When we lose our wonder, we are prone to wander.
Not only are we prone to lose the wonder that God made the world he did — with clouds and canyons, mountains and mammals, nutmeg and noses — but also that Jesus is the Lord and Savior he is. We are prone to lose a sense for the glory of the new covenant, the one we enjoy now “in these last days” (Hebrews 1:2). We grow blind to the miracle of Christianity in our specific culturally conditioned manifestations of it — until we compare those experiences to something else.
Simple comparison can be a powerful tool for keeping (and even deepening) the wonder of our faith. The epistle to the Hebrews was written to a group of Christian Jews who had lost the wonder — or perhaps never quite seen the wonder in the first place. Hebrews challenges its readers to “pay much closer attention” (Hebrews 2:1) and not neglect (Hebrews 2:3) the magnitude of the salvation we have received in Christ.
Comparing Christianity to other world religions can give us fresh love and appreciation for Christ — how the God of the universe has revealed himself to us and what he expects (and doesn’t) from us. And one of the most powerful comparative controls for Christianity is not pagan religion but the God-given, pre-Christian religion of the old covenant.
“When we lose our wonder, we are prone to wander.”
The Scriptures are full of important flashpoints of comparison for how God once appointed for his people to engage with him, in preparation for the coming of his Son, against how he now directs us to live, and draw near to him, since the climax of history has come in the life, death, and resurrection of his Son. Whereas the contrast with pagan religion is essentially bad versus good, the comparison with old-covenant religion can be illuminating because it is good versus better.
Jesus Is Better
Of the many places in the New Testament that make such comparisons implicitly and explicitly, the book of Hebrews does it most extensively and in the greatest detail. This is, in fact, the essential focus of the letter.
A group of Jewish Christians, perhaps persecuted by non-Christian kinsmen, are tempted to return to Judaism apart from Christ. The author to the Hebrews writes to warn and persuade them against such a (foolish and perilous) course. He argues not only that returning to Judaism isn’t actually possible (because old-covenant religion has been fulfilled in Christ and is no longer a valid approach to God apart from him), but also that Jesus is better than anything they could return to apart from him.
The superiority of Christ over all that came before him (not just pagan but also God-given, first-covenant practice) is the theme that runs throughout the letter from the opening declaration (Hebrews 1:4) to the concluding lines (Hebrews 12:24). Even though what came before was “holy and righteous and good” (to borrow the language of Romans 7:12), Jesus — and the new covenant he brings — is better. The line of comparison, then, is not bad versus good. Nor (beware) is it good versus just as good. It is good versus better. Old was good — and Jesus is better.
Five Crucial Contrasts
Hebrews chapters 9 and 10 serve as the culminating argument of the letter. All that comes before (and after) sets the table for (and extends application from) this climactic exposition about the work of Christ. In particular, Hebrews 9:11–14 is the crucial paragraph. Here at the very heart of the letter is the comparison of five (good) facets of old-covenant religion versus five (better) aspects of the new.
1. Superior Place
The old covenant had a ground zero in this world, “an earthly place of holiness” (Hebrews 9:1). God instructed his people, through Moses, to build a tabernacle with two sections. The first was “the Holy Place” into which the priests went daily to perform their duties (Hebrews 9:2, 6). The second was “the Most Holy Place” into which only the high priest went, and only once a year (Hebrews 9:3, 7). Given as it was by God, this tabernacle was still an earthly locale. It was a good arrangement, enduring for a millennium and a half as it was incorporated into the structure of the temple.
However, the place of Jesus’s work is better. When Jesus had accomplished his cross-work, and risen from the dead, he ascended bodily and entered into the ultimate holy place (“heaven itself,” Hebrews 9:24) “through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation)” (Hebrews 9:11). An earthly tabernacle, as the dwelling place of God, was only “a copy and shadow of the heavenly things” (Hebrews 8:5). Which is why God instructed Moses, “See that you make everything according to the pattern that was shown you on the mountain” (Hebrews 8:5; Exodus 25:40).
The tabernacle was a precursor of, or pointer to, the true dwelling place of God. But it wasn’t the presence of God himself. By design, it was inadequate and incomplete. And now the place of Jesus’s mediatorial work is better: he represents us to his Father in heaven itself.
2. Superior Priest
Essential to God’s first arrangement with his people was human mediation: the priests (Hebrews 9:6). God set aside one of Israel’s twelve tribes (Levi) to serve at the altar, performing the specified daily rituals and duties. Among the priests, only the high priest entered annually into the Most Holy Place (Hebrews 9:7).
Jesus also is a priest, and a high priest at that. Hebrews has claimed this from its outset (Hebrews 1:3; 2:17; 3:1), and then argued it at length (Hebrews 4:14–5:10; 6:20–8:1). However, Jesus’s priesthood is of a different (and better) order than Aaron’s. Jesus would not be a priest under the terms of the old covenant (he is from Judah’s tribe, not Levi’s). He is not a priest of the good things that have been (in the past). Rather, he is now (in the present) “a high priest of the good things that have come” in the era of the new covenant (Hebrews 9:11).
3. Superior Access
At the center of the old-covenant arrangement was the presence of God (typified) in the Most Holy Place. The high priest alone was instructed to enter into that holiest of places one time each year (Hebrews 9:7).
“The better we know the Old Testament, the more we will stand in awe of Jesus.”
Jesus’s frequency of approach is better. He comes into the presence of his Father not once a year but once for all. “He entered once for all into the holy places” (Hebrews 9:12). And having entered once for all, he stayed there. He remains there, dwelling continually in the presence of God, not standing as the earthly high priest did while he performed his duties and then left, but sitting permanently at God’s right hand on the very throne of heaven (Hebrews 10:11–12).
4. Superior Price
The old-covenant high priest would dare not enter the Most Holy Place apart from a covering for his and the people’s sins. He entered “not without taking blood, which he offers for himself and for the unintentional sins of the people” (Hebrews 9:7). And the blood he took was that of sacrificial animals, entering “by means of the blood of goats and calves” (Hebrews 9:12).
Christ’s means of drawing near to his Father, however, is better by far. He enters “by means of his own blood” (Hebrews 9:12). All along, the blood of bulls and goats had been a God-designed temporary measure. All should have known that “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Hebrews 10:4). Human death (symbolized by human blood) was the just punishment for human sin, which is cosmic treason against God Almighty.
Jesus, who had no sin of his own, offered his own blood to make the better sacrifice, the final sacrifice, for the sins of his people. And Jesus’s blood is also better, as Hebrews 9:14 adds, because it was offered voluntarily (“through the eternal Spirit [he] offered himself”), unlike the blood of animals.
5. Superior Effect
Finally, the old-covenant arrangement had an effect on the worshipers, those who sought to approach God through the tabernacle, its priests, and its sacrifices, but it dealt “only with food and drink and various washings, regulations for the body” (Hebrews 9:10). The effect on the worshiper was limited to the external: “for the purification of the flesh” (Hebrews 9:13).
However, the effect of Jesus’s work on his people is better. It affects us heart and soul. Jesus’s work will “purify our conscience” (Hebrews 9:14) in a way repeated animal sacrifices could not. Jesus’s death “put away sin” (Hebrews 9:26) like the first covenant did not. Old-covenant sacrifices, by divine design, “can never take away sins” (Hebrews 10:11).
Only Christ’s new covenant can “make perfect those who draw near” (Hebrews 10:1), that is, to cleanse the worshipers from “any consciousness of sins” (Hebrews 10:2) — meaning they have been dealt with totally, not merely pushed forward to be reckoned with at some future time. The heart of the worshiper (this cleansing of the conscience) is right at the heart of the argument of Hebrews. The author wants to persuade his readers with objective truth that their subjective sense of needing cleansing now has been dealt with, decisively and for all time, in a way that the old covenant could not (and did not attempt).
“Jesus did not update, renew, or renovate the first covenant. It is not the same as the old, or an extension or adaptation of the old. It is genuinely new.”
The effectiveness of Christ’s work not only extends the external to the internal, but also the temporary to the eternal. His work secures “an eternal redemption” (Hebrews 9:12). The first covenant, with its earthly location and priesthood, was good and effective for a season, as God intended. Through animal blood, it brought God’s people, represented by the high priest, into his presence each year. However, the new covenant is better. Through Jesus — the superior priest, who cleanses us fully (inside and out), by means of his superior blood — we are invited to approach the very throne of God himself not just annually but weekly, daily, and at any moment (Hebrews 4:16).
Not Your Mama’s Religion
The desired effect on Hebrews’ original readers was to show them that all that had come before had anticipated this new arrangement in which Christians would be offered direct and unending access to God himself in the person of his Son. The cumulative point, then, of Hebrews 9:11–14 is clear enough but too glorious to go without explicit expression: “Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant” (Hebrews 9:15).
Jesus did not update, renew, or renovate the first covenant. It is not the same as the old, or an extension or adaptation of the old. It is new. In other words, for the first readers, this is not the religion you grew up with. This is not your parents’ covenant. It is distinct and different. Jesus is not the latest in a long line of covenant mediators. He mediates a new covenant — and he alone mediates this covenant.
He completed his work. In the language of Hebrews 1:3, he made purification for sins. Done. Finished. And Hebrews’s first hearers, as lifelong Jews, needed to know that Christ’s work for them (unlike the old covenant) is “for all time” (Hebrews 10:12, 14). And they, of all people, should have been ready for this message. After all, God had promised in their Scriptures (through Jeremiah) about this coming new covenant, “I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more” (Hebrews 10:17; Jeremiah 31:34). Jesus’s single sacrifice is final. There’s no need for more, and no going back to before. And — this is key for Hebrews — why would you even want to go back if you could? Jesus, and his work, and his covenant, are better.
If the newness and superiority of Jesus’s new covenant doesn’t strike us with awe and wonder, perhaps it’s time to get to know the old covenant better. God designed it to help us see and savor the glory of Christ. The better we know it, the more we might stand in awe of him.