The New Covenant
Part Five of “The God Who Makes Promises”
A sermon by Dr. Jim Somerville, Pastor
Richmond’s First Baptist
March 25, 2012
The Fifth Sunday in Lent
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with
the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant
that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring 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 that I will make with the house of
Israel after those days, 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 shall be my
people. No longer shall they 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, says
the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more
Today’s Old Testament
lesson from Jeremiah begins with these familiar words: “The days are surely
coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel
and the house of Judah.” He goes on
to say that it won’t be like the old covenant he made with their ancestors at
Mount Sinai, the one they broke, though he was their husband.
No sir. He’s not going to
write this one on tablets of stone that can be easily broken or set aside.
He’s going to put his law within them; he’s going to write it on their
hearts. And it’s not going to say,
“if you will be my people then I will
be your God”; it’s going to say I will
be your God, and you shall be my
people,” as if they really had no choice in the matter.
It all sounds very
promising, and according to my Bible it’s a promise that has been fulfilled.
There is this page in my Bible, a title page just before the New
Testament begins, that says, “The New Covenant, commonly called the New
Testament, of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”
What my Bible is saying (and what I think most Christians believe) is
that God was as good as his word, that those days that were surely coming surely
came, and that in and through his Son Jesus God did, in fact, make a new
covenant with his people. In other
words, that mission has been accomplished; that promise has been fulfilled.
Or has it?
“I will put my law
within them,” says the Lord, “and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be
their God, and they shall be my people. No
longer shall they 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, says the Lord;
for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”
That’s the second half of today’s reading, and it’s that part right there
at the end—the part about how “they shall all know me, from the least of them to
the greatest”—that trips me up, because if Jesus
is the fulfillment of this promise,
if he is the New Covenant God made
with his people, then why don’t we all know the Lord?
When I look around these days it doesn’t look as if more and more people
know the Lord; it looks as if less and less of them do.
Certainly less and less of them are coming to church on Sunday morning,
bringing their Bibles and their offering envelopes, bright-eyed and eager to get
to Sunday school on time. The last
figure I heard suggests that only 17 percent of the American population is in
church on any given Sunday. That’s
a long way from the promise that “they shall all know me, from the least of them
to the greatest.” Seventeen percent
is nowhere close to a hundred. Does
that mean that this promise has not been fulfilled, or only that it hasn’t been
When I was in seminary
one of my professors drew two mountain peaks on a chalkboard and said that one
of them represented the first coming of Christ—nearly 2000 years ago—and the
other represented the second coming of Christ—sometime in the future.
He made a point of saying that we were living in the valley between those
two peaks—between the “already” and the “not yet”—and because we were in the
valley we couldn’t look over the second one to see what was on the other side,
but he hinted that on the other side of that peak was the thing we had all been
waiting for. He may have been more
specific than that, but I just remember thinking that every delicious,
wonderful, perfect, pure, and pleasing thing you could hope for was on the other
side of that mountain, including this—the idea that everyone would know the
I don’t think we’ve
gotten to that place yet, although I’ve been in some places where everyone was
supposed to be a Christian, and I’m not sure that’s the same thing.
For instance, I once got an invitation to bring my family to Heritage
USA, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s theme park in Fort Mill, South Carolina.
I was a little suspicious about it.
There had been this big scandal.
Jim Bakker was in prison somewhere.
I’m not sure what Tammy Faye was doing.
But the invitation promised that “New Heritage USA” was now owned and
operated by some Malaysian Christian businessmen who wanted pastors to come and
visit so they could spread the word to their congregations about what a
wonderful place it was. That seemed
plausible. And the invitation was
for three days and two nights: all expenses paid.
That seemed perfect. So I loaded
up the car and drove my family to Fort Mill.
It was the strangest
The hotel was decent
enough—clean and comfortable—and the restaurant was fine—kind of like Cracker
Barrel without the rocking chairs.
We had fun walking around the grounds and we spent hours at the little
playground in the woods. What
was strange was the people who were
there. It was as if we all knew
that only Christians would come to New Heritage USA, and so we were nodding to
each other on the assumption that we were, you know, “brothers and sisters in
Christ.” We were being extra nice
to everyone, and they were being extra nice to us, smiling as if we all shared
the same wonderful secret. I would
say, “It’s a beautiful day, isn’t it?” and they would say, “Yes it is, brother!
Praise God! Hallelujah!”
And after about three hours of that I was ready to get in the car and
drive home. Everybody was sweet,
but they were all so artificially
sweet that I began to feel sick to my stomach.
I thought, “If this is what heaven is like I don’t want to go!”
But I believe there is
a difference between knowing the Lord
and acting like a Christian.
I think I’ve told you before that the verb “to know” is the most intimate
verb in the Bible. It’s the one
that’s used in the book of Genesis, where it says that Adam “knew” his wife Eve
and she conceived, and bore a son.
Obviously we can’t know the Lord in that way, but it’s also obvious that knowing
the Lord means something more than knowing things about him.
It reminds of what I’ve said to you about the word
believe in the last few weeks, how it
doesn’t mean believe that so much as
believe in, the way you might say
that you believe in someone you love.
When John 3:16 tells us that anyone who believes in God’s one and only
son will have eternal life it means it like that: that if you believe in Jesus,
if you put your faith and trust in him, you will have eternal life. And then in
John 17:3 Jesus himself explains what that means.
He says, “This is eternal life, that they may know the only true God and
Jesus Christ whom he has sent.” It makes it clear that these words,
believing mean more than knowing
about and believing
things; they are expressions of the
deepest kind of intimacy.
So, imagine that for a
moment. Imagine a place where
everyone knows the Lord, from the least of them to the greatest, where God has
put his law within them, and written it on their hearts, where every iniquity is
forgiven, and sin is remembered no more.
I don’t think that place would be like New Heritage USA.
I don’t think people would be going around slapping each other on the
back and saying, “Praise the Lord, Hallelujah!”
I think (and of course this is only my thought—feel free to have your
own) that you might find there the kind of intimacy you find among couples who
have been married a long, long time, who can sit in comfortable silence with
each other without feeling that they have to say a thing.
I think you might be able come into God’s presence in a state of perfect
peace in a place like that, knowing that all your iniquities are forgiven and
all your sins are forgotten.
Imagine that’s what’s waiting for us on the other side of that mountain peak:
not New Heritage USA but God’s Kingdom, come at last.
And then let me
challenge you to do this: to make this place that kind of place.
You could begin by promising yourself that you won’t act like a
Christian, and I’m using the word act
quite literally. I was talking with
our staff about this not long ago.
They were saying that we do well with so many things, that we really do seem to
be a warm and welcoming congregation, but that we sometimes have trouble
dropping the masks. Do you know
what I mean? Have you ever started
up the steps of the church and then paused long enough to take a deep breath and
put on your “happy Christian” face?
I’m not saying you have to come in looking like a sad Christian, but I’d love to
think this could be the kind of place where you didn’t have to pretend, where
you could be exactly who you are, in whatever state you happen to be in, and
people would love you anyway. That
even if you had opposing political views, and even if you rooted for the wrong
basketball team, people here would love you because this place was one of those
“thin places” in the world where heaven actually comes to earth.
And then let me
challenge you to make this place that place by knowing the Lord with all the
intimacy that biblical word suggests.
I know that as soon as I say that you begin to feel guilty, thinking,
“Ah, I should know the Lord better than I do!”
But may I confess? I should know the Lord better than I do.
I spend a lot of time in the pages of Scripture, but much of the time
it’s because I’m getting ready for my next sermon or Bible study.
I say a lot of prayers, but often it’s because people ask me to or expect
me to. I read a good many books,
sometimes out of genuine interest, but sometimes just because I’ve run out of
things to say. So, if you asked me,
“Do you know the Lord in that intimate way you just talked about, or in the way
Jesus talked about, where it’s the same thing as eternal life?” I would have to
say, “No, not yet.” But I want to.
And I’m making an effort.
Lately I’ve been trying to build into my daily routine the sort of discipline
that will result in that kind of intimacy.
I’ve been getting up early, reading my Bible, and saying my prayers.
I think I’m making some progress.
But at the same time I know: if it’s all up to me it will never happen.
That’s why I take
comfort from this passage of Scripture.
Hear it again: “The days are surely coming,” says the Lord, “when I will
make a new covenant with my people.
I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts, and I will
be their God, and they shall be my people.”
Did you notice that it’s God who takes the initiative?
That he is the one who makes the new covenant, who puts his law within
us, who writes it on our hearts?
Did you notice that he doesn’t say “if they will be my people, I will be their
God,” but simply, “I will be their
God and they shall be my people”?
He goes on to say that in those days we won’t have to teach each other or
say to each other, ‘Know the Lord,’ for we will all know the Lord, from the
least of us to the greatest. And
finally he says he will forgive our iniquity, and remember our sin no more.
In other words, it’s not going to happen simply because we bear down on
our Bible study, even though that’s not a bad thing: it’s going to happen
because God wants it to. He doesn’t
always get his way in the world now, but one of these days the kingdom of the
world is going to become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and that day
is surely coming.
As we’ve been looking
at the kinds of promises God makes to his people I’ve been impressed by how
determined he is to be in relationship with us.
After he purged the wickedness of the world with a cleansing flood he
told Noah, “Never again.” When he
saw that he couldn’t win the whole world to himself he came to Abram and said,
“How about you?” He practically
begged the people of Israel at Mount Sinai, “If you will be my people, I will be
your God.” And then, in John’s
Gospel, he threw the doors open to anyone who believed in his son Jesus.
He’s shameless! And now he
says that the day is surely coming when we won’t have to teach each other or say
to each other, “Know the Lord,” because everybody will know him, from the least
to the greatest. He will put his
law within us, and write it on our hearts; he will forgive our iniquities, and
remember our sins no more. Why?
Because he made us, and loves us, and wants us for his own.
Because he is determined to be in relationship with us.
Because he will pursue us relentlessly until we relent and say,
Yes, Lord. Have your way.”
—Jim Somerville © 2012