The Jesus Covenant, Part 6: Tracking the Elusive Covenant

Then he began with Mosheh and all of the Prophets and explained to them all of the Scriptures that spoke about him. They came near the village to which they were going, and he set his face as if he were continuing on his way. They urged him, saying, “Stay with us, for the time of evening has arrived, and the day has stretched on.”

So he entered the house to stay with them. When he reclined with them, he took the bread, made a barchah, broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, but he turned aside and passed from their eyes! They said to one another, “Were our hearts not burning within us as he spoke to us on the road and interpreted the Scriptures?”

Luke 24:27-32 (DHE Gospels)

Oh, I get by with a little help from my friends
Mm, gonna try with a little help from my friends
Mm, I get high with a little help from my friends
Yes I get by with a little help from my friends
With a little help from my friends

-Lennon and McCartney
from the song, With a Little Help from My Friends (1967)

I wish that the Master would speak to me and cause my heart to burn by starting “with Mosheh and all of the Prophets and explaining…all of the Scriptures that speak about him.”

As you know, particularly from Part 4 and Part 5 of this series, I’m having trouble matching up the New Covenant as described in Jeremiah 31 and Ezekiel 36 with the words of the Master we find in Mark 14:22-24 and Luke 22:19-20. If, as I learned from Derek Leman, the New Covenant is directed specifically at the Jewish people but possesses blessings for non-Jews, where can I find the blessings for the nations? Where can I find the connection?

As it turns out, the connection not only eludes me but, perhaps generations of people who are far more learned than I am:

I would not claim to be in any of the categories you mention, but we have history of nearly two thousand years of scholars who have traveled the same terrain – some of the most profound issues of our faith – and other who are doing the same right now. You really would benefit from some familiarity with their work. –Carl Kinbar

I feel better knowing that I’m not alone. I’m encouraged that I’m pursuing something that is as mysterious to others as it is to me. But then, what hope do I have in discovering answers to questions that scholars and saints have been wrestling with for the better part of 2,000 years? On the other hand, if I don’t attempt to also wrestle with these questions, how can I ever come to terms with my faith or have confidence that I, as a Christian, am also in covenant relationship with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob?

So many Christians take their faith for granted; they simply assume that the covenants and promises they’ve heard about from the pulpit are all explained and settled. Almost magically, the church leaps from “I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah,” which we see in Jeremiah 31:31 (ESV) to this interpretation, taken from the The World Alliance of Reformed Churches website (added emphasis mine):

First, it is a community of God’s Torah: “I will put my torah in their midst” (31.33). The word torah means “law” and the teaching of the law and points to a way of ordering all of life under the covenant God. Specifically, torah provides a way of seeing reality through the lens of God’s passion and grief. Thus, the new covenant community (church) with torah in its midst will be transformed from self, indifference, and trivial moralisms to neighbour, witness, and costly love.

…Second, the new community (church) will be in covenantal solidarity about the knowledge of God: “They shall all know me, from the least of these to the greatest” (Jer 31.34).

Third, the new covenant community (the church) will know, experience and practice forgiveness: “I will forgive their iniquity and I will remember their sin no more” (Jer 31.34).

broken-crossNot to be too harsh toward my brothers and sisters in the church or the many Christian scholars who support these conclusions, but I can find no method of transferring the New Covenant which God has and will make with “the house of Israel and the house of Judah” to the Christian church of non-Jewish believers in Jesus Christ. It’s just not there in Jeremiah 31, nor in Ezekiel 36. So then, where do I look? As I alluded to above, “I’ll get by with a little help from my friends.” Here’s what one of them had to say.

I also don’t see how the Jeremiah and Ezekiel passages relate to Gentiles (at least not directly) and no exegetical commentary will claim that they do. That’s the stuff of homiletical commentaries. The only passages I know that implicitly make the connection are 1 Cor 11 and 2 Cor 3, both of which clearly have Gentile settings. While we see plenty of prophetic mention of light to the Gentiles and New Testament expansion of the gospel to Gentiles, the connection with the New Covenant seems to be a Pauline revelation/midrash. Exegetical commentaries should be helpful there, too, although many of them are supersessionist.

That’s a start, but before pursuing those scriptures in earnest, I want to outline the rest of the search.

I’ve already mentioned Mark 14:22-24 and Luke 22:19-20, where Jesus connects the shedding of his blood with the inauguration (but not completion) of the New Covenant. We see the same scene displayed before us in Matthew 26:26-29 (ESV):

Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the (Some manuscripts insert “new”) covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.”

Also, as I previously mentioned, Hebrews 8:6-7 addresses the New Covenant, however, a significant mention of the New Covenant is present in the following chapter of Hebrews, especially 9:15-22. We do see Paul talking about a covenant in Galatians 3:15-18, but it is specifically the Abrahamic covenant, so I’ll bypass Galatians until another day. Hebrews 6 also discusses God’s promise to Abraham.

Before going on, we need an anchor in the language of the New Covenant as recorded in the Tanakh (Old Testament). All of the “connectedness” we see in the New Testament that ties back to the original New Covenant language is through Christ who the church recognizes as the Jewish Messiah. He must be our anchor, or there is no connection at all.

“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David, and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved, and Jerusalem will dwell securely. And this is the name by which it will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’ –Jeremiah 33:14-16 (ESV)

With our anchor, the Messiah, the “righteous Branch”, now firmly in place, our next stop in following the trail of the elusive New Covenant connection is in Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth.

For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for (or “broken for”) you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world. –1 Corinthians 11:27-32 (ESV)

One thing the plain meaning of the text does for me is to more solidly connect the term “New Covenant” with that we call “the Lord’s Supper.” However, Paul seems to be employing the imagery we find in that event (Mark 14:22-24, Luke 22:19-20, Matthew 26:26-29 ESV) as a commentary or perhaps as midrash, using the people and activities associated with the Last Supper to describe the implications of the New Covenant upon the non-Jewish Corinthian church as those implications link back to the covenant’s core values and ideas.

Thus, if Paul believed it was through the blessings in the New Covenant (which primarily solidified and expanded the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants with the Jewish nation) that the Gentile Christians were also allowed to have a covenant relationship with God, he is saying that, by his audience behaving in a reprehensible and disrespectful manner when gathering together to break bread, they were also desecrating their New Covenant relationship, and thus bringing shame, rather than honor, to the Messiah. The result was that the Gentile Christians brought judgment upon themselves so that, through that discipline, they would not be condemned as will be those who are not in covenant relationship with God.

While Paul is using the Lord’s Supper/New Covenant language as metaphor and midrash to drive his point home to the Corinthians, from our point of view, we see a stronger link between the New Covenant, the “New Covenant” language used by Jesus during his last meal with his closest disciples, and how it can be applied, both positively and negatively, depending on the behavior of those people who are subject to specific covenant blessings; to the non-Jewish disciples who are called by the Messiah’s name.

To me, this is very encouraging. Although the route isn’t exactly straightforward, I can follow my “trail of breadcrumbs” from Jeremiah, to the Last Supper, and then to Paul’s “Corinthian midrash” on the New Covenant. It’s as if I’m trying to watch a television set from my youth, persistently adjusting the fine tuning knob to slowly produce a sharper image. But can we find even more clarification by progressing further along the path? What about 2 Corinthians 3? We’ll get to that particular milestone in Part 7 of this series.

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4 thoughts on “The Jesus Covenant, Part 6: Tracking the Elusive Covenant”

  1. James, I have really been enjoying this series of blogs you have been doing. Since I have become more aware of Israel’s covenants with God, I have also struggled to understand our relationship as gentiles. As I was reading this blog today I was reminded of what Paul said in Ephesians 2-3. In 2:12 he speaks of us as gentiles being “alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise” and in verse 13 says that we have been brought near through the shedding of the Messiah’s blood. I’m not sure exactly how this might fit into your meditations but it seems like he is talking about the same subject you are addressing. Keep up the good work.

  2. Hi, Mel.

    Good to hear from you again.

    I’ll have to add Ephesians 2-3 to my “official” list of scriptures to examine, relative to the New Covenant blessings for the non-Jewish people. It looks like this series is going to carry on a lot longer than I anticipated. After going through all of the relevant NT scriptures for the New Covenant, I still have to provide some sort of conclusion, painting a picture of the blessings in both the Abrahamic and New Covenants that allow the nations of the world, through Christ, to enter into relationship with God and to draw near to Israel through the Messiah’s blood.

    Blessings.

  3. James,

    Might I recommend Margaret Barker and her essay on the atonement, where she elucidates some rather insightful details on the “cosmic covenant” idea?

    http://www.marquette.edu/maqom/Atonement.pdf

    Offered is a great exposition on the Atonement, and some interesting thoughts on what she calls the “cosmic covenant.”

    Hope it can add to your quest for the covenant.

    Shalom, friend.

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