The Bible has a love/hate relationship with old and new. On the one hand, God’s people were to ask for the ancient paths and old ways (Jeremiah 6:16), and even Jesus said that the old wine was best (Luke 5:39). On the other hand, Paul taught that if anyone is in Christ he is a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17) and John heard God say, “I am making everything new” (Revelation 21:5).
There is tension between the old and the new in the Bible. However, from the time God carved out days, months, seasons, and years the biblical story has been moving forward. The old is overcome by the new and the new fulfills the old (Hebrews 8:13). The old covenant was the one ushered in by Moses. The new covenant was the one ushered in under Jesus. That contrast is viewed in terms of “promise” in this lesson.
Our text begins with the words, “The days are coming” (a phrase that also appears in verse 31). This phrase is actually preceded in the Hebrew Bible with the word normally translated, “Behold.” It is a word intended to gain attention. God wanted everyone to know that a new day was dawning—for people and animals. But as we see in the content of this paragraph this new thing has continuity with the old.
This new thing concerned the whole nation of God’s people—Israel (the 10 northern tribes) as well as Judah (the two southern tribes)—though it is possible that just one all-inclusive nation was being envisioned. But this new thing was spoken of in familiar terms and in familiar doctrines. The language used in the text is the same as used earlier in the book when describing Jeremiah’s call to prophetic ministry (Jeremiah 1:10)—uproot, tear down, overthrow, destroy, bring disaster, build, and plant. As is true in many areas of life, destruction has to precede renovation.
The familiar doctrine has to do with how God deals with sin and its effects. God’s people had heard this teaching before. On the one hand, they knew that God visited the sins of the fathers on the third and fourth generations (Exodus 20:5; 34:7; Numbers 16:23, 24; Joshua 7:24, 25; Lamentations 5:7), and thus the proverbial phrase, “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge” (Jeremiah 31:29). It is like someone having a pity party and blaming their parents for it. On the other hand, the corrective is verse 30. At the end of the day Israel had only itself to blame for the punishments they received from God (Ezekiel 18:4; Romans 5:12). This language and doctrine sounded familiar.
The promise of the new covenant is birthed in a significant chapter in Jeremiah. This chapter says that God loved Israel with an everlasting love (v. 3), that he was a father to the nation (v. 9), that even though Rachel would weep for her “children” being hauled away to Babylonian captivity (see Matthew’s typological application of this in Matthew 2:18), they (Israel) would return (vv. 15, 16), and that Israel was God’s darling child (v. 20).
The new covenant is really “new.” The word new in Hebrew (and in the Greek Old Testament) means “fresh.” The focus is not so much on newness in time but newness of kind. The old covenant was holy and good as it was (Romans 7:12). But the new covenant surpassed the old because of what happened with it (vv. 31, 32) and because of the new covenant’s internal power (vv. 33, 34).
Even though God saved Israel out of Egyptian bondage and acted like a loving husband to her, Israel disobeyed God’s covenant and acted like an adulterous wife (see Hosea). The covenant was not bad. It did what it was supposed to do (Romans 7:7-11; Galatians 3:23-25). But the old covenant was unable to transform people from the inside out.
The new covenant had this internal power. The covenant would not be written on stones but on minds and hearts. The covenant would not be based on heritage and then learning of the Lord, but learning of the Lord as a means of entrance into the covenant so that intimacy with God could be a reality. The covenant would not be based on temporary forgiveness (Hebrews 10:11) but on sins being remembered no more. Jeremiah 31 is the only place in the Old Testament where the “new” covenant is mentioned. The God of the Bible is always doing something new but in ways that are connected with the old.
Dr. Mark Scott teaches Preaching and New Testament at Ozark Christian College in Joplin, Missouri.
Based on International Sunday School Lesson, © 2013, by the Lesson Committee. Scripture quotations are from the New International Version ©2011, unless otherwise indicated.