Throughout the whole of Salvation History, God’s people have been the people of the covenant, a covenant that existed in various forms between God and his people. Arguably, a total of five covenants with God are detailed in the Old Testament:
- Two covenants between God and Noah (Genesis 6:18; Genesis 9:8-17)
- The Patriarchal Covenant between God and Abraham (Genesis 15; Genesis 17)
- The Sinai Covenant established between God and Moses (Exodus 24)
- The Davidic Covenant established between God and David (captured in 2 Samuel 7 in narrative form)
We are probably all familiar with one or more of these covenants under which God’s people had lived through Salvation History, covenants that could direct their conduct but not change their character. The old covenants presented a multitude of rules for living. But that covenant failed to produce a holy society because the people quite simply broke the rules. They wanted to rewrite the rules to make them more favourable to them. These people knew the true and right things to do in their head, but just like we often find, they struggled to do the right thing in practice and wanted to do their own thing. We can change all the external things…but unless there is a change in here, in our hearts, it simply will not work.
So often covenants had to either be renewed or ratified. The renewal of a covenant presupposes a broken covenant which must be renewed to come into force again. The best example of this is in Exodus 32–34, where the Sinai covenant is broken by Aaron and the Israelites by making a golden calf for worship. When Moses came back, the curses of breaking the covenant were applied by killing a number of Israelites (Exodus 32:26–28). Moses acted as mediator and intercessor to renew the broken covenant. He went back on the mountain to receive once more the stipulations for the renewed covenant (Exodus 34). Jeremiah regarded the covenant as so totally broken that it could be replaced only by a new covenant (Jeremiah 31:31). I think an important point to make here is that I believe God does not break the covenant.
The ratification of the covenant is when a covenant is re-declared without necessarily being broken. The best example of this is in Joshua 23–24. In Joshua 23 a description is given of Joshua’s final commandments to the Israelites in which they are requested to keep the covenant. According to Joshua 24, with a strong covenant background, the Israelites were gathered at Shechem to renew the covenant with the Lord. Some scholars think that the covenant communion was for the first time formed at Shechem because of the ancient tradition of covenant-forming at this place. We are following the biblical tradition and regard the meeting at Shechem as a ratification of the covenant.
God’s law had been written on stone tablets and in a book. The people had been told to keep it in their hearts. And Jeremiah prophecies about the new covenant in which God “will put his law in the minds of his people and write it on their hearts”, through which God declared “I will be their God, and they will be my people.” Jewish history is punctuated with a number of “covenant renewals” that brought temporary blessing but didn’t change the hearts of the people; it was as if God wanted to keep giving his people another chance to exercise the responsibility and blessing that comes from the dignity and freedom that He had given them. The fact that the blessings didn’t last is no argument against times of revival and refreshing. When somebody told the evangelist Billy Sunday that revivals weren’t necessary because they didn’t last he replied, “A bath doesn’t last, but it’s good to have one occasionally.” A nation that is built on spiritual and moral principles must have frequent times of renewal or the foundations will crumble. We can almost hear the words “remember your first love.” Do you, do we as the people of God remember the love we first had for God?
So the covenant that Jeremiah speaks of here will be different because with this new covenant, God says he will write it in the minds and hearts of his people. But he will write it only in willing hearts. It isn’t about the external things; it is about the inward things. The emphasis is personal rather than national, with each person putting faith in the Lord and receiving a “new heart” and with it a new disposition toward godliness. This new covenant would be different in other ways too; with this covenant people were invited in to direct access to God with no need for intermediaries. And this was all made possible by the incredible intervention that came in the form of his Son, our saviour and redeemer Jesus Christ. Christ the King. And this is precisely WHY a covenant is NOT a contract. o often today people are bound up in litigation. We live in such litigious times. But I say it again…a covenant is NOT a contract. A contract would never be something that could be written into the minds and hearts of people. A contract is not about that intimacy of relationship with love at its core.
The basis for the new covenant then is the work and person of Jesus Christ on the cross, through his death, resurrection and exaltation. Because the church today partakes in Israel’s spiritual riches, anyone who puts faith in Jesus Christ is brought into or shares in this new covenant. It’s an experience of regeneration, being “born again” into the family of God – we become alive in Christ. And to become alive in Christ, we need to die to ourselves. I wonder if we ever stop and think about the enormity and significance of that? Jesus accomplished something incredible, but it cost him his life. He laid aside his majesty and gave up everything for me. Are we as his people prepared to give ourselves to God in all fullness or do we impose conditions on God?
And all of this makes me think about how relationships should be. They should be something in which we are deeply connected in mind and heart; we are called into covenant with one another and we are called into covenant with God. It is how church should be. It is how we should be with God. It is how we should be with one another. We may know such a rending of our heart when covenant is broken; it is hard because we come face to face with the wrongness of that. And sometimes to appreciate something fully or to fully realise its significance and value, we have to lose it first.
And I think that what stands against that wrongness and brokenness is what we are reminded of so powerfully when we break bread and drink from the cup together. I know I am. Jesus said “this cup is the new covenant in my blood.” For me coming together to receive communion has at its heart grace, love, and an invitation back into that new covenant relationship with God. It reminds me that in dying to self as we journey through our brokenness, there is that invitation to a new life in Christ.
I like the peace, when we can make peace with one another and with God. I like that time and space after communion when our hearts might rejoice in knowing that once again we have been reminded that we are sinners welcomed in to the courts of the kind, a people forgiven, and a people loved by God. And that is something that is only possible through Jesus and the incredible price he paid for each and every one of us – his death on the cross and his glorious resurrection and exaltation which are central to our faith and existence. We are called to be Easter people, standing in the knowledge of that hope and love. We are called to stand in the knowledge that Christ is King.
Let us pray that God’s covenant might be written forever on the tablets of our hearts, that we might know the depth and breadth of his love that endures forever and his grace that is sufficient for us, and that as we stand in grace as sinners forgiven we might glorify God’s name. Amen