Few people realize that the Old Covenant was essentially a marriage covenant—by which God "was a husband" to Israel (Jeremiah 31:32). In this covenant, Israel, the wife, had agreed to submit to God and obey His laws. But she did not. Israel's adultery with foreign gods was so heinous that God divorced His people except for a few who still tried to serve Him (Jeremiah 3:8-14; Isaiah 50:1).
The people never had the right heart and mind to obey (Deuteronomy 5:29; Romans 8:7). This fault of the people, the book of Hebrews explains, was the problem with the Old Covenant—and the reason a New Covenant was necessary (Hebrews 8:7-8). The book of Hebrews actually quotes this important passage from Jeremiah twice (Hebrews 8:8-13; Hebrews 10:16-17).
What, then, is the New Covenant? It is basically a new marriage contract God lays out with Israel and Judah.
A marriage proposal from Jesus Christ
We see this reflected in Christ's words and actions on the evening before His death. During the last Passover meal He shared with His disciples, Jesus introduced the symbols of broken bread to represent the sacrifice of His broken body and wine to symbolize His shed blood—His death. "Then He took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, 'Drink from it, all of you. For this is My blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins'" (Matthew 26:27-28).
Jesus was explaining that the shedding of His blood as a sacrifice for sin was required to make the New Covenant possible. Without it, there was no way to atone for the sins of all who would participate in the covenant.
Notice further that Jesus was here initiating the New Covenant with His disciples. This can be confusing since the setting of Jeremiah's prophecy of the New Covenant with Israel and Judah is after Christ's return to earth (Jeremiah 31:31-34). Furthermore, the "marriage of the Lamb" likewise does not occur until His return (Revelation 19:6-9)—and this is clearly referring to Christ's marriage to the Church.
It helps when we understand that God's Church is spiritual Israel (Romans 2:28-29)—a pioneer in the relationship God announced through Jeremiah. However, this does not explain why the Church is under the terms of the New Covenant marriage today even though the marriage does not take place until Christ's return.
Biblical marriage customs
To understand, we must know something about marriage customs in biblical times. Couples initially became engaged—betrothed—with a customary shared cup of wine. This betrothal was not like engagements today, which can easily be broken off. A Jewish betrothal was a binding contract with obligations on both parties. It required a divorce to break it.
During this betrothal period the couple was already considered married and regarded as husband and wife. We see this reflected in Matthew 1:18-20 where Joseph and Mary are "betrothed," but already referred to as husband and wife. Breaking that betrothal contract would have required a divorce (verse 19, NIV).
Although considered husband and wife, the couple did not live together as husband and wife until after a public wedding celebration, usually some months after the betrothal agreement. As happens today, the couple would use this betrothal period to prepare for their actual wedding and subsequent life together.
With this as background, we can better understand the New Covenant relationship. Jesus initiated the New Covenant—He proposed marriage, we might say—to His true followers. As we've seen, the Old Covenant arrangement was not good enough. Even Christ's disciples, the most faithful people of His day, were still carnal and condemned because of their sins. They needed to be changed into a new, spiritually converted people to enter into this new relationship with Jesus Christ.
This was accomplished through Christ's death and resurrection and their receiving God's Holy Spirit, which enabled this spiritual transformation to begin (Romans 7:1-4; 1 Corinthians 7:39; Galatians 2:20; 2 Corinthians 5:16-17; Romans 8:5-10). This also made them the Church of God, the true "Israel of God" (Galatians 6:16)—that is, the faithful remnant of Israel according to God's grace (compare Romans 11:1-5).
Having agreed to the New Covenant, the Church is now betrothed to Christ (2 Corinthians 11:2). It is under the terms of the New Covenant but still awaiting the coming fullness of the New Covenant marriage to begin at "the marriage of the Lamb" (Revelation 19:6-9). Being betrothed to Him, the members of His Church submit to His loving leadership and guidance as the head of that Church (Ephesians 5:22-32), preparing for an eternity with Him.
The Church has grown to include more people since that original agreement with Christ's disciples. To be part of that Church and part of that covenant agreement requires partaking of the symbols of the New Covenant each year, reaffirming the terms of the marriage contract—a commitment to obey God and the acceptance of Christ's shed blood to atone for any failure to obey.
All mankind brought into that relationship
At Christ's return, those who are betrothed to Him prior to that time will then go through an actual wedding ceremony and celebration, as mentioned in Revelation 19. Glorified with spirit bodies, they will be perfect and will never sin again, having God's laws ingrained perfectly into their character—continuing in unbroken oneness with Jesus Christ thereafter.
This is the culmination and fullness of the New Covenant marriage—yet God intends to offer this marriage relationship to all human beings. All who will ultimately agree to surrender themselves and be spiritually transformed in the same way can receive it.
When Jesus returns and joins into the fullness of marriage with His Church, He will then also extend His engagement proposal to all mankind. Yet the covenant is still with Israel (Jeremiah 31:31), since all must become spiritual Israelites to participate in it. Eventually, all who ultimately choose to serve God and continue in His covenant will be changed into spirit to enter into the fullness of the New Covenant.
And as all of mankind is brought into this relationship, peace will extend to encompass the earth—all under the rule of Christ and His perfected saints, the glorified spiritual Israel.
Of course, people do not become perfect overnight. With help from God through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit He gives them, they grow in obedience. God's laws will gradually be written into their character. But eventually, as Scripture shows, these people will be transformed into perfect spirit beings who will never sin again.
This is how sin—and the suffering and death that result from sin—will ultimately one day be remembered no more (Jeremiah 31:34). It simply will no longer exist.
To learn more about this process of spiritual transformation and how you may enter into that relationship with Jesus Christ, download or request our free booklet Transforming Your Life: The Process of Conversion.