Commentary on Jeremiah 31:31-34
The book of Jeremiah is dominated by doom and gloom, condemning the people of Judah for their great sin and announcing the imminent destruction of the nation and the exile to Babylon that would come in 587 BCE.
A Diamond in the Rough
In the midst of this dark valley of despair and judgment in the book of Jeremiah, however, a dense cluster of promise oracles concentrated in Jeremiah 30-33 radiate like a dazzling diamond. They radiate with bright promises of hope, comfort and restoration. These four chapters proclaim that after the judgment of exile is over, God will indeed bring God’s people back to the land of Judah and restore them as a new and faithful people once again. The new covenant passage from Jeremiah 31:31-34 is a key element of a new future that only God can create. “The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah” (Jeremiah 31:31).
The Old Covenant
God promises that this new covenant “will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors” (Jeremiah 31:32). The old covenant was the one made on Mount Sinai after God had led the people out of the slavery of Egypt (Exodus 24:7-11). Its basis was the Law, the Ten Commandments written on stone (Exodus 20:1-17), which parents were to teach diligently to their children (Deuteronomy 6:4-9). Some features of the old will remain. God will continue to be the initiator of the covenant rooted in God’s gracious action on behalf of the people (Exodus 20:2; Deuteronomy 9:3-5). The Law will remain as the norm for living as God’s people. The goal will be the same: to love God and to love neighbor as God’s chosen people in the world (Exodus 19:5-6; Leviticus 19:18; Deuteronomy 6:5).
The New Covenant: A Re-Written Heart
What then is new about the “new” covenant? First, the new covenant involves a surgical procedure, re-writing the human heart. The biblical understanding of the “heart” is that it is the center of human intellect and will, knowing what is right and having the desire to do it. Under the old covenant, the Ten Commandments were written on tablets of stone and posted for all to see (Exodus 24:12).
The trouble with such external guidelines is our old heart’s desire to resist them as outside interference and imposition upon our own internal yearnings to go our own way. The old heart, Jeremiah proclaimed, is deeply engraved with an evil inclination to rebel against God and God’s law: “the sin of Judah is written with a pen of iron, with a point of diamond it is engraved on the tablet of the heart” (Jeremiah 17:1).
Jeremiah promises that God will replace this deeply engraved sinful heart with a new heart engraved with God’s law, written in God’s own handwriting (Jeremiah 31:33; see Ezekiel 36:26 for a similar image). People will obey not because they are supposed to obey but because they naturally want to obey. Obedience will become habitual and second-nature. We will love God and neighbor just for the fun of it, often without even realizing what we are doing. “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food?” (Matthew 25:34-40).
The New Covenant: No More Sunday School!
A second element in the new covenant is the elimination of religious education: “No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, . . . says the LORD” (Jeremiah 31:34). The old covenant stressed one person teaching the faith to another (Deuteronomy 6:7). The new covenant stresses God’s action in getting inside our hearts and reprogramming our words, actions, habits and feelings to conform naturally to become the faithful servants of God we were created to be.
Of course, we still have religious education programs in our congregations. The church remains a people on the way but not yet fully there. But one day we will not need human teachers to mediate God’s growth (1 Corinthians 3:6). In the interim, however, we require creative and energetic teachers and preachers to be instruments of God’s work of making disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19).
The New Covenant: Forgiveness in a New Key
A third important item in God’s new covenant is a generous forgiveness that wipes the slate of the past totally clean. From the least to the greatest, “I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more” (Jeremiah 31:34). We often place tight limits on forgiveness, just as Peter asked Jesus how many times we forgive those who wrong us–“seven times?” Jesus, reflecting a new covenant kind of forgiveness corrected Peter, “No…seventy times seven” (Matthew 18:22). This forgiveness is generous and extended to all, from the wretched and despised to the great and the honored.
The New Covenant: Jesus and the Lord’s Supper
In the Christian tradition, Jeremiah’s new covenant becomes the basis for naming the second part of the Christian canon as the “New Testament” or “New Covenant.” However, the most powerful actualization of Jeremiah 31 is in the person of Jesus and in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. Jesus eats the old Passover meal and re-creates it into a new covenant meal. Jesus lifts the Passover cup of wine and proclaims on the eve of his death and eventual resurrection: “This cup is the new covenant in my blood shed for you and for all people for the forgiveness of sins” (1 Corinthians 11:25; Matthew 26:28; Mark 14:24; Luke 22:20). The sacramental meal internalizes the body and blood of Christ into our hearts and bodies, breaks down barriers, levels the field as all are welcomed, and offers forgiveness even to those disciples who betray, deny or abandon Jesus when he most needs them.
Now and Not Yet
Although we confess that Jesus fulfilled the new covenant in his life and ministry, the promise of the new covenant has not been fully realized in us. We continue to wrestle with our old sinful hearts. We still need our teachers and preachers. We struggle to distribute forgiveness beyond our small and limited doses. Jeremiah’s new covenant remains a hope, but it is a hope that is underway and a hope that is certain to arrive fully in God’s good future: “the days are surely coming, says the LORD, the days are surely coming” (Jeremiah 31:31).