The Word Among Us

July 2010 Issue

Now Is the Time of Fulfillment

We have a new covenant, built on better promises

Now Is the Time of Fulfillment: We have a new covenant, built on better promises

More than five hundred years before the birth of Jesus, the prophet Jeremiah promised that God was going to make a "new covenant" with his people (Jeremiah 31:31). This new covenant would have a far greater reach and depth than the previous one. It was so different, in fact, that Jeremiah proclaimed: "The Lord has created a new thing upon the earth" (31:22). It would be as if God had re-created his people all over again.

In our previous article, we saw that in this covenant God promised to place his law in our hearts. We saw, too, that he promised to give us a new heart and a new spirit. Finally, we saw that this covenant would find its highest fulfillment in Jesus.

In this article, we want to explore this covenant more deeply. We want to see how it stands as God’s greatest act of reaching out to his people. We want to see how it is a better covenant than the one God made with Israel. And we want to see how this covenant unites us with God.

Our Divine Mediator. One of the things a mediator does is bring estranged parties together. Scripture uses the image of a mediator to describe Jesus and his work of reconciling us to God. We can also see that before Jesus, this work of reconciliation was carried out through the blood of sacrificial animals.

For instance, when he inaugurated the covenant between God and his people, Moses acted as a mediator by taking the blood of young bulls and pouring half of it on the altar and the other half on the people. This offering was a sign that God and his people were joined together through "the blood of the covenant which the Lord has made with you" (Exodus 24:8).

In a similar way, on the annual Day of Atonement, the high priest acted as a kind of mediator when he sprinkled the sacrificial blood on the altar. This blood was offered as atonement for the sins that the people had committed that year, and without the blood, their sins could not be forgiven (Leviticus 17:11).

But as good as these sacrifices were, they had their limitations. The animal sacrifices covered over the sins of the people, but as Scripture says, it was impossible for them to take away sins (Hebrews 10:4). Something more needed to happen. The people needed a different mediator and a different sacrifice.

This is why God initiated a new covenant. It too was sealed with blood, only this time, it was Jesus’ own blood that was sacrificed. And rather than a fallen, human high priest, this time Jesus himself, the eternal, sinless Son of God, became our mediator. Because he offered his own blood, our sins were not just covered over; they were taken away. His blood has the power to reach into the recesses of our hearts and cleanse our consciences. Even more important, it has the power to unite us to God in a bond that no other sacrifice could ever accomplish.

A Covenant Filled with Grace. Clearly, this new covenant went beyond the remission of sins. As the mediator of the covenant, Jesus did more than pardon our offenses and save us. He also came to unite us to God. He came to remove every obstacle that kept us from the Lord: not just our sin but our lack of direction and our powerlessness. He came to teach us how to be holy, how to be as kind and generous as he was, and how to care for others. From the moment of his death, when he initiated the new covenant, Jesus has been pouring endless grace on us—grace to help us live the covenant more faithfully.

If we look at Old Testament history, we can see that the Israelites were caught up in a frustrating cycle. They would begin with humble and grateful obedience to God, but over time they would be tempted away from him and fall into disobedience. Eventually, they would end up forsaking their covenant with God, which would bring about some kind of tragic consequence. In the midst of their calamity, they would realize how far they had fallen, repent of their sins, and return to obedience—only to repeat the cycle all over again (Judges 2:7-23).

The new covenant is different. It contains a much deeper redemption that nothing can overpower. Its gifts and graces reach through time and are as new today as they were on Easter Sunday. As Paul wrote, grace is now overflowing to us day after day after day (Romans 5:20).

The Plan Unfolds. The Letter to the Hebrews gives us a deeper insight into the grace that is at the heart of this new covenant. And it does so by summing up the difference between the two covenants. According to Hebrews, Jesus is the mediator of "a better covenant, enacted on better promises." It goes on to say that "if that first covenant had been faultless, no place would have been sought for a second one." But God did find fault, and so he said: "I will conclude a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah" (Hebrews 8:6-8).

Clearly, something was not quite right with the way the people received and lived out the first covenant. It’s not that it was faulty, of course. God doesn’t make mistakes! But the problem was that it was limited. The first covenant did not have all the power and grace that the Israelites needed to keep God’s laws. God did pour his grace upon them, but it didn’t deal directly with their fallen nature.

As St. Paul told the Romans, the people who lived under the first covenant wanted to follow God’s ways, but they ended up doing the opposite because sin was still alive and active within them. Speaking in the name of his fellow Jews, Paul cried out: "Miserable one that I am! Who will deliver me from this mortal body? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! . . . For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has freed [me] from the law of sin and death" (Romans 7:24–8:2).

Better Promises. So what are these "better promises"? They center on three works of God in our hearts and minds. First, through the new covenant, God’s laws will be written on our hearts by his own hand. Second, because of this covenant, every one of us can now have a deep and personal encounter with God. Third, because Jesus shed his own blood, all of our sins are forgiven and forgotten forever.

Of course, there are two parties involved in every covenant agreement, and each party has its own set of responsibilities. We have focused mainly on God’s responsibilities by talking about his promises. But we need to be clear: God expects us to live up to our part of the covenant as well. He expects us to follow his commandments and treat one another with love and justice. He expects us to take care of those who cannot take care of themselves. He wants us to love him and each other.

It is here, as we face living out our side of the covenant—a responsibility that the Israelites could not sustain—that we see all these better promises at work. It’s here that we find God’s divine grace empowering us to stay close to him, to resist temptation, and to love one another.

Why is this the case? Because, just as Jeremiah had promised, God has written his laws on our hearts. He has woven his grace into the very fabric of our being and made us into a new creation. We now have the potential to rise above the limitations of our fallen nature—if we but choose to turn to the Lord. We now have the potential to keep sin from reigning in us because our old lives have been crucified with Jesus (Romans 6:11-12; Galatians 2:19-20). No wonder Scripture calls them "better" promises!

Celebrate Your New Covenant! Just as the annual feast of Passover gave the Israelites a chance to recall and renew their covenant with the Lord, we have the daily celebration of the Mass. According to the Fathers of Vatican II, it is at Mass that "the covenant between the Lord and man" is renewed. On the altar, we offer the body and blood of Christ as a way of celebrating what Jesus did for us on the cross. And in the midst of our celebration, we are drawn into "the compelling love of Christ" and filled with confidence in the Lord (On the Liturgy, 10).

Brothers and sisters, this is the glory of the new covenant. In Jesus, God has made it possible for us to participate in his divine life. This new covenant, forged in Jesus’ own blood, shows us the depth and breadth of God’s love for us. It’s something we can celebrate and relive every time we gather for Mass. May we never forget how good our Father is, and may we all come to enjoy the greatness of our covenant with him!