Lesson Focus: God, through Jesus, has made a new covenant with us. It has been written on our hearts, guiding us, strengthening us, and helping us to become Christ-like.
Lesson Outcomes: Through this lesson students should:
Recognize that the new covenant about which Jeremiah speaks is the covenant that Jesus has brought.
Confess that we have not been faithful to the covenant that God has made with us.
Desire to renew their covenant with God through Jesus Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit.
Catch up on the story: God, since the time of Noah, Abraham and Moses has been covenanting with God’s people to be their God. As the story progresses from Noah to Moses the covenant gets more and more specific. At the time of our passage, Israel is God’s special covenant people. God has promised to provide and protect them, remaining faithful to them. As with all covenants, there are stipulations. Israel, as a partner in the covenant, must remain faithful and fulfill its obligations as well. Some of the most significant obligations are to not have any other gods along with God and to observe the Sabbath.
God has done all that God has promised to do. Israel had grown into a great nation with lots of people and a great land that they called their own. Israel, on the other hand, had not been so faithful to the covenant. The curses that God set forth at Sinai for breaking the covenant are beginning to happen. God is turning Israel over to reap the penalties of their unfaithfulness. Those punishments have come from the hands of the Assyrians and now the Babylonians. The northern kingdom of Israel has already been destroyed. Much of Judah has been taken away into exile and now Jerusalem is about to be destroyed. There have been many prophets who have come to warn God’s people. But no one has listened to them. Jeremiah, who is very sad at the current state of affairs, is currently trying to offer hope and a bright future to the people of Judah and Jerusalem.
The Text: Chapter 31 begins with a proclamation from God that God is indeed going to bring the exiles home. Those who have survived will be able to return home. God declares that God has never ceased loving them. God has continued in God’s faithfulness toward God’s people.
Earlier in the book of Jeremiah God has promised to pluck up and destroy Israel and Judah for their unfaithfulness. Now that their time of punishment and correction is over, God is going to plant and build his people up once more.
Then he calls them virgins. This is incredible. Throughout almost all of Israel’s prophetic literature, God has been likening Israel to prostitutes and unfaithful wives. All of that has been forgotten. God, even though the past is still there, is choosing to remember Israel as she was, a virgin characterized by faithfulness and steadfastness. God will once again call Israel his wife.
Israel is told to mark out the road for the journey home. They will be returning from exile. No longer will God bring punishment upon the children of the wicked. Those who eat sour grapes will have their teeth set on edge. The children will be innocent. Each one will die for his or her own sin. Our passage, verses 31-34, belongs with what precedes it. The result of God bringing Israel home from exile is that God will do a new thing, make a new covenant with Israel. Things will not be the same as they had been for Israel. The days are coming, God says when this new covenant will come. God is going to do a new thing. God is going to make a new covenant to replace the old one. This new covenant will be better. It will not be external. It will not be written on stone tablets like the old one; it will be written on the people’s hearts. This new covenant will be able to do what the old one was unable to do: it will help God’s people walk more faithfully in the ways of God.
The days are coming, Jeremiah proclaims. We say today that the day has come. This new covenant that God was going to make has been made in the birth of Jesus. It has been made through the life of Jesus. It has been made through the death and resurrection of Jesus. This new covenant is here now and ready for us to enter and have God’s law written on our hearts. To have our lives defined and shaped by the one with whom we are in covenant. To have God be our God and for us to be God’s people
This internalization of God’s law, one day, will be so complete that God’s people will no longer need to teach each other, they will no longer need to spur one another on, they will just know what to do. The sins and iniquities of the people will be remembered no more. We aren’t yet to that point, though. We do have this new covenant with God. It has been written on our hearts. If we are faithful, it will begin to define us as the people of God.
So What…? Why is this important for us? First, looking back, we now know that this new covenant that Jeremiah spoke about is the work that God did in and through Jesus Christ. Jesus is the bringer of the new covenant. He has provided a way for our sins to be forgiven and our relationship with God to be restored. Jesus has provided a way for the Holy Spirit to replace our hearts of stone with hearts that have the will of God written on them.
The birth of Jesus, which we celebrate each year, is the beginning. It is the inauguration of this new covenant. The day has come but is still in the process of coming. It is appropriate to talk about this new covenant during Lent because it is during Lent that we become more aware of our unfaithfulness to the covenant.
Because of what Jesus has done, the new covenant has arrived, and we can live in complete obedience to the law because the Holy Spirit has changed our hearts and empowered us for holy living. As Wesleyans, we would say that in the grace of entire sanctification, God’s will is written on our hearts and we can live in accord with it, and no longer intentionally violate his law.
Yes, God remains faithful to us, even when sin remains in our hearts after conversion. Yet, God wants to do a radical transformation, and write his will on our hearts, and empower us to obey it. That can happen on this side of the resurrection.
So, as we gather together let us confess our sins and remember that God had promised to make a new covenant with his people, to remember that he has done that in the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and that we need to accept this new covenant, through the power of the Spirit. A faithful relationship, to God or to anyone else, requires a regular recommitment to that relationship.
Critical Discussion Questions:
What does God look like in this text/Who is God in this text/What is God doing in this text?
God, despite Israel’s unfaithfulness, has remained faithful. God chooses to view Israel as a virgin again instead of the soiled prostitute and unfaithful wife that she has been. God is going to restore his people. God is faithful.
What does holiness/salvation look like in this text?
Holiness looks like responding to God’s faithfulness with a faithfulness of our own. It means accepting this new thing, the new covenant and the One who brings it. It means remembering our covenant with God on a daily and yearly basis. It also means a routinely confessing of our sins and/or shortcomings so that we might move on from those things to an ever-increasing faithfulness to the new covenant.
How does an encounter with this story shape who we are and who we should become?
It should remind us of our own unfaithfulness in contrast to the love of the Faithful One. At the same time it should spur us on toward a response of greater faithfulness. It should give us hope that God can so transform our hearts that his will and law will be written on them, and we can live in obedience through grace.
Specific Discussion Questions: Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly. Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.
What is a covenant? How do they differ from a contract? What kind of relationship is normally described as a covenant?
God begins by saying that the days are coming when he will make a new covenant with Israel. This new covenant will not be like the old one. What was the old covenant like? How is it different than the new one God is bringing?
Who is the bringer of this new covenant?
What does it mean that the covenant will be written on our hearts?
The text says that with this new covenant no one will have to say, “Know the Lord” because everyone, even the very small, will already know the Lord. What does this mean?
When parties are in covenant with one another they begin to be defined by their relationship with the other person in the covenant. How are you being defined by your covenantal relationship with God? What are some of the ways in which you have been changed?
How does confessing our sins and/or shortcomings help us live in greater faithfulness to this new covenant?