The New Covenant: Entering In

This summer (2002) I have had the privilege of teaching through the great letter to the Hebrews in the New Testament. The class numbers about 80 astute adults most of whom are well-read and well-informed.

We had just spent several weeks dealing with the sharp contrasts between the Old Covenant and the New. Then the question was raised, "How do we today get involved with the New Covenant? It's package-promises are staggering and all-encompassing. If we know ourselves to be fearful, weak, and undeserving, how do we enter into to this amazing covenant as a practical matter? It sounds too good to be true."

The Old Covenant made provision for the regular covering (but not removal) of various sins committed by the people. The Levitical priests were there to provide assurances of covered sin, and a promise that the individual's appearance in the court of cosmic justice had been moved forward in time, i.e., postponed. One day a Messiah would come to Israel. He would remove all sin. This same Messiah would go to court on behalf of each of God's people. Every individual who had placed his trust in God's promises would then receive a new heart and be forever free from the many demands of the Law. Each would finally enter into, and find fulfillment in, God's glorious kingdom on earth under Messiah's future earthly reign.

In our discussion time, our class realized that most of the time we Christians seem to prefer living under the Old Covenant--relying on works, best efforts, habit patterns of customary, traditional behavior, or performance-based living. Old Covenant living is apparently a kind of default mode of living. (Ray Stedman points this out in his popular book Authentic Christianity).

The Old Covenant (the Law of Moses) is not the only one of God's covenantal relationships with mankind, it is also not the first of the covenants. God has always dealt with mankind on the basis of undeserved grace and mercy. What God has always sought from us is our faith, that is our trust. (F.F. Bruce gives a good modern definition of faith as "leaning one's whole weight on Jesus.")

Even under the Old Covenant, God did not actually want the people to exert their best efforts to live up to the demands of the Law. Nor did He want them to "try harder." He intended for the Law to reveal their shortcomings so that the people would individually call out to God for mercy, forgiveness, and inner healing. God hoped the people would see beyond the shadows to the substance--to meet and know a living, personal God who loves us all. That is, "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever." (Hebrews 13:8)

David saw this clearly. In Psalm 51 (written after his double sins of murder and adultery) David wrote,

"Behold, thou desirest truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart. Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Fill me with joy and gladness; let the bones which thou hast broken rejoice. Hide thy face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. Create [bara] in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Cast me not away from thy presence, and take not thy holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of thy salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit. Then I will teach transgressors thy ways, and sinners will return to thee. Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, thou God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of thy deliverance. O Lord, open thou my lips, and my mouth shall show forth thy praise. For thou hast no delight in sacrifice; were I to give a burnt offering, thou wouldst not be pleased. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise. Do good to Zion in thy good pleasure; rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, then wilt thou delight in right sacrifices, in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings; then bulls will be offered on thy altar." (51:6-19)

God's desire for our faith and trust is also the theme Paul develops in Romans:

"Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law." (3:19ff)

When the Gospel first came to the Gentles after the day of Pentecost Peter, speaking in Caesarea said,

"Truly I perceive that God shows no partiality, but in every nation any one who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him." (Acts 10:34-35)

Another example of the simple faith asks for is found in Romans Chapter 2.

"God will render to every man according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are factious and do not obey the truth, but obey wickedness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for every one who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality. All who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus." (Romans 2:6-16)

People anywhere, can or eventually will, enjoy a personal relationship with God if they will respond to the light they have been given. A given individual may have very limited knowledge of God to start with, but if his heart is right, that response is acceptable to God. As one acts on the truth he has been given, more truth is given. Since everyone is born with some light from God (Romans 1:19-21) anyone can be saved if he responds to what he already innately knows to be right. God hopes men will seek Him, because He is waiting to be discovered,

"The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. For in him we live and move and have our being.' As some of your own poets have said, `We are his offspring'" (Acts 17:24-28)

Actually the covenants in the Bible come after faith not before. God does not come to us with a big scroll or an oversized legal document saying "sign here this is my covenant offer to you." Instead, we believe and trust God--then we go on to discover the nature of our relationship with Him. But covenantal relationships do require a whole-hearted response from both parties.

Take the case of Abraham. At the age of 70 God called him (in a dream, perhaps), asking him to journey from his home in Ur (present-day Iraq) to travel to the land that is now Israel. Abraham was a descendant of Shem, to whom God had made earlier promises. But Abraham and his father Terah had forgotten this--they were living in idolatry at the time (Joshua 24:2). After delaying five years in Haran, 550 miles to the North of Ur, Abraham with his wife, servants, relatives, and flocks of animals traveled on foot some 450 miles further, to the land of promise. Every time Abraham took another major step of faith forward, trusting God and obeying what he understood about God, the Lord responded. Note the sequence of these events in Genesis 12:7, then 13:14-17, 15:1-21, and 22:15-18. (The main part of the covenant comes in Chapter 15 at which point Abraham's "justification by faith" has taken place.)

The answer to the question, "How do we enter into the New Covenant" is that we give Jesus permission to enter our lives as Lord and Master. For a person who is not a Christian this means beginning the Christian life by coming to Jesus with the simple trust of a child--inviting God to act. It is not enough to start out on the journey of faith with God--what matters is finishing the race--"He who endures to the end will be saved." The Epistle to the Romans is great for grounding new Christians and getting them growing in the knowledge of the Christian life.

Getting started in the Christian life is, however, the easy part. Many who have been Christians for years do not understand the New Covenant. They may be trapped by legalism, or some form of pride, or a sense of their own self-sufficiency. It may be ignorance about what our Lord really offers when we come to know Him. Entire churches these days are stuck in legalism or some form of Old Covenant performance-oriented living. Various forms of counterfeit Christianity divert many people from the great adventure of New Covenant living that God would like to give them. The letter to the Hebrews addresses all these issues of "dynamic salvation."

David Wells, professor of Theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, (author of 15 books, including No Place for Truth and God in the Wasteland) discussed shifts in religion in American in a recent interview for World magazine. Wells was asked, "Have you seen evangelicals restoring their core beliefs, moral vision, and worldview? Why or why not?" Prof. Wells replied, "There are pockets of hope but the larger picture is not encouraging. A recent study by George Barna on boomers illustrates the main problem. In recent years, boomers have been opposed to organized religion but now make up half of the born-again population. What happened? They are consumers, Barna says, and we offered them a deal they could not turn down, For a one-time admission of weakness and failure they got eternal peace with God. That was the deal. They took it and went on with their lives as before. The result is that there is no significant difference between the way born-againers live at an ethical level as compared with those who are nonreligious."

One way or another all true Christians must move on into and embrace the New Covenant. The writer to the Hebrews tells us in Chapter 12 that God will soon shake not only the earth but also the heavens. Everything God has not built--all the "works" of man will be destroyed. Only what God has done in and through His people will remain. (12:26-29)

A friend of mine has been reading Watchman Nee's books lately. We were talking over dinner recently about the simplicity of the Christian message. My friend commented, "Christ died for our sins, and we died in Christ." Dave and I agreed that the first part of the message is something all professing Christians seem to embrace fairly readily, but the second part of the message is widely ignored. It is our response to part two of the gospel message that gets us into the liberty and fulfillment of the New Covenant. One enters the New Covenant by agreeing to die with Jesus on the Cross so that the life of Adam in each of us might be put to death. The new life we receive from God is the life of Jesus Himself living in and through us. We appropriate this new life by faith, by leaning our whole weight on Jesus and resting in His indwelling life for everything. We do this 24/7/365.25--every day of our lives.

"At the heart of the Christian system lies the cross of Christ with its divine paradox. The power of Christianity appears in its antipathy toward, never in its agreement with, the ways of fallen men. The truth of the cross is revealed in its contradictions. Simply observe the true Christian as he puts into practice the teachings of Christ and His apostles. Note the contradictions:

The Christian believes that in Christ he has died, yet he is more alive than before and he fully expects to live forever. He walks on earth while seated in heaven and though born on earth he finds that after his conversion he is not at home here. He loses his life to save it and is in danger of losing it if he attempts to preserve it. He goes down to get up. If he refuses to go down he is already down, but when he starts down he is on his way up.

He is strongest when he is weakest and weakest when he is strong. Though poor he has the power to make others rich, but when he becomes rich his ability to enrich others vanishes. He has most after he has given most away and has least when he possesses most.

He may be and often is highest when he feels lowest and most sinless when he is most conscious of sin. He is wisest when he knows that he knows not and knows least when he has acquired the greatest amount of knowledge. He sometimes does most by doing nothing and goes furthest when standing still. In heaviness he manages to rejoice and keeps his heart glad even in sorrow.

He fears God but is not afraid of Him. In God's presence he feels overwhelmed and undone, yet there is nowhere he would rather be than in that presence. He knows that he has been cleansed from his sin, yet he is painfully conscious that in his flesh dwells no good thing.

He loves supremely One whom he has never seen, and though himself poor and lowly he talks familiarly with One who is King of all kings and Lord of all lords, and is aware of no incongruity in so doing. He feels that he is in his own right altogether less than nothing, yet he believes without question that he is the apple of God's eye and that for him the Eternal Son became flesh and died on the cross of shame..." [A. W. Tozer, That Incredible Christian (Wheaton IL: Tyndale House]

Hebrews Class (mp3 audio)

What is a Covenant?

The Main Covenants of Yahweh

The New Covenant Defined

Israel's Covenant with Sheol

Jeremiah Chapter 31

At that time, says the Lord, I will be the God of all the families of Israel, and they shall be my people. 
2 Thus says the Lord:
The people who survived the sword
   found grace in the wilderness;
when Israel sought for rest, 
3   the Lord appeared to him from far away.
I have loved you with an everlasting love;
   therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you. 
4 Again I will build you, and you shall be built,
   O virgin Israel!
Again you shall take your tambourines,
   and go forth in the dance of the merrymakers. 
5 Again you shall plant vineyards
   on the mountains of Samaria;
the planters shall plant,
   and shall enjoy the fruit. 
6 For there shall be a day when sentinels will call
   in the hill country of Ephraim:
‘Come, let us go up to Zion,
   to the Lord our God.’ 

7 For thus says the Lord:
Sing aloud with gladness for Jacob,
   and raise shouts for the chief of the nations;
proclaim, give praise, and say,
   ‘Save, O Lord, your people,
   the remnant of Israel.’ 
8 See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north,
   and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth,
among them the blind and the lame,
   those with child and those in labour, together;
   a great company, they shall return here. 
9 With weeping they shall come,
   and with consolations I will lead them back,
I will let them walk by brooks of water,
   in a straight path in which they shall not stumble;
for I have become a father to Israel,
   and Ephraim is my firstborn. 

10 Hear the word of the Lord, O nations,
   and declare it in the coastlands far away;
say, ‘He who scattered Israel will gather him,
   and will keep him as a shepherd a flock.’ 
11 For the Lord has ransomed Jacob,
   and has redeemed him from hands too strong for him. 
12 They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion,
   and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the Lord,
over the grain, the wine, and the oil,
   and over the young of the flock and the herd;
their life shall become like a watered garden,
   and they shall never languish again. 
13 Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance,
   and the young men and the old shall be merry.
I will turn their mourning into joy,
   I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow. 
14 I will give the priests their fill of fatness,
   and my people shall be satisfied with my bounty, 

says the Lord. 

15 Thus says the Lord:
A voice is heard in Ramah,
   lamentation and bitter weeping.
Rachel is weeping for her children;
   she refuses to be comforted for her children,
   because they are no more. 
16 Thus says the Lord:
Keep your voice from weeping,
   and your eyes from tears;
for there is a reward for your work, 

says the Lord:
   they shall come back from the land of the enemy; 
17 there is hope for your future, 

says the Lord:
   your children shall come back to their own country. 

18 Indeed I heard Ephraim pleading:
‘You disciplined me, and I took the discipline;
   I was like a calf untrained.
Bring me back, let me come back,
   for you are the Lord my God. 
19 For after I had turned away I repented;
   and after I was discovered, I struck my thigh;
I was ashamed, and I was dismayed
   because I bore the disgrace of my youth.’ 
20 Is Ephraim my dear son?
   Is he the child I delight in?
As often as I speak against him,
   I still remember him.
Therefore I am deeply moved for him;
   I will surely have mercy on him, 

says the Lord. 

21 Set up road markers for yourself,
   make yourself signposts;
consider well the highway,
   the road by which you went.
Return, O virgin Israel,
   return to these your cities. 
22 How long will you waver,
   O faithless daughter?
For the Lord has created a new thing on the earth:
   a woman encompasses a man. 

23 Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel:
Once more they shall use these words in the land of Judah and in its towns when I restore their fortunes:
‘The Lord bless you, O abode of righteousness,
   O holy hill!’ 
24 And Judah and all its towns shall live there together, and the farmers and those who wander with their flocks. 
25 I will satisfy the weary,
   and all who are faint I will replenish.

26 Thereupon I awoke and looked, and my sleep was pleasant to me.

27 The days are surely coming, says the Lord,
when I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of humans and the seed of animals. 
28 And just as I have watched over them to pluck up and break down, to overthrow, destroy, and bring evil,
so I will watch over them to build and to plant, says the Lord. 
29 In those days they shall no longer say:
‘The parents have eaten sour grapes,
   and the children’s teeth are set on edge.’ 
30But all shall die for their own sins; the teeth of everyone who eats sour grapes shall be set on edge.

A New Covenant

31 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. 
32 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. 

33 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. 
34 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. 

35 Thus says the Lord,
who gives the sun for light by day
   and the fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night,
who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar—
   the Lord of hosts is his name: 
36 If this fixed order were ever to cease
   from my presence, says the Lord,
then also the offspring of Israel would cease
   to be a nation before me for ever. 

37 Thus says the Lord:
If the heavens above can be measured,
   and the foundations of the earth below can be explored,
then I will reject all the offspring of Israel
   because of all they have done,  says the Lord. 

38 The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when the city shall be rebuilt for the Lord from the tower of Hananel to the Corner Gate. 
39 And the measuring line shall go out farther, straight to the hill Gareb, and shall then turn to Goah. 
40 The whole valley of the dead bodies and the ashes, and all the fields as far as the Wadi Kidron,
to the corner of the Horse Gate towards the east, shall be sacred to the Lord.
It shall never again be uprooted or overthrown. 

(Jeremiah 31)

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July 14 , 2002 Updated March 21, 2022