Uniform 09.14.2014: A New Covenant

Jeremiah 31:31-37

In the 1960s when it was just beginning, my favorite television show faced a crisis: the actor playing its title character felt the effects of age and illness. He stumbled over lines. He forgot cues. He grew frustrated. He was no longer able to uphold his end of the bargain. The show’s creators had a problem: if they let the actor go, they’d have to kill off his character. And without him, how could the show continue? The whole thing revolved around him.

The producers and director came up with a genius solution. Instead of losing their title character and canceling the show, they decided to hire another actor to play him. To ease the jolt of a new face and personality, they chose to let him “regenerate.” The rest is history, as the British series Doctor Who celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in 2013 and just began the eighth season of its 2005 reboot. Since the first episode, the Doctor has undergone more than a dozen regenerations.

Now, as a basic part of the show’s structure, the Doctor is more than 2,000 years old. When his body, spirit, or stamina begin to wear out, power courses through the soul of this human-like alien, and he comes out of the process transformed. He’s the same man, but he’s also changed, with a new face, new personality quirks, and sometimes a new mission as he works to defend and protect vulnerable people and creatures all over the universe.

Sometimes I wish I had the chance to regenerate. I get weary of my path in life and want to start over. Maybe if I looked different and were capable of a new, unique approach to my circumstances, I’d be able to handle them better. Aside from getting a makeover and going to therapy, I can’t change myself like the Doctor can.

But, as our lesson text reveals, God is the author of regeneration. While we don’t usually get slapped with a new face and basic personality, we do get the opportunity—again and again—to start anew. I always marvel at God’s willingness to give second chances…and on and on. Jeremiah tells the people of Israel and Judah that God is going to make a new covenant with them (Jer 31:31). Again. See, God has already done this with Adam and Eve, with Noah after the flood, with Abraham and the promise of many descendants, and with the Israelites as they were freed from Egypt.

This newest covenant doesn’t come to the people as some kind of reward. After all, they are constantly falling short of their end of the bargain (v. 32). Instead, it comes to them as a magnificent act of grace: “I will be their God, and they shall be my people. …[T]hey shall all know me,…for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more” (vv. 33-34). These people, who basically cheated on the Lord, who turned their backs and went after other gods, who responded to God’s gift with disdain and complaints and unbelief, get a chance to start over. Again.

The ultimate covenant in the Bible is the one that Jesus made possible through his life, death, and resurrection. It’s the covenant that stands for all time and is for all people. It’s the promise that makes regeneration possible in used-up, dried-out, heartbroken, hopeless lives. We may not get a new face or personality, but we will always get the love and grace of a God who is completely confident in our ability to be better tomorrow than we are today. And God never fails to provide guidance as we adjust to the new path that a second (and third, fourth, fifth…) chance opens up to us.

Discussion

1. What do you think of the science-fiction idea of regeneration? Would you like to be able to get a new face and personality when your current body or soul is worn out?
2. If such a thing were possible, what challenges do you think you would encounter as you tried to adjust to your new physical appearance and quirks?
3. Have you ever felt that you have used up your “second chances” with God? How does our text from Jeremiah counter that idea?
4. When you look back over your life, can you name the times that God has renewed a covenant with you? What was happening in your life? How did God’s activity move and change your spirit so that you were able to go in a new direction?
5. How can you help others recognize God’s gift of second (and more) chances in their lives? How could you walk beside them as they learn to live in the beauty of a new covenant with God?

Reference Shelf

As part of a series of oracles introduced by “the days are surely coming,” it is important not to isolate this text from its context. The new covenant is to be accompanied by a repopulation of the land (vv. 27-28) and a rebuilding of Jerusalem (vv. 38-40). The context is earthly, not heavenly; it is historical, not beyond this world. Notably, this covenant is given to Israel, not to some new people that God will create in the future. Indeed, God will make a new covenant with all Israel; people from both the Northern and Southern kingdoms are specifically included. The text claims a fundamental continuity in the identity of the people with whom God will make this new covenant, and in the identity of God as the God of this people (“my people”).

The promise is given to a people who are in exile because of pervasive unfaithfulness to Yahweh (11:1-7 spells this out in covenantal terms). This promise is a word from God given to a defeated and dispirited people, who wonder whether God may in fact have rejected them (see on v. 37 below). Unless the new covenant is God’s promise for the sake of the future of this very specific group of people, it is a promise for no one else. And, certainly, those responsible for transmitting this promise understand the new covenant to be a promise God has given to this people, a people who will never be rejected by God (vv. 35-37). The promise of a new covenant is thus given to a particular people within a specific geographical locale; to interpret this text in individualistic, universalistic, or narrowly spiritual terms violates its context.

This context also makes clear that sin and death will be realities in this new day (v. 30; so also Isaiah’s vision of the new heaven and earth, 65:20). The proper distribution of the effects of sin seems to be the concern of vv. 29-30, and that reality will make for a different earthly order. The forgiveness promised in 31:34 also seems to imply continuing sinfulness, unless the divine action refers specifically and only to forgiveness of Israel’s sin that led to destruction and exile (see 33:8; Isa 40:2; 43:25). It is important to note that the act of forgiveness (sa¯la¯h) always has God as its subject in the OT (in Jeremiah, see 5:1, 7; 33:8; 36:3; 50:20).

This is the only Old Testament passage where “new” modifies “covenant,” though other modifiers are used that imply newness (cf. “everlasting” in 32:40; 50:5). What is “new” about this covenant is a disputed issue. The only other substantive use of the word “new” in Jeremiah is in v. 22 (see the new heart and new spirit in Ezek 36:26 and the “new things” of Isa 42:9; 43:19). This new covenant is explicitly said not to be like the one that God made with a redeemed-from-Egypt Israel at Mt. Sinai. This reference to the exodus should be connected to the call for a change of confession in 16:14-16=23:7-8, also introduced by “the days are surely coming.” The new covenant will be linked neither to Mt. Sinai nor to the exodus! The return from exile is a newly constitutive event for the people of Israel and the new covenant is an accompaniment integral to that event. Given the pattern in the book of Exodus, it is appropriate that a new covenant with Israel follow upon this newly constitutive salvific event. This new covenant will be made by God “after those days” (v. 33), that is, after Israel’s return from exile.

What this constitutive event positively entails for Israel has been spelled out in 24:6-7; God will build them and plant them and “give them a heart to know that I am the LORD” (more closely defined in 32:39; probably reflecting on Deut 30:1-14; see also Ezek 11:19-20; 36:26-27). This new heart will replace the “evil will/heart” so characteristic of Israel’s life before exile (see 13:10; 18:12; 23:17). This will be a new “exodus” in terms of the more basic themes, but so different in other ways (see Connections). The old covenant formula of relationship still applies, “I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (v. 33; 24:7; a theme struck in the immediately prior sections, 30:22; 31:1), but Israel will now be constituted as the people of God in a new way. God will give them a new heart so that they will know the Lord, indeed all of the people will know the Lord (contrast 5:4-5; 8:7; cf. 9:24 and especially 22:15-16, where the knowledge of the Lord and justice concerns coalesce). God will still be their “husband” (baal, v. 32; a reference to Israel’s seeking other lovers among the Baals), evident in the phrase, “know me” (v. 34), but what that knowledge means for Israel will change (see 32:38-41).

The law remains a key point of continuity between the old and the new; but the law will no longer be an external code; it will be written upon the heart. In view of this promise, many commentators speak of the interiorization of this covenant compared to other covenants. Yet, the language of texts such as Deuteronomy 30:6 and 30:14 speak of a similar internal reality for older covenantal understandings. The difference seems only to be that such people will no longer need to be taught via the written Torah. This new reality helps to explain 3:16-17; the ark of the covenant, where the tablets of the law were placed, will be needed no more.

The repeated “for” in v. 34 gives two reasons as to why teaching the people of God will no longer be needed: “for” they shall all know God and “for” God will forgive their iniquity. A relational knowledge of the Lord and a unilateral, unconditional divine forgiveness are the heart and soul of this new covenant; they enable an ongoing life in relationship with God and provide its ongoing grounding. Israel’s past becomes truly past, never more to hang over the people; never again need they wonder whether God would remember their sins again. In the phrase, “from the least of them to the greatest,” a democratization of the people is in view. No person will have special access to the knowledge of God or the forgiveness of sin. Everyone, from whatever class or status, from priest to peasant, from king to commoner, from child to adult, will know the Lord (see Jer 6:11-13; cf. 5:3-5).

Resource

Terence E. Fretheim, Jeremiah, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2002) 441-44.

Kelley Land, a graduate of Mercer University, has been an assistant editor for Smyth & Helwys curriculum since 2001. She is a member of West Highland Baptist Church in Macon, Georgia. She enjoys reading and writing fiction, spending time with her husband and two daughters, and watching British television shows. Her goal for 2014 is to learn to play the piano.

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