A New Covenant With the House of Israel: Understanding Hebrews 8:1-13
In the Great End Time Debate, Jeremiah 31:31-34—God’s promise of a New Covenant with the House of Israel—is a true bone of contention. Realizing that this promise appears right in the middle a host of related predictions of “Israel’s” latter day restoration under the Messiah, and believing that these prophecies will be fulfilled among the Jews in a future Millennium, premillennarians are anxious to claim Jeremiah’s promise of a New Covenant for ethnic Israel.
Alas, the NT bars the way. For whenever the phrase “New Covenant” appears in the Gospels or the epistles, it is applied to the Church, comprised both of Jew and Gentile, and not simply to ethnic Israel (Mt. 26:28, 1 Cor. 11:25, 2 Cor. 3:6-7, Heb. 8:7-8, 13, 9:15, 12:24). Therefore, amillennarians conclude, reasonably enough, that in Jeremiah 31:31-24 God was in fact speaking of eschatological “Israel”: His Church, of which ALL the saints of ALL time are members, both Jew and Gentile.
The essay below, extracted from my book The High King of Heaven, explores this subject in some detail. My hope and prayer is that in reading it, you will find that it supplies a helpful key for opening up the meaning of all OT Kingdom prophecy.
THE anonymous author of the epistle to the Hebrews sought to warn, instruct, and encourage wavering Jewish Christians who, for various reasons, were tempted to return to Judaism. Recognizing that a rejection of Christ and the New Covenant would rob them of eternal salvation, he drew upon his vast knowledge of the OT to press home two relevant truths: 1) In and of itself, the OT service of worship, centered around the Tabernacle and the Temple, was altogether inadequate to make sinners right with God; 2) the OT service of worship was typological in nature, pointing forward to the Person and Work of Jesus Christ, who has now fulfilled it and therefore rendered it obsolete. Accordingly, to go back to Judaism is to go against the very flow of Salvation History; it is to repudiate the very Christ and the very Covenant towards which that history ever tended, and from which it ever borrowed whatever efficacy it had. In sum, now that Christ has come they should not go back, for now that Christ has come they cannot go back!
These great themes permeate what is perhaps the single most important chapter in the entire book, Hebrews 8. As he begins, the writer sums up his argument, declaring that Christ is the true High Priest, the true Sacrifice, and the true minister of the true (i.e., heavenly) Tabernacle; and that the earthly OT analogues to these true, heavenly, and eternal realities were mere “copies and shadows” (8:5). He then introduces the main point of the chapter: the superiority of the New Covenant mediated by Christ, a covenant that not only brings in a better priesthood, but also extends better promises to its human parties (8:6). In an effort seal his argument among his Jewish kinsmen, he also brings forth as a witness the Hebrew Scriptures themselves, citing Jeremiah 31:31-34:
“Behold, days are coming,” says the LORD, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt, for they did not continue in My covenant, and I turned away from them,” declares the LORD. “For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put My laws into their minds, and I will write them upon their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. And they shall not teach every one his neighbor and every one his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for all shall all know Me, from the least to the greatest of them. For I will be merciful towards their iniquities, and their sins I will remember no more.”
The writer cites this famous OTKP primarily because he desires his audience to consider the “better promises” of the “better covenant” that Jeremiah foretold, and to hold onto them! Under this covenant God will invade the hearts of his eschatological people and write his laws upon them, as never before; he will be their God and they will be his people, as never before; everyone—not just an occasional charismatic leader—will know the LORD, as never before; and—because of the work of their New High Priest—God will forgive their sins and cleanse their conscience, as never before. In view of such glorious promises, why would any Christian—Jew or Gentile—want to go back to life under the Law?
But their faithful friend is still not done. Yes, through Jeremiah God promised a New Covenant and a better covenant. But in promising “a New Covenant,” he also did something else: He promised to abolish the Old. For the Old, being a mere “copy and shadow” of the New, was always inferior. But now that the New has fulfilled it, it is also “obsolete and ready to pass away” (8:13). Therefore, Christians—but especially Jewish Christians—must not go back, for now there is nothing to go back to!
Here, then, is the first of the two main reasons why Hebrews 8 is of such tremendous eschatological significance. More, perhaps, than any other text in the entire NT, it teaches us that the Old Covenant, having been fulfilled in the New, is now eternally obsolete. This entails that henceforth there cannot be—and must not be—any reversion to OT institutions. And this entails that OTKP—which in most cases envisioned the perpetuity of those institutions—cannot be interpreted literally (as our premillennarian brothers urge), but must be interpreted according to the NCH.
But there is a second—and equally weighty—reason why this text is so important: It links all OTKP with the New Covenant, and therefore with the people of the New Covenant, the Church. This subtle but crucial point merits careful consideration.
To begin with, we must see exactly how our text links all OTKP to the New Covenant. The connection appears, with striking force, in Jeremiah 30-33. This bloc of Scripture contains, of course, the promise of a New Covenant here under consideration (31:31-34, cf., 32:40). But when we read it in its entirety, we see something else of extraordinary significance: It is devoted almost entirely to soul-stirring promises of Israel’s eschatological rescue from captivity and restoration to the Promised Land. In other words, like a string of precious pearls, this bloc of Scripture gives us one OTKP after another (30:1-17, 18-22, 23-24; 31:1-6, 7-9, 10-14, 15-22, 23-30, 31-34, 35-37, 38-40; 32:36ff; 33:1-8, 10-11, 12-13, 14-18, 19-22, 23-26). Please note carefully that Jeremiah 31:31-34—the most precious pearl of all—is strategically situated, like a featured pendant, in their very midst!
And there is more. For no sooner do we contemplate this astonishing necklace of OTKP’s, than we realize that in spirit and substance they differ not a whit from the OTKP’s of Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Hosea, Micah, and all the other OT prophets. With words just like theirs, Jeremiah makes exceedingly great and wonderful promises to eschatological Israel: rescue from their enemies (30:1, 8), judgment upon former oppressors (30:11, 16), re-gathering from the nations (31:8, 10, 32:7), return to the Promised Land (30:3, 31:8, 10, 32:36, 41), a gracious drawing by the Spirit of God (31:3), penitent weeping and supplication (31:9), the gift of a new heart (31:33-34), divine pardon (33:8, 31:34), a new relationship with God as Father (31:10, 31:18-20), devoted service to David their King (30:9, 33:15), the perpetuity of his dynasty (33:19-22), a definitive restoration of Israel’s fortunes (31:23, 33:7, 11, 26), bountiful harvests (31:5, 12), godly shepherds who give rest to their flocks (33:12-13), the rebuilding of Jerusalem (the City of God, 31:27-28, 31:38-40), joyful merriment in song and dance (30:19, 31:4, 31:11-14, 33:11), everlasting health and peace (33:6), and the surrounding nations trembling in awe at the sight of all that God has done (33:9). Yes, time and again the OT prophets issued these very promises, promises that Jeremiah explicitly links to the advent of the New Covenant! The message of the Holy Spirit is clear: All OTKP is fulfilled in Christ and the New Covenant. (1)
In passing, we do well to observe that Jeremiah does not represent these as temporary blessings. Restored Israel will never cease from being a nation before God (31:36). The people and the land shall not be plucked up or overthrown any more forever (31:40). In this place and in the enjoyment of these blessings, God’s covenant with Israel will be fully fulfilled (30:22, 31:1, 32:38). Here we have a picture—not of a temporary Millennium—but of the eternal Kingdom of God. And again, both Jeremiah and the NT tell us that this eternal kingdom will appear in the days when God makes a New and Eternal Covenant “with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah” (31:31-34, 32:40, Heb. 13:20).
So then, in Jeremiah 30-33 we discover an indissoluble link between the Kingdom and the New Covenant. The message of this amazing necklace of OTKP’s—communicated, as it were, between the lines—is that the eternal Kingdom of God is the gift and creation of the New and Eternal Covenant to come, just as Christ and his apostles taught us.
All of this brings us back to Hebrews 8, which, by citing from Jeremiah 30-33, not only unveils the indissoluble link between OTKP and the New Covenant, but also enables us to see that all OTKP is fulfilled among the New Covenant people of God, the Church.
How exactly does it do this? To find out, we must ask ourselves, “To whom is the writer writing?” The answer is obvious: He is writing to first-century Christians; to the human parties of the New Covenant in Christ; to members of his Body, the Church. Yes, in all likelihood, most of them were ethnic Jews, though we cannot rule out the possibility that some of them—especially those with previous involvement in Judaism—were Gentiles. But for the writer of the epistle, the ethnic background of his audience was of relatively little importance. His real concern was that certain Christian people were seriously contemplating a return to Judaism.
Now, in addressing these Christians, the writer cites Jeremiah 31:31-34, and clearly does so on the assumption that Jeremiah was speaking about them; about the people of the New Covenant; about the Church. This implies that Jeremiah 31:31-34—and all the OTKP prophecies in its immediate vicinity—are fulfilled in the Church. Moreover, it also implies that dozens of other OTKP’s in the prophetic cannon must also be fulfilled in the Church, for as we have just seen, they bear a compelling family resemblance to Jeremiah’s. Thus, by applying Jer. 31:31-34 to the Christian Church of his day, the writer to the Hebrews strongly suggests—and clearly assumes —that all OTKP is fulfilled under the New Covenant among the New Covenant people of God, the Church.
Objecting to this weighty conclusion, some may ask, “But when Jeremiah says that God will effect a New Covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, is he not speaking of ethnic Jews?” As we saw earlier in our journey, the NT replies decisively: No, he is not. He is speaking of those who are Jews inwardly; of those whose praise (Heb., judah) is not from man, but from God (Rom. 2:29); of those who are the sons of Abraham by faith in Christ (Rom. 4:16); of the (elect) children of the promise (Rom. 9:6-8); of the true circumcision, who worship God in the Spirit, and who put no confidence in the flesh (Phil. 3:3, Col. 2:11); of those who “hold fast” to Christ until the end, and so “prevail with God” in order to inherit eternal life (Gen. 32:28, Heb. 3:14, 4:14, 6:18, 10:23, Rev. 3:21). Yes, some of these believers are Jews according to the flesh, while others are Gentiles according to the flesh. But in God’s sight, their physical descent counts for nothing. What counts is a new spiritual creation resulting in faith in Christ (Gal. 6:14-16). These “new creatures in Christ” (2 Cor. 5:17) are the eschatological Israel of God, the eschatological Judah of God, and the eschatological race, nation, and people of God (1 Peter 2:10). It is of these, and these alone, that Jeremiah and the other prophets wrote in OTKP. (2, 3)
We conclude, then, that Hebrews 8 is indeed a NT text of vast eschatological importance, seeing that it declares the eternal obsolescence of all OT institutions, rules out prophetic literalism, and stands as an open invitation to Christians everywhere, that they may—and should—use the New Covenant Hermeneutic to see the life of Christ’s New Covenant people, the Church, promised and pictured in all OTKP.
- A number of passages found in Jeremiah 30-33 have an extraordinarily NT feel, for which reason many Christian readers hear them speaking straight to their hearts. They include Jeremiah 30:8-9, 22; 31:3, 8-9, 10-12, 13-14, 18-20, 32:36-41.
- Critics observe that Jeremiah 31:32 and Heb. 8:9 seem clearly to identify the houses of Israel and Judah (v. 31) as ethnic Jews; as the latter day descendants of the fathers whom God rescued from the land of Egypt. True enough. This does not mean, however, that God, speaking through Jeremiah, was speaking ONLY to and ONLY of ethnic Jews. Indeed, with the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, we can now see that he was not. Rather, as the NT makes clear, He was speaking to and of eschatological “Israel” and eschatological “Judah”, which, as the NT affirms, include both Jews and Gentiles (Rom. 11:17-18). Therefore, the writer to the Hebrews can use this text to speak directly to Jewish believers who were in danger of lapsing from the faith; but, as he has for centuries now, he can also use it to speak to Gentile believers, whenever and wherever they read this wonderful promise and receive from it instruction, warning, and encouragement.
- Commenting on Jer. 31:31-34, premillennarian C. I. Scofield writes, “Although certain features of this covenant have been fulfilled for believers in the present Church Age, the covenant remains to be realized by (ethnic) Israel according to the explicit statement of v. 31.” Feeling the strong link between this text and the surrounding OTKP’s (Jer. 30-33), Scofield wants to distinguish Jeremiah’s promised New Covenant from the New Covenant into which Christ invites his Church. The former, he asserts, will bring in the Jewish Kingdom Age (the Millennium), while the latter will bring in the (mainly Gentile) Church Age. The two share “certain features,” yet they are distinct. However, the writer to the Hebrews could not disagree more. Nowhere does he even hint that Jeremiah’s prophecy has in view the kind of dual fulfillment that Scofield imagines. To the contrary, he is explicit that the New Covenant of which Jeremiah spoke is the very same covenant under which the whole Church—both Jew and Gentile—now lives (7:22, 8:6). Moreover, it is a covenant based on a new and eternal priesthood (Heb. 7:21); and it is a covenant that creates a new and eternal “nation” that will forever dwell with God in his Kingdom (Jer. 31:36-37, 40, 1 Peter 2:9). The writer’s premise is crystal clear: The New Covenant in Christ is God’s last word. Therefore, it is certain that he has no “newer” (e.g., millennial) covenants in store. For other dispensational views on this text, see J. Walvoord, The Millennial Kingdom (Dunham, 1959), pp. 209-210.