What Does Jeremiah 31:31 Mean?


A sermon on Jeremiah 31:31-34 by Richard Keith on Sunday 30 July 2023


There is a crucial difference between guilt and responsibility. A person can be responsible, but that doesn’t make them guilty.

Sometimes we say things like, “I blame the parents.” When a child is caught shoplifting or refuses to go to school. And sometimes it might be the parents’ fault. The parents might teach the child to steal. Or run down the school so that the child sees no point in going. But sometimes the best, most loving parents can struggle to discipline a wayward child. They are still responsible. They are in a position of care for a child still growing into the adult they will one day be. But that doesn’t make them guilty for everything their child does wrong.

The football team keeps losing. The coach may not be at fault. He didn’t miss the ball. He didn’t get sent off. But he is responsible.

The business is losing money. The manager may not be guilty of fraud or embezzlement. But he is responsible for the loss.

Under the terms of the covenant, the solemn agreement that the Lord made with Israel through Moses at Mt Sinai Israel was guilty. God had said, “You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal.” God had said,

If you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession.

When the people of Israel had provoked the Lord with their disobedience, he had said to them through the prophet Jeremiah,

Reform your ways and your actions, and I will let you live in the land I gave your ancestors forever.

But they did not change. Israel was guilty. Generation after generation. Guilty of idolatry. Guilty of corruption and greed. Guilty of violence and injustice.

The terms of the covenant were straightforward. It was conditional on Israel’s behaviour. Obey the commandments and you will be blessed. The rain shall fall at the right time. Your crops shall always be fruitful. And your enemies will always run away. Break them and you will be cursed with drought and defeat.

Israel was guilty. So all the disasters they experienced, defeat, destruction and exile were terrible and frightening. The suffering was real. The scale of them is impossible to imagine. But they were the consequences of their choices and actions. Israel was reaping what it had sown.

And the curses of the covenant came down upon them. In 586 BC the Babylonians invaded the land of Israel, surrounded the city of Jerusalem, destroyed its walls, carried away its people as prisoners and burned the king’s palace and the Lord’s temple to the ground. Israel had failed.

But you have to admit that the covenant had failed as well. Not that the Lord hadn’t kept it. Israel had experienced every blessing and probably half the curses they deserved. The Lord had kept his side of the agreement. But the covenant had failed to fulfil God’s plans of blessing for the world. The law was the wrong tool for that job. Like using a spanner as a hammer. Like using a screw driver as a chisel. The law could not bring God’s plans into reality in the world.

And so God took responsibility for the failure of the covenant. And in Jeremiah chapter 31 verses 31 to 34 we hear God say, “I am not guilty. But I am responsible. This is my problem and I am going to solve it.”

The time is coming, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. 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.

This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time. I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.  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. For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.

Notice firstly that it’s a new covenant. The old covenant had failed. So God had decided that it was time for a new one. A new covenant that superseded the old covenant. That made the covenant that God made at Mt Sinai with its commandments and blessings and curses a thing of the past. That made it obsolete. Its terms and conditions were no longer in effect.

We’ve been talking about the covenants over the last few weeks. And I think that this is vital to understand. The old covenant is obsolete. It is no longer in effect. It has no power over your life. There’s a new covenant we have to take account of.

But many people still think in old covenant terms. They get stuck in traffic and think, “What have I done to deserve this?” They find a parking spot straight away and think, “I am so blessed by the Lord.” This is old covenant thinking, believing that the things that happen to you are a running commentary on your moral standing with God. That good things happen to you because you are a good person. That bad things happen to you because you are a bad person.

But look at Jesus’ life. He was born in poverty. He lived among us as a servant. His friends abandoned him. His enemies crucified him. He died in pain. Was he a bad person? Was he cursed for his own sins? Someone gets sick. People say, “Trust in God and you will be healed.” The person doesn’t get better. People say, “It’s because you don’t have enough faith.” What a load of rubbish. Jesus died. Did Jesus die because he didn’t have enough faith?

It’s old covenant thinking that has long passed its use by date. Colour television came to Australia in 1975. My parents kept the old black and white set for about a year, until my grandfather bought us a colour TV. And one day the old black and white set disappeared. Since then video tapes have come and gone and DVDs are going the same way.

The old covenant passed its use by date in 586 BC. And that’s not the New Testament saying it like it’s some punk kid who doesn’t respect his elders. That’s the Old Testament saying it. In Jeremiah chapter 31. The old covenant is 2609 years out of date. But for some reason some people insist on holding on to it.

Notice secondly that the new covenant, the new agreement between God had his people, will not be like the old covenant. The Lord diagnoses the problem of the old covenant in verse 32 in that Israel broke it. He had done his best for them. He had loved them like a father loves his child. More than a father, he had loved them like a husband loves his wife. But they had rejected him and broken off the marriage. They had run off with other lovers, other gods who promised them what they really wanted. The old covenant had failed to keep Israel close to the Lord their God.

The new covenant will be an agreement that can’t be broken. That won’t be conditional on human ability or behaviour. That won’t have good results for good behaviour and bad for bad behaviour. God’s new covenant can’t rest on our ability or performance because we are too weak and fragile to carry that load. It can’t depend on us. It must depend on somethings stronger and sturdier.

Notice thirdly how the new covenant is not like the old one. Under the old covenant the law was an external measure. A written code with lists of things to do and things not to do. Thou shalt. Thou shalt not. It promised rewards for obedience and punishments for disobedience. But it couldn’t change Israel’s behaviour because the people never took it in. They never absorbed it. It never seeped into their hearts and minds to influence their choices and behaviour.

The reality is that people live by their inner code not by an external written code. We fashion and create our own inner code as we grow up. Some of it we get from our parents. Some of it we get from teachers or coaches or members of our peer group. Some of it we make up as we go along. Like I put on a seatbelt or wash my hands before leaving the bathroom or brush my teeth before bed. They are part of my inner code. I don’t do them because I have to. I do them because I want to.

Under God’s new covenant the law would remain, but he would write it on his people’s hearts. It wouldn’t stay outside them. It wouldn’t stay a written code. It would become a part of their inner most being.

It’s just what we need. I mean, what is the law? The law is love. “Love the Lord with all your heart.” “Love your neighbour as you love yourself.” If it stays a written code, if it stays outside, it has nothing to do with love. Under the new covenant God’s people will keep his law not because they have to, not just because they want to experience God’s blessing. They will follow God’s way of love simply because they want to.

Notice fourthly that under the new covenant God would be known intimately and personally  by his people. The old covenant was like a string of Christmas lights all in series. One after the other on the same line of electrical wiring. When one light stops working it breaks the current so all the lights stop working. The people knew God through special people and institutions. Through the prophet. Through the king. Through the priest. Through the temple. Through the sacrifices. Through the law and the people who taught it.

But the problem with lights in series is that if one light blows none of the lights light up. The problem with the old covenant was that it relied on those special people. If the king went bad or if the prophet taught lies then no one knew God.

The new covenant would be like lights set up in parallel. When one light stops working, the other lights keep working because they are still connected individually to the power source. The knowledge of God would not have to go through special people. Instead, each of God’s people would have a direct line to their Lord. God would make himself known personally and intimately. No one will need to say to his friend, “Know the Lord.” Because he will say, “You don’t need to tell me. I already do. He is my God and I am his.”

Notice lastly that the foundation of the new covenant would be forgiveness. As verse 34 says we will all know God, from the least important to the most important, both sinners and saints, because he will forgive our wickedness and forget our sins.

The problem with the old covenant is that it had no plan B. Like a strict father the law says, “It’s either my way or the highway.” No surprises when all his children choose the highway and the home is empty. No one to help him with the work. No one to look after him in his old age. They have all abandoned him. And there is no way to bring them back.

But God is more like the father in the parable of the prodigal son. His heart is torn by his son’s selfishness. It breaks his heart to see him walk away. But what happens to that son when he is brought to his lowest point? What happens to him as his wallowing in that pig sty? He wants to go home. And when his father sees him he runs to him and hugs him. The law would just look at that wayward boy and say, “You don’t belong here anymore.” But the father welcomes him home.

One of our main problems is that we think too much in old covenant terms. There is a crippling drought. The nation has sinned. My friend is dying of cancer. What has he done to deserve it? I can’t find a parking spot. The Lord doesn’t love me anymore. We keep the rules so that God will bless us. When something doesn’t go our way, we  want to know what we’ve done to wrong. We are living by the old covenant. It is time we realised that the old covenant failed. The law can command obedience. But it cannot change our behaviour because it cannot inspire obedience. It can’t make us want to.

Romans chapter 8 reminds us that Jesus made the new covenant with us. Israel was condemned. They sinned and they were punished. But there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Jesus the law of the Spirit has set me free from the law of sin and death.

The law was powerless. The law was weakened by our selfish nature. We couldn’t keep it because we didn’t want to. So what the law couldn’t do for us, God did. He sent his Son. He gave him as an offering for sin. I mean Jesus was a saint. He lived the one, true, perfect, genuinely human life. Under the old covenant he should have experienced every blessing on earth. Instead Jesus suffered every curse and destroyed the old covenant once and for all. Smashed it. Crushed it.

Jesus condemned sin and he condemned the law so that the righteous requirements of the law may be fully met in us, so that we could keep the law because we no longer live according to the flesh and according to a written code but we live according to the Spirit of God who has written God’s law of love on our hearts.

We keep the law not because we have to, not because we are going to earn a blessing, but because we want to. It is not the old covenant of law, but God’s new covenant of love. The law of love is written on our hearts and minds by God’s Holy Spirit. And so we live not according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit.

This new covenant made by Jesus and sealed by his blood, cannot be broken because it is built on a firmer foundation. It does not rest on our weak and fragile obedience but on Jesus’ perfect obedience. Through him we all know God. Through him we experience forgiveness. Through his gift of the Spirit the law is no longer a written code outside but becomes part of our inner code. We obey God not because we have to to experience his blessing, but because we want to.

It’s time to change our old covenant way of thinking and to embrace God’s new covenant in Jesus. For the old covenant leads to exile. It drives us to selfish obedience, anger against God, fear and doubt and crippling remorse. God’s new covenant leads us to love. It sets us free by the sacrifice of Jesus. In inspires us by his example. And it leads us by the power of the Spirit.

The law leads to exile, but God’s grace and forgiveness in Jesus lead us home.