Jeremiah 31:31-34

If anyone tells you that your salvation hinges on obedience to anything other than the law of liberty, Christ’s singular law of love, high-tail it and run!

+Scripture Reading: Jeremiah 31:31-34 

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. 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 within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more. 

It is such a joy to proclaim these words fulfilled. Briefly put yourself in the shoes of those who heard these words for the first time, thousands of years ago. Your nation has been split in two; Israel was carried off by Assyria not too long ago, and now your nation, Judah, has been carried off to Babylon. Your home was taken away. Your capital city, Jerusalem, has been destroyed. The only reason you’re alive is because you were taken into captivity, slavery. You think “God took my ancestors out of the slavery of Egypt and promised us a land of milk and honey, but here we are – what has happened to us? Where is our God?” 

And then a prophet named Jeremiah arises, and he explains to you: “this is all happened because when God took our ancestors out of Egypt, he made a covenant with them. But they broke it, and so have we.” Could you imagine if our nation were split into two Kingdoms, and then taken over by other nations? There’s a TV series called “Man In The High Castle” that takes place in a world where the USA lost World War II – the west coast belongs to Japan, the east coast to the Nazis. This is what it was like for Israel and Judah in the days of Jeremiah.  

“But the days are coming when God will make a new covenant with us, not like this old one that was broken and put us in these dire straits, this exile, we’re in.” 

Now, Jeremiah elsewhere told his people that this exile, this captivity in Babylon, would last 70 years. The other prophets of this time said the same. But the end of this captivity would not mean the time of the new covenant – Daniel said once the call to restore Jerusalem went out at the end of the captivity, it would be 490 years before the Messiah comes to bring the new covenant.  

This prophetic precision is why the Jews were pregnant with expectation at the time of Christ, since that call to restore Jerusalem went out in 456 B.C., and low and behold, 490 years later John baptizes John in the Jordan, A.D. 28. So let’s talk about this new covenant that Jesus brought.  

What a promise Jeremiah talks about – “I will put my law within them, write it on their hearts…no one needs to teach one another because they shall know me, from the least to greatest…I will forgive their iniquity and remember their sin no more”. This is the new covenant that Christ came to mediate for us. This is the covenant he spoke of at the Last Supper, and cut at the cross. The new covenant is also why he ultimately was sent to the cross by the high priesthood of Israel: because his new covenant would mean the end of the old covenant that gave them their power. 

Let’s look at the promise of Jeremiah and see what it teaches us about this covenant. Because maybe some people in here haven’t yet entered into this covenant yet, and it’s always a good idea to look at the contract before you sign it — and there’s so much to be gained from this one! And for the rest of us, it is a chance to “renew our vows” so to speak, in this special marriage we’re in with God.  

  1. “ I will make with the HOUSE OF ISRAEL and the HOUSE OF JUDAH 

Now here is the first detail in the fineprint: this is a covenant with the HOUSE OF ISRAEL & the HOUSE OF JUDAH. Oh my goodness. Does that strike anyone as strange? Is everyone here Jewish? No? Does that mean this covenant is not for you? Is Christ only for Jews? Of course not! Our friend Paul tells us in Romans that in his time, it was almost nearly the opposite – temporarily! “Israel had failed to obtain what it sought, but the elect had” — much of Israel was increasingly in a state of rebellion against Christ. Paul describes Israel like a tree whose root is God, and says that unbelieving Jews were branches of the tree that God was breaking off, and faithful Gentiles were wild olive shoots were grafted in. 

This would seem to contradict the promise of Jeremiah, right? But Paul says: “I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers, so that you will not be conceited: A hardening in part has come to Israel, until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved.” All Israel will be saved. Paul is promising them that Jeremiah isn’t wrong – but that a mysterious process was unfolding: “Just as you [Gentiles] who formerly disobeyed God have now received mercy through [the Jews’] disobedience, so they too have now disobeyed, in order that they too may now receive mercy through the mercy shown to you. For God has consigned everyone to disobedience so that He may have mercy on everyone.” 

This is all Paul’s way of saying that Israel is God’s tree and God alone tends to it. There is no one who is more or less qualified to be here on their own merit: Jew or Gentile, it is God’s tree, whether a branch is there from the beginning or grafted in. And here in our congregation, we also hold that God has shown love and mercy to us all, regardless of our own sins or virtues, or those of our ancestors. We are the Israel of God, according to a new covenant. We are not all the physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – we wouldn’t all be qualified to be citizens of the nation of Israel under the old covenant. But Jeremiah’s prophecy indeed came true – a new covenant is in effect, because Jesus our high priest offered himself for our sins, for our salvation. Through the new covenant, we receive the promises of the old covenant which Christ alone won when Israel couldn’t — and so, all Israel is saved in Christ. 

  1. I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts 

Does God enter into us, to put his law there? To write on our hearts? What do we pray at the beginning of every service? “Come Holy Spirit.” Jesus said, “Where two or more are gathered in my name, there I am.” He said, “Jesus replied, “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” Yes, our faith is exactly this: that God dwells within us.  

Now, some take this passage and take it to mean that the Law of the Old Covenant should be written on our hearts. There were people at the very beginning of the Church teaching this, making men not just get baptized, but circumsized too, and hold to the whole Old Covenant law. But this is not the teaching of Christ or His Apostles. Paul says, “A person is not a Jew who is one outwardly, and true circumcision is not something visible in the flesh.  On the contrary, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly, and circumcision is of the heart—by the Spirit, not the letter.”  

What does this mean? Circumcision was the first commandment of initiation into the old covenant – and Paul teaches, if you will submit to that, you have to submit to the rest, but it won’t make you perfect — Christ came to free you from such things. And Paul wrote that soon the levitical priesthood would pass away, and once it did, the old law would pass away with it – well, that happened thousands of years ago!  

So we know the law that God writes in our hearts is a new law, since the old long ago passed away, and there is now a new commandment for a new covenant. How appropriate that Jesus gives this law at the Last Supper, as he is about to die for the new covenant, when he says: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” 

The new law God wanted to put within us is to love as Jesus loved; where else would love be written but the heart? Our life in this new covenant is a life of love, a life purely concerned with matters of the heart – therefore, whereas the first commandment of initiation into the old covenant was circumcision of the body, the first commandment of initiation into the new covenant is the circumcision of the heart – by the Spirit of God Himself, not the letter of the old law. And if our heart is to be circumcized by the Spirit of God, then that means our heart is to be circumcized by love, since God is Love.  

  1. I will be their God, They shall be my people 

This passage was a special love note to Israel, so we need to understand it in context so we can see how its love also extends to us. If we go back to earlier in Jeremiah’s prophecy, in verse 32, God says, “I was a husband to [Israel]”. Yes, all the Prophets talk about God being a husband to Israel and Israel a wife of God. But it wasn’t a happy marriage under the old covenant, because Israel broke this covenant, even though God was her husband. But he says, “the new covenant will not be like this first one.” 

God sent clear messages about the state and the future of this marriage through the prophet Hosea. God told Hosea to marry an adulterous prostitute, and to tell his nation that God likewise was married to an adulterous prostitute. Hosea was told to name their son, “ ‘Not my People’d for you are not My people, and I am not your God.” 

 But God also told Hosea, “Go show love to your wife again, though she is loved by another and is an adulteress. Love her as the LORD loves the Israelites, though they turn to other gods and offer raisin cakes to idols… Afterward, the people of Israel will return and seek the LORD their God and David their king. They will come trembling to the LORD and to His goodness in the last days.” 

Who did he mean by David the king? Jesus! He goes on: “In that will call Me ‘my Husband,’ and no longer call Me ‘my Master.’… On that day I will make a covenant for them… I will say to those called ‘Not My People,’j ‘You are My people,’k and they will say,‘You are my God.’ ” 

Both Hosea and Jeremiah are talking about the exact same thing: a new covenant that will be a fruitful and happy marriage between God and His people. These prophecies are exactly why Christ is called the bridegroom, the Church his Bride. These aren’t just innovative images – they are steeped in the ancient tradition of Scripture. If we forget that these prophecies point to Christ, then we may forget that they also found fulfillment in the time of Christ. But just like “all Israel shall be saved,” we only have to remember: they’re all pointing to the new covenant. No one here who has been baptized or taken communion can say we don’t live under the new covenant, since baptism and the Lord’s Supper are sacraments of the New Covenant! Don’t let anyone say that this new covenant marriage hasn’t already taken place — otherwise we are still under the old covenant, and we are not God’s people, and he is not our husband, but our master, and we are not his children, but his slaves. We would not be under grace, but under wrath – God forbid! 

But thank god – God is not far from us, having revealed himself fully in his Son, and has given us to live under the grace of the New Testament, not the wrath of the old. 

IV. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more. 

This statement is such a powerful expression of truth. It sounds like hyperbole – how can one know the Lord without being taught? But God is telling his people, you don’t have to learn, you just have to have faith. Paul puts it this way: “Christ is the end of the law, to bring righteousness to everyone who believes.” It’s such a simple statement, but so powerful: righteousness does not come from learning the law, but from Christ, who is the end of the law – he brings righteousness to everyone who believes. 

He goes on: 

 “For concerning the righteousness that is by the law, Moses writes: ‘The man who does these things will live by them.’ But the righteousness that is by faith says: “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’b (that is, to bring Christ down) or, ‘Who will descend into the Abyss?’ (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead).” 

But what does it say? “The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart,”d that is, the word of faith we are proclaiming: that if you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. For with your heart you believe and are justified, and with your mouth you confess and are saved.” 

That doesn’t sound too complicated, right? The old covenant required that you learn all of its commandments and perform them correctly. The New simply tells you a story about the truth – Jesus is Lord, and God raised Him from the dead – and if you put your faith in Him, you will be saved. You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.  

Now, we are not trying to denigrate the Old Covenant, since it is from the Old that the New was born – that’s what Paul means by “Christ is the end of the law”, as in, its fulfillment. But I hope everyone here understands that the overarching message of Christ, his Law, is the law of liberty. “The glorious freedom of the children of God” — remember that? We are free from the old law of works. Now, there is only one reason to do good works, but it’s a good one: “Love compels us, because we are convinced that One died for all, therefore all died. And He died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died for them and was raised again.” 

So don’t let anyone convince you that you need to follow the commandments of Moses to be saved – your salvation comes from Jesus, not Moses, and your good works spring from the singular commandment of Christ’s love, not the 613 commandments of Moses. It can get confusing when you read the Bible. Many people have gotten confused about this, but you keep your head straight about this! 

But beyond this, let’s not just pick on the law of Moses, our Biblical example of legalism, of Puritanism. Any person that tells you that your salvation hinges on obedience to anything other than the law of liberty, Christ’s singular law of love, high-tail it and run! No one mediates your relationship with God except for Christ Jesus. No one judges your value but God who gave his Son for you.  

This is why Christians are always getting into trouble; converts from every other religion in the have the same problems time and time again: if you’re born into a caste system, then they judge your value by your caste. If you’re born into a racist culture, then they judge your value by your race. If you’re born into a sexist culture, then they judge your value by your gender. If you’re born into a totalitarian state, then they judge your value by your conformity. And so on and so forth. 

So the law of the Old Covenant can be a stand-in for all these other things, because in truth, there’s nothing new under the sun – they’re all ways of judging people, mediated by other people. But, “The Father judges no one, and has given all judgment to the Son,” who is the mediator of a much better covenant than all these things. He died for you. Why be judged by the racist, the sexist, the totalitarian? Would they die for you? We have a much better deal with Jesus! 

Now, you’ve called me as your pastor, your shepherd. I’m here to encourage you. I’m not here to disqualify you. And I’m here to encourage you to encourage others, not to disqualify them, so I hope today’s lesson is a great encouragement, seeing how God is for us, not against us – and I’m also here to protect your souls and minds and hearts from beings snared by these other kinds of priesthoods, sneaky legalism and self-righteous Puritanism. Christ is our high priest, the mediator of a good and everlasting covenant. Be on your guard against self-righteousness, in yourself, in others – and charitably, in your pastor! 

Once upon a time, if we lived under the old covenant, we would have been “slaves to the law”, and we really would have had to be justify ourselves before the law – but the time of the old covenant and its law is passed, so let’s be thankful that we don’t have such a hard burden, but that Christ justifies us sinners. So let’s not fall into any traps to make us obey another law other than Christ. Let his love alone inspire you, compel you, to good works – not someone telling you that you have to do it or God won’t love you, won’t save you. Let your charity rise up out of love and thanksgiving. That’s my encouragement for you. 

I don’t need to teach you how to do this, how to love  – you know the Father, since you have believed in the Son. He himself has put his law within you, and written it on your hearts: love. Let love be your law, and you will always be free; and guard your love and your freedom with your faith in Christ, who died and was raised for all, that He may be our God, and we may be God’s people — God’s and God’s alone. A sacred and unbreakable, everlasting marriage. 

May the Bride of Christ honor her husband with her love, as he died for her and loves her.  

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