12 March 2013

Some Thoughts on the New Covenant

Jeremiah MichelangeloWhen Jesus took the cup at the Last Supper, he said ‘this cup is the New Covenant in my blood’ (Luke 22:20). Understanding the nature of the New Covenant is critical to understanding the Church. Somewhat surprisingly, the language of New Covenant is explicitly found in the OT only in Jeremiah 31. The New Covenant language in the chapter deserves careful study, but there’s one aspect specifically I want to reflect on:
‘Behold, days are coming,’ declares the LORD, ‘when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah…’ Jer 31:31
According the Jeremiah’s prophecy, the new covenant is made with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. The New Covenant is not made with the Gentiles, but is made with the Jewish people, and the words of the prophecy express the hope of tribal reunification. Where do we find this prophecy fulfilled in the NT?
 
First, Luke’s description of Pentecost evokes tribal reunification.
Now there were Jews living in Jerusalem, devout men from every nation under heaven… Parthians and Medes and Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya around Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs… Acts 2:5,9-11
True, Luke reports that Peter immediately identifies the events of Pentecost as fulfilling the prophecy of Joel, but in the terms of Luke’s portrayal in Acts, the words must be seen in the context of the programmatic utterance of Jesus that the disciples will be his witnesses ‘in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.’ (1:8). The initial movements of Acts take place in the context of a reunification of Israel, they are movements towards Judeans, and towards the lost tribes of Samaria (and the Diaspora at Pentecost and later in Acts). The events of Luke 8 can be understood as demonstrating a particular stage in the fulfilment of Jesus words. And, in Acts 9, we find that it is the church on Judea, Samaria and Galilee that enjoys peace.
 
Second, when we come to Luke’s associate Paul, it’s clear that Paul understands the absorption of Gentiles into a covenant that’s been made with the Jews. The locus classicus of this is in Romans 11, where Paul uses the imagery of Gentiles (as branches from a wild olive tree) being grafted into an existing, cultivated olive tree.
But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, being a wild olive, were grafted in among them and became partaker with them of the rich root of the olive tree do not be arrogant toward the branches… For if you were cut off from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and were grafted contrary to nature into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these who are the natural branches be grafted into their own olive tree? Rom 11:17,24
Third, the opening chapter of Ephesians shows the same pattern. The ‘us’ of the Jewish believers, to whom God had made known the mystery of his will (1:8-9) and who were the first to ‘hope in Christ’, is followed by the ‘you also’ (1:13) of the Gentile believers, who were dead in sins, amongst the sons of disobedience (2:1). The Jews were no better off, being themselves ‘children of wrath’ (2:3) because of their unfaithfulness. But God made them alive together with Christ (2:5) at a time when the Gentiles were still separate from Christ (2:12). Only subsequently (through the preaching of the gospel) have the Gentiles been brought near (2:13). A similar pattern is seen in Galatians 4, where Christ’s redemption of those under the Law (‘we’ in 4:5, although both here and in Ephesians Paul uses ‘we’ inclusively as well as exclusively) leads to their adoption (4:5) at a time when the Gentiles did not know God (4:8). Although Paul only uses the language of New Covenant explicitly once (in 2 Cor 3:6 – he also recalls Jesus’ words in 1 Cor 11:25), his understanding of how that New Covenant has come to incorporate Gentiles seems to reflect the perspective of Jeremiah.
 
Richard Hays gives an excellent summary of Paul’s conception of how the blessing of God has come to the Gentiles:
It is no accident that Paul never uses expressions such as "new Israel" or "spiritual Israel". There always has been and always will be only one Israel. Into that one Israel Gentile Christians such as the Corinthians have now been absorbed. Echoes of Scripture on the Letters of Paul, 96-7.
Paul’s understanding is that Israel has been renewed under the rubric of the New Covenant, which has been instituted by Jesus Christ through his life, death and resurrection. Into that reconfigured and renewed Israel Gentiles are now being incorporated through faith in Christ.