Covenant of the Heart

March 30 2007 | by

style=width:300px;height:200px;float:right;" >THE IDEA of the covenant was central to the Jewish people’s understanding of their relationship with God. They and God had made a mutually binding commitment to each other. Yahweh would be their God and Israel would be God’s people. Even when the Jewish people broke the stipulations of their covenant, God remained faithful. He promised a new covenant, one written not on stone but on hearts.

We can see the importance of the covenant in the canticle proclaimed by Zechariah to celebrate the birth of his son, John the Baptist. This hymn is found in Luke 1. It is a celebration of God’s fidelity to His people.

Typical of many of the hymns in the Bible, part of the message is contained in its structure. This particular hymn was written in the form called a chiasm. In chiasms, there is an odd number of sections. The first and the last section have things in common, the second and the second last, etc. The most important section is found in the middle. If one breaks Zechariah’s canticle into sections, one notices parallel sections with the use of words like ‘prophets’, ‘father’, ‘enemies’, and ‘salvation’. In the centre of the hymn, one finds the phrase, “God has remembered His holy covenant.”

In other words, all the good news, all the good things that God had done was God’s way of fulfilling the promises He made in His covenant with Israel.

The New Covenant

Jesus continuously proclaimed that the reign of God was at hand. The kingdom was not a place or a particular dynasty, it was that era in which God’s law would reign supreme. People would be righteous and just.

While this phrase does not specifically mention the covenant, it is the promise that the covenant would be lived to its fullest. God would be present and loving, and the people of God would be faithful to their commitments.

The reign of God was initiated in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Covenants in the Old Testament were inaugurated with the shedding of blood. An animal was sacrificed and its blood sprinkled on the people entering into the covenant. The New Covenant, however, was not inaugurated with the shedding of the blood of an animal. It was sealed with the shedding of Jesus’ blood on the Cross.

Jesus implied this when He instituted the Eucharist at the Last Supper. He told His disciples that the cup of wine was really a cup of His blood, the blood of the new covenant.

He was telling them that His death was creating a new relationship between us and God. We were no longer slaves, we were friends and even God’s adopted children. God’s Spirit was breathed into our hearts. That Spirit tells us that God is ‘Abba’, that is, ‘Daddy’. The Eucharist celebrates this new relationship and strengthens the bond between us and God. This covenant is so intimate that God’s flesh and our flesh become one in the sacrament of Jesus’ body and blood.

Fulfilment or replacement ?

What is the relationship between the Old and the New Covenant? There are two different schools of thought on this question.

The first is that the New Covenant is the fulfilment of the Old Covenant. We already saw this in Zechariah’s hymn. We also hear it when Jesus proclaims in the Gospel of Matthew that He came not to abolish the law, but rather to fulfil it. God does not take back His Word. His covenant with Israel was and is always valid, but the New Covenant is an additional gift from God that builds upon the love that God had already shown to Israel in the First Covenant.

The second idea about this relationship between the Old and the New Covenant is that the New Covenant replaced the First Covenant.

We see this idea in the prologue to John’s Gospel when he proclaims that Jesus has given us grace upon grace. The first grace was the Old Covenant and the second grace was the New Covenant. Grace upon grace could theoretically mean that we received one grace and then another one built upon it, or it could mean tons and tons of grace, or it could mean that first there was one grace and then a second grace replaced it. It is obvious that John means the third of these possibilities for he then states that the law came through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus. Furthermore, whenever John mentions a Jewish custom, he then goes on to show how Jesus replaced it with His own person. He is the new paschal lamb, the true bread from heaven, the living water, etc.


Saint Paul’s view

Paul, in his letters to the Galatians and Romans, speaks of the difference between the law and faith. The law was given to us to show us that we were captives to sin. It could not save us, it only condemned us. The love shown us in the death and resurrection of Jesus redeemed us from our former slavery. It brought us freedom. From this contrast, one would think that Paul is arguing that the Old Covenant was dead and that the New Covenant has replaced it.

Yet, that is not quite true. Paul does not equate the law with the covenant. We see this when he speaks of God’s promise to Abraham. He says that the law was added later and it could not negate the free promise that God had made to Abraham. Furthermore, Abraham trusted in that promise, and because of that, he was considered to be righteous. Thus, people of faith who believe in the New Covenant are descendants of Abraham, a man of faith, who believed in the First Covenant.

The author of the Letter to the Hebrews (whom most scholars agree was not Paul) also speaks upon this question. He was writing for a group of Jewish Christians who were at times more Jewish than Christian. The author tells his readers that the Old Covenant was only a foreshadowing of the New Covenant. Now that the New Covenant had been inaugurated in Christ’s blood, it was time to abandon the previous ways and to replace them with the ways of the New Covenant.

We have to be careful how we interpret these passages. There was considerable tension in the era in which these books were written. Christians were in the process of establishing a separate identity from Judaism. There were internal tensions for early Christians often defined who they were in negative terms, saying what they were not as opposed to what they were. There was also an external tension between Jews and Christians, for it was around this time that Christians were expelled from the synagogue. Given all of these dynamics, authors sometimes exaggerated their positions and spoke in terms of opposition.

In recent years, the Church has consistently recognized that many of these statements were grounded in polemics. The Church speaks about the First Covenant being an eternal Covenant. Jesus did not replace it, He fulfilled it.

Already, but not quite yet

And what does the fulfilment of the Covenant produce? We hear in the Letter to the Ephesians that the mercy shown to the Jewish people had now been extended to the Gentiles. They had formerly been excluded from that special relationship with God. Now, through the blood of the Cross, they had become part of God’s Holy people. What had formerly been two people has become one people in Christ.

Now that Jesus had established this new relationship with us, we should live in that love. The Holy Spirit, Who is the down payment of God’s promise to us (for the Holy Spirit reminds us how much God loves us) calls us to live in the dignity of God’s children.

And yet we do commit sins. We reject God’s love and choose selfishness. But God, Who is always faithful to us even when we are not faithful to Him, continues to forgive us.

This is what we call the already but the not yet. We are already experiencing the goodness of the Covenant, but we will only experience it to its fullness in the world to come.

Updated on October 06 2016