I'm sure you always read the full agreement you make with various companies to use their software and hardware. A recent Apple software license agreement is 451 pages long. And when you clicked "I agree" I'm sure it's because you took the weekend to read through it. Or maybe your lawyer perused it.
But did you know God has made agreements with humanity? The biblical word for these agreements is "covenant." Throughout the Bible, a covenant is something God initiates with humans. Some sort of blood sacrifice sealed each agreement. Two covenants are under consideration in Hebrews 8.
First, is the Old Covenant. This is the agreement God made with Israel after their deliverance from Egypt. God called Moses to the top of Mount Sinai and gave him the ten commandments, but also the ceremonial and civil law which would govern the people of Israel. The second, the New Covenant, is the one which Jesus brought by his blood. At the last supper, he said, "This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood" (Luke 22:20). As we will see in this article, Old Testament prophets had predicted this New Covenant. Israel anticipated it. With Jesus, it had now come, and the author wanted his readers to embrace it.
So does this author. In this article, I will draw out five qualities of this New Covenant. I hope you, like the original readers of Hebrews, will grow in your appreciation of the arrangement God has made with man through the blood of Christ.
1. It's New
"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,” (Hebrews 8:7–8).
Other prophets anticipated the arrival of a New Covenant, but Hebrews quotes from Jeremiah. During a time of chaos in Israel, with the Babylonian kings breathing down their necks, Jeremiah foresaw a day when God would revive his people. "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."
Notice how the New Covenant is for the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The gospel is, after all, "to the Jew first and also to the Greek" (Romas 1:16). It arrives first for Israel and Judah, a way to reunite the divided Israelite nation. But it is also for all nations. As Paul said, "Through him (Jesus Christ) we both (Jew and non-Jew) have access in one Spirit to the Father" (Ephesians 2:18).
With this consideration aside, let's consider one of the first incredible qualities of the New Covenant: it is new. It is not an enhancement of the Old. It is not a modification, but something different and fresh. I believe it can and will forever feel new because its benefits are astounding. God becomes our ally. Transformation becomes possible. This new thing has completely altered the landscape of how we interact with God.
I recently visited a record shop that took me back in time. CDs and records, even tapes, littered the warehouse. There were listening stations where someone could sample various releases. As I combed the aisles, fond memories of my teenage years flooded my mind.
This throwback to a bygone era made me think about how much the music industry has changed. The internet and smartphone, along with other technologies, changed the music industry. It is an entirely new experience as a result.
A more drastic change has occurred with this New Covenant. Christ came. He is the ultimate sacrifice. God becomes the Father of the worshiper. The entire game has changed. This covenant should be celebrated for its newness.
2. It's Grace-Based
"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.” (Hebrews 8:9).
Another feature of this New Covenant is that it is founded on grace, rather than human effort. To illustrate this point, through Jeremiah, God pointed out the previous generation. The fathers of Israel, the ones who came out of Egypt when God took them by the hand to deliver them, did not continue in God's covenant. Resultantly, God "showed no concern for them."
Think about that first covenant. Israel, bought by the blood of the Passover lamb, descendants of Abraham and heirs of his promises, were in the wilderness. Their slavery to Egypt was behind them, but what lay ahead? Moses ascended Mount Sinai, and they awaited a word from God. Eventually, they received the Ten Commandments on stone, along with the moral and ceremonial law which would govern their nation. God offered a covenant to them, and they gladly received it. "All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient" (Exodus 24:7).
Their generation, however, struggled to obey the covenant God gave them. They broke God's laws and, in so doing, forced his hand. He had promised blessings would conjoin their obedience. He also promised discipline for rebellion. They rebelled, and God could no longer show his concern for them. He loved them, but he was forced to withhold practical care for them during their eras of rebellion. Eventually, by Jeremiah's day, the rebellion was complete and final. The first covenant could not perfect the worshiper. Something new was needed. The Old Covenant relied on too much human effort.
Since it depended on human effort, the first covenant would never work, but Christ has invited us into a New Covenant that is based on the grace of God. We bring our failures and weaknesses and insecurities to him. We do not stand because of our successes, but the success of Christ. We are positioned in his righteousness, not our own.
This radical grace does not produce a people of license and lawlessness, however. Some always think it does, and that was precisely the accusation brought against Paul and his gospel preaching. "What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin live any longer in it?" (Romans 6:1-2).
Paul knew a fundamental shift had occurred. He had died, with Jesus, to sin. Paul was the freest man alive. He would never dream of using Christ's grace as a ticket to sin. Instead, Paul used God's grace as an excuse to work his tail off for the gospel mission. Of the other apostles, he said, "I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me" (1 Corinthians 15:11). He knew grace had made him into a hardworking man. He knew the Spirit had given him fruitfulness for the cause.
This New Covenant, conditioned on grace, ought to set us free from a performance-based Christianity. We do not need to strive for perfection, nor do we need to present an appearance of it. Instead, we bring our deficiencies to Christ, and his performance shores up our lack. Our homes and marriages and churches won't be perfect, but Christ is, and in him, we rejoice.
3. It's Inward and Dynamic
"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.” (Hebrews 8:10).
It is at this point of the quoted Jeremiah the New Covenant comes alive to the reader. It is an inward and dynamic covenant, designed by God to produce true, inner transformation. This defining element of the New Covenant is often forgotten by believers today. Hebrews makes a big deal of the forgiveness found in the New Covenant, and so do modern Christians. But many of us have forgotten -- or have never known -- of the grace of God available to change us from the inside out.
But this inward transformation is what Jeremiah predicted. Rather than ask Israel to write the will of God on the doorposts and wrists and foreheads of the nation, God would write it on their hearts and minds. He would change the internal wiring of his people.
This truth is all-important because it makes a solution to humanity's ills available. People debate over what is wrong in the world, but Jesus announced that humankind's problems come from the heart. He said, "What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person" (Mark 7:20-23). The problem with the world, Jesus said, is the human heart.
So the New Covenant comes along offering us a solution to our most deep-seated problem. A new heart is available to all who trust in Christ. Ezekiel, another Israelite prophet of Jeremiah's ilk, anticipated the possibility of God-given new hearts. He wrote, on God's behalf, "And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules" (Ezekiel 36:26-27). And Jesus has arrived, offering a new birth and new heart for all who trust in him (see John 3:1-17).
Part of this newness is found in the presence of the Spirit of God indwelling every believer. Jesus promised his disciples the coming of the Spirit of God to live in them, and now the Spirit is the seal and guarantee living within every believer. When a person places their faith in Christ, they are born of the Spirit and baptized by him into the body of Christ, becoming new temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19).
All this raises a question though. If the New Covenant provides for this inner transformation, and if we become new creations with new hearts by the blood of Christ, why do we often misbehave? Why do I do the silly things I do?
For this, we must turn to Paul's words to the churches of Galatia: "But I say, walk in the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do" (Galatians 5:16-17). Paul tells us we can "walk in the Spirit," but are also capable, even with our new hearts, of engaging in the flesh.
This battle between flesh and Spirit is the battle between the old you and the new you. Your bodily appetites know about sin and the pleasures, however enslaving, attached to it. Your new nature struggles against the flesh. For this, Paul tells us to walk in the Spirit.
In other words, a reason many do not grow, is not that they haven't tried hard enough to commit to being good, but they have not fed the Spirit. An utter refusal to spend life on the things of the Spirit will lead to spiritual weakness. One cannot expect to watch television or thumb through their iPhone six hours a day and experience Christian victory, simply because doing so would be a massive flesh feed. Feeding the flesh makes the flesh stronger. Feeding the Spirit leads to inner transformation.
So go to church, read your Bible, and pray, but do it all with the hope the Spirit of God will transform you. This, after all, is the hope and promise of the New Covenant.
Paul wrote, "We all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is Spirit" (2 Corinthians 3:18). You might not say it just like he did. You'd probably say something more like, "When I am honest with the Lord, when I spend time with him in prayer and the word, when I hang out with Jesus and Jesus people, I am changed. Something new wells up within me. I become more Christlike. It's not that I decided to be more like Jesus. I wanted that, of course, but spending time with him has made it so. I have a long way to go, and he is changing me in stages, step by step, and I can't wait for the next area of growth he'll introduce. I feel I haven't changed myself, but that his Spirit has done it. I've only, imperfectly, showed up and he has done the work. My heart and desires are truly changed." This is the glory of the New Covenant.
4. It Calls Us Into a Personal Relationship With God
"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.” (Hebrews 8:11).
The New Covenant Christ wrought also calls us into a personal relationship with God. As God said through Jeremiah, "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 not the Lord's way of abolishing instruction from qualified and called spiritual leaders. Rather, Christ ordained his apostles and their teaching, praying the church would forever be unified to their words (John 17:20-21). Then, after ascending into heaven, Jesus gave the church apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastor-teachers who would equip the church (Ephesians 4:11-12).
So if Christ has backed religious instruction, what does it mean that in the New Covenant "they shall not teach"? Consider the context. In the Old Covenant priesthood, if the worshiper wanted to interact with God, they had to find a representative. The New Covenant eliminates such a need. We don't have any more figureheads who serve as our gateway to God. Instead, God has invited us, through the figurehead of his only begotten Son, into friendship and fellowship with himself. In other words, the shift is not from teaching to no teaching, but from representatives who walked with God for us to our own personal walk with God.
God wills to draw you into personal interaction with him. We often talk of walking with God, but did you know the phrase "walk with God" is barely used in the Bible? One of the rare instances it was used appears early on in the record, for a man named Enoch "walked with God." In giving commentary on this man, years later, Hebrews records, "And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.” (Hebrews 11:6). Enoch pleased God by walking with God.
Recently, I came across this little phrase: "Try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord" (Ephesians 5:10). Life throws a zillion decisions our way. What will I let into my eye and ear gate? What will I speak? Where will I go? Many of these decisions, to the Bible reader, are easy to discern as God's will or not God's will. But many of life's choices are clouded in murkiness. How do I know what God wants? I search the word, yes, walking with God in an attempt to "discern what is pleasing to the Lord." I want to live in what his heart approves. For this, I must walk with him.
He wants you to enjoy him personally. The high priest served Israel on the Day of Atonement, but God is available every day to you personally. Learn to walk with him. His New Covenant makes such a relationship possible.
5. It Leads to Total Forgiveness (12)
"'For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.'” (Hebrews 8:12).
Hebrews ends its quotation of Jeremiah here, with total forgiveness. God said, "I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more." Israel and Judah had a long line of disobedience at that point in biblical history. They were a mess. Their sins were not of the small variety, but massive and jarring. Still, God said, a day was coming when total and complete forgiveness would be made possible. By faith, they could enter into his cleansing.
"All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned--every one--to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all" (Isaiah 53:6). The largest component of the New Covenant isn't inward change or personal relationship with God, nor even its newness, but how all those elements are made possible. For God to interact with us, for his Spirit to dwell with us inwardly, for him to produce something radically new, our sin had to be removed. On the cross of Christ, the sin of the nations was consumed. If we trust him, forgiveness is ours.
Do not let the message of the robust mercy and grace of God, the dismissal of sins, to become dull to your ears. Under the Old Covenant, the sacrifices of the priests only provided temporary cover, but could not truly purify the conscience of the worshiper. But the blood of Christ can. We rejoice.
"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.” (Hebrews 8:13).
That old way of doing things was ready to completely evaporate at the time the book of Hebrews was written. It had dwindled for many years, even the temple which still existed during the time Hebrews was written was a sham, a far cry from the purity of the tabernacle system. And in 70 A.D., when the Romans crushed Jerusalem with gruesome violence, the temple was finally exterminated and, with it, the sacrificial system. It would, as the author wrote, "vanish away."
Perhaps your experience of Christianity has been an effort-based, drudgerous experience. Perhaps God has felt distant and impersonal. Perhaps you have felt a continual shame that you aren't enough for him. If so, he proposes a trade to you. He wants to bring you into his New Covenant. He wants you to let go of that old system. He wants to bring you into a fresh, grace-based, intimate, mercy-filled relationship with himself. He wants to shape you from the inside out. He wants you to let go of religiosity and enter into joy and love and freedom with him. He wants to give you something new.