“I will give them an undivided heart and put a new spirit in them; I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh. Then they will follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. They will be my people, and I will be their God” (Ezekiel 11:19-20).
For many people, the new covenant is considered to be the 26 books of the Bible known as the New Testament. For others, the new covenant replaces something ‘old’ they refer to as the ‘law’ for a something new they call ‘grace.’ Others learn the old covenant was God’s law and the new covenant is the removal of God’s law from a believer’s life so they have ‘freedom from the law.’ What do the Scriptures actually teach about the new covenant?
The Original Covenant with Israel
A covenant, according to an online dictionary is “an agreement, usually formal, between two parties to do or not do something specified.” What was the ‘old, formal agreement’ that constituted the Old Covenant? How was it made? Who were the two parties? What were the formalities?
“Moses went up to God, and the LORD called to him from the mountain saying, ‘Thus you shall say to the House of Jacob and tell the sons of Israel: You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings, and brought you to Myself. Now then, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the sons of Israel.’ When Moses went and told the people all the LORD’s words and laws, they responded with one voice, ‘Everything the LORD has said we will do’” (Exodus 19:4-5,8).
With a positive affirmation from the people, Moses goes up the mountain. God writes the specifics of the covenant with His own finger. Moses comes down from the mountain with two stone tablets on which are written The Ten Commandments. He reads all the words of the covenant that God made with His people.
“Moses then took the blood, sprinkled it on the people and said, ‘This is the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words'” (Exodus 24:3-8).
Covenants are sealed with blood and this unique covenant between God and Israel was no different. Moses sacrificed bulls and sprinkled the blood on the altar and on the people. Through the blood, the original covenant with Israel was instituted and they entered into a relationship with God. A second time, the people respond that everything God commanded in the ‘Book of the Covenant,’ they would do.
“He [Moses] got up early the next morning and built an altar at the foot of the mountain and set up twelve stone pillars representing the twelve tribes of Israel. Then he sent young Israelite men, and they offered burnt offerings and sacrificed young bulls as fellowship offerings to the LORD. Moses took half of the blood and put it in bowls, and the other half he sprinkled on the altar. Then he took the Book of the Covenant and read it to the people. They responded, ‘We will do everything the LORD has said; we will obey’” (Exodus 24:4-7).
Then, the worst happened. Within a very short time, these very same people who promised to obey God broke their part of the covenant by taking His name in vain and worshipping idols. They made a golden calf, dedicated it to Him, and worshipped it as they would have in Egypt with drunkenness and immorality (Exodus 32).
Angered by their further faithlessness when the spies entered the Land, God punishes everyone who came out of Egypt for an entire generation. He forces the Israelites to wander in the wilderness 40 years until a new generation is ready to enter the Promised Land. At the end of the 40 years, Moses speaks the commandments of God to this new generation of Israelites. He tells them to fear God, walk in His ways, love Him, serve Him, and “circumcise their hearts.”
“And now, O Israel, what does the LORD your God ask of you but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD with all your heart and with all your soul, and to observe the LORD’s commands and decrees that I am giving you today for your own good? To the LORD your God belong the heavens, even the highest heavens, the earth and everything in it. Yet the LORD set his affection on your forefathers and loved them, and he chose you, their descendants, above all the nations, as it is today. Circumcise your hearts, therefore, and do not be stiff-necked any longer” (Deuteronomy 10:12-16).
Imagine being one of these second generation Israelites. After moving around in the wilderness and watching your parents and grandparents die, you now need to “circumcise your heart?” What did that mean? How did one do such a thing? The task must have seemed confusing and unattainable.
Moses gives them hope. He promises that God will circumcise their hearts which will cause them to love Him with their whole being. In other words, he promises that God will not only hold up His side of the covenant, but make it possible for them to keep their “I will.”
“The LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, so that you may live” (Deuteronomy 30:6).
Even though a whole new generation of Israelites had learned a lot of lessons while being refined in the desert, the covenant still had one problem. The people consistently disobeyed. It wasn’t God’s instructions that had the problem, it was the hardened hearts of the people..
“For if there had been nothing wrong with that first [covenantal agreement] no place would have been sought for another. But the LORD found fault with the people and declared I will make a new covenant”(Hebrews 8:8).
Because God found fault with the people, something had to be done. He could not change His Torah, the standard for His holiness and the essence of Himself. He could not remove Torah because it will exist until there is a new heavens and new earth (Matthew 5:17-19). He could, however, modify His creation. After all, He is the potter and the people were His clay. The change He could make would enable His people to return to Him in faithfulness. The change He could make would ‘renew’ the covenant relationship they had broken.
Not Entirely New, Renewed
In Hebrew, the word ‘new’ is chadashah. A form of this word is used to describe the beginning of each new month, chodesh. To understand chadash, take a look at the phases of the moon. Does the earth actually receive an entirely new moon each month? Does the old moon fall out of the sky and become replaced with a completely new one? Of course not, and herein lies the meaning of the word ‘new’ in the Hebrew. It means ‘renew.’ Every month as the moon goes through its lunar cycle from new to crescent to full back to new, it is understood as being ‘renewed.’
A derivation of the same word, chadashah, is used for ‘new’ when referring to the new covenant or B’rit Chadashah. It is not a completely ‘new’ covenant where something ‘old’ is thrown away to be replaced by something ‘new.’ It is a ‘renewal’ or ‘refreshing’ of a former covenant that would deal with the “fault of the people.”
The Prophets and the Renewed Covenant
After Moses’ prophecy in Exodus regarding a circumcised heart, God used other prophets, especially Jeremiah and Ezekiel, to elaborate the details of the ‘renewed covenant.’
“The days are coming,’ declares 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 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,’ declares the LORD. ‘This is the covenant I will make with the House of Israel after that time,’ declares the LORD. ‘I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the LORD,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest’ declares the LORD. ‘For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more’” (Jeremiah 31:31-34).
Jeremiah prophesies the ‘new’ or ‘renewed covenant’ specific to the House of Israel and the House of Judah. ‘Renewing’ the original covenant with Israel became necessary because it was the Israelites who had broken the original covenant. According to Jeremiah, in God’s eyes, breaking the original covenant was the same as breaking a marriage contract between a Husband (Himself) and a wife (His people).
Even after Israel’s faithlessness and idolatries, God still desired that Israel be His treasured possession, His wife. Because of His lovingkindness, mercy, and grace, God promised to ‘renew’ the covenant that His people had broken. He promised to ‘renew’ the marriage covenant between Him and His people.
“I will take you from the nations, gather you from all the lands and bring you into your own land. Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. Moreover, I will give you a new [renewed] heart and put a new [renewed] spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statues and you will be careful to observe My ordinances” (Ezekiel 36:24-27).
The ‘renewed covenant’ included more than just forgiving Israel’s wicked, lawless ways and forgetting the sins they committed. God was going to gather His chosen people from the nations where He dispersed them and bring them back to the Promised Land. He was going to sprinkle them with clean water and cleanse them from their idolatries. More importantly, He was going to change their hearts. Instead of just an outward flesh circumcision, the foreskins of their hearts would be ‘cut.’
The Hebrew word for ‘cut’ is b’rit and means to ‘seal a covenant through cutting.’ It is most familiar in the b’rit-milah, the terminology used for a infant boy’s circumcision when his foreskin is ‘cut.’ At his circumcision, the baby enters into the covenant of faith given to Abraham. B’rit is also used in the Hebrew rendering of the ‘new covenant’ or B’rit Chadashah meaning the ‘renewed circumcision.’ The ‘renewed circumcision’ would be done by God’s Spirit and change the stony heart of rebellion into a heart of flesh that brings obedience.
This prophecy was not just good news, it was great news. Whenever God instituted the ‘New Circumcision,’ the House of Judah and the House of Israel would no longer have to struggle to obey the commands. God would cause them to walk in His ways and uphold their side of the marriage covenant through a circumcision of their hearts.
The ‘Renewed Circumcision’ and Yeshua
In Luke chapter 22, Yeshua celebrates the Passover with his disciples. He lifts a cup of wine and says, “This cup is the new covenant [new circumcision] in my blood, which is poured out for you.” Can you imagine how these men would have received these words knowing the context in which they were spoken? They were Jewish men waiting for the fulfillment of the prophecy in Ezekiel. They were part of the Israelite nation wondering when the prophecy of Jeremiah would take place.
In Greek the word ‘new’ is kainos. It means ‘unprecedented and unheard of.’ To have the Rabbi you have followed for three years lift a cup of Passover wine and proclaim it to be the “cup of the new covenant” was definitely unprecedented and unheard of!
The disciples understood mediation of covenants. Moses had been the mediator of the original covenant with blood from animals. Now Yeshua would be doing the same thing; however, there were some differences. The blood would not be of bulls or calves, but the blood that flowed in his veins. The blood would not be sprinkled, but poured out. Yeshua, was the promised “Seed of woman” bringing redemption to Israel. With his body and blood, he was ‘renewing’ the broken covenant and bringing reconciliation between a Husband and His wife.
With Yeshua’s death at the end of Passover, followed by his resurrection three days later on Feast of Firstfruits, the ‘new circumcision’ became a living hope in the disciples’ lives. Forty days later at his ascension, Yeshua tells them to go to Jerusalem and wait for the promise. They obeyed, went to Jerusalem, and waited. They knew what the promise was because Yeshua told them at the Passover: “If you love me, keep my commands. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever –– the Spirit of truth” (John 14:15).
Ten days later on the day of the Feast of Weeks, on the memorial of the giving of the original covenant at Mount Sinai, God poured out His Spirit on the House of Judah and the House of Israel. As Jewish people from all over the world gathered in Jerusalem, a violent wind came from heaven and filled one of the Temple areas. The disciples who were gathered saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. They were filled with the Spirit of God and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them (Acts 2:2-4).
Through the flames of a refining fire, God transformed the hearts of 3000 Jews on that day from stone to flesh. Through the violent wind of His Spirit, God poured Himself into them. The ’new covenant’ promised to Israel had become reality. The ‘new covenant of circumcision’ instituted by Yeshua had begun –– with Israel.
Peter tells the crowd of Jews from from every nation gathered in Jerusalem, “God has raised Yeshua to life, and we are all witnesses of it. Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear” (Acts 2:32).
Those Who Are Far Away
On the day of Pentecost when Peter is speaking to the crowd in Jerusalem, he says, “The promise (of the Holy Spirit) is for you and your children and for all who are far off – for all whom the Lord our God will call” (Acts 2:39).
Peter acknowledges two different types of people who would receive the Spirit of God: those Jews who were standing there in Jerusalem and those Jews who made up the Tribes of Israel who didn’t trek all the way to Jerusalem. Those who were in the city, whose hearts had been transformed by the Spirit, would take the message of redemption to all the Jewish people living in the surrounding nations.
I don’t believe Peter was referring to the gentiles as far off. I don’t believe he was thinking in that moment that the Spirit of God could move Philip from one place to another where there was an Ethiopian eunuch reading the book of Isaiah. I don’t believe he was thinking about a Pharisee named Saul who would first persecute and murder Messianic Jews before becoming born again on the road to Damascus. Peter’s understanding of far off had to do with proximity to the Land of Israel and the Jewish people in the surrounding nations. It wasn’t until many years later when he had the vision of the ‘unclean’ animals in the sheet that he understood the message of salvation going to the gentiles.
Far Away Another Perspective
There is a serious ramification for gentiles if the ‘renewed covenant’ prophesied by Jeremiah is only for the House of Israel and the House Judah. If you were not Jewish or did not know from which Tribe of Israel you hailed, then you were one of the nations, gentiles by birth. The message of the ‘renewed covenant’ that the Jewish people around you were excitedly talking about was not for you. It was not made with you or with the nation in which you lived; it wasn’t even made with Christians because no such group of people existed at that time.
“Therefore, remember that you who are gentiles by birth and called ‘uncircumcised’ by those who call themselves ‘the circumcision’ (which is done in the body by human hands) – remember that [you are] separate from Messiah, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world” (Ephesians 2:11-13).
What if those Peter prophetically referred to as far away weren’t the Jews? What if they were the gentiles, the people of the nations, who were the ‘uncircumcised?’ As gentiles, they were without the God of Israel. They had no understanding of the covenants between God and Israel because they were foreigners. Everything about Jewish life in Israel was strange in concept and action.
Though gentiles may have wanted to have a relationship with the God of Israel and worship Him, there was one huge barrier. It was called the ‘wall of partition’ in the Temple. They could not pass that wall and draw near to God unless they went through a ritual conversion of circumcision to become legally Jewish. If they did not choose to become legally Jewish, they had no hope for receiving a ‘renewed covenant’ because they never had an ‘original covenant.’ Being far off meant that they could only look at a distance at this God who made promises to His people and kept them.
That didn’t mean those who were far off didn’t break God’s commands and sin. It didn’t mean they felt no guilt when they wronged another person. It didn’t mean they didn’t hope that their sacrifices to their gods, the surrendering of their children to the fire, would somehow appease their gods and set them free from a cycle of sin, guilt, and death.
When a Jewish man named Saul (Paul) began traveling through their cities telling them that peace with the God of Israel was being offered to them, they listened to his message. He told them that peace with God would bring them near to all those things they desired, but didn’t know how to receive. This peace would bring reconciliation between them and their Creator. This peace would bring forgiveness and their guilt would go away. The ‘wall of partition’ that separated them from the promises and covenants of Israel had been removed and they could worship the God of Israel with the Jewish people, like the Jewish people. The best part of this news of peace –– it was not ‘hostile,’ it did not require ritual circumcision to become legally Jewish. This peace came by faith.
“For he himself [Yeshua] is our peace, who has made the two groups [Jew and gentile] one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law [of ritual conversion] with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them [Jew and gentile] to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility [their religious differences]” (Ephesians 2:11-16).
Faith, Abraham and His Children
“For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law [ritual conversion through circumcision]. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles too? Yes, of Gentiles too, since there is only one God, who will justify the circumcised [Jews] by faith and the uncircumcised [gentiles] through that same faith” (Romans 28-30).
God promised Abraham that all nations, the gentiles, would be blessed through him. What was so special about Abraham that God would bless him in such a powerful way? He had faith in God and God’s promises.
“Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring—not only to those who are of the law [circumcised] but also to those who have the faith of Abraham [uncircumcised]. He is the father of us all. As it is written: “I have made you a father of many nations. He is our father in the sight of God, in whom he believed—the God who gives life to the dead and calls into being things that were not” (Romans 14:16-17).
“Understand, then, that those who have faith are children of Abraham. Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: “All nations will be blessed through you.” So those who rely on faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith” (Galatians 3:7-9).
A gentile who is far off enters the ‘renewed covenant’ the same way as Abraham, by putting their faith in God and His plan of salvation as demonstrated on Mount Moriah. They have to believe that Yeshua is the promised ‘Seed of woman,’ the One who became a substitute sacrifice for them like the ram that took the place of Isaac. Like Abraham, they have to believe that God is the Giver of Life and can resurrect people from the dead as He did Yeshua. Like Abraham and his physical descendants, they have to put their faith in the blood of the one called the ‘Lamb of God.’ They have to believe Yeshua is the Messiah of Israel and that salvation comes through the Jews (John 4:22).
Two Covenants or One?
“For if there had been nothing wrong with that first covenant, no place would have been sought for another. But God found fault with the people” (Hebrew 8:7).
The need for a ‘renewed covenant’ had nothing to do with ‘abolishing’ an old one, especially when the old one is considered to be God’s Torah. This is a gross misunderstanding of the verse and the ‘renewed covenant’ itself. The problem of sin was not God’s Torah, the problem of sin was in the people, their stony, rebellious hearts.
Paul says, “All have sinned and fall short of God’s glory” (Romans 3:23). Everyone, Jew or gentile, needs a ‘renewed’ heart in order to change their rebellious and idolatrous lifestyle that is contrary to God’s commandments. Just like the Jews, when gentiles enter into the ‘renewed covenant’ by faith in Yeshua, they receive the Spirit of God which transforms their hearts from stone to flesh. It is on these ‘renewed’ hearts that the God writes His Torah, the same Torah He gave to Israel.
“Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Messiah Yeshua himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit” (Ephesians 2:19-22).
Gentiles coming to faith in Yeshua become part of the ‘Commonwealth of Israel.’ Faith brings more to the life of a gentile than just being ‘saved’ from the ‘law of sin and death,’ it brings an entirely new identity within a holy nation that is governed by God’s commandments. Through faith in Yeshua, gentiles who are far off become grafted into the ‘Olive Tree of Israel’ and receive the same “life nourishing sap from its roots” as do the Jews (Romans 11:17).
Gentile believers need to accept their Biblical heritage in the Hebrew Scriptures especially the foundation of the Torah and the Prophets. They are not to put up a ‘new covenant wall of hostility’ that excludes God’s chosen people. They must remember that adoption into God’s family was offered to Israel first. God revealed His glory to Israel first. All of the covenants, the Temple services, the priesthood, and the promise of a world to come were given to Israel first (Romans 9:4). The promise of a ‘renewed’ heart was given to Israel first.
Gentiles need to accept their Biblical heritage within the Hebrew Scriptures and be at peace with Yeshua’s Jewish brothers and sisters. They are not to put up a new covenant wall of partition that excludes God’s chosen people by abolishing that which establishes them as God’s covenanted people. Gentiles must remember that adoption into God’s family as children was given to Israel first. God revealed His glory to Israel first. All of the covenants, the Torah, the Temple services, the priesthood, and the promises of a world to come were given to Israel first. Through Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Judah and King David is traced the human ancestry of our salvation, Messiah Yeshua (Romans 9:4).
Those who are far away need to understand that the ‘new covenant’ is not a set of 26 books located in the backs of their Bibles; the good news isn’t just one verse from the Gospel of John; the Jewish Jesus wasn’t born to start a new religion; and Paul didn’t have a dramatic conversion to Christianity. The ‘new covenant’ is the fulfillment of prophecy that God would write His Torah filled with His promises, covenants, and guidelines for living on ‘renewed’ hearts of flesh that would bring peace in His household between gentiles who were far away and Jews who were near.
“He [Yeshua] came and preached peace to you who were far away [gentiles] and peace to those who were near [the Jews]” (Ephesians 2:17-18).
©2010 Tentstake Ministries Publishing, all rights reserved. No copying or reproducing of this article without crediting the author or Tentstake Ministries Publishing. For a hard copy of this article, please purchase Journey with Jeremiah: Nourishment for the Wild Olive.