Reformed Perspectives Magazine, Volume 10, Number 27, June 29 to July 5 2008

Hebrews 7:26-8:13

A Sermon

By Scott Lindsay

Some of you will be old enough to remember a time when there was no such thing as video games or personal computers. There were no X-Boxes, or GameCubes, or PlayStation 3's or 4's or whatever number they are up to now. You could not play "virtual" basketball, "virtual" football, or "virtual" soccer. There was no "virtual" way to do anything. You either did the thing for real, or you didn't.

Perhaps one exception to that, at least when I was growing up, were these massive contraptions that would sit on top of your kitchen table and which consisted of plastic figures of athletes that were mechanically operated by means of long steel rods that you could push in and out and twist to the left or the right, or else there were these levers that you could move back and forth.

One of the more popular versions of this sort of game was "NHL Hockey." And what you would do is drop this little black "puck" onto the surface of the board between these two central players and, before the puck could even hit the surface you would begin madly spinning your player round in a circle in the hopes that you would be the first one to make contact and send the puck ricocheting off to the side where you would then move to another set of controls to make that player do something useful. And so on and so forth until, by some combination of chance and skill, you landed the thing in the goal. That was the theory, at least.

And it was usually pretty comical to watch, at least when I played, because I was forever grabbing the wrong control, or, if I managed to get hold of the right one, I would end up spinning it the wrong way, or spinning it too late or too early, or too hard, or too soft. The truth of the matter is: I stunk at the thing. It was an absolutely maddening game that I could only stand to play for 3 or 4 minutes at a time before I walked off in sheer frustration. Nevertheless, that was it. That was as "virtual" as our virtual reality got.

Now imagine that a person grew up with one of these games in his/her house and, for whatever reason, never knew or discovered that there was actually a real game called "hockey" that real people played with real pucks and sticks and skates and pads. Imagine that the person in question's only experience of "hockey" was the kind that you played on top of your kitchen table by means of this rather primitive device.

And then imagine that one day you broke the news to this person that what they had was not the real game of hockey but was, in fact, only a copy, a model, an approximation of what the real thing was like. And then imagine that they went with you to a real hockey match, or else went with you to an arena and played a real live game of hockey with other people.

That experience and revelation, no doubt, would, or at least should, forever change the way they felt about, and thought about, the table top version back at home. Surely a person in such a situation would see that, no matter how good the copy was, the real thing was so much better, had so much more to offer, and was, in the end, much more gratifying.

Well, that sort of illustration is the approach taken by one New Testament scholar as he introduces his comments on Hebrews chapter 8, and in particular as he discusses what is said there about the earthly temple in Jerusalem and its relationship, as a copy, to the true temple in heaven. Like the person who has only ever known the tabletop hockey game, the readers of this letter to the Hebrews, as the writer knows, have never seen the true heavenly temple, but only its earthly copy. All of that, of course, is fair enough. Indeed, how could they have seen the heavenly temple?

However, the problem that the writer of Hebrews sees is that his readers, in the midst of their present difficulties and suffering, seemed to have lost sight of the fact that the earthly temple - and all that went with it - was only a copy - and not the real thing. His fear was that they were being tempted to return to that which was only a shadow - a mere shadow - of a greater reality. They were flirting with the notion of treating the copy AS the real thing. Among other things, is a central concern within the verses before us this morning.

Now, for those of you who have been with us over the past couple of months, you will know that we are in a section of Hebrews which is continuing with the overall theme of the superiority of Christ. Now we have seen this superiority in a number of areas already, but, most recently, we have been looking at his superiority as high priest to all the priests that had served the people of God before now.

Starting back in chapter 4, the writer of Hebrews has shown how Christ's priesthood is superior for all kinds of reasons: Because it is not a part of the Levitical priesthood but is of another order that is superior to it - the order of Melchizedek, because of Jesus' suffering that came from his obedience, because he was tempted as we are, yet never gave into it, because it was confirmed by an oath that God himself made, and because of the fact that it is permanent and eternal, and not interrupted by death.

To that already impressive list we will add three further reasons for the superiority of Christ's priesthood:

  • 1) Because of Christ's sinless character,
  • 2) Because the temple that Christ serves in is the real thing, and not a copy, and
  • 3) Because Christ's priesthood is linked to a covenant that is new and better, and not obsolete and fading away.
Those three matters will occupy us this morning, but before we have a closer look, let's do the most important thing you can ever do before you look at the Scriptures - talk to the Author.

Let us pray.

First Move - As we continue to explore the priesthood of Christ, the first thing I want you to see from the verses before us this morning, is that, in addition to everything else we have already seen, Christ's priesthood is better because of Christ's sinless character. Listen to Hebrews 7:26-28:

For it was indeed fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. He has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people, since he did this once for all when he offered up himself. For the law appoints men in their weakness as high priests, but the word of the oath, which came later than the law, appoints a Son who has been made perfect forever.
Now, there is a bucket load of theology in those verses. As one writer (Teodorico) has described them they are "an outburst of the joy of humanity which has at last found the high priest qualified to understand its weaknesses and to come to its aid." However, that being said, there is really no need to complicate things here. These verses are simply telling us that Christ was exactly what fallen humanity needed. We needed our sins dealt with by someone who was himself a human, and yet who did not share humanity's guilt; someone who could fully and finally deal with it, once and for all. Christ was the perfect man for the job. That is what the writer means when he says, "it was fitting that we should have such a high priest".

Christ's perfect, sinless humanity set him apart from us and meant, on the one hand, that as our high priest, and unlike the Old Testament priests, when he goes before God as our representative, he does not have to deal with his own sin first. Flowing on from that, because of his sinless character he was not only our first and only perfect priest but, in offering up himself, offered the only completely perfect, utterly flawless, absolutely sufficient sacrifice. The perfect priest, offering the perfect sacrifice. It is really not much more complicated than that.

That is the first thing I want you to see.

II Second Move - The second thing I want you to see is not only that Christ's priesthood is better because of his sinless character, but also because, while all the priests that came before served in the earthly, man-made Temple, Christ serves in the heavenly temple, not made by human hands but by God himself:

Hebrews 8:1-5 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, a minister in the holy places, in the true tent1 that the Lord set up, not man. For every high priest is appointed to offer gifts and sacrifices; thus it is necessary for this priest also to have something to offer. Now if he were on earth, he would not be a priest at all, since there are priests who offer gifts according to the law. They 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."
As was noted in the introduction, the writer of Hebrews is concerned to show or remind - or perhaps both - his readers that the temple that they are so tempted to return to is, in fact, nothing more than a copy of a better, heavenly one. He does this by reminding them of what happened back at the beginning - when the "tent" or Tabernacle was first constructed.

Now, the Tabernacle, if you do not know, was basically this really, really fancy tent that the people of God carted around with them in the wilderness and which served as the precursor to the more permanent Temple that would be constructed once they settled in the Promised Land. When God first gave the instructions to build the Tabernacle, He also, at that time, gave Moses a glimpse of what the heavenly temple was like. Why? Because the heavenly temple was the original of which the earthly temple was to be a copy.

And Jesus, who could not have been a priest in the earthly temple, according to the laws of succession pertaining to the Levitical priesthood - could be and was a priest in the heavenly Temple, and according to a different and superior order of priesthood - that of Melchizedek.

Nevertheless, although he was a priest of a different order, his priesthood still had some things in common with the Levitical priesthood that preceded it. Just as with Aaron and all the Levitical priests that came after him, Christ's priesthood was also one that centered around the very important issues of sin and sacrifice. The difference between Christ's priesthood, and the ones preceding it, was not that one offered gifts and sacrifices and the other one didn't. The difference was in the effectiveness and quality and frequency of the sacrifices offered.

The Levitical priests offered sacrifices that addressed but could not really atone for human sin - as Christ's sacrifice did. The Levitical priests offered up goats and lambs which were unblemished but which, in the end, were still brute beasts and therefore nothing like the sacrifice which Christ made - which was his perfect self - the "Lamb of God" sent to save sinners. The Levitical priests offered their sacrifices over and over again, never getting the job done. Jesus offered one, and only one, completely sufficient sacrifice.

In short, all that the Levitical priests did was a mere shadow of the things which Christ did. It is fitting that they served in the temple which was a shadow of the real thing. And it is equally fitting that Christ served, and continues to serve, in the perfect heavenly Temple, not the earthly shadow. Why? Because He is the perfect priest, offering the perfect sacrifice, and ministering in the perfect temple.

That is the second thing I want you to see.

III Third Move - The third thing I want you to see is that Christ's priesthood is better, not only because of his sinless character, and not only because he serves in the real, heavenly temple as opposed to the earthly, temporary one, but also because while all the former priests were linked to the former covenant, Christ is linked to the new and better covenant:

Hebrews 8:6-13 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. For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion to look for a second. For 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 and with the house of Judah, not 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. For they did not continue in my covenant, and so I showed no concern for them, declares the Lord. For 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 their God, and they shall be my people. And 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." In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.
Now, before we look at what it means to talk about Christ as the priest of a new and better covenant, it would be good to perhaps remind ourselves of what a covenant is. The word "covenant" is the Bible word used to describe the relationship between God and the people with whom he chooses to be in relationship. God's "covenant relationships" with his people are always, fundamentally, a function of his grace and mercy.

In other words, when God decides to covenant with a person, or with a people, he never does so because of something in them that merits or mandates his being in relationship with them. The Bible makes it clear that when God decides to covenant with a person or people, it is always because of something in him, that is, in God. It is a result of his sovereign decision to set his love on a particular person or people, for reasons that are entirely his own.

At the same time, while all of God's covenant relationships are initiated because of his un-deserved mercy, once initiated, they are always accompanied by both blessings and curses that carry within them the expectation of faithfulness on the part of God's people. The blessings are what happen because of God's people being faithful to the God who has covenanted with them. The curses are what happen when God's people are not faithful to the God who has covenanted with them. The story of the Bible is, in many ways, the story of God's determining to be in covenant relationship with a particular people, how sin and the fall affected that, and what God did to undo the effects of sin and the fall and so reconcile his people to himself, that they might be with him forever.

As we look at the developing storyline of the Bible, we can see how it is punctuated, at various places, by the issuing, and restatement, and expansion of God's covenant relationship with his people, starting with Adam, and then moving through to Noah where the things he said to Adam are re-affirmed, and expanded upon. Next comes Abraham to whom God's covenant blessings are re-affirmed and, once again, expanded. Then Moses and David according to the same pattern, and then finally all the way to Christ.

Having said that, it is important to be clear about the fact that, while there are various administrations of God's covenant - through various persons like Adam, Noah, Abraham, etc - it still remains, essentially the one covenant, and not several different and distinct covenants. As Hebrews 13:20-21 says:

Hebrews 13:20-21 Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.
Notice that the writer of Hebrews at the end of his letter gives evidence of his own understanding of the unity of the covenant. In other words, he does not say "by the blood of the eternal covenants" - plural, but rather, "by the blood of the eternal covenant." Apparently, in his own mind, and even though he talks about old covenants and new ones and faulty ones and better ones earlier on, the writer of Hebrews still sees that there is a link between them.

Even though the manner in which God's grace is administered differs from one covenant to the next, and even though one covenant may supersede another and so prove it superior - as the new covenant in Christ does - there is still an abiding connectedness between the covenants. They are all still the outworking of the one, over-arching plan and purpose of God.

With those things in mind, we are now in a position to think for a moment about this whole notion of Christ's priesthood being superior because he is a priest who mediates a new and better covenant, and not the old one, as did the priests of old. Now, there are two ways given in the passage here by which we can think about the new covenant and what it is that makes it better. Put negatively - the new covenant initiated by Christ is better than the old because the old covenant was faulty. Put positively - the new covenant initiated by Christ is better because it is "enacted on better promises." Let us take a moment to look at both of these ideas.

Firstly, let us look at the faultiness of the old covenant. What in the world is that referring to? The answer is found in chapter 8, verses 7-9. (Read these)

As we look at these verses, you need to keep in mind that the writer of Hebrews is here quoting from the prophet Jeremiah, chapter 31, verses 31-34. In its original context, the prophecy uttered here was spoken to God's people who were in exile, as a consequence of their faithlessness. And yet, in spite of their great sin, Jeremiah still spoke of a time when God would restore his people - at least a remnant of them - to the land he had given them and would, more importantly, restore them to himself.

In the first part of this prophecy, as quoted in verses 8 and 9, God says, through Jeremiah, that he is going to establish a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. The reason he is going to establish a NEW covenant is because God's people were not faithful to continue to observe the things God had commanded them under the FORMER covenant. In other words, as one commentator points out:

The quotation from Jeremiah 31 in verse 9 makes it clear...... that the problem in view was the peoples' disobedience, which the sacrificial system of the Mosaic Covenant did not have the ability to solve....
The problem or "fault" with the old covenant was not with the covenant per se but with one of the parties of the covenant - namely, God's people. The covenant itself was actually a good thing, established and defined by God. However, it was powerless to produce the faithfulness it required. In that sense, it was faulty. With that reality in view, it would seem than that, at the very least, the purpose of the new covenant was to address this very thing - to usher in a situation where the problem that undermined the former covenant - i.e. the faithlessness of the people - would be taken care of. This leads us then to think about some of the more positive reasons why the new covenant initiated by Christ is better than the old covenant.

At the outset, let me just say that saying you are going to do that is a whole lot easier than actually doing it. Coming up with good biblical responses in this area has been notoriously difficult for God's people to do, over the years. As a result, there is, not surprisingly, a divergence of opinion on this one. Not on everything about it, mind you, but on certain aspects.

However, the key thing to keep in mind, is that the new covenant that Christ mediates is better because, as verse 6 says, it is "enacted on better promises". What are these better promises? Most bible scholars agree that the "better promises" he is talking about are the ones contained within the quotation of Jeremiah 31, and found in verses 8-12 of chapter 8. So, in spite of the fact that men much wiser and godlier than me have struggled here, let me venture to offer some of my own thoughts, nonetheless, starting with those things I am most certain of, and moving toward those things that I am less certain of.

The first thing that is new and better about the new administration of the covenant under Jesus is found in verse 12. Simply put, the biggest, most central difference between the old covenant and the new one is that in the new covenant, Jesus' high priestly work - by means of his death and resurrection — fulfils all that the Old Testament system could only point to. The once-for-all, complete perfection of Jesus' self-sacrifice deals fully and finally with the penalty for man's sin. This is, as Peter Adam says, clearly the greatest thing about the new covenant. Every other blessing we experience in the new covenant is a function of and flows outward from this central truth.

The second thing that is new and better about the administration of the new covenant under Jesus is found in verse 8. As Hughes points out:

....the new covenant would bring together those who had been divided by bitterness and hostility: it was to be established with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. The promise of the reunion of Israel and Judah was symbolical of the healing of every human breach and the reconciliation of all nations and persons in Christ, the seed of Abraham in whom all the people of the earth are blessed and united...because he has "broken down the dividing wall of hostility" - to use Paul's language...
As you may or may not recall, at one time the nation of Israel was united. However, after Solomon's death his worthless sons took over and the next thing you knew, the nation of Israel had split into a northern and a southern kingdom. The prophet Jeremiah is saying that one of the consequences of the establishment of the new covenant is that it will deal with and address the sort of hostility that once existed between those peoples.

The Apostle Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians, talks about this very same sort of thing happening as a consequence of the new Covenant ministry and message of Jesus. He sees the breaking down of the barriers that once existed between Jews and Gentiles as an illustration of very same sort of thing that the writer of Hebrews is talking about.

And this breaking down of the barriers between Jews and Gentiles then becomes the basis for a further thing that is "better" about the new covenant, namely that unlike the old covenant that was bound within the confines of ethnic Israel, the new Covenant in Christ has no such limitations and thus can, and must, be freely proclaimed across all distinctions of race and class and economic status, etc. In other words, the new covenant in Christ has a greater portability.

Still another thing that is new and better about the covenant initiated by Christ is that it offers a better hope than that which was offered before, in the previous covenants. This better hope is a function of the fact that in the new covenant in Christ, God has taken steps to insure that the "faultiness" which rendered the former covenant ineffective, will not do so again.

The final thing that I would say is new and better about the administration of the new covenant under Jesus is found at the end of verse 10. This is also, of the five things I have mentioned here, the one that I think is more problematic and so I speak here with less certainty than with the previous matters. Many scholars will talk about how this verse is describing the indwelling, heart changing work of the Holy Spirit as being one of the main differences between the old covenant and the new one. And, while I have some sympathy with that view as there does seem to be something to the notion that in the NT era there seems to be a greater liberality of God's Spirit being poured and evident in God's people.

However, if you take this view, then the problem is in understanding what went on with God's people in the Old Testament. Because there are several places in the Old Testament where it speaks of God's law being written on the hearts of his people, or similar such language. There are several places where the phrase "I will be their God and they shall be my people" figures prominently in the Old Testament. Would not the Old Testament people of God be as much in need of the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit as you and me, if they were to be rendered spiritually alive and thus enabled to be responsive to the things of God? I think so. Is it possible to talk about a fuller and more pervasive working of God's Spirit under the new covenant, without denying the reality of the Spirit's working within his people under the old covenant? Maybe so. However, what I am suggesting here is that IF these words in verse 10 ARE referring to some new manner of the Spirit's working within the people of God, it would seem to me that it would have to be a difference of degree, not a difference of kind.

All these things that are new and better about the new covenant - the superiority of Christ's sacrificial work, it's ability to break down barriers, its portability, its better hope, the possibility of a deeper and more pervasive working of the Spirit - all of these things are part of a covenant that has been initiated but is yet to be fully established. And we know this because the realities described in verse 11 have not yet come to pass. Still, even as a covenant that is still being established and is still moving toward consummation, it is easy to see that Christ is, indeed, the mediator of a better covenant. Christ's priesthood is indeed superior, because of his sinless character, because he serves in the true heavenly temple, and because by it he is the mediator of a new and better covenant.

Let us encourage one another with these truths.

This article is provided as a ministry of Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill). If you have a question about this article, please email our Theological Editor.

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