Lesson 12: Better Priest… Better Covenant

The superiority of Jesus’ priesthood was already evidenced by the fact that while the Levitical priesthood was comprised of mortals who could not continue as priests because of death, Jesus maintains His priesthood forever because He lives forever (Hebrews 7.23-25). Furthermore, the Levitical priests were required to offer sacrifices for their own sins, but Jesus is “holy, innocent, undefiled” (Hebrews 7.26-28). In chapter 8 the author continues to show how Jesus’s priesthood is superior to that of the Levitical priesthood, but then turns his attention to a matter he brought up in Hebrews 7.12: “for when the priesthood is changed, of necessity there takes place a change of law also.” And since Jesus’ priesthood is better, it would follow that the new law/covenant is also better!

Hebrews 8.1-6, Jesus’ Better Priesthood

It’s always nice when an author comes out and tells you his main point, and that’s exactly what the Hebrew writer does in vs. 1: “the main point in what has been said is this: we have such a high priest…” The Levitical priesthood was not perfect for a variety of reasons, but Jesus’ priesthood is perfect… and He’s our high priest! The author continues to show how much better Jesus’ priesthood is compared to the Levitical priesthood.

  • Our high priest is seated at God’s right hand (vs. 1). This harkens back to Psalm 110. Vs. 4 of that Psalm stated that the Messiah would be “priest forever after the order of Melchizedek” but Vs. 1 stated that the Messiah would be seated at the Lord’s right hand. His place in the sanctuary is permanent, contrasted with the Levitical priesthood who could only enter at certain times; His permanent place in the sanctuary is the source of our hope (Hebrews 6.19-20). 
  • Our high priest ministers in the true sanctuary (vss. 2-5). The original tabernacle was a beautiful and costly structure (cf. Exodus 35.20-29). Yet, it was only “a copy and shadow” of the heavenly tabernacle, a fact attested in Exodus 25.40 where Moses was instructed to build the Tabernacle “according to the pattern which was shown you”. By contrast, Jesus is “a minister in the sanctuary… which the Lord pitched, not man.” Vs. 3 notes that Jesus offers gifts and sacrifices, just as other priest do, but the superiority of His gift and sacrifice will be considered in Hebrews 9.13-14. 
  • Our high priest is mediator of a better covenant (vs. 6). If Jesus is a vastly superior high priest, it would follow that the covenant He ministers under is also superior. And so it is, “a better covenant, which has been enacted on better promises.”

Hebrews 8.7-11, The New & Better Covenant

The idea of covenant was introduced in Hebrews 7.22, but now the author goes into much greater detail. A basic understanding of covenant would be to picture an agreement, not between equals, but between a sovereign and his subjects. The sovereign promises blessings on his subjects (grace), provided they keep the terms of the covenant (law). What is unsaid is that faith is required; the subjects must believe that the sovereign will do what he has promised… and if they believe then they will keep the stipulations. The wondrous part of the covenant is that God deigns to bind Himself to man; He will do what He has promised (Hebrews 10.23). The only question is will His subjects have enough faith to keep covenant. And that will help us understand the great difference between the old and new covenants.

The author uses an extensive quotation from Jeremiah 31.31-34. At that time Israel had already been taken away into captivity and Judah was on the verge of destruction. The old covenant was in tatters, all because the people lacked faith, but the Lord promised to establish a new and better covenant!

  • The fault of the first covenant (vss. 7-9). The first covenant had fault, but the fault was not the Lord’s! He had been gracious to them, but they had rejected Him; thus the need to “effect a new covenant”. Note that the Lord said this covenant would be “with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah”. In Jeremiah’s day the house of Israel was no more, but the Lord was promising a new covenant with them. The Lord has a different Israel in mind, not a physical nation but those who have the same kind of faith as Abraham (cf. Galatians 3.29). 
  • An internalized covenant (vs. 10). The old covenant was made with a physical nation, but the new covenant is made with those who voluntarily come to Jesus in faith. That fact is fundamental to understanding the blessings of this new covenant. “The Israel of old never really adopted God’s ways for themselves. God had given them his instructions for how they were to live, but they did not appropriate them, they did not allow those commandments to mold them into the image God wanted them to have. The law was therefore always something that was external to them. In the new relationship with the new Israel, however, things would be different… Acceptable obedience is the outward demonstration of an inward spirit, heart, and mind that is loyal and dedicated to God. It is this inward commitment, which makes obedience meaningful, that would be the basis of the new covenant with God… the important point is that God’s new people would be characterized by a dedication and faithfulness to God that resided not simply in their actions, but in the core of their being.” (David McClister)
  • A personal covenant (vs. 11). Under the old covenant each succeeding generation had to be taught the will of God and shown the importance of keeping his covenant. And rarely did succeeding generations keep the covenant. But the new covenant is made with believers, thus all know Him! “It would be unnecessary for God’s new people to exhort each other to draw close to God, for that would be the fundamental basis on which they were God’s people in the first place.” (David McClister)
  • A perfect covenant (vs. 12). Remember that neither the Levitical priesthood or the Law could make people perfect (see Hebrews 7.11,19), but this covenant does… “I will be merciful to their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.” The author will return to this point in chapter 10.
  • First covenant now obsolete (vs. 13). There were those who still sought to approach God based on the terms of the old covenant (note vs. 4), but because of Jesus’ better priesthood and the superiority of the new covenant the old was now obsolete. It had served its purpose… and was ready to disappear. It is possible that the author had in mind the destruction of the Jerusalem temple which would occur in AD 70 (cf. Matthew 24).

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