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The Biblical Covenants, Part 6a: New Covenant Expectations

While the New Covenant receives much attention from pulpits and theologians (and rightly so) it is a grave mistake to consider the New Covenant (hereafter referred to as NC) as if it arrives in a vacuum. If all the other covenants are both connected and work together to advance God’s proclamation of victory (the 1st Gospel of Gen. 3:15), then we should expect the NC to fall in line with the others. We will see that the NC was first expected long before it was explicitly articulated. Then we will examine the execution of this NC before finally observing the fulfillment of the NC.


All the biblical covenants advance the revelation of God’s proclaimed victory. Thus, before we can articulate what the NC promises, we must establish the necessity of the NC as it fits within the framework of the other covenants.


That a New Covenant is Necessary

 The Noahic Covenant promises (1) a future rest from the curse’s labors as well and (2) that the world will remain stable in its cursed condition until that rest arrives. 

The AC promises (1) land, (2) seed, and (3) blessing for Abraham and his seed with the purpose that his seed would (1) be a blessing for the world and (b) enter into a special relationship with Yhwh where He would be their God and they would be His people. 

The MC articulates what this relationship looks like between Abraham’s seed (the nation of Israel) and Yhwh. This is the first and only covenant given that follows the Suzerain-Vassal conditional format instead of the Land Grant unconditional covenant of blessing. Because this covenant was given with conditions and Israel failed to uphold them, Yhwh was obliged to bring down all the curses of the covenant, provided for just such an event. There were only two ways in which the MC could be fulfilled: (1) If Israel kept their end of the covenant and thus received the full spectrum of blessing or (2) if Israel failed to keep covenant and thus received the full spectrum of cursing. Once Israel received either all the blessing or all the cursing, the covenant would be considered fulfilled. Either Israel will die, or Israel will live. But if the seed of the woman (1st Gospel) is to establish final rest (Noahic Covenant) through Abraham (AC), then Israel cannot die. Yet, Israel broke covenant with Yhwh and thus must die.

The PC promises a line of Levitical priests through Phinehas (and thus Israel) who will forever minister before Yhwh. This covenant tells us nothing regarding how Israel will remain alive to produce such priests but confirms that Israel will endure.

The DC becomes a key that unlocks the mystery of how all this will come about when David’s seed is connected with Abraham’s seed and the seed of the woman. This future king from David will be God’s Son as well as David’s heir who will (1) suffer in the place of the nation in regard to their iniquity, (2) ushering in a unique righteous kingdom, and (3) will reign over the world and Israel forever. Israel will die in the corporate head of Israel who is the Davidic king to fulfill the MC and atone for the sins of Israel so that the nation will live. Yet, one or two things still require explanation. Even if Israel’s sin is atoned for, how can God guarantee that Israel will not rebel again? A related question goes something like this: what will change in Israel so that they will even desire to submit to this special relationship with God? If the AC promises Israel with a special status with Yhwh, the MC pictures that special status, and the DC provides the One who will enact that special status, there remains the question of Israel and their ability to assume that special status. 


That a new covenant was necessary for Israel was made abundantly clear before the ink on the old covenant (the MC) was dry. The problem with mankind ever since the fall has always been his heart. Before the flood, it was the hearts of man that were constantly bent on evil continually (Gen. 6:5). Thus, it should come as no surprise when Moses tells the second generation of Israel that they still have evil hearts that do not know Yhwh, nor do they possess eyes to see Him nor ears to hear and obey Him (Deut. 29:4). In other words, Israel is no different than the rest of humanity since the fall and the flood. It matters not that Yhwh redeemed Israel from Egypt by many signs and wonders and preserved them for forty years in the wilderness. They know intellectually who Yhwh is and what He has done for them, yet their hearts remain dead, unknowing, unloving, and disinclined to submit to Yhwh. If the MC picture of Israel being a kingdom of priests and a holy nation is to come true (and thus fulfill the AC, PC, and DC), then something must change regarding Israel’s heart.

There is an implication that this change will occur in the future. Deuteronomy 30 anticipates a time after the MC is fulfilled. After the blessings and curses of the MC have reached their climax and have come to conclusion (30:1), there will be repentance and obedience from the heart (v. 2). This repentance will undo and reverse all the previous curses (vv. 3-5) and will be the work of Yhwh Himself (v. 6). To put it simply, Moses not only foresaw the fulfillment of the MC but also that there would be a new covenant that would pick up and complete the picture that the MC left undone.  This same sort of language is used by David in the psalms. It is the fool who says in his heart there is no God (Ps. 14:1), yet the one who speaks truth in his heart is one who might abide in Yhwh’s tent and on His hill (Ps. 15:1-2). The prototype king himself knew the answer to his own sinfulness was a new and clean heart (Ps. 51:10). This new heart is at the center of the anticipated New Covenant. If (1) the picture which the MC provided is to become a reality and (2) this picture is necessary to fulfill the previous covenants, then there must new covenant in the future to bring the MC picture to life.


What the New Covenant Promised

All that Moses and David assumed (the fulfillment of the MC by the coming of some new covenant which brings with it at least a circumcised heart to know and love God) is confirmed by the prophets. It is from the prophets, specifically Jeremiah and Ezekiel, where the present covenant receives its name: the new covenant.


A Lawful Heart (Jeremiah 31:31-37)

In the very first verse of this passage, we see the promise of a new covenant (v. 31). Of this promised new covenant, we should note several observations. First, this NC is future from Jeremiah’s day. The opening interjection “Behold! Days are coming!” is a favorite of Jeremiah’s (7:32; 9:25; 16:14; 19:6; 23:5, 7; 30:3; 31:27, 31, 38; 33:14; 48:12; 49:2; 51:47, 52).[1] Clearly, the prophet has a future event in mind. To this we should note that the covenant proper in v. 33 states “after those days”. After which days? The context immediately before this statement indicates the MC. This is in line with what Moses has already said regarding the unprecedented blessing that will come upon Israel after the fulfillment of the MC blessings and curses. This is not only future but will come about only when the MC can be said to be truly fulfilled.

Second, the new covenant that will come will be cut with a reunited Israel (v. 31). This is an important point to make, that the NC is first mentioned in relation to Israel, not the nations. This does not demand that the nations will receive no benefits of the NC, but it does demand that Israel will receive the primary focus and attention of the NC. To cut Israel as a nation out of the NC is akin to forgetting that the Magna Carta is in reference to England.

Third, the reference to a new covenant assumes that there is an old covenant. There is no prize for guessing which covenant is considered the old one, for in v. 32 Jeremiah explicitly references the MC. Thus, the new vs. old is a discussion of the NC vs. the MC. This is not a New Testament vs. Old Testament discussion, but specifically compares this new covenant with the covenant made to Israel through Moses on Mt. Sinai in 1446 BC. Therefore, if there is any discussion regarding the NC replacing anything (and we might argue that “replace” is not the best term to use), it is not replacing the Noahic, Abrahamic, Priestly, or Davidic covenants. The MC alone is in view.

Fourth, when examining what is promised, how it is promised, and why, many dots suddenly become connected. The content of this new covenant is that God promises to put His law/instruction (תּוֹרָה) in the midst of Israel and write it on the collective heart of the Israelites. This is a dramatic change of scene for several reasons. In the near context, Jeremiah has already spoken of his present generation that their heart was stone, and their sin was engraved upon it with an iron stylus (Jer. 17:1). Yet, of a future generation, their heart will not bear the engraving of sin but of Yhwh’s torah! In addition to this, the heart of Israel was always the problem (Deut. 29:4). Here, Jeremiah sees a day when this new covenant will provide what was always missing: a new heart to know and believe. This promise extends to the whole nation, for there will no longer be a need to teach torah because everyone in the nation will have it written by God upon their heart (v. 34).[2] Regarding how this covenant is promised, one cannot help but notice that there are zero conditions for Israel to meet in order to receive this covenant. This is truly not like the covenant at Sinai, for there is no hint of a Suzerain-Vassal treaty here. God will unilaterally and unconditionally grant Israel this new believing heart. As for the purpose (or why) of this covenant, one cannot help at this point but notice the same thread which began with the AC and runs all the way through each proceeding covenant: “I will be their God, and they will be My people.” What the MC pictured (the real-time expectations of the AC’s fulfillment) will be completed by this new covenant.

Fifth, the same guarantee which was given for the PC and the DC is given again here as the guarantee of the NC; namely, the Noahic Covenant. The fixed order of the heavenly lights for seasons and times (Gen. 1:14-18; 8:22) stand as the guarantee that this word will come to pass. If God reneges His covenant to uphold and sustain the earth (and He won’t), then He will renege on His promise to renew Israel’s heart (which He won’t). Unless one is prepared to call God a liar, this NC will complete the picture painted in the MC. The future of Israel is linked with the future of the world.


A New Heart (Ezekiel 36:22-38)

While Jeremiah’s term “new covenant” is not found in this passage, it is clear to see that Ezekiel refers to the same promise already given in Jeremiah 31. Here, we learn (1) God’s motivation in bringing this promise to pass, (2) a further and deeper description of what He will do for Israel, and (3) the impact this fulfilled promise will have upon the world.

The Lord Yhwh is very clear as to the reason He promises to act in Israel’s benefit. It is not for their sake, in the sense that they have somehow earned or deserve this. Yhwh acts for the sake of His holy name (vv. 22, 23, 32). In other words, to not act in this manner would validate the profanity of God’s name. The future redemption of Israel has much more to do with God and His holiness than Israel and her worthiness. Simply put, God is not a liar.

The promises made to Israel here mirror much of what Jeremiah has already recorded, but with some further insights and additions. Here, the prophet Ezekiel records that God will (1) gather Israel from all over the world and return them to the Promised Land (v. 24). This of course assumes that Israel will be scattered among the nations of the world, something that was promised in the MC curses (Deut. 28:64). This assumes that this promise comes after the fulfillment of these curses. (2) God will cleanse them from their sin (v. 25). (3) A new heart improves upon what Jeremiah stated regarding the torah of God being written on their heart (v. 26). Jeremiah’s stony heart (Jer. 17:1) will be removed and a new heart will replace it. (4) The promise of God’s Spirit indwelling His people is added to the promise of a new heart (v. 27). This is so much more than a removal of a sinful heart, placing the people of Israel in a similar position as Adam before he fell. They will be preserved and protected from sin, not just enabled to obey, because God’s Spirit lives within them. Finally, (5) Israel will finally dwell in the land promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to fulfill the purpose of the AC which was pictured in the MC; namely, to be Yhwh’s people and He Israel’s God (v. 28).

In addition to these promises to Israel comes many blessings that extend well past the boundaries of these people. The first to be mentioned is the land itself (vv. 29-35). Famine will be a distant memory as the fruit of land is greatly multiplied. The ruined cities will be rebuilt and inhabited. The land itself will no longer be a hard place to live but will resemble the garden of Eden (v. 35). The fulfillment of this covenant will literally undo and reverse the curse, bringing the whole world into a state of rest where everything is again very good. Israel will not be the only people positively affected by this blessing, but the nations will see and know that Yhwh has kept His word (v. 36). Here there is an implication that this NC extends beyond the people of Israel to redeem the world.


A Living People (Ezekiel 37:1-23)

This promise is followed by a vision whereby Yhwh takes Ezekiel to a valley full of dead men’s bones. Here, the prophet witnesses the reality of Israel’s spiritual condition: dead. The question is posed to Ezekiel, “Can these bones live?” (v. 3a). Under anything close to normal circumstances, the answer is unequivocally “no”. We are not talking about reviving a heart that has suddenly stopped beating, but a group of people that have been so long dead that they have ceased rotting. Not only has the breath of life departed, but there is no longer even any flesh remaining but only bones. Ezekiel opts for a politically safe answer, “O Lord Yhwh, You know” (v. 3b). After obeying the command to prophecy over these bones, Ezekiel witnessed the work of God as the bones snapped together, flesh and sinews regrew, and breath was given them. From the word of God comes life. This is exactly what God promises Ezekiel He will do to the sons of Israel. He will (1) bring them from death to life (vv. 11-14). (2) Reunite Judah and Israel under one king and bring them to live in their own land (vv. 15-22). (3) This will be a holy nation whom God has cleansed so that they will be His people and He will be their God (v. 23). In short, this NC is expected to bring all the covenants into fulfillment. Just as God alone is responsible for fulfilling the covenants to Noah, Abraham, Phinehas, and David, He will take the full responsibility of making Israel His people. The picture of the MC will be fulfilled because God will be the initiator and keeper of the NC.

[1] This phrase is distributed more or less evenly divided between prophecies of future judgment and destruction (7 of 15) or future blessing and restoration (8 of 15). While the fifteen occurrences of this phrase are consistently distributed throughout Jeremiah’s prophecy (an average of 1 use for every 3.5 chapters), our present section contains rather intense collection of this phrase (20% of these phrases are found in chapter 31). While hardly surprising, all 3 of these phrases in chapter 31 introduce prophecies of Israel’s future restoration.

[2] The fact that these words are being written as instruction is a strong indication that this new covenant as presented by Jeremiah has yet to be fulfilled.


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