In the Old Testament, when God approached his people to enter into a relationship with them, he did it in terms of making a covenant. Now, I recognize this isn’t amazingly familiar to us, but it’s how any king would have entered into a relationship with a neighboring people, perhaps a people he had conquered or had freed upon defeating an enemy power who’d held them captive. The king would have drawn up an agreement identifying himself, outlining what he’d done for the people to be worthy of their utter devotion, and then would have listed the stipulations or responsibilities that he demanded of the people with whom he was entering this relationship. In other words, by establishing a covenant, the king would have laid out the terms for the relationship. So it is with God as he comes to establish a covenant with his people.
As we think back to the covenant that God made with Israel when he brought them out of Egyptian slavery under Moses' leadership, we can see this clearly. It seems to fit the pattern perfectly. Think, for example, of how Exodus 20 begins. The Lord says, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a carved image …” and so it went. You can see God approaching them in this covenant relationship, identifying himself as their ruler and deliverer, noting what he’d done for them, and then laying out the terms of the relationship, listing his demands and the responsibilities they bore. The terms of this covenant relationship is that God would dwell with them and be their God as they would be his people. But they had to obey his commands. And if they obeyed his commands, they would be blessed and live. But if they disobeyed his commands, they would be cursed and die. Simple enough, isn’t it?
And the people respond well, initially. We read in Exodus 24:7, “Then [Moses] took the Book of the Covenant and read it in the hearing of the people. And they said, ‘All that the LORD has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.’” It seems like things couldn’t be any better. But here’s the problem—the people didn’t obey. In fact, they constantly disobeyed.
The Lord graciously put in place the priests to represent the people and offer gifts and sacrifices for their sins, but the people just kept on sinning. They were a hard-hearted people. Jeremiah refers to the stubbornness of the hearts of the people eight times in his book. It’s hard to read the Old Testament without seeing that God’s people are characterized as a disobedient people. They would decide to worship the gods of their pagan neighbors and mimic the sinful activities of their pagan neighbors, and as they did, God’s name was profaned among these nations. It’s as if Israel was screaming to these pagan nations, “Our God isn’t worthy of our love, obedience, devotion, and worship. Therefore, we’ll chase after your more glorious gods.” And so God’s name was profaned.
So, eventually, God, after years of patient endurance, decided judgment would fall. He allowed a foreign enemy to defeat them and take them away into captivity. The Assyrians defeated the northern part of the kingdom around 722 BC, and Babylon defeated the southern part of the kingdom around 586 BC. This final defeat marked loud and clear the violation of the terms of the covenant by God’s people. They had broken the covenant, and God’s promised judgment was taking place.
And it would seem like that would be it. But it wasn’t. God made a promise along the way that he’d make a new covenant with his people. He promised it in the prophets, as we read in Ezekiel earlier and see in the quotation from Jeremiah in our text this morning. And this is the point where our text starts this morning because what these Jewish Christians are basically proposing, by trying to live as if Jesus hadn’t even come, is that they go back and put themselves under the terms of this old covenant that God had established when he brought Israel out of Egyptian slavery, gave them the law, gave them a priesthood, had them erect a temple, and had them make animal sacrifices for sin. The covenant that had been broken. So, what the author wants to show is that this new covenant that God promised and that he’s brought about in Jesus Christ is far superior to that old covenant and that attempting to go back to that covenant is not only foolish but impossible. So, let’s look at his argument and then think through some application in terms of our own temptations this morning.
First, the author of Hebrews shows us that God’s plan was always to establish a new covenant in place of the old.
God’s plan was always to establish a new covenant in place of the old
In other words, this wasn’t an idea that God just scrambled and came up with after the first one failed. The author of Hebrews writes in verse 7, “For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion to look for a second.” Do you remember this kind of argument earlier? He made the same kind of argument about the priesthood in 7:11. If the Levitical priesthood could have led to eternal salvation, then why would God have established another priesthood? And his answer, of course, is that the Levitical priesthood couldn’t bring about eternal salvation. So, he is making a similar point now about the covenant God established with Israel when he brought them out of slavery.
If that first covenant had been a flawless covenant, God would never have had need to speak of another covenant. But he does speak of another covenant, even while the old covenant was still functioning. The author continues, “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, 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’” (vv. 8-9).
Now, we can make some easy and obvious observations. The covenant he’s talking about is the covenant he made with the people through Moses because he referenced making it when he brought them out of Egypt. So, we were on track in the introduction to the sermon when I referenced this covenant. We also are reminded that the people didn’t live up to the terms of the covenant. They were disobedient and “did not continue in my covenant,” the Lord says, and so he judged them. This is why he promises to make a new and different covenant.
But there is a question here, isn’t there? You may have caught it. In verse 7 the author had said that if the first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion to look for a second. This suggests that the first covenant wasn’t faultless. Or, to say it positively, there was fault to be found in that first covenant. But then, in verse 8, the author says that God finds fault with them, which seems to be a reference not to the covenant but with those with whom God made the covenant, namely, Israel. So, let’s ask, “Was there something wrong with the covenant or with the people?”
And I think the answer is in some sense, both. First, there was absolutely a problem with Israel. They were a disobedient people who, as the prophets would say, were circumcised in their flesh but not in their hearts. They had wicked hearts, bent toward rebellion, so that no matter how many times they pledged to obey the Lord, it simply wasn’t going to happen. And this brings us to the “fault” of the old covenant itself. The old covenant simply wasn’t able to transform their hearts and give them hearts that loved obedience.
Now, you could say that this wasn’t really a fault with the old covenant because it was never intended to do this. God gave them this covenant in order to expose their sinful hearts and condemn them as rebels so that they might be driven to look to Christ in faith as their only hope for salvation. But nonetheless, if all we had was the old covenant, there would be something lacking. And this is why God promised a new covenant and promised to do things with that covenant that simply weren’t possible with the old covenant. And, as I’ve noted, this was God’s plan from the beginning. It was during the days of the old covenant that God was already promising a new covenant to come that wouldn’t be like the old covenant but that would be superior to it.
So, that brings us to the new covenant where we see the differences of the new covenant.
The new covenant God makes with us is different in a number of ways
The manner in which the author shows us the ways the new covenant is better is by showing all the promises God made when he talked about this new covenant he was going to make with his people in the future. This is why, if you look back up to 8:6, the author had said, “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.” In other words, the terms of the relationship that God promised to bring about back in Jeremiah 31 (which the author of Hebrews is about to quote) is brought about through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. That’s why he says Jesus is the mediator of this covenant. Every covenant has to have priests who can carry out the work of the covenant. The Levitical priests were enabling the old covenant to be carried out—through their intercession, sacrifices, etc. Jesus is the high priest who has brought about this new covenant.
Therefore, the author quotes from Jeremiah concerning these promises that God said he would do for his people when he brings about this new covenant. And if you’re a believer, trusting in Jesus Christ as your high priest and only hope for salvation, then these promises are what God has done for you. Now, I want to say that explicitly because Jeremiah says that god is going to make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah (v. 8) and the author of Hebrews repeats “the house of Israel” in verse 10. And we could look at many NT texts to confirm this, but we could simply remind ourselves of Ephesians, where in ch. 2 the Lord says that he’s abolished the dividing wall between Jews and Gentiles through Christ’s work to make one new people and then adds in 3:6, “This mystery is the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” So all of us who believe are part of the one people of God, fellow heirs of his promises, and partakers of all of these glorious blessings in Christ that we’re about to see. So, what are these promises that are true of united to Jesus by faith?
We have the law written in our hearts.
As the author quotes from Jeremiah 31, he writes, “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 (v. 10a). In the old covenant, most of the people had wicked hearts. So, you could receive laws, written down on tablets, telling you what to do and not to do, but there was no guarantee you’d actually do them. In fact, Paul will actually say in Romans 7:5 that our sinful passions were “aroused by the law.” And if you want to know what he means, then walk up to your toddler, who is ignoring some toy that is in the same room with him and say, “Whatever you do, don’t go over there and touch that toy,” and then walk out of the room.
What will happen? We know what will happen. Your command, because of the sinful passions in the heart of your toddler, will actually serve to arouse that little child to go and touch that toy in absolute disobedience to your command. External laws cannot do anything to cause someone to obey.
So when God looks forward to this new covenant, he promises that he’s not going to have merely external laws to us, but he’s going to put his laws in our minds and write them on our hearts. He’s going to ingrain these laws into our very being. He’s actually going to move our desires to come in line with his laws.
I think this is the same idea that God says through Ezekiel when God says in Ezekiel 36:26, “And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.” Under the new covenant, God is going to give his people new, transformed hearts so that they will obey him.
This is why one of the things that happens when you become a Christian is that you discover a change in your desires. It’s not that it’s impossible to sin. We do still sin and struggle with it. But the ability to enjoy sin freely is gone. You’re bothered by sin, want to turn from it, and have a longing to walk in obedience. That is because the Lord has written his laws on your heart, put his Spirit within you, and is causing you to walk in his ways. In other words, the fact that you have a longing to make war against sin should be an encouraging confirmation that the Lord has done this glorious work in your heart. And if indeed you have no desire to turn from sin, then you need to place you faith in and Christ and be saved. But if it is true of you, rejoice at God’s glorious work in you. So, that’s the first glorious promise of this new covenant. The second is equally as glorious.
We all know the Lord in a personal and direct way.
The author of Hebrews continues quoting God’s words in Jeremiah, writing, “And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 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” (vv. 10b-11).
Now, there are two realities within this that are easier to understand when you understand the nature of the people’s relationship with God under the old covenant. First of all, under the old covenant certain people had mediating roles. That is, there were certain leaders—kings, prophets, priests, etc.—who would relate to God on behalf of the people and speak to the people on behalf of God. Each person didn’t have anything like a direct, personal relationship with God.
So when God says in Jeremiah that the days are coming when all the covenant people will know him, from the least of them to the greatest, he means that we no longer need appointed leaders to mediate our relationship with God. Because Jesus is our great high priest, and he is always interceding for us, we all can approach God directly through Jesus. This is why the author ended chapter 4 saying that since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, we can “with confidence draw near to the throne of grace” (4:16).
But there is a second reality. Under the old covenant, the way that you became a member of the covenant people of God was by simply being born to an Israelite. And as these covenant members grew up, some of them would become believers, but most of them wouldn’t. Therefore, most of God’s covenant people in the old covenant weren’t believers. This why they continually profaned God’s name among the nations.
But the promise of the new covenant is that every member of God’s covenant people would know him. And this is because the way you become a member of God’s covenant people in the new covenant is not simply by being born into a certain family with certain genealogical connections. The way you become a member of the new covenant people of God is by experiencing new birth, by being born again. Only believers are members of the new covenant people of God.
So, do you see this glorious promise? Under God’s new covenant, not only do we all have a personal relationship with him, but we can relate to him in a direct way, able to approach him with confidence through our glorious high priest, seated at his right hand.
And finally, we have full forgiveness of sins.
We have full forgiveness of sins.
In verse 12, the author finishes his quote from Jeremiah, writing, “For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.” Again, in order to appreciate this, we have to realize how things were under the old covenant. Every year the high priest, on the Day of Atonement, would have to make an offering for the sins of the people. And therefore, as the author will state in 10:3, “In these sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year.” Each year, when the high priest would have to go offer the goat again, the people would be reminded that their sins hadn’t really been dealt with, and the reason why is because the blood of bulls and goats can never take away sins. So, they were left to live knowing their sins were there, more sacrifices would need to be made, and the sacrifices were never really sufficient anyway. Moreover, there were certain sins for which there was no sacrifice to address it. If you committed murder or adultery, you were simply sentenced to die. No sacrifice would do. Their only hope was to look to the sacrifice that was to come in Christ.
But in the new covenant, God promises that his people will have full forgiveness of sins. Our sins will be remembered no more. And the reason is because of Jesus, our high priest and the sacrifice for our sins. Because he lived, died, was raised for us, and is seated at God’s right hand interceding, our sins have been fully and finally dealt with and are never charged to our account. Peter Gentry has said it well, writing, “Moment by moment, as and if the believer sins, he or she automatically has Jesus Christ as High Priest presenting the merits of his finished work on his or her behalf. God does not wait for us to confess our sins, although this is an important act on the part of a believer. Jesus Christ, our High Priest, immediately applies his atoning work on our behalf. So we now have the full forgiveness of sins.” 1
Brothers and sisters, is there any more precious reality in all the world than to know that if you’re trusting in Christ—which is shown through the evidence of our new hearts—that we have full and final and eternal forgiveness of our sins? And all of these covenant promises have been brought about because Jesus came as our high priest, lived, died, was raised, and intercedes for us. This is why when Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper, he said, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood,” (1 Cor 11:25) which is to say that the shedding of his blood is bringing all of these promised new covenant realities to bear.
Therefore, and this is the punchline for the author of Hebrews, “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” (v. 13).
What he’s saying is that already when the Lord spoke these words through Jeremiah, the covenant was growing old and was ready to vanish away. Now, it’s gone. The recipients of this letter who were tempted to go back and live as if Jesus hadn’t come, simply can’t. It’s not just that they shouldn’t want to. Why go back to a time before all of these promises had come about? It’s that they can’t. God doesn’t relate to his people under those old covenant terms anymore. He’s brought a new, glorious covenant, mediated by a perfect high priest.
And so the question we can ask ourselves is if we live in light of these glorious new covenant realities? Do you thank God for the desires of your heart, allowing your desire to fight sin serve as a confirmation that he’s given you a new heart? Do you approach God confidently, knowing he wants to relate to you in a personal and direct way because you’re his beloved child? Do you rest and delight in the reality that your sins are fully, finally, and eternally forgiven? Brothers and sisters, what glorious realities we have in Christ! Let us now give thanks and delight in these glorious promises that have become realities in Christ as we come to the table. Amen.
1 Steve Wellum and Peter Gentry, Kingdom through Covenant, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: Crossway, 2018), 560-61.