In my last post, we briefly examined Jesus’ interaction with Nicodemas as recorded in John 3. It’s likely that the background for this passage, in which Jesus explicitly states to Nicodemas that everyone “must be born again” to enter the kingdom of God, comes from Ezekiel 36:25-27
“25 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you.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.”
Most commentators write, and I agree with them, that Jesus is expecting Nicodemas, who is a Jewish leader, to know his Old Testament and be familiar with the concept of rebirth or regeneration as described in Ezekiel’s passage above. To the contrary, Nicodemas’ confusion is evident, whether it is of a genuine or sarcastic nature it is clear that he does not understand how a man can be born again (John 3:4).
The passage from Ezekiel defines much of what is called the New Covenant. A simplistic, though not comprehensive, way to think of the Bible’s covenantal structure is Old Covenant (Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic) = Old Testament, operating largely in types and shadows pointing toward the reality of the coming Messiah and the New Covenant = New Testament, legally inaugurated with the shed blood of Christ on the cross. This does not mean that New Covenant benefits were absent during the Old Testament, just as shown above with the New Covenant language in Ezekiel. There is even more explicit language of the New Covenant found in Jeremiah 31:31-34:
31 “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah,32 not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord.33 For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.34 And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”
Here we see similar language conveyed as that in Ezekiel, only this time we see the term “New Covenant” explicitly used. While the background for regeneration in John 3 most likely comes from Ezekiel (due to some similar themes carried forward by John) we can really examine both of these Old Testament New Covenant passages together to see what the component promises of this covenant are. It may help to know that the context for Ezekiel and Jeremiah are really similar. Jeremiah is writing from Jerusalem to those who remained in the city after the various stages of exile (605 B.C., 597 B.C., 586 B.C.) implemented under the direction of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon. Ezekiel, a contemporary of Jeremiah, is among the exiles in Babylon (597 B.C. ). As a side note, During the first siege on Jerusalem (605 B.C.), Daniel was among those taken from Jerusalem and brought to the palace at Babylon.
Combining the passages from these 2 major prophets, we can see various aspects of the New Covenant (at minimum the following):
- Contrast with the Old Covenant (Jer. 31:31-32)
- Cleansing from uncleanness and idolatry (Ezek. 36:25)
- A new heart (Ezek. 36:26)
- Law written on the heart (Jer. 31:33)
- The indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit (Ezek. 36:26-27)
- Causal Obedience (Ezek. 36:27)
- A people of God (Jer. 31:33)
- Universal knowledge of God (Jer. 31:34)
- Forgiveness of sin (Jer. 31:34)
Jeremiah states explicitly that this new covenant will not be like the old. This covenant will not have laws written on stone tablets, but will have the law written on the heart, i.e. the new heart of flesh. Accompanying this new heart will be the indwelling Holy Spirit that will “cause” those who have been born again to “walk in [God’s] statutes and be careful to obey [His] rules.” From this, we can see that the promise of a new heart, i.e. regeneration or rebirth that is a central tenet of the New Covenant. This promised new heart, and corresponding removal of the heart of stone, is accomplished through the power of the Holy Spirit and is the resultant to the imperative statement given by Jesus to Nicodemas in John 3, “You must be born again.” Pushing this conclusion further, we see that the promise of a new heart in the New Covenant ultimately results in entrance into the Kingdom of God.
New Heart/Regeneration/Rebirth/Born Again = Entrance into the Kingdom of Heaven/God
This however brings us to an important question, the people. Or stated more directly, “To whom do these new covenant benefits belong?” Note in Ezekiel the direct object of the New Covenant benefits is “you” (plural) and in Jeremiah it is introduced as a covenant with the “house of Israel and the house of Judah.” Who comprises these two houses? It would seem, at least on the surface that they will be the beneficiaries of the New Covenant. Without taking the space in this post to answer that difficult and disputed question fully, there is one final note I’d like to add. In the passages above, what benefit is being explicitly discussed with respect to the New Covenant? Ezekiel and Jeremiah state clearly that the new heart (regeneration) and the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit are guaranteed promises of the New Covenant. So the short answer to the question of, to whom do these new covenant benefits belong is: The Regenerate.
Finally, we see that tied directly to the people will be forgiveness of sins and a universal knowledge of God. Lord willing, in a future post we’ll answer more fully the question of, “To whom do these new covenant benefits belong?” with a look at what the New Testament has to say about the New Covenant, particularly in it’s quotation of the Jeremiah 31 passage in Hebrews 8:8-12