Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 17, 2024

Jeremiah 31:31-34 Commentary

Comments, Observations and Questions:

Hearing “New Covenant” with the Ears of Ancient Israel

The Israelites are in exile. The consequences of their disobedience and failure to keep their side of the bargain haunt them everyday — in the foreign language, customs, foods and, most grievously, religions of Babylon.  So Jeremiah, who is often called the Weeping Prophet, gives voice to the despair and disappointment of God’s people.  In the early chapters of the book, Jeremiah painfully recounts the ways God’s people have broken covenant.  So when we arrive at this chapter, we hear something unusual from Jeremiah.  We hear a bit of hope, a promise of God’s covenantal mercy, as requested by the Psalmist, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.” (Psalm 51)

The promise, writes Old Testament scholar, Christopher Wright, is that “there will be a new exodus, a new experience of God’s grace in the wilderness, and a new entry into the land of promise.”  But such covenantal mercy is dependent, “if the return of the exiles is to be interpreted as a re-enactment of that great story, then it must include a reconstituted covenant relationship with God…the return from Babylon to the land must include a return to the Lord on the same foundation.”

In other words, the failure of God’s people is never the end of the story.  If God’s people cannot keep their end of the bargain, well, God has always and already accounted for our weakness.  Jeremiah’s blunt assessment of Israel’s failure in verse 32 is not meant (or at least not entirely meant) to shame God’s people but rather to point out how faithful and patient God has always been with their failures.  Although the sin of God’s people is never more than a variation on the theme, Jeremiah is promising that God is about to do more than more of the same.  God will make a new covenant, though a close reader of the text will note how similar it is to the previous covenant in four ways, listed by Christopher Wright: (1) the will of God’s people will no longer be shaped by sin but, rather, shaped by God’s law, (2) every time God renews covenant with God’s people, it is with these words: “I will be their God and they will be my people.” (Nothing new to see here!) (3) equitable knowledge of God as the foundation of God’s society and (4) forgiveness, a work that should turn our ears toward…

Hearing “New Covenant” with Christian Ears

Although Jeremiah 31 is the only place in Hebrew Scripture where the phrase “new covenant” is used, the them of restoration is, of course, all over the place in the story of God’s people. Walter Kaiser observes that, in addition to “new covenant” this idea of restoration is established in Hebrew Scripture through such phrases as “everlasting covenant” and “a new heart” and, as in Psalm 51, “a new spirit.”

When Jesus inaugurates his work through the bread and wine of the Last Supper, he calls it a new covenant.  Additionally, when the epistle writers try to communicate what it is exactly that Jesus accomplished on behalf of God’s people, they demonstrate a remarkable fondest for the idea of a “new covenant.” In this regard, I think the lectionary falls short. Whereas the Jeremiah text is quoted at length (in fact the longest direct quotation of Hebrew Scripture in New Testament literature) in Hebrews 8 and again in chapters 9 and 10, the lectionary has chosen a pairing with Hebrews 5 instead. According to J. Daniel Hays, “What Hebrews 8-10 explains is that the fulfillment of God’s new covenant promises in Jeremiah 31 is foundational to the essence of Christianity, especially in regard to the theology of salvation (soteriology) and to our understanding of the past and present work of Christ (Christology).”

The foundational significance of “new covenant” language does not protect against a variety of interpretations of the exact nature of the newness, as well as the importance of the covenant’s continuity.  One thing we may point to with certainty is the necessity of forgiveness and the centrality of Jesus’ work bringing us into restored relationship — covenant! — with God. Here, perhaps, Hebrews 5 helps us after all. God’s people in Babylonian exile knew tears and sorrow, they deeply regretted their sin and lamented its effects.  But they also wondered if God would hear them.  How much certainty we gain from Christ’s witness.  Not only does God hear our sorrow but God in flesh joins His cries with ours. “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.”  Like a priest, Jesus carries the needs of God’s people to God.  In his own body, he offers sacrifice and answers the Psalmist’s plea on behalf of God’s people: “Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.”


In the forward to Dr. Alec Motyer’s book, A Christian’s Pocket Guide to Loving the Old Testament, Tim Keller confesses that, as a young Christian and even as a young pastor, he didn’t always know how to handle the Hebrew Scriptures.  He confessed a simplistic view of the Old Testament being a book of law but now, with the new covenant through Christ, we are saved by grace through faith.  During the Q&A portion at the end of a lecture, someone asked Dr. Moyter how he understood this relationship between old and new covenants and Tim Keller wrote:

He asked us to imagine how the Israelites under Moses would have given their “testimony” to someone who asked for it. They would have said something like this:

We were in a foreign land, in bondage, under the sentence of death. But our mediator—the one who stands between us and God—came to us with the promise of deliverance. We trusted in the promises of God, took shelter under the blood of the lamb, and he led us out. Now we are on the way to the Promised Land. We are not there yet, of course, but we have the law to guide us, and through blood sacrifice we also have his presence in our midst. So he will stay with us until we get to our true country, our everlasting home.

Then Dr. Motyer concluded: “Now think about it. A Christian today could say the same thing, almost word for word.”

My young self was thunderstruck. I had held the vague, unexamined impression that in the Old Testament people were saved through obeying a host of detailed laws but that today we were freely forgiven and accepted by faith. This little thought experiment showed me, in a stroke, not only that the Israelites had been saved by grace and that God’s salvation had been by costly atonement and grace all along, but also that the pursuit of holiness, pilgrimage, obedience, and deep community should characterize Christians as well.


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