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Hebrews 8

Layman's Bible CommentaryLayman's Bible Commentary

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Verses 1-6


Hebrews 8:1 to Hebrews 10:18

Summary Statement (8:1-6)

The Greek word translated "the point" may mean either "principal point," "summary," or even "crown"; and similarly the phrase translated "in what we are saying" may be taken to mean generally the argument of the letter as a whole, or rather to refer to what has previously been said, or even to what is about to be said. Inasmuch as in these six verses the author introduces a reference successively to the sacrifice, tabernacle, and covenant as they relate to the high-priestly work of the Son of God — matters not previously mentioned at all, or if so only in casual fashion, and about to be developed in the next two and a half chapters — we shall assume that the intention here is to give a summary statement of the argument about to be presented.

In general the teaching of the passage is clear enough. Returning to Psalms 110:1 (see 1:13), the author begins with an inclusive statement intended to define the twofold function of the Son of God as High Priest and Messianic King "seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven" (vs. 1). It is not without significance that, whereas the theme of our Lord’s high priesthood is never lost sight of in chapters 5 through 11, his Messianic office is referred to only at the beginning of the argument (Hebrews 1:3; Hebrews 1:13), at the beginning and end of the discussion regarding his highpriestly work (Hebrews 8:1; Hebrews 10:12-13), and at 12:2, where the purpose is to exhort the readers to endurance or steadfastness. Jesus Christ is able to call into action the whole divine power to save. For this is what it means to be "seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven."

The summary statement involves a triple contrast between (1) the "true tent" or tabernacle (vs. 2) which this High Priest serves, as over against the "copy and shadow of the heavenly sanctuary" served by the Levitical high priesthood (vs. 5); (2) the "gifts and sacrifices" offered under the two orders (vs. 3); and (3) the "covenant" which is declared to be better than the first covenant of the Old Testament period (vs. 6).

The first of these three contrasts concerns the nature of the tabernacle employed in the worship of the old and new faiths. Quoting from the Greek translation of Exodus 25:40, the author points out that the original tabernacle employed by Moses in the wilderness had been made "according to the pattern which was shown . . . [him] on the mountain" (vs. 5) , and that in consequence it was merely "a copy and shadow of the heavenly sanctuary." By contrast, therefore, our author sees the heavenly tabernacle served by our Lord as the "true" one, or, in other words, the original or "pattern" of that served by Moses.

The second contrast which Hebrews makes between the old and the new systems of worship concerns the matter of "gifts and sacrifices" (vs. 3). This theme the author will develop at length in chapter 9. For the moment he abandons it with the mere suggestion that "it is necessary" that Jesus Christ as High Priest also "have something to offer." And then he curiously inserts at this point (vs. 4) a statement which appears to be out of place insofar as his immediate argument is concerned. Perhaps we should see here a statement intentionally directed against the teaching of the Qumran sect. For so far as our evidence goes, they alone among contemporary Jews believed in a messiah-high priest, or a messiah proceeding from among the sons of Aaron (see Introduction). In Hebrews the High Priest is also Messiah (that is, "one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven" vs. 1), but with the differences that he is not a descendant of Aaron and is Son of God.

The third contrast between the old and new ministries is that pertaining to the nature of the two Covenants involved (vs. 6). And for the moment our author contents himself with the statement that the New Covenant "is enacted on better promises" than the Old. In passing, it should be observed that reference is made here to only one "old" Covenant. This is in accord with the Jewish point of view and that of the Hebrew prophets. For according to that old Hebrew- Jewish view there was but one Covenant which God made with his people, beginning with Abraham. The one Covenant was repeated many times — to Isaac, to Jacob, to Israel at the Exodus, and on numerous other occasions. But the Covenant was one, whatever the immediate promises involved might be.

What the "better promises" are which attach to the New Covenant are not here specified. And in fact this theme is nowhere fully developed in the letter. We are left merely with such a passage as 10:23 and the preceding verses 19-22 from which to infer that the promises intended have reference to our confident entering of "the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus." Indeed, in the final analysis there is no difference between the promises attaching to Old and New Covenants. This the author himself makes clear at 11:39-40. The promises attaching to the New Covenant can only be better, therefore, in the sense that Jesus Christ as High Priest actually fulfills in his person and work all the promises which God ever gives to his people throughout history.

Verses 7-13

Ineffectiveness of the Old Covenant (8:7—9:10)

The Old Covenant (8:7-13)

The author’s thesis at this point is clearly expressed in verses 7 and 13 — the "first covenant" was not "faultless" and therefore became "obsolete." Being essentially inferior and outworn, the time had come for the Old Covenant to "vanish away." This, of course, gave room for the coming of "a new covenant," the one under which the great High Priest Jesus Christ functions.

In proof of the inferior and "obsolete" nature of the first Covenant the author turns to the prophetic Scriptures. Jeremiah (Jeremiah 31:31-34) had foreseen the day when the Lord who had made a first Covenant with Israel would make another of quite different nature (see also Ezekiel 36:24-32). The passage from Jeremiah adequately meets the needs of our author, inasmuch as the New Covenant which it prophesies is to be "not like the covenant that I made with their fathers" (vs. 9). That one had been given to the people as a whole and was written upon tables of stone. This one by contrast was to be characterized by laws written upon the "minds" and "hearts" of men (vs. 10). Nor was the Covenant made with the people as an undivided unit; rather, it was made in a manner to take account of individual needs and requirements, so that it should not be necessary for one to teach another the knowledge of the Lord, "for all shall know me, from the least of them to the greatest" (vs. 11).

Though the teaching of the passage is clear, several points may advisedly find comment. First, the nature of a "covenant" in the biblical sense should be noted. The very words employed in the scriptural languages denote something quite different from the Latin, from which our English word is derived. In Latin and English the word "covenant" means a mutual agreement made by two equal parties who meet together to settle a dispute between them. The Hebrew and Greek words, on the contrary, might better be translated "a divine disposal" or "a sovereign proposal." In Scripture a covenant in which God and man are concerned refers to a plan which God has conceived and by which man is required to live his life. Man is free merely to accept or reject God’s Covenant; he cannot in any particular alter it or state conditions for its functioning. Second, it is clear to both Jeremiah and the author of Hebrews that only two Covenants are to be recognized in Scripture, both made by God with the people of his choice. If the Old Covenant is worthless and "obsolete," it is God who recognizes that this is the case and who makes his plans for the establishment of a New Covenant. Third, it is not a matter of concern to the author of Hebrews that the passage from Jeremiah states that the "new covenant" is to be made "with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah" (vs. 8). For the author, as for the Early Church generally (see Romans 9:6; Galatians 6:16; 1 Peter 1:1-2; Revelation 7:4), the Christian community itself is that "Israel" (or "Judah") to which the prophet refers. In this respect as in others, we see that there is similarity and yet dissimilarity between the teaching of Hebrews and that of the Qumran sect. For that sect also held that it was the people of the "new covenant." It is as though the author of Hebrews were declaring that the Christian Church and not the Qumran community constitutes the true people of God with whom God has made a New Covenant through Jesus Christ. Finally, it is declared that, with this New Covenant, God will be "merciful toward their iniquities" and he "will remember their sins no more" (vs. 12). In other words, the aim of true religion will now be accomplished — the achievement of real fellowship between God and man, fellowship no longer disrupted by the remembrance of sin, that stumbling block which in the beginning disrupted the fellowship (Genesis 3:22-24; Hebrews 3:16-19).

Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on Hebrews 8". "Layman's Bible Commentary".