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Understanding Hebrews Part 2

February 2008 | by Don Fortner

Understanding Hebrews Part 2

Last month, in Part 1 of this overview of the epistle to the Hebrews, we saw that the key word in Hebrews is ‘better’. Christ is ‘better’ than all who came before him – better than the prophets, better than the angels, better than Moses, better than Joshua, and better than Aaron.

Above all, he is surety of a better covenant, established upon better promises, giving a better hope. Let us pick up the story at this point.

A better covenant

Christ is the surety and mediator of a better covenant (Hebrews 8:1-13). The old covenant was a conditional covenant of law and works. The new covenant is an unconditional covenant of pure grace, in which nothing depends upon men. In this covenant the whole weight of responsibility was laid on the shoulders of one who is mighty, our great surety, the Lord Jesus Christ.

Jesus Christ, says Hebrews, has ‘obtained a more excellent ministry [than Aaron and his sons] – by how much also he is the mediator of a better covenant, which was established upon better promises. For if that first covenant had been faultless, then should no place have been sought for the second’ (8:6-7).

This new covenant is that of which Jeremiah spoke (Jeremiah 31:31-34) – a passage that Hebrews cites as follows: ‘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: 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.

‘For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, saith the Lord; I will put my laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts: and I will be to them a God, and they shall be to me a people: And they shall not teach every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, “Know the Lord”: for all shall know me, from the least to the greatest. For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their iniquities will I remember no more’ (8:6-12).

Clearly, none of these blessings and privileges were accessible under the covenant of Sinai. But just as clearly, they are all possessed by those who are in Christ Jesus.

A better tabernacle

The epistle continues to show that Christ gives access to a better tabernacle (9:1-12). Everything in the Old Testament tabernacle, and later the temple, was typical of Christ. They were but ‘a figure for the time then present … until the time of reformation’. Christ is the minister of the true tabernacle and he himself is the true place of worship and blessing.

‘Christ being come an high priest of good things to come, by a greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this building; Neither by the blood of goats and calves, but by his own blood he entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us’.

There could be no clearer statement of the fact that Christ’s atoning work is a finished work – he has obtained redemption for his people. And because that redemption is eternal, nothing can be added or repeated to ensure the salvation of the elect.

A better sacrifice

The redemption thus obtained is complete and final because Christ is a better sacrifice than all that went before (9:13 – 10:39).

‘For if the blood of bulls and of goats, and the ashes of an heifer sprinkling the unclean, sanctifieth to the purifying of the flesh: How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?’ Only Christ’s cleansing blood can reach into our heart and mind, our soul and conscience, to purge away the sin and transgression that lurks and lingers there.

‘And’, continues the writer, ‘for this cause he is the mediator of the new testament [covenant] that by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions that were under the first testament [covenant] they which are called might receive the promise of eternal inheritance. For where a testament is, there must also of necessity be the death of the testator’ (9:11-16).

All the laws, sacrifices, holy days, and religious observances of the Old Testament were only ‘typical’ rituals. They could never take away sin and give sinners acceptance with God. Christ did and does!

Not all the blood of beasts
On Jewish altars slain,
Could give the guilty conscience peace
Or wash away the stain.
 But Christ, the heavenly Lamb,
Takes all our sins away:
A Sacrifice of nobler name
And richer blood than they.

Christ and his sacrifice – his finished work as our substitute and Saviour – is the whole of our acceptance by God, the whole of our peace with and from God, and the whole of our assurance before God (10:4-22).

A better object of faith

Accordingly, Christ is a better object for our faith (11:1-40). In chapter 11 the apostle shows us that Christ is better than anything or anyone else in which we might put our confidence. And to prove this contention, Hebrews demonstrates that Christ has been the only object of faith among God’s saints throughout the ages.

He was the one by whom Abel worshipped God and with whom Enoch walked, so pleasing God. Christ is the ark of salvation by whom Noah was saved from judgement. It was Christ who appeared to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and established his covenant of promise with them. Joseph and Moses endured ‘as seeing him’. Joshua, Rahab, Samson and David – along with all God’s saints of old – believed him, lived by him, died in him, and now reign with him in heaven.

Let us, like those countless witnesses of old, trust Christ alone as our Saviour. It is only by believing in him that we can know our election by him (11:1-3). It is only by faith in him that we can understand the things of God. (11:3). And it is only by believing him that we can please God (11:6).

A better motive

Finally, Christ is the better motive (12:1-29). The book of Hebrews calls us to persevere in faith, urging us to continue in the grace of God. We have many examples to follow, but our best and ultimate inspiration and motive is Christ himself.

‘Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God. For consider him that endured such contradiction of sinners against himself, lest ye be wearied and faint in your minds’ (12:1-3).

A better Saviour

In a word, Christ is a better Saviour than any other to whom we might look, for he is the only one who can ‘save to the uttermost those who come unto God through him’ (7:25) – the only one who, in saving power, is ‘the same yesterday, and today, and for ever’ (13:1-25).

Those who serve at the altar of freewill or works religion cannot eat at this altar nor partake of its benefits (13:10). As Jesus suffered outside the city for us, bearing our reproach, ‘let us go forth … unto him outside the camp, bearing his reproach’ (13:14).

Furthermore, ‘by him let us offer the sacrifice of praise to God continually, that is, the fruit of our lips giving thanks to his name’ (13:15). Truly, his glory is great in salvation!

‘Now the God of peace, that brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great shepherd of the sheep, through the blood of the everlasting covenant, make you perfect in every good work to do his will, working in you that which is well-pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ; to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen’ (13:20-21).
 
Don Fortner