The New Covenant (Hebrews 8.1-13)

When a writer takes a reader through a difficult discourse, it’s nice to have a summary every now and then. In Hebrews 8.1-2, we have just that: “ We do have such a high priest, who sat down at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, and who serves in the sanctuary, the true tabernacle set up by the Lord, not by man.”

This is point is driven by an elaborate analogy between the ancient tabernacle as a model for understanding the “heavenly” temple where Jesus now serves as the great high priest. As the Hebrews preacher develops thesis, he seeks as much of a one for one correspondence between the tabernacle’s priesthood and Jesus’ priesthood. Where it does not match up, the Hebrews writer offers a different explanation, such as Jesus being a priest like Melchizedek.

However, the ancient tabernacle and its priesthood only points to the true temple and its priest. All these former things are only a “copy” and a “shadow” of the real thing. Even the covenant or agreement God with Israel had been but a passing shadow since with Jesus comes a better covenant.

With a long citation from Jeremiah 31.31-34, the Hebrews writer builds his understanding of this “new” covenant. The essential problem with the old covenant was that the people broke it (Heb 8.8, 9). So what would be different with a new one? Jeremiah’s text mentions these

  • God laws would be in their minds and written on their hearts (instead of on stone).
  • “I will be their God, and they will be my people.”
  • All the people will know God!
  • God would forgive completely the people’s sins.

The fundamental difference between the old and the new is the level of the relationship. All these things God sought with his people in the Old Testament; however, because of the people’s inability to meet the demands of the covenant and God’s lack of an adequate mediator, the old covenant was now “ready to disappear.”

With Jesus, God enacted a new covenant with his people.

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Jesus: A Different Kind of Priest (Hebrews 6.13-7.28)

The writer of Hebrews has a big problem. He needs to show how Jesus is our great high priest; however, everyone in his audience would know that high priests come only from the tribe of Levi. He finds a solution to this problem in Psa 110.4:

The LORD has sworn and will not change his mind: “You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.”

This psalm originally celebrated God’s support of the king of Israel while also noting the king’s priestly role (see 1 Chr 15.27 where King David does priestly things). Furthermore, this psalm connects the king’s priesthood with another kind of priest, the mysterious Melchizedek.

Outside of Hebrews and Psa 110, the only other reference to Melchizedek is Genesis 14.18-20.

Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. He was priest of God Most High,
and he blessed Abram, saying,

“Blessed be Abram by God Most High,
Creator of heaven and earth.
And blessed be God Most High,
who delivered your enemies into your hand.”

Then Abram gave him a tenth of everything. (Genesis 14.18–20 NIV)

Three verses—that’s it. And those three verses are plopped in the middle of a story about how Abraham defeated five tribal chiefs to rescue his nephew Lot. Thus, just as these verses seem to come out of nowhere, so does Melchizedek.

Melchizedek (whose name is King + Righteousness in Hebrew) the king of Salem (the word for Peace) is a priest of El Elyon (God Most High) who for no reason mentioned blesses Abraham. After the blessing, Abraham gives Melchizedek a tenth of his spoils from the tribal chiefs. Then, just as suddenly, Melchizedek disappears from the Bible until Psa 110.

The preacher of Hebrews follows this logic: Since Jesus is not of the tribe of Levi he should not be able to be a priest of any kind. However, the priest Melchizedek predates the Levitical priesthood. That he blessed Abraham, the great-grandfather of Levi, shows that Melchizedek is greater than Abraham who further confirms this by giving a tenth to Melchizedek. In this way, Levi—who has not been born yet—gave a tenth to Melchizedek. Therefore, Melchizedek is greater than Levi. Consequently the Melchizedekian priesthood is greater than the Levitical priesthood.

Ok, it may not be our logic, but you can still follow it.

The point: Jesus’ priesthood is superior to that of the tribe of Levi.

Arrested Development (Hebrews 5.11-6.12)

Beginning in Hebrews 5.11 and going through 10.25, we have what one commentator calls the “Difficult Discourse.” And it is rather difficult: in it, the author of Hebrews will call his readers “lazy,” he will try to explain how Jesus is a high priest like Melchizedek, and finally he will seek to explain the work of Jesus as our great high priest.

You can almost feel the anger and frustration of the writer as he tells his hearers that they need to grow up. He is also saddened by the condition of his hearers who by this time “ought to be teachers,” but because of the their indifference they need someone to teach them as if they were starting all over again. They can’t handle solid food; they need to be nursed! Like Benjamin Button, they have, against God’s intentions, become babies again!

Some of the indicators of the readers’ immaturity include that they lose their focus on Jesus, they don’t seem to be encouraging one another, they are on the edge of giving up, and they don’t give meeting together the time it deserves.

But the telling sign in this passage is they have not grown beyond “first principles,” such as repenting, faith, teaching about baptisms, the laying on of hands, the resurrection, and judgment. These, according to Hebrews, are the “baby” doctrines!

The reason we need to grow up is that growing up is the anecdote to falling away. To give up on God is like re-crucifying Jesus and exposing Jesus to public shame! It’s like ground that receives the good rain only to produce thorns and thistles.

Though a hard word, the preacher of Hebrews holds out that his readers will respond to God’s Word. God will not forget our previous work so we should renew our engagement and effort. This active engagement in God’s mission is what will sustain us to the end.

Sometimes, the hard word is the good news!

Sometimes, it is just what we need to hear.

Jesus: The Sympathetic High Priest (Hebrews 4.14-5.10)

The emphasis of the preacher/author of Hebrews is hard to miss. In a word (or two):

Hold on!

Don’t give up!

Hang in there!

To encourage his congregation, the preacher of this ancient homily has grounded his message in the Word of God: God now speaks through his Son who is better than the angels, better than Moses, and now is a better high priest.

In the text under consideration, the preacher wants his people to see Jesus as the “great high priest” who passed through the heaven (he will explain this later). He emphasizes that Jesus is a sympathetic high priest because he has been tempted in every way we are; however, he is a qualified high priest because he had not sinned as we have—so unlike the high priest of old, Jesus did not need to offer a sacrifice for his own sins before he could take care of the people’s sin. Therefore—and this is important—we should be eager to approach God because we know that we will find mercy and help there.

In weaving the analogy between the role of Jesus and that of the Old Testament high priest, the preacher seeks to clarify a couple of points. First, like the high priest, Jesus is called from among the people (his brothers; so chapter 2). So he understands us because he is one of us. Second, high priests are not self-appointed and neither was Jesus. God appointed him as stated in Psa 110:4.

Yet what really touches the Hebrews preacher is the sheer humanness of Jesus’ ministry. He prayed and prayed with weeping tears to the one who could save him from death—and God heard him. This invites some reflection since when Jesus prayed he was seeking another route other than his death but in the ends submits: “Your will not mine.”

Still, in a rather cryptic statement, the author of Hebrews says the Son “learned obedience from what he suffered.” How could the Son—who did not sin—learn obedience? Perhaps obedience goes beyond just doing what is commanded; maybe it is deeper than that. Perhaps it has something to do with lining our wishes, desires, and wants up with God’s.

“Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” (Heb 4.16)

Do it Today (Hebrews 3.7-4.13)

The recent movie Inception explored the possibility of having a dream within a dream. This engaging sci-fi thriller imagined going even deeper, as much as four levels deep. In the text covered today, the Hebrews writer explores a text within a text, as much as three or four levels deep. Let’s see if we can peel back the layers.

The first level is the text of the sermon (focusing today on Hebrews 3.7-4.13), which cites Psalms 95.7-11 that is itself a reflection on the events of Exodus 17 and Numbers 14. Working backwards through this text, we discovered that the Exodus and Numbers texts tell of how Israel rebelled against God, first, in not trusting God to provide water for the journey, and, second, for refusing to trust God’s ability to lead them into the Promised Land. The Book of Numbers records several rebellions against God: Aaron and Miriam conspiring against Moses (chapter 12), the people refusing to enter the land (14), and Korah’s rebellion (16).

In Numbers 14, God promises that everyone, except the faithful spies Joshua and Caleb, would die in the desert. Not one of them would get to enter the Promised Land.

Today—if you hear his voice:

Do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion

Like the day of testing in the desert

where your fathers tried me;

they tested me though they viewed my deeds.

Forty years this generation irked me

So I said, “Their hearts were deceived and

they did not know my ways;

As I swore an oath in my anger,

“They will never enter into my rest.”

(Psa 95.11b-11 LXX, my translation)

Psalm 95 begins as a psalm of praise but ends with the warning not to harden one’s heart against the voice of God. The psalm ends with a declaration of warning: “They [the Israelites] shall never enter my rest.”

Finally, years later, the Hebrews writer picks up Psalms 95 to warn his people not to rebel against God. However, he does not stress the ominous “They shall never enter my rest,” but rather a single word that occurs earlier: “today.” So encourage each other today. Don’t be hardened by sin today. Hear his voice today.

Because Today is really all you have.