Christian Education, Scripture, The Church, The Gospel, The Lord's Supper, Theology

Declaration: The Covenant Recipients

Who are the recipients of the new covenant? While not wanting to get into the baptism question (because Jeremiah isn’t talking about baptism in the slightest), without question this is one of those very disputed questions in Reformed circles. Let’s look at what the text says, rather than go to this or that system for an answer.

It is clear from history that the unfolding of the three parts of this passage (see Part 2) take place chronologically. The new covenant has been established because the Jews were brought back to their land. Our passage continues, “I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah” (Jer 31:31; Heb 8:8). It might seem evident who this is talking about. Some think it is literal biological Jews only. Others think it is Christians and their infants. Other think it is “the elect” (some taking that to mean even the elect before they are born). What is it talking about?

First, we have to see that Hebrews isn’t applying this to the nation of Israel, but to the Church. Somehow, Hebrews has interpreted “house of Israel” and “house of Judah” as the Church. There is no other explanation for how he could apply the new covenant to the church unless this is what he was doing. So how can that be?

Judah and Israel: Jesus as Covenant Recipient

Here, we have to remember that covenants are always mediated by covenant heads. When God made a covenant with the world, he made it with Adam and then Noah who both represented the world. When God made a covenant with Israel, he made it with Abram who represented his people, and so on. We have seen that Jesus is the one making the new covenant with his bride. In Part 2, we saw that he did this with his blood. But to have blood means that you are a human being. Gods don’t bleed! But the God-man bled. It is this humanity of Jesus that becomes so important in a new way.

Jesus’ death is the climax of three plus years of priestly ministry acted out to perfection (indeed, his entire life was one of perfect obedience). Matthew is a good example of how Jesus’ life is set up to emulate Israel’s life. Born from the stock of Jewish kings (Matt 1), he is a Hebrew of Hebrews. When he is two, a king tries to kill him, so he goes down to Egypt (Matt 2). He returns from Egypt and goes through the waters of baptism, as Israel was led through the Red Sea out of Egypt (Matt 3). He goes into the wilderness and is tempted for a period of “forty,” but he obeys and does not fall into temptation (Matt 4). He goes up to a mountain where he gives the law, just as Moses went up the mountain and received the law (Matt 5-7). He comes back down and never disobeys his God, not even to the point of death on a cross (Matt 8ff).

The point Matthew is making is that Jesus is True Israel. If Jesus is True Israel, then he is the True Recipient of the new covenant. Among several reasons, this is a significant one that led early Reformed Baptists to see the new covenant as the historical manifestation of that eternal covenant made before time (sometimes called the Covenant of Redemption). Jesus is being given “the covenant of grace” (a theological, not biblical phrase) because of his perfect obedience and fulfillment of all the old covenants. If you want to know what “Israel” or “Judah” means, look no further. Until we come to accept that Jesus Christ is true Israel, we will never be able to understand what he actually did for the whole world. The new covenant won’t make any sense.

Judah and Israel: The Church as Covenant Recipient “in Christ”

Now, remember that in the OT, the house of Israel is called the vine (Isa 5:1-7). But in the NT, Jesus is called The Vine (John 15:1-5). Why? Because Jesus is True Israel. But then Jesus says something amazing. Any who are branches in the Vine have abundant life. The idea is that to be in the Vine is to be part of the Vine. Christians have their life “in Christ.” To put that another way, they have their life “in True Israel.” Thus, the Church is actually what is being predicted by Jeremiah. Let’s look a little more carefully to see how.

Using a different metaphor, listen to what Jeremiah said earlier in his book. The prophet lumps the two houses in with all of the nations. They are no different in this respect: “Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will punish all those who are circumcised merely in the flesh–Egypt, Judah, Edom, the sons of Ammon, Moab, and all who dwell in the desert who cut the corners of their hair, for all these nations are uncircumcised, and all the house of Israel are uncircumcised in heart” (Jer 9:25-26). Circumcision is obviously hugely important for the covenant God made with Israel through Abraham. But if you do not have a circumcised heart, then to God, you are as good as a pagan. And this is found in the OT!

Just here, I want us to move ahead for a moment to Jer 33:33/Heb 8:10, and one of the promises found regarding the new covenant. “I will put my laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts.” “On their hearts” language is closely related to being circumcised in heart, and other new covenant prophecies confirm this. This idea of being circumcised in heart is found in Jeremiah 4:4, “Circumcise yourselves to the LORD; remove the foreskin of your hearts, O men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem; lest my wrath go forth like fire, and burn with none to quench it, because of the evil of your deeds.” This is in turn found in Deuteronomy. “Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn” (Deut 10:15).

But of course, it isn’t possible for a man to circumcise his own heart. Moses told the people that it was in God’s power to do so, but as of the end of Deuteronomy, he hadn’t done it yet. “But to this day the LORD has not given you a heart to understand or eyes to see or ears to hear” (Deut 29:4). God refused to do that in those days in order that the new covenant promises might come to us today. Moses foresaw this and prophesied, “The LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live” (Deut 30:6). This is a new covenant prophecy.

Now let’s think about Ezekiel. This prophet talks about the same new covenant, only he calls it a “covenant of peace” (Ezek 37:26-28).[1]I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh” (Ezek 36:25-26).

Take all of this and come to the NT and suddenly you start seeing the fulfillment in the church. Listen to the language of being a Jew from this passage in Romans, “No one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God” (Rom 2:28-29). This is what Jeremiah was driving at, and in the first part actually said. This is what Ezekiel was looking forward to as well.

But Paul is talking about the Gentiles being True Jews. This was in accordance with many prophecies. Isaiah puts it this way, “In that day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria, and Assyria will come into Egypt, and Egypt into Assyria, and the Egyptians will worship with the Assyrians. In that day Israel will be the third with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth, whom the LORD of hosts has blessed, saying, ‘Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my inheritance” (Isa 19:23-25). This goes all the way back to the covenant promise to Abraham that he would be the father of many nations.

We have only looked at the prophecy of a new heart and circumcision, but this one idea can help us see why the NT uses all sorts of “Israel” language to talk about the Church. It calls us “true Jews” (Rom 2:29), “the circumcision” (Php 3:3);[2]the Israel of God” (Gal 6:16),[3]the temple of God” (1 Cor 3:16),[4]Abraham’s children” (Rom 4:16);[5]the new Jerusalem” (Rev 21:2),[6]the bride” (Eph 5:25),[7]a kingdom of priests” (Rev 5:10; cf. Ex 19:6),[8] and even the term Ekklesia (Church) are straight out of the OT language used of “Israel.”[9]

Thus, when Jeremiah says that God is going to make a new covenant with the house of Judah and Israel, we have to understand the organic relationship between the nation of Israel and the church. The church is Israel “in Christ.” The first stage of the prophecy was with the nation of Israel—they were brought back to the Land. The second stage comes once the Gentiles are grafted into the vine, which is not the nation of Israel, but Jesus Christ who is True Israel. The nation is a type of Christ. This is why Hebrews can take a prophecy that seems to be for the nation only, and apply it to the church of Jesus. The NT everywhere sees the church as the eschatological fulfillment of national Israel. That doesn’t mean the biological people called Jews cease to be Jews anymore than Italians or Chinese cease to be those. It does mean that in Christ, all are one nation—there is no Jew or Greek (Gal 3:28).

We have now taken the first of two important steps in identifying the recipients of the new covenant. We have seen that it is Christ who receives this covenant and who then cuts it in his own blood for his bride. Next time, we will look at what this means regarding the oldness and the newness of the new covenant and how this helps us further identify the covenant recipients.

— — — — — —

[1]I will make a covenant of peace with them. It shall be an everlasting covenant with them. And I will set them in their land and multiply them, and will set my sanctuary in their midst forevermore. My dwelling place shall be with them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Then the nations will know that I am the LORD who sanctifies Israel, when my sanctuary is in their midst forevermore.” (Ezek 37:26-28). “Covenant of peace” is the language of the Phinehas priestly covenant. Ezekiel’s language here is completely temple focused, as is the ritual of sprinkling. See last week’s sermon for more on the priestly covenant and its relation to the new covenant.

[2]We are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh.

[3]And as for all who walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God.

[4]Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?

[5]… not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all.”

[6]And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.”

[7] See n. 14.

[8]You have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth” (Rev 5:10); “You shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exod 19:6).

[9] See Deut 4:10; 9:10; 18:16; 23:2-4; 31:10; etc.

(by: Doug Van Dorn)

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