The Necessity and Efficacy of the Blood of Christ, part 2 (Hebrews 9:23-26)

Thank you for joining me again in our study of the epistle to the Hebrews.  Remember that the audience primarily consisted of people from a Jewish background who had grown up under the Mosaic law and all its rituals.  Some of these had come to faith in Christ, but due to persecution and lack of grounding in deeper gospel doctrine, they were in danger of falling away. 

The author of Hebrews has been spelling out the superiority of Jesus Christ.  He is superior to angels, who mediated the Old Covenant; superior to Aaron, the first high priest.  He is a superior sacrifice made in a superior tabernacle, the heavenly tabernacle.  Thus, He is the mediator of a new covenant, a better covenant than the old covenant, because it could cleanse consciences and make people “perfect,” that is they could be completely and eternally forgiven of these sins.  Christ’s sacrifice for our sins was perfect and complete.  All the laws, rituals and animal sacrifices of the Old Testament pointed toward Jesus.  When we accept him as Savior, our sins are forgiven for all time.

Having demonstrated the importance of blood/death in inaugurating the old covenant, the writer now describes the surpassing effect of Christ’s sacrifice in establishing the new covenant.

23 Thus it was necessary for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with these rites, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. 24 For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. 25 Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the holy places every year with blood not his own, 26 for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. 27 And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, 28 so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.

The premise that we saw in verses 16-17 is that all covenants (wills) require a death.  This was illustrated in verses 18-22 in the case of Moses who sprinkled the people and the tabernacle and nearly everything in blood.  Now we come to a resulting principle.  It is that the New Covenant required the shedding of blood. 

That is how verse 22 ended, “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.”

He begins by stating that the better sacrifice of Christ brings more comprehensive purity: “Thus it was necessary for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with these rites, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these” (v. 23).  Whereas animal blood adequately cleansed the prototypes on earth (“the copies of the heavenly things”) under the Old Covenant, a better sacrifice was necessary in order to cleanse the realities in heaven (cf. 8:5; 9:24).

But what are “the heavenly things” (v. 23b)?  The “heavenly things” may refer to the consciences of men and women, or to us who believe in Christ.  

Peter says the same thing:  You also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Pt 2:5).  To be this “spiritual house,” it is necessary to be cleansed through “sprinkling by his blood” (1 Pt 1:2), “with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect” (v. 19).  The blood of Christ makes us acceptable to God and makes our presence and praise more acceptable than that of the angels!  No angel can call God his Father.  To address God as “Abba, Father” is the believer’s privilege alone.  No angel was ever purchased by the blood of God’s Son either, but we were!  (R. Kent Hughes, Preaching the Word: Hebrews, 238)

It seems more likely, however, that they refer to the things connected with the heavenly tabernacle (God’s dwelling-place).  There is a heavenly tabernacle that the earthly tabernacle is patterned after.

Even the heavenly tabernacle had suffered defilement by human sin—a defilement now removed by the application of Christ’s blood.  The cleansing of the heavenly tabernacle, and by implication the cosmos, paves the way for the union of heaven and earth on the basis of Christ’s blood.  Or, as Paul summarizes, through Christ God has reconciled “to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross” (Col. 1:20).

Fausset says of this problem: “Man’s sin had introduced an element of disorder into the relations of God and his holy angels in respect to man. The purification removes this element of disorder and changes God’s wrath against man in heaven (designed to be the place of God’s revealing his grace to men and angels) into a smile of reconciliation.”  

The Levitical high priest of Israel had to enter into the Holy of Holies once each year, year after year after year, with “the blood of calves and goats” (v. 19) to make atonement for the sins of the people. 

Now, in vv. 24-26 our author introduces two negative and two corresponding positives. It tells us what Christ did NOT do versus what He DID do.

1. When we speak of Christ making a sacrifice for sins, we are not to understand that he entered into a tabernacle or a temple in the same way that the high priest did. The place of His sacrifice was not in the earthly realm but in the heavenly realm.

2. Neither are we to understand that the sacrifice of Jesus would have to be repeated on a regular basis. His offering was once and for all. This is the basic problem with the Roman Catholic view of the Eucharist. They view it as the regular unbloody sacrifice of Christ. But His sacrifice was once and for all. It needs never to be repeated.

Notice that the death of Christ is said to have taken place at the consummation of the ages. There was something completing about the death of Christ. It has brought us into the realm of the last days. The past ages have been consummated in Him.

So, in verse 24 we see that Jesus’ blood grants us a better representation before the Father: “For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf” (v. 24).  Once he ascended to the Father’s right hand (“entered…into heaven…”), He immediately began to intercede for us.  As the God-Man, he is uniquely suited to represent us before God.

Jesus’ sacrifice was made upon earth, but it is His continual intercession in our behalf in the presence of God that makes His representation superior.

“At His ascension Christ was formally installed as High Priest and began His present high priestly work.  In the heavenly tabernacle today He represents His people (i.e., He secures their acceptance with God); obtains free access for them into God’s presence; intercedes in prayer for them and grants them help; mediates their prayers to God and God’s strength to them; anticipates His return to earth to reign; and, at the end of the present session, will bless His people by bringing them deliverance into the kingdom. (David J. MacLeod, “The Present Work of Christ in Hebrews,” Bibliotheca Sacra 148:590 (April-June 1991):200)

As such, he is our constant attorney.  As our writer earlier said, “. . . since he always lives to make intercession for them” (7:25).  To this Paul agrees: “Who is to condemn?  Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us” (Romans 8:34).  If anyone could condemn us for not living a righteous, God-honoring life, it would be Jesus Christ.  But instead of condemning us, He “is interceding for us.”

And there is the testimony of the Apostle John as well: “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin.  But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” (1 John 2:1).

When we’ve confessed our sins, we can believe that God has forgiven us (1 John 1:9).  But Satan is an accuser and he stands before the tribunal of God pointing out our sins and condemning us for them.  But Jesus Christ is our advocate there before the throne of God.  He does not get us off on a technicality or some sleight of hand maneuver, but points to his wounds and says, “Yes, he has sinned, but I paid for those sins.”

Charles Wesley wrote a great hymn (one of many), which has been modernized by Indelible Grace, called Arise, My Soul, Arise.  Is your soul downcast?  Are you burdened under the weight of a guilty conscience?  Listen to these words:

1 Arise, my soul, arise,
shake off your guilty fears;
the bleeding Sacrifice
in my behalf appears.
Before the throne my Surety stands,
before the throne my Surety stands;
my name is written on his hands,
my name is written on his hands.

2 He ever lives above,
for me to intercede,
his all-redeeming love,
his precious blood to plead.
His blood atoned for ev’ry race,
his blood atoned for ev’ry race,
and sprinkles now the throne of grace,
and sprinkles now the throne of grace.

3 Five bleeding wounds he bears,
received on Calvary;
they pour effectual prayers,
they strongly plead for me.
“Forgive him, O forgive,” they cry,
“forgive him, O forgive,” they cry,
“nor let that ransomed sinner die,
nor let that ransomed sinner die!”

4 My God is reconciled;
his pard’ning voice I hear.
He owns me for his child,
I can no longer fear.
with confidence I now draw nigh,
with confidence I now draw nigh,
and “Father, Abba, Father!” cry,
and “Father, Abba, Father!” cry.

A further evidence of the superiority of Jesus’ shed blood is its efficacy.  We see this in vv. 25-28.

Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the holy places every year with blood not his own, for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many . . . (vv. 25–28a)

Christ’s sacrifice was “once for all” and needed no repeating.  Verse 25 emphasizes that Christ did not “offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the holy places every year with blood not his own” and then reinforces that by saying, “for them he would have had to supper repeatedly since the foundation of the world.”  As long as man has sinned, Christ would have had to be repeatedly offered up.

But His sacrifice is NOT LIKE the Old Testament sacrifices.  Those sacrifices had temporary efficacy.  Christ offered himself “once for all,” not repeatedly.  His sacrifice was superior in its nature—the voluntary sacrifice of the perfect God-Man.

Let me clarify—the death of Jesus Christ on the cross paid for our sins once for all.  In that act he “put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.”  The continuing intercession He is committed to in heaven in no way means that this work of forgiveness was incomplete.  He does not offer Himself over and over again, but simply points to His wounds as indication to the accuser and to us that we have been fully and forever forgiven.

“Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly” denies the Roman Catholic idea that the Eucharist repeats the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.  Jesus Christ is NOT still on the cross, repeatedly paying for our sins.  Our sins are completely forgiven by our faith in the death He died centuries ago.  The Scriptures make it plain, “nor was it to offer himself repeatedly…”  Christ’s sacrifice was so monumental and efficacious that it could only be once-for-all. His blood is totally sufficient.

In a rural village lived a doctor who was noted both for his professional skill and his devotion to Christ.  After his death, his books were examined.  Several entries had written across them in red ink: “Forgiven—too poor to pay.”  Unfortunately, his wife was of a different disposition. Insisting that these debts be settled, she filed a suit before the proper court.  When the case was being heard, the judge asked her, “Is this your husband’s handwriting in red?”  She replied that it was.  “Then,” said the judge, “not a court in the land can touch those whom he has forgiven.”

Jesus writes in bold crimson letters across our lives, “Forgiven!”  “Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect?  It is God who justifies.  Who is to condemn?  Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us” (Romans 8:33, 34).

Imperfect sacrifices must be repeated continually but a perfect sacrifice can be made once for all time, and genuinely “put away sin” (not just cover sin, as with sacrifice under the Old Covenant).  The message is clear: “He has appeared… to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself.”  Repetition is the proof of imperfection:  what needs doing only once is finished, is perfect, is forever.  (Andrew Murray, The Holiest of All, 323)

This explains why the torments of hell are eternal.  There is only one perfect sacrifice for sin—the voluntary sacrificial death of the perfectly obedient God-man.  Nothing else comes close.  Thus, for those who do not believe in Jesus Christ, they will be unable to make that perfect payment and will be obligated to pay over and over and over again, just like the Jews had to offer sacrifices over and over and over again.  A soul could be released from hell the moment its debt of sin was completely paid – which is another way of saying never.

What does it mean that the blood sacrifice of Jesus Christ “put away sin” (9:26)?  First, it means that by enduring the penalty for sin that each of us deserved he has forever satisfied the justice and wrath of God against us.  Sin therefore no longer poses a barrier to our relationship with God.  That’s not because we don’t continue to fail and to commit sins throughout the course of life.  Of course we do. But the guilt those sins incurred and the penalty those sins demanded have been forever absorbed in Jesus and thus forever and finally “put away.”

There is “therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 8:1).  When Jesus said, “It is finished,” that Greek word tetelesthai could carry the idea of “paid in full,” as it often did in business transactions.  What Jesus did on the cross paid our debt in full.  There is nothing left to pay!

Here is how Charles Spurgeon put it:

“Beloved, it is a thought which ought to make our hearts leap within us, that through Jesus’ blood there is not a spot left upon any believer, not a wrinkle nor any such thing.  Oh precious blood, removing the hell-stains of abundant iniquity, and permitting me to stand accepted in the beloved, notwithstanding all the many ways in which I have rebelled against my God” (“The Precious Blood of Christ,” 37).

Second, he has “put away” sin in the sense that his death and resurrection have supplied us with the power by which we can win the daily experiential battle with sin’s power.  Yes, I know you sin.  I sure do.  But we now have available to us through the Holy Spirit the indwelling power to say No to sin.  We have the righteous life of Christ living in and through us (Gal. 2:20).  That’s the glory of what Christ achieved.  He not only endured the penalty of sin, He also broke its power.  Now that the Holy Spirit indwells and empowers each believer we have the strength and energy to resist its allure and to say No to its appeal.

Third, by the sacrifice of his own precious blood on the cross he “put away” sin by laying the foundation for its total eradication when he returns to this earth.  That is what we will look at next week where he says in v. 28 that when Christ’s returns to this earth at the Second Coming it won’t be “to deal with sin.”  He’s already done that.  His return will mean the banishment of sin from our experience altogether.  

Our author points to this perfect sacrifice as the “end of the ages” in that the cross and resurrection inaugurated this age of grace.  The uniqueness, permanence and one-time nature of Christ’s suffering is in complete agreement with Daniel’s prophecy (9:24-27) regarding the end-days.  In fact, the offering of Christ was finished in the mind and heart of God before the creation of the world as we see in Revelation 13:8.  It is amazing but the solution to the sin problem of humankind was designed before sin ever came into being.

The Necessity and Efficacy of the Blood of Christ, part 1 (Hebrews 9:15-22)

Israel’s religion under the Old Covenant was a bloody religion.  It required animal sacrifices to take away the sins that had been committed by the people.  We Christians sing a song about a fountain “filled with blood” and when we plunge ourselves beneath it we “lose all our guilty stains.” The Old Testament sacrificial system, which is a type for Christ’s own sacrifice of Himself, was a gory affair indeed!  During the thousand-plus years of the old covenant, there were more than a million animal sacrifices!  So, considering that each bull’s sacrifice spilled a gallon or two of blood, and each goat a quart, the old covenant truly rested on a sea of blood.  During the Passover, for example, a trough was constructed from the temple down into the Kidron Valley for the disposal of blood—a sacrificial plumbing system!

Steaming blood provided the sign—even the smell—of the old covenant.

Sin brings death . . . sin brings death . . . sin brings death.  But the shedding of blood does not only demonstrate the holy wrath of God against our sins, but also and equally a display of his kindness and grace and mercy to hell-deserving sinners.  Nowhere is this more clearly seen than in the words of the apostle Paul to the elders in the church at Ephesus.  He says this to them in Acts 20:28,

“Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.”

Sam Storms notes these two things. 

First, the shedding of “blood” was the means by which God “obtained” us or redeemed us or purchased us as his own possession.  In other words, the pouring out of “blood” was the way in which God’s eternal love for his people was expressed.  Paul is telling the elders in Ephesus that they should love the church and care for her precisely because God does.  And God’s love was manifest most vividly and concretely in the shedding of blood. 

He says much the same thing in Ephesians 5:25 – “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” When he says that Christ “gave himself up” for the Church it means that he yielded up his life and poured out his blood in death to redeem her.  The blood of Christ is both the requirement of God’s justice and the expression of God’s love.  Neither one of those should be allowed to cancel out the other.

Second, and even more important, is that this translation in Acts 20:28 is inaccurate. God does not have “blood.” God is spirit.  A more accurate rendering of this passage is that God the Father obtained or redeemed the church with the blood of “his own,” the latter being a reference to the Son, Jesus Christ.  The words “his own” are actually terms of endearment, an expression designed to highlight the intimacy that exists between the Father and Son.  It wasn’t an angel that God sent to die or one of the four living creatures from the book of Revelation.  It was none else but his own dear, cherished, highly loved, and precious Son.

As our passage today says, “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.”  Thus we read in Hebrews 9:15-22:

15 Therefore he [Jesus] is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant. 16 For where a will is involved, the death of the one who made it must be established. 17 For a will takes effect only at death, since it is not in force as long as the one who made it is alive. 18 Therefore not even the first covenant was inaugurated without blood. 19 For when every commandment of the law had been declared by Moses to all the people, he took the blood of calves and goats, with water and scarlet wool and hyssop, and sprinkled both the book itself and all the people, 20 saying, “This is the blood of the covenant that God commanded for you.” 21 And in the same way he sprinkled with the blood both the tent and all the vessels used in worship. 22 Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.

We ended up last week talking about how necessary it was for Christ’s own blood sacrifice to be shed in our behalf—because this was the only way to gain a clear conscience.  All three members of the Godhead are involved in purifying our guilty conscience.

how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God. (Hebrews 9:14)

Christ, through the Holy Spirit, “offered Himself without blemish to God.”  Our hope lay not in the sacrifices of animals, but in the New Covenant offering of Jesus Christ.  Jesus Christ is the mediator of that new covenant, and his death even “redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant,” the Mosaic Covenant.  Every sacrifice made in faith under the Old Covenant was an IOU paid in full at the cross.

The believing worshiper of the old covenant came with a definite awareness, first, that sin requires death—second, that such a sacrifice required a spirit of repentance—third, that he was pleading the mercy of God—and, fourth, in some cases, that a great sin-bearer was coming (cf. Psalm 22; Isaiah 53).  They looked forward to the promised Lamb of God.

The Old Covenant sacrificial system was flawed in that, by design, it could only deal with sins of ignorance (9:7) and could never completely clear one’s conscience (9:9).  But then came Jesus with the new covenant in his own blood—a superior blood sacrifice that completely atoned for sins (9:12) and completely cleared the conscience (9:14). 

Jesus was no uncomprehending, unwilling animal, but rather a perfect God-man who consciously set his will to atone for our sins.  He is therefore a superior Savior and priest.  He is the superior mediator of the New Covenant.

A Mediator stands between two parties, attempting reconciliation.  Jesus Christ came from heaven to try to bridge the gap between a holy and righteous God and sin-loving humanity.  As the Father’s mediator, it is Christ’s job to bridge the vast gulf and obtain entrance for us into God’s holy presence.

Now Christ doesn’t mediate in the sense of bringing about a compromise between God and man, but in the sense of enacting a New Covenant by which man comes to God on God’s terms—through Jesus Christ.

Kent Hughes points out, “His sacrifice is the medium of arbitration, because his shed blood is both retroactive and proactive in bringing forgiveness for sins.  Our text is specific about the retroactive power of his blood: “a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant” (v. 15b).  Significantly, the annual sacrifice on the Day of Atonement (which prefigured Christ’s ultimate sacrifice) was also retroactive, atoning for the sins of ignorance committed over the past year (9:7).  But Christ’s death was surpassingly retroactive, reaching all the way back to the Garden of Eden.  Paul expounds the same truth in Romans: “whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith.  This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed” (Romans 3:25 NASB).  Because of this, we understand that believers were saved under the old covenant through their obedient faith in God—demonstrated by their sacrifices as they humbly acknowledged that sin required death and as they placed their souls under the mercy of God.  Their sacrifices were not a means of salvation, but they were evidence of believing, faithful hearts.  To these, Christ’s blood extended its retroactive power.

Those of us who are new covenant believers are beneficiaries of the proactive power of Christ’s death, for he has paid for our sins.  When he gave us the grace to believe, he activated his saving power in our lives—paying for our sins past, present, and future. (Kent Hughes, Hebrews, Volume 1, pp. 234-235).

As the writer further develops his argument, he does something that our English text cannot show.  The word “covenant” (diatheke), which he uses twice in verse 15, is also used twice in verses 16, 17, where it is translated “will” (“covenant” and “will” are the same Greek word).  But the reason for the two different translations is that the word is used religiously in verse 15 (hence “covenant”) and legally in verses 16, 17 (meaning “will”).

Here are those verses again:

15 Therefore he [Jesus] is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant. 16 For where a will is involved, the death of the one who made it must be established. 17 For a will takes effect only at death, since it is not in force as long as the one who made it is alive.

We are familiar with wills.  Wills are written while someone is still alive, but only comes into force after the death of the one who made the will, the testator.  No matter what riches may be stated in the will, they are not distributed until the death of the testator.

The writer’s point is that Christ’s death activated his incredibly rich will—a fact alluded to by Paul in 2 Corinthians: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9).  Think of the benefits we enjoy because of Christ’s death: forgiveness of sins, a guilt-free conscience, peace, deep peace (shalom —wholeness, health), purpose, a rich, eternal inheritance and ultimately eternal life in Heaven with God!  All this is impossible apart from his death.  It is all activated by his death!  The death of Jesus was necessary for our participation in these benefits.

Believers under the Old Covenant enjoyed mainly physical, temporal benefits but we enjoy an “eternal inheritance” through Jesus Christ as our Mediator.  And it all is based upon His death.

Spurgeon said: “If there be a question about whether a man is alive or not, you cannot administer to his estate, but when you have certain evidence that the testator has died then the will stands.  So is it with the blessed gospel: if Jesus did not die, then the gospel is null and void.”  Of course, His resurrection is essential to the gospel promises as well.

Jesus has become both testator and mediator of the new covenant—dual functions impossible for any being except one who rose from the dead.  Jesus died, leaving the greatest inheritance ever.  But he also lives now in order to mediate his will.

The Old Covenant went into effect when the Levitical priests shed the blood of animal substitutes and sprinkled that blood on all the covenant beneficiaries.  The beneficiaries were the Israelites (Exod. 24:6-8) and the tabernacle (cf. Exod. 40:9-15).  The New Covenant went into effect similarly when Jesus Christ shed His blood and God applied it to its beneficiaries (Christians) spiritually (cf. Matt. 26:28).

Beginning with v. 18 and extending down through v. 23, our author explains that during the time of the first or old covenant that God established with Moses and Israel, everything had to be cleansed with blood.  The noun “blood” is used six times in verses 18–22. The book of the law was sprinkled with blood, the people themselves were sprinkled with blood, the tabernacle and all the furniture and its many accessories were sprinkled with blood as a way of teaching them and us that you cannot approach God and worship God and enter a relationship with God until such time as the penalty for human sin has been paid and the justice of God has been satisfied.  It reminded them to take sin seriously.  It reminded them that sin causes death.

Exodus 24 gives the full account of this.  The Ten Commandments had already been delivered (Exodus 19, 20), and then the Book of the Covenant was read (Exodus 20:18—23:33), to which the people responded with one voice, “‘All the words that the LORD has spoken we will do.’ And Moses wrote down all the words of the LORD” (Exodus 24:3, 4).  The next few verses complete the picture:

And he sent young men of the people of Israel, who offered burnt offerings and sacrificed peace offerings of oxen to the LORD.  And Moses took half of the blood and put it in basins, and half of the blood he threw against the altar.  Then he took the Book of the Covenant and read it in the hearing of the people.  And they said, “All that the LORD has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.”  And Moses took the blood and threw it on the people and said, “Behold the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words.” (Exodus 24:5–8)

The inauguration of the covenant was at once a glorious and bloody affair.  So was the subsequent beginning of tabernacle worship some time later: “And in the same way he sprinkled with the blood both the tent and all the vessels used in worship” (v. 21).  On its inauguration day, the gorgeous tabernacle as well as its tapestries, golden appointments, and priestly vestments all dripped with blood.

Notice how he sums this up in v. 22 – “Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood,” and the reason for that is because “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.”

Now, why does our author say “almost everything is purified with blood…”?

Well, one reason is that a concession was made for the poor Israelite who simply didn’t have enough money to purchase a lamb or goat.  He was allowed to bring a portion of flour or wheat as his sin offering in place of an animal or blood sacrifice.

Also some pollutions were cleansed by water rather than by blood (Exod. 29:4; 30:20; 40:12; Lev. 1:9, 13; 6:28; 8:6, 21; 14:8-9; 15:5-8, 10-13, 16-18, 21-22, 27; 16:4, 24, 26, 28; 17:15; 22:6; Num. 8:7; 19:7-9, 12-13, 17-19).

But the principle remains—“without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.”  This saying was proverbial in Biblical culture (TB Yoma A and TB Zebahim 6a)5—and was based on Leviticus 17:11—“For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life.”  Sin must bring the forfeiting of life.  Sin demands death.  The wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23)

The old covenant sailed on a sea of blood, for two vast reasons.  First, to emphasize the seriousness of sin.  The Bible takes sin seriously, more than any other religious scripture.  Sin alienates one from God.  Sin is rooted in the hearts of humanity.  Sin cannot be vindicated by any self-help program.  Sin leads to death—and it will not be denied.  The second reason is the costliness of forgiveness.  Death is the payment.  The Israelites saw this principle most clearly on the Day of Atonement, but every animal sacrifice reminded them of it.  This is expressed in the New Covenant as well:  A life is demanded in payment for sin.  It will either be Christ’s life or ours!

Liberal theologians hate the idea of Christ’s blood paying for our sins.  They have called such views “slaughterhouse religion.”  They ridicule Christians who believe in a God who would be petty enough to be angry over our sins, and pagan enough to be appeased by blood.

The playwright, George Bernard Shaw, bitterly attacked the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, saying, “It is saturated with the ancient—and to me quite infernal—superstition of atonement by blood sacrifice, which I believe Christianity must completely get rid of, if it is to survive among thoughtful people” (cited in “Our Daily Bread,” 8/79).

Some progressive Christians have called Christ’s death on the cross “cosmic child abuse.”  Progressive Christians are embarrassed by the idea of a bloody cross, indicating God’s wrath against His Son, the sin-bearer.

Author Steve Chalke has written:

“The fact is that the cross isn’t a form of cosmic child abuse—a vengeful Father, punishing his Son for an offence he has not even committed.  Understandably, both people inside and outside of the Church have found this twisted version of events morally dubious and a huge barrier to faith.  Deeper than that, however, is that such a concept stands in total contradiction to the statement: ‘God is love.’  If the cross is a personal act of violence perpetrated by God towards humankind but borne by his Son, then it makes a mockery of Jesus’ own teaching to love your enemies and to refuse to repay evil with evil” (Steve Chalke and Alan Mann, The Lost Message of Jesus, [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003], pp. 182-183).

But according to Hebrews and throughout the Bible a sacrifice is required to pay for our sins.  And Jesus willingly gave up His life in order to pay the penalty for the sins of humanity.

The recipients of this letter to the Hebrews were in danger of going back to the Old Testament sacrifices, something they were familiar with.  Today people want to move away from the sacrifice of Christ to something nicer and softer, a God of love who merely winks at sin, or doesn’t consider it important at all.  Let’s not move away from Jesus Christ, but appreciate and put our full trust in what He did on the cross for us.  He willingly offered His life as a satisfaction to pay the penalty of our sins and satisfy God’s wrath against our sins so that we can enjoy ultimate joy and gladness in God’s presence throughout eternity.

A Heavenly Sanctuary, part 2 (Hebrews 9:6-14)

We are looking in Hebrews 9 at the contrast our author makes between the earthly tabernacle and its regulations for approaching God, versus the heavenly tabernacle and its approach to God through Jesus Christ.  In verses 1-5, our author pointed out the disadvantage of the earthly tabernacle, made with human hands and earthly materials.  It was made of materials that would deteriorate over time and it was limited to a single geographical location.

The old system was inadequate for two addition encompassing reasons—its limited access and its limited efficacy.  Looking at Hebrews 9:6-10:

6 These preparations having thus been made, the priests go regularly into the first section, performing their ritual duties, 7 but into the second only the high priest goes, and he but once a year, and not without taking blood, which he offers for himself and for the unintentional sins of the people. 8 By this the Holy Spirit indicates that the way into the holy places is not yet opened as long as the first section is still standing 9 (which is symbolic for the present age). According to this arrangement, gifts and sacrifices are offered that cannot perfect the conscience of the worshiper, 10 but deal only with food and drink and various washings, regulations for the body imposed until the time of reformation.

Just how restricted the access was is seen in the experience of the official, hereditary priesthood as verse 6 describes it: “These preparations having thus been made [i.e., the two rooms of the tabernacle], the priests go regularly into the first section, performing their ritual duties.”  If they were fortunate, they got into the outer room once in their priestly lives—for a week.  The Israelite layperson’s access was even less—the front of the courtyard, and that’s all! If one was fortunate enough to attain to high priest (and in later years “fortunate” meant “politicized”), one could have access for a few blessed (and tense!) minutes at best.  On the Day of Atonement, when the high priest took his censer in to first burn incense in God’s presence, it was prescribed that he must not stay too long “lest he put Israel in terror.”  The people waited with bated breath, so that when he came out from the Presence alive, there went up a sigh of relief “like a gust of wind.” The writer is explicit here:

But into the second [room] only the high priest goes, and he but once a year, and not without taking blood, which he offers for himself and for the unintentional sins of the people. By this the Holy Spirit indicates that the way into the holy places is not yet opened as long as the first section is still standing. (vv. 7, 8)

Notice, that only the high priest could enter into the Holy of Holies, and that only once a year.  His point is crystal-clear: throughout the ages of the old covenant, there was no direct access to God, period, for the majority of the people.

The high priest had to “take blood” because the purpose for going into the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement was to procure forgiveness of sins, not for fellowship.  The atoning blood was first for his own sins and then the sins of the people.  Access into the Holiest of All was thus severely restricted. Even when someone could enter, it wasn’t for real fellowship with God.

But as inadequate as the access to God under the old system was, it was exceeded by its limited efficacy. The blood sacrifice that the high priest offered only covered sins of ignorance: “But into the second [room] only the high priest goes, and he but once a year, and not without taking blood, which he offers for himself and for the unintentional sins of the people” (v. 7).  

This verse mentions the “unintentional sins of the people.”  Sins of ignorance were the specific focus of the Day of Atonement.  It was assumed that known sins would be taken care of through the regular sin offerings and daily sacrifices.  In this respect, Jesus’ work is far greater than the work done on the Day of Atonement. Jesus’ work on the cross is sufficient to atone for both the sins we do in ignorance and sins that we commit intentionally.  This passage does show us that even sins done in ignorance, or unintentionally, do matter and still need forgiveness.

There was no provision in the old covenant’s sacrificial system for forgiveness of premeditated sins!  Premeditated, willful sins were called sins of the “high hand,” and for such there was no remedy.  Numbers 15:30, 31 is unequivocal: “But the person who does anything with a high hand, whether he is native or a sojourner, reviles the LORD, and that person shall be cut off from among his people.  Because he has despised the word of the LORD and has broken his commandment, that person shall be utterly cut off; his iniquity shall be on him.”

The premeditated sinner was in a huge dilemma!  Consider, for example, King David after his premeditated sin with Bathsheba and the cold-blooded murder of Uriah. The system simply did not provide a remedy. This is what Psalm 51 is all about.  David knew he was a sinner and confessed it: “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment. Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Psalm 51:3–5).  And he knew there was no sacrifice he could bring: “For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering” (Psalm 51:16).  What could he do?  Only one thing—come to God with a contrite heart and throw himself on God’s mercy: “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Psalm 51:17).  This is how David was forgiven and was saved.  Thus, we see that the spiritually informed in the Old Testament came to understand that their only hope was a repentant heart and God’s grace.  Ultimately salvation rested on the blood of Christ.

The spiritual limitations of the old system went even deeper, because since only sins of ignorance were forgiven (even on the Day of Atonement), no one could have a completely clear conscience: “. . . (which is symbolic for the present age).  According to this arrangement, gifts and sacrifices are offered that cannot perfect the conscience of the worshiper, but deal only with food and drink and various washings, regulations for the body imposed until the time of reformation” (vv. 9, 10).  This does not mean all Old Testament believers were afflicted with inflamed consciences.  If they were faithful in utilizing the old sacrificial system, they were forgiven for their sins of ignorance—which was no small thing.  Moreover, some people had fewer premeditated sins to their credit than others, and less real guilt.  But, nevertheless, a clear conscience in the absolute sense of the word was beyond their reach.  The author’s bottom line is that these gifts and sacrifices could not “cannot perfect the conscience of the worshiper” (9:9).  The old system was deficient. It was external and superficial.

All that such offerings and sacrifices could do was to cleanse the person outwardly so that they could join in with the rest of God’s people in worship and prayer. These offerings and sacrifices only cleansed their bodies, removing ceremonial defilement and qualifying them for life in the community of God’s people. 

But their consciences were never fully and finally and forever cleansed of the defiling power of guilt that was the result of sin. 

So the limitations of the old covenant were profound— limited access and limited efficacy.  Average Joes were several ecclesiastical layers removed from access to God’s presence—and their consciences never rested easy.

The Old Covenant system of worship did not meet the deepest need of God’s people, namely, intimate personal relationship with God.  Its rites and ceremonies extended mainly to external matters—until God would provide a better system at a time of reformation (v. 10).

Here in v. 9 he also says that this way of relating to God through animal sacrifices in an earthly tabernacle was symbolic of the present time, by which he means the Old Covenant age.  His point is that he himself is living in a time of transition from the Old Covenant to the New Covenant.  With the coming of Christ the old way of relating to God has been replaced.  We have entered into what he calls in v. 10 “the time of reformation.”  The person and work of Jesus Christ have supplanted and replaced the entire ritual sacrificial system of the Old Covenant.

The whole point of this book of Hebrews is to say that the coming of Christ, the Son of God, into the world is the ending of “the present time” of the old, strange, foreign way of relating to God, and the beginning of “the reformation” where Christ himself replaces the high priest and the temple and the blood of the animals and the food and drink rituals.  That’s the point of the book of Hebrews.

Our author sees himself in the time of transition from old to new.  The old system of relating to God through ritual and sacrifice and priest and tabernacle “is becoming obsolete and is ready to disappear.  And the new order, the “reformation” has been inaugurated in Christ and is replacing the old.  Very soon the temple in Jerusalem would be utterly destroyed and the entire priestly, sacrificial system would be finished, to this day.

So, what did the tabernacle and its furniture and the activities that took place within the courtyard mean?  What did it symbolize?  Here are three things.

First, the exquisite construction of the tabernacle and the aesthetic perfection of its furnishings and the intricate design sewn into the embroidered material, together with the veil and the gold and the variety of colors throughout were all designed to serve as a visual sermon declaring the beauty of God.  Everything in the tabernacle and later in the Temple pointed to the glory and grandeur and splendor of God.

But it was especially to his holiness that all this pointed.  The necessity for continual washings and cleansing of everyone and everything that entered the tabernacle was a constant reminder that God’s holiness is of such a nature that only the perfect and pure are acceptable to him.

Second, the tabernacle and everything in it was a daily reminder not just of God’s holiness but of man’s sinfulness.  Everything there shouted out loud: Stay away!  Do not draw near!  If you come near to God, you die!  That is why access to God’s presence was restricted to only one man, the High Priest, on one day of the year, and only then if he brought to the altar a sacrifice of blood both for himself and the people.

Third, and certainly most important of all, the tabernacle and everything in it pointed to the coming of the person and work of Jesus Christ.  May I remind you that when John the apostle described the incarnation of the Son of God, the entrance into human flesh and into the life of this world of the Second Person of the Trinity, he said in John 1:14 – “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”  And the word translated “dwelt” is more literally, “tabernacled” (if I may be allowed to turn a noun into a verb)!  The mercy and grace and forgiveness and glory and beauty that the tabernacle embodied has now come to us fully and finally in the person of Jesus!

The Old Covenant sanctuary was inferior for five reasons: (1) It was an earthly sanctuary (v. 1), (2) it was a type of something greater (its antitype; vv. 2-5), and (3) it was inaccessible to the people (vv. 6-7).  Furthermore, (4) it was only temporary (v. 8), and (5) its ministry was external rather than internal (vv. 9-10).

Although this may seem irrelevant to us today, because we no longer have any use for the sacrificial system.  However, we still have consciences that need to be cleansed.  With all the scientific progress and medical discoveries we still have not figured out how people with guilty consciences can draw near to God.

John Piper writes:

Isn’t it remarkable that when we spend an evening isolated in front of our computer: addicted, as it were, to work or pornography or video games, the issue, at the end of it all, is not the wonders of technology, or science; the issue is: how can I come to God when I feel so dirty, and how can I come to my wife and children with transparent love, when my conscience is so defiled?  (And if you’re not into computers, pick your own sin—TV soaps, romance novels, stock market pages, spirit-numbing music, etc.).

Isn’t it remarkable that the basic problems of life never change.  The circumstances change, but the basic problems don’t change.  We are humans, and we have consciences that witness to our sinfulness with testimonies of real guilt.  And we know that what keeps us away from God is not dirty hands or soiled clothes or distance from an altar or a priest.  What keeps us from God is real sin echoing in a condemning conscience.

Well, fortunately for us, God has solved this problem.  He has placed us in a new time period, a period of reformation.

Watch for the differences between the old “present time” and “the time of reformation” as you read verses 11-14.

But when Christ appeared [that’s the inauguration of the “time of the reformation” and the ending of “the present time”] as a high priest of the good things to come [which have now indeed come through his death and resurrection], He entered through the greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this creation; and not through the blood of goats and calves, but through His own blood, He entered the holy place once for all [the true tabernacle in heaven], having obtained eternal redemption [not a yearly one].  For if the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkling those who have been defiled, sanctify for the cleansing of the flesh [that is, ceremonial cleansing, but not real moral, spiritual cleansing], how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?

“The argument moves a stage further as the author turns specifically to what Christ has done.  The sacrifices of the old covenant were ineffectual.  But in strong contrast Christ made an offering that secures a redemption valid for all eternity.  In the sacrifices, a good deal pertained to the use of blood.  So in accord with this, the author considers the significance of the blood of animals and that of Christ.” (Leon Morris, p. 85).  The other priests offered blood; Christ offered his own blood.  The means of Jesus’ entry into the “greater and more perfect tabernacle” was superior, first negatively in that it was “not through the blood of goats and calves,” and then positively, “but through His own blood.”

Christ unlimited access to God is emphasized in vv. 11-12.  Jesus did not just slip into the Most Holy Place amidst a protective cloud of incense to breathlessly perform a ritual sprinkling and then exit until next year. Instead, he came having given his own precious blood once and for all, and there he sat down at the right hand of the Father—never more to leave.

These verses reveal two contrasts.  First, over against the earthly and temporary tabernacle of the Old Covenant, one made with human hands, the Lord Jesus Christ ministers on our behalf in the greater and more perfect tabernacle, namely, the immediate and unqualified presence of God.  Second, against the Old Covenant High Priest who had to enter in with a blood sacrifice year after year after year, Jesus offered up the sacrifice of himself “once for all” (v. 12).  Constant throughout the book of Hebrews is this emphasis on the finished work of Jesus Christ.  Unlike the priests who had to offer continual sacrifices for the sins of the people, Jesus offered one sacrifice, which is effectual for all time and throughout eternity.

But there is even more, for the unlimited access is crowned with unlimited efficacy as Christ makes consciences clean.  To make this point, the author reiterates the limited nature of the old system: “For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh . . .” (v. 13) Jesus’ sacrifice was superior in that it was perfect, voluntary, rational, and motivated by love.  It “obtained eternal redemption” AND cleansed their conscience.

The limited efficacy of the old covenant could make people ceremonially clean as well as atone for sins of ignorance.  For example, if an Israelite became ceremonially defiled by touching a dead body, the remedy was ready.  All he had to do was go to a priest who had in his possession the ashes of a red heifer that had been ritually sacrificed and burned with a mixture of cedar, hyssop, and scarlet wool.  These ashes, mixed in water and ritually sprinkled on the defiled, would bring him external cleansing (cf. Numbers 19:1–13).

Considering that the blood of bulls and goats and the ashes of a heifer had that much effect, “how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God” (v. 14).  There is deep, glorious forgiveness in the new covenant, and it is available to all.

“How much more” indicates that our author is arguing from the lesser to the greater.  Whatever efficacy towards forgiveness the blood of animals was granted, the blood of Jesus Christ could accomplish “much more.”

Those ceremonial sacrifices provided safety from an immediate display of divine wrath in temporal matters: They were a reminder, as it were, of the covenantal purpose of God to preserve this people in order that the Messiah could come. It kept them pure as a nation, a peculiar people in the flesh.

As was meant for the Old Covenant sacrifices, Jesus “offered himself without blemish to God.”  Only a pure sacrifice is able to “purify our conscience.”  “Dead works” cannot accomplish what the blood of Jesus is able to accomplish for us.

In light of the perfection of the sacrifice and its necessary effectual satisfaction of the offended justice of God, one who rests in Christ and his perfection may have purity of conscience from his fruitless efforts to gain standing by his own works—they are dead and without merit.  Now the believer rests in one whose works were perfect, done in the power of the Holy Spirit, without blemish.  Our service to God—our purpose in creation—is now acceptable to God.  Now, he “work[s] in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ.” (13:20)

No matter what sins you have committed, no matter who you are, you can experience deep, eternal forgiveness.

Albert Speer was once interviewed about his last book on ABC’s “Good Morning, America.”  Speer was the Hitler confidant whose technological genius was credited with keeping Nazi factories humming throughout World War II.  In another era he might have been one of the world’s industrial giants.  He was the only one of twenty-four war criminals tried in Nuremburg who admitted his guilt.  Speer spent twenty years in Spandau prison.

The interviewer referred to a passage in one of Speer’s earlier writings: “You have said the guilt can never be forgiven, or shouldn’t be.  Do you still feel that way?”  The look of pathos on Speer’s face was wrenching as he responded, “I served a sentence of twenty years, and I could say, ‘I’m a free man, my conscience has been cleared by serving the whole time as punishment.’  But I can’t do that.  I still carry the burden of what happened to millions of people during Hitler’s lifetime, and I can’t get rid of it.  This new book is part of my atoning, of clearing my conscience.”  The interviewer pressed the point. “You really don’t think you’ll be able to clear it totally?”  Speer shook his head.  “I don’t think it will be possible.”

For thirty-five years Speer had accepted complete responsibility for his crime.  His writings were filled with contrition and warnings to others to avoid his moral sin.  He desperately sought expiation.  All to no avail.

How pitifully sad, for forgiveness was available in the blood of Jesus Christ.  Coming to Christ would truly have been like being born again.  He literally could have had a new conscience—without the slightest sense of lingering guilt.

You can have a clear conscience if you want one, and the offer is for anyone.  If you have not yet come to Christ, the offer stands, as it always has.

A Heavenly Sanctuary, part 1 (Hebrews 9:1-5)

We are beginning Hebrews 9 today.

1 Now even the first covenant had regulations for worship and an earthly place of holiness. 2 For a tent was prepared, the first section, in which were the lampstand and the table and the bread of the Presence. It is called the Holy Place. 3 Behind the second curtain was a second section called the Most Holy Place, 4 having the golden altar of incense and the ark of the covenant covered on all sides with gold, in which was a golden urn holding the manna, and Aaron’s staff that budded, and the tablets of the covenant. 5 Above it were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat.  Of these things we cannot now speak in detail.

You might be wondering, “What does this have to do with my life in 2023?”  Well, our author will get to this point–although we won’t today—which shows how this impacts our lives even today:

“For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God” (Hebrews 9:13-14)

How many of us long to have a pure conscience?  How many of us deeply desire to know that all our sins are finally and fully forgiven, that there truly is “no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1)?  Well, the author of Hebrews is going to show us how this is possible through Jesus Christ, the mediator of the New Covenant.

God’s way of dealing with sin has changed, but the fundamental problem that faced Old Testament Israel and New Testament believers is the same problem we face today—we need a way to attain a pure conscience.

The fact is, we still deal with guilt and a guilty conscience.  Years ago, psychologist Eric Fromm observed, “It is indeed amazing that in as fundamentally irreligious a culture as ours, the sense of guilt should be so widespread and deep-rooted as it is” (The Sane Society, [publisher unknown], p. 181).  A cartoon hit the nail on the head.  It showed a psychologist saying to his patient, “Mr. Figby, I think I can explain your feelings of guilt.  You’re guilty!”

The Bible declares that all of us are guilty before the bench of God’s holy justice. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23).  The Bible teaches that guilt is more than just a bad feeling.  It is true moral culpability that alienates us from God and brings us under His decreed penalty, eternal punishment in the lake of fire (Rev. 20:11-15).  But, thankfully, the Bible also declares that God has provided a remedy for our guilt.  It is vital that we understand and apply this remedy personally.

John MacArthur (The MacArthur New Testament Commentary, Hebrews [Moody Press], p. 221) points out that the Bible only devotes two chapters to the story of creation, but it gives about 50 chapters to the tabernacle.  It was the center of Jewish worship under the old covenant.  It was God’s prescribed way to enjoy fellowship with Him on this earth.

The author of Hebrews begins his stark comparison between the saving powers of the old and new covenants with a brief summary in verses 1–5 of the layout and furnishings of the wilderness tabernacle, which he concludes by saying, “Of these things we cannot now speak in detail” (v. 5).  And, indeed, there was no real need to discuss them in detail because his Jewish readers were well acquainted with the desert sanctuary and its regulations for worship.  But we are not.  And thus, some detail is in order before we launch into the comparison of the covenantal systems.

Israel’s tabernacle was a portable tent-shrine that was always situated at the geographical heart of Israel, with all the tribes camped around it in designated orderly formation.  It was natural for the writer to use the tabernacle for his lesson, rather than the temple, because he proceeded to associate this sanctuary with the giving of the Old Covenant at Mt. Sinai (cf. 8:5). Furthermore, he had been using Israel’s experiences in the wilderness to challenge his readers.

Approaching the tabernacle, one first would see the white linen walls of the court of the tabernacle, which formed an enclosure 150 feet long and seventy-five feet wide.  The uniform whiteness of the enclosure’s walls broadcast the holiness of its function.  The fence surrounding the courtyard was about 7½ feet high.

When a worshiper entered the courtyard, he was immediately in front of the altar of burnt offering, a large bronze altar with a horn at each of its four corners to which offerings could be tied.  It was a hollow wooden box about 7½ feet long and 4½ feet high and was overlaid with bronze.  A few steps farther in would bring you to a stand on which was a bronze basin filled with water where ceremonial washings would occur (Exod. 30:17-2138:8).

This was as far as the layman could come, and it is here that he laid his hands on the head of the sin offering (Leviticus 1:4) in order to identify with it.  Behind the altar and a little to the right stood the bronze laver, a washbasin for the exclusive use of the priests, which, if neglected, imperiled their lives (Exodus 30:20, 21).

Directly behind the laver was the tabernacle, a flat-roofed, oblong tent fifteen feet in height and width and forty-five feet long.  It was made of wood but was overlaid with gold.  It was covered with three layers of cloth and skin.  The first consisted of gorgeous woven tapestries of blue, purple, and scarlet yarns and linen, which was then overlaid with two layers of animal skins.  Inside, the tabernacle was divided into two rooms by an ornate veil woven of the same colors along with gold and embroidered with cherubim.  The veil was supported by four golden columns set on silver bases.  The first outer room was called the Holy Place, and the second inner compartment the Most Holy Place or Holy of Holies.

Our writer briefly describes these rooms.  Of the first room he says, “For a tent was prepared, the first section, in which were the lampstand and the table and the bread of the Presence.  It is called the Holy Place” (v. 2).

There were no windows in the tabernacle, so the lampstand was there to provide light.  The lampstand was made of solid gold, with three branches springing from either side and each of its seven branches supporting a flower-shaped lampholder (cf. Exodus 25:31ff.; 37:17ff.).  The table, called “the table of the bread of the Presence” (Numbers 4:7), contained twelve loaves of bread, one for each tribe.  

These furnishings were all profoundly prophetic of Christ.  The seven-branched candlestick of pure gold speaks of the Divine Son who left Heaven’s glory to become the light of the world and make his people to shine as such (cf. Matthew 5:14–16; John 1:4, 5; 8:12) by reflecting His glory.

The consecrated bread anticipates Christ’s words, “I am the bread of life” (John 6:35ff.).  He is the true spiritual sustenance of his people, and apart from him there is no life.  We “feed” on Him through faith in Him and His teachings.

Now the attention shifts (Heb 9:3–5) to the most holy place, commonly called “the holy of holies.”  No Israelite had access, and even the high priest entered just once a year on the Day of Atonement, and then only because he represented the nation and had undergone a week of ritual cleansing from sin. It was the most sacred spot in the world because Yahweh dwelt there.  Of course, he is omnipresent and everywhere at all times, but the most holy place was his special dwelling place.  In the first century, it was an empty room, as the Babylonians and others had long before cleaned it out of its furnishings.  Still, it symbolized all it had previously meant to the Jewish people.

“Behind the second curtain,” he says, “was a second section called the Most Holy Place, having the golden altar of incense and the ark of the covenant covered on all sides with gold, in which was a golden urn holding the manna, and Aaron’s staff that budded, and the tablets of the covenant.  Above it were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat” (vv. 3–5).

Scholars have been puzzled because elsewhere the Scriptures place the golden altar of incense not inside the Holy of Holies, but in the outer room “in front of the veil” before the Holy of Holies (Exodus 30:6).  In fact, it had to be outside the Holy of Holies because it was used daily by other priests (Exodus 30:7, 8).  So why does the author of Hebrews present the altar of incense as part of the Most Holy Place?  Most likely, as Leon Morris explains, “The author has in mind the intimate connection of the incense altar with the Most Holy Place.  So it ‘belonged to the inner sanctuary’ (1 Kings 6:22), as is shown by its situation ‘in front of the curtain that is before the ark of testimony—before the atonement cover [mercy seat] that is over the Testimony (Exodus 30:6)” (Leon Morris, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 12 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1981), pp. 81, 82).  So our author was speaking theologically, not spatially.  In other words, he was describing the connection between them in a logical sense, not a locational sense.

While the location of the incense altar is puzzling to some, its prophetic significance is not, for the incense prophesies of the ultimate prayers offered by Christ, our high priest, in the presence of God.

Finally, the cover of the ark of the covenant is even more indicative of Christ.  It was at the mercy seat, the gold plate covering the ark upon which the blood of the atonement was sprinkled, that the sins of Israel were propitiated. Romans 3:25 tells us Christ was “displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood” (NASB).  Likewise, 1 John 2:2 proclaims, “and he Himself is the propitiation for our sins” (NASB).

The mercy seat symbolized Christ’s work.  Moreover, Jesus fleshed out the contents of the ark.  He perfectly fulfilled the stone tablets of the Law (Deuteronomy 10:5; Matthew 5:17), which were there to remind Israel of their obligation to obey God’s laws and to remind them of their failure in doing so.  Aaron’s staff that budded when it confirmed him as high priest (Numbers 17:1–11) is fully flowered in Christ’s priesthood.  Again, it would remind them of their rebellion against Moses’ authority.  And the manna again speaks of him who is the ultimate Bread of Life (cf. Exodus 16:33, 34; John 6:35ff.).  But once again it would remind Israel of God’s provision and their continued dissatisfaction and ingratitude.

As God looked down into the ark, He saw the symbols of Israel’s sin, rebellion and failure.  But when the blood of sacrifice was applied to the mercy seat, the blood of sacrifice covered His sight of the sin of Israel.

It was all so glorious!  “The cherubim of glory” (9:5) perpetually looked down in wonder as they knelt at the mercy seat with their wings arched and touching overhead.  “Glory” here is a synonym for God.  They were called the “cherubim of glory” not because they were themselves glorious or beautiful but because it was between them that the “glory” of God’s presence appeared. God said of the Ark in Exodus 25:22a, “There I will meet with you, and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim that are on the ark of the testimony, I will speak with you.”  Everything shouts, “Glory!”

The problem is that as the Old Testament progresses, whereas God’s glory once filled the tabernacle and temple, that glory eventually departed because of the idolatry and sins of the people of Israel.

The prophet Ezekiel records a number of visions which he had concerning the glory of the Lord.  At the beginning of these visions, the glory of the Lord is seen residing within the Temple and specifically between the cherubim (Ezekiel 9:3).  As Ezekiel watches, the glory of the Lord moves to the threshold of the Temple (Ezekiel 9:3; 10:3).  From there it moves to the east gate (Ezekiel 10:19) and finally out to the mountain which is to the east of the city (Ezekiel 11:23).  This was a sign of God’s judgment.  The glory of the Lord departed and it was not long after this that the Temple was destroyed.

The ark was taken from the temple at its destruction by the Babylonians in 587 bc (Jer 3:16) and never seen again, though many legends sprang up about its preservation, perhaps hidden by an angel (2 Bar 6:7).  It was never replaced, and the holy of holies remained an empty room, as the Roman general Pompey discovered to his surprise when he entered it in 67 bc (Josephus, War 1.152–53).  In place of the ark, a small stone slab was placed in the room, called “the stone of the foundation.”

Here is the point.  Do you remember how Jesus came to Jerusalem on the week in which He was crucified?  The Biblical account is very specific.  He came by way of the Mount of Olives – the mountain directly east of the city; the mountain over which the glory of the Lord had last been seen in Ezekiel’s vision.

The coming of Jesus to the Temple was the return of the King to His sanctuary.  He came cleansing the Temple.  But more importantly, He came to provide a cleansing for all men.  In this sense, He not only cleansed the Temple, He IS the temple.  It is in Him and through Him that people today are able to approach God.

Our author is pointing out the way to approach God under the “first covenant,” the Mosaic or Sinaitic covenant (Heb. 9:1), which “had regulations for worship and an earthly place of holiness.”  It was an external system enacted in an “earthly sanctuary” (see also 8:2). Our author will point out that this way of approaching God in worship was meant to be a picture of something better.

“The chief obstacle in the way of the Hebrews’ faith was their failure to perceive that everything connected with the ceremonial law—the tabernacle, priesthood, sacrifices—was typical in its significance and value.  Because it was typical, it was only preparatory and transient, for once the Antitype materialized its purpose was served” (A. W. Pink, Hebrews, p. 460).

A contrast is set up by the word “now” at the beginning of Hebrews 9:1, which corresponds to the word “but when” in verse 11, indicating a shift from the Old Covenant to the New Covenant.  His point in verses 1-5 is to show that the tabernacle is modeled after a heavenly tabernacle, both of which point to Jesus Christ.

As we saw in 8:5, the design of the tabernacle and its worship was not left up to human ideas, but God revealed everything in great detail to Moses on the mountain.  The whole thing was an Old Testament portrait of Jesus Christ.

Thus, we are not meant, today, to prepare an animal sacrifice to present at the bronze altar, and we do not have a high priest to enter the Holy of Holies once a year to secure atonement for us.  Rather, Jesus Christ has done all that through His own death on the cross.

The author has said all he needs to discuss at this point and so concludes by remarking, “We cannot discuss these things in detail now” (v. 5) because that would go beyond his intentions.  Enough has been communicated on the actual furnishings, and now it is time to turn to the actual service taking place in the sanctuary.  The readers are now able to understand the way the ancient pieces prefigured Christ and now the author wants to move into the way their rituals prepared for the work of Christ in his ministry.

Our author is again encouraging his readers not to go back to the old rituals—the tabernacle and sacrificial system, the priesthood.  Jesus Christ is a better mediator in a heavenly tabernacle, and is a better priest offering a better sacrifice.  In all these ways our author is trying to enforce the foolishness of returning to Judaism.

This sanctuary was an earthly sanctuary, built by man (Heb. 9:11) and pitched by man (Heb. 8:2).  The Jewish people had generously brought gifts to Moses, and from these materials the tabernacle was constructed.  Then God gave spiritual wisdom and skill to Bezelel and Oholiab to do the intricate work of making the various parts of the tabernacle and its furnishings (see Exodus 35-36).  After the construction was completed, the sanctuary was put in place and dedicated to God (Exod. 40).  Even though the glory of God moved into the sanctuary, it was still an earthly building, constructed by human hands out of earthly materials.

Wiersbe notes: “Being an earthly building, it had several weaknesses.  For one thing, it would need a certain amount of repair.  Also, it was limited geographically; if it was pitched in one place, it could not be in another place.  It had to be dismantled and the various parts carried from place to place.  Furthermore, it belonged to the nation of Israel and not to the whole world” (Warren Wiersbe, The Wiersbe Bible Commentary: New Testament, pp. 827-828).

And again, the tabernacle was clearly created to picture something deeper and more powerful.  It points again and again to Jesus Christ—His nature and His work.  This is what Israel needed to assuage their guilt and purify their consciences, and it is what we need today as well.  We don’t need rituals and regulations; we don’t need tabernacles and sacrifices; we don’t need priests.  All we need is Jesus Christ.  He is all we need for Jesus paid it all.  There is no forgiveness outside of Christ and complete forgiveness through Jesus Christ.

If you have never believed in Jesus Christ as your Savior, admit that you are a sinner in need of forgiveness and run to the cross.  Run to Jesus Christ and put your whole faith in Him alone, make Him your only hope for salvation.  Cry out to Him and say, “Jesus I believe you died for my sins and I ask you to forgive my sins through Your precious sacrifice.”

A Better Covenant, part 4 (Hebrews 8:11-13)

We are looking at the New Covenant in Hebrews 8:10-12, which is a quotation from Jeremiah 31 and forms the longest New Testament quotation from the Old Testament.  Here it is:

10 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. 11 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. 12 For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.”

So first, the New Covenant was internalized.  No longer written on tablets of stone, it is written upon the minds and hearts of New Covenant participants (by faith), thus giving them a deeper motivation and greater power to keep God’s laws.

That was last week.  Let’s move on to the other benefits of the New Covenant as promised by Jeremiah.

Secondly, the New Covenant gives us the promise of an exclusive relationship with God.  The rest of verse 10 says, “I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”

Even this is another motivation for obedience.  As Spurgeon said, “The best way to make a man keep a law is to make him love the law-giver.”  And we love Him because He first loved us!

Now, it is obvious that God is God over all creation, but this is speaking of a truer, more tender relationship that would exist between God and his people that He brought into covenantal relationship with Him.

In a transcendent sense, God is God “to every star that burns, and to every worm that creeps, and to every gnat that dances for a moment. . . . He is a God to every man that lives lavishing upon him manifestations of divinity, and sustaining him in life.”  But there is also a tender, truer relationship of heart to heart, spirit to spirit—so that “I will be their God, and they shall be my people” is true in a deeper, more soul-satisfying way than those on the outside can imagine.

This was one of the most precious truths of the Abrahamic covenant—that the only true God would be the God of this people, Israel, and they would belong to Him as a precious possession.

This is why David said: “Blessed are the people whose God is the LORD!” (Psalm 144:15b)  When we have the one and only true God as our Lord, we are truly most blessed!

Jesus expands upon this when He taught His disciples to pray “Our Father.”  This was a revolutionary concept, to believe that God was “my Father.”  Under the Old Covenant, the whole nation was thought of as Yahweh’s son, but not individuals.

One of the means of assurance of our salvation is the very fact that through the Spirit of adoption we can have the courage to pray to “Abba” Father (Romans 8:17).

The new covenant brings a new relationship between people and God.  Intermediaries (priests) who were vital under the old covenant, have changed roles under the new covenant.  No longer is God’s truth apprehended and applied through priestly mediation.  Rather, the new covenant made each believer a priest (1 Pt 2:5, 9).  Every believer has access to God through prayer.  Every believer can understand God’s saving promises as revealed in the Bible because he or she has God as a living presence in his or her heart.  (Bruce Barton, Life Application Bible Commentary: Hebrews, 120)

We are not only His through creation, but through redemption as well.  Redemption means “to be bought back.”  We were once enslaved to sin, held captive by Satan and destined to death.  But like Hosea, who bought his adulterous wife out of slavery (Hosea 3), so God purchased us.  And He paid an infinite price to get us back.  The redemption price was the blood of His beloved Son.

Peter says, “knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold,but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot” (1 Peter 1:18-19).

It was the blood of Jesus Christ that ransomed us from our captivity to Satan.

This double ownership by God is illustrated in this story.

There was a father and son in England.  The boy loved boats.  His dad carved a beautiful model boat out of wood.  It had fabric sails with rigging and carefully painted features.  One summer day, the boy told his father that he was going to sail his model ship in the shallows of the bay.  A sudden squall came up and the wind swept the boat out to sea.  The distraught boy returned home and told his father the sad news of how the boat was lost.

Six months later the boy was walking downtown when to his utter amazement he saw his own boat for sale in the window of the village pawn shop!  He ran in and told that owner that the boat belonged to him.  The shop owner admitted that it may have been true that it had once been his boat, but that he had paid twelve pounds to obtain it.  The next day he returned to the pawn shop with his father.  The boy waited outside.  His father came out of the store with the beautiful boat under his arm.  He had redeemed it by paying the price that had been set.

We are “twice God’s,” meaning that we are His not only by creation but also by redemption.

When he says, “I will be their God…” He means that He will be for us everything that a God should be.

  • Will He be a Father for us?  Yes, a loving, personal Father.  The very best.
  • Will He be a Shepherd?  Yes, a good shepherd supplying all we need, even at the cost of His own life.
  • How about a Friend?  One who sticks closer than a brother.
  • A Savior from our sins?  Yes, He is the Lord our Redeemer.

When He promised, “I will be your God…” all that is included in His being and promises are for us.”

Right after the golden chain of redemption in Romans 8:30, Paul asks, “If God is for us who can be against us?”  Then he lists four great assurances of God being “for us,” (1) that He has already done the most difficult thing—giving up His one and only Son for our redemption, so we can believe that He will do everything necessary for our ultimate glorification; (2) that as the ultimate judge He has already declared us righteous, no matter what human judges may say; (3) that Christ is not condemning us for our sins, but interceding for us before God; and (4) that absolutely nothing can separate us from God’s love found for those in Christ Jesus.

So through the New Covenant we become “His people.”  We belong to God.  He says, “You are my own, my precious possession, my inheritance, my beloved, the apple of my eye.”

This New Covenant relationship is echoed by Peter in his first epistle, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”

That last part, “once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people” is a quotation from the book of Hosea.  Although Israel, like Gomer, was prostituting themselves with other gods, Yahweh promises that one day He would show them mercy and bring them into an exclusive and eternal relationship with Him.

Like the bride says to her beloved in Song of Solomon “I am my beloved’s and he is mine” (6:3; 7:10) it is an expression of a delightful, intimate relationship.

Charles Spurgeon once said:

People have their treasures, their pearls, their jewels, their rubies, their diamonds, and these are their peculiar store.  Now, all in the covenant of grace are the peculiar store of God.  He values them above all things else besides.  In fact, He keeps the world spinning for them.  The world is but a scaffold for the Church.  He will send creation packing when once it has done with His saints.  Yes, sun, and moon, and stars shall pass away like worn-out rags when once He has gathered together His own elect, and enfolded them forever within the safety of the walls of heaven.  For them time moves; for them the world exists.  He measures the nations according to their number, and He makes the very stars of heaven to fight against their enemies, and to defend them against their foes.  “They will be my people.”  The favor that is contained in such love it is not for tongue to express.  Perhaps on some of those quiet resting-places prepared for the saints in heaven, it shall be a part of our eternal enjoyment to contemplate the heights and depths of these golden lines.

This is why we have such immediate access to our heavenly Father in prayer, like little John John playing under the desk of his father, the President, John F. Kennedy, in the Oval Office.

It is interesting that God made a similar statement in Exodus…

Then (when God brings Israel “out from under the burdens of the Egyptians“) I will take you for My people, and I will be your God; and you shall know that I am the LORD your God, who brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians.

And yet although there is a similarity between God’s declaration in Exodus and the New Covenant, they are not the same.  Leon Morris explains it this way…

The God Who saves people in Christ is the God of His redeemed in a new and definitive way. And when people have been saved at the awful cost of Calvary, they are the people of God in a way never before known. (Gaebelein, F, Editor: Expositor’s Bible Commentary 6-Volume New Testament. Zondervan Publishing)

How do we define the New Covenant?  It is defined by four glorious promises.  The first is the promise of internalized religion in new hearts; the second is the promise of an exclusive relationship with the one true God…

The third is the promise of personal intimacy.  Look at verse 11: “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.”

So what is this verse referring to?

Remember that our author is drawing a sharp contrast between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant.  The reality is that although Israel was the covenant nation, many individuals did not know God in a saving way.  Although every boy was circumcised the 8th day and memorized the Torah by age 12, that did not mean he was a recipient of God’s saving grace.  In fact, Judas Iscariot was a part of the covenant community and bore that very mark upon his body, yet Jesus called him the “son of perdition.”  And what about Caiaphas the high priest?

God’s covenant with Moses was a national covenant.  Individuals either trusted God and His promises (like Abraham) or they did not.  Every Israelite knew of God, knew the conditions of the covenant, but very few continued to love God and obey God.

When the New Covenant talks about knowing God, it is not talking about information knowledge, but rather relational knowledge.  It is communicated in Genesis 4:1 where it says “Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain…”  It is the knowledge of deep, personal intimacy.

Jesus was speaking of this same reality when he said in Matthew 7:23 of those who claimed to minister and do miraculous feats in the name of the Lord, “Depart from me, I never knew you.”  Of course, this does not mean that Jesus is ignorant of certain facts about them, but rather that there was no relational intimacy, therefore no relationship.

The wonder of the New Covenant is that every person “from the least of them to the greatest” (in other words, no one is left out), by virtue of believing in Jesus Christ, has an intimate relationship with the living God.

Jesus defined eternal life by saying, “And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3). Eternal life does not come from merely knowing some facts about God, but about entering into an intimate and personal relationship with Him through Jesus Christ.  That is what our author is talking about here.

While our author says, no one needs to say to his neighbor or brother “know the Lord” for all will know me, this doesn’t mean that we never need to pursue a deeper knowledge and more intimate understanding of God.  In fact, we will be growing in our knowledge and understanding of this marvelous, mysterious God throughout eternity.  He is infinite and we are finite—we will always be learning.  And it doesn’t mean that we have no need of teachers (Eph. 4:11).

What it means is that there are no second-class citizens within the body of Christ.  Everyone has access to this relationship and everyone can grow in this relationship.  Notice how universal this promise is: they will “all,” from “the least of them to the greatest.”  From the youngest child who exercises faith in Jesus to the most sophisticated theologian, this covenant introduces each one into an intimate relationship with Jesus Christ.  You cannot be too young, or too old, too mentally challenged, or too unimportant.  On the other hand, you can’t be too educated, too influential, too affluent or too powerful.

If you are not on intimate terms with Jesus Christ today your problem is not your age, your gender, your social status or race.  Your problem is that you (and I) have fallen short of God’s standard of perfection.

And that is what makes promise four such good news.

The fourth promise is the promise of thorough-going forgiveness.  Verse 12 says, “For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.”

What must not be missed is that this sentence, as great as it is, is introduced with the little for “for.”  Little words make a big difference.

Here he is saying that all of the prior promises of the New Covenant are based on this one ultimate promise.  Internalized religion with a new heart, an exclusive relationship with the true God, a personal intimacy with God all are ours because God promises to forgive us.

Because of the death of Jesus Christ, God of His own sovereign will, will never ever call to His attention our sins.  He will never treat us on the basis of our sins IF we have put our trust in Jesus Christ and what He did for us on the cross.

What did Micah say?

18 Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression for the remnant of his inheritance? He does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in steadfast love. 19 He will again have compassion on us; he will tread our iniquities underfoot. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea. (Micah 7:18-19)

Did you know that the Mariana Trench in the Pacific Ocean is deeper than Mount Everest is high?  In other words, the farthest distance you could take anything on earth is in the “depths of the sea.”  God has removed your sins from you as far as could possibly be reached.  And that is just a symbol for the infinite distance God moves our sins from us!

The New Covenant promises us complete forgiveness.  This is precisely what the old covenant could not do.  Under the old covenant, sins were never completely forgiven because they were never truly forgotten.  They were covered, awaiting and pointing to the true forgiveness through Christ’s death.

In Romans 3 Paul says…

23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.  This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. 26 It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

God remains just in that He punished our sins, but He is also “the justifier” in that He punished our sins in Jesus Christ.  While he “passed over former sins” Christ has now paid the price for those sins.  Judgment has fallen, but it fell upon Jesus Christ.

Please listen to me.  Those who are listening today as sinners or legalists please hear me.  Christianity is not a religion for perfect people.  Christianity is not a religion for those who have their “acts together.”  It is not a religion for those who are spiritually self-sufficient, but for those (like me) who have failed God again and again and are in dire need of having their sins forgiven.

Your forgiveness is final and complete in Jesus Christ.  Jesus paid it all, everything last bit through every last drop of blood on the cross.

When verse 13 says that the Old Covenant is “obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away” he is saying that God is about to put his exclamation point on the finality of the Old Covenant with the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.  So don’t turn back to the Old Covenant.  You have such better promises in the New Covenant.  Embrace them all through Jesus Christ!

A Better Covenant, part 3 (Hebrews 8:10)

He was born into a priestly family.  His beginning was rather spectacular.  In all likelihood his father was the high priest during a time of great reformation in the nation of Judah under the leadership of a king named Josiah.

Even before his birth God had set him apart to be a prophet—a divine mouthpiece to speak God’s word to the people of the southern kingdom.  As he grew into adulthood and the time of his public ministry dawned, it became obvious to all who knew him that he was a deeply sensitive and compassionate young man.  In fact, he has been referred to by some as the “Weeping Prophet.”

For 40 years he faithfully proclaimed the word of God to Judah during the darkest days of that nation’s existence.  Violence and immorality dominated the headlines, idolatry and perverted worship were rampant, apostasy was the spirit of the age among the covenant people.  It is not surprise then, that although he was uncompromisingly faithful to proclaim the word of God to his people, that the majority of his own countrymen regarded him as a traitor.  His life was often in serious danger.  He experienced constant opposition, beatings and imprisonment.

But it was his responsibility to announce the impending avalanche of judgment that was soon to come upon his people, and it broke his heart.

His name Jeremiah means “the Lord throws.”  It serves to illustrate that he was personally hurled into a very hostile setting by the Lord himself and that God was soon to hurl the people of Judah into the Babylonian captivity.

To that end he was commanded not to take a wife and not to bear any children.  His life was to serve as a sign that ordinary human existence and relationships were soon to be brought to an abrupt halt.  The people of God had repeatedly violated the terms of the covenant to which that had long ago agreed to obey.  The terms were exceedingly clear: obey me and I will bless you; disobey me and I will curse you.

When Moses read the laws of the covenant to Israel the people said: “We will do everything the LORD has said; we will obey” (Exo. 24:7).  F. B. Meyer remarks of this: “But how little they knew themselves!  Within a week or two they were dancing wildly around the golden calf.”

The consequences of their persistent disobedience were driven home glaringly and starkly 100 years earlier when the northern kingdom was sacked by the Assyrians and the people were sent into exile.  You would think that they had learned from that, but they did not.  Instead, they became even more brazen and unfaithful!

So God finally said to Jeremiah (Jeremiah 7)

22 For in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I did not speak to your fathers or command them concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices. 23 But this command I gave them: ‘Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be my people. And walk in all the way that I command you, that it may be well with you.’ 24 But they did not obey or incline their ear, but walked in their own counsels and the stubbornness of their evil hearts, and went backward and not forward. 25 From the day that your fathers came out of the land of Egypt to this day, I have persistently sent all my servants the prophets to them, day after day. 26 Yet they did not listen to me or incline their ear, but stiffened their neck. They did worse than their fathers.

Prophet after prophet was sent to call the people back to covenant faithfulness and exclusive worship.  Jeremiah went “up and down the streets of Jerusalem” (Jeremiah 11:6) trying to gain the ear and the heart of his people.

What makes this such a sad scene is that merely a few years prior to this they had taken such a positive turn.  Jeremiah’s own father, the priest Hilkiah, had found the book of the covenant that had been lost in the rubble.  He brought it to king Josiah, who called for national repentance and reformation.  Once again there seemed to be a glimmer of hope on the horizon.

In 2 Kings 23:3 we read…

And the king stood by the pillar and made a covenant before the LORD, to walk after the LORD and to keep his commandments and his testimonies and his statutes with all his heart and all his soul, to perform the words of this covenant that were written in this book. And all the people joined in the covenant.

One commentator notes: “I do not doubt that the first impulse of Jeremiah’s heart was to leap for joy when the news of a clean sweep of all heathenism was first received.  But as a prophet, viewing it from God’s standpoint, he could see that it never had an chance of success.”  It’s not that it became superficial; it’s that there was never any question of it being anything else.  And sadly, he was right.

Before long, everything snapped back to normal.  Josiah died and all that he had done directed towards reform was quickly undone.  The days very quickly became dark once again.  The spiritual lives of the people declined rapidly. Idolatry, indecency, immorality and inhumanity were rampant.  The Babylonian armies were sharpening their swords.

The Old Testament consistently reveals the steady failure of the people of God to keep the covenant regulations.  Sure, there were spiritual highpoints under men like David, Jehoshaphat and Hezekiah, but the fact remains, like a bride who repeatedly breaks her marital covenant with her husband, the history of Israel is characterized by consistent spiritual harlotry as time after time they walked away from God and cried out to other gods, false gods.

It becomes quite clear that the people who entered into a covenant relationship with God could never keep that covenant.  All their willpower and initial enthusiasm was not enough.  All their good intentions were not enough.  They just did not have the power within them to keep the covenant.

But in the midst of the darkness of apostasy and pending judgment, Jeremiah prophesies of a light that penetrates through the thick clouds of darkness—the promise of a new covenant with his people.  The writer of Hebrews refers to this new covenant as a “better covenant” (Heb. 8:6), a superior covenant.

Why is it better?  Because this covenant is based on “better promises” (Heb. 8:6) that will provide for his people everything they need to obey it.  It is a better covenant because it is built on better promises.  And those promises are what we will look at today.

Over the last couple of weeks we’ve looked at how the New Covenant is described: (1) it is mediated by Jesus Christ (8:6); (2) it is distinct from and superior to the old (8:6, 9) because it provide no power, could not save but rather condemned; and (3) it was made with God’s people—both Jews and Gentiles who entered into that covenant through faith in Jesus Christ.  We showed that some of the promises of the New Covenant do belong to the church and that we partake of those promises through the blood of the covenant.

Today and next week, we will define the New Covenant.  Exactly what are these “better promises”?  We see four of them in this quotation from the book of Jeremiah here in Hebrews 8:10-12.

10 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. 11 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. 12 For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.”

First, we see the promise of an internalized religion.  Look again at verse 10: “I will put my laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts.”  This was the problem with the Old Covenant.  The Old Covenant was written on tablets of stone and existed outside of them, apart from them.  Also, the Old Covenant primarily focused on external behaviors.

Everything looked great on the outside, but it wouldn’t work.  It would be like the excitement of tearing downstairs on a Christmas morning, excitedly opening the packages that you knew hid the very gift you had been hoping for, and then discovering that it wouldn’t work because there were “no batteries included.”

That’s the problem with the Old Covenant—the standards of behavior were made quite clear, but no power was given to keep those standards.

But the New Covenant tells us that at the moment of regeneration, the Holy Spirit internalizes the New Covenant so that by nature now we are both motivated and empowered to obey God.  God’s standards are now written into our minds and engraved upon our hearts.  We want to obey, long to obey, delight in obedience not out of fear, but out of sheer joy.

Yes, there were times when the Holy Spirit came upon people in the Old Testament and they were able by God’s power to do things they normally could not do.  Think, for example, of Samson’s strength.  But that constant provision was not intrinsic to the Old Covenant.  It failed to deal with the bad heart which keeps us from obeying God.

Listen to God’s promise to Jeremiah’s younger contemporary Ezekiel in Ezekiel 36.

26 And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.

Same idea, just developed more thoroughly.

Under the New Covenant, a spiritual operation would be performed upon the people by God Himself in which a heart of stone (that old, stubborn, prideful, self-centered heart) would be excised and replaced by a fleshly heart that would be open and sensitive to God’s Spirit. 

The problem is our old hearts.  They neither love God’s laws nor want to obey them.  They are more prone to disobedience and having one’s own way.

On one occasion Dr. Christian Barnard, the first surgeon ever to do a heart transplant, impulsively asked one of his patients, Dr. Philip Blaiberg, “Would you like to see your old heart?”  At 8 p.m. on a subsequent evening, “the men stood in a room of the Groote Schuur Hospital, in Cape Town, South Africa.  Dr. Barnard went up to a cupboard, took down a glass container and handed it to Dr. Blaiberg.  Inside that container was Blaiberg’s old heart.  For a moment he stood there stunned into silence—the first man in history ever to hold his own heart in his hands.  Finally he spoke and for ten minutes plied Dr. Barnard with technical questions.  Then he turned to take a final look at the contents of the glass container, and said, ‘So this is my old heart that caused me so much trouble.’  He handed it back, turned away and left it forever” (John Blanchard, The Truth for Life (West Sussex, England: H. E. Walter Ltd., 1982), p. 231),

The Old Testament law was written on stone.  It was external to the person.  They could put it on doors, arm bands and on their foreheads.  But even memorizing the law did not guarantee performance of it.

We all need more than needle-point stitching of the 10 commandments above our fireplace or mounted on courtroom walls.  It must be engraved upon our hearts by the Spirit.

Even when the old law was given, of course, it was intended to be in His people’s hearts (Deut. 6:6).  But the people could not write on their own hearts like they could write on their doorposts.

To be sure, there was (and is even now) great benefit in memorizing God’s Word!  Those who obeyed the wisdom of Deuteronomy 6:6–9 and tied God’s Word on their hands and foreheads and wrote them on the doorframes in their homes and impressed them on their children surely benefitted in their minds and hearts (cf. Deuteronomy 6:6).  Psalms 1 and 119 eloquently testify to the benefit of knowing the Law, for it could guide and influence the heart.  But the writing on the heart was beyond the power of unaided man.  Something far more radical was needed—a spiritual heart operation.

What Jeremiah and Ezekiel were talking about was more than merely committing certain laws to memory and meditating upon them “day and night.”  It is God’s promises to put within his people a new governing principle and motivation and power that would incline us and move us to do His will.

Paul speaks of this New Covenant as “written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts” (2 Corinthians 3:3) and James speaks of God’s Word that is now “implanted” in us (James 1:21).  The aspiration to obey, the delight in obedience, the hunger to comply, the power to obey, the joy in obedience…all come because of this better promise, better than anything the Old Covenant could supply.

Law never transformed people.  In fact, Paul says, laws catalyze sin.  It arouses the flesh to disobedience!

“But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. For apart from the law, sin lies dead,” Paul says in Romans 7:8.

And in Romans 7:13 Paul says the law brought death through sin, “producing death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure.”

The law can show us what delights God, but give us no power to produce the behavior that delights God.  Thus, the law without the power to obey just brings guilt and condemnation.

But through the New Covenant we do have a new motivation, a fresh desire, to pursue what the New Testament calls “the law of Christ.”  You see, it’s not that the New Covenant has no boundaries or standards connected to it.  God says, “I will put my laws into their minds and write them upon their hearts.

At the very core, that new law is the law to love one another.  In Romans 13:8 Paul says, “Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.”

All the other laws merely flesh out how to love one another.

So the first promise of the New Covenant is the promise of an internalized religion.  I hope that thrills your heart.  Now you have the power you need to live a life that is pleasing to God.  You access that by faith in God’s promise.  “Lord, you have written your law in my mind and upon my heart.  It is now encoded in my DNA.  You have given me the power through union with Christ and your Holy Spirit to obey your law.  I believe Christ will live His righteousness through me today.”

We must remember that we are “new creations” (2 Corinthians 5:17).  What a better promise!

In the new covenant, the will of God is inscribed on our heart, internally, experientially, in the sense that whatever God requires of us in terms of our obedience he provides for us in terms of the Spirit’s internal, enabling power.

One of the ways we see Christ working as the Mediator of the new covenant is in Hebrews 13: 20-21:

Now the God of peace, who brought up from the dead the great Shepherd of the sheep through the blood of the eternal covenant [this is the purchase of the new covenant], even Jesus our Lord, equip you in every good thing to do His will, working in us that which is pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.

The words, “working in us that which is pleasing in his sight,” describe what happens when God writes the law on our hearts in the new covenant.  And the words, “through Jesus Christ” describe Jesus as the Mediator of this glorious work of sovereign grace.

Because the new covenant provides motivation and power, we can have confidence that God’s Spirit within us can overcome our weaknesses and inadequacies.  We remember that trusting and obeying Him isn’t done in our own fleshly strength.  God works in us to shape our desires and accomplish what He wills (Phil. 2:12-13).  We’re not asked to conjure up halfhearted obedience performed with a begrudging grin, but God himself produces spiritual fruit through His abiding Spirit–“love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Gal 5:22-23).  We love and obey Him from a transformed heart, giving Him the glory, honor, and thanks.  (Charles R. Swindoll, Swindoll’s Living Insights: Hebrews, 128)

Any participant in the New Covenant has something that the believer of past ages never had.  He or she has a new heart in which the Holy Spirit dwells.  He has the Holy Spirit living within him.  He has the Keeper of the Covenant indwelling him.  And that makes a crucial difference.  It means that God has gifted His people in a special way, working now from the inside out, thus making it possible for saints to obey God’s law of love.

Next week we will continue looking at the further blessings of the new covenant.

A Better Covenant, part 2 (Hebrews 8:7-9)

God has made a new covenant.  The Old Covenant, the Mosaic Covenant, as glorious as it was, was ineffective for perfecting us and could not provide eternal forgiveness of sins.  We began looking last week at the way this new covenant was described in Hebrews 8:6-9.  First, we noted that it is a covenant mediated by Jesus.  Sin had separated us from God, but Jesus came as the Mediator to bring us back to God.  He alone, as the perfect, sinless God-Man, could do this.

So let me read Hebrews 8:6-9 again.

6 But as it is, Christ has obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises. 7 For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion to look for a second. 8 For he finds fault with them when he says: “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, 9 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.

So this covenant is superior because it was mediated by Jesus.  But also, secondly, it is a covenant that is distinct from and superior to the old covenant because it founded on better promises.

6 But as it is, Christ has obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises.

This is the same logic as we saw back in Hebrews 7:11, where our author spoke of the inferiority of the Levitical priesthood.

Now if perfection had been attainable through the Levitical priesthood (for under it the people received the law), what further need would there have been for another priest to arise after the order of Melchizedek, rather than one named after the order of Aaron?

If that priesthood could have brought about God’s saving plan, why was there need for another?  Because the old covenant and the old priesthood could not bring about the perfection that was required for a relationship with a holy God.

Just as the new priesthood was prophetically pictured, so a new covenant was predicted by both Jeremiah and Ezekiel, and even in seed form as far back as Deuteronomy 30:6.

So Hebrews 8:7 says, “For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion to look for a second.”  The imperfect tense is used with the verb “to look for,” so that it is communicating that throughout the Old Testament a new covenant was “continually sought after.”

This is a thought-provoking jab at those seeking to return to Judaism.  It is as if he is saying, “You really want to go back???  Those who lived under it were continually looking for a better way.  Who wants to live under the fear of ‘obey or die’?”

There were essentially two problems associated with the old covenant.  First, the covenant itself.  “For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion to look for a second.”

The “if” here in verse 7 is a second class conditional sentence, meaning that it supposes that it is not true.  It is not true that there was nothing wrong with the first covenant.  In other words, there definitely was something wrong with the first covenant.  The word “wrong” or “faulty” here brings out the contrast with the “perfection” that was sought through the covenant.  It demanded perfection, but could not provide it.

But didn’t God set the terms of that first covenant?  Yes.  Verse 8 emphasizes that both covenants were initiated by God.  Then why is there fault to be found in it?  How could a God-initiated covenant be at fault?

God’s intention with the Old Covenant was never to save people.  That was not the way people were saved, even in the Old Testament period.  People have always been saved through faith.  The purpose of that covenant was implicitly to expose people to their own sinfulness and to help them see how much they needed salvation from outside themselves.  In that sense it does serve God’s purpose.

Writing to the believers in Galatia who were being tempted by the Judaizers to return to the yoke of the law (the Old Covenant), Paul reasoned rhetorically…”Is the law then contrary to the promises of God?  Certainly not!  For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law.” (Galatians 3:21)

Galatians 3 then goes on to explain that the law was given as a guardian until Christ came.  The law was provided to show us our sin and our need for a Savior.  It was there to show us the impossibility of living up to its demands.  But we no longer need this guardian now that Christ has come.

In what way was the old covenant at fault?  Though it set forth before the people of Israel an objective standard by which to live, it supplied no power to live up to that standard.  It was written on tablets of stone, not upon human hearts.

This covenant is based on “better promises,” not new regulations.  It is based on the good news that Jesus Christ has done what we could not do—perfectly keeping the law—and then dying as the perfect sacrifice to pay the penalty for our disobedience.  These better promises are spelled out in vv. 10-12.

The old covenant was flawed, not in what was spelled out in the Law’s requirements, for the Law was good (cf. Romans 7:12), but in that it was “weakened by the flesh” of the people (Romans 8:3), because “the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot” (Romans 8:7, 8).  Because of this, it could not deliver on its wonderful promises.  

That is why verses 8 and 9 show that the fault also lay at the feet of the people themselves, of us.  Verse 8 begins “for he finds fault with them.”  Why?  “For they did not continue in my covenant…” (v. 9).

In verse 9 he uses the language of a father and son.  “I took them by the hand,” he says.  “But they didn’t want to walk with me.”  So He ultimately had to turn his back on them.  These are the terms of the Old Covenant, faithfully walk with me, be consistently obedient to my commands.

People vehemently demand their own free will and chafe against the idea of a divine enablement for them to believe in Christ.  God gave them all kinds of positive motivations to obey—that He would bless them, give them their own land, give them rest from all their enemies, bring prosperity and long and happy lives, give them abundance of children, cause the nations to bless them.

Wouldn’t those be enough motivation to encourage them to obey God freely? 

God also told them the consequences of disobedience—curses, captivity, misery, famine, barrenness, destruction.

But even with all these promises of blessing and warnings of cursing, Israel again and again chose of their own free will to break the covenant.  As in Judges, we see an unending cycle of disobedience, chastisement, repentance, blessing, then disobedience, chastisement, repentance and blessing, over and over and over again.  Constant failure under the Old Covenant.

In Judges they go through this cycle over and over again, doing what is right in their own eyes.  Throughout the books of Samuel and Kings they had some good kings, many bad kings, and a royal mess. 

In reality, our wills are not free.  They are driven by selfish desires, Satan’s lies and the world’s promotions, to resist God and His law at every turn.  Paul says in Romans 8 that the sinful mind is hostile to God, “does not submit to the law of God nor can it do so.”  It lacks the ability.

And the Old Covenant made no provision to compensate for that weakness.  It provided the standard, but no power to accomplish that standard.  And that is the difference: The New Covenant supplies the power that the Old Covenant never could.  It supplies a new heart, a new disposition and the Holy Spirit.

You don’t need a fresh commitment to do better or try harder, you need a new heart.

You don’t need a fresh commitment to get serious about religion, you need to be born again.

Verse 9 tells us this covenant is “not like the covenant that I made with their fathers.”  This is not the Old Covenant 2.0, a patched-up version of the original.  Jesus told us that new wine required new wineskins.  This is a brand new covenant, a different kind of covenant.

The new covenant was founded on “better promises,” both because of their extent and because of the covenant’s ability to bring them to fulfillment in the lives of sinful humanity.  The new covenant could deliver!

As Adolph Saphir said: “How great is the contrast between the old and the new covenant!  In the one God demands of sinful man: ‘Thou shalt.’ In the other God promises: ‘I will.'”

Thirdly, it is a covenant made with the people of God.  Verse 8 says, “I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah.”  That is from Jeremiah 31:31.

So, is this our covenant today?  Does it apply to the church today?

Certainly it is a covenant with the people of God, the descendants of Abraham, written 600 years before Christ.  When Jeremiah first recorded these promises of the new covenant, Israel was divided between the Northern and Southern Kingdoms, Israel and Judah respectively.  The Northern kingdom was already captive to Assyria and the Southern kingdom soon to be in Babylon.

But God envisions a day when the Old Testament people of God would be regrouped into one new nation, but the Northern kingdom would not at that time return.  The new covenant will reunite the twelve tribes under one head.

The new covenant would bring together those who had been divided by bitterness and hostility: it was to be established with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. The promise of the reunion of Israel and Judah was symbolical of the healing of every human breach and the reconciliation of all nations and persons in Christ, the seed of Abraham in whom all the peoples of the earth are blessed and united (Gal 3:8f., 16, 27-29) because he “has broken down the dividing wall of hostility” (Eph 2:14).  What God accomplishes through Christ is nothing less than the reconciliation of the world to himself (2 Cor 5:19ff.).  (Philip Edgcumbe Hughes, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, 300)

When the New Covenant was inaugurated through Jesus there was no Northern Kingdom, so that part of the New Covenant will not be literally and completely fulfilled until the future.

However, we the church today, do participate in some of the promises of the New Covenant.

First, when the apostle Paul quotes the words of Jesus in 1 Corinthians 11 and tells the Churchabout its responsibility to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, he explicitly mentions that this is the celebration of the New Covenant prophesied in Jeremiah 31.  This makes no sense if we do not at least in some sense participate in the New Covenant.

Second, in 2 Corinthians 3:6 Paul indicates that he was a “minister of the new covenant,” and he was the “apostle to the Gentiles.”  He goes on to describe that New Covenant ministry.

Third, the blessings of the prophesied New Covenant, those described specifically here in Hebrews 8 and throughout the rest of the NT, are identical with the blessings that Christians in the Church receive and enjoy: forgiveness of sins, the empowering ministry of the Holy Spirit, and the knowledge of God inscribed on our hearts.

Fourth, the people to whom the book of Hebrews was written are members of the Church!  His point in this epistle is, “You now have and are participants in the new and better covenant promised in Jeremiah 31 and established by Jesus through his death and resurrection; so why would you ever want to go back under the old covenant and its inferior ways?”  If the members of the church in Rome, to which this letter was addressed, are not also members of the New Covenant, nothing in this entire book makes any sense at all.

Fifth, according to Hebrews 8:6 the new covenant “is” better (present tense) and “has been enacted” (perfect tense) on better promises. And those better promises are precisely what he describes in vv. 10-12 that apply to us, the Church, today.

Sixth, in Hebrews 10:15 our author says that the Holy Spirit bears witness to “us” the Church that God has made this new covenant with us!

The New Covenant definitely began with Israel but it was never intended to end with Israel (Matthew 15:24 and Acts 1:8).

So this is a covenant that the church participates in.  However, there are some promises in both Jeremiah 31 and Ezekiel 36 which do not apply to the church.  Those will be applied to Israel and Judah in the future.

Our writer knows exactly what he is saying.

  • Just as the Jewish Sabbath is a type of our rest.
  • Just as Melchizedek is a type of Jesus Christ as the priest-king.
  • Just as the lambs that were sacrificed typified Jesus Christ in His sacrifice.
  • So the New Covenant is offered to us but will one day be consummated for Israel.

Turn with me to 1 Peter 1:1-2

1 Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who are elect exiles of the dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, 2 according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood: May grace and peace be multiplied to you.

Only one point I want to make here.  Peter is writing to Christians.

About this same group of people Peter later says (1 Peter 2:9), “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession…”

All four of these descriptions were descriptions of Old Testament Israel.  God referred to Israel as His “chosen people” in Deuteronomy 10, to them as a “royal priesthood” and a “holy nation” and “a people belonging to God” in Exodus 19:5.

Peter is applying these Old Testament descriptions of Israel to the church of Jesus Christ.  So this covenant, which will ultimately and finally be fulfilled for ethnic Israel, is being fulfilled right now for those Jews AND Gentiles who are the body of Jesus Christ!

The New Covenant with all its benefits IS for all those who believe in Jesus Christ.  Some now, others in the eschatological future.

This is a covenant that God makes with Israel and Judah and because of Jesus Christ we are allowed to participate in the inauguration of these promises.  God says, “I will make a new covenant…”  The Lord made it clear that this covenant would originate with God, and not with man.  At Sinai under the Old Covenant the key words were if you (Exodus 19:5), but in the New Covenant, the key words are “I will.”

This covenant is truly new, not merely “new and improved” in the way things are marketed to us today.  Today, products are said to be “new and improved” when there is no substantial difference in the product.  But when God says “new,” He means brand new, qualitatively new.

There are two ancient Greek words that describe the concept of “new.”  Neos described newness in regard to time.  Something may be a copy of something old but if it recently made, it can be called neos.  The ancient Greek word kainos (the word used here) described something that is not only new in reference to time, but is truly new as to its quality.

Note well who is speaking and who is making the covenant. It is the “Lord,” the God of grace who keeps his promises.  Four times the words, “declares the Lord” appear in this quotation from Jeremiah 31.  Again and again in that quotation God declares, “I will make,” “I will put,” “I will be,” “I will forgive.”  (Richard E. Lauersdorf, The People’s Bible: Hebrews, 87)

10 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. 11 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. 12 For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.”

A Better Covenant, part 1 (Hebrews 8:6)

A month-long trip overseas and he thought he would be busy and not miss his wife.  But at the end of the second week he thought, “I’ve got two weeks left of this?” (It would just take me two days!).  By the end of the third week he couldn’t think of anything but his wife and wanted to go home now!  He couldn’t get through that fourth week fast enough!

What helped him make it through?  A picture of his wife.  During those four weeks he looked at it, talked to it, slept beside it.

Thirty minutes before landing he put on a new shirt, washed his face—just like a first date.  He was full of butterflies.  After landing, in the airport, he looked around, but she was nowhere to be found.

At baggage claim he saw her coming.  He later said, “I can still remember what she wore.”  He couldn’t let take his eyes off her.

But what would you think if he would then have said, “Thank you for coming to pick me up.  But I’ve come to prefer you in picture form.  You’re okay, but I like the 5 x 7 of you.”  Pretty stupid, huh?  To replace substance with the symbol, the reality with the picture.

This is what the Hebrews were being tempted to do with Jesus.

What do I mean?

Well, everything in the Old Testament has anticipated in picture form the reality of the coming Messiah and his saving work.  In Him the long-awaited age has arrived.  The old order is consequently rendered null and void, symbolized by the rending of the veil.  The Old Covenant was no longer valid and the Old Covenant pictures were supposed to be discarded.  They had done their job while before Jesus appeared.

But some of the Jewish people were considering returning to the Old Covenant—replacing the living, breathing reality with a Polaroid image.

Jesus, as we saw in Hebrews 7, is the ultimate priest—not just the best, but the final priest.  He is also the ultimate sacrifice, the only one that truly takes away sin.  And He continues to serve in a better sanctuary (8:1-6)—heaven itself.

Hebrews 8:6 summarizes: “But as it is, Christ has obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises.”

This is a comparison between the old covenant and the new covenant, favoring the new covenant.

Why draw upon this now?  He had mentioned it back in Hebrews 7:22, because of the oath sworn to Melchizedek, “This makes Jesus the guarantor of a better covenant.”

The verb tense in Hebrews 8:6 is the perfect tense.  Jesus “has received” this ministry as a past, completed action (with nothing left to do) but with continuing results that reach into our present lives.

But why does the author choose to develop this idea now?

Envision in your mind an archery target with concentric circles.  These circles are periphery, moving into the target.  Everything our author has said so far is not the bull’s eye.  The bull’s eye is the new covenant.  If they can perceive and acknowledge that the old covenant is an inferior, shadowy reflection of the new and better covenant they can be persuaded not to return to Judaism.

But what do we mean by “covenant”?  Our writer uses it seventeen times, so we’d better understand it.  In the simplest sense, it refers to a bonded agreement between two parties, ratified by a blood sacrifice.  It brings about the uniting of the two parties in a relationship with one another, which results in a common purpose, common friends, common enemies, mutual confidence, loyalty and the exclusion of strife.

The choice of diatheke as the term for “covenant,” rather than suntheke, which is the more common word for covenant, is no doubt deliberate.  Suntheke was the common word in the Old Testament for agreements and for covenants between two equals, like a marriage covenant.  Suntheke referred to covenants in which both parties had obligations.  Sometimes both parties were human, like the covenant between Jonathan and David, or in the marriage covenant between husband and wife.  Most often they were between God and man, such as the Noahic covenant, signified by the rainbow, in Genesis 9, the covenant between God and Abraham in Genesis 15.

Since God is the initiator, they all reflect a measure of His grace.  Some were unconditional in nature (uni-lateral) in which all the promises were from God to man; others were conditional (bi-lateral), involving obligations on both parties.  The Abrahamic and Davidic covenant were unconditional.  The Mosaic, or Sinaitic covenant, was conditional.

What’s the difference?  In an unconditional covenant, the work of God alone is required to experience the benefits of the covenant.  In conditional covenant, both sides had to keep up their obligations.

The term diatheke, is also often translated “will.”  The conditions of a will are not made on equal terms.  They are made entirely by one person, the testator, and the other party cannot alter them but can only accept or refuse the inheritance offered.  (William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible Series, Hebrews, 91)

A covenant was considered a binding agreement among the ancients, and thus they were never entered into lightly.  After pieces of the sacrificial animal were laid opposite one another, the individuals who were cutting covenant would walk between the flesh.  This walk represented the so-called “walk into death” indicating their commitment to die to independent living and to ever after live for the sake of their covenant partner and to fulfill the stipulations of their covenant.  We see this practice in Jeremiah 34:8ff, esp. vv. 18-19.

Furthermore, this “walk unto death” was a testimony by each covenant partner that if either broke the covenant, God would take their life, even as had been done to the sacrificial animal.  In short, we see the gravity of entering into and then breaking covenant.  Covenant was a pledge to death.  A pledge cut in blood.  In covenant the shedding of blood demonstrated as nothing else could the intensity of the commitment being made between the two parties.

We see this graphically portrayed as God reinforced His covenant with Abraham in Genesis 15, starting in verse 8.  Abraham asks a question:

8 But he said, “O Lord GOD, how am I to know that I shall possess it?” 9 He said to him, “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” 10 And he brought him all these, cut them in half, and laid each half over against the other. But he did not cut the birds in half. 11 And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away. 12 As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell on Abram. And behold, dreadful and great darkness fell upon him. 13 Then the LORD said to Abram, “Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years. 14 But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. 15 As for yourself, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. 16 And they shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.” 17 When the sun had gone down and it was dark, behold, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. 18 On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your offspring I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, 19 the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, 20 the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, 21 the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites and the Jebusites.”

The Hebrew word for covenant, berith, literally means “cut,” this covenant making was called “cutting a covenant,” referring to the sacrificial animal.  Notice in Genesis 15 that only God passes through (v. 18); Abraham is asleep.  This indicates that God’s covenant with Abraham was unilateral, all the obligations lay with God.  He was binding Himself to this covenant.

Such was not the case with the Mosaic covenant on Mount Sinai—the Old Covenant.  In this case, God would bless Israel IF they were faithful to obey the stipulations of the covenant.  They could choose blessing or cursing, life or death.  And we see this played out throughout their history.

Both the Old and New Covenants were inaugurated through blood, the Old Covenant through the continual offering of the blood of bulls and goats, while the New Covenant was established through the once-and-for-all offering of the blood of Jesus Christ.  With His disciples Jesus said, offering them the cup, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me” (1 Corinthians 11:25).

When Moses read the covenant, they said (Exodus 24:7), “All that the LORD has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.”  Of course, the consistent record of Israel, from that very moment, throughout the Old Testament, even during the time of Jesus and the apostles, was to constantly disobey the Old Covenant.  They could not keep it.  God knew that they needed circumcised hearts.

The Law of Moses was very clear in stating, “Thou shalt not” or “Do this and live” or “Be ye holy.”  But there was nothing in the law itself that could empower the people to obey it.  The Law of Moses told the people of Israel what they should and should not do but it was never capable of supplying them with the internal energy or the spiritual power to obey. 

I have no idea who wrote this statement, but perhaps you’ve heard this explanation for the difference between the Old covenant and the New covenant, or the difference between the Law and the Gospel:

“To run and work the law commands,

Yet gives me neither feet nor hands.

But better news the gospel brings:

It bids me fly, and gives me wings!”

But that is a provision of the New Covenant—a new and greater ability to keep God’s commands.  In Hebrews 8 the writer now turns to exalting the superiority of the New Covenant and the gap between the two is enormous.  Today we will deal with the question: How is the New Covenant Described? in verses 6-9.  In this portion our author describes the reasons for the change from the Old Covenant to the New Covenant.

Next week we will look at How is the New Covenant Defined? in vv. 10-13.  Here he will quote the four superior promises of the New Covenant (vv. 10-12), and finally he will underline the certainty of the change (v. 13).

Our author gives us three descriptive statements about the New Covenant.

First, it is a covenant mediated by Jesus Christ.

But as it is, Christ has obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises. (Hebrews 8:6)

The Book of Hebrews in many places describes how the “new” is better than the “old.”  It speaks of better things (6:9); a better hope (7:19); a better covenant (7:22); better promises (8:6); better sacrifices (9:23); better possessions (10:34); a better country (11:16); a better resurrection (11:35); and a better word (12:24). 

Whatever else may be said about this new covenant, the most important fact is that it is mediated by, inaugurated by Jesus Christ.  The thing that makes this covenant successful is that it is based not upon our own efforts, but on the work of Jesus Christ alone.  “Mediator” refers to a “middle man,” someone who stands between two parties and helps remove a disagreement and achieve a common goal.  In this case the goal is to activate the New Covenant, this new bond relationship between God and man.

We are separated from God by our sin.  Isaiah 59:2 says, “but your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear.”

As our Mediator, Jesus Christ steps between a holy God whose justice requires that we pay the penalty for our sins and He stands as our sin-bearer, having paid for our sins and satisfied God’s justice, thus removing the barrier that kept us apart.

In His mediatorial death Jesus Christ secures the interests of both parties he represents—God’s need for His justice to be satisfied and our need for forgiveness of sins.  In 1 Timothy 2:5-6 Paul presents this mediatorial role of Jesus Christ.

5 For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, 6 who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time.

Verse 6 tells us how Jesus mediated between a holy God and sinful mankind, by giving himself as a ransom for all.

His mediation consisted of what the writer spoke about in Hebrews 7:27, “He has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people, since he did this once for all when he offered up himself.”

This author always uses this concept in relationship to the new covenant and Jesus’ death.

14 how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God. 15 Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant.

Because Christ offered Himself and was the perfect sacrifice, He is now the “mediator of a new covenant.”

We see this also in Hebrews 12:23-24

23 and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, 24 and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.

This New Covenant is inaugurated by the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ.  He is its Mediator.  As we would expect, all of this was prefigured in the making of the Old Covenant.  When the people agreed to obey the Mosaic Covenant (Exodus 24), Moses did this: He took the blood of the sacrificed animals and poured half of it into bowls and the other half he sprinkled on the altar.  “And Moses took the blood and threw it on the people and said, ‘Behold the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words’” (Exodus 24:8).

Half of the blood sprinkled on the altar speaks of sacrifice offered to God; sprinkled on the people speaks of blood being applied to them.  Jesus fulfilled this on the cross.  We proclaim that the sacrificial blood was offered to God and applied to sinful mankind.  Jesus is the Mediator, removing the barrier of our sin and inaugurating the better covenant of relationship with God.

This new covenant, not like the covenant made with the people through Moses, would be of grace, not of works; radical, not external; everlasting, not temporary; meeting man’s deepest need and transforming his whole being, because from beginning to end it would be the work, not of man, but of God himself.  (Philip Edgcumbe Hughes, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, 300)

Our author is showing us the superiority of the New Covenant to the Old.  And the first reason is because the ministry Jesus has received is that of Mediator.  That ministry is superior because the covenant itself is superior.  We will look at two more descriptions of the superiority of the New Covenant next week.

But let me just remind you why this author is emphasizing this.  He is saying that we should not prefer the picture over the real relationship which we can have with God through Jesus Christ.  Staying with the Mosaic law, with its sacrifices and priesthood, was like preferring the picture over the person.  Don’t do that today.  Don’t choose a man-made effort to try to reach God’s favor when He has offered His one and only Son as the way to salvation.  Trust fully and only in Jesus Christ today.

Jesus: A Better High Priest, part 2 (Hebrews 8:1-5)

We were talking last week about Jesus’ exalted position.  Having finished His work on the cross, completely satisfying God’s wrath against our sins and paying the penalty for our pardon, He “sat down at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty of heaven.”

So, we want to continue our examination of what it means to be seated at the right hand of God.  We said it is a place of honor, exaltation and power.

There are many passages which speak of God’s right hand.  David prophesied that the Messiah would sit at God’s right hand” (Psalm 110:1).  Jesus said that He would sit at the right hand of God (Mark 14:60-62).  When He ascended to heaven, He then sat down at God’s right hand (Mark 16:19; Hebrews 12:2).  At God’s right hand, He poured forth the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:33).  Peter preached Jesus as being exalted to be at God’s right hand as our Prince and Savior (Acts 5:30-31).  Paul taught that Jesus is at God’s right hand, interceding for us (Romans 8:34).  He is at God’s right hand, “waiting till His enemies are made His footstool” (Hebrews 10:12-13).  Yet while He sits and waits, He also rules! (Psalm 110:1-2,5; cf. 1 Corinthians 15:24-26).  For at God’s right hand, He is above all other authority (Ephesians 1:20-22; 1 Peter 3:22).  In one place, we do read of Jesus “standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:55-56).  Was Jesus here showing His respect for Stephen, the very first Christian martyr?

Rather than an imperfect human priest who can only enter the Holy of Holies once a year, and never stay there for long (much less sit there permanently!), we have a high priest seated at the right hand of the Majesty in the heavens!  The point is, “Why would you even consider going back to the old system when you have such a high priest permanently seated in such an exalted position?”

To be a high priest at all was pretty prestigious.  One man at a time.  One day in God’s presence.  Highly respected.

But that is no comparison to Jesus.  Six times in the book of Hebrews it is indicated that Jesus is the one enthroned at the right hand of God.  He is a “kingly priest,” and that royal dignity is in view here.

The priesthood of Jesus is performed in heavenly glory with a dignity that is kingly and a power that is divine.

From the perspective of the Ancient Near East, the one who sat at the right hand of a ruler is the one who represents the ruler, acts for the ruler and has the rights and authority of the ruler.  Jesus is the sovereign authority as the reigning Lord.

In Ephesians 1 as part of Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians, he writes:

19 and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might 20 that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, 21 far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. 22 And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, 23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.

Currently Jesus has all authority and has inaugurated the kingdom.  The consummation of that kingdom will be established at his second coming.  That is presented proleptically in Revelation 11:15 when the seventh angel blows his trumpet and loud voices cry out, “”The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever,” and will finally be established when Jesus Christ returns and establishes his kingdom on earth (Revelation 19-20).

Verse 2 continues to describe the place from which conducts his present ministry: “a minister in the holy places, in the true tent that the Lord set up, not man” (Hebrews 8:2).  Jesus Christ currently ministers “in the holy places, in the true tent.”

First, let’s just notice that Jesus Christ “ministers” or “serves” there.  This is amazing in itself and shows the upside-down nature of Christ’s kingdom!  When is the last time you heard of a king who served?  You haven’t.  Kings don’t serve, they are served by others.

He told his disciples (Mark 10:45), “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”  He came as a servant.

This willingness to serve others runs counter to the natural grain of humanity, because those in exalted positions characteristically view their role otherwise.

Charles Colson had a glimpse of this in his White House days when on a Sunday evening he accompanied the President from the Oval Office in the West Wing of the White House to the Residence. The President was musing about what people wanted in their leaders. He slowed a moment, looking into the distance across the South Lawn, and said, “The people really want a leader a little bigger than themselves, don’t they, Chuck?” Colson agreed. “I mean someone like de Gaulle,” he continued. “There’s a certain aloofness, a power that’s exuded by great men that people feel and want to follow.”

Colson comments in retrospect, “Jesus Christ exhibited none of this self-conscious aloofness. He served others first; He spoke to those to whom no one spoke; He dined with the lowest members of society; He touched the untouchables” (Charles Colson, Kingdoms in Conflict (New York/Grand Rapids, MI: William Morrow/Zondervan, 1978), p. 85).

Jesus serves others throughout his ministry, but left His disciples with an unmistakable illustration in John 13. 

1 Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. 2 During supper, when the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray him, 3 Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, 4 rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. 5 Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him. 6 He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, do you wash my feet?” 7 Jesus answered him, “What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand.” 8 Peter said to him, “You shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.” 9 Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” 10 Jesus said to him, “The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean.  And you are clean, but not every one of you.” 11 For he knew who was to betray him; that was why he said, “Not all of you are clean.” 12 When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you understand what I have done to you? 13 You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. 14 If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15 For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. 16 Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. 17 If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.

When Jesus girded himself with a towel, that is not an aberration of his human nature, but an expression of His divine strength bowing down to serve us.  In Psalm 18:35, David expresses this amazing perception of God’s condescension: “You have given me the shield of your salvation, and your right hand supported me, and your gentleness made me great.”  Some versions say, “You stooped down to make me great.”

Who went to Adam and Eve?  Do they themselves come to their senses and pursue God?

Who present Himself as the spurned lover in the book of Hosea?  Yet, He still pursues.

It is His nature to seek.  To serve is His dignity!

And because He humbles Himself to serve, God will highly exalt Him.  One of my favorite passages of Scripture reminds us:

5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:5-11)

Even now, Jesus Christ, sitting in kingly glory and constantly receiving the worship of heavenly beings, serves us.  He may have “sat down,” but His is far from inactive!  How incredulous!  How marvelous!

And how does He serve?  Remember Hebrews 7:25.

Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.

He is advocating for us against the accuser in 1 John 2:1, “if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.”

We “have such a high priest,” not just any priest, but even the best human priest, but the only high priest who could possibly draw us near to God.

Highlight in Hebrews 7:25 that word “always.”  There are no lapses.  No brownouts.  No temporarily lost signals.  He constantly lives in order to serve us by interceding for us before the Father.  That is the best possible service we could receive.

Thirdly, we see the superiority of Jesus’ high priestly ministry is established by the arena in which He serves His people.

Verse 2 speaks of the “true tent.”  Jesus is, “a minister in the holy places, in the true tent that the Lord set up, not man.”

What does the author of Hebrews mean by that?  What he is saying is that the earthly tabernacle and the sacrificial system was a temporary shadow, pointing to the real thing that is greater and more effective in dealing with sin.

It is not that the Old Covenant tabernacle was false, but that it was temporary and a shadow of the true tabernacle in heaven.  Moses was shown a plan upon the mountain (Exodus 26:30) and it was of the “true tent that the Lord set up, not man.”  This shows the permanent reality of the heavenly tabernacle.

Why is this so important?

Because we would be in trouble if this were not so.

Now if he were on earth, he would not be a priest at all, since there are priests who offer gifts according to the law. (Hebrews 8:4)

That is, if Jesus were ministering on earth, then we would be left with the current tabernacle with its priests and sacrifices, and this would not pay for our sins.  If he were talking about the earthly tabernacle, Christ couldn’t serve because He was not of the right lineage.  He wasn’t born into the right family and not only would He be unable to be our high priest, but He would not be able to be a priest at all!

But, there is a true tabernacle, a heavenly tabernacle, set up by God, not by man.

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.” (Hebrews 8:5)

The words “copy” and “shadow” get their significance from the fact that they point to something greater.  The earthly tabernacle is merely a copy, a shadow of a greater reality.  The word “copy” means that there was an original, a master.  The word “shadow” contrasts with something that is real.

To emphasize the more excellent ministry of Messiah, the concept of a copy and shadow is repeated throughout this section.  These words apply to the earthly tabernacle in Hebrews 9:9, “symbolic for the present age” and then he says the earthly tabernacle and furniture are “copies of the heavenly things” in Hebrews 9:23.  In Hebrews 9:24 he again emphasizes that “holy places made with hands…are copies of the true things.”

Thus, the purpose of the earthly tabernacle in the wilderness and the temple in Jerusalem was always to point to the greater reality that they typify—a tabernacle in heaven.

Moses was given minute details (15 chapters worth) for designing and constructing the first earthly tabernacle.  The warning to follow “the pattern” (quoted from Exodus 25:40) was given in the midst of minute instructions about the ark, the table, the lampstand, and the size, shape, and materials specified to build the tabernacle (Exodus 25—31; cf. 25:9; 26:30; 27:8)

The word “pattern” meant something more than verbal instruction. Very likely it denoted a model along with verbal explanation.  Moses may have been privileged to view a model on Sinai, then was given personal instruction.

This produced inventive rabbinical speculation.  For example, the Talmud says, “An ark of fire and a table of fire and a candlestick of fire came down from heaven; and these Moses saw and reproduced” (TB Menahoth 29a) (Leon Morris, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary , vol. 12 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1981), p. 76).  Some rabbis held that the angel Gabriel descended in a workman’s apron from Heaven with models of the tabernacle furniture, which he showed Moses how to build (Edward Fudge, Our Man in Heaven (Grand Rapids, MI: 1974), p. 82).  This, of course, is groundless speculation, but it does show that Jewish interpreters believed there was a heavenly tabernacle.

It can truly be said of the Aaronic priesthood, as verse 5a avers, “They serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly things.”  The substance, the ultimate reality, of the tabernacle is where Jesus is—at the right hand of God.  This being so—and coupled with the dizzying glory of the Lamb surrounded by the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders amidst rainbows of praise—what must the real sanctuary and his priestly ministry be like?  Imagine the multi-faceted shadow of the glorious tabernacle, and then imagine the ultimate heavenly reality!  Remember that the heavenly counterpart is free from the spatial and material limitations of the earthly tabernacle and temple.  If such was the shadow, what must be the substance?  Do not fail to employ your imagination, because however grand and wondrous your imagining is, it cannot exceed the reality of Christ’s heavenly tabernacle and priesthood!

And we can learn a lot from the layout of the tabernacle and the furnishings precisely because it is made to the exact specifications of the heavenly tabernacle.  Moses couldn’t take artistic license in building the tabernacle.

Why?  Because they represented something greater and must have correspondence to it.  Jesus didn’t come to serve us in the replica, but He does serve us in the original.  He is in heaven, in the real Holy of Holies, serving His people.  That is why His ministry is superior.

To show us just how important this is he draws us to a conclusion with another comparison to the old order.

But as it is, Christ has obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises (Hebrews 8:6)

Jesus’ priesthood and ministry is far superior (“much more excellent”).  How superior is Jesus’ priesthood?  As superior as the new covenant is to the old.  And that is very, very exciting!  But you’ll have to wait until next week before we get into that.

Do not turn away from Jesus Christ as the ultimate, only worthy sacrifice for your sins.  This is the only sacrifice that God regards as satisfying to His wrath against our sins.  Apart from Jesus Christ, when God looks at us He sees us in all our sin, all our guilt and all our defilement.  But united to Jesus Christ by faith, He sees us in the righteousness and worthiness and purity of Jesus Christ.

Jesus Christ is what you need.  Jesus Christ is all you need.  Don’t turn to anything else.  Don’t try to add anything else to simple faith in Jesus Christ.  Trust in Him alone.

Jesus: A Better High Priest, part 1 (Hebrews 8:1)

Before we get into chapter 8 of Hebrews, we have a few verses to cover in chapter 7.

25 Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them. 26 For it was indeed fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. 27 He has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people, since he did this once for all when he offered up himself. 28 For the law appoints men in their weakness as high priests, but the word of the oath, which came later than the law, appoints a Son who has been made perfect forever.

The point the author of Hebrews is making is that Jesus is a better priest.  He comes from a different linage, after the order of Melchizedek, instead of Levi and the Aaronic priesthood.  Therefore he is an eternal priest and “always lives to make intercession for [us].”  In addition, he is totally sinless.  Look again at verse 26, “For it was indeed fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens.”

He is unlike the current priesthood, which must “offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins.”  Jesus, being sinless, does not need to offer sacrifices for himself.  Throughout his life he lived a totally sinless life, always doing the will of His Father and pleasing Him in every respect.  Thus, He could give himself as a sacrifice for us, because he was spotless and without defect.

The Levitical priests had to offer sacrifices to pay for their own sins before they could offer sacrifices for the people.  Jesus, however, because He was perfect, “once for all…offered up himself.”

Notice that Christ “offered up himself,” it was a willing sacrifice.  Although it was the Father’s will, Jesus willingly submitted to that will in the garden.  He says in John 10:17-18…

17 For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again.  This charge I have received from my Father.”

The reason Christ offered up himself “once for all” is that His sacrifice perfectly appeased God’s wrath against sins.  Jesus said from the cross, “It is finished,” which can be translated “paid in full.”  No subsequent sacrifices are needed. Jesus paid it all.

Jesus is a superior priest because He is a Son (the Son of God), not a mere man, because God swore His priesthood into existence, because His priesthood is more recent, because his priesthood is permanent, because it is now in heaven, and because his person is perfect.

The outcome for us is inevitable and eternal: “For it was indeed fitting that we should have such a high priest” (v. 26a).  Hallelujah!  Double hallelujah!  How dare we go anywhere else with our need!  How dare we go to others without first going to him!  He is everything we need!  Either we are children or we are not.  Either Christ is sufficient or he is not.  And he more certainly is!

“One of the most distinctive themes in the theology of Hebrews is the change from old to new in God’s dealings with humankind. In Jesus Christ a decisive shift in salvation-history has occurred according to God’s plan. What was provisional and ineffective has been superseded by the final and full salvation in the Son of God, a change anticipated in the Old Testament itself” (Buist Fanning, “A Theology of Hebrews.” In A Biblical Theology of the New Testament, p. 398).

A better priest enacts a better covenant.  That is the theme of Hebrews 8.

And you might say, “So what?”

Well, I hope that a fresh understanding of the new covenant that Jesus enacted will be transforming to your life, and therefore exciting to you.

To the Jews, who for fifteen hundred years had been raised upon the Old Covenant with the Mosaic Law, it was very difficult for them to ever accept the possibility that the Old Covenant had been replaced with a new covenant.  Although this had been promised in the Old Testament prophets, they were leery about believing that it had been enacted by Jesus.

In previous chapters we have been shown that Jesus is superior to…

  • The prophets (Hebrews 1:1-3)
  • The angels (Hebrews 1:4-2:18)
  • Moses (Hebrews 3:1-5)
  • Aaron and the Levitical priesthood (Hebrews 5:1-10; 7:1-28).

So our author has been proving that Jesus is indeed a superior priest, having offered a superior sacrifice which inaugurates a superior covenant.

Let me read Hebrews 8.

1 Now the point in what we are saying is this: we have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, 2 a minister in the holy places, in the true tent that the Lord set up, not man. 3 For every high priest is appointed to offer gifts and sacrifices; thus it is necessary for this priest also to have something to offer. 4 Now if he were on earth, he would not be a priest at all, since there are priests who offer gifts according to the law. 5 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.” 6 But as it is, Christ has obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises. 7 For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion to look for a second. 8 For he finds fault with them when he says: “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, 9 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. 10 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. 11 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. 12 For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.” 13 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.

Why is Jesus so superior?

First, the superiority of Jesus’ high priestly ministry is established by the finality of His atoning sacrifice.

Our author begins verse 1 with the statement, “the point of what we’re saying” and that is not so much a summarizing statement as the idea that this is the apex, the high point.  It is not just the main point, this is the high point.  He will continue to develop this thought for the next three chapters. 

The author leads us on from his treatment of the priesthood after the order of Melchizedek beginning in Hebrews 4:14 and now reaching a crescendo in Hebrews 7, the writer has been emphasizing the priesthood of Christ to emphasize the point that Christ’s ministry far surpasses that of the Levitical priests.

And here is the high point: “We do have such a high priest, who sat down at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty of heaven.”

Jesus is not just any priest, but “such” a high priest…a glorious high priest.

Don’t miss this little point here.  Our author uses the present tense here, “we have.”  We continually have this kind of priest, presently functioning for us.  He is our priest.  If we believe in Jesus Christ, He is our priest forever.  There will never be any change in that.  He is continually interceding for us.  There will never be any change in that.

Two things are highlighted about this high priest in verse 2.  One deals with the place the high priest ministers in (which we will deal with secondly).  The other deals with the posture of the high priest.

The Levitical priest never, ever sat down.  There was no place for them to sit.  Neither a chair nor a bench was part of the furniture of the temple.

In Hebrews 10:11-12 we read…

11 And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. 12 But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God,

The Levitical priest was always standing because their work was never done.  They were always having to offer new sacrifices for the continuing sins of the people.  They did this day after day, “offering repeatedly the same sacrifices.”  Why?  Because these sacrifices “never take away sins.”  They are ineffective in permanently taking away sins.

In contrast, Jesus as the better high priest has “sat down.”  The verb indicates a completed, non-repeatable action.  And He is seated because his work made a single sacrifice that is effective “for all time.”  It is the physical expression that signified: “It is finished.”

In John 4, Jesus had to explain to His disciples what his real “food” was, declaring…

Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work” (John 4:34)

At this point in his ministry he still had much to do, so he was always at work doing the Father’s will.  But in John 17, Jesus indicated in his high priestly prayer “I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do.”

By this time the work was done.  Yes, He still had to hang upon the cross to satisfy God’s wrath against us and pay the penalty for our sins and rise again, but He could speak of His work as effectively finished.

And then John records Jesus’ words on the cross in John 19:28-30.

28 After this, Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfill the Scripture), “I thirst.” 29 A jar full of sour wine stood there, so they put a sponge full of the sour wine on a hyssop branch and held it to his mouth. 30 When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, “It is finished,” and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

“It is finished” translates the single verb tetelesthai, which means in essence, “paid in full.”  The perfect tense speaks of the permanence of this payment—a single payment that has continuing benefits for us today.

In ancient times when someone had a debt that was finally paid off, the lender would write “tetelesthai” across the bill to certify that it had been paid in full.  And when Jewish priests would examine an animal for suitability to be sacrificed, they would use this same verb if they found the animal to be faultless.  We owed a debt we could never pay, but Jesus fully paid the debt He did not owe.  That is amazing grace!

Because in his person he brought finite man and infinite God together, he could then do what no one else could—he could bear all our sins in a single cosmic sacrifice.  Hence the heavenly song, “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9).

In contrast, no earthly Levitical priest ever sat down. “And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins” (10:11).  “Each repeated sacrifice was only a reminder that none of the sacrifices ever provided a finished salvation.  The blood of animals did not wash away sin or cleanse the guilty conscience; it only covered sin until that day when Jesus Christ died to take away the sin of the world (John 1:29)” (Warren Wiersbe, The Wiersbe Bible Commentary: New Testament, p. 824).

Jesus did what no priest before Him had ever done.  He sat down.  His work was finished.  It need never be repeated.

Several months ago we saw in Hebrews 1:3 this description of Jesus’ superiority to the angels:

After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high,

Then back in Hebrews 8:3 this contrast is emphasized.

For every high priest is appointed to offer gifts and sacrifices; thus it is necessary for this priest also to have something to offer.

The Levitical high priest had to offer many “gifts and sacrifices.”  But Jesus Christ, “this priest” made one single offering…Himself.  This quantitative difference is carried out in the verbs as well.  For the Levitical priests “to offer” is in the present tense, an ongoing activity; for Jesus Christ “to offer” is in the aorist tense, in this context indicating an action which was not repeated.  Jesus, in one act, had brought before God the one offering that would perfectly satisfy God’s requirement.

Jesus Christ does not need to offer sacrifices day after day.  Hebrews 7:27 says, “He has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people, since he did this once for all when he offered up himself.”

Jesus is superior.  His offering of Himself makes all other attempts to win God’s favor unnecessary and ineffective.  We don’t have to do anything else to be well-pleasing to God.  You need to understand that God is totally and completely satisfied with you IF you are in Christ.  You don’t have to do anything because Christ has already done it.  Someone has distinguished between all other religions and Christianity in that all other religions are spelled D-0, “do,” while Christianity is spelled D-O-N-E, “done.”

If is the height of foolishness, even though it seems fitting, for us to try to earn God’s favor through our own efforts.  First, we could never do enough.  Second, even our righteousnesses are like filthy rags, shot through and through with defilement.  Believe me, your morality will never satisfy God like the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ does.

Any attempt to earn the favor of God on your own will make Him decidedly unsatisfied with you!

Now, because Christ is seated doesn’t mean He is inactive.  Remember that in the presence of the Father He continues to be our intercessor (Hebrews 7:25) and advocate (1 John 2:2).

Second, we see in verse 2 that the superiority of Jesus’ high priestly ministry is established by the manifestation of His royal dignity.

This has to do with the place where Christ is now seated.  Notice the absolutely unique location. “who sat down at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty of heaven.”

We not only have a High Priest who has majestically taken His seat at the Father’s right hand (v. 1), but we have One who now ministers as a priest in the heavenly sanctuary (v. 2; cf. Ps. 110:1).

The “majesty of heaven” is a description of God the Father in all His glory, His radiant splendor.  Revelation 4:2-3 describe that scene in these words:

2 At once I was in the Spirit, and behold, a throne stood in heaven, with one seated on the throne. 3 And he who sat there had the appearance of jasper and carnelian, and around the throne was a rainbow that had the appearance of an emerald.

Jesus is seated “at the right hand of the throne,” at God’s right hand, a place of honor, exaltation and power.