Jeremiah 31 and Newness

Most Covenantal discussions revolve around what, precisely, is new about the New Covenant.  Much ink has been spilled, and literary armies have marched forth to battle on the strength of this one word.  A newer entrant to the lists has their own opinion on the matter, and believes that the newness consists in a complete distinction from the old.  As one adherent of New Covenant Theology stated to me in conversation, the difference lies in “newness” and “not like”.  In a sense, this is true. What we bring to bear on these words, presuppositionally, will determine what we think they mean.

When we speak of the newness of the new covenant, what, precisely, do we mean? Well, we need to begin, clearly enough, at the beginning.  Given the nature of this site, we could hardly argue more strongly that if we are to exegete a text, we need to exegete it while presupposing the Triune God of Scripture.  Note one thing that is often overlooked when we say this, however.  We are not “tossing in Scripture as an afterthought” – the phraseology of the preceding seems, in some respects, to lend credence to this idea.  So, let us propose an amendment; We are to presuppose the Triune God of Tota Scriptura.  That is, we are to presuppose not only God, Himself, but all of the teaching He relates to us in Scripture.

As such, when we examine any text in particular, we are to do so while keeping in mind what the rest of Scripture says.  No teaching is isolated from the rest – Scripture interprets Scripture.  Where we need to be careful, however, is where we take a passage, isolate it, and act as if nothing else in Scripture speaks to the same issue.  We are not proposing a tautology when we say “Scripture interprets Scripture,” as the less-reflective of our critics assert. We are proposing that just as an interpreter makes clear the words of another, the Scripture is mutually interpretive.  When we work on Systematic theology, what we are doing is attempting to work out the relationships between texts, the doctrines they teach, and show the unity of the entirety within the diversity of individual discussions.  You have probably heard Koukl’s dictum: Never read a Bible verse[1]. Let me add another, if I may. Never use a Bible verse to prove a doctrine.  What is meant by this, you may ask? Koukl’s intent, by a bit of mild equivocation, is to make us stop and think about what he means. What he means is this: No Bible verse should be read alone. We must examine its context, parallels to it, and the relationship between the doctrines it discusses and those discussed elsewhere.  By itself, there is a tendency to eisegete – or to read into – the verse.  We only are able to exegete – extract the actual meaning in all its fullness – when we do so in light of Tota Scriptura; all of Scripture.  Similarly, we should not use a single verse, or the mere statement of a single verse, to “prove” a doctrine.  It is frighteningly common to see a verse merely cited, and a conclusion assumed proven on the basis of that mere citation.  Often, you will see them claim this to be the “plain meaning” of the text.  What you are really being told is that they don’t believe it to be necessary to argue that it means what they think it means.

When reviewing Zaspel and Wells’ work New Covenant Theology: Description, Definition, Defense, Dr. Renihan noted that “there is neither substantial exegetical critique nor positive explication of the text” of Jeremiah 31. He continues later by saying “To give a crucial passage such as Jeremiah 31:31-34 (and its New Testament locus, Hebrews 8:7-13) such short shrift is a serious flaw in the exegetical argument.”  In my estimation, and having read the same material, there quite simply was no exegetical argument to be found.  When discussing this chapter with the NCT adherent, he considered it to be adequate exegesis to merely cite the verses in question, and give single lines of commentary about each. Obviously, this would not be considered exegetical in any respect.  Since I made this charge, I offered to undertake the exegesis of this passage myself, in order to show what I was looking for.  This post is the resultant product.

The Sower

“Behold, days are coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of man and with the seed of beast. As I have watched over them to pluck up, to break down, to overthrow, to destroy and to bring disaster, so I will watch over them to build and to plant,” declares the LORD. In those days they will not say again, ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, And the children’s teeth are set on edge.’ But everyone will die for his own iniquity; each man who eats the sour grapes, his teeth will be set on edge.”[2]

First, note that there is either an explicit reference to or parallel of an issue dealt with at some length in Ezekiel – the “sour grapes” saying.  For an excellent and detailed exegesis of this text in Ezekiel, I recommend this article highly. The relevance to the text to follow, however, may be helpfully expressed by noting the formulaic use of “days” throughout this section. The same phrase is used in vs. 31, the locus of most of the attention to this text – and it is used in reference to the promised return from exile.  It is in those days, once the Lord sows, and builds, that they will not say this again.  Also note, however, that it is equally apparent that God is telling them that were plucked, broken down, overthrown, and destroyed by Him, in judgment. Their deeds were not passed over, and their judgement came in due time – His time.  Also in His time will be their replanting, and their rebuilding.

New, not like the Old

“Behold, days are coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,” declares the LORD. “But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the LORD, “I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. They will not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,” declares the LORD, “for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.[3]

Here is where the wheels typically come off, when it comes to the traditional debates.  Since this is the locus, let’s carefully walk through it.  Days are coming – we might pass this over as “goes without saying”, but just for sake of completion, this is a prophecy. Also for the sake of completion, we have to note that it is referenced, specifically, in the New Testament.  In Hebrews 8, we have verses 31-34 cited.  We will examine this in a moment, but we’ll run through the text quickly.  First, since this is a prophetic text, we are looking at a future event.  Days are coming when – He will make a new covenant with Judah, and Israel, the divided kingdoms. It will not be like the covenant made with their fathers – the covenant when He brought them out of Egypt by the hand.  The phrase “although I was a husband to them” is interesting, in this context, because Jeremiah, like Ezekiel, has said much about the faithlessness of Israel. In Jeremiah’s call, in 1:16, God specifically notes that Israel has forsaken Him.  This is the same term used (עָזַב) in the initial discussion of the covenant, in Deuteronomy 29, in the middle of God’s prophecy of Israel’s future faithlessness, in fact. The entire next chapter (2) details Israel’s forsaking of God.  “Go and proclaim in the ears of Jerusalem, saying, ‘Thus says the LORD, “I remember concerning you the devotion of your youth, The love of your betrothals, Your following after Me in the wilderness, Through a land not sown.” (2:2) “For My people have committed two evils: They have forsaken Me, The fountain of living waters, To hew for themselves cisterns, Broken cisterns That can hold no water.” (2:13) They are referred to as harlots, adulterers. “For long ago I broke your yoke And tore off your bonds; But you said, ‘I will not serve!’ For on every high hill And under every green tree You have lain down as a harlot.” (2:20) Ouch. Pretty harsh stuff, isn’t it?  “Can a virgin forget her ornaments, Or a bride her attire? Yet My people have forgotten Me Days without number. How well you prepare your way To seek love! Therefore even the wicked women You have taught your ways.” (2:32-33) In other words, these adulterers can teach the prostitutes a thing or two. Ouch.  Chapter 3 goes on in the same vein, and again and again they are called harlots, adulterers.  The usage in this section, after the mention of the sour grapes, is doubly interesting. In Ezekiel, the Lord specifically mentions those who do not eat at the mountain shrines, or lift up their eyes to idols (18:6).  Yet, Israel is being reminded of their pernicious and widespread idolatry throughout both books.

Further, there is the parallel use of “fathers.”  The fathers are who are led out of Egypt by the hand.  It is they who broke covenant, as well.  The sons, however, are being pointed toward the future, in which there will be a new covenant. What sort of covenant will it be? The broken covenant’s curse was on the fathers: “The sin of Judah is written down with an iron stylus; With a diamond point it is engraved upon the tablet of their heart And on the horns of their altars, As they remember their children, So they remember their altars and their Asherim By green trees on the high hills.[4]”  In the New Covenant, however, “I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it.”  Their fathers’ sins were written on their hearts.  Their children’s hearts will have the law written on them.  What sort of heart would require a diamond-tipped stylus?  A stone heart.  What does Ezekiel speak of? A heart of stone, changed to a heart of flesh? Where does it speak of this? In Chapter 11, of course – but the interesting parallel here is in chapter 36.  It is a long passage, but it is quite relevant.

“Son of man, when the house of Israel was living in their own land, they defiled it by their ways and their deeds; their way before Me was like the uncleanness of a woman in her impurity. Therefore I poured out My wrath on them for the blood which they had shed on the land, because they had defiled it with their idols. Also I scattered them among the nations and they were dispersed throughout the lands. According to their ways and their deeds I judged them. When they came to the nations where they went, they profaned My holy name, because it was said of them, ‘These are the people of the LORD; yet they have come out of His land.’ But I had concern for My holy name, which the house of Israel had profaned among the nations where they went. Therefore say to the house of Israel, ‘Thus says the Lord GOD, “It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for My holy name, which you have profaned among the nations where you went. I will vindicate the holiness of My great name which has been profaned among the nations, which you have profaned in their midst. Then the nations will know that I am the LORD,” declares the Lord GOD, “when I prove Myself holy among you in their sight. For I will take you from the nations, gather you from all the lands and bring you into your own land. Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances. You will live in the land that I gave to your forefathers; so you will be My people, and I will be your God. Moreover, I will save you from all your uncleanness; and I will call for the grain and multiply it, and I will not bring a famine on you. I will multiply the fruit of the tree and the produce of the field, so that you will not receive again the disgrace of famine among the nations. Then you will remember your evil ways and your deeds that were not good, and you will loathe yourselves in your own sight for your iniquities and your abominations. I am not doing this for your sake,” declares the Lord GOD, “let it be known to you. Be ashamed and confounded for your ways, O house of Israel!” ‘Thus says the Lord GOD, “On the day that I cleanse you from all your iniquities, I will cause the cities to be inhabited, and the waste places will be rebuilt. The desolate land will be cultivated instead of being a desolation in the sight of everyone who passes by. They will say, ‘This desolate land has become like the garden of Eden; and the waste, desolate and ruined cities are fortified and inhabited.’ Then the nations that are left round about you will know that I, the LORD, have rebuilt the ruined places and planted that which was desolate; I, the LORD, have spoken and will do it.” ‘Thus says the Lord GOD, “This also I will let the house of Israel ask Me to do for them: I will increase their men like a flock. Like the flock for sacrifices, like the flock at Jerusalem during her appointed feasts, so will the waste cities be filled with flocks of men. Then they will know that I am the LORD.[5]

Notice the points raised in the above.  1) The judgement of Israel for profaning God’s name 2) The specific mention of idolatry 3) The rehabitation of the land. 4) The recultivation of the land. 5) The spiritual renewal. 6) This is my argument, but notice that in this passage, the Spirit is “within”, while in Jeremiah the Law is written “within.”  Given our doctrine of Scripture, and the Spirit’s economic role as guarantor, this is quite an interesting comparison, is it not? The Spirit is who teaches that which is revealed.  Is it any stretch to believe that both authors are talking about the same process here?  I don’t think that it is.

What is new about the new covenant? At this point, I believe it might be beneficial to see what the author of the Hebrews has to say, when he cites this text.

Hebrews 8, of course, begins with a reference back to the preceding discussion.  It begins by saying “Now the main point in what has been said is this:” – what is this main point? If the writer is careful enough to emphasize this, we should be careful enough to pay close attention.  He says “we have such a high priest, who has taken His seat at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens, a minister in the sanctuary and in the true tabernacle, which the Lord pitched, not man.”  So, firstly, what, precisely, has been said? Starting in chapter 6, the author delves into a discussion of Abraham, and the priesthood, flowing outward from the better expectations he has of his readers, who are exhorted to press on to maturity, and are warned of apostasy.  The centerpiece of this discussion is the Melchizedek priesthood – and the solemnity of the oath of God.  Abraham, having patiently waited, obtained the promise. This promise was shown to be “His purpose, interposed with an oath, so that by two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have taken refuge would have strong encouragement to take hold of the hope set before us.”  Then, it continues, “This hope we have as an anchor of the soul, a hope both sure and steadfast and one which enters within the veil, where Jesus has entered as a forerunner for us, having become a high priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.”

I cannot possibly do justice to the depth of this passage, but let’s point out several aspects of it.  First, note the centrality of “His purpose.”  The author is focused on it very exclusively – it is expressed as the very center of God’s interaction.  God’s own nature is the guarantor of this oath, and the oath itself is inexpressibly important, as a result.  This oath was that God would surely bless Abraham, and would surely multiply him.  Secondly, we see Christ first advanced as the High Priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek. In chapter 7 we are reintroduced to Melchizedek, who, of course, blesses Abraham. His name is translated as “king of Righteousness”, the king of Salem, which is the “king of peace” – and he is accorded a tithe of the spoils.  He points out that Melchizedek has no genealogy recorded, and like Christ, is an eternal figure, a priest in perpetuity.  This priest and king was not of the line of Levi, yet collected a tithe, just as the Levites were accorded.  He blessed Abraham – and he points out, without dispute, the *lesser* is blessed by the *greater*.  He also points out that since Levi was yet to be, even the Levites, through Abraham, tithed to this man.

Hence, if perfection is to be achieved through Levi’s sons, what need was there of a priest not of the line of Aaron? “For when the priesthood is changed, of necessity there takes place a change of law also. For the one concerning whom these things are spoken belongs to another tribe, from which no one has officiated at the altar.”  Now, here is where we need to pay close attention – because here is where the dispute arises.  Since the priesthood is, as both sides would acknowledge, changed – what is the accompanying change to the law?

Just to be clear, at this point, our NCT brothers are not in any sort of unanimity on this point.  There is a wide spectrum of beliefs accompanying this label – and to be fair, there is also a fairly wide spectrum of beliefs in the confessional camp, albeit more narrow than that to be found in NCT.  Still, I’m not a wide spectrum myself, although I am addressing a group with such a spectrum, so it becomes a bit of an issue to some extent.  That being said, in general, many NCT proponents want to claim, in reference to the New Covenant, that the newness of the New Covenant consists of this “change of law.”  The new law is the “law of Christ.”   Again, the spectrum here is rather wide, and there will be different ideas of what this consists of, but again, in general, there seems to be a sort of consensus about the “law of Christ” being those particular moral imperatives reiterated by Christ or the Apostles in the New Testament.  Assuming that, for the moment, we’ll return to the passage, and summarize from my perspective.

“And this is clearer still, if another priest arises according to the likeness of Melchizedek, who has become such not on the basis of a law of physical requirement, but according to the power of an indestructible life. For it is attested of Him, “YOU ARE A PRIEST FOREVER ACCORDING TO THE ORDER OF MELCHIZEDEK.””  Now, at this point, the author establishes the former connection of Christ with Melchizedek.  He grounds this priesthood in His eternity.  Yet, he goes on.

“For, on the one hand, there is a setting aside of a former commandment because of its weakness and uselessness (for the Law made nothing perfect), and on the other hand there is a bringing in of a better hope, through which we draw near to God.”

This is a rather significant verse, to my mind.  It is frequently appealed to, to establish the revocation of the Mosaic law – but the question that immediately springs to mind is this: Where do we have the fullest explication of the extent and intent of the law?  Galatians 3.  What does it discuss?  The exact same subject.  Christ as mediator, the promise of God, Abraham, and the purpose of the Law. The purpose of the Law is to be a tutor, or schoolmaster, to lead us to Christ. It imprisons us, with sin as our jailer, that Christ might set us free.  Is is Christ who keeps the Law, on our behalf.  It is Christ who mediates for us, on our behalf.  It is Christ who pays the penalty for our sins, on our behalf.  As the keeper, mediator, and payor, the Law is now His. The change to the law, therefore, is one of fulfillment, not of negation.  Those aspects of the law which look forward to His fulfillment of it are retained “until the seed would come to whom the promise had been made.”  We are no longer under the law – but under Christ. Yet, a few chapters later, after discussing our freedom, we are told that if anyone is caught in a trespass, he is to be restored gently – and that in so doing, we fulfill the “law of Christ.”  What, precisely, are these trespasses against?  What is this law of Christ, which we can alternately fulfill, or trespass?  To what “righteousness” are we now slaves, now that we are no longer “slaves of sin”?

What, as we have seen, is the great change of the new covenant?  “I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it.”  What Law? “I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances.” Which statues? Which ordinances?  Remember, this is the new covenant. There is a law, there are statutes, and there are ordinances. So, what, precisely, passes away?  The aspects of the law which look forward to the promise fulfilled. When Christ fulfilled the promise, kept the entirety of the Law, and took His place as Priest, Mediator, and King, He sent the Spirit as our guarantor – also as promised. The Spirit writes what is called the moral law on our hearts, and we are taught it by Him. Scripture is brought to bear on us directly, within our very selves.  Since we have been justified, we now have union with Christ, and we are being sanctified by the Spirit.

Back to Hebrews: “And inasmuch as it was not without an oath (for they indeed became priests without an oath, but He with an oath through the One who said to Him, “THE LORD HAS SWORN AND WILL NOT CHANGE HIS MIND, ‘YOU ARE A PRIEST FOREVER’”); so much the more also Jesus has become the guarantee of a better covenant.” Here is another point to note.  The newness of the new covenant is in its superiority to the old. What is the superiority found in? The mediator of it.

“The former priests, on the one hand, existed in greater numbers because they were prevented by death from continuing but Jesus, on the other hand, because He continues forever, holds His priesthood permanently. Therefore He is able also to save forever those who draw near to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them. For it was fitting for us to have such a high priest, holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners and exalted above the heavens; who does not need daily, like those high priests, to offer up sacrifices, first for His own sins and then for the sins of the people, because this He did once for all when He offered up Himself. For the Law appoints men as high priests who are weak, but the word of the oath, which came after the Law, appoints a Son, made perfect forever.[6]

The guarantor, mediator, and priest of the New Covenant is, unlike the Aaronic priesthood, a priest perpetually. He sacrificed once for all, and offered Himself, living forever to make intercession for us.  Note another point here, as well.  It says that the oath came after the Law. It refers to the oath in Psalm 110, already cited above, wherein the Messiah is prophesied to be a “priest forever.”  It would be easy to assume here that “the word of the oath” refers to Abraham’s promise, but I don’t think that it does.  Keep in mind, though, that Galatians points out that the Law does not invalidate the covenant with Abraham[7]. What, however, does the same passage go on to say?  “Why the Law then? It was added because of transgressions, having been ordained through angels by the agency of a mediator, until the seed would come to whom the promise had been made.[8]” The heir to the promise, then, fulfilled the Law – and is both the fulfiller and fulfillment of the promise to Abraham.  What, then, of the Law?  Think through this, if you would.  If, as we are promised, we have the Law written on our hearts, what, then, is this Law?  What precepts does it contain? Yes, the Law was “added” because of transgressions – but notice something in this phrase. Transgressions of what?  There had to be a Law, or there would be nothing against which to transgress! The Law, as given to Moses, was “added” – but there was already a Law to transgress against. This tells us, immediately, that there is something particular about the Mosaic Law that was added.  Until, the passage goes on, the seed would come. So, what was added? Things particular to the promised seed! Things which His coming would fulfill! It is for this reason that the LBCF says the following:

“Besides this law, commonly called moral, God was pleased to give to the people of Israel ceremonial laws, containing several typical ordinances, partly of worship, prefiguring Christ, his graces, actions, sufferings, and benefits; and partly holding forth divers instructions of moral duties, all which ceremonial laws being appointed only to the time of reformation, are, by Jesus Christ the true Messiah and only law-giver, who was furnished with power from the Father for that end abrogated and taken away.[9]

“To them also he gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the state of that people, not obliging any now by virtue of that institution; their general equity only being of moral use.[10]

When we talk about the “unity of the Covenant”, we are referring, at least in part, to the principle above.  The moral law, those things which God has consistently and universally demanded of man, remains unchanged throughout.  The ceremonial obligations of the Mosaic Law, which prefigured Christ, and the judicial laws, which were intended to govern Israel in anticipation of their coming King, were by necessity temporary, unlike the moral law.  The phrase “general equity” summarizes this quite nicely – and it is further explained by the clauses “moral duties” and “moral use.”  One refers to worship, the other to justice.  These general equities, being applications of the moral law, are still to be taken into account.

So, what is like the Old? The moral law.  What was still extant when the Mosaic Law was added? The moral law.  What continues, though the ceremonial and judicial law is abrogated by the coming of the seed? The moral law.  What is new? The seed has come, as promised, and to whom it was promised. The Law is His, and He has come into His own.  The newness of the New Covenant is found in fulfillment of that promise – and His mediation of it, forevermore. So yes, in a sense, the difference is found in newness, and like. As with anything else, of course, the real question is, what do you mean when you say that?

  1. [1]
  2. [2]Jeremiah 31:27-30, NASB
  3. [3]Jeremiah 31:31-34, NASB
  4. [4]Jer 17:1-2
  5. [5]Eze 36:17-38
  6. [6]Hebrews 7:23-27
  7. [7]Gal 3:17
  8. [8]Gal 3:19
  9. [9]LBCF XIX:3
  10. [10]LBCF XIX:4

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