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For This Reason He Is the Mediator of the New Covenant

Series: Better: A Study of the Christian Life in Hebrews

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Jun 23, 2013

Hebrews 9:15-28

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If you’ll turn with me in your Bibles to the book of Hebrews, chapter 9, we will return after a one week break - it’s been two weeks since we’ve been in this passage - to the argument of the author of Hebrews.  And I’d invite you, even as you’re turning to Hebrews 9, to look at verses 15 to 28.  Go ahead and allow your eyes to scan the first part of the chapter and let me remind you where we’ve been.  The last time we were together in this book two weeks ago we looked at verses 1 to 14 of Hebrews chapter 9 and we said that the argument there is that Jesus is a better priest of a better covenant, based on what is said in those verses, 1 to 14, about the Old Testament tabernacle furnishing and architecture and the Old Testament tabernacle, ritual, sacrifice, and worship.  The author of Hebrews argues that those things pointed forward to the work that Jesus was going to do.  Therefore, Jesus provides a better priesthood of a better covenant than the priesthood of the old covenant that oversaw the worship and the ritual of the tabernacle under the Mosaic covenant, or what the author of Hebrews keeps calling the first covenant, in contrast to the new covenant.  So he’s contrasting the Mosaic covenant with the new covenant and saying that Jesus is a better priest of a better covenant because the worship and the ritual and the sacrifices of that old covenant pointed forward to Jesus.

Now today in verse 15 he is going to draw a conclusion from the argument that he’s been making so far, and then in the rest of the passage he is going to elaborate on that conclusion.  The key verse in the passage that we’re about to read is verse 15.  So keep your eye on verse 15.  He says the main thing that he wants to say in this whole section in verse 15.  But then in verses 16 all the way to verse 28 he elaborates what he says.  Now along the way I want you to be on the lookout for three things.  After he says what he says in verse 15, in verses 16 to 18 he answers the question, “Why did Jesus have to die?”  That’s a hugely important question.  I think I’ve told you the story before of Michael Ramsden, who works with Ravi Zacharias, had been invited by Muslim teachers to come into a closed country and have a debate and dialogue with them about Christianity.  And Michael Ramsden and his team prayed that they would have an opportunity to share the Gospel and they went in and they talked about whatever subject that the Muslim imam had asked them to speak about.  And at the end of Michael Ramsden’s lecture, one of the young men who was a Muslim teacher, raised his hand and asked a question.  He said, “Could you please explain to me why you Christians think that Jesus needed to die?”  Now understand that was a huge answer to prayer.  That’s exactly the question that Michael and his team wanted to be able to address and here was the Muslim imam asking them that question!  And you remember right before Michael was about to answer it his friend grabbed him by the arm and said, “Michael, answer very carefully.  It’s one thing to die for the Gospel; it’s another thing to die for sharing it poorly.”  And so Michael got to answer that question that the Muslim imam had asked because that’s a key question.  “Why did Jesus have to die?”  And you understand that Muslims don’t believe that He did.  Muslims believe that Jesus only appears to die and that He was rescued from death.  And so they don’t understand why Christians think that Jesus had to die.  Well the author of Hebrews in verses 16 to 18 is going to explain why we Christians think that Jesus needed to die.

Then if you look at verses 19 to 23, he is going to connect the dots by reminding you that in the Old Testament the main cleansing, the main agent of cleansing in all of the purification rituals of the Old Testament was?  Blood.  He’s just going to remind you of how blood was used as the cleansing, the agent of cleansing in the purification rituals of the Old Testament.  He’s going to summarize it in that famous phrase - what?  “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sin.”  

And then finally, look at verses 24 to 28.  Then he is going to point to the efficacy of Jesus’ death, Jesus’ shedding of blood, as the ultimate reason why Jesus is a better priest of a better covenant.  But do you understand, it’s all elaborating the argument that he makes in verse 15.  Look out for verse 15, there’s the main statement, and then there will be one more concluding statement in verse 28 and along the way sort of three points in the argument.

Now one other thing to look out for as we get ready to read this.  Many of your English translations are going to translate one Greek word two ways as you move from verse 15 to verse 18.  Now that may seem a little arcane to you but I’m going to explain it in the sermon so let me just warn you ahead of time.  In verse 15, you’re going to see the word in your English translation probably translate “covenant” twice.  Did you see “new covenant” and then “first covenant”?  And then if you look at verse 18 you’re going to see this word used again, “not even the first covenant.”  So there are three covenants - verse 15, “new covenant” and “first covenant” and then verse 18, “first covenant.”  So the word, “covenant,” is used three times - twice in verse 15 and once in verse 18.  But if you look at verses 16 and 17 you’re probably going to see the English word, “will” or “testament,” in most of your English translations.  Now if you’re looking at the New American Standard Version they translated it correctly.  I’ll just give you the tip.  They translate “covenant, covenant, covenant, covenant, covenant” throughout the passage.  But in most of our English translations it reads, “covenant, covenant, will, will, covenant,” or “covenant, covenant, testament, testament, covenant.”  Be on the lookout for that because I’m going to try to explain that very briefly as we get to this passage today.

Now before we read let’s pray and ask for God’s help.

Lord, this is Your Word so open our eyes to behold wonderful things about the Lord Jesus Christ and His death for us in it.  We pray in Jesus’ name, amen.

This is the Word of God.  Hear it beginning in Hebrews 9 verses 15 to 28:

“Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant.  For where a will is involved, the death of the one who made it must be established.  For a will takes effect only at death, since it is not in force as long as the one who made it is alive.  Therefore not even the first covenant was inaugurated without blood.  For when every commandment of the law had been declared by Moses to all the people, he took the blood of calves and goats, with water and scarlet wool and hyssop, and sprinkled both the book itself and all the people, saying, ‘This is the blood of the covenant that God commanded for you.’  And in the same way he sprinkled with the blood both the tent and all the vessels used in worship.  Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.

Thus it was necessary for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with these rites, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these.  For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf.  Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the holy places every year with blood not his own, for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world.  But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.  And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.”

Amen, and thus ends this reading of God’s holy, inspired, and inerrant Word.  May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.

Jesus: the Mediator of New and Better Covenant 

Some of you like Papa John’s pizza.  I’ve just lost many of you right now in fact!  You will know if you are a Papa John’s pizza fan that one of the taglines in their advertisements are, or is, “Better ingredients.  Better pizza.”  And then you know how the rest of the little jingle goes.  I won’t do it here!  This is not a product placement by the way!  What many of you may not know is that one of Papa John’s major competitors sued them over that tagline and they said, “How in the world can you say that you have better ingredients than we do?  A tomato is a tomato!  A pepperoni is a pepperoni!  What do you mean you’ve got better ingredients than we do?”  Now I’m not about to get into that litigation and offer you my unprofessional opinion about who was right and who was wrong, but understand, the competitor was saying this to Papa John’s - “How can you possibly make the claim that you’ve got better ingredients and therefore better pizza?”

Well in this whole section of Hebrews, the author of Hebrews is asserting that Jesus is a better priest of a better covenant.  And when his opponents, his interlocutors comes to him and say to him, “Wait a minute. How can you possibly say that Jesus is the better priest of a better covenant?” he says, “Well thank you for asking that question.  I would like to answer it.  Let me tell you exactly why I’m saying that Jesus is a better priest of a better covenant.”  If you’ll remember last week, he’s already started that argument.  Let’s take a look at verse 11, for instance.  He begins in chapter 9 verse 11 by saying the Old Testament priests ministered in a tabernacle, a big tent, and then later in a temple made by human hands.  But Jesus is a priest in a tabernacle that is not made by human hands; it’s made by God Himself.  Therefore, He is a better priest.  Look at verse 12.  He goes on to argue the priests of the Old Testament had to enter in to the Holy Place by the blood of animals.  That is, they had to make sacrifices for themselves and for their people from animals.  Jesus does not serve as a priest in that way.  He enters into the Holy Place by His own blood, thus He is a better priest.  Verse 13, he says those sacrifices in the Old Testament were perfectly effective for ritual purification.  In other words, if a priest wanted to declare you ceremonially able to participate in the worship and life of the congregation, as long as you had performed those rituals you were good to go, but those rituals couldn’t cleanse your conscience, they couldn’t deal with the guilt, they couldn’t put it away finally.  In fact, they had to be repeated over and over and over and over again.  But Jesus’ blood, verse 14, is able to cleanse the conscience.  And that’s why, when you get to verse 15, he says, “Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant.”  In other words, he’s saying it is especially Jesus’ death that shows why He is a better priest of a better covenant.  His effective, atoning death is the fundamental reason why He is a better priest of a better covenant.  And he explains it in verse 15 and I want you to see three things especially.

By Jesus’ death, we receive an eternal inheritance.

First of all, notice what he says.  “So that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance.”  So Jesus is a better priest because through His death we receive the promises that God has made to us to give us an eternal inheritance.  There’s the first assertion.  It is through Jesus’ death that we receive the promises that God made to us all the way back in Genesis 3:15 and in Genesis 12 and in Jeremiah 33 as we read this morning.  It’s through Jesus that we receive that promise.  There’s argument number one.

By Jesus’ death, we are purchased back from what our transgressions deserve.

Argument number two - “since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgression.”  Now this is amazing.  We could spend not only today but weeks on that one phrase.  He is asserting that Jesus’ death redeemed.  Now redeemed is the language of purchase.  By Jesus’ death, we are purchased back from what our transgressions deserve.  The Old Testament sacrifices did not work that way.  They made you ritually pure but they did not purchase you back from what your transgressions deserved.  And the author of Hebrews is saying, “Jesus is a better priest of a better covenant because His death actually bought you back from what your sins deserve.”

By Jesus’ death, sins committed under the Old Covenant are forgiven. 

And then third, notice what he goes on to say.  “A death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant.”  Wait a second!  Did you hear that?  “A death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant.”  Last week, two weeks ago, after we had finished working our way through Hebrews 9:1-14, many of you said, because I’ve said several times in this series that the sacrifices of the Old Testament did not forgive one sin, and so I’ve had many of you - and many of you came up after that last sermon and said, “Okay, so you’ve got to explain to us.  If those sacrifices did not forgive sin, how were people forgiven in the days of the old covenant?”  And my friends, that is exactly the right question to be asking and that is exactly what the author of Hebrews is answering in Hebrews 9:15.  And here’s what he’s saying to you - how were people forgiven under the old covenant?  Only by the blood of Jesus.  The author of Hebrews argues here that Jesus death worked both directions.  It not only forgives the sins of those who now believe in Him; it covered the sins of all believers in the Old Testament who lived before He was incarnated.  His death, and I’m going to use a fancy word, His death had effects that were proleptic.  That is, it had effect back in time before He came into our space, time, history.  And the author of Hebrews is going to explain how today.  But it’s so important for us to understand that that is one of the ways that the author of Hebrews is explaining to us why Jesus is a better priest of a better covenant because all of those Levitical sacrifices were not effective for the forgiveness of sins but Jesus’ one death covered all the sins of all believers in the ages before He was incarnated in this world.

The Necessity of Jesus’ death

Now he elaborates that point.  I want you to see how he elaborates that in this passage today.  The first thing that he argues is this.  Why is it that Jesus had to die?  Look at verses 16 to 18.  Because Jesus was fulfilling the penalty that was due to us because we had broken the covenant.  In the Old Testament, when you make a covenant - go ahead and turn in your Bibles to Genesis 15 and look at verses 9 and following.  In the Old Testament when you made a covenant, there was often a ritual attached that.  You will see that ritual in Genesis 15 verses 9 and following.  You will see that ritual next week when we read Jeremiah 34 and especially verses 17 and following.  So the very next chapter that we’re going to read in Jeremiah - we read 33 today; we’re going to read 34 next week - and in Genesis 15, you will see a very strange ceremony.  In Genesis 15 when Abraham asked God, “Lord, how do I know that You’re going to fulfill Your promises to me?”  Do you remember what God said?  “Take a heifer, take a goat, take a ram, take birds, kill them, divide the carcasses of the large beasts and lay them side by side.”  It’s almost like an aisle is made.  “Put them side by side and then wait for Me.”  Now everybody in the Old Testament would have known what was going on.  Everybody from the time of Moses to Jeremiah would have known, “Ah, God is about to do a covenant making ceremony.”  

Now when covenant were made when those animals were slaughtered, do you know why the animals were slaughtered?  The slaughtered animals were a symbol of what ought to happen if you were unfaithful to your part in the covenant.  In other words, the slaughtered animals pictured the judgment deserved for violating the covenant.  And that is referenced here in Hebrews chapter 9 verses 16 to 18, so look at it with me very closely.  “For where a covenant is, there must of necessity be the death of the one who made it for a covenant is valid only when men are dead.  But it is never in force while the one who made it live.  Therefore even the first covenant was not inaugurated without blood.”  Now I’ve just read that passage from the New American Standard Version but you know that your passage reads differently.  It reads like this.  “For where a will is involved, the death of the one who made it must be established.  For a will takes effect only at death, since it is not in force as long as the one who made it is alive.  Therefore not even the first covenant was inaugurated without blood.”  

Now translators are not dummies.  They have reasons why they translate things the way they translate and let me just explain to you very briefly why it is that so many modern translators switch from “covenant” to “will” or “last will and testament” in this passage.  It’s for some very simple reasons.  For one, we have a lot of commercial and legal documents from the first century A.D., the time and culture surrounding this particular passage, in which the Greek word, diatheke, which is used in this passage, is used either to refer to a last will and testament or to a commercial transaction or disposition.  And so Greek scholars say Paul is using a contemporary illustration from the idea of a will or a testament or a disposition to illustrate Jesus’ death as the mediator of the new covenant.  And they especially argue that because if you’ll look back at verse 15, what two ideas are used?  Death and inheritance.  Now none of us have to be attorneys or play one on TV to know that death and inheritance and last will and testament all go pretty well together.  That makes a lot of sense.  But that, I think, is not the right way to translate the passage.  I don’t think that actually is what the author of saying at all.  He’s actually saying Jesus is seen to be a better priest of a better covenant because He died precisely as the sacrifice for the broken covenant.  

Do you see?  You understand that the idea of death and inheritance goes just as easily with the idea of covenant as it does with the idea of testament.  But the fundamental difference between a covenant and a testament is what?  Covenants are made between living people; testaments don’t go into effect until someone dies.  We see covenant happen all the time here at First Presbyterian Church in wedding ceremonies.  Two young people who have no idea what they’re getting into stand up before the congregation and they make a covenant with one another to love, honor, and cherish as long as they both shall live.  And those of us who are fifty and older say, “Those kids have no idea what they’re getting into.”  But they make a covenant. They are two living people who make a covenant with one another.  Testaments don’t go into effect until someone dies. But in the Old Testament, if you violated a covenant, what did you deserve?  It was pictured in the death of the animal.  

And here in Hebrews chapter 9 verses 16 to 18, the author of Hebrews is saying, “Let me explain to you why Jesus had to die.  Jesus had to die because you broke the covenant.  The only way that God could forgive you is if Jesus paid the penalty for that broken covenant.  So all the animal sacrifices of the Old Testament were simply a picture pointing forward to the one who was really going to offer the one and only true sacrifice on your behalf for sin.  It’s quite stunning.  And if you remember in Genesis 15, Abraham himself never walked between the pieces.  Who walked between the pieces?  The smoking oven and the flaming torch, which is a symbol of the presence of God.  And when God went through those pieces, symbolically, He was promising that He would give His Son in the place of all who believe in Him.  And the author of Hebrews is saying, “That’s why Jesus had to die.  You broke the covenant; He died in your place.”

The crucial role of blood  in the Old Covenant

Second, the author of Hebrews, look at verses 19 to 23, explains - and remember, he says, blood is the cleansing agent in almost every part of the old covenant ritual.  The role of blood played a crucial role in the mediation of the old covenant.  And in verses 19 to 22, the author shows us the centrality of the blood in the Old Testament sacrificial ritual and shows its significance for forgiveness of sins.  And again, his point is that that blood ritual did not in and of itself forgive sins.  It pictured the need for forgiveness of sins and it pictured God’s provision for the forgiveness of sins, but it was not God’s solution for the forgiveness of sins.  Jesus was God’s solution for the forgiveness of sins.  That’s why He’s a better priest of a better covenant.

The Finality, Efficacy, and Superiority of Jesus’ death

And then finally, look at verses 24 to 28 where he shows that the finality and efficacy of Christ’s death shows its superiority, especially verse 28.  “Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many” - that’s a stunningly important phrase.  “Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many.”  The author of Hebrews is saying this.  Jesus, on Calvary, in one time and one place for all time, faced and quenched the unmitigated wrath of God so that all who trust Him, in all times, both before He lived and after, are forgiven their sins because He Himself bore their penalty.  It is quite stunning.  And it means at least two things, my friends.

Turning from Jesus is folly, for the ritual of the Old Testament will never forgive one sin.

It means first of all, for those Jewish people at the time of the writing of this book who are considering going back to Judaism, that the author of Hebrews is saying, “It won’t do you any good to go back to the ritual religion of the Old Testament because you understand that none of that ritual has ever or will ever forgive even one part of one sin.  All sin is forgiven in Jesus.  Turn your back on Him and you turn your back on the one place where sin can be forgiven.”  Do you all remember the gospel song, “Victory in Jesus”?  There’s a line in that gospel song that goes like this.  “He sought me and bought me by His redeeming blood.”  And that is exactly what the author of Hebrews is saying here in Hebrews chapter 9.  Jesus sought us and bought us with His redeeming blood and what can wash away my sin?  Nothing but the blood of Jesus.  Nothing.  

God has been at work in this plan from before the foundations of the world.

But it also says something else.  There may be some here this morning who treasure something more than Jesus or who do not think that Jesus’ blood can avail for them.  And the fact that Jesus coming into this world and dying on our behalf meant not only forgiveness for all who trusted in Him afterwards but for all who trusted in Him before He came, indicates to us that God has been at work in this plan from before the foundations of the world.  And that means, as the old Scottish paraphrase of Romans 8 says, “That He loved us from the first of time and He loves us to the last.”  

At General Assembly this past week one of the delightful conversations that I enjoyed was with my old friend William H. McKenzie, who is the owner of Christian Focus Publications based on the Black Isle in Scotland.  And they publish wonderful children’s literature and wonderful theology books and I’ve appreciated their ministry over the years.  And every time I’m with William he tries to leave me with a little word or an idea of spiritual encouragement.  And this year, the word of encouragement he wanted to share with me was this.  He said, “Ligon, God’s love for you will never end because it never began.”  He said, “Now you think about that.”  And I did.  And you see what he’s saying.  What he’s saying is the reason that the believer need never worry about the love of God for him or her ending is because there was never a time when that love began.  God’s love for His people is as eternal as He is and as He never began and will never end, His love for His people never began and will never end.  It always has been and it always will be.  

As we sing in that wonderful old hymn that came out of the southern harmony, “Always thou lovedst me.” Now you don’t quite know.  What does that mean?  “Always thou lovedst me.”  That’s not a word that we normally use - “l-o-v-e-d-s-t”  That’s sort of King Jamesy English being written in the 19th century.  What does “lovedst” mean?  It means He has always loved you - past tense.  Go back as far as you can go to the beginning and He’s always been loving you.  And the coming of Jesus into the world to forgive sins that have already occurred is the proof that He has always loved you.  You’ve been on His heart before you were and before the world was.  And if you think that there is any sin that can keep you from Him, His pursuing love will astonish you.  And if you think there is anything outside of Jesus that is greater than Him it cannot measure up to that kind of love.

You know sometimes we say to one another, in the flourish of our affection, “I’ve always loved you.”  But it’s not true when we say it.  There was always a time when we first met.  And even if we loved one another from the moment our eyes met we can’t say, “I’ve always loved you,” but Jesus can.  “I’ve always loved you.”  And He will say it face to face to all who trust in Him.  Let’s pray.

Our Lord and our God, we thank You for the sacrificial dying love of Jesus Christ.  Grant that by Your Spirit no heart this day would reject that love.  We pray this in Jesus’ name, amen.

Now let’s sing one of the great hymns about the death of Jesus, “Man of Sorrows!  What a Name!”

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God our Father and the fellowship and communion of the Holy Spirit be with you now and forevermore.  Amen.

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