Now, remember, we are still in the midst of the argument that the preacher is making to the effect that Jesus Christ, as a priest in the order of Melchizedek, is superior to the Levitical priests, just as before he was shown to be superior to the prophets, to the angels, and to Moses. Remember, these arguments are important precisely because first century Judaism, which was tempting these Jewish Christians to return to it, did not see the Messiah in the terms in which his ministry was predicted in the OT, and did not see him as the true fulfillment of the Levitical ministry and the teaching of Moses, and did not see him, as the Son of God, as superior to the angels. A summary of the argument of this section so far was given in 7:26-28: Jesus is a far better man than the OT priests were, sinless indeed, and offered a far better and more effectual sacrifice for sin when he offered himself. He is able to make perfect those who come to God through him in a way the Levitical priests never were.
Remember now, this comparison between Christ and the Levitical priests is only fair because the readers of Hebrews were being tempted – as Jews were generally in the first century – to believe that the Levitical priesthood was an adequate provision for man’s salvation. A person might reasonably complain that Christ, the Savior and salvation, is being compared with the means of grace, by which that salvation was made known and communicated to sinners. A fair complaint might be that this preacher is comparing apples and oranges. The real comparison should be between OT priests and NT ministers, or OT sacrifices and the Lord’s Supper. But, of course, that was precisely the problem. These folk were not seeing the OT priesthood for what it really was – an instrument of God’s grace in Christ. They were treating it as if it were the salvation itself. That was a mistake Israel made over and over again and against which the OT prophets often preached. This is, of course, the same mistake that countless generations of professing Christians have also committed, counting on the external rites and ceremonies meant to convey the substance of God’s love and Christ’s sacrifice as if those rites and ceremonies were themselves the substance of salvation. The Protestant Reformation was a movement to correct just such a fundamental confusion. Remember this preacher is after one thing: to persuade his hearers, his readers, to remain committed to Jesus Christ, to trust in him with living faith, as the only one who can get them to heaven.
v.1 The theme of vv. 1-6 is the heavenly sphere of Christ’s priesthood. He has so far compared the two priests themselves: Christ and the Levitical priest. How he compares the two priestly works.
v.2 The point is that Jesus’ priesthood is exercised in heaven, in the very presence of God, and its effectuality is therefore neither earthly nor temporary, but heavenly and eternal.
v.5 Once again, if you are going to make too much of the rituals of the Mosaic law, this preacher is going to expose them as a round of activities that are just a copy of the real thing: the once for all sacrifice of himself by Jesus Christ. Their temple, so venerated, is itself just a copy of the real thing that is in heaven. And that is where Christ is and where he performs his priesthood. Don’t settle for the copy, he is telling them, when what you must have is the genuine article.
v.6 Now the Jewish people of that time, and especially the non-conformist Jews, e.g. the Essenes at Qumran, were inclined to regard the covenant life, history, and experience of Israel, especially that of the wilderness generation under Moses, as a paradigm for their own. They were inclined to feel that they needn’t do anything more than duplicate the pattern of life established by their forebears. Now they thought of that pattern as the Mosaic covenant, but, as we have already seen, they didn’t see that covenant as the proclamation of the gospel (as it actually was, as we read in 4:1) but rather as a set of forms which they sought to conform to in legalistic or ritualistic terms. This author has already pointed out in chapters 3 and 4 that the wilderness generation of Israel is not to be emulated, because they perished and failed to obtain God’s salvation – not because they didn’t have the rituals, for they did – but because they didn’t have living faith.
In 4:8 he had used the argument that since we read in the Scriptures, long after the wilderness, about Israel needing to enter God’s rest, Israel obviously did not enter that rest when they took possession of the Promised Land under Joshua. Well, he uses a similar argument here. Since we read in the Scriptures (Jer. 31:31-34) of a new covenant superior to the old one, obviously the old covenant is not an adequate pattern for their lives. The very fact that Scripture promises another covenant to replace the one with the fathers proves that the original covenant was defective and inadequate. (Just as the very fact that the Scripture speaks of a priesthood after the order of Melchizedek proves that the Levitical priesthood is not God’s definitive and final provision for the salvation of mankind. There is another priesthood, a higher one, just as there is another covenant, and another rest.)
v.8 It is very important to observe this detail. God found fault with the people. The problem with the Mosaic covenant was not in the covenant itself – we have already heard that it was nothing else than the gospel. The problem was with the people, who did not truly believe, who did not, as he says in 4:2, combine the message with true faith. The covenant failed for want of faith in the people, and the covenant can fail for precisely the same reason today: that is the warning and the argument of this sermon.
What follows is the longest single quotation of the OT found in the NT.
v.13 See again the nature of his argument. It is very like the ones he has used before. The fact that the Bible speaks of a new covenant proves that the first one was not the final word.
Now, it is not hard to sum up what most people do with this text and most commentators also. The first covenant was the Mosaic covenant and, though fine for its time, it failed to achieve the purposes of God’s grace in the life of his people, and so another was put in its place, the new covenant, which was introduced by Christ and his apostles, and is the form of the divine spiritual/theological economy under which we Christians live today. The new covenant was superior to the old covenant given at Sinai because it is more spiritual, because the Holy Spirit is in it more, because under it believers have a more direct relationship to God through Christ, and so on.
There is, I believe, one reason and only one why that interpretation so widely prevails. In the later 2nd century and early in the 3rd Christian writers began to refer to the first 39 books of the Bible, those that preceded the incarnation, as the “Old Covenant” or, in Latin, “The Old Testament;” and the last 27 books, as the “New Covenant” or “New Testament.” The Bible does not refer to itself that way, but Christians began to refer to it that way some two centuries after the time of Christ. Since that time, mesmerized by those titles, instinctively drawn to think of the Old and New Testaments as periods of salvation history with their attendant Scriptures, readers of the Bible have been unable to rise above what became the fixed assumption of the Christian mind that there were these two theological, spiritual arrangements succeeding one another in time, with the latter significantly superior to the former, unable to listen carefully to what is actually said in the Scripture, and, so, unable to reject as unbiblical that fateful identification of those two covenants with the two periods of salvation history and the two parts of the Bible.
I myself use the terms OT and NT because now it is impossible not to use them. But I tell you, that terminology used in that way is not biblical, is not biblically correct. I will prove that tonight only from this one text. It could be proved from many others. Reformed theology in general understood this – it is very clearly and accurately put, for example, in the Westminster Confession of Faith; but even Reformed exegesis, in its interpretation of various texts, texts such as this one in Hebrews 8, was sometimes just as subject to the unavoidable assumption created by the terminology of Old and New Testament as was the interpretation of other schools of Christian thought.
Let me tell you why Hebrews 8 is not talking about some residual defect in the Mosaic covenant and why it is not teaching that that covenant, or that form of God’s relating to his people, has been replaced in the age of Pentecost by a better, more spiritual one.
- First, this author has already said that it was the gospel that was preached to Israel in the wilderness and that Israel’s failure to obtain the rest of God was not due to any defect in the message, but only because of Israel’s failure to believe, her lack of true faith. The entire, urgent exhortation of this sermon is based on that fact. To second generation Christians, this preacher says, “don’t fail to believe as Israel failed to believe, or you will fail to obtain the rest just as she did.” He reminds us that it was Israel’s failure, not the covenant’s failure, in 8:8: it was the people who were at fault. And they were at fault in precisely the same way these readers will be at fault if they do not persevere in the faith of Christ.
- Second, if this author is contrasting the message of Moses and the religious economy established at Sinai with the message of Jesus and the religious economy established by Christ and his apostles, then at some point in his argument he should say, he would say, it is inevitable that he would say, “since the spiritual arrangements have been altered for us, we must do this or that or we can do this or that or it will be easier for us to do this or that.” But not once do you find any such idea in Hebrews. In Hebrews, Christians are in exactly the same situation God’s people have always been in: the gospel has been proclaimed to them and they are under the obligation to believe it and obey it. If they do they will reach heaven; if they do not, if they fail to continue in this faith, they will fail to obtain the heavenly country. That is his argument from beginning to end. He never contrasts the situation of these believers with the situation of believers before the incarnation. Indeed he identifies them and tells them to do what believers have always done if they wish to be saved. And he warns them not to do what apostates have done, like Israel in the wilderness, or they too will fail to obtain eternal life.
Fact is, though we should expect it, if the terms New Testament and Old Testament mean what people think they mean, never anywhere in the New Testament, anywhere, is there a contrast drawn between what believers have today and what believers had in the ancient epoch and never are we told that since we now live in the new and improved covenant we can do this or that which the believers in ancient times could not do. Hebrews and the entire NT never makes this a fortiori argument: if they could do it in the days of the OT, how much more should we be able to do it in the age of the New Testament. It never makes that argument because it never teaches that there is such a religious/spiritual difference between the two epochs or that Christians today have an experience of God’s grace much better than that enjoyed by those who lived and believed before the incarnation. In any case, Hebrews never contrasts, it always identifies the spiritual situations of God’s people from the beginning of history to its end.
- Third, we read in v. 6 that Jesus Christ is the “mediator” of the better covenant. But, as we have already seen, in Hebrews, and as scholarship largely acknowledges, the term “mediator” here is used as a synonym for “guarantor.” We have Jesus already identified as the “guarantor” of the better covenant in 7:22. 8:6 is simply a recapitulation of that thought using a synonym. In 6:9 the verb form of “mediator” is translated, accurately as is admitted on all hands, “to confirm with an oath,” once again with the idea of guaranteeing what is still future. In other words, Christ is the guarantor of this better covenant. But you don’t need a guarantee for what you already have. The better covenant is not yet with us, not in the sense in which Jeremiah predicted it, not in its consummation. But Christ, by his death and resurrection, has guaranteed that it will someday come to pass.
This point is confirmed by the use of the term “better” which regularly in Hebrews points to what is still future for Christians today. We will hear in chapter 11 of the better country and of the better resurrection. Here we have “better” promises. What are the better promises, just those promises of eternal life that the gospel guarantees the eventual fulfillment of to those who have living faith.
- Fourth, no one has ever been able successfully to define what is better about the new covenant, if, in fact, Jeremiah 31:31-34 is a prophesy of the epoch, the religious/historical/theological/spiritual economy established by Christ and his apostles. We read in v. 10 that God will put his law in the hearts of his people – but that was an OT commonplace (“The mouth of the righteous man utters wisdom, and his tongue speaks what is just. The law of his God is in his heart…” Ps. 37:31 and plenty of other texts like that). Jeremiah also says that, when this covenant is fulfilled, God will be their God and they his people. But that was the promise of the covenant, and the experience of God’s people, from the very beginning. There’s nothing new about that! Then Jeremiah says, when this better or new covenant is brought to pass, “no longer will a man teach his neighbor or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me.” Well, that had not happened during the ancient epoch; we know that. There were always false sons among the people of God, often many more false sons than true sons. But that hasn’t yet happened in the new epoch either. The problem of unbelief in the church has been a massive and persistent problem in the Christian era just as it was in the history of Israel. It would be high irony if Hebrews thought that this promise of the new covenant had been fulfilled, because Hebrews is one long impassioned exhortation by a brother to brothers to know the Lord. Hebrews itself is just what shouldn’t have to be said when the new covenant is fulfilled. In Jeremiah’s time, clearly, the prophecy is the promise of day when the apostasy of the people of God will be overcome by the grace of God, when ministers will no longer face the situation Jeremiah faced, who, he said, preached to a people who were circumcised but uncircumcised, who had the name but not the thing, who conformed outwardly but had no living faith. No, the day is coming when the boundaries of the external church and the internal church will be exactly the same; all of God’s people will love and trust him from the heart. That has not happened. The NT never suggests that such a thing had happened in that day. Apostasy was then a real danger and has remained a real danger ever since. In fact, virtually the last words of the Lord to his church in the NT, the message to the church in Laodicea in Rev. 3, is a threat, just like the threats in Hebrews, to spew out of his mouth those who do not continue to live a faithful life before him. Why that is the same message Jeremiah himself had to preach. Indeed, if Jeremiah’s prophecy of the better covenant is really a prophecy of the NT age, of our time and our religious and spiritual situation as Christians living after Pentecost, well, then, the new covenant didn’t work, because the apostasy of Jeremiah’s time has been repeated many times in the centuries since Pentecost and on an even greater scale. There is only one way to read Jeremiah 31:31-34 that is faithful to the words themselves: and that is as a prophecy of the consummation, a consummation still future to us. This author uses that prophecy to make one simple point: the fact that Jeremiah should talk about a new covenant means that Israel’s covenant with God had something wrong with it and shouldn’t be emulated. The thing wrong was, of course, not in the covenant, not in the religion, but in Israel’s lack of true faith. (When you read “covenant” think “relationship”.) It is made old by unbelief. It is renewed when God grants faith and made an all together new relationship when all in this covenant truly love and trust God.
And that fact is demonstrated by the fact that the only part of the Jeremiah prophesy that this author comes back to later is the last promise: viz. that God will forgive his people’s sins. He returns to this thought in 10:15-18. Well, that makes clear his purpose. He is talking about how one gets saved, how one gets his or her sins forgiven. And that comes not from the ritual life of Israel, that comes not from trying to imitate the life of Israel in the wilderness, not from trying to be a true blue Jew as first century Judaism defined a true blue Jew, but only through faith in Christ.
I listened this past summer to Prof. Bruce Waltke’s lectures on the psalms. At one point a student asked him about the relationship between the OT and the NT and he gave a very candid answer. He said that he knew that there should be a big difference between the OT and the NT, if Pentecost means anything. There should be a big difference in the spiritual life of God’s people now that they are living in the new covenant. But, he admitted, he didn’t see the difference and didn’t know what it might be. People aren’t more godly today than the godly were godly in the times before Christ. The church isn’t more impervious to apostasy. We didn’t put an end to the spiritual problems that continually bedeviled Israel in her history. Those same problems have continued to bedevil the church in her history since Pentecost. Whatever the difference is supposed to be, Prof. Waltke admitted, he didn’t know what it is.
Well, the solution to that problem is simply to abandon the idea that Pentecost introduced a new spiritual situation. It certainly altered the situation in that the church was equipped to take the gospel to the nations, but the Bible nowhere teaches that Pentecost created some new religious situation or altered the way in which God’s people related to Him or granted a new measure of the Spirit’s working in their hearts. This is assumed by most everyone, but it is taught nowhere in the Bible. So far as the gospel is concerned, so far as the experience of the gospel is concerned, there is no difference between faith and life before and after the incarnation. They didn’t have less of Christ and we don’t have more of the Holy Spirit. Pentecost is about the extension of the gospel not about the experience of the gospel. The Bible says many times that because the Holy Spirit is given at Pentecost the nations will hear and believe. It never says that because the Holy Spirit is given at Pentecost we Christians who live after Pentecost will have a higher or deeper experience of God’s grace.
If we say that we do, we find ourselves immediately in Dr. Waltke’s shoes, embarrassed by the fact that more of the Holy Spirit hasn’t seemed to make any difference at all. We’ve got the same problems God’s people have always had. And they received all the same blessings that we say the gospel has bestowed upon us. That seems to make the coming of the Holy Spirit of little consequence. In fact, it was of great consequence: people all over the world are Christians, we are Christians, though most all of us are Gentiles. That is the difference and a great difference it is. Christianity didn’t change; what changed was the people who became Christians and the number of them that did.
- Another way to make the same point is simply to draw attention to the fact that the contrast drawn, both in Jeremiah and in Hebrews, is not between a good covenant and a better one, but between one that didn’t work at all, didn’t lead to forgiveness or the rest of God, and a covenant that leads at last to the eternal country. When the new or better covenant is identified with the NT epoch, obviously the contrast between the two covenants has to be made relative. We know people were saved in the ancient epoch, so we must be talking just about relative improvements made from the Mosaic age to our own. But that is not how Jeremiah sees it or the author of Hebrews. In the first case, as we read in 8:9, God turned away from his people because they were unfaithful and he did not forgive their sins. In the second he saves them. We are talking about two radically different outcomes, two ways of salvation, one false and one true. We are not talking about an old way, good for its time but now superceded and a better, souped-up and more effective way.
- Finally, I draw your attention to the preacher’s way of speaking in v. 13. He says that the first covenant will soon Now if the author of Hebrews thought about the OT and NT the way most Christians do, he would have had to say that the first covenant or the old covenant had disappeared. Pentecost would have ended it. But he says that it will soon disappear. Either he is anticipating the destruction of the temple, as Jesus had prophesied, or he is concluding from the influx of Gentile converts into the church that very soon the Christian church will be Gentile and detached altogether from the temple and its ceremonies. And he’s thinking of those ceremonies, remember, under the view of them that was tempting his readers, Judaism’s view of them. He’s saying that covenant, that way of salvation that you are tempted to return to, that way of the priesthood and the sacrifice – why, that way is so little the real salvation of God that it won’t even exist very much longer. Don’t pin your hopes on the priests and the temple and the sacrifices: they are about ready to disappear altogether – as, of course, they did.
The fact is, for this author, the first covenant is viewed as the Jews view it, as these readers are being tempted to view it, that is, as a system of ceremonies that, if faithfully observed, will take a person to heaven. That system is near to being destroyed. It would be utterly destroyed in A.D. 70, only a few years at most after Hebrews was written. There would be no more priesthood, no more sacrifice, no more temple. That Mosaic ritualism was not the true faith or covenant of Moses, of course, any more than Roman Catholic views and practices of baptism and the Mass are the true faith of Christ and his apostles. But it was what Judaism had made of the religion of Moses in the first century. And it was this view of salvation through ritual that was tempting the Jewish Christians to which Hebrews was first sent.
The problem with the first covenant was that it was broken. But the gospel can be broken again in our day and has been many times. And without living faith the gospel will be corrupted into some external system as surely as it was in the days of Israel and Judaism whether that corruption take the form of ritualism as in Roman Catholicism or other such versions of Christianity or merely some form of moralistic legalism, some do-goodism as is so common in liberal Protestant Christianity.
Here me, he says. You know it isn’t enough to be an Israelite. You know it isn’t enough to go through ritual motions according to the ancient laws of Moses. You know that won’t get you to the rest of God. It didn’t even get the wilderness generation into that rest. You know it because Jeremiah tells us, straight out, that Mosaic covenant or no, God turned away from those people and did not forgive their sins. He said that he would make a new covenant with his people and, in saying that, as much as said that the covenant he made with that wilderness generation, the covenant they broke, wouldn’t get them to heaven. So, take the point. What is required is not to be like Israel in the wilderness. That will take you to hell, not heaven. What is required is true and living and persevering faith in Christ, the eternal priest who offered an infinite sacrifice and is able to make perfect those who draw near to God through him.