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Understanding Covenant in the Book of Hebrews

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Understanding Covenant in the Book of HebrewsBut now He has obtained a more excellent ministry, by as much as He is also the mediator of a better covenant, which has been enacted on better promises.
Hebrews 8:6

The assignment given me in this column is to help us understand this text from the book of Hebrews (actually vv. 6-13). I am to exegete it in such a manner that I deal with questions like:

Was the old covenant bad?

How do we understand the reality of covenantal continuity and the new and better covenant under which we serve?

This may sound simple enough, but no less a theologian than Jonathan Edwards remarked:

There is perhaps no part of divinity attended with so much intricacy, and wherein orthodox divines do so much differ, as the stating of the precise agreement and difference between the two dispensations of Moses and of Christ.

Thanks R.C. Well, here is my best shot — for now.

Covenant in the Book of Hebrews

Let’s start with the first question. Was the old covenant bad? I won’t spend much time on this one. The answer is no. The simple reason is that if the old covenant were bad then the new covenant would be good not better. Our text would read, “But now He has obtained a good ministry, by as much as He is also the mediator of a good covenant, which had been enacted on good promises.” However, more excellent and better are comparative terms, they express a higher degree of quality. The old covenant was good; the new is better.

Continuity in the Old & New Covenants

Which brings us to the second and more intricate question dealing with continuity, and, by implication, the differences between the old and new covenants.

For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion sought for a second…Behold, days are coming, says the LORD, when I will effect a new covenant…not like the covenant which I made with their fathers… (vv. 7-9).

There are significant differences to be sure, but we will begin by focusing on the continuity between old and new.

For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put My laws into their minds, and I will write them on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be My people (v. 10).

Two important areas of continuity are evident in this verse. First, both covenants include the Law of God. Second, both have a common language expressing a common relationship: I will be their God, and they shall be My people. In the dispensation of Moses as well as Christ, the covenant established a relationship between the Father and His children through the Son. The old and new covenants are about knowing the Lord. And they shall not teach everyone his fellow citizen, and everyone his brother, saying, “Know the LORD,” for all will know Me, from the least to the greatest of them (v. 11). Herein lie some of the realities of covenantal continuity.

Differences Between the Old & New Covenants

But these same verses also highlight differences even amidst the similarities. It is the same Law but the way it is written is better — not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts. It is the same language but the relationship is better—we no longer know the LORD through the mediation of priests or through types and shadows, but through the great High Priest the One to whom all the types and shadows are fulfilled. In Christ all of God’s promises are “Yes” and “Amen.” It is the new covenant that clearly declares that there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus. For I will be merciful to their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more (v. 12).

The New Covenant Reveals God

It was Augustine, I believe, who first said, “The old covenant is the new concealed, and the new the old revealed.” The old was good but the new is better because of a fuller revelation of the covenant making and keeping God. The old promised the Savior to come, the new declares the coming of the One promised, in whom all the fullness of God dwells in bodily form. And what more shall I say? For time will fail me if I tell of the better mediator, the better High Priest, the better sanctuary, the better sacrifice (Hebrews 7-10). When He said, “A new covenant,” He has made the first obsolete. But whatever is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to disappear (v. 13).

I have only begun an attempt at this difficult text and question how well I truly understand all its ramifications. I am comforted to a degree by Edwards himself who follows the words quoted above with these:

And probably the reason why God has left it so intricate, is, because our understanding the ancient dispensation, and God’s design in it, is not of so great importance, nor does it so nearly concern us. Since God uses great plainness of speech in the New Testament, which is as it were the charter and municipal law of the Christian church, what need we run back to the ceremonial and typical institutions of an antiquated dispensation, wherein God’s declared design was, to deliver divine things in comparative obscurity, hid under a veil, and involved in clouds?

There is one last question, however, that I think naturally arises. Why use comparative words like more excellent and better, and not the superlative, best? Or, to ask it another way, if the old covenant was good and the new is better, do we still anticipate a best? We most certainly do. The ultimate fulfillment of God’s covenant with His people is eschatological. It awaits the return of Christ Jesus in glory and power.

And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them, and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any morning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away” (Revelation 21:3-4).

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.

This article was first published in Every Thought Captive magazine, 2007.

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