Skip to main content

The New Covenant of God for His People (I)

Introduction

If asked to think of passages in the Old Testament that foretell the coming of a new covenant, Christians regularly turn to Jeremiah 31.31-34.  After all, this is the text that has the exact phrase, ‘new covenant,’ and it is the text that Jesus references at the Last Supper (Luke 22.20; 1 Corinthians 11.25).  Hebrews quotes the passage at length (Hebrews 8.8-12).  Yet there are parallel texts in Isaiah 59.20-21 and Ezekiel 36.25-28 (these are key verses in a longer passage). 

All three texts are significant for understanding the New Testament itself.  These passages help us to understand (1) the continuity of the Law in the new covenant; (2) the role of Christ as redeemer; (3) the underlying narrative of the restoration of Israel from exile for the New Testament and for Christian perspective; (4) the understanding of the Holy Spirit as God’s transforming power; (5) the understanding of Christians as a righteous people of God; (6) the inclusion of the Gentiles into God’s restored people; (7) the Old Testament’s beginning of a Trinitarian theology; (8) the distinction between a present age and an age to come (eschatology).  The passage from Isaiah, moreover, (9) is helpful in understanding several key aspects of a passage in Romans that is always broken up into two sections but that should be read as a continuous interpretation of Isaiah 59: Romans 3.15-26.  (We should not break this passage up at vv. 20 and 21.)

This post takes note of the three texts in the Old Testament.  Subsequent posts will explore the significance of these texts in the New Testament.  Here, we might note the origin of the new covenant hope in Deuteronomy and the similarities and differences of the passages in Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel.

Three New Covenant Texts

In the following table, note the equivalent and alternative expressions used when speaking of the new covenant, the covenant dealing with sin.  (The translations are from the ESV.)

Isaiah 59:20-21 "And a Redeemer[1] will come to Zion, And to those who turn from transgression in Jacob," declares the LORD.  21 "And as for Me, this is My covenant with them," says the LORD: "My Spirit which is upon you, and My words which I have put in your mouth, shall not depart from your mouth, nor from the mouth of your offspring, nor from the mouth of your offspring's offspring," says the LORD, "from now and forever."
Jeremiah 31:31-33 "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,  32 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.  33 "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.
Ezekiel 36:25-28 "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.  26 "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 flesh27 "And I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances.  28 "And you will live in the land that I gave to your forefathers; so you will be My people, and I will be your God.

Note what the three texts have in common:

·            These are ‘new covenant’ texts
·            The context is a restoration of Israel from exile (due to their sins)
·            God is dealing with sin
·            God is doing something new
·            God is changing the inward character of the previously sinful people: (mouth, heart, spirit)
·            God is reconstituting a people for himself
·          God is causing the people to follow His word, law, statutes, or ordinances (different words for the  same thing).

In Isaiah and Ezekiel, the divine work of transformation involves a work of the Spirit.  All three texts have in view a moral transformation that causes God’s restored people to obey God from within (mouth, heart, spirit).

Deuteronomy

The passages from Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel pick up language from Deuteronomy’s covenant renewal.  Deuteronomy functions as a renewal of the covenant God made on Mt. Sinai with Israel when the nation came out of Egypt.  At the end of Moses’ life and as Israel prepares to enter the promised land, the covenant is renewed.  In Deuteronomy 30, we find a prophecy of a future covenant renewal that would be necessary because Israel would, in fact, break the covenant.  The chapter foretells a renewal of the covenant after Israel sins, is exiled, and is restored from captivity.  Then God would circumcise their hearts (v. 6) so that His people might ‘keep all his commandments’ (vv. 8, 10).  His ‘word’ (the stipulations of the covenant) would be put in their mouths and hearts (v. 14).  This anticipation of a new covenant is not of a new set of commandments but of a covenant renewal that will involve God’s restoration of His sinful people and His transformation of them.  Only then will they obey His Law from the heart.
Isaiah 59.20-21

Like Jeremiah and Ezekiel, the context of the reference to a new covenant is the exile and return from exile of Israel.  Isaiah 58.12 says that a righteous Israel, having turned away from her sins, will have her ancient ruins rebuilt.  The focus of both chapters 58 and 59 is on Israel’s sinfulness.  Then God steps into the impossible situation to establish righteousness (Isaiah 59.16-21).  In the verses immediately following Isaiah 59.20-21—in ch. 60—Isaiah characteristically attaches a prophecy about the inclusion of the Gentiles to the promise of restoration for sinful ‘Jacob.’  The nations will come to restored Israel’s light (Isaiah 60.3).  The inclusion of Gentiles is not a theme in Jeremiah or Ezekiel.

From Isaiah 59, several important theological themes for the New Testament are present and will be explored further on.  We have a description of Israel’s sinfulness, the coming of God’s righteousness, the promise of the new covenant, redemption from trespasses, mention of God’s Spirit being put upon the people, obedience to God’s ‘word,’ His law, and the inclusion of the Gentiles in God’s restoration of Israel.

References to the new covenant elsewhere in Isaiah call it a ‘covenant of peace’ (Isaiah 54.10) and an ‘everlasting covenant’ (Isaiah 55.3; 61.8).  Two of the servant songs mention the role that a restored and righteous Israel will play as a light for the nations.  In the first servant song, God says to Israel, God’s servant,

I am the LORD; I have called you in righteousness; I will take you by the hand and keep you; I will give you as a covenant for the people, a light for the nations’ (Isaiah 42.6).

In Isaiah 49, a similar promise of God’s redemption, care, and restoration of Israel to the land is made alongside a promise to include the nations:

Isaiah 49:6-10   he [the LORD] says: "It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth."  7 Thus says the LORD, the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One, to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nation, the servant of rulers: "Kings shall see and arise; princes, and they shall prostrate themselves; because of the LORD, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you."  8 Thus says the LORD: "In a time of favor I have answered you; in a day of salvation I have helped you; I will keep you and give you as a covenant to the people, to establish the land, to apportion the desolate heritages,  9 saying to the prisoners, 'Come out,' to those who are in darkness, 'Appear.' They shall feed along the ways; on all bare heights shall be their pasture;  10 they shall not hunger or thirst, neither scorching wind nor sun shall strike them, for he who has pity on them will lead them, and by springs of water will guide them.   

Jeremiah 31.31-34

Prior to the new covenant text in Jeremiah, Jeremiah speaks of the exile of the southern kingdom to Babylon.  He then turns to speak of God’s restoration of exiled Israel.  Jeremiah also speaks of this new covenant as an ‘everlasting covenant’ in another passage that includes themes of restoration from exile, reconciliation as God’s people, moral transformation, and blessing:

Jeremiah 32:37-41 Behold, I will gather them from all the countries to which I drove them in my anger and my wrath and in great indignation. I will bring them back to this place, and I will make them dwell in safety.  38 And they shall be my people, and I will be their God.  39 I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear me forever, for their own good and the good of their children after them.  40 I will make with them an everlasting covenant, that I will not turn away from doing good to them. And I will put the fear of me in their hearts, that they may not turn from me.  41 I will rejoice in doing them good, and I will plant them in this land in faithfulness, with all my heart and all my soul.

In Jeremiah 50.5, the two kingdoms of Israel (northern) and Judah (southern) join together and join to the LORD in an everlasting covenant.

Ezekiel

While Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel envision a new covenant of God with His people, the content of the covenant is not new.  That is, the stipulations of the covenant are not changed.  The new covenant is really a renewal of God’s existing covenant with Israel.  What is new is the ability, by God’s grace, to abide by the ordinances of the covenant.  This first involves God’s providing redemption in Zion for the transgressions of Jacob (Isaiah 59.20) or, as Ezekiel elsewhere puts it, God’s making atonement for His sinful people:

Ezekiel 16:59-63 "For thus says the Lord GOD: I will deal with you as you have done, you who have despised the oath in breaking the covenant,  60 yet I will remember my covenant with you in the days of your youth, and I will establish for you an everlasting covenant.  61 Then you will remember your ways and be ashamed when you take your sisters, both your elder and your younger, and I give them to you as daughters, but not on account of the covenant with you.  62 I will establish my covenant with you, and you shall know that I am the LORD,  63 that you may remember and be confounded, and never open your mouth again because of your shame, when I atone for you for all that you have done, declares the Lord GOD."

In this passage, the original covenant’s commandments remain, just as the original, covenantal relationship between God and His people remains.  The difference is in what might be called God’s forgiving grace (atonement) and transforming grace that make the renewed covenant something that the people now keep.  The rebellious will be purged according to the terms of the original covenant (Ezekiel 20.36-38).  As in Isaiah, the covenant is also called a ‘covenant of peace’ and an ‘everlasting covenant’ (Ezekiel 37.26).  Ezekiel 37.27 says that God will set His sanctuary in their midst forever and so His dwelling place will be with them forever.  This involves God’s sanctifying Israel (v. 28).  Finally, Ezekiel sees God’s re-establishing His covenant with Israel as a testimony to the nations of Himself (v. 28; cf. Ezekiel 36.23, 36, 38).  This reads as more of a declaration of God’s identity to the nations through His actions than a mission to them, or an inclusion of them, as in Isaiah.

Conclusion

The promise of a new covenant in Deuteronomy 30 hangs over the history of Israel right up to Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel.  It is both a negative, predictive judgement about their repeated failure to live in obedience to God’s covenant with them—His gracious covenant of making them His treasured possession—and a positive promise that God would make atonement for the sinful people, even including the sinful Gentiles in a new covenant.  This new covenant would also provide God’s own righteousness (Isaiah 59.16-19), Holy Spirit, and a transformed heart or spirit.  In this way, God’s original purpose for Israel would be fulfilled.  Without the message of the New Testament, the Old Testament reads like a failed promise, an empty hope, a forgotten yearning for something better by a people that faced one failure and destruction after another.  But with the good news of Jesus Christ, the Old Testament reads as a true promise that has been fulfilled.  Jesus offers this new covenant in his own sacrificial death on the cross.  He is Isaiah’s Redeemer that came to Zion to turn Jacob from transgression.  He is Ezekiel’s means of atonement for Israel’s sins.  He is the one who gives the Holy Spirit (Ezekiel), who transforms hearts of stone to hearts of flesh (Jeremiah), and who puts God’s words in the mouths of those who turn from sin to obey God’s commandments (Isaiah).  With his redemption of a sinful Israel has also come the inclusion of the Gentiles in God’s plan for sinful humanity.




[1] The Septuagint (Greek translation of the Old Testament) reads, ‘The one who redeems Zion will come and turn godlessness from Jacob’ (my translation).  The Hebrew reads as the English translation (ESV) has it here.  Note that ‘redeemer’ is go’el (laeĂȘAG), a well-known image in the Old Testament.  Isaiah applied this image to God: God is the Redeemer of Jacob (or Israel or Jerusalem) Isaiah 44.23; 48.20; 49.7; 52.9.  So also Isaiah 59.20.