Key Texts: Jeremiah 31:31-34; Hebrews 8:8-12
Questions for Discussion
1. Question: Given the somber news that dominates the book of Jeremiah, how does one explain the sudden appearance of the new covenant promise in 31:31-34?
Note: Amidst the somber messages of warning that dominate the book of Jeremiah, the buoyant messages of Jeremiah 30 and 31 fall like a gentle, drenching rain on a dry and thirsty land. For those who respond to positive motivation rather than negative, these chapters are a hopeful oasis.
God reserves the right to use whatever methods will work to save his people. Even in the New Testament, the honey does not eclipse the vinegar, the carrot does not banish the stick. The last lines of 1 Corinthians 4 are to the point: “What would you prefer? Am I to come to you with a stick, or with love in a spirit of gentleness?” (1 Cor. 4:21, NRSV)
2. Question: How does the new covenant in Jeremiah relate to the earlier covenants (Adam, Noah, Abraham, Sinai) and to the New Testament? Jer. 11:1-8
Note: One could argue that God has always had just one covenant. This covenant was adapted to the needs of his people in different ways. Thus one can speak of the covenant to Adam, to Noah, to Abraham, and the covenant to Israel at Sinai. In spite of the beautiful words of the new covenant in Jeremiah 31, Jeremiah does not hesitate to remind them of the Sinai covenant which they broke (see Jer. 11:1-8).
Even the “new” covenant of Jeremiah 31 is probably better seen as a “renewed” covenant. It clearly was a covenant to the people of Jeremiah’s day. The only difference would be that the renewal came at God’s initiative, in spite of the bad behavior of the people. Remarkably, Paul in Romans 5:6-10 (NRSV) echoes that same theme of the divine initiative to a rebellious people: “While we were still weak” (vs. 6), “while we were still sinners” (v. 8), “while we were enemies” (vs. 8), Christ died for us.
3. Question: Those who call themselves New Testament Christians are inclined to contrast the Old Testament as Old Covenant and the New Testament as New Covenant. Does Jeremiah’s use of the term help us address that issue?
Note: The specialized application of the new covenant promise in Hebrews 8, has led some to see the Old Testament as “old” covenant and the New Testament as the “new.” But remarkably, Hebrews 8 is a direct quote from Jeremiah. Still, Hebrews includes these startling words in 8:13: “In speaking of ‘a new covenant,’ he has made the first one obsolete. And what is obsolete and growing old will soon disappear.” (NRSV)
Careful attention to context suggests that the two books are using the passage in quite different ways. What is clear from Jeremiah is that the “renewed” covenant was a promise to Old Testament people long before Jesus appeared on the scene.
4. Question: Are there any impulses in Jeremiah that would point to a more inclusive perspective, one that would make room in God’s kingdom for more than the Jewish people?
Note: The oracles against the nations (Jer. 46-51) and the yoke narrative in Jer. 27, which included messages to Tyre, Sidon, Edom, Moab, and Ammon (27:3) all point to a more inclusive interest. But for inclusiveness, no Old Testament passage is as startling as Isaiah 19:18-25, a passage that places two of Israel’s greatest historical enemies, Assyria and Egypt, on common ground with God’s people Israel:
18 On that day there will be five cities in the land of Egypt that speak the language of Canaan and swear allegiance to the Lord of hosts. One of these will be called the City of the Sun.
19 On that day there will be an altar to the Lord in the center of the land of Egypt, and a pillar to the Lord at its border. 20 It will be a sign and a witness to the Lord of hosts in the land of Egypt; when they cry to the Lord because of oppressors, he will send them a savior, and will defend and deliver them. 21 The Lord will make himself known to the Egyptians; and the Egyptians will know the Lord on that day, and will worship with sacrifice and burnt offering, and they will make vows to the Lord and perform them. 22 The Lord will strike Egypt, striking and healing; they will return to the Lord, and he will listen to their supplications and heal them.
23 On that day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria, and the Assyrian will come into Egypt, and the Egyptian into Assyria, and the Egyptians will worship with the Assyrians.
24 On that day Israel will be the third with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth, 25 whom the Lord of hosts has blessed, saying, “Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my heritage.” – Isaiah 19:18-25, NRSV.