When a Canaanite woman asked Jesus to help her demon-possessed daughter (an account worth considering in its entirety, which we will not presently do), He made a very important statement in response. It is a statement which must be understood in light of God’s plan of redemption that was yet unfolding. He responded, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Mt.15:24). The ministry of Jesus during His incarnate stay on earth, though eventually to impact all people, was an extension of God’s promise to bless the nation brought into existence through Abram in preparation of blessing “all the families of the earth” (Ge.12:3).
The Old Testament narrative is largely an account of God’s effort to fulfill His promise to Abram. Though this might sound simple (“All He has to do is pour out blessing”), to bless a people in a wise and righteous manner is conditional. Reading Deuteronomy 27 and 28 in light of this idea helps us appreciate this challenge. The blessing God intended to provide, thus fulfilling His promise, was often withheld due to the character and conduct of the people. God was dealing with real, live moral agents. This is a point worth understanding in our present phase of redemptive history as well. Blessing is conditional.
What we often refer to as the Old Covenant is a phase in the unfolding plan of redemption that was moving from external to internal. The external expressions of God’s design and desire for human beings and their relationship with Him and with one another were preparatory stages working toward a greater fulfillment. The truth and reality “shadowed” in such stages were not to be abolished but to be fulfilled. When dealing with moral agents (human beings that think and feel and choose), such realities are not simply caused to exist, they must be developed.
Keeping in mind the points previously established, consider what God speaks to the nation of Israel at a point when their character and conduct led to their exile and captivity, delaying the outpouring of blessing God would have provided. He clarifies why He is doing what He is doing and indicates what He will eventually do when He fulfills His promise.
“‘I will vindicate the holiness of My great name which has been profaned among the nations, which you have profaned in their midst. Then the nations will know that I am the LORD,’ declares the Lord GOD, ‘when I prove Myself holy among you in their sight. For I will take you from the nations, gather you from all the lands and bring you into your own land. Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances.'” (Eze.36:23-27)
The latter portion of this passage reflects the New Covenant. There are a few points worth highlighting.
- God’s intention is that all people know Him (“…the nations will know that I am the LORD…”)
- He is aiming to cleanse them from sin and idolatry (“…I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols”).
- God intended to re-establish “the law” (truth about God’s design for moral agents) within us eliminating (or reducing) the need for the external declaration. His reference to a “heart of stone” alludes to the 10 commandments written on external, stone tablets.
- A major goal in the New Covenant arrangement is that He will put the Holy Spirit within us.
An essential difference between the Old and New Covenant is the move from external to internal. In a strange way, we can say that once moving from external to internal, we are to, consequently, produce external results as a manifestation of our internal transformation. Interestingly, referring back to Matthew 15 in which Jesus revealed He was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, He previously emphasized to the Pharisees and scribes that “…the things that proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and those defile the man. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, slanders. These are the things which defile the man; but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile the man” (Mt.15:18-20).
Read and reflect on the words given to the prophet Jeremiah in this regard, which is later quoted by the writer of Hebrews (He.8:8-10; 10:15-18).
“‘Behold, days are coming,’ declares the LORD, ‘when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,’ declares the LORD. ‘But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,’ declares the LORD, ‘I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. They will not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,’ declares the LORD, ‘for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more'” (Jer.31:31-34).
There are four points I wish to make in closing. First, the new covenant God is making is with “the house of Israel” (remember, Jesus came to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel”). Technically, God never made a covenant with “the church.” The church is a term used to identify the people of God, including all who have been “grafted” into the fulfillment of His promise to Abram (Ro.11). Second, God is aiming to make Himself known, to have a people in whose presence He can dwell as they dwell in His presence. Third, this promise made to Abram and fulfilled in relation to the nation of Israel was for the benefit and blessing of all people, everywhere, forever. Fourth, the internal presence of the Holy Spirit is central to the fulfillment of a great measure of God’s agenda.