I Will Make a New Covenant
with the House of Israel
"See, The days are coming," says Adonai,
"when I will establish over the house of Israel
and over the house of Y'hudah a new covenant.
"It will not be like the covenant which I made with their fathers
on the day which I took them by their hand
and led them forth out of the land of Egypt;
because they, for their part, did not remain faithful to my covenant;
so I, for my part, stopped concerning myself with them," says Adonai.
For this is the covenant which I will make
with the house of Israel after those days," says Adonai:
"I will put my Torah in their minds and write it on their hearts;
I will be their God and they will be my people;
"None of them will teach his fellow-citizen
or his brother, saying, 'Know Adonai!"
For all will know me, from the least of them to the greatest,
because I will be merciful toward their wickedness
and remember their sins no more."
(Heb.8:8b-12, JNT; cp. Jer.31:30-33)
Brethren, I wish today to address you on the subject of what the New Covenant described by the prophet Jeremiah, and discussed by the apostle Paul in his letter to the Hebrews, actually means for New Covenant Christians and for those seeking to understand what the true Gospel of Jesus Christ is. There are many misconceptions as to what the "New Covenant" actually is and so therefore today I intend to examine this important topic in the minutest detail.
To properly understand what is meant by "New Covenant" it is essential that we understand the Hebrew background in which the concept was birthed and found expression. We must, at all costs, avoid trying to force ancient Hebrew concepts into our modern neo-Greek ones. In short, we must learn to think and feel as the Hebrews did.
To this end I am going to employ the Jewish New Testament, one of our three standard Bibles, to get to the heart of what the New Covenant is. For those of you who are not familiar with this translation, it is an attempt to get back to the original Aramaic in which the Gospel was first lived and preached. It is inevitable that when you try to express concepts in a foreign language, as Greek was, that something will be lost in transmission. Words which in Greek may have multiple meanings, because of its sophistication as a language of philosophy with its pagan implications, often only have one Hebrew/Aramaic equivalent. It is also important to realise that the New Testament is a Hebrew book about Hebrew theology -- it is about the God of the Hebrews and the Hebrew Messiah. As such, then, Hebrew may be said to be a divine language since it was shaped by the need to express God's will over two millennia. Greek, on the other hand, owes its roots to paganism.
Therefore the Jewish New Testament version which we use may include some words which are not familiar to our European or American ears. We have grown so accustomed to gentile translations of the Bible that we rarely think twice about the meanings of the original Hebrew or Greek which formed them. But I'm afraid we must do if we are to obtain a crystal-clear picture of just what the true Christian faith is.
Paul's letter to the Hebrews was written specifically to Jews in the Hebrew language. According to Clement of Alexandria, "the letter is Paul's and it was written to Hebrews in the Hebrew language and translated [into Greek] by Luke" (Eusebius' History of the Church). The fact that the diction is a little different to Paul's other letters in Greek (which used a very simple, unpolished form) suggests that it was written in Hebrew and then rendered in Luke's own polished style of Greek. This difference of style has led many to suppose that Paul was not the author.
Most importantly for us is the fact that Hebrews is a Jewish document written in the Jewish mind-frame, as the title alone suggests.
More Than Meets The Eye
To demonstrate the Jewishness of this epistle let us first begin by looking at the term "baptism". According to most Christian denominations, we require baptism only once. The result has been a serious mistranslation of Heb.6:1-2. A typical modern translation says:
"Therefore let us leave the elementary teachings about Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again the foundation of repentance from acts that lead to death, and of faith in God, instruction about baptisms, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgement" (Heb.6:1-2, NIV).
The Jewish New Testament better renders the text as follows:
"Therefore, leaving behind the initial lessons about the Messiah, let us go on to maturity, not laying again the foundation of turning from works that lead to death, trusting God, and instructions about washings, s'mikhah (ordination/ laying on of hands), the resurrection of the dead and eternal punishment" (Ibid.., JNT).
These are Jewish Christians Paul is talking to, Christians born and raised in Judaism. He is trying to show them from the Tanakh (Old Testament) that Jesus Christ is our cohen gadol (High Priest) and that the old Levitical Priesthood has been transformed into the new Malki-Tzedek (Melchezidek) Priesthood. He makes extensive use of Jewish rituals and ordinances to explain his point.
Now modern translations render the Greek baptismôn into the familiar "baptism" which is the normal New Testament word for the immersion which accompanies those coming to faith (Ac.2:37; 8:38; 16:32). But here baptismôn can only possibly mean washings or purifications, of which the initial immersion (baptism) is but one. The Messianic Jewish readers would have been familiar with this subject, since the Tanakh speaks of such purifications at many places also -- see also Jn. 13:3-17 & Heb.10:22. Similarly, a Jew would have clearly understood that s'mikhah, the laying on of hands (see Mt.21:23), referred to ordination of an individual for a particular task of ministry by the elders of a congregation, as with Paul at Ac.13:1 and Timothy at 1 Tim.4:14. The Jews were familiar with such ordinations of Judges, Elders or Rabbis (teachers), and Jesus Himself would have been ordained in this way to be a Rabbi. Indeed, the Hebrew s'mikhah transliterates the Greek exousia meaning "authority". The laying on of hands in the Tanakh is the symbolic act that confers or transfers an office, along with its duties and privileges, by dramatising God's bestowal of the blessings and giftings needed for the work. This practice is traced back to Moses' ordination of Joshua and of 70 elders (Num.11:16-17, 24-25; 27:18-23; Dt.34:9). One thus ordained was granted the right to judge and decide points of halakhah by a board of three elders, today reflected in the New Covenant Church, for example, the Pastorate consisting of a Pastor and two counsellors.
This is one of several evidences that the first Christians received, in addition to the chief baptism symbolising complete trust in Christ, several other "washings" or "purifications" in order to help lead them onto maturity. Though a case may be made here for "baptisms" referring to the baptism of water and the baptism of fire, its primary meaning is not that in this context but to ordinances connected with purification or sanctification.
To impress upon you the vital importance of reading the scriptures correctly in their proper context, and not reading into them what we expect or want, let me give you one other important example.
I am sure you have all heard about the scripture references to Melchizedek in Genesis and Hebrews. A fantastic amount of speculation has resulted from a misunderstanding of these passages, with some saying that Melchizedek had no father or mother, that he was a materialisation of Christ, that he was a resurrected being from another world, and so on. Part of the problem is our bad translations. Take this translation as an example:
"This Melchizedek was King of Salem and priest of God Most High...without father or mother, without genealogy, without beginning of days or end of life, like the Son of God he remains a priest forever" (Heb.7:13, NIV).
The fantasy must surely roam free with such texts! But it need not with a little bit of background knowledge of the Hebrew mind-frame. Let us consider a better rendition:
"This Malki-Tzedek, king of Salem, a cohen of God HaElyon...There is no record of his father, mother, ancestry, birth or death; rather, like the Son of God, he continues as a cohen for all time" (Heb.7:1,3, JNT).
This passage is not saying that Melchizedek had no father or mother, only that the Tanakh (Old Testament) has no record of it!! Because there is no record of Melchizedek's ancestry, the author, Paul, develops the midrash (see, The Four Modes of Scriptural Interpretation, in New Covenant Witness, July 1996 II, 36:5-11) that Melchizedek "like the Son of God, remains a priest for ever", Jesus, who had no human father (Mt.1:18-25) and who existed as the Word before His birth (Jn.1:1,14), continues to exist after His death. The midrash may be stated in this way: the Tanakh (Old Testament) presents Melchizedek in no other way than as a cohen (priest); and since the Tanakh is eternally true, Melchizedek's existence as a priest may be thought of as eternal. Such midrash-making is altogether Jewish in character; so it is irrelevant to point out, as do literal-minded critics, that Melchizedek was born of parents and died as other men. Identifying Melchizedek with an earlier incarnation of Jesus or anyone else is likewise irrelevant since it is the Tanakh which is authoritative (as Jesus clearly maintained before the devil during His three temptations in the desert) and not men's interpretations or traditions.
So you see, brethren, a little background knowledge can preclude alot of pointless speculation and false interpretation. While we are on the subject of Melchizedek I would like to pose some questions for your consideration. If the Tanakh (Old Testament) is authoritative today as it was anciently (and remember, the only changes that have been made to it are in the matter of the sacrificial system and the aspects of the Levitical Priesthood which administered that system), and if Abraham is the Patriarch of all Hebrews (Jas.2:21) and of all true Christians (Gal.3:7-9), then what system or form of government are we under today? Are we under no "system" or "government" at all, as some maintain, or are we, in fact, under the Israelite theocracy? If the physical Abraham had a physical head on earth, namely Melchizedek, who was himself under the Godhead (including the pre-incarnate Christ of whom he was a type), then who (if anyone) is our earthly "king of Salem"? Has the Israelite theocracy ever been without an earthly Judge or King? What (if anything) is the "Christian Israelite theocracy"?
Understanding the New Covenant
I have spent some time introducing this topic to give you some Hebrew cultural background as well as to pose some questions. No we will get down to the meat.
Firstly, we must understand what the "Old" Covenant (so-called) is. For one thing, this is not a Biblical expression so I am not going to use it because it is misleading, blurring the original meaning. As far as the Bible is concerned, there is only one covenant which is brought to completion in Christ. There aren't two covenants, one old and one new. It's not as though I have an old car and then discard it for a new one. I have, rather, one car, and bring it up to peak performance by making a few modifications to it so that it becomes a "new" one. This is the sense of "Old" and "New" Covenant in the Bible, as I will show.
"If it had been possible to reach the goal through the system of cohanim (priests) derived from L'vi (Levi) (since in connection with it the people were given the Torah), what need would there have been for another, different kind of cohen, the one spoken of as to be compared with Malki-Tzedek (Melchizedek) and not to be compared with Aharon (Aaron)? For if this system of cohamim (priests) is TRANSFORMED, there must of necessity occur a TRANSFORMATION of Torah" (Heb.7:11-12).
In other words, the Old Testament Torah is transformed into Old + New Testament Torah. What has radically changed is not the Law but the system of priestly service. Instead of going to Priests as mediators between God and man, Jesus Christ is our High Priestly mediator. Similarly, the legalistic observance of Torah does not bring us to the goal of perfection -- obeying the commandments alone as a way of making us righteous with God is false; we are made right with God through faith in Christ and are brought to perfection through obedience to the commandments in Christ.
Verse 12 above shows that the only transformation in the Law (Torah) is in connection with the Levitical priesthood system of mediating between God and man. All else is the same. In place of a Levitical High Priest and Priests offering animal sacrifices we have Christ the High Priest in the Holy Place in heaven. But there is still a Priesthood on earth albeit with a different rôle. The new Priesthood is a transformation of the old one; the theocratic Priesthood has not been abolished, and you will search in vain in the New Testament to find a doctrine teaching that it has. Unfortunately bad translations compound the problem (e.g. the RSV's I"a change in the law" -- Heb.7:12, which is a perversion of nomou metathesis). The logical necessity of a transformation of the Law is found in vv.11-14. The term metathesis implies retention of the basic structure of Torah (i.e. keeping it as it is), with some of its elements rearranged ("transformed"). It does notimply abrogation of either the Torah as a whole or the mitzvot (commandments) not connected with the Levitical Priesthood and the sacrificial system. As Jesus Himself said: "Don't think that I have come to abolish the Torah....I have come not to abolish but to complete" (Mt.5:17 -- see my article, The Sermon on the Mount, Part I, 1996).
There is no conflict between the Levitical Priesthood established by the Torah or Moses and that of Jesus as predicted by Psalm 110; it is not necessary to think of Jesus's Priesthood as superseding the Levitical one. Numbers 25:12 speaks of God's "covenant of an everlasting priesthood" with Aaron's son. How can something which is everlasting be abolished? It can, however, be transformed. That is why there is still a "Christian Levitical Priesthood" today -- not a priesthood of intermediaries offering animal sacrifices to cover the sins of the people, but a priesthood of servant workers or helpers -- the Deacons and Deaconesses -- the DEACONATE.
But the Deaconate itself is not complete. Jesus' Priesthood -- the Melchizedek Priesthood -- "is far superior to theirs (the Levites), just as the covenant He mediates is better" (Heb.8:6a, JNT). Literally translated, Jesus's Priesthood "is as far superior to theirs as the covenant He mediates is better." And naturally so, since He has brought that covenant to completion.
What is this "covenant"? It is the covenant spoken of by Jeremiah as quoted in vv.8-12 above. It is better than the covenant Moses mediated at Mount Sinai, as proved by vv.6b-13, just as my car with a more powerful engine is "better" than the one with the less powerful engine.
We must clearly understand the process of covenant development here. Some are confused by the term "eternal" covenant, believing that a covenant which is an eternal covenant cannot be modified or added to. But this does not follow at all. The eternal covenant of God with Abraham did not prevent God from making an eternal covenant with Moses, nor did the covenant of Moses cancel the covenant with Abraham: "..no one can set aside or add to a human covenant that has already been duly established...the promises were spoken to Abraham and his seed..the law (Torah), introduced 430 years later, does not set aside the covenant previously established by God and thus do away with the promise ..(Gal.3:15-17, NIV).
Some object saying, "I don't need the Old Covenant -- I have the New". But this is just an expression of emotion. If one rejects the "Old" Covenant then one is rejecting the New as well -- that's like me accepting modifications made to a car but not the car itself!
Some object saying that the New Covenant has nothing to do with any outward system of organised religion. But if you read the text clearly, the Lord tells Jeremiah says that He will establish this New Covenant with the House of Israel and the House of Judah. He did not say that He would establish it with "Gentiles" or with "Israelites" and "Jews" -- but with the House (theocratic nation) of Israel and the House (theocratic nation) of Judah (not the modern Israeli secular republic).
Jesus introduced the New Covenant not to gentiles (Englishmen, Americans, Norwegians, Zambians, Romans, Greeks, Chinese, Indians, etc.) but exclusively with Israelites in a Jewish State (albeit under foreign occupation) at a Passover Seder (Lk.22:15-20). More specifically, He announced this Covenant to His 12 talmidim (disciples) who, Jesus explained moments later, are in a special representative relationship with the Twelve Tribes of Israel as their judges (Lk.22:30; cp. Mt.19:28; Rev.21:12-14). Jesus has thus transferred authority both SPIRITUALLY and GOVERNMENTALLY from the Pharisees, Sadducees and Torah teachers (scribes) to the 12 Apostles! He has established theocratic government in their hands. And it is the 12 tribes of Israel of whom Jeremiah speaks collectively when he writes, "the house of Israel and the house of Y'hudah". How do Gentiles (Europeans, Americans, Africans, and Asians) enter this Covenant? By being grafted into Israel (Rom.11:17-24; Eph.2:11-16).
Of the Gentiles Paul says: "..remember your former state: you Gentiles by birth -- called the Uncircumcised by those who, merely because of an operation on their flesh, are called the Circumcised -- at that time had no Messiah. You were estranged from the NATIONAL LIFE OF ISRAEL. You were foreigners to the covenants embodying God's promise.." (Eph.2:11-12, JNT).
To be a true Christian is therefore to become a citizen of a theocratic state -- Israel. "But," you might say, "the Lord says He will put the covenant in the people's minds and write it on their hearts, so we don't need an external state or theocracy!" Or you might say: "The Law (Torah) is already in our minds and in our hearts -- so we don't need an external one!"
But my friend, if you say that, then you are saying that you have become the living embodiment of Torah. You will be saying that you know everything and don't need to be taught by anyone. So the question is: are you sure you know everything? The Torah is the body of laws and instructions given to Moses for the people, consisting of both the written and the oral Law. Therefore someone with the Torah written on his heart should be shomer-mitzvot -- obedient to all the commandments. Can you say with your hand and your heart that you are obedient to all the commandments? If you are found lacking, then the Law is not written on your heart! I must truthfully say that I have never met a living soul -- even in those whose character is exemplary -- who are obedient to all the commandments. If you are receiving instruction from anyone at any time, then you are not fulfilling the prophecy of Jeremiah, for "none of them will teach his fellow citizen" (Heb.8:11a, NIV). You must truly be without fault (without sin) and without need of any instruction (whether oral or written). You must be able to say that you truly "know God" (v.11b). You must be a citizen of a theocratic society -- either the Israeli state itself (which isn't yet Christian) or of a theocratic order (a firstborn community) -- in short, you must be perfect.
Having the Torah in one's mind and written on one's heart is Scriptural language for being holy. The path to holiness begins with trusting God and His Son Jesus, and following this path is a process, not an instantaneous event -- believers to not suddenly become perfect. A genuine follower of Jesus will have an inner desire to please God. So that he understands more and more of what God wants and expects of him, he will be increasingly prepared and empowered by the Holy Spirit to do it. On the other hand, a professed follower of Jesus still has free will and can resist "the finger of God" writing on his heart. None of this negates God's action (Rom.3:3-4), which He has been accomplishing according to the terms of the New Covenant ever since Jesus inaugurated it, of gradually writing His Torah on the heart of any willing person,. Jew or Gentile, who puts his trust in Jesus the Messiah.
Everyone under the New Covenant has Torah to observe. That is the plain sense of the phrase, "I will put My Torah in their minds and write it on their hearts." It is not some new Torah, different from the Old Testament Torah. It is the one and only Torah, understood in the spirit of the Messiah, "as upheld by the Messiah" (Gal.6:2). Christian theology all too often tries to escape or water down the plain sense of what is said here, so that what is required is very little, usually a vague "sensitivity to God's will" that becomes impossible to pin down. Not infrequently the motivation for devising such theology has been to portray or create separation, spiritual distance and invidious comparison between the "Jews" and the "Church", between the "Old" and the "New" Covenant/ Testaments, between "outer" and "inner", between the practical and the spiritual. But a few Christians have had a correct understanding:
"God's words through Jeremiah do not announce the coming of a new Law, but of a new principle of keeping the Law, according to which God forgives the sinner, writes the Law on his heart, brings him into a new relationship with Himself, and makes Himself known to him" (Manual of Christian Evidences for Jews, London: SPCK, 1919, I:184).
Sometimes it is objected: "None of them will teach his fellow-citizen or his brother, saying, 'Know Adonai' (Heb.8:11b). If so, why are you trying to recruit us into a Church?"
Like the individual process of becoming holy, the social process whereby everyone comes to know God is a gradual one. Social holiness cannot grow in isolation. In the centuries since Jesus' time on earth, the number of believers has grown enormously. But there are all sorts of Christian "environments", many kinds of organisation (or lack of it), many different "spirits". The prophecy, moreover, says that all will know Adonai (the Lord). Who is "all"? All Israel? All the world?
No, the prophecy is addressed to the "House of Israel" and the "House of Judah". The Lord is telling us through Jeremiah that this wonderful condition whereby the Law is fully inscribed in our minds and hearts, and further "instruction" is not needed, will not occur until every citizen of Israel and Judah knows the Lord! Do all Jews know Jesus as Messiah? Has the Lord gathered all of His gentile flock who are to be grafted into Israel? Of course not! Therefore on this point alone (as if we needed it) we know that Torah is not fully inscribed in our minds and hearts. The day of the New Covenant being fully internalised HAS NOT YET COME. So what do we continue to need? INSTRUCTION!
Since Scripture says that there will be unbelievers right up to the time the Messiah returns, the consummation of the process, when we all know God, cannot take place until the Messiah removes and punishes those who have made themselves resistant to God and the Gospel (Rev.20:11-15). Those who remain will all know God and will no longer need to teach others about Him (Rev.21-22). In other words, Jeremiah's prophecy cannot be fulfilled today -- it belongs to a future time, the Millennium. Anyone who says he is living in this condition today is therefore deluding himself if he is outside the Millennial Israel or outside an Israelite Firstborn Colony where the Torah is being lived individually and socially.
The final objection raised is that the "New Covenant" is the same as being truly born again in Christ. Thus when we truly accept Jesus Christ as our Lord and Saviour, and live by faith (whether in an organised fellowship or outside one) -- we have the New Covenant in his mind and written in our heart.
The translators of modern versions have much to answer for when it comes to people arriving at this false doctrine. A typical modern version says:
"But the ministry Jesus has received as superior to theirs (the priests of the Levitical covenant) as the covenant of which he is a mediator is superior to the old one, and is founded on better promises" (Heb.8:6, NIV).
But this is not what the original says:
"But now the work Yeshua (Jesus) has been given to do is far superior to theirs; just as the covenant he mediates is better. For this (New) Covenant has been given as TORAH on the basis of better promises" (Heb.8:6, JNT). The New Covenant has been given as Torah. This is a virtually unknown theological truth of far-reaching importance. First, although there are many, both Jews and Christians, who suppose the New Testament abrogated the Torah, the New Testament here explicitly states that it has itself been given as Torah. Obviously, if the New Testament is Torah, then the Torah has not been abrogated (cancelled). Instead, the New Testament has been given the same status as the Torah of Moses. One might say that the Torah has been expanded -- or better, that the Torah has been made more explicit.
This means that a Gentile grafted into Israel by his faith in Jesus the Messiah (Rom.11:17-24; Eph.2:8-16) has himself come into the framework of Israel's Torah. Thus a Gentile Christian can never consider himself as free from the Law as a great many do. And why does this sorry state exist? In part because the Greek word nenomothetêtai has been incorrectly translated. To my knowledge, the JNT is the only translation that gets the original sense. And why has it been translated wrong? Because of pre-conceived doctrine! Because Gentiles have tried to separate Judaism from Christianity by saying that Judaism is a "dead" religion. Our translations, sadly, reflect a deeply ingrained anti-Semitism.
So what, then, is "vanishing" or "disappearing" in Heb.8:13? Is it the "Old" Covenant? How can it be? We must remember what the main theme of the discourse in Hebrews is, namely, the Levitical Priesthood. The old sacrificial system mediated by the Levitical Priests is "ageing" and "vanishing". After the last Jewish rebellion under Bar Kokhba the Levitical system of animal sacrifice disappeared completely. Apart from a few remote Ethiopian Jews who have now been gathered to Israel, animal sacrifices have not been offered by Jewish priests. Thus Paul's prophecy came true -- within a century the Levitical system had "aged" and "disappeared".
We could go into further detail but the main points are already established. The New Covenant is the original ("Old") Covenant brought to completion by removing the shadows and types of Jesus' sacrifice and the Priesthood functions that were associated with them.
The New Covenant is both an inner as well as an outer phenomenon. It is the inner condition of man and is gradually acquired first, through faith in Christ, which is confirmed by water-baptism, and second, through gradual sanctification by obedience to Torah and symbolised by washing ceremonies. It is also a social phenomenon, the community of the saints living together in perfect harmony within an Israelite theocratic system.
But where, O where, is such a society to be found today? The truth is nowhere -- at least, not until recently, and at the very end of the 20th century.
God has raised up a people willing to obey His New Covenant Torah in all things. It is His plan to establish 12 small self-sufficient colonies around the whole world, tiny patches of theocratic Israel, spiritually networked together as a whole until the Christian Kingdom of Israel is established in the Millennium. These communities are to be microcosms of what is to obtain during the glorious reign of the Lord Jesus Christ when the New Covenant will be fully written in men's souls. This dream is but the tiniest mustard seed at the time of writing but it is about to grow into a great tree.
You are invited, if you are called of the Lord, to be a part of it. Amen.
This page was created on 12 June 1999
Updated on 12 June 1999
Copyright © 1999-2007 NCCG - All Rights Reserved