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THE NEW COVENANT AS AN EXPERIENTIAL COVENANT
In the chapter on the Mosaic Covenant, we saw that the Law functioned as a doorkeeper. Any generation which obeyed the Law was given access to many of the blessings guaranteed to Abraham’s descendants at history’s end. There we used the analogy of a person for whom $100 million was placed in trust, to be given to her at age 50. Though promised wealth in 25 years, such a person might live in poverty in the meantime!
Continuing the analogy, we supposed that there might be some way for her to get the interest on the $100 million now. If that could be done, she would live extremely well now, and the vast fortune would still be hers at age 50!
What the Law did for corporate Israel was to provide access to the “interest” on the covenant promises God made to Abraham. If the nation was loyal to the Lord and kept His Law, God would be with them and bless them, and they would prosper in the promised land.
In a similar way, individuals had access to blessing. Persons who trusted the Lord and sought to obey Him could expect personal blessing in this life, and not simply in the resurrection to come at history’s end. The eschatological covenant had an experiential aspect. Promised future blessings could be experienced now.
The nature of the New Covenant blessings (Jeremiah 31; Hebrews 8). Looking back at the original statement of the New Covenant and at its review in Hebrews, we realize that the blessings promised in the New Covenant are spiritual.
The Abrahamic and Davidic Covenants emphasized prosperity of the nation in Canaan. The New Covenant emphasized personal relationship with God and spiritual renewal.
God’s Laws in mind and heart (Hebrews 8:10). God intends to transform us from within. The first function of the Law is to reveal the character of God. By saying He will write His Law in our minds and hearts, God promises true inner transformation.
The Bible says that in the resurrection we will be like Jesus (1 John 3:2). This is the eschatological hope that the New Covenant offers. But the Bible also says that even now “we are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord” (2 Cor. 3:18). This is one experiential promise that is ours now under the New Covenant. We no longer have to be bound by the passions of our sin nature. God the Holy Spirit is at work within our hearts, to free us from sin’s grip and to make us more and more like Jesus.
Direct access to God (Hebrews 8:10). Another New Covenant promise is that “I will be their God, and they shall be My people.” Revelation promises that the resurrected believer “shall see His face” (Rev. 22:4). We will live in and enjoy the very presence of God. This is the eschatological hope expressed in the New Covenant.
But the Bible also invites us to “come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need” at this very moment (Heb. 4:16)! Right now we have immediate access to the Lord. We can come to Him in prayer, whether for mercy (forgiveness) or grace to help (strength). This is another New Covenant blessing that we can experience today.
Knowing God personally (Hebrews 8:11). In the Hebrew language, “know” is a rich concept. It moves us beyond intellectual knowledge to personal experience. It moves us from acquaintance to intimacy. In promising that “all shall know Me,” God’s New Covenant points us beyond knowing about God to a wonderful personal relationship with Him. This also is an eschatological hope.
Writing in Colossians, Paul reminds us that we can know God intimately and personally today. As we learn more about His will as revealed in Scripture and let our steps be guided by Him, we are promised fruitful lives. We will also grow to know God better (Col. 1:9–11).
Coming to know God is another of the New Covenant promises which we appropriate today. We can experience God, not as a distant deity, but as a friend who is deeply involved in our daily lives.
No remembrance of sins and lawless deeds (Hebrews 8:12). Under the New Covenant, the community of Israel is promised future forgiveness of sins. In saying that He will no longer “remember” sins and lawless deeds, God is making a significant statement. In the idiom of the Old Testament, to “remember” something is to act in accordance with it.
This New Covenant promise looks forward to a time when sins are paid for and gone and the demands of justice are met. In that time, God will treat His people graciously, for the guilt of their sins will be removed.
How wonderful that right now “we have redemption through His [Christ’s] blood, the forgiveness of sins” (Col. 1:14). When Jesus instituted the New Covenant on the Cross, He paid for all our sins—past, present, and future. God now is free to treat us graciously and with mercy—not as our sins deserve.
And, because God is at work in our lives, writing His Law on our hearts, we who have experienced forgiveness are motivated to live lives that are pleasing to Him.
New Covenant blessings are spiritual in nature. And these blessings are available to us in Jesus today.
Establishing a New Covenant relationship with God. Jeremiah wrote that God would one day make a New Covenant “with the house of Israel.” The New Covenant, like the Davidic Covenant, is a further development of the covenant that God made with Abraham and his descendants.
Who was the gospel for? One of the promises imbedded in the Abrahamic Covenant was that all families on earth would be blessed in Abraham. In making the Abrahamic Covenant and the New Covenant, God had more than the Jewish people in mind! God was thinking of everyone.
When the early church was first formed, it was composed of Jewish believers. Within a few years, many Gentiles had also responded to the gospel. When Cornelius, the first Gentile to become a Christian, was saved, the Jewish believers “glorified God, saying, ‘Then God has also granted to the Gentiles repentance to life’” (Acts 11:18).
Through the missionary work of the apostle Paul, the Gentile church exploded. A council was held in Jerusalem because of this rapid growth. After listening to the report of the missionaries about what God was doing among non-Jews, James summed up a conclusion that had been inescapable since Simon Peter had reported the conversion of Cornelius.
Men and brethren, listen to me: Simon has declared how God at the first visited the Gentiles to take out of them a people for His name. And with this the words of the prophets agree, just as it is written:
After this, I will return And will rebuild the tabernacle of David, which has fallen down; I will rebuild its ruins, And I will set it up; So that the rest of mankind may seek the Lord, Even all the Gentiles who are called by My name, Says the Lord who does all these things (Acts 15:13–17).
It was clear to the early church that the good news of Jesus, along with access to the New Covenant blessings, was given to Gentiles as well as to Jews. This development was in full harmony with the Old Testament’s teachings.
The gospel was for all.
How was a New Covenant relationship with God established? The answer to this question was evident from the beginning. As Abraham responded to God’s promise with faith, we are to respond to the gospel’s promise of personal salvation.
While on earth, Jesus told Nicodemus, “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). This simple message was preached by the apostles after Jesus’ resurrection. “To Him all the prophets witness that, through His name, whoever believes in Him will receive remission of sins” (Acts 10:43).
This message is still preached today. It is by faith in Jesus that we establish a New Covenant relationship with God. By faith, all the spiritual blessings described in that covenant are poured out on us.
Experiencing New Covenant blessings today. In Old Testament times, keeping God’s Law was the way that a generation of Israelites or an individual believer gained access to covenant blessings. But the problem with the Law was that failure to keep it not only cut a generation off from blessing; failure to keep the Law brought God’s curse!
Because human beings are by nature sinners, being under the Law was inevitably a curse to His Old Testament people. This is one reason why Paul wrote in Romans 6:14 that “sin shall not have dominion over you, for you are not under law but under grace.” Human failure meant that sin ruled, for its power brought judgment after judgment upon Israel.
So while the Law did in theory provide access to blessings promised in the Abrahamic Covenant, in practice the Law was much more likely to bring punishment and pain.
In saying that we are no longer under the Law but under grace, Romans reflects the fact that the Mosaic Covenant of Law has been replaced by the New Covenant. The question then is, How do we gain access to the blessings promised in the New Covenant, if not by trying to keep God’s Law?
The answer is not given in a single passage but in a series of images found in different New Testament books.
Abide in Jesus (John 15:1–5). Jesus pictured Himself as a grapevine, and described believers as branches. Power for a godly life and the ability to bear spiritual fruit flows through the vine to its branches. Thus the key to spiritual vitality is to abide in Jesus—a phrase which means “stay close to Him.” We stay close to Jesus by putting His teachings into daily practice. As we do, the Lord strengthens us and enables us to do His will.
Know, reckon, yield (Romans 8:4–13). In Romans 6, Paul pointed out that believers have been united to Jesus. We “died” in His death, and we were “raised” with Him in His resurrection. Thus, Jesus provides us with His own resurrection power, which enables us to live a new kind of life. We are to know what has happened to us through our union with Jesus, to reckon (count on) the power He provides, and to yield ourselves to the Lord, making each choice out of a desire to do His will.
Walk in the Spirit (Galatians 5:16). Galatians 5 contrasts “fruit” of the sin nature (adultery, uncleanness, hatred, jealousies, etc.) with “fruit” produced in the believer’s life by the Holy Spirit (love, joy, peace, etc.). The imagery suggests a struggle between competing desires. We are pulled in one direction by desires rooted in the sin nature. We are pulled in another direction by desires prompted by the Holy Spirit.
To “walk in the Spirit” means to respond to the Spirit rather than to sin’s urgings.
While there are other similar images in Scripture, these three highlight a central truth. The Christian experiences the blessings of the New Covenant by nurturing a deeper personal relationship with Jesus. It is not by trying to keep an external law that we find blessing, but by growing to love God more and more, and responding to Him as a person.
St. Augustine taught, “Love God and do as you please.” The person who is truly in love with God will want to do what pleases Him. And when we want to do what pleases God, the Holy Spirit enables us to succeed! As we walk close to the Lord, the New Covenant’s blessings are poured out on us in our own day.