Sunday, December 07, 2008

Sermon: Jeremiah 31:31-36 The New Covenant

When we hear the word covenant, what do we think of? Maybe if you’re historically minded, you’ll think of the Ulster Covenant of 1912 when the people banded together to remain British. Or maybe you’ll think of the old gift aid scheme before it became known as gift aid – you would covenant to give so much money to the parish, and they could claim back the income tax on it.

A covenant is an agreement, a pledge, where two parties come together and agree to be bound by certain conditions. Perhaps the best known covenant for us is the marriage covenant. Wearing this ring is a sign that I have covenanted with Lynsey to be her husband, that we will live together and become one.

In our passage tonight, God, through the prophet Jeremiah, announces that he will bring in a new covenant, because the old covenant with the children of Israel wasn’t working. We’ll see that the problem lies with the covenant breakers – before seeing that the solution lies in the covenant Maker.

So if we think about the old covenant first. Verse 32 tells us that the first covenant was made with the people of Israel ‘when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt’. Out of the land of Egypt? God is speaking here about the exodus, when God rescued his people from their Egyptian slavery.

The covenant was sealed at Mount Sinai, when Moses received the law, the Ten Commandments. (Ex 20, and also Ex 24). The people agreed themselves: ‘All the words that the LORD has spoken we will do.’ (Ex 24:3) In effect, this was a wedding day – God became married to his people. Do you see at the end of verse 32: ‘I was their husband.’ So, the first commandment ‘You shall have no other gods before me’ was like the marriage vow. If Israel was married to the LORD, then they couldn’t run off after other gods.

Yet this was precisely what they did. Israel was the covenant breaker. God says as much in the middle of 32: ‘my covenant that they broke.’ Israel, God’s bride, had separated from him, and committed adultery with other gods. This is the consistent theme of the Old Testament, as we trace salvation history through its pages.

God had promised that if the people obeyed, then he would give them their own land – the promised land. But if they disobeyed, then they would be removed from the promised land. So Joshua and Judges tell how the people conquered the land, and Samuel how the kingship became established, first through Saul, and then David. But after Solomon’s reign, the kingdom of Israel divided into two – the northern kingdom of Israel, and the southern kingdom of Judah.

By the time Jeremiah was on the scene, the kingdom of Israel had already been conquered, and the people were in exile. Early in Jeremiah’s life, the king Josiah had re-discovered the Law of God, and had introduced reforms to bring Judah back in line with the covenant. But even those reforms were too little too late, and turned out to be surface changes which died out with Josiah. The days of Judah were numbered, as Jeremiah prophesied again and again.

The old covenant had been broken. Israel, the ‘wife’ had forgotten her wedding vows and committed adultery with the Baals and the Ashtoreth and other false gods.

Into this context, then, comes the remarkable prophecy of a new covenant. First of all, do you see the extent of the new covenant? Jeremiah was speaking to the people of Judah. There had been mistrust and dislike between the people of Israel and the people of Judah, and both had broken the covenant. Yet God says that the new covenant will embrace both the house of Israel and the house of Judah.

It’s as if we have the message of a new hope, not only for Northern Ireland, our wee country, but also for the Republic of Ireland too – our near neighbours whom we maybe don’t get on with too well.

God’s grace in his new covenant extends to all the lost sheep of Israel. Indeed, as we now know, God’s grace extends even outside the children of Israel to us Gentiles, who are incorporated into the new covenant by faith.

Look at verses 33 and 34. There you’ll see the details of the new covenant, as spelt out by God. There are three ‘I will’ statements: ‘I will put my law within them … I will be their God, and they shall be my people … (and) I will forgive their iniquity.’ Let’s take them in turn.

Under the old covenant, the Law was written on tablets of stone, demanding obedience. It was over the people, something they had to live up to. I wonder have you ever seen some churches with the Ten Commandments on the front wall? It’s as if they declare the standard that you have to attain to be accepted.

But the problem was that the people couldn’t live up to the standard. As Paul says in Romans, ‘The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me.’ (Rom 7:10). That was the consistent theme throughout Israel’s history.

Under the new covenant, though, God promises that it will be different. No longer will the law be over God’s people, but rather, God will ‘put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts.’ God’s people will know the will of God, and know how to please him.

Imagine that George Best had chosen someone to learn from him how to be a great footballer. George could have given him loads of coaching, and lots of advice – lots of commands even, but still the guy may not have been good. It’s not that the commands were wrong. But imagine rather, that the player could have George Best’s ability given to them, so that rather than hearing George’s advice, they lived it on the pitch – well, it would be entirely different, wouldn’t it?

This is something like what happens under the covenant. God’s people know God’s will – as we now know, by having the Holy Spirit, the author of the Law living within us.

Second, God promises that all of his people will know him in that covenant relationship of ‘I will be their God and they shall be my people.’ You see, while this was true of the old covenant, access to God was restricted. When they came out of Egypt, it was only Moses who went into the tent of meeting – only Moses had direct access to God. Or during the time of the Temple, on arrival, there was the court of the Gentiles, then a wall / gate; then the court of women; then the men’s court; then the holy place, where only priests could enter, and finally the Holy of Holies, or the Most Holy Place, where the high priest would only enter once a year, on the Day of Atonement.

In the new covenant, however, no longer will it be necessary for people to teach others about the LORD, because ‘they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.’ Remember the curtain of the temple that was torn as Jesus died on the cross? The access was open – through Jesus and the new covenant, we can all know the Lord.

Have you ever been to Buckingham Palace? Lynsey and me were over there in September, but, for some reason, we couldn’t get in to see the Queen. First, there was the problem of the big railings, then the policemen, then the guardsmen with their weapons, then the walls etc… She might be my Queen, but there was no access. But if it was the new covenant, then I could just call in any time. Do you see the difference? Again, this is achieved by the indwelling of the Spirit, as we come to know the Lord personally – and eventually, at the consummation of the new kingdom, how much more! We shall see the Lord Jesus face to face – ‘where I shall know as I am known.’

Moving on, the third feature of the new covenant is the forgiveness of sins: ‘I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.’ Under the old covenant, sin was dealt with once per year on the Day of Atonement, but now, God says that sins will be forgiven and forgotten – wiped out.

The old covenant had failed because the people had failed. They may have known the law’s demands, but they couldn’t fulfil them. They were sinful people, like us. They had broken the covenant. But the new covenant will not fail. Why? Surely we’re still the same, broken people who sin and mess up.

The new covenant will not fail because it is God who takes the initiative (the repeated ‘I will’s…) and it is because God gives us the grace to keep the covenant. Indeed, as one commentator noted, it was through the gracious self-giving of the Lord Jesus, that the new covenant was instituted – his death on the cross and his sending of the Spirit which guarantees us knowing how to please the Lord, knowing the Lord, and knowing the forgiveness of our sins.

And yet, out of his great grace, as if all that wasn’t enough, God provides yet another guarantee. Another gracious promise. Verses 35 and 36 call us to look up and out, to see the sin and moon and stars and sea. All the ‘fixed order’ as God says. And even as the people of Judah faced the armies of Babylon coming to capture them, and take them away from the promised land, God declares that he will keep his covenant. ‘If this fixed order departs from before me, declares the LORD, then shall the offspring of Israel cease from being a nation before me for ever.’ So long as the sun shines and the waves roll, the children of Israel will continue to exist. God’s covenant people are secure, because God is the faithful covenant maker.

I wonder, if you’re part of the new covenant people. Maybe tonight you realise that you don’t know the LORD, that you don’t know the forgiveness of sins through the death of the Lord Jesus. God’s grace is available for you as you come to trust in the Lord Jesus.

But if you are part of the new covenant, then do you realise the great blessings that are yours tonight? The knowledge and ability to please the Lord; the knowledge of the Lord himself; and the great freedom that comes from having sins forgiven and forgotten.

This sermon was preached in St Elizabeth's Church, Dundonald on Sunday 7th December 2008.

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