|Looking to Jesus: A Better Covenant (Hebrews 8:1-13)
Looking to Jesus: A Better Covenant
Minister’s Summary: As our high priest, there are several features of his ministry that would make thoughtful believers confident of Jesus’ ability to get us through discouraging times. The first is his initiation of a new, superior covenant under which he functions and by whose provisions we receive his grace.
The preacher now comes to the “point” (NIV). Or, as Lane puts it, it is the “crowning affirmation,” that is the chief idea or main point (the Greek term literally means “at the head”). The argument of the sermon has led to this point and the rest of the sermon will assume it and build on it. Thus, this text is a transitional text, particularly 8:1-2.
We move from establishing the high priesthood of Jesus (Melchizedek) to the work of that high priesthood (sacrifice). We move from the eternal character of that priesthood to the eternal redemption that his sacrifice brings through the shedding of blood (atonement).
Consequently, the church is called to persevere because redemption has been secured. There is no one else who stands at the right hand of God to redeem us and intercede for us. We draw near to God through the one who lives eternally in the presence of God for our sakes. The church perseveres because it experiences the presence of God through reconciliation (particularly, the forgiveness of sins).
1. Hebrews 8:1-2
The “crowning affirmation” is that Jesus is a high priest who ministers in the heavenly sanctuary. The “high priestly” character of Jesus ministry has been established in Hebrews 7 and his ministry in the sanctuary is the topic of Hebrews 9:1-10:18. The preacher, then, succinctly states the critical point, which builds upon what he has previously said and what he will shortly elaborate.
We have “such” a high priest (as described in Hebrews 7:26-28). He is a living reality, a perpetual priest who lives forever and ministers on behalf of his people before God in the heavenly sanctuary. He ministers in the presence of God (at God’s right hand and in the heavenly sanctuary). He is perpetually in the presence of God, and not simply on one day out of every year on the Day of Atonement.
The term “ministry” in Greek is not the “deacon” work (diakonia), but is a liturgical word. It is the Greek term from which we get the English word “liturgy” (worship ritual). Our high priest performs his worship/liturgical ritual—his priestly duties and services—in the presence of God himself, that is, in the “true tabernacle” or “true tent.” The point of “true” is not in terms of true vs. false, but in terms of reality vs. symbol, or type and antitype. The earthly tabernacle pointed to the heavenly tabernacle. It was not a false tabernacle, but rather a copy, a reflection or a manifestation of the heavenly one. However, our high priest serves in the true or real tabernacle, not in the copy.
2. Hebrews 8:3-6
The function of this text is to contras the high priestly ministry of Jesus in 8:1-2 with the old covenant’s priestly ministry. The old covenant regulated the Levitical priesthood and specified its rituals and sacrifices. Jesus could not be a priest in the Levitical system because he was from Judah, not Levi (Hebrews 7:12-13). But his priesthood does not depend on the Levitical system since he is a priest in the order of Melchizedek.
The Levitical system was not legalistic, ritualistic, formalistic or contrary to God’s own life/spirit/character. Sometimes we read this text as if those old covenant rituals were bad, evil or part of a primitivism that we moderns have judged backwards. But those rituals formed the identity of God’s people and brought them into the presence of God. They functioned to shape their identity and remind them of God’s grace. Those rituals were the experience of God’s grace.
The problem with the Levitical ritual was not that it was ritual or that it was legalistic. The problem was that it was not eternal and that it ministered in an earthly tabernacle that was a mere shadow or copy of the heavenly one. It was provisional rather than permanent. Their priesthood was generational, but the priesthood of Jesus is eternal.
The “pattern” Moses was shown was the heavenly tabernacle. The earthly tabernacle was built to correspond with the heavenly tabernacle. It was a copy of it. “Pattern” here is not about patternism but about the inferior status of the earthly tabernacle. It is a copy; it is not the real (“true”) thing. Rather, Jesus entered the true tabernacle, and there ministers on behalf of his people.
A new covenant was needed because Jesus could not be priest under the old covenant, and because the old covenant is inherently a copy (shadow) of the real (true). The reality came in Jesus. Reality means it is a better covenant; it is superior to the old covenant because it is real (the antitype) rather than the shadow (type).
3. Hebrews 8:7-13.
The preacher grounds his understanding of a better or new covenant in Jeremiah 31:31-34. Part of the text is quoted again in Hebrews 10:16-17. His point is to emphasize the contrast between the old and new covenant. But before we emphasize that point, I would also like to point out the continuity between the old and new covenant that is embedded in this same text.
The two covenants have the same God (Yahweh), the same people (Israel), the same ethic (“the law” is not changed in terms of its ethics—the same law that is written on stone is placed in the heart; cf. Matthew 5:17-20), and the same promise (that God would dwell among his people). The “newness” of the covenant is not about content, but about the manner of presentation.
The discontinuity is that God dwelt among his people in a provisional way through an earthly tabernacle in the old covenant, but now God dwells among his people by the Spirit in the hearts of his people. We are now the temple of the living God in whom God dwells by his Spirit (1 Corinthians 3:16-17; 6:19-20; 2 Corinthians 6:16). This indwelling is the sanctification of the human heart through forgiveness, reconciliation and atonement. It is the indwelling presence of God for the sake of transformation, that is, so that we can be the kind of people God has called us to be. Thus, the “better” promise is the eternal character of our forgiveness in Christ rather than the provisional relationship that the shadowy Levitical order provided. Because it was provisional and temporary, it has become obsolete with the fullness of the Christ’s ministry.
The preacher expounds the forgiveness dimension of this text and does not concentrate on the “law in the heart” concept. This is evident in his application in Hebrews 10:18.
What was the problem with the old covenant? Why did it become obsolete in the light of Jesus, our high priest?
For some the problem with the old covenant is its antiquated rituals or legalistic leanings. But this misreads the function and intent of the Mosaic covenant. It was never intended to be legalistic, any more than Christianity has that intent (though, of course, it did not prevent some from treating both as legalisms). The rituals were intended to shape the identity of the people and give concrete expressions to their faith, just as Christian rituals do (baptism and the Lord’s Supper, for example).
The problem with the old covenant was not its goal, intent and heart. Rather, the problem with the old covenant was that it could not absolutely secure forgiveness through the blood of animals. The problem was the nature of forgiveness and atonement. The preacher sees the point of contrast between old and new as centered in the issue of sin, atonement and forgiveness.
It is not that the rituals were legalistic or formalistic. Rather, the rituals were inferior because the sacrifices were inferior and insufficient, but nevertheless the rituals pointed Israel to the one who would provide the ground of forgiveness. The rituals were not bad or evil, just incomplete. They pointed to something beyond themselves—they pointed to Jesus who would secure our forgiveness through a new covenant.
The “better promises” which made necessary a “better covenant” is the forgiveness of sins. Forgiveness was available and genuinely experienced in Israel (Psalm 32; 51), but it was provisional and unsecured in terms of God’s heavenly sanctuary. The ministry of Jesus provides the ground for the forgiveness of sins both under the old covenant and in the present (cf. Romans 3:25-26; Hebrews 9:15). Old covenant sins were not forgiven (in an absolute sense) on the basis of Levitical sacrifices, but were forgiven on the basis of the sacrifice of Jesus. His blood alone atones. God forgave sin under the old covenant because in his eyes those sacrifices were types or shadows of the sacrifice of Jesus.
“Better” relates to the Levitical order in contrast to the Messianic (Melchizedekean) order. Below is a chart that offers the contrasts that appear in Hebrews regarding a “better hope” (Hebrews 7:19), covenant (Hebrews 7:22), promises (Hebrews 8:6), priestly ministry (Hebrews 8:6), and sacrifices (Hebrews 9:23). This chart will help us visualize the argument of Hebrews 8:1-10:18.
|Topic||Mosaic Covenant||Messianic Covenant|
|Infrequent Entrance||Frequent Entrance|
|Only for a Few||Universal|
|Sacrifices||Blood of Abel||Blood of Jesus|
|Animal Life||Human Life|
|External Cleansing||Full Cleansing|
|Annual||Once for All|
Theologically, Christians are encouraged by the finality and reality of Christ’s priestly ministry. There is no other ministry beyond his. He is the fulfillment of the Levitical priesthood, and he is the mediator of a genuine, authentic and real relationship with God that is no longer in the shadows.
In teaching this material, I think three points are paramount as a theological base for application. First, we need to explain the contrast between true/real and copy/shadow in the preacher’s comparison. He points us to the majestic idea that Jesus ministers in the presence of God and not in an earthly copy. He is in the real sanctuary, not in the copy on earth.
Second, we need to emphasize how forgiveness (atonement, reconciliation) is at the center of the preacher’s concern. Our experience and reality of our forgiveness is tied to the ministry of Jesus in the true tabernacle. Here God finally and fully acted to secure forgiveness in an absolute manner. This was God’s act of redemption—he acted through Jesus to forgive, reconcile and atone.
Third, we need to emphasize a heightened sense of the presence of God. God writes his laws in our hearts and he dwells among his people. God has always intended to dwell among his people so that he could not only commune with them but also transform them. Leviticus 26:11-12 promises the dwelling of God, and Jeremiah 31 emphasizes that promise and articulates the “newness” as partly rooted in the fact that God will write his laws on their hearts. The church is the place where God dwells, and we are his temple—the fulfillment of Leviticus 26:11-12 to another level (as 2 Corinthians 6:15-16 indicates by quoting Leviticus 26). Ultimately, we long for the day when we too will dwell with Jesus in the presence of God (and experience the fullness of that heavenly tabernacle), and Revelation 21:1-4 anticipates that day.
In terms of application, we have to ask how does this encourage the original hearers in their perseverance and confidence, and we have to ask how this encourages us on our journey. What we have in Christ is real—it is a direct connect with God. It is reconciliation and forgiveness—God has dealt with guilt. It is transformation—God has put his law in our hearts. We are on the journey to a reality (not a farce or fairy tale), and we walk guilt-free (confident of God’s reconciling work) and empowered by the Spirit who dwells in us. This is confidence for the journey.
Rituals are important part of the journey. They were for Israel. The preacher does not deny their importance, but he points us beyond the old covenant rituals to experience the reality of Jesus. Christian rituals are also important as they are means of experiencing that reality (baptism, Lord’s Supper). We should not underemphasize them, but enjoy those gifts as means by which we experience God’s gracious presence among his people.
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