The letter to the Hebrews was written in the first century to a congregation of Jewish Christians. That is not a contradiction in terms. These people were born Jewish, members of the nation of Israel under the old covenant, but had come to believe in Jesus Christ as the Redeemer promised throughout the Old Testament.
They took their place, within their nation and the wider world of the Roman Empire, as those who worshipped and lived for Christ. They survived in a cauldron of persecution, set about on every side — rejected, tempted, imprisoned and attacked.
They were seen by their fellow Jews as traitors to the covenant of promise and the oracles of God; traitors to the covenant that God had made with Israel when he delivered them from Egypt and denominated them his people.
They were seen as traitors because they no longer kept the Mosaic ceremonies or submitted to earthly priests. Instead they looked to a great High Priest who is seated at ‘the right hand of the Majesty on high’.
They were also under pressure from the Roman authorities, for they did not acknowledge that Caesar was God. They were subjects of another King whose kingdom was not of this world — to whom even Caesar must give an account.
The letter to the Hebrews was written to tell us who is this great High Priest and this heavenly King — Jesus Christ the Son of God and mediator of the new covenant. In this series of articles we concentrate on Hebrews chapter 8, where the nature of the new covenant is particularly set forth.
One great figure
Eight chapters into his letter, the writer tells us the ‘main point’ of what he has been saying: ‘We have such a High Priest who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens; a minister of the sanctuary and of the true tabernacle which the Lord erected and not man’ (Hebrews 8:1).
The main point, then, is that Christ is our Priest and intercessor, the one who comes between ourselves and a holy God — who comes from God to us and brings us to God.
The writer feels bound to repeat this ‘main point’ again and again. Christ himself is the glory of God’s salvation, the only salvation that can ever be known. It is his ministry that redeems men and women who have sinned against God, and ‘buys them back’ from death and hell. He alone undoes the damage — damage inflicted by man’s fall from perfection and communion with God into disobedience, corruption and death.
Everything devolves upon one figure — the great High Priest; not an earthly High Priest of the Aaronic order, but a High Priest of a different order, whose ministry is patterned on Melchizedek, that strange figure half hidden by the mists of time (Genesis 14).
Melchizedek was neither Jewish nor from the tribe of Aaron. He ministered hundreds of years before the law was given.
His ministry patterned Christ’s ministry in that we know nothing of its beginning or its end. He offered no blood sacrifice but rather prayer, as one already accepted. Nevertheless, he brought forth bread and wine — emblematic of another sacrifice. He pointed to Christ.
Melchizedek himself was not Christ. We are told that he was made like the Son of God. But he points to Christ, the only acceptable sacrifice. The bread and wine he offered Abraham were emblematic of what Jesus calls ‘the new covenant in my blood’ (1 Corinthians 11:23).
So Melchizedek is very important in spite of the fact that he is mentioned only twice in the Old Testament. What we have before us in Hebrews 8:8-12 — the new covenant in Christ — is also very important, even though it is mentioned as such only briefly in the Old Testament. God does not necessarily teach us the most important things through numerous and repetitive affirmations.
In reality, however, the entire Old Testament foreshadowed the work of Christ. Defining salvation in terms of figures and future promises, it shows God’s purpose to redeem a people from the curse of sin.
The curse of sin
The depth of that curse was revealed by the covenant most frequently depicted in the Old Testament — the covenant of the law. In fact the first five books of the Old Testament are often called ‘the Law’ because they describe this covenant, which God made with Israel at Sinai.
These books were written by God’s servant Moses, who mediated that covenant, and they testify to the exceeding sinfulness of mankind. They demonstrate the utter inability of any, even a people favoured with every external privilege, to save themselves by obeying the requirements plainly revealed to them by God.
The Lord did not hide what he required of man. He constructed an entire system that taught what man must do to receive his blessing, a system that called for perfect obedience to his laws.
But because perfect obedience would prove to be impossible, he also prefigured within that system a forgiveness extended to transgressors of the law. He did not leave them comfortless. He did not leave them condemned under the law. He prefigured the salvation that would free them from the curse of the law.
Eyes to see
In showing the Israelites their utter inability to save themselves, or even to co-operate with God in their salvation, he put within that former covenant a future promise — one that pointed forward to the work of Christ.
And with that promise came redemption to many in Israel, whose hearts were wrought upon by God’s Spirit and who were given eyes to see the coming Messiah. Indeed, many who lived before the law was given, like Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, understood these things and rejoiced to see Christ’s coming day (John 8:56).
They saw the offerings and the sacrifices; the goat driven out into the wilderness; the turtle doves and lambs, the kids and bulls, the ashes of a heifer; they saw innocent animals slain and their blood shed — and knew it all prefigured a single sacrifice that alone could take away their sin.
They were redeemed, not because they kept the law but because they received the promise. With Abraham, they looked to a better covenant. That is how they were redeemed.
You will find confirmation of this in Romans 2:28-29: ‘For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly [whose] circumcision is outward in the flesh, but he is a Jew who is one inwardly [whose] circumcision is of the heart — in the Spirit and not in the letter’.
There are other similar statements: ‘they are not all Israel who are of Israel’ (Romans 9:6).
Under the old covenant there was a rebellious nation and most of them did not know God. As a matter of fact, ten out of the twelve tribes were swept away for ever and absorbed into an evil empire — never to return. Eighty-five per cent of Israel perished in one generation because of their unbelief.
Why? You will find the answer in 2 Kings 18:11-12. They broke God’s covenant. And because they disobeyed his laws he disowned them and destroyed them. They went off into an exile from which there was no return.
But they did not all perish. The Old Testament often speaks of a remnant: ‘And it shall come to pass, that whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be delivered: for in mount Zion and in Jerusalem shall be deliverance, as the Lord hath said, and in the remnant whom the Lord shall call’ (Joel 2:32; see also Micah 7:18).
Romans 11:5 makes it clear that this remnant was a remnant according to grace: ‘Even so then at this present time also there is a remnant according to the election of grace’.
When Elijah complained, ‘they have slain your prophets, they have profaned your altars and only I am left’, the Lord replied, ‘What are you doing here? There are yet 7000 in Israel who have not bowed the knee to Baal’ (1 Kings 19:18). You are not alone, Elijah; there is a remnant according to grace.
Throughout the Old Testament we find this remnant, a people within a people. But they are never great in number. God disowned the vast majority of his people Israel. Why? God tells us — ‘because they did not continue in my covenant and I disregarded them, says the Lord’ (Hebrews 8:9; Jeremiah 31:32).
But he adds: ‘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’.
The days were coming when the Lord would fulfil his promised redemption through an entirely new kind of covenant — one that could not be broken. We will consider this in the next article.