Question: I read with empathy and agreement your excellent article “Jews, Gentiles, and the Church.” However, one thing you said puzzled me. It was this: “Essential also is an understanding that the church was created through offering to both Jews and Gentiles a ‘new covenant’ relationship with God.” My understanding of the “new covenant” is Jeremiah 31:31-40. This covenant is identified clearly as the New Covenant. It is a covenant addressed solely to the Nation of Israel. The church has no part in it—indeed it will not be instituted until after the close of the church age (the catching up of the church). Your statement, quoted above, seems to imply that the new covenant was offered to the church. Is that what you meant, or have I misunderstood you?
Response: As you note, the Scriptures speak of “covenants.” When Israel came to Sinai, and before the giving of the Law, the Lord said, “Now therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed, andkeep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people: for all the earth is mine: and ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation. These are the words which thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel” (Exodus 19:5-6, our emphasis).
The only “covenant” in view is the one that God made with Abraham (Genesis 12:1-3), which would be a blessing to all nations. We know this because the Law that was given, beginning in chapter 20, limits the priesthood to the tribe of Levi alone. Yet, in Exodus 19, the Lord states to all Israel “If ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people: for all the earth is mine: And ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation.” Israel refused, and the Law was instituted.
That offer would be repeated centuries later by the promised Seed: “Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that heareth my word, and believeth on him that sent me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation; but is passed from death unto life” (John 5:24). It was the fullness of time. “But when the fullness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, to redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons” (Galatians 4:4-5).
In his first epistle, Peter echoes the words spoken by God in Exodus 19 (1 Peter 1:1): “Ye also, as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house, an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ…. But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light” (1 Peter 2:5, 9).
The New Covenant is not “instituted?” It is “solely for Israel”? The longest quotation of any Old Testament passage by any writer in the New Testament is said to be in Hebrews 8:8-12. There, the unidentified writer quotes Jeremiah 31:31-34 in full. It is the core of the inspired writer’s argument that Jesus is “the mediator of a better covenant” and that the old covenant (the Law) was insufficient. The inspired writer proclaims, “For if that first covenant had been faultless, then should no place have been sought for the second” (Hebrews 8:7). The covenant of Jeremiah 31 must be in operation. The language will not allow a differing opinion.
Between Hebrews 4:14 and 10:18, the writer argues that the sacrifices performed by the priesthood of the old covenant could not bring about the forgiveness of sins. Therefore (he concludes), a new sacrifice and a new priesthood were necessary. They came as a result of Christ’s once-for-all death on the Cross. In light of the “operational” New Covenant, the Old Covenant has ceased to have a role in the lives of New Testament believers, for, “…he saith, A new covenant, he hath made the first old. Now that which decayeth and waxeth old is ready to vanish away” (Hebrews 8:13). In Hebrews 10:16-17 he clinches the argument by repeating Jeremiah 31:31-34 in Hebrews 10:16-17 to show that Jesus’ sacrifice of himself as the “Great High Priest” is the one truly effectual sacrifice for sins. Consequently, the New Covenant has no need of bloody sacrifices or Levitical priests to offer the sacrifices. As Jesus declared, “it is finished!” (John 19:30).