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Hebrews 8

Pink's Commentary on John and HebrewsPink's Commentary

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Verses 1-5

The Perfect Priest

(Hebrews 8:1-5 )

"This chapter is a continuation of the argument which has been prosecuted in the previous chapters respecting the priesthood of Christ. The apostle had demonstrated that He was to be a priest, and that he was to be, not of the Levitical order, but of the order of Melchizedek. As a consequence, he had proved that this involved a change of the law, appointing the priesthood, and that in respect to permanency and happy moral influence, the priesthood of Christ far surpassed the Jewish. This thought he pursues in the chapter, and shows particularly that it involved a change in the nature of the covenant between God and His people. In the prosecution of this, he (1) states the sum or principal point of the whole matter under discussion that the priesthood of Christ was real and permanent, while that of the Hebrew economy was typical, and was destined in its own nature to be temporary: verses 1-3. (2) There was a fitness and propriety of His being removed to heaven to perform the functions of His office there since if He had remained on earth, He could not have officiated as priest, that duty being by the law of Moses entrusted to others pertaining to another tribe: verses 4, 5. (3). Christ had obtained a more exalted ministry than the Jewish priests held, because He was the Mediator in a better covenant a covenant that related rather to the heart than to external observances: verses 6-13" (Albert Barnes).

The above is perhaps about as good an analysis of Hebrews 8:0 as can be supplied. We too are satisfied that the passage which is before us is both a continuation and a summarization of the whole preceding discussion of the apostle. In the previous chapters he has produced indubitable proof that Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God, is the great High Priest of God’s people, infinitely superior to all the priests who went before Him. The closing verses of chapter 7 especially, supply a conclusive demonstration that He was priest and exercised the priestly office, while He was here on earth, and which He is now continuing to do in heaven. First, the description given of Him as "High Priest" in Hebrews 7:26 has no pertinency whatever if it treats of what He was here upon earth. Take the expression, "undefiled" what is there in heaven to defile? Nothing whatever¬∑ But understanding it to describe one of Christ’s perfections while He was here in the world, it is full of significance.

Rightly did George Smeaton declare, "Hebrews 7:26 , Hebrews 7:27 show Christ on earth, as both Priest and Sacrifice. The ‘such’ of verse 26 refers not back to verses 1-25, but to verse 27, cf. Hebrews 8:1 . The qualifications described, holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners, are descriptive of what He was here on earth when brought into contact with sin and sinners". Again; mark well the expression, "made higher than the heavens" in Hebrews 7:26 . Who was? The first part of the verse tells us: our "High Priest"! Note also that the last clause of verse 27, "this He did once, when He offered up Himself". Who did "this"? Who is the "He"? The Lord Jesus, of course¬∑ And in what specific character is He there viewed? Why, as "High Priest". As we are told in Hebrews 2:17 , "He was a merciful and faithful High Priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation (Greek) for the sins of the people", and as Romans 3:25 plainly declares, He made propitiation at the cross. So again, in Hebrews 4:14 we read, "Seeing then that we have a great High Priest that is passed into the heavens". He did not enter heaven to become a priest, He was "Priest" when He "passed into the heavens". Language could not be plainer.

There is no excuse whatever for a mistake at this point, and our only reason for laboring it is that many who have boasted so loudly of their orthodoxy have systematically denied it. That Christ’s sacrifice was a priestly one is clear from Ephesians 5:2 , "Christ . . . hath given Himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God": not only as a "sacrifice" but as "an offering", and none offered to God the sacrifices of Israel save the priests. That Christ did not become Priest after He entered into heaven is also unequivocally established by Hebrews 9:11 , Hebrews 9:12 , "But Christ being come an High Priest of good things to come, by a greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands . . . by His own blood He entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us". He passed into heaven in the capacity of High Priest. Therefore we say that they who teach Christ became priest after His ascension are unconsciously or consciously, ignorantly or maliciously, corrupting the Truth of God and denying one of the most cardinal articles of our holy faith.

The line of argument followed by the apostle in the opening verses of Hebrews 8:0 is not easily perceived. So far as the Lord has deigned to open their meaning to us, we understand it to be thus: Since Christ has ascended to the right hand of God, and now sits there as a Priest upon His throne, proof has been given that He is not a Minister of the earthly and Jewish sanctuary, but of the antitypical and heavenly one. Having set forth in chapter 7 the pre-eminence of Christ’s priesthood over the Aaronic order and His all-sufficient qualifications for the office, the apostle now proceeds to evince His faithful execution of the same, and this, to the end of Hebrews 10:19 . In chapter 7 it is the excellency of our High Priest’s person which is demonstrated; here in Hebrews chapter 8 it is His ministry which is contemplated. Note how in verse 2 He is spoken of as "a Minister of the sanctuary", that in verse 3 He has "somewhat also to offer", and observe the word "serve" in verse 5 and "ministry" in verse 6. In chapter 8 we are further shown the excellency of our Redeemer’s sacerdotal office, first, from the high Sanctuary in which it is now exercised (verses 1-5); second, from its functions corresponding with the better Covenant with which it is connected (verses 6-13).

"Now of the things which we have spoken this is the sum: We have such an High Priest who is set on the right hand of the throne of the majesty in the heavens" (verse 1). The participle is in the present tense and should be rendered "of the things of which we are speaking" (cf. Revised Version), the general reference being to the entire contents of the epistle, the specific to what is found in Hebrews 4:14 to Hebrews 10:18 . "This is the sum" or crowning point: it is here that all the previous teaching of the epistle culminates, for the priesthood of Christ is, really, its distinguishing theme.

"We have such an High Priest", looks back, particularly, to Hebrews 7:26 . John Brown pointed out the very close connection which exists between the closing verses of Hebrews chapter 7 and the opening ones of Hebrews chapter 8, thus, "It is to be borne in mind that the high-priesthood of Jesus Christ is the great subject of discussion in the section of the epistle of which these words form a part; and that, after having shown the reality of our Lord’s high priesthood by two arguments (Heb. chapter 5) the one derived from His legitimate investiture with this office, the other from His successful discharge of its functions the apostle proceeds to show the pre-eminent excellence and dignity of our Lord’s high-priesthood. He, with much ingenuity, deduces four arguments for the superiority of our Lord’s priesthood to that of Aaron and his sons from the ancient oracle recorded in Psalms 110:4 : ‘The Lord hath sworn and will not repent, Thou art a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek’. A fifth argument suggested by, though not so wholly grounded on, this ancient oracle, is entered on in Hebrews 7:26 , and is prosecuted, if we mistake not, down to the middle of the 6th verse of Hebrews chapter 8, where a new argument for the superiority of our Lord to the Aaronical priests obviously commences, the substance of which is this: The superiority of our Lord’s priesthood above that of Aaron and his sons is evident from the superior excellence of the covenant with which His priesthood is connected.

"The substance of the argument contained at the middle of verse 6 of Hebrews chapter 8, may be thus expressed: To fit a person for the successful discharge of the priesthood in reference to man, certain qualifications are necessary. These qualifications are wanting in the Aaronical priesthood: they are to be found in the highest perfection in Christ Jesus. We, that is, men, need a high priest ‘holy, harmless, undefiled, made higher than the heavens’. Jewish priests do not answer to this description: Jesus Christ does. In Him we, Christians, have such a High Priest; and the conclusion is, He has received ‘a more excellent ministry’. In this way, I apprehend, everything hangs well together, and the apostle’s argumentative illustration appears complete and satisfactory. Indeed, the recurrence of the phrase ‘such a high priest’ (Hebrews 7:26 ), and ‘we have such a high priest’ (Hebrews 8:1 ), seems intended for the express purpose of showing that the train of thought is continuous."

"We have such an high priest, who is set on the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens". These words point another contrast between Christ and the Levitical priests. It is true that our Lord Jesus entered for a season, a condition of deep humiliation, taking upon Him the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of sin’s flesh; and this was necessary unto the sacrifice which He was to offer. But as to His durable and abiding state, wherein He continues to discharge His priestly office, He is incomparably exalted above Aaron and his successors. After the Jewish high priest had offered the annual sacrifice of expiation unto God, he passed within the veil with the blood, presenting it before Him. But he stood before the typical mercy seat with holy awe, and upon the fulfillment of his duty immediately withdrew. But Christ, after He had offered His sacrifice unto God, entered heaven itself, not to stand in humble reverence before the throne, but to sit at God’s right hand; and that, not for a season, but forevermore.

The immediate design of the Holy Spirit was to comfort the hearts and establish the faith of the sorely-tried Hebrews, who were constantly represented by their unbelieving fellows for no longer having fellowship with the sacred rites of Judaism, and thus, in their esteem, being without any temple, priest or sacrifice. The apostle therefore reminds them again that "We have such an High Priest", who, though invisible, has been exalted in dignity and glory far above those who serve under the law of a carnal commandment. For Christians today the "we have such an High Priest" defines the relation of Christ to God’s elect: fallen angels and reprobate sinners have no High Priest, that is one reason why their punishment shall be eternal there will never be a Mediator to plead their cause.

The great object before the apostle in this epistle was to present that which was calculated to draw the hearts of the Hebrews away from the temple at Jerusalem, to the true Sanctuary of Christian worship on High. It is for that reason that the ascension of Christ occupies so prominent a place in it. One of the objections which carnal critics have advanced against the Pauline authorship of Hebrews is the fact that only once (Hebrews 13:20 ) is the resurrection of Christ directly referred to, whereas in all the other epistles of Paul it is given a place of great prominence. But the reason for this is easily accounted for. The emphasis in Hebrews is placed upon Christ’s being at God’s right hand (Hebrews 1:3 , Hebrews 1:13 , Hebrews 8:1 , Hebrews 8:9 , Hebrews 10:12 , Hebrews 12:2 ) for the purpose of assuring those who were deprived of the temple-services in Jerusalem, that they had the reality and substance of those things which were merely typical and temporary, and that the real Sanctuary was not on earth, but in heaven, and there Christ Himself is now officiating.

"Who is set on the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens". The exalted position which our great High Priest now occupies should commend both His person and His office in our esteem and assure us what abundant cause we have for expecting the successful discharge of its functions. Who is "set" or "seated": Acts 7:55 warns us against interpreting this in a carnal or literal manner. With Hebrews 8:1 should be compared Hebrews 1:3 (see our comments thereon) and Hebrews 12:2 . There are some verbal variations to be noted. In Hebrews 1:3 , where Christ’s personal glory as "Son" is in view, there was no need to mention "the throne". In Hebrews 12:2 , where it is the reward of the man Christ Jesus, the "throne" is seen, but the "Majesty in the heavens" is not added. Here, in Hebrews 8:1 , where the dignity and glory of His priestly office is affirmed, we have mentioned both "the throne" and the "Majesty" of God.

"A Minister of the sanctuary" (verse 2). This is exceedingly blessed. "Having declared the glory and dignity which He is exalted unto, as sitting down at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, what can be farther expected from Him? There He lives, eternally happy in the enjoyment of His own blessedness and glory. Is it not reasonable it should be so, after all the hardships and miseries which He, being the Son of God, underwent in this world? Who can expect that He should any longer condescend unto office and duty? Neither generally have men any other thoughts concerning Him. But where then would lie the advantage of the Church in His exaltation which the apostle designs in an especial manner to demonstrate"? (John Owen).

Our blessed Redeemer, in His exalted glory, still condescends to exercise the office of a public minister in the behalf of His Church. It is required that our faith should not only apprehend what Christ did for us while He was here on earth, but also appropriate what He is now doing for His people in heaven. Indeed, the very life and efficacy of the whole of His mediation depends upon His present work on our behalf. Nowhere does the marvelous grace and the wondrous love of the Savior more gloriously appear than in the ministry in which He is now constantly engaged. As all the shame, suffering, and pains of death deterred Him not from making an oblation for His people, so all the honor and glory, dignity and dominion with which He is now invested, diverts Him not from presenting its virtues before God and pressing for its blessings to be bestowed upon those for whom it was offered. His attention is still concentrated on His poor people in this wilderness world.

The "Sanctuary" in which our great High Priest ministers is Heaven itself: cf. Hebrews 9:24 , Hebrews 10:19 . It is the place where the majesty and glory of God are most fully displayed. "He looked down from the height of His sanctuary, from heaven did the Lord behold the earth" (Psalms 102:19 ). Heaven is here called "the Sanctuary" because it is there really dwells and actually abides all that was typically prefigured in the holy places of Israel’s tabernacle. In the heavenly Sanctuary does Christ now discharge His priestly office for the good of His Church. It was a joyful time for Israel when Aaron entered the holy of holies, for he carried with him the blood which made atonement for all their sins. So the presence of Christ in heaven, pleading the efficacy of His meritorious blood, should fill the hearts of His people with joy unspeakable: cf. John 14:28 .

"And of the true tabernacle, which the Lord pitched, and not man" (verse 2). This is not, as so many have supposed, an amplification of the preceding clause, but instead, a quite distinct thing. The word "true" is not here used in opposition to what is false (the temples of the heathen), but in contrast from the tabernacle of Israel, which was typical, shadowy, temporary. It has the force of that which is real, solid, and abiding. Israel’s tabernacle was but an effigy of the antitypical one. "Moses gave you not that bread from heaven, but My Father giveth you the true Bread from heaven" (John 6:32 ), gives the force of the term. But what is the "true tabernacle" here referred to? We answer, the Redeemer’s humanity, in which He ministers before God on high. In proof of this note, First, the metaphor of a "tabernacle" is used for the body of man in 2 Corinthians 5:1 and 2 Peter 1:13 . Second, the Holy Spirit has expressly used this term (in the Greek) in John 1:14 , "The Word became flesh and tabernacled among us". Third, in Hebrews 9:11 "tabernacle" manifestly refers to Christ’s humanity observe it is there distinguished from "the holy place" (sanctuary) in Hebrews 9:12 !

In addition to what has been said above, it should be pointed out that the tabernacle of Israel was the outstanding Old Testament type of the incarnate Redeemer. We have more fully developed this wondrous and beautiful truth in our exposition of John 1:14 , to which we would refer the interested reader. Here we must confine ourselves to only two or three details. God sanctified Israel’s tabernacle as a place to dwell in (Exodus 29:44 , Exodus 29:45 ); so in Christ "dwelleth all the fullness of the Godhead bodily" (Colossians 2:9 ). God’s glory was most conspicuously manifested in the tabernacle "The glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle" (Exodus 40:34 ); so of Christ the apostle declared "we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father" (John 1:14 ). In the tabernacle, sacrifices and incense were offered to God, and all holy services were performed; so Christ in His body offered up His own sacrifice, prayers, and all holy services (Hebrews 5:7 , Hebrews 10:5 ). To the tabernacle the people brought all their offerings (Leviticus 1:3 ), so must we bring all ours to Christ (Hebrews 13:15 ).

"The true tabernacle, which the Lord pitched, and not man". Here there is a manifest reference to the virgin-birth, the supernatural character of our Lord’s humanity, being parallel with "A body hast Thou prepared Me" (Hebrews 10:5 ). The verb, "pitched" is a word proper unto the erection and establishment of a tabernacle the fixing of stakes and pillars, with the fastening of cords thereto, was the principal means of setting up one (Isaiah 54:2 ). It is the preparation of Christ’s humanity which is signified: a body which was to be taken down, folded up for a season, and afterwards to be erected again, without the breaking or loss of any part of it. "Which the Lord pitched" shows the Divine origin of Christ’s humanity: cf. Matthew 1:20 . The words "and not man" declare that no human father was concerned with His generation: cf. Luke 1:34 ,Luke 1:35 .

"For every high priest is ordained to offer gifts and sacrifices: wherefore it is of necessity that this man have somewhat also to offer" (verse 3). The opening word of this verse intimates that the apostle is here supplying a confirmation of what he had declared in verses 1, 2. He argues from a general to a particular: "every high priest is ordained to offer" (that being the specific purpose for which God calls him to this office) therefore, Christ, the great High Priest, must also have been ordained for that end. Thus, the Lord Jesus has done and is still doing that which appertains to the antitypical Sanctuary.

In the opening verses of our chapter we behold the Redeemer in the heavenly sanctuary, ministering there before God on the behalf of His people. "But how did He enter into this sanctuary? The high priests under the law entered into their sanctuary after having offered a sacrifice; and so also did the great High Priest of our profession. ‘For every high priest is ordained to offer gifts and sacrifices: wherefore it is of necessity that this man have somewhat also to offer’. No attentive reader can help being sensible that these words, taken by themselves, do not convey a distinct, complete, satisfactory meaning. The statement is obviously elliptical; and the following seems to be the most probable way of supplying the ellipsis: We have a High Priest which has entered into the heavenly sanctuary, the true holy of holies. Every high priest is appointed to offer up sacrificial gifts in order to his entrance into the earthly sanctuary: it was necessary, as the antitype must correspond to the type, that this illustrious Priest should have somewhat also to offer, for the purpose of opening His way into the true sanctuary.

"Christ’s being there, in the heavenly sanctuary, is the proof at once that an expiatory sacrifice has been offered, and that that sacrifice has been effectual. And what was this ‘somewhat’ which it was necessary that He should offer in order to His entering into the true sanctuary? We have but to look back to find the answer. It was ‘Himself’, ‘holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners’. His perfect, cheerful obedience to the preceptive part of the Divine law, and His perfect, cheerful obedience to the sanctioning part of it, opened for Him, as a High Priest, His way into that true holy place, where in the presence of God He acts as a public functionary in the name of His redeemed ones.

"It is plain that He could not have the sacrifices prescribed by the law to offer, for He did not belong to that class of persons to whom the offering of those was by law restricted; but He had a better sacrifice: read Hebrews 10:5-13 " (John Brown). "The apostle intends to show (verse 3) that Christ’s priesthood cannot co-exist with the Levitical priesthood. He proves it in this way: The law appointed priests to offer sacrifices to God; it hence appears that the priesthood is an empty name without a sacrifice. But Christ had no sacrifice such as was offered under the law; it hence follows that His priesthood is not earthly or carnal, but one of a more excellent character" (John Calvin).

Thus far the Holy Spirit has affirmed that the great High Priest of Christians is enthroned in heaven (verse 1); that He is there a "Minister", serving in the antitypical Sanctuary, and that, in the "true tabernacle", His own humanity (verse 2); and that His right to entrance there was His own perfect sacrifice (verse 3). He now declares, "For if He were on earth, He should not be a priest, seeing that there are priests that offer gifts according to the law" (verse 4). The opening "For" looks back to what had been declared in verses 1,2, and introduces a further proof that the continuation of Christ’s priestly ministry must be in the heavenly sanctuary. The earthly system, Judaism, had its own priests who offered gifts "according to the law." "This mere earthly, typical, inferior priesthood has been already provided for, its rules are fixed, and the order of men defined who fill its functions; and according to those rules, Christ Jesus could not be one of them, not being of the right tribe. The fact, therefore, that He has priestly functions, a fact before proved, shows that His priesthood is in a different sanctuary" (F.S. Sampson).

This 4th verse is the one that is most appealed to by those who deny that Christ entered the priestly office before His ascension. But if it be examined carefully in the light of its setting, nothing whatever is to be found in it which favors the Socinian view. That which the apostle is treating of here in chapter 8 is the full execution of the whole of Christ’s priesthood: thereunto belonged not only the once oblation of Himself, but His continual intercession as well. Now that intercession must be made in heaven, at God’s right hand. We say "must" for the Old Testament types require it. Aaron had to carry incense, as well as blood, into the holy of holies (Leviticus 16:0 ). Had Christ remained on earth after His resurrection, only half of His priestly work had been performed. His ascension was necessary for the maintenance of God’s governmental rights, for the vindication of the Redeemer Himself, and for the well-being of His people; that what He had begun on earth might be continued, consummated and fully accomplished in heaven. The expiatory sacrifice of Christ had been offered once for all, but He must take His place as an Intercessor at God’s right hand, if His Church should enjoy the benefits of it.

In this 4th verse the apostle is not only confirming his statement in verses 1,2, but he is also anticipating the objecting Jews: But you Christians have no high priest on earth! True, says the apostle, and well it is that we do not. It is to be carefully noted that the Spirit does not here say that when Christ was on earth He was not a Priest no, He would not flatly contradict what he had plainly affirmed in Hebrews 2:17 , 5:Hebrews 2:7-9 , Hebrews 2:7 :26, 27. Instead, He says "If He were on earth," that is, had He remained here, He would not have completely discharged His sacerdotal functions. Had Christ stayed on earth, He had left His office imperfect, seeing that His people needed One to "appear in the presence of God" (Hebrews 9:24 ) for them. If Aaron had only offered sacrifice at the brazen altar, and had not carried the blood within the veil, he had left his work only half done.

"Seeing that there are priests that offer gifts according to the law" (verse 4). This states the reason why Christ had not been a perfect priest if He had not gone to heaven: there were already priests, and that, of a tribe which He was not of, that offered gifts on earth, yea, had done so long before He became incarnate. Therefore if the entire design of Christ’s priesthood had been merely to be a priest on earth, they would plead possession before Him. But, as verse 5 immediately proceeds to tell us, those priests only served "unto the example and shadow of heavenly things." Nothing but a real priesthood in heaven could supercede and abolish theirs. This is brought out plainly in Hebrews 9:8 : the "first tabernacle" was to stand until a Priest went into heaven and executed that office there: so that if Christ is to be Priest alone, He must become a Priest interceding in heaven, or otherwise, the Levitical priests would share that office with Him.

To sum up. The first clause of verse 4 is not an absolute, but a relative statement: "For if He were on earth, He would not be a priest". And why? "Seeing that there are priests that offer gifts according to the law", that is, the place is already occupied. Yes, but what place? Why that of offering gifts according to the law. Since Christ was above the law, the ideal and perfect Priest, He could not officiate in the temple at Jerusalem, for not only did His fleshly descent from Judah hinder this, but the sanctuary in which He now presents His sacrifice must correspond in dignity to the supreme excellency of His office. Thus, so far from His absence from the earth casting any suspicion on Him it is the necessary consequence of His being who He is and of having done what He has done.

"Who serve unto the example and shadow of heavenly things, as Moses was admonished of God when he was about to make the tabernacle: for, See, saith He, thou make all things according to the pattern showed to thee in the mount" (verse 5). Here the apostle furnishes further proof of what he had said at the beginning of verse 4. The presence of the type necessarily implies the absence of the Antitype (cf. Hebrews 9:8-10 ), because the very nature of a type is to symbolize visibly an absent and unseen reality. From the Divine viewpoint, Judaism was set aside, ended, when God rent the veil of the temple (Matthew 27:51 ); but from the human, it was not abolished till Titus destroyed Jerusalem in A.D. 70. Israel’s priests still served, but the only significance of their ministry was a typical one.

The design of the Spirit in verse 5 is obvious. There was something above and beyond the material tabernacle which God prescribed to Moses: that which he built, only furnished a faint foreshadowing of spiritual and heavenly realities, which are now actualized by Christ on High. The entire ministry of Israel’s priests had to do with earthly and carnal things, which provided but a dim outline of things above. The word "example" signifies type, and is rendered "figures" in Hebrews 9:24 . The term "shadow" means an adumbration, and is opposed to the substance or reality; see Colossians 2:17 , Hebrews 10:1 . "Shadows" are but fading and transitory, have no substance of themselves, and but darkly represent.

"See, saith He, thou make all things according to the pattern showed to thee in the mount." "This passage is found in Exodus 25:40 , and the apostle adduces it here on purpose, so that he might prove that the whole service according to the Law was nothing more than a picture, as it were, designed to shadow forth what is found spiritually in Christ" (John Calvin).

The practical application to us of the teaching of verse 5 is: Christians ought to exercise the utmost care and diligence to ascertain the revealed mind of God in what He requires from us in our worship of Him. Though Moses was learned in all the wisdom of Egypt, that was of no value or avail when it came to spiritual acts. He must do all things precisely as Jehovah ordered. In connection with what is styled "Divine worship" today, the great majority of professing Christians follow the dictates of their own wisdom, or inclination of their fleshly lusts, rather than Holy Scripture. Others mechanically follow the traditions of their fathers, or the requirements of popular custom. The result is that the Holy Spirit is grieved and quenched by the worldly inventions of carnal men, and Christ is outside the whole thing. Far better not to worship God at all, than to mock Him with human "will worship" (Colossians 2:23 ). Far better to worship Him scripturally in the seclusion of our homes, than fellowship the abominable mockery that is now going on in almost all of the so-called "churches".

Verses 6-9

The Two Covenants

(Hebrews 8:6-9 )

In the 7th chapter the apostle has demonstrated by irrefutable logic and upon the authority of Holy Scripture that the priesthood of Christ has superceded the Aaronic order. Here in chapter 8 he makes manifest the superior ministry of our great High Priest. First, He is "seated" (verse 1). Second, He is seated on the throne of Deity (verse 1). Third, He is a Minister of the heavenly sanctuary (verse 2). Fourth, His own person provides the antitype of the tabernacle (verse 2). Fifth, He is presenting before God a more excellent sacrifice (verses 3-6). Sixth, He is Mediator of a superior covenant (verse 6). Seventh, that covenant has to do with "better promises" (verse 6). That upon which the Holy Spirit would here have us focalize our attention is the place where our High Priest ministers, and the immeasurable superiority of the economy which He is now administering.

This 8th chapter of Hebrews treats of two things: the sphere of our High Priest’s ministry and the better covenant with which it is connected: the one being in suited accord with the other. The 6th verse gives the connecting link between them. The apostle’s object in introducing the "new covenant" at this stage of his argument is obvious. It was to the old covenant that the whole administration of the Levitical priesthood was confined. The entire church-state of the Jews, with all the ordinances and worship of it, and all the privileges connected with it, depended wholly on the covenant which God made with them at Sinai. But the introduction of the new Priesthood necessarily abolished that covenant, and put an end to all the sacred ministrations which belong to it. This it is which the apostle here undertakes to prove.

"The question which troubled the minds and hearts of the Hebrews was their relation to the Levitical priesthood, and to the old dispensation. The temple was still in Jerusalem, and the Levitical ordinances appointed by Moses were still being observed. Although the Sun had risen, the moon had not yet disappeared. It was waning; it was ready to vanish away. Now it became an urgent necessity for the Hebrew Christians to understand that Christ was the true and eternal High Priest in the heavenly sanctuary, and that the new and everlasting covenant with Judah and Israel was connected with the gospel promise, and not with the law. God Himself had made the first covenant old by promising the new. And now that Christ had entered into the holy of holies by His own blood, the old covenant had passed away; and yet the promises of God to His chosen people remained firm and unchanged" (Adolph Saphir).

That God had "changed" the order of priesthood (Hebrews 7:12 ) was, as we have seen, clearly evidenced by His causing Christ to spring from the tribe of Judah (Hebrews 7:14 ). God’s raising up of a Priest from that tribe necessarily excluded those belonging to the house of Aaron from the sacerdotal office, just as God’s raising up David to sit upon the throne, forever set aside the descendants of Saul from the regal office. Herein we may discern one reason why Jehovah ordained and gave such strict regulations for the distribution of Israel into their tribes, namely, that He might provide for their instruction as to the continuance of the legal worship among them, which could no longer be continued than while the priesthood was reserved unto the tribe of Levi.

This Divine change in the order of priesthood necessarily entailed a change of covenant or economy, as a change of the royal family denotes a new dynasty, or as a new president involves a change of government. The economy with which Christ is connected as far excels the old order of things as His sacerdotal office exceeded that of Aaron’s. Thus the apostle is here really advancing one more argument or proof for the pre-eminence of our Lord’s priesthood. As a Minister or public functionary Jesus Christ is as far superior in dignity to the Levites as the dispensation over which He presides is of a far superior order than the dispensation in which they served.

In approaching the subject of the two covenants, the old and the new, it should be pointed out that it is not always an easy matter to determine whether the "old covenant" designates the Mosaic economy or the covenant of works which God made with Adam (Hosea 6:7 margin); nor to decide whether the "new covenant" refers to the Gospel dispensation introduced by Christ, or to the covenant of grace which was inaugurated by the first promise made to Adam (Genesis 3:15 ) and confirmed to Abraham (Genesis 17:0 ). In each case the context must decide. We may add that the principal passages where the two covenants are described and contrasted are found in 2 Corinthians chapter 3, Galatians chapter 3 and 4, Hebrews chapters 8, 9 and 12.

"But now hath He obtained a more excellent ministry, by how much also He is the Mediator of a better covenant, which was established upon better promises" (verse 6). "This verse is a transition from one subject to another; namely, from the excellency of the priesthood of Christ above that of the law, to the excellency of the new covenant above the old. And herein also the apostle artificially compriseth and confirmeth his last argument, of the pre-eminence of Christ, His priesthood and ministry, above that of the law. And this He doth from the nature and excellency of that covenant whereof He was the Mediator in the discharge of His office" (John Owen).

"But now hath He obtained a more excellent ministry." The apostle here introduces his important assertion by a time-mark, the "But now" signifying at this season. It points a contrast from the period of the Mosaic dispensation, when Israel’s priests served "unto the example and shadow of heavenly things" (verse 5). A close parallel is found in Romans 3:21 , "but now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested," which is defined in verse 26 as "to declare at this time His righteousness: that He might be just, and the Justifier of him which believeth in Jesus" (verse 26). God in His infinite wisdom gives proper times and seasons to all His dispensations toward His Church. The Lord hastens or consummates all His works of grace in their own appointed time: see Isaiah 60:22 . Our duty is to leave the ordering of all the concerns of His people, in the accomplishment of His promises, to God in His own good time: Acts 1:7 .

That which is here ascribed unto Christ is "a more excellent ministry." The priests of old had a ministry, and an excellent one, for it was by Divine appointment they served at the altar (verse 5). So Christ has a ministry, and "a more excellent" one. In verse 2 He is designated "a Minister of the sanctuary." He is called such not with respect unto one particular act of administration, but because a standing office has been committed to Him. The service to which Christ has been called is of a higher order and more excellent nature than any which Aaron ever discharged. It is a "more excellent ministry" because it is the real and substantial one, of which the Levitical was but the emblem; it pertains to things in heaven, while theirs was restricted to the earthly tabernacle; it is enduring while theirs was but temporary.

This more excellent ministry Christ is here said to have "obtained." The way whereby the Lord Jesus entered on the whole office and work of His mediation has been expressed in Hebrews 1:4 as by "inheritance": that is, by free grant and perpetual donation, made unto Him as the Son compare our comments on that verse. There were two things which concurred unto His obtaining this ministry: first, the eternal purpose and counsel of God, decreeing Him thereunto (1 Peter 1:20 , Revelation 13:8 ). Second, the actual call of God (Hebrews 5:4 , Hebrews 5:5 ), which carried with it His unction of the Spirit above measure (Psalms 45:7 ), for the holy discharge of His whole office. Thus, Christ obtained this ministry not by any legal constitution, fleshly succession, or carnal ordination, as did the Levitical priests. The exaltation of the human nature of Christ into union with His Deity, for the office of this glorious ministry, depended solely upon the sovereign wisdom, grace, and love of God.

"But now hath He obtained a more excellent ministry, by how much also He is the Mediator of a better covenant." The particular point which the apostle here makes, or rather the conclusion which he here draws from the premises laid down, had been anticipated and intimated in what he said in Hebrews 7:20 , Hebrews 7:22 . There he had declared that the excellency of the covenant of which Christ has been made Surety and Mediator has a proportion with the pre-eminence of His priesthood above that of Aaron’s. His being made a Priest by Divine oath (which the Levites were not) fitted Him to be the Surety of a better economy. Conversely, the covenant of which He is Surety must needs be better than the old regime because He who was the Surety of it had been made so by Divine oath. Thus, the dignity of Christ’s priesthood is demonstrated by the excellency of the new covenant, and declaratively the new covenant sets forth the dignity of Christ’s priesthood.

"He is the Mediator of a better covenant." It is most important to recognize that Christ is a sacerdotal Mediator. This is made clear by 1 Timothy 2:5 , 1 Timothy 2:6 , "For there is one God, and one Mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus; Who gave Himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time." The mediating Priest intervenes with sacrifice and intercession for the reconciling of God and sinners. As we shall (D.V.) yet see, Hebrews 9:15 expressly declares that Christ’s priestly work was the very purpose of His being appointed Mediator. So in Hebrews 12:24 His sacrifice is again made prominent in connection with His mediation. Thus the sacerdotal character of His mediation cannot be scripturally gainsaid.

Christ has obtained a more excellent priestly ministry corresponding to the superior dispensation of which He is the Mediator. "But now (in this Christian dispensation) hath He (as ‘Priest’) obtained (from God) a more excellent ministry (than Aaron’s) by how much also He is the Mediator of a better covenant." He is not only Priest, but Mediator; Priest because He is Mediator, Mediator because He is Priest. It is by His priestly office and work that He exercises His mediatorship, standing between two parties and reconciling them. He thus combines in His own person what was divided between two under the old economy, Moses being the typical mediator, Aaron the typical surety. As "Surety" Christ pledged Himself to see that the terms of the covenant were faithfully carried out; as "Mediator," He is negotiating for His people’s blessing. The word "covenant" in this chapter signifies an arrangement or constitution of things, an economy or dispensation. The "old covenant" was that peculiar order of things under which the Jewish people were placed in consequence of the transactions at Sinai. The "new" or "better covenant" is that order of things which has been introduced by Jesus Christ, namely, the Christian dispensation.

"He is the Mediator of a better covenant." A mediator is a middle person between two parties entering into covenant, and if they be of different natures, a perfect mediator would have to partake of each of their natures in his own person. This Christ has done. Such mediation presupposes that the two parties are at such variance they cannot treat directly with the other; unless this were so, a go-between would be needless. See this fact illustrated in Deuteronomy 5:23-27 . In voluntarily undertaking to serve as Mediator, two things were required of Christ: first, that He should remove whatever kept the covenanters at a distance, taking away the cause of enmity between them. Second, that He should purchase and procure, in a way suited to the glory of God, the actual communication of all the good things prepared and proposed in this covenant (grace and glory) unto those on whose behalf He acts as Surety. Finally, He who is this Mediator must be accepted, trusted, and rested in by both parties entering into covenant. On God’s part, He has openly declared that He is "well pleased" with Christ (Matthew 3:17 ); on the part of His elect, they are made willing "in the day of His power" (Psalms 110:3 ).

"Which was established upon better promises." Every covenant between God and man, must be founded on and resolved into promises. Hence, essentially, a promise and a covenant are all one, and God calls an absolute promise founded on an absolute decree, His covenant, Genesis 9:11 . And His purpose for the continuation of the course of nature to the end of the world, He calls His covenant with day and night, Jeremiah 33:20 . The being and essence of a Divine covenant lies in the promise. Hence are they called ‘the covenants of promise,’ Ephesians 2:12 . Such as are founded on and consist in promises. And it is necessary that so it should be" (John Owen).

"Which was established upon better promises." The word "established" here is important to note, for it plainly intimates to us that the apostle is not here treating of the Everlasting Covenant absolutely, and as it had been virtually administered from the foundation of the world in the way of a promise; but relatively, as it had been formally introduced on earth as a new dispensation or economy. In the Divine administration of the Everlasting Covenant it has now been reduced to a fixed statute or ordinance. The term "established" signifies legally established, formally established as by a law. All is now fixed in the Church by Divine arrangement and secured by inviolable sanctions. In Hebrews 7:11 the Greek verb here rendered "established" is translated "received the law" compare our comments thereon. "The covenant to which the priesthood of Christ refers has been also established by law. It has been promulgated by Divine authority. The truth with regard to it has been ‘spoken by the Son of God, and confirmed to us by those who heard Him; and God has borne witness with signs and miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit,’ according to His own will" (John Brown).

"Established upon better promises." Caution requires to be exercised and great care taken at this point lest we err in our understanding of the particular contrast which is here pointed by the word "better." "The promises in the first covenant pertained mainly to the present life. They were promises of length of days; of increase of numbers; of seed time and harvest; of national privileges, and of extraordinary peace, abundance and prosperity. That there was also the promise of eternal life, it would be wrong to doubt; but this was not the main thing. In the new covenant, however, the promise of spiritual blessings become the principal thing. The mind is directed to heaven; the heart is cheered with the hopes of immortal life; the favor of God and the anticipation of heaven are secured in the most ample and solemn manner" (A. Barnes). Observe well the two words which are emphasized in the above quotation. In Old Testament times God "commanded the blessing, life forever more" (Psalms 133:3 ), not only temporal life in Canaan; while His people in New Testament times have "promise of the life that now is," as well as "of that which is to come" (1 Timothy 4:8 )!

Rightly did Adolph Saphir point out, "The contrast between the old and the new would be viewed in a false light, if we forgot that in the old dispensation spiritual reality and blessings were presented, and were actually embraced in faith by the people of God. The law had a positive or evangelical aspect, although herein also it was elementary and transitory, it acted as a guardian and a tutor; as the snow is not merely an indication of winter, and a contrast to the bright and genial sunshine, and the refreshing verdure of summer, but is also a beneficent protection, cherishing and preparing the soil for the approaching blessings from above. But now the winter is passed, the fullness has come."

The "better promises" are described in verses 10-13: they are summed up in justification and sanctification, or more briefly still, in redemption. "But what he adds is not without some difficulty, that the covenant of the Gospel was proclaimed on better promises; for it is certain that the fathers who lived under the Law had the same hope of eternal life set before them as we have, as they had the grace of adoption in common with us, then faith must have rested on the same promises. But the comparison made by the apostle refers to the form rather than to the substance; for though God promised to them the same salvation which He at this day promises to us, yet neither the manner nor the character of the revelation is the same or equal to what we enjoy" (John Calvin). Thus, the "promises" with which the new covenant is concerned are "better" in that they mainly respect spiritual and eternal blessings, rather than earthly and temporal ones; in that they have been ratified by the blood-shedding of Christ; in that they are now openly proclaimed to God’s elect among the Gentiles as well as the Jews.

"For if that first covenant had been faultless then should no place have been sought for the second" (verse 7). The covenant which is here referred to is that into which Jehovah entered with Israel at Sinai: see Exodus 19:5 ; Exodus 34:27 , Exodus 34:28 ; Deuteronomy 4:13 . Israel’s response is recorded in Exodus 19:8 , Exodus 24:3 . It was ratified by blood: Exodus 24:4-8 . This was not the "first" covenant absolutely, but the first made with Israel nationally. Previously, God had made a covenant with Adam (Hosea 6:7 ), and in some respects the Covenant at Sinai adumbrated it, for it was chiefly one of works. So too He had made a covenant with Abraham, which in some respects adumbrated the Everlasting Covenant, inasmuch as it was one purely of grace. Prior to Sinai, God dealt with Israel on the basis of the Abrahamic covenant, as is clear from Exodus 2:24 ; Exodus 6:3 , Exodus 6:4 . But it was on the ground of the Sinaitic covenant that Israel entered Canaan: see Joshua 7:11 , Joshua 7:15 ; Judges 2:19-21 ; 1 Kings 11:11 ; Jeremiah 34:18 , Jeremiah 34:19 .

"For if that first covenant had been faultless then should no place have been sought for the second." The connection between this and the preceding verse, intimated by the opening "For" is as follows: there the apostle had affirmed that the Christian covenant is superior to the Judaic; here, he demonstrates the same thing by arguing from the fact that the old covenant must have been defective, otherwise the new had been superfluous. It is an inference drawn from the facts of the situation. If there was need for a second, the first could not have been perfect, failing to secure that which was most desirable. A parallel is found in Galatians 3:21 .

"For if that first covenant had been faultless, then should no place have been sought for the second." Wherein lay its "faultiness?" It was wholly external, accompanied by no internal efficacy. It set before Israel an objective standard but supplied no power to measure up to it. It treated with men in the flesh, and therefore the law was impotent through the weakness of the flesh (Romans 8:3 ). It provided a sacrifice for sin, but the value thereof was only ceremonial and transient, failing to actually put away sin. It was unable to secure actual redemption. Hence because of its inadequacy, a new and better covenant was needed.

"Every work of God is perfect, viewed in connection with the purpose which He means it to serve. In this point of view, the ‘first covenant’ was faultless. But when viewed in the light in which the Jews generally considered it, as a saving economy, in all the extent of that word, it was not ‘faultless.’ It could not expiate moral guilt; it could not wash away moral pollution; it could not justify, it could not sanctify, it could not save. Its priesthood were not perfected they were weak and inefficient; its sacrifices ‘could not take away sin,’ make perfect as concerning the conscience, or procure ‘access with freedom into the holiest of all.’ In one word, ‘it made nothing perfect’" (John Brown).

"For finding fault with them, He saith, Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah" (verse 8). The opening "For" denotes that the apostle now confirms what he had just affirmed in verses 6, 7: the proof is found in what immediately follows. The "finding fault" may refer either to the old covenant, or to the people themselves who were under it: finding fault "with it" or "with them." In view of what is added in verse 9 the translation of the A.V. is to be preferred. It was against the people that God complained for their having broken His covenant.

"He saith, Behold, the days come," etc. The word "Behold" announces the importance of what follows, and calls to a diligent and admiring attention of the same. "Behold" bids us be filled with wonderment at this marvel of grace. It is indeed striking to observe that the apostle did not rely upon logical deductions and inferences, conclusive though they were. A change of priesthood necessarily involved a change of covenant, or dispensational administration. Nevertheless, obvious as this was, Paul rested not until he proved his assertions with a definite and pertinent "thus saith the Lord." He would not have the faith of the Hebrews stand in the wisdom of man, but in the power of God. Blessed example for God’s servants today to follow. Alas that so many people are contented with the dogmatic assertions of some man who "ought to know what he is saying," instead of demanding clear proof from the Scriptures.

The text which the apostle here quotes in proof of his assertion is taken from Jeremiah 31:31 . It is most blessed to note the time when God gave this precious promise to His people. Beautifully has Adolph Saphir pointed out, "It is in the night of adversity that the Lord sends forth bright stars of consoling hope. When the darkest clouds of woe were gathering above Jerusalem, and the prophet himself was in the lowest depths of sorrow, God gave to him the most glorious prophecies of Judah’s great redemption and future blessedness. The advent and reign of Messiah, the Lord our righteousness the royal dominion and priesthood of Israel’s Redeemer, the gift of the Holy Spirit, the renewal and restoration of God’s chosen people, the days of unbroken prosperity and blessedness all the golden Messianic future was predicted in the last days of Jerusalem, when the magnificent fabric of its temple was about to sink into the dust, and its walls and palaces were about to be thrown prostrate on the ground."

This new covenant God promised to make with "the house of Israel and with the house of Judah." The word, "Israel" is used in the Scriptures in no less than four distinct senses. First, it is the name which God gave to Jacob when he wrestled with the angel and prevailed as a prince (Genesis 32:28 ). Second, it denotes his fleshly descendants called "the children of Israel," that is, the Jewish nation. Third, it is employed of the ten tribes, the kingdom of Samaria or Ephraim, in contradistinction from the kingdom of Judah, and this, after the Nation was rent asunder in the days of Jeroboam. Fourth, it is applied spiritually to the whole of God’s people (Galatians 6:16 ). To which we may add, Fifth, in Isaiah 49:3 (note the verses which follow) it appears to be applied to Christ Himself, as identified with His people. Personally, we believe that it is the second and the fourth of these usages that obtain in our present passage.

The law of first mention helps us here. The initial occurrence of any expression or word in Scripture defines its scope and fixes, very largely, its consequent significance. So it is in this case. The name "Israel" was first given to Jacob: from that point onwards he is the man with a double name, sometimes being referred to as Jacob, sometimes as Israel, according as the "old man" or "new man" was uppermost within him. This more than hints at the double application of this name; oftentimes it is applied to Jacob’s natural descendants, at other times to his spiritual brethren. When Christ affirmed of Nathanael "Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile" (John 1:47 ), it was the same as though He had said, "Behold a true Israelite, a spiritual prince with God." To insist that "Israel" always signifies the fleshly descendants of Jacob betrays excuseless ignorance: why does the Holy Spirit speak of "Israel after the flesh" in 1 Corinthians 10:18 if there be no Israel after the spirit!

The writer has no doubt whatever in his mind that the time is not far distant when God is going to resume His dealings with the Jewish people, restore them unto their own land, send back their Messiah and Redeemer, save them from their sins, and fulfill to them His ancient promise through Jeremiah. Nevertheless, we are fully assured that it is a serious mistake to limit the prophecy of Jeremiah (or any other prediction) to a single fulfillment. It is abundantly clear from 2 Corinthians 3:0 that Christians in this dispensation are already enjoying the good of the new covenant which God has made with them. Moreover, are we not reminded at the Lord’s table of our Savior’s words, "This cup is the new testament," or "covenant in My blood" (1 Corinthians 11:25 )?

It should be pointed out that Old Testament Israel were typical and mystically significant of the whole Church of God. For that reason were the promises of grace under the old economy given unto the saints of God under the name of "Israel," "Judah," etc. (carefully compare Romans 2:28 , Romans 2:29 ), because they were types of those who should really and effectually be made partakers of them. Hence it is that in 2 Corinthians 1:20 we are told that "All the promises of God in Him (Christ) are Yea, and in Him Amen, unto the glory of God by us." Hence it is we read that "Jesus Christ was a Minister of the circumcision for the truth of God, to confirm the promises unto the fathers, and that the Gentiles might glorify God for His mercy" (Romans 15:8 ,Romans 15:9 ). And hence it is that the apostle Paul writing to Christians says, "Having therefore these promises" the preceding verses quoting from Leviticus 26:12 , etc! For the same reason in Hebrews 13:6 the Christian is assured that the promise which the Lord made to Joshua belongs to him too.

Thus, by "the house of Israel" and the "house of Judah" in Hebrews 8:8 we understand, first, the mystical and spiritual Israel and Judah; second, the application of this covenant to the literal and fleshly Israel and Judah in the day to come. In other words, we regard those expressions as denominating the whole Church of elect believers, typified of old, by the fleshly descendants of Abraham. Nor is it without reason that the Holy Spirit has here used both these names: we believe His (veiled) design was to take in God’s elect among the Jews and the Gentiles. Our reason for believing this is because that in the very first inspired sermon preached after the new covenant had been established, Peter said to the convicted Jews, "the promise is unto you, and to your children (descendants) and to all that are afar off, as many as the Lord our God shall call" (Acts 2:39 ). It is indeed remarkable that the two emphasized words have a double reference. First, they applied to the literal house of Israel, who were then outside the land, in the dispersion (Daniel 9:7 ); Second, to elect Gentiles, away from God: see Ephesians 2:13 !

At the time God announced His purpose and promise through Jeremiah, the fleshly descendants of Abraham were divided in two hostile groups. They had separate kings and separate centers of worship. They were at enmity with one another. As such they fitly adumbrated the great division between God’s elect among the Jews and the Gentiles in their natural and dispensational state. There was a middle wall or partition between them (Ephesians 2:14 ). There was "enmity" between them (Ephesians 2:16 ). But just as God announced through Ezekiel (37:16, 17) that the diversified houses of Judah and Israel should "become one," so His elect among the Jews and the Gentiles are now one in Christ (Ephesians 2:14-18 )! Therefore are all born-again believers designated the "children" and "seed" of Abraham (Galatians 3:7 , Galatians 3:29 ), and thus are they "blessed with faithful Abraham" (Galatians 3:9 ).

"Not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt; because they continued not in My covenant, and I regarded them not, saith the Lord" (verse 9). The contrast between the two covenants is first expressed negatively: "not according." The differences between them are many and great. The former was mainly typical, the latter has the substance. The one was administered under an imperfect priesthood, the latter under a perfect one. The one had to do, primarily, with that which was external; the other is, mainly, internal. The Mosaic covenant was restricted to one nation, the Christian is international in its scope.

The old covenant is spoken of as dating from the day when the Lord took Israel, "by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt." This language emphasizes the woeful and helpless condition that Israel was then in: unable to deliver themselves out of their bondage, like children incapable of walking unless supported and led. As Deuteronomy 1:31 says, "The Lord thy God bare thee, as a man doth bear his son, in all the way that ye went." So in Hosea 11:3 God says, "I taught them to go, taking them by the arms." Such expressions also accentuate the infinite condescension of God toward His people: that He should (so to speak) bow down Himself to reach them in their lowly estate.

"But they continued not in My covenant, and I regarded them not, saith the Lord." "They soon forgat God’s works, they waited not for His counsel" (Psalms 106:13 ). The principal reference is to Israel’s conduct at Sinai, when during the absence of Moses in the mount, they "thrust Him from them" (Acts 7:39 ), and made and worshipped the golden calf. That was but prophetic or indicative of their whole history. Their shameful conduct is mentioned here for the purpose of magnifying that marvelous grace that shall yet make the new covenant with such a people. "I regarded them not" refers to God’s governmental dealings with Israel: the severity He exercised, consuming them in the wilderness. In view of which we may well heed that searching word, "Wherefore let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall" (1 Corinthians 10:12 ).

Verses 10-13

The Two Covenants

(Hebrews 8:10-13 )

The subject of the two covenants supplies the principal key which unlocks for us the meaning of God’s dispensational dealings with His people here on earth. Its importance and blessedness is not surpassed by anything within the entire range of Divine revelation. Yet, sad to say, it is something which is scarcely known at all today by the majority of professing Christians. Covenant-relationship has always been the basis on which God has dealt with His people. The foundation of all is the Everlasting Covenant, a compact or agreement which God made with Christ as the Head and Representative of the whole election of grace. We would refer the interested reader unto two articles upon it, which appeared in the January and February 1930 issues of this magazine. What we shall here endeavor to treat of is the administration of that covenant, as it was made known by God, and the various forms in which it was established among His saints.

There was an original covenant made with Adam and all mankind in him: see Hosea 6:7 margin. This consisted of an agreement between God and man concerning obedience and disobedience, reward and punishment. To that covenant were annexed promises and threatenings, which were expressed in visible signs or symbols; the first, in the tree of life; the latter in the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. By these did God establish the original law of creation as a covenant. On the part of man, it was required that he should accept of this law. It was a covenant of works, and had no mediator. That arrangement or constitution formed the basis on which God dealt with Adam, but it ceased as soon as sin entered the world. God had provided a way of salvation for His own elect apart from their personal obligation to sinless obedience as the condition of life, and that through their Surety discharging all their responsibilities in His own person. This was made known in the first promise God proclaimed: Genesis 3:15 . All who receive the grace which is tendered through the promises of the Gospel, are delivered from the curse of that covenant which Adam, their legal representative, broke.

But though this first earthly covenant is no longer administered as a "covenant," nevertheless, all those of Adam’s descendants who receive not the grace of God as it is tendered to them in the promises of the Gospel, are under the law and curse of the Adamic covenant, because the obedience which it requires of the creature unto the Creator, and the penalty which it threatens and the curse it pronounces upon the disobedient, has never been met for them by a substitute. Therefore, if any man believe not, the wrath of God (not "cometh," but) abideth on him (John 3:36 ), and this, because the command and curse, which result from the relation between man and his Maker, and the inflexible righteousness of God as the supreme Governor and Judge of all mankind, must be fulfilled.

Now the children of Israel were not formally placed under the Adamic covenant absolutely, as a covenant of life, for, from the days of Abraham the promise (a renewal of Genesis 3:15 ; see Genesis 12:1-3 , Genesis 17:6-8 , etc.) was given unto him and his seed. Let it be carefully noted that in Galatians 3:17 the apostle proves that no "law" would afterwards be given, nor covenant made, that should or could disannul that promise. Had Israel been brought under the Adamic covenant of works it would have disannulled the promise, for that covenant and the promise of Grace are diametrically opposed. Moreover, had Israel come formally under the Adamic covenant of works they were all under the curse, and so had all perished eternally.

That there were other federal transactions between God and His Church before the giving of the law at Sinai, is abundantly clear from the book of Genesis. God entered into covenant with Abraham, making him promises on behalf of his descendants, and appointing a solemn outward seal for its confirmation and establishment. That covenant contained the very nature and essence of what is termed the "new covenant." Proof of this is found in the fact that the Lord Jesus is said to be "a Mediator of the circumcision, for the truth of God to confirm the promises made to the fathers" (Romans 15:8 ). As He was the Mediator of the new covenant, so far was He from rescinding the promises which God made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, that it belonged to His office to ratify and establish them. But it was at Sinai that the Lord entered formally into covenant with Israel as a nation (Hebrews 8:9 ), a covenant which had all the institutions of Divine worship annexed to it (Hebrews 9:1-6 ).

In contrast from the covenant which God made with Israel at Sinai, Christ is made "the Mediator of a better covenant" (Hebrews 8:6 ). This is the covenant of grace, being so called in contrast from that of works, which was made with us in Adam. For these two, grace and works, do divide the ways of our relation to God, being opposite the one to the other (Romans 11:6 ). Of this covenant of grace Christ was its Mediator from the beginning of the world, namely, from the giving of the first promise in Genesis 3:15 , for that promise was given in view of His incarnation and all that He should accomplish by His future and actual mediation. Christ was as truly the Surety of Abel as He was of the apostle Paul, and God had "respect unto" (was favorable toward and accepted) the one on the ground of Christ’s surety-ship as much as He did the other. To this it may be replied, If such be the case, then wherein lies the superior privilege of the Gospel-dispensation over that of the Mosaic?

In seeking an answer to the above question, it is needful to recognize (as was pointed out in our last article) that the "new covenant" referred to in Hebrews 8:0 is not the new covenant absolutely considered, and as it had been virtually administered from the days of Genesis 3:15 in a way of promise. For considered thus it was quite consistent with the covenant that God made with Israel at Sinai: in Galatians 3:17 the apostle proves that the renewal of the covenant (as a promise) to Abraham, was in no way abrogated by the giving of the law. Instead, in Hebrews 8:0 the apostle is treating of such an establishment of the new covenant as demanded the revocation of the Sinaitic constitution. What this "establishment" was, is made clear in Hebrews 9:0 and 10: it was the ordinances of worship connected with it.

When Christianity had been formally established by God, not only was the old covenant annulled, but the entire system of sacred worship whereby it was administered, was set aside. When the "new covenant" was first given in the way of a promise (Genesis 3:15 , renewed Genesis 12:17 , etc.), it did not introduce a system of worship and privileges expressive of the same. But the promise of the new covenant was included in the Mosaic covenant, nor was it inconsistent with its rights and ceremonies, nay not even with them composed into a yoke of bondage. And why? Because all those rites and ceremonies were added after the making of the covenant in Exodus chapters 19 and 24; nevertheless what was added did not and could not overthrow the promise. As the Mosaic system was completed, then all the worship of the Church was to proceed from it and to be conformed to it.

No sinner was ever saved but by virtue of the new covenant and the mediation of Christ therein. The new covenant of grace (in contrast from the old covenant of works made with the human race in Adam) was extant and effectual throughout the Old Testament era. Then what is the "better covenant" with its "better promises" which the death of Christ has inaugurated? We say again, it is not a new covenant absolutely considered. There are many plain passages in the Psalms and the Prophets which show that the Church of old knew and believed the blessed truth of justification and salvation by Christ, and walked with God in the faith thereof: compare Romans 4:3-9 . Let those who have access to the incomparable and immortal "Institutes" of Calvin read carefully chapters 9 11 in book 2.

"The Church under the Old Testament, had the same promise of Christ, the same interest in Him by faith, remission of sins, reconciliation with God, justification and salvation by the same way and means that believers have under the New. And whereas the essence and substance of the covenant consists in these things, they are not said to be under another covenant, but only a different administration of it. But this was so different from that which is established in the Gospel after the coming of Christ, that it hath the appearance and name of another covenant" (John Owen).

The leading differences between the two administrations of the covenant of grace may be reduced to the following heads. First, the manner in which the love of God in Christ is made known. The miracle recorded in Mark 8:23 , Mark 8:24 illustrates and adumbrates the two states. The Old Testament saints had sight, but the Object set before their faith was seen at a distance, and through clouds and shadows. The New Testament saints "with open face behold the glory of God in a mirror" (2 Corinthians 3:18 ). Second, in its more plentiful communication of grace unto the Church: John 1:16 . Old Testament believers had grace given to them (Genesis 6:8 , etc.), but we an "abundance of grace" (Romans 5:17 ). Third, in our access to God. The revelation of God at Sinai filled the people with terror; His revelation of Himself in Christ, fills us with joy. They were shut out from the holy place; we have freedom to approach His throne (Hebrews 4:16 ). Fourth, the extent of the dispensation of Divine grace. Under the Old Testament it was restricted to one nation; now it extends to all nations.

The covenant of grace was the same, as to its substance, from the beginning. It passed through the whole dispensation of times before the law, and under the law, of the same nature and efficacy, unalterable, everlasting, "ordered in all things and sure." The covenant of grace considered absolutely was the promise of grace in and by Christ Jesus (2 Timothy 1:9 , Titus 1:2 ), and that was the only way and means of salvation unto the elect from the entrance of sin. Absolutely, in Old Testament times, the covenant consisted only in promise, and as such is referred to in Acts 2:39 , Hebrews 6:14-16 . The full and lawful "establishment" of it (Hebrews 8:6 ), whence it became formally a "covenant" unto the whole Church, was future only. Two things were needed to change the "promise" into a "new covenant": the shedding of the blood of the only Sacrifice which belonged to it, and the institution of that worship in keeping therewith.

Whilst the Old Testament Church enjoyed all the spiritual benefits of the promise, wherein the substance of the covenant is contained, before it was confirmed and made the sole rule of worship unto the Church, it was not inconsistent with the holiness and wisdom of God to bring His people under any other covenant, or prescribe unto them what forms of worship He pleased, for they did not render ineffectual the promise before given. Nor did the institutions of the Mosaic covenant divert from, but rather led to, the future establishment of the promise. Yea, the laws and worship of the Mosaic economy were of present use and advantage to the Church while it remained in its state of minority (Galatians 4:0 ). For much of the above we are indebted, under God, to the writings of John Owen (1670 A.D.). We now turn again to our passage.

"For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, saith the Lord; I will put My laws into their minds, and write them in their hearts: and I will be to them a God, and they shall be to Me a people" (verse 10). "The design of the apostle, or what is the general argument which he is in pursuit of, must still be borne in mind, while considering the testimonies which he produceth in the confirmation of it. His design is to prove that the Lord Christ is the Mediator and Surety of a better covenant, than that wherein the service of God was managed by the high priests according to the law. For hence it follows, that His priesthood is greater and far more excellent than theirs. To this end he doth not only prove that God promised to make such a covenant, but also declares the nature and properties of it, in the words of the prophets. And so, by comparing it with the former covenant, he manifests its excellency above it. In particular, in this testimony, the imperfection of that covenant is demonstrated from its issue. For it did not effectually maintain peace and mutual love between God and the people; but being broken by them, they were thereon rejected of God. This rendered all the other benefits and advantages of it, useless. Wherefore, the apostle insists from the prophet, on those promises of this other covenant, which infallibly prevent the like issue, securing the people’s obedience forever, and so the love and relation of God unto them as their God" (John Owen).

The apostle is here contrasting the Christian dispensation from the Mosaic. Having in the previous verse declared in general the abrogation of the old covenant, because of its inadequacy through the weakness of the flesh, he here describes the new covenant which has supplanted it. He shows it to be so excellent in its constitution that none should object against its substitution in place of the old: such is the force of the opening "For." The formal "this is the covenant" announces that it is the duty of Christians to make themselves distinctly and fully informed in the privileges belonging unto them. It was for this very end that the writings of the evangelists and apostles were added to those of the prophets. This new covenant is made with "the house of Israel," which we understand mystically, comprising under it all the people of God. It is taken spiritually for the whole Church, the "Israel of God" (Galatians 6:16 ).

"After those days" is in antithesis from "in the day" of verse 9, which was an indefinite expression covering the interval between God’s sending Moses into Egypt and the arrival of Israel before Sinai. "After those days" means, following the Old Testament era. The dispensation which succeeds that is called "the time of reformation" in Hebrews 9:10 . Now just as God’s making of the first covenant with Israel was preceded by many things that were preparatory to the solemn establishment of the same such as His sending of Moses to announce unto them His designs of grace, His delivering them out of the house of bondage, His miraculous conducting of them through the Red Sea, His making known His law at Sinai so the new covenant was gradually made and established, and that by sundry acts preparatory for it or confirmatory of it. As this is so little understood we must enter into details.

First, the introduction of the new covenant was made by the ministry of John the Baptist (Luke 16:16 ). He was sent to prepare the way of the Lord. Until his appearing the Jews were bound absolutely unto the covenant at Sinai, without any alteration or addition to any ordinance of worship. But John’s ministry was "the beginning of the Gospel" (Mark 1:1 ,Mark 1:2 ). He called the people off from resting in the privileges of the old covenant (Matthew 3:8-10 ), and instituted a new ordinance of worship, baptism. He pointed away from Moses to the Lamb of God. Thus, his ministry was the beginning of the accomplishment of God’s promise through Jeremiah. Second, the incarnation and ministry of the Lord Jesus was a further advance unto the same. His appearing in the flesh laid an axe to the root of the whole Mosaic dispensation (Matthew 3:10 ), though the tree was not immediately cut down. By His miracles and teaching Christ furnished abundant proof that He was the Mediator of the new covenant.

Third, the way for the introduction of the new covenant having been prepared, it was solemnly enacted and confirmed in and by Christ’s death: thereby the "promise" became a "testament" (Hebrews 9:14-16 ). From that time onwards, the old covenant and its administration had received its full accomplishment (Ephesians 2:14-16 , Colossians 2:14 , Colossians 2:15 ), and it continued to abide only in the longsuffering of God, to be taken out of the way in His own time and manner. Fourth, the new covenant was further established in the resurrection of Christ. The old covenant could not be abrogated till its curse had been borne, and that was discharged absolutely when Christ was "loosed from the pains of death" and delivered from the grave. Fifth, the new covenant was promulgated and confirmed on the day of Pentecost, answering to the promulgation of the law at Sinai, some weeks after Israel had been delivered out of Egypt. From Pentecost onwards the whole Church of God was absolved from any duty with respect unto the old covenant and the worship of it (although it was not manifest as yet unto their consciences), and the ordinances of worship and all the institutions of the new covenant now became obligatory upon them. Sixth, the question was formally and officially raised as to the continuance of the obligatory form of the old covenant, and the contrary was expressly affirmed by the apostles under the infallible superintendence of the Holy Spirit: Acts 15:1-29 .

But at this point a difficulty, already noticed, may recur to our minds: Were not the things mentioned in Hebrews 8:10-13 , the grace and mercy therein expressed, actually communicated to God’s elect both before Sinai and afterwards? Did not all who truly believed and feared God enjoy these same identical blessings? Unquestionably. What then is the solution? This: the apostle is not here contrasting the internal operations of Divine grace in the Old and New Testament saints, but as Calvin rightly taught, the "reference is to the economical condition of the Church." The contrast is between that which characterized the Judaic and the Christian dispensations in the outward confirmation of the covenant. While there were individuals like David and Daniel, perhaps many such, in whom the Spirit wrought effectually, yet it is evident that the great majority of Abraham’s natural descendants had no experimental acquaintance with the external revelation God had given.

"I will put My laws into their minds, and write them in their hearts." That this is not an experience peculiar to Christians or restored Christians is clear from Psalms 37:30 , Psalms 37:31 , "The mouth of the righteous speaketh wisdom, and his tongue talketh of judgment. The law of His God is in his heart." So, too in Psalms 19:7 , Psalms 19:8 , we read, "The law of the Lord is perfect converting the soul... the statutes of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart." But that the major portion of Israel, or even a considerable number of them, were regenerated, at any period in the lengthy history of that nation, there is nothing whatever to show: instead, there is very much to the contrary. This experience is enjoyed by none save God’s elect, and in every age they have been but a "little flock."

"I will put My laws into their minds." These words have reference to the effectual operations of the Spirit in His supernatural and saving illumination of our understandings, whereby they are made habitually conformable unto the whole law of God, which is our rule of obedience in the new covenant. The carnal mind is enmity against God, and is not subject to His law, neither indeed can be (Romans 8:7 ). But when we are renewed by the Spirit, He works in us a submission to the authority and revealed will of God. As the Lord opened the heart of Lydia "that she attended unto the things which were spoken of Paul" (Acts 16:14 ), so in the miracle of the new birth, the Christian is given an ear to heed and a mind to perceive the holiness, justice, and goodness of God’s law. Yea, that law is effectually applied to him, so that it becomes the former of his thoughts, the subject of his meditation, and the regulator of his ways.

The preacher may announce the law of God to the outward ear, but only the Spirit can engrave it on the mind. The realization of this fact ought to drive every minister to his knees. No matter how diligently he has prepared his sermon, no matter how clearly and faithfully he expounds God’s truth, no matter how solemnly and searchingly he endeavors to press it on the individual’s conscience, unless God Himself gives His Word an entrance into the soul, nothing spiritual and eternal is accomplished. Nowhere is the deadness of the "churches" more plainly evidenced today than by the absence of concerted and definite prayer immediately before and immediately after the Word is preached: the "song service" has been substituted for the prayer service. O that God’s own people might be aroused to the need of their coming together and crying, "Lord, open the eyes of these men" (2 Kings 6:20 ).

"And write them in their hearts." It is this which renders the former part actually effectual. The "heart" as distinguished from the "mind" comprises the affections and the will. First, the understanding is informed, and then the heart is reformed. An active principle of obedience is imparted, and this is nothing else than a love for God Himself. Where there is a real love for God, there is a genuine desire and determination to please Him. The heart of the natural man is "alienated" from God and opposed to His authority. That is why, at Sinai, God wrote the commandments upon stones not so much to secure the outward letter of them, as to represent the hardness of the hearts of the people unto whom they were given. But at regeneration God takes away the heart of stone, and gives a heart of flesh (Ezekiel 36:26 ) pliable, living, responsive.

Let each reader pause here and lift up his or her heart to God, asking for grace and wisdom to honestly examine themselves in the light of this verse. You may sit under a sound and scriptural ministry every Sabbath, but what effect has it upon your inner man? You may be well acquainted with the letter of the Word, but how far is it directing the details of your daily walk? Does your mind dwell most on temporal or eternal things, material or spiritual? What engages your thoughts in your seasons of recreation? Is your heart fixed upon God or upon the world? There are thousands of professing Christians who can talk glibly of the Scriptures, but whose lives give no evidence that God has written His laws in their hearts. Are you one of this class?

"And I will be to them a God, and they shall be to Me a people." This expresses covenant-relationship. It is placed in the center of these promises because it is the spring from which the grace of the other blessings doth proceed. The wicked are living in this world "without God, and without hope" (Ephesians 2:12 ), but unto the righteous He says, "I am thy Shield, thy exceeding great Reward" (Genesis 15:1 ). "Happy is that people, that is in such a case, happy is that people, whose God is the Lord" (Psalms 144:15 ). When He says "I will be to them a God" it means that He will act toward His people according to all that is implied in the name of God. He will be their Lawgiver, their Counselor, their Protector, their Guide. He will supply all their needs, deliver from all dangers, and bring them unto everlasting felicity. He will be faithful and longsuffering, bearing with their frailties, never leaving nor forsaking them. "And they shall be My people" expresses both a dignity and a duty. Their dignity is set forth in 1 Peter 2:9 ; their duty in the verses which follow.

"And they shall not teach every man his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: for all shall know Me, from the least to the greatest" (verse 11). These words point a contrast from the general spiritual ignorance which obtained among the Jews: cf. Isaiah 1:3 , etc. "The words in the 11th verse are not to be understood absolutely, but comparatively. They intimate, that under that covenant there shall be a striking contrast to the ignorance which characterized the great body of those who were under the Old Covenant; that the revelation of the Divine will shall be far more extensive and clear under the new than under the old economy; and that there shall be a correspondingly enlarged communication of the enlightened influences of the Holy Spirit. They probably also are intended to suggest the idea, that that kind of knowledge which is the peculiar glory of the New Covenant is a kind of knowledge which cannot be communicated by brother teaching brother, but comes directly from Him the great Teacher, whose grand characteristic is this, that whom He teaches, He makes apt to learn" (John Brown).

"And they shall not teach every man his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord." During the Mosaic economy, and particularly in the last century before Christ, there was an external teaching of the Law, which the people trusted and rested in without any regard for God’s teaching by the inward circumcision of the heart. Such teaching had degenerated into rival schools and sects, such as the Pharisees, Sadducees, Herodians, Essenes, etc., and they made void the Word of God through their traditions (Mark 7:13 ). It was against such the last of Israel’s prophets had announced. "The Lord will cut off... the master and the scholar out of the tabernacles of Jacob" (Malachi 2:12 ). Or, our verse probably has more direct reference to the general knowledge of God which obtained during the Mosaic economy, when He revealed Himself under types and shadows, and was known through "parables and dark sayings." These were now supplanted by the full blaze of the Gospel’s light.

"For all shall know Me, from the least to the greatest." God is now known in the full revelation which He has made of Himself in the person of His incarnate Son: John 1:18 . As we are told in 1 John 5:20 , "And we know that the Son of God is come, and hath given us an understanding, that we may know Him that is true": "know Him" in the sense that we recognize, own, and practically obey Him as God. This spiritual, experimental, vital, saving knowledge of God is now communicated unto all of His elect. As the Savior announced, "They shall be all taught of God" (John 6:45 ): taught His will and all the mysteries of godliness, which by the Word are revealed. This "knowledge" of God cannot be imparted by any external teaching alone, but is the result of the Spirit’s operations, though He frequently, yea generally, uses the oral and written ministry of God’s servants as His instruments therein.

"For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their iniquities will I remember no more" (verse 12). "This is the great foundational promise and grace of the new covenant. For though it be last expressed, yet, in order of nature, it precedeth the other mercies and privileges mentioned, and is the foundation of the communication of them unto us. This the casual ‘for’ at the beginning of the verse doth demonstrate. What I have spoken, saith the Lord, shall be accomplished, ‘For I will be merciful,’ etc., without which there could be no participation of the other things mentioned. Wherefore, not only an addition of new grace and mercy is expressed in these words, but a reason also is rendered why, or on what grounds, He would bestow on them those other mercies" (John Owen).

In verse 12 a reason is given why God bestows the wondrous blessings enumerated in verses 10, 11. The word here rendered "merciful" is propitious, for it is not absolute mercy without any satisfaction having been taken by justice, but grace shown on the ground of a propitiation: cf. Romans 3:24 , Romans 3:25 . Christ died to render God propitious toward sinners (Hebrews 2:17 ), and in and through Him alone is God merciful toward the sins of His people. Just so long as Christ is rejected, the sinner is under the curse. But as soon as He is received, the blessings described in verses 10-12 become his. Note there are just seven blessings named, which exemplifies the perfection of the new covenant.

It is to be noted that no less than three terms are used in verse 12 to describe the fearful evils of which the sinner is guilty, thus emphasizing his obnoxiousness to the holy God, and magnifying the grace which saves him. "Unrighteousness" signifies a wrong done unto God, against man’s sovereign Ruler and Benefactor. "Sin" is a missing of the mark, the glorifying of God, which is what ought ever to be aimed at. "Iniquity" has the force of lawlessness, a setting up of my will against God’s, a living to please self rather than for His glory. How marvelous is the propitious favor of God toward those who are guilty of such multiplied enormities! The apostle’s object was to point another contrast between the covenants. That which characterized Judaism was a reign of law and justice: that which distinguishes Christianity is the "Throne of Grace." Note that no "conditions" are here stipulated. But does not the new covenant require repentance and faith? Assuredly: Mark 1:15 . But He who requires these has promised also to work them in His people: Acts 5:31 .

"In that He saith, A new, He hath made the first old. Now that which decayeth and waxeth old is ready to vanish away" (verse 13). That the translators failed to perceive the drift of the apostle’s reasoning here is evident from their adding the word "covenant" in italics. This was not only unnecessary, but its introduction serves to hide the force of the first half of this verse. In it the apostle draws an inference from what God had said through Jeremiah. He singles out one word, "new," and on it bases an argument: because Christianity is the "establishment" of the new covenant, then the preceding economy must have grown "old," and "old" is significative of that which draws near its end! How this shows us, once more, that every jot and tittle of Scripture is authoritative, full of meaning, and of sufficient evidence for what may be deduced from it!

"Now that which decayeth and waxeth old is ready to vanish away." Here is the conclusion of the apostle’s argument. If the first covenant had been adequate no place had been sought for a second (verse 7). But place was sought for the second (verse 8), therefore the first covenant was not faultless. The old covenant had continued for fifteen hundred years, from Moses to Christ; but its purpose had now been served. God gave Israel more than a hint that the Mosaic economy would not last forever, when his providence permitted the nation to be carried down into Babylon. Upon their return from captivity, neither the temple nor its priesthood were ever restored to their pristine glory. And now, as the apostle wrote, in less than ten years Jerusalem and the temple were completely destroyed. If then the Jewish covenant was abolished because it was "old," how much more ought the "old man" to be put off (Ephesians 4:24 ), and the "old leaven" purged out (1 Corinthians 5:7 )!

Bibliographical Information
Pink, A.W. "Commentary on Hebrews 8". "Pink's Commentary on John and Hebrews".