Someone asked, “We know that the new covenant brought an end to various old covenant rituals. But what is the new covenant itself? Can you put the new covenant in a nutshell?
Good question — and I will respond in a nutshell. Then I will expand it, because the central truth can be developed in many ways as we study this in the Bible.
In simple terms, a covenant is an agreement between two parties. It can be an agreement between a husband and wife, a friendship pact between two people, an alliance between two nations, or an agreement between God and humans. The new covenant is an agreement between God and humans. God sets the terms, he makes the offer, and we respond to it with either cooperation or resistance.
How can we have a relationship with God? How can we become his friends? How can we become citizens of his holy nation? Sinful humans aren’t in a position to make deals with their Creator. As sinners, we are alienated from him, estranged from him. Sin and corruption cannot enjoy his presence. But because he is good, because he loves us, God has acted decisively to end our alienation and restore us to his household.
God sets the terms
God is the one who sets the terms of this relationship. He tells us in advance what he will do. He calls the shots, and makes us free to respond to his terms.
The terms God has set are these: Jesus died for our sins. In a financial metaphor, he has paid for them. There is no more debt. We have been forgiven. Our works cannot add anything to it. God has in Christ acted unilaterally, reconciling all things to himself (Colossians 1:20).
At its core, the new covenant is Jesus Christ. He embodies everything the new covenant is. He is the Word of God and the Son of God, made human for us. He is the Message of God, the Mind of God, the Meaning of God, made flesh for us to see and know and love. In himself, he enables us to be friends with God. In Jesus Christ, God has given us a new basis for our relationship with God. This is the covenant God has given; we respond to Christ with either yes or no.
You might ask, How can Jesus — a person — be an agreement? In a prophecy about Christ, Isaiah 42:6 says that the Messiah, or Christ, would be made a covenant. The Bible calls Jesus a mediator, a go-between. A mediator’s purpose is to get two parties to relate positively to each other. His work is what causes the barriers to come down and the relationship to bear positive fruit. Jesus was the greatest diplomat, the brilliant negotiator of the greatest covenant, or agreement, in human history. Jesus could do that because he was both God and human. He was not only able to represent both parties, he was able to be both parties. As God, he did what only God could do: forgive us. As a human, he did what humanity was supposed to do: respond perfectly. Just as his death counts for all humanity, so does his perfect response.
How does Jesus accomplish this? Romans 5:8-10 puts it like this: Christ died for us, and because of his death we are now justified before God, saved from any fears of punishment and reconciled to God as one of his dearly loved children. Through the death and life of Christ, God has provided the one and only means by which we can be the faithful and loving friends and children he created us to be.
How should we respond to what Jesus has done? We should turn away from self-reliance and put our confidence completely in Christ to wash us clean of sin, clothe us with righteousness and bring us into the family, the household, the kingdom of God. One way to describe it is that we quit doing things the devil’s way (relying on self) and do things God’s way. We stop building our own kingdom and accept the kingdom he has built for us. We accept the covenant-promise he has given us. That is how we can be in harmony and allegiance with him.
Different ways to describe it
Let’s look at some additional aspects of this wonderful gift of our loving Father. Paul says that Christ died for us; he also says that Christ died for our sins (Romans 4:25). Although he was innocent, he suffered the consequences of our sins. In some ways this is a very simple concept, but there are very complex ideas under the surface — see Galatians 3:13 or 2 Corinthians 5:21 for two examples.
The term “justified” was sometimes used in a courtroom. In the courtroom of heaven, God declares us justified, or not guilty, because of what Christ has done for us. When Paul says that we are reconciled, he is referring to a relationship that has gone from hostility to friendship.
Paul also uses language from the slave market to say that we have been bought at a price (Christ himself being that price) so that we may now serve our new Master. Other biblical images include those of being cleansed, of being newly created, of being born again, of being adopted. Each of these ideas helps us see different aspects of the central picture: that we are able to have a good relationship with God because Jesus Christ died for us and was raised again.
Jesus Christ is the basis of the new covenant, the bond of friendship that God has given us. We can accept this or reject it. Because he loves us with indescribable love, he urges us to accept it — to put our faith, our trust, in Jesus Christ—to trust him with our lives, and to accept him as our only means of salvation.
All this is a gift—it is not something we could ever earn. If we look at what we deserve, we deserve to be alienated from God and therefore separated from the joy of knowing him and participating in his eternal blessings. But the good news is that we don’t have to be alienated—Christ has already reconciled us. We can live forever enjoying harmony with God because of Jesus Christ, because of what he did for us in his death and resurrection.
Our salvation — being rescued from destruction and restored as favored friends and children of God — depends entirely on Jesus Christ. He is the basis of this great rescue. Accepting him is the one requirement that God makes as the basis of this magnificent agreement we call the new covenant.
Accepting Jesus is not a work that we perform in order to meet the conditions of the contract, so to speak—it is simply an intrinsic part of enjoying what God is giving us. In one respect, we have already been brought into a new relationship with God—our choice is whether to enjoy it, or resist it. When we enjoy a beautiful sunset, our joy has nothing to do with our skill, and we certainly have not earned the joy—that is simply the appropriate response.
If we believe the good news and trust in Jesus, then we are experiencing a right relationship with God (and all the responsibilities and privileges that go with that right relationship). Jesus Christ is the core of the new covenant. That is why he must always be the center of our church, our preaching, our proclamation and our personal lives.
Entering the kingdom
Another way to talk about our relationship with God is to use kingdom terminology. The good news of the kingdom of God is that we are qualified to the kingdom through Jesus Christ (Colossians 1:12-13). Without him, we are disqualified. But he is qualified, because he is the Son of God, and he has united himself to us. By becoming one of us, taking our sins on himself, dying in our place and being raised to glory, he has perfected us and taken us up into himself. Because we are now, as believers, united with him, we are qualified to be in his kingdom.
Jesus is the door, the key and the true path to the kingdom of God. The good news is that God has qualified humans to enter his kingdom in Jesus Christ. We cannot qualify on our own, no matter how good we are. Nor does “being good” maintain our salvation. Salvation is a free gift, from start to finish.
The Bible uses many ways to describe the same thing. Being in the kingdom is the same as being adopted as children of God. It is the same as being born again as his children. It is the same as being redeemed from death. It is the same as being washed by the blood of the Lamb, or justified by his death. All these phrases are about the gift of a right relationship with God, and in all of them, Jesus Christ is the key, the focus. The “new covenant” is simply another way of talking about the same thing.
Jesus preached about the kingdom — a kingdom we are invited to enter in this life. The apostles, however, preached primarily about salvation through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. These are not two different messages. The apostles were not misrepresenting the message of the Master. Rather, the apostles were inspired to explain the message of the kingdom of God in different ways. The kingdom is not good news unless we can be part of it. The gospel is a message about how humans receive intimate loving fellowship with God, how they enter his kingdom—something that is made possible only by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The new covenant is, to use another nutshell, the gospel of salvation. It describes how we have been saved from sin and death so we can live forever in a loving relationship with God through the saving work of Jesus Christ for us. We always keep coming back to the center-point, Jesus Christ. He is God himself, who has offered himself to us. If we want eternal life with God, it must be through Jesus Christ.
At its core, the new covenant is the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is the message of salvation by grace through faith in him. That is why it is important for us to understand it and teach it. It is the basis of our eternal life!
That is why we emphasize Jesus Christ. That is why we emphasize faith and grace. That is why we emphasize the new covenant, the gospel and eternal life. All these are bound up with each other. The gospel tells us that we can live forever with God—not because of good things we have done—but because of what Jesus Christ did for us. God gives us this amnesty, forgiveness, and a new and wonderfully good relationship with him. He tells us that he has accepted us, and urges us to believe this message of his goodness and put our confidence in what he has done for our salvation.
When Jesus announced a new covenant in his own blood (Luke 22:20), he was announcing something dramatically new! Never before had God made a covenant using human blood. The previous covenants had used animal blood. God did not allow human sacrifices. Jesus was not announcing a renewal of the old covenant, or a slight revision. Instead, it was a completely new covenant, made in a way forbidden by the old covenant! Simply in making the new covenant, Jesus was announcing the fact that the old covenant no longer applied.
The new covenant has different blood, a different basis, and it presents a different basis of relationship between God and humans. The new basis is Jesus himself and his blood. Jesus did what we could not do, and he sacrificed himself for us as a gift, as grace. To enjoy the new covenant, we admit that we can’t earn our way into God’s presence — we will never be good enough — but we instead rely on his mercy.
In summary, the new covenant is the relationship we have with God, made possible by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ — a relationship based on faith and grace rather than on works of the law.
Friends, I am deeply thankful that Christ has helped us come to know him and love him more deeply. I am awed by his mercy; I praise him for his greatness. I celebrate his birth into humility, his death for me on a shameful cross, and his resurrection into glory.
Saul of Tarsus thought he knew God and what God wanted him to do. Then he met Jesus, and from Jesus he received a chance to see again. From then on, he was a Christ-centered man. He resolved to know Christ and to preach Christ. O, that we might do the same!