Transcript of Video on Jeremiah’s New Covenant

I wanted to experiment with producing a transcript of my talks, to see how much effort it would take. The following is my first attempt, a transcript (somewhat polished up in places) of my recent video on Jeremiah 31.

All of these videos are produced without any notes whatsoever, pretty much off the top of my head. Consequently, there is a fair amount of rambling and the transcript isn’t anywhere near as tight as it would be if I were giving a prepared presentation.

If people really want transcripts, I would be prepared to produce them if I had more Patreon support. As things stand, however, it is a task that is costly in time and effort and neither a very wise nor economic use of my time.

Welcome back! Today’s question is as follows:

As a paedobaptist, I am curious how would you respond to the credobaptist argument from the nature of the new covenant as described in Jeremiah 31:31–34. They argue that Jeremiah pictures the newness of the new covenant consisting in its being made with an entirely regenerate/forgiven/saved community. Credobaptists then would argue that this change in the nature of the covenant people implies a change in the administration of the covenant sign as well, such that it should now only be applied to those who evidence themselves to be regenerate by means of a credible profession of faith. In addressing this question, I would love to hear your basic view of how the various covenants in Scripture relate to one another and develop over time.

This is a big question so I probably won’t touch on all of it. However, we should begin by reading the entirety of Jeremiah 31, which I think will give a very helpful starting point for thinking about what the verses 31 to 34 mean. Reading this whole passage is helpful because it gives a bit more of a context for those verses, which are commonly extracted from this context and discussed in abstraction.

When we see the wider context of this passage we can see it very much as a prophecy given in the context of the foretelling of Israel’s restoration after exile and also as something that’s spoken to Israel as a people, not just about how the people of God will be in an abstract theological statement about the future. No, it is a statement of how you, Israel, will be constituted in the future and how you, Israel and Judah, will be restored and established as a people before me by the Lord.

This provides us with a clearer sense of what exactly is and is not going on here and will enable us to make much more sense of the references to this within the New Testament.

Now, as we look through the Old Testament there are a number of different stages of God’s work that develop over time. At the very beginning we see the patriarchs and their wandering from place to place. Then later on we see the development of the tribes and, in the story of the Exodus, Israel sojourning in a foreign land, being led out by God’s powerful work and his great right hand, and then led through the wilderness and placed within the Promised Land. There is conquest within the land and then there’s the life of the tribes under the rule of judges scattered throughout the nation. Later on we see the establishment of Israel as a kingdom, as Saul is established as its first king and then the Davidic Kingdom, and then there’s the separation of Israel into two separate kingdoms.

This is a movement from an era that’s very much defined by tribal life around wandering from place to place. This era is often ordered around a tabernacle at the heart or some sanctuary location where God dwells. There is also a priestly activity that occurs there and God has a special condensed presence, as it were, within there, in the Shekinah glory.

Later on we have a movement to the era of the kings, where you have the holy city and the temple at the heart of the City of David. Within this temple God is present and Israel is defined, not so much by the law and the sanctuary and its more immediate relationships, but is defined more by relationships to the nations around about, as it finds its footing as a nation secure among these surrounding nations.

Even later on we have another movement still, as Israel starts to deal with the wider nations and with the empires of the world on a greater scale. So Israel is no longer defined so much by this temple at its heart but by its ministry within a wider area, by the prophetic ministry. The prophetic ministry is not defined by a key sanctuary location, nor even by the boundaries of a sovereign nation. It’s defined by the Spirit blowing where he wishes and moving people all over the place. The prophet has a peripatetic ministry, walking around from place to place, going into foreign lands and ministering there, speaking God’s Word, building up, plucking up, and pulling down kingdoms.

God is at work in places like the Babylon of Nebuchadnezzar or he is at work in Nineveh through the work of Jonah the Prophet or he is at work with Esther in Ahasuerus’ court. In all of these things we see an example of God’s work extending further and further, beyond the immediate reaches of Israel.

There are other movements that occur here and here it’s important to consider the significance of covenant developments within Israel. In particular, for our purposes, we should consider the significance of the restoration of Israel after exile. This is just not a period that we consider enough.

We often see it as a kind of threadbare aftermath to the story of the kingdom. There are the great glories of the Solomonic kingdom and from that point it’s just decline. There’s a meagre return of the people to the land and it’s never quite the same after that. Yet the Old Testament can speak in very different terms of this return, this period that comes after the return to the land. Although the physical form of the kingdom and the temple are far less grand and far less imposing as they were within the reign of Solomon, there is something more glorious that has come and, if we fail to see this, we will be missing a lot.

If you look through the story of Israel, what is the one sin that defines it all the way through, from the very beginning to the height of the kingdom? This is the sin which ultimately brings down the kingdom, the sin that many of the earlier prophets are most vocal in speaking out against. It’s the sin of idolatry, the sin of not knowing who God is, the sin of worshipping the foreign gods, the gods of the nations; it’s the sin of Israel’s giving their heart and their work and their service to gods that did not know them, to foreign gods, gods other than the Lord. The challenge for the prophets, the challenge for Moses, the challenge for the kings is this constant battle against idolatry: the battle between Baal and the faithful prophet of God, the battle between worship on the high places and worship in the holy place in the temple in the City of David.

We see this constant conflict between idolatry and the faithful worship of God that builds up and continues all the way through the Old Testament story … until the restoration. After the restoration, the sin of idolatry just does not seem to feature in the same way. There is resistance to idolatry within the lands of exile but, for the most part, idolatry no longer features in the same way. The sin that had defined Israel to that point, the sin that had brought Israel down, the sin that had led to its wandering in the wilderness for forty years—that sin largely seems to be eradicated. This is a striking feature that many people don’t pay enough attention to, something that represents a change in the heart of the people.

Now, the people are still unfaithful in many senses. They still sin. But there has been a decisive shift. There’s also a shift in the way that the people are involved within the work of the covenant. In the past you have the work of key figures like Moses or Solomon or David at the heart of the people, or the work of prophets like Elijah. These people often were struggling against a largely unfaithful nation or a nation that simply did not know God, a nation that was unaware of who God was. And so you have faithful witness, but also a struggle against a deep resistance and a deep hardness of the heart of the people.

What we see after the return from exile is a different situation. For instance, whereas the building of the temple is very much focused upon the work of Solomon and the work of Hiram and other skilled craftsmen, and the work of the tabernacle is focused upon Moses and Bezaleel (even though there were freewill offerings), within the restoration all of Israel is involved within these building projects in a fuller way. They build the walls of Jerusalem, walls that are now defining, not just protecting, this city—marking out a realm that will be seen from thenceforth as holy in a new sense. The significance of measuring out these walls is a sign that this place is being taken as holy, so it is no longer just a sanctuary in the heart of the nation that is considered holy: it is the city and it is the land that are, and so there is a spread of God’s dwelling presence. Although there is no descent of the Shekinah glory upon the temple after the restoration, God’s presence is known in a fuller and a more extended sense, so it is no longer concentrated so much within this building at the heart of the people—it’s now spread throughout the larger nation and the people are all within it.

There is also a shift in their attitude. They have turned to the Lord in a new way. If you read the prophecy of Jeremiah a few chapters earlier than chapter 31, you can see him talking about this, speaking about what is going to change at the restoration:

The Lord showed me, and there were two baskets of figs set before the temple of the Lord, after Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon had carried away captive Jeconiah the son of Jehoiakim, king of Judah, and the princes of Judah with the craftsmen and smiths, from Jerusalem, and had brought them to Babylon. One basket had very good figs, like the figs that are first ripe; and the other basket had very bad figs which could not be eaten, they were so bad. Then the Lord said to me, “What do you see, Jeremiah?”

And I said, “Figs, the good figs, very good; and the bad, very bad, which cannot be eaten, they are so bad.”

Again the word of the Lord came to me, saying, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: ‘Like these good figs, so will I acknowledge those who are carried away captive from Judah, whom I have sent out of this place for their own good, into the land of the Chaldeans. For I will set My eyes on them for good, and I will bring them back to this land; I will build them and not pull them down, and I will plant them and not pluck them up. Then I will give them a heart to know Me, that I am the Lord; and they shall be My people, and I will be their God, for they shall return to Me with their whole heart.

‘And as the bad figs which cannot be eaten, they are so bad’—surely thus says the Lord—‘so will I give up Zedekiah the king of Judah, his princes, the residue of Jerusalem who remain in this land, and those who dwell in the land of Egypt. I will deliver them to trouble into all the kingdoms of the earth, for their harm, to be a reproach and a byword, a taunt and a curse, in all places where I shall drive them. And I will send the sword, the famine, and the pestilence among them, till they are consumed from the land that I gave to them and their fathers.’”

This prophecy is a prophecy of God accomplishing a death and resurrection. Israel will be brought into exile, where it will die. God will deal with the bad figs—the rotten apples at the heart of Israel—the unfaithful King and his servants, and all these other people that have been unfaithful. Yet there are good figs that will be brought back to the land. And the people who are brought back to the land will be defined by this different attitude: “Then I will give them a heart to know Me, that I am the Lord; and they shall be My people, and I will be their God, for they shall return to Me with their whole heart.”

This is talking about the same sort of thing as Jeremiah is talking about in his prophecy of a new covenant: that God is going to establish a new administration, a new restoration covenant with Israel and with Judah. No longer will it be a matter of struggling against idolatry and the failure to know God. Rather, the people will be defined by a deeper and broader knowledge of God so that they will all know God from the least to the greatest. This will be a people that is defined by a knowledge of God.

Now, there will still be sinners in their midst but it will be different. The people will no longer be apostatizing as a group. There will be individuals who apostatize, but they will no longer be the same history of the gradual build-up and development of a great legacy of unfaithfulness and of rebellion that we see define Israel in the past: the story of Jeroboam the son of Nebat and his sins defining Israel, generation after generation as people repeat his sins and add to his sins and those sins gradually build up until Israel is taken by the Assyrians. There is a change: Israel and Judah are no longer to be defined by these things in the same way. There will be a shift in the heart of the people and so we can see that, as God promises that they shall all know him, it is a reference to the end of the prominence of the sin of idolatry.

There will also be this broader turning of the heart of Israel to God, something that we do see after the restoration. Now, it is far from complete, but we can see that something decisive has changed. Their sins and their lawless deeds will be remembered no more: the sins that define them in all the period after the Exodus, all the rebellion that built up—that is going to be washed away, it is no longer going to be brought to mind. It is as though Israel’s history starts anew after the exile—the slate has been wiped clean. There was a death and a resurrection. A new period of history now begins.

Now, there are clearly ways that these things don’t quite fulfil the promise in its full sense—we will get into that in a moment—but it is worth considering some of the other changes that occur after the Exile. The Israelites are no longer defined as they were in the past as ‘Hebrews,’ defined by their ancestor Eber. Nor are they defined as the ‘children of Israel,’ defined by their relationship to Jacob. Nor even as Israel and Judah, the two divided kingdoms. They are defined not even by their separate tribes—these different tribes still exist, but these are not the defining

reality for them. After this point, they are called ‘Jews’. This is a recognition that, in some ways, they are all Judahites—they are all people who are connected with the tribe of Judah, the kingly tribe. They are being established in a new relationship with God and in a new relationship with rule

As we look through the history of Israel, we can see this gradual expansion of God’s work. It is an expansion from dealing with this small group of people wandering around, focused upon a sanctuary, to a people that are finding their footing within the boundaries of a nation and then to a people who are scattered out and dealing with the nations and witnessing to God’s truth within the environment of these nations and the wider empires.

We can see something of this already prefigured within the story of the patriarchs as Joseph, for instance, brings blessing to his family, but also to the whole of Egypt as he is faithful. Israel is the means to bless the world. By the time that we arrive at the early mission of the Apostles, there are Jews in every part of the Empire, there are Jews who have faithful communities, ripe for the gospel. So there is a shift in the constitution of the people here, a shift from a definition very much around tribal identity and a tabernacle, to a period defined by a land and the borders of that land, the king and the city and the temple in the heart of that, to a greater ministry within a wider world, a more prophetic ministry as Israel is scattered abroad but scattered abroad as salt and light. These are significant movements, not significant in the ways that many people think—as a sort of decline of Israel. Rather, there is a movement into something greater, a development of Israel’s identity. This is a development also in faithfulness, so that no longer are they defined by the sin of idolatry (there are other sins, but the sin of idolatry is no longer defining them in the same way). They all have a holier status: whereas God’s presence was once condensed within the very heart of the people—in the tabernacle and the Shekinah glory and the Ark of the Covenant—now we have God’s presence being more generally known throughout the whole nation. There is no longer the Shekinah glory but there is a broader presence of God.

And, beyond this, we can see that the heart of the people has changed. The ‘heart’ of the people in the past was comparable to the tablets of stone, the law that God had inscribed upon these tablets of stone. And, now, increasingly that law is being written onto willing hearts; hearts are being turned so that they will serve God willingly. Israel is no longer defined by a constant rebellion against the covenant, but now the covenant is being written within them so that they are willing and obedient when the day comes.

And so we can see already an initial fulfilment of Jeremiah’s prophecy within the restoration from the Exile. This is what Jeremiah is immediately referring to: this period when Israel is re-established in the land will be one where their hearts are turned back to God. It will be one where they all know God in a new way, in a way that they did not know him before. It will be a period where they are no longer defined by the sins that defined them in the past. It will be a period, again, where it will no longer be a case of large-scale national apostasy. Rather, individuals will apostatize, but the larger nation will be faithful. These are significant and decisive shifts in the people of God.

How do we relate this to the New Covenant, and the more proper sense that we speak about it in relationship to Christ? Well, Christ is a fuller fulfilment of this. Christ is the one where we can see the law made flesh. Christ is God’s Word made flesh. Christ is God’s purpose expressed fully, embodied and expressed in human life. Whereas in the past the people were always at risk of national exile, of being cut off from God’s presence as a result of their unfaithfulness and being alienated from the land as the realm of God’s presence, now at the heart of the people is a King who will ever live to intercede for us, one who is at God’s very right hand, one who can never be alienated from God. And so we cannot be separated from God. In Christ there is no separation that is possible, there is no exile that the Church can experience in the same way. The Church can experience sin and the consequences of sin and there can be apostasy within the Church—there can be all these other sorts of problems—but the Church as a whole can never apostatize as there is a union between the Church and God that is established in Christ that cannot be broken. There is a significant change here.

And the knowledge of God is spread even further, as the knowledge of God is given in the gift of his Son. He reveals himself in a way that he never did before. So, whereas within the period after the restoration there is a more general knowledge of God among the people and the people are more familiar with the Word of God—the Word of God and the Law of God that was often formerly unknown among the wider people, so that they were led into all sorts of idolatry—in the New Covenant that knowledge is extended even further. The Spirit has been given to the church and the Spirit enables us to know God in a fuller sense yet. The Spirit reveals to us the deep things of God. The Spirit connects us to Christ, so that we know God purpose in a way that people would not have known in the past.

The Shekinah glory, the temple of the Spirit, the realm of God’s presence, is now no longer defined by a building at the heart of the people: it’s defined by the people themselves—we are the temple of the Holy Spirit, a building formed of Jew and Gentile, of slave and free, of male and female. It is a new body, formed of new people. So there is a significant change there.

But it is still incomplete. The Spirit of God has not yet fully conformed us to the image of Christ. The Spirit of God has not yet fully given us his life. We have not yet been raised and perfected and glorified. And so we’re waiting for a fuller fulfilment of the New Covenant.

What we can see, then, are these various stages of fulfilment: an initial fulfilment in the restoration, a greater fulfilment in the work of Christ, and a greater fulfilment yet in the age to come. Now, this is something that we see in a number of occasions with Old Testament prophecy. For instance, the prophecy about David and his son that God gives in 2 Samuel 7 refers to the son that David will have and speaks of the establishment of his kingdom forever. This can refer to Solomon in some senses, but there seems to be something more that is pushing us beyond Solomon and so, with very good reason, people have applied this to Christ: Christ is David’s greater son, David’s Lord. And so, in Christ, we can see the fulfilment of the covenant to David.

Yet there are also parts within that covenant that can only be referred to Solomon and his heirs. The threat of judgment and punishment if they are unfaithful: these are things that were referred particularly to unfaithful kings, who are not the same as the Word made flesh. These are different references of the single prophecy; that prophecy has reference both to its immediate fulfilment in Solomon and to its greater fulfilment in God’s own Son, Jesus Christ.

Getting back to Jeremiah, this is the same sort of thing that we see there: there is an initial fulfilment in the restoration, where the sins and the lawless deeds—the identity that defined Israel since the Exodus—the sinful straying from God’s Word, will no longer be something that defines it in the same way, but will be forgotten. That having been dealt with, they can move forward. This is an anticipation of an even greater and more decisive forgiveness, an even greater forgiveness that is effected by Christ’s death and his resurrection and all that that brings to us. That forgiveness again is one that finds its roots within the history of Israel and Judah. God is forming a people over the course of history; Christ comes as the Lion of the tribe of Judah and dies as the King of the Jews. This is a development within the story that Jeremiah is talking about, the story that reaches back to the patriarchs, the story that goes through the Exodus, the story that goes through the kingdom and its unfaithfulness, through the rise of the early prophets and the period of the Exile, and then the restoration. It is into that story that Christ comes. It is into that story that Christ acts and restores.

Now, we often see all of this is a sort of background that is detached from the New Covenant, the New Covenant being what Christ has achieved. All of this is supposedly just a picture of that. But yet the promise of the New Covenant is rooted in God’s formation of this people, in God’s formation of Israel and Judah. His restoration of them will be one that deals with them as a people, as a corporate body, not just as a set of individuals. God does not achieve his promise merely by getting rid of all the unfaithful in atomizing the whole nation and just saving the faithful individuals. Rather, he establishes them as a people, as a body, and he deals with them graciously in that way. He restores them as a body, he sets their heart right as a body, so they are set towards him.

And this setting of the people right is from the least to the greatest. It is from the poorest to the richest. It is from the youngest to the oldest and it is something that, if we see this purely in terms of adult believers, we are missing the scope of this promise, redefining God’s people to gerrymander a fulfilment more amenable to modern individualists. This is a promise given to a nation, to a whole people: that they will be restored that their children will be restored—the hearts of the fathers will be turned to the children and the children to the fathers. There will be a new covenant, a tradition of covenant faithfulness that will define the people, not, as it once was, unfaithfulness.

And this shift is something that is expressed in the way that Jeremiah introduces his prophecy in 31:1: “I will be the God of all the families of Israel, and they shall be My people.” This is something addressed not just to an indeterminate set of individuals that are extracted from the nation, or a set of regenerate individuals from all over the world. No, it is addressed to a nation, a group of families. And these families are being restored.

Now, obviously, infants and young children are not going to have a full cognitive knowledge of God in their infancy, but they do know what it means to be in a situation of love and grace, they know what it is to be in context of God’s faithful covenant dealings. They know this in their experience and they grow up into this in a fuller sense as they start to know God personally and for themselves. This is how God fulfils his promise to a people: not by dealing with everyone as if they were detached individuals needing to attain to a high level of maturity and as if God couldn’t deal graciously with them in their proper capacity as infants. No, God shows grace to the whole nation and he shows grace to people according to their abilities, capacities, and station in life. This includes infants within it.

What does this mean for our reading of the New Covenant in the story of Christ? What it means is we are seeing a progression of promises that have their seeds already sown within the story of the Old Testament. We have already seen part of God’s restoration in bringing his people back from the Exile. We see the connection of these events in the prophecy of Daniel, for instance, who talks about there being seventy years of Exile but also seventy weeks of years that are coming up. These weeks of years will lead to a restoration on a bigger level, as the Messiah does his work. And so these two periods are related together: there is an initial fulfilment of the greater deliverance that’s awaited at the end of the seventy weeks of years that occurs after the initial seventy years. The initial restoration is a foreshadowing of the greater restoration that will occur with the work of the Messiah.

In this work of the Messiah, God gives his Word made flesh. Then, through the Word made flesh, established as the heart of the people, he ensures their faithfulness, restores people and conforms people to that Word made flesh. He gives us hearts of flesh that change us to serve God from the heart, as God also deals with our sins and our lawless deeds decisively in the death of Christ. God further gives us the knowledge of himself by the Spirit poured forth on the Day of Pentecost and, as God deals with us graciously, defines us as his people, as the temple of His Holy Spirit. In all of these different things we see a greater level of that restoration, an escalation of the original fulfilment.

And just as we see a parallel between the seventy weeks and then the seventy weeks of years—these two periods that lead to different stages of fulfilment—so we are seeing a covenant fulfilment in the work of Christ that anticipates a greater fulfilment. Christ is the firstborn from the dead, the one in whom we see what we will all one day become. We are being conformed to him and so, again, there is this promise, but a promise that is not quite yet fulfilled, a promise that strains forward towards something greater yet.

The fulfilment of this promise will not be achieved just by a sort of Procrusteanization of the people of God, lopping off anyone who is not an adult or mature believer. Rather, it is God dealing with his people in a new way. It is a reconstitution of the people of God according to faithfulness and this is something that can be seen in families. Indeed, it is something that must be seen in families if this promise is to be fulfilled. And, as we see on the Day of Pentecost, Peter declares to those in Jerusalem that the promise is given to them and to their children. God is going to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children and the children to the fathers. This is going to be a new constitution of the people of Israel as a corporate body of people, not just as a set of individuals that are detached from the organic sociality that we see within families and elsewhere. God is going to restore that. God is going to form a restored humanity from the least to the greatest, a new humanity that includes the poor and the rich, the weak and the strong, but also the mentally disabled and the wise of this world, or the infants and the adults.

And so it is a matter of faith, of leading us into a new form of life that is defined by faith. Children that are raised within faithful homes are expected to be raised into the faith, expected to participate in that, to come into the full realization of its life and of the knowledge of God. This is not just a lowering of the standard, saying that we can just ignore faith and its significance. No, faith is absolutely central: God is reconstituting as people around that. But, yet, we have faith according to our station in life, according to our proper stage of development.

For an infant that involves their participation within the life of faith of their family, it involves their being thrown upon the loyalties of their parents, it involves participating in those loyalties and participating in the life that those things create. It is like adoption in the sense that the adopted child does not decide for themselves. Rather, they participate in the new life of the family that one day they will choose and own in a more voluntary and full manner from their own volition. However, as they are adopted as a young child or as an infant they are already participating in that life, they are already knowing their parents, even though they do not know them in the fuller cognitive ways that they will know them in the future.

So there is a development that we see, a development through a number of stages, as the New Covenant promise, first given to the people in the context of the reality of the Exile, can be seen to foreshadow a greater deliverance in the future. There is an initial fulfilment as Israel is brought back in a far more faithful form, and then there is a greater fulfilment yet, as Christ comes and he restores Israel and their sins and their lawless deeds are remembered no more. This forgiveness is not just an individual forgiveness of private sins: it is the forgiveness of a people, the restoration of a people before God. And this is what Christ establishes: not primarily the salvation of individuals—although he does that—and the forgiveness of individuals, but the establishment and forgiving of a Jew and Gentile people, a corporate body that is brought into God’s presence and restored in his sight.

Looking back at this prophecy, while it is something that can be read as applying to our situation, it can also be something that is read as applying to the situation of the first people who returned from exile. It can also be read as something that refers to the greater promise of an age to come. And it should be read on all of these different levels, without collapsing them in upon each other. While recognizing that when we read biblical prophecy there is this anticipation—this awaiting of some greater thing that God is going to do in the future, that God’s work has not yet been completed in is this resolution—within each resolution, there is some detail, some aspect, that is straining forward for an even greater resolution in the future. There are these musical cycles of history. And each one of them propels us towards the next, while fulfilling and resolving things that happened in the past.

And so it is an exciting thing to look at these passages and to see how these are fulfilled in Christ, but to see that we also need to look back to see how they were fulfilled in an initial sense within the return from the Exile.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in Bible, Controversies, Hermeneutics, Jeremiah, NT, NT Theology, OT, OT Theology, Podcasts, Theological, Video. Bookmark the permalink.

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