The New Covenant Defined
Written by Jimmy Stewart
Let’s look at where the term "new covenant" appears in scripture for the first time in Jeremiah 31:31-34.
"Behold, days are coming," declares the LORD, "when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them," declares the LORD.
"But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days," declares the LORD, "I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. "They will not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, 'Know the LORD,' for they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them," declares the LORD, "for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more."
Here in these verses we see that God is the husband of Israel, whom He had chosen to be His bride. However, Israel could not keep this covenant, which is really a covenant of marriage therefore God is forced to make a new covenant. To understand why God is making these covenants, it is important to understand the language of covenant that is at its foundations.
First, is the meaning of the Hebrew word "ahavah," which means God’s love that makes a choice for no particular reason. Starting with calling Abraham out of Ur and saying in Gen 17:7 that He would be God to Abraham and his descendents – "I will be your God, you will be my people," God just made a choice. God chose Israel, not because Israel was special. God could have chosen anyone. In Deut. 9, God says to Israel that they were not great; they were a small nation and the most stiff necked people on earth. Yet God chose them, just because He set His love on them. It is this kind of love that results in a covenant, a marriage and commitment to each other. God made a covenant to Israel to be their God and they His people.
Once this covenant is in place the new word to describe this marriage relationship is the Hebrew word "hesed" which means "loyal love." This is the most important theological word in the Old Testament. "Loyal love" is the anchor of our souls. This means once there is a covenant in place and commitment to each other, both parties are to have a keen ardent desire to cultivate loyalty toward each other. God loves Israel because He made a choice, a marriage oath and committed Himself to Israel. This "loyal love" is manifested in different ways and the term to describe the external manifestation of loyal love is "righteousness." "Loyal love" is the attitude, the ardent desire to cultivate the relationship once there is a covenant in place, "righteousness" is the outworking of that love; loyalty and commitment in action.
We know God is "righteous," but is Israel? Has Israel fulfilled "loyal love?" Has she kept the law and the commandments? Has she given God her whole heart? If the answer is yes, then she, too, is "righteous" in this relationship. However, from these verses in Jeremiah and throughout scripture the answer is no. We see in the book of Micah that there is actually a divorce court going on and Israel wants out of this relationship. The Lord is pleading saying "I saved you. I brought you out of Egypt. I led you in the wilderness. I fed you….." However, Israel cannot keep her end of the bargain of "loyal love" and acting "righteous" in this marriage relationship. In fact she is worse than the Canaanites and commits total apostasy, filling out the sins of Adam far more than Adam ever did.
The big theological question therefore presents itself. What is God going to do? He has taken an oath in this marriage/covenant relationship to be "hesed or loyal loving." If He wipes out Israel then He will no longer be seen in history as "hesed." How can God solve this problem? What do you do when your wife/people cannot love you in return?
This is the point of the New Covenant. In the New Covenant, God becomes a man in Jesus. And Jesus, the man, gives God his whole heart and fulfills all the requirements of the law. God not only plays His part of the husband, but Jesus also takes the place of Israel and as Israel’s representative loves God fully in return, thus fulfilling the covenant requirements.
So God in heaven, He loves man and Jesus, the man, he loves God and both sides of the covenant equation are fulfilled. This is how faithful God is to fulfill His covenant. The Old Covenant (as defined by the giving of the Law at Mount Sinai by God to the Israelites) is not legalism. God did not desire a legalistic relationship, He only asked for Israel’s love after He rescued them from Egypt (the Law defined can be summed up by two actions - love the Lord, thy God with all thy heart and thy neighbor as yourself). God wanted the whole heart and Israel could not do it. She could not love God in return. Therefore Jesus did it for them.
This brings us to the heart of the gospel. The righteousness of God has been made manifest (Rom 1:17-18) and it is available now not only to the Jews, but the Gentiles as well. God has demonstrated His righteousness as He has remained loyal to the covenant. God shows how "hesed" He is, as He plays the part of unfaithful Israel, and fulfills both sides of the covenant equation. No longer does man have to keep the law to be righteous, but it is now by faith in the work of another, Jesus Christ. Through faith in Jesus’ life and work on the cross, our past, present and future sins are forgiven and God places us "in Christ" where we are made a new creation (2 Cor 5:17) with a new heart that loves like Jesus Christ loves. Through this New Covenant, God has made it possible for me and you to be righteous (1 Cor 11:25) as the requirement of the law is now fulfilled in me by Jesus Christ, not by me (Rom 8:4). Thus God has done everything and all we bring is our faith – where even the ability to have faith actually comes from Him, too.
Now that we have been saved by faith, how then does this New Covenant work itself out in our daily walk and Christian experience? Again in Romans 1:17, Paul states that the righteousness of God is revealed "from faith to faith" This means that not only do we come by faith to Jesus Christ to be saved, but our new life in Christ is also one of continual faith – faith in the life of our resurrected and living savior, Jesus Christ.
Many people start their Christian life by faith, but then revert back to old attitudes, habits and resources to live life, instead of living by faith in Jesus who lives within us by the Holy Spirit (Col 1:27, Col 3:4). We see a vivid picture of this in the Old Testament where Israel crosses the Red Sea to escape the bondage of Pharaoh. Soon after, when given the chance to enter the Promised Land they shrunk away through lack of faith and ended up spending 40 years in the wilderness of fleshly self effort, dryness and death. Again this is a candid portrayal for many of us who accept Jesus’ work on the cross to cut us off from this life of bondage to sin, Satan and death, but stop there and never fully enter into this "promised land" of our life in Christ. We remain in the wilderness of life. This results in a lot of religious activity that eventually evidences itself in burnout, "rest-lessness" and lack of fruit. Bob Roe, a longtime Elder at Peninsula Bible Church has estimated that over 70% of all Christian work is done in the flesh – our own best efforts to serve God. Major Ian Thomas, another dear Christian saint. felt that this figure was more like 90%!
How then do we enter into the "promised land" and live this Christian life? The answer is that we cannot. This realization is the beginning of an understanding of the secret to New Covenant living. Only one person has ever lived the Christian life and that is Jesus himself!!! The glorious truth, however, is that the living Jesus desires to live this life again through you and me as we allow Him to. Jesus himself modeled this lifestyle for us as He said that everything He did was the work of the Father who lived in him and worked through him (John 5:19). God’s desire is for us to enter into this same lifestyle of "rest" in Jesus, where Jesus says himself in John 15:5 that "apart from me you can do nothing." In John 14, Jesus states this truth again to us where He says that "you are in me, and I am in you." As we delve deeper into this truth we find that man is actually made to be the dwelling place of God. Literally, the Lord of the universe comes to live in us and entwine His life with us, where it is impossible to tell the two apart. In fact, in 1 Cor 6:17 we are told we are now one spirit with the Lord.
How do we allow Christ’s life within to possess us. This is summed up so well in his statement, "Christ died that I might live, I must die that Christ might live in me." The first part of this statement describes my "position" in Christ where Christ’s sacrifice on the cross has freed me from my past and given me a new life. The second half of his statement is "experiential" and is the outworking of Christ’s life in me and is best summed up in Romans 12:1-2 where we are asked to present our bodies as living sacrifices so that Jesus Christ who lives within us can make Himself visible through us. Our only job description is to make the invisible Jesus visible - like Jesus made the Father visible as He chose to allow the Father to work through Him. As a living sacrifice we have a choice of whether to get off the altar or not. If we choose to get off the altar and do things ourselves, the results will be only what we see in front of us, if that. Our only reward will be that little hand of pride that comes up and pats ourselves on the back or the applause of people around us. However, if we choose to remain on the altar (and be a "hunk of dead meat" as a friend of mine so bluntly puts it) allowing Jesus Christ who resides in us by His Holy Spirit to transform and use us, the results will be eternal, beyond our expectations, where only God can be glorified. Our daily prayer should be "Be my guest, Lord. I want you to live through me, love through me, listen through me, speak through me, take me out of the act, thank you, Lord!" Only God can do God’s work, and He is willing to use us in the process if we allow Him.
This reminds us that God does not need our best shot or effort. This is the world’s way and is the way we lived in our old life controlled by the old man. Before I was dead in my trespasses and sin, and had no choice and could only choose one way, by default, that what was natural to the old man – with its resulting fruit of sin and self effort. Now that the old man is dead and I am new creation in Christ, though the attitudes and habits of the old fleshly life that I used to live are still present, this is no longer who I am. I now have a choice and can choose what is natural to my new nature - the new man. I must still remember though, that I do not have the power to do, I only have the power to choose; my choice is whether to allow the old attitudes and habits of the flesh to produce the withered fruit of self effort, or to allow Jesus Christ, who is now my life (Col 3:4) to produce the fruit of the Spirit – love, joy, peace.
It is now no longer so much the fight against the old and what I can't do, as it is the freedom in the new and what I now can do, that I was never able to do before - being free not to sin. We are now free to bear fruit for the Kingdom. With a "mind set" of being a "new creation," (Rom 8:5) the old being dead, and all things being new ( II Cor 5:17 ) this gives me a perspective on the Christian life that is full of power, hope and joy as it is Christ in me who is always victorious.
In a message entitled "Body Language," given to the congregation to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of Peninsula Bible Church in 1998, a few paragraphs summarize these truths so well.
"The body of Christ receives its nurture from the indwelling life of Christ, from communion with him so intimate that Jesus described it as eating his body and drinking his blood. We cannot edify one another unless we first partake of him. Then from that resource we can impart to one another the essence of his life. The issue is character. The source is the Lord Jesus Christ himself. This is New Covenant living at its core. This is "Christ in you, the hope of glory" (Colossians 1:27), his character expressed through his people, a shared glory. The energy of that indwelling life of Christ will propel us into serving others as acts of worship and gratitude to him for his gracious provision of life and truth and love. Metabolizing his unconditional love, we have resource for loving others. Freed by his forgiving grace and mercy, we are motivated and empowered to forgive others.
Secure in the knowledge that we are not our own, but bought with an incalculable price, we know whose we are, who we are, and why we are here. It is that secure identity, that source of unquenchable joy, that makes all of life sacramental. His body was broken, his blood poured out for us. Now in him, through him, to him we "offer [our] bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God" (Romans 12:1), a poured-out doxology of praise and worship to Christ Jesus, "in [whom] we live and move and have our being" (Acts 17:28). In quoting from Ray Stedman’s book "Authentic Christianity":
"The authentic Christian life is essentially and radically different from the natural life lived by a man or woman of the world. Outwardly, it can be very much the same: involved with making a living, going to school, getting married, raising children, mowing lawns, buying groceries, getting along with neighbors. But inwardly, the basis of living is dramatically different. Christ is a part of all these things! He is the motivator of every wholesome action, the corrector of every wrong deed or thought. He is the giver of every joy and the healer of every hurt. He is no longer merely on the edges of life, acknowledged on Sunday but absent through the week. Christ is the center of everything. Life revolves around him. As a consequence, life comes into proper focus, a deep peace possesses the heart, strength grips the spirit despite outward trials, and kindness and joy radiate abroad. This is really living!"
What a privilege! To think that we are the dwelling place of the Living God and He desires us to be His visibility – His mouthpiece, His voice, His touch, His presence, as ministers of this glorious New Covenant to a dying world around us. What an honor!
May it be our prayer that we might grasp the depth of meaning of this New Covenant so that we, too, might experience, in this present life, the glorious liberty of the sons of God. Amen.