Jeremiah: A Covenant Beyond Exile
What is the book of Jeremiah all about? What does the Lord accomplish through 52 chapters that vary between biography, autobiography, history and prophecy, all focused on the impending punishment facing Judah. Those who have been enjoying The 3650 Challenge with me have just begun reading Jeremiah and I thought this would be an ideal time to try to understand what the book is all about. To that end I turned to Michael Williams’ new book How to Read the Bible Through the Jesus Lens. Zondervan was kind enough to allow me to post the entire chapter on Jeremiah; you can read it below or download it in PDF.
Things had become much worse in the southern kingdom of Judah since the time of Isaiah. The people of Judah had reverted quickly from the sweeping reforms of King Josiah (640 - 609 BC) to the moral decay that characterized the reigns of his sons and grandsons. Jeremiah was called to spend his adult life being the voice of God, the ignored relationship partner, to these people who refused to listen. No wonder he resisted his call! God's people seemed bent on rejecting their covenant, their special relationship, with him. How could God allow them to remain in the land that symbolized their relationship with him when it was clear they didn't want that relationship?
Though it grieved him, God would bring the Babylonians in 586 BC to take his beloved people away into exile, where they could reflect on what they had done and what they had lost. But, amazingly, God was not through with them. Through Jeremiah, God announced that he would arrange for there to be another relationship with his people, unlike the previous one that had proved impossible for them to maintain. This relationship, this covenant, was going to be something entirely new.
Jeremiah tried to get his countrymen to see that the things they were trusting in instead of God would ultimately fail them, but it was no use. For them, trusting in political and military allies, accommodating preachers, religious structures and routines, and even other gods all seemed so much more comfortable and expedient than reliance on the old-w fashioned God of their ancestors. But Jeremiah kept trying. He explained to them that in any healthy relationship, each of the parties needs to listen attentively and respond to the other. God had always listened and responded to them, but they had stopped listening and responding to him. The relationship was in a desperate place. Nevertheless, God's people refused counsel, and so the relationship would be dissolved due to "irreconcilable differences." God removed his people from his presence. But before doing so, he made a promise that was as incredibly gracious as it was impossible to comprehend. After the period of exile, he would somehow enter into a new relationship with his people that could never be broken.
There are all sorts of practical and theological problems with God's promise of a new covenant. First, how is God going to do this? Judah's sin is so deep it is as though it is engraved with an iron tool, with a flint point, on their hearts (17:1). In this new relationship, God says that instead of sin, his law will be written on the hearts of his people. It sounds as if radical spiritual surgery is necessary. Second, how can God be just and forgive his people? What kind of judge turns a blind eye to sin? If sin is excused, then why should anyone obey the law? Finally, how can this new covenant be any more lasting than any that have preceded it? Won't human beings just mess up any relationship we enter into with God?
But the word "new" in "new covenant" does not mean what it does, for example, in the phrase "new car." It does not simply describe something that replaces an old, worn-out predecessor. No, the word "new" here means "of a different kind." It is something the world has never seen before. All of the practical and theological problems of this "new" relationship are resolved by Jesus Christ. The new something is made possible by a new someone.
The Jesus Lens
God became human in the person of Jesus Christ for two reasons, and both of them have to do with this new relationship. First, God requires an unfailing and representative human relationship partner if there is to be any possibility of an unfailing relationship with humans in the future. Second, this representative human being must experience divine judgment sufficient to pay for the failings of God's human relationship partners of the past, present, and future.
Jesus accomplishes both. His union with the Father is unbroken by any human failings (John 10:30; Hebrews 4:15). His perfect faithfulness within the divine-human relationship ensures that God's relationship with all those who make Jesus their representative is just as secure as the Son's relationship with the Father. This fantastic, eternal security comes at a dear price. There is still an enormous outstanding debt for unfaithfulness that has to be paid. God is holy and just. He cannot simply ignore the sins of his people, or for that matter the sins of anyone. There would have to be judgment. Jeremiah describes this judgment as a cup filled with the wine of God's wrath that everyone on the face of the earth would have to drink (25:15 - 29). This is the cup Jesus agreed to drink for us.
In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you ." (Luke 22:20)
Holding a physical cup in his hand, Jesus alludes to the other, scarier cup that lay before him. In order for the new, unbreakable relation- ship his faithfulness had merited to become a reality for God's people, he would also have to pay the price for their sins. Jesus accomplishes the new covenant, the new relationship with God, at the cost of his blood. Only he could fully comprehend the magnitude of that judgment. That's why Jesus prays in the garden of Gethsemane that, if possible, that terrifying cup be passed from him (Luke 22:42). But it didn't pass from him, and he drank it down to the last drop so that every human being he represents is assured of a lasting relationship with God that is unbroken even by unfaithfulness on our part.
We all know how sinful we are. It is hard for us to forgive ourselves, much less expect anyone else to. Surely God, who knows us better than we know ourselves, must be disgusted with us. But the book of Jeremiah tells us just the opposite. God knows our fallen human condition, but he wants a relationship with us just the same. So, in incomprehensible love and mercy, he sovereignly decided to do what we could not: be faithful for us and pay our outstanding debts. He would, in effect, become both relationship partners. Instead of a relationship between God and man, it would be a relationship between God and the God-man, Jesus Christ. All of us who put our faith in him as our divine-human representative can rest assured that nothing can ever again separate us from God's love.
I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38 - 39)
Our new covenant relationship with God is now as secure as the faithfulness of the Son. We are justified in doubting our relationship with God only if we can bring ourselves to doubt Jesus' faithfulness. When we trust Jesus Christ for our salvation, we acknowledge that we believe what God is saying about the new relationship he has gone to such lengths to secure with us. Having that kind of relational confidence will enable us to spend less time focused on ourselves and more time focused on enjoying and sharing the rich life that that relationship produces.