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Many people know some stories from the Bible, but not how the narrative fits together. The Bible is one story that begins in a garden, ends in a city, and all the way through points to Jesus Christ. Open is your guided journey through this powerful, life-transforming story.
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The Lord Will Turn Mourning to Joy

31:1 “At that time, declares the LORD, I will be the God of all the clans of Israel, and they shall be my people.”

  Thus says the LORD:
  “The people who survived the sword
    found grace in the wilderness;
  when Israel sought for rest,
    the LORD appeared to him1 from far away.
  I have loved you with an everlasting love;
    therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you.
  Again I will build you, and you shall be built,
    O virgin Israel!
  Again you shall adorn yourself with tambourines
    and shall go forth in the dance of the merrymakers.
  Again you shall plant vineyards
    on the mountains of Samaria;
  the planters shall plant
    and shall enjoy the fruit.
  For there shall be a day when watchmen will call
    in the hill country of Ephraim:
  ‘Arise, and let us go up to Zion,
    to the LORD our God.’”
  For thus says the LORD:
  “Sing aloud with gladness for Jacob,
    and raise shouts for the chief of the nations;
  proclaim, give praise, and say,
    ‘O LORD, save your people,
    the remnant of Israel.’
  Behold, I will bring them from the north country
    and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth,
  among them the blind and the lame,
    the pregnant woman and she who is in labor, together;
    a great company, they shall return here.
  With weeping they shall come,
    and with pleas for mercy I will lead them back,
  I will make them walk by brooks of water,
    in a straight path in which they shall not stumble,
  for I am a father to Israel,
    and Ephraim is my firstborn.
10   “Hear the word of the LORD, O nations,
    and declare it in the coastlands far away;
  say, ‘He who scattered Israel will gather him,
    and will keep him as a shepherd keeps his flock.’
11   For the LORD has ransomed Jacob
    and has redeemed him from hands too strong for him.
12   They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion,
    and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the LORD,
  over the grain, the wine, and the oil,
    and over the young of the flock and the herd;
  their life shall be like a watered garden,
    and they shall languish no more.
13   Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance,
    and the young men and the old shall be merry.
  I will turn their mourning into joy;
    I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow.
14   I will feast the soul of the priests with abundance,
    and my people shall be satisfied with my goodness,
      declares the LORD.”
15   Thus says the LORD:
  “A voice is heard in Ramah,
    lamentation and bitter weeping.
  Rachel is weeping for her children;
    she refuses to be comforted for her children,
    because they are no more.”
16   Thus says the LORD:
  “Keep your voice from weeping,
    and your eyes from tears,
  for there is a reward for your work,
      declares the LORD,
    and they shall come back from the land of the enemy.
17   There is hope for your future,
      declares the LORD,
    and your children shall come back to their own country.
18   I have heard Ephraim grieving,
  ‘You have disciplined me, and I was disciplined,
    like an untrained calf;
  bring me back that I may be restored,
    for you are the LORD my God.
19   For after I had turned away, I relented,
    and after I was instructed, I struck my thigh;
  I was ashamed, and I was confounded,
    because I bore the disgrace of my youth.’
20   Is Ephraim my dear son?
    Is he my darling child?
  For as often as I speak against him,
    I do remember him still.
  Therefore my heart2 yearns for him;
    I will surely have mercy on him,
      declares the LORD.
21   “Set up road markers for yourself;
    make yourself guideposts;
  consider well the highway,
    the road by which you went.
  Return, O virgin Israel,
    return to these your cities.
22   How long will you waver,
    O faithless daughter?
  For the LORD has created a new thing on the earth:
    a woman encircles a man.”

23 Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: “Once more they shall use these words in the land of Judah and in its cities, when I restore their fortunes:

  “‘The LORD bless you, O habitation of righteousness,
    O holy hill!’

24 And Judah and all its cities shall dwell there together, and the farmers and those who wander with their flocks. 25 For I will satisfy the weary soul, and every languishing soul I will replenish.”

26 At this I awoke and looked, and my sleep was pleasant to me.

27 “Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of man and the seed of beast. 28 And it shall come to pass that as I have watched over them to pluck up and break down, to overthrow, destroy, and bring harm, so I will watch over them to build and to plant, declares the LORD. 29 In those days they shall no longer say:

  “‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes,
    and the children's teeth are set on edge.’

30 But everyone shall die for his own iniquity. Each man who eats sour grapes, his teeth shall be set on edge.

The New Covenant

31 “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, 32 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. 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.”

35   Thus says the LORD,
  who gives the sun for light by day
    and the fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night,
  who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar—
    the LORD of hosts is his name:
36   “If this fixed order departs
    from before me, declares the LORD,
  then shall the offspring of Israel cease
    from being a nation before me forever.”
37   Thus says the LORD:
  “If the heavens above can be measured,
    and the foundations of the earth below can be explored,
  then I will cast off all the offspring of Israel
    for all that they have done,
      declares the LORD.”

38 “Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when the city shall be rebuilt for the LORD from the Tower of Hananel to the Corner Gate. 39 And the measuring line shall go out farther, straight to the hill Gareb, and shall then turn to Goah. 40 The whole valley of the dead bodies and the ashes, and all the fields as far as the brook Kidron, to the corner of the Horse Gate toward the east, shall be sacred to the LORD. It shall not be plucked up or overthrown anymore forever.”

Footnotes

[1] 31:3 Septuagint; Hebrew me
[2] 31:20 Hebrew bowels

(ESV)

Overview

The problem of the human heart is that it is defaced with the graffiti of sin. Our great need is that the law of God should be written on our hearts so that what He commands becomes what we desire. Only God can write His law on our hearts, and He came to us in Jesus Christ to make this possible. “If anyone thirsts,” Jesus said, “let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water’” (John 7:37-38).

John’s credit card debt had spiraled out of control. His wife had insisted on him seeing a counselor, and so, reluctantly, he agreed to go. The counselor made an assessment of his income and his expenses. It wasn’t going to be easy. Eventually the counselor came up with a plan. It would involve a radical change in John’s lifestyle, and it would take ten years to solve the problem.

John winced as he looked at the figures. “I know what I need to do,” he said. “The problem is that I don’t want to do it.” John’s predicament gives us an insight into why change is so difficult. Knowing what to do is easy; finding the heart to do it is hard.

God has given us His commandments, showing us how we are to live. The commands are not difficult to understand. The problem is finding the heart to obey them. But God has given us a promise that makes real, deep, lasting change possible in our lives.

God told the prophet Jeremiah that He would make a new covenant. And the heart of the new covenant is a change in the heart: “This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel… I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts” (Jeremiah 31:33).

Someone said to me recently: “Pastor, I was taken to church as a child and I got nothing out of it. I didn’t understand what was being said, and when I did, it made me feel bad. It was boring and I could not see how it was relevant to my life. The whole thing was a matter of duty imposed on me, and as soon as I had the opportunity, I left it behind.”

If that was your experience, you may find yourself wondering: Is it really possible to love God from the heart?

The Problem with the Heart
The heart is devious and sometimes quite baffling. You cannot predict the direction your heart will go: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (17:9).

The reason the heart is perplexing is that sin has defaced it: “sin… is written with a pen of iron; with a point of diamond it is engraved on the tablet of their heart” (17:1). Like thieves breaking in and spraying obscenities on the walls of your living room, sin is an enemy that has vandalized your heart!

When sin gets written on your heart, it becomes engraved in your character. It creates the power of habit and is the source of the struggles within you. The intensity of the struggle will vary. For some, the heart has become a place where foul and ugly things are deeply engraved. For others the defacing effects of sin are less severe, but the Bible is clear in telling us that, in some degree, sin is scrawled over every human heart.

No one ever spoke more powerfully about the problem of the human heart than Jesus. He said, “For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person” (Mark 7:21–23).

When King David repented of his sin of adultery, he asked God for two things. First, he said, “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow” (Psalm 51:7). David knew that he needed to be forgiven, washed, and cleansed.

But he did not stop there. He knew that he needed more than forgiveness, and so he prayed, “Create in me a clean heart, O God” (51:10). David asked God to deal with his heart, because he knew that unless his heart was changed, it would lead him down the same sinful path again. So he prayed, “Lord, deal with the heart that led me to do this!”

What you do is not a matter of random chance. Whatever is written on your heart will shape the person you become.

Cleaning Up the Graffiti
Your heart is the control center of your life. We sometimes talk about “the way we are wired.” That gets at it. There is an inclination within us that drives our choices. So when we talk about the heart, we are talking about the core of a person’s being.

When God said that He would write His law on our hearts, he was describing a fundamental change that every one of us needs. If you are going to live the kind of life that God calls you to lead, His law will need to be worked into your heart so that external rules become inward desires.

You cannot live a righteous life simply because God says, “You shall.” If you are to become what God wants you to be, there must be an inner transformation that brings you to the point of saying freely, “I will.”

Some people have the idea that in the Old Testament God was only interested in rules, regulations, and duties, but in the New Testament He saw that wasn’t working, and so introduced a new religion of the heart. But there is one God and there is one story, and from the beginning, God says, “Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:5). The question is: How can we love God from the heart?

Fear Won’t Change Your Heart
Other people think strict discipline and fear of consequences will deliver good character. Fear has its place. It can modify behavior, but it cannot change the heart. When God gave the law at Mount Sinai, the people were absolutely terrified, but within a few weeks they were dancing around the golden calf (Exodus 32). Fear did nothing to change their hearts.

Prosperity Won’t Change Your Heart
There are others who think that the answer to the human condition is primarily social and economic. The argument is that if people do not have enough money or suffer from low self-esteem, they will have no hope, and the way to change this is through programs of economic aid and social reform.

Again, there is some truth in this. If people are taken out of poverty, and come to peace with themselves, their behavior may change, but their hearts will not. God brought His people into a land flowing with milk and honey. They were blessed with freedom, prosperity, and opportunity, but their hearts were no different than when they were in the desert. You cannot erase the graffiti of sin on the human heart by changing a person’s circumstances.

Religion Won’t Change Your Heart
Could coming to church, saying prayers, or reading the Bible bring about a change of heart? Again, these are good and right things, but they do not have the power to change the heart.

Before his conversion, the apostle Paul was devoted to a religious life. He wanted to pursue God’s law, but found that his heart was pulling him in a different direction: “I do not understand my own actions,” he said. “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15). The law was powerless to change him. It was overwhelmed by the prevailing disposition of his heart.

Parents often assume that if they exercise appropriate discipline, encourage self-esteem, and bring their children to church, they will have good hearts. But often they are alarmed to find that there is an inclination in their children’s hearts that takes them in the wrong direction.

Perhaps you see that same struggle in yourself. You feel that you need to change and live a better life. But when you try, you find to your astonishment that the impulse of your heart toward selfishness, pride, lust, and greed are every bit as strong as they were before. So how can your heart be changed?

How New Life Begins
God says, “I will put my law… on their hearts” (Jeremiah 31:33). God alone can do this. No matter how hard you try, you cannot align your heart with the law of God. It’s impossible. So God says, “I will do what you are incapable of doing. I will write My law on your heart.”

The Bible calls this change of heart “regeneration” (Titus 3:5). This work of God gives you a new love for Him, a new hunger for His Word, and a new desire to walk in His ways.

The best illustration I know of regeneration is the way that a human life begins. The living seed comes, and in a secret, mysterious, and wonderful way, a new life is conceived. It is instantaneous. It happens in a moment! A new life has begun within the woman’s body, and the amazing thing is, at that moment she may not even be aware of it!

The next day she goes to work, and it seems that everything is the same, but some weeks later, she begins to feel that something is changing inside her. Something feels different and she wonders, could I be pregnant?

Perhaps you can look back and see how God has changed your heart. There was a time when you were unresponsive to God. But then things began to change. You had a new hunger for God, a new sense of your own need, and a new desire to be clean.

Here is the explanation: You have been regenerated. New life has been implanted within you by the power of the Holy Spirit. This may have happened to you without you even knowing, but like every pregnancy, it will eventually show! Repentance and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ is the first visible evidence of the new life that comes from God.

A New Heart
On one occasion, a highly respected man called Nicodemus came to talk with Jesus. “You must be born again,” Jesus said (John 3:7). The fundamental problem for this moral and religious man was that he needed a new heart.

Nicodemus was confused. How could a middle-aged man return to his mother’s womb and be born again? Jesus explained that He was not talking about a physical birth but a spiritual one. “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (3:6). Nicodemus needed a work of the Holy Spirit within him that would give him a new heart.

When you are in heaven, what is at the heart of you will become the whole of you. If God has implanted new life in your heart, your deepest desire will be satisfied. In God’s presence, you will become the person you long to be.

  1. Can you think of a time when change was hard for you? You knew what to do, but you didn’t want to do it.
  2. How does the Bible explain the unpredictable nature of the human heart?
  3. Why do we need more than forgiveness (according to Psalm 51) when we sin?
  4. What is one area in your life where you are most tempted to operate as if fear, prosperity, or religion is the solution to the human problem?
  5. How would you know if you had the new life that comes from God? What are some of the signs?
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