The New Covenant

Hebrews 8:1-13

Let’s begin this morning by reading Hebrews 8:

The point of what we are saying is this: We do have such a high priest, who sat down at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, and who serves in the sanctuary, the true tabernacle set up by the Lord, not by man. Every high priest is appointed to offer both gifts and sacrifices, and so it was necessary for this one also to have something to offer. If he were on earth, he would not be a priest, for there are already men who offer the gifts prescribed by the law. They serve at a sanctuary that is a copy and shadow of what is in heaven. This is why Moses was warned when he was about to build the tabernacle: “See to it that you make everything according to the pattern shown you on the mountain.” 

 But the ministry Jesus has received is as superior to theirs as the covenant of which he is mediator is superior to the old one, and it is founded on better promises. 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. 

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 By calling this covenant “new,” he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and aging will soon disappear.

Before you and I can understand what is going on in Hebrews 8, we need to understand what the Law meant to the Jews. “Oh,” you say, “I know all about the Law, our Bible class read about it in Exodus 20!” And while you might know something about the contents of the Law, none of us could begin to understand what the Law meant to these people. There on Mt. Sinai, God gave the Law to these people he had rescued from Egyptian slavery, and then we read in Exodus 24, Then Moses took the Book of the Covenant and read it to the people. They responded, “We will do everything the LORD has said; we will obey.” Moses then took the blood, sprinkled it on the people and said, “This is the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words.” (Ex 24:7-8)

This wasn’t just a book of rules, it defined who they were; it represented their covenantal relationship with God.

The problem was, they couldn’t live up to it. Their lives fell short of God’s commands. Rather than justify them, it condemned them. And that is the point. The Law was never meant to justify – it was intended to show them that they were sinners in need of a savior. It put them in a position of relying on God’s grace.

Now, if they were anything like us (and I’m pretty sure they were), they didn’t want to be dependent on anyone for anything, especially God. And so there solution was to work harder and make more laws and turn they Law into something God never intended it to be. And so, this Law and the covenant that it represented became a prison rather than freedom. But it was a prison they knew – and they clung to it with a dogged ferocity.

Centuries later, as Jeremiah looked out on the armies of Nebuchadnezzar surrounding Jerusalem, signaling the end of everything the Jews knew and loved, he wrote these words from God: “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. 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.” (Jeremiah 31:31-34)

A new covenant, not based on the Law, but on a relationship. Fast forward five centuries to Jerusalem in the 1st century AD:

The air was filled with a sense of excitement and apprehension on that evening when Jesus sat down to eat that Passover meal with his disciples. All week the city had been bustling with busy-ness as people made preparations for this most joyous of celebrations among the Israelites – a commemoration of God leading their people out of Egyptian bondage.

Jesus had sent his disciples ahead to make the preparations for a room and the meal. A donkey’s colt had been borrowed upon which Jesus would enter Jerusalem. Even as the crowds shouted “Hosanna,” there was a sadness and a finality to his mood – surely his disciples sensed it – as he approached the city gates of Jerusalem he wept.

1400 years earlier, God had told his people to prepare for their escape out of Egypt, for he would deliver them. At twilight each family was to kill the Passover lamb and spread its blood on the doorframe of the house. He told them to eat the unleavened bread and the Passover lamb with cloak on, walking staff in hand and traveling shoes on their feet and ready to flee. On that night, the 14th night of the 1st month, the Lord passed through the land of Egypt and struck down every firstborn of animal and man where there was no blood on the doorpost. And for 1400 years since that fateful night, Israel had been eating the Passover meal, remembering God’s deliverance out of slavery.

On this evening, there is something very unusual about this Passover meal which Jesus and his disciples are eating – there is no mention of the Passover lamb that was the focus of the meal. Paul later helps us make sense of the omission: “For Christ our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed” (1 Cor. 5:7). Less than twelve hours later, the true lamb of God would be sacrificed on the altar of the cross – the memorial completed.

And then Jesus took the loaf… then the wine…

Since Noah, God had been making covenants with his people… but now Jesus says, “my blood of the covenant which is poured out for many”? Which covenant? His blood fulfilled every previous covenant God had ever made and ushered in a new covenant. This was not just a Passover meal, this was THE Passover meal – the Passover which all previous Passovers had anticipated.

Let’s walk through our passage this morning:

Hebrews 8:1 serves as the exclamation point to chapter 7. Every priest that served at the temple was inadequate to the task because of their own sin and mortality. What we needed is a sinless, eternal high priest who could perfectly serve at the altar on our behalf forever, and so he says: “The point is: We do have such a high priest!”

Jesus is the high priest we needed most. We have heard it in virtually every chapter in the letter so far:

2- a merciful and faithful high priest

3- Jesus, the apostle and high priest

4- since we have a great high priest

5- the glory of becoming a high priest

6- he has become a high priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek

7- such a high priest meets our need – one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens.

Now, in chapter 8, he comes to the essence of this high priesthood: it is the sacrifice he offered, and the covenant he served:

Every high priest is appointed to offer both gifts and sacrifices, and so it was necessary for this one also to have something to offer. If he were on earth, he would not be a priest, for there are already men who offer the gifts prescribed by the law. They serve at a sanctuary that is a copy and shadow of what is in heaven. This is why Moses was warned when he was about to build the tabernacle: “See to it that you make everything according to the pattern shown you on the mountain.” But the ministry Jesus has received is as superior to theirs as the covenant of which he is mediator is superior to the old one, and it is founded on better promises. (Heb 8:3-6)

He has been setting up this moment – describing the inadequacies of the law, of the Levitical priesthood, of the ancestors, of the old covenant, and now in chapter 8 he tells us why they are ultimately inadequate to accomplish what we needed most.

It is not because they were faulty in their design, or even because they were administered poorly by flawed humans. They were inadequate because they were merely shadows of the ultimate reality. They were intended to get the people ready for the real thing. And the real thing has come!

They didn’t need another Levitical priest to offer more of the same sacrifices, or even a better priest who was more godly and dedicated. None of that would ultimately make a difference. And as we learned in chapter 7, Jesus would never have qualified for that role anyway – he came from the wrong family and had the wrong name.

Now, our writer tells us, every high priest is appointed to offer sacrifices – and Jesus did not come empty handed. He was not only the priest, but the sacrifice as well.

Even the sanctuary was a shadow – first the tabernacle, then the Temple. In all their glory, with the finest materials, the purest gold, constructed precisely according to instructions – they pale in comparison to the real sanctuary, the true sanctuary.

And especially the covenant. As he said earlier of the priesthood, “For if there had been nothing wrong with that first covenant, no place would have been sought for another” (8:7).

The author will spend more time, and go into greater detail in chapters 9 and 10 concerning the covenant and the sacrifice, but he introduces us to it here, by telling us that God’s plan has always been to bring us to this moment. It wasn’t a whim, or frustration, or helplessness that drove God to make a change – it was a part of his plan from the beginning. And he goes to the OT to show us:

Jeremiah, as early as the 7th century B.C. would begin to foretell of a new covenant that God would establish with his people. Little did those Israelites suspect the dramatic changes that would take place in bringing it into effect.

 

Vs. 8 “The time is coming…”

The old covenant had a purpose and accomplished one result: it made people intensely aware of their own sinfulness, but it did not have the power to cleanse and purify them of that sinfulness.

It was as if a man, filthy and grimy from work, stands before the mirror and sees how dirty he is – but the mirror has no ability to cleanse his face. It wasn’t made for that. What he needs is water and soap to scrub with. The old covenant is the mirror – it has the ability to let us see ourselves, how sinful we are. But it has no ability to cleanse us from sin. What we needed most, the law was incapable of doing.

Was the law at fault? Not at all – it was faultless. But it was not what God had ultimately planned for his people. It prepared the way, but it could not lead them to their destination. Ultimately, that covenant, rather than bringing God and man together, created greater and greater separation – vs. 9 “because they did not remain faithful to my covenant… I turned my back on them.”

The fault is not with the covenant, but with the people – they could not, they would not remain faithful to a covenant written on stone tablets – external, lifeless.

 

Back in Hebrews 7:22, the writer wrote, “Jesus has become the guarantee of a better covenant.”

Jeremiah tells us about that “better covenant”:

“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.”  (Heb 8:10-12)

It offers internal motivation and power

instead of external lists.

It is based on an intimate relationship,

instead of one that is distant and fearful.

It provides confidence and assurance

instead of insecurity and uncertainty.

It emphasizes forgiveness and mercy

instead of failure and condemnation.

 

And then he closes the chapter with a remarkable observation: if this covenant is called “new,” then the first one automatically becomes obsolete; and what is obsolete and aging will soon disappear.

In Jesus’ own words in the Sermon on the Mount, he said that he did not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it. In its fulfillment, Jesus, through his own blood shed upon the cross opened the way for God to establish this new covenant.

Until that moment came, any covenant ministered in earthly sanctuaries, based on the blood of animals would remain inadequate.

What we needed most, what God wanted most to give was a perfect covenant with his people. It could only be accomplished through the perfect sacrifice of a perfect high priest – and Jesus, the lamb of God, made that sacrifice, once and for all time on the cross.

What this tells me is that, when we are most frustrated, the most ineffective…

Spinning our wheels, yet going nowhere…

Doing the same old jobs with no appreciation or advancement…

Living in the same old families where we just tolerate each other, but love died long ago.

Practicing the same old religion, where week after week we come to sit, to listen, to leave – just enough to make us miserable, but not enough to give us joy.

God has the answer, and it is in the newness that he brings into our lives through Jesus Christ. He has the power to transform the old and ineffective with newness and power, when he writes his new covenant, not on tablets of stone, but on our hearts.

Do you find yourself jaded to religion? Tired of the same ol’ same ol’? The problem isn’t that Christianity has been tried and found wanting, it is that it hasn’t been tried. What Jesus came to bring was not a new religion, but a Savior; not a new list of rules, but a relationship..

You may have experienced religion for years and don’t see much to get excited about. It’s time to try Jesus instead. That’s what the new covenant is all about – as Jeremiah said – not that you will know about God, but that you will know God.