Hebrews 8:7–13 . . .
“The Old and New Covenants”
The author had recently documented the superiority of Christ to Melchizedek and the Levitical priests. In today's passage, he'll make the logical connection that the new covenant that Christ now mediates is superior to the old covenant. "Christ's Superiority" is the theme of this epistle. As Christ, in his person and ministry, is superior to everyone with whom he's been compared, the new covenant is similarly superior to the old. To prove this point, our author quotes from Jeremiah 31:31–34 (shown below), wherein Jeremiah recorded God’s promise of a new covenant that implied that the old covenant was inadequate and/or obsolete. Our author also points out that people's sinfulness caused the old covenant's failure because it was unable to effectively forgive sin.
Matthew Henry (1662–1714) compared the old and new covenants this way: "The ministry of Christ's priesthood is more excellent by how much he is the Mediator of a better covenant. The old covenant: (1) was made with the fathers of the Jewish nation at Mount Sinai (8:9), and Moses mediated that covenant when God took them by the hand, to lead them out of Egypt; (2) was not found faultless (8:7–8); it was very imperfect compared to the gospel; (3) was not secure — for the Jews continued not in that covenant, and the Lord regarded them not (8:9) — they dealt ungratefully with their God and cruelly with themselves, displeasing God who'll regard those who remain in his covenant but will reject those who drift away; (4) was decayed, grown old, and vanisheth away (8:13) because it was antiquated, canceled, of no more use in gospel times than candles are when the sun has risen." Starting with v. 7, we'll learn what was wrong with that old, first covenant.
The New Covenant Is Superior to the Old (8:7–9)
Before we explore and compare the old and new covenants, it's wise to learn the biblical meaning of "covenant." It's an agreement, usually made between two parties. In one case, it was a treaty that rulers entered into with their subjects; bilateral ones required both parties to oblige and commit, as in the covenant made between Abraham and Abimelek (Genesis 21:27, 32). In another case, the old Mosaic Covenant reveals God's promised blessings when his people kept his covenant (Deuteronomy 28:1–14); it reveals his promised cursing when they disregarded it (Deut. 28:15–68). [Note: "covenant" appears twenty times in "Hebrews," more frequently than in any other book of the Bible. See them here.]
A different biblical covenant is one in which God pledges to do certain things that aren't conditioned upon others' actions. In the case of the Abrahamic Covenant, God promised to turn Abram into a great nation, blessing him and his descendants significantly so that they'd be a blessing to others. It was an unconditional covenant, confirmed by God’s oath, making it unchangeable. That Abrahamic Covenant and this new covenant consisted of promises. It was the "better promises" of the new covenant (8:6) that made it superior, while causing the old covenant to be obsolete and need replacement.
7For if there had been nothing wrong with that first covenant, no place would have been sought for another. 8But God found fault with the people and said: “The days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah. 9It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they did not remain faithful to my covenant, and I turned away from them, declares the Lord" (8:7–9).
The author advised his audience of Hebrew Christians, There's now a permanent solution here! He told them what to do with the old covenant, its priesthood, and the keeping of its Law. In v. 13, he declares that "what is obsolete and outdated will soon disappear." The Hebrew Christians were hanging on to the Law of Moses, unable to let go of it to benefit greatly from the new covenant's excellent "better promises" for the future that God will authorize and complement by the "better promises" of a superior covenant, specifically designed and created for "the people of Israel and . . . Judah" (v. 8). While both nations were being indicted because of their people's repeated spiritual failures, both parties were to receive the prophetic promise of restoration.
With the kingdom then divided, unification was needed. However, that would be terribly difficult to accomplish since the northern kingdom of Israel had been carried off and dispersed by the Assyrians. Nevertheless, Israel and Judah would be restored and forgiven, not on the basis of the old, Mosaic Covenant, but on the basis of the Abrahamic Covenant and the new covenant, whose promises were highlighted by Jeremiah, as follows:
31“The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah. 32It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord. 33“This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the Lord. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. 34No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the Lord. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more” (Jeremiah 31:31–34).
Two things were wrong with the old Mosaic Covenant's laws. First, the people didn't fulfill its conditions, despite their initial agreement to do so (Exodus 24:3). Second, it wasn't sufficiently powerful to motivate them to obey it. Israel's failure was displayed in these two "Hebrews" clauses: "God found fault with the people" (v. 8) and "they did not remain faithful to my covenant" (v. 9). The old covenant was unable to prevent people's failures, so God turned away from them. Thankfully, the new covenant was to involve a different, more personal relationship between God and his people.
Hebrews 8:8 tells of the need for a new covenant, as previously authorized by Prophet Jeremiah (Jer. 31:31) who argued logically: "For if there had been nothing wrong with that first covenant, no place would have been sought for another." He wrote his book ±900 years after Moses lived, during the nations' darkest days. Jeremiah was the first to originally use the term "new covenant." His situation was similar to Moses' state of affairs: Israel’s people weren't loyal to God; neither did they care about the covenant that God had made with them, which was why God promised them a new one.
Jeremiah, speaking of a future time, indicted the people's infidelity. They were continually unfaithful, after having been obliged to follow the Law they'd broken. God complained about their deceit and faithlessness. To remedy their evil attitudes and behavior, he promised them a new and different covenant. His prophecy was fulfilled by this new accord that immediately surfaced upon the revocation of the old accord (v. 8).
Jeremiah’s original passage promised that God would establish a new and better relationship with his people. That promise would bring comfort during a terrible time in Israel’s history. Long before Jeremiah, the nation had divided itself into two parts: Israel and Judah. But rulers in both parts neglected to abide by their covenant with God. Refusing to obey his laws, they also chose to worship man-made gods instead of the real One. People in both nations duplicated their rulers’ evil attitudes and acts. In the end, God allowed enemies to destroy Israel, then Judah.
Incidentally, Jeremiah lived toward the end of this period. Despite the fact that enemies were destroying the whole country, God still gave a hope-filled message to his people, establishing a new covenant that would include a new relationship that he and his people would have, better than anything that existed previously. God wanted to have a brand-new, personal relationship with his people who'd genuinely see him as their God, becoming his people, obeying him because they'd prioritize him and his laws.
Verse 9 is a translation of Jer. 31:32, wherein "ancestors" refers to those whom Moses led out of Egypt. They'd been slaves there until God freed them. Fortunately, the promises that God gave to Abraham were also promises made for them. Sadly, their attitudes were inappropriate, causing them to not trust God. Because they refused to have a personal relationship with him, they were unable to receive multitudes of benefits that would have resulted from God’s promises.
By the Lord saying that he "turned away from them," he likely intimated that there'd have been little profit to be gained by the "ancestors" of the Jewish Christians, those who'd been taken "by the hand to lead them out of Egypt," unless and until he helped comfort them through his new form of remedy. From the very beginning, the Israelites broke the old covenant, which our author confirmed in chpt. 3 and 4. Because God's people disregarded him and his covenant, he no longer had regard for them.
The New Covenant’s Better Promises (vv. 10–12)
The Lord continues, starting in v.10, to tell his people, This time I’m writing out the plan in you, carving it on the lining of your hearts.
10“This is the covenant I will establish with the people of Israel after that time, declares the Lord. I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. 11No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. 12For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more” (8:10–12).
The Israelites were to love Father God because his law would remain very accessible and ever-present in their hearts (v. 10), thereby forgiving all their wrongs. For the Jewish-Christian audience [and us], this new covenant represents God's relationship with his people through Jesus. As God's children, we're to confess our evil deeds to Jesus and invite him into our lives so we'll fully receive and benefit from his Father’s promises.
We find in v. 10 two main parts in this new covenant: (1) the complimentary remission of sins and (2) the inward renovation of the heart, which depends on one's enlightenment regarding knowledge of God. In these three verses, the new covenant's gracious provisions are detailed. Note: In both the original passage from Jeremiah (shown above) and here, it's clearly affirmed that the new covenant is to be made with all of Israel: "with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah." Verses 8 and 10 denote that this will occur when the ancient division — the Israel-Judah kingdom — will be forgotten so Israel will become a unified nation, living in its promised land.
This new covenant's terms are stirring. The first of three: "I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts" (v. 10). True born-again Christians know that once they were reawakened, they were motivated to do things they hadn't previously cared to do, such as reading the Bible, worshiping Jesus in the church, and praying. They also realized that they reacted differently to evil in their life that they'd once enjoyed unhesitatingly. The new covenant's promises would enable people to gain a new inner awareness of good and evil, once the laws of godly behavior were written on their hearts.
The new covenant's second term, starting with "I will be their God," is impressive. John Calvin (1509–1564) wrote this about the Lord's declaration in v. 10b: "God chooses us for his people, and assures us that he will be the guardian of our salvation. This is indeed the meaning of these words, "And I will be to them a God," for he is not the God of the dead, nor does he take us under his protection, but that he may make us partakers of righteousness and of life." True Christians also know and appreciate the value of having a life that includes a new and very personal relationship with Father God, who'll be seen as an affectionate, loving Father. No longer outside the faith community, all can enjoy a meaningful, life-changing, new-family fellowship with Father God.
Regarding "No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord’" (v. 11a), Calvin adds this: "God will put his laws in their mind; for it is the work of the Spirit of God to illuminate our minds, so that we may know what the will of God is, and also to bend our hearts to obedience. For the right knowledge of God is a wisdom which far surpasses the comprehension of man’s understanding; therefore, to attain it, no one is able, except through the secret revelation of the Spirit."
The point of v. 11 seems to be that, under the old covenant, only a small segment of God’s people truly knew God. The new covenant promises that, in the age to come, when the new covenant is fulfilled, all true believers will know the Lord. And since he'll manifest himself fully to us in heaven, we won't need to teach one another how to "Know the Lord" because our Lord will be our teacher.
The third term of this new covenant's provision is: "I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more" (v. 12). This is likely difficult for us to accept, since it forces us to: (1) recognize that we do wicked things and (2) believe that God has already made ample provision to set aside the evil we've committed, thereby treating us as his beloved children. Most encouragingly, we can enjoy living with a day-to-day recognition of our inner cleansing, graciously provided by the precious blood of Jesus. As a result, our sense of guilt or inadequacy will have disappeared.
What Is Obsolete and Outdated (v. 13)
By coming up with a new plan — a new covenant between God and his people — God put the old plan on the shelf. There it stays, gathering dust.
13By calling this covenant “new,” he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and outdated will soon disappear (8:13).
In the closing verse, our author points out that when the new covenant takes effect, no longer will there be a reason to rely upon and remain committed to the old one. The Law's work is finished when men and women come to Christ and follow him wholeheartedly. While the Law couldn't make the Jewish Christians perfect, they could choose to approach the One who was capable of making them perfect! And since the Aaronic priesthood had been replaced by the Melchizedek priesthood of Jesus, there's no longer a need for the Law to continually work at condemning a believer's life (see Romans 8:1).
Back in the days of Jeremiah, the first covenant was made old by the mention of a new one; it was to vanish away. Our author didn't say that the old was nullified; he said only that it'll expire of old age. It was the same condition when God promised his new covenant, which our author had promoted herein to his audience of discouraged Christians from Jewish backgrounds, who considered returning to a more Jewish faith, filled with requisite practices and rituals. They shouldn't return to an inferior covenant that was about to vanish. The author presumed that, once people faithfully and continually abided in God's new promise, the old promise would effectively pass away.
- Q. 1 Approximately how many promises has God made? Exactly how many has he failed to keep?
- Q. 2 What are the two unchangeable things about which God cannot lie?
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— Listen to chapter 8, narrated by Max McLean.