What does the New Testament say about the “new covenant”? I dare say few readers could answer this question, because the question is largely ignored in the commentaries, even though — as Gorman points out — it appears to be a central theme of Christianity.
The Lord’s Supper
Let’s start with the earliest explicit references in the New Testament:
(Luk 22:13-16 ESV) 13 And they went and found it just as he had told them, and they prepared the Passover. 14 And when the hour came, he reclined at table, and the apostles with him. 15 And he said to them, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. 16 For I tell you I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.”
Luke’s account of the Lord’s Supper is plainly tied to the Passover. He makes the connection unmistakable.
(Luk 22:17-19 ESV) 17 And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he said, “Take this, and divide it among yourselves. 18 For I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” 19 And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”
Luke has two cups, one before and one after the bread.
The bread, Jesus says, “is my body, which is given for you.” Plainly, he is speaking in sacrificial terms. His body will be the Passover lamb, slaughtered and eaten so that the Death Angel passes over those at the meal.
Moreover, the Passover celebrates the freedom of God’s people from slavery and their entry into community — the ekklesia — who travel through the desert together to reach the Promised Land by following the leading of God, who dwelt among them.
(Luk 22:20 ESV) 20 And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.”
Again, Jesus plainly prophesies the pouring out of his blood — as the sacrificed Passover lamb. “Pour out” is the same word used in Leviticus of the pouring out of the blood of the sacrifice onto the ground so that it may be offered to God.
So what does “new covenant in my blood” mean? “New covenant” is unmistakably an allusion to Jeremiah’s prophecy of a “new covenant.”
(Jer 31:33-34 ESV) 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.”
The most obvious connection is that somehow the sacrifice of Jesus as Passover lamb will result in the forgiveness promised in v. 34. Obviously, there are several other promises in the passage, but that seems the most natural connection.
Matthew is more explicit —
(Mat 26:27-28 ESV) 27 And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, 28 for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”
“Forgiveness of sins” is a quote from Jeremiah 31:34!
Paul quotes Jesus similarly —
(1Co 11:25-26 ESV) 25 In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
And so, as Gorman argues, we know that the crucifixion (and resurrection, of course!) usher in the new covenant, and that the blessings promised by Jeremiah and Ezekiel came from the shedding of Jesus’ blood. Indeed, the sin Paul is condemning is a failure to respect the community created by the new covenant.
It’s about forgiveness, of course, but forgiveness cleanses us so that we may receive the other promised blessings — the Spirit, fellowship with God, community, etc. It’s not just forgiveness. You enter my house through the door, and the door is part of my house, but the house is much, much more than the door! You should be very thankful for the door, as there is no other way in, but you really need to get past the door to experience the house.
When we realize that Jesus surely made this reference for a most serious reason, then we realize that Jesus is telling us that the fullness of the new covenant is coming by virtue of his death on the cross — and that the Lord’s Supper is about not just his death, but what his death means: the realization of all the blessings promised by the prophets to come by the new covenant.
When we proclaim Jesus’ death, we proclaim given body and poured out blood — blood that incorporates the entirety of the new covenant. It’s all “in” the blood.
We next read of the “new covenant” in 2 Corinthians —
(2Co 3:3 ESV) 3 And you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.
Writing on Christian hearts? Plainly, Paul is alluding to Jeremiah 31:33. How does God write his laws on their hearts? With the Spirit.
(2Co 3:5-6 ESV) 5 Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God, 6 who has made us sufficient to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.
Paul declares that his ministry is of “a new covenant … of the Spirit [who] … gives life.” Remember —
(Deu 30:6 ESV) And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.
Rabbi Paul expects his readers to know their Old Testaments! Thus, he credits the work of the Spirit with granting eternal life, and he sees the work of Spirit as the fulfillment of Jeremiah’s prophecy to write his laws on our hearts.
Thus, Paul’s emphasis here is on the transformation of our hearts by the Spirit, resulting in eternal life, as the new covenant ushered in by Jesus’ sacrifice.
(2Co 3:14-16 ESV) 14 But their minds were hardened. For to this day, when they read the old covenant, that same veil remains unlifted, because only through Christ is it taken away. 15 Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their hearts. 16 But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed.
The Spirit removes the “veil” that hides true understanding of God’s law.
(2Co 3:17-18 ESV) 17 Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. 18 And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.
True understanding — by the power of the Spirit — gives freedom and leads to becoming more and more like Jesus.
The atonement — the sacrifice of Jesus — does much more than merely justify us. It does more than wash away our sins. It brings us the Spirit, who transforms us and gives us understanding.