11 March 2016

Jeremiah 31:31-34

“But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days’, says the Lord: ‘I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” (v. 33)

Psalm: Psalm 55:1-8


Today's Bible passage, just four verses, not only summarises the whole of Jeremiah's message but could be said to summarise the central thrust of the entire Old Testament. (The writer to the Hebrews certainly thought so: these verses constitute the longest passage quoted in the New Testament - Hebrews 8:8-12). God calls people into a new 'covenant' relationship - a freely-entered mutual bond in which God graciously offers forgiveness and steadfast love. God invites people to respond with love by living no longer for themselves but in obedience to God's law. Verse 31 is the only place in the Old Testament where the phrase "new covenant" occurs. Jesus was to use the phrase at the Last Supper (Luke 22:20).

Jeremiah speaks in a context of constant failure to obey God's Law by both the houses of Israel and Judah. The northern kingdom of Israel had suffered invasion in 721 BC by the Assyrians. The southern kingdom of Judah was invaded in 597 BC by the Babylonians. The reason for these invasions was the failure of both kingdoms to be true to the covenant made between God and the people whom God brought out of Egypt (Deuteronomy 30:15-20). The tablets of stone on which this covenant had been written had lasted just one night, as they were smashed to smithereens by Moses. Moses came down from Mount Sinai and found the people treating the covenant as worthless as they worshipped a golden calf (Exodus 32:15-20). The commandments were not worth the stones they were written on then. Six centuries later, in the time of Jeremiah, the people are still treating the covenant with contempt (Jeremiah 32:28-35).

In place of the stone tablets, God now offers to write the law on people's hearts. They no longer need an external list of rules. They will obey God simply because they love God. They will not need to be taught by others about God - they will know God themselves (verse 34).

Those who are Methodists will recognise this passage as the central reading from most formal act of worship for Methodists: the annual Covenant Service. In an act of corporate worship, the central prayer uses the individual word 'I' rather than the corporate word 'we' - for no one can offer your heart to God but you.

To Ponder

  • True religious practice appears to consist of obedience to God because people 'know' God. What do you think it means to know God?
  • Which do you think is most important - belonging to a community of faith or having a personal relationship with God? And if the latter is more important, what do you think about the often-quoted phrase 'You don't have to go to church to be a Christian'?

Bible notes author

The Revd Neil Cockling

Neil spent 20 years as a circuit minister before becoming the District Development Enabler for the Newcastle upon Tyne Methodist District. He now works full-time for the NHS as a Consultant Lead Chaplain in mental health, leading a multi-faith team of 14 chaplains working in 10 hospitals in Northumberland and Tyne & Wear.