Hebrews Bible Study (The Superior Christ)

Hebrews 8, Superior Covenant

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Chapter 7 told us about the superiority of Jesus’ priesthood by showing that Jesus’ priesthood was after the order of Melchizedek. The priesthood of Melchizedek was far superior than the Levitical priesthood. Chapter 7 went through the explanation of how Melchizedek’s priesthood is greater than the Levitical priesthood. We move into chapter 8 and see that the author has been leading us to make an important argument. Chapter 8 begins, “Now the point in what we are saying is this.”

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. (ESV)

This is how we ended our last lesson. What a Savior we have! What a great high priest! Jesus as our high priest has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. For Jesus to be seated further indicates that Jesus’ priestly work is completely. He is not making offerings. His work is finished. The image also shows that Jesus is enthroned as king. He is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven. The writer is driving home the point to our minds that Jesus is unique and superior as he is priest and king according to the promise of God.

This imagery is another allusion to Psalm 110 where Jesus is enthroned at the right hand of God as king (110:1) and priest (110:4). This statement also shows the continuity of his message because this point was made in the third verse of the first chapter: “After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (1:3).

But the work of Jesus goes beyond the cross. The writer of Hebrews informs us that he is a servant in the holy places, the real tabernacle set up by the Lord and not human hands. As priest, Jesus does not serve on earth, but in heaven itself. Priests offer gifts and sacrifices. So Jesus also must offer something. Chapter 8 does not tell us what Jesus offered, but chapter 9 will. But I am sure, based upon what we have studied thus far, you can determine what Jesus offered as priest. Now, if Jesus did serve on the earth, he could not be priest because the priests offer gifts according to the law. This refers back to what we learned in chapter 7. For Jesus to be priest means that there has been a change in law. If the law has not been changed, then Jesus cannot be priest. The argument seems to reach a bit further in that it is the Levitical priesthood that operates on the earth. Jesus, however, not being from the tribe of Levi, must of necessity perform his priestly functions in heaven.

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 Jesus has now obtained a more excellent ministry, and to that degree he is the mediator of a better covenant, which has been enacted through better promises. 7 For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion to look for a second. (ESV/NRSV)

The work of the priests on the earth was not the real and the true. What they were doing were simply copies and shadows of the heavenly things and the heavenly work that Jesus would offer. The proof the writer of Hebrews uses is from Exodus 25:40 where God instructs Moses to construct everything according to the pattern shown him. The argument hinges on the word “pattern.” Since the earthly tabernacle was a pattern, then it must have been modeled after something. The writer is telling us that it was modeled after the heavenly tabernacle. The earthly tabernacle was not the reality but just a shadow of a later work that would be accomplished by a great high priest.

So Jesus is serving in the greater, heavenly tabernacle not the lesser, earthly tabernacle like the Levitical priests. So Jesus has a more excellent ministry, a more excellent priesthood. Further, he is the mediator of a better covenant. The covenant that he has brought and enacted through his death is better than the first covenant made to Moses. One reason this covenant enacted by Jesus is better because it is established on better promises. The “better promises” must be the forgiveness of sins primarily. Or, to use the language of chapter 7, a way to make us acceptable (perfect) before God (7:19). This connection is made in verse 7: if there had not been a problem with the first covenant there would have been no need to look for a second covenant. What was the problem? The problem is stated in verse 8, “For he finds fault with them….” The sins of the people is where the problem lies. The law of Moses gave means for us to be reconciled to God after disobedience. The law showed us God and pointed out sin, but did nothing to help those who were violators. The author now makes a large quotation from Jeremiah 31.

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.” (ESV)

The writer reminds his audience that a new covenant had been prophesied to the people. A new law had to come. Remember that Jesus is our great high priest. For Jesus to be our high priest there must be a change of law. Jeremiah said that there would be a change of law when the Messiah came. The days were coming when God would make a new covenant with Israel and Judah. But the new law that would be enacted would not be like the law made when Moses brought Israel out of the land of Egypt. This is important because the previous covenant did not make provisions for the people to be reconciled to God so that they would be found acceptable. So what is different about this new law under the priesthood of Jesus?

First, the law would be written in their minds and on their hearts. The law would not come to the people on two tablets of stone. Rather, the law must come upon the hearts of the people. One will not think that they are part of this covenant through birth or by keeping outward signs. God’s covenantal people will be those who keep his law by their hearts and minds, not as ritual or habit. I think this is an important reminder that God’s people are those who keep his laws because they want to. They do not see obedience as rules and rituals. Rather, they see obedience as loving the Lord.

Second, this covenant will bring reconciliation. God says that he will be their God and they shall be his people. Now this had also been promised in the first covenant in Exodus 6:7. But the people broke the covenant and were no longer God’s people. The prophet Hosea three times declared that Israel was no longer his people. Paul reminds his audience of that fact in Romans 9:25. But under this covenant and under Jesus we can be called his people again. We can call God our God and we can be called his people.

Third, everyone in the covenant will know the Lord. This verse has been misunderstood by many, but it is simply a contrast between the first covenant and the second covenant. Under the first covenant, people were part of the covenant when they were born. Children were born into the relationship with God as Israelites. As children they did not know the Lord. They would need to be taught later about the Lord and how they were in a covenant with him. This would no longer be the case. Those who are part of this new covenant of Jesus will already know the Lord. One would not be born into this new covenant. The only way to be in this relationship is by knowing the Lord.

Fourth, this new covenant is that God will forgive sins and not remember those sins. Sins are really going to be dealt with through the priesthood of Jesus. We will see this argument more powerfully made later on. But it is enough to say that Jesus shows his that he has dealt with sin in one sacrifice, not repeated daily or annual sacrifices of the first covenant.

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. (ESV)

After quoting Jeremiah 31, the writer makes a final remark. He presents this last argument on the basis of Jeremiah’s words about a “new covenant.” If the second covenant is “new,” then the first covenant is old. It is not a covenant that people should go back to with fond memories or nostalgia. The first covenant was ineffective because it could not deal with our sins and could not make us acceptable to God. The first covenant did not meet our need for reconciliation.

But we should be struck by the statement that the first covenant is “becoming obsolete and growing old” and “is ready to vanish away.” Why is this not stated in the past tense that the covenant has already vanished away? Why say that it was in the process of vanishing away? I believe the answer is that the Levitical priesthood was still intact and was still performing sacrifices for the people in the temple. But that would soon change when the Romans would destroy the temple in 70 AD. Though the new covenant was in effect because Jesus is our great high priest, the old priesthood had not vanished yet. But it was in the process of vanishing away and was obsolete because of Jesus, our new and superior high priest.

Lessons:

  1. The Levitical priesthood and tabernacle were only shadows and copies of the reality that Jesus would fulfill. Therefore, this system is inferior to the priesthood of Jesus. Why would premillennialism think that reestablishing the sacrifice system of the first covenant to be necessary or even useful in the end times? Such an idea is a great violation against the priesthood of Jesus. We have a better priesthood.
  2. The second covenant is superior to the first covenant. With Jesus we have a restored relationship with God, a covenant that is from the heart, a covenant that requires knowledge of the Lord, and brings forgiveness of sins.
  3. We cannot go back to any aspect of the first covenant and declare those laws binding. The first covenant has been set aside, annulled, and made obsolete.
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