Sweetdreams asked a question on a previous post, and after writing up my response I decided I wanted to make it a full blog post.
Jeremiah 31:31-34, is one of the most important in all the prophets as it describes most fully the new covenant. It is an amazing passage in that it describes:
1. The partakers of the covenant. (verse 31)
2. The reason for the covenant. (verse 32)
3. The timing of the covenant (verse 33a)
4. The content of the covenant (verse 33b-34a)
5. The boundary between the last covenant and this one (verse 34b)
But I think the above is not even the best way to look at the wording (though it certainly suffices)
Instead, consider verses 31-32 as one block put in parallel with 33-34. The each indicate:
A. A timing
B. Who the covenant is with
C. How this covenant differs from the last.
D. An indication as to why this new covenant can stand over the last.
In the first chunk we are told:
A. The covenant is in the future.
B. The covenant is with Israel and Judah (“Israel” later stood in metonymy for all nations outside Judah).
C. The covenant will be unlike the first one because it will succeed where the first had failed to produce a godly nation.
D. The new covenant is allowed because Israel and Judah violated the older one.
In the second chunk we are told:
A. The covenant is “when Israel is planted back in the land.”
B. The covenant is with the “whole nation of Israel.”
C. The covenant will be unlike the first in that the laws would be written on the hearts of Israel.
D. The covenant is allowed because God will forgive all the sins Israel and Judah had done prior to it.
This last part is standard fare in the prophets: After Israel/Judah suffers, God forgives them…and then delivers them or proffers a hand of reconciliation. We see the same thing in the Exodus: the Israelites are forgiven for all their past idolatry, which allows God to start anew with a clean slate. The Israelites are never punished for any sins done prior to crossing the Red Sea, when they were “baptized into Moses.”
This has a strong counterpart in Jewish philosophy of Jesus day. When someone converted to Judaism, it was considered their own person crossing of the Jordan/Red Sea and everything about the prior life was blotted out (even to the point that a Gentile converting to a Jew could, in theory, marry those people who were his blood relatives, for the new convert was considered not to have a mother or father). The most common day for such conversions were on Passovers, which has other obvious connections to the crossing from the dead life of Egypt to the new life found in the wilderness with God.
The point of all this is to understand the “For I will forgive their sins and will no longer call to mind the wrong they have done.” It refers to God’s setting aside the sin done by Israel and Judah to allow for the new covenant and a new slate, just as was done in the Exodus, and just as Paul refers to in Romans 3:25 when Paul (already speaking in the past tense) refers to the sins “previously committed.” [In other words, sins committed previous to Christ’s death, the event he refers to. However, just as in the Jewish conversion, this forgiveness would apply on an individual level upon conversion: the sins done by a Christian prior to entering the New Covenant are washed away.]