When we examine the clear New Covenant passage in Jeremiah 31:31ff, we see that verses 31 and 32 name Israel and Judah as parties. We see also that it concerns the future (“the days are coming”), and that the NC will supersede in some way the Sinai Covenant. It is crucial to ask what the main promise of this covenant is, which is not difficult to ascertain. The New Covenant in the chapter concerns an internal or spiritual change in the elect of Israel.
I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. – Jer. 31:33b
For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more. – Jer. 31:34c
Because of this inward transformation; this “new birth,” Israel will be right with God, and they shall therefore be qualified to receive the long-standing blessings of the Abrahamic, Priestly, and Davidic Covenants.
So “salvation” is the key ingredient. God will save His people. In Jeremiah 31 His people is Israel. The Gentiles are not mentioned, and neither (naturally) is the Church.
Is Jeremiah 31 the only New Covenant Passage?
If Jeremiah 31 is the only New Covenant passage in the OT then clearly the New Covenant is for Israel alone and it’s a wrap. But who believes this? No one. There are other texts in the OT which have been identified with the New Covenant by all parties. For instance, David Fredrickson (“Which Are the New Covenant Passages in the Old Testament?” – Council on Dispensational Hermeneutics 2019, 34) cites the following: Deut. 30:1-6; Isa. 32:9-20; 59:15b-21; Jer. 32:36:44; Ezek. 16:53-63; 36:22-38; 37:21-28; Joel 2:28–3:8; Zech. 12:6-14. On page 32 he also includes what he says are overlaps between NC texts and Messianic texts. These are Isa. 42:1-7; 49:1-13; 59:15-21; Ezek. 37:21-28.
I am not saying that I agree entirely with these identifications. I think there are more passages that Fredricksen should have included (e.g. are we ready to say that Isa. 53 does not pertain to the NC?). But what his selection highlights is the aspect of spiritual renewal and cleansing, with the Spirit’s role prominent in several places. And if Isaiah 42 and 49 are NC passages, then we find there clear statements that Christ’s redemptive work includes the Gentiles (Isa. 42:1, 6; 49: 6 – these scriptures will be revisited later in this article because I believe they have been largely ignored in the discussion).
Other writers put their fingers on NC words. J. Dwight Pentecost basically agrees with the above passages (minus Deut. 30 which he links to the “Palestinian” Covenant) and adds Isaiah 55:3; 61:8; Hos. 2:18-20; Mic. 7:18-20, and Zech. 9:10 (Thy Kingdom Come, 164-172). Three of those passages allude to Christ.
Again, I believe there are more passages which should be added. But let’s just take a quick look at some of these texts:
The end of Ezekiel 16, particularly verses 60-63, are identified by Fredrickson and Pentecost as New Covenant verses (Fredrickson often gives the verses before a passage). The prophet says,
And I will establish My covenant with you. Then you shall know that I am the LORD, that you may remember and be ashamed, and never open your mouth anymore because of your shame, when I provide you an atonement for all you have done, says the Lord GOD. – Ezek. 16:62-63
The central promise in this prophecy of a future regathering of Israel is the promise of atonement (N.B. in the context the regathering occurs prior to the covenant). None of the other covenants of God promise atonement. But this does match the New Covenant promise in Jeremiah 31:34. If we look at Isaiah 32 what do we find? It begins with a Messianic prediction (should it not therefore be in Fredrickson’s list of “overlaps”?):
Behold, a king will reign in righteousness,
And princes will rule with justice. – Isa. 32:1
Its final verses speak of the coming of the Holy Spirit effecting men and nature, with emphasis placed upon the ubiquity of righteousness (Isa. 32:15f. Cf. Hos. 2:18-20). There is no mention of “covenant” in Isaiah 32 (and I’ll throw Zech. 12 in here ), so what marks it out as a New Covenant chapter? The answer is the work of righteousness brought about by the Holy Spirit. These elements (viz. the Spirit and salvific righteousness) are even more clearly displayed in Isaiah 59:16-21, whose final verse reads:
“As for Me,” says the LORD, “this is My covenant with them: My Spirit who is upon you, and My words which I have put in your mouth, shall not depart from your mouth, nor from the mouth of your descendants, nor from the mouth of your descendants’ descendants,” says the LORD, “from this time and forevermore.” – Isa. 59:21
The New Covenant is all about Salvation
The New Covenant is all about salvation unto righteous standing with God through the renewing work of the Spirit. The Spirit is not always mentioned, but it is clear from several passages that He is the Agent of transformation). This matches the author of Hebrews’ argument about Christ’s New Covenant work:
Not with the blood of goats and calves, but with His own blood He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption. – Heb. 9:12 (cf. Heb. 10:15-18)
Redemption, salvation, the provision of righteousness by the imparting of a new nature by the Spirit; that is what the New Covenant is about. Therefore, it seems to me that one cannot simply restrict ones vision to the salvation of Israel when considering the NC without doing some theology. This seems especially true for several important reasons which we shall need to explore:
- If Isaiah 42 and 49 include NC passages then the Gentiles are spoken of in a New Covenant context.
- If there are passages which refer to God’s salvation reaching out to the Gentiles, and the NC is all about salvation, are we prepared to teach that the Gentiles will be saved by another means than the one God used for Israel?
- If Israel is God’s chosen vessel to witness to the Nations (e.g. Zech. 8:13, 22-23; Mic. 4:2; cf. Gen. 12:3) it seems logical that in testifying about Messiah they will speak of His New Covenant work.
- If there are passages designated by all parties within Dispensationalism as NC passages which refer to the Gentiles, how can the Gentiles not be included in the NC?
Consider these prophecies:
The LORD has made bare His holy arm
In the eyes of all the nations;
And all the ends of the earth shall see
The salvation of our God.
So shall He sprinkle many nations.
Kings shall shut their mouths at Him;
For what had not been told them they shall see,
And what they had not heard they shall consider.
These come from Isaiah 52:10 and 15. Verse 15 comes within the great prophecy about the Suffering Servant which we usually locate in Isaiah 53, but which actually starts in Isaiah 52:13! This appears to bring this famous passage within the list of NC texts. If a person is going to restrict the New Covenant to Israel on the basis of Jeremiah 31:31-34 he is going to have to do a lot of untangling of these kinds of verses. In striving to do this he might just find that he has gotten himself stuck even faster.
Another thought: Just because there are passages which speak about the NC for Israel does not necessarily mean that it should be restricted to Israel. Or does it? There is more work to do.