31 “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. 32 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.
33 “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. 34 No longer will a man teach his neighbour, 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.”
15 The Holy Spirit also testifies to us about this. First, He says: 16 “This is the covenant I will make with them after that time, says the Lord. I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds.” 17 Then He adds: “Their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more.”
18 And where these have been forgiven, there is no longer any sacrifice for sin. 19 Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, 20 by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, His body, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for He who promised is faithful.
Jeremiah’s words to the Israelites in chapter 31 speak about two different covenants. The word ‘covenant’ is one we hardly hear nowadays. We tend to use words like ‘contracts’ or ‘agreements.’ We have cellphone contracts, and we sign hire purchase agreements when buying a car or new furniture.
The one time we do hear the word covenant is when we talk about the bond of marriage. Even though Christian marriage is not held in the high esteem it once was, and is regarded by many as nothing more than just a piece of paper, most people still instinctively know that marriage is more than just two people legally living together under the same roof.
Whether married couples acknowledge the role that God has played in bringing them together or not, they all know that there is something much deeper in the marriage covenant than any other human contract or agreement.
I have done many weddings for couples where neither of them are Christians, but whenever I talk to them about the significance of the marriage covenant, they just know that they are doing something far more significant and meaningful than just signing a piece of paper.
It’s that old God-shaped void again. Many don’t recognise or understand it, but there is that yearning within each of us to fill an emptiness that the world just can’t satisfy. Whenever we put the words, ‘marriage’ and ‘covenant’ into the same sentence, we’re immediately talking about something deeply spiritual, even if we’re completely unaware of it.
So it is no coincidence that God uses marriage as an analogy when talking about His relationship with the Israelites. Jeremiah says that God was “a husband to them.” God took on the role of the provider and the protector in their relationship. He said to the Israelites that He would take them out of slavery to the Egyptians and into the Promised Land, a land flowing with milk and honey. Not long after this, He led them to Mount Sinai, and this is where the groom showed His bride what He wanted her to do for Him.
Moses was called to the top of the mountain where God gave him the Law. His intention was that His bride – His chosen people – would lovingly submit to Him and follow His will for them.
This covenant that they were called to was not easy. In recent months our Wednesday Bible study has slowly worked through the books of Exodus and Leviticus. God’s laws were extremely detailed and meticulous, and they covered virtually every aspect of their social, political and religious lives.
These laws were to be studied and learned by the Israelites so they wouldn’t unknowingly break any of them, since there were so many of them. It was meant to set them apart as a very individual people. It was also designed to drive them back to God time and again with sacrifices.
All of these laws were made to show the Israelites how sinful they really were. God knew that the Law would do that, so within the law He also provided ways to relieve their guilt, as they made specific sacrifices to pay for their sins, in the sense that these sacrifices they brought cost them money and effort.
Ultimately, those sacrifices made under the Law were also supposed to point the people forward to the greatest sacrifice of all - the promised Messiah.
There were also some tremendous promises of blessings if the people chose to submit and live under the Law. This is what God promised through Moses in Exodus 23:22-26 – “If you listen carefully to what He says and do all that I say, I will be an enemy to your enemies and will oppose those who oppose you. My angel will go ahead of you and bring you into the land of the Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Canaanites, Hivites and Jebusites, and I will wipe them out. Do not bow down before their gods or worship them or follow their practices. You must demolish them and break their sacred stones to pieces. Worship the Lord your God, and His blessing will be on your food and water. I will take away sickness from among you, and none will miscarry or be barren in your land. I will give you a full life span.”
This was their marriage covenant with God. He would give them wonderful success and prosperity in the Promised Land if they continued to worship Him and follow what He told them to do. He would give them one hundred percent, and He expected the same from them.
But of course, we know how things worked out. Almost immediately after they were given the Law, the Israelites broke it and worshipped the golden calf. Joshua, who would eventually succeed Moses as their leader witnessed their unfaithfulness, and he warned them against it just before his death. Joshua 24:18-24 – “‘The Lord drove out before us all the nations, including the Amorites, who lived in the land. We too will serve the Lord, because He is our God.’ Joshua said to the people, ‘You are not able to serve the Lord. He is a holy God; He is a jealous God. He will not forgive your rebellion and your sins. If you forsake the Lord and serve foreign gods, He will turn and bring disaster on you and make an end of you, after He has been good to you.’ But the people said to Joshua, ‘No! We will serve the Lord.’ Then Joshua said, ‘You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen to serve the Lord.’ ‘Yes, we are witnesses,’ they replied. ‘Now then,’ said Joshua, ‘throw away the foreign gods that are among you and yield your hearts to the Lord, the God of Israel’ And the people said to Joshua, ‘We will serve the Lord our God and obey Him.’”
As we know, these were just empty promises. Saying the words were very easy, but living up to the promises was a whole different matter. They simply could not keep their word, and with each subsequent generation, things only got worse. Just read through the book of Judges, what happened under Solomon, Jeroboam and the rest - it is such a sad story of betrayal and infidelity by God’s people.
This pattern of disobedience continued, and then the prophet Jeremiah came onto the scene. He continued the unheeded warnings of those who’d come before him. Captivity in Babylon was imminent, and he reminded them in chapter 31, “they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them.”
God had done everything He promised to do - but they didn’t, and the captivity to come was exactly what they deserved for not learning His law or living by it. The old covenant was coming to an end because the Israelites had cheated on God.
The call to Christians today is no different. Remember that Jesus said that He didn’t come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. Our relationship with God is supposed to be the same as the Old Testament Israelites. We are supposed to be His submissive wife - treating Him like our King and not doing anything without His permission or blessing. The Law does today what it has always done – expose our shortcomings, and remind us how desperately short we fall of the standards God expects of us.
To use the marriage analogy once more, we have been unfaithful to God.
The covenant relationship we are supposed to be living in with God is breaking down, and not because He is an overbearing or unreasonable husband, but because we have been an unfaithful wife.
We are no different to the Israelites all those years ago.
But – Grace.
Jeremiah gives us a hint of something completely unpredictable that God will do for us. “I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah”. Instead of divorcing us and ending His relationship with Israel and with His Church today, He takes it to a deeper level - and enters into an even firmer relationship with His bride - even though she has proven herself to be an unfaithful wife.
The Bible is full of some incredible promises, and the promise we find in Jeremiah 31 is right up there: “This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time. 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. No longer will a man teach his neighbour, or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.”
The key to this radically new relationship is not based only on knowledge and obedience to the Law, but now God says that He will put His law in our minds and write it on our hearts.
Whenever you feel an instinctive urge to do what’s right, or to set aside your own glory for the glory of God – however brief or fleeting that time may be – it is no coincidence. It is God who, by His Spirit, is prompting you to follow His will and His law because He has written His law in your mind and on your heart.
And He doesn’t stop there. “I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”
The Hebrew word that Jeremiah uses for ‘forgive’ in this verse is used only for the forgiveness of God. The Bible uses a different word whenever it speaks of human forgiveness. What this means is that God’s forgiveness is unique. He goes on to say that He will remember our sins no more. This is an impossible kind of forgiveness for us.
We can say, “I forgive you,” and we can try to forget - but the truth is that we just don’t have the ability to forget it, no matter how sincere the forgiveness is. But God’s grace and forgiveness is totally different to the way we understand these concepts. He simply promises, “I am going to forgive you and forget that you were ever unfaithful to me.”
Of course, that raises the question, how can God, who has a perfect memory, and who knows everything, not remember our sins? We just don’t have the answer to that, but it is what the Bible teaches.
Hebrews 10:8-14, speaking about Jesus, does give us some insight into how this is possible: “Sacrifices and offerings, burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not desire, nor were you pleased with them (although the law required them to be made). Then He said, “Here I am, I have come to do your will.” He sets aside the first to establish the second. And by that will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, He sat down at the right hand of God. Since that time He waits for His enemies to be made His footstool, because by one sacrifice He has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.”
The forgiveness of sins was accomplished in the covenant God made with Himself in Christ. Since God knew that we would fail to keep our part of the bargain, with an unconditional love, He decided to make a bargain with Himself, and put our sins on His shoulders on the cross. His covenant, His promise, is that since Jesus died for the sins of the world, God has paid for them and in so doing has forgotten about them.
We often say that we live under the New Covenant of grace, and this is absolutely true, but it’s a mistake to think that the Old Covenant has been abolished. What has happened though, is that Jesus has fulfilled the conditions of the Old Covenant with all its endless sacrifices, and has made perfect those who put their trust and faith in Him as the one who ushers in the New Covenant.
We’re still married to God, but now, instead of legalism and religious ritual, it is the grace of Jesus that keeps us faithfully bound to God, who has always been a husband to His people. So instead of divorcing us as we deserve, He loves us with an even greater intensity.
Our reading from Hebrews 10 draws a wonderful picture of how God’s grace and mercy cleanses us. Verse 22 says, “Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water.”
Notice the words “sprinkled” and “washed” - obviously referring to the waters of baptism. God in His grace showers us with His mercy, by pouring His Spirit and His love into our hearts. This is a powerful washing. It’s a washing of the Gospel as God reveals Himself as a faithful husband – One who stays with His unfaithful wife and purifies her as He loves her with an unconditional love.
This New Covenant is very different to the Old Covenant in that God extends His offer of grace to include all people, and not just the Israelites, His chosen people under the Old Covenant. “For God so loved the world…”
His desire is for all people to come to faith in Christ, and be a people of the New Covenant.
Paul says in Romans 9 that not all who are descended from Israel are Israel, but only those who believe in the promise of forgiveness and mercy in Jesus Christ. What this means is that if you are a Christian – if you are a person who has confessed that Jesus Christ is Lord, you are under the blessing and protection of the New Covenant. Under the old, God chose the Jewish nation to meet up to His standards and be His wife. He demanded that they learn about Him and know Him so they could serve Him. But the nature of this New Covenant is radically different. Instead of asking for changes in the wife to meet up to the standards of the husband, the New Covenant makes the wife be what God demands of it by the blood of Christ.
In Ephesians 5:25-27 Paul pulls the analogy of human marriage and God’s marriage to His people together perfectly. “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the Church and gave Himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to Himself as a radiant Church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.”
We have been an unfaithful wife to our husband, but He has purified us by the blood of Jesus. The law says He should divorce us, but instead He says, “No. Instead, I will purify you once more by paying the price of your unfaithfulness myself, and I will forgive you, and I will remember your spiritual adultery no more.” The grace of God is simply incredible!
All of the New Covenant is bound to the action and power and mercy of God. Instead of demanding that the wife learn about the husband, the husband puts Himself into the wife and permeates her mind and heart so she can’t help but know Him. He has done it all for us. We can’t do anything to change it. It’s already been made and signed, sealed and delivered on the cross.
He makes us His own.
The only thing we can do to mess it up is to not believe it, to walk out from under this covenant and decide to go back to the old covenant.
In and through Jesus, we are now finally able to start understanding just what love really is. Love is found in the unconditional sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. Love is found in the forgiveness He offers us.
This is all a gift of God’s grace. If you know that Jesus loves you, you know God and you know what the Law is all about: unconditional love.
This is what the Gospel does for us. It frees our hearts from the old covenant and makes us want to serve under the new covenant of grace.
We have committed the greatest crime against God. We have been unfaithful to Him, but instead of divorcing us, He has bound Himself to us through Christ, and His Spirit sustains and strengthens us.
On our wedding day we promise to love our spouse until death parts us. God makes the same promise to us, but not even death will separate us from Him. He makes the ultimate marriage vow!
God in His grace has vowed to love you and forgive you in Christ, and even death cannot part you from that love. This is His covenant to be your husband in spite of who you are. You can divorce Him, but He will not divorce you.
We are people of the New Covenant of Grace.
Homegroup Study Notes
Read Jeremiah 31:31-34 and Ephesians 5:25
What are the similarities between God’s “marriage” to the Israelite nation in the Old Testament, and Jesus’ marriage to His bride, the Church in the New Testament?
What are the differences?
Is it really possible for God to “remember their sins no more?” This idea confuses us, as the Bible teaches that God is omniscient (all-knowing), so how are we to understand the meaning of Jeremiah 31:34?
(See also Psalm 103:12)
The analogy of marriage when the Bible speaks of our relationship with God cuts to the heart, because we all know that because of human sin, no marriage is perfect.
How does this compare with God’s “marriage covenant” with us?
See Ephesians 5:25 again. This is a remarkable statement, because as the unfaithful bride, we should be cut off from God. He has every right to divorce us due to our spiritual adultery, but instead He has paid the price of our unfaithfulness.
Discuss how God has brought us into the covering and blessing of the New Covenant through the Cross of Calvary.