Pr. Eric Jonas Swensson

September, 2011

photo of Pastor EricPicture this: you are sitting around a table in a church basement. You and everyone came for Bible Study. You have your Bible and hot beverage of choice in front of you. There’s your napkin with a coffee ring on it and a few crumbs of Oatmeal Raisin cookie. The teacher has greeted everyone, passed along the regrets of a few who were considerate enough to say they would not be there that week, and you’ve learned about the members who have had serious prayer concerns. Bible Study then begins after a short prayer.

We are doing a study of the Book of Hebrews and take up today where we left off last week, Chapter eight. “Can somebody read, beginning with verse seven, to the end of the chapter?

You read: A New Covenant

7For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion sought for a second. 8For finding fault with them, He says, “Behold, days are coming, says the lord, when I will effect a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah; 9not like the covenant which I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt; for they did not continue in my covenant, and I did not care for them, says the lord. 10“for this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws into their minds, and I will write them on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 11“And they shall not teach everyone his fellow citizen, and everyone his brother, saying, ‘know the lord,’ for all will know me, from the least to the greatest of them. 12“for I will be merciful to their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.” 13When He said, “A new covenant,” He has made the first obsolete. But whatever is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to disappear.”

“Thank you. So, everyone, does this reading give you any ideas? Any questions?”

Everyone is silent. No one wants to be seen as a know-it-all, of course. The teacher waits for the customary period of silence, not wanting to discourage anyone form saying something, and then asks a prompting question.

“Do any of these words sound familiar?”

Well, of course. Let someone else say it. And someone does:

“The writer is quoting Jeremiah where it says ‘I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts.’”

That’s right. It is the ‘new covenant’ section. Well, can someone tell me what the new Covenant is?”

Silence. Finally, someone says, “We live in the New Covenant, don’t we?

“I guess so. Anyone else? What do you think the New Covenant is?”

“Well, Christians are in the New Covenant, so is it about knowing what to do?”

Another person chimes in, “That’s right. I think the part about not needing to be taught anymore is about the conscience. If you have Christ in your heart, you just sort of know right from wrong and you do the right thing.”

You look at the leader because not only do you not like where this is going, this is not what you were thinking at all. Being a Christian is about being right all the time?

Enough of our imagination. What do you think the New Covenant is all about? The above illustration is a true story that happened recently at a Lutheran congregation. These were not a bunch of young people and it was not a congregation led by liberals. What is going on in cases like this?

It is hard to say. If I imagined myself in a group of Christians who were asking this question, I would say that the mind is a marvelous computer, and when someone asks, “What is the New Covenant?” without needing to be clicked my mind begins to access its memory for previous Bible Studies, lectures, sermons I had heard as well as the Bible itself. I think my first formed thought was something like, “The New Covenant is Jesus, right? Something to do with Jesus.” I thought about the words at the time of Holy Communion. If someone said “It is Jesus living inside of us…” I would be okay with that, but if the talk turned to human behavior and the leader didn’t correct it, I would be troubled. Why?

Anytime we base any part of our understanding about our relationship with God as being ultimately dependent on how we behave, we are in deep, deep trouble. Not only are we by nature prone to misbehave, it is a faulty understanding of the gospel.

Whatever the New Covenant is, it has to be tied to the Gospel. As a Lutheran, to me, that means Law and Gospel, but that only as far as how I stand before God.

That is how I handled the question before us. I waited until everyone had finished and it was apparent that the leader was going to continue. I said, “Excuse me; I think we very recently read a good example of the New Covenant. It was in the recap of the previous lesson. Here look, the end of Chapter Four, “Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” You see, this is a very important. It reminds me of something very important to Martin Luther. You have heard the expression corum deo? It means something like standing in the presence of God. We will all be there before the Judgment Seat one day, but our whole lives are lived in the presence of God. He sees us; He knows us and what is in our hearts. My first thought of that is one of awe and fear, and it is only when I think of Christ and what the Bible teaches about faith in Christ that I am not fearful. And when I think of that coming day and that Jesus will be at God’s right hand that I can have true peace and joy in this day. The New Covenant is forgiveness, and forgiveness on account of what Christ already did. That is what the writer of Hebrews meant when He said, ‘He has made the old obsolete.” Christians have forgiveness, and it means everything. Many have a hard time with this and they add all kinds of restrictions to the Christian life. Many people lead just as good lives as Christians. Our behavior is not what sets us apart. Having confidence in being in good standing is what makes us different, is what makes faith so worthy of telling others about.”

Knowing this makes me feel good about the church, because that is where I learned this as a youth. What troubles me is how few of our members seem to know the Gospel, or at least to be able to give voice to it. We should be, as Hebrews says, mature Christians capable of teaching, but “have need again for someone to teach you.” (Hebrews 5:13).

Picture this: you are standing before the throne of God, guilty as sin, and just as your faith has clung to, Jesus Christ, the pioneer and perfecter, takes off his robe and puts it around your shoulders. His robe of righteousness covers you. You look as though you belong there, and so you do.

Elsewhere in Hebrews (read Chapter 2:11-13) it says “I will proclaim your name” and “I will put my trust in Him.” Oh, that we would become bold and testify to the benefits of the love, mercy and forgiveness of the Lord known in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ. Let the redeemed of the Lord, say so!