The Nature and Character of the New Covenant
Noting and quoting Jeremiah 31:31-34, the Hebrew writer (we will assume it was the apostle Paul) said:
"Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah: Not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt; because they continued not in my covenant, and I regarded them not, saith the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, saith the Lord; I will put my laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts: and I will be to them a God, and they shall be to me a people: and they shall not teach every man his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: for all shall know me, from the least to the greatest. For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their iniquities will I remember no more. In that he saith, A new covenant, he hath made the first old. Now that which decayeth and waxeth old is ready to vanish away" (Hebrews 8:8-13).
Some are confused by Paul's statement that the old covenant was "ready to vanish away." They think it refers to Paul's day. They believe this indicates that the first covenant had not vanished away when Paul wrote, but that it was then "ready to vanish away." However, the moment God mentioned "a new covenant," at that instant He made the first covenant old and "ready to vanish away." Hence, the first covenant was "old" in the days of Jeremiah, not in the time of Paul. It was "ready to vanish away," not in the days of the apostle, but in the days of Jeremiah.
What was the covenant that was to be done away? It was the one God made when He took the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt. That covenant included the ten commandments.
"And he declared unto you his covenant, which he commanded you to perform, even ten commandments; and he wrote them upon two tables of stone" (Deuteronomy 4:13).
"Moses said, "The Lord our God made a covenant with us (Israel) in Horeb. The Lord made not this covenant with our fathers, but with us, even us, who are all of us here alive this day" (Deuteronomy 5:2-3).
"When I was gone up into the mount to receive the tables of stone, even the tables of the covenant which the Lord made with you, then I abode in the mount forty days and forty nights, I neither did eat bread nor drink water: And the Lord delivered unto me two tables of stone written with the finger of God; and on them was written according to all the words, which the Lord spake with you in the mount out of the midst of the fire in the day of the assembly" (Deuteronomy 9:9-10).
"And the Lord said unto Moses, Write thou these words: for after the tenor of these words I have made a covenant with thee and with Israel. And he was forty days and forty nights; he did neither eat bread nor drink water. And he wrote upon the tables the words of the covenant, the ten commandments" (Exodus 34:27-28).
That covenant was old in Jeremiah, and it vanished away in Jesus.
What Superseded It?
The "second" or "new covenant" was different in kind and in character.
First, it was made with spiritual Israel. To physical, fleshly Israel, Jesus said, "The kingdom of God shall be taken from you, and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof" (Matthew 21:43). Essentially, a kingdom cannot be separated from its constitution. It derives its nature, its character, from its covenant. This new covenant is the constitution of the kingdom of God. The kingdom is the "holy nation;" it is that "spiritual house" which offers up spiritual (not material, animal) sacrifices" (I Peter 2:5-9).
Second, its laws are enshrined "into their mind" and "written in their hearts. " This contrasts with laws inscribed upon tables of stone. Fundamentally, though, it describes the difference between the birth of the flesh and the birth of the spirit. God was the God of Israel after the flesh, and they were His people. Now, unto those who have the law put into their minds and into their hearts, God is their God and they are His people, not of or in the flesh, but of and in the spirit. "For he is not a Jew which is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh: But he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit" (Romans 2:28-29).
Hebrews 8:11 adds to this point, "And they shall not teach every man his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, know the Lord: for all shall know me, from the least to the greatest." Under the first covenant, the children of God had to be taught to "know the Lord." They were physically born into the kingdom of Israel, and as they matured they had to be instructed of this fact, i.e., "know the Lord." But it is not so under the second covenant. Why not? Because one cannot be born in the spiritual house until he has been taught to know the Lord. Jesus said, "It is written in the prophets. And they shall be all taught of God" (John 6:45). Where was it written? It was written in our text, in Jeremiah 31:33-34, and Hebrews 8:10-11. "Every man therefore that hath heard and learned of the Father, cometh unto me." The baby in fleshly Israel was a child of God at birth. As he grew, he was taught to know the Lord. The "newborn babe" in Christ has the law, the gospel, impressed and implanted in his heart and mind. Thus, he has learned of the Father and has come unto Christ.
For this cause, Jesus said, "Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel" (Mark 16:15), and "Go ye therefore and teach" (Matthew 28:19). For this reason, Jesus spoke of "them which shall believe on me through their word" (John 17:20).
Third, it provides the promised forgiveness. The blood that gushed from the altars of Abel and Abraham, the blood that cascaded down the sorrowing slopes of Sinai unto the last lamb of the last temple service, amplified the fact "that the blood of bulls and of goats (could not) take away sins" (Hebrews 10:4). Rivers of blood flowed from the mount of Moses to the preaching of John, but a full, free, final sacrifice had not been made. When our Lord hung His head on the cross of Calvary, when He uttered, "It is finished," the dying stopped, the blood was dried up on the altars of men. And then God could declare, "Their sins and their iniquities will I remember no more." "Neither by the blood of goats and calves, but by his own blood he entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us ... . And for this cause he is the mediator of the new testament, that by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions that were under the first testament, they which are called might receive the promise of eternal inheritance" (Heb. 9:12,15). "Now where remission of sins is, there is no more offering for sin" (Heb. 10:18).
The dying lambs bleat and bleed no more. The suffering Savior poured out His soul unto death. Amid the angelic armies and heavenly hosts, He sits with the scepter of victory, crowned with glory and honor. The binding bars of hades are bent and broken as the "everlasting doors" are opened to receive the "King of glory." At God's right hand, He reigns and rules in unlimited dominion with "angels and authorities and powers being made subject unto him" (I Peter 3:22).
"Having therefore these promises, dearly beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God" (II Corinthians 7:1). "Wherefore we receiving a kingdom which cannot be moved, let us have grace whereby we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear: For our God is a consuming fire" (Hebrews 12:28-29).