covenant is altogether with Yahweh and not with the people of Israel. This covenant is a covenant of grace received by faith.

God says, “I will put my Law, my Torah, my teaching, within them, and I will write it on their hearts.” You remember where the last covenant was written, on slabs of stone by the finger of God. This time the Lord writes directly on peoples’ hearts. He promises to be their God and that they will be His people, that is, they will enjoy His protection and provision. And again, I want to point out that all this newness or renewal is possible only because God has forgiven His people as it is today. This promise that God make to all Israel finds it’s fulfillment in Jesus.

You might think that the NT would be chock full of language about the new covenant. And yet I know of only one place where it’s found, Luke 22, in the mouth of Jesus at the Last Supper. Verse 20 reads, “And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” We know that Jesus is anticipating His arrest and crucifixion the next day when He says “this is the new testament in my blood.” It looks like Jesus understands the covenant He is introducing to be the fulfillment of Jeremiah’s prophecies and the fulfillment of the Sinai covenant.” Moses tells us the people at Sinai were confirmed in the covenant with blood sprinkled on them. Jesus is saying the new covenant comes with His blood spiritually but essentially present in the cup with the wine, to put the new covenant literally inside people who eat His body and drink His blood. And when compared with the rest of His mission, it’s clear He saw Himself as the agent by which God was making His covenant new. Jesus represents the whole of the people of Israel as well as all humanity. The covenant is fulfilled not in the half-tries toward righteousness by people, but in the righteous One, Jesus Christ, fulfilling the whole covenant, renewed in His righteousness for the sake of all people. What Israel could not do, Jesus did completely. At the end of Luke’s Gospel, when Jesus is on the beach at the impromptu fish fry with the disciples, He said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures…” He chose 12 disciples, a renewal of Israel. And as Israel’s Messiah, He inaugurated the new covenant at the nothing less than the Passover.

In Jeremiah, God promised His people a new relationship, not based on the Law of Moses but on His act of grace to be received by us in faith. The promise finds fulfillment in Jesus, in His cross and resurrection, and I want to point out, in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

Whenever we read OT prophecy, we need to read it as though we were hearing it being read as a person of that day. The people of Israel, separated from the Promised Land and the temple and therefore the tangible blessings of God, heard Jeremiah’s prophesy looked forward to its fulfillment. But while the people did return to the Land, rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem, and the temple, the new covenant prophecy was not fulfilled in the 530s BC. And I think we could argue that even after the coming of Jesus, we are certainly not living in an age where everyone knows the Lord. If we were, I’d be out of a job.

The only way to make sense of this passage from Jeremiah is to read in light of Jesus coming into the world. Only this reading provides the template for interpreting the restoration promises in Jeremiah. We know Jerusalem was rebuilt along with the temple. But it was hardly a complete fulfillment by any measure. But with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, you have another fuller fulfillment of the prophecy. When Peter quotes Joel, he’s standing in this stream of OT restoration prophecy and telling people it’s happening before their eyes, alluding to all of it, Ezekiel 36 and the new Spirit-filled heart God promises. Jeremiah doesn’t mention the Spirit but he does mention the new heart, a renewed desire to obey the Lord. When Paul later writes to the Corinthians the second time, he says,

And you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts. 4 Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. 5 Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God, 6 who has made us sufficient to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” (2 Cor 2)

And yet, this is not quite the whole fulfillment yet. The kingdom of God has come in the person and work of Jesus and in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, but we’re still living in a time where all people don’t know the Lord. Now, some people do know the Lord but not all, not yet. Our hearts are made new but not completely, not yet. We are sanctified children of God but not completely sanctified, not yet. And the Bible, both testaments, actually, live in this tension between the completely already, God has held nothing of Himself back from you, but not yet completely. And so being a follower of Jesus is being in the process of becoming what you already are in Christ.

So with this reading tonight from Jeremiah 31, there is a historic, partial fulfillment beginning in the 530s BC, when the first wave of exiles returned home and when Jerusalem was initially rebuilt, and there is also a future fulfillment in the coming of Jesus and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and an ultimate fulfillment that awaits the coming of the end of the age.

And so what a gift of a reading at this apex of the Lenten season. A reading that anticipates Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday, as well as Pentecost. With all believers in the true God, we look back to the sacred and costly inauguration of Yahweh’s new covenant with Israel through the cross and recognize this as the very fount of our hope and salvation, and we look ahead with great anticipation to its glorious culmination in the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.

God has promised you a renewed relationship, not based on the Law of Moses but on His acts of grace in Jesus to be received by faith. The promise finds fulfillment in Jesus and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. All this He has done. He renews a right spirit within you. Thanks be to God. Amen.

The peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus. Amen.

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