Last time we finished our study of Jesus’ role as our Great High Priest according to the order of Melchizedek. The Hebrews writer now turns his attention to Jesus’ ministry in that role itself, and to the new covenant in Jesus’ blood, poured out on the cross for the salvation of all who would believe on His Name.
Hebrews 8:3-13 – The New Covenant
3For every high priest is appointed to offer both gifts and sacrifices. Therefore it is necessary that this One also have something to offer. 4For if He were on earth, He would not be a priest, since there are priests who offer the gifts according to the law; 5who serve the copy and shadow of the heavenly things, as Moses was divinely instructed when he was about to make the tabernacle. For He said, “See that you make all things according to the pattern shown you on the mountain.” 6But now He has obtained a more excellent ministry, inasmuch as He is also Mediator of a better covenant, which was established on better promises.
7For if that first covenant had been faultless, then no place would have been sought for a second. 8Because finding fault with them, He says: “Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah—9not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt; because they did not continue in My covenant, and I disregarded them, says the LORD.10For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put My laws in their mind and write them on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.11None of them shall teach his neighbor, and none his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them.12For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness,and their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more.” [Jeremiah 31:31-34]
13In that He says, “A new covenant,” He has made the first obsolete. Now what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.[Hebrews 8:3-13 – NKJV]
Having focused for many verses on Jesus as our High Priest, the Hebrews writer now turns to Jesus’ priestly ministry.
3For every high priest is appointed to offer both gifts and sacrifices. Therefore it is necessary that this One also have something to offer. 4For if He were on earth, He would not be a priest, since there are priests who offer the gifts according to the law; 5who serve the copy and shadow of the heavenly things, as Moses was divinely instructed when he was about to make the tabernacle. For He said, “See that you make all things according to the pattern shown you on the mountain.”[Hebrews 8:3-5 – NKJV]
Sacrifices and offerings lay at the very heart of the Levitical covenant. Every year, a staggering number of animals were sacrificed on the altar of the Hebrew tabernacle and temple. One writer at avoiceinthewilderness.org estimates that nearly 1,250 animals were sacrificed annually at a minimum. Two lambs were sacrificed every day. On new moons and appointed feast days, additional animals were sacrificed. Any freewill offerings or trespass offerings brought in by the people would have been in addition to these. A veritable army of priests was required just to perform the work of the sacrifices and maintain the instruments and altar. Yet these sacrifices and offerings were powerless to truly absolve mankind from sin. At the very best, they could only temporarily cover sin until the coming of the Messiah with the power to atone for our sins once for all – Jesus …TheLambofGod who takes away the sin ofthe world! [John 1:29 – NKJV]
It was necessary for Jesus to come with a better offering, because all of the previous covenants between God and man had proven unprofitable for the remission of sin. Human beings are notorious promise breakers. As the great Lakota leader – Red Cloud – famously said…
God’s previous covenants with mankind proved insufficient, not because they were inherently flawed in and of themselves, nor because of God’s unfaithfulness, nor because the requirements they imposed were impossible for people to fulfill, but because of our own prideful rebellion against the ordinances of God. After Moses received the Law from the LORD on Mt. Sinai, he came down to the camp of the Israelites and presented God’s covenant to them.
3So Moses came and told the people all the words of the LORD and all the judgments. And all the people answered with one voice and said, “All the words which the LORD has said we will do.” 4And Moses wrote all the words of the LORD. And he rose early in the morning, and built an altar at the foot of the mountain, and twelve pillars according to the twelve tribes of Israel. 5Then he sent young men of the children of Israel, who offered burnt offerings and sacrificed peace offerings of oxen to the LORD. 6And Moses took half the blood and put it in basins, and half the blood he sprinkled on the altar. 7Then he took the Book of the Covenant and read in the hearing of the people. And they said, “All that the LORD has said we will do, and be obedient.” 8And Moses took the blood, sprinkled it on the people, and said, “This is the blood of the covenant which the LORD has made with you according to all these words.”[Exodus 24:3-8 – NKJV]
Yet after Moses returned to the mountain at God’s direction to receive further instruction, the people quickly fell into idolatry, worshiping the calf of gold that they had asked their high priest – Aaron – to make for them, blasphemously saying “This is your god, O Israel, that brought you out of the land of Egypt!” (Exodus 32:4). It could be argued that the full ordinances God gave to Moses were too numerous and complicated for people to completely follow. That may well be. Indeed, as we saw in our previous study, these ordinances were never given in the expectation that the people would be able obey them, but rather to point out to us our need for a Savior who would bring us salvation apart from any works of our own. Nevertheless, mankind’s rebellion against the ordinances of God didn’t begin with the worship of the golden calf. It began long before when God had only given one simple command…
16And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, “Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; 17but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” [Genesis 2:16-17 – NKJV]
Our rebellion against the commands of God has continued unabated ever since. In the case of the children of Israel, the Word of God is full of examples. During the conquest of the promised land by the children of Israel, Joshua their leader famously exhorted them…
“...choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods which your fathers served that were on the other side of the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.” [Joshua 24:15 – NKJV]
The people’s response was unanimous…
16So the people answered and said: “Far be it from us that we should forsake the LORD to serve other gods; 17for the LORD our God is He who brought us and our fathers up out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage, who did those great signs in our sight, and preserved us in all the way that we went and among all the people through whom we passed. 18And the LORD drove out from before us all the people, including the Amorites who dwelt in the land. We also will serve the LORD, for He is our God.”
19But Joshua said to the people, “You cannot serve the LORD, for He is a holy God. He is a jealous God; He will not forgive your transgressions nor your sins. 20If you forsake the LORD and serve foreign gods, then He will turn and do you harm and consume you, after He has done you good.”
21And the people said to Joshua, “No, but we will serve the LORD!”
22So Joshua said to the people, “You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen the LORD for yourselves, to serve Him.”
And they said, “We are witnesses!”
23“Now therefore,” he said, “put away the foreign gods which are among you, and incline your heart to the LORD God of Israel.”
24And the people said to Joshua, “The LORD our God we will serve, and His voice we will obey!”
25So Joshua made a covenant with the people that day, and made for them a statute and an ordinance in Shechem. [Joshua 24:16-25 – NKJV]
Yet even before Joshua died, the Israelites failed to obey their covenant with God by not completely driving out the inhabitants of the land as they had been commanded. The repercussions of that failure have echoed down through the centuries even until today.
1Then the Angel of the LORD came up from Gilgal to Bochim, and said: “I led you up from Egypt and brought you to the land of which I swore to your fathers; and I said, ‘I will never break My covenant with you. 2And you shall make no covenant with the inhabitants of this land; you shall tear down their altars.’ But you have not obeyed My voice. Why have you done this? 3Therefore I also said, ‘I will not drive them out before you; but they shall be thorns in your side, and their gods shall be a snare to you.’ ”[Judges 2:1-3 – NKJV]
Aside – We have spoken many times during this study about the phrase “the Angel of the LORD” saying that in some instances, the passage in question refers to one of the created angels like Gabriel and Michael, sent out by God to deliver a message or accomplish some specific ministry. At other times, the phrase clearly refers to God Himself, appearing in visible form or speaking audibly. Such occasions are known as theophanies or christophanies. Here in Judges 2:1-3, we clearly read of a theophany. Note that God says that “I will never break Mycovenant with you” and speaks of “the land of which I swore to your fathers.” The created angels are not in the covenant making or keeping business, so this instance is clearly an appearance of God Himself.
Of course, Israel did indeed fall into idolatry leading to the division of the kingdom, and eventually to their complete ejection from the land. We could find example after example in the Scripture of the people’s repeated failures to honor their promises to God, but there’s no need to belabor the point. Our seeming complete inability to honor the promises we make to God caused Jesus Himself to proclaim…
33“Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform your oaths to the Lord.’34But I say to you, do not swear at all: neither by heaven, for it is God’s throne; 35nor by the earth, for it is His footstool; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36Nor shall you swear by your head, because you cannot make one hair white or black. 37But let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No.’ For whatever is more than these is from the evil one. [Matthew 5:33-37 – NKJV]
Why has God made all of these covenants with mankind time after time, knowing full well that mankind is completely incapable of honoring our promises? God knew all along that a new and perfect covenant would be needed – one that does not rest even partially on mankind’s promises to God, but depends solely upon God’s perfect promises. Only in this way would the new covenant be able to effectively resolve the separation of God and man brought about by our sin. I have said it before many times, but it bears repeating. Jesus knew even before He said “Let there be light,” that He would have to go to the cross and give His own life there in order to restore mankind into fellowship with Him. Yet He loves us so much, He had purposed to “drink the cup” of the wrath due us in our sins even before He created us.
But the question remains – Why did God make all those previous covenants then, if He knew we would just fail to follow them? The purpose of all the previous covenants was not to save us, but to show us that we needed saving. In order to reach the point in our lives where we are willing to cry out to God for salvation by the Name of Jesus and the washing by His blood, we must first recognize that we are hopelessly condemned without Him. Only then are we able to reach out to Him and obtain His mercy. As the Hebrews writer points out here, Jesus had to bring His own offering in the place of the animals sacrificed by the Levites under the old covenant. Furthermore, that offering had to be perfect in order to have the power to save all mankind to the uttermost, as the writer put it in Hebrews 7:25. Jesus alone could fulfill that perfection by offering His own life blood. The Hebrews writer will have more to say about that in a later chapter.
Furthermore, the offering had to be freely given. Don’t let anyone ever tell you that the Jews killed Jesus, or the Romans killed Jesus, or even that our own sins killed Jesus. His life was freely given by Him, not taken from Him by others.
14I am the good shepherd; and I know My sheep, and am known by My own. 15As the Father knows Me, even so I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep. 16And other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also I must bring, and they will hear My voice; and there will be one flock and one shepherd.
17“Therefore My Father loves Me, because I lay down My life that I may take it again. 18No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of Myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This command I have received from My Father.”[John 10:14-18 – NKJV]
There’s a practical application here for us. When we offer our money or our worldly goods or our time and effort in service to God, we should do so willingly and enthusiastically, not out of a grudging sense of duty or some form of compulsion or peer pressure. Nor should we be stingy with our gifts. Jesus gave everything willingly and lovingly. We should do the same. After all everything we have both physically and spiritually is a gift from Him in the first place, given so that we might honor and glorify God in their expenditure, so that ultimately others would learn to honor and glorify Him as well.
“Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven. [Matthew 5:16 – NKJV]
Before we press on, notice that the writer mentions the tabernacle built by the Israelites in the wilderness under the direction of Moses, calling it and the ministries performed there merely a “… copy and shadow of the heavenly things…” The writer will have more to say about this in the next chapter, so we will defer an in-depth discussion of it until we get there.
6But now He has obtained a more excellent ministry, inasmuch as He is also Mediator of a better covenant, which was established on better promises.[Hebrews 8:6 – NKJV]
What a magnificent picture of the new covenant Jesus spoke of during the last supper on the night of His betrayal!
27Then He took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying,“Drink from it, all of you. 28For this is My blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins. 29But I say to you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in My Father’s kingdom.”[Matthew 26:27-29 – NKJV]
Of course, one of these better promises the writer speaks of associated with this new covenant is the promise of final and total remission of our sins by the shed blood of Jesus in which He has consecrated the covenant in place of the partial and temporary covering for sins provided by the animal sacrifices and other offerings under the old covenant. The sacrifice of Jesus on the cross was the fulfillment of the promise first made to Abraham.
“In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed My voice.”[Genesis 22:18 – NKJV]
Jesus also spoke of the Promise of the indwelling of His Spirit just before He ascended to His Father.
“Behold, I send the Promise of My Father upon you; but tarry in the city of Jerusalem until you are endued with power from on high.”[Luke 24:49 – NKJV]
Ultimately, of course, the new covenant in Jesus’ blood brings with it the promise of eternal life in the very presence of God’s glory for all who will believe in His resurrection, and proclaim Him their LORD.
And this is the promise that He has promised us—eternal life.[1 John 2:25 – NKJV]
7For if that first covenant had been faultless, then no place would have been sought for a second. 8Because finding fault with them, He says: “Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah—9not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt; because they did not continue in My covenant, and I disregarded them, says the LORD.10For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put My laws in their mind and write them on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.11None of them shall teach his neighbor, and none his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them.12For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more.” [Jeremiah 31:31-34]
[Hebrews 8:7-12 – NKJV]
Here in Hebrews 8:7 the writer reiterates and clarifies something he said in Hebrews 4:8.
For if Joshua had given them rest, then He would not afterward have spoken of another day.[Hebrews 4:8 – NKJV]
Recall that we found our study of that verse to be a little difficult, because various translations differ widely in their rendering of the original Greek text. Our conclusion was that the “He” we find in Hebrews 4:8 refers to God rather than Joshua. We just looked at the covenant Joshua established with the children of Israel when he admonished them to choose that very day which God they would serve, and declared boldly his intent to lead his own family in the service of the LORD (יְהֹוָהYĕhovah). But since the nation failed to honor that covenant, as they did so many others before and since, the LORD proclaimed to them through the prophets that He would establish the new and perfect covenant that Jesus fulfilled on the cross.
The passage quoted here in Hebrews 8:8-12 comes from Jeremiah 31:31-34. The broader context of that prophecy was an open letter to the captives of Israel and Judah who had been carried away to Babylon. Jeremiah had advised them to settle in as best they could in Babylon because they would be there for a long time – seventy years to make up for the 490 years the nation had ignored God’s ordinance to give the land a sabbath rest once every seven years. Nevertheless, Jeremiah also prophesied that the nation would be restored. Part of that prophecy was fulfilled during the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, but part of it – their restoration to God through the new covenant proclaimed in Jeremiah 31:31-34 – wasn’t fulfilled until Jesus came and sealed the new covenant with His blood.
Indeed, part of the new covenant has yet to be fulfilled among the children of Israel. The significant majority of Israeli citizens today identify themselves as either “nonreligious” or as atheists according to Haaretz.com. Therefore God’s statement by the prophet that “…all shall know Me…” must clearly refer to some day in the future. Paul confirms this in his letter to the Roman church.
25For I do not desire, brethren, that you should be ignorant of this mystery, lest you should be wise in your own opinion, that blindness in part has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. 26And so all Israel will be saved, as it is written:
“The Deliverer will come out of Zion,
And He will turn away ungodliness from Jacob;
27For this is My covenant with them,
When I take away their sins.”[Isaiah 59:20-21 – NKJV]
28Concerning the gospel they are enemies for your sake, but concerning the election they are beloved for the sake of the fathers. 29For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. 30For as you were once disobedient to God, yet have now obtained mercy through their disobedience, 31even so these also have now been disobedient, that through the mercy shown you they also may obtain mercy. 32For God has committed them all to disobedience, that He might have mercy on all.[Romans 11:25-32 – NKJV]
This declaration of Paul’s should put to rest forever the idea of so-called “replacement theology” (also known as supersessionism or fulfillment theology) in which the Church is deemed to have taken Israel’s place in the fulfillment of the New Covenant. Surprisingly, a significant number of respected Christian theologians over the centuries used Paul’s own writings as their scriptural basis for supporting this idea despite the clarity of Paul’s statements in Romans 11 to the contrary. Nevertheless, it is easy to understand how theologians could have gotten this wrong. After all, the nation of Israel essentially ceased to exist after being driven out of Canaan by the Roman conquerors in 70AD. So for the majority of the history of the Christian church, there simply was no Israel for God to save all of. Theologians struggled to reconcile this fact with the clear declarations throughout scripture of Israel’s future restoration. Everything changed, of course, when the nation of Israel was restored to the promised land following the Nazi Holocaust in spectacular fulfillment of the prophecy we find in Ezekiel 37.
Aside – Like all of the books of prophecy, Jeremiah contains some elements of prophecy and some of historical narrative. Some of the prophecies have already been fulfilled, and some remain to be fulfilled. The prophets usually specify the exact time and place that they received the prophecies they proclaim, speaking of “the word of the LORD” which came to the prophet in the someteenth year of the reign of King so-and-so. They often recount historical events such as King Zedekiah’s attempt to escape the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem by fleeing through a hole in the city wall. But the student of prophecy needs to be wary when trying to establish the timeline of the prophet’s narrative. Hebrew narratives usually emphasize theme over strict chronological order even in the case of historical events. For example, a careful study of the prophecy of Jeremiah as a whole reveals that the prophet spoke to the people of Judah immediately before and during the Babylonian captivity. But we find that the historical narrative interwoven with the prophecy often skips back and forth in time from chapter to chapter. This characteristic of the texts is somewhat unsettling to the modern mind, but it’s just something Bible students need to come to grips with. Furthermore, this non-conformance to a strictly chronological narrative applies not only to the books of prophecy, but also to the books of the law and the histories.
Jeremiah’s prophesy quoted in Hebrews 8:8-12 speaks clearly of the promise of the Holy Spirit that was partially fulfilled on the first Pentecost described in Acts 2, and continues to be fulfilled day-by-day in the hearts of Christians around the world. Yet clearly it remains until someday in the future to be completely fulfilled when “all shall know Me…” Jeremiah’s prophecy about the New Covenant and the outpouring of God’s Holy Spirit upon all mankind is by no means unique in the Word of God. Paul quotes a quite similar prophecy of Isaiah in the passage from Romans we just saw. Ezekiel speaks of the restoration of Israel to the land of promise and God pouring out His Spirit upon them.
25“Therefore thus says the Lord GOD: ‘Now I will bring back the captives of Jacob, and have mercy on the whole house of Israel; and I will be jealous for My holy name— 26after they have borne their shame, and all their unfaithfulness in which they were unfaithful to Me, when they dwelt safely in their own land and no one made them afraid. 27When I have brought them back from the peoples and gathered them out of their enemies’ lands, and I am hallowed in them in the sight of many nations, 28then they shall know that I am the LORD their God, who sent them into captivity among the nations, but also brought them back to their land, and left none of them captive any longer. 29And I will not hide My face from them anymore; for I shall have poured out My Spirit on the house of Israel,’ says the Lord GOD.”[Ezekiel 39:25-29 – NKJV]
As we just discussed, although the people have been restored to the land, they are certainly not dwelling peacefully in it as of yet. Nor it seems, have most of them yet received God’s Spirit poured out upon their nation, given the current mostly secular nature of Israeli society.
In that He says, “A new covenant,” He has made the first obsolete. Now what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away. [Hebrews 8:13 – NKJV]
We need to be very careful in parsing this verse, lest we fall into the trap of using it to declare that the Law of God has been done away with. Remember that Jesus clearly said that not one word of the Law would pass away even if Heaven and Earth pass away. How can we reconcile these two seemingly mutually exclusive ideas? The answer lies at the very heart of the Christian Gospel, and is what distinguishes between that Gospel and every other religious system past and present – including the Mosaic covenant between God and the nation of Israel. The New Covenant relies solely upon what Christ has done in sacrificing Himself on the cross in the place of sinners so that we may be reconciled to Him and receive the promise of eternal life and the indwelling of His Spirit just for the asking. All of the other religious systems focus(ed) on the actions mankind had to take to reconcile ourselves to God.
Nevertheless, as we have seen several times in our study of Hebrews, although nothing is required of us to obtain the salvation God offers us under the new covenant, once His Spirit has filled us, we are compelled by Him to repent of our sins, and obey His commands, not to obtain something from God, but rather that we might honor and please Him out of our love for Him.
Next time we will take a look at the Hebrew’s writer’s comparison of the earthly tabernacle and priestly ministry with the perfect and eternal heavenly tabernacle and priestly ministry of Jesus, of which their earthly counterparts were mere models and foreshadowings.