In the previous chapter we finished the section in the letter to the Hebrews that explained Jesus' superiority as high priest over Aaron.
- Aaron and descendants as high priests - appointed by the Law, temporary and serviced by sinful men.
- Jesus as high priest - appointed by God, eternal in nature (Melchizedek type), serviced by a perfectly righteous divine being.
The point was that Jesus was a better and more effective high priest and they should not abandon Him for the lessor of the two.
The final section in part one of this epistle, chapter 8:10-18, will deal with His ministry. In other words, the author reviews Jesus' work as high priest, not only His credentials. He will say that:
- Where He works is superior (the sanctuary in heaven).
- The authority by which He works is superior (a new covenant based on better provisions).
- He will demonstrate that His work is superior (He offers a better sacrifice).
Chapter 8 serves as a bridge between the discussion on credentials and ministry as it introduces the two key ideas.
Jesus' Ministry is Superior to Aaron's Ministry
He has just demonstrated that Jesus is a more qualified high priest than Aaron. Now he will explain why Jesus' ministry is superior as well.
He Ministers in a Better Place - Hebrews 8:1-15
1Now the main point in what has been said is this: we have such a high priest, who has taken His seat at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens, 2a minister in the sanctuary and in the true tabernacle, which the Lord pitched, not man.
"Now the main point..." refers to what the author is about to say. It is the climax of what he has explained previously. This Jesus, once having offered His sacrifice, is not like the earthly priests who continually offer sacrifice; who do so in a man made place; who have no rest. This Jesus sits (denoting authority, completeness) at the right hand of God; He is the minister (priest) that serves the true (real, eternal) sanctuary where God dwells (heaven). The true sanctuary is the one where God actually resides so the place where Jesus ministers is superior.
3For every high priest is appointed to offer both gifts and sacrifices; so it is necessary that this high priest also have something to offer.
He reintroduces the idea of Jesus' sacrifice (offering), but doesn't develop the thought yet. He merely states the fact that just as the Levitical priests had sacrifices to work with in their daily ritual offerings, Jesus as a priest also needs to have a sacrifice to offer. He has already said that Jesus' sacrifice was Himself, but in repeating this he prepares his readers for another discussion on this point later on.
4Now if He were on earth, He would not be a priest at all, since there are those who offer the gifts according to the Law; 5who serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly things, just as Moses was warned by God when he was about to erect the tabernacle; for, "See," He says, "that you make all things according to the pattern which was shown you on the mountain."
The issue here is that the Levitical priests offered their sacrifices in an earthly setting given to them by Moses according to God's plan. The tabernacle in the desert was only a copy of the true and eternal sanctuary that already existed in heaven (Exodus 25:40). Moses had to be careful to follow the instructions given to him by God in constructing it.
- The tabernacle had two compartments and very few furnishings. It was where the priests did their work in offering sacrifices.
- While in the desert it was assembled and disassembled by the Levites, and the Israelite tribes camped around it, each in their specific location so that the tabernacle was located in the center of the camp.
- God's presence was marked by pillar of smoke in the day and a pillar of fire at night.
- Its construction and furnishings were designed by God and it was the model for the temple that would later be built by Solomon in Jerusalem.
The author was showing them the different locations where the ministry of the old high priest and the new high priest took place. The priests after Aaron were imperfect and temporal, and they served in a copy or shadow of the true sanctuary where Christ, the righteous and eternal high priest serves, which is in heaven.
He Ministers According to a Better Covenant - Hebrews 8:6-13
The author adds another argument to his presentation of the idea that Jesus' ministry is superior to Aaron's, not only does Jesus minister in a better place, but He does so by the authority of a better covenant which He mediates.
The word "covenant" means agreement, but God's covenants with men were promises which He bound Himself to keep. The word does not mean "a contract" in the business sense; these contracts are usually negotiated by two parties each contributing ideas, requests, etc., and then ratified by an agreement once everyone is satisfied.
God, on the other hand, used covenants (promises) to progressively reveal His ultimate plan of saving man and granting him eternal life in heaven. Because of sin, men were slow to understand God's will and way, therefore God slowly revealed what He was doing through a series of promises or covenants. For example:
- Noah (Genesis 9:9-17) - Covenant/promise not to destroy the earth again with a flood and to guarantee the seasons despite man's failures.
- Abraham (Genesis 17:1-8) - Covenant/promise to give him a special land and bless the world through his descendants.
- Moses (Exodus 6:7) - Covenant/promise to make the Jews His special people and to bless them in particular.
These covenants had special features that made them different than what we refer to as "contracts":
- God conceived and established all the details within the covenant, not man. Man had no input.
- The covenant included all to whom it spoke. For example, Noah's covenant spoke to the whole human race; Abraham's, to his descendants only; Mosaic, to the Jewish nation.
- God's covenants could not be changed by man. Man could, by his choosing, not benefit from the covenant, but he couldn't change the terms or prevent it from being fulfilled. For example, Noah could have refused to build the ark and drowned; Abraham could have refused circumcision as the sign of God's promise and remained a nomad without descendants or land; Moses could have disobeyed God's laws and separated himself from the nation.
The author is saying here that God has made a new covenant/promise with man with better conditions which reveal His final purpose (the other covenants were designed to prepare man for this final one). This new covenant had another mediator, not Noah, Abraham or Moses, but Jesus Christ (a basic argument from a Christian viewpoint in rejecting the claims of the Islamic religion is the idea that God has not made a new covenant with Mohammed to replace the one He made through Jesus).
The word "mediator" would have been familiar to the readers of this letter. It meant arbitrator, someone to help bring two parties together. One who "stood in the middle." Jesus was the ideal representative for both God and man, the two parties included in this covenant. He not only revealed its details to man (through the preaching of the gospel) but also fulfilled its conditions for both God and man. As mediator, Jesus offered Himself as a perfect sacrifice on behalf of men to God, and then gave man the Holy Spirit on behalf of God (Acts 2:36-38).
6But now He has obtained a more excellent ministry, by as much as He is also the mediator of a better covenant, which has been enacted on better promises.
His ministry is better because the covenant upon which it is based is better. This better covenant has been enacted (put into operation) because it is based on better promises (ones which reveal the fulfillment of God's purpose which is to save man and give all believers in Jesus eternal life). No other religion offers better promises.
7For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion sought for a second.
The author confirms his statement by pointing to a self-evident fact: there would be no need for the new if the old one had succeeded (they knew it hadn't and so they could not argue with this reasoning). This did not mean that God had failed, it simply meant that His intentions were not completed with the old covenant.
8For finding fault with them, He says,
"Behold, days are coming, says the Lord,
When I will effect a new covenant
With the house of Israel and with the house of Judah;
9Not like the covenant which I made with their fathers
On the day when I took them by the hand
To lead them out of the land of Egypt;
For they did not continue in My covenant,
And I did not care for them, says the Lord.
He quotes Jeremiah 31:31-ff, an Old Testament prophet, to show that even six centuries before Christ the setting aside of the covenant with the Jews would be necessary, not because God could not fulfill its promises (to bless them), but because they could not live within the conditions of the covenant given to them by God. The prophet says that a new covenant would be given, a different type was necessary, and the author of Hebrews is saying that this covenant has now been enacted by Jesus Christ. For Jewish Christians of that time this was the proof text from the Bible that they needed to accept this idea.
Conditions of the New Covenant
In the final section we see that this new covenant has three important features.
10"For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel
After those days, says the Lord:
I will put My laws into their minds,
And I will write them on their hearts.
And I will be their God,
And they shall be My people.
1. The new covenant is inward focused and spiritual in nature
The Old Testament had the externals of ritual and God's commandments exposed on stone for all to see, learn and be measured by (the basic purpose of the Law - Romans 3:20). The rituals and architecture of the place of worship showed them that they could not come near to God. The Law revealed to them why this was so, they were not worthy.
With the new covenant, men would know God's laws, would have the willingness, hunger and thirst to do His will because they would have a sense of Him from within themselves. Not an outward sense, through religious rites, but inwardly through intimate knowledge. It was akin to what Jesus referred to as being "born again" (John 3:3-6). This inward transformation would be accomplished by the Word as revealed by Christ, and the transforming power of the Holy Spirit given at baptism (Acts 2:38).
11"And they shall not teach everyone his fellow citizen,
And everyone his brother, saying, 'Know the Lord,'
For all will know Me,
From the least to the greatest of them.
2. The new covenant is both personal and universal
Before, only the scribes and rulers could teach. They were the experts and with them resided the knowledge of God. In the new covenant, divine matters would not be the private possession of a particular class (priest, scribe). With the new covenant the promise was made that there would be personal, intimate knowledge of God and that everyone (rich, poor, educated or not) would have access to the knowledge of God, not just His law, but Himself!
12"For I will be merciful to their iniquities,
And I will remember their sins no more."
3. The new covenant deals effectively with sin
In the old covenant sacrifice was offered in order to remind the people of sin. The conscience could never be clear because the sacrificing served as a continual reminder of sin. In the new covenant there is a forgetting of sin (made possible by Christ's once for all sacrifice) thus freeing the conscience and purifying the heart. We will see later that this forgiveness of sins is the action upon which all the blessings and promises are based.
13When He said, "A new covenant," He has made the first obsolete. But whatever is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to disappear.
The author goes back to Jeremiah's statement, 600 years before Christ, in referring to the new covenant He would make. The point being that the writing was already on the wall for this covenant six centuries before, so to say that it was over was not an exaggeration in light of Jeremiah's prophecy. The prophet said that the old covenant would one day be removed and with the arrival of Jesus, the new one appeared.
The lesson here for us and every generation is that those who receive forgiveness of sins (and all have access to this through Christ) will be changed, born again, become new creations from the inside out! We need not be discouraged when this doesn't happen all at once or is not steady. Instead, we should remember that the change in us through Christ is based on God's covenant, not our ability or our will power!
As long as we remain within the covenant by trust and obedience to Christ, God will change our hearts, come into closer union with us, and keep our conscious clear and ready for judgment day. These are the conditions that He has made and promised to fulfill in His covenant with each of us who believe in Jesus Christ.