The more things change…
Here we are on the threshold of a new year. For some of us, it’ll be very new. We might have finished studying, and be looking for a job. Or changing jobs. Perhaps we’re newly married.
But for many of us – let’s be honest – it’s just the same old thing, isn’t it? Same old family fights. Same old course of study, with the same old annoying classmates who never put in their fair share of work in the group assignments, so you end up doing most of the work. Same old boring job with the same idiot of a boss who never gives you the credit you deserve.
And even if we make new year’s resolutions – like lose some weight, learn a new skill, or something like that – how long do they stick? It’s so hard to make change permanent. We might lose some weight during summer – when winter comes, bam! It comes back like magic…!
Wouldn’t it be nice if the whole world changed – if the whole cosmos, the whole fabric of reality improved. And if that improvement remained – if it didn’t slowly deteriorate, like most of our positive changes do.
God and Israel belonged to each other by covenant
In the book of Jeremiah, God was frustrated with his people’s inability to change for good. Jer 31:31-32:
31 “The time is coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. 32 It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,” declares the LORD.
God was stuck in a loveless marriage. He had taken Israel and Judah to himself, to be his own people. Their relationship was similar to that of husband and wife – notice how he describes his relationship with them as a ‘covenant’, where he was their ‘husband’.
A covenant is a formalised, personal relationship. It’s based on promises, but it’s more formal than just saying “I promise”. Covenants in the Bible have an extra degree of formality and solemnity, because they regulate the relationship between the covenant parties (e.g.: Gen 8:15-9:17; Gen 15:12-21; Gen 31:44-48). God and Israel don’t just start living together. They don’t just pop into the marriage registry to quickly get the formalities done. They go through the formalities of agreeing to belong to each other – we can read the account in Exodus 19:3-8.
But a covenant is more than a formal relationship. The parties to a covenant – especially a marriage covenant – are supposed to care about each other. That’s why a covenant is different to a contract. Many of us don’t own our home, we rent. We have a rental contract with our landlord. Most of us don’t know our landlord at all. They might be really nice; they might be really mean and nasty. We don’t know. Doesn’t matter. It’s just a commercial rental contract. We don’t care about them.
A covenant is different. The covenant parties are supposed to be bound not just by mutual duties, but by mutual affection – mutual love.
In Genesis 12:1-2 and Gen 15, God had promised Abraham that he would take Abraham’s descendants to be his own people. This is like the engagement – God had promised to take the people to himself, but hadn’t actually done it yet.
In the beginning of the book of Exodus, God rescued his people from Egypt like a movie hero rescuing the heroine from the villain. Before the hero can marry the heroine, the bad guy kidnaps her and locks her up in his evil castle. And so the hero has to attack the castle, clobber the bad guy, and rescue his bride-to-be. That what God did in the ten plagues and the crossing of the Red Sea.
Then God gives them his law at Mt Sinai. Think of it like pre-marriage counselling. The people didn’t have to keep the law to ‘earn’ relationship with God. God already loved them – he’d done do since Abraham’s days. And he proved his love by heroically rescuing them from Egypt. The law was meant to show them what it means to live with God as their covenant husband. It set up relational patterns appropriate for a relationship with the unique creator God of the whole universe, who, from now on, would be known particularly as Yahweh of Israel. That relationship involved taking purity and holiness seriously because Yahweh is a pure and holy God. It involved caring for others – particularly the weak and vulnerable – because God cares for others – particularly the weak and vulnerable.
Then God finally took them into his land – the land he had promised Abraham – like a young husband sweeping up his new bride in his arms and carrying her over the threshold.
This is what it meant to be God’s covenant people: enjoying his love and his rescue, living in his land, and being governed by the relational principles he’s outlined in his law.
The people broke his covenant by being unfaithful to God
But instead of living with God in a relationship of mutual love, they kept ignoring him and insulting him. In fact, they broke the marriage covenant by running off with other men!
They worshiped idols – false gods. The first of the ten commandments is to have no other God than Yahweh (Exodus 20:3; Deut 5:7). The second explicitly forbids idols (Exodus 20:4-6; Deut 5:8-10). So to have idols is to break the law, and thereby break the covenant. But more than that, idolatry is spiritual adultery. It’s like taking your wedding gifts, and giving them to your secret lover!
This is important to us New Testament believers too. Beware the lure of all the good things God gives us in this world – friends, family, job, ‘career’, material possessions. Jesus demands to be first. We must not treat him as only a means to get those other things. To do so is idolatry.
Sacrifices were meant to atone for the people’s sin
What would we do, if our marriage partner was unfaithful to us? We’d walk out! Tear up the covenant! Get a divorce!
But God doesn’t do that. He loves his people too much. He’s going to make a new covenant – a new way of relating to his people. And that involves forgiving his people for their unfaithfulness. That’s what Jer 31:34 says:
For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.
Under the old covenant, God was realistic. He knew his people wouldn’t always be holy, and love him properly, the way he deserves. So he provided a way for them to be forgiven. That’s what the old testament sacrifices were for. A person would bring an animal – a lamb, goat, ram, or bird – lay their hands on the animal, confess their sin, and symbolically transfer their guilt to the animal. The priest would then kill the animal. This was a very physical, visible, palpable way of showing that breaking God’s covenant is worthy of the death penalty – but also that God, in his kindness towards rebellious, unfaithful people, provided a way for that death to be transferred onto a substitute.
But the people’s sin was so deep, it even ruined the sacrifices! They took the sacrifices for granted, they didn’t take them seriously (e.g.: Isaiah 1:10-15; Jer 7)! They were patronising God, saying to him “sorry, not sorry”, and “why are you so upset? It’s no big deal. You should let it go.”
Jesus is our perfect sacrifice who brings us full forgiveness
This is why we need Jesus. Jesus lived his life in a way that perfectly responded to God in love, worship, and obedience. That is to say – he never sinned (Hebrews 4:15), he perfectly fulfilled God’s covenant. But the high point of Jesus’ obedience was dying as the perfect sacrifice for us, the disobedient ones. And by completely and finally forgiving us, he brought in the new covenant that God promised in Jeremiah (Matthew 26:28; Hebrews 9:15).
Have you put your trust in Jesus? If you have, you can make a new start – not just to a new year, but to a whole new reality! The reality of a perfect relationship with God! When we put our trust in Jesus, we change – for good. The creator and judge of the universe declares us right with him. And that verdict stands forever.
We now can live for God by his Spirit
And, as forgiven people, we now can live for God – not because we have to, but because we want to – just like it says in Jer 31:33-34:
33b “This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after that time,” declares the LORD. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. 34a No longer will a man teach his neighbour, or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the LORD.
Remember: even in the old testament, the people didn’t have to keep the law to be saved. They were already saved – God had already rescued them from Egypt. The promoted Godliness; it showed people how to live properly in relationship with God.
In the old covenant, the law was written on the outside – on the stone tablets which Moses brought down from Mt Sinai.
In the new covenant, God’s moral will is internalised – the Holy Spirit ‘writes’ his law on our hearts and minds (Galatians 5:14-16). We really can live for God! We can put a smile on his face! Not by our own power – by the Holy Spirit’s power. It won’t happen immediately, the changes will take time – but it will happen eventually! When we put our trust in Jesus we really can change, and change in good ways.
Most of our new year resolutions are too small. We want to lose weight; learn a new skill; finish a DIY project. Let’s make some ambitious resolutions – like reconciling with that family member we’ve had a fight with. Or admitting that habitual sin to some trusted Christian friend or minister – and then letting them hold us accountable to stopping it. Rather than just learning some new hobby, how about we volunteer for the one job at church no-one really wants to do – like cleaning the toilets, or supervising the crèche. Rather than hoping for a promotion at work, how about we negotiate to work part time – so that we can teach school scripture classes for free, so that children who don’t go to church have a chance to hear about Jesus and his gospel. Instead of pushing for a pay rise, how about we increase our giving to missionaries – again, so that people have a chance to hear about Jesus and his gospel.
Change, for good
Here we are on the threshold of a new year. Will 2017 hold the same old disappointments as 2016?
For those of us who trust Jesus: no. Jesus has changed our relationship with God. We are fully, completely, permanently forgiven. And he is changing us, by his Holy Spirit, to love him, and love each other, with greater consistently day by day. This is what it means to be in new covenant relationship with God, through Jesus’ death and resurrection: it means change, for good.