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Christ’s new covenant

October 2004 | by Stephen Bignall

2. A better covenant

In the previous article we considered the ‘main point’ that Christ is our High Priest and intercessor, the one who comes between ourselves and a holy God – who comes from God to us and brings us to God. This present article will consider why a new covenant was needed.

Speaking through the prophet Jeremiah, God says, ‘the days are coming … 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 did not continue in my covenant and I disregarded them’ (Hebrews 8:8-9, cited from Jeremiah 31:31-34).

The writer to the Hebrews is using the Old Testament to bear witness to the new covenant. It must have been disturbing for the Jewish Christians to whom this letter was addressed to be told that the old covenant, the law of Moses, had become obsolete — that it had been abrogated and had passed away. But this is exactly what the epistle to the Hebrews declares (8:13).

Gentiles and the law

We can understand the reaction of the recipients — they were Jews, after all. But what is quite amazing — and this emerges in such Scriptures as Galatians 4:9,21; 5:1-2; and Colossians 2:16-23 — is that some Gentile churches also had this longing for the covenant of law.

They desired to somehow place themselves under its requirements as a way to God — to fashion something a bit like the Old Testament order that would commend them to God through its observances.

The fact is that we who are Gentiles by nature are excluded from the old covenant. That covenant cannot save us, nor can any of us minister as priests under that covenant. No non-Jew can minister on our behalf in the Tabernacle or make sacrifices for our sin — we are utterly excluded.

Yet there is this strange affinity for it, even among professing Christians today. So-called ‘priests’ dress up in robes to mimic Aaron and his sons; incense is burned as it was in the Tabernacle of old; even in Evangelical churches we love our rules and rituals!

But the inspired writer is adamant, declaring: ‘In that [God] says “a new covenant” he has made the first obsolete. Now what is obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away’ (8:13).

What has been abrogated?

When we say the old covenant is abrogated people think, ‘Oh no — this man is saying “forget about the Old Testament”. But that is not what we are saying at all. The proof of this is that the writer to the Hebrews was using the Old Testament to prove what he was saying!

You see, it is not the Old Testament that is abrogated — the Word of God lives and abides for ever, whether in the Old Testament or the New. What has been abrogated, says Hebrews, is the temporary and earthly system given at Sinai, under which a temporary and earthly nation was governed.

And to what end was that system given? To depict and foreshadow to a dying world God’s eternal salvation. Israel existed to show that by the works of the law no flesh will be justified — and that by the work of God’s grace, all will be saved who trust in Christ alone.

The Old Testament, and the old covenant itself, bear witness to a new and ‘better covenant founded on better promises’ (8:6).

Something to offer

If the Old Testament is the pattern that prefigures the new covenant, then the High Priest of this new order has to make an offering: ‘for every High Priest is appointed to offer both gifts and sacrifices. Therefore it is necessary that this One also should have something to offer’ (8:3).

What, then, does Christ offer under the new covenant? Much popular religion starts by saying, ‘this is what Christ has to offer you’. They are obsessed with the idea that Christ offers them the things they desire — health, wealth and happiness.

But in fact the offering Christ made was not to man but to God. He did not begin by offering something from God to men. Rather, he offered something to God for men — namely his atoning death for their eternal life.

That was the acceptable sacrifice and that is why there can be a new covenant — ‘the new covenant in my blood’, he called it (1 Corinthians 11:25). That is why Christ’s priesthood and offering are recalled in Hebrews 8:3 before the details of the new covenant are hammered out from Jeremiah’s prophecy in 8:8-12.

What Christ offered is clearly before us — he ‘by himself purged our sins’ and sat down at the right hand of God. As a result (v.6), he has obtained a more excellent ministry — more excellent than Moses and Aaron, more excellent than any ministry the world had ever seen.

God finds fault

There are many fine ministries depicted in the Old Testament; there are many glorious ministries under the old covenant; but they are infinitely inferior to what Christ has accomplished.

Christ has ‘obtained a more excellent ministry, as he is also the Mediator of a better covenant which was established on better promises’ (8:6). These promises are found in the Old Testament as well as the New. We are not tearing our Bibles in half — we are being submissive to what God says in both Testaments.

The new covenant was necessary because God found fault with the first: ‘for if that first covenant had been faultless then no place would have been sought for a second’ (8:7).

The fault lay firstly in Israel’s breaking of that covenant (‘finding fault with them’) and secondly in the inability of that covenant to deal with human sin (Romans 8:3). He therefore says, ‘I will make a new covenant’ (v.8).

It is God who abrogates the old covenant; it is God who finds fault with it; it is God who finds fault with those who seek acceptance under it. It is God who declares, ‘behold the days are coming … when I will make a new covenant’.

Fulfilment

In this present age, those promised days have come. They are no longer future, but fulfilled. Hebrews begins with this affirmation: ‘God who at various times and in various ways spoke in times past to the fathers by the prophets has in these last days spoken unto us by his Son’.

The God who promised a new covenant has brought it to pass. He has done it! All the expectations of the true Israelite — all the longings of the hearts of those who were sons of Abraham by faith in the living God — have been fulfilled.

The consummation of their hope is set before them, along with the salvation of the world. This new covenant embraces a people drawn from every tribe and tongue and kindred and nation — not Israel after the flesh, but the Israel of God.

The city of God comes down from heaven. It must surely thrill our hearts that God who said ‘behold the days are coming’ now declares that they are here. These are the last days and, in effect, God says, ‘I speak through my Son and my salvation comes from him alone.

‘That former covenant with which I found fault has been done away with. It will not matter if they bulldoze the Dome of the Rock, reconstruct the temple and reinstitute the sacrifices. It will not matter if someone from the line of Aaron traced back twenty centuries claims the High Priesthood of Israel.

‘It does not matter that men call themselves priests and say that in a Christian way they are offering sacrifice and mediation between God and man to obtain God’s favour and forgiveness for men.’

What matters is that there is a new covenant ratified by the blood of Christ — that we find salvation only as we become beneficiaries of this covenant through electing grace and saving faith. That’s what really matters.

To be concluded