Hebrews 8:1-13, A Tale of Two Covenants

[1]Now this is the main point of the things we are saying: we have such a High Priest, who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens, [2]a Minister of the sanctuary and of the true tabernacle which the Lord erected, and not man.
[3]For every high priest is appointed to offer both gifts and sacrifices. Therefore it is necessary that this One also have something to offer. [4]For if He were on earth, He would not be a priest, since there are priests who offer the gifts according to the law, [5]who serve the copy and shadow of the heavenly things, as Moses was divinely instructed when he was about to make the tabernacle.  For He said, “See that you make all things according to the pattern shown you on the mountain.”  [6]But now He has obtained a more excellent ministry, inasmuch as He is also Mediator of a better covenant, which was established on better promises.
[7]For if that first covenant had been faultless, then no place would have been sought for a second.  [8]Because finding fault with them, He says, “Behold the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah – [9]not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt; because they did not continue in My covenant, and I disregarded them, says the LORD.  [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 in their minds, and write them on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.  [11]None of them shall teach his neighbor, and none his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them.  [12]For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more.
[13]In that He says, “A new covenant,” He has made the first obsolete.  Now what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.

In our last post, we talked about the two priests in Hebrews 7.  Briefly mentioned were the covenants which underlay their ministries.  Chapter 8 continues the writer’s thought that the Levitical priesthood was temporary because it was unable to complete redemption.  As the writer develops later on, animal sacrifices could not take away sin.  The Levitical priesthood was “introductory” in that it was a primer, a basic revelation of the holiness, righteousness and justice of God, and the exacting and inflexible nature of what is required to stand in His presence uncondemned, cf. 2:2.

Chapter 8 deals with the fundamental difference between the Levitical priesthood and the priesthood of Christ.  This difference is not simply found in the fact that the Lord Jesus is God.  If, as some claim, Jesus was only a creature, exalted though He may have been, He would have been able only to bring Himself to heaven.  If only a creature, Jesus would have been under the same obligation as all other creatures to serve and obey God and His life would have had merit only for Himself.  But since He is God, His life and death have infinite merit and value – enough to have saved multiple worlds had God so chosen.

The fundamental difference between the priesthoods of Aaron and Christ lies in the covenants underlying their respective ministries, cf. 8:6.  The First, or Mosaic Covenant, could not take away sin or do anything about the condition of the sinner.  The New Covenant, underlying Christ’s priesthood, can and does both.

It’s essential to understand that there are two covenants involved in this matter.  And, though we won’t go further into the subject, Scripture lists several other covenants.

A large percentage of professing Christendom, in what is called “Covenant Theology,” disagrees with this idea of “several other” covenants.  This may not seem to be important, but it is.  This system of thought, that there is only one covenant, not several, has several distinct features:

1.  In the words of Dwight Hervey Small, a well-known Reformed writer:  “There is one basic, underlying covenant of grace; this is the covenant relationship between a gracious God and a sinful race.  This gives continuity to all God’s redemptive dealings with man.  But the form of the covenant relation undergoes sufficient change in administration as to warrant distinction in Scripture.  We can speak of the Edenic form of the covenant, or of the Abrahamic form, or of the Mosaic form, or of the New Testament form.”

“The covenant established with Moses was essentially the same as the covenant that was established with Abraham.”  (Dwight Hervey Small, The Biblical Basis for Infant Baptism, pp. 37, 33.)

2.  There is no distinction between the nation of Israel and the church.  The church began with Abraham (Small, ibid., p. 161), or with Adam (Kuiper, R.B., The Glorious Body of Christ, p. 22), and is not specifically of the New Testament.  Israel and the church are merely different forms of the same thing.

3.  There is no future fulfillment of Old Testament verses with reference to the nation of Israel, which has been supplanted by the church (cf. note on bottom of p. 7, Weston, Charles Gilbert, The Weston Study Bible).  Nor is there to be a “grossly carnal” future Millennium, in which the Lord Jesus sits on an actual throne in Jerusalem (Clement, George H., The ABC’s of the Prophetical Scriptures, p. 40).  Covenant theologians are, therefore, amillennial, although not all who are amillennial hold to covenant theology.

Several teachings depend entirely or in part for their existence on Reformed covenant theology.  Among them are:

1.  Infant baptism.  According to this view, infant baptism replaces circumcision as the “sign” of the covenant.  Elaborate arguments are brought forth to justify this view.  I found it interesting that Dabney, a noted Reformed scholar, in discussing believers’ and infant baptism, refers to eight verses teaching believer’s baptism.  In the next paragraph, when he turns to infant baptism, he says this, “We add that baptism is also to be administered to ‘the infants of one or both believing parents’.” (Conf. 28, par. 4).  (Sorry, I have no further reference for this quote.)  Why doesn’t he simply mention those Scriptures which teach infant baptism, or clearly show that the apostles baptized infants?  He can’t.  There aren’t any.  That’s why there’s a need for “elaborate arguments.”  The whole doctrine of infant baptism rests on the effort to equate Israel with the church.  Indeed, covenant theology was introduced during the early years of the Reformation to defend the practice in argument against the Anabaptists, who rightly rejected it – and paid for it with their lives.

Just let me say that even if baptism does replace circumcision, even in the OT infants weren’t circumcised either to be born or to become members of the nation of Israel.  They were circumcised because they already had been born and were members of that nation.  So, baptism is for those who have already been born-again and, by virtue of that second birth, are members of the body of Christ.  Besides, circumcision wasn’t replaced by another symbol, but by the reality it symbolized – namely, regeneration (the new birth, salvation).  Believer’s baptism looks back to that, not to an Old Testament ritual.

2.  An established state-religion, based on the OT theocracy, in which every member of a nation is a member of “the church” by virtue of their baptism as infants.  In such a system, there is no liberty of conscience, no liberty of dissent.  In fact, the original Westminster Confession had a very strong section on the duty of the church to suppress all “blasphemies and heresies,” with the church defining what those were.  It was only after the War for American Independence that the Reformers, dealing with reality, substituted that section with one allowing religious liberty.

As we turn to our text, we see two things in the chapter:

1.  The “shadow” of the “first” covenant, 8:1-5, cf. 10:1.
2.  The “substance” of the “final” covenant, 8:6-13.

In the midst of all this talk about “covenants,” the writer is still setting forth the superiority of Christ:
1.  He is “seated,” v. 1.  The OT priests never sat while on duty because their work was never done.
2.  He is in heaven, v. 1.  Aaronic priests functioned on the earth.
3.  He is a “minister…of the true tabernacle, which the Lord pitched and not man.”  There may or may not be an actual “building” in heaven, I don’t know for sure, but what Moses and the others built, while certainly “real,” nevertheless it only foreshadowed the redemption that was coming.  They could not provide “the real thing.”

2. The Substance of the “Final” Covenant, 8:6-13.

The First Covenant was not able to accomplish redemption because that system was designed only to show the need for redemption, the penalty for a broken law and the nature of the payment for that broken law.  It couldn’t actually provide the pardon necessary to escape sin – the breaking of the Law.  It’s in this very thing that the priesthood of Christ is “better”.  And the reason it’s “better” is found in the covenant underlying it, which the writer explains in vs. 8-13.  Notice the various aspects of this “new covenant.”

1.  The time of the New Covenant, v. 8, “the days come;” v. 10, “after those days.”  This is a quote from Jeremiah 31:31-34, but note the rest of that chapter! (to v. 40), also Jeremiah 32:36-44.  Both of these references show that something more than the Law is required if even Israel is to come to God.

2.  The beneficiaries of the New Covenant, vs. 8, 10:  “house of Israel,” “house of Judah.”  While I have no desire to get into the interpretive jungles which entwine themselves around these verses, it seems obvious to me to whom and of whom these verses speak.  And if they don’t refer to the actual nation of Israel, or Judah, and God didn’t mean what He said, then why didn’t He say what He meant?
The point is that Israel will never be reconciled to God through their adherence to the Mosaic Law.  Neither will anyone else.

3.  The substitution of the New Covenant, v. 9, also v. 11.  “Teaching” was an essential part of the Mosaic Law, Deuteronomy 6:7.  The historical reference of v. 9 establishes that “Israel” cannot be “the church,” as many teach.  It is a gravely dangerous thing to play semantic games with the word of God, to teach that we have to “look below the surface” to find out what it’s really saying.  While I don’t think we’ll ever get to the bottom of its teaching in this life, and maybe not in the next one, either, what it teaches about God and sin and salvation is plain enough that there is no excuse for mistaking its meaning.

4.  The substance of the New Covenant, vs. 10-12.  These verses may be summarized in one word:  redemption.  The restoration of Israel does not come apart from redemption.  The crucifixion of Christ did not invalidate the promises of God, like this one, to Israel, so that her place in God’s redemptive purpose has been taken over by someone else and she is shut out.  Nay, it is through that very rejection and crucifixion that Israel will one day be redeemed as a nation.
Four things form the substance of the New Covenant:
a.  internal righteousness, v. 10a.  Contrast Deuteronomy 29:1-4.  What God did not do at Sinai, He will do because of Calvary.  The Mosaic Law is an external code, powerless to do anything to change the internal character of a person.  The New Covenant deals with that very thing, Jeremiah 31:33.
b.  immediate relationship, vs 10b-11a.  This is as opposed to “mediate.”  The OT Jew could never go into the Holy of Holies.  He could only do this through the annual observance of the Day of Atonement, in which the High Priest, and he alone and only on that day, could enter that place, where God dwelt.  But now, through Christ, the saved Jew, or Gentile, can come directly into the presence of God.  He or she needs no other priest; they don’t need Mary or “the saints,” don’t need “the church” or some religious organization.  Indeed, to say that one does need any of them is terrible blasphemy.
c.  individual reassurance, v. 11b, “they all shall know Me, from the least to the greatest (emphasis added).  Never in the history of Israel can this be said to have happened.  Even in days of the greatest spiritual revival, and though the nation itself had a “relationship” with God, there were only some who knew the Lord individually.  But there is coming a time, in the words of Romans 11:26, when “all Israel shall be saved.”
Since the whole section of Romans 9-11 deals with “Israel after the flesh” (Romans 9:3), Romans 11:26 can’t be said to refer to some sort of “spiritual Israel” which really has nothing to do with Israel.  Rather it refers to a time when Israel herself will be made “spiritual,” that is, she will be redeemed.  This doesn’t mean that every Jew who ever lived will be saved, but rather that every Jew alive at that time will be saved.
Even though the church enjoys the blessings of the new covenant by the grace of God, we can’t say that it’s really been fulfilled.  After all, “teaching” is a major part of the Great Commission, Matthew 28:19, 20, and of the “gifts” to the church in Ephesians 4:11-16.  The time is coming when it and they will no longer be necessary.
d.  incomprehensible redemption, v. 12.
Sin will be forgiven, but more than that, it will be banished.  God’s people will have nothing to repent of, to be sorrowful over, to wish had never happened.  We have such superficial views of sin and salvation that I don’t think we really have any idea what that will be like.

5.  The succession of the New Covenant, v. 13.  By this, we mean that the New Covenant will supercede and take the place of the Old, Mosaic, Covenant.  It is, after all, a “new” covenant.

A better one.

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