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  The Old Covenant was no longer valid and the Old Covenant pictures were supposed to be discarded.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.

Published by

Lamar Austin

I've graduated from Citadel Bible College in Ozark, Arkansas, with a B. A. Then got my M. Div. and Th. M. at Capital Bible Seminary in Lanham, MD. I finished with a D. Min. degree from Dallas Theological Seminary, but keep on learning. I pastored at Chinese Christian Church of Greater Washington, D. C., was on staff at East Evangelical Free Church in Wichita, KS, tried to plant an EFC in Little Rock, before moving back home to Mena, where I now pastor my home church, Grace Bible Church

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