A TALE OF TWO COVENANTS

Hebrews 8:7—9:15

It’s interesting how both Dispensationalists and Reformers see so many covenants between God and His people in Scripture, yet the New Testament sees only two: one before Christ and one after Christ. We see the first covenant throughout the Old Testament and the New Testament teaches us about a new one.

At the outset, it must be understood that both the Old and New Covenants were between God and His people and were initiated, not by man, but by God. Man’s only responsibility in these Covenants was to ratify them. Both of these Covenants established a very unique relationship between God and His people, setting the Covenant people apart from all other people on the Earth. Thanks to these God-initiated covenants, God was able to say:

I will be their God, and they will be my people. (Hebrews 8:10)

As far as God’s people are concerned, both Covenants gave them certain privileges and responsibilities which they were to assume. God promises distinct and wonderful blessings, but only if the people abide by the terms of the Covenants. In this sense, both the Old and the New Covenants resemble a contract between two parties, one divine, one human.

1. Why there had to be a new Covenant, Hebrews 8:7—9

For if there had been nothing wrong with that first covenant, no place would have been sought for another. But God found fault with the people and said: “The time is coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they did not remain faithful to my covenant, and I turned away from them,” declares the Lord.

Recall that one the purposes of this letter to the Hebrews was to demonstrate how superior Jesus Christ is to angels and Moses, and how superior His priesthood is to that of Aaron and Melchizedek. With that in mind, it makes perfect sense to inform the Hebrew readers of this letter that God Himself had promised a new and superior Covenant through the prophet Jeremiah (Jeremiah 31:31—34). The exact same logic that applied to Jesus and the priesthood now is applied to the Covenant. If the first Covenant had been faultless, then there would have been no need for a new one.

God, through Jeremiah, told a generation about to go into captivity that there would be New Covenant some day. Even though that generation and all the generations that had preceded them had been faithless, breaking the Old Covenant since the days of the rebellion at Kadesh Barnea (which was the beginning of the end of the Old Covenant), and even though the upcoming Babylonian Captivity was punishment for their faithlessness, God wanted to give His people hope. In spite of their sin and rebellion, they were still HIS PEOPLE and He wanted to have a relationship with them. Some day, God was going to make that happen with a brand new Covenant. This New Covenant, though, would be slightly different than the first one. The first Covenant failed, not because it was flawed, but because of the failings of the people. Therefore, God would write a New Covenant, not on stone tablets, but on the hearts of the people. In effect, man’s motivation would changed because man himself would be changed. He would literally become a “new creation,” a new species of being that longs to live for God.

Therefore, if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!All this is from God,who reconciled us to himself through Christ… (2 Corinthians 5:17, 18a)

So this New Covenant, then, is superior to the Old one because instead of depending on man’s inner desire to fulfill its terms, God takes the initiative to remake the man so that that man now wants to fulfill the terms of the “contract.”

This New Covenant made the Old Covenant obsolete. Does that mean Christians can now disregard the Old Covenant and consider it utterly useless? Absolutely not! The Old Covenant came from the heart and mind of God, therefore it deserves to be studied by believers. In fact, the Law served two very distinct purposes. First, the Law was regulatory because it regulated every single aspect of Jewish life, right down to the tiniest detail. This purpose of the Law has been completely wiped out by Christ’s superiority. The second purpose of the Law was revelatory: it provided revelations of God’s nature and character, man’s nature and character and the relationship between the two. This purpose of the Law continues to this day, which is evident since the author of this letter uses the Law to teach truths about Jesus Christ and the New life. So, all of God’s Word, even His Old Covenant, has something to teach modern believers about their relationship with God.

The substance of this New Covenant is outlined in verses 10—12:

This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time, declares the Lord. I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.  For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”

The beauty of this New Covenant is that man’s obedience is made possible because God would put His Spirit within him.

I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of  stone and give you a heart of flesh.And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. (Ezekiel 36:25—27)

The terms of this marvelous New Covenant include four main points:

  • Sanctification, verse 10. Under the Old Covenant, God promised to bless the people if they obeyed His laws. They naturally promised to do just that, and even though they were sincere they didn’t take into account their inner sinful nature. The Laws of the Old Covenant were merely external. Without the support of the heart, no law, not God’s and not man’s, can be successfully enforced. With the new birth comes a new heart; a sanctified heart.
  • Adoption, verse 10. Under the Old Covenant, this was the ideal, but under the New Covenant it is a reality! What a privilege it is to be able to say to God, “We are your people” and “My God.” This is a personal relationship, one between God and the individual.
  • Regeneration, verse 11. Although this promise is made to national Israel (remember, it comes from Jeremiah to Jews), when this promise is fulfilled, the fulfillment will actually constitute a new race of people. Only those who personally know the Lord will be part of this new race. In other words, being part of the new race of God’s people isn’t a birthright; it depends on the new birth.
  • Justification, verse12. What a relief! Knowing that under the terms of the New Covenant our sins are forgiven and forgotten! We stand before God “just as though we never sinned.”

And so, as verse 13 states succinctly, with the arrival of this new and better Covenant, the older one has become worn out.

By calling this covenantnew,” he has made the first one obsolete;and what is obsolete and aging will soon disappear.

2. Why the new Covenant is so superior, 9:11—28

As we noted, God’s people failed the Old Covenant; they were incapable of maintaining their “part of the deal.” God, still wanting to have a people to call His own, made a New Covenant that His people could enter into fully because in addition to the New Covenant, God would re-make the person, enabling him to live up to the terms of “new deal.” But beyond that, the superiority of New Covenant has more to do with the blood of Jesus than anything else.

His superior work, verses 11, 12

When Christ came as high priest of the good things that are already here, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not man-made, that is to say, not a part of this creation. He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, having obtained eternal redemption.

The meaning of verse 11 is watered down by the NIV’s use of the phrase “the good things that are already here.” If we look at the alternate, probably more accurate translation, the meaning becomes powerful:

For now Christ has come among us, the High Priest of the good things which were to come, and has passed through a greater and more perfect tent which no human hand has made (for it was no part of this world of ours). It was not with goats’ or calves’ blood but with his own blood that he entered once and for all into the holy of holies, having won for us men eternal reconciliation with God. (J.B. Phillips translation)

It’s made clear that Christ is not the High Priest of the Old Covenant, but rather of the New, “which is or was to come.” Christ has nothing to do with the Old Covenant. This paragraph explains that unlike the earthly high priest who worked in and around the Temple in Jerusalem, Jesus does His work in a supernatural, Heavenly tabernacle (or tent). Not only that, the earthly high priest had to rely on the shed blood of countless animals to secure the forgiveness of his people’s sins. This he had to do every year, year after year. So how effective could his work have been if he had to keep doing it over and over again? But along comes Jesus, the ultimate High Priest, who bypassed the blood of animals, using instead His own blood, to provide forgiveness. His work was so perfect, so powerful, that it only had to be done once!

Implied in these two verses is how serious God takes sin. It takes the blood of His Son to save us from God’s inevitable response to sin, namely His wrath. Some people think the “wrath of God” is just an Old Testament thing, but in fact God’s wrath was always, always is, and will always be His holy response to sin. The blood of animals temporarily stayed that wrath. The blood of Jesus permanently stopped God from responding in wrath to our sin.

Superior benefit, verses 13, 14

The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean. How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!

These two verses make some interesting contrasts between the blood of animals and the blood of Christ. It would be tempting to say that all that animal blood was actually worthless, but that’s not accurate. In reality, it did sanctify the people, at least on the outside. It’s a minor benefit when compared to what Christ’s shed blood does: it sanctifies believers on the inside.

Superior scope, verse 15

For this reason Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance—now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant.

A powerful verse that says three important things. First, Christ is the mediator this New Covenant. The New Covenant is His. Second, this verse concerns the readers of this letter. The Jews reading this letter were the ones promised an eternal inheritance, going all the way back to God’s promises to Abraham. Lastly, and most significantly, Jesus’ death was for the sins committed under the Old Covenant. This shows us the value of the animal sacrifices: they pointed to a fulfillment in the future.

Of note, though, is the word “sins.” The writer used the most powerful word possible, parabasis, for “deliberately breaking a law.” This word always suggests full guilt and liability to penalty. This is important because it shows the scope of Christ’s work. Under the Old Covenant, only sins of ignorance of were taken care of. In other words, the Jewish sacrificial system worked, more or less, for the morally upright Jew, striving to live right. Yet even for him there was alienation from God because everybody, no matter how morally upright they may be, will deliberately sin every now and again. But under the New Covenant, all sins are taken care of; ignorant ones and deliberate ones. The New Covenant takes care of deliberate sins of rebellion, ie., the sins (or the kind of sins) committed under the first covenant.

We learn a lot about God’s nature and character and man’s nature and character from studying this part of Hebrews. Particularly noteworthy is that God’s cure for man’s sin problem has always been the placating of His holy wrath and the forgiveness of the sinner. The New Covenant addresses both parties. God’s wrath is satisfied and man’s sins are forgiven. How sad it is that the Church of Jesus Christ today seems to have forgotten that the root of all of man’s problems is not poor potty training or an absent father figure. The root of every single problem in man’s life is sin, and the only way to set man right is to deal with sin and the guilt of that sin.

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