Q&A: Prophecy and Interpretation 101

Prophecy and Interpretation 101

Question

Richard Pratt, in his lecture on paedobaptism, says that Jeremiah 31:31ff. ("they shall not teach one another or say to each other, 'Know the Lord'") is part of the new covenant which is not yet fulfilled. How does this square with Hebrews 8:11 where this verse seems to be cited to say that this aspect is already fulfilled in the present?

Answer

Lecture referenced: Why Do We Baptize Our Children?

Hebrews 8 indicates that Jesus is the mediator of the "new" or "renewed" covenant of which Jeremiah spoke (the Greek word kainos may be translated either way, as may the Hebrew word chadash). All of the things prophesied in Jeremiah 31:31-34 were already present to some degree in ancient Israel and Judah. Having God's word written on their hearts was already a known blessing in the Old Testament (Deut. 6:6; 30:6; Isa. 51:7), God was the God of ancient Israel and Judah and they were his people (e.g. Exod. 3:7,10), and God forgave the sins of the faithful (Exod. 34:6-7). There were also those who knew the Lord and therefore did not need to be taught to know him (frequently demonstrated by contrast with those people who did not know the Lord [e.g. Exod. 5:2; Judg. 2:10; 1 Sam. 2:12; 3:7; Hos. 2:20; 5:4]).

"Know the Lord" could mean a number of things in the Old Testament. One way to know the Lord was to experience his judgment and destruction (e.g. Ezek. 38:16). Clearly, however, this is not the meaning in Jeremiah 31:34 where knowing the Lord is a blessing rather than a curse. In the Old Testament, the most common meaning of "know the Lord" is "be faithful to the Lord" (e.g. Exod. 33:13; Jer. 4:22; 24:7; Hos. 2:20; 5:4; 6:3). This is also the meaning in Jeremiah 31:34 where knowing the Lord results from being forgiven by the Lord: "they will all know me ... for I will forgive..." In fact, the word translated "for" (ki) may also be translated "because." Notice that "knowing the Lord" follows repentance and forgiveness. It does not precede these things as does simple knowledge of the gospel. Thus, in the Old Testament, plenty of people knew the Lord, although imperfectly because they were not perfectly faithful to him.

It is the same in our day. The people of God are faithful to the Lord, but not entirely faithful -- there is no one among us who never sins. We realize the blessing of being faithful to the Lord (i.e. knowing the Lord) in part, but not in its complete fullness. When Christ returns, though, all his people will be finally and fully perfected and blessed, and none of us will ever sin again. Only then will we "know the Lord" in a way that can be described entirely as "already" and not at all as "not yet." Until then, we must exhort each other to be faithful to the Lord, just as Hebrews also teaches us to do (Heb. 10:24-25).

Because all of the blessings in Jeremiah 31:31-34 were already present in the Old Testament administrations of the covenant, and because even the parties of the prophesied covenant were the same (Israel and Judah), it is better to translate Jeremiah 31:31 as prophesying a "renewed" covenant rather than to a "new" covenant. In order to be faithful to the Old Testament text of Jeremiah, the author of Hebrews retained the original meaning of Jeremiah 31. He did not invent a new meaning for Jeremiah's prophecy. Thus, he too referred to a renewed covenant in which the covenant blessings would be offered afresh and finally realized in full, but he did not say that the day of the prophecy's ultimate fulfillment had already come.

The most common error related to Hebrews 8 in our day is the interpretation that only believers are in the renewed covenant. This is often asserted on the basis that the renewed covenant cannot be broken, or on the basis that everyone in the renewed covenant will "know the Lord." However, neither Jeremiah nor the author of Hebrews wrote that the renewed/new covenant could not be broken. This is an assumption drawn from the language which states that the renewed covenant will not be like the covenant which Judah and Israel broke. While it is true that this language helps create an expectation that eventually the new covenant will not be broken, as indeed will be the case for the faithful covenant people when Christ returns, there is no indication that unbreakableness must characterize the renewed covenant at every step. In fact, according to Jeremiah, the full realization of these blessings was to come about in the restoration of the kingdom when God restored the people to the land after the exile in Babylon (Jer. 29:1,10-14; 30:2-3; 31:27-34). Of course, the original restoration in the time of Ezra-Nehemiah did not realize these full blessings because the people were not faithful to God. Thus, we have biblical proof that the renewed covenant had already been broken by the time Hebrews was written. Moreover, Hebrews itself also teaches us that the renewed covenant can be broken when it tells us of the punishment that will fall upon some who have been "sanctified" by the "blood of the covenant" (Heb. 10:26-31).

In summary, Hebrews quotes Jeremiah not to say that the prophecy has been fulfilled, but rather to say that Jesus is the one who will bring us the blessings offered in Jeremiah's prophecy. The broad argument of Hebrews is not that we now have all the covenant blessings in full, but that because we have Jesus, we are assured of receiving all the covenant blessings in full when Christ returns, if we persevere in our faith until that time (e.g. Heb. 9:28; 10:36-38). If we assume that one cannot break the renewed covenant, we brush aside the many severe warnings to Christians we find throughout Hebrews.

Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Finance and Administration at Third Millennium Ministries.