“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, 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. “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.”
JEREMIAH 31:31-33 (ESV)
Throughout Scripture God commands His people to love Him, as an order to an inferior. The first time you read God speak this way, it might strike you as odd, considering that none of our human relationships really work like this. Now, I can imagine many of my single friends wishing that their confident “You shall love me” constituted a binding agreement, but our relationships typically start with a question, one we have to work up courage and friendship to ask. Will you go out with me? Will you marry me? We enter on equal footing, and we have to maintain that balance for the relationship to be fulfilling. The minute we have to command love from another person, we’ve lost it.
We do not enter into relationship with God this way. He calls our helpless selves to Him in an awesome display of rescuing power. In the Old Testament, this great act of salvation was the Exodus, where the Israelites were led out of captivity in Egypt by the miracles of God. In the New Testament, the great act that saves us is the sacrifice of Christ, where we are led out of death from sin into eternal life.
Salvation begins our relationship with God. Biblical historian Andrew Hill says when God acts to save it is always an “initiation,” where a person or people are swept up into relationship with Him and in His community. We are saved now and offered an opportunity to live in this salvation for all of our days. God’s grace becomes the beginning of a covenant relationship.
This kind of relationship, we learn, is not a free pass. In God’s covenant there is always a promise and a stipulation. In the Old Testament, He often put it this way: You will be my people, and I will be Your God. Not equal footing, but both parties committing to the relationship. God promises to cover and care. And we swear to live set apart as His holy people.
Even after salvation though, commanding love can feel odd. How can it be demanded and not become corrupted? The picture we often keep of love in our heads is one of spontaneous reaction, of overflowing joy. It isn’t a constant checking in on a rulebook or instruction manual. If we’re honest, we might admit that stipulations sound very little like love to us. Keeping a covenant seems to involve a great deal of stress.
The Israelites understood something critical about covenant relationship with God that we can overlook. The things commanded of us are about His nature, not ours. The more we follow, the more we learn. And the greater the knowledge, the greater the joy. His deepest desire has always been to reveal Himself to us.
Before God gave the Israelites the law, He saved them from death. He showed Himself to be powerful and caring. Rescue came before reformation. For generations the law was a reminder and an invitation, a pathway to atonement and holiness, a deeper look into the heart of God.
It wasn’t until the Israelites turned their eyes to lesser things that the law became their executioner. It would be a mistake, of course, to blame this on God, who continued to provide for His people even after their wandering. We don’t live now under the law, as they did, because He initiated a new covenant for us. The Israelites had to travel to tabernacle and temple to hear the promise and stipulations of relationship with God. Hebrews (10:16) tells us that because Christ has died and risen and sent his Spirt to abide in us, we can know God and His covenant right here and now in our hearts and minds. We can delight in obeying Him every day that we live.
We still struggle with sin and the flesh, of course. Covenant relationship doesn’t turn us into mindless, emotionless people. The difference now is that the sacrifice has been made and the door has been open for us to enter into the presence of God. The law has been fulfilled, once and for all, and we are in Jesus who has met its stipulations. Now when we come to God, we do so boldly because the price has been paid. If the Israelites could see a great gift in God’s command and instructions to love Him, surely we can rejoice in this on the other side of the cross. Today we no longer have to feel like we are consulting a manual to rest in God’s covenant. We can look to Jesus and see obedience and faithfulness to God’s covenant not as a chore, but as an invitation.
Psalm 119:10-16 (NLT): “[God] I have tried hard to find you – don’t let me wander from your commands. I have hidden your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you. I praise you, O Lord; teach me your decrees. I have recited aloud all that you have given us. I have rejoiced in your laws as much as in riches. I will study your commandments and reflect on your ways. I will delight in your decrees and not forget your word.” AMEN.
Life in the new covenant still requires us to follow. There is freedom now apart from the strict regulations of the Old Testament law, but God’s desire for us in this new covenant remains the same: holiness. We find this as we come to Christ and grow in him. Consider today what choices, relationships, or habits keep you from pursuing the knowledge of God with the same joy as the speaker in Psalm 119 above.