A New Covenant

Written by Michael Petrin, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies, Marywood University, Scranton, PA

Trees with light coming through. A Voice in the Wilderness

Jeremiah 31:31-34

The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the LORD. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: 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. No longer shall they teach one another or say to each other, “Know the LORD,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD, for I will forgive their iniquity and remember their sin no more.

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This prophecy from the Book of Jeremiah was originally proclaimed to a suffering people, a people that had experienced defeat and exile, a people that knew the brokenness of this world firsthand. Of course, Jeremiah is a prophet, so he doesn’t let the people of God off the hook. He doesn’t hide the fact that the Israelites—who were chosen by God as his “treasured possession out of all the peoples” (Exod. 19:5)—have sinned and broken their covenant with the Lord. Yet Jeremiah does not dwell on the past. Instead, he proclaims a powerful message of hope: “The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah” (Jer. 31:31).

We should be careful not to view this “new covenant” as something completely disconnected from the covenant made at Sinai. Yes, God does say that the new covenant “will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors” (Jer. 31:32); but it’s still a covenant between the Lord and the house of Israel. And this isn’t the first time that God has said of the Israelites, “I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (see Exod. 6:7).

So what is different? The main difference seems to be that the people of Israel have broken the old covenant through their sin and iniquity, but that the Lord has chosen to forgive them and to restore their spousal bond with him. The new covenant, God says, will make it so that all of his people will know him, “from the least of them to the greatest” (Jer. 31:34), and they will all have his law written “on their hearts” (Jer. 31:33).

For Christians, this idea of a “new covenant” is of central importance because Jesus uses it at the Last Supper, telling his disciples, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me” (1 Cor. 11:25; cf. Matt. 26:28; Mark 14:24; Luke 22:20). Jeremiah’s prophecy of a “new covenant” is also quoted in the Letter to the Hebrews (Heb. 8:8-12)—and the very name of the “New Testament” comes from the Christian belief that Jesus is the mediator of a “new covenant” between God and human beings (Heb. 9:15; 12:24).

As we go through the spiritual preparation of Lent, therefore, let us take some time to reflect on what it means for us to be included in this “new covenant” that has been ratified with Christ’s blood. How can we strive to be faithful members of this covenant? How do we need to seek God’s forgiveness for our sin and iniquity? And how should we demonstrate that we have God’s law within us, written on our very hearts?

I think the word “heart” is especially important here because the Bible uses this word frequently when it speaks of how human beings should relate to God. We should heed the psalmist’s exhortation: “O that today you would listen to his voice! Do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah, as on the day at Massah in the wilderness…” (Ps. 95:7-8). We should seek to “love the Lord our God with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our might” (cf. Deut. 6:5). And we should pray to receive the blessing that God promised to his people through the prophet Ezekiel: “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you, and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh” (Ezek. 36:26).

As we journey through the stony wilderness of Lent, may we learn to have hearts that are truly hearts of flesh: hearts that are enlivened by the Holy Spirit and hearts on which God has written his law. May we grow daily in our love of the Lord and strive to live in a way that is faithful to the new covenant. And above all, may we never forget that “in this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:10).

 

 

A Voice in the Wilderness: Lent 2024

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