Know Your Covenant: Christian Habits for the New Era

Greetings from Cities Church in the Twin Cities of Minnesota. We are a nine-year-old church with a century-old building not far from that great civic dividing line called the Mississippi River.

Just a few blocks north of us is an area known as Midway, which gets its name from being midway between Minneapolis and Saint Paul. Minneapolis is about three miles west; Saint Paul, three miles east.

I mention Midway because what I’d like to do this morning is linger at the midway point of the book of Hebrews. Chapter 8:1–2 is the seam that runs down the middle of the book. So, our passage is right at the halfway point. It’s like chapter 1 is three miles behind us, and chapter 13 is three miles ahead.

This midway point is a good place to give a little overview of the structure of Hebrews, starting right where we are, at the midpoint, and then moving outward, backward, and forward to get a sense of the whole letter.

Structure of Hebrews

The heart of Hebrews is chapters 5–10. These chapters focus on the person and work of Christ — or who he is as high priest and then what he does. Chapters 5–7 (with the aside in chapter 6 to warn sluggish hearers) make the case that Jesus is the great high priest that God, through the Hebrew Scriptures, has planned for and anticipated all along. He is not a priest in the Levitical line, under the terms of the first covenant. Rather, he is a priest of a different order, a king-priest, like that enigmatic king-priest figure in Genesis 14 named Melchizedek. So, chapters 5–7: Jesus is the climactic, final, great high priest to which the whole old-covenant system pointed and awaited.

Before moving on after chapter 7, Hebrews wants to make sure we’re clear on this. So he says in 8:1, “Now the point in what we are saying is this: we have such a high priest.” So, this is not theory or hypothesis or fantasy. This is reality. Chapters 5–7: Jesus is the great high priest. And we have such a high priest! Already. No more waiting. We have him now — the “one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, a minister in the holy places.” So, not only is Jesus a new kind of priest, but as a priest he must have some work, some ministry to do. That’s what chapters 8–10 are about: Jesus’s work as high priest.

So, that’s the heart of Hebrews, chapters 5–10, with 8:1–2 in the middle. And standing guard around the heart of this letter are two important and similar exhortations in 4:14–16 and 10:19–23.

Both passages, like 8:1, say, “We have a great (high) priest” (4:14; 10:21), and both name him as Jesus (4:14; 10:19) and say he has passed “through the heavens” or “through the curtain” (4:14; 10:20) into God’s presence. And both give this double exhortation: “Let us hold fast our confession” (4:14; 10:23) and “Let us draw near” with confidence (4:16; 10:22). So, these exhortations that mirror each other so strikingly are like two sentinels on guard around the heart of the letter in 5:1–10:18.

Then, still working outward, 3:1 and 12:1–3 bring to the exhortation the specific language of “consider Jesus” (3:1; 12:3) — that is, look to him, attend to him, meditate on him. Don’t ignore him or forget him or drift from him, but remember him, ponder him, contemplate him, set and reset your soul on him — and in doing so you will hold fast to your confession of faith in him and draw near to him.

Between the exhortations to “consider Jesus” and the pillar exhortations (in 4:14–16 and 10:19–23), we have a negative example in chapters 3–4 of the wilderness generation not enduring in faith, and we have in chapter 11 the train of positive examples of pre-Christian saints who persevered in faith, culminating with Jesus himself.

Chapters 1–2, then, we might see as an extended introduction about the exaltation and incarnation of Christ, leading up to that first charge to “consider Jesus” in 3:1. And chapters 12–13 are, in many ways, a kind of extended conclusion, following the high point of Jesus as the grand finale of the parade of examples of faith. So, here’s my summary, starting from the beginning:

1–2: Introduction: Jesus as exalted, incarnate, reigning
3:1: Consider Jesus; look to Jesus; contemplate him
3–4: Negative example (of unbelief): Israel’s wilderness generation
4:14–16: We have a great priest; hold fast, draw near to him
5–7: Who Jesus is: the true priest
8:1–2: Midway — “Now the point in what we are saying is this . . .”
9–10: What Jesus does: the true sacrifice
10:19–23: We have a great priest; hold fast, draw near, to him
11: Positive examples (of faith): from Abel to Jesus
12:1–3: Consider Jesus, look to Jesus, contemplate him
12–13: Extended conclusion

Hebrews communicates, again and again, that Christian faith perseveres as we look to Jesus. As the patterns of our lives, and the gaze of our souls, return again and again to contemplate Jesus, and draw near to Jesus, so we hold fast to him, and our faith in him perseveres.

So, having established Jesus as the superior priest in chapter 7, and made this transition from his person to his work in 8:1–2, we turn in Hebrews 8:3–6 to focus on three more superiorities of such a superior priest.

1. Jesus Serves in a Superior Place

Verse 2 introduced the notion of place. Jesus is now in heaven and “a minister in the holy places, in the true tent that the Lord set up, not man.” Verses 4–5 then expand on the location:

Now if [Jesus] were on earth, he would not be a priest at all, since there are priests who offer gifts according to the law. They serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly things. For when Moses was about to erect the tent, he was instructed by God, saying, “See that you make everything according to the pattern that was shown you on the mountain.”

The last part of verse 5 quotes Exodus 25:40. As Moses and the people of Israel went about constructing the old-covenant tabernacle, they were not to design it as they saw fit. Nor did God just make up something on the spot. Rather, God showed Moses a pattern to follow.

Which means that this tabernacle wasn’t the original; it was based on something else. The earthly tabernacle was patterned after the original place of God’s presence — namely, heaven itself, the true tabernacle. And so, according to Exodus 25, the holy place of the old covenant was not the original or final holy place. The tabernacle was a copy of the original. It was a shadow of some other substance. And now, the risen Christ has ascended into heaven itself, the superior place, and sat down at the right hand of Majesty.

And lest we assume, as many do in the modern world, that the superior place is down here — this world with its sights and sounds and smells and tastes and pleasures — and that heaven is the shadowy, ethereal, bland place, Hebrews confronts us with another way of thinking. Jesus isn’t less effective for us as king and priest because he’s in heaven, but more. “It is to your advantage that I go away,” he says in John 16:7.

The upshot is not that we would think any less of the realness of our world, but that we would reckon all the more with the realness of heaven, where Jesus is more real than our problems and obstacles and anxieties. Heaven is far more real, in the immediate presence of God, than this fallen world with all its many glories and sorrows.

Heaven is the superior place where our superior high priest ministers for us right now. And a day is coming when he will return, and bring his superior place with him, and remake this world into his new heavens and new earth.

2. Jesus Makes a Superior Offering

Verse 27, at the end of chapter 7, hints at Jesus’s superior offering. It says, at the end of the verse, “Once for all . . . he offered up himself.” Now verse 3 of chapter 8 says,

Every high priest is appointed to offer gifts and sacrifices; thus it is necessary for this priest also to have something to offer.

Remember: chapters 5–7 concern his priesthood; chapters 8–10, his offering. Verse 3 now begins the focus on his offering. What do priests do? They make offerings and sacrifices. If someone is appointed a fireman, what do you expect he will do? Put out fires. If someone becomes a mailman? Deliver the mail. So, when Jesus is exalted, in the words of Psalm 110:4, to the position of priest, what should we expect him to do? Have something to offer.

“In Christ, we are under a new covenant. Not renewed, not tweaked, not updated, not expanded. It is new.”

In the old covenant, the work of the priests was endless. They had to “offer sacrifices daily, first for [their] own sins and then for those of the people” (7:27). With each new dawn, more sacrifices awaited. The work never finished. So too, throughout the day, priests were on their feet; there were no chairs in the tabernacle. They had offerings to make according to the law.

But now Christ has come as the true priest, and of a new order. And since he’s a priest, we ask, What does he offer? What work does he do?

Chapters 8–10 have much to say about the offering and expand on Christ as the superior and final sacrifice. There Hebrews says more about the old-covenant place and offerings (plural) in contrast with the new-covenant place and offering (singular),

  • and its superior blood (Jesus’s, not bulls and goats),
  • and superior willingness (he offered himself, not against his will),
  • and superior frequency (once for all, not repeatedly),
  • and superior effect (eternal, not temporary; and the inner man or conscience, rather than externals).

The once-for-all self-sacrifice of Christ now finally does “take away sins” in a way the old covenant could not.

And all that comes together in one last superiority of Christ over what came before.

This is verse 6:

But [now, in contrast to the past], Christ has obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises.

If we want to know how much better is Jesus’s new covenant than the old covenant that came before, it might help to put them side by side. In some sense, the whole of Hebrews — but especially this passage — turns on the comparison of old and new. Consider the contrasts just in Hebrews 8:

First covenant vs. New covenant

Earlier vs. later
On earth vs. in heaven
Copy and shadow vs. original and actual
Earthly tent vs. the true tent
Man set up vs. God set up
Directed through Moses vs. prophesied by David and Jeremiah
Enacted by sinful priests vs. enacted by a sinless high priest
Imperfect, incomplete vs. perfect, complete, final
Ready to vanish away vs. will not end
Good vs. (far) better, much more excellent

The end of verse 6 says that the reason Christ’s new covenant is “much more excellent than the old” is that “it is enacted on better promises.” What might those be? What are the “better promises” of the new covenant, compared to the old?

Chapter 7 already has spoken of “a better hope” and “better covenant” related to the oath and promise of Psalm 110:4:

The Lord has sworn
and will not change his mind,
“You are a priest forever.”

So, we might first say, the promises are final and forever. Final: God has sworn; he will not change his mind. Forever: Christ was raised from the dead, never to die again, with indestructible life, and will continue forever as the permanent high priest. Which means (more promises) he always lives to make intercession for us, and he is able to save us to the uttermost.

And as we’ve seen in Hebrews 8, the place of his priesthood is better, and his offering of himself, once for all, is better. The rest of chapter 8 shows more “better promises” in Jeremiah 31 — that God will put his law in our hearts by his Spirit (verse 10), we each will know him (verse 11), and he will deal decisively with our sin and guilt and remember our sins no more (verse 12).

How New Is the New Covenant?

But let’s end this morning with a question and some implications for our lives related to this new covenant, in contrast with the old. This is why I chose this odd text for a guest sermon: to end with this question and some applications.

The question is this: How new is the new covenant?

Look at verse 7:

If that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion to look for a second.

Do you see that word second? A second covenant. And see that word first. Hebrews, here and throughout (like Jesus and Paul and John), speaks of two covenants, a first and a second, old and new. And when he says new, it’s plain he means new. Actually new. Not an update. Not an expansion. Not an appendix. Not a renovation. New.

There was old; now there’s new. There was a first; now there is a second. And in enacting a new covenant, through his death on the cross, the old is brought to a glorious end — its God-appointed consummation.

Change the Priesthood, Change the Covenant

This contrast between covenants in chapter 8 is an outworking of what Hebrews has already said briefly in 7:11–12: if you change the priestly order, you change the whole covenant.

Now if perfection had been attainable through the Levitical priesthood (for under it the people received the law), what further need would there have been for another priest to arise after the order of Melchizedek, rather than one named after the order of Aaron? For when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well.

Many Christians do not think this way; they think, essentially, that under the law, the people received the priesthood. But verse 11 says the opposite — that under the priesthood the people received the law-covenant from Moses. In other words, the priesthood is not founded on the law; the law is founded on the priesthood.

And now, in Christ, there has been a change in the priesthood. A priest of a new order has arisen. And verse 12 says, “When there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well.”

Brothers and sisters, know your covenant. Cherish your new covenant. In Christ, you are under a new covenant. Not renewed, not tweaked, not updated, not expanded. It is new. It is another covenant. Old has gone; new has come. Another priest has arisen, and with him, a new covenant. There was a first; this is a second. There was old; this new. The old has been “set aside” (7:18 ). Jesus “does away with the first in order to establish the second” (10:9).

And later, 8:13 says that Jeremiah, in prophesying of a new covenant, has made the old one obsolete.

So, the new covenant is such a superior covenant. It is not the same old covenant newly enhanced, edited, improved, renovated, or expanded. It is new. You cannot do justice to the argument of Hebrews if our covenant is not new.

New-Covenant Habits

But you might say, “So what?” Let’s close, then, with three implications for us living under this new covenant.

New-Covenant Bible Reading

First, we read the Bible as new-covenant Christians. Which means we distinguish between the Old Testament as our Scripture and our new covenant. All the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, is our Scripture, Christian Scripture. But the old covenant is not our covenant. Our spiritual heritage, sure. Our Scripture, yes — and to say more: the Old Testament is critical for understanding and appreciating our covenant. But the old covenant is not our covenant.

Ours is the new, enacted and mediated by Jesus Christ, our covenant head. And so, at the end of Gospel of Matthew, when Jesus gives what we call his Great Commission, he focuses his church on “teaching [the nations] to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:20) As we read the Bible as new-covenant Christians, we take the commands of Christ and his apostles as commands to us, in our covenant, in a way that we do not directly apply the commands of Moses to those under the old covenant.

One example would be the Sabbath command. As Christians, we exercise wisdom in light of God’s 6-and-1 pattern in creation, but we are not, as Christians, under obligation to “observe the Sabbath” as commanded of the Jewish nation under the terms of the first covenant. We do not live in that era. Christ has come, and we are under a new covenant, in which neither Jesus nor his apostles enjoin Sabbath observance. In fact, Hebrews 4 shows that the sabbath command has been fulfilled in the spiritual rest that is faith and in the climactic Sabbath rest coming at the end of our earthly days. As Christians, we wisely observe patterns of rest, seek to honor our Lord in it, and gather with the church to worship. Yet we are not under old-covenant constraints of Sabbath observance.

In Christ, we love the Old Testament and its types and prophecies and hints and foreshadowings, because they are God-breathed help for us to better understand and appreciate the antitypes and fulfillments and substance and spectacular glories of what we now have in Christ.

New-Covenant Prayer

Second, we pray as new-covenant Christians. We pray to a heavenly Father, as Jesus taught us. And we pray in Jesus’s name. And we pray as those indwelt by the Spirit of Christ, who “helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (Romans 8:26). What a glory it is to pray as a Christian. Don’t throw away “Father” at the beginning of your prayers, or “in Jesus’s name” at the end, or the opportunity to speak to the living God at any moment, not only as a creature but as his child.

How unspeakably great it is to “have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens,” that we may “with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:14, 16).

New-Covenant Fellowship

Finally, we belong to the body of Christ as new-covenant Christians. We are not in the new covenant alone. We have fellows. And so, very practically, local-church membership matters. And we covenant with each other, as an extension of our new covenant in Christ by faith, to be the church to each other in this time and place. Which means that we, of necessity, establish certain terms of this local membership.

At Cities Church, our formal fellowship requires what we call “a credible profession of faith” for baptism and church membership. We realize, and own, that those are (at least temporarily) exclusionary terms. That excludes adults, and children, whose profession is not yet credible or who are not yet able to profess faith. And we have established these terms, in part (among other reasons, including our understanding of New Testament commands), because this best corresponds to the reality of the new covenant, in contrast with the old, as we’ve seen in Hebrews 8.

The old covenant, at its core, was ethnic and tribal. There were provisions for proselytes (Exodus 12:48–49; Deuteronomy 29:10–13), but by and large, the covenant members were born into the covenant. The locus was a particular ethnicity. So, applying the rite of initiation, circumcision, at physical birth was fitting.

But now Christ has come, inaugurating a new covenant and bringing an end to the old, with its ethnic and bodily focus. The new covenant is not tribal and ethnically centered. Jew is an ethnicity; Christian is not. We Christians are under a new covenant.

Today the covenant locus is those who have experienced new birth, spiritual rebirth, by faith. And so, in our locality (as in yours), we try to make our church membership, as best as we can, more proximate to God’s new-covenant people rather than less.

We sure hope — in fact, we intend to make it sure — that being born into a Christian family is a priceless, inestimable grace: to be near to the life-saving and life-giving word, to be cared for by parents who have the Holy Spirit, to be part of a larger church community. And in accordance with the terms of the new covenant, we do not presume that birth into a Christian family means eventual new birth. And so, we do not believe that physical birth into a Christian family is the proper occasion for baptism or church membership, but rather new birth by the Spirit. Thus, we want our church’s membership to be as similar to new-covenant reality as we can reasonably discern. Which means baptizing and receiving new members based on a credible profession of faith in Jesus.

At the very heart of the new covenant, according to Jeremiah 31, is personally knowing God. And so, in light of Hebrews 8, to belong to the local-church body, we confirm the knowledge of God in Christ in view of a credible profession.

We Have Him

The glory of Hebrews 8, and the new covenant, is that those of us who have been born again and are in the covenant by faith can say — right now — we have Jesus. We have him as our great high priest. We have him as our once-for-all sacrifice.

For us who believe, this is no mere hope or prayer or longing for a reality that will only one day be true. It’s true right now. We have such a high priest.

For centuries, God’s people longed to have a king-priest like this — and now we have him! Christ has come, and he lived without sin, died in our place, rose in triumph, ascended to heaven, and sat down, his work complete, and he intercedes for us.

Know him, receive him, take him again as your God and great high priest. Trust him. Draw near to him. Delight in him. Have him.

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