This sermon was preached to small congregation in white rock BC, Canada on the 18th of August 2013.
Good morning church! In Tom’s absence I have the privilege of bringing you this morning’s sermon, though unfortunately it may be a little bit less lively than Philip’s last week; I won’t be doing any singing…but I guess that is probably something you are grateful for.
Over the summer Tom and I have been preaching through the book of Hebrews; when I preached the first sermon on this series in the middle of July I discussed how the entire book of Hebrews revolves around the biblical idea of a covenant. Over the last weeks we have seen various contrasts between the Old covenant instituted at Sinai and the New Covenant made in Christ’s blood shed on the Cross. Throughout the book of Hebrews the author writes of Christ’s superiority over all created things and institutions, he does this to encourage the Hebrews, to whom he is writing, to stay faithful to the New Covenant revelation they have received, to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and to not fall back into the rituals of the Old Covenantal Judaism.
Today we are looking at Chapter 8 of the book of Hebrews. In this chapter the author of Hebrews looks straight at the New Covenant made in Christ and its superiority over the Old. Because we are going to be talking about Biblical covenants today it will be useful to look at exactly what a covenant is.
The idea of a Covenant is found throughout Scripture and is foundational to the way God relates to man, unfortunately this idea is not talked about much so most people don’t have a solid idea of what a covenant is. Often we think of a contract.
A contract is pretty common in North American culture today; anytime we get a loan, rent a house, etc. we enter into contracts. With a contract of these kinds we agree to give something in return for something else, it is a legal agreement usually governing the exchange of goods or services. Because I am in school and don’t make much money I have had to enter into loan contracts with the Government so I can pay for my schooling. When I sign a contract for a loan I say that in return for receiving a said amount of money I will pay it back plus interest to make it worth the other parties while. A contract is based on an expected benefit for both parties: I receive money I need at the moment and in return for meeting this momentary need the party lending the money receives more in return than what they gave. For loans with the government, like student loans, the government does not get much back in the form of interest but receives the social and economic benefits of having an educated population.
Unfortunately, this is sometimes the way our relationship with God has been represented. We get something from God, salvation, in return for giving Him something, our service and love. This is not what the Bible has in mind when it speaks of a covenant. A covenant is not a contract: whereas with a contract the foundation is expected benefit and mutual gain, the foundation of a covenant is relationship. We have nothing to give God that He does not have, there is no benefit He could gain from entering into a contract with us: instead God’s covenant with man is the work of the almighty Creator of the universe reaching out to His undeserving creation in love and mercy expressing the very core of His nature. God first made a covenant with Creation, making mankind in His image to represent Him on earth and rule creation, they were called to obedience and given the command to not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. After the fall God’s covenants with man slowly unveiled His plan for redeeming mankind from the effects of sin and its consequences, namely the righteous wrath of God toward mankind. This plan of redemption climaxed in the coming of Jesus Christ to die for the sins of fallen men and women and institute the New Covenant that God had promised He would make throughout the Old Testament. In Biblical covenants it is not an agreement between two equal parties for mutual benefit, but the extending of a relationship from a stronger party to the weaker solely on the initiative of the greater.
It is with this idea of a covenant, a relationship made between two parties characterized by both faithfulness and love initiated by God, which we will look at Hebrews 8. Turn with me in your Bibles to the book of Hebrews, chapter 8. You can find it after Philemon but before James. In Hebrews 8 we read;
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, 2a minister in the holy places, in the true tent that the Lord set up, not man. 3For every high priest is appointed to offer gifts and sacrifices; thus it is necessary for this priest also to have something to offer. 4Now if he were on earth, he would not be a priest at all, since there are priests who offer gifts according to the law.5They 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.” 6But 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. 7For if that first covenant had been faultless there would have been no occasion to look for a second. 8For 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 with the house of Judah, 9not 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. 10For 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 there God and they shall be my people. 11And 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. For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, And I will remember their sins no more.” 13In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.
(The heart of the Jewish religious community and of God’s relationship with mankind is His covenants. The promises that God gave to Israel where foundational to their religion and identity. In this Passage the author of Hebrews takes aim at these promises, He tells the Jewish Christian to whom he is writing that Jesus has a better ministry because He is the mediator of a better covenant, based on better promises!)
A Better Covenant Built on Better Promises:
In chapter 7, which Tom preached on a few weeks ago, the author of Hebrews establishes the priesthood of Christ according to the order of Melchizedek. He is a high priest forever in the heavenly places who has sat down at the right hand of the Father. The ministry of Christ, His high priesthood, is the main point that the author has been trying to make in the few previous chapters. As a priest in the order of Melchizedek Jesus both fulfills Old Testament prophecy and is able to be priest in spite of the Old Covenant stipulations of the Levitical priesthood. The eternal priesthood of Christ sets the foundation for the argument the author is going to make from chapter 8 to chapter 10; the superiority of Christ’s ministry and His once for all sacrifice. Before the author discusses the sacrifice Jesus made he discusses the superiority of His ministry on the basis of the covenant which He mediates.
In verse 6 the author writes “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.” The priestly ministry of the Levitical priesthood and the ministry of Christ are based upon the covenants which they mediate. The role of the priests in the covenant is to offer gifts and sacrifices to God on behalf of those who are part of the covenant they administer, the other part of their ministry is intercession, to stand before God on behalf of the covenant people. Because of the intrinsic relationship between priestly ministry and the covenant for which it is performed, a better covenant would naturally lead to the conclusion of a better ministry. To show that in fact the New Covenant which Christ has ushered in by His blood shed on the Cross is superior to the Old Covenant made at Sinai, the author of Hebrews appeals to Jeremiah’s prophecy about the New Covenant made in Jeremiah 31. Writing at a time when God’s people where unfaithful to the Covenant God had made with them, when they were failing to uphold their side of the covenant to be God’s loyal people, Jeremiah speaks of a time when God would make a new covenant with His people, a covenant that would be different and superior to the covenant that God had already made with Israel. Jeremiah writes;
“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, When I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel with the house of Judah, 9not 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. 10For 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 there God and they shall be my people. 11And 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. For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, And I will remember their sins no more.”
The author of Hebrews points out that if the original covenant with Israel had been faultless there would be no reason for God to make a new covenant with Judah and Israel, and—as we can gather from other prophecies about the New Covenant—with the Gentiles. In verse 7 and 8 we read: “7For if that first covenant had been faultless there would have been no occasion to look for a second. 8For he finds fault with them when he says….” The failure both of the people in keeping the covenant and fault in the covenant required a New Covenant to be established. This is argument that the author is making: the whole concept of a “NEW” covenant means that the old was faulted and with the coming of the New Covenant, within which the Hebrews found themselves by the work of Christ and through their faith, the Old Covenant was rendered obsolete; it no longer function, relationship with God, His blessing, and salvation could no longer be attained through even faithful adherence to the Old Covenant stipulations. In describing the New Covenant Jeremiah gives the promises that will characterize this new covenantal relationship between God and His people.
One issue with the old covenant, as the author of Hebrews mentions in v. 8, is that the people were unable to keep the covenant; in the new Covenant God promises that the recipients of this covenant will be enabled to keep the covenant by God Himself.
The first of the New Covenant Promises that God gives through Jeremiah’s prophecy is the giving of a new heart, a heart with God’s law written upon it; “I will put my laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts” (10). This promise is paralleled by promises in Ezekiel and Isaiah where God says that He will take away the heart of stone from His people and give them a heart of flesh, and that all those in this New Covenant will be taught by Him. Without God’s work in the hearts of men no one would be able to come to Him or be obedient to Him, God here is promising that He will give His people a new heart with His law written upon it so that they will be able to be obedient to Him; obedience would not come from their own ability, for—as was seen with Israel during the Old Covenant—man was unable to keep up their side of God’s covenant; so that we could be in relationship with Him God promised that in the New Covenant He would enable His people to keep His statutes and walk according to His ways. God, while remaining faithful to His covenant promises, promised to enable His people to be faithful and loyal to their covenant obligations, namely obedience.
The next promise God gives, found in verse 11, is that; “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.” God promised through Jeremiah that the whole nature of the community of people under His covenant would change. Every person in this covenant would be in a personal relationship with God; this means that all people under the covenant would be those with true faith in God and all of them would have a relationship where they knew God individually, through their personal experience of Him.
The last promise given is found at the end of verse 11, God speaks through Jeremiah;
“For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, And I will remember their sins no more.” The conjunction “for” at the beginning of this part of the verse indicates that this is the grounds for the previous promises. The reason that all New Covenant members would know God personally and have communion with Him is because He in His mercy eradicate their sins and remember them no more. No longer would sin cause a divide between God and man, but through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross the sins of the all who believe would be utterly wiped away never to be remembered again.
(These three promises quoted by the author of Hebrews are profound truths of God’s relationship with His people since the coming of Jesus Christ, these are promises that came to pass under the New Covenant—of which all believers of the Gospel of Jesus Christ are members. If the author of Hebrews was quoting these promises to show the superiority of the New Covenant over the Old and therefore the Superiority of Christ’s ministry; what would this have meant to the Hebrews who originally read this letter?)
A New Covenant And A New Community:
As we have seen in the last 7 chapters of the Book of Hebrews the author is writing to Jewish Christians to warn them that if they walk away from their faith in Jesus and return to Judaism they will no longer be Christians, having compared various aspects of the New Covenant with the Old Covenant here in Heb. 8 the author looks at the heart of the covenants and the promises associate with each. The Jewish audience would have been well schooled in the Old Testament and would have been familiar with both its original promises and the promises given in the Old Testament about the New Covenant.
These promises that the author of Hebrews quotes present a massive transformation of the community of Covenant members as it was found in Old Covenant. In the Old Covenant membership into the covenant was based on descent from Abraham, because of this the Jews circumcised their male children as a symbol of their entrance into the covenant Israel had with God. It was a covenant between God and all of Israel. Because this original covenant was based on genetic heritage and not a personal expression of faith many who were part of Israel where not in fact of Israel, as Paul puts it in Romans 9. There were many in the nation of Israel who were faithful to God and His covenant with them, but there was also many who were unfaithful and who did not know God. In the New Covenant this would change. Instead of a membership based on physical descent, a mixed community of those who had faith in God and those who did not, all those in the New Covenant would be enabled by God to be faithful to the Covenant and each and every one of them, from the least of them to the greatest of them, would have a relationship with Him. This was profound shift in the nature of the Covenant community.
Another huge difference that allowed this shift to happen was that each and every member of the New Covenant would have their sins removed and these sins would never again be remembered by God. This would mean that members of this New Covenant would not have to regularly give sacrifices for their sins because all their sins would be removed, and no longer would the members of the New Covenant have to go through earthly mediators to have access to God but through Jesus Christ, their high priest, they would forever have access to the very throne room of God and have the personal relationship with God that characterized the lives of the Old testament prophets like Jeremiah.
Because the New Covenant has replaced the Old Covenant the Hebrews would have understood that only through the New Covenant means could one be saved, the Old was now obsolete and no longer functioned as an active means of relationship with God. To go back to the Old Covenant, as they were in danger of doing, would be to give up on all God’s promises; for all of God’s promises would be fulfilled in the New Covenant through Christ and no longer would function through the now obsolete Old Covenant.
(This would have been a very good reason for Hebrews to persevere in their Christian faith, and it would have helped them see how much better the Covenant they were now part of was. Membership into this New Covenant was by faith, the amazing truth of this is that through our faith we now are part of this new covenant relationship with God.)
In Christ we have received the better promises of the New Covenant.
(Like the Jews to whom the author of Hebrews was writing, we to have through faith entered into the New Covenant mediated by Christ Jesus our LORD; as members of this New Covenant we have inherited all of its glorious promises)
New Covenant Life Built On New Covenant Promises:
In Christ we have received the better promises of the New Covenant, and that is tremendous thing for these promises have a profound impact on how we understand our relationship to God. As members of the New Covenant Community, all of us who have come to Jesus Christ in faith have new hearts wrought by the Holy Spirit with His laws written on them enabling us to grow in obedience to Him and be faithful to His covenant, we have access to the very presence of God coming before Him in the name of Jesus Christ with our needs and desires and are able to experience a relationship with Him where we can say that we truly know Him, and because of our faith we have been forgiven of all of our sins and stand in the presence of God without fear of His wrath.
The first promise which is found in the New Covenant is that members of this covenant have God’s law written upon their hearts and minds, and cf. Ezekiel, we understand that this comes about through the giving of a new heart. We can pursue obedience to God in our relationship with Him knowing that while we cannot be faithful by our own strength we have been given new hearts whereby we will desire more and more to be like God and through His strength will be able to become obedient to His commands. As members of the New Covenant with God we are called to be holy as He is holy [1 Pet. 1:14-16] and because of the promise found in this Hebrews 8:8 we can know that God has worked on our hearts so that we can pursue, however imperfectly, this end.
The second promise given by Jeremiah and quoted by the author of Hebrews is that every member of the New Covenant will know God; because of Jesus work as our High Priest, the mediator of this New Covenant, we can approach God with boldness knowing that we are covered by the blood of Christ and we can bring our needs before Him and present the desires of heart to Him. “To know God is to recognize Him, trust Him, and obey Him.” This is something that is made possible by the new heart that He has given us, because we have a new heart with have a personal knowledge of God and are able to be like Him acting out His will as revealed in Scripture in the world.
The last promise given in Hebrews 8 is that our iniquities would be removed and our sins would be remembered no more. Because of Christ’s high priestly work and the sacrifice He gave on the cross we can know that our sins have once and for all been removed; we can have confidence that when we come before God we will receive His love and mercy and not His wrath because Christ has taken away are sins and by His work we have been declared righteous in the sight of God. Because our sins are remembered no more we come before God even after we have sinned and seek His forgiveness for a restored relationship.
(These promises received through Christ as members of the New Covenant are foundations of what it means to be a Christian, something shared by all those who have faith in Jesus Christ; all Christians have been given new hearts with God’s law written on them, meaning that even though struggles with sin still come upon us we will desire and be enabled to pursue obedience to Him; all Christians know God individually and can come before Him in prayer without the need of an earthly mediator; and lastly all Christians have had their sins forgiven, never to be remembered again by God.)
In Luke 22:20 Luke recounts the Passover supper and the institution of Communion by Jesus. Jesus tells His disciples that “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood”. Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross was the first part of His duty as our High Priest, His death on the Cross, while foremost bearing the wrath of God and bearing the punishment we deserved for our sins, enacted a New Covenant between God and man. Instead of repeated sacrifices for daily sins and repeated failures on the part of God’s people in upholding their side of His covenant with them, instead of a few out of the entire nation of Israel knowing God; now all those who are members of the New Covenant, all those who have believed in Jesus Christ for their salvation and trust Him as the LORD of their life, have received new hearts where they will desire righteousness and are enabled to pursue faithfulness to God, we all know God and have a relationship of personal experience with Him, and we have all received the forgiveness of our sins, standing boldly before God by the intercession and sacrifice of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ whose blood shed on the cross once and for all purchased the forgiveness of sins and the New Covenant relationship with God. It is to this New Covenant reality which we experience that the Old Testament and the Old Covenant point towards, and it is this New Covenant reality which the author of Hebrews presents as a reason why the Hebrews should persevere in their faith. Every time you partake of the Lord’s Supper remember first and foremost His blood shed on the Cross for the forgiveness of sins, but also His blood shed ushering in a New Covenant whereby all Christians experience a profound relationship with God that only a few under the Old Covenant experienced.