An Exposition of Hebrews
by A. W. Pink
The Two Covenants
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has demonstrated by irrefutable logic and upon the authority of Holy Scripture that the priesthood of Christ has superceded the Aaronic order.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 (Heb. 7:12) was, as we have seen, clearly evidenced by His causing Christ to spring from the tribe of Judah (Heb. 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 (Hos. 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 (Gen. 3:15) and confirmed to Abraham (Gen. 17). 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 Pet. 1:20, Revelation 13:8). Second, the actual call of God (Heb. 5:4, 5), which carried with it His unction of the Spirit above measure (Ps. 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, 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, 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" (Ps. 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" (Ps. 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 Tim. 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; 34:27, 28; Deuteronomy 4:13. Israel’s response is recorded in Exodus 19:8, 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 (Hos. 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; 6:3, 4. But it was on the ground of the Sinaitic covenant that Israel entered Canaan: see Joshua 7:11, 15; Judges 2:19-21; 1 Kings 11:11; Jeremiah 34:18, 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 (Rom. 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 (Gen. 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 (Gal. 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 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 Cor. 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, 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" (Rom. 15:8,9). 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 (Dan. 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 (Eph. 2:14). There was "enmity" between them (Eph. 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 (Eph. 2:14-18)! Therefore are all born-again believers designated the "children" and "seed" of Abraham (Gal. 3:7, 29), and thus are they "blessed with faithful Abraham" (Gal. 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" (Ps. 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 Cor. 10:12).