The Word Among Us

July/August 2019 Issue

The Better Promises of a New Covenant

God can change our hearts.

The Better Promises of a New Covenant: God can change our hearts.

In 1870, a Danish inventor named Rasmus Malling-Hansen introduced the world’s first typewriter. It was a wonderful invention, a great improvement over the slow, tedious work of printing with movable type and the even slower work of writing with pen and ink. It was considered such an innovation that an author from the time couldn’t help but sing its praises. This new, efficient machine, he wrote, helped him organize his ideas better and even played a role in “forming” the way he thought. What could be better?

But there was something better—the first word processing program was released in 1979, quickly followed by desktop computers, and then portable laptops connected to the Internet. Today these computers have become so small that they can fit in our pockets—and make phone calls as well! Could anyone in 1870 have thought that such powerful and far-reaching technology would be possible?

Perhaps the ancient Israelites thought in a similar way when they pondered the covenant God had made with them. What could possibly be better than being chosen by almighty God to be his own special possession? Moses himself once asked, “What great nation is there that has gods so close to it as the Lord, our God, is to us whenever we call upon him?” (Deuteronomy 4:7).

And yet God had something even greater in mind: a new covenant that would change people’s lives even more deeply and reach beyond the nation of Israel to encompass all peoples of the earth. It was so different, in fact, that the prophet 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 this article, we want to explore the ways in which this new covenant is better than the previous one. And most important, we want to ask how we can receive its blessings.

Sealed with Jesus’ Blood. Scripture, as well as ancient tradition, is clear: if you’re going to have a covenant, you need someone to mediate it. In the Old Testament, Moses, and later the priests who ministered at the Temple, were the go-betweens for God and his people. Through the prayers and the sacrifices they offered, they helped the people stay connected to God and to one another.

But there was one problem: like the people of Israel, the priests, who were mediators of the covenant, were limited. Their sacrifices could pardon the people’s sins, but they couldn’t help the people overcome their sin completely. That meant an endless cycle of sin and sacrifice as the people continued to try but failed in their desire to fulfill the Lord’s commandments. If the situation was going to change, it had to come from God, not from the people or even from the priests. And that’s exactly what happened.

Jesus himself, the Son of God, became the mediator of a new covenant. But rather than being sealed in the blood of a sacrificial animal, this covenant was sealed in Jesus’ own blood. And rather than a fallen priest, Jesus, perfectly obedient to his Father, became the mediator. Because he offered his own blood, our sins are forgiven and washed away. Because it is divine and sinless, Jesus’ 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.

This is a far better covenant, isn’t it? Isn’t it an immense blessing to be welcomed into this new relationship with God? It may be hard to believe that God would be so generous with you, but it’s true. Just as he did with Abraham, he has taken the initiative and reached down and drawn you to his side.

A Better Covenant, Better Promises. The Letter to the Hebrews tells us that this new covenant is “enacted on better promises” than the previous ones (8:6). But what are these “better promises”?

First, God promises that he will write his laws on our hearts (Hebrews 8:10). In the first covenant, God took the Israelites “by the hand” and led them to freedom from slavery (8:9, Jeremiah 31:32). He guided them and told them where to go. But now, he leads us from within. He has planted his ways and his commandments right into our hearts. As we seek the Lord in prayer and in his word and celebrate the sacraments with expectant hearts, we can experience his Spirit speaking to us and guiding us. We can feel him softening our hearts to love his ways, and we can experience his grace transforming us into his image. In other words, he is in us, not just with us!

Second, God promises that every one of us—“from least to greatest”—can have a deep and personal encounter with him through the gift of his Holy Spirit (Hebrews 8:11). Under the first covenant, the Spirit fell on different select people so that they could further his plans. The Spirit worked through kings, prophets, and priests, all of whom played a part in guiding the nation. But now, the Spirit has been given to all who believe, not just a few special leaders. Rich or poor, educated or illiterate, man or woman, child or adult—every one of us can know God personally.

And third, because Jesus shed his own blood, God has promised not only to forgive us but to “remember [our] sins no more” (Hebrews 8:12). When we confess our sins, they are gone. They are forgotten. They are drowned in the sea of God’s mercy, and he never holds them against us. And because he has forgotten them, we no longer have to feel weighed down by guilt or shame over our past. We can be free!

Grace at Work in Us. So far, we have focused mainly on God’s part in the new covenant: his grace, his promises, his love. But we have a part to play as well. God expects us to try to follow his commandments and love his people as he loves us—especially those among us who are suffering or needy. He invites us to open our hearts to his Spirit every day and to spend time learning to hear his voice in prayer.

So how do we live out our side of the covenant? This is exactly where the “better promises” come into play (Hebrews 8:6). God has promised us his grace—his own Holy Spirit—to change our hearts and give us the strength we need to stay faithful to his commands.

This grace is available to us each and every day. We may sense it at times when we come to God in prayer. We may sense his strength each time we say “no” to temptation and let love guide us instead of sin. We may feel God’s grace and love when we care for someone. We may also sense his grace when we forgive someone or ask for someone’s forgiveness. And most of all, God’s grace is very close to us every time we gather around the altar to celebrate the new covenant of Jesus, our eternal high priest.

God Has Covenanted Himself to Me. When we think of a covenant, we tend to think of it in general terms. We think, “This is something God did for all of humanity” or “The covenant is all about Jesus’ relationship with his Church.” Of course, these statements are true—and they are wonderful truths. But each one of us is an essential member of the Church. So Jesus has made this covenant with you—individually, as well as with everyone baptized into his name.

So never forget that God has written his law on your heart. Never forget that he has woven his grace into the very fabric of your being and made you into a new creation. You have the potential to rise above temptation. You have the potential to sense the Spirit’s guidance when you are confused and to know his mercy when you fall prey to sin. And best of all, you have the potential to glorify God with your life. As St. Paul said, when we are weak, he is strong (2 Corinthians 12:10). This is all possible because you have been baptized into the new covenant in Christ.

Surpassing Glory. Thanks be to God that we now live under a better covenant, with better promises, sealed in Jesus’ blood. And it’s not only a better covenant, it’s the best one we could possibly imagine! Nothing will surpass its glory—not until Jesus comes back to take us into heaven to be with him forever.

Thirty years from now, we will likely see computers even more powerful than we have now and technology beyond anything we can imagine. But we can be sure of this: we will never see anything greater than what God has done for us in Jesus Christ our Lord!