Vol. 4, No. 6
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If I could pick one word in the Book of Hebrews itself that establishes its theme, it would have to be the word "better." This word is found thirteen times in Hebrews (1:4; 6:9; 7:7, 19, 22; 8:6; 9:23; 10:34; 11:16, 35, 40; 12:24). The idea behind it is that of superiority of dignity or worth. There is nothing in the New Testament that defines the superiority of the Gospel system better than the Book of Hebrews.
The text before us points up one of the fundamental areas of misunderstanding in the religious world at large. Many doctrinal contentions arise when people fail to see the difference between the covenants. When people seek to deny baptism for the remission of sins by alluding to the thief on the cross (Luke 23:39-43), defend the use of mechanical instruments of music in worship because of its presence in the Old Testament or justify hand clapping in worship by quoting Psalms 47:1-2; 98:8, it is only too obvious that they are deficient in understanding the nature of the two covenants. It is certain that not only is this deficiency apparent in the denominational world, but also among many in the Lord's church as well.
The instruction relative to the better covenant is stressed in Hebrews 7:11 through 8:13. Worship under the Old Covenant had an awesome significance with all of its priestly regalia and ceremony. Yet, as glorious as it was, it dealt only in types and shadows of heavenly realities (Hebrews 10:1). The Old Testament priests performed their ministry in the tabernacle (and later in the temple), but they merely served "... unto the example and shadow of heavenly things ..." (Hebrews 8:5). The high priest was "... ordained to offer gifts and sacrifices ..." (Hebrews 8:3), and it was he alone who was permitted to enter into the Holy of Holies (Most Holy Place), and that only once a year on the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:1-19). These restrictions demonstrated that true access to God was not yet available to man.
This section explains that in the New Testament church the Christian has a high priest better than any priest who ever came through the old Levitical system. Christ entered the sanctuary, "the true tabernacle," heaven itself and "...is set on the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens" (Hebrews 8:1-2). The sacrifice which he, as high priest, made was that of himself which secured eternal redemption and access to God for us (Hebrews 7:25, 27). By his blood, Christ would become the guarantee of a better covenant (Matthew 26:28; Hebrews 7:22). The fate of the Old Covenant had been signaled some six hundred years earlier, when God through Jeremiah announced his intentions to establish a new and better covenant (Jeremiah 31:31-34). The establishment of a New Covenant made the old obsolete, doing away with its priesthood, ceremony and rituals.
It is well that we begin with a brief understanding of this complex and sometimes complicated word, "covenant." A simplified explanation of it is to say that "A 'covenant' is an agreement or contract between two or more parties."1 The word covenant is of Latin origin and is derived from two words, con, "together," and venio, "to come." The corresponding Hebrew word b'reeth is an Akkadian and Babylonian compound word meaning, "bind, fetter, cut." According to W.E. Vine, "In its use in the Sept., it is the rendering of a Hebrew word meaning a covenant or agreement (from a verb signifying to cut or divide, in allusion to a sacrificial custom in connection with covenant-making, e.g., Genesis 15:10, 'divided' Jeremiah 34:18, 19)."2 It came to mean, "to bind together in an agreement." Such is the significance we give it today. Webster defines it as, "a usual formal, solemn and binding agreement."3 The buying and selling of property amounts to a covenant. Marriage is a covenant made between a man and a woman. Covenants are legal agreements binding the covenantees for the fulfillment of certain obligations.
The word "covenant" has many synonyms such as, "agreement, compact, treaty, league, testament or will."4 We very often use the words "testament" and "covenant" synonymously, and such they are, however, we are reminded that, "They are used interchangeably only when the covenant is in the form of a will and testament."5 It is also well to remember that while God made only two covenants with man, that being the Old Covenant [Testament] and the New Covenant [Testament] (Hebrews 8:7-13), they are by no means all of God's covenants with men. C.H. Woodroof and Arvil Weilbaker mention that, "The first Testament of the Bible was preceded by seven covenants that were not Testaments."6 These are:
(1) With Adam (Genesis 1:28,29; comp. Psalm 8:3-9; Hebrews 2:8-10).
(2) With Adam and Eve after the fall (Genesis 3:15-21).
(3) With Noah before the flood (Genesis 6:13-22).
(4) With Noah after the flood (Genesis 9:8-17).
(5) With Abraham respecting Christ (Genesis 12:1-3).
(6) With Abraham concerning land (Genesis 13:14-17).
(7) With Abraham concerning circumcision (Genesis 17:9-14).
In our text (Hebrews 8:7-13), we find the word "covenant." In Hebrews 9:15 Christ is called "the mediator of the new testament." In Hebrews 12:24 he is "the mediator of the new covenant." The Old Covenant (testament) was the covenant that God made with Israel when he led them out of Egypt. Note:
"There was nothing in the ark save the two tables of stone, which Moses put there at Horeb, when the Lord made a covenant with the children of Israel, when they came out of the land of Egypt. And I have set there a place for the ark, wherein is the covenant of the Lord, which he made with our fathers, when he brought them out of the land of Egypt" (1 Kings 8:9, 21; Emphasis mine, D.G.).
It is obvious that the covenant here referred to and contained in the ark was the Ten Commandments. The Old Covenant contained more than just the Ten Commandments (Hebrews 9:1-2), but the Decalogue formed the basis of it. This covenant is called the "first covenant" (Hebrews 8:7), and the "old covenant" (Hebrews 8:13).
First, we learn that the first covenant was made with the fathers of the Jewish nation at Mt. Sinai (Vs. 9). Let us briefly trace the beginnings of the first covenant. It is well to remember that both the first and second covenants have ties to the Abrahamic promise (Genesis12:1-3; Galatians3:8-29). This covenant was repeated in Genesis 17:1-13; 18:18 and 21:18. It was a fleshly covenant, involving the seed of Abraham. God provided that all who were born into Abraham's family were members of that covenant (Genesis 17:9), and those who were not of his seed might obtain membership by the act of purchase (Genesis 17:12-13). The exclusiveness of the promise was to be marked by circumcision (Genesis 17:10-13). It excluded every person not born into Abraham's house and everyone not bought with Abraham's money (proselytes). The covenant with Israel at Mt. Sinai came 430 years after the giving of the Abrahamic promise (Galatians3:16-17).
Let the following facts be noted in this connection: (1) God selected the place for the giving of this covenant -- Mt. Sinai (Exodus 9:3). (2) God selected the mediator of this covenant -- Moses (Galatians 3:19; Hebrews 9:19). (3) God announced the terms of this covenant and his chosen heirs consented thereto (Exodus 19:5-8). (4) Moses recorded the "words of the Lord" in a book ["the book of the covenant"] (Exodus 24:3-4, 7).
Second, the first covenant was not a faultless covenant (Vs. 7). I remember, a few years ago, when studying the Bible with a young lady of the Seventh-day Adventist persuasion, that she could not accept the idea of God's first covenant having "fault" attached to it. Her misconception of the word "fault" is one that is no doubt shared by many. Albert Barnes clarifies the issue in a brief analysis: "The meaning is not that that first covenant made under Moses had any real faults - or inculcated that which was wrong, but that it did not contain the ample provision for the pardon of sin and the salvation of the soul which was desirable. It was merely preparatory to the gospel."7 Amen! If the first covenant had been all that was needed to fulfill God's purposes with respect to our salvation, there would have been no need for a second covenant. The Old Covenant was suitable to the purposes for which it was designed (Galatians 3:19, 24). It was not designed for human justification (Romans 3:20; Hebrews 7:18-19). This was obvious even in the days of Jeremiah (Jeremiah 31:31-34), because while the Old Covenant was still in force there was yet a searching for something more.
Third, as already alluded to, the first covenant was an exclusive covenant: "With the house of Israel and with the house of Judah" (Vs. 8). This covenant was limited in its scope to fleshly Israel (Exodus 19:3-9; Deuteronomy 5:1-3). D.R. Dungan makes the point that needs to be stressed in a study of the two covenants: "No one can understand his duty without knowing to what law he is amenable ... So it is with all the covenants that God has ever made with man -- each covenant is for the man, or the men, to whom it was given, and for whom it was intended."8
In referring to a passage of Scripture wherein Moses was commanded by God to communicate the covenant to the Jews (Exodus 19:1-8), Ashley S. Johnson said,
I pause here in my quotation to say that He did not say for Moses to tell the sons of Ham and Japeth, He did not say for him to tell all nations, kindreds, tribes and tongues. He did not make any suggestion that was world-inclusive and age-embracing, but He narrowed it down to the little family with which he was dealing and told Moses to go and talk to the house of Jacob and the children of Israel.9
Although the first covenant was limited in its scope to the Israelite people, it still served the vital function of offering types and shadows of the New Covenant inaugurated by Christ in that it acted as a schoolmaster to bring men unto Christ (Galatians 3:24).
Fourth, the first covenant had vanished away (Vs. 13). In quoting Jeremiah to the effect that the first covenant was "old," the Hebrews writer stressed that, "That which is old and aging is near destruction."10 The gist of Jeremiah's prophecy concerning the first covenant was that it was nearing extinction.
Matthew Henry makes the very interesting comment that, "Some think the covenant of peculiarity did not quite decay till the destruction of Jerusalem."11 This is interesting in light of the current A.D. 70 theology which insists that the end of the Jewish age did not occur at the cross of Christ, but at the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. The doctrine misapplies Matthew 5:17-18 by making "heaven and earth" refer to the passing of Judaism. "However," as Curtis Cates says, "in Matthew 5:17-18, Christ was speaking of His fulfilling all of the Old Covenant, the law of Moses and its prophecies concerning Him."12
The second covenant is "better" than the first (Vs. 6). The New Covenant is not a continuation of the old, neither is it the first covenant revised, revamped or enlarged, but is a distinct covenant worthy of being called a "better covenant" (Hebrews 7:22). In what way or ways is the second covenant better? It is spiritual, and therefore has no superior. It accomplished the highest purposes of God, that is to glorify God and redeem man. It is sealed with the blood of Jesus Christ and will endure until he comes again (Matthew 26:28; 28:18-20). Our text gives four of the "better promises" upon which the covenant is established.
First, the second covenant is designed to embrace "the house of Israel and ... the house of Judah," that is, all the "Israel of God," as was promised in Jeremiah 31:31, and accomplished in the church of Christ (Vs. 8). The designations "house of Israel" and "house of Judah," as used in Jeremiah's time would denote all the descendants of Israel. However, the heirs of the New Covenant would not be of distinct houses, or even tribes, but individuals of "all nations" (Matthew 28:18-20), who upon obeying from the heart the conditions of pardon, i.e., faith, repentance, confession and baptism (Acts 16:31; Luke 13:3; Matthew 10:32-33; Acts 2:38) would become members of the Lord's church ["the Israel of God"] (Galatians 6:16).
The New Covenant was made with all who would accept it. The Gospel went initially to those of literal Israel and many of them did accept it (Acts 13:46; 2:36). Out of the whole body of Israelites who accepted the New Covenant, there was only a remnant (Romans 11:5).
Second, the second covenant has the benefit of being written in the heart of the Christian, rather than being an external code (Vs. 10). God once wrote his laws to men ("the tables of the Law"), but now has written his laws in men ("the fleshly tables of the heart") and it becomes, so to speak, a part of the personality of the believer (2 Corinthians 3:3-6). The Old Covenant was not heart searching, heart purifying, heart uplifting. The Old Law began on the outside and tried to work its way into the man by commandments and precepts. The Gospel begins on the inside with God's word having its effect upon the conscience, affections, mind and life (Luke 8:15).
Third, the second covenant would be based upon a new birth and knowledge of God (Vs. 11). One became a member of the Mosaic order by virtue of his birth into the lineage of Abraham (Matthew 3:9). One characteristic of the Old Covenant is that you were born into it and then were taught to know the Lord as you grew up, but in the New Covenant you must be taught to know the Lord before you can be born again and enter into the covenant relationship with God (John 1:12-13). The Gospel brings people into an immediate fellowship with God and this implies a previous knowledge of him (James 1:18). The Christian is "... born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God, which liveth and abideth for ever" (1 Peter 1:23). Therefore, it is obvious that every heir of the New Covenant is one who already knows the Lord (John 6:45).
Fourth, the second covenant brings the forgiveness of sins, which the Mosaic order could not (Vs. 12). The Law of Moses could not provide the forgiveness of sins because it only had the blood of animals (Hebrews 10:1-4). The New Covenant was dedicated with the blood of Christ (Hebrews 10:19-20). Jesus Christ "appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself" (Hebrews 9:26).
The blood of Christ was that of the New Covenant shed for the remission of sins (Matthew 26:28). When we are justified by the blood of Christ in baptism for the remission of sins, our past sins are forgiven (Romans 6:3-4; Acts 2:38). As long as we are faithful to God, we will enjoy the benefit of having our sins continually cleansed in the effectual blood of Christ (1 John 1:7).
The New Covenant is as superior to the Old, as Jesus is a better mediator than Moses, as being delivered from our sins is better than being delivered from any form of temporal bondage, as an inheritance in heaven is better than an inheritance in Canaan, and as the spiritual is always better than the natural. This covenant is not limited to any class, race or gender (Galatians 3:28). Each individual accepts or rejects the conditions of this covenant on his own responsibility.
1 C.R. Nichol, Sound Doctrine, Vol. 1 (Clifton, TX: Nichol Publishing Company, 1954), 67.
2 W.E. Vine, Vine's Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, Vol. 1 (Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1981), 250.
3 Webster's Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary, s.v., "covenant."
4 Hugo McCord, "A Study of the Word 'Covenant'" Gospel Advocate 126 (July 19, 1984), 433.
5 C.H. Woodroof and Arvil Weilbaker, Biblical Analysis (Corydon, IN: Adco Publications, 1992), 156.
7 Albert Barnes, Notes On the New Testament: Hebrews (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1983), 172.
8 D.R. Dungan, Hermeneutics (Delight, AR: Gospel Light Publishing Company, n.d.), 106.
9 Ashley S. Johnson, Johnson's Sermons on the Two Covenants (Hollywood, CA: Old Paths Book Club, 1949), 16.
10 Hugo McCord, McCord's New Testament Translation of the Everlasting Gospel (Henderson, TN: Freed-Hardeman College, 1988), 427.
11 Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry's Commentary on the Whole Bible, Vol. 6 (McLean, VA: MacDonald Publishing Company, n.d.), 922.
12 Curtis A. Cates, The A.D. 70 Theology (Memphis: Cates Publications, 1996), 35.