A New Beginning
I have a friend that helps run an elementary school in Rwanda. A couple of years ago, we got together, sipped coffee, and shared our stories about the ministries that God has called us to. As we shared some life together, he asked me a deep, thought-provoking and soul-searching question. He asked me what had been the most amazing thing about the first two years after I’d come to Northshore to serve as Senior Pastor? I had to think a moment. Was I going to tell him about the joy of preaching… or visioning, strategizing, and leading a church on a mission. Maybe I’d tell him about the relationships that God was developing within the congregation. But as I sat back for a moment, the thing that I had to tell him was this, “My walk with Christ has never been in a deeper place. I have never had to rely on Him so much. And in the process, I have never wanted to know Him more… never wanted to see and savor Him as much as I was beginning to experience.” You’ve got to hear me on this. I love being Northshore’s pastor, but at my funeral, being the Senior Pastor at Northshore is about the fourth thing I want said about me. The first thing I’d want said about me would be this, “I’ve never met a man who knew God more intimately than Jonathan.”
This is the quest of the Christian life… to know God intimately… to see Him for who He fully is… for His glory and for our good. And this is God’s heart for us. This is why He reveals Himself to us the way He does, so that we might see Him for who He fully is (His glory and His splendor). And in seeing and savor Him, we might experience everlasting and over-flowing joy because He is our greatest good. So the quest of the Christian journey is this…
How do we know and experience God more intimately?
The next covenant revealed in the Story of God will help us answer this question. As we have progressed through the Story of God, we are in the last installment of the chapter called “Covenant.” As we explore the “New Covenant” in Jeremiah 31:31-34, we are going to discover that what the New Covenant promises to help us know and experience our God more intimately. Here’s how Jeremiah 31:31-34 explains the New Covenant:
“Behold, days are coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,” declares the LORD. “But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the LORD, “I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. “They will not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,” declares the LORD, “for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.”
Theme #1: The Enabling presence of the Holy Spirit (vv. 31-33)
The power of this passage and this New Covenant is this–God has supernaturally enabled His people to love, know, and experience Him intimately. And here’s what should blow our minds. God has taken up residence inside of the hearts of His people through the Holy Spirit. Let’s first talk about this in the historical context of the passage, and then we’ll talk about the wider fulfillment of this promise and covenant in the New Testament.
In the covenant that God made with David, we learned that He would firmly and forever establish the David’s dynasty by promising and providing a king and a kingdom. Part of the reality of this covenant with the kings from the Davidic dynasty was “so goes the king, so goes the nation.” The king would either lead his people to God or away from Him. Not many of the kings follow after God’s heart. After Israel’s civil war, God allows the Northern tribes to be destroyed by the Assyrians and the Southern tribes to be destroyed by the Babylonians. All of this was divine discipline from the Lord upon His people Israel because they chose not to follow their God and His heart for them. They chose not to live out their calling of being a redemptive community of God for the world. So God sends His messengers, the prophets, to get them back on track with Him, back into relationship with Him where they could live out their calling to be His redemptive community for the world.
Jeremiah was one of those prophets. Jeremiah was a prophet for almost 40 years, from 627-586 BC. He witnessed the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonian army. Jeremiah’s call to the people of Judah and Israel was to turn from sin and idolatry and come back to the Lord. In that repentance, there would be a chance for a new beginning, a chance for restoration, a chance to experience a new covenant.
v. 31 – “Behold, days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah.” The word “declare” means a new revelation… a divine oath that God is entering into with His people. The word “make” here literally means, “to cut a covenant.” It refers to an unconditional agreement that God makes with His people, and this covenant was “sealed” and ratified with a sacrifice (hence to “cut” a covenant). We see this first in Genesis 15 when God makes a covenant with Abraham. Abraham sacrifices an animal and cuts it into two pieces, and the Lord walks between the two pieces. A covenant has been “cut” between God and His people. This New Covenant foreshadows a time when God would bring His people back together.
v. 32 – This New Covenant will be different from the Mosaic covenant (the covenant that God made with the people of Israel through the prophet Moses). Remember in the Mosaic covenant, the peoples’ experience of God’s blessing (not their salvation) was based upon their obedience to the Law that God gave them. As the story goes, we know that God’s people don’t live up to their part. God was like a “husband” to them. He brings in the image of faithfulness in a marriage. God was faithful to them, but Israel was unfaithful because they continually worshiped after other gods. So now God is talking about something different and new that He is going to do… something new that will enable His people to follow Him in faithfulness… for His glory and for their good.
The Promise of the Holy Spirit (v. 33). And this new thing that God will do is divine enablement through the promise and the presence of the Holy Spirit, God Himself… the enablement to obey His commands and to pursue His heart.
“I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it.” Remember that the Law is God’s heart, God’s character, God’s instruction and teaching for a life that is full of life and full of His presence. He longs for His people to live according to this Law, His heart because it is their greatest good to be in relationship with Him, which brings their greatest and everlasting joy. God would give them the enabling presence of the Holy Spirit “within them.” He would take up residence in their hearts, and He would transform them from the inside out.
The prophet Ezekiel also talks about the New Covenant in Ezekiel 36:25-27.
“Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. “Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. “I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances.
Speaking of this new transformation from the inside out, God would give His people a new heart and a new spirit through the enabling presence of the Holy Spirit, God Himself. With the presence of the Holy Spirit living inside of them, He would remove their heart of stone, that hardness of heart. He would cleanse them of their sin (more on that in a moment). He would give them a new, soft heart of flesh that would respond to His love and His heart so that they could be His people… His redemptive community for the world.
This image of taking away our heart of stone and replacing it with a heart of flesh is beautiful, but often it is a painful process. It is about transformation, which we’ll find out later is filled with life-giving joy, but the process of heart surgery is painful. It’s about casting down those idols and turning our affections back towards God. A hard heart often has to be chiseled down to get to the flesh buried underneath.
In The Chronicles of Narnia (Book 3, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader), there’s a wonderful scene where Eustace, an unbearably self-centered boy, discovers the cave of a dying dragon. The cave is full of treasures, and he imagines how rich and powerful he’ll be if he could have it all. He falls asleep dreaming of being a dragon. When he wakes up, he discovers that he has become one. Several times, after Eustace is now sorry for the way he has acted, he tries to peel the scaly dragon skin off of himself only to find a new layer underneath. Each time he thinks he has peeled the last layer, he finds it is too deep to remove. After these failed attempts, Aslan, the King Lion and Christ figure in the Chronicles, removes the dragon skin for Eustace. In Lewis’ story, Eustace retells the event like this:
The very first tear Aslan made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off….Well, he peeled the beastly stuff right off—just as I thought I’d done it myself the other three times, only they hadn’t hurt—and there it was lying on the grass; only ever so much thicker, and darker, and more knobbly looking than the others had been.
So often, we think we can do the transformation. We believe that we can accomplish the heart-change. But as this New Covenant reveals to us, it is God who does the enabling. It is God who takes the heart of stone and gives us a heart of flesh so that we might desire to know and experience Him above all else.
The New Testament Fulfillment. It is the Holy Spirit, placed inside of us by Jesus Christ that is the fulfillment of the New Covenant… the One who transforms us from the inside out… the One who takes that heart of stone and turns it into a heart of flesh. As we get into the New Testament, we find that this New Covenant extends to us Gentiles (non-Jews) as well. Remember, the New Covenant is all about the promise and enabling presence of the Holy Spirit. It’s all about the promise to put God’s heart within us. Jesus shows us with this looks like in John 14:16-17 – “I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may be with you forever; that is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it does not see Him or know Him, but you know Him because He abides with you and will be in you.”
“The Spirit of Truth” and “the Helper” – God Himself putting His truth within our hearts, helping and enabling us to desire Him above all else, and enabling re-creation for His glory and for our good.
Theme #2: The Experience of forgiveness of sin (v. 34b)
“… for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.” What a beautiful, freeing experience for the people of God. In Hebrew, this word “forgive” is only used for God forgiving us. He is pardoning us for the penalty of our sin… and He is remembering our sin “no more.” He is not holding it to our account. And we who are followers of the crucified yet risen Jesus Christ know that this has been accomplished because Jesus Christ died in our place, as our substitute. He paid the penalty for our sin. And now as Paul says in Romans 8:1-2, “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.” This new day that is promised in the New Covenant with the sending of the Holy Spirit is a day of forgiveness and freedom.
Now notice that our second point says “the experience of the forgiveness of sin.” We have been forgiven our sin, but we don’t necessarily always experience that freedom. But we need to know this… and grasp it… and experience it… and live like it. We are free because we are forgiven. A pastor named Tony Evans likes to say, “Jesus was hung up for your hang ups.” It means that you don’t have to be encumbered by all of the sin and baggage that holds you down and drags you down because Christ has freed you from that. It means you can experience forgiveness and freedom from the power of sin over your life.
The problem is that we still see ourselves as those who aren’t free. We still view ourselves as slaves to sin (remember, redemption means rescue). It’s like we’re up on the selling block, the payment has been made by Jesus Christ, the chains have been removed, but we’re not quite sure what we’re supposed to do. We stand there for a minute rubbing the raw spots on our wrists and ankles where the shackles dug into our skin, and we wonder if we should step off into the unknown realm of faith and really experience freedom. The children of Israel wrestled with this same thing when they were given an opportunity to depart a life of slavery in Egypt, but when they got to a place where they were forced to exercise faith, the chains and the whips didn’t seem so bad anymore and many wanted to go back. Many wanted to give up the blessing of a new reality and new life in the Promised Land simply because they were used to slavery in Egypt. I do this everyday. I often say that for me, life is a civil war. I wake up in the morning and “rub the raw spots on my ankles and wrist” wondering if I really want to venture out into the unknown territory of faith in Christ or would I rather live for myself, the world, or the enemy and be back in slavery. We are free because we have been forgiven by Jesus Christ and His work on the cross. So now, through the power of the Holy Spirit, we must live like it and experience freedom and forgiveness.
Theme #3: The Empowerment for joy-filled, life-transforming obedience (v. 34a)
Here’s the beauty and power of the Holy Spirit living inside of us… writing God’s heart on our heart… the Holy Spirit empowers us to live in joy-filled, life-transforming obedience. You see, when we live in obedience there is an overflow of life and joy… it is truly life-transforming… because we’re living like life is supposed to be live. Often times, we put obedience in the category of arduous duty. But that is not what the Scriptures say about obedience. The Bible puts obedience in the category of love, joy, and transformation. The Holy Spirit empowers us to live in joy-filled, life-transforming obedience so that we might know and experience our God more and more intimately, for His everlasting glory and for our everlasting good.
v. 34a – “They will not teach again…” This is an interesting phrase, especially because we come in here week and week each Sunday to be taught from God’s word about His heart for us and for His world. This verse seems to indicate that there would be a time when the people of God would want to know Him intimately because of the enabling presence of the Holy Spirit and the experience of the forgiveness and sin… and they would long to know the Lord without having to be exhorted to do so. There would be an internal “empowerment” to live in joy-filled, life-transforming obedience.
And the reason that there is joy and transformation in obedience is that in the process we get to know God more and more intimately. The verb “know” in v. 34 carries a profound connotation…
“The intimate personal knowledge which arises between two persons who are committed wholly to one another in a relationship that touches mind, emotion, and will. In such a relationship the past is forgiven and forgotten. We can know Him in this intimate way because He has forgiven our sins and He does not bring them to memory or judgment any more. True forgiveness makes intimacy with God possible.”
In that intimate relationship with God, there is joy and transformation that we experience as we obey and live in the fullness of that relationship with Him. And this last promise of the New Covenant… the Holy Spirit leading us to a place of life as He empowers us to live in joy-filled, life-transforming obedience.
A couple of years ago, I spent a week in Minneapolis, MN. I had never been there before. I rented a car to get around. I tend to be a cheap guy, so when the rental car guy asked me if I wanted the GPS unit, how do you think I responded? “Dude, I’m an Army Ranger, give me a map and show me the sun, and I’ll find where I’m going!” How do you think that worked out? Lost as a goose (supposedly geese get easily lost). A 20-minute drive turned into an hour and a half. There wasn’t too much joy during that drive, and I sure wasn’t experiencing transformation in that moment.
The New Covenant gives you the GPS, and you don’t even have to pay for it. Someone else did. The Holy Spirit, the Divine GPS, positions us on a path to experience joy and transformation, if we’ll listen and obey. If you’ve ever had a GPS system in your car, you know that there have been times that you think it didn’t know what it was talking about. Be honest. It told you a route and you turn off the GPS because you think you know a better route. An hour later… lost… so you turn it back on. And there’s even grace with the GPS. When the woman’s voice comes back on (why is it always a woman that tells us when we’re lost?) she doesn’t say, “Hey idiot, welcome back… did you enjoy the drive… I don’t really feel like helping you now… you can just keep driving around lost!” No, what does the voice say? “Re-calculating route.” When we surrender and listen to the voice, we get back on the right track to that place of joy and transformation that comes through obedience. That’s the Spirit’s desire. Through His enabling presence which allows us to experience the forgiveness of sin, there is an empowerment for joy-filled, life-transforming obedience. And that leads us to a place of life and intimacy with God.
The New Covenant reveals to us the heart of God… His desires to take us residence within us… His desire to draw us to Him for His glory and for our good. The Spirit’s presence within us enables us to know God more intimately. The Spirit’s presence within us allows us to experience the forgiveness of sin and freedom from sin in our lives. The Spirit’s presence within us empowers us to live in joy-filled, life-transforming obedience. And in that obedience, as we draw near to the Lord, He draws near to us and we behold Him. And in that “beholding”… in that desiring Him above all else… we are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory… for His everlasting glory… and for our everlasting joy and everlasting good.