The Lord’s Day Morning
June 2, 2013
“The Mediator of a Better Covenant”
The Reverend Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
If you have your Bibles, I’d invite you to turn with me to Hebrews chapter 8. We’re beginning a new section of the book of Hebrews together, but I want to remind you where we’ve been already. In Hebrews 6:20, the author has reminded us again - he mentioned it twice in chapter 5 but it’s in Hebrews chapter 6 verse 20 - he picks up on the theme of Jesus as a priest according to the order of Melchizedek. And he continues and expands on that theme all chapter 7 long. And he wants to press home several things. First of all, he wants us to understand the fact that Jesus is a priest according to the order of Melchizedek, as opposed to Levi. All the Old Testament priests established from the time of Aaron and Moses on, were priests according to the order of Levi. They were descendants of Levi. You couldn’t be a priest in the Old Testament in Israel if you weren’t descended from Levi. The very fact that Jesus, who by the way was descended from the tribe of Judah - you remember John will call him, “The Lion of the tribe of Judah” in the book of Revelation - the fact that Jesus was not descended from the tribe of Levi but His priesthood was according to the order of Melchizedek, the author of Hebrew says shows that there was an imperfection in the Levitical priesthood that could only be addressed in the person and priesthood of Jesus Christ.
Furthermore, it was pointed out that Levitical priests lived and ministered and then did what? They died, just like all of us. But Jesus’ priesthood is a priesthood that is forever because He is a priest according to the order of Melchizedek with a power of an indestructible life. And it is pointed out in chapter 7 that Jesus is a priest according to the order of Melchizedek because an oath has been taken by God to Him. It’s quoted from Psalm 110. “This day I have sworn, you are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.” And so Jesus’ priesthood is superior that way. And His priesthood is superior because He is without sin. Levitical priests had to offer sacrifices for their own sins before they offered sacrifices for the people’s sins but Jesus did not because He is perfect. In all of these ways, Hebrews 7 emphasizes that Jesus’ priesthood is better than the Old Testament priesthood descended from Levi.
Now in this passage, that truth is going to be applied. And there are two things that I want you to be on the lookout for. If you look at Hebrews 8 verses 1 to 5 it is going to be emphasized and applied that Jesus is a better priest. You remember the whole sermon series on Hebrews we’re just calling, Better. Why? Because the argument of Hebrews is, “Jesus is better.” He’s the better revelation of God, He’s better than Moses, He’s better than Joshua, He’s better than Aaron, He’s better than any of the other high priests. Over and over, the point that Jesus is better is stressed and we’re going to see that in this passage. In Hebrews 8 verses 1 to 5 it will be emphasized that Jesus is a better priest. There’s no priest in the Old Testament who is as good as Jesus. Then if you look at verses 6 to 13, there will be an emphasis that Jesus is a mediator of a better covenant. So verses 1 to 5 - better priest. Verses 6 to 13 - better covenant. Be on the lookout for that. Let’s pray before we read God’s Word.
Heavenly Father, this is Your Word. Open our eyes to behold wonderful things in it, in Jesus’ name. Amen.
This is the Word of God. Hear it beginning in Hebrews 8 verse 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, a minister in the holy places, in the true tent that the Lord set up, not man. For every high priest is appointed to offer gifts and sacrifices; thus it is necessary for this priest also to have something to offer. 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. They serve a copy and shadow of the eternal 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.’ 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. For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion to look for a second.
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, 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. 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. 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. For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.’
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.”
Amen, and thus ends this reading of God’s holy, inspired, and inerrant Word. May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.
The Vanity of Finding Hope in our Circumstances
Where do you turn when you are looking for hope but find yourself in the midst of despair? Where do you turn when you’re looking for encouragement but you find yourself underneath discouragement? Do you look to better circumstances? “Things will get better.” Hebrews says to the Christian, “No, that’s not where you look for hope. You don’t look for hope to your circumstances; you don’t look for hope to your circumstances changing. You don’t look to your circumstances at all for your hope. You look somewhere else. Your hope is found somewhere else.” This passage of the book of Hebrews is about where you look for that hope. A very famous preacher recently wrote a book on preaching in which he counseled all preachers on how they ought to preach. This reminded me of something that David Strain brought to my attention this last week, a quote by the famous Scottish preacher called, James S. Stewart, who warns ministers against preachers who write books with titles like, How to Preach by One Who Knows. And he says, “When you find a book like that, run, because the creature is an imposter!” But in this book, it’s sort of a How to Preach by One Who Knows, he warns, he says, “All you preachers out there, you care about truth and theology.” And he said, “I’ve got some bad news for you. People don’t care about truth and theology; they care about happiness. So if you preach about truth and theology, you’re going to have a tiny little church filled with people that care about truth and theology and I’m going to pastor a really large church because I understand that people aren’t looking for truth and theology; they’re looking for happiness.” It’s a very condescending sort of thing to say, isn’t it?
And it reminded me of something that another preacher once said. I think it goes like this. “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and all these things shall be added unto you.” You remember the name of that preacher? His name was Jesus. And Martin Luther, commenting on Jesus’ words, “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and all these things will be added unto you,” says this. “It is due to the perversity of men that they seek peace first and only then righteousness, and consequently they find no peace.” Do you hear what Luther is saying? If you seek happiness first, apart from the truth of God’s Word about Jesus, you’ll never find happiness. That’s why preachers that preach “How to be happy without Jesus” will never ever teach you the way of true happiness and blessedness in this life. Jesus wanted you to be blessed, to be truly and deeply and eternally happy, but you have to believe the truth in order to be truly, eternally, and deeply happy. That’s how the Sermon on the Mount begins, and that in a real sense is what the author of Hebrews is doing here. He’s telling you where you find hope. He’s telling you where you find the basis of the life of true blessedness and joy. And guess where he points? He points directly to Jesus.
Finding Hope in Jesus, A Better Priest
And in this passage I’d like you to see two things that he tells you about where you find your hope. You find your hope in a better priest and you find your hope in a better covenant. Look at verses 1 to 5. Here, the author of Hebrews says, “You want hope? You want hope that won’t ever be pulled out from under your feet? Don’t look to your circumstances. Look to the better priest. Look to the superior priest. Look at the superiority of Jesus in the nature and place of His ministry. He’s the true priest in the true sanctuary.” In other words, the author of Hebrews is going to argue that Jesus is better because of who He is, what He has done, and what He is doing. And therefore, you ought to look to Him for your hope, not to your circumstances, not anywhere else, but right at Jesus.
Listen to what he says. In the very first verse he draws a conclusion from everything he’s taught in Hebrews chapter 6:20 through Hebrews chapter 7. He says this, “Now the point in what we are saying is this.” Don’t you love it when inspired authors of Scripture say, “Now by the way, if you missed the whole point of what I just said in chapter 7, let me just tell it to you again”? Thank you! I need those kinds of cliff notes! Here they are. What does he say? “We have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, a minister in the holy places, in the true tent that the Lord set up.” In other words, he’s saying, “Here’s the point. All those things that I was telling you about Jesus and Melchizedek, they were designed to teach you this one point - Jesus is not only better than the Old Testament priesthood that descended from Levi and Aaron; He is the only true priest. They were simply copies of Him.”
Now he says that. He comes right out and says that. Look at what he says. Verse 5 - “They serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly things.” That is mind-boggling, my friends. It’s typical for us to think of Old Testament as prophecy and New Testament as fulfillment, and that’s a very helpful way of understanding much of the dynamics between the Old Testament - promises made…New Testament - promises kept; Old Testament - prophecies, promises, types, shadows…New Testament - fulfillment, reality. But here’s the amazing thing. The author of Hebrews is saying that Old Testament priesthood was a copy of Jesus. It was merely a copy of Jesus. Now that’s mind-boggling. It was a copy of Jesus. When you saw the Levitical priesthood, it was merely a copy of the one, true, real priesthood of Jesus.
One of our RUF campus ministers is serving in the armed forces in Afghanistan - Seth Still, the campus minister at Delta State. And [his wife] Julie and his children are here in Cleveland, Mississippi, still living in their home, and you can imagine how hard that is. I hope many of you who know Seth are praying for Seth and Julie and the family while he’s away for seven months on this tour of duty. One of the ways that they keep in touch with one another is they Skype. It’s amazing, isn’t it, that half way around the world, from time to time, he can open up a laptop or look at an iPad and actually see Julie and the children and talk to them. He can actually see them. And they can see him, he can see them, and they can talk. That’s wonderful, but it’s not quite the same thing as being with them, is it? He’s seeing a copy. He’s seeing a picture. Do you think Seth would prefer to be in Cleveland with his arms around Julie and the children? Oh yes. Yes, in fact, he told me so. I was talking to him and I said, “Seth, what are you worried about the most?” And I was expecting, “Getting shot at,” you know, “Getting blown up by an IED.” No, here’s what he said. He said, “I’m going to miss Julie.” While he looks at her on that copy, on that iPad or that laptop, there’s something better than that. There’s the real Julie. And get this, for him to see the copy of Julie and the children they have to exist somewhere else. You can’t copy what doesn’t exist.
And the author of Hebrews is telling you that the Old Testament priesthood, all it was, was a copy of the true priesthood of Jesus. And the real priesthood is better, just as the real Julie is better than that picture on the screen that Seth looks at. And the children are better than the picture of the children, the image of the children on that screen. The author of saying, “Don’t look to the copy for your hope. Don’t look to the Old Testament priestly ritual for your hope. Look to Jesus.” And that’s a message for all of us. In our discouragements, in our trials, don’t look to anything else but Jesus. Don’t look to a copy of Jesus; look to Jesus. Look to Him for your hope. You’ve got a better priest. He’s the real thing.
Finding Hope in Jesus, The Mediator of a Better Covenant
Secondly, he says, “Look to the covenant that Jesus is the mediator of.” Look at verse 6. “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.” In other words, he’s saying, “Jesus is better not only because He’s a better priest but because He is a priest of a better covenant. Jesus is better because He mediates the ultimate covenant.” And he quotes from Jeremiah 31 which we will hear read in the Old Testament reading, God willing, next week. And in that passage, the author simply observes this. God would not have announced a new covenant if the old one was working. What’s our saying? “If it ain’t broke; don’t fix it!” So the author, he makes this point explicitly in verse 13. “In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete.” In other words, the very fact that he has to announce a new covenant tells you that there was something insufficient in the Mosaic economy.
It’s a better covenant because the Law is written on the hearts of God’s people
And in what way is this covenant better? He comes right out and tells you. Look at verse 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.” Now in the old covenant, when Moses came down from the mountain, where was the Law written? It was written on tablets of stone by the very finger of God. That’s glorious, wasn’t it? That’s the hallmark of the Mosaic covenant, that they received written revelation from God Himself, written by His finger, in stone. That’s repeated over and over in the Old Testament as the high point of God’s revelation of Himself through Moses to the people of God. But guess what the author of Hebrews says happens in the new covenant? In the new covenant, God writes His Law by His Spirit on your hearts. In other words, the new covenant is better in the moral transformation that it works in the people of God.
It’s a better covenant because God has taken us to be His possession
Second, not only will “I put my laws into their minds and write them on their hearts,” second, still in verse 10, “I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” You heard that quoted in Jeremiah 30 as Ralph read the Word of God this morning. That is a big Old Testament theme and it’s a theme that announces the purpose of God. And what is the purpose of God for you? It is for you to be His possession and for He to be your possession. It is for you to be His inheritance and for He to be your inheritance. The whole purpose of God is that He would be ours and we would be His. “I will be your God; you will be My people.” And that is realized by this new and better covenant.
It’s a better covenant because “knowing the Lord” is more fully realized
Third, look at what he goes on to say. “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 to the greatest.” This is referring to our experience of communion with God. “To know” is the language of intimacy in the Bible. How do you express a personal relationship with God in Biblical language? You “know” God. That’s why J.I. Packer titled his book, Knowing God. His study of God is called Knowing God because the Christian longs to have a personal experience and knowledge of the living God. It’s at the very heart of what true Christianity is about and this new covenant realizes that in a way that it was never realized under the old covenant.
It’s a better covenant because we have actual forgiveness of sin
And fourth, he goes on to say - look at verse 12. “For I will be merciful towards their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.” And so in actual forgiveness of sins, the new covenant is superior to the old. Let me ask you a question. How many sins were forgiven by the sum total of all the Old Testament sacrifices? Zero. None. Not one sin was forgiven by the Old Testament sacrifices. All of the sins of the people of God in all ages are forgiven only by the blood of Jesus. What will the author of Hebrews say in two chapters? The blood of bulls and goats cannot forgive sin. “What can wash away my sin? Nothing but the blood of Jesus.” That means that Abraham’s sins and Moses’ sins and Aaron’s sins and Joshua’s sins and David’s sins were not forgiven by animal sacrifices. They were forgiven by the blood of Jesus. And the author of Hebrews is saying this new covenant has been fulfilled. On the night in which Jesus was betrayed, he took a cup and He said, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you for the forgiveness of sin. Drink it, all of you.” And so, when you are in despair, where do you look? Not to your circumstances, not to better circumstances, but to a better priest and to a better covenant. That’s our hope, my friends. That’s the hope that God has given to those who are despondent and despairing - to look to Jesus, the better priest of a better covenant.
Heavenly Father, we thank You for Your Word. We ask that You would work it into our hearts by Your Spirit that our focus of faith would be on Jesus only. We ask this in Jesus’ name, amen.
Now would you take your hymnals with me and turn to number 647 and let’s again fix our eyes on Jesus.
Receive now the Lord’s benediction. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
First Presbyterian Church,
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