1 Now the point in what we are saying is this: we have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, 2 a minister in the holy places, in the true tent that the Lord set up, not man. 3 For every high priest is appointed to offer gifts and sacrifices; thus it is necessary for this priest also to have something to offer. 4 Now if he were on earth, he would not be a priest at all, since there are priests who offer gifts according to the law. 5 They serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly things. For when Moses was about to erect the tent, he was instructed by God, saying, “See that you make everything according to the pattern that was shown you on the mountain.” 6 But as it is, Christ has obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises. 7 For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion to look for a second. 8 For he finds fault with them when he says: “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, 9 not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt. For they did not continue in my covenant, and so I showed no concern for them, declares the Lord. 10 For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 11 And they shall not teach, each one his neighbor and each one his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. 12 For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.” 13 In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.
Last Sunday one of the famous name-it-claim-it health-wealth-and-prosperity preachers in North America made news and stunned his followers by getting behind the pulpit and announcing that the core of his teaching and preaching for the last many many years had been wrong. He then encouraged his congregation to burn all of his tapes and books and materials. He stopped short of apologizing, however, because he said that his former teaching had brought him to where he was. Even so, he acknowledged that all of his teaching on the core element of giving had been wrong, had been mistaken. He asked his congregation to reject what he had taught them all along.
That must be a confusing thing, no? To hear the preacher you have followed all those years suddenly tell you that he was wrong on the core teaching of his ministry would have to be disorienting. And it raises the question, “Are there any ministers out there who do not make such colossal mistakes? Are there ministers we can trust? Are there any ministries that will never have to apologize?”
The book of Hebrews answers with a resounding, “Yes!” Once again we turn to our High Priest Jesus, who will never have to apologize and whose ministry will never be deficient.
Hebrews 8 speaks of two realities when Jesus is compared to the high priests of Israel and, indeed, to all earthly ministers. Namely, it shows us how Jesus has (1) a better ministry and (2) a better covenant.
Jesus has a better ministry.
We begin with the writer saying, “Now the point in what we are saying is this…” This makes me smile as a pastor. It is oftentimes the case when a pastor is preaching or explaining matters that are heavy and, at times, complicated, that he will stop and say, “Look, here is the point…” This is what the writer of Hebrews appears to be doing here. He needs them to get the gist of this important argument. And what is the gist? Listen:
1 Now the point in what we are saying is this: we have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, 2 a minister in the holy places, in the true tent that the Lord set up, not man.
In the first two verses the author extols the greatness of Jesus. Jesus is exalted above all other high priests. Indeed, Jesus as ascended to “the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven.” His ministry is now situated in heaven even as it is operative on the earth through the Holy Spirit. As such, the ministry of Jesus transcends not only all earthly limitations but also time. His ministry will have no end. He is “a minister in the holy places, in the true tent that the Lord set up, not man.” This alludes both to the Holy of Holies as well as to the tabernacle (the earthly tent). In saying this, the author is preparing us for an important argument: namely, that the earthly ministries of tabernacle and temple are but shadows and types of the reality of heaven itself.
3 For every high priest is appointed to offer gifts and sacrifices; thus it is necessary for this priest also to have something to offer.
Yes, “this priest” must also “have something to offer,” and, may we thank God, He did! He offered His very life! He offered Himself! This is something that no earthly priest could possibly do. They could shed the blood of lambs but only Jesus could shed the blood of the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!
4 Now if he were on earth, he would not be a priest at all, since there are priests who offer gifts according to the law.
Is this not fascinating? This Jesus, the High Priest above all other high priests, this one whose ministry is eternal and not limited, this one whose ministry is over heaven and earth and not merely bound to the earth, “would not be a priest at all” were he still on earth. Why? The ESV Study Bible rightly observes, “Jesus could not serve in the earthly tabernacle, since the law requires Levitical/Aaronic lineage.” True enough. Jesus did not have the right genealogy. Jesus was of the tribe of Judah, not the tribe of Levi, and so He was not of the priestly caste. In other words, the Lord, as He is prone to do, broke the mold by making the greatest priest the world has ever seen, a priest that had “the wrong paperwork,” if you will, from the perspective of man. But, of course, Jesus had something better: the direct commission and oath of the Father who established Him as High Priest over all! The author now moves to a truly amazing statement.
5 They serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly things. For when Moses was about to erect the tent, he was instructed by God, saying, “See that you make everything according to the pattern that was shown you on the mountain.” 6a-c But as it is, Christ has obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent…
Ah! Now we get to the gist of the gist! The fact of the matter is that earthly priests “serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly things.” This applies even to the architecture of the tabernacle since Moses was instructed to fashion its design after “the patter than was shown you on the mountain.” That is, the earthly tabernacle and temple and all earthly ministries must, of necessity, use “copies and shadows” of the realities that reside and that we will finally see in heaven!
Think of the ways that copies and shadows and symbols and types of the higher realities permeate our worship even in the church. At our church we have a large gold cross on the wall in the baptistry above the pulpit. I preach, then, under the cross…and yet, not literally so. I preach under a copy, a sign, a symbol of the cross. The symbol has value insofar as it points our hearts and minds to the cross of Jesus, but the fact remains that the symbol is not the reality it symbolizes!
We distribute bread and juice, the symbols of the body and blood, but they are not the body and blood!
We plunge repentant people into the waters of baptism which symbolize new birth and the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus, but the water is not actually new birth, is not actually, death, burial, and resurrection. The water is a copy and a shadow, a sign, a symbol.
We sing as a congregation and our singing is a pale reflection of the choirs of heaven!
We give in the offering plate but our giving is a pale reflection of the gift that Jesus has given us!
On and on it goes. We do not begrudge the symbols, but we must realize that they are but symbols even so! They play their part, but their part is to point us to Jesus, not to be an end in and of themselves. “If we are looking for reality, for something that is lasting, we will not find it in any earthly form or ritual,” writes Jimmy Draper. He is correct.
It strikes me that one of the reasons so many people go to church every Sunday and still manage to be miserable is because they have mistaken the copies and shadows of worship and of our lives together for the reality to which it points. If you do not get this right, if you come to see the symbols as the reality, you will grow discontented and disgruntled. Why? Because the symbols and copies always fall short of the reality!
The church must not eclipse Christ or the church will be crippled by the eclipsing.
The signs and types and shadows and copies must not be our focus, or we will miss Jesus and so miss what we are supposed to be!
Religion is the trappings of the copies and the other externals. But religion is not Jesus. At its best it points its ornate and symbolic finger heavenward, but it must never be mistaken for the reality of Christ itself!
Fred Craddock once said this to his congregation:
Some of you have heard me describe in detail a nine-pound sparrow walking down the street in front of my house, and I asked the sparrow, “Aren’t you a little heavy?”
The sparrow said, “Yeah, that’s why I’m out walking, trying to get some of this weight off.”
And I said, “Why don’t you fly?”
The sparrow looked at me like I was stupid and said, “Fly? I’ve never flown. I could get hurt!”
I said, “What’s your name?”
And he said, “Church.”
I believe that the reason so many churches are not flying is because we are stuck in the copies that constitute religion instead of soaring to the reality that is Christ! We have grown lazy in our symbol maintenance, our shadow bickering, our polishing of the copies. But we must be content with nothing but Christ!
I thank God for the signs and copies that God has left for us and, indeed, that God has ordained. But the copies are not God! We must never misunderstand this!
Jesus has a better covenant.
Yes, Jesus has a better ministry, it is true. But He also has a better covenant! A covenant, simply put, is a divine agreement established between God and man. Now, the writer of Hebrews will argue that Jesus’ covenant is superior to that founded on the Mosaic law. In other words, Jesus, and the new covenant of His blood, prophesied in Jeremiah 31 and fulfilled in the person and work of Jesus, can do what no previous covenant could!
Jesus’ covenant will save to the end.
The first point is made implicitly as we see the negative example of how the law, the earlier covenant, could not ultimately save us.
6 But as it is, Christ has obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises. 7 For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion to look for a second. 8 For he finds fault with them when he says: “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, 9 not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt. For they did not continue in my covenant, and so I showed no concern for them, declares the Lord.
The superiority of Jesus’ saving covenant, written in the blood of Calvary, can be seen in the fact that in Jeremiah 31 a new covenant was prophesied. Why would such a thing have been necessary “if that first covenant had been faultless”?
And what was the main limitation of that covenant of law? He tells us in verse 9. In that earlier covenant, God’s disobedient people could nullify it through their rebellion and reap the judgement of God (“so I showed no concern for them, declares the Lord.”). In other words, the covenant of law could not obey. In fact, all it could do was condemn since by necessity those under it were doomed to violate it!
We might say that this earlier covenant could not save, it could only show us that we need to be saved!
And in lifting up Jesus and His new covenant the point is clear enough: Christ’s covenant is “much more excellent” and “better” because Christ’s covenant can get us all the way home, can save us! Christ’s covenant is a covenant of grace and mercy and forgiveness! He will never say, “I showed no concern for them” because this new and better covenant is sealed with His blood!
Jesus’ covenant changes His people from the inside-out.
There is another difference between the new covenant established by Christ and that older covenant of law.
10 For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
The old covenant looked for outside-in reformation.
The new covenant establishes inside-out transformation.
The old covenant looked for legislated obedience.
The new covenant graciously saves and resurrects!
The old covenant was the very essence of religion: Keep the rules! Do your best! Try to be holy!
In the new covenant the Lord Jesus steps right into our hearts and lives and changes us from the inside-out! Jesus “puts His laws into our minds” and “writes them on our hearts.”
This is so difficult for Christians to get! We still keep pining for law and for shadow. We still keep thinking, foolishly and the face of mountains of evidence to the contrary, that if we try hard enough and work diligently enough we can truly affect change inwardly and so please God. Many churches do this. Many churches are more than happy to give you a list of rules, a list of legalism, that purportedly bring real change to our lives. These include:
- What to wear.
- What not to wear.
- What words to use.
- What words not to use.
- What music to listen to.
- What music not to listen to.
- How long your hair can be.
- How much makeup, if any, women can wear.
- Whether or not men can have facial hair.
- What instruments, if any, are allowed in worship.
And that lists just barely scratches the surface! On and on we could go! Some of these rules may have valid points here or there if properly applied, but almost all of them are predicated on the false idea that if you can the externals nice and neat then your life will be where it needs to be! But surely we know better. Surely we know that a man or woman or boy or girl can keep the rules and check the boxes and be lost, lost, lost!
No, the Lord says, “I will put my laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”
Jesus does not throw laws at you and say, “Do your best! Hope it works out!” No, Jesus moves into the very essence of our lives and takes hold of our hearts of stone and breathes life into us!
In this way too, His covenant is better, is superior!
Jesus’ covenant will bring us into a relationship with the Lord God!
There is yet another way that it is better: Jesus’ covenant will bring us into an actual relationship with God! Listen:
11 And they shall not teach, each one his neighbor and each one his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.
In Christ the people of God will no longer speak to one another with words of vague but desperate hope that we might, in time, come to know God. No! When Jesus takes hold of our hearts and takes up residence in our lives, we know Him! “For they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest!” Hallelujah!
The old covenant of law only showed us how much we did not know Him! But the covenant of grace, the Jesus-covenant, draws all who come to Christ into relationship with the Lord!
And how is this possible? What is it about Jesus’ covenant that creates relationship? Listen again:
12 For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.” 13 In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.
My, my! It is mercy! It is forgiveness! It is grace! Through Jesus, God “will remember our sins no more”!
Jesus does not throw tablets at you to cause you to despair! Jesus hangs on a cross before you to give you hope!
Jesus does not present to you the rules that keep you in your shame. Jesus presents to you an empty tomb that allows us to dare to hope that we too can be forgiven.
And out of this, yes, we are equipped to be holy, to live rightly, to be good, to not break the law. And when we do, we see our High Priest Jesus pleading our name and our case and our cause at the right hand of the throne. And what He is saying is this: “Mercy! Mercy! Mercy! Love! Love! Love!”
And for this the church cries, “Amen! Hallelujah for our great High Priest! His ministry and His covenant are better!”
 Crossway Bibles. ESV Study Bible (Kindle Locations 150864-150865). Good News Publishers/Crossway Books. Kindle Edition.
 James T. Draper. Hebrews (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale Publishers, Inc., 1976), p.212.