Should We Envy Abraham?

Why Christians Love the New Covenant

I can’t remember the preacher, but I remember the line: “Abraham would have traded places with us in a heartbeat.” It caught my attention because I so often read my Bible and wish I could have the experiences that Abraham had. Or Moses. Or Joshua. Definitely David.

But the preacher was right. In fact, he wasn’t saying anything different from what Jesus says to his disciples: “Blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. For truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it” (Matthew 13:16–17). Now, in other words, really is better than then: better than Abraham’s experiences at Haran (Genesis 12:1–5), Moses’s at Sinai (Exodus 19), Joshua’s at Jericho (Joshua 6), or David’s in the Valley of Elah (1 Samuel 17). Now — the present chapter in God’s story — is better, and it’s better for all kinds of reasons.

Here I want to draw our attention to one often-overlooked reason. It’s found at the end of Hebrews, and it’s full of implications for how we read our Bibles — and whom we baptize.

Running with a Limp

Right at the end of the “Hall of Faith” in Hebrews 11, the pastor concludes his list of Old Testament heroes by telling us this: “All these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect” (verses 39–40). We find the same idea in two other places in the chapter (verses 1–2, 13): the Old Testament faithful lived and died without receiving what God had promised them.

The promise in view is variously described as a “land” (verse 9), a “city” built by “God” (verse 10; see also verse 16), a “homeland” (verse 14), and a “better” and, indeed, “heavenly” country (verse 16). In other places, Hebrews calls this same place “the world to come” (2:5; 1:6), “a Sabbath rest” (4:9), “the inner place behind the curtain” (6:19; 9:11–12, 24), “the promised eternal inheritance” (9:15), “a better possession” (10:34), “Mount Zion, the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem” (12:22 NET), “a kingdom that cannot be shaken” (12:28), and a “city that is to come” (13:14).

It’s a place the Old Testament faithful never reached. They didn’t reach it because God had planned “something better for us.” Or, to say it another way, God had decided “that apart from us they should not be made perfect” or fit to enter God’s presence. That’s what perfection means in Hebrews. It’s a fitness made possible by Jesus’s sacrifice (10:14), and it includes new and immediate effects upon the believer’s conscience (9:9, 14; 10:2, 22) and, one day, on his body too (see 11:35). It also gives believers new spiritual access to God now (4:16; also 4:3; 12:22–23), and bodily access to the heavenly city when Jesus returns (12:22; 13:14). It’s an extraordinary gift and one, Hebrews insists, that Old Testament believers, from Abel to Zechariah (Hebrews 11:4, 37), ran their race without.

“In the new covenant, God enables every member to keep covenant. He enables every member to persevere in faithfulness.”

The author couldn’t make his point more forcefully. When his friends asked whether it was possible to run the Christian race, they needed only to remember the “great cloud” of the Old Testament faithful, who lived and died full of faith (Hebrews 12:1 NET). These heroes were tempted in every way, just like we are, yet without giving up. Like us, they too ran their race through many dangers, toils, and snares. But, on top of all this, they also ran with a limp. They ran their race without the gift of perfection (11:39–40). Surely (and this is Hebrews’s point) if they could run and finish full of faith, so can we!

Three Lessons from Perfection

This brand-new gift of perfection makes our place in God’s story better and, at the same time, teaches us fresh lessons about how we should read and understand God’s written word, including the relationship between the covenants, the nature of Christian apostasy, and the proper subjects of Christian baptism.

1. Relationship Between the Covenants

According to Hebrews, Jesus’s perfection-bringing death inaugurated a new covenant (9:15–17, when properly translated). Hebrews calls this covenant “better” when comparing it with the old covenant that Moses inaugurated at Sinai (8:6; 9:18–22) and under which most of the faithful in Hebrews 11 lived (11:23–38).

It’s better because it’s “not like” the old covenant that God made with Israel and that Israel didn’t keep (8:8–9). Unlike the new covenant, the old covenant couldn’t guarantee its members’ faithfulness. It couldn’t keep itself from being broken or its members safe from its curses (3:11, 17–18). It had no power to ensure that its members would, like the heroes of Hebrews 11, live and die full of faith. It was good but, owing to these deficiencies, not good enough.

The new covenant’s new provisions, therefore, supply precisely what the old covenant lacked. God now puts his “laws into” his people’s “minds” and writes “them on their hearts” (8:10). In short, he enables his people’s obedience. In fact, he does this for each and every covenant member: “all” the members of God’s new covenant “know” God, from “least” to “greatest” (verse 11). The days of a believing remnant inside a hardened majority are forever ended. In this new covenant, God enables every member to keep covenant. He enables every member to persevere in faithfulness.

All of this, however, can be gifted to sinful people only because our thrice-holy God, in unfathomable love, finally and fully forgives his people’s sins through Jesus’s perfecting sacrifice (8:12; 10:14, 18).

Hebrews 11:39–40, therefore, teaches us that Jesus’s perfecting death inaugurated a covenant that is better than the old covenant precisely because it includes benefits never before experienced. None, in fact, could be experienced in earlier eras of God’s story, neither through God’s earlier covenants nor proleptically through the new, because “God had planned something better for us” (11:40 NIV).

To say it again, the Old Testament faithful were not perfected. The new covenant was not inaugurated, nor its better promises experienced, until Jesus died. This means that the new covenant is not simply a further revelation of the one covenant of grace, but a substantively new covenant, new in its revelatory content and in its soteriological provisions (1:1–3).

2. Nature of Christian Apostasy

The new covenant’s superiority implies that apostasy in the new-covenant era is substantively different from apostasy under the old covenant. While an old-covenant member might fail to “continue in” the covenant (and, sadly, many did; Hebrews 8:9), a new-covenant member cannot. It’s this very distinction — the unbreakable-ness of the covenant — that makes the new covenant better. Thus, the warnings against apostasy in Hebrews, which some in the author’s audience did not heed (10:25), refer to new-covenant experiences available to members and nonmembers alike (see 6:4–6 and 10:29). After all, the covenant is either better or breakable. There is not a third option.

3. Proper Subjects of Christian Baptism

Considering the inviolability of the new covenant and the connection Hebrews draws between faith, perfection, and covenant membership (3:6, 14; 10:14, 18, 22–23), Hebrews gives us no encouragement to treat non-professing individuals (those who do not profess faith in Christ) as covenant members. Rather, the (sad) reality of apostasy suggests that the visible new-covenant community will be phenomenologically mixed until Jesus returns, with real and false professors, while the superiority of the new covenant suggests the true covenant community will remain ontologically (and gloriously) unmixed.

To admit non-professing people into the visible (professing) community confuses these two realities. It fails to recognize the crucial difference between a professing member who claims to “know the Lord” and a non-professing member who doesn’t — and who therefore requires something that new-covenant membership itself specifically provides (8:11).

Our Place in God’s Story

What more shall I say? Time would fail me to tell of what Hebrews 11:39–40 teaches us about Levitical sacrifices or circumcision or regeneration or the intermediate state. Time and space fail already to give anything more than a cursory look at the three implications I’ve sketched above.

Still, what we’ve seen gives us more than enough reason to agree with Jesus (and the nameless preacher) about the goodness of our place in God’s story. We have even more reason to persevere in our race of faith as we await Jesus’s return, a perfected body, and life with God and in his city forever and ever.

is associate professor of New Testament and biblical theology at Bethlehem College & Seminary.