Jeremiah 31:31 is one of the most transformative prophecies of the Old Testament: God promised that the covenant with Moses would end. In its place, He would establish a New Covenant.
Much of Jeremiah is very bad news: Judah is going into slavery to be punished for their sins! However, Jeremiah’s message is tempered with the good news that a remnant will return. Jeremiah chapter thirty-one prophesies the restoration of God’s people from their captivity. In verse two God says, “The people who survived the sword found grace in the wilderness.” In verse four, God says, “Again I will build you, and you shall be rebuilt.” In verse 10, Jeremiah writes, “Hear the word of the LORD, O nations, and declare it in the isles afar off, and say, ‘He who scattered Isarel will gather him, and keep him as a shepherd does his flock.’” It is in this context that God reveals that things are going to change. Jeremiah 31:31-34 says:
Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah—not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, though I was a husband to them, says the LORD. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: 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. No more shall every man teach his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them, says the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.
God promised that He would create a New Covenant with the houses of Isarael and Judah. This covenant would not be like the covenant that He gave to Moses. It would not be a covenant for the administration and government of an earthly, physical nation. It would be a spiritual covenant that would exist in the heart and mind of each person who desired a covenant relationship with Him.
Why would God make a change? Moses’ earthly, national covenant had a problem: it did not give them a choice! If one was born an Israelite, then he was in a covenant relationship with God whether he wanted to be or not! Someone had to teach him to “know the LORD” because he did not know Him from birth, and many did not want to know Him! So, many broke their covenant with God.
Under the New Covenant, however, everyone enters a relationship with God when he is “born again” (John 3:5-6). The covenant isn’t forced on anyone; everyone chooses to enter this relationship with God knowingly and willingly. They are not told to “know the LORD,” because they already know Him.
How do they know Him? God says, “For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.” Forgiveness is the key to understanding the prophecy! Forgiveness and the New Covenant are forever connected. Forgiveness means that God will remember their sin no more. What does that mean? Why is it significant?
In Leviticus 16, God spoke to Moses and Aaron about the priesthood’s sins. What did they need to do to expiate those sins? God’s solution was the Day of Atonement. He did not stop at just the priests’ sins. He made provision for all the sins of all the people. At the end of the chapter, God said, “This shall be an everlasting statute for you, to make atonement for the children of Israel, for all their sins, once a year” (Lev. 16:34). They needed sacrifices every year because they sinned every year. The Day of Atonement was a yearly reminder that they were sinners, but the prophecy of Jeremiah said, “their sin I will remember no more.” How could God continue the day of atonement (where sins are remembered every year) yet fulfill Jeremiah’s prophecy? The book of Hebrews answers this question for us.
Hebrews 10:3 says, “But in those sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year” because it was “not possible that the blood of bulls and goats could take away sins” (Heb. 10:4). While animal sacrifices continued, sins were remembered! The only way that sins would be forgiven and forgotten was for an ultimate (last and final) sacrifice to be made that ended the yearly offerings. Then and only then could sins be ultimately forgiven and forgotten, Jeremiah’s prophecy be fulfilled, and the New Covenant begin. Did that happen? If so, when?
When Jesus was communing with His disciples on the eve of His betrayal, arrest, trial, and crucifixion, He created a new memorial. It was not a memorial of sin, but of forgiveness. We know this memorial as the Lord’s Supper. As He was explaining the significance of the fruit of the vine, he said, “For this is My blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins” (Matt. 26:28). Jesus’ connecting the “New Covenant” with “remission of sins” is intentional. He drew on Exodus 24:8 and Jeremiah 31:31-34. Jesus was changing the covenant! He superseded the blood of the covenant that Moses offered with His own blood. This blood would be shed on the cross for the forgiveness of sins once and for all time. Jesus fulfilled Jeremiah’s prophecy and brought in the New Covenant of forgiveness.
Today, God’s covenant with His people is through His Son, Jesus Christ. No other covenant will grant forgiveness of sins. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6). The only way to know the terms and conditions of that covenant is to read the New Testament. It contains everything that one needs to know to enter and sustain a covenant relationship with God through Jesus. It is a covenant of the heart and mind, and when one enters it, his sins are forgiven and forgotten for good. Such is the power of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ: “For by one offering He has perfected forever those who are being sanctified” (Heb. 10:14).