The New Covenant (Hebrews 8-9)

When we talk about “The New Covenant” then we might have a couple of images or concepts in our head. First of all, there’s a sort of Aladdin “new lamps for old” sort of image – “Let me replace your old covenant with a new one” and from there we’re into “Deal or No Deal territory.” Is the New covenant some kind of better deal?This plays out theologically. Did God start out with plan A (The nation of Israel, Ten commandments, sacrifices etc) and then when that did not work come up with  his “new improved Plan B.”  Or even worse, was God playing some kind of game by making people think it was all about circumcision, stone tablets and lamb dinners before eventually saying “actually it was all about grace and Jesus all along really).

But it’s not just about theology. What we believe affects how we live and if we start to think of the Cross as some deal on the table –a good and better offer but one among others then that can affect how we live in relation to God.  Do we really get how unique, special, wonderful, essential and precious the Gospel is?  Is faith something nice to have, something that helps us along in life but also somehow fits in there alongside everything else that’s going on. Or is it even the stand by option. You know, I can still have a go at plan a and see how I do with keeping God’s commands, being good, moral, kind etc. and if all that fails I’ve always got the Gospel to fall back on.  You know, a bit how sometimes when you get a new phone, you keep using the old one for as long as possible. Now I know that we never think overtly like that …and yet often these more overt descriptions are painfully close to what’s going on more subtly in our subconscious.

 

  • What do we mean by “The New Covenant”?

 

So it would be helpful to start with a re-cap and talk about what we mean by covenants and specifically God’s covenant. We’ve seen that a Covenant is usually an agreement between two parties and in this specific case it’s between God and us. God makes promises though unlike your normal contract, it’s a bit one sided. We can’t actually pay for what he offers rather there’s a sense of simply trusting, acting on the basis of the promise and in so doing keeping the covenant

  1. The big overarching Covenant (Gen 12:1-3)

The first real mention of the word covenant in the Bible is in Genesis 9 when God promises to sustain his creation and not allow it to succumb to chaos.[1] Then in Genesis 12, God calls a man called Abraham and makes a special promise to him.  He says that

He will bless him. In other words, Abraham will know God’s presence, rule, approval and favour in his life.

He will give him many descendants.  This is the promise that God will make a people for himself as his own treasured possession.

He will give him a land. The promised land represents God’s provision of a safe place. This is somewhere eto settle, to live, to enjoy God’s provision. It offers comfort and peace.

So through the Old Testament, God’s covenant faithfulness is marked out in terms of Blessing, People and Land.

  1. The Covenant with Moses –how God turns slaves into a nation

Then 400 years later, God has kept his promise that Abraham will have many descendants.  However, the people of Israel are in captivity. They are slaves in Egypt. God meets with a man called Moses and re-affirms his covenant.  In Exodus 6 we see God promise again that he will take the people to live in the land promised to them.  He will be their God and they will be his people.

The promise includes rescue and redemption. Then along the way, they are told how to keep this covenant. It’s about trusting God and obeying him.  He gives them good laws to follow (cf Exodus 20).  When they fail to keep these laws, he offers them a solution. Sacrifices provide a way of saying sorry and acknowledging their need for forgiveness. Even the Passover lamb is a precursor to this. (cf Exodus 12).

However, there’s a problem. The people break the covenant (Hebrews 8:9 cf. Jer 31:32).  They do not love God with their whole hearts. They are unfaithful to him.  Now, this is where Hebrews 8-9 comes in. Back in the Old Testament, God gave Jeremiah a prophecy (Jeremiah 31:31-35).  The theme that several prophets pick up on is that because the people break faithfulness with God they deserve for the covenant to be broken. In fact, God does send them into exile. However, God is faithful and determined not to give up on them and so he promises this new covenant which goes deeper and deals with the heart problem.  The book of Hebrews is really all about this new covenant. It’s, if you like, a reflection on Jeremiah 31:31-35 and infact right in the middle of the letter, the writer quotes those verses )Hebrews 8:7-12).

  1. The New Covenant -God’s grace based solution to human sin

So how does the New Covenant come into place? Well, Hebrews 9 tells us that it happens through Jesus taking the place of those things that have failed or been broken in the old covenant.  He becomes the High Priest who mediates between God and man (9:11). In fact, he is in a sense the Temple or tabernacle (9:11) but most importantly, he offers himself as the perfect spotless sacrifice  (9:12).

But, where the old testament sacrifices could only offer a ceremonial or external cleansing, Jesus’s death offers something deeper. It’s through his death and resurrection that our hearts are made new.  Jesus deals with the problem of sin by taking our place and bearing the penalty we deserve. So whereas the old sacrifices had to be repeated again and again, Jesus’ sacrifice is once and for all.

So, this is something greater than the Old Covenant. Right at the start of the letter, the writer tells us that Jesus’ revelation is far superior than the old covenant and so worthy of greater attention (Hebrews 2:1-4).  However, it’s not simply an easier alternative nor is it plan b because the frst one has failed. Whilst Hebrews 8:7 tells us that there was a problem with the covenant, just like Paul’s letters, the point is clear that the problem lies with us not with the Law. Nor is it something God had to change his mind to do. The whole point is that this was something long promised. The prophets had promised it but in fact it was the promise made to Abraham –all nations blessed through his descendent ad indeed the New Testament will reflect the idea that this was God’s plan before the foundations of creation. It’s where the Covenant promise was going all along

 

  • You and me and the New Covenant

 

 

So, if all peoples are blessed through Abraham’s descendent (Genesis 12:3) then we too can be included in the covenant.  So there are two important responses required from us.

  1. I need to repent/confess that I can’t make/keep deals

I think that this is where we need to recognise that all human efforts fail. These include

  1. Licence – my attempt to live as though there isn’t a holy God who demands my obedience.
  2. Legalism –my attempts to mechanistically obtain God’s favour by what I do.
  3. Magic –my superstitious belief that somehow things will just get sorted (this may involve using the right ritual or going to the right people).
  1. I need to receive what Christ offers

Jesus offers three things as seen in this passage.

  1. Deep cleansing so that my sin, guilt and shame are dealt with. So I can draw close to God’s presence(13-14)
  2. I am free to serve him finding my true calling and purpose (v 14). I am now part of God’s people
  3. I receive an eternal inheritance (v 15). Inheritance is often associated with land and so the inheritance s two-fold. There are all the blessings and delights that come from being in Christ. He himself is the place of God’s provision and presence. Furthermore I look forward in hope to his new creation.

Conclusion

Now, the big point is this. I need the New Covenant because it is my only hope. I can’t get right with God, find peace, discover meaning and purpose in life by myself. Religion (even church) can’t give me those things.  Jesus offered his once-for-all sacrifice because it was the only way. That’s why Hebrews 2 tells us that Jesus’ revelation and covenant is much greater than everything that has come before. That’s why we need to pay careful attention to it.

This means first of all that I should not ignore or delay on the offer.  My response needs to be to receive what Christ offers. Secondly, there should be no distractions. I can’t live as though Christ is an optional extra in my life. Now that doesn’t mean that I give up on work, family hobbies etc because the Bible is clear that in and through those things we can honour and serve Christ. However, my faith should not come second or third in my priorities. Indeed if I want everything else in life to make sense I need to make sure I start with God first at the centre of everything.

What are you doing with Christ’s offer of salvation?

[1] NB some people refer to the blessing of Adam and Eve as a first covenant of works but the word “covenant” isn’t used in Genesis 1-3.

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