The New Covenant Written on Our Hearts
Jeremiah 31:31-34, Steve Hollaway, Harbor Church, October 16, 2016
About 15 years ago, the theme for our Vacation Bible School was “The Secret of the Stone Tablets.” I got to dress up like Indiana Jones, and we all got to pretend that we were archeologists wandering around the desert. The kids loved the little movie at the end of each session which is a cliffhanger; it was about a boy archeologist wandering around Jerusalem.
He was looking for the stone tablets on which the Ten Commandments are written, so that he could become famous. In his pursuit of the secret of the stone tablets, the boy skipped school, disobeyed his father, lied, and betrayed his friend. In the climactic scene when his father confronts him, the boy says, “Dad, something’s wrong with me. I want to do what’s right, but I just can’t. I do what I think is right at the time, but I end up lying to you and disobeying you. What’s the matter with me?”
What his father tells him – and what we told the children in VBS – is that this is the real secret of the stone tablets: no one can obey God’s law completely, because our hearts have to be changed. The one who can change our hearts is God, who does it by using Jesus; he makes it possible for us to know God and do what God wants us to do. That’s the real secret of the stone tablets.
Six hundred years before Jesus, the prophet Jeremiah lived in Jerusalem and pointed to what God would do someday. Jeremiah saw clearly the problem with the stone tablets – the problem was the stony hearts of the people and their failure to obey. But he also saw that someday God would provide a new way to relate to him, a new way which would not do away with God’s law but would enable people to obey God’s laws. This, he says, is a promise coming from Yahweh himself.
It’s not a word you would have expected from Jeremiah, if you had known him. Jeremiah was known as “the weeping prophet,” and he was always upset about something. The message God gave him was a message of judgment, the truth that God’s people were not exempt from judgment and that Jerusalem itself would be destroyed. This did not make Jeremiah popular. He wound up in jail, and in a pit, and he wound up mad at God for giving him this job. What Jeremiah kept telling people was that sin has consequences. They couldn’t keep on disobeying God’s moral law and think that nothing would happen to them. Jeremiah went into the Temple and said, “You people think you are safe, because this is God’s house, this is God’s house, this is God’s house. God says: if you change your ways, I’ll let you live here. If you start treating each other fairly, if you take care of widows and orphans, if you give up violence and stop worshiping other things instead of me, then I’ll let you live here and you’ll be safe. But you’re kidding yourselves! You cheat each other and lie to each other and sleep with each other, and then you come into my house and sing ‘A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.’ Go to Shiloh, where my house used to be. There’s nothing there! That’s what will happen here, if you don’t change and begin to obey me.” If you go to Jerusalem, you can see where the Temple used to be. Twice God used foreign armies to destroy his own house because the people were all talk and no obedience. There is no Temple in Jerusalem at all, only a mosque.
Jeremiah was never about telling people they were free from the law. Just the opposite. His whole message was to call people back to faithfulness to the covenant they made with God at Sinai. He announced a terrible word from God for people who thought they were protected because they were a chosen nation. The word was this: “If my Temple is destroyed and this nation is destroyed, it will not be because I, the Lord, am not faithful to my promises. It will be because you are not faithful.” Jeremiah warned the people of Jerusalem for years that the holy city would be destroyed by the Babylonians. He insisted, against all the other preachers in town, that this was the will of God. He told the army not to fight it. They said he was guilty of treason. Then in 587 BC, the unthinkable really happened – God did not protect his own Temple and his own people from the Babylonians. The city was demolished and the best and the brightest of the people were carried away as captives to the capital of the evil empire. Jeremiah was such a failure that the Babylonians didn’t even want him. He was left in Jerusalem to contemplate what remained. He'd lost his freedom. He’d lost his country. He’d lost a lot of his family and friends. In a sense he’d lost his religion. All he had left was God.
That was when he heard God speaking: "The time is coming when I will make a new covenant ... It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them.” Why would God need to make a new covenant? Was something wrong with the Law he gave them on the stone tablets? The reason a new covenant is needed, God says, is “because they broke my covenant,” even though I was like a faithful husband to them. My people ran around on me. They could not keep me first. They could not do what was right even though it was for their own good.
That covenant was broken, like a broken marriage. It was over. It could not just be repaired. It had to be replaced.
Back when Moses spelled out the details of the covenant code, the people said, "We will do everything the LORD has said; we will obey" (Exodus 24:7 NIV). But they did not obey, even for a short time. Why not? I think you know, because you yourself have not obeyed. There is something in you that is bent to doing what is wrong. We are, we say, only human, because there is something about being human that makes us mess up. It’s not that we are accident-prone. We are sin-prone. The hymn says, “Prone to wander, Lord I feel it, prone to leave the God I love.” The Bible says several times, “There is no one who does good, no, not one.” Romans 3:23 says, “All have sinned.” Paul says, “I want to do what’s right, but there is something in me that makes me do the very thing I say I don’t want to do. The law doesn’t keep me from sinning; it just makes me aware of sin.” Christian tradition says it’s genetic, and it certainly seems that way. So, God says, I’m going to make a new covenant to address that problem.
In that day, when God comes to establish his kingdom, this is what will happen. “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” (31:33 NRSV). The new covenant that God promised through Jeremiah involves three things.
1. God’s law becomes internal. In the end, it didn’t work for God to give people his law written on tablets of stone, because their hearts were still hearts of stone. The law remained external to them, never fully internalized as basic principles for living. Even when they did obey, they were like people obeying the speed limit just to avoid getting a ticket, not people who instinctively drive at the limit because they know it is the safest thing to do. God says, “I’m going to change that. I’ll put my law inside them. I’ll write it with my own finger on their hearts.” The Hebrews did not think of the heart as just the seat of emotion; the heart was the seat of the will; it was the seat of the intellect. Ancient people did not know that the brain was the seat of thinking, so they didn’t live out of their heads the way we do; they thought of themselves living out of their hearts. The closest analog to the Hebrew “heart” might be our psychological concept of ego.
A few years after Jeremiah, the prophet Ezekiel heard Yahweh saying, "I will give you a new heart with new and right desires, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony heart of sin and give you a new, obedient heart. And I will put my Spirit in you so you will obey my laws and do whatever I command" (36:26-27 NLT).
Dallas Willard wrote in The Divine Conspiracy [p. 142]: “A time will come in human history when human beings will follow the Ten Commandments and so on as regularly as they now fall to the ground when they step off a roof. They will then be more astonished that someone would lie or steal or covet than they now are when someone will not. The law of God will be written in their hearts, as the prophets foretold. This is an essential part of the future triumph of Christ and the deliverance of humankind in history and beyond.”
There is a “not yet” aspect to that triumph, of course. That’s the way it still is with the kingdom of God. But there is also an “already” aspect. God is already writing his values on our hearts. His Spirit is transforming us day by day to make us more like Christ. Philippians 2:13 says, “God is at work in you, giving you the desire to please him and the ability to do it.”
2. We have direct knowledge of God. Here’s what the Lord said in Jeremiah 31:34 –"No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other 'Know the Lord,' because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest." I guess preachers will be out of a job! You won’t need me as some kind of mediator telling you about God, because you will know God for yourself. The Hebrew word for “know” here is the same word used in “Adam knew Eve his wife and she conceived.” It means an intimate personal knowledge that is only possible when two persons are committed to one another. With God, to know him is to love him.
All of my people will know me, he says – from the person with an IQ of 70 to the person with 140, from the person of no influence to the power broker, from the youngest to the oldest. They will all know me. Jeremiah sounds like a proto-Baptist. Everyone has the word of God, and everyone has the Spirit, so God’s people is an egalitarian people. Or at least we will be someday.
This knowledge of God is not separated from doing what God wants. If we really know him, we will do his will. There’s a revealing passage a little earlier in Jeremiah in which he is he is condemning the king Jehoiakim for not being like his father, who was a good king. Listen to this from New Living Translation:
“Your father, Josiah, also had plenty to eat and drink.
But he was just and right in all his dealings.
That is why God blessed him.
He gave justice and help to the poor and needy,
and everything went well for him.
Isn’t that what it means to know me?”
says the Lord. (Jeremiah 22:15-16)
What does it mean to know God? We might answer that it comes through knowing the Bible, or through a spiritual experience, or through faith. But what Jeremiah hears God saying is that to know him is to obey him. To know God is to give justice and help to the poor.
3. We are forgiven. In the new covenant, God said, “I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more." Isn’t that what you want? God does not forget his promises or his lost sheep – or his laws. The only thing God forgets is our sins. Isn’t that what you want – to be forgiven, and to know that you can start over with God? The great psychiatrist Karl Menninger once said that if he could convince the patients in psychiatric hospitals that their sins were forgiven, 75% of them could walk out the next day. I wonder if an internist couldn’t say the same thing about his patients. We carry such a burden because of our failures and our guilt. It has broken our relationship with God and it threatens to break our bodies and our hearts. In the new covenant you can be forgiven and the relationship can be restored.
In our experience, these three things often come in reverse order. First, we receive forgiveness of sins. Then we experience direct knowledge of God. Then his Spirit changes us internally as he writes his law on our hearts. For some people these things happen all at once. The important thing is that they do happen. They can happen to you. This is not just for some day when Jesus returns or we go to heaven. This can be your everyday experience of life in relationship with God through Jesus Christ. When we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, we remember the words of Jesus as he raised the cup: "This cup is the new covenant between God and you, sealed by the shedding of my blood” (1 Corinthians 11:25 NLT). I don’t suppose Jeremiah had any idea that his vision of the new covenant would one day refer to a crucified Messiah. But when Jesus died on the cross, he sealed the new covenant between God and you, offering you forgiveness, and direct knowledge of God, and a new nature that is able to obey God. That is the covenant to which you are invited to join yourself.