2 January 2005 PM

Bible Readings from Hebrews chapter 8 and John 15 verses 1 to 11

The days are coming when I will make a new covenant ….
Thus the writer to the Hebrews quotes from the prophet Jeremiah. He clearly sees something highly significant in these words, for he makes the same quotation again in chapter 10. It is the longest direct quotation from the Old Testament to appear in the New, which also hints at its importance. In the middle of a book doom-laden because his contemporaries are so determined to reject God and despise his ways, Jeremiah offers this glimmer of hope in chapter 31 verses 31-34. this is picked up in Hebrews.

Three key words are used in this passage. There is NEW, which is amplified in v13: “In speaking of a new covenant he treats the first as obsolete.” The Greek word for “new” here has the sense of a freshness of quality, and not just ‘more recent’, for which a different word would have been used. It replaces the old because it can achieve what the old could not.
There is also the word BETTER. The new covenant is better than the old, because it delivers what it promises. We are told that its effects are better, that it is built on better promises, and that a better priest is the mediator of this new covenant (verse 6).
After ‘new’ and ‘better’ we half-expect ‘improved’, from the litany of debased words that politicians and advertisers love so much. Actually the other key-word is the word COVENANT. This is God’s pledge, his commitment of himself to his people. He will be their God, and they shall be his people. It will be apparent. They will be his visual-aids, his demonstration models, of all that is possible in a life lived under God’s leading. We confess ourselves his by the call of Christ which we have answered, by the redemption that he has secured and the deliverance that has set us free. In this, we are like the Israelites of old. The generation that left Egypt in the Exodus knew that they had been called, redeemed and delivered.
It had all happened because of God’s ‘Amazing Grace.’ There was no compulsion upon him. Nobody could negotiate or bargain for this outcome. Whatever the motive, it was found in his own nature and not ours.

So, what went wrong? I’d suggest that that is the wrong question!
The correct question is, Why a new covenant? What was wrong with the old one?

The old covenant didn’t work because it was never intended to work! It couldn’t work. It was expressed in terms of laws and commandments, and St Paul’s verdict on that was “The law was weakened by flesh, by our sin.” (Romans 8 v3)

There has, from the very beginning, always been a human desire to try and strike bargains with God. We want to put him in a position where he owes us favours, or he will reward us for what we’ve done. It’s been tried with sacrifices. It’s been tried with acts of heroic service. It’s been tried by erecting wonderful buildings and monuments. The effort has been made to earn sufficient credit that should offset all our failings. The effort is futile.
Let me illustrate. Suppose for moment (and since we are straying into the world of fantasy and illusion, we may do so!) that by some superlative effort you could in the space of one hour completely fulfil your obligations to God for a full day. It’s far-fetched, I know; but I did warn you that we were straying into the realms of fantasy. Now suppose further, that you could keep us this standard, day after day, for the whole of your long life. Into your three-score years and ten you succeed in cramming the virtues of over sixteen centuries – wow! Impressive. But what fraction of eternity would you have managed to earn? So small that it is effectively nothing.
It is clearly impossible that our efforts should win God’s favour. As the hymn-writer correctly expressed it:
Not the labours of my hands
Could fulfil Thy law’s demands.
Could my zeal no respite know,
Could my tears for ever flow;
All for sin could not atone;
Thou must save, and Thou alone.

If our side of the covenant was unkeepable by its very nature, then it could never have been intended to serve that purpose. It must have been put in place to bring home to us that our noblest strivings, our most virtuous actions, our most sincere efforts, could never achieve the standard of the covenant. Therefore God must work in our hearts.

For our failures he offers forgiveness, won through a perfect sacrifice; a sacrifice that was not of our devising or offering, but one that God himself had provided. As verse 3 pointed out, earthly priests did plenty of sacrificing. He does not. Yet under this new covenant God promises mercy and forgiveness; that their (our) sins will never again be remembered by him (verse 12). Under the old covenant its terms and provisions were laid down as laws and commandments, to be memorised and kept with care. Now God says that he will put his laws into their minds and write them on their hearts (v10). This is not the same as committing them to memory, a practice commended under the old covenant. It means that the expression of God’s will takes control at the centre of our wills and choices and actions. The indwelling Christ, the infilling Holy Spirit, will bring about the change that the old covenant was powerless to accomplish. Its secret is to “abide in Christ,” which is the thrust of our reading from John 15 – look it up!
Our calling is “to tell the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light” (1 Peter 2 v9; and compare this with Colossians 1 verses 12, 13) We have obtained what St Paul describes as “the glorious liberty of the children of God” (Romans 8 v21). We are free (at last) to fulfil our God-appointed destiny. We are free from those desperate attempts, clouded by uncertainty, to win and to secure God’s favour. We are free to be the person God always willed that we should be.
The new covenant accomplishes all that the old hinted at, but never could produce: a people as God wanted us to be.

A prayer you might like to use:

Lord God, your new covenant exposes all the vanity of my efforts to win your favour by the old ways of keeping the rules. Even the best that I have managed seems tawdry in the pure light of Christ. For his sake, who gave up his life on the cross, forgive me all that I have done wrong, strengthen me in my weakness, and lead me in all the way I ought to go. May I live as one who rightly calls Jesus Christ my Lord. All this I ask for his name’s sake. Amen.

Posted on 05 March 2005 at 21:12pm by Ruth Croft