On the first two Sunday evenings in December we’ve been reading the Christmas story together. And as part of the carol service this evening, we’ll have readings about the Christmas story. When we read the Christmas story, we read, first of all, about the announcement to Elizabeth that she would give birth to John the Baptist. And then we read about the announcement to Mary that she would conceive a child by the Holy Spirit and give birth to the Son of the Most High God and the announcement to Joseph that Mary’s child should be called Jesus — which means ‘God saves’ — because he will save his people from their sins. And then we read about the journey to Bethlehem and the birth of the Lord Jesus who was wrapped in clothes and laid in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. And then the angel appeared to the shepherds and announced to them good news of great joy for all the people because the Saviour had been born. And a great company of the heavenly host appeared and praised God saying: ‘Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to men on whom his favour rests.’ And after the angels departed, the shepherds went to see the Saviour who had been born. And then, soon afterwards, Mary and Joseph took the Lord Jesus to the temple to present him to the Lord in accordance with the law of the Lord. And Simeon took the Lord Jesus in his arms and began to praise God because at long last he has seen the Saviour. And then, in the last part of the Christmas story, we read of those wise men from the East who followed the star which appeared in the sky as a sign that a new king had been born.
We’re all familiar with the Christmas story and how the Eternal Son of God came down to earth as one of us to be our Great King and Saviour. And he calls on everyone to turn from their sins in repentance and to trust in him for forgiveness and eternal life. But what I want to do this morning and next weekend is to pick up on something I said recently on Sunday evening. We’ve been studying the Old Testament books of Haggai and Zechariah. Haggai and Zechariah were prophets who were sent by the Lord to preach to his people who had returned from exile to Jerusalem. Remember? Because of their sin and rebellion over many generations, the Lord sent his people out of the Promised Land and into the land of Babylon. And they remained there for around 70 years. But afterwards, the Lord had mercy on them and he brought them back to the Promised Land. But after their return, their life was still hard and difficult. And so, the Lord sent Haggai and Zechariah to preach to his despondent people and to encourage them with promises of what he would do for them and what he would do for his people in the future.
And I made the point one evening that there’s a sense in which the Old Testament is an incomplete book. It’s an incomplete book because in those parts of the Old Testament which deal with the history of God’s people, we read about certain things such as the covenant God made with his people; and the kings God gave to his people; and the temple he commanded them to build; and, of course, we read about the earth he created. However, because of our sin, all of those things are spoiled in one way or another. So, the people broke the covenant. And the kings were sinful and did what was wrong. And during the exile the temple was destroyed. And the whole of creation was ruined because of our sin. So, all of those good things have been spoiled by sin.
But then, in other parts of the Old Testament, and especially in the prophets, we read about a new and better covenant; and we read about a new and better king; and we read about a new and better temple; and we read about a new and better creation.
So, the Old Testament tells us about certain things which have been spoiled. And the Old Testament also tells us of better things to come. And when the Old Testament comes to an end, none of those better things have happened. And they haven’t happened because all of those promises about better things to come depend for their fulfilment on the coming of the Lord Jesus. He’s the one who established the new covenant. He’s the one who is the new king. He’s the one who is building a new temple. And whoever believes in him belongs to God’s new creation. And so, that’s what we’re going to be thinking about this morning and next weekend. God’s promises of a new covenant and a new king and a new temple and a new creation are fulfilled because of Christ our Saviour who was born in Bethlehem. And today the focus is on the new covenant.
Covenants of Works and Grace
Many of you will know that a covenant is a relationship based on a promise. So, when two people are married in church, the groom says that he ‘promises and covenants to be’ a loving, faithful and dutiful husband; and the bride says that she ‘promises and covenants to be’ a loving, faithful and dutiful wife. And having made promises to one another, they enter into a new relationship with one another as husband and wife. So, a covenant is a relationship based on a promise.
In the Garden of Eden, before the fall, God entered into a relationship with Adam in which he promised to give Adam and all his descendants eternal life in the presence of God in glory so long as Adam obeyed God. While the word ‘covenant’ does not appear in the early chapters of Genesis, the arrangement God made with Adam has all the characteristics of a covenant. And the theologians call this arrangement the Covenant of Works, because whether Adam received eternal life or not depended on whether he obeyed God or not. And, as you know, Adam disobeyed God and he ate the forbidden fruit and therefore Adam forfeited the right to eat from the Tree of Life and to live forever in God’s presence in glory; and instead death came into the world. And since that covenant was made with Adam and all his descendants — descended from him in the ordinary manner — then all of us are affected by Adam’s disobedience and we are now born in a state of sin and misery. It’s a state of sin because by nature we’re guilty sinners who sin naturally. And it’s a state of misery because by nature we’re under the wrath and curse of God and we’re justly liable to all miseries in this life and to death and to eternal punishment in hell.
However God, being gracious and merciful, did not leave us in that state of sin and misery, but he made the covenant of grace by which he promises to deliver his people from their sin and misery and to bring them into a state of salvation by a Redeemer or by a Saviour, who is none other than Jesus Christ. God first announced this covenant in the Garden of Eden after Adam’s fall when he promised that the seed of the woman would crush the seed of the serpent, who was really the Devil in disguise. By that announcement, God was promising that Jesus Christ, who was descended from Eve, would come into the world to destroy the works of Satan and he would set his people free from their sin and misery so that they could enjoy eternal life in the presence of God in glory. And all the other covenants which we read about in the Old Testament relate in one way or another to this covenant of grace.
So, there’s the covenant God made in the days of Noah with the whole of creation not to destroy the world with a flood. And so he promised to preserve the world so that, in time, the Saviour could come to save God’s people. There’s the covenant he made with Abraham that Abraham’s descendants would be like the stars in the sky and like the sand on the seashore, because they would be too many to count. And God would give them a land of their own to live in. And then there’s the covenant God made with the Israelites in the days of Moses to be their God and to give them the Promised Land. Then there’s the covenant he made with David that there would be a king who will rule forever.
After Adam broke the Covenant of Works, all the other covenants God made with his people in Old Testament times are related in one way or another to the covenant of grace in which God promises to deliver his people from their sin and misery by his Son, because his Son is the promised Saviour and King; and all who share Abraham’s faith are regarded as Abraham’s spiritual descendants; and God promises to give them eternal life in the Promised Land to come in the new heavens and earth.
Covenant at Sinai
Let me focus for a few minutes on the covenant God made with the Israelites in the days of Moses. God had delivered his people from their captivity in Egypt, when he sent the ten plagues against the Egyptians and when he opened up the way for his people through the Red Sea and when he fed them with manna and quail and provided them with water from the rock. And then he brought them to Mount Sinai. And all the people assembled at the bottom of the mountain and a thick cloud covered the mountain and there was a loud trumpet blast and there was smoke and fire and the whole mountain trembled as did the people because they were so afraid. God was coming down from heaven to the top of the mountain. And God called Moses to come up to him. And when Moses entered the presence of God, God made clear his intention to establish a covenant with his people. He promised to be their God and to treat them like his treasured possession which he would always protect. And he would make them into a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. They would therefore belong to him as his special people. In return they promised to obey him fully and to do all that he had commanded them. And he therefore gave them his law to keep, including the Ten Commandments which summarised the whole of his law and which emphasised how they were to love him and how they were to love one another. And he warned them that if they disobeyed him, he would send curses upon them so that they would suffer. But these curses were a sign of his mercy, because he would send the curses on them so that they would realise their sin and turn to him for forgiveness. And if they obeyed him, and walked in his ways, he would bless them and fill their lives with good things to enjoy.
And keeping his laws should not have been a burden for them, because hadn’t God already rescued them from their captivity and hadn’t he already shown them his care and hadn’t he promised to do them good and hadn’t he promised to lead them to the Promised Land, an Eden-like land flowing with milk and honey and filled with good things? The God who commanded them to keep his laws was not a tyrant, but he was gracious and kind and good and he had demonstrated already that he was their Saviour. And among the laws they were to keep, were all the laws about sacrifices and offerings which they could offer to God to receive his forgiveness when they did what was wrong.
And when the people heard the terms of the covenant — all the things they were to do, and all the things God promised to do for them — they gladly agreed to enter into this covenant with God and they promised to do all that he had said.
But you know what happened next, don’t you? Although the people agreed to do all that God promised, they kept breaking the terms of the covenant. They kept disobeying God. In fact, do you remember what the people did when Moses was still on the mountain with the Lord? Down below the people took their gold jewellery and they made it into an idol, a golden calf. And they bowed down and worshipped that idol, instead of worshipping the Lord their God who had rescued them from Egypt. And when Moses saw what they had done, he took the stone tablets on which God had written the Ten Commandments and he smashed them on the ground to signify how the people had already broken the covenant. And over the years, the people continued to break the covenant by their disobedience and by not worshipping the Lord their God and by worshipping false gods and idols. And when they sinned against God, they did not offer him the right sacrifices to receive his forgiveness. And so it went on, year after year. God sent them his prophets to remind them of his will and to call on them to repent. But they would not listen. And so, because they did not listen and continued in their sin and rebellion, he did all that he warned he would do and he sent them out of the Promised Land and into the land of Babylon. He sent them away from his presence and into exile to a far off land.
Even though God’s people were unfaithful to him and they broke the covenant he had made with them, he remained faithful to them. He continued to send them his prophets to declare his word to them and to fill them with hope of better days to come. And among those prophets were Jeremiah and Ezekiel. Listen again to what Jeremiah said in Jeremiah 31:
“The time is coming,” declares the Lord , “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them, ” declares the Lord. “This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time,” declares the Lord . “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord ,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the Lord . “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”
And now listen to part of Ezekiel 36:
26 And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.
Through the prophet Jeremiah the Lord promised to make a new covenant with his people. A new covenant was necessary because they broke the old covenant, the one God made with them at Mount Sinai in the days of Moses. And so, in Jeremiah 31 the Lord promised to make with his people a new and better covenant.
And this new covenant was better because it was written, not on stone tablets, but it was written on their hearts so that they would know his will. And what’s more, this new covenant was better because the Lord not only promised to write the law on their hearts, but he promised to give them a new heart so that they will love him and will want to obey him. And there’s more, because this new covenant was better because the Lord not only promised to write the law on their hearts, and to give them a new heart to obey him, but he also promised to give them the Holy Spirit to help them. The Holy Spirit living inside them would remind them of God’s will and he would help them to do God’s will. And this new covenant was better because as well as writing the law on their hearts, and as well as giving them a new heart to obey him, and as well as giving them the Holy Spirit to help them, the Lord also promised to forgive them when they disobeyed his law. He promised: ‘I will remember their sin no more.’ Under the terms of the old covenant, the one he made with them in the days of Moses, God commanded them to offer animal sacrifices whenever they did wrong. However, everyone knew that the blood of bulls and goats could not really take away the guilt of their sin. The blood of an animal could not really make up for what they had done wrong. In fact, those sacrifices were only a reminder to them that they were sinners who needed forgiveness from God. But under the terms of this new covenant, God promised that he would forgive them completely for what they had done wrong. He would forgive them completely so that he would remember their sins no more and he would never ever bring them up and never ever demand any further payment from them for what they had done wrong. And so, in every way, the new covenant was to be so much better than the old covenant.
That was God’s promise to his people who were in exile because of their sins. God promised that one day he would make a new covenant with them which was so much better than the old one which he made with them in the days of Moses. But when would this new covenant take effect? When would it begin? This is where we turn to the New Testament and to the good news about Jesus Christ, because on the night he was betrayed, the Lord Jesus was eating the Passover meal with his disciples. And during the meal, he took a cup of wine and he said to his disciples:
This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.
By those words he was announcing to his disciples that the new covenant which God has promised in the days of Jeremiah had come. It had arrived. God’s promise was about to be fulfilled. And from that time on, the Lord will write his law, not on stone tablets, but on the hearts of his people so that they will know his will. And from that time on, the Lord will give his people a new heart so that they will love him and want to obey him. And from that time on, the Lord will give his people the Holy Spirit to help them to do his will. And from that time on, the Lord will give his people forgiveness, because he promises to remember our sins no more. And he’s able to forgive us our sins and all our shortcomings and to remember them no more because of Christ, who paid for our sins with his life and who shed his blood on the cross to cleanse us. And not only does he forgive us our sins, but he promises to give all who believe in his Son the hope of everlasting life so that we can look forward to enjoying eternal life in the presence of God in the glory to come.
When we read the story of the Saviour’s birth, when we remember the story of the angels and shepherds and wise men, we should think about how Christ the Saviour makes everything better for us. Though all of us were sinners by birth, and liable to eternal punishment, nevertheless through faith in Christ the Saviour God writes his law on our hearts, hearts that have been renewed so that we can now love God. And he gives us his Spirit to help us to walk in his ways and to do his will here on earth. And he gives us the assurance of sins forgiven so that when we sin — as we surely will because we remain sinners — nevertheless God promises to pardon our sins and to remember them no more. Other people have long memories and they bring up our sins and shortcomings from the past. They remind us of our faults and failures. But God promises to remember them no more, because Christ paid for our sins in full when he gave up his life on the cross and shed his blood to cleanse us.
And so, if you believe in the Saviour, if you’re trusting in him, then you can rejoice, because God has forgiven you for the sake of Christ the Saviour. And if you ever doubt it, remember that this is what God has promised to do for you and for all who believe in his Son. This is what he has promised and covenanted to do for you. He has bound himself with an oath to remember your sins no more and to give you everlasting life in his presence.