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Bible Commentaries

Pett's Commentary on the Bible

Hebrews 8


Chapter 8. Jesus Our Great High Priest And The New Covenant.

This chapter continues where the previous chapter left off. The writer had amply demonstrated that Jesus Christ was proclaimed to be a priest, and a High Priest, and that not of the Levitical order, but ‘after the order (likeness) of Melchizedek’. This, he argued, therefore meant that there would be a change of law and a new and better covenant. It was necessarily so because the old Law and the old covenant were ministered by the levitical priesthood and had failed. And besides, having already described precisely the type of High Priest Jesus is (Hebrews 7:26-28), it should be obvious to all that the old priesthood was finished. For the new sacrifice of Himself that Jesus has offered could not be offered under the old priesthood. There is thus no point in seeking back to them. And if they look to the new and better sacrifice it requires a new and better priesthood. He now continues with this theme.

In the course of the chapter he declares,

1) That the priesthood of the Son (Hebrews 7:28) is heavenly, to do with what is real, and permanent, while that of the levitical economy was earthly, was to do with ‘copies’, and was destined by its own nature to be temporary (Hebrews 8:1-5).

2) That it was fit and proper that He be removed to heaven to perform the functions of His office, since if He had remained on earth, He could not have officiated as priest, as that privilege was by the law of Moses entrusted to others pertaining to another tribe (Hebrews 8:4-5). Thus should they see that He has to operate in Heaven.

3) That the Son had obtained a more exalted ministry than the levitical priests, because He was the Mediator of a better covenant, a new covenant which related to the heart rather than to external observances (Hebrews 8:6-13), and of a better sacrifice which could not have been mediated by earthly priests.

And yet in all this he gives due honour to the old, for he is not seeking to denigrate it but to put it in its proper place, as an honourable priesthood that had fulfilled an important function.

We should perhaps note what is apparent from all this. Firstly that Jesus was made High Priest while on earth, but as a minister of the heavenly Tabernacle, connecting earth with Heaven. For it was as High Priest that He offered Himself as a sacrifice (Hebrews 7:27) on an ‘altar’ (through the cross - Hebrews 13:10) appointed by God outside Jerusalem. This fact that it was outside Jerusalem is later emphasised (Hebrews 13:12). The earthly ‘holy city’ is seen as ‘the camp’, that is the equivalent of the old camp of Israel in the wilderness, under the jurisdiction of the levitical priesthood, outside which must be put all that was unclean, and outside which was burned as belonging to God all that was excessively holy. And so Jesus, Who was condemned as unclean, but was in fact truly holy, was thrust out of the camp, bearing the reproach that was thrust on Him. But that He was there ‘sacrificed’ indicates, as the whole context requires, a priesthood on earth but outside the camp, just as Melchizedek came out of Jerusalem to perform his functions with Abraham.

And secondly that from there He passed through the heavens so as to present the blood of the sacrifice before God (Hebrews 4:14; Hebrews 9:11-12).

It is a salutary thought that the holy city thrust Him out to die thus making the ground outside the holy city the most holy ground on earth, while the city itself, no longer holy, was thus opened to the Roman destruction. For those who believed in Jesus, God’s High Priest, there could be no return to Jerusalem’s priesthood, nor indeed to Jerusalem, a lesson hardly learned yet by Christians. (How extraordinary that some would seek for the restoring of the levitical priesthood and the failing sacrifices, pretending that the latter are the same as in the Old Testament and yet having to admit that they are not the same. In the light of Hebrews it is inconceivable. All these were shadows pointing forward to the greater Reality and had now ceased because the Reality had come).

For the true sanctuary was now in Heaven, and with the veil removed. And once His blood had been shed on earth, where the sins that made it necessary had been committed, it was presented once-for-all before the throne. The result was that, having made the one sacrifice for sin for ever, He sat down at God’s right hand in Heaven to continue His ministry of administering the new covenant and to intercede for His own. From then on no inner court was necessary. No altar was required. No further sacrifices needed to be offered. All who now came, came through Him, and entered the sanctuary direct. Jerusalem was no longer required. Thus they should rather look to the heavenly Jerusalem (Galatians 4:26 and Revelation constantly).

The next three chapters will therefore concentrate on this new ministry of our heavenly High Priest. The whole passage from 8-10 could be headed, The Whole Levitical System With All That It Involved Has Been Replaced By The Something Far Better To Which It Pointed.

Verse 2

‘A minister of the sanctuary, and of the true tabernacle, which the Lord pitched, not man.’

And in this new position He is a minister (leitourgos - official state appointee but used of priestly service in LXX, therefore God’s official appointee) of the heavenly sanctuary, the true tabernacle where the perfect work necessary for our continuing salvation can be accomplished. This is the true tabernacle of which the earthly was but a copy. It is the heavenly tabernacle, pitched by God and not man, without fault, permanent and secure and necessarily perfect. It is the tabernacle which will never need again to be removed. It is in Heaven itself indicating the place of God’s presence on His throne. There is therefore not only a new and superior High Priest, but He ministers in a superior sanctuary and a superior tabernacle. This High Priest does not involve Himself with copies and shadows. He ministers within the real thing, in Heaven itself.

‘The sanctuary’ was the place where God could be met with, thus here it is the place where God is present in His glory (Hebrews 9:24; Hebrews 10:19; Psalms 102:19).

‘The true (as contrasted with the copy) tabernacle which the Lord pitched.’ Some have seen this as indicating Christ’s body through His incarnation (compare John 2:21). That was also made without hands (see Hebrews 9:11; compare Mark 14:58), and the heavenly veil is spoken of as Christ’s flesh (Hebrews 10:19-20). But that interferes with the picture here, for Christ is seen as the minister of the tabernacle. The picture seems more to indicate the perfect divine provision for approach to God in Heaven, ‘the greater and more perfect tabernacle not made with hands, that is, not of this creation’ (Hebrews 9:11 compare Acts 7:48), where genuine reconciliation and atonement could be made. It would then be seen as explaining the idea of the true sanctuary and as including the aspect of intercession. As such it is His holy ‘dwellingplace’ (the literal meaning of ‘tabernacle’ in the Old Testament) which includes the sanctuary. This was what the tabernacle had indicated on earth, God’s dwellingplace in His extreme holiness, but then with His approachability limited by the veil. Now ‘the true tabernacle’ is God’s dwellingplace in Heaven, and the veil is removed. The holy God can be approached directly, through Jesus.

If ‘the Lord’ here is seen as signifying Jesus, as it appears to do in Hebrews outside quotations (Hebrews 2:3; Hebrews 7:14), that would seem to count against the tabernacle as here representing His body.

It should be noted that here reference is made to the tabernacle not the temple. The tabernacle was the ‘perfect’ representation of what it symbolised, being itself temporary and passing, awaiting the better tabernacle, of which it was a copy, pointing upward to the heavenly. It made no claim to permanence. It was suitable for those whose presence on earth was temporary, but who were looking for something better.

The temple on the other hand was of man's devising (2 Samuel 7:5-7). Man wanted God and himself to be firmly lodged permanently on earth. It is true that Solomon did recognise that God was in Heaven and that even the Heaven of heavens could not contain Him (1 Kings 8:27). But he wanted his temple to be a gateway to Heaven (1 Kings 8:29, etc.), while being a permanent fixture on earth. Now, says the writer, all this is done away. We must desert the earthly for the heavenly. We must away with the temple and seek to God’s tabernacle in Heaven. That was what Ezekiel’s heavenly temple descending to earth had symbolised, a temple not made with hands and not of this creation to which Israel should look. Now its message was being fulfilled.

On the other hand the explanation may be even simpler. If the writer had little connection with the temple, but a deep knowledge of the Law of Moses, this would well explain why he thought in terms of the latter, seeing it as the true original. For as we have seen earlier much of his teaching connects directly with the Pentateuch (e.g. Hebrews 3:7-19), and it was the Law there that would be quoted against him. He appears little interested in the Temple. Some have suggested that this might be because he wrote some time after the temple had been destroyed. But in view of the strong arguments for his case which he could have drawn from that destruction, this does not seem likely.

Verse 3

‘For every high priest is appointed to offer both gifts and sacrifices, wherefore it is necessary that this high priest also has somewhat to offer.’

And just as every High Priest on earth is appointed to offer both gifts and sacrifices, so is it right that this heavenly High Priest has something to offer. What it is that He has to offer is not immediately stated, but that is what the writer intends to go on and show us. We will soon learn that it is the mediation of a better covenant (Hebrews 8:6; Hebrews 9:15), the application of His own blood from the offering of Himself (Hebrews 9:12; Hebrews 9:14), and His perfect intercessory service in both (Hebrews 10:5-18). He is there in Heaven, among other things, as the slain Lamb (Revelation 5:6), and the perfect Passover (1 Corinthians 5:7), as well as being there as our intercessor. What He has to offer is Himself as Lamb of God and Saviour of the World, the sacrifice offered once for all but ever visible in Heaven, the salvation continual but here seen as complete.

The Heavenly Ministry Is Now Contrasted With the Jew’s Earthly Ministry (Hebrews 8:4-5).

But while all this has been going on the earthly ministry of the levitical priests has continued. The Temple still stands. The priests still carry out their activities. What then of them? What is the position of their ministry? In answer he will now make the point that while their ministry has been valid in the past it is pointless going back to them, because all that they minister in are copies and shadows, once fully valid, but now empty since the Great Reality has come. A shadow is something that reflects something real, but is not in itself real. It is a vague outline. It is insubstantial.

Indeed he especially stresses that Moses made everything as copies of a pattern shown to him in the Mount. Here then was not the reality. It was a copy of the reality, produced by Moses and Israel under God. He wants his readers to recognise that with them he does recognise the past validity of that ministry but that he sees it as a validity that has been superseded because its copies and shadows have been fulfilled.

Verse 4

‘Now if he were on earth, he would not be a priest at all, seeing that there are those who offer the gifts according to the law,’

The writer now puts the whole matter in context. He has portrayed Jesus as a heavenly High Priest. However, he is now ready to concede that were Jesus on earth He could not act as such a priest, as a priest who ‘offered gifts according to the Law’, for he was not of the right descent. That was a matter of earthly history. Let there be no doubt about it, he is saying, if you want to be governed by the old Law and the old covenant, and to miss out on the Great Reality that has come, you must stick with the levitical priesthood. If you want an earthly priesthood, it must be the levitical priesthood.

But that is what his argument has been about. For as he has previously pointed out, and will point out again, that ignores firstly, the fact that the Law has been superseded (Hebrews 7:12) and a new covenant has come into being (Hebrews 8:6-13), and secondly, that there is a new High Priesthood in Heaven of an even more ancient likeness. That being so, if they want to continue as participators in the new covenant they must ditch the levitical priesthood. The choice is theirs. They have come to the crunch.

Note on The First Century Jewish-Christian Dilemma.

This verse brings us face to face with the dilemma faced by Jews and God-fearers on coming to Christ in the first century, and which the writer is dealing with in this letter. On the one hand they were faced with the admittedly God-revealed religion based on the God-revealed revelation in the Scriptures, in which they had been brought up, or to which they had turned from idolatry, and which was seen as the ancient way to approach God, and on the other was the challenge of the One Who was revealed as the expected Jewish Messiah, of Whose teaching it was claimed that it too was in accordance with those same Scriptures, and Whose death and resurrection had changed history, and was calling them to see that that old way was now simply of the past. And the question in respect of both was, how then should men and women now approach God and what must they believe?

For the two ways certainly seemed contrary to each other. The one called to obedience to the teaching of the priests, those men who were in the line of a priesthood that had survived for over a thousand years, and it called to response to them through the ordinances of the Jerusalem temple; the other called to obedience to Jesus Christ and an acceptance that much of the old Law was superseded, and that the temple ordinances no longer mattered because replaced by His activity as High Priest in the true Tabernacle in Heaven. It was this latter view that was being stressed and argued for by continual quotation from Scripture by this present writer.

But there was admittedly much to be said for the old priesthood. They ministered in an awe-inspiring and splendid, visible temple whose roots went back to the Tabernacle in the wilderness; they offered the same gifts and sacrifices as had been taught by Moses and had been offered over generations long past; and they ministered in the Holy Place itself, a place of ancient tradition which men entered in awe and in which was temple furniture made venerable by age, and which was before the veil that hid that most awesome of places, the Holy of Holies itself. Furthermore, hidden behind that thick veil was the very Holy of Holies which was the throneroom of God, and in which they believed that something of God dwelt, a presence often manifested, although mainly unperceived, in the shining light that they called the Shekinah.

And what was even more these men had a long established, God-revealed system by which they could daily approach the God Whose throne it was, even if the approach was somewhat restricted. And they could also once a year, although only for a short time, actually dare to pierce the veil in the person of their High Priest, so as to enter the Holy of Holies in order to obtain atonement for the people. And they had a Law given by Moses. What then did ‘the new’ offer compared with this? Only an earth shattering event could possibly replace it.

His answer up to now has been clear. There has been such an earth shattering event. It has pointed to the coming of Jesus Christ, the very Son of God, the outshining of God’s glory. It is He to Whom the Scriptures cited have pointed. It is He Who is the One through Whom God has finally spoken, and Who is the perfect revelation of what God is, and to Whom the Scriptures bore witness. (Hebrews 1:1-3). It is He Who is the One Who has suffered on their behalf that He might make purification for sin through the sacrifice of Himself (Hebrews 1:3; Hebrews 2:17; Hebrews 7:27) and Who, having died and risen again, has become the Initiator and Trek Leader of their salvation (Hebrews 2:10). It is He Who is the One Who has come offering the true Rest (Hebrews 4:1-11). But above all it is He Who is the One Who has come as the High Priest of a greater and more ancient priesthood than that of Levi, and Who, having offered Himself up as the perfect sacrifice, has now passed into Heaven on their behalf, there to carry out His ministry in the true and better Sanctuary.

So the stark choice lay before them, the levitical priesthood with its ancient ceremonies, or Christ, this wondrous and eternal High Priest of an even more ancient priesthood, Who has fulfilled them all in Himself.

End of note.

So, as the writer has already demonstrated, Jesus’ unacceptability as an earthly priest because of His earthly descent is not to the point. It has in fact rather stressed that He represents a greater priesthood, one even more ancient, one even greater, and one which enables Him to minister in Heaven in a far more glorious sanctuary, and in a far more glorious High Priesthood of a different order than that of Levi, having, as such, taken His seat at God’s right hand (Psalms 110:1 with 4).

An earthly limitation might be there, he points out, but it is not really relevant. It simply demonstrates that He does not deal in copies and shadows. It is simply one that is on Him because the ancient Law stipulated that any priest who served the earthly sanctuary and ministered according to the Law, a sanctuary dealing with copies and shadows, must be of proved Aaronic descent. It is this ministry in the earthly sanctuary, where men sought to observe the old law and the old covenant, that is in the hands only of the Levites and the levitical priests. They and the old covenant and the old Law go together. But He has no bent for this. He does not desire to minister in the earthly temple. He does not want to minister a covenant of copies and shadows. He knows that such ministry is no longer valid.

So the contrast is clear. While these priests do minister on earth on behalf of the old Law and the old covenant, it is because they are dealing in copies and shadows. It is the perfect Priest, Whose ministry would not be acceptable on earth (in a place of copies and shadows), Who now ministers in the great reality of Heaven with regard to the new covenant. His readers must therefore choose between the earthly ministry with its copies and shadows, and His heavenly ministry with its dealings with the great realities themselves, between the old and the new.

Nevertheless in recognising this we must not overlook the fact that, in this period immediately after the resurrection, the Temple and its priests did still temporarily serve for such godly Jews and God-fearers as had not yet been faced up with the Gospel, but only until the time came when they did hear that Gospel and decide on their response. It was a transitory period. And this is shown by the fact that the temple was also used by some Jewish Christian worshippers, who were finding it difficult to tear themselves away from what they had esteemed all their lives, while even Paul himself (unwisely in the event) agreed to connect with its activities (Acts 21:26). The writer does not deny any of this. But he does deny that it is finally relevant for those who have come into the full light of Christ. Nor would it in fact serve as it was for long, for God would shortly arrange for its demise, because it had served its time, and because its priesthood had failed. Then, in looking elsewhere, it might be that some would find Christ.

(While not absolutely certain, for it is difficult to argue from silence, it would appear almost certain from all this that the ministry in the temple was still continuing at the time of writing, confirming that the letter was written before 70 AD. If the ministry had been forcibly closed down he could hardly not have mentioned the fact here, nor would all this have been such a powerful argument against the possible desertion of some of his readers to Judaism)

Verse 5

‘Who serve that which is a copy and shadow of the heavenly things, even as Moses is warned of God when he is about to make the tabernacle: for, “See,” he says, “that you make all things according to the pattern that was shown you in the mount”.’

For, the writer continues to stress, he himself does acknowledge that this earthly priestly ministry had been genuine and he wants it known that he holds it in great respect. It had indeed been a genuine copy and shadow of heavenly things as established by Moses who, in establishing it, carefully followed God’s instructions, as God Himself commanded. That is not in question. What is in question is whether that validity continues now that the Messiah has come.

A copy is something that gives us some idea of the original without being the real thing. A shadow is something insubstantial that portrays the general shape of an original without fully revealing the reality. The idea behind both is that in the earthly we have something conveyed to us about the heavenly but that it does not give us the full picture. We should not press it more than that. We should certainly not seek to imagine physical ideas about the heavenly from the earthly representation. We can have no idea how the physical and the spiritual relate.

So he does not deride their ministry. He even stresses its God-given character and honours it for what it once was. But nevertheless he wants it to be recognised that it is passing away for precisely that reason, that it dealt in copies and shadows. Its ministry was actually carried out utilising God-approved copies and shadows of heavenly things, but only copies and shadows.

They must now therefore be recognised for what they are, imperfect representations, of what is in the true tabernacle which is now itself in active use. That being so we have the true represented to us and the copies and shadows are no longer relevant. And that is the point. Jesus is now fulfilling His ministry in the true tabernacle so that the temporary copies and shadows ordained by God should now be allowed to pass away.

He has thus established, firstly that the temple worship was not in itself false, and had indeed previously been valid, and secondly that it was now passing away. For the reason that it was no longer valid, was not because of its falsity, but because the greater Reality had now come from God to replace it.

He will accept that before His coming the tabernacle and the temple had had some significance for many generations past, for, as God had carefully warned Moses, those involved were to make everything exactly like the pattern that he was shown in the mount, for the very reason that it was to be an illustration of heavenly realities. And the temple had also been built with that in mind. Thus until the coming of Jesus they had had a prototype of Heaven, in the only way possible to men, and had known that they could approach Heaven there.

But now his readers had to recognise that its day had past and that in the heavenly tabernacle, of which the earthly was only a copy, and seated on the very throne itself, was He Who is the living bread (John 6:35 - in contrast with the bread of the Presence), He Who is the light of the world (John 8:12 - in contrast with the golden lampstand), and He is accompanied there by those who offer the incense of the praise and prayers of God’s people and who worship before the very throne of God (Revelation 5:8 - which contrasts with the golden altar of incense), and by the surrounding living creatures (Revelation 4:6 - in contrast with the lifeless models). The shewbread, and the golden lampstand, and the altar of incense, and the golden ark of the covenant of Yahweh, and the forms of the cherubim on the mercy seat, are all but copies and shadows of these, and now surplus to requirements. That is why, now that the heavenly High Priest is established, they are to be phased out.

This Ministry of the Son Is Accompanied by a New Covenant, a Better Covenant (Hebrews 8:6-13).

And this new ministry was not only more glorious, it was accompanied by a better covenant (Hebrews 7:22). It was a better covenant because it was unconditional. It was God’s promise of what He was going to do, which did not depend on man’s response. Rather it was a guarantee to bring that response about through His own powerful working in the hearts of men and women. Thus it could not fail or cease.

Verse 6

‘But now has he obtained a ministry the more excellent, by so much as he is also the mediator of a better covenant, which has been enacted on (or ‘in reference to’) better promises.’

For He has now obtained a more excellent ministry, a heavenly ministry based on the realities of Heaven, a ministry which involves being the mediator of a better covenant, which is established with reference to better promises. And that is a covenant which does not work by fleshly commands, but by the powerful working of God’s Spirit in the heart. A heavenly covenant rather than an earthly covenant.

‘Mediator of a better covenant.’ He is the Mediator, the One Who acts between the Maker of the covenant and its recipients. And the covenant He mediates is far better than the old, which was mediated at a distance, and written on stone. For this one He mediates personally and continually, and it is written on the heart. We have already learned of Christ’s superiority to Moses (Hebrews 3:1-6). Moses was the mediator of the Law, received through angels (Galatians 3:19), but here the Mediator has personal and continual contact both with its Maker and its recipients, and is of like nature with both, and is thus the perfect Mediator. And the covenant is written on their hearts (Hebrews 8:10; compare 2 Corinthians 3:6-11) and is based on better promises.

‘Which has been enacted on better promises.’ The old covenant was always conditional, even though based on the unconditional covenant declared from Sinai (Exodus 20:1-17). But the promises contained in this new covenant have been enacted by God and are direct, personal and certain. They are unconditional. Its requirements will all be written in the heart and thus be certain of fulfilment. It contains the perfect Law of freedom (James 1:25). Thus its promises are ‘better’, superior to the old.

One main promise under the old covenant was that His people would enter into His rest, into the land of Canaan, flowing with milk and honey, and there they would find rest. But while they regularly received temporary rest for a while, as the book of Judges tells us, it always came to an end because of their disobedience. Thus, just like their fathers in the wilderness, they never fully received that rest, and it was due to disobedience. Even David only gave them partial rest. His reign was a long catalogue of war. And in spite of his apparent success, the failure of Solomon finally divided the kingdom and began the period of unrest that led to the Exile. But the new covenant is different. It offers true rest to God’s people wherever they are, a permanent rest, everlasting rest, for it is a rest within the heart, not one arising from outward circumstances. And it is based on this better covenant and these better promises (see again Hebrews 3:7 to Hebrews 4:13)

Verse 7

‘For if that first covenant had been faultless, then would no place have been sought for a second.’

And this replacement of the first covenant was clearly as necessary as was the changing of the priesthood (Hebrews 7:11), as is seen by the fact that Jeremiah in Scripture had declared the making of a new covenant (Jeremiah 31:31-34). For if such a new covenant was Scripturally required it openly demonstrated that the old covenant was lacking. Had it not been so, no new covenant would have been required. Thus the writer now quotes the new covenant in detail, mainly but not fully as per LXX. He may well have been paraphrasing LXX from memory. It also closely follows the Hebrew text.

Verses 8-9

‘For finding fault with them, he says, “Behold, the days come,” says the Lord, “That I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to lead them forth out of the land of Egypt. For they continued not in my covenant, And I regarded them not,” says the Lord.’

‘For finding fault with them.’ That is with the people of the old covenant. They had been welcomed within His covenant but they had failed grievously. Far from obeying Him they had thrust aside His requirements and refused to listen to Him, and this in spite of the fact that He had ‘taken them by the hand’ so as to watch over them. Thus ‘finding fault’ was putting it mildly. He was disgusted with them and ashamed. Things had become such that He no longer regarded them.

‘Behold, the days come.’ But one day, Jeremiah had said, days would come when He would step in with a new covenant for the days ahead. One day He would act to implement this new covenant, and it would be unconditionally. And now at last ‘the coming days’ were here. These introductory words as used by the prophets looked ahead to the time when God would act in saving power, and now in Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit He has so acted.

‘That I will make a new covenant.’ The old covenant had been on the basis of His deliverance of them from Egypt (Exodus 20:1-2). But it had failed because of the people’s obstinacy and disobedience. Thus they had not continued in the covenant. And that was why when they cried to Him in trouble He had not regarded them.

But now He would make with them a new covenant of a different type, not one where He stated His requirements and looked for them to obey, but one where He wrote His words in their hearts so that they would obey as a consequence of His activity, and in response to His Spirit. It would be a covenant divinely wrought in their hearts. He would work in them to will and to do of His good pleasure (Philippians 2:13). It would bring about the rise of the new Kingly Rule of God over all the people of God (the house of Israel and the house of Judah), and all God’s people would be united as one.

‘With the house of Israel and with the house of Judah.’ Compare Ezekiel 37:19-20; Ezekiel 37:22 where this idea is connected with the everlasting Kingdom (no thought of a Millennium there). It is the everlasting Kingdom, under the everlasting Prince (Ezekiel 37:24-25), in accordance with the everlasting covenant (Ezekiel 37:26), validated by the tabernacle (Ezekiel 37:27), which is an everlasting sanctuary (Ezekiel 37:28).

With regard to this we should note that the early church saw themselves, not as replacing Israel, or as being a kind of ‘spiritual Israel’, but as being the true Israel. They did not see themselves as taking the place of Israel but as being Israel itself. They entered Israel by submission to the God of Israel, as many had before them (Exodus 12:38; Exodus 12:48). They had been alienated, shut off, from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenant of promise (Ephesians 2:12). But now they had been made one with the true Israel, ‘made nigh in the blood of Christ’ (Ephesians 2:14). They were no longer strangers and sojourners, they were fellow-citizens with God’s holy people and of the household of God (see Ephesians 2:13-22; Galatians 3:29; Galatians 6:16).

Thus they could now be called ‘sojourners of the Dispersion’ (1 Peter 1:1), a technical description of the scattered people of God. Note in this regard that Peter never refers to Gentiles except as unbelievers. To him Gentiles are ‘the opposition’. And they are thus seen as in contrast with those he is writing to, that is, with believing Jews and Gentiles united as one in Christ.

They can also be called ‘the twelve tribes of the Dispersion’ (James 1:1). Note again in this regard that James nowhere refers to Gentile Christians even though he is dealing with behaviour towards others, thus he clearly sees them as included in this introduction. It is impossible to believe that James was so insulated against Gentile Christians that, if he was writing to believing Jews, he would not refer to how his believing fellow-countrymen should behave towards their fellow-believers in a letter with such an emphasis on behaviour, when it would have been a crucial question for believing Jews living in a Gentile world. The only acceptable explanation is that he saw both believing Jews and Gentiles as included in his description of those he was writing to. John also would later describe the whole church in terms of the twelve tribes of Israel (Revelation 7:3-8).

So the church saw themselves as inheritors of the promises, as true sons of Abraham (Galatians 3:29). As Paul had told them, ex-Gentile believers had been grafted in to the olive tree, and the unbelieving in Israel had been cut off (Romans 11:15-24).

This fact is exceedingly important in interpreting the Old Testament. We do not ‘spiritualise’ the promises to Israel, we simply recognise that they apply to the new Israel as it now literally continued in the church. It is true that the detail is not always literally carried out, for the prophets had to speak in illustrations and parables, in copies and shadows, about what they did not fully understand, just as Moses had had to before them. They spoke in earthly terms of heavenly realities, exactly as God represented it to them and as He had represented it to Moses in the Mount. They revealed ideas which were a copy and shadow of the true. The New Testament reveals this quite clearly here and elsewhere, and points to the realities indicated by these copies and shadows. The old tabernacle is pointing to the new tabernacle in Heaven (Hebrews 8:2). The old Temple is pointing to the new Temple, the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 3:9-16; Ephesians 2:20-22 compare Revelation 3:12), and again to the heavenly Temple described constantly in Revelation. The old Jerusalem is pointing to, and is replaced by, the new, real, heavenly Jerusalem (Hebrews 12:12; Galatians 4:25-26), the real as opposed to the shadow. The old idea of the ‘everlasting kingdom’ is subsumed into the ‘Kingly Rule of God’. The old has gone, the new has come. The importance of earthly Jerusalem is no more. It is the Jerusalem above which will see fulfilled all God’s promises concerning Jerusalem that have not yet been fulfilled. To cling to the old Israel, and the old Jerusalem, and the old Temple, and the old sacrifices, is to cling to a past that is no more.

Thus they would see these promises as completely fulfilled in themselves. The writer may well have seen the two parts described (Israel and Judah) as referring to believing Jews (for ‘Jews’ were yehuthi, those of Judah) and believing Gentiles (the new Israel, the Israel of God - Galatians 6:16) as being united in one (Ephesians 2:12-22), but however that may be he is emphasising that none of all the people of God were excluded. (That this description does not refer to some later application of the covenant yet to come is brought out by the fact that there is even now no separation between Israel and Judah among the Jews, and never genuinely can be again).

This is the new covenant which was in Jesus’ mind at the Last Supper when He spoke of the cup as ‘the new covenant in my blood’ (1 Corinthians 11:25; Luke 22:20) which was poured out for us. For the new covenant was sealed by the shedding of His blood which made it possible. And it embraced both Jews and Gentiles in the Israel of God.

‘New (kainos).’ New and of a different kind.

‘Says the Lord.’ This is repeated three times in the passage stressing the complete nature of the covenant. It also stresses God’s complete sovereign status with regard to the covenant. While the people will have a responsive part in it, it will be God initiated, and God fulfilled. It is of His will, and not theirs.

Verses 10-12

“For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” says the Lord, “I will put my laws into their mind, and on their heart also will I write them, and I will be to them a God, and they shall be to me a people. And they shall not teach every man his fellow-citizen, and every man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for all will know me, from the least to the greatest of them. For I will be merciful to their iniquities, And their sins will I remember no more.”

God’s new covenant is now quoted. It is made ‘with the house of Israel’, the people of God now combined in one, with all differences broken down and incorporating all who are His (note how Israel and Judah are here now seen as one under the name of Israel). Any idea that there can be a house of Israel separate from the people of God is clearly false. God’s love was set on all Abraham’s seed, and Abraham’s seed are such as have been incorporated into Israel by faith, whether Jew or Gentile (Galatians 3:0).

The basic premises of this new covenant are;

1) “I will put my laws into their mind, and on their heart also will I write them.” Instead of writing His laws on tables of stone as He did in the old covenant, God will write His laws in men’s minds and hearts by His Spirit (compare2 Corinthians 3:2-11; 2 Corinthians 3:2-11) unconditionally. Thus they will never forget them and will obey them from an inner impulsion. For the principle of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus will make them free from the law of sin and death -- that the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in those who walk, not after the flesh, but after the Spirit (Romans 8:2-3).

The idea behind this verse includes that of the new creation in Christ Jesus (2 Corinthians 5:17); of those who have been born of the Spirit and made full-grown sons of God (John 3:5-6; John 1:12-13; Galatians 4:4-6), having been made partakers of the divine nature, escaping the corruption of the world and of desires (2 Peter 1:4). It speaks of a new God-wrought beginning, a miracle of transformation.

All who are truly His can recognise in these words something of their own experience when on trusting in Him life began anew. They began to love His word, their perspectives on life changed, their desire was now to please Him, they delighted to do His will.

That this is not, however, uniquely limited to the new age is clear from Psalms 37:30-31, where it says, "The mouth of the righteous speaks wisdom, and his tongue talks of right judgment. The law of His God is in his heart." So also in Psalms 19:7-8 where we read, "The law of the Lord is perfect converting the soul... the statutes of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart." God’s word has ever worked so in those who were His. It is rather the extent of His working that is in mind, the establishing of a whole people of God rather than a remnant.

2) “I will be to them a God, and they shall be to me a people.” As a consequence of the Spirit’s work within them God will restore them so that they will recognise Him for what He is. They will once more acknowledge His sovereignty over them. He will be their God. And the result will be that in response to their faith and hope He will once more act as their God. He will be their God in that sense too. He will be their Lawgiver, their Counsellor, their Protector, their Guide, their Trek Leader. He will supply all their needs, deliver from all dangers, and bring them to everlasting blessing. He will be faithful and longsuffering, bearing with their frailties, never leaving nor forsaking them (Hebrews 13:5). And those who respond to Him will once more prove themselves to be His true people. The past failures will be forgotten and God’s new people will own Him and be owned by Him.

3) “And they shall not teach every man his fellow-citizen, and every man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for all will know me, from the least to the greatest of them.” His people will not have to be taught to know the Lord by anyone, for they will all know Him truly as a result of the work of the Spirit.

The idea here is in the contrast of a so-called ‘people of God’ of whom many were ignorant of God, so that each sought to teach the other somewhat inadequately and weakly, leaning on teachers who were broken reeds, with ‘a people of God’ of whom all know the Lord, from the very least to the very greatest. The writer is probably here thinking of Joel 2:28-29; Isaiah 44:1-5 and their fulfilment at Pentecost (Acts 2:0), and such teaching as 1 Corinthians 2:9-16; 1Jn 2:20 ; 1 John 2:27.

In Old Testament days there was a constant looking to the priests and to the wise for help, while in general the people got on with their lives. That was actually their problem, that God became second hand. (There were, of course, always the exceptions, which included the prophets themselves). But this is in contrast with the openness of heart and mind in the New Testament days as the abundance of the Spirit illuminates the thoughts of even the most simple. Under the old covenant the priests stood between men and a knowledge of God, under the new the approach to God is direct and personal. The barriers are broken down. "They will be all taught of God" (John 6:45)

4) “For I will be merciful to their iniquities, And their sins will I remember no more.” And this will be because He has been merciful to their ‘iniquities’, (that which comes from the evil heart within); and has blotted out their ‘sins’, (that which constitutes a coming short of His glory (Romans 3:23)), from His memory. There will not only be temporary forgiveness, there will be permanent and total forgiveness and reconciliation.

And it should be noted that this signifies a deeper measure of mercy and forgiveness than was available under the old covenant, where wilful sins were excluded, for now even wilful sins will be forgiven on repentance. For Paul declares, ‘And by him all who believe are justified from all things, from which you could not be justified by the law of Moses’ (Acts 13:39). The word ‘merciful, gracious’ is emphasised by being place first in the sentence after the conjunction. It includes an element of being propitiated. Compare Hebrews 2:17; Romans 3:24-25).

Verse 13

‘In that he says, “A new” he has made the first old. But that which is becoming old and waxes aged is nigh unto vanishing away.’

So, says the writer, God by speaking of a ‘new’ covenant has made the first old. The emphasis here is on the fact that the new having come, what has been before is now old, and indeed is close to vanishing away. Jesus Christ’s coming has changed history. All must now be seen from a new point of view and looked at in a new way, resulting in new lives and a new way of living. There is, as it were, a new creation. And this especially applies in regard to the covenant.

And so he ends this section by stressing that the fact that the covenant is declared to be new and of a different kind demonstrates that the first is old, creaking at the seams, and is on the verge of disappearance. As far as its ritual was concerned it was indeed shortly to vanish away completely with the destruction of the Temple by Rome in 70 AD. But even where it continued it became more and more involved and separatist.

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Bibliographical Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Hebrews 8". "Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". 2013.