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A New Covenant, But Not a New Israel

Jeremiah 31:31-34 (quoted in Hebrews 8:8-12) - “The time is coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,” declares the LORD. "This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time,” declares the LORD. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. 34No 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. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”

Jeremiah 31:35-37 - This is what the LORD says, he who appoints the sun to shine by day, who decrees the moon and stars to shine by night, who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar—the LORD Almighty is his name: 36“Only if these decrees vanish from my sight,” declares the LORD, “will the descendants of Israel ever cease to be a nation before me.” 37This is what the LORD says: “Only if the heavens above can be measured and the foundations of the earth below be searched out will I reject all the descendants of Israel because of all they have done,” declares the LORD.

Luke 22:20; 1 Corinthians 11:25 - “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.”

2 Corinthians 3:6 - He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.

Hebrews 13:20-21 - May the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.

Introduction:

A number of Old Testament prophecies predict a future covenant that God will make with His people Israel. Several times it is called an “everlasting covenant,” and in Jeremiah 31:31 it is called a new covenant. The old covenant was the Law given by God through Moses. It was a conditional covenant made with the nation of Israel. Israel broke this covenant, but God in His grace declared that he would make an unconditional new covenant with His chosen people. Under this new covenant God promised His people that He would “forgive their wickedness and remember their sins no more.”

Old Testament Context of the Promised New Covenant:

When we look at the context of all the Old Testament prophecies predicting the future new and everlasting covenant, we see that the promise was given to Israel—that is, the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. In Jeremiah 31 this new covenant is said to be made specifically with the “house of Israel and the house of Judah.” In Jeremiah’s day, the people of God were no longer the united nation of Israel, but two nations — the “house” (kingdom) of Israel in the north, and the “house” (kingdom) of Judah in the south. The kingdom of Israel in the north had fallen to the Assyrians about 100 years before Jeremiah’s time, and the kingdom of Judah was just about to be conquered by Nebuchadnezzar and his Babylonian armies.

When Jeremiah said that the new covenant would be made “with the house of Israel and the house of Judah,” it would have been quite obvious to his audience exactly who he meant by these titles. The people who heard Jeremiah speak or read the prophecy he wrote would have clearly understood that the new covenant was being made with the Jewish people—the literal descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. These were the people who had broken the old covenant, the Mosaic Law, and these were the people who would now be encouraged with the promise of a new covenant.

Notice that the Lord guaranteed that the Jewish people would never be eliminated or cease to exist (v35-37). In these verses He used the continuous cycles of nature to illustrate the permanent status of the Jewish people as His chosen people, and He went on to compare the impossibility that He would ever reject them (even though they had sinned) with the impossibility of measuring the vastness of the universe! Those are pretty powerful statements about the permanence of His new covenant with His people Israel!

New Testament References to the New Covenant:

In the New Testament the “new covenant” is mentioned several times. When the Lord Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper (communion) He said, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood, which is poured out for you” (Luke 22:20; 1 Corinthians 11:25). In 2 Corinthians 3:6, Paul wrote that “He has made us competent as ministers of the new covenant.” The other New Testament references to the new covenant are found in the letter to the Hebrews. The new covenant is described as “a better covenant” in Hebrews 7:22 and 8:6, and “the eternal covenant” in Hebrews 13:20. It is specifically called the “new covenant” in Hebrews 8:8 & 13; Hebrews 9:15 and Hebrews 12:24.

In all of these specific New Testament references a good case can be made that the new covenant is made with all believers—and not just the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. After all, when Paul said to the Corinthians that they were “ministers of the new covenant,” he was speaking to Corinthian Christians, and the letter to the Hebrews was written to Hebrew Christians. However, Jeremiah 31: 31-37 guarantees the new covenant to the literal descendants of Abraham. Isaac and Jacob—the Jewish people, and verse 37 states that they will never be rejected by God in spite of all they have done. In this unconditional covenant there’s certainly no idea of God replacing or redefining Israel—then, or at any time in the future.

Harmonization of the New Covenant Scriptures:

So how is this apparent inconsistency in the Bible to be explained? If the new covenant is to be made with Israel, as the Lord promised in the Old Testament, why does the New Testament seem to apply the new covenant to all believers in Jesus Christ? Quite a wide range of explanations is given by theologians and students of Scripture. The most popular and prevalent explanation is that God has replaced literal Israel with the Church because of Israel’s failures as the covenant people of God. The Church today is the New Israel. This way of thinking is known as “Replacement Theology.”

Unfortunately, replacement theology has the serious hermeneutical (interpretive) problem of completely redefining the nation and land of Israel as given in the Old Testament. It is all allegorized to the “land of blessing” for the Church, the “new Israel.” In addition, replacement theology flies right in the face of Romans 11, where a clear distinction is made between the Church and Israel. It is obvious from this inspired text that both Israel and the Church coexist at the present time. The teaching of Romans 11 is that Israel has been “set aside” only temporarily, until the spiritual restoration of “all Israel” (v.26) in the future. In the meantime, the Church is in the position of favor and blessing in God’s program—but the Church has not replaced Israel. Israel is still Israel!

To explain the obvious problem of precisely who the recipients of the new covenant may be, some students of Scripture have proposed two new covenants. In this view, the first new covenant was made with Israel and the second new covenant was made with the Church. The problem with this proposed solution, however, is that there is no hint anywhere in Scripture of two new covenants. When the author of Hebrews referred to the new covenant in chapter 8, he directly quoted Jeremiah 31:31-37, the new covenant promise made with the nation of Israel, with no suggestion that a second new covenant was being added and instituted for the Church.

Another explanation for harmonizing the new covenant references in the Old and New Testaments is that the promise of the new covenant is now being fulfilled with Jews who have become believers in Jesus as their Messiah and Savior. After all, Jewish believers are described as “the Israel of God” in Galatians 6:16 and the letter to the Hebrews was written to Jewish Christians. And could it not be that when the apostle Paul wrote 2 Corinthians 3:6 he had the idea of ministering the new covenant to the Jewish people? We know that many, if not most, of the early Christians were Jewish. Well, Jewish people who become believers today certainly come under the blessings of the new covenant, but in the context of the Lord’s promises in Jeremiah 31, it’s hard to envisage that believing Jews in the Church today are the complete fulfillment of what God had in mind when He announced His new covenant to Israel. He very specifically promised the spiritual restoration of the entire nation—the House of Israel and the House of Judah.

Furthermore, one of the reasons why the writer of Hebrews discussed the promises of the new covenant was to exhort and encourage the Jewish audience to whom he was writing. His Jewish readers would be exhorted not to drift back into placing their faith in the rituals and ceremonies of Judaism, which were all tied to the old covenant. Warnings against this danger run throughout the letter to the Hebrews. At the same time, the Jewish readers of Hebrews would be encouraged to know that the Jeremiah 31 promise of the new covenant was still valid as made to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, even though the blessings of the new covenant were now being extended to all believers.

Extension of the New Covenant Blessings:

Now we come to the best way to harmonize the Scriptures dealing with the new covenant. While the Lord commits Himself to keeping His promises with the people to whom He made His unconditional covenants, He is not bound or restrained from extending the benefits of His covenants to anyone He may choose. After all, He is God, and He can show His grace to anyone of His sovereign choice! The promise of the new covenant was given to Israel, and it will be fulfilled with the literal descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob when the Lord returns. However, the blessings of the new covenant have been extended to all believers today.

As for Israel, out of the present secular nation of Israel a group of godly Jewish people will not only return to the Land, but they will be restored to the LORD. This is the “godly remnant” mentioned as “all Israel” in Romans 11:26. It is with this godly remnant of Israel that the Lord will fulfill the promise of His new covenant, and they will receive its blessings. The Church has not replaced Israel, but the spiritual blessings of the new covenant made with Israel have been extended to the Church. All believers today have the “law of God written on their hearts” and know the Lord’s presence in their lives.

Illustration of the New Covenant:

Here’s an illustration to help us understand our relationship, as Christians, to the new covenant made by God with Israel. Suppose I promise to give my son a new car on his 18th birthday. An unconditional covenant to give a car has been made between me and my son. On his 18th birthday, just as I promised, I present him with the new car — but I don’t give him the keys! Why not? Because he failed Driver’s Ed, disregarded the traffic laws and didn’t drive responsibly. So I tell him that the car is his, but he won't get the keys until a future date, after he learns to obey the laws and drive properly and safely.

Meanwhile I have chosen to adopt another son. He has become part of my family—but I have never promised him a car on his 18th birthday. However, when he turns 18 he has studied the “Rules of the Road” and has proved to be a good and responsible driver, so I choose to give him a car - and the keys as well. He is able to enjoy the blessings of the promise I made to my older son.

In the illustration, my covenant/promise to my older son is like the Lord’s new covenant with Israel. I did not revoke or change the covenant in any way when I withheld the car keys from him — I only temporarily withheld the blessing from him. In the same way, the Lord has never revoked His covenant with Israel, but He has temporarily withheld the fulfillment until a future date when the Jewish people return to Him.

Meanwhile, giving a car and the keys to my adopted son, even though I hadn’t made the covenant with him, is similar to the Lord extending the blessings of the new covenant to all believers in Jesus Christ, even though the new covenant has not been made with the Church, and the Church in no way replaces Israel. This illustration of the car keys should help us appreciate the truth that there is a new covenant, but not a new Israel!
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