He was born into a priestly family. His beginning was rather spectacular. In all likelihood his father was the high priest during a time of great reformation in the nation of Judah under the leadership of a king named Josiah.
Even before his birth God had set him apart to be a prophet—a divine mouthpiece to speak God’s word to the people of the southern kingdom. As he grew into adulthood and the time of his public ministry dawned, it became obvious to all who knew him that he was a deeply sensitive and compassionate young man. In fact, he has been referred to by some as the “Weeping Prophet.”
For 40 years he faithfully proclaimed the word of God to Judah during the darkest days of that nation’s existence. Violence and immorality dominated the headlines, idolatry and perverted worship were rampant, apostasy was the spirit of the age among the covenant people. It is not surprise then, that although he was uncompromisingly faithful to proclaim the word of God to his people, that the majority of his own countrymen regarded him as a traitor. His life was often in serious danger. He experienced constant opposition, beatings and imprisonment.
But it was his responsibility to announce the impending avalanche of judgment that was soon to come upon his people, and it broke his heart.
His name Jeremiah means “the Lord throws.” It serves to illustrate that he was personally hurled into a very hostile setting by the Lord himself and that God was soon to hurl the people of Judah into the Babylonian captivity.
To that end he was commanded not to take a wife and not to bear any children. His life was to serve as a sign that ordinary human existence and relationships were soon to be brought to an abrupt halt. The people of God had repeatedly violated the terms of the covenant to which that had long ago agreed to obey. The terms were exceedingly clear: obey me and I will bless you; disobey me and I will curse you.
When Moses read the laws of the covenant to Israel the people said: “We will do everything the LORD has said; we will obey” (Exo. 24:7). F. B. Meyer remarks of this: “But how little they knew themselves! Within a week or two they were dancing wildly around the golden calf.”
The consequences of their persistent disobedience were driven home glaringly and starkly 100 years earlier when the northern kingdom was sacked by the Assyrians and the people were sent into exile. You would think that they had learned from that, but they did not. Instead, they became even more brazen and unfaithful!
So God finally said to Jeremiah (Jeremiah 7)
22 For in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I did not speak to your fathers or command them concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices. 23 But this command I gave them: ‘Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be my people. And walk in all the way that I command you, that it may be well with you.’ 24 But they did not obey or incline their ear, but walked in their own counsels and the stubbornness of their evil hearts, and went backward and not forward. 25 From the day that your fathers came out of the land of Egypt to this day, I have persistently sent all my servants the prophets to them, day after day. 26 Yet they did not listen to me or incline their ear, but stiffened their neck. They did worse than their fathers.
Prophet after prophet was sent to call the people back to covenant faithfulness and exclusive worship. Jeremiah went “up and down the streets of Jerusalem” (Jeremiah 11:6) trying to gain the ear and the heart of his people.
What makes this such a sad scene is that merely a few years prior to this they had taken such a positive turn. Jeremiah’s own father, the priest Hilkiah, had found the book of the covenant that had been lost in the rubble. He brought it to king Josiah, who called for national repentance and reformation. Once again there seemed to be a glimmer of hope on the horizon.
In 2 Kings 23:3 we read…
And the king stood by the pillar and made a covenant before the LORD, to walk after the LORD and to keep his commandments and his testimonies and his statutes with all his heart and all his soul, to perform the words of this covenant that were written in this book. And all the people joined in the covenant.
One commentator notes: “I do not doubt that the first impulse of Jeremiah’s heart was to leap for joy when the news of a clean sweep of all heathenism was first received. But as a prophet, viewing it from God’s standpoint, he could see that it never had an chance of success.” It’s not that it became superficial; it’s that there was never any question of it being anything else. And sadly, he was right.
Before long, everything snapped back to normal. Josiah died and all that he had done directed towards reform was quickly undone. The days very quickly became dark once again. The spiritual lives of the people declined rapidly. Idolatry, indecency, immorality and inhumanity were rampant. The Babylonian armies were sharpening their swords.
The Old Testament consistently reveals the steady failure of the people of God to keep the covenant regulations. Sure, there were spiritual highpoints under men like David, Jehoshaphat and Hezekiah, but the fact remains, like a bride who repeatedly breaks her marital covenant with her husband, the history of Israel is characterized by consistent spiritual harlotry as time after time they walked away from God and cried out to other gods, false gods.
It becomes quite clear that the people who entered into a covenant relationship with God could never keep that covenant. All their willpower and initial enthusiasm was not enough. All their good intentions were not enough. They just did not have the power within them to keep the covenant.
But in the midst of the darkness of apostasy and pending judgment, Jeremiah prophesies of a light that penetrates through the thick clouds of darkness—the promise of a new covenant with his people. The writer of Hebrews refers to this new covenant as a “better covenant” (Heb. 8:6), a superior covenant.
Why is it better? Because this covenant is based on “better promises” (Heb. 8:6) that will provide for his people everything they need to obey it. It is a better covenant because it is built on better promises. And those promises are what we will look at today.
Over the last couple of weeks we’ve looked at how the New Covenant is described: (1) it is mediated by Jesus Christ (8:6); (2) it is distinct from and superior to the old (8:6, 9) because it provide no power, could not save but rather condemned; and (3) it was made with God’s people—both Jews and Gentiles who entered into that covenant through faith in Jesus Christ. We showed that some of the promises of the New Covenant do belong to the church and that we partake of those promises through the blood of the covenant.
Today and next week, we will define the New Covenant. Exactly what are these “better promises”? We see four of them in this quotation from the book of Jeremiah here in Hebrews 8:10-12.
10 For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 11 And they shall not teach, each one his neighbor and each one his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. 12 For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.”
First, we see the promise of an internalized religion. Look again at verse 10: “I will put my laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts.” This was the problem with the Old Covenant. The Old Covenant was written on tablets of stone and existed outside of them, apart from them. Also, the Old Covenant primarily focused on external behaviors.
Everything looked great on the outside, but it wouldn’t work. It would be like the excitement of tearing downstairs on a Christmas morning, excitedly opening the packages that you knew hid the very gift you had been hoping for, and then discovering that it wouldn’t work because there were “no batteries included.”
That’s the problem with the Old Covenant—the standards of behavior were made quite clear, but no power was given to keep those standards.
But the New Covenant tells us that at the moment of regeneration, the Holy Spirit internalizes the New Covenant so that by nature now we are both motivated and empowered to obey God. God’s standards are now written into our minds and engraved upon our hearts. We want to obey, long to obey, delight in obedience not out of fear, but out of sheer joy.
Yes, there were times when the Holy Spirit came upon people in the Old Testament and they were able by God’s power to do things they normally could not do. Think, for example, of Samson’s strength. But that constant provision was not intrinsic to the Old Covenant. It failed to deal with the bad heart which keeps us from obeying God.
Listen to God’s promise to Jeremiah’s younger contemporary Ezekiel in Ezekiel 36.
26 And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.
Same idea, just developed more thoroughly.
Under the New Covenant, a spiritual operation would be performed upon the people by God Himself in which a heart of stone (that old, stubborn, prideful, self-centered heart) would be excised and replaced by a fleshly heart that would be open and sensitive to God’s Spirit.
The problem is our old hearts. They neither love God’s laws nor want to obey them. They are more prone to disobedience and having one’s own way.
On one occasion Dr. Christian Barnard, the first surgeon ever to do a heart transplant, impulsively asked one of his patients, Dr. Philip Blaiberg, “Would you like to see your old heart?” At 8 p.m. on a subsequent evening, “the men stood in a room of the Groote Schuur Hospital, in Cape Town, South Africa. Dr. Barnard went up to a cupboard, took down a glass container and handed it to Dr. Blaiberg. Inside that container was Blaiberg’s old heart. For a moment he stood there stunned into silence—the first man in history ever to hold his own heart in his hands. Finally he spoke and for ten minutes plied Dr. Barnard with technical questions. Then he turned to take a final look at the contents of the glass container, and said, ‘So this is my old heart that caused me so much trouble.’ He handed it back, turned away and left it forever” (John Blanchard, The Truth for Life (West Sussex, England: H. E. Walter Ltd., 1982), p. 231),
The Old Testament law was written on stone. It was external to the person. They could put it on doors, arm bands and on their foreheads. But even memorizing the law did not guarantee performance of it.
We all need more than needle-point stitching of the 10 commandments above our fireplace or mounted on courtroom walls. It must be engraved upon our hearts by the Spirit.
Even when the old law was given, of course, it was intended to be in His people’s hearts (Deut. 6:6). But the people could not write on their own hearts like they could write on their doorposts.
To be sure, there was (and is even now) great benefit in memorizing God’s Word! Those who obeyed the wisdom of Deuteronomy 6:6–9 and tied God’s Word on their hands and foreheads and wrote them on the doorframes in their homes and impressed them on their children surely benefitted in their minds and hearts (cf. Deuteronomy 6:6). Psalms 1 and 119 eloquently testify to the benefit of knowing the Law, for it could guide and influence the heart. But the writing on the heart was beyond the power of unaided man. Something far more radical was needed—a spiritual heart operation.
What Jeremiah and Ezekiel were talking about was more than merely committing certain laws to memory and meditating upon them “day and night.” It is God’s promises to put within his people a new governing principle and motivation and power that would incline us and move us to do His will.
Paul speaks of this New Covenant as “written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts” (2 Corinthians 3:3) and James speaks of God’s Word that is now “implanted” in us (James 1:21). The aspiration to obey, the delight in obedience, the hunger to comply, the power to obey, the joy in obedience…all come because of this better promise, better than anything the Old Covenant could supply.
Law never transformed people. In fact, Paul says, laws catalyze sin. It arouses the flesh to disobedience!
“But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. For apart from the law, sin lies dead,” Paul says in Romans 7:8.
And in Romans 7:13 Paul says the law brought death through sin, “producing death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure.”
The law can show us what delights God, but give us no power to produce the behavior that delights God. Thus, the law without the power to obey just brings guilt and condemnation.
But through the New Covenant we do have a new motivation, a fresh desire, to pursue what the New Testament calls “the law of Christ.” You see, it’s not that the New Covenant has no boundaries or standards connected to it. God says, “I will put my laws into their minds and write them upon their hearts.
At the very core, that new law is the law to love one another. In Romans 13:8 Paul says, “Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.”
All the other laws merely flesh out how to love one another.
So the first promise of the New Covenant is the promise of an internalized religion. I hope that thrills your heart. Now you have the power you need to live a life that is pleasing to God. You access that by faith in God’s promise. “Lord, you have written your law in my mind and upon my heart. It is now encoded in my DNA. You have given me the power through union with Christ and your Holy Spirit to obey your law. I believe Christ will live His righteousness through me today.”
We must remember that we are “new creations” (2 Corinthians 5:17). What a better promise!
In the new covenant, the will of God is inscribed on our heart, internally, experientially, in the sense that whatever God requires of us in terms of our obedience he provides for us in terms of the Spirit’s internal, enabling power.
One of the ways we see Christ working as the Mediator of the new covenant is in Hebrews 13: 20-21:
Now the God of peace, who brought up from the dead the great Shepherd of the sheep through the blood of the eternal covenant [this is the purchase of the new covenant], even Jesus our Lord, equip you in every good thing to do His will, working in us that which is pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.
The words, “working in us that which is pleasing in his sight,” describe what happens when God writes the law on our hearts in the new covenant. And the words, “through Jesus Christ” describe Jesus as the Mediator of this glorious work of sovereign grace.
Because the new covenant provides motivation and power, we can have confidence that God’s Spirit within us can overcome our weaknesses and inadequacies. We remember that trusting and obeying Him isn’t done in our own fleshly strength. God works in us to shape our desires and accomplish what He wills (Phil. 2:12-13). We’re not asked to conjure up halfhearted obedience performed with a begrudging grin, but God himself produces spiritual fruit through His abiding Spirit–“love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Gal 5:22-23). We love and obey Him from a transformed heart, giving Him the glory, honor, and thanks. (Charles R. Swindoll, Swindoll’s Living Insights: Hebrews, 128)
Any participant in the New Covenant has something that the believer of past ages never had. He or she has a new heart in which the Holy Spirit dwells. He has the Holy Spirit living within him. He has the Keeper of the Covenant indwelling him. And that makes a crucial difference. It means that God has gifted His people in a special way, working now from the inside out, thus making it possible for saints to obey God’s law of love.
Next week we will continue looking at the further blessings of the new covenant.