The new covenant: then and now

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When US Democrat leader Franklin D Roosevelt came to power in March 1933 he offered a “New Deal” to counter the Great Depression (1930–1939). The “New Deal” was not entirely new. Raymond Moley (a member in Roosevelt’s brains trust) wrote that it “was . . . a loose collection of many ideas—some new, most borrowed from the past—with plenty of improvisations and compromises”.1 

God’s new covenant with Israel was also by no means entirely new and it too was in response to a national catastrophe. That disaster had its roots in the dividing of Israel after the death of Solomon into two separate kingdoms, with Jeroboam becoming the king of the northern tribes and Rehoboam reigning over Judah and Benjamin (1 Kings 12:1–33).2 The division came to a tragic end about 200 years later when Samaria fell (722 BCE) to Sargon II, who then deported the people to Assyria and Babylonia (2 Kings 17:1–18).

The same fate befell Judah almost 150 years later when Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians (586 BCE) and its people went into captivity (2 Kings 24:1–25:21). “So Judah went into exile out of its land” (2 Kings 25:21); the land that God had promised Abraham as a possession of his descendants forever (Genesis 17:8). Furthermore, the tangible evidence of God’s special relationship with Israel, the temple—“I will place my dwelling in your midst, and I shall not abhor you. And I will walk among you, and will be your God, and you shall be my people” (Leviticus 26:12)—was in ruins.

Possibly the worst humiliation of all was the apparent failure of the covenant-promise to David: “Your house and your kingdom will continue before me for all time, and your throne will be secure forever” (2 Samuel 7:16 NLT). The Babylonian captivity saw the denigration of the final kings of Judah: Jehoiakim was probably assassinated and buried in shame (Jeremiah 22:18,19; 36:30); Jehoiachin lived out his days at the table of a Babylonian king eating food from a royal-pagan kitchen (2 Kings 25:29,30); and Zedekiah, having watched the Babylonians butcher his sons, then had his eyes poked out (2 Kings 25:7). Blinded and wretched, he died in prison (Jeremiah 52:9–11). God’s promises of Israel’s possessing the land forever, being His people without end and having an everlasting Davidic kingdom seemed to have ended in despair.

The Hope of a New Covenant

The God that scattered them promised to gather them to the land of Israel as a united nation (Jeremiah 30:3; 31:10; Ezekiel 37:21,22). This second exodus would be in the context of a new covenant (Jeremiah 31:31–33); it is still about multiplying their population (Jeremiah 23:3; Ezekiel 36:10, 37,38); it is still concerned with the promised land (Jeremiah 32:43,44; 33:11; Ezekiel 36:34,35); and God is still Israel’s God and they are still His people (Jeremiah 30:22; 31:33; Ezekiel 36:28; 37:23,27).

So how is the new covenant different from the earlier covenants? First, the law is more personal; it is of the heart (Jeremiah 31:33a). This was always God’s intention (Deuteronomy 10:16; 30:6; Jeremiah 4:4; Romans 2:29). Second, “one king will rule them all; no longer will they be divided into two nations or into two kingdoms” (Ezekiel 37:22). Third, God now promises to forgive the sins that caused the Israelites to go into exile in the first place: “I am He who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins” (Isaiah 43:25; Jeremiah 31:34; 33:8; Ezekiel 16:63). Those sins were not a trivial matter, for both kingdoms were enticed by the surrounding nations’ idolatry and their immoral lifestyles.3 Fourth, the Davidic dynasty will be restored: “For thus says the LORD: David shall never lack a man to sit on the throne of the house of Israel” (Jeremiah 33:17,21).

So the new covenant in the post-exilic promises is part renewal and part restoration, but not without precedent in the previous covenants. Sadly for the renewed Israel, what was realised fell short of what was anticipated. The “old people who had seen the first house [of Solomon] on its foundations, wept with a loud voice when they saw this house (Ezra 3:12). The restored Israel remained under foreign powers from the Persians to the Greeks and beyond. The hope of a restoration of the Davidic kingship died with Zerubbabel.

The New Covenant in Christ

“For this reason he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, because a death has occurred that redeems . . .” (Hebrews 9:15). The opening conjunction, “for this reason”, refers to the preceding reference to “the blood of Christ, who . . . offered himself without blemish to God” (v 14). Thus, the death of Christ is the means for establishing the new covenant (see vv 23,25,26,28).

The New Covenant in Christ: Forgiveness

In 1 Corinthians 11:25,26 (see also Luke 22:20) Paul provides the earliest witness for the new covenant being established by the death of Jesus: “This cup is the new covenant in my blood . . . for as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (Italics added). Matthew 26:28 adds the purpose of Jesus’s new- covenant death, that is, “for the forgiveness of sins.” This is the same truth that Jeremiah 31:35 emphasised but also Hebrews 10:17,18: “he also adds, ‘I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.’ Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin.” For this He did once for all time when He gave or offered Himself for us all (Mark 10:45; Galatians 1:4; 2:20; Ephesians 5:2; Hebrews 7:27; 10:10).

The New Covenant in Christ: David

The promise of a Davidic king forever on the throne is fulfilled in Jesus, the Messiah: “He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David” (Luke 1:32). Given that the relationship between God and the Davidic king was expressed in personal terms of Father and son (2 Samuel 7:14) we should read Nathanial’s confession as Messianic: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Indeed he is “the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David” (John 1:49; Revelation 5:5). Paul daringly re-applies God’s promise to David (2 Samuel 7:13–14) to the people of Christ: “and I will be your father, and you shall be my sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty” (2 Corinthians 6:18)

The New Covenant in Christ: the Gentiles

The promise to Abraham and his seed after him that they were to be a blessing to the Gentiles came to pass in its fullest sense with the death of Christ: Gentiles in Christ are now referred to as “God’s own people” (Ephesians 1:14; 1 Peter 2:9). Hence, “in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith [in Christ] (Galatians 3:26). In Christ the very heart of the covenants becomes inclusive: “For we are the temple of the living God; as God said, ‘I will live in them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (2 Corinthians 6:16 quoting Leviticus 26:12). Through the Spirit neither a tent nor a temple are the dwelling places of God, but God now resides in the household of faith.

The New Covenant in Christ: the Law

The law is not contrary to the covenant-promises (Galatians 3:21); nevertheless, since its role is to reveal sin as transgression (v 19), it is unable to fulfil God’s promises. Indeed, certain aspects of the Mosaic Law prevent it from fulfilling such promises as the inclusion of the Gentiles. Whenever the New Testament quotes the last six commandments of the Decalogue, it does so approvingly. However, it transposes the law into a new key and sees the whole of the Law and the Prophets issuing from the golden rule (Matthew 7:12). 

Likewise, the love commandment (Matthew 22:36–40; Mark 12:30,31; Luke 10:25–37; Romans 13:8–10; James 2:8) widens the ethical implications of the law. Thus “the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’” (Galatians 5:14). Notice how Jesus defines “the weightier matters of the law” in broad terms of “justice and mercy and faith” (Matthew 23:23).

Yet Paul can agree with the law without quoting it: “there is one God and Father of all people, who is Lord of all” (Ephesians 4:6, first commandment); by “putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbours” (v 25, ninth commandment); “thieves must give up stealing . . . and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy” (v 28, eighth commandment); “but fornication and impurity of any kind, or greed, must not even be mentioned among you, as is proper among saints”, and “no fornicator or impure person, or one who is greedy (that is, an idolater), has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God” (Ephesians 5:3–5, seventh, tenth and second Commandments).  The New Testament upholds the Old Testament’s common injunction “be holy, for I am holy” (Leviticus 11:44,45; 19:2; 20:26; 21:8; 1 Peter 1:15,16).

So the new covenant is centred in Christ, especially His death. It’s the ultimate means of God’s forgiveness. It unites not only the divided kingdoms of Israel, but also all of the world’s social and ethnic divisions. It bases morality not on a written code but on the love of Christ spread abroad in human hearts by the Spirit. “There is no law against such things” (Galatians 5:23): “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision [Jew] nor uncircumcision [Gentile] counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith [in Christ] working through love [of the neighbour] (5:6 NRSV expanded).

Dr Norman Young is adjunct professor at Avondale University.

1. PV Fishback and JJ Wallis, “What Was New about the New Deal?” <>, p4 (italics added). 2. Unless stated otherwise, references are from the NRSV. 3. This included even the atrocity of sacrificing their children to the gods (Ezekiel 23:37,38).
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