In the Hebrew Scriptures, judgment upon the people of God was always a result of Israel’s rebellion in turning from God to worship the idols and false gods of the land, despite repeated efforts on the part of God to call them back to faithfulness within the covenant. One can trace how the greater theme of blessings for obedience and consequences for disobedience, first introduced in and intrinsic to the Mosaic covenant, became a preview of Jewish history. Israel’s continual breaking of the covenant is central to the Old Testament at large. Yet despite Israel’s repeated disobedience and rebellion, her future, final restoration and salvation is clearly promised — and finds ultimate fulfillment and significance in the New Testament in Christ the Jewish Messiah.
In Leviticus 26, we are given a preview of Jewish history. This chapter also points out the principle of the Mosaic covenant: blessings for obedience and consequences for disobedience. The specific conditions are: “If you walk in my statutes and keep my commandments …” (Lev 26:3), then Israel will receive all the specific blessings mentioned. “But if you do not obey me and do not carry out these commandments …” (Lev 26:14), then, God goes on to show, there will be waves of judgment. Sadly, the Hebrew Scriptures reveal most of Israel’s history would be spent living in disobedience rather than obedience.
But God was never quick to issue judgment. Repeatedly God cries and pleads to and for his people. Throughout the whole of the Hebrew Scriptures, God is portrayed as moving slowly and regretfully toward judgment. Hosea forcefully conveys the agony God experiences in coming to the decision to eject Israel from the land. God’s pain is evident as he cries out through the prophet, “How can I give you up Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel?” (Hosea 11:8) The Scriptures bear ample witness to God’s patience with his people and the efforts he repeatedly makes to call them back to faithfulness within the covenant.
Then in Jeremiah chapter 31, we have an announcement of the coming of a “new covenant”. This proclamation is perhaps Jeremiah’s foremost contribution to theology. He begins with the prophetic words, “Behold, the days are coming…” (Jer 31:31a), which puts the prophecy into the prophetic future. In those days, “I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah” (Jer 31:31b). Not only will this be another covenant, it will be made with both houses of Israel. God then contrasts it with the older Mosaic covenant. He makes the distinction that, “It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt.” (Jer 31:32) This will not be merely a further elaboration of the Mosaic covenant. God says it will be separate and distinct from the one he made with Moses. It is ultimately to replace the Mosaic covenant, which was now considered “broken” (Jer 31:32b).
So how does this “new covenant” prophesied by Jeremiah almost 600 years before the birth of Christ, ultimately find its fulfillment in Jesus and the New Testament? When Jesus instituted the Communion at the Passover meal on the night before he was crucified, he took the bread, broke it and distributed it among his disciples. But when he took the cup, he added these words: “This cup is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20). Jesus speaks of this as the new covenant; the new arrangement; the new agreement; from which the life of all who know him will be lived.
In reference to this, the author of Hebrews spends page after page illuminating why this new covenant, introduced through Jesus, is superior to the older one. Jesus is the guarantee of a new and a better covenant (Heb 7:22), a new kind of relationship between man and God. While the old covenant was based on law, justice and obedience, the new covenant is based on love and the perfect sacrifice of Christ. The old covenant was based on man’s achievement while the new one is based on God’s love. Under the new covenant, a right relationship with God can be a living reality, not through following a list of rules, but through having a right heart. Unlike the old covenant which was for the nation of Israel only, the new covenant relates to and is for all people. The wall of partition which essentially kept the Gentiles from enjoying the spiritual blessings of the covenant has been broken down. Through Jesus, God has provided a new and better way to relate to him than was possible during the Old Testament period. He calls this better way the “New Covenant.”