The Fifth Sunday in Lent April 6, 2003
352, 325, 178, 158
Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah—not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, though I was a husband to them, says the LORD.
But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. No more shall every man teach his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them, says the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.
In the name of Christ-crucified, dear fellow Christians:
This is the time of year when fans flock to baseball spring training games in Florida and Arizona. Anticipation runs high as people discuss who will be the superstars of the new season. Questions abound: Who will have the highest batting average? Who will have the lowest ERA? And, of course, who will win the World Series?
But before all these things can take place, something else had to happen first behind the scenes. Contracts had to be worked out and signed. A contract is indispensable because it defines and sets down in black-and-white the relationship between a player and his team. It states what each party is expected to do. The player agrees to fill a certain position, and the team agrees to pay him $50,000,000 or whatever the salary may be. The contract is more than a piece of paper. It gives the parties involved security for the future. The player knows he has a job for the year, and the team knows they have a player they can count on game after game.
Do you ever wonder about your future security with God? Are you confident of your standing with Him? Maybe you have had doubts about being God’s child because of what others have said. Maybe someone has tried to tell you that there is another way of salvation besides what you have learned from the Bible. Maybe you have had doubts because of guilt. We see so much that is wrong in our lives and we might wonder how that affects God’s feelings toward us. Or perhaps you have had some severe crisis or grief in your life lately, and have begun thinking that it might be a sign of God’s anger.
We really do not have to wonder. Our standing with God is safe and secure. In fact, God seals it with a kind of contract, or “covenant,” as it is called in the Bible. This contract defines our relationship with God and assures us of a place in His kingdom. Through the prophet Jeremiah, the Lord lays out the details of Our New Covenant with God in all their saving glory.
It is called a “new” covenant, because there was a previous one which God had made with Israel. At Mount Sinai God had spoken the Ten Commandments for the first time. Moses had then built an altar on which he offered animal sacrifices to the Lord. Half of the blood was poured on the altar, and half was put in bowls. God told the people: “Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession.” The people immediately replied: “Everything the Lord has said we will do” (Exodus 24:3 NIV). Moses then took the blood from the bowls, sprinkled it on the people, and said, “This is the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words” (Exodus 24:8). It was like signing on the bottom line. The covenant was sealed with blood. What could be better? The people had been given the opportunity to enter into a blessed covenant with God which promised them unlimited blessings!
God was faithful to His part of the contract. Like a husband wholeheartedly devoted to his wife, God had taken Israel by the hand and led them safely out of Egypt and would later bring them into the blessedness of the Promised Land. But still, the old covenant failed, because the people of Israel did not honor their part of it. “‘They broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,’ declares the LORD.” [v.32] The people had barely finished saying that they would be faithful to God, when they broke their promise. They became impatient while Moses was on Mount Sinai. They demanded that Aaron make them gods. By the time Moses came down the mountain with the Ten Commandments, the people were worshiping a golden calf instead of the Lord.
Throughout their journey to the Promised Land, the people grumbled and complained, while God still faithfully provided them with everything they needed. The situation was the same at Jeremiah’s time. The people refused to listen to the prophets God sent. They thought they could get along without Him by relying on their own strength and wisdom, and by making shrewd political alliances with foreign powers like Egypt. “But they did not listen or pay attention; instead, they followed the stubborn inclinations of their evil hearts. They went backward and not forward” (Jeremiah 7:24 NIV). When Jesus came, He offered to gather the people together like a mother hen gathers her chicks under her wings for protection, but the people wanted nothing to do with Him (cf. Matthew 23:37).
The same could be said about us at times too, couldn’t it? We have the same streak of stubborn self-reliance. How many times have we tried to make it through life by our own strength and intelligence, and only turned to God in prayer as a last resort when everything else failed? How often have we tried to find peace and security in money and possessions instead of in the Lord’s promises? Then there are all the times we worry, because we do not trust God’s ability or willingness to understand and help with our problems. The old covenant was not enough, because Israel could not keep it, and neither can we.
When a contract is broken, it means that a new one has to be drawn up. Normally, the one who has broken it has to expect harsher treatment in the new one than in the old. The baseball player who fails to measure up to his team’s expectations this season cannot expect a large bonus for signing a new contract next year. He may not even be offered a new one.
There was nothing at all to force God to make a new contract with His people. They had broken the old one and deserved eternal punishment as all people do. Yet out of shear love and mercy, God drew up a new covenant which was far more favorable for mankind than the first. The old covenant had been conditional: “I will be your God if you love and obey me.” The new one would be completely unconditional: God simply says, “I will do all these things for you…I will do everything necessary to give sinners all the blessings of salvation.” Notice how many times the Lord uses the word “I.”
God says, “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts.” [v.33] The old covenant had been written on the two tables of stone which God gave to Moses on the mountain. The people’s faith had been centered around all of the ceremonies, sacrifices, and rules for living God had prescribed. They felt the pressure to conform to this pattern. But in the new covenant faith would be centered more in the heart. We do not have the pressure to conform our lives to one strict way that is spelled out in intricate detail. We strive to live for God and to follow His will in everything we do, but now it flows from the love in our hearts and shows itself in willing service in many ways, not by following the Old Testament laws and ceremonies. For example, the Old Testament believers were required to gather for worship on the Sabbath—Saturday, but we have freedom under the new covenant to worship on Sunday, Wednesday evening, or any other day we might choose. Paul told the Colossians: “Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day” (Colossians 2:16 NIV).
The Lord goes on to say in Jeremiah: “No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD.” [v.34] “Knowing” here means more than just being able to recite facts about God. It is a knowledge which involves love and trust. It is the way you know the members of your family. You know them better than anyone else, and love them for who they are. No one has to tell you to know them. It just comes naturally!
Under the new covenant the Lord gives us that kind of relationship with Him. We know Him as our loving Father because He has sent the Holy Spirit into our hearts. No one has to tell you, “Know God,” because by faith you already know and love Him as freely and naturally as you love your earthly family. That is true for a newly baptized infant, as well as for the oldest senior citizen among us.
The blessing of the new covenant which makes all these things possible is this: “I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” [v.34] It is sin which broke the first covenant. It is sin which made us God’s enemies and destroyed our good standing with Him. And it is sin which threatens to ruin our lives now and forever. But under the new covenant sins are pardoned. God, the almighty, holy Judge, declares the world “not guilty!” In fact, He forgives sin so completely, He says He does not even remember our guilt! Sins can no longer be found or dredged up to condemn us. “‘In those days at that time,’ declares the LORD, ‘search will be made for Israel’s guilt, but there will be none, and for the sins of Judah, but none will be found, for I will forgive the remnant I spare’” (Jeremiah 50:20 NIV). Under the new contract, all your sins are gone forever!
But this new covenant could not just come about by itself. As with many other contracts, there had to be a negotiator, a third party to bring the two sides together. Under the old covenant, Moses and the priests prayed in behalf of the people, and offered sacrifices for the forgiveness of sins. But the new covenant needed someone far greater. “There is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 2:5 NIV).
Without Jesus there could be no new covenant. The old covenant was broken by man’s disobedience. The new covenant was fulfilled by Jesus’ obedience. The old ceremonial laws and regulations no longer apply to us because Jesus fulfilled their expectations for us. Our failure to live a holy life cannot condemn us, because Jesus kept all the commandments perfectly for us. The animal sacrifices of the old covenant have been superseded by a far better sacrifice. We do not have to offer bloody sacrifices for our sins or be afraid that God will punish us because Jesus offered Himself in our place. He came as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. All of our sins were loaded onto Him. He paid the penalty for them all with His death on the cross. Because He died for us, we have new standing with God as His holy people, pleasing to Him in every way. “All of this is from God…God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them” (2 Corinthians 5:19 NIV). There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
The contract was signed and sealed with the blood of God’s Son. The Lord offers it to the whole world through His Word. But He does even more! He gives you a personal, one-to-one assurance that He intends His covenant for you. In the Lord’s Supper He tells you in an unforgettable way that your relationship with Him is safe and secure. As you stand at the altar, Jesus says to you: “This is my body which is given for you…This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.”
We do have doubts at times about our standing with God. Others try to persuade us that our future depends on our doing our share of the work to reach heaven. Our own reason and experience tell us that we should have to earn God’s blessings. Forgiveness, peace with God, and eternal life—all offered free for the taking—it seems too good to be true! And so God holds Himself to a solemn contract to convince us that as incredible as it sounds, free salvation through faith in Christ is absolutely true. God drew up the contract. He fulfilled all its terms. He signed on the bottom line, and Christ sealed it with His blood. Signed, sealed, and delivered! It’s all yours by God’s grace. Count on it! Amen.
Oh, that I had a thousand voices
To praise my God with thousand tongues!
My heart, which in the Lord rejoices,
Would then proclaim in grateful songs
To all, wherever I might be,
What great things God hath done for me!
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Scripture quotations marked (NIV) are taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®. NIV®. Copyright© 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved.