Isaiah was speaking of Jesus when he prophesied these words: “Thus says the Lord: In a time of favor I have answered you; in a day of salvation I have helped you; I will keep you and give you AS A COVENANT TO THE PEOPLE, to establish the land, to apportion the desolate heritages” (Isaiah 49:8, ESV, emphasis mine).
As the church of Jesus Christ, we celebrate Isaiah’s prophetic announcement every Christmas. The prophet declares that God is about to send His Son as the answer to every cry and prayer. Yet there is more embedded in this verse than we usually associate with the story of the baby in a manger. We are told that Jesus was being sent in human form to unveil God’s covenant with man: “I will . . . give you as a covenant to the people.”
When God gave us His New Covenant, He did not set up a new system with a new set of rules. Instead, He sent us a person, Jesus, as the covenant.
The Old Covenant was a set of rules based on conditions. It stated, “If you do this or that, then God will give you life. But if you don’t, you will miss God’s blessing.” Of course, the people constantly fell short of God’s standard. They were unable to keep His law, which was holy and pure, and as a result, their lives were dogged by guilt, shame and despair.
Somewhere along the line we decided that God’s Old Covenant needed to be tweaked. But Jesus didn’t come to modify a Covenant; He came as the Covenant. He didn’t come to show us the blessings of grace; He is the blessing of grace.
Throughout church history, men like Luther and Wesley have emphasized how important it is for God’s people to understand the New Covenant. They saw it as a matter of rightly dividing God’s Word—grasping what is law and what is grace. If we fail to comprehend this one matter, they said, we are doomed to a lifetime of despair. Luther and Wesley knew this to be true because they had experienced that despair for themselves.
Here is the difference: Under the New Covenant, God’s law was no longer an external standard to strive for. Instead, His law would be written on our hearts through the Holy Spirit: “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:5, ESV). We are filled with the Holy Spirit—the very life of God Himself—to help us obey His Holy Word. Christ loved us and gave Himself for us that we might have this newness of life.