Saturday

24 October 2015

“This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws in their minds, and write them on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they will be my people.” (v. 10)

Psalm: Psalm 121


Background

How much change can you cope with? For many folk in the 1st century, life was marked by constant change. Those who lived in the cities, in particular, were part of societies where people came from many different parts of the Roman Empire, bringing different ways of life into a melting pot of cultures and languages. Roman society too could be creative in many ways, from new technologies (eg water supplies) to new entertainments at the great amphitheatres that graced every substantial town.

So when the writer to the Hebrews talks about 'a new covenant' that replaces the outdated past, there is a close fit with contemporary cultural expectations. People would be ready to hear the message about new ways of understanding our relationship to God. The writer draws on a very familiar passage from Jeremiah 31:31-34, where Jeremiah prophesies a new covenant to replace the covenant given to Moses. This was evidently a significant passage for the early Church, and Paul's account of the Lord's Supper records that Jesus himself described the sacrament as "a new covenant in my blood" (1 Corinthians 11:25, also Luke 22:20). However, the writer to the Hebrews has reshaped the original text slightly to emphasise the understanding that God has turned away from the people of the first covenant - rather than saying "I was their husband" (Jeremiah 31:32), God is given the words "I had no concern for them" (v. 9), and the quotation is introduced with the words "God finds fault with them" (v. 8), which does not reflect the sorrow and hope of the original text.

For those who received this letter, however, this reinterpretation of Jeremiah would be good news. More interested in the future than the past, accustomed to novelty and a rapid pace of change, they could look forward with hope to the promises of the new covenant becoming a reality in their lives. What would it be like to receive God's forgiveness? What would it be like to have God's law written on the heart, or to know the Lord first-hand? God's gifts are shared right across society, no longer restricted to the famous, important or educated (consider Peter's quotation of Joel 2:28-29 at Acts 2:17-18, stressing that the Spirit is given to everyone, even slaves.).

This promise of covenant relationship is at the heart of the concept of fullness of life - this is the relationship that has the potential to make everything new.


To Ponder

  • The writer here suggests that God has abandoned his relationship with the Jews. Other writers from Paul onwards (Romans 11:25-32) have taken a much more nuanced approach. How should Christians engage with people of other faiths?
  • What would you like God to change in your life as part of the new covenant?

Bible notes author: The Revd Caroline Wickens 
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