Confusion on the Covenants
Jeremiah 31 and the
"One Covenant" Controversy

Jim McDonald

Jeremiah predicted the following in Jeremiah 31:31-34: "Behold, the days come, saith Jehovah, that 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 bring them out of the land of Egypt; which my covenant they brake, although I was a husband unto them, saith Jehovah. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, saith Jehovah: I will put my law in their inward parts, and in their heart will I write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And they shall teach no more every man his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, Know Jehovah; for they shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith Jehovah: for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin will I remember no more."

This prophecy figures prominently in the present controversy of whether there is one continuous (Eternal) covenant from Abraham, through Moses, through the New Covenant of Christ or whether the covenants given to Abraham (Gen. 12;2f); to Israel through Moses (Dt. 5:1-3) and to spiritual Israel through Christ (Heb. 8:7-13) are distinct, separate covenants. Those who hold to "one covenant" argue that the Mosaic Covenant and the New Covenant of Jesus were "renewals" of the Abrahamic Covenant; insisting that the prophecy uttered by Jeremiah actually was fulfilled when the Jews returned from Babylonian exile (circa 536 BC). Hear them:

"Indeed, Jeremiah's famous new (renewed) covenant of 31:31-34, first prophesied in about 593 BC was realized about 60 years later when God's people in the houses of Judah and Israel, to whom the covenant oracle was specifically addressed, returned from Babylonian exile"
(Stanley Paher, The Eternal Covenant, p. 78).

"The New Covenant in Jeremiah 31:31-34 refers to God renewing his covenant first when the Jews came out of Babylonian captivity. To put the law in their hearts refers to Jer. 17:1. God's law would replace the sin in their heart. There is no reference to the Old Law and the New Law"
(Jim Puterbaugh, Tape of "The Covenant", 2-6-'95).

Neither man denies that Jeremiah's prophecy was fulfilled in the death of Christ; each denies that the covenant of Jesus of Hebrews 8:6-13 was the exclusive fulfillment of Jeremiah 31. They rather view the prophecy as a sort of "dual" prophecy, with Hebrews eight being a secondary fulfillment rather than the primary one.

The strong emphasis made by both writers that Jeremiah 31 was fulfilled at the return from Babylonian exile, underscores the significant role the passage plays in their thinking. If the passage points exclusively to the New Covenant of Christ, it indicates both a difference between the two covenants (thus not a continuous one) and, according to the Hebrew writer, a ceasing of one with the commencing of the second (Heb. 8:13). Since both points are denied by advocates of the "One Eternal Covenant" it is imperative that they address Jeremiah 31 and remove the implications that are present if the New Covenant of Jesus is an exclusive fulfillment of Jeremiah 31.

None that I know of disputes the fact that some prophecies were of dual fulfillment. A prophecy of such nature is found in 2 Samuel 7:12-16, God's promise to David to set his heir upon his throne.. This was first fulfilled when Solomon ascended the throne of his father David. It was fulfilled a second time when Christ, after ascending to heaven after his resurrection, sat down at the right hand of God (Acts 2:36).

While it may be granted there are a few instances of dual fulfillment of prophecy, not all prophecies can be so categorized. With many, a prophecy had only one fulfillment. Look at Daniel 2:44. God promised to set up an everlasting kingdom in the days of Roman kings. The confusion and mass error spawned by the Premillennialists exists because they want to make Daniel 2:44 a "postponed" prophecy. Consider Joel 2:28. Joel predicted that in later times God would pour forth His Spirit upon "all flesh". According to Peter, that prophecy was fulfilled at Pentecost in the phenomenon of tongue speaking (Acts 2:16-21). Aside from the era of the first century church, where has that prophecy ever been fulfilled either before or since? Zechariah 6:12-13 is a prophecy concerning a temple which Messiah (the man called the branch) would build. Christ has built one temple (His church, 1 Cor. 3:16). Is the prophecy to be fulfilled again by Jesus building a physical temple in Jerusalem? The Premillennialists think so.

What about Jeremiah 31? Because the Hebrew writer quotes the prophecy in Chapter 8:7-13, applying it to the New Covenant of Jesus, clearly the Jeremiah prophecy was fulfilled in the work of Christ. Who dares to affirm that the Hebrew writer's application of Jeremiah 31 to the work of Jesus was incorrect? To the more important question: "Does Jeremiah 31:31-34 have exclusive reference to the New Covenant of Jesus?" The answer is "Yes," for the following reasons:

  1. The "soil" in which Jeremiah 31:31-34 is found is Messianic. Chapters 30-34 are called by some scholars "The Book of Consolation." Jeremiah's first 29 chapters tell of God's judgment on Israel (Judah) and their exile in Babylon. Chapters 30-33 gives future hope despite the looming shadow of defeat and deportation. Promises are given that would come with "David their king, whom I will raise up unto them" (Jer. 30:8-9). Chapter 31:1 continues the era spoken of in chapter 30 viz.: "the days of David their king" in saying "at that time." Further, chapter 31:38-39 tells that "the city" of the promised New Covenant would never be plucked up nor thrown down anymore, obviously a Messianic prophecy for physical Jerusalem has been plucked up and thrown down several times since Jews returned from Babylonian exile. At the close of this "book of consolation" the prophet wrote: "In those days and at that time, will I cause the Branch of righteousness unto David, and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days shall Judah be saved, and Jerusalem shall dwell securely..." (Jer. 33:15-16a). The section in which Jeremiah 31:31-34 is found is Messianic and the promises that the seed of David should be their ruler and that Jerusalem should never be plucked up demands that such prediction have exclusive reference to the work and covenant of Jesus. Since the context is Messianic, there is good reason to understand that the promised "New covenant" is Messianic as well.

  2. The heart of Hebrews (chapters 7-10) repeatedly shows contrast and distinction between two covenants, not "unity" and "continuity," as some "one covenant" advocates allege. The priesthood has changed necessitating a change of law (Hb. 7:12). Christ is the surety and mediator of a better covenant, enacted upon better promises (Hb. 7:22; 8:6). He is the mediator of a New Covenant in which His death took place for the redemption of transgressions of those who were under the first (Hb. 9:15). The first covenant was dedicated with animal blood but the second was dedicated with the blood of God's Lamb, His Son (Hb. 9:18-20). Had the first covenant been faultless, no place would have been sought for the second (Hb. 8:7). The fact that he said "New" made the first "old," nigh unto vanishing away (Hb. 8:13). Christ "took" away the first, that he might establish the second (Hb. 10:9f). In all these passages the context admits of two, distinct covenants; not one covenant renewed first at Sinai and then again at Calgary. There is no indication by the writer that the New Covenant of Jeremiah 31 was first fulfilled in 536 BC nor that the New Covenant of Jeremiah had reference to anything other than the covenant Jesus made and gave.

  3. If Jeremiah 31 was fulfilled at the return from Babylonian exile, where is any record of such? The Covenant God made with Abraham is recorded, as is the covenant God made with Israel through Moses and the covenant God made with mankind through Jesus Christ. None of the post-exilic books (Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Haggai, Zachariah, Malachi) give the slightest hint that Israel was then under a new covenant given after the return from the exile. To the contrary they speak of obeying the covenant given through Moses (Ezra 10:2f).

  4. One of the promises of the New Covenant of Jeremiah 31 was "their iniquity and their sins will I remember no more." The Hebrew writer said: "For the law having a shadow the good things to come, not the very image of the things, can never with the same sacrifices year by year, which they offer continually, make perfect them that draw nigh. Else would they not have ceased to be offered? because the worshipers, having been once cleansed, would have had no more consciousness of sins. But in those sacrifices there is a remembrance made of sins year by year" (Heb. 10:1-3). The Hebrew writer states two significant things: (1) There was a consciousness on the part of the sinner of his past sins, which would not have been had they been fully cleansed. (2) There was a remembrance of sins each year. And, this consciousness of sins and remembrance of sins continued until the perfect sacrifice was offered. Because there was remembrance of sins year by year and when the "new Covenant" of Jeremiah 31 was given their sins would be remembered no more, it must necessarily follow that the New Covenant of Jeremiah 31 had not been given between the return from the exile and the birth of Jesus Christ.

  5. There was continual offering for sin from the returnees from exile until the sacrifice of Christ, something that would cease once the New Covenant of Jeremiah was in place. "And their sins and their iniquities will I remember no more. Now where remission of these is, there is no more offering for sin" (Heb. 10:17, 18). The very fact that there was still the offering for sins until the sacrifice of Christ tells us that the promise "their sins and their iniquity will I remember no more" had not been fulfilled. If it had been, not only would no more sacrifices have been offered, but the sacrifice of Christ would have been unnecessary as well.

Part of the reason why great efforts are made to prove that the prophecy of Jeremiah 31:31-34 was fulfilled at the time of the return from Babylonian Exile can be seen from this statement: "...To put the law in their hearts refers to Jeremiah 17:1. God's law would replace the sin in their heart. There is no reference to the Old Law and the New Law (my emphasis, jm)" (Tape: "The Covenant," Jim Puterbaugh). According to the "one-covenant" theory, there was no contrast between an old law and a new law; no removing of an old law by the giving of a new one for, to them, a covenant is not law, although it may have law. It is most needful, to sustain their theory, that when God promised "I will put my law into their hearts" He only referred to an existent law; not a different one. Yet, Hebrews 7:12 specifically states that a new priesthood demanded that the law be changed. Contrary to their contentions, "covenant" and "law" are used synonymously. "And he declared unto you his covenant, which he commanded you to perform, even the ten commandments (my emphasis, jm); and he wrote them upon two tables of stone" (Dt. 4:13). "And there have I set a place for the ark, wherein is the covenant of Jehovah, which he made with our fathers, when he brought them out of the land of Egypt" (1 Kings 8:21). Hilkiah the high priest said "I have found the book of the law in the house of Jehovah" yet in their ears were read all "the words of the book of the covenant which was found in the house of Jehovah" (2 Kngs. 22:8; 23:2). These passages show that the covenant is called "law" and the law is called "covenant". Yes, a covenant includes a relationship but it may include more than that; it may include law. To confine a covenant solely to a relationship is to fall into the same error as the Calvinists who insist we are saved by faith only. We are saved by faith, but not faith only. And while a covenant includes a relationship, there is often more to a covenant that relationship; oftentimes it is law as it was with the Old Covenant and as it is with the New.

It is interesting to note that Hebrews 9:15 says: "And for this cause he is the mediator of a new covenant, that a death having taken place for the redemption of the transgressions that were under the first covenant, they that have been called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance" and that Hebrews 12:24 tells that we are come " Jesus the mediator of a new covenant." Both passages mention a "new covenant" but while in both instances the word covenant is the same Greek word (diatheke); the word "new" (which modifies "covenant") is not the same Greek word. The word "new" in Hebrews 9:15 is kainos which "denotes new, of that which is unaccustomed or unused, not new in time, recent, but new as to form or quality, of different nature from what is contrasted as old.." (W. E. Vines, Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, Vol. III, p. 109). The word "new" in Hebrews 12:24 is neos which "signifies new in respect of time, that which is recent it is used of the young..." (IBID., Vol. III, p. 110). Mr. Vines makes this comment on the use of these two different words to modify "covenant." "The New Covenant in Heb. 12:24 is new (neos) compared with the Mosaic, nearly fifteen hundred years before; it is new (kainos) compared with the Mosaic, which is old in character, ineffective,..." (IBID., Vol. III, p. 110). The New Covenant of Jesus is different from the Old Covenant given by Moses in both time and character.

Contact this author at: Jim McDonald ~ P.O. Box 155032 ~ Lufkin, Texas 75915-5032

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