For he finds fault with them when he says: “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt. For they did not continue in my covenant, and so I showed no concern for them, declares the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And they shall not teach, each one his neighbor and each one his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.”
In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away. – Hebrews 8:8-13 ESV
In this passage, the author of Hebrews uses the Old Testament to prove his point and bolster his case. He quotes from Jeremiah 31:31-34. In this passage, Jeremiah, the prophet, tells the rebellious people of Israel that they day is coming when God will do four things for them. Back in verse six, the author of Hebrews refers to these four things as the “better promises”. Each of theses four promises fall under the new covenant, that will not be like the old covenant He had made with their fathers in the wilderness. God said that when the new covenant was enacted, He would put His law into their minds and write them on their hearts. In other words, their motivation for obeying God would be internal and not external. They would have the capacity to obey Him willingly and gladly. He also promised that they would be His people and that He would be their God. That speaks of a unique and special relationship, even better than the one they had enjoyed during their days in the wilderness and as His chosen people living in the land of promise. The history of the people of Israel was one marked by blessing and cursing, faithfulness and apostasy. And ultimately, God was forced to give them over into the hands of their enemies, as punishment for their failure to remain obedient and faithful to Him. That is why He says, “they did not continue in my covenant, and so I showed no concern for them” (Hebrews 8:9b ESV).
The third promise God said would come with the new covenant was an intimate relationship with Him – for all Jews. They would no longer need to be taught about God, because they would know Him closely and personally. Finally, God promised that the new covenant would bring complete and permanent forgiveness of their sins. No more sacrifices would be needed. No more threat of punishment, condemnation or death.
When God spoke these words through Jeremiah, He was indicating that the old covenant was on its way out. Not long after this the people of God would find themselves taken captive by the Babylonians and living in exile. There would be no more temple and therefore, no more sacrificial system. Jerusalem, the city of God, would be a wasteland, destroyed by the Babylonians. And even when they were graciously returned to the land by God 70 years later, the temple they rebuilt would be a shadow of its former self. The great city of Jerusalem would never achieve the glory or status it had once enjoyed in the days of King David and his son, Solomon. Over the following centuries, the Israelites would find themselves a conquered people, living under the heavy yoke of a long line of conquering kings, all the way up to the occupation of Rome in the days of Jesus.
But the promises God gave them in association with the new covenant were fulfilled, in part, with the coming of Jesus. His death, burial and resurrection made them possible. That is why Jesus, on the night He shared His last Passover meal with the disciples, told them, “This cup is the new covenant between God and his people – an agreement confirmed with my blood, which is poured out as a sacrifice for you” (Luke 22:20 NLT). The sacrificial death of Jesus made possible the new covenant. And with the coming of the new, the old became obsolete. Even at the time the letter of Hebrews was written, the old covenant, based on the Mosaic law, was passing away. With the destruction of the temple by the Romans in A.D. 70, the sacrificial system was brought to an end. Jesus had predicted this event when He shared with His disciples, “Do you see all these buildings? I tell you the truth, they will be completely demolished. Not one stone will be left on top of another!” (Matthew 24:1-2 NLT).
In using the passage from Jeremiah, the author of Hebrews is telling his Jewish readers that God is not yet done with the people of Israel. The promises found in Jeremiah were specifically for the people of Judah and Israel. But Gentile believers have been grafted in to the family of God and have become descendants of Abraham. That is what Paul meant when he wrote, “if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise” (Galatians 3:29 ESV). Paul also wrote that “you Gentiles, who were branches from a wild olive tree, have been grafted in. So now you also receive the blessing God has promised Abraham and his children, sharing in the rich nourishment from the root of God’s special olive tree” (Romans 11:17 NLT). But while the Gentiles have been included in to the promises of God found in Jeremiah 31, He fully intends to fulfill those promises made to His chosen people. That is the point the author of Hebrews is trying to make. There is no reason for them, as Jewish Christians, to fall back to their reliance on the old covenant with its rules, rituals and regulations. It could not save or sanctify anymore than it could back in the days of Moses, David and Solomon. He has been trying to get them to understand that Jesus has ushered in something far greater and better. A better high priest. A better covenant based on better promises. A better sacrifice. A better mediator. A better outcome altogether.
And to those Gentiles who enjoy a restored relationship with God through faith in Jesus Christ, the new covenant has brought freedom from law-keeping and self-righteousness. Obedience and faithfulness to God is no longer based on external motivators or the keeping of rules and ritual. It is based on the indwelling Spirit of God who encourages and empowers us to live in faithful service to God. We don’t have to earn His favor, we already have it. That is why Paul reminds us,
We are confident of all this because of our great trust in God through Christ. It is not that we think we are qualified to do anything on our own. Our qualification comes from God. He has enabled us to be ministers of his new covenant. This is a covenant not of written laws, but of the Spirit. The old written covenant ends in death; but under the new covenant, the Spirit gives life. – 2 Corinthians 3:4-6 NLT