I want to look at Jeremiah 31, because that is obviously the only passage in the prophetic literature which uses the terminology New Covenant. That terminology of New Covenant becomes very, very significant in the New Testament itself. It is picked up by the author of Hebrews, but it is also mentioned in the Last Supper narrative by the Lord Jesus Himself, as He explains the meaning of His death. And if that alone had occurred in the New Testament, that would indicate the extreme significance of the concept of New Covenant for explaining the meaning of the death of Christ. So we are going to look at that prophetic passage.
But we are also going to mention the fact that even in passages where the terminology of New Covenant is not used in the Old Testament, the concept of New Covenant is very present. For instance, there are other passages in Jeremiah’s book where he doesn’t use the terminology of New Covenant, but mentions the same basic theological concepts which he mentions specifically in Jeremiah 31.
Old Testament Prophecies of the New Covenant
One of the exercises that I am going to commend to you for your own biblical theological research in the Old Testament is to begin to build a catalog of passages from the prophets which refer to the concept of the New Covenant without referring to or using the terminology of the New Covenant. And then begin to collate those, and as you do, you will begin to see very similar themes coming out. And we will do enough of that today that you will get at least an idea of how this may be helpful in understanding the prophetic idea of the New Covenant.
And then having done that, I want to look briefly with you at the whole issue of the role of the Holy Spirit in the Old and the New Covenant. I have already had a couple of you raise that very good question in connection with some previous lectures. Well, today is the day that we are going to get that. I am going to try and look with you, at least in outline, at the function of the Holy Spirit under the Old Covenant administration of the Covenant of Grace, and under the New Covenant administration of the Covenant of Grace. And we can attempt to explain why the New Testament uses such extreme language when it indicates that the New Covenant is the era of the Holy Spirit in distinction from the Old Covenant. How can that language be used? Does that language mean that the Holy Spirit was not operating in the Old Covenant? Or, in what way is the New Covenant distinctively the era of the Spirit? So, that is a very significant biblical theological issue. It impacts all sorts of issues in the Christian life from soteriology, to your doctrine of sanctification. So we are going to look at that briefly today. That is the second thing we are going to look at and then depending on how much time we have left, we are going to try and begin plowing through the New Testament itself, and looking at how it uses the Covenant concept in it own theology. And basically we are going to begin by cataloging every reference to the term covenant in the New Testament and looking at the theological context. So we will begin working through that way. So, for those of you who have been concerned that we just haven’t had enough biblical content in this course, we’ll try and amend that today.
In Jeremiah 31, we are going to begin with a prophecy in verse 27:
“Behold, days are coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of man and with the seed of beast. “And it will come about that as I have watched over them to pluck up, to break down, to overthrow, to destroy, and to bring disaster, so I will watch over them to build and to plant,” declares the LORD. “In those days they will not say again, ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.’ “But everyone will die for his own iniquity; each man who eats the sour grapes, his teeth will be set on edge. “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. “And they shall not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall 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.”
Thus far the reading of God’s holy Word. Let’s pray together.
“Heavenly Father, we thank You for this passage. We thank You for the significance of it in the life of the church, for the way it has impacted us as we have heard it referred to in the taking of the Lord’s Supper, and in the preaching of the Gospel itself. We pray that we would understand more of it as we study it today. Pray that we would appreciate the prophetic preparation for the New Covenant which You set forth through Your faithful prophets, Isaiah, Ezekiel and Jeremiah, and others. And we ask that You would give us a greater understanding of this, in order that we might proclaim the truth. But even more fundamentally, than that, that we might ourselves have our breath taken away by the glory of the grace of the Gospel. We ask these things in Jesus’ name. Amen.”
Now, as I have just mentioned, Jeremiah is the only prophet to use the term, New Covenant. That is a unique term in the Old Testament. In fact, it is unique to this passage. The concept of New Covenant is only mentioned explicitly once here: Jeremiah 31:31, “I will make a New Covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah.”
Just one aside on this matter. The Essenes made a great deal of the New Covenant concept. Now, that should be interesting to you in light of the exposition of the book of Hebrews if you believe as do some, such as Phillip Hughes and myself, that the book of Hebrews was written to a congregation that had some knowledge of and was perhaps being tugged at by Essene Theology. Then, the New Covenant teaching in the book of Hebrews takes on a new significance to you, because it is placed against the backdrop of incorrect Essene teaching about the New Covenant.
If you have read any of the Qumran material about the New Covenant, you know that the Essene idea of the New Covenant was basically the Old Covenant, sort of fixed up and tossed back out on the table again. In other words, it was sort of the Old Covenant renewed in a pristine form. Which of course, from the New Testament, perspective is a radical mistake in the understanding of what the New Covenant is. The New Covenant is not simply the Old Covenant in its Mosaic form cleaned up a little bit and tossed back out onto the table. It genuinely is a New Covenant in quality and in content. And so this New Covenant teaching is very significant.
Now, though Jeremiah is the only prophet to use the term New Covenant, he is certainly not the only prophet to use the concept of New Covenant. Let me give you one example in Jeremiah which conveys the same type of content that you see here in Jeremiah 31 verses 31-34, but does not use the terminology of New Covenant. And I think you will see the transferable concepts as we begin to review other prophets. Look at Jeremiah 32. In Jeremiah 32, we read this, beginning in verse 37:
“Behold, I will gather them out of all the lands to which I have driven them in My anger, in My wrath, and in great indignation; and I will bring them back to this place and make them dwell in safety. “And they shall be My people, and I will be their God; and I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear Me always, for their own good, and for the good of their children after them. “And I will make an everlasting covenant with them that I will not turn away from them, to do them good; and I will put the fear of Me in their hearts so that they will not turn away from Me. “And I will rejoice over them to do them good, and I will faithfully plant them in this land with all My heart and with all My soul.”
Now we could go on, but you get the idea. There are already themes in that passage which refer not to a New Covenant, but to an everlasting covenant. Themes that are similar, themes which have already been elucidated on in Jeremiah 31:31-34.
Now, the fact of the matter is that we can find this throughout the prophetic literature. Let me turn you to one other place in Jeremiah 50, where we read this, in verses 4 and 5:
“In those days and at that time,” declares the LORD, “the sons of Israel will come, both they and the sons of Judah as well;”
There again, you see a theme that you saw in Jeremiah 31. The house of Israel, and the house of Judah are united.
“they will go along weeping as they go.” There’s that theme of judgment that you see as the preface to Jeremiah 31:31-34. You saw that especially in verses 27-30, where words of judgment were spoken. “they will go along weeping as they go, and it will be the LORD their God they will seek. “They will ask for the way to Zion, turning their faces in its direction; they will come that they may join themselves to the LORD in an everlasting covenant that will not be forgotten.”
You remember that one of the ways that Jeremiah defines New Covenant in Jeremiah 31, was how? It was going to be a New Covenant in the sense of what? It is not going to be like the covenant which the children of Israel broke. So his language of everlasting covenant fits perfectly with that concept of the New Covenant, because one of the distinguishing marks of the New Covenant from Jeremiah’s perspective is its permanence, it unbreakableness. And so his language of everlasting covenant fits beautifully with his definition of New Covenant in Jeremiah 31. So again, we are seeing similar themes without the terminology of New Covenant being used. Turn to the book of Ezekiel. In Ezekiel, chapter 37, we read this. And by the way, this beautifully ties in some of the stuff that we studied in our study of the Davidic Covenant in II Samuel 7 last time. Ezekiel 37, beginning in verse 24.
“And My servant David will be king over them, and they will all have one shepherd; and they will walk in My ordinances, and keep My statutes, and observe them. And they shall live on the land that I gave to Jacob My servant, in which your fathers lived; and they will live on it, they, and their sons, and their sons’ sons, forever; and David My servant shall be their prince forever. And I will make a covenant of peace with them; it will be an everlasting covenant with them. And I will place them and multiply them, and will set My sanctuary in their midst forever. My dwelling place also will be with them; and I will be their God, and they will be My people. And the nations will know that I am the LORD who sanctifies Israel, when My sanctuary is in their midst forever.” ‘
So again, here in Ezekiel’s exposition of the New Covenant era of the kingdom of God, he doesn’t use the language of New Covenant or everlasting covenant. He uses the language of Covenant of Peace. But the concepts are there, and they are parallel to Jeremiah’s concepts. Turn back to Ezekiel 16. You will see this again. In Ezekiel 16, beginning in verse 60:
“Nevertheless, I will remember My covenant with you in the days of your youth, and I will establish an everlasting covenant with you. Now, he is using the same terminology that Jeremiah often uses. Then you will remember your ways and be ashamed when you receive your sisters, both your older and your younger; and I will give them to you as daughters, but not because of your covenant. Thus I will establish My covenant with you, and you shall know that I am the LORD, in order that you may remember and be ashamed, and never open your mouth anymore because of your humiliation, when I have forgiven you for all that you have done, “the Lord GOD declares.”
And again, you see the theme of the everlasting covenant, you see the theme of the forgiveness of sins, you see the theme of reunion. All of these themes that you see in Jeremiah 31 are being repeated by Ezekiel without the use of the terminology New Covenant. We could see the same thing if we were to turn to Ezekiel 34, in Ezekiel 34, and throughout that passage, especially beginning in verse 11, you will see this kind of language echoed, especially look for instance at verse 23”
“Then I will set over them one shepherd, My servant David, and he will feed them; he will feed them himself and be their shepherd. And I, the LORD, will be their God, and My servant David will be prince among them; I, the LORD, have spoken. And I will make a covenant of peace with them.”
And that is the passage, by the way, from which we get the phrase, there will be showers of blessing. We get it from that passage in Ezekiel 34.
So you see, you hear these themes being repeated, even though three different terms are used: New Covenant, Everlasting Covenant, Covenant of Peace. But you see the concept circulating in Ezekiel and in Jeremiah. And indeed we could come with a fairly extensive catalog of these types of predictory passages. And I would suggest that if you are ever attempting to take a look at what the Old Testament prophets expected from the New Covenant era in the kingdom of God, then correlating them is a good way to see a fuller picture of prophetic view of the nature of the New Covenant.
Very often, you get the idea that the New Testament teaches the right doctrine from the wrong text. We hear biblical theologians say that all the time. The New Testament got the theology right, but it was really bad exegesis. What I think you will find out, is first of all, that is a very dangerous thing to say, because the New Testament is the divinely inspired hermeneutical manual to the Old Testament. That is what the New Testament is. So when you start quibbling over the New Testament exegesis, you are quibbling with something very serious. It is God’s exegesis. And His exegesis is not quite open to the same kind of scrutiny as mine is.
But secondly what I think you will find is that, in fact, the New Testament shows a tremendous grasp of the main lines of prophetic Old Testament understanding in the nature of the New Covenant. And you can understand how Jesus and His apostles have to spend a lot of time correcting Jewish misexpectations based on incorrect rabbinical teaching. And I suspect that one reason why Jesus was very careful about using terminology related to the Covenant in His public ministry was precisely because of the misunderstandings of the covenant based on an inadequate grasp of what the prophets were teaching about the nature of the New Covenant. And I think as you lay it out yourself, and you can do it, it is not a difficult exercise, but lay out side by side prophetic passage after prophetic passage which deal with the nature of the New Covenant, whether it is called Covenant of Peace, or the everlasting Covenant, the New Covenant, and I think you will begin to see certain key elements. In fact, we are going to look at some of those emphases in a few moments. Robertson attempts to do this in Christ of the Covenant, in his chapter on the New Covenant dealing with Jeremiah’s covenant. And we are going to do that ourselves in a few moments. But I want to stress is the New Testament authors do a wonderful job of seeing the nuance presentation of the prophetic material on this.
Now, at least three New Testament authors apply central aspects of the New Covenant teaching to the present day. Luke, in Luke 22, verse 20, in the midst of the Lord’s Supper and especially in the cup word of the Lord’s Supper, takes Jeremiah’s concept of the New Covenant, and of course I am speaking in a New Testament sort of way here, because he is simply recording for us what the Lord Jesus says. But Luke records for us, Jesus taking up the language of Jeremiah 31 and applying it to the meaning of His death in Luke 22. Now, in our last class session I am going to spend a good deal of time, simply exegeting that passage. So I am not going to stop and do it right now. But just bear in mind, there is one major author in the New Testament who picks up on the connection between the work of Christ and the New Covenant of Jeremiah 31.
Furthermore, in Hebrews, not only in chapter 10, but also in chapter 9, in chapter 8, and elsewhere, the author of Hebrews picks up the concept of the New Covenant from Jeremiah 31 and applies it, surprise, surprise, to the work of Christ. In his argument it is designed to show the superiority of Christ. And even John picks up on this theme. In fact, there is a lot of Covenant Theology hidden in the Gospel of John and I am not going after that right now, but in I John chapter 2, verse 7, there is a pretty significant hint to one aspect of the New Covenant of Jeremiah. In I John 2, we read this, beginning in verse 25:
“And this is the promise which He Himself made to us: eternal life. These things I have written to you concerning those who are trying to deceive you.”
You remember, He has just spoken about those who have departed from the church, for whatever kind of Gnostic error that they have opted for. And he goes on to say,
“And as for you, the anointing which you received from Him abides in you, and you have no need for anyone to teach you; but as His anointing teaches you about all things, and is true and is not a lie, and just as it has taught you, you abide in Him.”
Now that is an exceedingly rich passage, which deserves a long treatment itself, but understand the basic thing that John is saying there. What is one of the fundamental differences, John says, between those Christians who have continued to abide in the Apostolic teaching and those who have left the teaching of the Church to go back to this Gnostic era. Those who remain are indwelt by the Holy Spirit and hence, taught of the Lord.
Now, what is he picking up on? Jeremiah’s promise that from the least of them to the greatest, they will not need a teacher to teach them the law of God, it will have been written on their hearts by God, Himself. And so John is saying, “I can tell that that reality of the New Covenant has come about in you. Because you have not fallen for the false teaching. Why? Because you have the Holy Spirit to be your teacher.”
Now does that mean that John doesn’t need to teach them anything? No, he wouldn’t have written the book, if he hadn’t had to do that. He is speaking at a much more fundamental level, of the spirit of discernment which is gained only by those who are indwelt by the Holy Spirit. And he is saying, “They didn’t have discernment, so they weren’t of us.” And he is saying, “Of course, you have discernment, you are of us.” It doesn’t mean that you have anything to learn, but it does mean that in that promise of Jeremiah 31, there is a real tangible evidencing of that reality coming to pass in their lives as believers because they have been able to resist the false teaching that turns away from the fullness of what the Apostolic teaching tells us about Jesus Christ. That teaching which some of their fellow professing believers have now reneged upon, but they have not; among other things, that He was truly human and He was truly divine. And he sees that as the fruit of the promises of Jeremiah 31 coming true in their lives. So in each of those passages, we have references in the New Testament to central aspects of Jeremiah’s New Covenant promise, so that New Covenant prophecy of Jeremiah is clearly of continuing importance for us today.
Old Testament Emphases Regarding the New Covenant
Now let me just mention six or seven of the emphases that you find in Jeremiah’s prophecies and in Ezekiel’s prophecies regarding this New Covenant and Robertson mentions each of these.
First of all, there is an emphasis on a return from exile to the land. There is an emphasis on the return of exile to the land. Now, the idea of the land and the Promised Land stretches all the way back to the concept of the Garden of Eden in the Bible. And from Eden in Genesis 1 and 2, the next concept of a divinely given Promised Land is picked up in the promises to Abraham which are fulfilled in the land of Canaan. And this a major theme in the book of Joshua among other things.
Now, it is very clear as well, from the author of Hebrews, that that concept of the Promised Land and the land of Canaan is not the culminating point in the idea of a land, a place of belonging of homeness for the people of God. But that in fact, that promise of the land of Palestine, itself, actually points forward to a greater reality. And, that fact is pointed to in passages like Ezekiel 40-48. Now, what is happening in Ezekiel 40-48? What is the big theme of Ezekiel 40-48? The New Temple. This is the New Temple of the people of God. Now what is interesting about that temple that is spoken of in Ezekiel 40-48? If you know the dimensions of the city of Jerusalem in the time of Ezekiel, and you plot, like good engineers, the temple that is described and its dimensions, it would have had to exceeded the city walls and city limits of Jerusalem to have been built. Now what is Ezekiel hinting at there? He is hinting that the temple that he is describing transcends any kind of reality to which his own people can relate to. Were his temple to be built in the Jerusalem of his time, it would have been larger than Jerusalem itself. It would have gone outside the boundaries of the walls. He is clearly pointing to a reality that transcends their present experience.
And John picks up on that, by the way in Revelation 21. That very idea is picked up upon as he is describing new heavens and the new earth. And in Revelation 21, as John is carried away in the spirit to see the holy city, the Jerusalem of God coming down out of heaven, he says, beginning in verse 16, that “the city was laid out as a square, with its length as great as the width, he measured the city with a rod. Fifteen hundred miles, its length, its width, and height are equal. And he measured its walls, 72 yards according to human measurements which are also angelic measurements.” And then he goes on to describe the particular composition of the walls.
Now apart from the fact that conceiving a city of equal length, and width and height, that is not the normal way we describe a city. But if you add the square miles of such a city, it is larger than the square miles of the nation of Israel. So again, John is pointing you to a reality that transcends your current experience. He is saying, “let me tell you about a city that is going to be larger than the nation of Israel itself.” Plus, he speaks about these things that clearly point to the symbolic nature of what he is speaking about, the height of a city, being equal to its length and breath. And then there are angelic measurements and human measurements. What are angelic measurements? Has anyone learned angel measurements 101 at the university anytime recently? He is clearly giving you to understand that he is talking something that transcends your current experience. While he speaks to the realities of Eden and the land of Palestine in Canaan and Israel, occupied by the Israelites, those realities are actually pointing to that same reality, the heavens and the earth as God has prepared for His people.
Now, by the way, Paul picks up on this theme too. If you look at Romans chapter 4, we know that Abraham was promised the land of Canaan. And Paul says in Romans 4:13, “the promise to Abraham and to his descendants that he would be heir of the world was not through the law, but through the righteousness of faith.” Now, Paul expands your expectations on Abraham’s land promises, beyond simply the bounds of Palestine, to the inheritance of the whole earth. So over and over, we have those themes of Israel returning to the land in the prophetic literature, being understood in the New Testament to be something much greater and grander than simply reoccupying the ancient territorial boundaries of Israel, even if it is understood to be the boundaries that were established in the time of David and Solomon which were at their greatest extent. So, over and over those land promises in the prophecies are taken by New Testament writers to have far broader meaning for the people of God than simply that little plot of land on the east of the Mediterranean Sea.
Then, the promise you see in Ezekiel 36:35, the restoration of Israel to the land, listen to the language, Ezekiel 36:33.
“Thus says the Lord GOD, “On the day that I cleanse you from all your iniquities, I will cause the cities to be inhabited, and the waste places will be rebuilt. “And the desolate land will be cultivated instead of being a desolation in the sight of everyone who passed by. “And they will say, ‘This desolate land has become like the garden of Eden;”
So you see a connection back to the concept of the Garden of Eden in the return of Israel to the land. But it looks forward to something much greater than even the return of Israel to the land of Palestine. That land of Palestine itself is a symbol of something even greater that God plans to do and that is of course what? Giving all His people the new heavens and the new earth. It is yours.
Secondly, we see in Ezekiel and in Jeremiah the idea that there is going to be a full restoration of blessing in the New Covenant. Not only the new heavens and the new earth for the people of God, but a full restoration of blessing. There will be a reversal of the curse of sin. Which is, of course, death.
Over and over in those Old Covenant prophecies about the New Covenant, the reversal of the curse of sin is spoken of. One example is found in Ezekiel 37. This passage, no doubt forms the background of Jesus’ comments in John chapter 3 verse 8, when He says, “the wind blows where it will, and we don’t where it comes from and where it is going.” And you know that the play on words, between spirit, speaking of our human spirit, and wind, and breath and Holy Spirit exists for both the Greek pneuma and the Hebrew nephish. And so this passage here in Jeremiah 37, which is primarily focused on the return of those who are thought to be dead in languishing and exile, being brought back into the land, this passage forms the backdrop of John chapter 3 verse 8, but here I want you to see how it is used prophetically. The dry bones resurrected are a picture of the everlasting covenant and how it brings a reviving to the people of God, from death to life. Jeremiah 37, verse 1:
“The hand of the LORD was upon me, and He brought me out by the Spirit of the LORD and set me down in the middle of the valley; and it was full of bones. And He caused me to pass among them round about, and behold, there were very many on the surface of the valley; and lo, they were very dry. And He said to me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” And I answered, “O Lord GOD, Thou knowest.” Again He said to me, “Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, ‘ O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD. ‘Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones, ‘Behold, I will cause breath to enter you that you may come to life. ‘And I will put sinews on you, make flesh grow back on you, cover you with skin, and put breath in you that you may come alive; and you will know that I am the LORD.’ ”
And again in verses 11-14, this vision is explained.
“Then He said to me, “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel; behold, they say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope has perished. We are completely cut off.’ “Therefore prophesy, and say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord GOD,” Behold, I will open your graves and cause you to come up out of your graves, My people; and I will bring you into the land of Israel. “Then you will know that I am the LORD, when I have opened your graves and caused you to come up out of your graves, My people. And I will put My Spirit within you, and you will come to life, and I will place you on your own land. Then you will know that I, the LORD, have spoken and done it,” declares the LORD. ‘”
So you see this picture of resurrection and restoration to the land is related to the idea of what? Reversing the curse of sin. The curse of sin means death, the curse of sin means what? Being cut off from God and being cut off from His people. So Jeremiah is saying, “Look, one of the blessings of the New Covenant is going to be that God is going to reverse the curse of sin, and He is going to bring blessing to His people. They are going to be revived. Don’t tell me you are cut off and dead and dried up. I am going to revive you, and I am going to bring you back into the land.” And listen especially to this line: “You will know that I am the Lord, when I have opened your graves and caused you to come up out of your graves, my people.”
Now keep that in mind, and turn with me to Matthew chapter 27. Matthew knows this. And so in conjunction with the crucifixion of Christ, listen to what Matthew tells you in Matthew 27, verses 50-53, and just remember the background: “You will know that I am the Lord your God, when I have brought you up out of your graves.” Matthew 27, verse 50:
“And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice, and yielded up His spirit. And behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom, and the earth shook; and the rocks were split, and the tombs were opened; and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; and coming out of the tombs after His resurrection they entered the holy city and appeared to many.”
Now I don’t whether any of you have ever preached a sermon on that passage, but you see what Matthew is doing there. He is giving a signal to every Jew in the house, every Jew who is listening to this passage being read as he describes the crucifixion, and he is saying. “Friends, Jesus’ resurrection and the accompanying resurrection of many of the saints which occurred in that time frame is proof that what God promised to the prophet Ezekiel has come about through the finished work of the Lord Jesus Christ. ‘I have raised you up from you graves. Thus, you shall know that I am the Lord your God, and I am restoring blessing.’”
So the reason that Matthew recounts that for you, is that he wants you to understand what Jesus’ work has accomplished. It has accomplished the fulfillment of that promise that had been given through he prophets as long ago as Ezekiel in chapter 37. And that may help you understand that strange passage which when you are reading in the context of Matthew 27. You wonder, “Why in the world did you tell us that?” You understand that in light of what the prophets had been promising would be the nature of the restoration of blessing, so now it makes perfect sense that Matthew would be zealous to connect it to Jesus’ resurrection. He wrote that so you would understand what had been God’s instrument in bringing about that resurrection. And of course, the redemption of our bodies, a truth constantly repeated in the New Testament, not just here in Matthew 27, but also by Paul in Romans 8, verses 22 and 23, and in I Corinthians 15, is seen to be a direct fulfillment of that Old Covenant promise of the full restoration of blessings. The resurrection is the ultimate reversal of the curse of sin.
And so the New Testament sees the resurrection of the body as one aspect of the fulfillment of the Old Covenant promise but the New Covenant would entail a full restoration of blessing. The New Testament sees the resurrection of the body as one aspect of the fulfillment of the Old Covenant promise, that the New Covenant would be characterized by a full restoration of blessing and a reversal of the curse of sin.
Thirdly, not only does the Old Testament prophecy of the New Covenant look forward to a return from exile to the land in the broadest sense possible, not only does it look forward to a full restoration of blessing, it looks forward to a fulfillment of all previous covenant commitments. God’s covenant commitments under David and under Moses and under Abraham will all be enjoined simultaneously. Let me say, that is not just a New Testament perspective. The New Testament makes much of that; and the author of Hebrews makes much of that as he mixes priestly promises, kingly promises, and prophetic promises in connection with the work of Christ.
But it is not just the New Testament that does that; Ezekiel also does that. Turn with me to Ezekiel chapter 37 again, and let’s look at that passage that we previously read. And look in this passage for three things: look for the emphasis on the fulfillment of the Davidic Covenant, the Mosaic Covenant, and the Abrahamic Covenant. Listen.
“And My servant David will be king over them, and they will all have one shepherd;” Okay, we see the Davidic Covenant immediately. “And they will walk in My ordinances, and keep My statutes, and observe them.” There is the Mosaic Covenant. And, by the way, the Davidic Covenant itself had seen, and David had seen himself as fundamentally responsible for implementing that kind of righteous rule in Israel, so this is not something that Ezekiel is thinking up that is brand new. Over and over, David is the one who tells you that he longs to see the statutes of God, and the ordinances of God established amongst his people. But Ezekiel stressing that in this New Covenant, in this everlasting covenant, not only are we going to see the promises of the Davidic Covenant fulfilled, we are going to see the promises of the Mosaic Covenant fulfilled. “And they shall live on the land that I gave to Jacob My servant, in which your fathers lived;” The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and so we are already back to the promises of Abram and later of course, to Abraham. “and they will live on it, they, and their sons, and their sons’ sons, forever; and David My servant shall be their prince forever.”
So we are back to the Davidic Covenant, and to the rule of God amongst His people. “And I will make a covenant of peace with them; it will be an everlasting covenant with them. And I will place them and multiply them.” “And multiply them, and will set My sanctuary in their midst forever.” That theme, of course, runs through every Old Testament Covenant between God and His people. I will be your God, and you will be my people. I will be near to you, I will be in your midst. I will establish my sanctuary with you forever. “and will set My sanctuary in their midst forever. “My dwelling place also will be with them; and I will be their God, and they will be My people. “And the nations will know that I am the LORD”
That last section there in verse 28 is a classic theme. Over fifty times in the book of Ezekiel, that theme, that “they shall know that I am the Lord” is repeated. It is a continual theme in the book of Ezekiel. Over and over, everything that God does in the book of Ezekiel is why? So that then they will know that I am the Lord. And He means that both redemptively and in terms of judgment in terms of those who reject Him. So we see here, all the previous commitments of the covenant reiterated.
Again, one of the emphases of Jeremiah’s New Covenant and of Ezekiel’s New Covenant, we could also say of Isaiah’s New Covenant as well, is a renewal of the heart. A renewal of the heart. Just for one minute, let’s remember Jeremiah’s words, “I will put my law within them and on their heart, I will write it.” The goal of this covenant is to internalize, internalize the love of the law in the people of God. The love of righteousness, the love of justice, the love of mercy, okay.
And that is the same theme that you see in Ezekiel. Look at Ezekiel 36. In verses 26 and 27, and by the way, you see it in this whole section from Ezekiel 36:22 and following, but pick up in verse 26 and 27.
“”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. “And I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances.”
So this heart renewal that Ezekiel speaks about is not unique to Ezekiel. It was right there in Jeremiah 31 to begin with. And you see it throughout Jeremiah and Ezekiel. Again, a central point of Jeremiah’s New Covenant, Jeremiah 31 verse 34, is the forgiveness of sins. So we have return from the exile to the land, full restoration of blessings, fulfillment of all the previous covenant commitments, renewal of the heart and forgiveness of sins. And this, by the way, is the most common theme picked up on by New Testament writers with regard to the New Covenant of Jeremiah. The forgiveness of sins. Look at how the author of Hebrews will do it. He beats you over the head with this in Hebrews. In Jeremiah 31, verse 34, we read.
“for they shall 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.”
And it precisely that theme of the forgiveness of sin that the author of Hebrews is going to pick up on in Hebrews chapter 8 verse 9 and 10. For instance, Hebrews 10, verses 17 and 18. Here is his quote of Jeremiah 31:34, the relevant section of verse 34. Hebrews 10:17.
“AND THEIR SINS AND THEIR LAWLESS DEEDS I WILL REMEMBER NO MORE.” Now here is Hebrews commentary on that. “Now where there is forgiveness of these things, there is no longer any offering for sin.”
And over and over that theme of the forgiveness of sins resonates in this section of Hebrews and the very reason that the author of Hebrews explains that Jesus’ mediation is superior is whereas, look at Hebrews 10:4, “For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” Whereas it is impossible for the Old Testament ritual system to forgive sins, Jesus’ sacrifice does forgive sins. And where does he go to prove that? Jeremiah 31. So he goes back and he sees Jesus’ work as the New Covenant fulfillment of that Old Testament New Covenant prophecy. It is Jesus’ forgiveness of sins, in His work which is the New Covenant fulfillment of the Old Testament New Covenant prophecies.
Sixth, the theme of the reunion of Israel and Judah is one of the themes of the Old Testament New Covenant prophecies. You see this in Jeremiah 31, itself. Notice again, Jeremiah 31:27, “Behold, days are coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of man and with the seed of beast.” Now, you know, how long have Israel and Judah been divided by the time that Jeremiah is ministering? A long time. How long has it been since there has even been a northern kingdom? The northern kingdom was overrun a hundred years before this time. And yet central in Jeremiah’s vision is not just the restoration of Judah, but the restoration of Israel as well. In the picture there is, amongst other things, the uniting of all of God’s people. God is going to bring them all together. And this is picked up upon in Ezekiel. And again, this is even further removed from Ezekiel who is prophesying while in captivity. In Ezekiel 34, for instance, you see this and of course he is constantly using the language of Israel. But listen to what he says in Ezekiel 34, verse 23, for instance.
“Then I will set over them one shepherd, My servant David, and he will feed them; he will feed them himself and be their shepherd.”
Now, throughout this passage, the emphasis in on them being what? One flock that has been brought back from being scattered. So the idea of him being one shepherd is very significant, because the last time there had been one shepherd was when Solomon was reigning. Ever since, post Solomon, there had been two shepherds at least reigning in and amongst the peoples of God in the northern and southern kingdoms. And Ezekiel is longing for the day when there is one shepherd. So this theme of the reunion of Israel and Judah is significant.
Now the New Testament, in Acts 15 particularly, sees a lot of the fulfillment of this theme in the bringing in of the Gentiles into the Church. Amos picks up on this same theme in Amos 9 and speaks about the restoring of the fallen tabernacles of David. And, James just takes that passage and directly applies it to the bringing in of the Gentiles into the church. And so again, that is another rich passage that you could cultivate or rich theme that you could cultivate.
The Permanency of the Covenant
One last thing that is very obvious in Jeremiah 31 and that is the permanency of this covenant. Jeremiah, himself, calls this covenant an everlasting covenant and he stresses in Jeremiah 31 that one of the ways in which the New Covenant would not be like the covenant of old would be that it would not be broken.
Do you recall what is one of the fundamental theological questions that the prophets themselves wrestle with? “If God has promised always to be a God to us, if God has promised to give us the land, if God has promised that David will reign over Israel forever, how can it be that we can be sent into exile? Is that not an indication that God has somehow not been faithful to what He clearly promised us in His covenant with Abraham, His covenant with Moses, and His covenant with David?” This is a huge theological problem for all the latter prophets. You see Habakkuk wrestle with it, you see Jeremiah wrestle with it, and you see Ezekiel wrestle with it. All the latter prophets wrestle with that theological problem, because they are faced with the reality that they are no longer in the land, and there is no David reigning over them. And they actually live to see the day where there is not a Davidic heir reigning over the southern kingdom. I mean, it is one thing to have a divided kingdom and try to reconcile that with God’s promises. And it is another to be sent off into exile and to have the Davidic heir cut off. How do you reconcile all that with God’s promises? That is a fundamental prophetic problem.
And the prophetic answer to that is the New Covenant. And you ask, and how can the New Covenant answer that? The prophetic answer is this. We see that the nature of the Old Covenant itself, as God originally constructed it, was intended to be transcended. God never intended these Old Covenant forms to be the ultimate expression of the promises that He made to us. Those promises will only be realized in the New Covenant.
Now, by the way, can you see what an incredible evangelistic tool God has placed in the hands of His faithful servants with that New Covenant hope leading up to the coming of the Messiah? If that is where the whole of your hope is now vested, in that New Covenant, can you see how powerful that is when Messiah comes proclaiming the Kingdom of God. It is here, it is in your midst. Now that struck home to the disciples. It clearly did. And their very wrestling with their contorted views of the kingdom of heaven is proof of it.
This was the only hope of the people of God, the New Covenant. It was the only thing that explained why in the world God had done the things that He had done to the people of God in the Old Covenant. Because that Old Testament itself, by nature, had been constructed by God, so that at some point in time, it would become out outmoded and it would be transcended by something far greater. And that of course, was the New Covenant. And it is tied into the theme of the Kingdom of God as well.
The Holy Spirit in the Old and New Covenants
And we will come back now after this little exercise and look at the Holy Spirit in the Old and in the New Covenant.
If you have your Bibles I would invite you to turn to Acts chapter 2. Acts chapter 2, verses 16 and 17, and look at Peter’s words in verse 16 where he quotes the prophet Joel in verse 17. Acts 2:16 and 17.
“But this is what was spoken of through the prophet Joel: ‘AND IT SHALL BE IN THE LAST DAYS,’ God says, ‘THAT I WILL POUR FORTH OF MY SPIRIT UPON ALL MANKIND;”
Of course, in that passage, Peter using the “this is that” formula which is a classic New Testament formula of fulfillment where it identifies a particular event in redemptive history as the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecy. And here, Peter goes to Joel 2, and he says, “if you want to know what Joel meant in Joel 2, this is that.” And he is, of course, referring to the events of Pentecost and the pouring out of the Spirit at the Pentecost, the manifestation of tongues and all the other things connected with it. That is the fulfillment of what Joel was speaking of in Joel chapter 2. And of course, that inauguration of the New Covenant era of missions in Acts chapter 2 and of the ministry to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth, by the Holy Spirit is a hallmark of the New Covenant era of redemptive history.
This operation of the Spirit and the language there could even be read to indicate that the Spirit had not been poured out prior to the giving of the Pentecost of the giving of the Spirit at Pentecost.
Now, why am I raising this problem? Because there are people, and by the way, this is not just an issue between so called Covenant Theologians, and so called Dispensational Theologians. This is an issue of distinction between Reformed Theologians and Arminian Theologians as to what was the role of the work of the Holy Spirit in the Old Covenant with regard to salvation. And you find this if you read the book edited by Clark Pinnock, on the doctrine of salvation, discussing the grace of God and the will of man, and other books like that. The men who argue against a Reformed doctrine of regeneration, that is that the Spirit must take initiative and act in the regenerating of a human heart, these men will argue that this is a distinctively New Testament phenomenon and that is not the way that it worked in the Old Testament. So they will not argue that regeneration was done a different way in the Old Testament than it was done in the New Testament. They will argue that it didn’t occur at all in the Old Testament. They will argue that regeneration is distinctively a New Testament phenomenon exegetically. Now, so obviously this point of how the Spirit functions under old and new covenant is a broader question than just in the interesting warfare between Dispensationalists and Covenant Theologians. So we need to understand this.
The Holy Spirit at Pentecost
And so, any attempt to understand the significance of the pouring out of the Spirit at Pentecost must consider the two following factors
First of all, it is absolutely clear that the Holy Spirit was active in the Old Covenant, in all the modes of His activity under the New Covenant. We will mention a few in passing today. Pull out a concordance and look at the function of the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament. The modes of His activities are varied, just as varied as they are in the New Covenant.
Secondly, it is clear as well that the Holy Spirit was active in the Old Covenant like He was in the New Covenant from the ascription of the writers of the New Testament. In other words, the New Testament writers identify the work of the Spirit of God in the Old Testament to have been done by the same one that they refer to as the Holy Spirit. Let me just give you few examples of this. In II Peter, a passage that you are very familiar with in terms of your doctrine of scripture, in II Peter, chapter 1, verse 21, listen to what Peter says.
“for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.”
Now we would have to do some work to determine what kind of prophetic activity Peter has in mind there. But let’s just take for granted for a moment, and I will build a case elsewhere that what he has in mind, primarily is Old Testament prophetic activity, non just New Covenant prophetic activity, but Old Covenant prophetic activity. Now, if that is the case, you have Peter, here speaking about who is behind that Old Testament prophetic activity? My Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit who indwells me, He is being that Old Testament prophetic activity. Look again, back at I Peter chapter 1. This makes it actually quite clear. This establishes the question that we left open from II Peter 1:21. I Peter 1, verse 10.
“As to this salvation, the prophets who prophesied of the grace that would come to you made careful search and inquiry, seeking to know what person or time the Spirit of Christ within them was indicating as He predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories to follow. It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves, but you, in these things which now have been announced to you through those who preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven– things into which angels long to look.”
Now in that glorious little passage, Peter makes it crystal clear that the prophets of the Old Testament who long to understand the full significance of the utterances that were given to them, made those utterances by, not just the Holy Spirit, but by that glorious title, the Spirit of Christ. So, was the Holy Spirit active and operative in the Old Testament? Absolutely. He was inspiring Scripture. He was inspiring prophecy. The book of Hebrews, chapter 3, emphasizes His work in the inscripturation of the Old Testament, when it says, and this is, if you have ever studied B. B.. Warfield’s study of the phrases, you will have seen this material before. But for instance in Hebrews 3:7 Scripture says, God says:
“Therefore, just as the Holy Spirit says, “TODAY IF YOU HEAR HIS VOICE, DO NOT HARDEN YOUR HEARTS”
Now you know that, that is a passage in the Psalms referring back to an event in the Mosaic era. And yet, the author of Hebrews says, “the Holy Spirit says, today if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts.” And again in Hebrews 10:15, in Hebrews 10:15, this is especially significant in light of what we have just been studying in Jeremiah 31. Hebrews 10:15.
“And the Holy Spirit also bears witness to us; for after saying, “THIS IS THE COVENANT THAT I WILL MAKE WITH THEM AFTER THOSE DAYS, SAYS THE LORD: I WILL PUT MY LAWS UPON THEIR HEART, AND UPON THEIR MIND I WILL WRITE THEM,” He then says, “AND THEIR SINS AND THEIR LAWLESS DEEDS I WILL REMEMBER NO MORE.”
Now, of course, the latter phrase, introducing verse 17, is implied, but the first section of ascription is not implied. It is the Holy Spirit that gives us the promise of the New Covenant by the mouth of Jeremiah. Matthew 22, is another example. Matthew 22, verse 41.
“Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them a question, saying, “What do you think about the Christ, whose son is He?” They said to Him, “The son of David.” He said to them, “Then how does David in the Spirit call Him ‘Lord,’ saying, ‘THE LORD SAID TO MY LORD, “SIT AT MY RIGHT HAND,”
Again, David’s confession of the Lord as his Lord in the Psalms is ascribed to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Mark chapter 12, again records this incident. And Mark tells us the same thing. Jesus answering, began to say, verse 35.
“And Jesus answering began to say, as He taught in the temple, ” How is it that the scribes say that the Christ is the son of David? “David himself said in the Holy Spirit, ‘THE LORD SAID TO MY LORD,” SIT AT MY RIGHT HAND,”
Acts chapter 1 carries on this theme. Acts chapter 1, Peter is explaining to the apostles the significance of the loss of Judas and the necessity of replacing one of the apostles. Verse 16.
“Brethren, the Scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit foretold by the mouth of David concerning Judas, who became a guide to those who arrested Jesus.”
And of course, he is leading up to verse 20, which says,
“”For it is written in the book of Psalms, ‘LET HIS HOMESTEAD BE MADE DESOLATE, AND LET NO MAN DWELL IN IT’; and, ‘HIS OFFICE LET ANOTHER MAN TAKE.’”
So Peter argues on the basis of the Holy Spirit’s inspiration of that Psalm, that Judas’ office must be replaced amongst the twelve. And then again, Acts 28, Acts 28, verse 25.
“And when they did not agree with one another, they began leaving after Paul had spoken one parting word, “The Holy Spirit rightly spoke through Isaiah the prophet to your fathers, saying, ‘GO TO THIS PEOPLE AND SAY, “YOU WILL KEEP ON HEARING, BUT WILL NOT UNDERSTAND;”
So in all these passages, we see the inspiration of the Old Testament prophets and writers ascribed to the Holy Spirit. So the Holy Spirit is active in the inspiration of the prophets and writers and of the Old Testament. But that is not all, for in Hebrews chapter 9, verse 8, the author of Hebrews tells us that it is the Holy Spirit who authored the ritual service of the sanctuary. Listen to what the author of Hebrews says:
“The Holy Spirit is signifying this, that the way into the holy place has not yet been disclosed, while the outer tabernacle is still standing, which is a symbol for the present time.”
Now he has just spent several verses describing the tabernacle and then he says, the Holy Spirit is signifying this. Indicating it was the Spirit that instituted that ritual service of the sanctuary. Again, in Acts 7:51, the leading of Israel in the wilderness and throughout its history is ascribed to the Holy Spirit. Stephen says to the children of Israel gathered around him in Acts 7:51:
“You men who are stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears are always resisting the Holy Spirit; you are doing just as your fathers did.” Resisting the Holy Spirit.
It was in the Holy Spirit that Christ preached to the antediluvians. And to those who lived before the flood. Now, this is a difficult passage, but you will follow the argument here. Peter says, that Christ also died for sins, once for all, I Peter 3:18:
“For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, in order that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit; in which also He went and made proclamation to the spirits now in prison,”
Now, if you understand what is meant by the first phrase, you don’t get tripped up on some sort of view of Christ descending into Hades and preaching the Gospel to those already in Hell. In the Spirit, He preached the Gospel to those who were disobedient in the days of Noah, verse 20, but who are now imprisoned. That is, they refuse to repent. But it was in the Spirit that He did that. This is a tough passage, but you get the point.
And then, in II Corinthians 4:13, II Corinthians 4:13, we are told that the Holy Spirit was the author of faith in the Old Testament just like he was in the New Testament, or is in the New Testament. II Corinthians 4:12:
“So death works in us, but life in you. But having the same spirit of faith, according to what is written, ” I BELIEVED, THEREFORE I SPOKE, “we also believe, therefore also we speak;”
Taking that Spirit as capital ‘S’ as opposed to merely a subjective statement about our own character, the Spirit of faith.
And we could compile others, in which the Holy Spirit is said by New Testament writers to be active in the Old Testament, but that is a good start. Though the Holy Spirit is active in all those ways in the Old Covenant, nevertheless, the change from Old Covenant to New Covenant is often described in the New Testament itself, as fundamentally being seen in just this: That the New Covenant is uniquely the era of the Holy Spirit. And there are certain passage that indicate that. A classic passage is John chapter 7, look with me there. In John 7, verse 39.
“But this He spoke of the Spirit, whom those who believed in Him were to receive; for the Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.”
Listen to John’s words, “the Spirit was not yet given because Jesus was not yet glorified.” Now here is John marking a tremendous transition in redemptive history, from before the Spirit and after Spirit. And by the way, the Greek is harder to understand than the English. The English of your translations supplies the idea of the Spirit not being given. That is not what the Greek says. The Greek just says, “the Spirit was not yet.” You want to talk about an ontological problem, for your doctrine of the trinity. There it is. Boom!
Now, this isn’t just a redemptive historical problem. Radically discontinuity is emphasized in this passage. “The Spirit was not yet, because Jesus was not yet glorified.” So you see this radical distinction from before and after Pentecost, before and after the ascension of Christ. The language is striking. And people seize upon that and they will use that to argue that the Holy Spirit was not operative in the Old Testament. You can see how they can misunderstand.
And a similar passage is in John chapter 16, verse 7, in John chapter 16, verse 7.
“But I tell you the truth, it is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper shall not come to you; but if I go, I will send Him to you.”
In John 20, verse 22, you get the idea that John has the agenda of discontinuity here in describing the relation between the Old and the New Covenants, John 20:
“And when He had said this” this is Jesus after the resurrection, “He breathed on them, and said to them, ” Receive the Holy Spirit.”
Now, how many expositors of Scripture have you heard go on and on about how the disciples did not have the Holy Spirit until after the Resurrection? And base it on just that passage? Did you see the radical discontinuity that John is drawing there? He is drawing it for a reason, and we need to pay attention to that reason. But recognize that it has to be balanced against these other passages. And of course, the passage in Acts 2, verses 16-17:
“In those last days, the Holy Spirit will be poured out on all flesh.”
So the problem is to understand how the New Covenant can be, by way of distinction, the unique era of the Holy Spirit, while at the same time, acknowledging that the Holy Spirit was active in all His modes under the Old Covenant.
Now, I think the short answer to that question is that the language of discontinuity there has to be understood as a relative contrast in absolute terms. A relative contrast in absolute terms. It is a contrast which is significant and which no one in the Reformed community frankly, is interested in playing down. That is part of the glory of the New Covenant. None of us have a vested interest in playing down the discontinuity of that language. But there are certain things that stop you shy of taking that language without qualification. When you start saying the Holy Spirit was not yet, prior to Acts 2, you get yourself into a problem, that will get you kicked out of the Evangelical Theological Society, or ETS. If you must be able to ascribe to the ontological trinity, to be in ETS, then you are in trouble if you can’t.
So there are certain things that stop us short from reading that language without qualification. And let me just give you a few of those things that both show us the continuity and the discontinuity of the Holy Spirit’s work in Old and New Covenant. In fact, I would like to give you four of them. The fact is that the Scriptures on which we are dependent for all our knowledge of the work of the Holy Spirit confine all their declarations about the work of the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament to the people of God in the Old Testament in Israel. If we look at the function of the Spirit in the Old Testament, we see that the modes of activity which are described in detail are always in relation to Israel. So it is only within and for the benefit of Israel that the Spirit of God works from Adam to Christ.
And so the distinctive of the operation of the Spirit and the outpouring of the Spirit is not in the newness of mode in which He is working, rather it is because the operation of the Spirit is now expanded to all nations. By the way, this in my opinion, is a key to understanding the language of world, all, and many, in the New Testament. That language is always in reference to the transcending of simply the people of God, considered as that ethnic religious entity of Israel, to God’s work amongst even those who are apart from the covenant and apart from the promises, the Gentiles. So the New Covenant is the era of the Spirit. Whether we consider the extent of the Spirit’s operations, the object of His operations, the mode of administration of His kingdom, or the intensity of the Spirit’s action. And it is those four things that I want to look at with you. I will repeat those in just a minute. But those four things show you the continuity and the discontinuity of the Spirit’s work in the Old Testament.
First of all, the New Covenant, is the era of the Spirit because in it, the Spirit of God is poured out upon all flesh. The New Covenant is the era of the Spirit because in it, the Spirit of God is poured out upon all flesh. It is a central idea of the New Covenant that it is worldwide in scope. The period of preparation is over, and the worldwide kingdom of God is now inaugurated. You see the missionary emphasis of Pentecost in the fulfillment of the Abrahamic Covenant there. The worldwide kingdom of God is now inaugurated and now the Spirit is to be poured out upon all flesh. No longer was one people to be the sole recipient, but the remedy of the Spirit was to be applied to all peoples. Now of course, that doesn’t mean every last man and woman. Though, we might wish it did. But now, the barrier of the nation and the nations has been broken down. And all peoples will now come to Mt. Zion.
Secondly, not only is it poured out on all flesh, but secondly, the New Covenant is the era of the Spirit, because now, is for the first time, the object of the Spirit’s work is to recover the world from its sin. So it is not just the extent of the Spirit’s operation, it is the object, it is the goal of His operation. Listen to what B. B. Warfield says, “of course, this,” that is the recovering of the world from sin, “this was the Spirit’s ultimate object from the beginning, but during the period of preparation, it was only its ultimate and not its proximate object.”
Its proximate object was preparation. Now, in the New Covenant, it is performance. Then it was to preserve a seed, sound and pure for the planting; now, it is for the reaping of the harvest. It required the Spirit’s power to keep the seed safe during the cold and dark winter. It requires it now to plant the seed and water it and cause it to grow into a great tree. The Spirit is the leaven which leavens the world. In Israel, it was the leaven laid away in the closet until the day of leavening came. When that day came, and it was drawn out of its dark corner and placed in the heap of meal, then the day of leaven had come. Or, to use the figure of Isaiah during the days of the dark ages, when the kingdom of God was confined to Israel, it was like a barrier in a stream. The Spirit of God was its life, its principle during all the ages. And it was He that kept it restrained. Now, the kingdom of God, is like that stream with the barriers broken down. And it is the Holy Spirit that is driving it. So it is not just the extent, it is the object of the Spirit’s operation that has changed.
Third, the New Covenant is the era of the Spirit because now, the mode of administration of God’s kingdom has become spiritual. The mode of the administration of God’s kingdom, has become spiritual. It is not just that the extent of the Spirit’s work is broadened. It is not just that the object of the Spirit’s work is now focused on His ultimate goal. It is that the way that He administers this era is different.
Listen again, to what Warfield says. “In the old Dispensation, the kingdom of God was in a sense of this world. It had its relation to and its place among earthly states. It was administered by outward ordinances and enactment and hierarchies. In the new dispensation, the kingdom of God is not of this world. It has no relation to or place among earthly states. It is not administered by external ordinances. The kingdom of God is now within you. Its law is written upon the heart. It is administered by an inward force. Where the Jewish ordinances extended in the Old Testament, there was the kingdom of God. Where men were circumcised on the eighth day, where they turned their faces to the temple at the hour of sacrifice and where they went up to Jerusalem to the annual feast, a centralized worship, we say, for the temple at Jerusalem was the place where God might be acceptably worshipped, they were of the kingdom. Now, where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is the Church. Jesus’ words to the woman at the well are ringing in your ears right now. “There will come a time, when neither in this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is the church.” Irenaeus and Ignatius tell us wherever the Spirit works, and He works when and where and how he will, there is the Church of God, not just in Jerusalem. But in Judea, and Samaria, and unto the ends of the earth.” Warfield goes on to say, “we are freed from the outward ordinances, touch not, taste not, handle not, and are under the sway of the indwelling spirit.”
Fourth, and finally, the New Covenant is the era of the Spirit because now the Spirit works in the hearts of God’s people with a more prevailing and a more pervading force. Of course, He regenerated and sanctified the souls of God’s saints in the Old Covenant. We cannot doubt that He was operating creatively and that He was powerfully present within them as when David could pray, “create within me a new heart, and renew a right spirit within me.” We must never forget, however, that while that is an Old Testament prayer, it is of course, perfectly appropriate for New Covenant Christians to pray. And yet, we are compelled to say that the Spirit’s work in the New Covenant is more powerful and prevailing than in the old. For in the New Covenant God not only promises to pour out the Spirit upon all flesh, but He promises that He will pour Him out in a special manner on His people.
Listen, again, to Warfield’s deductions from this: “Surely this must mean much to us, that we live in the era of the Spirit. A Dispensation in which the Spirit of God is poured out upon all flesh while extending the bounds of God’s kingdom until it covers the earth and that He is poured out in the hearts of His people so that He reigns in their hearts and powerfully determines them to do holiness and righteousness all the days of their lives. Because we live under this Dispensation, we are freed from the outward pressures of the law, and have the love shed abroad in our hearts and being led by the Spirit are His sons, yielding a willing obedience and by instinct doing what is conformable to His will. Because this is the Dispensation of the Spirit, we are in the hands of a loving Spirit of God, whose work in us cannot fail. And the world is in His powerful guidance and shall roll on in steady development, until it knows the Lord and His will is done on earth as it is heaven. It is because this is the Dispensation of the Spirit, that it is a missionary age, and it is because it is the Dispensation of the Spirit that mission shall maker their triumphant progress until the earth passes at last into heaven. It is because this is the Dispensation of the Spirit, that it is an age of ever increasing righteousness and it is because it is the Dispensation of the Spirit that the righteousness shall wax and wax until it is perfect. Blessed be God that He has given it to our eyes to see this, His glory, in the process of His coming.”
Now you can’t miss Warfield’s post millennialism in that. But don’t miss the blessing of what he is saying apart from that particular eschatological issue. Don’t miss the blessing of what he is saying. Because God is building His Church, and no matter what it looks like to the eyes of the world, one day the unveiling will come and it is going to be a glorious sight. All of us, eschatological perspective apart, all of us, share in that view of the triumph. And it is something very encouraging to us in the midst of the temple discouragement that we face in the New Covenant era. When we see the Gospel resisted in the hearts of the people that we preach to week after week and we wonder what are they listening too? Am I up there and does it just sound like “Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah? Did that get through? Did they not hear what I was saying?” It is important thing for us to remember as we contemplate the work of the Spirit in the New Covenant. That is a major biblical theological issue. The whole issue of the role of the Holy Spirit. Warfield has two articles. One In Faith and Life, his Sunday School lessons. There is an article called The Outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and then in his Biblical and Theological Studies he has a treatise on the Holy Spirit in which he deals with the Old Testament. I commend both of them to you as very helpful exegetical treatments at how the Spirit operates under the Old and under the New Covenants.
Concept of Covenant in the New Testament
Now, what I would like to begin with you is an introduction to the Covenant idea in the New Testament. We have already looked at that passage in Hebrews 9 for what it told us about the New Testament understanding about what a covenant is. But we really haven’t looked at the other passages in the New Testament which pertain to the covenant.
The importance of the covenant idea to Old Testament studies is beyond debate. But in New Testament research, conclusions about that matter tend to be much more tentative. In fact, some scholars have gone so far as to suggest that the idea of Covenant itself, was transformed or became outmoded in early Christianity. Delbert Hillars, for instance, who wrote a book called, Covenant, the History of a Biblical Idea, said this: “The Essenes had a covenant, but it was not new. The Christians had something new, but it was not a covenant. That is to say, to call what Jesus brought, a covenant, is like calling conversion circumcision. Or like saying that one keeps the Passover with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth, which is of course a direct quote from the New Testament.” Now, why would this guy be so bone headed to say that, I just don’t understand. For Christians, the coming of the substance made shadows out of the rich array of Old Testament events, persons, symbols, and figures. The reality brings the image to an end.
Now, his contention is fundamentally contradicted by the New Testament itself, and the burgeoning scholarship on the subject and role of the covenant in the New Testament indicates that Hillars’ conclusion is wrong. And as we survey the covenant idea in the New Testament, we may not be able to give a full assessment of the significance of that covenant idea in the various New Testament authors, but we can identify theological concepts which they explicitly relate to covenant in their New Testament writings. And we are going to restrict ourselves to the passages were diatheke occurs.
Diatheke and Suntheke
Let’s begin by giving some words about the translation and meaning of covenant in the New Testament. The word, diatheke, occurs approximately thirty three times in the New Testament. Thirty times in the singular, three in the plural. It is implied another six times. A rather vigorous discussion of the proper translation of diatheke has been going on for some time now. And so it is advisable for us to devote some consideration to that matter. The debate concerns, whether in the New Testament, diatheke is usually to be translated as covenant in the sense of a contract or a binding agreement, is it to be translated as testament in the sense of a last will or is it to be translated as disposition, a unilateral divine decree or enactment. Those are basically the three options on the market.
And that question is further complicated by certain connotations of the English word, covenant, bargain, or contract. And the German word, bunt, which can mean treaty or bargain or lots of other things too. Now those who have argued for rendering the word diatheke in the New Testament as testament or disposition have argued for that for both philological and theological reasons. It is argued, for instance, that the Septuagint and common Hellenistic usage is frequently appealed to as grounds for not translating diatheke as covenant in the New Testament.
On the theological front, the rendering covenant is said to obscure the unilateral character of the diatheke idea in the Septuagint and Paul. For instance, Adolph Dismon, who favored the translation, testament as the proper translation of all the passages where diatheke occurred, maintained that in the Septuagint diatheke meant a one sided disposition or more specifically a will and, but studies of Hellenistic literature indicated that diatheke was almost universally understood in a testamentary sense. He then argued, that the Septuagint and common Hellenistic meaning of diatheke was Paul’s meaning. Of course, Dismon was originally writing in German, and so his bunt gets translated into covenant, implied bilaterally which compromises the Pauline doctrine of grace.
Now that is his argument. If you translate it as covenant, you are compromising the Pauline doctrine of grace, which raises question about the whole theology of the Old Testament, I might add. But we won’t go into that right now. Dismon encapsulates his linguistic and theological reasons for insisting that diatheke be rendered as testament in this short paragraph of Saint Paul, insisting that it meant in his Greek Old Testament a unilateral enactment, or last will or testament.
This one point concerns more than the merely superficial question of whether we are to write New Testament or New Covenant on the title page of our Bibles. It becomes ultimately the great question of all religious history: are we going to have a religion of grace or a religion of works. It involves the alternative: whether Pauline Christianity, or Augustinian, or Palagian. Now, that is one of the greatest overstatements and mistakes in this area ever committed.
When Dismon was writing, it was indeed the consensus that Hellenistic law and Hellenistic usage of diatheke supported an understanding of testament as an appropriate translation for deithica in the New Testament. But since Dismon’s time, we have uncovered a good deal of Hellenistic material that shows that Dismon was too influenced by the Hellenistic discoveries of his own time, not to mention influenced by his own theological agenda. On the other hand, people like Behm have argued that though they agree with Dismon’s emphasis on the one sided character of the diatheke, we shouldn’t translate it as a testament. We ought to translate it as a disposition. And there have been a variety of arguments for that. Behm, for instance says, “the religious concept of diatheke in the Septuagint represents a significant development of a Hebrew term, even while preserving its essential content, to try and keep the actual word covenant, which in any case is not really coextensive with the Hebrew word, by adopting compromises like covenantal disposition, or covenanted order, or ordinance.
Well, by introducing the alien thought of testament only obscures the linguistic and historical basis of diatheke in the New Testament. Again, I think Behm is completely out to lunch. Let me give you my arguments against these. There are a number of effective arguments in responding to these assertions by those who favor covenant as the proper translation of diatheke
First, it has been suggested that the notion of testament, that is last will and testament, never appears in the Septuagint in connection with diatheke. Now, this isn’t just “Johnny-come-lately-me” coming along. Multon and Milligan in their vocabulary of New Testament Greek, or a vocabulary of the Greek Testament, respond directly to Dismon’s contentions about the meaning of diatheke. And they say, we may fairly put aside the idea that the Septuagint testament is the invariable meaning of diatheke. It takes some courage to find that definition there at all. Now that is Multon and Milligan. And recent scholarship has tended to confirm that particular judgment. Mendenhall’s work, those of you have worked on this from the Old Testament standpoint know G.E. Mendenhall’s work on covenant. And his work on covenant has confirmed this as well. You will find it in the Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. You will also find it in the Anchor Bible Dictionary article on Covenant which he helped co-author. And he confirms this, that recent scholarship indicates that testament is not a good translation of diatheke in the Septuagint. And if that verdict is accepted, then obviously, the case for testament as the usual rendering of diatheke in the New Testament is substantially weakened. If your main argument is been, the word covenant means for Paul, what it meant in his Greek Old Testament, and then you show that the Greek Old Testament never means testament when it uses diatheke, then you have a got a real problem trying to prove that Paul meant testament.
The second argument, against the idea that diatheke should be translated disposition in the Septuagint and also in the New Testament. It has been argued that the term covenant adequately conveys the unilateral character of the relationship without losing sight of its bilateral aspect. You remember we have said all along, you can’t have a covenant in solitude. There has to be mutuality. There have to be two to have a covenant. And E. D. Burton, the great author of the commentary on Galatians, has observed that the Old Testament concept of covenant carried the suggestion of both divine initiative and mutuality. And he concludes his study of diatheke in the pre-New Testament writings with these words. This is truly a great summarization. And if you are interested in this, you will find it in Burton’s commentary on Galatians, page 500. But here is what he says:
“From the usage therefore, of the writers before the New Testament, or approximately contemporaneous with it, there emerged two distinct meanings of the word, diatheke. Testament, or testamentary provision is the most frequent use of diatheke in the classical writers. It is the invariable sense in Josephus. The meaning covenant is very infrequent in the classical writers, but it is the almost invariable meaning in the Septuagint, in the Old Testament Apocrypha, both translated and original, in the Alexandrine, and in the Palestinian. It is the meaning in the Sudapigrapha. It is the meaning in Philo. The essential distinction between these two meanings is that in a testament, the testator expresses his will, as to what should be done after his death, especially in respect to property. The covenant is an agreement between living persons, as to what should be done by them while they are living. It is of prime importance to observe that in the diatheke, the birith, between God and men so often spoken of in the Old Testament, the initiative is with God. And the element of a promise or command is prominent, but, it still remains essentially a covenant, not a testament.
In their emphasis on the former fact, some modern writers seem to lose sight of the latter. And I think that is one of the most brilliant summarization of this problem that has ever been put forth. People will argue, “See, it’s promissory, it’s promissory, therefore, it is not a covenant.” Of course it is promissory. God initiated it. It doesn’t mean there is no mutuality to it. So you don’t have to retranslate covenant to testament to emphasize the divine initiative in it.
So the translation of covenant is more adequate than the translation testament, because, it signifies a relationship established between two living parties, not one live one and one dead one. And it is preferable to the translation, disposition, because it denotes a binding relationship with attendant responsibilities and a disposition doesn’t necessarily involve a divine binding relationship with attending responsibilities. So both testament and disposition fail to convey the concept of mutuality inherent in the Septuagint usage of the diatheke.
Two further matters are worth noting. First, it has often been argued that we ought to translate diatheke as a disposition or a testament because of the reason that the Septuagint chose diatheke to translate birith. Have you ever heard that argument made? That the reason we know how to translate diatheke is because we know the reason why the Septuagint chose to translate birith as diatheke and not suntheke. Have you ever heard anyone stress that suntheke is used in Greek to talk about treaties, diatheke is often used to talk about last wills and testaments, and so the Septuagint chose diatheke because it wanted to stress, not the bilaterally, but it wanted to stress the unilateral nature of an Old Testament birith. So when the Septuagint guys are sitting down, trying to figure how we translate birith, they chose diatheke because it was more unilateral than suntheke. The essential distinction between the two, is suggested that the former, diatheke is one sided, while the latter, suntheke is two sided.
And it is further argued that the Septuagint translation actually develops the meaning of the Hebrew term. And on the basis of that reason, some have rejected covenant as a suitable translation, because it entails a bilateral meaning. But again, that argument over stretches the implications of the inferences on which it is based.
Should that distinction between diatheke and suntheke be the only or primary consideration in determining what the Old Testament means, or the Septuagint translation of the Old Testament means when it uses diatheke. Does that rule out the possibility of diatheke involving an aspect of mutuality. Let me appeal to the Old Testament scholar Walter Eichrodt. Eichrodt maintained that the Old Testament use of the covenant concept in secular life argues that the religious birith was always regarded as a bilateral relationship. For even thought the burden is most unequally distributed between the two contracting parties. This makes no difference to the fact that the relationship was still essentially two sided. The idea that in ancient Israel, the birith was always and only thought of as God’s pledging Himself, to which human effort was required to make no kind of response can therefore be proved to be erroneous. In fact, in all the passages, we have seen so far, everywhere there is a pledge of God, there is a corresponding human response. So, by choosing deithica, was the Septuagint trying to exclude that kind of mutuality? I think that is just outlandish.
And anyway, D.J. McCarthy, who has no vested interest in this fight, says we don’t know the Septuagint chose diatheke to translate birith as opposed to suntheke. So, we are inferring why they translated it, and then we are trying to use it as an argument against translating another way. And I think that is stretching it.
J.C. Henley has said this. We must not allow the Septuagint choice of diatheke to obliterate the fundamental idea of a compact leading to a mutual relationship. While, birith in its religious use, certainly means a relationship founded by God, and determined by Him, it nevertheless, signifies a wideness and richness of relationship which is lost, when you translate it as a decree or an ordinance or a disposition or a testament.
We can ask whether or not the objections of Dismon and Behm, and Cutch, and others have raised against the translation of diatheke, really apply to the English word, covenant. Very often, the idea is that the English word, covenant, implies bargaining with God about something: You scratch my back, I scratch yours. And it is very interesting that James Barr, himself, no great defender of evangelicalism says this: “In talking about biblical covenant on the other hand, I suspect that this word is for the most part, is for most users, something of an empty word. In itself, it does not convey anything specific. Such content as it has, comes from the provisions to be read in the context of the biblical passages.”
So for most people, you are going to have an opportunity to introduce them to this concept for the first time. You can fill out the gaps there. And if that is the case, then a key objection to translating to diatheke is covenant is erased, when we conclude that the English covenant proves sufficiently flexible, to convey both the divine initiative and the mutually binding relationship, which is to often overlooked in the covenant
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