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.”