We’ve come a long way in our 9 week journey through Jeremiah (and Lamentations), from the past of his call to the distant future of the New Covenant. Last week, we heard God tell Israel how to live in Exile during the 70 years they would be in Babylon. Now we are taken to the time after the Exile and into the time of Christ and beyond that into our day.
Time was pregnant just before the Exile, swollen with import and foreboding. The Northern Kingdom had been gone for 150 years now, and Judah was only months away from the devastation we have studied in the past weeks. Nebuchadnezzar is at the city gates and the world is about to come to a violent end. Now, out of the blue, comes a prophetic word about a whole new beginning, a new covenant even. Just when it seemed that all was lost and it was over forever, God intervenes again and makes promises that change everything.
God says in effect, these times are awful, but these days aren’t the only days you’ll ever know. Four times God points ahead to better days: “in those days,” the days are coming,” “the time is coming,” “after that time.”
With doom at the door, it was very hard for Judah to believe that there could be any hope at any time, so God emphasizes over and over that the words being spoken to them by Jeremiah were in fact God’s own word. Five times we read that the preceding words come from the very mouth of God with this formula– “declares the Lord.”
The word of the Lord in these verses has two parts, the first having to do with Israel’s return from exile (verses 27-30), the second focusing on the new covenant with Israel after that return (verses 31-34).
In words that hark back to God’s call to Jeremiah in chapter 1, God promises that after the uprooting and destruction, God will plant and rebuild his chosen people in the Promised Land. “Just as I watched over them to uproot and tear down, to overthrow, destroy, and bring disaster, so I will watch over them to build and plant, declares the Lord.” Note that both aspects of Israel’s fate are under the control of Yahweh; he “watched over” both.
This promise of return is not a new promise in Jeremiah. We’ve already heard it quintessentially in Jeremiah 29, but this time God says it more forcefully. Indeed, in the remainder of this chapter we hear words that form the basis of modern day Zionism. God says, Israel will never cease to be “a nation before me (verse 36).” He will never reject the “descendants of Israel (verse 37).” And most tellingly, “The city will never again be uprooted or demolished (verse 40).”
God underlines that promise about Israel’s perpetual place in God’s Promised Land with these mysterious words about sour grapes and sins in verses 29-30. Apparently there was a proverb going around in ancient Israel. “The fathers have eaten sour grapes and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” In other words, the sins of the fathers are visited on their children. There was some truth in that saying; indeed, it sounds a lot like Exodus 20:5 where the fathers’ sins result in problems for the children “to the third and fourth generation.” At the time of the Exile, Israel had accumulated many generations of sin and God was finally done with it. Their corporate guilt led to the Exile.
In the coming days, after the Exile and after the new covenant goes into effect, that proverb won’t be spoken anymore in Israel. Instead “everyone will die for his own sins….” Does that mean that the whole concept of corporate responsibility is officially abolished? No, it means that after God’s punishment of Israel’s corporate guilt, God will begin again, dealing with individual sins and never again punishing Israel corporately as he did with the Exile. After centuries of prophetic condemnation of Israel’s corporate guilt, that cycle has been broken. Now it is the day of individual responsibility and forgiveness.
That’s because God “will make a new covenant with the houses of Israel and Judah.” This is the first and only place the Old Testament speaks explicitly of a “new” covenant. Yes, God’s covenant with his people had been renewed and restated many times in the Old Testament. Think of the covenants with Noah, with Abraham, with Moses, with David. Think of the great covenant renewals after Israel’s sin with the golden calf in Exodus 34 and as Israel entered the Promised Land in Deuteronomy 29. But this is a whole new covenant.
Well, not entirely new. There was that business of the Promised Land that goes all the way back to Abraham and is renewed here in verses 27 and 28. Speaking of Abraham, the very center of the Abrahamic covenant was the promise that “I will be your God and you shall be my people,” which is repeated here in verse 33b. That covenant relationship will continue. Even the horror of the Exile did not break that relationship, though it seemed that God had forsaken them.
But there are several new features/promises in the new covenant. “It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt….” Clearly a reference to the Mosaic covenant that was anchored in the Exodus and expressed in Torah, those words of verse 32 do not mean that the new covenant isn’t anchored in God’s redemptive action and has nothing to do with Torah.
Rather, as the next words say, the newness has to do with the possibility of breaking the covenant. Though Yahweh was a loving and faithful husband to his covenant partner, that partner broke that covenant again and again by disobeying Torah. In the new covenant, Israel (whether the Jewish people or the New Israel that is the church) will not be able to break covenant as their forefathers did. Israel could break covenant because it was based on Torah obedience. The new covenant will be based on forgiveness which will cancel disobedience and make covenant breaking impossible.
That doesn’t mean that Torah won’t matter in the new covenant. Indeed, rather than having to obey a law written on stone tablets, God’s people will actually have that law written on their hearts. “I will put my law in their mind and write it upon their hearts.” Despite all the Pauline warnings about misuse of Torah, the new covenant does not reject God’s law. Instead that law is injected into God’s people. Or as Ezekiel puts it, God will put a new heart and a right spirit in his people so they will desire to do God’s will and be able to do it (cf. Romans 8:1-4).. We know that this promise was fulfilled with the gift of the Spirit who produces the fruit of a Christ-like life.
That Spirit is also the explanation of the promise of verse 34 that “they will all know me from the least of them to the greatest.” Some have taken these words about not needing to teach each other as an argument against witnessing and teaching and preaching. But what it really means is that the Spirit is our ultimate teacher. “He will lead you into all the truth.” “It is the Spirit crying ‘Abba, Father….’” We come to a deep relational knowledge of God through the work of the Spirit. Israel never arrived at that kind of knowledge in spite of all her prophets and priests. Only through the Spirit can we come to know God as intimately as a married couple know each other.
That new knowledge of God will be based on God’s forgiveness. Israel knew God as creator and deliverer, as lawgiver and judge, as provider and punisher, but in the new covenant God’s people will know their God first of all as a forgiver and forgetter. That is not to say that forgiveness is unknown in the old covenant; a quick look at God’s seminal revelation of himself in Exodus 34:6,7 will prove that. But in the new covenant forgiveness will be the distinguishing action of God. Never again will the sins of God’s people be punished as with the Exile. Now they will be forgiven and forgotten.
John Goldingay summarizes: “the act of forgiveness that Yahweh will now undertake in restoring his people after the collapse of the covenant will break into their spirits in a wholly new way. They will know themselves as an extraordinarily loved and forgiven people. That will change them inside and make them respond to Yahweh in a way they never have before.”
All of that will be true because of the sacrifice of Christ, says Hebrews 8 and 10, where Jeremiah 31:31-34 are quoted at length. Interestingly, the word “make” in verse 31 means literally “cut,” which harks back to Genesis 15 where the making of the covenant with Abraham was concluded with the cutting of animals and God passing between them symbolically. In the new covenant, the cutting that sealed the covenant had to do not with the sacrifice of an animal, but with the sacrifice of Christ (Hebrews 10:11-17). Because of his sacrifice, sins are forgiven and forgotten. There is no more sacrifice for sins, or punishment.
Some of the promises of Jeremiah 31 were fulfilled when Israel returned from Exile. Others had to wait for the days when Jesus died on the cross and then sent the Spirit. But complete fulfillment remains until the final coming of God in Christ. The sad fact is that even with the Spirit within, we still don’t obey Torah completely. And even with Christ showing us the Father, we still don’t know God fully. And even understanding the sacrifice of the cross, we still don’t receive forgiveness internally all the time. So, there is still a time coming (“in those days”) when the new covenant will be fulfilled completely in all God’s children.
In a day that glorifies individual choice, it is fascinating that we still have a sense of corporate responsibility. Think of the way climate change prophets call on us to change our polluting ways for the sake of the next generation. We don’t want the sins of the fathers to be visited upon their grandchildren. And think of how poverty can become generational, as the ways of the parents are visited upon multiple generations. On the other hand, think of how individuals sometimes break out of that pattern and change the family financial tree. Both individual choice and corporate responsibility are realities in life. We can be thankful that God’s grace is greater than both, teaching a new way to live, revealing a new way to relate to God, and giving a new beginning through the redeeming work of Christ.
As I thought about how the new covenant is the same as the old and yet very different, I recalled watching Sesame Street with our kids. Bert and Ernie were teaching the concepts of “same” and “different” with successive pictures of similar and dissimilar objects. It might be helpful to do something like that to help children think about old and new covenant.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 20, 2019
Jeremiah 31:27-34 Commentary