The Superiority of the New Covenant

Series: Hebrews

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Nov 4, 1998

Hebrews 8:1-13

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This is all part of the argument which begins back in Hebrews 4:14 and goes all the way through chapter 9, verse 14, that Jesus is a better high priest than we could have possibly had under the Old Covenant ceremonial ritual.  He is superior in every way to that priesthood.  The author of Hebrews is piling up arguments because these Hebrew Christians in this congregation are tugged by the elaborate ceremonies and the impressive outward forms and they see religion in those outward forms and thinking, “Well, maybe I can go back to that form of religion which we experienced in Judaism before we made a profession of faith in Jesus Christ.  Maybe Christ is peripheral to fellowship with God and those forms are so beautiful and enticing and they seem so spiritual.”  The author of Hebrews, among other things is saying, “Look, Jesus is so much greater than anything that ever occurred under the Old Covenant that you cannot turn your back on Him without turning your back on God.  Because He is the plan of God for the ages.  In fact, we are going to see in this passage that he argues that all those things under the ceremonial ordinances of Moses, were things provided by God for His people to set forth and foreshadow the real work of priesthood and sacrifice which was going to occur once for all in Jesus Christ.  So let’s hear God’s holy word, beginning in Hebrews 8:1:  

Hebrews 8:1-13 

Father, in these few brief moments we have together, we pray that You would strengthen us by the truth of the gospel.  We run to You for You are our refuge and we glory in the gospel of our salvation.  We ask that You would enlighten our eyes and give hope to our hearts.  We ask  it in Jesus’ name.  Amen.” 

There are just two points to the author’s argument that I want you to appreciate tonight as we look at this passage.  It’s an unequal division, but let’s divide this chapter into two parts.

The first simply consisting in those first three verses where the author of Hebrews just tells you point blank, “The main point in what I’m saying is that you see that we have a High Priest that is better than anything that existed under the Old Covenant system of rituals.  I want you to see three things that he says there in the first three verses about the superiority of Jesus in His nature and in the place of His ministry.   

I. We see the superiority of Jesus in the nature and place of His ministry.

Notice in verse 1 that He is described as a high priest who has taken His place at the right hand of the throne of the majesty in Heaven.  That phrase simultaneously reminds you of the three stages of exaltation which the Lord Jesus Christ experienced after His humiliating death.  If His death on the cross and His receiving of the anathema of God on our behalf was the very pit of His humiliation, then His exaltation began to be raised step by step immediately upon His resurrection.  His resurrection is the first state in that exaltation.  His ascension is the second step in that exaltation.  And His exaltation sitting at the right hand of God in the heavenly session is the third stage of His exaltation.  And that session will be further expanded when He comes again in power and glory in clouds and comes as the Captain of Salvation with all His people.  The author of Hebrews is saying, “Now you tell me about a high priest who can match that one.  You tell me about a hope that is surer than a high priest like that.  The High Priest who even now sits as a King enthroned t the right hand at the right hand of God in glory, every living to intercede, His word speaking out good and favor for His people.”  He says, “That’s the High Priest that we worship.  Which of the high priest of the Old Covenant will you go back to to match Him?”

That’s the first plank of his argument.  You see again in verse 2, He wants you to see that Jesus is ministering the true tabernacle.  His sacrifice was the real sacrifice.  The priests of the Old Covenant successively ministered in the tabernacle and then in the temple.  But that tabernacle, that temple, was simply a foreshadowing of a greater reality and greater sacrifice to come.  And so the author of Hebrews says he is a minister in the sanctuary and in the true tabernacle which the Lord pitched, not man.  No man, no matter how skilled, pitched the Tabernacle in which the Lord Jesus ministers.  He ministers in the tabernacle erected by His father.  His sacrifice is the real sacrifice.  And so again he says, “What sacrifice of the Old Covenant can match that sacrifice, the real sacrifice that brings us into fellowship with God?”

And finally, notice again in verse 3, he goes on to say, “Every high priest is appointed to offer both gifts and sacrifices.  And so it’s necessary that this high priest have something to offer.”  We’re reminded that the very essence of the function of the priesthood is mediation, offering up sacrifices for sins of God’s people unto God, standing in between and offering up prayers and supplications and intercessions and sacrifices to God, Most High, that He would deal graciously and mercifully to His people.  That’s the essence of priesthood, to offer that sacrifice, to intercede, to mediate.  The author of Hebrews is saying, “Look here, Jesus’ mediation, Jesus’ sacrifice, was not of something else.  It was of Himself.  It was the perfect sacrifice, the sacrifice of sacrifices, the sacrifice to end all sacrifices.”  And again he says, “Show me the sacrifice in the Old Testament that ended all sacrifices.”

For all these of those reasons, I want you to see the superiority of this High Priest. There is great comfort that we can draw from that gospel truth.  There is no circumstance in life that can change that reality.  No one can take that reality away from you and me.  Though they take away our lives, they cannot take away that reality.  For them who love the Lord have been united to Him by the Spirit in faith, who have trusted and rested in Him alone for salvation, nothing can take that reality away.  You see that the whole reason the author of Hebrews is bringing this up is not only to exhort us not to stray away from Christ, but to help us to understand that there is no comfort if you will not embrace that High Priest.  But that if you will embrace that High Priest, there is no circumstance in life in which you need be comfortless. 

Have you ever looked in the eyes of a person comfortless?  It’s hell on earth.  The author of Hebrews is reminding us here, no believer is without comfort because the work of our High Priest, the Lord Jesus Christ, is finished.  It’s final.  It’s superior. It worked.  It brought us into fellowship with God. 

II. We see the superiority of Jesus in the covenant.

And then he takes us back to Jeremiah 31 and this long and glorious quote that runs in the second half from verse 4 to 13.  He directs us for a moment away from the Christ of the New Covenant to the New Covenant itself and says you can see the superiority of the Christ of the New Covenant by looking at the promises of the New Covenant.  So he just quotes it to you.  Let’s go back and see what Jeremiah said.  Basically he is saying, if the prophets thought that the Old Covenant was the be and the end all, the very superior, the final things that God was going to do in His midst, why in the world would they have prophesied about the New Covenant?  Why would they have said that there was going to be a New Covenant, not like the old one that didn’t work? 

Look at verse 7.  “For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion sought for a second.”  Then he quotes Jeremiah 31.  Now you understand, it is not faultless in the sense that it fails to do what God intended it to do.  It was not flawed in that sense.  The point is that God never intended for those Old Covenant rituals to be the ultimate thing upon which His people trusted.  Those Old Covenant rituals themselves were designed to point away from themselves to the finished work of the Lord Jesus Christ.  And when that finished work has come, it is not only useless, it is blasphemous to go back to those Old Covenant rituals.  Because it is to bring into question the finished work, the finality, the sufficiency, the efficacy of the work of the Lord Jesus Christ.  And it’s to rob yourself of that irony.  It’s to rob yourself of the comfort and the grace which is in Christ Jesus. 

So he lays out before us the superiority of the New Covenant of which Jesus was a minister.  It’s a better covenant.  Why?  Because it’s the real sacrifice.  It actually accomplished our redemption. 

Notice the characteristics of this New Covenant.  If you look particularly here in verses 10, 11, and 12, you will see three things about this New Covenant.  First in verse 10, you will see that in this covenant, the Law, by the work of the Spirit, will be engraved in our minds and hearts.  The Law will not simply be on external tablets of stone, but our own hearts will become the tablets upon which the finger of the Spirit writes the character of God and we will love Him from the inside out.  What a glorious picture of the New Covenant.  And he turns and he says, “I defy you to show me that glory in that great degree under the Old Covenant in the ceremonial code of Moses.  And he goes on at the end of verse 10 and says, “And I will be their God and they shall be my people.”  And again that great phrase which has been echoed throughout the days of the Covenant of Grace is repeated.  But it’s repeated with a new intensity, indicating that there will be a level of realization of the presence of God with His people, never before experienced under the Old Covenant.

Then in verse 11, he says, “And they will not teach everyone his fellow citizens and everyone his brother saying “Know the Lord, for they shall all know me from the least to the greatest of them.”  A new level of realization of what it means to have spiritually, saving knowledge of the Lord.

And then finally in verse 12, He goes on to emphasize, “And I will be merciful to their iniquities and remember their sins no more.”  The very essence of the New Covenant is the forgiveness of sins.  Why is it that we have saving knowledge of God?  Because our sins have been pardoned in Christ and our hearts have been renovated by the Spirit.  You can’t have saving knowledge of God without the work of the Holy Spirit.  It’s the Spirit who writes that saving knowledge upon our very hearts.

And so he says, “You have a superior priest and a superior covenant.  How could you possibly go back to anything else?”  As we face the challenges of our own day, we do well to look at those challenges in the light of who it is, who is at the right hand of God for us, and the covenant promises which God has lavished upon us.  Because that changes the perspective on everything.  Let us pray. 

Our Lord and our God, at the end of this night, we ask again that by the Spirit, Your truth would be worked to our hearts, and our hearts molded into the character of the One who was raised, that we would be strengthened by the words comfort and we would be made a witness to your glory. We ask it in Jesus’ name.  Amen.

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