What Is the New Covenant in Jeremiah 31:31?
Jeremiah prophesied that God would make “a new covenant.” What is this covenant? How does it differ from the Old Covenant? Are you under this New Covenant?
What does Jeremiah 31:31-32 say?
“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 that I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, though I was a husband to them, says the LORD.”
Some might go so far as to argue that by burdening human beings with laws that were too difficult to obey, God made a grave error and bears some responsibility for the failure of the Old Covenant.
These interpretations obviously raise some serious issues.
As we will see, God was never the problem with the Old Covenant, and neither were the laws He gave to the children of Israel.
In this blog post, we will look at the fault of the Old Covenant, identify the differences between what each covenant offers and answer the question: What is the New Covenant?
What is a covenant?
Let’s start by defining what we mean by “covenant.”
A covenant is a legal contract.
Say you were to make an agreement with another person. The agreement should include a written description of each party’s responsibilities and commitments to the other. Generally speaking, the legally binding contract will state that if one party performs a certain action, the other party will perform a certain action, and vice versa. When you approve and sign the agreement, you enter into a covenant.
Overall, this definition fits the biblical usage of “covenant,” with the exception that when God makes a covenant, He alone determines the terms and conditions. In perfect love and wisdom, God tells people how He wants them to behave, and God promises what He will do for them in return.
A handful of different covenants are mentioned in the Bible, but the focus of this post is on the Old and New Covenants, which are the two most prominent and frequently discussed covenants.
Bear in mind that God’s covenants are essentially summaries of His relationship with the one or ones to whom He offers His covenant.
What was the problem with the Old Covenant with ancient Israel?
Much of what can be learned about the Old and New Covenants comes from the book of Hebrews.
The author reflected, “For if that first covenant had been faultless, then no place would have been sought for a second” (Hebrews 8:7, emphasis added throughout). In other words, he agreed there was a fault, a problem, with the Old Covenant—but what was it?
“Because finding fault with them” (verse 8).
Notice that he did not say “finding fault with God” or “finding fault with the law.” The fault was with “them”—the people, the Israelites.
What exactly was their fault?
The problem was “because they did not continue in My covenant” (verse 9), or to put it differently, their unfaithfulness. That is, they lacked the heart and mind to faithfully obey.
It seems no miracle done for them, no matter how spectacular, managed to produce the awe—the fear—needed to obey God. Material blessings also failed to produce obedience. Israel’s spiritual weakness drove the need for a change.
We find in Exodus 19 how God proposed the covenant to the children of Israel in general terms: “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be a special treasure to Me above all people . . . a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (verses 4-6).
God laid out the specifics of this covenant in Exodus chapters 20-24, which, in short, promised material blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience. It all hinged on whether or not the nation would listen to and do what God said.
Deficiency on the part of the Israelites, a representation of all mankind, laid the groundwork for the establishment of the New Covenant.(To better understand the covenant God made with Israel, see our article “What Is the Old Covenant?”)
At first, the Israelites were confident they could make good on their end of the agreement. Notice their response: “All that the LORD has spoken we will do” (Exodus 19:8).
Time would show, however, that their words carried surprisingly little weight. Disobedience to God and repeated violation of the covenant were recurring themes in their history, from their inception to their demise.
All the while, God pleaded with the children of Israel to come back to Him, like a heartbroken but devoted husband might speak with a cheating wife. “But you have played the harlot with many lovers,” God said through Jeremiah. “Yet return to Me” (Jeremiah 3:1).
But, as a whole, they didn’t.
They made it clear they wanted out of the covenant, or at least to have it rewritten in a way that allowed them to do their own thing.
Deficiency on the part of the Israelites, a representation of all mankind, laid the groundwork for the establishment of the New Covenant. The problem was going to be fixed, because God still cared.
How does the New Covenant in Jeremiah 31 correct the problem?
To address the fault of the Old Covenant—the people’s fickleness—the New Covenant had to be different, “not according to the covenant” God made with ancient Israel (Jeremiah 31:32).
So God said, “But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people” (verse 33).
Please take note of how God’s law is an integral part of the New Covenant. The change is not in what the law says or expects, but in how it’s given and where it resides. Originally, God handed His law to Moses and the children of Israel on “tablets of stone” (Exodus 24:12;31:18). Those tablets eventually resided in the Ark of the Covenant inside the temple, far removed from the people.
But how exactly is this process accomplished? By what power?
“By the Spirit of the living God,” Paul wrote. “Not on tablets of stone but on tablets of flesh, that is, of the heart” (2 Corinthians 3:3).
As a minister of the New Covenant, Paul personally witnessed God’s Spirit change people, including the brethren in Corinth. The inscription of God’s law through the Spirit is what made the difference in their commitment.
They were the manifestation of God’s promise through the prophet Ezekiel: “I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgments and do them” (Ezekiel 36:27)
With that said, ask yourself, How could God write His law on people’s minds and hearts, but also consider them unnecessary, nonbinding or “done away”? It’s illogical. What some in the professing Christian world fail to see is exactly what is recorded in this verse. The natural result of God’s Spirit is obedience.
In fact, God only gives His Spirit to those who obey Him (Acts 5:32).
Through His Spirit, God empowers us—gives us the means—to do what ancient Israel woefully failed to do: live by every word of God. Far from abolishing God’s laws, the New Covenant firmly validates them.
The New Covenant shows us how God converts a person’s nature, how He changes the character. When God impresses His laws into someone’s being, He makes possible real obedience—obedience that is from the heart.
What makes the New Covenant superior?
Hebrews describes the New Covenant as a “better covenant,” because it was established on “better promises,” not because it nullified the need to obey God (Hebrews 8:6). It’s better because of what it offers and what it’s able to accomplish in a person’s life.
For instance, the New Covenant, unlike the Old Covenant, provides real forgiveness of sin.
Under the Old Covenant, animal sacrifices were instituted as a graphic exercise intended to teach that “the wages of sin is death”—that sin costs a life (Romans 6:23). But no amount of animal blood could ever pay for a person’s sins (Hebrews 10:4).
Because His life was worth more than the sum of all of humanity, Christ's perfect sacrifice accomplished what the Old Covenant could not do: remove the penalty of sin.(To learn more about the meaning of these sacrifices, read “Types of Sacrifice in the Bible and What They Mean” and “Old Testament Sacrifices’ Fulfillment in Christ.”)
Now, thanks to the New Covenant, a person’s sins can be paid in full by the atoning blood of Jesus Christ, God in the flesh. Because His life was worth more than the sum of all of humanity, His perfect sacrifice accomplished what the Old Covenant could not do: remove the penalty of sin (Ephesians 1:7).
Additionally, the New Covenant makes a personal relationship with God possible. Through the presence of God’s Spirit, reconciliation takes place and a believer receives access to God through Jesus Christ (Ephesians 2:18). New Covenant Christians have the ability to go “boldly to the throne of grace” (Hebrews 4:16) and pray, request, consult and so on. They can enjoy continual fellowship with God the Father and Jesus Christ.
And, whereas the Old Covenant offered material blessings (arable land, abundant food, protection and national prosperity), the New Covenant promises the ultimate gift: eternal life.
It’s the one thing everyone wants more than anything else, and all other physical blessings pale in comparison.
(For more information on the specifics of the better covenant, see our article “The New Covenant: What Is New About It?”)
How can you enter into the New Covenant of Jeremiah 31?
Knowing just what the New Covenant entails makes it difficult to imagine God as anything but good, compassionate, loving and merciful. This glorious covenant is the means by which God will give immortality to countless human beings. It’s the reason we were all created.
To take part in the New Covenant, one must first be called by God (John 6:44). Then, through genuine repentance, baptism and the laying on of hands, a person answers the calling. He or she must feel sorry to the point of totally abandoning the disobedient way of death—and turning to the way of life: obedience to God. (To learn more, read “What Is Baptism?”)
Christ’s shed blood is then applied and the individual receives God’s Spirit, which is the downpayment of eternal life (Ephesians 1:13-14).
Then, the process of salvation begins.
The New Covenant in Jeremiah 31 is, without a doubt, a better covenant.