Having established that the new covenant was superior than the first, being based on better promises (Hebrews 8.6-13) and that the priestly service in the tabernacle of the first covenant was vastly inferior to Jesus’ ministry in the true tabernacle (Hebrews 9.1-14), the author returns to Jesus’ role as “mediator of a new covenant” (Hebrews 9.15; cf. 8.6). Specifically, the author shows how Jesus’ role as mediator involves blood and death. Rather than approaching this text on a vs. by vs. basis, let’s consider the three main themes in the passage: covenant, blood and death.
Covenant or Will?
A major question in vss. 16-17 is if the author has in mind a covenant agreement or a will / testament, a question not helped by the fact that the term diathēkē can mean both covenant AND will. Many believe that the author is showing how Jesus’ death accomplished both the required sacrifice to inaugurate a covenant and to bring in force a will. Thus, even some translations (such as the NLT) alternate between translating diathēkē as “covenant” in vs. 15 and “will” in vss. 16-17. This may well be what the author intended.
However, it is also possible that the author was speaking only of the covenant agreement. In that case, the death spoken of was a representative death. “The ratifying party invoked a curse upon himself when he swore commitment to comply with the terms of the covenant. In the transaction the ratifying party was represented by animals designated for sacrifice. The bloody dismemberment of representative animals signified the violent death of the ratifying party if he proved faithless to his oath (e.g., Gen 15:9–21; Exod 24:3–8; Ps 50:5; Jer 34:17–20). (William Lane, Word Biblical Commentary) I am in favor of this argument since it flows with the author’s point of how the Mosaic covenant was inaugurated with blood in vss. 18-22).
Blood of the Covenant
All one needs to do is read chapter 9 to see how important “blood” is in the author’s argument. The term is found 11 in the chapter and is central to much of what the author is saying:
- Whereas the Levitical high priest entered the most holy place once each year with the blood of animals, Jesus entered once for all time with His own blood (vss.7,12).
- The blood of goats and bulls could cleanse the flesh under the first covenant, but in the new covenant Jesus’ blood can cleanse our conscience (vss. 13-14).
- Not only was the first covenant inaugurated with blood (vs. 18), but blood was also used to cleanse the people, the book of the law and even the tabernacle (vss. 19-22). But Jesus’ one-time sacrifice (i.e. blood) cleansed the true tabernacle and has “put away sin” (vss. 23-26)! Note: there is some question about why the “things in the heavens” needed to be cleansed. It would seem that this cleansing was not because of any defilement in heaven, but rather since Jesus is bringing men before God it was necessary that these be cleansed so that we would not defile them.
Death of the Testator
With the great importance attached to blood, it would follow that death would also play a significant role in the passage since the blood of Jesus was shed at His death.
- Jesus’ death was also “for the redemption of the transgressions that were committed under the first covenant” (vs. 15). “The old covenant exacted death for transgressions committed while it was in force (cf. 10:28). Those who had ratified the covenant had pledged their obedience to the stipulations of the covenant in a self-maledictory manner. Their transgressions were evidence that they had failed to keep their oath and put them in jeopardy of being cut off from God (cf. Deut 30:15–20). In his death Jesus identified himself with the transgressors and took upon himself the curse sanctions of the covenant that were invoked whenever the stipulations of the covenant were ignored. In an act of supreme obedience, Jesus died a representative death as the cursed one so that those whom he represents may receive the blessings of the covenant promised to those who obey its mandates.” (William Lane, Word Biblical Commentary)
- Jesus’ death brought the new covenant into force (vss. 16-17).
- Whereas men die with the expectation of judgment, Jesus’ death since it bore our sins, will result in His return to achieve our ultimate salvation (vss. 27-28). “The reference to Christ’s return to those who wait for him draws its force in this context from the analogy with the sequence of events on the Day of Atonement. The people waited anxiously outside the sanctuary until the high priest emerged from the Most Holy Place after he had fulfilled his office (cf. Lev 16:17). His reappearance provided assurance that the offering he had made had been accepted by God… his appearance will confirm that his sacrifice has been accepted and that he has secured the blessings of salvation for those whom he represented. For those who are the heirs of salvation (1:14; cf. 2:3, 10; 5:9; 6:9), it will mean full enjoyment of their inheritance.” (William Lane, Word Biblical Commentary)
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