The New Covenant: How Is It Being Fulfilled?

In the last article, we explained that the Bible, as divided into the Old Testament and the New Testament, is concerned with God’s relationship to Israel through the Old Covenant (the Mosaic Law) and the New Covenant.  We established that the problem with the Mosaic Law was not the Law itself but that the people of Israel did not have hearts of faith, or circumcised hearts, which would enable them to obey the Law as God intended. The Old Testament prophets wrote that the time would come when the Lord would make a New Covenant with His people which would bring spiritual salvation to them and enable His people to obey the Law from their hearts. Let us look at some of these writings to see what the prophets envisioned.

The New Covenant in the Old Testament

Three of the major writing prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel) were intimately concerned with the sin, judgment, and future redemption of Israel. Isaiah’s concern in the second part of his book (chapters 40-66) was to comfort Israel with the message of God’s future work of redemption on their behalf and especially to designate the person through whom salvation would come, the Messiah. In Isaiah 59:20-21, he wrote of the Redeemer who would come to those in Israel who had repented of their sins and of the covenant which promises the eternal presence of His Spirit. These two themes – the forgiveness of sins and the presence of the Spirit – become the major components of the New Covenant.

The New Covenant promises to Israel what the Old Covenant cannot deliver.

Jeremiah, in chapters 30-33, also writes of the future redemption of Israel. He not only reiterates Isaiah’s prophecies of the role of the Messiah in Israel’s redemption (33:14-26) but also clearly distinguishes in 31:31-37 between the Old and New Covenants. In the New Covenant the Lord said, “I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts…I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more” (31:33-34). As explained in the last article, while the Old Covenant demonstrated God’s holiness and laid out for His people their rule of life for continued fellowship with Him, there was no guarantee that the people would respond to God’s grace in faith and love and thus be spiritually reborn. Therefore, the history of Israel is one of continual judgment under the curses of the Law because of the people’s unfaithfulness. Also, under the Old Covenant, God’s Spirit was given as an abiding presence to individuals for special ministry (for example, the king or the prophets, and the Spirit could be removed) but was not given to the people at large. Therefore, the New Covenant promises to Israel what the Old Covenant cannot deliver—forgiveness of sins and the eternal presence of the Spirit in their hearts. (This does not mean that people living under the Old Covenant could not be regenerated -see previous article.)

There are ramifications of this covenant being enacted in Israel for the nation and for the world as a whole. As seen in Ezekiel 33-37, the com­ing of the Messiah, the instituting of the New Covenant, and the national restoration of the people of Israel to the land of lsrael are all intertwined. In Ezekiel 34 the Lord promises that He will raise up a righteous shepherd, the Messiah, who will be concerned for the people and who will be a channel of blessing to them. In Ezekiel 35:1- 36:15 the Lord promises the restoration of the land by removing Israel’s enemies from it forever. Then, in Eze­kiel 36:16-37:14 the Lord promises to spiritually restore the people under the New Covenant. The result of Israel’s redemption is a united nation which has been cleansed from sin under the rule of the Messiah. They obey Him from their hearts as they live in the land which was promised to them through Abraham (37:15-28).

The New Covenant in the New Testament

In Hebrews 8:8-12 the author quotes Jeremiah 31:31-34 and explains to his readers that the once-for-all death of Christ is the basis for forgiveness of sins under the New Covenant. In Hebrews 9:15 he writes:

And for this cause he is the mediator of the new testament, that by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions that were under the first testament, they who are called might receive the promise of eternal inheritance (cf. 10:15-18).

The author of the Book of Hebrews, as well as the rest of the New Testament writers, understood that those who look by faith to the substitutionary death of Christ for the forgiveness of sins do so under the provisions of the New Covenant.

But if this is true, how is it that those who profess Jesus as the Messiah and are under the New Covenant have, since the first century, been predominantly people who are not Jewish, when it was the Jewish people to whom these promises were initially given? Christian theologians have struggled throughout church history to satisfactorily answer this question. Some claim that all the New Covenant promises were really spiritual and have been completely fulfilled by the Church now. Others, who interpret the promises to Israel as not being fulfilled in the Church, have posited that there must be two new covenants, one for Israel and one for the Church.

This article will show, through an overview of Luke and Acts, that the New Testament conception is somewhere between these two views -that there is one New Cov­enant which, while initially made with Israel, was offered to the Gentiles because of Israel’s continued disobedience until the Lord redeems the nation Israel and restores them spiritually and physically as promised by the prophets.

The New Covenant in Luke and Acts

Paul’s Gentile friend and personal physician, Luke, wrote his Gospel and the Book of the Acts to a man named Theophilus (Lk. 1:1-4; Acts 1:1). Apparently this man was a Gentile believer who was well-acquainted with the Old Testament (at least Luke was) and was possibly asking the same kind of question we asked above:

How is it possible that Gentiles can experience God’s salvation, as promised in the New Covenant through Jesus the Messiah, while Israel repudiates Him? Luke sought to write an “orderly account,” beginning with Jesus’ birth and ending with Paul’s preaching the gospel in Rome some sixty years later, so that Theophilus might “know the certainty of the things you have been taught,” not just historically but also theologically, and that what had transpired was due to the sovereign will of God.

The main tenets of the New covenant were the for­giveness of sins and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit,which were associated with the coming of the Messiah to redeem the nation Israel. All of these factors are anticipated in the first few chapters of Luke. In the angel’s appearance to Mary, he said that her Son would be named “Jesus” (which means the Lord saves) and that “the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father, David, And he shall reign over the house of Jacob forever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end” {1:32b-33). This establishes Jesus as the promised Messiah. John the Baptist, as the forerunner (Mal. 3:1), preached “the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins” (Lk. 3:3) and promised that the Messiah “shall baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Lk. 3:16). All this is placed in the context of righteous Israelites (Zechariah, Elizabeth, Mary, Simeon, and Anna) who were looking for the promised national redemption of Israel and who saw the coming of john and the birth of Jesus as the beginning of the Lord’s fulfillment of His promises (see especially Zechariah’s song, 1:67-79).

But as Jesus and John ministered, a tragic thing hap­pened. Israel, as personified by their religious and civil leaders, rejected God’s promised Messiah and His fore­ runner because they refused to acknowledge their sin and need of forgiveness.1′ This paradox is maintained through the Gospel of Luke: Gentiles and sinners, those rejected from “righteous” Israel, find forgiveness through faith in Jesus; while “righteous” Israelites, the ones to whom the Messiah came, find judgment rather than forgiveness.

While the twelve disciples believed that Jesus was the Messiah, they did not understand what His mission was. When He told them that He was going to be betrayed and killed, they did not understand (Lk. 9:44-45; 18:31-34). They expected Him to redeem Israel at that time.

They did not comprehend that Jesus’ death would be the basis of the forgiveness of sins under the New Covenant. This becomes clear at the Last Supper when Jesus took the cup and said, “This cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you” (22:20). After Jesus’ death and resurrection, the disciples understood for the first time His role in the context of the Old Testament. They understood that Jesus was the promised Messiah and that His death provided the basis for the preaching of the gospel, the forgiveness of sins, to all nations (Lk. 24:45-47).

When the Spirit came on the Day of Pentecost, Peter, referring to Joel 2:28-32, interpreted this as the pouring out of the Spirit which had been promised in the New Covenant. After arguing from the Old Testament that Jesus is “both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36), Peter con­cluded his message by promising the two essentials of the New Covenant:

Repent, and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

For the promise is unto you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord, our God, shall call (Acts 2:38-39).

But the initial Jewish Church still did not understand what the Lord was doing. During this time, the apostles expected the national redemption of Israel (Acts 1:8), especially after the Day of Pentecost (Acts 3:19-21). But again, the rulers in Jerusalem rejected the message of the apostles (Acts 4-7), and so the gospel began to spread, through the leading of the Spirit, to Judea and Samaria (Acts 8-12) and to the uttermost parts of the earth (Acts 13-28), to Jews and Gentiles alike. As Gentiles began to come into the Church, the question of their relationship to physical circumcision and the Mosaic Law had to be settled. In two councils in Jerusalem (Acts 11,15), the Church, through the witness of Peter and Paul, decided that Gentiles could be accepted as equal members under the New Covenant without having to be physically circumcised (i.e. become Jews) or to obey the external commands of the Mosaic Law. Thus, the early Church recognized that, based on the death of Christ, anyone, Jew or Gentile, could come under the provisions of the New Covenant and receive forgiveness of sins and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit (cf. Eph. 1-2).

Israel’s Future Redemption

As long as Israel is unrepentant…they will not be redeemed.

In the last scene of the Book of the Acts, Paul preached about Jesus from the Old Testament to Jews in Rome and received a mixed reaction. He quoted Isaiah 6:9-10, about the blindness of Israel, and concluded by saying:”Be it known, therefore, unto you, that the salvation of God is sent unto the Gentiles, and that they will hear it” (Acts 28:28). Does Luke want us to believe that Israel will never be nationally redeemed? No, Luke recognized that as long as Israel is unrepentant and refuses to recognize Jesus as their Messiah, they will not be redeemed. But after the time of judgment, they will acknowledge Jesus as their Lord and repent (Lk. 13:34- 35; 21:20-28); He will return to deliver them as promised; and they will come under the New Covenant as a nation (cf. Zech. 12-14).

In Romans 11 Paul dealt with this same subject of Israel’s disobedience in view of the salvation which had come to the Gentiles. He concluded:

For I would not, brethren, that ye should be ignorant of this mystery, lest ye should be wise in your own conceits: that blindness in part is happened to Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles be come in. And so all Israel shall be saved; as it is written, There shall come out of Zion the Deliverer, and shall turn away ungodliness from Jacob; For this is my covenant unto them, when I shall take away their sins. As concerning the gospel, they are enemies for your sakes; but as touching the election, they are beloved for the fathers’ sakes. For the gifts and calling of God are without repentance ( 11:25-29).

Summary

We have attempted to show that while the New Covenant was made with the nation of Israel, Jesus Christ instituted the New Covenant so that during this present age anyone can enjoy the provisions of the New Covenant of forgiveness and the Spirit through faith in Him. Even though the nation Israel is still disobedient, this does not mean that their promised national redemption has been fulfilled by the Church. Rather, after the gospel has gone to all the world and the Lord has finished building His Church, He will tum to Israel and bring them in under the New Covenant so that all the promises made to them in the Old Testament might be fulfilled.

The next article will explain the implications that the two components of the New Covenant, forgiveness of sins and the presence of the Spirit, have on believers’ lives today.

ENDNOTE
  1. ‘This perspective of the tragic element in Luke-Acts I owe to Robert Tannehill, “Israel in Luke-Acts:A Tragic Story,” journal of Bible Literature, 104/1 (1985): 69-85.

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