Jesus: Mediator of a Better Covenant, Part 2
But now He has obtained a more excellent ministry, by as much as He is also the Mediator of a better covenant, which has been enacted on better promises. 7 For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion sought for a second. 8 For finding fault with them, He says, "Behold, days are coming, says the Lord, when I will effect a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah; 9 not like the covenant which I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt; for they did not continue in my covenant, and I did not care for them, says the Lord. 10 For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws into their minds, and I will write them upon their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 11 And they shall not teach everyone his fellow citizen, and everyone his brother, saying, 'Know the Lord,' for all shall know me, from the least to the greatest of them. 12 For I will be merciful to their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more." 13 When He said, "A new covenant," He has made the first obsolete. But whatever is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to disappear.
A Threatening Prediction
For those who had ears to hear there was a threatening prediction behind Hebrews 8:13. It would not have seemed threatening to everyone, but to many it would have and it did. The writer interprets the word "new," in the phrase "new covenant" from Jeremiah 31, like this: "When He said, 'A new covenant,' He has made the first obsolete. But whatever is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to disappear." What does he have in mind? This old covenant is "ready to disappear"? For those whose whole way of life was defined by this "first" covenant, this predicted disappearance would have been threatening.
Let me give you a background that will help you hear this the way I think he meant it to be heard.
It is almost impossible to exaggerate the importance of what happened in A. D. 70 in Jerusalem. It was an event that, for Jews and Christians, was critical in defining their faith for the next 2,000 years. God had been at work for 2,000 years since Abraham, calling, preserving, judging, forgiving and blessing his people Israel. He had commanded an elaborate system of sacrifices and priestly ministries and feasts and rituals to define Israel among the nations and to make himself known to them and to point them to the future fulfillment.
Christianity Threatened the Jewish Way of Life
Now Christians claimed that the Messiah had come, Jesus of Nazareth. The great mass of Israel rejected this claim. The rejection resulted in the crucifixion of Jesus and the persecution of the early Christians. The claims of the Christians raised a huge question for the Jewish people as a whole. What would become of their way of life? The new faith seemed incredibly radical. For example, in Acts 6 Stephen is proving to be an irresistible witness for the truth of the Christian faith. To stop him, false witnesses are brought in. And what is their charge? Acts 6:13-14:
They put forward false witnesses who said, "This man incessantly speaks against this holy place, and the Law; for we have heard him say that this Nazarene, Jesus, will destroy this place and alter the customs which Moses handed down to us."
There you have the meaning of Christianity for the Jewish leaders. It meant the destruction of the old ways. The "vanishing" of the first covenant. They could sense it. He speaks against this place (Jerusalem) and the Law; and they really believed that Christianity threatened the existence of the Temple itself. And if the Temple falls, then what will become of all the "customs" of the Old Testament and the whole religious life of Judaism? The issue was so sharp they killed Stephen over it.
And they did indeed have reason to be afraid. Not only had Jesus actually said that the Temple would be destroyed, he had predicted the entire destruction of Jerusalem. For example, in Luke 19:43-44 he said,
The days shall come upon you when your enemies will throw up a bank before you, and surround you, and hem you in on every side, and will level you to the ground and your children within you, and they will not leave in you one stone upon another, because you did not recognize the time of your visitation.
In other words, the Jewish people had reason to fear these early Christians. Even though they were a meek and peaceful band that would rather die than live by the sword, nevertheless at the very heart of their faith was the implicit end of the Jewish way of life as they knew it. So much so that the end of that way of life (not by Christian violence, but by God's hand) would be a partial vindication of the Christian's claim to truth.
The Roman Destruction of Jerusalem
For decades before and after the birth of Jesus the atmosphere in the land of Israel was tense with the spirit of rebellion against Rome. The Jewish people chafed under this godless power, and dreamed of deliverance. In September A. D. 66, Florus, the Roman governor of Judea, provoked the Jews by raiding the Temple treasury and taking what he thought the Jews were withholding in taxes.
This provoked a riot, and he ruthlessly crucified some of the citizens and allowed his troops to plunder part of the city. This enraged the people. Eleazar, the Jewish Captain of the Temple, persuaded the priests no longer to offer daily sacrifices for the welfare of the Roman emperor. This was an ominous sign of open revolt against Rome by a tiny vassal nation.
In a surge of courage and folly, the Jewish forces stormed the fortress of Antonius in the city and took it and wiped out the Roman soldiers. So the die was cast, and there was no turning back. Vespasian, the Roman general, came to put down the revolt in 67 and took all of Israel except Jerusalem. He returned to Rome to become emperor and left the finishing of the work to his son, the general Titus. After a five-month siege, he broke through and burned the Temple to the ground in August of 70. A few Jewish groups held out for a while, but all eventually collapsed, including the force at Masada, who committed mass suicide in 73 rather than be handed over as captives.
The End of Judaism as it Was
That was the end of Judaism as it had been known for hundreds of years. The priesthood was at an end. The animal sacrifices were at an end. The worship life that centered on Jerusalem and the Temple was at an end. And it has never been restored to our own day. Judaism as we know it today in Minneapolis and New York and Tel Aviv is not the same way of life practiced before AD 70.
What is the meaning of this cataclysmic event for Judaism?
It was a witness to the truth of Christianity. Jesus predicted it. And it came to pass. Christians did not fight against Israel in this revolt. In fact, Christians suffered in Jerusalem with Israel because of the revolt. As far as Rome was concerned Judaism was the tree and Christianity was the branch. If they could destroy the tree of Judaism, they could wipe out Christianity as well. Jews and Christians suffered together in AD 70.
So the destruction of AD 70 was not an act of anti-Semitism. Rather it was an act of divine judgment. That is what Jesus says in Luke 19:43-44: these things happened" because you did not recognize the time of your visitation,"—that is, you did not recognize the coming of the Messiah. It was God's testimony that the coming of Jesus was in fact what the book of Hebrews says it was—the replacement of shadows with Reality—Christ himself.
One of the early church fathers, Athenasius (born A. D. 373), put it like this,
It is a sign, and an important proof, of the coming of the Word of God, that Jerusalem no longer stands. . . . For . . . when the truth was there, what need any more of the shadow? And this was why Jerusalem stood till then—namely, that [the Jews] might be exercised in the types as a preparation for the reality.*
In other words, one might say, the destruction of the Temple and of Jerusalem was God's way of saying: "Wake up to the meaning of the book of Hebrews in the New Testament."
Now we come back to Hebrews 8:13 with a new sense of what was at stake in these words: "When He said [in Jeremiah 31:31], 'A new covenant,' He has made the first obsolete. But whatever is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to disappear."
Christmas Means Two Things
What we saw in the last two Sundays looking at Hebrews 8 is that Christmas means two things.
1) It means the replacement of Old Testament shadows with reality. The temple and tabernacle and sacrifices and priesthood and feasts and dietary laws were all shadows and copies of the Reality in heaven, namely, Jesus Christ and his work as our High Priest and our Sacrifice and our focus of worship. Jesus fulfills and replaces the shadows of the Old Testament.
2) And the second meaning of Christmas that we saw in this chapter is that God makes the Reality of Christ real to us personally by the work of the new covenant when he writes the will of God on our hearts (v. 10).
So Christmas means shadows are replaced with Reality: Old Testament copies give way to the Original, Jesus Christ. And it means that God goes beyond that, and moves powerfully into our hearts and minds to overcome our resistance to this Reality. He writes the will of God—the truth of the Reality of Jesus (2 Corinthians 4:4, 6)—on our hearts, so that we are willing and eager to trust him and follow him—from the inside out freely, not under constraint from rules outside.
A Third Meaning—God is Merciful
Before we connect these two meanings of Christmas with Hebrews 8:13 and the destruction of Jerusalem, let's add one more from verse 12: "For I will be merciful to their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more." This is the end of the quote from Jeremiah 31. It begins with "for" or "because." So it is the ground or basis for the other promises of the new covenant (in verses 10-11).
God said, "I will write my will on your hearts, and be your God, and cause you to know me personally . . .For I will be merciful to your iniquities and remember your sins no more." In other words, the death of Jesus for our sins is the foundation of the new covenant (Hebrews 7:27; 9:28; 10:12). It's the basis of the other promises. If Christ had not died for our sins, God could not be our God or write the law on our hearts or cause us to know him personally. All that mercy was obtained by the blood of Jesus. This is why Jesus called the cup of the Lord's supper, "the new covenant in my blood" (Luke 22:20).
Here's what the writer wants us to understand. God is just and holy and separated from sinners like us. No fingerpointing here—like us! This is our main problem at Christmas and every other season. How shall we get right with a just and holy God? Nevertheless God is merciful and has promised in Jeremiah 31 (five hundred years before Christ) that someday he would do something new. He would replace shadows with the Reality of the Messiah. And he would powerfully move into our lives and write his will on our hearts so that we are not constrained from outside but are willing from inside to love him and trust him and follow him.
A Christmas Gift Worth Singing About!
That would be the greatest salvation imaginable—if God should offer us the greatest Reality in the universe to enjoy and then move in us to see to it that we could enjoy it with the greatest freedom and joy possible. That would be a Christmas gift worth singing about.
That is, in fact, what he promised. But there was a huge obstacle. Our sin. Our separation from God because of our unrighteousness. How shall a holy and just God treat us sinners with so much kindness as to give us the greatest Reality in the universe (his Son) to enjoy with the greatest joy possible? The answer is that God put our sins on his Son, and judged them there, so that he could put them out of his mind, and deal with us mercifully and remain just and holy at the same time. Hebrews 9:28 says, "Christ was offered once to bear the sins of many."
This is what verse 12 means: Christ bore our sins in his own body when he died. He took our judgment. He canceled our guilt. And that means the sins are gone. They do not remain in God's mind as a basis for condemnation. In that sense he "forgets" them. They are consumed in the death of Christ.
Which means that God is now free, in his justice, to lavish us with the new covenant. He gives us Christ, the greatest Reality in the universe, for our enjoyment. And he writes his own will—his own heart—on our hearts so that we can love Christ and trust Christ and follow Christ from the inside out, with freedom and joy.
Jesus Christ is the Goal, the Reality
When Jerusalem fell to the Romans in A. D. 70, and the Temple was burned, and the sacrifices stopped being offered in Judaism, and the Levitical priesthood came to and end, God was saying with his power and providence: Christ was the goal of it all. Christ was the Reality; the rest was shadows. Christianity is a faith woven into history. It is not a mere set of ideas. It is about a person, Jesus, who came into history and died and rose again. And it is about a God who intervenes in history to bear witness to the reality of his Son, Jesus Christ.
And look around today. Is it not astonishing that God has preserved the Jewish people to this day. And there is yet a future for them in Christ according to Scripture. But what do we see? Are they meeting at the Temple? Are they offering animal sacrifices? Do they look to the Levitical priesthood for their mediation with God? No. Why? Because Jesus said, "they did not recognize the time of their visitation" (Luke 19:44). The existence of the Jewish people today and the transformed version of Judaism that they follow is a constant witness to the world that the first covenant is vanishing away. That the Messiah, Jesus Christ, has come. That he has inaugurated the new covenant. That the shadows have been replaced by Reality. And that the Spirit has written the will of God on our hearts.
So let us look to the great final reality of Christ, and put our hope in him, and love him and worship this Christmas.