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Bible Commentaries

Expository Notes of Dr. Thomas Constable

Hebrews 8

Introduction

2. The work of our high priest chs. 8-9

The writer developed, in this new section of the text, topics that he had announced thematically in Hebrews 7:26-28.

"The unit introduced in Hebrews 8:1-2 consists entirely of exposition. Its limits are indicated by an inclusio: corresponding to the statement in Hebrews 8:3 that every high priest is appointed to offer (prospherein) gifts and sacrifices is the complementary declaration that Christ was offered (prosenechtheis) once to take away the sins of the people in Hebrews 9:28. These limits are confirmed by the observation that the theme of Christ’s entrance into the heavenly sanctuary, which is announced in Hebrews 8:1-2, is actually developed in Hebrews 9:11-28. The new unit extends from Hebrews 8:1 to Hebrews 9:28 and constitutes the central section within the compositional structure of the sermon. Its place at the center indicates the importance that the writer ascribed to this facet of his message . . ." [Note: Lane, p. 202.]

"As the writer has already discoursed at some length about Christ as high priest, it might be wondered what is still left to be expounded. But so far he has not explained how our high priest carries out his duties. This really forms the theme of the next two and a half chapters (to Hebrews 10:18), but another important matter, the new covenant, is introduced in the course of the discussion. In the present chapter the ministry of Jesus and the need for a new covenant are linked together." [Note: Guthrie, p. 170.]

The ministry of Jesus Christ as our High Priest involves a particular kind of service that includes a covenant, a sanctuary, and a sacrifice. The writer explained the service that Jesus Christ renders to help his readers understand His adequacy as our High Priest. The writer moved from explaining the person of our great High Priest to expounding His work. In all this he was contrasting the superiority of Christianity with the inferiority of Judaism.

One writer observed a chiastic structure in Hebrews 8:1 to Hebrews 9:28 that emphasizes the contrast between worship under the Old Covenant and under the New Covenant. [Note: Albert Vanhoye, A Structural Translation of the Epistle to the Hebrews, pp. 4, 20-23.]

A The old worship, earthly and figurative (Hebrews 8:1-6)

B The first covenant, imperfect and provisioned (Hebrews 8:7-13)

C The old and powerless institution of worship (Hebrews 9:1-10)

C’ The new, efficacious institutions (Hebrews 9:11-14)

B’ The new covenant (Hebrews 9:15-23)

A’ The entrance to heaven (Hebrews 9:24-28)

The new ministry and covenant ch. 8

The writer’s discussion of the new ministry and the New Covenant in chapter 8 introduces his fuller development of those themes in chapter 9. His flow of thought proceeded as follows.

A Christ, the ministering priest (Hebrews 8:1-5)

1. A new ministry (Hebrews 8:1-2)

2. which is set in opposition to the old (Hebrews 8:3-5)

B. Christ, the mediator of the new covenant (Hebrews 8:6-13)

1. The new ministry is associated with a better covenant (Hebrews 8:6)

2. which is set in opposition to the old (Hebrews 8:7-13) [Note: M. Gourgues, "Lecture christologique du Psaume CX et fête de la Pentecôte," Revue Biblique 83 (1976):31.]

"In Hebrews 7:11-28 the writer drew attention to certain deficiencies in the Levitical arrangement. Among these were the mortality of the ministering priests (Hebrews 7:23) and the necessity of repeating sacrifices for sins, both of the priests and the people (Hebrews 7:27). Two further weaknesses of the Levitical arrangement are demonstrated on the basis of Scripture in Hebrews 8:1-13. First, the contrast between the heavenly and earthly tabernacle is introduced to supplement the distinction between the new and the old. Levitical priests serve only a shadowy suggestion of the heavenly sanctuary in which Christ exercises his ministry. To the degree that the earthly sanctuary with its ministry only imperfectly corresponds to the ministry conducted in the presence of God, it is marked by deficiency. Secondly, the covenant under which the Levitical arrangement was instituted has been treated by God as obsolete. The mediation of the new covenant demonstrates the eschatological superiority of Christ’s ministry and the divine intention to replace the old arrangement with another that is eschatologically new." [Note: Lane, p. 204.]

Verses 1-2

"What has been said" (Hebrews 8:1) refers to chapter 7. This is a transitional statement. The writer now moved on to explain Jesus Christ’s ministry more fully. Chapter 7 was in a sense introductory and foundational to what follows.

". . . the doctrine of Christ’s high priesthood and the pilgrimage of God’s people dominate the expository and paraenetic [i.e., exhortation] sections [of the epistle]. The theme of Christ as High Priest, however, is central to the epistle as a whole." [Note: David J. MacLeod, "The Doctrinal Center of the Book of Hebrews," Bibliotheca Sacra 146:583 (July-September 1989):300.]

The writer again referred to the heavens where God abides and where Jesus Christ now serves as the real tabernacle, the only one that does not imitate something better than itself. In particular, the holy of holies is in view. These verses summarize what follows in chapter 8. [Note: See Philip E. Hughes, "The Blood of Jesus and His Heavenly Priesthood in Hebrews," Bibliotheca Sacra 130:520 (October-December 1973):305-14.]

"The throne He occupies and from which He ministers is not David’s throne, which He will one day occupy here on earth as the promised Messiah (Matthew 25:31). Rather, He was identified with the throne of ’the Majesty in the heavens.’ The authority assigned to the One so enthroned was to be ’a minister of the sanctuary and of the true tabernacle’ (Hebrews 8:2). Thus He was not appointed to be a king in an earthly domain, but rather He was appointed to function as a High priest in a new sanctuary. And the appointment as High Priest, according to Psalms 110:4, follows the enthronement of Christ at His Father’s right hand." [Note: Pentecost, pp. 131-32.]

We not only have a high priest who has taken His seat at the Father’s right hand (Hebrews 8:1), but we have one who now ministers as a priest in the heavenly sanctuary (Hebrews 8:2; cf. Psalms 110:1).

"There are other sons beside the Son (Hebrews 2:10), but no other priests subordinated to Christ as high priest." [Note: Ellingworth, p. 403.]

Verses 1-5

Christ’s better ministry 8:1-5

In this section the writer first stated (Hebrews 8:1-2) and then explained (Hebrews 8:3-5) Jesus Christ’s better ministry. It is superior in three respects. He serves as a seated priest, having finished His work of offering a final sacrifice for sins (Hebrews 8:1). He is an enthroned priest, having taken His place at the right hand of God the Father (Hebrews 8:1). And He is a heavenly priest, having entered the true sanctuary where He now ministers (Hebrews 8:1-2).

Verses 3-5

Hebrews 8:4 sounds as though the Jewish priests were presenting offerings in Herod’s Temple when the writer wrote. This understanding of the text has led some students of the book to date its writing before the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in A.D. 70. However it is more likely that we should take these present tenses as timeless. [Note: See Lane, p. lxiii.] The writer was describing what had been done in Judaism as though it was still going on, for the sake of vividness (cf. Hebrews 7:27-28; Hebrews 9:7-8; Hebrews 9:25; Hebrews 10:1-3; Hebrews 10:8; Hebrews 13:10-11). Nevertheless it seems likely that the epistle does indeed date from before A.D. 70. [Note: See my discussion of the date in the introduction section of these notes.]

God had explained the fact that the tabernacle was a prototype of another temple, the heavenly one, to Moses when God gave him the directions for the construction of the tabernacle (Exodus 25:40; cf. Revelation 4:5-6; Revelation 6:9-11; Revelation 8:3-5; Revelation 11:19; Revelation 21:22). Moses may have received a vision of God’s heavenly dwelling place then (cf. 1 Chronicles 28:19).

"Probably the conception of the tabhanith, the ’model’ (Exodus 25:9), also goes back ultimately to the idea that the earthly sanctuary is the counterpart of the heavenly dwelling of a deity [in ancient Near Eastern thought]." [Note: Frank M. Cross, "The Tabernacle," Biblical Archaeologist 10:3 (September 1947):62. Cf. G. Ernest Wright, "The Significance of the Temple in the Ancient Near East. Part III: The Temple in Palestine-Syria," Biblical Archaeologist 7:4 (December 1944):66.]

The writer’s point was that Jesus’ priesthood was not an earthly priesthood but one that operated in the realm of heaven. Jesus could have functioned as a priest on earth after the order of Melchizedek, but His real priestly ministry of sacrifice and intercession began when He entered heaven. Jesus interceded for others during His earthly ministry (e.g., Luke 22:32; John 17), but His ministry as our king-priest began with His ascension.

"The contrast developed is not simply between an earthly copy and a heavenly archetype but between a historical situation in the past and one that succeeded it in time. During the former situation, marked by the ministry of the Levitical priests, there was no entrance into the real, heavenly presence of God; full entrance into the eternal presence of God was made possible only with the life and redemptive accomplishment of Jesus." [Note: Lane, p. 207.]

"In Hebrews 8:1-5 the primitive Christian confession of Jesus as the one who has taken his seat at God’s right hand is reinterpreted in the light of the theme of heavenly sanctuary and liturgy. The development of this theme, which dominates the argument in Hebrews 8:1 to Hebrews 9:28, is clearly the central and most distinctive aspect of the writer’s interpretation of the saving work of Christ. . . . By means of a typological interpretation of the OT, the writer asserts that Christ has achieved what the sacrificial action of the high priest on the great Day of Atonement only foreshadowed. His entrance into the heavenly sanctuary, which is the true tabernacle where he has unrestricted access to the eternal presence of God, demonstrates the eschatological superiority of his priestly service to the ministry of the Levitical high priests. The priestly ministry of Christ in the celestial sanctuary is of capital importance in the thought of Hebrews." [Note: Ibid., p. 210.]

Verse 6

The superiority of Jesus’ ministry as our High Priest rests also on the superiority of the covenant that forms the basis of that ministry. That covenant in turn rests on superior promises compared with the Mosaic Covenant promises and on a superior mediator, namely, Jesus Christ, compared with the angels and Moses (Galatians 3:19).

Verses 6-13

The better covenant 8:6-13

The writer proceeded to explain the superiority of the New Covenant that Jesus Christ ratified with His blood (death) that is better than the Old Mosaic Covenant that He terminated when He died. He first explained the reason for the change in covenants (Hebrews 8:6-9), then he quoted the four superior promises of the New Covenant (Hebrews 8:10-12), and finally he underlined the certainty of the change (Hebrews 8:13).

Verse 7

As with the priesthood (Hebrews 7:11-12), so it is with the covenant and its promises. Had the first been adequate God would not have promised a second. Add "and its promises" after "covenant," which the translators have supplied, in this verse since "them" in Hebrews 8:8 is plural.

Verses 8-12

God gave the promise of a new covenant because the people of Israel had failed Him. He also did so because the Old Mosaic Covenant did not have the power to enable them to remain faithful to God. The New Covenant has the power whereby God’s people may remain faithful, namely, the presence of God living within the believer (i.e., the Holy Spirit). This is one way in which it differs from the Old Covenant (Hebrews 8:9). [Note: For a helpful essays on the new covenant, see J. Dwight Pentecost, Thy Kingdom Come, pp. 164-77; John F. Walvoord, Major Bible Prophecies, pp. 176-91; and Bruce A. Ware, "The New Covenant and the People(s) of God," in Dispensationalism, Israel and the Church, pp. 68-97.]

God promised that the New Covenant would enable the Israelites to do four things. They would know and desire to do God’s will (Hebrews 8:10 b), enjoy a privileged, unique relationship with God (Hebrews 8:10 c), know God directly (Hebrews 8:11), and experience permanent forgiveness of their sins (Hebrews 8:12). These are the "better [i.e., unconditional] promises" the writer referred to earlier (Hebrews 8:6).

". . . new covenant promises are not yet fully realized. The promises in Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Ezekiel describe a people who have the law written in their hearts, who walk in the way of the Lord, fully under the control of the Holy Spirit. These same promises look to a people who are raised from the dead [cf. Ezekiel 37], enjoying the blessings of an eternal inheritance with God dwelling with them and in them forever." [Note: Craig A. Blaising, "The Fulfillment of the Biblical Covenants," in Progressive Dispensationalism, pp. 208, 209.]

Verse 13

The writer contrasted the New Covenant with the Old Covenant, namely, the Mosaic Covenant. The Mosaic Covenant is now "obsolete" and even as the writer wrote the Book of Hebrews it was also "growing old." It virtually disappeared in A.D. 70 when the Romans destroyed the temple, terminated its ritual and officiants, and scattered the Jews throughout the world (cf. Matthew 24:1-2).

The New Covenant is a branch of the Abrahamic Covenant. In the Abrahamic Covenant, God promised Abraham a piece of real estate for his descendants, an incalculable number of descendants, and blessing for his descendants and for all people through his descendants (Genesis 12:1-7; et al.). Deuteronomy 29-30, sometimes called the Palestinian Covenant, gave more information about the land God had promised to Abraham. The Davidic Covenant gave more information about God’s promises regarding descendants (2 Samuel 7). The New Covenant revealed the particulars of the promised blessing (Jeremiah 31). Each of these later covenants relates to the Abrahamic Covenant organically; they were outgrowths of it. In contrast, the Mosaic (Old) Covenant does not relate organically but "was added" (Galatians 3:19), as an appendage. It explained how the Israelites could maximize the benefits God had promised in the Abrahamic Covenant. Consequently when God terminated the Old Covenant it did not eliminate anything He had promised Abraham. Another difference is that the Mosaic Covenant was bilateral and conditional ("If you will do this, then I will do this."). The other biblical covenants are unilateral and unconditional ("I will do this."), though they sometimes contain conditional elements subsumed under the divine promises.

Dispensational commentators have taken various positions on the relationship of the New Covenant promised in Jeremiah 31 to the New Testament references to the New Covenant. Was it the same covenant, or is a second New Covenant in view? Some believe there are two new covenants, one with Israel and one with the church. [Note: E.g., L. S. Chafer, Systematic Theology, 4:325; J. F. Walvoord, The Millennial Kingdom, pp. 208-20; C. C. Ryrie, The Basis of the Premillennial Faith, pp. 105-25; and John R. Master, "The New Covenant," in Issues in Dispensationalism, pp. 93-110.] This position rests on the fact that the New Covenant promised in Jeremiah 31 was specifically with the house of Israel and the house of Judah (Jeremiah 31:31). Those who hold this view take the New Covenant under which Christians live as a different New Covenant (2 Corinthians 3:6; Hebrews 8:8; Hebrews 9:15). They regard Jesus’ references to the New Covenant as to a New Covenant with the church (Luke 22:20; cf. 1 Corinthians 11:25).

Most dispensationalists believe there is only one New Covenant. [Note: E.g., J. N. Darby, Synopsis of the Books of the Bible, 5:286; C. I. Scofield, ed., The Scofield Reference Bible, new ed., p. 1297; J. D. Pentecost, Things to Come, pp. 116-28; and Hodges, "Hebrews," p. 800. Walvoord and Ryrie also adopted this view after publishing their books cited in the previous footnote.] Most of those who hold this view believe that the church enters into the blessings of this covenant. Even though the New Covenant was "with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah" (Jeremiah 31:31), many of the benefits promised extended to all believers after Jesus Christ died (cf. Isaiah 19:24-25; Isaiah 42:6; Isaiah 49:6; Romans 15:9-12). Christians experience the blessings referred to in a measure now, but God will fulfill the covenant completely in the Millennium when the Jews will experience all the blessings promised fully (Romans 11:25-32). [Note: Thomas, p. 107.] According to this view, when Jesus said the cup at the Lord’s Supper represented His blood that is the New Covenant, He meant the following. His death was the basis for the fulfillment of the promises that the New Covenant contained. I prefer this view mainly because I do not believe there is adequate basis in the text for applying the term "New Covenant" to two different covenants. There are few writers who hold the two New Covenants view today.

Covenant theologians explain how the church benefits from the New Covenant promises by saying that the church is spiritual Israel. These promises, they claim, belong to Abraham’s spiritual seed, not his physical seed. It is clear from Galatians 3:13-29 that Christians are the spiritual seed of Abraham, but that is not the same as saying the church is spiritual Israel.

"Once we are permitted to make such plain words as ’Israel’ and ’Judah’ mean something else, there is no end to how we might interpret the Bible!" [Note: Wiersbe, 2:306.]

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Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Hebrews 8". "Expository Notes of Dr. Thomas Constable". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/hebrews-8.html. 2012.