There is a lie in our Bible. The lie consists of a deceptive label, a traditional label that contradicts the key feature of the new covenant described by Jeremiah the prophet in a relatively obscure but significant prophecy.
The Lying Label: “New Testament”
Calling “New Testament” a lying label may seem like bombast or hyperbole, but characterizing the label as deceptive and misleading is accurate. The “new testament” has been incorrectly identified for Christians as twenty-seven canonical texts–instead of the authentic internal working of God–for almost 2,000 years. This is not a minor technicality or an insignificant piece of trivia. The misrepresentation has distorted the thinking of Christendom from the time of Tertullian, directing us, the intellectuals among us in particular, toward externals and away from God’s internal presence.
Jeremiah 31:31-34 is the passage which alerted the Apostle Paul to the fact that the old covenant would one day pass into history and be replaced by the new covenant. Jeremiah’s prophecy is foundational for Paul’s discussion of the new covenant in II Corinthians 3.
If you are new to Jeremiah 31, this is the key thing to keep in mind: the phrases “new testament” and “new covenant” are functionally identical. Each phrase is an acceptable English rendering of the same Biblical words, בְּרִ֥ית חֲדָשָֽׁה׃ and διαθήκης νέας. Jeremiah’s “new covenant” and the misguided label “New Testament” are both derived from the same Hebrew and Greek words.
Jeremiah Prophesies a New Covenant
“The days are surely coming,” says the LORD,
“when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel
and the people of Judah.
It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors
when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt,
a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband,” says the LORD.
“But this is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,”
says the LORD.
“I will put my law within them and I will write it on their hearts;
And I will be their God, and they will be my people.
No longer will they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the LORD,’
because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,”
says the LORD,
“because I will forgive their iniquity and will remember their sin no more.”
Application One: Looking within for God’s New Covenant
The first and most important thing to learn from this is that in order to know and experience God’s new covenant we need to look within ourselves because that’s where God put it. We need to start here, with ourselves. We need to experience for ourselves this internal covenant written on our hearts before we can help someone else. We need to find out how the new covenant works for us as individuals, inside, before becoming ministers of the new covenant is possible.
Application Two: Becoming a Minister of the New Covenant
A wise man said, “He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” He was living out Jeremiah’s written-on-the-heart understanding of the new covenant.
I have to confess that I am not a competent minister of the new covenant. All my training and most of my experience has been strictly ministry in the letter. And the letter kills. I’m working on this. I’ve seen many times how ministry in the letter kills. Coming off “letter ministry” is like overcoming an addiction, a very respectable and socially acceptable addiction. I don’t know exactly how it works–how to minister the new covenant of the Spirit, or how to stay clean and sober.
What I do know is that the new covenant was not written on parchment, and is not published on paper. God has written, and continues to write, the new covenant on our hearts. This means that being a minister of the new covenant is not equivalent to preaching and teaching from what is popularly called “the New Testament.”
I understand that some people will not accept Paul’s dichotomy between the letter and the Spirit for “ministers of a new covenant,” and that’s okay. It is not essential to believe the internal/external dichotomy. Authentic ministry is possible with a variety of beliefs, contradictory beliefs, even unscriptural beliefs. It’s possible that accepting this distinction isn’t intended for some folks. Like Jesus’ description of celibacy, perhaps it is intended only for those who are called to it.
This internal/external dichotomy is, however, understandable and acceptable for others. I don’t know that Jeremiah fully understood what a covenant written on the heart would require, but I do know that Paul accepted Jeremiah’s description of the the new covenant. Jeremiah’s covenant-written-on-the-heart is a major presupposition of all Paul’s thought.
Application Three: The Conflict of the New Covenant, the Promise of μετανοια
Feelings of insecurity, intimidation, and confusion can result from not having chapter-and-verse proof texts for beliefs or convictions, especially when they are contrary to beliefs and convictions of one’s particular religious community. And we know, like it or not, that there is almost always Biblical support for differing convictions. Often believers are not Biblically literate enough to know the “objective support” for their inner witness, and confusion results. God is not the author of this confusion. One cause of confusion is some people’s unfortunate habit of insisting on their way as the only way.
Are there problems with this understanding? Of course there are. But the solution to these problems is not the denial of God’s own provision for guidance during this time of the new covenant. Problems that arise from embracing the new covenant will certainly be outweighed by the unpredictable fruit of repentance, of μετανοια.
Application Four: The Present Tense New Covenant
Here is a list of the key points of Jeremiah’s prophetic description of the new covenant:
- The LORD is going to make a new covenant with his people.
- The new covenant will not be like the old covenant.
- This is the new covenant, and how it differs from the old:
- The LORD will put the law within them.
- The LORD will write the new covenant–on their hearts.
- They will not teach one another.
- They will not tell one another to “Know the Lord,”
- Because they will all know God, from the least to the greatest,
- Because the LORD will forgive their iniquity.
- The LORD will remember their sin no more.
We are in the era of the New Covenant, and these descriptions are now in the present tense, not located in some vague and indeterminate future. Let me edit some of these points to reflect our present reality:
- The LORD has put the law within us, or, God’s law is within us.
- The LORD has written the new covenant on our hearts, or, God’s new covenant is written on our hearts.
- We don’t need to teach one another.
- We don’t need to tell one another to “Know the Lord,”
- Why? Because we all know God already, from the least to the greatest.
- The LORD has forgiven us for missing the mark.
- The LORD doesn’t even remember that we’ve missed the mark–totally ignores it.
Any understanding of the new covenant initiated by God the Messiah must begin here, with Jeremiah. The new covenant is already within us, written on our hearts. We all know God, all of us, so that no one needs to be encouraged or taught to know God.
Application Five: Assumptions for Ministers of the New Covenant
When you are concerned about people, you need to know this:
- They already know God.
- God’s law has already been written on their hearts.
- They don’t “need” you to teach them anything (just as you don’t need me to teach you anything, either).
- Where they miss the mark, they are already forgiven.
Application Six: Vital Ministry and the New Covenant
My last application here applies to clergy’s aspiration and desire for spiritual ministry, church growth, revival, church vitality, etc. If we take seriously the examples of Jesus and Paul, and we consider their ministries genuine and worthy of emulation, we need to be willing to jettison partial and incomplete understandings in order to supplement (or replace) them with more complete understandings.
According to Paul, there is a world of difference between ministering in the Spirit and ministering the letter. The letter kills, but the Spirit brings life. If we find that our ministry from the Scripture bears less fruit than we would hope, this might be the reason. A wise man said, “You should imitate me, just as I imitate Christ.”
The key feature of the contradiction: The old covenant was chiseled in stone and written on scrolls; the new covenant is written directly on our hearts. One trains us to look outward for truth; God urges us to look within.
μετανοειτε ηγγικεν γαρ η βασιλεια των ουρανων; η βασιλεια του θεου εντος υμων εστιν.