8:1. Of the things spoken in this treatise, this which the author is about to say is the sum or, as better translated in the later versions, the chief point. And what is this chief point? That we believers have Jesus as high priest, and that He is performing priestly service for us at the right hand of God in the heavens.
This figure of Christ at God’s right hand comes from Psalm 110 (see notes at 1:13) and is frequently joined in the New Testament to that of the authoritative “Son of Man” of Daniel, chapter seven. The psalm also combines Christ’s priestly and His royal offices. While most other New Testament references to the psalm point to its royal imagery (but see Romans 8:34), the epistle to the Hebrews pays special attention to the priestly.
8:2. Jesus is a minister or, literally, “public servant” of the sanctuary or holy things. But His service involves the true or substantial tabernacle which the Lord pitched, not any structure erected by man. His sanctuary is heaven itself, the “most holy place” where God dwells.
While it is true that the physical body of Jesus is referred to as a temple (John 2:19-22), that is not meant here, for verse five says that Moses used this sanctuary for a pattern. Nor does the text speak of the spiritual body of Christ, the church, for the church has the benefit of service performed in this sanctuary; it is not itself the sanctuary. In addition, the “church in the wilderness” corresponds in the present analogy to the New Testament “church” (if we extend the analogy to include either), and each “church” has, not is, its own sanctuary and priestly service.
8:3. Because every high priest holds office for the express purpose of offering gifts and sacrifices (see note at 5:1), Jesus of necessity must also have something to offer, for He is our high priest. What is true in general is true in particular. Here the emphasis is on the fact of His service; what He offers is told in 7:27.
8:4. This very fact indicates that His ministry is in heaven, not on earth, for His sacrifice would not fit the earthly system. Besides, there are no vacancies in the Jewish priesthood for a priest such as He (see also 7:13-14). Christ is our high priest — that has already been established. Yet if His service were earthly, He could not even be a regular priest, much less a high priest (see Numbers 18:1-7). In the Greek, this verse contains the first part of a phrase which is completed in verse six and means “on the one hand . . . on the other hand.”
8:5. The earthly priests of the Jewish system do not serve the substantial, true (verse two) heavenly things, but rather the example or copy or outline and shadow of those things. A shadow is not itself the solid reality, but gives assurance that the substantial object exists of which it is an outline or copy.
That this Old Testament tabernacle was but a copy of the heavenly reality and not the original prototype is seen in the command concerning its erection. Moses was admonished by God in Exodus 25:40 to make all things according to the pattern which he was shown in the mountain. It is said by some of the rabbis that Gabriel descended in a workman’s apron from heaven with models of the tabernacle furniture which he showed Moses how to build. The Bible does not give such details, but simply states that Moses was shown a pattern (literally something struck from a die or stamp) and told to build with it as a reference in all things.
What Moses built, though by God’s instruction and according to a divine pattern, was not the original and substantial sanctuary but a copy of it. No man or group of men can build the true sanctuary, for it is pitched by the Lord, not by man (verse two, 3:4).
The point here was not altogether new to the Jews, though the application was. An uninspired Jewish writer of the period just before Christ had said of Solomon’s temple: “Thou gavest command to build a sanctuary in thy holy mountain, and an altar in the city of thy habitation; a copy of the holy tabernacle which thou preparedst afore-hand from the beginning.” (Wisdom 9:8). That writer had surmised that the earthly sanctuaries were copies; it remained for our author to tell the real original and for our high priest to enter and serve in it!
To have the benefits of a prefect sacrifice administered by a perfect high priest serving in the true sanctuary built by God and not man is a grace given for the first time to God’s covenant people in Christ. We have no mere copy of shadow, but the original holy things of heaven themselves — now fully revealed and fully served by the Son who is Priest-King.
8:6. This verse gives “the other hand” in contrast to the truth stated in verse four. Christ has now in this age of fulfillment and reality obtained a more excellent ministry or service than that from which He is barred by tribe and nature on earth. To the same extent, He is mediator or middle-man of a better covenant than that served by the Jewish priests, for His is established or legalized on the basis of better promises than theirs. The writer enumerates these promises in the rest of the chapter.
The first covenant was also given through a mediator (Galatians 3:19) and the people approached God through him (Exodus 20:19). But while Moses was mediator and Aaron high priest, Jesus is both! In the century before Christ, certain Pharisees looked for a Messiah who would save both Jews and gentiles, and they spoke of a mediator who would intercede before God for the righteous. (Testament of Dan 5-6). Yet even these lofty dreams failed to anticipate the plans of God, for we have one who is high priest, mediator and universal Savior combined — and not even from Levi’s tribe.
The same may be said with reference to the Qumran Jews described in the Dead Sea Scrolls. They seemed to have looked for two or perhaps three Messiahs; apparently they could not envision one man doing all that needed to be done. But God’s Son — higher than any angel — did all that God saw required, and far surpassed the very thoughts and desires of His own people! “How much better,” the Hebrews author affirms over and over!
8:7. If the first covenant (this word is added by the translators anal is therefore in italics) had been faultless, no place would have been sought by God or needed by man for a second arrangement. Yet God did propose a new covenant, even in the former period of time, and spoke of it then to His people. Therefore, the writer argues, that first was not faultless (see 7:18-19).
8:8. The fault lay with the people to whom the first covenant was given, because they did not keep their part of the arrangement. Yet the first covenant was of such nature that all blessings depended on the ability of the people to do just that. This made the covenant itself faulty in effect, or from the point of view of the people. Because of the fault that lay with them, God promised a new covenant in Jeremiah 31:31-34, and the author of Hebrews quotes that passage in verses 8-12.
Jeremiah began to prophesy just five years before the great reform of Josiah described in II Kings 23. After centuries of neglect of the Law, the nation affirmed again its commitment to God in a great covenant-renewal ceremony led by the king himself (verses one through three). Only a few years passed, however, until the zeal was dampened and the promises forgotten. Many had never been sincere in their pledge to God’s covenant (Jeremiah 3:10) and most of the rest were victims of time and circumstance. The covenant was not in their hearts, and even a royal service could not put it there to stay. Because of this inherent weakness of the people and derived weakness of the covenant, God promised Jeremiah that He would make a new arrangement with His people in the future.
The days come is literally “days are coming.” See comments on the “last days” at 1:2. The new covenant was promised through Jeremiah 600 years before Christ, but Jesus used the expression in instituting the Lord’s Supper (Luke 22:20) and Paul repeated it in the same connection (I Corinthians 11:25). Paul also used the phrase in a ministry context (II Corinthians 3:6). Outside this chapter of Hebrews, the term appears only at 9:15 except for these passages.
New here signifies “fresh,” not simply new in terms of time. Hebrews 12:24 uses a different word to call this covenant “new” in time as well. The point of the present word is that our covenant is fresh and of a different sort from the old arrangement between God and His people.
The Greek Old Testament, which our writer quotes, said “covenant a new covenant.” He changes that to “perfect a new covenant,” with the same concern for the perfection or completion of the Christian system as stressed already in 2:10; 5:9; 6:1; 7:11, 28 and other places
This fresh new kind of covenant would be made with the house or people or family of Israel and that of Judah. In Jeremiah’s time the people had been long scattered from Israel by Assyria, and Judah was even then being carried captive by Babylon. Yet God would bring back a remnant from both (Jeremiah 31:7-9) and would establish a new order.
Jesus was God’s fulfillment and fulfiller of all spiritual promises to the Jews, according to Romans 15:8. Yet the next ten verses of that chapter show from the Old Testament that gentiles are also to be beneficiaries of gospel grace. The book of Hebrews is addressed to Christian Jews, and our author does not concern himself at this point with the gentile mission.
8:9. This new kind of covenant will not be like that one made with the Jews at Sinai, though that one came from a God whose gracious and powerful acts of deliverance had brought His people together to receive it. Jeremiah speaks of God’s merciful deliverance in the Exodus in saying that He took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt. The figure is that of a tender father gently leading a small and still-wobbly son before he has learned to care for himself. Such imagery is not uncommon in the Old Testament (Hosea 11:1-3; Deuteronomy 1:31). Similar imagery is employed of Christ and His new-covenant people at 2:16 (see the comment there).
In spite of God’s tender care for Israel, they continued not in the covenant to fulfill their part of it, and God regarded them not, as a lord whose subjects had failed to keep what was required of them. Our text of Jeremiah has “although I was a husband to them,” which some translate “and I was as a lord to them,” with the sense stated above. It has also been suggested that a certain Hebrew word for “disregard” is only one letter different: from the Hebrew word for “husband” or “lord,” and that this might explain the difference in readings. In either case the point is the same and the matter is of little importance for understanding.
8:10. The first of the better promises is given. God’s laws are given in a special people — God relationship under both the old and new covenants (Exodus 6:7), but here is a difference. Under the former covenant the laws were written on stone tablets, external to the people. Under the new covenant the laws are put into their mind and written in their hearts. Paul makes a similar point in a covenant context at II Corinthians 3:3-18 (see also Romans 8:4; 12:2; Ephesians 3:16-20; 4 23 24; Philippians 2:12-13; Colossians 3:9-10; I Thessalonians 2:13; II Thessalonians 1:11-12; Hebrews 4:2; James 1:21).
When true regeneration takes place, the Christian finds God’s laws to be in accord with the spirit within him. Apart from the fleshly nature against which he must continually battle, he will delight in the laws of God and find them perfectly suited to his own spiritual inclinations. They are not external and foreign to his nature; he has become partaker of the divine nature and to that new nature they are exactly fitted.
8:11. A second promise is that all who are God’s people under the new covenant will know Him personally. From the least to the greatest no individual covered by the new arrangement is excluded. The covenant at Sinai was entered by a nation including many who did not know God personally until after they were involved in the covenant. All who were later born into the relationship as Jews had to be taught of God and learn His former acts of deliverance and provision.
The new covenant is entered by individuals, one by one, and only on the knowledge of God and His saving acts in Christ (see John 6:44-45). Those entering the new covenant already know what God has done for them in the Son. They will to commit themselves to Him in the confidence that His work is sufficient for their pardon and blessing. They signify both their knowledge and their intention by the obedience of faith in baptism.
When one has entered this relationship with God as one among His covenant people, he already knows God as his own saving God. There is no need for those who are in the covenant to be teaching each other a knowledge of God in this sense. Each brother and each neighbor or fellow-citizen in the new commonwealth already has that knowledge.
8:12. A third promise is given, concerning forgiveness of sins by a merciful God. The people of the first covenant were given laws externally inscribed and foreign to their nature. When they broke those laws, as they always did, no sacrifice could remove the memory of that sin. The people of the fresh and new covenant have God’s laws in their hearts and minds (this does not detract from but increases a hunger and thirst for the written Word of God). These laws are compatible with their new nature. When they do break them, as they sometimes will, forgiveness is already available on the basis of the sacrifice of Jesus (see 10:1ff).
8:13. This verse is the author’s inspired comment regarding the words spoken by Jeremiah so many centuries before. In that Jeremiah saith “A new covenant,” he (Jeremiah) hath made the first old by contrast — and that was six millennia before Christ! Our writer is saying concerning Jeremiah’s statement “By saying ‘new,’ Jeremiah has long since antiquated the old.”
If it was old in Jeremiah’s day (and Jeremiah by implication says that it was), how much older it is when Hebrews is written! It is, in fact, ready to vanish away, to pass from view, to completely disappear. Lenski speaks picturesquely of the old covenant here as “tottering with senility” and “like an old, old man who is sinking into his grave.”
Next: Chapter Nine