Sermon preached on Hebrews 8:7-13 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 8/26/2018 in Novato, CA.
“Sought for a Second”
In human relationships, conflict between friends is normal. What is also normal is that in such conflicts, usually both sides have contributed in some way to the conflict. Sure, there can often be one side in the conflict that is particularly guilty for starting the conflict. We could say that it is that person’s “fault” that there is a conflict in the relationship. But even in such cases, the so-called “innocent” party usually is not completely innocent. In human conflicts among friends, usually both sides have contributed to the conflict, even if in differing degrees.
Well, when we turn and think about our relationship with God, we see that things are very different. Yes, there has been a history of conflict between God and his people. Yes, there has been fault in the relationship, but its been with us. God is not to blame, ever, in the ways us humans have fractured our relationship with God. God, on the other hand, has repeatedly taken the initiative to reconcile us sinful humans to himself. In working out his plan to reconcile a people to himself, this included what God did with Israel under the old covenant. Yet, here we are reminded that this old covenant didn’t go far enough in solving man’s problem with sin. We especially see how this passage states that it didn’t go far enough in being able to change man’s sinful nature. Yet, praise the Lord, God provided another covenant that would finish addressing man’s fundamental needs.
So then, today’s passage will help us to see a little bit of the fault God found under the old covenant and how God graciously promised to address it with the new covenant. We’ll begin then by briefly looking at this idea of God finding fault under the old covenant. Then we’ll talk about how he addresses that in the new covenant. Lastly, we’ll consider the obsolescence of the old covenant.
Beginning then in our first point, let me make sure we know what we are talking about when we refer to the old covenant. We are talking specifically about the Mosaic covenant; the covenant God made with Israel as a nation as he brought them out of Egypt and into the Promised Land. Verse 9 tells us that, in case it wasn’t already clear. We can see that covenant ratified in Exodus 24. God brought the people out of Egypt and to Mt. Sinai. There, he gave them the law including the Ten Commandments written on stone tablets and ratifies that covenant. When Hebrews is talking about the old covenant, this is what it’s referring to.
Of course, it would be helpful to remember, that God did not begin his saving work among humanity with Moses and the Exodus. From the Garden, God had promised a way of redemption to Adam and Eve, Genesis 3:15. We see God’s redeeming work among people like Noah, as well. God especially worked his plan of redemption among the patriarchs of Israel, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, entering in covenant with them long before he enacted the Mosaic Covenant. So, remember that this old, first covenant was neither the oldest nor the first covenant that God made to work his redemptive purposes. God’s overarching covenant of grace has been underlying all human history since God promised it back in Genesis 3:15. Yet, Scripture definitely sees the prominence of the Mosaic covenant as an administration of God’s covenant of grace, and thus can refer to it as both the “old covenant” and “first covenant” when comparing it to the better covenant that Christ has brought.
So then, when God established this old covenant, God had already been working his saving purposes and was continuing to work his saving purposes for the elect. So then, I direct you to the issue identified in verse 7. There it specifically notes that the first covenant was not faultless. If it was faultless, God wouldn’t have needed to have a second covenant. I’m glad we then have the next verse to offer some clarification because if we were to stop at verse 7 we might mistakenly conclude that God was at fault for making a faulty covenant with his people. But in verse 8, it says what the fault was under the old covenant: God found fault “with them” – the humans, Israel! They didn’t continue in the covenant, verse 9. They weren’t faithful to God and went astray. Their hearts weren’t really turned to the Lord, so they broke the provisions of the covenant. That resulted in God having to bring upon the people the sanctions of that old covenant: covenant curses which included God exiling them from the Promised Land. That’s referenced in verse 9 when it says that God had to disregard them. So, the chief fault in the old covenant was the sinful hearts of the people that kept forsaking God. That old covenant didn’t solve this underlying issue of man’s hard, sinful hearts.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that covenant was inherently flawed, as if it was a failing of God when he established it. Rather, it had certain God-intended limitations. Therefore, it served God’s purposes at the time, but it was never meant to be the ultimate solution. God always intended that old covenant to be temporary. As it says in verse 7, a better covenant would be needed to administer God’s grace to his people. And so, when God enacted that old covenant, it was not only fair, but very gracious, yet it didn’t go far enough in solving man’s needs. Thus, God inherently set it up in such a way to make the saints of old, and us, see the need for a new covenant and to yearn for it.
Let’s then turn now in our second point to really dig into this new, second covenant and see what it says is better about it. Again, Hebrews makes his case with the Old Testament. To tell us about the new covenant, he quotes the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah. Of course, here we see that this old covenant prophet was also a new covenant prophet, in the sense that he prophesied about what the new covenant would be like. So, verses 8-12 include one long quote, from Jeremiah 31:31-34. That’s what we’ll be studying under this second point to learn more about the better promises held out under the new covenant.
Let me begin with a big qualification. There are four specific things mentioned here as being promised under the new covenant. As we’ll see, it would be a mistake to see these things as completely new as if they were not in anyway in view under the old covenant. In fact, for each of them, we’ll see ways in which these promises were held out in hope under the old covenant. Yet, the point is that the old covenant could not truly secure these things for the people. But they are truly secured under the new covenant, in Christ, and we realize them now in that covenant, in an already, but not yet, sort of way.
This has at least three important ramifications that should guard us from coming to mistaken conclusions as we read of the differences here between the old and new covenants. One, it would be a mistake to say that nobody under the old covenant was saved or that they were saved in some other way. Though many people outwardly in the old covenant weren’t saved, there were certainly many who were. We’ll see this when we get to Hebrews 11. There, we find that the saved saints under the old covenant were saved the same way we are under the new covenant – through faith. They in faith looked to God to save them through the future work of a Messiah; we in faith look to God to save us through the already accomplished work of the Messiah. But it wasn’t chiefly through the old covenant that they would have had those saving benefits; rather the old covenant pointed forward to the salvation God would later bring in Christ.
Two, it would be a mistake to say that these saved old covenant saints didn’t experience any work of God in their hearts. Surely, any who did trust in God for salvation did so because God regenerated their hearts. Surely, in some degree, such saints experienced progressive sanctification as well. But again, such wasn’t chiefly a benefit inherent to the old covenant, but was an intrusion ahead of time to what Christ would bring in the new covenant.
Third, it would also be a mistake to say that we now as new covenant saints have come to have perfectly sanctified hearts in light of what we read here about the promises of the new covenant. Rather, we have begun to experience the heart change described here. But there is a part of these promises that have not yet been completed in the full. But we won’t need another covenant to finish the work. It will be finished, perfected, through this new covenant that we are a part of.
So then, with all those qualifications, let’s look at the four promises stated here as coming under the new covenant. The first comes in verse 10. It’s the promise of God implanting his law into our hearts. To clarify, this is different than what Paul says is true of all humans in Romans 2. There, Paul says that everybody, elect and reprobate, has God’s law written naturally on our hearts. We all have an inner sense of right and wrong, even if we often try to sinfully ignore that. But what this is talking about is that God’s people will have the law written on their hearts not only that we would clearly know right and wrong, but that we would love right and wrong. Clearly, this was something seen as important under the old covenant. That’s why God wrote on stone tablets the Ten Commandments and gave it to the people. That also why under the old covenant he called them in Deuteronomy 6:6 specifically to put these commandments in their heart. He went on in that chapter to describe how they should write them on the doorposts and gates and bind them on their hands and foreheads. Yet, though the old covenant could remind them of this need and even hold them accountable when they forgot God’s laws, it couldn’t in itself change their hearts. It couldn’t write the law on their hearts. This was actually acknowledged at that time by Moses. In Deuteronomy 30, Moses acknowledged that there would come a time under that covenant, that the people would not keep his laws and find themselves in exile. But one day, God would bring them back and then at that time, circumcise their hearts. There Moses prophesied even back then of what would come properly in Christ and the new covenant. So then, this is what the New Testament says we have in Jesus. For example, in 2 Corinthians 3:3, it speaks of how Christ writes on our hearts by his Spirit. Similarly, Jesus said in John 14 that in his ascended glory he would send forth his Spirit to minister to our hearts, teaching us and bringing to remembrance all Christ’s commands for us. This is in fulfillment of Jeremiah’s prophecy here. Yet, we see that this new covenant promise is not yet fully realized. We are being inwardly conformed to Christ’s image, but that renewal is not yet complete. We still daily fight against the old man, even as we look to put on the new man. The new covenant benefit of heart transformation has already begun in the Christian, but it is not realized in the full until after this life when we go to be with the Lord.
So then, that’s the first promised mentioned here. A second promise is found in verse 11. There it speaks of knowing the Lord. All God’s people in the new covenant will truly know the Lord. This includes mental knowledge of who God is and his saving works for us. But this word also expresses relationship, to know the Lord experientially as our God and as our Savior. Again, we see this as something held out under the old covenant. This was something Israel was to be doing, and it was something they kept failing in doing. Psalm 78:4-6 says how Israel needed to teach the next generation the wonderous works of the Lord so that they would “know” them and the Lord. However, we find this was a common failing under the old covenant. For example, the second generation in the Promised Land is described in Judges 2:10 as rising up who did not know the LORD or the work he had done for Israel. Or in Hosea 4:1, the prophet laments that there was no knowledge of God in the land of Israel. In contrast, Jeremiah says that the new covenant brings to our hearts a true knowledge of God. Again, we find that this is something we have begun to experience in the new covenant. Galatians 4:9 says of Christians that we have come to know God, or rather to be known by God. I love how that expresses the two way knowledge; it’s a relational thing – we know God and he know us! Yet, we also know that we still wait for the final fulfillment of this. As it says in 1 Corinthians 13:12 about our knowledge of that, that right now we only see as in a mirror dimly; that right now we know in part, but in glory we will know fully.
A third new covenant promise is found in verse 12: divine mercy and pardon toward our sin. Man’s fundamental problem has been our sin and the guilt that has come with that. Our sin deserves God’s wrath and curse. Surely, under the old covenant this fundamental need was recognized. That’s why they had the whole sacrificial system under the Levitical priesthood. But as Hebrews will go on to show, that system inherently could not bring about true atonement for man’s sin. At its best, it served as a vehicle for faith, until the day God would bring a satisfactory atonement for our sin. In that hope, old covenant Israel knew much mercy and pardon for sin. But the reason it could know such, wasn’t ultimately because of the old covenant sacrifices of bulls and goats. Rather, it was because of what those sacrifices looked forward to – when the Son of God would offer himself as a suitable sacrifice to atone for all God’s people’s sins. That certainly is something we have come to realize already in the full in the new covenant!
A fourth and final new covenant promise is found at the end of verse 10. I skipped over it before because it’s such a central and all-encompassing promise. God says, “And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” Again, this is not something unique per se to the new covenant. In fact, throughout Scripture we find this promised repeated. It’s really the grand and glorious vision throughout Scripture, that God would redeem out of fallen humanity a special people for himself. Specific to the old covenant, it’s actually recorded right there in Exodus 6:7 during the Exodus that is even mentioned here in this Jeremiah passage. This idea was as explicitly held out under the old covenant as much as its held out under the new covenant. But surely again the point is the same as what we’ve been seeing. If all we ever had was the old covenant, the promise could never be fully realized. We need the other three benefits mentioned here, in order to realize this grand and lofty goal. Unless the law is implanted in our hearts; unless God instills within each of us a true knowledge of him; unless all our sins are truly dealt with and forgiven; then we could not be God’s people and he couldn’t be our God. We’ve stated how the old covenant itself didn’t truly bring those things. It saw the value in them; it held them out in hope; but they didn’t truly come in substance under the old covenant. God uses the old covenant to create in the people a longing for the substance of these things. And now under the new covenant in Christ, the substance has finally arrived. Thus, what the law was not able to do because of our sinful flesh, Christ accomplishes in us. The best way to say this is with a quote from Paul. Rom. 8:3-4, “For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” Amen.
All this brings us in conclusion to briefly state our third and final point. It’s the point of verse 13. With the coming of the new covenant, the old has become obsolete. At the time of writing it said that the old covenant was growing old and was ready to vanish away. Likely that was written shortly before the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and the temple in 70 AD, which would have put an end to the Levitical ministry of the old covenant. Though some Jews since then have tried to continue living under that old covenant, it is vanity at this point. If that old covenant had already grown old back then, it is way beyond ready to be put out to pasture by now. With the coming of the new covenant, it is obsolete. Of course, we know, like today, when new technology comes that makes the old obsolete, there can be people who are slow to upgrade. Of course, often obsolete technology can still function and have some value for a time, and that’s why people can take a while sometimes to upgrade. But that’s where the analogy fails. The New Testament is clear. In light of the coming of the new covenant, the old has passed away and we should not return to it.
In fact, Hebrews here again uses the Old Testament even to make that point. God told his people there in Jeremiah that the Mosaic covenant was being replaced by a new, better covenant. There’s no going back. And see how Hebrews says this new covenant is what we already have in the church today. Sadly, some Christians today think God’s promises in passages like this in Jeremiah are not about the church but about something God will yet do in the future for ethnic Israel in a millennial kingdom on earth. But that misses the point of Hebrews here. This is something for the church of Christ today! See how Hebrews uses this prophecy that in Jeremiah was given specifically to Israel, verse 10. But here he says it’s fulfilled right now in Christ’s church; a new covenant community made up of both Jews and Gentiles, all who bow the knee to King Jesus. There are not two separate peoples of God in Scripture nor two separate plans, Israel versus the church. No, the church is the new covenant Israel with faithful Jews apart of it, unfaithful Jews removed from it, and faithful Gentiles grafted into it. This is God’s vehicle for salvation: Christ and the new covenant. There is no going back to the old!
In conclusion, we are reminded that the new covenant promises include not only forgiveness of sins but real change in our hearts. Trusting God’s work in this regard, may we press on in faith looking to grow in our hearts. Trusting him to write his law on our hearts, let’s study it and meditate upon it and memorize it. Trusting him to cultivate a true knowledge of the Lord within us, let us cultivate that relationship with him in singing and praying to him and in speaking his word to others, especially our children. And trusting in the forgiveness of sins, let us go to him daily with our many transgressions for comfort and assurance of his divine pardon and mercy. Let us be about these things until the glorious day of Christ when it will be declared for all to see that he is our God and we are his people. Amen.
Copyright © 2018 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.