RECONNECT WITH GOD (Jeremiah 31:31-34)!
Getting something new is always calculated to bring a smile to someone’s face. We are so easily bored. So often we are search for something new and more exciting to relieve that boredom. New may mean different or fresh. But it may also mean completely new in the sense of not having been in existence before, or existing in a new form. Something different will often do the trick when you are bored or empty, or maybe looking for something to refresh your life or perspective - a new hobby, house, car, job or wife! Unless the house is newly constructed or the job newly created, a lot of things we call “new” are actually recycled, and they are as we say of a used car, new to me. Often when we settle for new to me it is not long before we are dissatisfied, as we grow familiar with the “new thing” in our lives. We start to notice the strange sounds, see the little dings and dents, try to polish out the scratches and generally try to maintain our interest. But after a while the exciting new thing loses its luster and we are off on a quest for the next new thing. It is the anticipation of something new that is more exciting than the having of it many times.
Jeremiah mentions that God had led his people out of Egypt, a land where for so many years they were held in bondage as slaves (Jer. 31:32). That experience for Israel got old as the fierceness of Pharoah got worse, and he oppressed them more brutally. Moses writes about how they groaned under the burden of this life, and called on the Lord for deliverance to live a new and free life (Ex. 1:11-12; 2:23-25). In passages that acknowledges that Israel was oppressed and groaning in the misery of their despair, it is said that God remembered his people and the covenant he made with their forefathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Ex. 2:24). This was a previous covenant, an agreement with Israel’s patriarchs upon which was based a series of promises that God would do good to his people, liberate them, and give them a land of their own, flowing with milk and honey, where they could live free and blessed. It sounded good! But this deliverance depended on a new covenant, a covenant eventually ratified at Sinai, in which God promised to bless his people, and live in close fellowship with them, so long as they obeyed his law and conducted themselves in genuine righteousness (Ex. 19:3-6; Lev. 26:9-13).
In the covenant God made with them, he promised them certain blessing if they were willing to acknowledge God and obey him (cf. Deut. 28). This after all is how covenants work. Two parties undertake to make certain provisions and considerations, and to take on certain obligations to one another. God would bless, protect and make provision for Israel, and they were to obey and serve God, so that through them God might make his appeal to the world for salvation and reconciliation. They were to be his representatives to the other nations on the earth (cf. Deut. 4:6-7). In return for the covenants and privileges Israel enjoyed, they were to become his ambassadors to the Gentiles, a light shining into their darkness (cf. Isa. 42:6; 49:6). The covenant was critical, because it embodied the grounds for Israel’s relationship with God, corporately and as individuals in that great body of people. By embracing the covenant, Israel also obligated itself to the responsibilities of the covenant, to become the vehicle of God’s redemptive approach to the rest of the world. To these terms, standing at the foot of Sinai, somewhat awed and overwhelmed, they agreed (Ex. 24:1-7). Their response was emphatic, “Everything the Lord has said, we will do” (Ex. 24, 3, 7).
But they didn’t do it, at least not consistently. Even before the ink was dry on the covenant, with Moses up on the mountain getting the plans for the tabernacle, they fell away, impatient and bored with the “new” covenant, craving something newer already. So they built a golden calf and worshiped it (Ex. 32). At the foot of the mountain, still burning with the fire of God’s presence, where not many days previously they had heard his voice reciting his commands, and the trumpet blasts from heavenly instruments getting louder and louder, they danced and cavorted before other gods and disgraced themselves by breaking the covenant and the word they had given to their savior and deliverer. And so it went on throughout their history, beginning in the wilderness with their rebellions and grumblings, disobedience and rejection of Moses. In Judges we see the whole pitiable cycle of restoration, rebellion, and redemption repeated over and over again with no decisive breakthrough into genuine lasting faith in and obedience to God. The period of the kings and prophets was no better, with first Israel, the northern kingdom, becoming so profligate that God rejected them and they were led off into captivity by the Assyrians. Next Judah, the beneficiaries of further grace on account of the promises God made to David fell into sin and rebellion, only to be deported by the Babylonians. The magnificent temple built by Solomon, which had been restored and ransacked a number of times, was finally destroyed altogether.
During the period of the kings God raised up prophets to warn his people about the path they were on, that it would lead to destruction. But no one was listening. Warnings of coming judgment went unheeded time after time, after time. The warnings came with demonstrations of God wrath, as the nation was overrun by her enemies, or as we read in the prophets, one “natural” disaster followed another because he had withdrawn his protecting and gracious hand from them in response to their apostasy.
1. Weary of the Covenant!
Israel had quickly, very quickly, grown tired of the covenant they made on Sinai and of keeping its obligations and requirements. They longed to be like other nations, free from the moral obligations and confining requirements of God’s law. What they could not wrap their minds around was that in order to be blessed and to enjoy the benefits of the covenant, they had to keep the requirements of the covenant. Partly that meant that God would dwell among his people and through his presence bless and protect them. By rejecting the covenant, they were rejecting the terms upon which God engaged himself in fellowship with them, and was acting in their interests. Their immorality and disobedience made it impossible for a holy God to dwell among them or to associate his name with theirs. It was as though they now misrepresented him to the world around them. Under those circumstances, they certainly did not represent God, because God is holy and their lifestyle, choices and conduct betrayed the righteousness of God. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back and led to God’s desertion of Israel, the temple and his people (Ezek. 8-10). There was nothing left for it except for Israel to face the wrath and judgment of God which he warned them would be forthcoming if, after accepting the covenant initially, they went back on their word. They could not undo their former commitment, they could not un-become his people. They were now doomed to face the consequences of turning away from God. They were now God’s people under the curse of his judgment and wrath. They had brought on themselves.
It was the job of the prophets like Jeremiah to announce to Israel the imminent prospect of God’s coming judgment, and to give fair warning that it was inevitable. However, the prophets also held out hope, sometimes looking far into the future and at other times into the distant but foreseeable future. Isaiah predicted the coming of Immanuel, born of the virgin, who would bring the righteous rule of God back to Israel and restore his presence among a newly redeemed people (Isa. 7:14; 9:1-7; 11:1-12:6). It is a constantly recurring theme in Ezekiel and Jeremiah that God would one day restore Israel, its nationhood and its temple under the terms of a better relationship and a better moral outcome as the result of a monumental redemptive effort and act on his part (Zech. 12:10-13:6). We know from the New Testament with the coming of Jesus, the distant foreseeable future, the Messiah came to bring redemption and to give his life as a ransom for sin (Matt. 20:28; 10:45; 1 Tim. 4:6; Heb. 9:15), opening the door to salvation not just for Israel but for all mankind (Is. 53; Mark 1:14-15; John 1:1-18). With Jesus’ impending death on the cross casting its shadow across the last Passover meal with his disciples, Jesus employs the words found in Jeremiah 31:31, to announce the imminent arrival of the new covenant in his own blood, made possible by the brokenness of his own body on the cross (Luke 22:20; 1 Cor. 11:25; 2 Cor. 3:6; Heb. 8:6, 8; 9:15; 12:24). As the lamb gave up its life for the Passover meal to commemorate death passing over the Israelites in Egypt, on the eve of that “new” covenant day, so now the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world was about to give his life to establish a genuinely “new” covenant, one God had promised many years earlier (John 1:29, 36).
2. Welcome to a New Covenant!
That Jesus saw himself as the Lamb of God about to be sacrificed to establish a new covenant seems clear from what he said and how he administered the elements of the last Passover supper with his disciples. When speaking of his body being broken for them, he is clearly identifying himself with the Passover lamb, and indicating that is someway that through the sacrifice of himself he would offer something similar, the waiving of God’s wrath. By saying that the cup was his blood shed for them, he is clearly indicating that is some way his blood would be spilled out as the Passover lamb’s blood had originally been used to cause the Angel of Death to pass-over the homes of those who marked their doorways with it. In Exodus 12, this was the beginning of a new covenant with Israel, that marked their “redemption” by God as his people, so that they now “belonged” to him. God claims Israel as his people based on this redemptive act of liberating them from Egypt, not that they might go free and independent of God, but that they might be his peculiar people and particularly bound to him in a way that is consistent with the promises that he made to Abraham. Covenant is piling upon covenant, each one advancing the purposes of God in bringing about redemption and salvation to the world. The law giving at Sinai was in many ways the back-end of covenant made as a result of the Passover deliverance, the business end of it, that laid down the terms upon which Israel as God’s people could continue to live in fellowship with him and enjoy his presence and blessings. If they were to be God’s people and enjoy the privileges of that special relationship, then it would require certain things from them, things laid down by the law, particularly righteousness.
The righteousness of the law was not intended to be a sterile observance of regulations, but based on loving obedience to God (Deut. 5:10; 7:9; 10:12; 11:22; 19:9; 30:16, cf. Jos. 22:5). This is clearly laid down in Deuteronomy where the relationship between obedience and the law are clear delineated. The righteousness God was looking for from his people, whom he took to himself through redemption, was to be based on genuine love, an integrity of the heart in devotion and faith toward God. The law was never supposed to be a sterile regulatory system which had as its foundation rote obedience based on the mere exercise of wilful determination. Without love for God as its basis obedience to God was not accepted because it was not considered genuine, only begrudgingly given. So when Israel only kept the law out of obligation, but their hearts were not in it, God rejected them. Furthermore, without their hearts, keeping the regulations was mere piety and duty as a cover for their worship of other gods and for habitual sinning. It was this breakdown that resulted in Israel’s exile from the land.
3. Willingness to Reconnect!
Many hundreds of years later, Paul the Apostle would describe to the Roman church his experience with law-keeping as a good and very zealous Jew (cf. Rom. 7). Although the law is good and points to the righteousness of God, Paul concluded, it is powerless to enforce its regulations in the will and heart of the law-keeper. He found himself, by his own testimony, wanting to obey but incapable of shunning sin. Disobedience dogged his steps relentlessly, and he found no help in the law to overcome what he concluded was a deficit in his nature, that he was from birth dominated by a principle of sin deeply rooted in him. His nature was disposed to sin and he could not overcome it, and the law provided him no remedy. Furthermore, the law could not redeem him or provide him justification with God for the sins he had committed (Rom. 2-3). His dilemma was two-fold, he was both under the condemnation of God for sin, by the verdict passed on him in accordance with the law, and there was no relief to be found in the law from the propensity in his nature for sin and sinning. His final cry in Romans 7, and then in Romans 8 provide us with the relief that Paul found and breaks the tension created by the dark descriptions of Paul’s struggle earlier on in Romans 7 (Rom. 7:24-8:4). It is that through Jesus Christ he found justification and freedom from condemnation, and through the Spirit, as a result of a transformed life given to him at justification, he could now “walk by the Spirit” and fulfill the righteousness of God. Paul found that in Christ his heart was transformed and he was given access to the power of the Spirit to live obediently toward God. What Deuteronomy spoke of, the conjunction of a right heart and right conduct, Paul found through the grace of God by faith in Jesus Christ (Rom. 5:1-2).
This is precisely what God promised through Jeremiah, a “new covenant” in which the heart and conduct would co-join to produce the righteousness that God was looking for from his people (Jer. 31:33). God would write the law in their hearts and minds, and they would become his people and he would become their God once again. Because of the changes brought about by the new covenant, Israel would become God’s people in truth, obeying him because of transformed hearts and lives. Ezekiel refines this further when he speaks of the restoration of Israel by God under new circumstances. He would remove the heart of stone, the hard and unresponsive heart of Israel which had caused their alienation from him because of sin and rebellion, and give them a heart of flesh, tender toward God and his righteousness. He would infuse them with a new S(s)irit, one that was obedient toward God and persistent in obeying him, in order that the righteousness he was looking for would come out of a new way of dealing with them, a new covenant, if you like (Ezek. 36:22-32). What Ezekiel and Jeremiah were proposing was that God would alter how his people related to him by establishing with them a new covenant that would effectively bring together the two critical components of Deuteronomy, a right heart with God producing right conduct before God and for him.
Israel, having lost its connection with God through disobedience and rejecting the covenant, was offered a future re-connection through a new covenant involving powerful new terms and operating principles. The New Testament actually gives us the inauguration of this new covenant through Jesus, his death and resurrection. Paul develops the theme in his letters, particularly Romans and Galatians where he speaks of transformative justification by grace and faith, and a righteousness of conduct through grace by the operation of the indwelling Spirit, producing mature godliness in those saved by God (cf. Rom. 6:1-8:17; Gal. 5:13-26; Eph. 4:22-24; Col. 1:9-13; 2:21-23; 3:9-11). Paul fleshed out the implications of the Christ event in terms of these prophetic themes, and announced God’s grace for righteousness from first to last (Rom. 1:16-17). The new covenant had come through Christ, and in the power of the Spirit there was genuine hope for righteousness of conduct and godliness of character, the things God had been looking for in his people.
The call and promise of God in Jeremiah is for a re-connection with Israel, a restoration to fellowship, a reconciliation. But the prophets made it clear that Israel was only the first stage in God’s plan to bring a message and hope of reconciliation to the whole world, to all of humanity (Isa. 42:6; 49:6). The offer of transformative salvation and a new way of life through the Spirit crystallizes in the New Testament, beginning with the gospels, where the announcement is made that the kingdom of God is finally breaking in on the present age to bring about the rule of God starting with the hearts and lives of those who will repent and believe in him through Jesus Christ (cf. Mark 1:15; Acts 26:18; Col. 1:13; 1 Pet. 1:3-5; 2:9). God is calling on men everywhere to reconnect with him in fellowship and forgiveness, in devotion and closeness through a new covenant by which Jesus has ended the reign of sin and sinning, to bring about a changed heart and a changed life, something successfully enjoined and pleasing to God. It remains only to us to make the decision whether or not we will, in fact, reconnect with God.