1 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, 2 a minister in the sanctuary and the true tent which is pitched by the Lord and not man. 3 For every high priest is appointed to offer gifts and sacrifices; hence it is necessary for this priest also to have something to offer. 4 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. 5 They serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly sanctuary; for when Moses was about to erect the tent, he was instructed by God, saying, “See that you make everything according to the pattern which was shown you on the mountain.”
6 But now, Christ has obtained a ministry which is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises. 7 For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion for a second. 8 For he finds fault with them when he says: “The days will come, says the Lord, when I will fulfill a renewed covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah; 9 not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt; for they did not abide in my covenant, and so I paid no heed to them, says the Lord. 10 This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says 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. 11 And they shall not teach every one his fellow or every one his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for all shall know me, from the least of them to the greatest. 12 For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.” 13 In speaking of a new covenant he treats the first as obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.
We are just about in the middle now of a long section in the epistle (6:13-10:23) in which the author very carefully spells out for his readers how Jesus, our great high priest, has fulfilled completely all of the cultic system of worship and sacrifice that God had given to the Israelites and that they had been practicing for hundreds of years. Before we look at this passage I want to take a moment to step back again and think again about why the author spends so much time on this exposition. After all, for us it can begin to feel somewhat technical and tedious. What is the big deal?
From the warnings and encouragements that we have looked at so far in the epistle, it seems clear that the readers of this letter were tempted to drift away from living continually out of trust and repose in Jesus Christ, God’s Son, and to begin relying on other things, such as angels, or practicing again the sacrificial system they had been brought up in as Jews.
I want to help us to continue to see why this temptation is significant for our own lives. Most of us may have trouble relating to an interest in angels or in following the Jewish cultic practices and so may think this is all very abstract and irrelevant to our lives. But I do think we can all understand the underlying, central issue at stake here.
Throughout Israel’s history God was revealing Himself as the God who loves. His words and actions to the Hebrews revealed that He is a God who desires real relationship with the humanity He created and will do all that is necessary to make this relationship possible. The law and the cultic system of worship and sacrifice were provided by God Himself. The Israelites did not come up with certain ways to worship this God that they thought He would like or that would appease Him. What God was up to in these interactions was to create a people who lived entirely out of trust and confidence in their God and not in themselves or their own ways.
All of the cultic system, as well as the law and the Davidic line of kings, as the prophets so often reminded the people, pointed away from themselves to a future fulfillment. This is because God didn’t want just any old relationship with His creation. He used intimate terms to speak of His relationship with His people. He called Israel His son. In the book of Hosea He compares His relationship with Israel with the covenant of marriage. In the book of Amos, He speaks of pouring His own spirit into His people, and in Ezekiel of giving them new hearts. All of these images were to fill out what God meant when He promised, “I will be your God and you will be my people.”
In Jesus, God has come all the way to us, and fulfilled, once and for all, His plan to “bring many sons to glory.” The reality to which all those signs pointed is now here.
When the Israelites are tempted to trust in angels or to continue in their old cultic practices, they are turning away from the reality and back to the signs. And in doing that, that are choosing to not rely solely on God’s gracious activity in their lives, but on something else that is less than God.
We too can be tempted to “add” to our faith in Jesus. We can begin to trust certain ways of praying, or certain programs or techniques that promise success. We “count” on God’s real presence and activity in our lives, but we also “count” on our own abilities to get things done, on the promises of these programs or techniques, hoping they can give us the life we want to have.
To draw his readers, and us, back to a fuller confidence in Jesus, our high priest, our author seeks to give as full and complete a picture as possible of God’s fulfillment of all that went before in His Son, Jesus. And that is what he is continuing to do in this passage.
In the preceding passage, the author has stated that in Jesus, God Himself, God the Son, has become our high priest. Jesus has introduced a better hope, “through which we draw near to God” (7:19b). He is the guarantee of “a better covenant” (7:22) and He is able to fully bring us out of the deadness and fear of our sins into His life and love, “to save those who draw near to God through him” (7:25). In today’s section, the author focuses on the superiority of the ministry that Jesus has as our high priest compared to the ministry of the high priests who came before Him, a ministry based on a better covenant that is enacted on better promises (8:6).
The author begins this section by taking a moment to summarize what he has said so far about Jesus as our high priest. In 8:1-5, we are reminded that Jesus is superior to the Levite priests, to the cultic system, and to Moses and the Law.
“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 sanctuary and the true tent which is pitched not by man but by the Lord.” The image of being seated at the right hand of God is a messianic one and echoes Psalm 110, which the author has quoted from several times already. Our author, then, reminds his readers that Jesus fulfills both David’s line as well as the Levitical priesthood.
But Jesus is not just superior to the line of Levi; His ministry is superior because it is the fulfillment of all of their ministries. As our high priest, Jesus, gathers up and leads the worship of God’s people (the Greek word translated “minister,” leiturgos, here means worship leader) not from the position of standing before God, but seated because the work of redemption has been completed. The former high priests stood in the Holy of Holies because they were still offering sacrifices to atone for their own sin and for the sins of the people. As the author goes on to say in verses 3 and 4, the high priests were appointed “to offer gifts and sacrifices” which were “according to the law”. The work of redemption, or entering into God’s life was not over, not completed.
But this high priest ministers to us, he continues to mediate between us and God, as He sits at the right hand of His Father. He ministers to us the finished work He has accomplished in our place and on our behalf as our faithful high priest. His work is finished because the necessary gift and sacrifice that He brought, as we learned in the previous section, was Himself. Now, as our continuing high priest, He offers prayers. He lives to make intercessions (7:25). This is why He is able to save us “for all time” which means completely, fully, to the uttermost.
Jesus serves as our permanent high priest, at the right hand of God, in heaven itself, in the true sanctuary of which the earthly tabernacle is only a copy. The question must have risen: How can He be considered a high priest when one looks at His earthly life? He never served in the temple in Jerusalem, He didn’t offer sacrifices in the Holy of Holies. This may be what the author is referring to in his statement in verse 4, “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.” The Levitical high priests served in a tabernacle that was erected by men, following the instructions God gave to Moses. The vestments they wore, the sacrifices they offered were all according to the law.
But just as the tabernacle on earth was a copy of the heavenly one, the priesthood and the law were all instituted as signs to point to the greater reality that is finally revealed in Jesus. Jesus isn’t a priest like these other earthly priests—He can’t be. He isn’t just another sign—He is the One all the signs were pointing to.
But now, Christ has obtained a ministry which is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises. The heavenly ministry Christ has obtained mediates a better covenant, which is enacted upon better promises. The former high priests mediated the covenant that God established with the people of Israel on Mt Sinai, and this covenant was based on the covenant God first made with Abraham. God’s covenant with the nation of Israel was founded on God’s promises to Abraham: “‘I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendents after you’” (Genesis 17:7).
God promised to be their God and that they would be His people. And God established the cultic system and the law to provide the Israelites a way to dwell with Him and to live out of trust and confidence in their God. But it was not easy or automatic. It was clear from the beginning that they needed God not only reveal Himself to them, but to enable their trust in Him. In their fallen state, they resisted God’s grace and sought other idols and ways to be in control of their lives.
During and after the Babylonian exile, God spoke through His prophets of a new work He would do in them, saying, “‘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’” (Ezek. 36:26). God would remain faithful to His promise to be their God and that they would indeed be His people. And to fulfill this promise, God would heal them from the inside out.
It is these promises that the author is referring to here. He is telling His readers that God, in Jesus, has fulfilled these promises. There is no need to continue with the old, external covenant when God has now established one that actually renews and transforms us. The first covenant was not faultless, it could not produce in the people a response of repentance and trust. It could not change their hearts. If it could have, then there would not have been a need for something more.
The author then quotes at length from Jeremiah (31:31-34). I think the reason that he does this is to assure his Jewish Christian readers that what God has done in and through His Son, Jesus the Christ, was originally embedded in the Jewish history. Jesus is not some strange anomaly that tears them away from all they have known and have held onto as Jewish people. Jesus is the very fulfillment of the promises given by God through the prophets.
So let’s take a look at the quoted passage from Jeremiah. You’ll notice that the original promise of God is repeated in verse 10 “‘and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.’” The second phase of the covenant is integrally connected to the first. In fulfilling the second covenant, God fulfills the first as well. In other words, He doesn’t give up on His plan to have an intimate relationship with His people. He fulfills that plan on a deeper level than was possible in the original covenant. That is why the Lords says “‘I will fulfill a renewed covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah’” (this translation is closest to the Greek. Some versions translate this as “‘I will make a new covenant’”). Calvin thought of one covenant in two forms: promise and fulfillment, not two (or more!) covenants.
God is renewing and fulfilling His covenant because His people did not abide (remain) in my covenant. They did not remain close to God, abiding in His word and presence, living out of trust in Him. So He promises through Jeremiah to so imprint Himself on their very hearts that “‘they shall not teach every one his fellow or every one his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for all shall know me, from the least of them to the greatest.’” They will know Him, the God of the universe, their God!! The word translated “know” here means personal knowing, not just knowing of facts or doctrines. To know in this way is to enter into a real, personal relationship.
And how will this kind of knowing come about? God goes on, “‘For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.’” There is a double negative here in the Greek which doesn’t really appear in the English translation. A closer translation might be “I will in no way remember their sins at all!” I like this sentence! God in Christ has indeed dealt with our sinful, broken hearts.
Our author ends this quote by saying that the result of this new, or renewed covenant that God establishes in His Son means that the old form of the covenant is no longer valid. It is temporal and fading, “becoming obsolete”. There is no need for the readers to continue in the old cultic practices as if Jesus had not come as their great high priest and offered Himself as the sacrifice that was able to save them fully, to the uttermost.
In Jesus, our true worship leader, God has provided a way for us to share in the Son’s communion with the Father in the Spirit. The late Scottish theologian, James Torrance has some wonderful things to say on this subject and on this passage in his book Worship, Community, and the Triune God of Grace. He says, “In his (God’s) love, he accepts us freely in the person of his beloved Son. It is he who in our name and on our behalf, in our humanity, has made the one offering to the Father which alone is acceptable to God for all humanity, for all nations, for all times…. The real agent in worship, in a New Testament understanding, is Jesus Christ who leads us in our praises and prayers, ‘the one true minister of the sanctuary,’ … (Heb 8:1, 2). He is the High Priest who, by his one offering of himself for us on the cross, now leads us into the Holy of Holies, the holy presence of the Father, in holy communion.” (p. 23)
Now why would we turn to anyone else or trust in anything else to enable us to worship and remain in fellowship and communion with our Triune God?