A New Look at the New Covenant

In my last blog on Mark Kinzer’s recent book, Searching Her Own Mystery: Nostra Aetate, the Jewish People, and the Identity of the Church (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2015), I discussed his treatment of the concept of One New Man (Eph. 2:15). Mark provides a fresh perspective on a phrase that has become part of the religious marketplace today, but it’s only one strand in the complex fabric of Searching. Now I’ll consider another strand in the book, which also treats a popular and often misunderstood biblical term, the New Covenant. As with One New Man, we often talk about it, but it is often misunderstood.

The misunderstanding of new covenant is often linked to a misreading of Hebrews 8, which is mostly a citation of Jeremiah 31:

For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no need to look for a second one.

God finds fault with them when he says [in Jeremiah 31:30-33]:

“The days are surely coming, says the Lord,
when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel
and with the house of Judah;
not like the covenant that I made with their ancestors,
on the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt;
for they did not continue in my covenant,
and so I had no concern for them, says the Lord.
10 This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel
after those days, says the Lord:
I will put my laws in their minds,
and write them on their hearts,
and I will be their God,
and they shall be my people.
11 And they shall not teach one another
or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord,’
for they shall all know me,
from the least of them to the greatest.
12 For I will be merciful toward their iniquities,
and I will remember their sins no more.”

13 In speaking of “a new covenant,” he has made the first one obsolete. And what is obsolete and growing old will soon disappear.

This final verse fuels the idea that the new covenant supersedes the old, and (by inference) all it contains. Bible students then read and understand the rest of the Bible’s references to the new covenant in light of this dubious conclusion from Hebrews. Obviously, Messianic Jewish readers, as well as others seeking to avoid supersessionist interpretations, struggle with this verse. A few years ago one Messianic blogger even tried to resolve the difficulty by suggesting that Hebrews shouldn’t be part of the Bible at all! Dr. Kinzer doesn’t deal directly with Hebrews 8:13, but he does deal with Jeremiah 31, and his treatment will help us reach a better understanding of the new covenant, and Hebrews 8:13 to boot.

Dr. Kinzer’s discussion of the new covenant comes in his chapter, “The Last Supper, the Eucharist, and the Jewish People.” He concludes not only that the Eucharist, the Roman Catholic sacrament of communion based on Yeshua’s Last Supper, is properly understood only in connection with its Jewish origins, but that it actually unites Catholics with the Jewish people. (And, although Kinzer’s book is a dialogue with Catholics, this conclusion, I believe, would apply to all Christians.) On the way to that conclusion, Mark highlights three features of Jeremiah 31 that are particularly relevant to Yeshua’s use of the term “new covenant” at his last supper.

  1. “The only difference in Jeremiah between the Sinai [or “old”] covenant and the “new” covenant is a new action of God that empowers the people to faithfully observe the commandments already given” (Searching, 115). The requirements of the covenant haven’t changed. The same Torah given “on the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt” will now be written on their hearts.
  2. I used “them” and “their” in the sentence above without identifying who “they” are, but the context is clear: “The intended recipients of the ‘new’ covenant are the same as those who received the Sinai covenant” (ibid.), namely the Jewish people descended from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. Mark points out that this is not only implied in the section of Jeremiah 31 quoted in Hebrews 8, but made explicit in the next few verses, Jeremiah 31:35-37.
  3. Jeremiah 31 was written in the context of the Babylonian exile, or Jeremiah’s prediction of the exile and subsequent return. Accordingly, “the new covenant is part of a new exodus, which is different from the first exodus only in regards to the geographic location of the bondage from which Israel is to be redeemed” (ibid.). The same people, those descended from the patriarchs and matriarchs, will be brought (back) to the same promised land as at the first exodus.

These three features of Jeremiah 31 lead to the conclusion of biblical scholar Norbert Lohfink, cited by Kinzer: “the new covenant is but the earlier one, now brilliant and radiant . . . . God pardons and institutes again and anew the old that has been lost. But it is the old. It is not another ‘covenant’” (ibid. 116).

Let’s see how this background helps us to understand the conclusion of Hebrews 8. “In speaking of ‘a new covenant,’ he has made the first one obsolete. And what is obsolete and growing old will soon disappear.” This is the NRSV translation; let’s compare Complete Jewish Bible: “By using the term, ‘new,’ he has made the first covenant ‘old’; and something being made old, something in the process of aging, is on its way to vanishing altogether.” I believe this translation better reflects the original Greek, with its contrast between “new” and “old” (not “new” and “obsolete”). And it provides two important clarifications to the common (mis)understanding of this verse. First, Hebrews is saying that the “old” covenant wasn’t “old” until Jeremiah announced a new covenant—prior to that it was just the covenant, period. The term “new” in Jeremiah 31 defines the Sinai covenant as old, as “in the process of aging,” and therefore not eternal. Someday (not necessarily “soon” as in the NRSV) it will vanish altogether. Second, this vanishing didn’t happen at the appearing of Messiah. Hebrews 8 assumes that the old is still in place, although not eternal. Later readers and interpreters assume that the old covenant vanished at some point after these words were penned, often at the destruction of the temple in 70 CE. (Another view is that the old covenant was just about to fizzle when Hebrews was penned and the destruction of the temple just confirmed its demise.) But Hebrews doesn’t say when the old covenant would vanish—it’s not discussing chronology, but ontology, that is the nature of the old covenant: it’s temporary. The new covenant will carry forward all that the old covenant contained, but now written on the hearts and minds of Israel, so that they will all know the Lord—which had been the goal of the old covenant all along.

So what does this mean about timing? When Yeshua announced at his last supper, “this cup is the new covenant in my blood,” didn’t he mean that the new had arrived in its fullness and the old was gone? This question brings us back to the heart of Dr. Kinzer’s discussion.

In the account of the Last Supper in Matthew and Mark, Yeshua doesn’t refer to the new covenant, as he does in the account in Luke 22:20 and 1 Corinthians 11:25. He simply says, “This is my blood of the covenant.” Dr. Kinzer notes that this wording is an allusion to the “blood of the covenant” at Sinai (Ex. 24:4-8). Scholars have traditionally seen this allusion as “typological in character. Just as Moses placed sacrificial blood on the people of Israel to seal the Sinai covenant, so Jesus will place his own blood on his disciples to seal the ‘new’ covenant” (ibid. 113). Mark claims, however, that it is “more likely” that Jesus is here pointing to “his coming death as the true sacrifice—represented proleptically by the offerings of Exodus 24—which retroactively seals and thus ultimately sustains the Sinai covenant itself. According to this interpretation, Jesus envisions only one covenant and only one covenant people—the people of Israel” (ibid.; emphasis in the original). In other words, the sacrifices of Exodus 24 anticipated the true sacrifice of Messiah himself, which would one day replace them. They were effective in sealing the covenant at Sinai because they anticipated the true and eternal sacrifice to come.

The new covenant, then, must constitute a renewal, not a replacement, of the original covenant at Sinai.

We’re still left with the question, when? This is an example of what some theologians describe as “already but not yet.” The new covenant is here, but not yet. How can we say that? Because the new covenant outlined by Jeremiah includes not only forgiveness of sins, but also the writing of Torah upon the hearts of Israel, so that “they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.” Clearly this is not yet the case with the people Israel today, and it’s not the case even if you think that the church is the new Israel. The law is evidently not yet collectively written on the hearts of Christians or Jews, because when it is, says Jeremiah, “they shall not teach one another or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me.”

The scholar Norbert Lohfink asks, “Was the torah written . . . on the heart of one single person, in such a way that this heart was entirely one with the torah so that it had no need to be instructed anymore about it?” He claims that there is one such heart, the heart of Yeshua (cited in Searching 117). The promise of the new covenant is fulfilled present tense in Messiah Yeshua himself. He mediates the new covenant first by receiving it himself—not in place of Israel but as representative of Israel, who will lead all Israel into covenant renewal. In the meantime, all who live in union with Messiah Yeshua receive the new covenant realities promised by Jeremiah, but as a foretaste of the age to come. In that day all the terms of the covenant will be activated, first “with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah,” and also with all those joined with Israel through Messiah Yeshua.

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