Jeremiah presented a message to the Jews that was full of warning and hope. Upon observation of Jeremiah 31:31-34 one can see the significance of this passage. The Lord is speaking through Jeremiah here. The message is one of present and future importance. In verse 31 and on the Lord makes it known that He is speaking of something to come. That something is a new covenant.
We will look at the significance of a new covenant later; however, we see that it will in fact be different than the one that was given to the Jews by Moses during the exodus. It is declared by God that they broke the covenant that was given to them by Moses. Next, a preview is given of what the new covenant will be like. It is going to be one where God’s law will be on the hearts of His people and one where forgiveness of sins will be available. Jeremiah 31:31-34 can be better understood upon looking at the historical context in which Jeremiah was writing.
Jeremiah was called to his prophetic ministry around the year 627 B.C.E. We know this date because of the reference in the beginning of the book of Jeremiah to King Josiah. We know from Jeremiah 1:2 that Jeremiah began his ministry in the thirteenth year of King Josiah’s reign. Much of the detailed historical context for Jeremiah’s time of prophecy is in the Books of Kings and Chronicles. It is however useful to dive into this so that we can understand not only Jeremiah’s message but also the ones who were hearing his message.
The religious context for Jeremiah’s culture was one that had been rebelling against God for a long time and was reaching its peak during his ministry. Decades before Jeremiah came along Manasseh reigned in Judah where he restored worship in the Temple to many gods (polytheism). We read in 2 Chronicles 33 that he built altars to Baal and idols to Asherim (v.3-4). Manasseh’s leadership led Judah to completely going against the commandment that God gave His people through Moses that they are not to worship any other god. Eventually Manasseh repented of his idolatry but his successor Amon, his son, returned to idolatry. Amon was killed by his servants and at this time Josiah, Amon’s son, comes into power at the age of eight. Josiah led Judah out of their idolatrous state and tore down the altars of the pagan gods that were built by his father and grandfather. This is where Jeremiah comes into the picture. Josiah’s message is paralleled with Jeremiah’s message. They both spoke of the need to repent of their sins and turn back to God. So at the beginning of Jeremiah’s ministry things in Judah are turning towards the good. The majority of Jeremiah’s writings come between the years 609 and 585 B.C.E. Jeremiah speaks of a warning of what is to come with the Babylonian captivity. The first captivity occurred in 606 B.C.E. so Jeremiah spent three years warning the people of what was to come.
The passage that we are focusing on is written after the captivity has begun. With God’s people scattered across Babylon, many were losing hope of ever returning to Jerusalem. In Jeremiah 30, God speaks through Jeremiah promising that they will be delivered from captivity. If that was not enough hope for the people, God also speaks through Jeremiah of the new covenant that awaits them. In a time for the Jewish people that appeared as if they had no hope left, God not only promises them that they would be delivered but He also tells them of His plans for a new covenant. The new covenant that is spoken to the Jews results in forgiveness of sins. The promise of forgiveness would have made any of the Jews with no hope be restored with joy towards the Lord. While the promise of a new covenant was in reference to what would happen over 600 years later, it provided present hope in a time of uncertain enslavement.
An aspect of historical context that is very important in regards to Jeremiah 31:31-34 is the Old Covenant that was given to the people during the exodus out of Egypt. The Law was a set of rules and guidelines showing how God’s people are to respond to Him. There were hundreds of laws that the Israelites were to keep but most people have heard of the first ten, which are “The Ten Commandments.” These commandments included they are not to have any other gods before Yahweh, they are not to make idols, and they are to honor their father and mother. The Old Covenant included making sacrifices to God in order to make up for their sins. It was a system that demanded obedience and it was a system that no one could keep. Everyone sinned, so everyone broke the covenant. There was no opportunity for forgiveness. Sacrifice and repentance were a result of the self-awareness of sin in each person’s life. If someone sinned against God, they responded with making a sacrifice and sometimes with both a sacrifice and repentance. What God did through Jeremiah is communicate the coming of a new covenant that offered forgiveness. This would be good news for everyone since no one could keep the Law.
The new covenant that God speaks of through Jeremiah is the New Covenant that was put in place by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Jews did not know when God was going to bring the new covenant into the world but the knowledge of it would have created a sense of hope in their lives. What came first for the Jews of Jeremiah’s time was their return from exile. It took 70 years for God’s people to return to their land. But more importantly, the new covenant came with the arrival of Jesus which did not occur for hundreds of years later. God’s message through Jeremiah provided present hope for a future occurrence. Today, we enjoy firsthand the fulfillment of God’s promise that is seen in Jeremiah 31:31-34. We live under the New Covenant, the covenant of forgiveness.
Our God is a just God and for that reason, the New Covenant could not be put in place without propitiation for the sins of mankind. The way that God was able to provide propitiation for our sins was through the blood of Christ, His one and only Son, Jesus. What Jesus experienced on the cross was because of our sin. This covenant is for all of mankind, it is not only for the nation of Israel, it is for the whole world. This is significant for everyone who is not a Jew. For Jews, everyone who was not Jewish was a gentile and under the Old Covenant, gentiles were not God’s people. Today, everyone who comes to God through Christ is adopted into God’s family. Verse 33 gives a picture of what the Holy Spirit’s work in the New Covenant will be and is today.
The relationship that God has with believers under the New Covenant is much more personal. In the Old Covenant, God’s presence was reserved for Priests. In the New Covenant, God’s presence is for everyone because the Holy Spirit is given to all who are Christians. What people under the New Covenant have available to them is nothing short of spectacular. Forgiveness of sins is possible because God sent His Son to die on a cross as payment for the sins of mankind. God’s love is expressed through what He did in order to bring on the New Covenant. The love that He expresses to us is sincere and deep. God did not have to give mankind another chance of redemption. He did not have to send His Son to die. God did not have to make that sacrifice but He did. The New Covenant is the result of God’s love for mankind.
When we can understand what the Old Covenant was that was put in place through Moses, we can truly understand how much mankind has failed. When we can understand the extent that mankind has failed, we can truly understand how much God has been forsaken. When we understand that, we can truly see the extent that God has gone in order to redeem His people, His creation, you and I. Jeremiah 31:31-34 is God’s message to the Jews of His plan for redeeming all of mankind. While the people in Jeremiah’s time did not get to experience life under the New Covenant, today we are able to do just that. God’s promise as seen is Jeremiah 31:31-34 has been fulfilled through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ of Nazareth.