Last week’s post was concerned with the topic of systematic theology. We wanted to write about this topic because we have seen a recent trend of neglecting such a study in the church. For some of you this topic might have also been a welcomed change of pace. In the last weeks we have been looking closely at the argument the author of Hebrews makes and what God speaks to us today.
In this post we will continue to study this amazing epistle. To repeat the argument is not necessary since the other posts are available. However, we want us to see that in the beginning of chapter 8, after the author talked about Christ’s high priestly status after the order of Melchizedek (primarily chapter 7), there was a comparison of the earthly and the heavenly sanctuary. The former was a copy of the latter. In that argument the author ended by saying: “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.”
Now the author is explaining that better covenant. In 8:7, like in 7:11, the author states that the old covenant (i.e., the Mosaic) was not faultless. In both cases (i.e., 7:11; and 8:7) the author reasons the following way: “If the old covenant would have been faultless, there would have been no need for a new covenant!” But the author is also careful to state that the fault is not with God or the covenant itself, but with the people the covenant is made with (cf. also v.9).
We find this new covenant in Jer. 31:31-34. While promising a new covenant in the time of the Babylonian exile, God is indicating that there was something wrong with the old. The cause of fault is found with the people (v.9: “they did not continue in my covenant”).
This new covenant is an intimate one; “I will put my laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” This reflects that the author of “Hebrews views the fulfilment of this promise in Jesus’ cleansing of the hearts of his people from a guilty conscience, so that they may ‘serve the living God’ (9:14; cf. 10:19–25)” (Peterson, in loc.). He is the mediator of the better covenant with better promises. It is an internal covenant and not one in regards to the exterior only.
It is a covenant “from the least of them to the greatest.” All will know the Lord and have an intimate relationship with him. The reason as to why such a relationship should be possible, that the creatures can be in peace and harmony with their Creator, is stated in v.12, “For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.” What a promise!
Notice the first person singular throughout the Jeremiah passage. It is the divine act which enables a restored relationship to humanity.
The clause I will be their God, and they shall be my people is fundamental to almost all God’s promises and covenants in the Old Testament (Exod 6:7; 29:45; Lev 26:12; Deut 26:17-18; Jer 7:23; 24:7; 30:22; Ezek 11:20; 37:27; Hos 2:23; Zech 8:8; 13:9) and is repeated in the New Testament (2 Cor 6:16) and culminates in Revelation 21:3 “And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.’”
Hebrews implies then that the promise of Jeremiah “is fulfilled in the direct approach to God ‘with confidence’ that Jesus makes possible (4:16; 7:25; 10:19–22; cf. 12:22–24).” We also see that the basis (indicated by “for”) “of these promises is the assurance of a decisive cleansing from sin.” Chs. 9–10 will show “that Jesus’ sacrifice achieves the fulfilment of that foundational promise (e.g. 9:14, 26, 28; 10:10, 14)” (all quotations here are from Peterson, in loc.).
The old covenant is thus outdated and there is no need to go back to it, or try to keep alive what is on the verge to disappear. The word here employed for “vanishing away” (Gr.: aphanismou) is actually stronger implying willful destruction (BDAG, 155; cf. O’Brien, 303). God brought the old covenant to an end by introducing the new one. There is no need for the readers to go back to their old ways. This might not immediately strike you as pertaining to 21st century Christians who predominantly do not have a Jewish background. But even though we might not be tempted to go back to the Mosaic law, our old ways of living and thinking are always lurking at the front door (or even worse: back door) begging us to let them in so that the ministry and sacrifice of Christ is diminished.
Let us give you an example. When we have done something wrong, or thought inappropriately about a situation or person, or acted in a way which was not in accordance with our faith, do we need (sometimes at least) feel the need to make up for it? Don’t we try to diminish our sin – to clean our slate – by good works (e.g. by helping out our co-workers or fellow students more than we usually do)? We think we do in some cases. But that is exactly the same problem the readership is facing – falling back to the old system/ways.
As Christians we live under the new covenant and it is such a marvelous one. It is one which gives us an intimate relationship with God through the perfect sacrifice and ministry of our High Priest, Jesus Christ. God does not remember our sins anymore because He is merciful. Because Christ has done it right, our wrong-doing cannot undo what has been done.
What a marvelous God we serve and worship!
O’Brien, Peter T. The Letter to the Hebrews. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans; 2010.
Peterson, David. “Hebrews.” New Bible Commentary : 21st Century Edition, 4th ed. Ed. D.A. Carson, et al. Leicester, England; Downers Grove, USA: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994.