I preached (or, actually, read) the sermon at my church this morning. I will post it here. It was helpful to me to write it because the process allowed me to clarify to myself what my religious and theological views are right now in my life. Some readers may think my sermon is simplistic; some readers may think it is unnecessarily complex. Some readers may think that I stray from the Christian path in what I say; some readers may think that I stick to much to the Christian path and that makes me biased. But here my sermon is! Enjoy!
Our Old Testament reading is from Jeremiah 31:31-34:
31 Behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah:
32 Not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt; which my covenant they brake, although I was an husband unto them, saith the LORD:
33 But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those days, saith the LORD, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people.
34 And they shall teach no more every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the LORD: for they shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the LORD: for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more. (Jer 31:31-34 KJV)
For our New Testament reading, we will read John 12:20-33:
20 And there were certain Greeks among them that came up to worship at the feast:
21 The same came therefore to Philip, which was of Bethsaida of Galilee, and desired him, saying, Sir, we would see Jesus.
22 Philip cometh and telleth Andrew: and again Andrew and Philip tell Jesus.
23 And Jesus answered them, saying, The hour is come, that the Son of man should be glorified.
24 Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.
25 He that loveth his life shall lose it; and he that hateth his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal.
26 If any man serve me, let him follow me; and where I am, there shall also my servant be: if any man serve me, him will my Father honour.
27 Now is my soul troubled; and what shall I say? Father, save me from this hour: but for this cause came I unto this hour.
28 Father, glorify thy name. Then came there a voice from heaven, saying, I have both glorified it, and will glorify it again.
29 The people therefore, that stood by, and heard it, said that it thundered: others said, An angel spake to him.
30 Jesus answered and said, This voice came not because of me, but for your sakes.
31 Now is the judgment of this world: now shall the prince of this world be cast out.
32 And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me.
33 This he said, signifying what death he should die. (Joh 12:20-33 KJV)
Prayer: Father, please bless and anoint the message that I am about to deliver. Help its hearers to hear something from it that helps them. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
Jeremiah predicted the coming of a New Covenant. In this message, I would like to do three things. First of all, I will look at the concept of the New Covenant within the context of the Book of Jeremiah, the larger story of Israel in the Old Testament, and Old Testament Messianic and end-times predictions. Second, I will comment on how Jesus and New Testament authors believed that these end-time predictions were fulfilled, at least partially, in the life and work of Jesus. Third, I will offer some concluding reflections and suggestions for spiritual application.
Let’s first look at the concept of the New Covenant in the Book of Jeremiah, the larger story of the Old Testament, and Old Testament predictions about the end time. A lot of times, Christians read about the New Covenant in Jeremiah 31:31-34 and they say: “This is a prediction of what Jesus would do: Jesus would write God’s laws on our hearts and our minds.” My purpose here is not to dispute that—-actually, I will be arriving at that sort of conclusion in the course of this sermon—-but rather it is to try to appreciate the Old Testament on its own terms, before we get to the New Testament. That is how many people read a story or watch a movie: they read or watch the earlier part before they get to the later part. What was the significance of the New Covenant within the context of the Book of Jeremiah and the larger story of Israel in the Old Testament?
Who are the recipients of the New Covenant in Jeremiah 31:31-34? You will notice that it is the house of Israel and the house of Judah. The text says that the ancestors of these recipients of the New Covenant were taken out of Egypt, and God made a covenant with them of laws and commandments, which they broke. This is the nation and people of Israel in the Old Testament, of whom the Jews are a part. The text, at least here, does not say that Christians are part of the New Covenant—-which does not mean that Christians are not part of it, but simply that they are not mentioned here in Jeremiah 31:31-34. The focus of Jeremiah 31:31-34, like a lot of the Old Testament, is on Israel and Judah, and God’s interaction with them.
In the Old Testament, God gave Israel and Judah laws to obey soon after God delivered them from Egypt. These laws would make Israel a holy and righteous people, who worshiped God. God’s covenant with Israel was that, if she obeyed, God would bless her and she would stay in the Promised Land. If she disobeyed, however, God would punish her, and she would not stay in the land but would go into exile. Well, a lot of Israel’s story in the Old Testament was one of disobeying God. She worshiped other gods, or worshiped God in ways that God did not approve, or sacrificed her children to earn a god’s favor, or practiced policies that were socially unjust and that oppressed the poor and the needy.
God’s system with Old Testament Israel did include God’s forgiveness of sin. Israelites could offer a sin offering for unintentional sins, and a guilt offering for certain specific sins. Every year, on the Day of Atonement, the high priest would cleanse the sanctuary of the defilement from people’s sins so that a holy God could continue to dwell within Israel. God also forgave Israel, and individuals within Israel, of sin whenever they repented and turned to God seeking forgiveness. Moreover, while the Old Testament presents Israel as sinful, there were people within Israel who were righteous. While some of them tried to get Israel on the righteous path, however, their reforms were not long-lasting, for people relapsed back into their old sinful ways. Forgiveness was important, but was it enough, if Israel kept relapsing into the same sins over and over, sometimes coming to her senses and repenting for a short term, and sometimes not?
The people of Israel needed a new heart, a spiritual transformation. Jeremiah 13:23 states: “Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots? then may ye also do good, that are accustomed to do evil” (KJV). They could not just have God’s law, because God’s law simply condemned them for their habitual disobedience. God loved Israel, but God, as a holy God, saw a need to punish sin. The law only told Israel what was wrong and right, but it did not enable the Israelites to desist from sin and to do what is right instead.
When the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and took a number of Jews into exile, it really hit home for a number of Jews that their disobedience had led them to disaster. Jeremiah recognized that, for Israel to have a future, God needed to address her spiritual condition. God needed to write God’s laws on people’s hearts and minds so that the Israelites would be inclined to obey them and thus stay in the land. Jeremiah envisioned this taking place after God returned the Israelites from exile to the Promised Land, as God reconstituted the Davidic king and dynasty and the Levitical priesthood, making Israel into a nation again, with its own land, king, and cult.
Jeremiah was not alone in this hope, even though he expressed it differently from other biblical writers and prophets. Deuteronomy 30:6 says that, after Israel turns to God in exile, and God brings her back into her land, “And the LORD thy God will circumcise thine heart, and the heart of thy seed, to love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, that thou mayest live” (KJV). Ezekiel’s vision of Israel’s restoration from exile differed a bit from that of Jeremiah, for Jeremiah envisioned the Levites having the authority in the Temple, whereas Ezekiel privileged specifically the Zadokite priesthood. Still, Ezekiel envisioned God performing an act of grace that would enable the Israelites to obey God’s laws: God would give Israel a clean heart, or God would take away Israel’s heart of stone and replace it with a heart of flesh, or God would put God’s spirit in the Israelites and thereby enable them to obey his laws. Jeremiah described a new covenant, whereas Ezekiel talked about an everlasting covenant, but both envisioned God performing an act of grace on Israel’s heart. That did not necessarily imply complete sinlessness, for Ezekiel predicted that the new Temple that would be rebuilt after Israel’s restoration would have sin offerings. It did, however, imply Israel’s heart being generally inclined towards loving God and neighbor and doing what is right.
Well, Israel returned from exile, and things did not exactly turn out as the prophets envisioned. Jeremiah and, on some level, Ezekiel, had predicted that the Davidic monarchy would be restored, and that did not take place. Zerubbabel was a governor of Judah after the exile and a descendant of David, and there was hope that he would be a Davidic king, but he mysteriously vanished. Some say that the Persians, who ruled over post-exilic Judah at the time, got rid of him. The priesthood, at least, was re-established, but some biblical scholars have argued that we see traces in the Hebrew Bible of disputes among priests about which families should be privileged in the Temple. Israel was not an independent nation but was under the authority of the Persians, and, whereas the prophets depicted Israel’s restoration from exile as a fresh start, a new beginning, a time that marked the end of God’s punishment of Israel because Israel served her time and received forgiveness, the post-exilic priest and leader Ezra still felt that Israel was being punished by God.
What’s more, where was the new heart that God promised? Granted, the Israelites after the exile were more obedient to God than were the Israelites before the exile: the Israelites after the exile at least respected and honored God’s law as the constitution of Israel. But there was continual danger of relapse into paganism, as Israelite men married foreign women. In the Book of Nehemiah, rich people were exploiting and oppressing the not-so-rich. According to the Book of Haggai, the returned Israelites for a while were neglecting the reconstruction of the Temple and focusing on their own lives instead. According to the Book of Malachi, some of the priests were showing disrespect to God by offering deformed sacrifices. Isaiah 56-66 is believed to have been written during Israel’s post-exilic period, and we see there an interaction between God and Israel. Israel wonders why things have not turned out glamorously for them, and God responds that their sins and oppression of others has created a barrier between them and God. When the returned Israelite authorities sought to correct the problems of their sin, they tended to overcorrect by becoming exclusive towards outsiders and by elevating law over love.
What the prophets predicted about Israel after the exile did not take place immediately, or for a long time. Jeremiah said that God’s law would be written on the hearts of Israelites, but it was not, or at least that did not appear to be the case, for people still seemed to have a propensity towards sin. Jeremiah said that God would forgive Israel’s sin, but Israelites still felt unforgiven, or not completely forgiven. God felt distant. Jews held out hope from generation to generation that these promises from the prophets would one day be fulfilled. Many were looking for a Messiah, a coming Davidic king who would deliver Israel from the Gentile powers and inaugurate a reign of righteousness and peace.
In the first century, there was a teacher from Galilee named Jesus of Nazareth, and there were events in his ministry and thereafter that convinced his followers that he was the fulfillment—-at least partially—-of what the prophets had predicted. There were prophecies about people being healed after God restored Israel—-Isaiah 35:6 says that the lame will leap like the deer—-and Jesus was healing people. A number of prophets in the Old Testament envisioned Gentiles coming to worship the God of Israel after God restores Israel to her land, and, after Jesus’ death and resurrection, a number of Gentiles were becoming Christians, worshipers of the God of Israel. Some of the prophets, particularly the prophet Joel, envisioned an outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and something like that occurred in the Book of Acts, on Pentecost. In Ezekiel 36:27, God says he will put his spirit in the Israelites and that will move them to obey God’s laws. The apostle Paul was saying that believers—-the remnant of Jews who believed in Jesus, and the Gentiles who had joined them—-had God’s Holy Spirit and could produce spiritual fruit that accorded with God’s law, particularly the command to love one’s neighbor as oneself. Isaiah 54:13 predicted that Israelites after the exile would be taught by God. Jesus in John 6:45 says this was happening as people heard from the Father and came to Jesus. The apostle Paul in I Thessalonians 4:9 told the Thessalonian Christians that God had taught them personally to love one another. The Old Testament prophets envisioned a time of forgiveness of sin, and Isaiah 53 depicted a righteous figure who would die to atone for the sins of others. Early Christians maintained that this found its fulfillment in Jesus.
But all of this was seen as a partial fulfillment, not as the totality. The Old Testament prophets also envisioned a time when there would be no war and people would be at peace. Two thousand years after Jesus came, there is still war. They envisioned a time when Israel would be free of her Gentile captors, and that did not happen when Jesus came: the Jews would try to become independent from the Romans twice in the first two centuries C.E., and both times would be crushed. In a sense, Jesus brought blessings of the Kingdom of God, but not all of them have been realized.
Within the New Testament, we see struggling with this. There are voices in the New Testament that seem to believe that Jesus would return and set up paradise soon, within their very own lifetimes, in the first century. After all, they had already experienced some of the Kingdom blessings that the prophets foretold, so it was only a matter of time before they would experience the rest of them, right? As time went on and Jesus had not returned, there were voices that said that Jesus may delay his coming. The Gospel of Luke, in parables, depicts the master, who represents Jesus, being away on a long journey before he comes back. II Peter 3:8, perhaps drawing from Psalm 90:4, said that a day in God’s eyes is as a thousand years, so the apparent delay of Christ’s return does not mean that Jesus won’t come back; God is giving people time to repent. There is a view within Luke and Acts that God could have sent the Messianic paradise soon, had Israel repented in response to Jesus and the early Christians, but she did not do so. Paul really struggles with how many within Israel—-the very recipients of God’s promises—-did not believe in Jesus as the Messiah. Paul concludes that all of this is a part of God’s master plan to save everyone, Jews and Gentiles. Paul held out hope that all Israel would be saved when Christ returns, and so the vision of the Old Testament prophets that Israel would be spiritually renewed would find fulfillment.
A number of Christians wonder why so many Jewish people do not believe that Jesus is the Messiah. I would say that there are at least two reasons. One reason is that Jesus, as far as they could see, did not bring about the world peace that the Messiah was supposed to bring. Another reason is that, for them, Christianity contradicts aspects of their own Scriptures. Many Old Testament prophecies envision Gentiles coming to Israel to worship God, but they do not go so far as to suggest that the Gentiles will become an actual part of Israel—-part of Abraham’s seed—through faith, as parts of the New Testament say; Isaiah 14:2, actually, predicts that Israel will make slaves of their Gentile captors after Israel is restored. Jeremiah and Ezekiel envision the continued existence of sacrifices, a Temple, and a priesthood, but many Christians believe that these things were nullified by Christ. Judaism largely believes in one God and thinks that the Christian doctrine of the Trinity contradicts that.
Granted, Christians, and even the New Testament, had its explanations for these things. The Gospel of John says that the Temple predicted in the Old Testament would be symbolic, not literal, and that it would be fulfilled in the individual believer having the Holy Spirit and eternal life. Paul appears to go this route in places, treating the church as God’s temple. The Epistle to the Hebrews goes another route as it tries to argue that the Levitical priesthood and the Old Covenant were intended to be temporary, and that Christ is part of another priesthood, the priesthood of Melchizedek, the priest who—-before there even was a Levitical priesthood—-blessed Abraham in the Book of Genesis. Old Testament prophecies predicted that Israelites would be returned to the land of Israel and that would accompany or be followed by paradise; some New Testament writings interpret that literally and assume that Israel will play a significant role in the Messianic paradise: Jesus told his disciples that they would rule the land of Israel, and Jesus and the early church often followed the pattern of preaching to the Jews first, then to the Gentiles. Other New Testament voices, however, expand the Promised Land to include the entire world: Jesus said that the meek would inherit the earth, and the apostle Paul said that God promised Abraham that he would inherit the world—-which is broader than the land of Israel—-through faith. Christians have had their ways of interpreting the Hebrew Scriptures, but people who do not share Christian presuppositions can read the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible and not see what Christians claim to see. In Colossians 1:26, as a matter of fact, the author says that God’s plan to include the Gentiles in the church was a mystery unknown for many generations. Do not be surprised, therefore, that people can read the Old Testament and not see what Christians believe. The Old Testament was around for centuries, and people could read it and not anticipate that God would create a church and include Gentiles as his people.
Now for some reflections. I think that the Bible is a book about people struggling with God, who still acts. When I read the Bible, I do believe that I am seeing different points of view from different writers. Some had such-and-such a political agenda and religious beliefs, and some had a different viewpoint. Still, there was a belief within them that they were called be a holy people—-a people who worshiped a loving and just being who was greater than themselves, a people who loved their neighbors and opposed oppression and injustice. They may have expressed their laws and their ideas in different ways—-the Covenant Code in the Book of Exodus, for example, may be different from the Book of Deuteronomy and the Holiness Code in Leviticus—-but I believe that their belief that they should be a holy people, and that the Jewish people were chosen to be a holy people and an example to the nations—-came from God, in some sense, whether through direct revelation, God moving their hearts, or some other experience with the divine.
There were biblical writers who had dreams that seemed to go unfulfilled. Prophets in the Old Testament, in their various ways, believed that God would restore Israel to her land and that would be followed by paradise, but that did not happen right after Israel returned to her land. Early and later Christians continually hoped that Christ would return soon, and that they should be ready, but two thousand years have passed and Christ has not returned. Still, these people of faith held on to hope. And I would say that their suffering with hope was not in vain. Jesus said in our New Testament text in John 12, before he would suffer humiliation and death, that a seed must die in order to bear fruit. That could be a reason for the situation in which many of us are finding ourselves—-trying to hold on to hope, even as we suffer and endure a life that falls short of what we understand to be God’s purposes—-of health, of prosperity, of love. There are times when these sorts of experiences can produce fruit—-they can be times to rely on God, for introspection, for developing compassion for others. Several powerful parts of the Old Testament came about when Israel was in exile or was experiencing disappointment after the exile.
But suffering without hope can lead to bitterness. And that is why I say that I do not believe that the Old Testament authors and the early and later Christians were holding on to an empty hope, or to wishful thinking that had no substance. I think that their hope, in some way, came from God, and that God has acted in history to demonstrate that their hope has substance. Israel was in exile, but God moved King Cyrus of Persia to allow the Jews to return to their land, and the Jews have survived for centuries, notwithstanding persecution. God was with Israel after the exile as she dealt with threats—-people kept trying to undermine them, to obstruct their work, and to turn the authorities against them, but God saw Israel through these challenges. Years later, in the first century, Jesus was here, and miracles, healings, and changed lives convinced people that their hope was being fulfilled. I believe that God intervenes at times to show us that he is still there, that he loves us, and that we have good reason to hope.
And there are practical ramifications to this hope. In our New Testament reading in John 12, Jesus talks about the prince of the world (the devil) being driven out, and he says that this is a time for service, for being where Jesus is, caring about people, for self-denial. God and righteousness are the wave of the future—-and, in some sense, Jesus was saying in John 12 that the seeds of that are in the present—-and we get to act on that belief when we serve others, and when we choose love rather than hatred and lust.
And yet we are human, and that brings me back to the need for a changed heart. In Jeremiah 31, we see the hope that God will write God’s law on Israel’s heart and mind, and Jeremiah says this will be a new covenant, different from the old covenant that God established with Israel at Sinai—-an old covenant that offered law, but not a way for Israel to become transformed so that she could keep the law. Even under this old covenant, though, David in Psalm 51, after his sin with Bathsheba held a mirror to him as to how far he had fallen, asked God to create in him a clean heart, to wash him, so that he would be whiter than snow. This was not how the old covenant normally operated. And yet, I would like to believe that God still honored David’s prayer for a clean heart, on some level, that David’s hope for personal spiritual renewal was not in vain. God is always happy when someone recognizes his or her dependence on him. So if you find that you wrestle with sin—-impatience, hatred, or maybe not hatred but selfishness and a lack of love for others—-go to God, the source of love. Depend on God continually. God will create in you a clean heart. It may be a long process. People may not always notice the change in you, or they may not notice the change for a while. But God will still create that clean heart. Amen, and amen.