For if that first covenant had been faultless, then no place would have been sought for a second. Because finding fault with them, He says: “Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah—not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt; because they did not continue in My covenant, and I disregarded them, says the LORD. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put My laws in their mind and write them on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. None of them shall teach his neighbor, and none his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them. For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more.” In that He says, “A new covenant,” He has made the first obsolete. Now what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away. – Hebrews 8:7-13
You probably began this day with good intentions. Plans for an extra half hour of prayer in the morning. The determination to be more patient with a frustrating family member. The resolve to cut down on your caloric intake. The decision to fit some serious exercise into your day.
January 1 is the day of the year when many of us introduce a series of resolutions for the coming year. We hope that somehow, in the twelve months that lie ahead of us, we will be able to live our lives differently.
Unfortunately, for many of us our resolutions get off to a poor start. A late night on New Year’s Eve puts paid to the plan for the early morning walk and the Bible reading before breakfast. The confidence that we had that somehow things might change with the new calendar on the wall soon starts to tarnish and appear deluded, as a familiar cycle of failure and compromise starts to play itself out. We remember the short-lived enthusiasm of last year’s resolutions and what became of them and start to wonder how on earth we believed that we could so easily shed our clinging skins and become new persons.
For others of us, today may have been one of encouragement on the resolutions front. We may even be feeling rather buoyant after a satisfying day, with a brimming sense of pride in our achievement. However, unless our resolutions are fairly modest, the chances are high that within a few weeks, if not earlier, most of our resolutions will have fallen by the wayside.
Perhaps it is at this time of year, more than at any other, that we can relate to the experience that Paul speaks of in Romans 7 – the presence of the will, but the lack of the power to put things into action.
What drives our desire to make such resolutions? It seems to me that there are three key elements to this desire. First, we wish to close the chapter of the past. Second, we wish to have the hope of a new and open future. Finally, we wish to be new and different persons.
New Year, as it involves the turning of a new page, promises something new and the leaving behind of what is old. We flatter ourselves that our 2011 selves can be left behind, and a new updated 2012 model of ourselves, with new registration plates and without the bangs, rattles, and dents of last year’s self will roll out this morning. However, our attempts at self-reformation tend to fall flat. We discover that the new calendar does not bring with it a new chapter, the problems, failures, and sorrows of the old year dog us into the new, and we are still the same people that we ever were.
The Old Covenant
This pattern of good intentions falling flat isn’t merely characteristic of our own lives, but is described within the Scriptures. At the beginning of the Mosaic covenant, the Israelites expressed great confidence in their future obedience: ‘tell us all that the LORD our God says to you, and we will hear and do it (Deuteronomy 5:27b).’
The covenant that God gave them wasn’t hard to keep. It wasn’t a mysterious and esoteric truth to be pondered over by sages, nor a guarded secret of some distant realm, to be sought by the sort of monster-fighting heroes that crop up in the epics. It even made provision for the imperfection of the people with means for atonement. What is more, it was a good covenant, promising life, freedom, and marking out the character of life in communion with God.
Despite this fact, Israel’s history was a long record of failure. Israel was both dogged by past failures, and characterized by the inability to make themselves new and avail themselves of opportunities to start over. Generations suffered the consequences of the unfaithfulness of their parents, and added their own unfaithfulness to the mix, compounding the problem, bequeathing both the consequences and example of unfaithfulness to their children.
For some this led to a sense of self-justifying pointlessness, exemplified in the proverb, ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge,’ which suggested that they were innocent, yet suffering for the sins of their fathers. However, as God declares, those making this claim were by no means innocent themselves.
What do you do when you have failed to avail yourself of every opportunity you have been given, and squandered all of your second chances? What happens when every time that you reboot, the same virus kicks into operation, causing your entire system to freeze? What do you do when every bailout package fails to address the debt crisis, change the economic situation, and reignite hope? Where do you find hope when every new beginning has merely introduced the same fateful pattern of failure and sin?
For some within Israel, there was the belief that, perhaps, if everyone put their backs into being faithful to the covenant, things could be turned around. This year everything can be different and last year’s failed resolutions won’t be remembered at all. All that is needed is a little more willpower and determination, a spot of extra spiritual elbow grease. Perhaps if we can just reboot the system we can make it work again.
The Problem with the Old Covenant
In the passage above there is the suggestion that there was something wrong or faulty with the first covenant (‘For if that first covenant had been faultless…’).
What was the problem with this God-given covenant? Not so much with the covenant itself, as with the users – ‘finding fault with them.’ The covenant could be kept, but the users of the old covenant were incapable of doing so. As a result the old covenant was always breaking down in judgment and exile and needing to be restored again. The problem wasn’t one of covenant hardware or software, but was with the wetware.
Within the old covenant God called the people to circumcise their hearts, and to follow him (Deuteronomy 10:16). The old covenant was characterized by an unfulfilled longing for a change in the heart of the people. We can hear the hint of sorrow in the voice of God as he responds to the positive intentions of the Israelites in Deuteronomy 5:29: ‘Oh, that they had such a heart in them that they would fear Me and always keep all My commandments, that it might be well with them and with their children forever!’ It was characterized by an unrealized hope for God’s greater presence among his people (‘Oh, that all the LORD’s people were prophets and that the LORD would put His Spirit upon them!’ – Numbers 11:29). However, at every stage, the old covenant was one of hope frustrated.
Within the time of the old covenant’s operation, however, there was the promise of something new. In Deuteronomy 30:6, God promises that after Israel had experienced the full consequences of their disobedience, he would deal with their wayward hearts and those of their children decisively and circumcise them to love him completely.
A NEW covenant
Within the Hebrews passage above, we see a key promise of a new covenant from the book of Jeremiah quoted. What does this promise involve?
It is a truly new covenant, a covenant free of the memory of past failures, a new leaf, an unblotted page. God doesn’t merely give the old covenant a complete service so that it can pass its MOT: he replaces it with a completely different model, without any of the limitations of the previous one.
In many respects the Judaizers, who Paul opposes in such epistles as Galatians, seemed to believe that Christ’s sacrifice merely put the old covenant back into full operation. Christ is the breakdown service that pulls the old covenant out of the ditch, fixes the faults, touches it up, gives it a polish, pats the bonnet, gives us a wave, and sends us on our way. However, this new covenant is not like that, but something radically new.
Most importantly, this new covenant is God’s initiative. The people can’t resolve their problems for themselves. No amount of self-reformation, willpower, or determination will solve their problems. What is needed is not some new resolve on the part of man, but a new covenant from God.
My laws in their minds…
The old covenant was a covenant that lacked access, a theme that is prominent at various points in Hebrews. It lacked access to the two most important areas: the fullness of God’s presence in heaven, and the human heart. This is a ferry that stops several feet away from the jetty.
The message of Hebrews is that the promised new covenant is now a historical reality through the work of Jesus Christ, and has access to both of these areas: granting access to the very presence of God, and dealing directly with the depths of the human heart.
As we have seen, the problem of the old covenant was a user-related one. An operational new covenant would have to deal with that problem directly. At the heart of the old covenant were the stone tablets upon which the Law was written, stone tablets for stony hearts. In Ezekiel 36:24-28, God promises to remove the heart of stone from his people and replace it with one of flesh.
While the heart of the old covenant was the Law made stone, condemning a stony-hearted people for their sin, the heart of the new covenant is a New Man, Jesus Christ, in whom the full character of life in communion with God is manifested and enjoyed. In Jesus Christ, God is forming the humanity that will keep the covenant perfectly. In Christ the Law of God has access to the very heart of man, as we are transformed into his image by the Spirit; in Christ we have access into God’s very presence, through the way that he has prepared.
Jeremiah also speaks of full communication between God and man, without the need for intermediaries and second-hand information (‘None of them shall teach his neighbor, and none his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them.’). The knowledge of God will penetrate every heart, and all will have access to the presence of God, fulfilling the wish of Moses from Numbers 11:29.
No remembrance of sin
In the continuing sacrifices there is a continual remembrance of sin, as a persisting problem. The old covenant puts a bucket beneath the leak, but it cannot repair the plumbing of the human heart.
God promises a break with the sin of the past and the guilt that overshadows the present, a break so complete that the sins of the past won’t come to mind any more. Their shadow will no longer be cast over the present, so there will be no reason to think of them.
In fact, this new covenant deals with sin so decisively, that sin can never cause it to break down again. The mediator of the new covenant is the perfect man, Jesus Christ. It is in him that the new covenant humanity is being formed. It is on his perfect sacrifice and faithfulness as our great high priest and representative that the new covenant is founded, not upon our incomplete work.
As Hebrews keeps stressing, unlike the sacrifices of the old covenant order, Christ’s is once and for all, decisive, complete, and final, never needing to be repeated. Where the Levitical sacrifices are emergency operations, seeking to stop the cancer of flesh and sin from spreading, Christ’s sacrifice removes it completely.
Where do we fit in?
Reading the promise of the new covenant in such a passage, we may look bemusedly at our lives, and the Church around us, questioning whether this really was intended to refer to us. Are we the recipients of someone else’s mail? Our lives seem to be characterized by great failure, and we may occasionally seem to experience much the same sort of frustration as that which characterized the old covenant. If there really is this new covenant humanity kicking around, where might I see it, because it most certainly doesn’t seem to be very visible in my heart?
The transformed humanity of the new covenant is not first and foremost seen in our hearts, but in Jesus Christ. Christ is the new covenant humanity. Christ is the faithful human response to God that was never provided under the old covenant. God’s grace does not merely hit the ball into our court, awaiting our unsatisfactory response, but actually provides us with the perfect response.
He also forms us into this response by his Spirit. The perfect new covenant humanity in Christ does not do away with our need to provide a response, but provides the mould into which we are pressed by the Spirit, so that we are recreated as the faithful covenant humanity.
We do not yet see the full realization, but we see Jesus, the true heart of the new covenant. The old covenant was bound up with the rebellious humanity that came from Adam, which was that which caused the system to break down. Christ makes a complete break with the old humanity at the cross. The flesh is completely removed, the old skin is shed, and all becomes radically new.
The new covenant humanity is being formed in him, and has already begun. God’s putting of his Law on our hearts and minds is a gradual and never complete process in this life, a process decisively started as we enter into fellowship with his Son, and anticipating something that will be a fully realized reality in the new heavens and the new earth. We can be completely assured, as we look to Christ, that we will one day be like him. We grasp the new humanity by looking to Christ as the promise of what God is forming us into by faith.
As we look within, all that we see is a fragmentary and incomplete work. As we look to Christ, we see the finished article, that into which God is making us. Our lives are like building sites, with scaffolding, protruding metal rods, bricks, rubble, dust, and debris. It is hard to see order and beauty within them. However, around this building site of the Spirit, God has constructed huge hoardings, totally shielding the building from anyone’s gaze. On these hoardings, we see the image of Christ. Beneath the hoardings, within the building site, this is what is being formed. One day, when the hoardings are removed, it will be the image of Christ – the image of the true covenant-keeping humanity – that will be visible.
When God sees us, he sees us in light of what we are becoming in Christ. God sees the very raw material of our lives and sees his Son, in whose image he is recreating us.
He wants us to see ourselves in the same way.
This is sanctification by faith rather than works. There is a popular impression that justification is by faith, but that sanctification is by our own moral exertion (perhaps as an expression of appropriate gratitude). However, like justification, sanctification is God’s work, joyfully to be received by faith. We are supposed to look at Christ and know that, despite all appearances to the contrary, this is what God is transforming us into. Once again, we need to see that this is fundamentally God’s work, not our own. God is the one doing the writing, as his Spirit works Christ in us. We are to trust him, and entrust ourselves to him, in this matter.
New Year’s Resolutions
How do we close the chapter of the past? How do we start again on a clean page? How do we become new people?
The new covenant that Hebrews speaks of involves a complete break with the past. Not a sacrifice that must be repeated day by day and year on year, it is a once and for all removal of the flesh, so that it need never come to mind again. It is a new covenant in which God takes the initiative, assuring us of success.
It is a new covenant founded upon the creation of a new humanity, a new humanity revealed in Christ and being formed within us by the Holy Spirit’s working of Christ in us. The newness of the humanity in Christ must be our constant starting point. ‘If anyone is in Christ – new creation! Old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new!’ Christ is the one in whom we know a new existence, and the assurance that the flesh and its habits that continue to cling to us will one day also be shed. This is a reality daily to be grasped as a promise and enjoyed by faith.
We started by observing the desires that drive New Year’s resolutions: the desire for a complete break with the past and its failures, the desire for a clean new chapter filled with hope and promise, the desire to become new persons. In the new covenant, God addresses these desires directly.
The failures of the past no longer come to mind, all is forgiven, and a complete break is made. The future is a radically new beginning, with assured success. In Christ we become part of a new humanity. We are reborn and are new creations.
In 2012, God calls us, not to rely upon our powers of self-reformation, but to grasp hold of his promise in Christ by faith. Laying aside futile hope in the new beginning offered by a new year on the calendar, God calls us to trust in the new Beginning brought in by the death and resurrection of his Son. 2012 lacks the power to deliver us of your past and its failures, but God offers a way in which it need never come to mind again. Hemmed in by our past choices, it is hard to believe in a new future, but this is exactly what is afforded to us in the new covenant, a new future that is guaranteed success.
In Christ, God offers us a way in which to be freed of the flesh and its way of life that is so much a part of us. In Christ, we are recreated, and assured that one day our old flesh will be removed completely, and we will be seen to be like him. Forgoing trust in our own powers of reformation, let us look to Christ as God’s promise of our future nature and grasp him by faith, entrusting ourselves to God’s transformation of our hearts.
Heavenly Father, may your goodness and mercy pursue us into 2012. May we enter into the newness of a covenant that exceeds the newness of any new year. May you drown the sin and the flesh that so often overtakes us in Christ’s blood, and may you work his perfect image in us by the grace of your eternal Spirit, by whom we cry to you in the name of your Son and our Saviour, Jesus Christ. Amen.