Resources » Asbury Bible Commentary » Part III: The New Testament » HEBREWS » Commentary » V. Fourth Point: “A New Covenant” (8:1–10:31)

V. Fourth Point: “A New Covenant” (8:1–10:31)

The high priesthood of Jesus is founded upon a new and better covenant. What greater priest could there be than One who took his seat next to the throne of Majesty, appointed minister of the true, heavenly tabernacle that he himself has pitched (8:2)? If God has done this, who would dare attend the services of any lesser functionary?

The author understands the earthly tabernacle (even the Jerusalem temple present in his own day) to be a copy foreshadowing the real, heavenly sanctuary (8:5). Citing Ex 25:40 as proof, he states that God showed Moses the pattern by which to build the tabernacle. Therefore, the true tabernacle, which Jesus would later build (see 3:3), was already in God's mind from the beginning. That is why the author says Moses' tabernacle foreshadowed Christ's heavenly one.

The function of the priest was to serve his divine appointment by offering the gifts and sacrifices mandated by the law. Jesus, as God's High Priest, also had to offer something (8:3), but it had to be offered outside the existing sacrificial framework since others were already appointed to that task. Thus, a new covenant was required upon which his sacrifice could be based.

The better promises contained in the new covenant provide Jesus with a ministry superior to the Levitical priesthood (8:6). The former covenant under Moses proved inadequate due to the weakness of the people (vv. 7-8; cf. 5:2; 7:18, 28). God had more in mind even from the beginning, and through the prophet Jeremiah he presented better promises. The new covenant would deal with the problem of human weakness and inconstancy. To overcome the problem of faithlessness, God promised to put his laws directly into the human mind and write them upon the heart (v. 10) so that consent to the divine will would spring readily from within the human soul. To overcome the problem of human waywardness, God promised not merely to take his people by the hand and lead them (as formerly), but to make himself known to them in the most intimate way possible—inwardly (v. 11). To overcome the problem of human sin, God promised to forgive and remember their sin no more, removing it once for all (v. 12). These are the better promises which make the new covenant superior to the old one. In announcing a new covenant, God has made the former one obsolete. Therefore, the covenant of Moses is outworn and aged, soon to disappear (v. 13).

The earthly sanctuary and its offices are described next, providing the proper background (9:1-5). The details are mentioned in the past tense because the author is describing the tabernacle as it is depicted in the biblical record. The NIV does not reflect it, but the author switches to the present tense in describing the current, ongoing priestly offices (vv. 6-10). The point here must not be lost: though the tabernacle is depicted in ancient biblical terms, the author clearly has in mind the current temple system and its ongoing activities as the evolutionary culmination of the biblical model. He is making the distinct point that, though the temple has every appearance of being the most modern and up-to-date of religious institutions, it is in fact exceedingly old-fashioned and timeworn. The ongoing priestly ministrations are as obsolete as the ancient tabernacle itself. Whether made of great carved stones or sewn canvas and poles, the earthly tabernacle is a thing of the past.

The Aaronic high priest entered the Holy of Holies each year on the Day of Atonement and sprinkled the room with the blood of sacrifices. Access to God's presence was thus limited to one individual on only one day of the year for one brief moment (9:7). The obvious conclusion is that so long as the present temple stood, the people had no access to God. The way to the Father remained unrevealed (v. 8). The perpetual offering of gifts and sacrifices signified a people perpetually caught in sin, whose hearts and minds and consciences remained weak and imperfect. Temple sacrifices could not perfect the worshiper inwardly (v. 9). The covenant of Moses focused on outward observances, says the author, on matters of proscribed food and drink (see Lev 11) and prescribed baths (see Lev 16:20-28). Only the imposition of religious reforms could remedy this, and the time was long overdue (9:10). Who then would wish to entrust one's soul again to such antiquated means?

Christ has entered the heavenly Holy of Holies once for all, securing eternal redemption! He is High Priest of the good things already in place for everyone wishing to approach God (9:11). He came before God through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not man-made, and this was in keeping with his prophecy, as restated by false witnesses in Mark 14:58 and recorded in John 2:19-21. Jesus built the more perfect tabernacle himself by virtue of what he accomplished in his death and resurrection, by virtue not of the blood of animals but his own blood (9:11-12). What the earthly tabernacle foreshadowed has become the heavenly reality! Jesus embraced us all through what he suffered, and by clinging in faith to him we are become the very house of God in which his presence abides (see 3:6).

The intent of religion is to serve the living God (9:14). Purity is demanded of one who would do so. God had commanded the people, “Consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am the Lord your God. Keep my decrees and follow them. I am the Lord, who makes you holy” (Lev 20:7-8). The Levitical code is full of regulations regarding the clean and the unclean, defilement and purification, ceremonial purity and impurity. The blood of goats and bulls slain as sin-offerings was efficacious in God's sight for the removal of sin's offense (see Lev 4). The ashes of the red heifer when mixed with water (see Nu 19) also removed sin's offense and restored ceremonial purity. To be thus sanctified was to be purified and restored to proper fellowship with God and his holy people (9:13). Yet, sin is more than ceremonial uncleanness and even more than moral defilement. The rites and regulations provided only temporary benefit; the problem would return again and require yet another sin-offering so long as the inward weakness of the worshiper remained unaddressed. But Christ's self-offering is perfect, not as an unblemished animal substituting for sinful humanity but as unblemished humanity for sinful humanity. Once and for all, the blood of Jesus is applied to our need. Concern for the ceremonial purity of the body has given way to the purification of the conscience or inner being. Covenant-keeping rites and regulations that required repeated slaying and that could not bring the worshiper out of repeated sin have given way to edifying and glorifying ministry in service to the living God (v. 14). All this has been accomplished through the eternal Spirit of God at work, both in Jesus during his days on earth and now in us who believe.

Christ, then, in keeping with his words at the Last Supper (see Mk 14:22-25) has instituted a new covenant. He alone could mediate the covenant for two reasons: He came appointed as God's heir and spokesman (see 1:2), and he served obediently as man embracing all humankind (see 2:11-17), thus representing both parties of the covenant in his own person. His death has brought about our redemption (9:15). By his own unmerited death, he has overcome Satan, who wields the power of death (see 2:14) and who exercised that power wrongly in this case, taking the life of the world's only innocent man. For death can rightly claim only those who have sinned against God. In overcoming death and thus nullifying Satan's power, Christ effectively emancipated a powerless humanity enslaved to sin and subject to death (see 2:15). We are now free to follow God's call (see 3:1) and receive the eternal inheritance he has promised to everyone in Christ, the Sabbath rest awaiting the people of God (see 4:1, 9).

The author now provides an explanation for the necessity of Jesus' death. Diathēkē in the Greek can mean “covenant,” “testament,” or “will.” A last will and testament becomes operative only at death. Likewise, the divine covenant required a death in order to become operative. In the case of a will, the person who made it must die for it to take effect. In the case of the covenant of Moses, provision was made for death to claim a substitute instead. The author describes the ritual of atonement based on Ex 24:3-8, but its details here in 9:19-22 probably are derived from his knowledge of contemporary temple practice. The point is that Jesus brought a new will and final testament, and its provisions could not become operative until his own death as testator had occurred.

The earthly sanctuary must be cleansed of sin by the sprinkling of blood. The penalty of sin is death, and a death is required for the sin to be covered. But must the heavenly sanctuary also be cleansed? Yes, claims the author (9:23). Why? For the very reason that Christ has taken upon himself our sin and has entered the heavenly sanctuary (v. 24). Without the covering blood, it too would be defiled. Because it is heaven's own sanctuary, the blood of earth's bulls and goats will not suffice. The better sacrifice can be only the blood of heaven's Firstborn who is also earth's last Adam. He has entered heaven's sanctuary to stand for us and plead our cause (see 7:25). Through Jesus alone may we approach God.

His sacrifice is the better one because it is efficacious once for all time and for all humankind. The Aaronic high priest offered the atoning blood every year for the Jews alone, but Jesus appeared in the fullness of time to nullify sin forever (9:26). How so? God himself promised through Jeremiah, “I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more” (Heb. 8:12; cf. Jer 31:31-34). The author follows in conclusion, “And where these have been forgiven, there is no longer any sacrifice for sin” (10:18). Death remains with us, and judgment still follows death, but the burden of our sin has already been borne by Jesus (9:27-28). All that remains now is for our Lord to return and manifest to us the benefits he has already won on our behalf. Let those who belong to Christ eagerly await him, and let those who do not yet belong to Christ earnestly seek him.

Contrary to Jewish belief, the law of Moses is not the full and final revelation of God's will. It is merely provisional, since it cannot bring humanity beyond the perpetuated requirement of atoning sacrifices for sin (10:1). It simply foreshadows the good things that are coming. The ambiguity of the Greek here allows two renderings: “The good things which were to come,” or “the good things which are to come.” On the basis of what was just stated by the author at the end of ch. 9 regarding the return of our Lord, the NIV has opted for the futuristic rendering, the good things that are coming. But to which good things is the author referring? He is referring to the things that constitute the perfection of those who would approach God (10:1). If perfection is understood as an endowment of the next life, then the NIV translation is appropriate. But the author clearly states, “He has made perfect forever those who are being made holy” (10:14; cf. v. 10). It is already accomplished! Clearly, as the NIV rightly states elsewhere, Christ is high priest of the good things that are already here (9:11). We already enjoy perfection by virtue of our High Priest who has nullified our sin (cf. 9:26). And he is even now making us holy (see 2:11; 10:10, 14). For, in fact, sanctification is progressive; so too is glorification (cf. 2Co 3:18). So too, then, is perfection.

If it were at all possible for the law to have brought perfection, at some point the sacrifices for sin should have ceased (10:2). The blood of animals cannot abolish human sin; it can serve only as a reminder of sin's penalty (vv. 3-4). By God's design, the law was never intended as the means of perfecting weak humanity. In its limited function, though, it did foreshadow the perfect sacrifice to come.

Christ came into the world to take away sins (cf. Jn 1:29). Christ came to put an end to the sacrifices; God took no delight in them anyway. The proof is found in God's own Word spoken in the Son: Ps 40 (lxx) quoted as though from the mouth of Jesus himself (10:5-7). To the author's mind, the Scriptures are not only the oracles of God but can also be the very words of Christ or of the Holy Spirit (see 3:7). The law may prescribe sacrifices for sin, but God is not thereby pleased in accepting them (10:8). Most pleasing to God is the One who says, “Here I am, I have come to do your will” (v. 9). Christ came to do God's will. Christ came to set aside the former covenant by establishing a new one. Christ came to make us holy, and we are now sanctified through his complete offering of himself in the will of God (v. 10; cf. 2:11). Christ came into the world to bring about the perfection of humanity in accordance with the destiny already ordained by God in Ps 8 (see 2:6-11).

The author's understanding of holiness is instructive. The Pioneer of our salvation makes us holy by bringing us to God's glory (see 2:10-11). To enter the Holy of Holies (10:19), to stand before the Holy One, is to be made holy. Holiness is the gift and garb of approach to God, an endowment bestowed in blessed relationship. Perfection is exactly the same thing (v. 14). So too is salvation or glorification (2:10). These terms all describe, from different theological perspectives, the one outcome of Jesus' sacrifice as it pertains to us: Access to the Father in intimate relationship. As such, it affords opportunity for the dynamics of growth and depth in bonding. Holiness, perfection, and glorification are not plateaus of attainment but dynamics of limitless life enjoyed in boundless exploration.

In one act of sacrifice we have been perfected (10:14). Yet God continues his sanctifying work in us. Growth in holiness knows no bounds. Perfection is not an endowment of the next life; it is an already completed work now begun in us. Growth in perfection likewise knows no bounds, because it is a relationship rather than a state of being. God's design for humanity, God's plan for our perfection, is to bring many to glory (see 2:9-10), God's glory. It is to enter into the Sabbath-rest (see 4:9-10), God's own Sabbath-rest. It is to have access to God's own throne, access the law could never provide (see 7:18-19). It is absolute and uttermost salvation (see 7:25). It is to have even now the good things God promised through the prophets (see 8:10-12; cf. 9:11). Perfection, through the blood of Christ, is power applied to our sanctification, applied to our weakness, applied to cleanse and purify our inward souls and enable us truly to serve God in pleasing ways (see 9:14-15). Perfection is so to have God's law in our hearts and minds that his will is our will (10:14-17). Perfection is the living of this life in such union with Christ that we are borne along to God's own perfectness by God's own hand (see 6:1, 3). These things are already ours, and yet they continue to be worked out in our lives in ever greater fashion. Perfection in this epistle, then, is at once both being and becoming.

The author makes three bold statements in this chapter that lead him to a grand conclusion. First, by the will of God we have been made holy (10:10). Second, by one sacrifice he has perfected eternally those being made holy (v. 14). Third, there is no longer any sacrifice for sin to be made where forgiveness has already been applied (v. 18). His conclusion is that the blood of Jesus gives us the confidence we need to enter boldly into the Most Holy Place and to stand before our God (v. 19). That is true perfection, our destiny in Christ.

Wesleyan theology as articulated by some within the so-called “holiness tradition” depicts the Christian life in the following manner. It is entered at the moment of conversion with justification and regeneration occurring concomitantly. Thereupon the believer enters into a process of sanctification or purification. At some subsequent point the process yields to a momentary experience of entire sanctification at which time both “the guilt and power of sin,” as Wesley put it, are eradicated and the Holy Spirit comes to dwell within in fullness. This “second blessing” is the rest of faith, perfection in love. Unhappy with any notion of perfection that involves an incomplete process, Wiley (p. 325) interprets “those who are being made holy” (10:14) iteratively, i.e., the one definite act of entire sanctification repeating itself from individual to individual over time.

The author of Hebrews looks at it differently. Perfection provides full access to God (10:1, 19-22). Nothing is left incomplete; no sacrifice for sins remains (9:26; 10:18). Christ has accomplished everything necessary for us to draw near to God (cf. 4:3; 7:19; 10:22). To be brought near to God is to be brought into the sphere of divine holiness (see 2:10-11). The nearer one approaches to God, the more holy one becomes. Contrary to the view of many that the process of sanctification leads to eventual perfection, the author of Hebrews regards perfection as the initial introduction of the Christian to the divine presence, whereupon holiness is obtained. Perfection initiates sanctification. Salvation and perfection are one and the same, and the process of sanctification proceeds therefrom. The author finds support for this in the testimony of the Holy Spirit (10:15-17). The forgiveness of sins, ostensibly integral to justification, is equated with the eradication of atoning sacrifices, i.e., perfection (10:18; cf. v. 14). Proceeding therefrom is the dynamic internalization of the divine will, i.e., sanctification (10:16; cf. v. 14). What some call the “second blessing” is in fact the one dynamic blessing which initiates and perpetuates one's eternal life with God.

A totally new situation obtains for those who would approach God (10:19). Today (see 3:12-14) we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place and approach the very throne of grace (cf. 4:16). In direct contrast to the situation depicted in 9:25 wherein one approaches on behalf of many, now the many may approach. The way of entrance is a fresh and living way (10:20) providing immediacy of access. A new covenant has been inaugurated; a new sanctuary has been dedicated. The way to the presence of God is the ever-living Christ (cf. Jn 14:6). The curtain, or veil, divided the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place, preventing access to the mercy seat of God (see 9:2-5). The curtain is now no longer a barrier; the entrance is ever open, and the High Priest is ever interceding there, and we are welcome now that we too have been perfected (see v. 14).

Christ's very physicality is the curtain rent asunder. Human inability to abide by divine standards proved a problem the law was able to handle only remedially, not overcome entirely. As the curtain hung between the Holy Place where men served and the Most Holy Place where God dwelt, so on the cross heaven's Firstborn hung between humankind and God. When Christ died, the curtain in the temple was torn in two from top to bottom (see Mk 15:38). The way to God was unveiled; the problem of human inability was overcome.

Christ is our great High Priest (10:21). We are the perfected and sanctified house of God (see 3:6). That means we are able now to approach the mercy seat with true and sincere hearts, without even a shadow of falsity or duplicity (v. 22). It means an inward work of God cleansing us by the blood of Christ sprinkled on the altar of our hearts, thereby removing our guilt and washing away our defilement so that we are fit to enter his presence. Every priest had to bathe before entering the Most Holy Place (see Lev 16:3-4); in our case, this cleansing work of God takes place in the waters of baptism administered at the time of our own entrance into the household of God. We cannot draw near to God if any unseemliness remains as a barrier. At the same time, our High Priest stands ready to remove all such hindrances so that we may indeed gain access. Faith is fully assured of this, giving the heart confidence to draw near (v. 19).

God is faithful to his promise, and therein lies our hope (10:23; cf. 6:13-20). To waver in our confession that Jesus has opened the only living way to God, to lose sight of the firm and secure hope offered us in Christ, is to find ourselves outside the curtain again looking for some other way in. Apparently some of the original recipients of this letter were in just such a predicament, even to the point of giving up meeting together (10:25). The true worshiper of God, however, is mindful of every inducement to love and do good to others, providing encouragement and support as required. Christ is faithful, and the same faithfulness and commitment mark those who await his promised return.

The greatest danger of all is to lose one's grip on Christ and to seek an alternative way through the curtain to God. The deadly sin, for which no sacrifice for sins is left, is apostasy, here the return to the former covenant after having gained the full truth of Christ's more perfect sacrifice (10:26; cf. 6:4-6). The author equates sin with unbelief (3:12) and the refusal to obey God's voice (3:16; 12:25). When some discover that obedience to Christ brings unexpected adversity, they return to a prior understanding they had with God, an easier pact involving less hardship and difficulty. Unfortunately, God cannot honor it any longer. The new covenant is in place now, and no alternative compact can carry any weight. No other sacrifice for sins remains. Outside of the offer of God's new covenant, the only prospect left is the fire intended for his enemies, namely, those who reject his plan and provision in seeking their own terms of access (10:27).

Even the former covenant had its severe provisions. In the case of an imperfect animal offered for sacrifice or the worship of false gods, Dt 17:1-6 calls for death by stoning of the perpetrator on the evidence of two witnesses. Either of these actions constitutes an affront to the grace of God in flagrant disregard of his covenant (10:28). How much greater the effrontery of one who, after accepting the benefits of Christ's perfect sacrifice, subsequently rejects his lordship! Whether by denial of his name outright or by refusal to hear him speaking from heaven, one tramples Christ underfoot and profanes the very blood that graciously binds us to God (v. 29). Certainly, the Spirit of God cannot remain upon one who would ignore and reject so great a love. Willfully and persistently turning from what we clearly know to be the Spirit's leading and God's will in Christ, we place ourselves once again beyond the curtain. Unless we turn back and reenter through the way opened for us by our High Priest, we remain outside his benefits and liable to destruction. God will have the last word, and it has already been spoken (see 1:2)!