1506 (150 kB); Oil on panel, 65 x 80 cm; Fundacion Coleccion Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid
For Sunday, October 21, 2007 (Proper 24)
“The time is coming… ” These are some of the most electric words of the Old Testament: “The time is coming when I will make a new covenant with the House of Israel and the House of Judah.” Here are three key questions important for understanding what Jeremiah is talking about:
- What ‘time’ is he referring to?
- What is a ‘covenant’?
- What do the Houses of Israel and Judah represent?
One great way to answer questions like this is to read from a Bible that has cross-references. I personally like the Broadman-Holman NIV thinline Bible, because it provides these cross-references in a good contemporary English translation while still being portable.
Regarding the first question then, cross references show that Jer. 31 is quoted in Hebrews chapter 8. Hebrews is a fantastic book. It scares Christians away because it is very Jewish and contains a lot of theology. But given reasonable consideration it can be a become a personal tour guide for understanding what the Old Testament really means. Hebrews 8 makes clear that the ‘time’ Jeremiah is referring to in Jer. 31 is none other than the coming of Christ. Heb 8:7 makes this explicit in referring to the “ministry of Jesus”.
The second question then is what Jeremiah means by a ‘covenant’. A ‘covenant’ means a treaty, a pledge, an alliance of friendship, a pledge, or a constitution. In this case it a pledge of God’s commitment to an alliance of friendship with his people. The old covenant was the one God made to Abraham to bless all the peoples of the earth through him. The problem with the old covenant was that while God kept his end of the bargain, his people, did not keep up their end of the bargain. They were now divided into the separate Houses of Israel (the northern kingdom) and Judah (the southern kingdom). Both were in breach of contract, which is why the northern kingdom no longer existed and why the southern kingdom presently found itself in exile.
Now, here’s the rub (in answer to the third question above): wasn’t Jesus’ covenant for the church as opposed to being for the Jewish people? Yes and no. Yes, the new covenant was for the church but it was intended also for the Jewish people. The new covenant was always meant for the entire people of God, both Jew and non-Jew (Gentile). The author of Hebrews makes this clear as he carries his reflection on Jeremiah right through to Hebrews chapter 12, 22,23:
But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven.
There are angels singing with joy in heaven this very day because of the many people whose lives are written in the book of life in heaven. The time therefore is not still coming: it has come already! This is a clarion call to live fully committed lives that proclaim the grace and glory of the gospel with everything we say and do.