Understanding the New Covenant

The message of the Epistle to the Hebrews is so important for our day that I have been rephrasing it and emphasizing aspects of it section by section. The next portion in sequence is significant enough to look individually at each verse and 1005175_christian_cross__11.jpgcarefully consider what is being declared. We do not live amid the ritual the author is dealing with, but we seem, much like the recipients of this letter, to suffer similar inability to appreciate the great work God has done on our behalf.

Now, of the things we have been speaking of, this is the summation: We have such a High Priest, who is set on the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens (Heb. 8:1). This speaks of reality and privilege. Our supreme High Priest lived among us, showed Himself to be the eternal God come in the flesh, and gave Himself as an offering for our sins. We did not choose Him; God appointed and sent Him. He continues to function as our representative, now in His position as co-ruler of the universe. His earthly task is completed, and He is seated, receiving the full honor of heavenly hosts, and is still divinely caring for His sheep on earth.

This One serves as a minister in the true sanctuary, the true tabernacle, which the Lord pitched and not man (2). The work of Aaron and Levitical priests was performed in tents and later in the temple. The priestly ministry of Jesus has taken place in and continues to function in the heavenly reality of which the Old Testament tent was a copy formed by human hands. God Himself fashioned the heavenly realities.

For every high priest is appointed to offer gifts and sacrifices, wherefore it was necessary for this One also to have something to offer (3). The priestly office of Jesus was not just honorary; He actually performed, far greater than the Hebrew priests, in the satisfactory offering He brought before the Judge on High. That heavenly priestly function was the very reason for His coming to earth.

For if He were ministering here on earth, He would not be a priest, inasmuch as there are already appointed priests who offer gifts according to the Mosaic Law (4). Jesus visited the temple. He cleansed the temple. He and His followers honored the temple, but Jesus did not have a priestly function in the temple. He was not a Levite. He was not qualified under the Law to serve in the picture portrayal. There was no need for Him in fulfilling His appointed task to be involved in the types and shadows that were appointed to portray heavenly reality.

Levitical priests serve as an example and shadow of heavenly things, just as Moses was admonished by God when he was about to make the tabernacle, for see, said He, that you make all things according to the pattern showed to you in the mount (5). The instruction given to Moses on Mount Sinai provided guidance for individual and national conduct in this world. The instructions for the pattern of worship to be observed in Israel gave information about heavenly reality and a work to be accomplished in the future in the heavenly Holy of Holies.

But now Jesus has accomplished a more excellent ministry, and in doing so He is also the Mediator of a better covenant, which was established on better promises (6). Jesus is the true, the better High Priest. Jesus performed His high priestly duties in a much better place, of which the tabernacle and Temple were divinely appointed teaching pictures. Jesus offered Himself once for all men for all time. An earthy Levitical priest offered an animal, first for himself and then for the people, over and over. This practice was never more than a picture. It did not accomplish anything spiritual beyond its teaching purpose.

The work of Jesus as high priestly Mediator was better because He was Mediator of a better covenant, which was established on better promises. That which is better has replaced that which was temporary and was simply instructive. The Levitical system has served its purpose and is no longer important other than to teach of the greater heavenly realities (it was still functioning when this epistle was written and received. It ceased when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in AD 70.)

The Hebrew nation and the Levitical priesthood existed as provisions of the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants. Jesus functioned under the provisions of a better covenant, often called the “new covenant” (or “testament”). The new, better covenant has replaced the old covenant, which was preparatory. The old had anticipated the new, and so this is a superior provision on the part of God. Benefits of the old covenant had been primarily in connection with earthly existence. The greater provision of the new covenant is for an eternal heavenly existence, including better temporal blessings. The provisions and promises of God in connection to the new covenant are far better than His promises under the old covenant.

Why these strong assertions? Most likely some Hebrew Christians were contemplating returning to cultural Judaism. The author urges them not to turn their backs on that which is far better in God’s plan. The same plea might be repeated for those who endeavor to drag forward provisions of that old covenant which have been fulfilled and replaced, to make them requirements of cultural Christianity. The new covenant is not merely an outworking or improvement of the old; it is a replacement of the old.

Warren VanhetlooWarren Vanhetloo has A.B., B.D., Th.M., Th.D., and D.D. degrees. He served three pastorates in Michigan, taught 20 years at Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN), taught 23 years at Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary (Lansdale, PA), and is listed as adjunct faculty at Calvary. Retired, he lives in Holland, Michigan. At the urging of fellow faculty and former students, he sends an email newsletter called “Cogitations” to those who request it. You may send e-mail to him at cbsvan@sbcglobal.net.
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