I always start nodding off when people drift into talk about covenants. First, I’m sure that no one knows anything about ancient legal agreements, and I’m sure most of us know barely anything about modern day legal agreements. This only changed for me as a consequence of spending time with friends going through the book of Hebrews, where we encountered this particular gem:
6 But as it is, Christ has obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises. 7 For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion to look for a second.
8 For he finds fault with them when he says:
“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord,
when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel
and with the house of Judah,
9 not like the covenant that I made with their fathers
on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt.
For they did not continue in my covenant,
and so I showed no concern for them, declares the Lord.
10 For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel
after those days, declares the Lord:
I will put my laws into their minds,
and write them on their hearts,
and I will be their God,
and they shall be my people.
11 And they shall not teach, each one his neighbor
and each one his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’
for they shall all know me,
from the least of them to the greatest.
12 For I will be merciful toward their iniquities,
and I will remember their sins no more.”
13 In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away. Hebrews 6-12 ESV
The author of Hebrews quotes Jeremiah 31:31-34. I have been taught in the past that there are multiple covenants, the ‘Noahic’ covenant, the ‘Abrahamic’ covenant, the ‘Mosaic’ covenant, the ‘Davidic’ covenant, etc. If you google “OT Covenant” you’ll get all kinds of different ideas, all given with great authority. It’s very confusing.
Jeremiah and the writer of Hebrews seem to agree that there are only two: the old covenant and the new covenant. The old covenant is a two way agreement:
1. If you do this and that, God will bless you: Deut 28:1-13.
2. If you don’t do it, God will curse you: Deut 28:15-68.
It is worth reading the blessings and curses passages linked to above, because you will notice that there is very little blessing in the history of Israel and Judah under the old covenant, and quite a bit of cursing. This is true despite the fact that God was ultra patient and gave the nation every chance to do otherwise. It is especially interesting that the new covenant was revealed to Jeremiah, because he was the prophet who presided over the fulfillment of this particular clause of the old covenant:
49 The LORD will bring a nation against you from far away, from the ends of the earth, like an eagle swooping down, a nation whose language you will not understand, 50 a fierce-looking nation without respect for the old or pity for the young. 51 They will devour the young of your livestock and the crops of your land until you are destroyed. They will leave you no grain, new wine or olive oil, nor any calves of your herds or lambs of your flocks until you are ruined. 52 They will lay siege to all the cities throughout your land until the high fortified walls in which you trust fall down. They will besiege all the cities throughout the land the LORD your God is giving you. 53 Because of the suffering your enemy will inflict on you during the siege, you will eat the fruit of the womb, the flesh of the sons and daughters the LORD your God has given you. 54 Even the most gentle and sensitive man among you will have no compassion on his own brother or the wife he loves or his surviving children, 55 and he will not give to one of them any of the flesh of his children that he is eating. It will be all he has left because of the suffering your enemy will inflict on you during the siege of all your cities. 56 The most gentle and sensitive woman among you—so sensitive and gentle that she would not venture to touch the ground with the sole of her foot—will begrudge the husband she loves and her own son or daughter 57 the afterbirth from her womb and the children she bears. For in her dire need she intends to eat them secretly because of the suffering your enemy will inflict on you during the siege of your cities. Deut 28:49-57 NIV
Here we see in dramatic relief that the old covenant failed, and failed badly. Promises of tremendous blessing if the law is obeyed, and tremendous cursing if the law is disobeyed, do not produce compliance. It just doesn’t work, even if you up the stakes tremendously. Jeremiah is staring at the failure of the law to motivate people, he sees it more clearly than possibly any other Old Testament figure.
The new covenant is not a two-way agreement. There is no conditional blessing – “if you do this, I’ll bless you.” It is a one way agreement. “I’m giving you everything. Period.” Read it again and find the condition! It isn’t there. It is a two-fold blessing:
1. I will write the law directly on their hearts
2. I will be merciful and forgiving
That’s it! It sounds very familiar to our ears, because that is the New Testament gospel! If we go back to putting our own skin in the game again, we are reverting back to the old covenant. If we resort back to talk about essential sanctification, or fruit checking, or other back-door forms of quasi-legalistic coercion, we return to a two-way covenant, and the blood of Christ is of no consequence. If you say, “we have to at least try to lead holy lives, because otherwise God won’t bless us,” you are putting conditions on God’s blessing, and thereby you return to the old covenant. The new covenant says, I will give them inner knowledge of holiness by a miraculous means, and I will be merciful when they even screw that up. The only way you can lose is to disbelieve it, and to return to acting as if it isn’t true. It is similar to winning the lottery but never claiming it.
The other thing this hammers home, is that there is a change, a difference, between the way God deals with humanity before and after Christ. God doesn’t change, but the way He deals with humanity does change. This is significantly foretold by Jeremiah, and is explained in depth by Jesus Himself, by Paul, by the writer of Hebrews, and it is very true. We are not under the law, but under grace, in Christ. There may be other explanations for the end of the Jewish practices of animal sacrifice for the atonement of sins, but I conjecture that the main explanation is that God wanted it ended because Christ fulfilled the truths that these things were only shadows of.
The NIV translates the word covenant in this passage as the word “will”. I think this is a great way to think about it. The old way was a contract, and the new way is a will. You get what you get from a contract because you honor its terms; if you violate the terms the contract is no longer in effect, and the other party is freed from their obligation. A will is simply a bequeathing of wealth upon someone simply because they are an heir, usually because someone has died. Christ has died, and we receive all the wealth of God’s promises simply by receiving them. If the covenant is a “covenant”, it is one of the strangest ones ever, because it only contains promises, and no conditions. This is the nature of the gospel of grace, God’s one-way love towards us.