Enacted on Better Promises
Topic: Covenant/New Covenant Passage: Hebrews 8:1–13
Many of you know that I enjoy woodworking. As God’s image bearer, I find it satisfying to design and create various projects. That increased all the more when I inherited some tools from my Opa a few years back.
However, I’ve recently run into a problem. Parts for many of the tools I inherited—you can’t find anymore. More than once, customer service reps have told me something like, “I’m sorry Mr. Rogers, we no longer manufacture these parts; they’ve become obsolete, discontinued…We’ve replaced it with a better tool, though, if I can interest you in that.” “But I’m attached to the old tools,” I think to myself. “Even if there’s something better I want these old ones to work.” But some of them never will. Time and better engineering have made them obsolete.
In our passage today, some Jewish Christians want their old ways in Judaism to still work. They’re attaching themselves once again to the old priesthood and the old sacrifices and the old covenant. But that’s a huge problem because something far greater discontinued those things. Someone far greater, Jesus Christ, has even made those things obsolete. To give yourself to a priesthood that’s now obsolete, and to ignore the Priest who fulfills everything the old forms pointed to—that was to forfeit your soul.
Now my earlier woodworking analogy does break down—it’s not hard to imagine that 10 years from now, a new line of tools will make today’s obsolete, and on and on it goes. The contrast we encounter today is much stronger. The person and work of Jesus Christ doesn’t simply begin a better priesthood, a better covenant to later be surpassed by another and then another. The covenant he establishes will be surpassed by no other. Not only is it better, not only does it achieve what all the old could not achieve; Jesus’ covenant is final and forever. Either you relate to God through Jesus, or you have no fellowship with God at all. Why, though?
Jesus sat down at the right hand of Majesty.
Why must we relate to God through Jesus, and Jesus alone? To begin, he alone sat down at the right hand of Majesty. Notice the development in verse 1: “Now the point in what we’re saying is this…” Isn’t that helpful? Three and half chapters ago, he began explaining Jesus’ superior priesthood. He pauses for just a minute to let us come up for air; and he highlights the main point. Listen to it: “we have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven…”
We first saw this in 1:3—that “after making purification for sins, Jesus sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.” After completing his work on earth, after making purification for sins at the cross—God raised up Jesus and enthroned him in the place of absolute honor. Now, we might ask, “Wait, aren’t we talking about priests? Don’t priests make sacrifices? What does God’s throne have to do with that?”
Part of the answer has to do with the sort of priest Jesus is—he is a priest-King. He is Priest and King in one person—that’s what chapter 7 helped explain. Another part, though, has to do with the way God revealed himself to Israel. He was the God enthroned above the cherubim. The cherubim—these angelic figures—spread their wings over the mercy seat in the Most Holy place. In other words, the temple where the priests served was also the place where God manifested his rule. To see Jesus enthroned at the right hand of the Majesty is also to see the God who makes provision for our sins.
There’s a sense of finality as well. The Son doesn’t stand—he sat down (past tense). In 10:12, Hebrews will contrast Jesus sitting over against the priests standing—they have to stand daily to make their sacrifices. But Jesus sat down. Why? Because another sacrifice isn’t needed. His death was sufficient. Nothing more needs to be added. All our sins are taken away. So he sits at the right hand of Majesty.
Jesus obtained a more excellent ministry.
But to that he also adds a bit more: Jesus also obtained a more excellent ministry. Verse 2 says that he is now...
a minister in the holy places, in the true tent that the Lord set up, not man. For every high priest is appointed to offer gifts and sacrifices; thus it is necessary for this priest also to have something to offer. Now if he were on earth, he wouldn’t be a priest at all, since there are priests who offer gifts according to the law. They serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly things. For when Moses was about to erect the tent, he was instructed by God, saying, “See that you make everything according to the pattern that was shown you on the mountain.” But as it is, Christ has obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old…”
And we’ll stop there for a moment. In verse 2 and verse 6 we find the idea of Jesus being “a minister” or obtaining a more excellent “ministry.” That language normally applied to the Levites.[i] God set apart the Levites to fulfill certain duties related to the sacrifices. But all these duties happened in the tent of meeting, or the tabernacle.
God designated a special tent as his meeting place, the place where he revealed his glory, where he manifested his presence. He wasn’t limited to that tent, but he chose to reveal his glory there. God designed it. Nevertheless, the people built it. Human hands created it and set it up and tore it down and moved it in the wilderness.
What’s important to notice—that tent and the ministry of the priests were always pointing to something greater. When it says in verse 5, “See that you make everything according to the pattern that was shown you on the mountain”—that’s Exodus 25:40. He’s suggesting that right from the start Moses was to build an earthly tent, but that earthly tent was but a pattern—literally, a type, a picture. It pointed to something greater. The tabernacle and priests served “a copy,” a “shadow of the heavenly things.”
Growing up, I loved the looks of a ’68 Chevy Camaro. It was my favorite Hot Wheel. Later on, when I could actually handle super glue without welding my fingers together, I built a scale model of a ’68 Camaro—all the little parts, painted it midnight blue. But it wasn’t the real deal. It was just a pointer to something greater. Same with the tabernacle. It pointed beyond itself, to God’s heavenly dwelling and what was required for God and man to be reconciled.
Meaning, the old priestly order was never meant to be permanent. God himself always meant for it to be surpassed in Jesus. Like the old priests, Jesus offered a sacrifice too. But as 7:27 already said, Jesus’ sacrifice was of a better kind. He didn’t bring an animal; he offered up himself. He doesn’t need to keep offering sacrifices daily; he made his sacrifice once and for all. That means he doesn’t have an earthly ministry any more. It isn’t needed. His sacrifice was once and for all.
But he does have a ministry in heaven, which the text calls “the true tent that the Lord set up, not man.” He doesn’t mean true as opposed to fake, but true in the sense of fulfillment. Hebrews 9-10 will speak of Jesus entering through the greater and more perfect tent, one that’s not made with hands, one that’s not of this world. He passed through those heavenly places to enter beyond the curtain into the very presence of God. He really opened the way for us. The old priestly order in the old tent could only picture it; Jesus makes it a reality. His sacrifice doesn’t just anticipate atonement; it is the atonement that brings us to God. This makes his ministry more excellent.
Jesus mediates a better covenant.
But something else that makes his ministry more excellent is this: Jesus mediates a better covenant. Verse 6 and following finishes like this…
Christ has obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it’s enacted on better promises. For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would be no occasion to look for a second. For he finds fault with them when he says: [Jeremiah 31:31-34] “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, 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. For they did not continue in my covenant, and so I showed no concern for them, declares the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And they shall not teach, each one his neighbor and each one his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.” In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.
Covenant is a crucial them in Scripture. You won’t understand your Bible unless you pay attention to God’s covenants with his people. They provide the key framework to understand God and how we relate to him and to one another. Broadly speaking, a covenant is a formal declaration of the terms of a relationship between two or more parties—thank you pastor Wes for that definition. When a husband marries his wife, not only is the nature of that relationship described, they formalize it. Both say their vows and seal it with an oath of commitment to one another. Sometimes the Bible uses marriage to illustrate God’s covenant resolve to love and cherish his people.
Now, there’s certainly more involved in a covenant when it comes to God relating to man. Just think about the covenants God makes with man—his covenant with Adam, another with Noah, another with Abraham and his seed, then Moses, then David, and then finally the new covenant in Christ. What stands out in all these covenants is that God initiates them. He is the superior. He draws near to man and he sets the terms for how the people must relate to him, and how he will relate to the people.
Within Hebrews 8, we find two covenants being compared. The old covenant in view is the Law of Moses, the covenant God made with the people at Sinai. The better covenant in view is the “new covenant,” verse 8 calls it. It’s the covenant inaugurated by the work of Jesus. In both covenants, God takes the initiative.
God saved them from Egypt and God met with Moses to deliver the Law. Likewise, God would be the great initiator of the new. Did you hear that earlier? “I will establish…I will make…I will write…” God sets the terms. God takes the initiative.
So never should we get the idea that the old covenant was bad or unholy while the new is good and holy. God initiated both. We can even say that both were the result of God’s grace toward his people. Even the old revealed God’s character and mitigated evil and set Israel apart for himself. Nevertheless, the old covenant had faults of its own.
Old Covenant Weaknesses
As he said in 7:19, “the law made nothing perfect.” Everything necessary to make you whole before God’s presence—the Law could never do it. That wasn’t God’s design for it. There was also no forgiveness under the law. 10:4 says that it was impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. The law could expose sin. The law could even picture what was necessary to take away sins. But it could never actually forgive them. Yes, that means even faithful men like Joshua and Caleb and David and the remnant who never bowed to Baal—none of them found forgiveness in the law. They found forgiveness in what the law was pointing them to in Christ.
The law also couldn’t change the heart. It told the people what to do. But as a bare letter, as something written externally on stone tablets, it couldn’t make the people obedient from the heart. That’s why verse 8 says, “God found fault with them.” That’s why verse 9 says “they didn’t continue in my covenant…” The problem wasn’t the letter; it was the people. Right from the start they wouldn’t obey; and then over and over and over again, the people get the law, agree to keep it, and then don’t. What does this history teach us? The law lacks the power to save. It only has the power to condemn.
Moreover, the law wasn’t permanent; it was only provisional. Verse 13 says, “In speaking of a new covenant, he [i.e., God] makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.” He’s explaining what’s implied in the prophecy of Jeremiah itself. Just by speaking this promise in Jeremiah’s day, God’s word set in motion the day when the law-covenant would become obsolete. Not obsolete in the sense that we now ignore it—I’ll touch on that in a minute. But obsolete in terms of that covenant now governing our relationship with God.
New Covenant Promises
In God’s plan, the law was always awaiting the better promises. “Okay,” you might be saying, “if that’s how the old was lacking, tell me how the new is so much better. What are these better promises?” There are four of them—really three and the last is the basis for all the rest. But the first promise is God’s law written on the heart. Verse 10, “I will put my laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts…”
Earlier in Jeremiah, God describes the people’s rebellion like this: “the sin of Judah is written with a pen of iron; with a point of diamond it’s engraved on the tablet of their heart…” The people so loved their idols, that sin was etched into the core of their being such that it couldn’t be erased. But here, it’s no longer sin etched into the heart. It’s God’s law. He has to give them a new heart for that to happen.
They needed a new mind too, that didn’t stiff-arm the Lord’s word, but received it gladly as truth to build your life upon. In an incredible act of grace, God would replace obstinate rebellion with obedient devotion. God’s law would become so much a part of them, that all that grieves God would also grieve his people, and all that pleases God would also please his people. The old covenant made demands but never produced obedience. The new covenant effectively produces the obedience.
Promise number two: God’s commitment to us in covenant bond. Verse 10, “and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” This language spans the whole of Scripture—from the covenant with Abraham in Genesis to the final scene in Revelation.[ii] Such language doesn’t belong to everyone. Not everyone shares such a relationship with God. Only the remnant. Only believers. It’s the language of mutual belonging. Returning to the marriage analogy, it’s God’s “I do” to his people, and their “I do” to God. But unlike human marriages, nothing will separate God from his people.
To break the old covenant meant God’s judgment. His faithfulness to the law-covenant required him to curse sinners—as verse 9 indicates, they didn’t continue in the first covenant, so God showed no concern for them. But things aren’t like that under the new covenant. Why? Because Jesus met all the obligations under the first covenant for us. Then he died to remove God’s curse from us. If God didn’t spare his only Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?! God has bound himself to us by the blood of Jesus.
Promise three: everyone belonging to the new covenant knows God. That wasn’t the case under the old covenant. In Israel, all one had to do under the old covenant was be born into Abraham’s family. But being born in Israel didn’t mean you had a heart for God. That’s why God had to keep sending his messengers. He appointed priests and prophets and kings to keep telling the people to know the Lord; and yet many of them never listened. But that wouldn’t be the case under the new covenant.
Under the new covenant, the whole community would know the Lord. Verse 11, “they shall not teach, each one his neighbor and each one his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.” So not just those special prophets and priests and kings who mediated God’s revelation to the people, who said, “Know the Lord”—everybody knows him under the new covenant. Why? Because they have a direct relationship with God through Jesus Christ, the true Prophet, Priest, and King. No one enters the new covenant except those who believe in Jesus; and those who believe in Jesus know God. Every one of them—from the least to the greatest.
Last promise: the forgiveness of our sins. This promise undergirds all the rest. Verse 12, “For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.” Sin made Israel covenant breakers. Sin makes us covenant breakers. Sin separates us from God. Sin in our biggest problem. And the law can’t take it away. The law made nothing perfect. But Jesus does. It was Jesus who took a cup with his disciples and said, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant [the new covenant], which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”
Come to Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.
Have you sinned against God? Is your conscience riddled with guilt over things you said this week? Over evils you thought this week? Over things you’ve desired for years now? Do you have any idea how much you sin offends God’s holiness and presumes on his grace? Do you have any sense of deep regret for the way you’ve treated others, whether recently or in your past? Are there dark things you haven’t confessed, dark secrets that leave you undone and hiding from the Lord and hiding from others?
Beloved, hide no more. Come to Jesus Christ and your sins will be forgiven. Call upon his name! Look to the cross and see God’s sacrifice for you. Because of Jesus’ death, God will remember your sins no more. It’s the promise of the new covenant; and God sealed that covenant with his Son’s blood. Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved. There is only one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.
Follow the new covenant vision for the church.
In coming to Jesus, though, also realize that you are not coming to a new moral code without any power. Christianity isn’t just another set of moral teachings among others. No, beloved, true Christianity involves transformation of our person at the deepest level. Christianity is about God acting in Christ to change us at the very core of our being, or it’s not Christianity. God must write his law on your heart.
This shapes our approach to ethics.[iii] People, and I mean Christians, are rightly concerned with what’s right and wrong. But sadly, it’s often presented in a way that if someone knows what’s right, if someone can just discover what’s true, then they’ll do it. That our fundamental problem as humans is a lack of knowledge. Our passage says, “Nu uh!” How many times did Israel know what was right? Wasn’t it Israel that said to God, “We will do all that you have commanded!”? Then failure, failure, failure, exile.
The problem was deeper. The work God has to do in you is deeper than just knowledge of right and wrong. He has to make you love it from the heart, treasure his glory, enjoy his word, long for his character to be formed in you, or you’re not a Christian. In short, you must be born again. Being right is what empowers doing right. God must regenerate your heart. New covenant people love God’s law. Do you?
This affects the way we understand the church membership. Some people ask why we have some of the processes we do for membership and church discipline—one big answer to those questions is the new covenant. Not only do we see here that everyone under the new covenant knows God—the church is for the regenerate only, in other words—but the people within that covenant must love God from the heart. And if they don’t have such love, then who are we to keep saying they belong to the new covenant. It’s at the height of deception to do that; and it ruins the church’s witness.
It’s very sad when the church of the new covenant looks too much like the Israel of the old covenant—people just going through motions but without a heart for God. May it not be said of us, beloved. Pray that our church remain a people who love God from a renewed heart. As much as possible, devote yourself to keeping regenerate church membership. Practice accountability and corrective discipline when we’re out of step with the new covenant, and follow through with restoration for the repentant.
Pay attention to how the covenants develop in Scripture.
Also, pay attention to the way covenants relate to one another in Scripture. God’s revelation comes to us progressively in history. There’s an important storyline; and one significant piece in that storyline is how the old covenant is surpassed in the new. If you miss that development, if you miss the nature of the old covenant and how is was lacking, if you miss the point for which God designed it as a pointer to Christ, then it will lead you into a host of errors. Isn’t this what the apostles kept having to correct in the early churches? Think of Acts 15 and Galatians in relation to circumcision. Think of Colossians 2 in relation to festivals and new moons and the Sabbath, which he says were only copies—but the substance belongs to Christ. Think of false teachers misusing the law in 1 Timothy 1. It’s all over the New Testament.
It’s still a problem today. Take the so-called prosperity gospel. One of the reasons it’s false is that it seeks to apply to us the temporal blessings of the old covenant when those blessings were limited to a particular people for a particular era based on their obedience. Prosperity teachers hijack promises to Israel under the old covenant and they seek to apply them to you in the here and now, “If you’d just have more faith and obey God more and buy me another plane.” Promises for the prosperity of God’s people under the old covenant typify the prosperity we will gain at Jesus’ return; but we are not old covenant Israel and this present age is characterized by suffering to advance the gospel, not prosperity. The only way you discern that, though, is by relating the covenants properly.
Or, taking different kind of example. How many of you have heard that Christians should give ten percent of their income to the church? Yet what many don’t realize is that tithing was inextricably linked to the Levitical priesthood. We just read here that Jesus inaugurated a better covenant, a better priesthood. His work made the Mosaic covenant obsolete. What are you going to say now? What we do say is this: giving is motivated not by looking at another ‘law’ for a minimum amount I’m required to give, but by looking at Jesus’ person and work for the maximum amount he frees me to give.[iv] But the only way you’ll discern this is by relating the covenants properly.
To be clear, this doesn’t mean the Law has no place for the Christian. It’s still the word of God. Paul says elsewhere that it’s holy and righteous and good. It’s not a matter of choosing which laws apply and which don’t, but how those laws are fulfilled and brought to their truest intent in Christ and our union with him. So relating the covenants rightly will guard you from false teaching. It will also inform your worship. You don’t go to a sanctuary to worship. Under the new covenant, church, you are God’s sanctuary. You are where he chooses to manifest his glory on earth by the Spirit.
Relating the covenants rightly will also help us witness to others. Some of you may be familiar with the TV series, West Wing. It seemed like any time they had someone play the role of a Christian, the arguments employed by that character only reinforced our culture’s perception of the Law of Moses being this strange, outdated, irrelevant code for contemporary America. The Christian character would put up some argument against homosexuality and quote Leviticus for support. Then another character would dismiss that by quoting another text from the Law about men not shaving parts of their head or the people not wearing mixed linens.
And I’m on the other side of the screen going, “Both of you don’t get!” The Law of Moses not only reveals God’s character, it bears witness to Jesus and our need for his sacrifice. Relating the covenants properly will help you witness to your neighbors. It will help them understand the Bible on the Bible’s own terms, instead of as mere support for someone’s political position; and it will help you then point them to Jesus, who can forgive and change them within, who can make them new and lovers of God’s law.
Take heart that God grants what he also commands.
Lastly, take heart that God grants what he also commands in the new covenant. The problem with the old covenant is that it could never produce the obedience it required. The new covenant actually produces the obedience it requires. God writes his law upon our hearts. That is true freedom. That is some massive assurance for the Christian. Because how often do you read your Bible and think, that’s a lot required of me. That requires all of me right there and all the energy I have today; and I feel like I barely made it yesterday. What’s going to keep me going? Jesus is.
He promised to in the new covenant. The covenant he inaugurates creates in us everything we need to follow the Lord and abide in his will. That doesn’t mean your passive—far from it, right? You can’t have a heart for God and be passive about obeying him. You will want to. And you know why you’ll want to? Grace! That’s why. The grace of the new covenant. So don’t fret Christian about whether your faith is going to last or not. In union with Christ, it will. He will keep you to the end, until that day comes as it says, when we will dwell with God and he with us; and God will be our God and we will be his people—Revelation 21:3.
[i] E.g., Num 4:24, 27, 28, 33; 7:5, 7, 8; 8:22, 25; 16:9; 18:4, 6, 7, 21, 23, 31; Heb 9:21.
[ii] E.g., Gen 17:7-8; Exod 29:45; Lev 26:45; Jer 24:7; 32:38; Ezek 11:20; 34:24; Hos 2:23; Zech 8:8; 2 Cor 6:16; Rev 21:3.
[iii] Though his focus is on the Mosaic Covenant in Paul's letters, I found great help here from Jason Meyer, The End of the Law: Mosaic Covenant in Pauline Theology, NAC Studies in Bible and Theology (Nashville: B&H, 2009), 280-87.
[iv] Luke 16:1-13; Rom 15:26-27; 2 Cor 8:7-9; 9:13; 1 Tim 6:17-19.