The New Covenant

Ex. 24:5-8; Jer. 31:31-34; Matt. 26:28; 2 Cor. 3:3-6; Heb. 10:11-12

by J. S. Blackburn
(Precious Things Vol. 4, pp. 376-384.)

I felt it right to speak this evening very largely on the subject of the new covenant. Those of you who were here this morning will remember that we had a good deal to say about the fact that the ministry of which the apostle Paul speaks to us in the early chapters of 2 Corinthians is a new covenant ministry. Now there is unquestionably a great deal of help and instruction for us in the study of what the Scriptures set before us regarding the new covenant. A very wide range of Divine truth calculated to establish, settle and strengthen us, will come before us as we meditate upon this subject.

It is right that we should first of all think about the establishment of the old covenant. So it is called in the epistle to the Hebrews where the writer says, quoting from Jeremiah, chapter 31, which we have read, "In that He says, A new covenant, He has made the first old. Now that which decays and waxes old is ready to vanish away" Hebrews 8:13. We shall learn best by contrasting the details of the new covenant with the details of the old covenant. I think we get help as to the idea of a covenant by thinking of the modern word "contract". First of all in the Old Testament the idea of a covenant is primarily the idea of a contract, in which there are two parties who put their seal to an agreement and understanding. In the later Scriptures there is another idea attached to the word covenant, and that is the idea of the last will and covenant, or testament. There is only one party to the last will and testament; he sets his seal to what is his will, and that is a real picture of the passage from the first covenant (which has now become old and is ready to vanish away) to the new covenant in which there is life and blessing and righteousness in a risen Christ.

The law of contract is one of the most ancient kinds of law, and in the primitive world of which the book of Exodus speaks, there was a very firmly established custom of making a contract. The Hebrew word to make a covenant is, straightforwardly, to cut a covenant. The kind of ritual by which a covenant, any covenant at all between men (or as in this case between God and man), was made, involved taking an animal and cutting it in two. The parties to the contract then passed between the pieces, and thus the covenant was sealed with blood. The covenant was cut and established. This is exactly what happened in the 15th chapter of Genesis. In that chapter in which there occurs the familiar passage, "He (Abram) believed in the LORD; and He counted it to him for righteousness", we read the mysterious story of how Abram took, at the command of God, beasts and birds and cut them in pieces. Then until the going down of the sun he guarded them and drove away the evil birds of the air, and when the sun went down a burning lamp passed between the pieces. There was only one individual Who passed between those pieces; it was God making a covenant in which He unconditionally promised His blessing to Abram, and the contract made was therefore, long before, on the pattern of the NEW covenant. We read in the 34th chapter of Jeremiah almost the exact words which describe this ritual, but applied this time to the OLD covenant. It says that all the children of Israel "passed between the parts thereof" and by this we understand that something like what I have referred to must have taken place in the 24th chapter of Exodus. The first covenant was cut and you will remember that Moses speaks of the book of the covenant, and the blood of the covenant, and in a later chapter he refers to the tables of the covenant. There was the book of the covenant and there was the blood of the covenant, and the blood of those pieces established and sealed the covenant.

Then in answer to the reading of the book of the covenant the people replied. "All that the LORD has said will we do". On God's side there was the promise of blessing, of entrance into the promised land, that they should be His people. On their side of the contract was, "All that the LORD has said will we do". And the terms of that contract were written in ink in a book, and they were also written with the finger of God in the tables of stone. But, alas, we read in Jeremiah 31:32, "Which My covenant they brake". That covenant immediately broke down, for at the very moment that Moses brought it down from the mountain they were found breaking its commands and worshipping a false god. In other words, so long as that covenant was a covenant in which God made promises which were conditional upon His people's obedience, then it must certainly break down. How sad would be our condition today, how little would we be able to sing with certainty and assurance and speak of our faith as soundly established, if all depended upon our fulfilling the contract and having to say. "All that the LORD has said we will do". It broke down immediately because the people could not fulfil their part of the contract. And yet God allowed this thing to work out during all the testing period of the Old Testament. I suppose it is true to say that the old covenant was never entered upon in its purity; it immediately broke down. Immediately there began to be fresh promises of the glorious future in which God would give His blessing upon a new ground altogether, and that is the ground of unconditional promise.

When we come to the prophet Jeremiah, we are at the end of that period, the end of the testing period. When everything had completely broken down in Israel, when Jerusalem was broken down and the sanctuary of the Lord was defiled, it was at that moment Jeremiah brings forward the definite promise of a new covenant, of which we are now to consider some of the leading features. In the terms of that new covenant are found a succession of promises which depend entirely upon the fact that Jehovah the God of Israel says, "I will". Let us glance at the passage in Jeremiah 31. "I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah: not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers . . . which My covenant they brake". And then in verse 33 it says, "After those days, says 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". Again in the end of verse 34. "I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more".

Here we have to pause and remember the perfectly plain statement that this new covenant was promised to the house of Israel and Judah. There is no doubt about that, and nothing that is later said in the Scriptures makes any difference to the fact that it was to be a covenant made with Israel and Judah. Yet when we come to the Scripture which speaks to us of the Lord's supper, we hear the Lord, with His disciples gathered around Him saying, "This is My blood of the new testament" Matthew 26:28. Also the ministry in which we see the glorious light that shines in Jesus Christ, the light of the knowledge of God shining in the face of Jesus, comes to us as a new covenant ministry. All this shows us clearly the principles upon which blessing from God comes to us are new covenant principles, and not old covenant principles, and that the blessing which has come to us in our day, through which we are purchased and sealed by the precious blood of Christ, stands connected with the writing in our hearts by the Spirit of God. It is an unconditional promise that attaches us, as coming under the precious blood of Christ, to the inviolable promise of the living God.

The promise of God springs from the purpose of God. The purpose of God springs from the will of God; and from the limitless depths of the Divine nature have flowed those things that are for the pleasing of God in Christ, His good pleasure in Christ. And you and I, creatures of the dust, dogs of the Gentiles, are joined to Christ and thus we have our standing in the unconditional promise of God.

There are truths which speak to us of our obligation, the new obligation that rests upon us as the disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ. It may be that we have to confess many things in which we have come short, and we still go on in forgetfulness of the word of God, in disobedience to His word. We must not underestimate the seriousness of these things, but our failure in responsibility does not alter the fact that the love of God has given us a blessing which in the end is absolutely unconditional. It is secured by the word of the living God; it is a new covenant and it depends upon His promise. Nothing could more firmly establish us, young or old, in the security of the ground upon which we stand, than these reiterated "I wills" of Jehovah the God of Israel speaking of that new covenant in which we see the principles upon which the blessing of God has come to us. To summarize this first point; the new covenant is a covenant of unconditional blessing, in contrast with the old covenant which depended upon the people's promise, "All that the LORD has said will we do".

For the second feature we read in Matthew, chapter 26, the wonderful truth that it is a new covenant sealed by the precious blood of Christ. A person reading in the Old Testament might possibly find himself in dark and difficult pages when he read the prophet Jeremiah; but when he came to the 31st chapter he would say, "Here is a wonderful thing; here are the most wonderful words that have ever been uttered; here is a new covenant promise; here is God saying 'I will write it in their hearts; I will give them a new nature; I will forgive their sins'." And yet it all seemed to pass by; years and years passed, and so far as one can see the very next reference to the new covenant is in the words of the Saviour when He said, "This is My blood of the new testament". Here was the moment at which the work was done which established and sealed and settled that covenant. It was established on better sacrifices, as we read in Hebrews, than the sacrifices which established and sealed the old covenant. It is a new covenant, sealed by the blood of Christ. What a wonderful truth we have in hymn No. 43! I once passed it by, many, many times without realizing its beauty.

But Christ the spotless Lamb,
Took all our guilt away,
A sacrifice of nobler name,
And richer blood than they.

In the first part of the passage we read in Hebrews it is reiterated again and again that that one sacrifice has for ever availed with God, it can never be repeated. There are many errors of the church of Rome which one might try to understand and see how they have gradually perverted Christian truth, but there is one thing in which there is a flat denial of the very basis of Christian truth, and this must never be obscured by other things that may seem to be attractive to us. It is the pernicious doctrine of the continually repeated sacrifice of the Mass. The Spirit of God has said "By one offering He hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified". That sacrifice can never be repeated and thus the new covenant on the ground of which blessing has come to us, is a new covenant sealed by the blood of Christ.

Next, I would refer to the passage in 2 Corinthians, ch. 3, and I wonder whether we have clearly seen the wonderful change that has come about in connection with what is brought out there. It is the promise of Jeremiah 31. "I will put My law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts". Before we received the gospel we had to charge ourselves with the fact that those things which are pleasing to God we had not done, and those things which are displeasing to God we had done. In sins of omission and sins of commission we had flouted the holy law of God, and His will had not been done in us and through us. Then we receive the blessed truth that on the ground of this one sacrifice our sins and iniquities are remembered no more. Would any of us think that God had given up the fact that He must be obeyed? Would anyone believe that God has given up looking, and in His heart yearning, for a response and for fruit from those people upon whom His love has been set? A thousand times NO. But God has taken a new way to bring it about, by the work of Christ which is the basis of it, and by the gift of the Spirit consequent upon the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. Instead of bringing this about, or instead of establishing a covenant directed to bring this about, by writing His will in the book of the covenant in ink or in the tables of stone by His own finger, God has given us in our inward parts, a new nature, which empowered by the Spirit of God, delights to do His will.

I feel we often miss in studying Romans 7 one of the results of the introspective process which is there described. The apostle in effect says, The things that I want to do I don't do, and the things that I don't want to do I do. The premises are plain and by the most rigorous logic he draws the conclusion, the inference. If the I that acts is not doing the things that the I that wills desires, then the I that wills has lost control of the I that acts, and some alien power is there. It is therefore "no more I that do it, but sin that dwells in me". "O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?" But this is not the only result of the process of looking within. You and I might be simple Christians, young or old, but there is another discovery made by looking inside. There is within us by the work of God, and by this new covenant process, the I that delights after the inner man in the law of God; the man of Psalm 1. He delights in the law of God, "and in His law doth he meditate day and night". You would probably not be here if that inner man was not in existence. God by this new covenant process has put His law in our inward parts and by His Holy Spirit He is writing there His will. What a wonderful thing it is that we are blessed in the terms of a new covenant! And since the Spirit of God has been given to empower us to carry out these things we have set before us the wonderful opportunity of doing and saying and thinking those things which, being characteristic of our Lord Jesus Christ, are a sweet savour to God, and also a sweet savour to others. Thirdly, then, the new covenant is a covenant written in our hearts.

Finally in the 10th chapter of Hebrews, we learn that we have a new covenant through which there is access to the holiest of all. There is no doubt about the striking intention of the Spirit of God to contrast the words in the 9th chapter of Hebrews, which describe the service and sanctuary explicitly connected with the old covenant, with the features of the new covenant. "The way into the holiest of all was not yet made manifest, while as the first tabernacle was yet standing". But after that blessed sacrifice, after the witness of the Holy Ghost that our sins and iniquities are remembered no more, we read, "Having therefore, brethren, boldness to enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way, which He has consecrated for us, through the veil, that is to say, His flesh". The figurative and temporal worship centred in the tabernacle and the temple, when material animals were brought and were offered to God (and in a figurative way presented what was acceptable and pleasing to Him) was but the shadow, not the substance. The worship connected with that old covenant was but the shadow; but we live in the day, when our Lord Jesus Christ has come and has said to us each one, "The Father seeks such to worship Him", and by the shedding of His blood, by His perfect sacrifice and by the witness of the Spirit that our sins and iniquities are remembered no more, we have access as holy worshippers, there to worship the Father "in Spirit and in truth". And so lastly we have a new covenant where there is access into the holiest.

As point by point we go over these things, they set before us a most wonderful range of Divine truth, calculated to stablish, strengthen and settle us.

Let us give thanks to God for the wonderful wealth of blessing that has come to us by this new covenant ministry and bring ourselves in humility and prayer to the Lord that this wonderful work of writing Christ on our hearts, may go forward; and that, mirroring the glory of the Lord, we may be changed into the same image.