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Bible Commentaries

Barclay's Daily Study Bible

Hebrews 8

Verses 1-13

Chapter 8

THE WAY TO REALITY ( Hebrews 8:1-6 )

8:1-6 The pith of what we are saying is this--it is just such a high priest we possess, a priest who has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of majesty in the heavens, a high priest who is a minister of the sanctuary and of the real tabernacle, which the Lord, and not man, founded. For every high priest is appointed to offer gifts and sacrifices. It is therefore necessary that he should have something which he might offer. If then he had been upon earth, lie would not even have been a priest, for there already exist those who offer the gifts the law lays down, men whose service is but a shadowy outline of the heavenly order, just as Moses received instructions when he was about to complete the tabernacle--"See," it says, "that you do everything according to the pattern that was shown to you on the mountain." But, as things are, he has obtained a more excellent ministry, in so far as he is also the mediator of a better covenant, a covenant which was enacted on the basis of superior promises.

The writer to the Hebrews has finished describing the priesthood after the order of Melchizedek in all its glory. He has described it as the priesthood which is for ever, without beginning and without end; the priesthood that God confirmed with an oath; the priesthood that is founded on personal greatness and not on any legal appointment or racial qualification; the priesthood which death cannot touch; the priesthood which is able to offer a sacrifice that never needs to be repeated; the priesthood which is so pure that it has no necessity to offer sacrifice for any sins of its own. Now he makes and underlines his great claim. "It is." he says, "a priest precisely like that that we have in Jesus."

He goes on to say two things about Jesus. (i) He took his scat at the right hand of the throne of majesty in the heavens. That is the final proof of his glory.

"The highest place that heaven affords

Is his, is his by right,

The King of kings, and Lord of lords,

And heaven's eternal light."

There can be no glory greater than that of the ascended and exalted Jesus. (ii) He says that Jesus is a minister of the sanctuary. That is the proof of his service. He is unique both in majesty and in service.

Jesus never looked on majesty as something to be selfishly enjoyed. One of the greatest of the Roman Emperors was Marcus Aurelius; as an administrator he was unsurpassed. He died at fifty-nine, having worked himself to death in the service of his people. He was one of the Stoic saints. When chosen to succeed in due time to the imperial power, his biographer Capitolinus tells us, "he was appalled rather than overjoyed, and when he was told to move to the private house of Hadrian, the Emperor, it was with reluctance that he departed from his mother's villa. And when the members of the household asked him why he was sorry to receive the royal adoption, he enumerated to them the toils which sovereignty involved." Marcus Aurelius saw kingship in terms of service and not of majesty.

Jesus is the unique example of divine majesty and divine service combined. He knew that he had been given his supreme position, not jealously to guard it in splendid isolation, but rather to enable others to attain to it and to share it. In him the supreme majesty and the supreme service met.

Now there enters into the picture a thought that was never far from the mind of the writer to the Hebrews. Religion to him, remember, was access to God; therefore the supreme function of any priest was to open the way to God for men. He removed the barriers between God and man; he built a bridge across which man could go into the presence of God. But we could put this another way. Instead of talking about access to God we might talk about access to reality. Every religious writer has to search for terms which his readers will understand. He has to present his message in language and in thoughts which will get home because they are familiar or at least will strike a chord in the reader's mind. The Greeks had a basic thought about the universe. They thought in terms of two worlds, the real and the unreal. They believed that this world of space and time was only a pale copy of the real world. That was the basic doctrine of Plato, the greatest of all the Greek thinkers. He believed in what he called forms. Somewhere there was a world where there was laid up the perfect forms of which everything in this world is an imperfect copy. Sometimes he called the forms ideas. Somewhere there is the idea of a chair of which all actual chairs are imperfect copies. Somewhere there is an idea of a horse of which all actual horses are inadequate reflections. The Greeks were fascinated by this conception of a real world of which this world is only a flickering, imperfect copy. In this world we walk in shadows; somewhere there is reality. The great problem in life is how to pass from this world of shadows to the other world of realities. That is the idea of which the writer to the Hebrews makes use.

The earthly Temple is a pale copy of the real Temple of God; earthly worship is a remote reflection of real worship; the earthly priesthood is an inadequate shadow of the real priesthood. All these things point beyond themselves to the reality of which they are the shadows. The writer to the Hebrews even finds that idea in the Old Testament itself. When Moses had received from God instructions about the construction of the tabernacle and all its furnishings, God said to him: "And see that you make them after the pattern for them, which is being shown you on the mountain" ( Exodus 25:40). God had shown Moses the real pattern of which all earthly worship is the ghost-like copy. So then the writer to the Hebrews says that the earthly priests have a service which is but a shadowy outline of the heavenly order. For shadowy outline he combines two Greek words, hupodeigma ( G5262) , which means a specimen, or, still better, a sketch-plan, and skia ( G4639) , which means a shadow, a reflection, a phantom, a silhouette. The earthly priesthood is unreal and cannot lead men into reality; but Jesus can. We can say that Jesus leads us into the presence of God or we can say that Jesus leads us into reality; it means the same thing. When the writer to the Hebrews spoke of reality he was using language that his contemporaries used and understood.

In the highest that this world can offer there is some imperfection. It never quite reaches what we know the thing might be. Nothing we ever experience or achieve here quite reaches the ideal that haunts us. The real world is beyond. As Browning had it: "A man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?" Call it heaven, call it reality, call it the idea or the form, call it God--it is beyond.

As the writer to the Hebrews saw it, only Jesus can lead us out of the frustrating actuality into the all-satisfying real. So he calls him the mediator, the mesites ( G3316) . Mesites comes from mesos ( G3319) , which, in this case, means in the middle. A mesites ( G3316) is, therefore, one who stands in the middle between two people and brings them together. When Job is desperately anxious that somehow he should be able to put his case to God, he cries out hopelessly: "There is no umpire, mesites ( G3316) , between us" ( Job 9:33). Paul calls Moses the mesites ( G3316) ( Galatians 3:19) in that he was the one between who brought the law from God to men. In Athens in classical times there was a body of men--all citizens in their sixtieth year--who could be called upon to act as mediators when there was a dispute between two citizens, and their first duty was to effect a reconciliation. In Rome there were arbitri. The judge settled points of law; but the arbitri settled matters of equity; and it was their duty to bring disputes to an end. Further, in legal Greek a mesites ( G3316) was a sponsor, a guarantor or a surely. He went bail for a friend who was on trial; he guaranteed a debt or an overdraft. The mesites ( G3316) was the man who was willing to pay his friend's debt to make things right again.

The mesites ( G3316) is the man who stands between and brings together two other parties in reconciliation. Jesus is our perfect mesites ( G3316) ; he stands between us and God. He opens the way to reality and to God and is the only person who can effect reconciliation between man and God, between the real and the unreal. In other words, Jesus is the only person who can bring us real life.

THE NEW RELATIONSHIP ( Hebrews 8:7-13 )

8:7-13 For, if the first covenant, which is so well known to you, had been faultless there would have been no need to seek any place for a second one. It is to censure them that he says: "Look you the days are coming, says the Lord. when I will consummate a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. It will not be the same as the covenant which I made with their fathers, when I laid my hand on them to lead them forth from the land of Egypt; this must be so because they did not abide by my covenant, and I let them go their own way, says the Lord. It will be different because this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after these days, says the Lord. I will put my laws into their mind and I will inscribe them upon their hearts. I will be to them all that a God should be to them, and they will be to me all that a people should be to me. And no one will teach his fellow-citizen and no one will teach his brother, saying, 'Know the Lord,' for all will know me, small and great alike, because I will graciously forgive their iniquities and I will not remember their sins any more." In that he calls the covenant new, he has rendered the first covenant out of date; and that which is out of date and ageing into decay is near to final obliteration.

Here Hebrews begins to deal with one of the great biblical ideas--that of a covenant. In the Bible the Greek word that is always used for a covenant is diatheke ( G1242) and there was a special reason for the choice of this rather unusual word. Ordinarily a covenant is an agreement entered into by two people. It is dependent on conditions on which they mutually agree; and if either should break the conditions the covenant becomes void. It is sometimes used in that simple sense in the Old Testament. For instance, it is used of the league that the Gibeonites wished to make with Joshua ( Joshua 9:6); of the forbidden league with the Canaanites ( Judges 2:2); and of David's covenant with Jonathan ( 1 Samuel 23:18). But its distinctive use is to describe the relationship between Israel and God. "Take heed to yourselves, lest you forget the covenant of the Lord your God" ( Deuteronomy 4:23). In the New Testament the word is also used to describe the relationship between God and man.

But there is a strange point which requires explanation. For all normal uses the Greek word for an agreement is suntheke which is the word for a marriage covenant or bond and for an agreement between two states. Further, in all normal Greek diatheke ( G1242) means not an agreement, but a will. Why should the New Testament use this word for a covenant? The reason is this--suntheke always describes an agreement entered into on equal terms. The parties to a suntheke are on the one level and each can bargain with the other. But God and man do not meet on equal terms. In the biblical sense of a covenant, the whole approach comes from God. Man cannot bargain with God; he cannot argue about the terms of the covenant; he can only accept or reject the offer that God makes.

The supreme example of such an agreement is a will. The conditions of a will are not made on equal terms. They are made entirely by one person, the testator, and the other party cannot alter them but can only accept or refuse the inheritance offered.

That is why our relationship to God is described as a diatheke ( G1242) , a covenant for the terms of which only one person is responsible. That relationship is offered us solely on the initiative and the grace of God. As Philo said: "It is fitting for God to give and for a wise man to receive." When we use the word covenant, we must always remember that it does not mean that man made a bargain with God on equal terms. It always means that the whole initiative is with God; the terms are his and man cannot alter them in the slightest.

The ancient covenant, so well known to the Jews, was the one made with the people after the giving of the law. God graciously approached the people of Israel. He offered them a unique relationship to himself; but that relationship was entirely dependent on the keeping of the law. We see the Israelites accepting that condition in Exodus 24:1-8. The argument of the writer to the Hebrews is that that old covenant is done away with and that Jesus has brought a new relationship with God.

In this passage we can distinguish certain marks of the new covenant which Jesus brought.

(i) The writer begins by pointing out that the idea of a new covenant is not something revolutionary. It is already there in Jeremiah 31:31-34, which he quotes in full. Further, the very fact that scripture speaks of the new covenant shows that the old was not fully satisfactory. Had it been, a new covenant would never have needed to be mentioned. Scripture looked to a new covenant and therefore itself indicated that the old covenant was not perfect.

(ii) This covenant will not only be new; it will be different in quality and in kind. In Greek there are two words for new. Neos ( G3501) describes a thing as being new in point of time. It might be a precise copy of its predecessors, but since it has been made after the others, it is neos ( G3501) . Kainos ( G2537) means not only new in point of time, but new in point of quality. A thing which is simply a reproduction of what went before may be neos ( G3501) but it is not kainos ( G2537) . This covenant which Jesus introduces is kainos ( G2537) , not merely neos ( G3501) ; it is different in quality from the old covenant. The writer to the Hebrews uses two words to describe the old covenant. He says that it is geraskon ( G1095) , which means not only ageing, but ageing into decay. He says that it is near to aphanismos ( G854) . Aphanismos is the word that is used for wiping out a city, obliterating an inscription, or abolishing a law. So the covenant which Jesus brings is new in quality and completely cancels the old.

(iii) Wherein is this covenant new? It is new in its scope. It is going to include the house of Israel and the house of Judah. One thousand years before this, in the days of Rehoboam, the kingdom had split apart, into Israel with the ten tribes and Judah with the two, and these two sections had never come together again. The new covenant is going to unite that which has been divided; in it the old enemies will be at one.

(iv) It is new in its universality. All men would know God from the least to the greatest. That was something quite new. In the ordinary life of the Jews there was a complete cleavage. On the one hand there were the Pharisees and the orthodox who kept the law; on the other hand there were what were contemptuously called The People of the Land, the ordinary people who did not fully observe the details of the ceremonial law. They were completely despised. It was forbidden to have any fellowship with them; to marry one's daughter to one of them was worse than to throw her to a wild beast; it was forbidden to go on a journey with them; it was even forbidden, as far as it was possible, to have any trade or business dealings with them. To the rigid observers of the law the ordinary people were beyond the pale. But in the new covenant these breaches would no longer exist. All men, wise and simple, great and small, would know the Lord. The doors which had been shut were thrown wide open.

(v) There is one even more fundamental difference. The old covenant depended on obedience to an externally imposed law. The new covenant is to be written upon men's hearts and minds. Men would obey God not because of the terror of punishment, but because they loved him. They would obey him not because the law compelled them unwillingly to do so, but because the desire to obey him was written on their hearts.

(vi) It will be a covenant which will really effect forgiveness. See how that forgiveness is to come. God said that he would be gracious to their iniquities and could forget their sins. Now it is all of God. The new relationship is based entirely on his love. Under the old covenant a man could keep this relationship to God only by obeying the law; that is, by his own efforts. Now everything is dependent not on man's efforts, but solely on the grace of God. The new covenant puts men into relationship with a God who is still a God of justice but whose justice has been swallowed up in his love. The most tremendous thing about the new covenant is that it makes man's relationship to God no longer dependent on man's obedience but entirely dependent on God's love.

One thing remains to say. In Jeremiah's words about the new covenant there is no mention of sacrifice. It would seem that Jeremiah believed that in the new age sacrifice would be abolished as irrelevant; but the writer to the Hebrews cannot think except in terms of the sacrificial system and very shortly he will go on to speak of Jesus as himself the perfect sacrifice, whose death alone made the new covenant possible for men.

-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)

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Bibliographical Information
Barclay, William. "Commentary on Hebrews 8". "William Barclay's Daily Study Bible". 1956-1959.