For many readers of the Gospel Herald, the eighth chapter of Hebrews is familiar territory. Some may even be able to quote large portions of it. Most believers know that there was a prior covenant that was replaced by the new covenant through Christ. Many know that this was predicted in Jeremiah 31, and that the Hebrew writer quotes extensively from Jeremiah in our text. One might ask, “Do we need further teaching on this familiar passage?”
We do need such teaching. We need it because we need reminders (see 2 Peter 1:12-13; 3:1). We need teaching on this because there is always a new generation growing up that needs to be taught (see Psalm 78:5-8). We may also need teaching from Hebrews 8 because it is quite possible that we may have misunderstood it in some way.
Not Genesis to Malachi
We are making a terrible mistake when we assume that the “old covenant” discussed in Hebrews 8 means everything from Genesis to Malachi. That is not the case. The Mosaic law does not equal the book we call the Old Testament. Perhaps we would be clearer if we would learn to call that part of our Bible “the Hebrew Scriptures.”
There is much in the Hebrew Scriptures that was not a part of the Mosaic law. The Apostle Paul insists that the promise given to Abraham predates Moses by 400 years. That promise to Abraham was not cancelled by Moses nor by the coming of Christ (Gal 3:17). God is still keeping the promise to Abraham.
Paul does not mention it, but the rainbow sign of Genesis 9 also predates the Mosaic covenant. The earth will never again be destroyed by water. We can count on that promise. It is not a promise that passed away with the coming of Christ.
It is not the covenant with Abraham, nor the covenant with Noah that is the “old” covenant of Jeremiah 31 or Hebrews 8. The “old” covenant of Jeremiah 31 and Hebrews 8 is the one God made with the people of Israel “on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt” (Jer 31:32; Heb 8:9). The promise to Noah has not been replaced. Nor has the promise to Abraham, nor even the later promise to David (2 Sam 7) been replaced. It is only the law given at Sinai that is in view here in Hebrews 8.
The Mosaic covenant was for the nation of Israel. It was for the benefit of all nations, but it was never expected that all nations would obey its detailed provisions. It was for the benefit of all in that its provisions were designed to reveal the nature of God, but it was not expected that the nations would all engage in the Tabernacle or Temple worship. As the nations observed Israel obeying the Mosaic Law, they would be led to honour the wisdom of Israel’s God (Dt 4:6-8).
God does not change (James 1:17). Therefore, we too, like the non-Israelite nations, can learn something of the nature of God from the provisions of the Mosaic law, even though we are not under that law. Truths revealed and promises made in the portions of the Hebrew Scriptures that were not part of the Sinai covenant are still valid. God is still creator and ruler of all. It is still a descendent of Abraham that blesses all the families of the earth (Gen 12:3). It is still a descendant of David that rules God’s chosen people (2 Sam 7:16; 2 Tim 2:8; Rev 3:7; 5:5).
The Nature of the New
The “old” covenant referred to in Hebrews 8 is not Genesis through Malachi; nor is Matthew through Revelation what is called the “new” covenant in this passage. We must think more carefully about the nature of this new covenant.
The people at Pentecost were reconciled to God by means of the New Covenant through Christ (Acts 2:41). Stephen became of first of the new covenant martyrs (Acts 7). The Ethiopian was reconciled to God by means of the new covenant (Acts 8). Yet not a word of Matthew through Revelation (the “Greek Scriptures”) had been written at that time. The New Covenant is not words written in a book or on a stone, the new covenant is a heart written covenant.
It had been predicted that the New Covenant would be a heart-written covenant (Jer 31:33); Jesus indicated that his kingdom would be an internal one (Lk 17:21); and that is what Hebrews 8 tells us as well. “I will put my laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Heb 8:10). The Pentecost believers were saved by a heart-written covenant. Stephen was saved by a heart written covenant. The Ethiopian was saved by a heart-written covenant. We will be saved by a heart-written covenant, or we will not be saved. Many a person has a copy of the Greek Scriptures on their shelf, or even in their hand, and yet does not have the new covenant in their heart. Such does not save.
This New Covenant involves turning from sin. The first people to receive it, received it in their hearts when they felt the horror of their sin. They were accused of causing the death of an innocent man. Their hearts acknowledged the justice of the accusation and they said, “Brothers, what shall we do?” (Acts 2:37). We cannot accept this new covenant while wilfully continuing in sin. It is good to own a copy of what is commonly called the New Testament. It is better to study it. It is good to quote it. But owning, studying, and quoting are not substitutes for repentance. Until we show by our actions that there is a new covenant in our heart, there is no new covenant in our heart. We must repent or we will perish (Luke 13:3; 1 John 3:6).
This New Covenant involves the seeking of God. It is not a matter of dietary laws (like ‘no bacon’) but of seeking to know and to be conformed to the character of God. “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom 14:17). “They shall all know me” (11). We do not seek to have a small clerical or monastic minority who know God. Our Lord expects that all will know him experientially as well as theoretically.
Death and Resurrection
This New Covenant involves death to self and resurrection to a whole new life. Under the Old Covenant, too many still sought their own way (Jer 31:32; Heb 8:9). They kept various ceremonies, but their lives, too often, were unaffected. The New Covenant is light on ceremony. There is some ceremony, but the ceremonies are few. The ceremony that is a part of the New Covenant points to this death to the old and resurrection to the new life. The Lord’s Supper is our most repeated ceremony. It clearly points to the death and resurrection of the Lord (1 Cor 11:26), and to how that death and resurrection means that we no longer below to ourselves (1 Cor 6:19-20). Baptism is the other main ceremony of the new covenant. It clearly points to the death, burial, and resurrection of the Lord, and to our need to bury the old life and rise to a new life (Romans 6:4-6).
The Use of Scripture
Please do not misunderstand. The Bible and the scriptures we commonly call the New Testament are critically important to us. But the printed book is not the New Covenant. The printed books from Matthew to Revelation are the record of the New Covenant in the lives of the early Christians. From that record we learn how the New Covenant is to work in our hearts and lives. But the New Covenant itself is a heart-written, life changing covenant, or it is nothing at all.
Do we have the new covenant written on our hearts? Is it changing our lives? These are the critical questions.
Matsapha, Eswatini, Africa