Hebrews 8–The Superiority of The New Covenant
In Hebrews 8:1-5, the author begins his argument with “Now the main point”. This is not just a summary of the previous chapter, but is the main point of the entire letter. The author has systematically used a number of comparisons and illustrations, but they all relate to Christ’s superiority as our High Priest, and the superiority of the New Covenant that He ushered in. Here in v.1 he gives two more indications of Jesus’s superiority—1. His seat at God’s right hand, and 2. His heavenly sanctuary. In the Old Covenant ministered by Levitical priests, they never sat down because their work was never done. In fact there weren’t even any chairs inside the Temple. Their work was never done because the sacrifices were never permanent and the people were constantly sinning. Therefore, the sacrifices were constantly repeated. Jesus offered one sacrifice of infinite value sufficient for all sins past present and future to be forgiven. That’s why at the cross, Jesus said “It is finished”. Jesus has accomplished everything necessary for our salvation. After Jesus ascended to heaven He was seated in the highest place of honor, the right hand of God. The audience of the book of Hebrews was no doubt Jews who were very concerned with being deprived of the Temple services in Jerusalem. Therefore the author will assure them of the superiority of the heavenly Temple in which Christ ministers. The earthly Temple was just a symbolic temporary man made structure of what the real and permanent Tabernacle was in heaven. We have in Christ the real eternal High Priest in the heavenly true Tabernacle. The earthly Temple was but a poor substitute, and a type of the real thing. The Old Covenant with the earthly Tabernacle with all its rituals, ceremonies, and sacrifices was just a shadow or type of the real thing in heaven.
The Levitical Priests and the Old Covenant, Hebrews 8:6-7
The job of the Old Testament Priest was to offer gifts and sacrifices at the Temple. Gifts refer to grain offerings for thanksgiving, and sacrifices were blood offerings for sin. The implied question then is, “What does Jesus have to offer?” Jesus is our mediator to God, but His gifts and sacrifices are superior since He offered His own blood, which is far superior to animals. Jesus couldn’t have been an earthly Priest because He wasn’t of the tribe of Levi. Yet the earthly priests and Temple were just a copy or shadow of the real Temple in heaven. God gave Moses the pattern of the real at Mt. Sinai so they could build a copy on earth. Jesus Christ now offers the real heavenly gifts and sacrifices, but not in the earthly Temple. Rather Jesus has a more excellent ministry as High Priest in the heavenly Tabernacle. Therefore Christ must be the mediator of a better Covenant. The first Covenant was good but had its limitations and weaknesses, and so God provided a new and better Covenant, which He had promised through the prophets. In the first century that Hebrews was written, the peer pressure of family, friends, and nation were trying to woo Jews who had professed belief in Jesus back to Judaism. Therefore the author backed up his argument by solid Old Testament Scripture. In Hebrews 8:8-12, he quotes from Jeremiah 31 to prove this was always God’s will, now fulfilled by Christ.
Jeremiah 31:31-34, Ezekiel 36:25-27—The Prophecies of a New and Better Covenant
The Old Covenant of Law made with Israel in Exodus 19 was good, and it provided God’s perfect holy standard, but it was not without fault. Therefore, God spoke through the prophets that He would make a new and better Covenant in the future. It would be a Covenant of grace that would not be conditioned on our behavior— it was unconditional. The prophet Jeremiah pointed out the limitations of the Old Covenant. The author of Hebrews is pointing out to Jews, “Look what your own prophets say about the advantages of the New Covenant”. Their own Scriptures and their own prophets have been telling them for years that a new and better Covenant was coming. Jeremiah, speaking God’s Word, said “I will effect a New Covenant”, meaning it would be written by God and offered to mankind. It would be a much different deal from the Mosaic Covenant. That Covenant God made at Sinai was a failure because the people didn’t keep it. It was conditional upon the people’s keeping it, but they continually blew it. The New Covenant is unconditional as it is not conditional on our obedience. The human race has truly proven it is fallen and unable to live up to God’s standard. Therefore the New deal is based on God’s grace. The Old Covenant of law was external and written on tablets of stone, but the New Covenant would be internal, and include a heartfelt desire to obey. The Old deal needed teachers to explain and interpret all the intricacies of the law. That was a huge problem to depend on people to get it right. The clearest example was the Sabbath law, which the Pharisees had developed into 39 categories of types of work you couldn’t do, and each category had subsets adding up to hundreds of prohibitions. The fourth command had been very simple—Remember the Sabbath, don’t work, but rest. In Christ’s arguments with the Pharisees He made it clear that it was the spirit of that law not the letter that was important. Just take a day off to worship God, but it was never about the letter of the law—the religious leaders had corrupted a simple command.
Also the Old Covenant required a series of human priests to act as mediators, but the problem was that being human, they were selfish and exploited people. The priesthood was consistently corrupt all the way through the time of Christ. Obviously, after Christ made the sacrifice of infinite value, there was no longer need for sacrifices to be made, and the priesthood was rendered obsolete. The sacrifices for sin in the Old system never removed sin, they just temporarily covered it up. Man’s need and desire for forgiveness was incomplete and led to hypocrisy. Finally, the Old Covenant was conditional with strings attached, but in Jeremiah 31 we have a series of “I will” statements from God. There were no conditions, no strings, and no curses attached to the New Covenant. God would intervene in history through the work of Jesus on the cross to usher in the New Covenant of Grace. The Old Covenant is therefore obsolete because the New is better and effective.
Why Was the The Old Covenant of Laws Ever Made?
The question is naturally asked, “If the people couldn’t keep the law, why was it given?” We would not have appreciated, embraced, or known we needed the New Covenant if we had not had the Old Covenant. Just as Israel naively assumed in Exodus 19 that they could perfectly keep God’s moral law, we also would naturally believe we could live up to God’s standard. In Exodus 19, God asked them “Will you? Can you?”, and they quickly said yes, we will! Nevertheless, 40 days later in Exodus 32, we find Israel celebrating an orgy worshipping the fertility god of Egypt. In Romans 3:9-17, the Apostle Paul emphatically quoted Scripture to prove that all human beings are natural born sinners. We don’t just sin, we are by nature sinners—“There is none righteous, not even one…All have turned aside…there is none who does good”. You may be thinking that you know plenty of good people, but remember we are talking about from God’s perfect, holy, righteous point of view. There are plenty of good people if we are comparing them to other people, but the Bible is comparing them to God. Therefore, compared to God we can say, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). The law was given “that every mouth may be closed and all the world may become accountable to God” (Romans 3:19). No one can stand up and claim they are proven righteous by keeping God’s moral standard “because by the works of the law no flesh will be justified in God’s sight, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin.” (Romans 3:20) By having the law in black and white and then breaking it as Israel did for over a thousand years, it was proven that no one could keep it—therefore we need a Savior. In Galatians 3:24 we read that the law was our tudor so that we being unable to keep it, know we need a Savior. If you still think you know good people who can and do keep the 10 Commandments, then please read the Apostle Paul’s struggle with it in Romans 7. Paul zeroed in on the 10th commandment “Thou shall not covet (desire)”. Paraphrasing Paul’s struggle, he said he would not have even known he was a sinner if the law had not said in black and white, “You shall not covet”. When he desired things and people, he was sinning, but whose fault was it? The law is holy and righteous so the fault is not in the law, so he must admit it was the sin nature within him. Even though he knows the law and wants to keep it, he finds himself lusting after things and people. As people go, Paul was the best, so can you really say your friend or yourself is more righteous than he? Consider Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5. Jesus said to the “holier than thou” Pharisees, “ you say You shall not commit murder”, but I say to you whoever is very angry with someone is guilty before God. You say “ You shall not commit adultery”, but I say everyone who looks at a woman with lust in his heart has committed adultery. Do you see what Jesus just established? God judges the thoughts, intentions, and motives as well as the actions! Now seriously try to tell me that you know a self-righteous man!
The Superiority of the New Covenant
In Luke 22:20, Jesus said at the Last Supper, “This cup that is poured out for you is the New Covenant in My blood”. Jesus ushered in the New Covenant predicted by Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Isaiah. The superiority and benefits of the New Covenant are many, including:
- The New is unconditional, not conditioned on works or keeping the Law
- The New is internal, not external. It is written in our changed heart.
- We have a personal relationship with the Lord, as Jeremiah predicted “all shall know Me”. God’s Holy Spirit is within us leading us and changing us. See Ezekiel 36:26
- Total forgiveness through Christ’s sacrifice, the Old failed to remove sin
- The Old Cov. was made obsolete, unnecessary by Christ. Jesus predicted the destruction of the Temple, the end of the priesthood, the animal sacrifices, etc.
- The Old was made with Israel, but the New Covenant of Grace is available to all