Blessings of the New Covenant
Believers who live on this side of the Messiah’s empty tomb, the Day of Pentecost, and the book of Hebrews ought to learn to wallow more carefully in the New Covenant.
The word testament, as in New Testament, is another word for “covenant.” One of the functions of the Old Testament era was to make people hungry for a New Covenant (Jer. 31:31)—one better than the Old—because it would be based on “better promises” provided by “better sacrifices” offered up by a better High Priest (Heb. 8:6; 9:23; 12:24).
That New Covenant was explicitly promised by the prophet Jeremiah (Jer. 31:31–37), and its privileges and contours were delightfully amplified as a “covenant of peace” in Ezekiel 37:26. (See also Ezekiel 36:22–32.) Though it awaits full ratification by the Jewish people, to whom it was promised, the New Covenant was provided by the death of Messiah Jesus (Lk. 22:20); thus believers have become the beneficiaries of its unspeakably rich blessings.
According to the two primary Old Testament anticipations of the New Covenant, the central blessings are (1) sins forgiven, once and for all (Jer. 31:34; Heb. 10) and (2) a distinctive, New Covenant ministry of the Holy Spirit.
This latter blessing was anticipated by John the Baptizer when he announced the coming of One who “will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (Mt. 3:11) in fulfillment of Ezekiel’s prophecy. The Holy Spirit is the One to whom Jesus referred on the way to Gethsemane when He promised His 11 disciples that He would send the Comforter (Greek, paraclete), the One called alongside to minister with an intimacy and sympathy hitherto unavailable (Jn. 16:7–11).
The Holy Spirit’s arrival is the promised blessing that became the believer’s possession on the Day of Pentecost when the Spirit engulfed 120 believers in the inauguration of His New Covenant ministry.
In the New Testament—the 27-book manual given by God to instruct believers on how to live under this New Covenant—the Spirit’s ministry is described in detail, with several specific ministries distinguished. It is perhaps fair to say that the distinctiveness of the Spirit’s ministry in this era can be summarized with one word: intimacy.
Because of the finished work of Christ, the Spirit can impart to New Testament (or New Covenant) believers an intimacy with the Father that Old Testament saints could never have imagined—indeed, which they would have been scandalized to hear spoken of. It is the Abba dynamic. The Old Testament offers no indication that individual believers conceptualized Yahweh as Abba, Hebrew for “Papa.” Yet, because of the Holy Spirit’s ministry in applying New Covenant blessedness, we know Yahweh not only as Father but as “Abba/Papa” (Rom. 8:15; Gal. 4:5–7).
There is perhaps no single New Testament revelation that more succinctly or delightfully communicates the distinctive blessedness of New Covenant standing than the Abba dynamic. And Scripture is explicit that it is the ministry of the Holy Spirit to press that blessedness home in the hearts of believers.
The Holy Spirit’s New Covenant ministry, made possible by the cross-work of Christ and dramatically inaugurated on the Day of Pentecost, is marvelously multifaceted.
Conviction. Primary to any individual’s relationship to God is the Spirit’s ministry of conviction. Jesus promised that, at His departure—upon the completion of His work and His acceptance at the right hand of the Father—the Spirit would come to “convict the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment” (Jn. 16:8). This is not to say the Spirit was not active in the ministry of conviction before Pentecost. However, in this age, the Spirit is able to press home to people’s minds “the message of the cross” (1 Cor. 1:18), the unspeakably blessed truth of God the Son’s once-for-all atoning sacrifice at the cross, confirmed by God the Father by the empty tomb (Rom. 1:4).
To be confronted with the reality of sinfulness and condemnation is not pleasant, but it is all-important in bringing people to repentance. Left to ourselves, we would cling to our sin, however irrational and destructive that commitment would be. It is the blessed and gracious work of the Holy Spirit that breaks through our pride and rebellion and compels our hearts and minds to realize the truth of our lost situation and God’s power to save us through the finished work of the Messiah.
According to the New Testament, a specific ministry of the Holy Spirit is that of conviction—the wooing, confronting, and convincing ministry by which the Spirit brings lost and rebellious people to the truth of the gospel. It is a ministry without which none would embrace the gospel. It is a ministry that, once we have embraced the truth, teaches us that we must confess it was God’s grace—the kind and preserving ministry of Holy Spirit conviction—that brought us to repentance and that the glory belongs to God.
Regeneration. Scripture makes it plain that people are not simply spiritually weak or sick. Apart from God’s grace, they are “dead in trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1). Jesus lived a life much to be admired and emulated. However, there is a false gospel that pretends that all God expects is that we struggle to live like Jesus. Before we learn lessons from Jesus’ life, we must receive life from His death. Indeed, what God first offers lost men and women through the finished work of Jesus Christ is not spiritual help but spiritual life.
Another specific ministry of the Holy Spirit, according to God’s Word, is regeneration. It is the impartation of spiritual life and vitality that is entirely wanting apart from that ministry. Jesus insisted that to be “born again” is to be “born of the Spirit” (Jn. 3:3–8). Through faith in Christ, a person pass-es “from death into life” (Jn. 5:24). It is the Holy Spirit who ministers that new life, that rebirth, to the repentant and believing sinner (Ti. 3:5).
Sealing. Tarsus of Cilicia, the town in which a remarkable Jewish rabbinical student named Saul was reared, was a center of lumber production. Timbers were felled in the hills and floated down the river to be prepared for use and shipped across the Mediterranean. Workmen marked their logs with a seal so that they could be identified as belonging to them in the midst of all the other logs.
A seal—a distinctive, undeniable, external mark of ownership, such as a signet ring’s impression on the wax seal of a document—was common throughout the first-century Greco-Roman world. It is impossible to know precisely what figure Saul (later called Paul) had in mind when he twice spoke of the Holy Spirit’s sealing ministry (Eph. 1:13–14; 4:30). But certainly the reference is to some external, unmistakable evidence of ownership.
The Bible is clear that sealing believers is the work of the Holy Spirit. After accomplishing His ministry of regeneration, the Spirit then works in twice-born believers to produce a remarkable, distinctive change in life that takes them from the works of the flesh to the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:16–26). Wrote Paul: “In Him [Christ] you also trusted, after you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation; in whom also, having believed, you were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is the guarantee [down payment] of our inheritance” (Eph. 1:13–14). And he admonished believers, “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption” (4:30).
The seal is God’s mark of ownership on His own and guarantees that one day believers will be fully conformed to the image of His dear Son (Rom. 8:29).