30 May Hebrews 12: The better covenant
Hebrews 8:7-13 – 7 For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion to look for a second. 8 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, 9 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. 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, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 11 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. 12 For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.” 13 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.
Let me start with a question. Is God’s love conditional or unconditional? How many say it is conditional? How many say unconditional? How many are waiting for me to tell you the answer? Tonight’s sermon will answer that question. Tonight, we are going to talk about covenant. And before we go any further, I need to explain to you what covenant is. It is a word that we don’t use anymore but it is very important in the Bible. Throughout the Bible, whenever God relates to anyone, he relates in terms of a covenantal relationship. So, we need to know what it is. This is how I define covenant. A covenant is an agreement established for relating to someone that is both binding and intimate at the same time. It is a bond that creates a special relationship. It is a personal relationship that is made more intimate because it is legally binding. Let me put it this way. A covenantal relationship is the opposite of a consumer relationship. A consumer relationship is one in which our personal needs are more important than the relationship. For example, we have a consumer relationship with our grocery store. Whether it is Coles, Woolworths, Aldi, or others, we have a relationship with it as long as they give us good products for a good price. But if the prices increases or the product quality goes down, we switch to a different grocery store. We go to the one that meets our needs. That is a consumer relationship. But a covenantal relationship is one in which the relationship is more important than our personal needs. In a covenantal relationship, each side has made a vow to prioritize the relationship over personal needs. Each person loses their independence. And because of it, the relationship becomes more intimate and personal.
The best example of a covenantal relationship between people is marriage. Think about it. In marriage, two people make a vow to lose their independence and prioritize the relationship. They make a promise to close their eyes to other guys and girls and only have eyes for one another. They make a vow to be with one another no matter what might happen in the future. “In health and sickness, for better and worse, till death do us part.” Their vow is legally binding. But it is precisely because of their vow with one another that the relationship becomes more intimate and personal. Imagine if they say to each other, “I am going to love you as long as I have a feeling for you. I am going to be faithful to you as long as it is in my best interest to do so. The moment you no longer meet my needs, I am out.” What’s going to happen in this relationship? There will be no intimacy. Why? Because there is no intimacy without binding and limiting yourself. Do you see what happened? The more binding the relationship, the more intimate the relationship. That is a covenantal relationship. And this is how God relates to his people.
Do you know that God often described the relationship he has with his people as a marriage? That is a covenant. When God entered a relationship with the people of Israel, God specifically chose them to be his. Israel was to be God’s special possession. Israel belonged exclusively to God. And God called himself the God of Israel. And in this covenantal relationship, God promised to be faithful to his people and bless his people. And Israel also promised to be faithful to God and worship no other God besides him. Exodus 19:4-6 – 4 ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. 5 Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; 6 and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel.” That’s the term of the covenant. But then what happened was that Israel continued to forsake God and turn to other gods. Israel cheated on God consistently. They broke the covenant they had with God. And if you ever been cheated on, you know that it is an extremely painful experience. The pain is enough to make you drink beer like water. But even more so if the one who cheated on you is your spouse. The pain is so much more because your spouse not only breaks your heart but also breaks their covenant with you. And that’s what happened between God and his people.
So, God warned Israel, “Don’t do it Israel. Stop cheating on me. Turn back to me or it will be the end of our relationship.” God patiently warned Israel and waited for Israel to turn back to God, but Israel continued to sleep with other gods. To the point that God finally had enough. Jeremiah 3 said that God divorced Israel because Israel continued to betray the covenantal relationship they had with God. Israel was unfaithful, and the covenant was broken. So, God’s love for his people is conditional. But what’s amazing is that it was not the end of God’s relationship with his people. Israel had broken their covenant with God and God could have walked away from the relationship. But then God kept saying, “How can I forget you O Israel? How can I forsake you? I will never abandon you…” Even though God’s people broke the covenant, God refused to give up on his people. So, God’s love for his people is unconditional. There is tension here. In one sense, God’s love for his people is conditional upon their faithfulness and obedience. If they continue to cheat on God, that is the end of the relationship. In another sense, God’s love for his people is unconditional. He refuses to give up on his people no matter what. There is both condition and unconditionality in God’s love for his people. Do you see that tension? Hebrews chapter 8 will solve that tension for us. This chapter tells us how God solve that tension. God’s solution to this tension is to make a new and better covenant with his people. And this new and better covenant is what makes Christianity, Christianity. This is what separates Christianity from Judaism and every other religion in the world.
I separated Hebrews 8 into three different parts. The Mediator; The problem; The solution.
Hebrews 8:1-6 – 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, 2 a minister in the holy places, in the true tent that the Lord set up, not man. 3 For every high priest is appointed to offer gifts and sacrifices; thus it is necessary for this priest also to have something to offer. 4 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. 5 They serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly 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.” 6 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.
Underline or highlight verses 1 and 2. These two verses are crucial to the whole argument of the book of Hebrews. The author of Hebrews tells us so himself. He is saying, “This is the point. Don’t miss it. Everything I said before this, and everything I am going to say after this, is to make this point.” What is the point? The point is that we have Jesus as our perfect high priest who mediates a better covenant for us. And Jesus is not like other high priests. Jesus is seated at the right hand of God, which means that Jesus is exalted to the highest position. So, Jesus is not only our perfect high priest, but he is also our king who has all authority in heaven and on earth. The fact that Jesus is seated means that his work is done. Jesus has completed what he came to do. But just because he is seated does not mean he is idle. The author tells us that Jesus continues his work as our mediator. It means that today, in all his glory and authority, Jesus is ministering to us. He is constantly mediating between God and us. He is not waiting idly in heaven, wishing for our ultimate salvation. He is right now sustaining our salvation with his omnipotent power. What an encouragement. It does not matter what kind of struggle we are facing right now, Jesus is ministering to our needs.
And what’s important is that Jesus is not ministering to us as our high priest in a human-made tabernacle. Now, for us, this might seem irrelevant. But for the Jews, this is extremely relevant. Because all their life, they have been taught to come to the tabernacle to offer sacrifices to God. This is part of keeping their covenant with God. Let me explain. In the old covenant, God gave Israel the law and the tabernacle. The condition of the covenant was for Israel to obey God’s law. But God knew that Israel would fail to obey the law. So, God gave them the tabernacle system for them to bring their sacrifices and be made right with God. This is why the tabernacle was extremely important for them. But then the author of Hebrews tells us that although the tabernacle on earth is good, it is only a copy and shadow of something better, namely the tabernacle in heaven. So, when God instructed Moses to make a tabernacle on earth, that tabernacle was build based on the real tabernacle in heaven. When we read Exodus, we might wonder why Exodus is very precise in centimetres, inches, cubits, in the building of the tabernacle. Let’s be honest. How many of you skip that part when you read the Bible? It is hard to read. Why do they need the exact dimension of the tabernacle? Because it is a shadow of a greater reality. Moses saw the real tabernacle in heaven, and he built a precise model of it on earth. And right now, Jesus is ministering to us as our high priest, not in the tabernacle on earth but in the tabernacle in heaven.
The point is this. As amazing as the tabernacle on earth is, it is only a shadow of reality. And Jesus is ministering as our high priest in the true tabernacle that is not made by man but God himself. And that is why Jesus’ ministry is far better than the earthly priests’ ministry. It’s like this. Have you ever got lost in a mall when you were a kid? I got lost in Matahari when I was seven. And I panicked. I kept looking for my mom, but I could not find her. So, I did the only thing I could do. I cried really loud. And the security found me and brought me to the information desk. And they made the announcement, “Attention, attention, to Mrs. Lydia, to Mrs. Lydia, your lost son is waiting for you at the information desk.” So, I waited while I continued to look down and cry. And soon after, I saw a shadow on the floor that looked just like my mom. And I was very happy. The question is, which is better? The happiness of seeing her shadow on the floor, or to look up and see her standing in front of me? Through Jesus, we no longer have a shadow, we have the real heavenly things.
This is why we no longer need a tabernacle today. This is why we no longer need to offer sacrifices. Because the tabernacle and the sacrifices are only the shadows of the real things. Jesus has come to put an end to the Jewish religion. We don’t need it anymore. Jesus is the final priest to end all priests. He is the final tabernacle to end all tabernacles. He is the final sacrifice to end all sacrifices. What we have in Jesus is the great high priest who came into the world, lived a sinless life, offered himself as the perfect sacrifice for the sins of his people, rose to everlasting life at the right hand of God, and intercedes for us constantly. Jesus came not to give us another 10 steps on how to be made right with God; he came to make us right with God. Jesus came to give us a new covenantal relationship with God. And this new covenant that he mediates is better since it is enacted on better promises. Let’s continue.
Hebrews 8:7-9 – 7 For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion to look for a second. 8 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, 9 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.
Before we talk about the better promises of the new covenant, we need to talk about why we need a new covenant. What is wrong with the old covenant? Because if the old covenant was faultless, then we did not need a new covenant. But the fact that God established a new covenant means that there is something wrong with the old covenant. Now, let’s be clear. There is nothing bad about the old covenant. The old covenant is good, but it is not good enough. The old covenant is faulty because it is incomplete. The author of Hebrews quotes Jeremiah 31 where God promises to establish a new covenant with his people because he finds fault with the old covenant. Here is the problem with the old covenant. The people of God continuously failed to live up to the covenant and God showed no concern for them because of it.
Remember the story of the golden calf? Think about what the Israelites had just witnessed with their own eyes a few weeks earlier. They saw the 10 plagues happened. They saw how God sent hail, darkness and ultimately how God killed every first-born son in Egypt but spared the Israelites. If that’s not enough, they saw the Red Sea split into two. Can you imagine walking on dry ground while having sharks and turtles swim all around you, with Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston singing “There can be miracle when you believe”? Even if you did not believe, it made you believe. Then once they got to the other side, the Red Sea closed and swallowed the Egyptian army. That must be one heck of a sight. And God provided them with bread from heaven and water from a rock. And when they got to Mount Sinai, God established his covenant with his people. God said, “I have set you free from the slavery of Egypt. I have redeemed you and now you are mine. And now you are to obey my voice and keep my covenant and I will make you my treasured possession.” And the people of Israel agreed to this covenant. And then Moses went up to Mount Sinai to meet with God. And did you know what the people of Israel did? They created a statue of a golden calf and worshipped it. I mean, these were the same people who just witnessed the mighty hand of God. These were the people who just agreed to live in a covenantal relationship with God. And in a matter of days, they broke the covenant already. And this happened more than once. They continued to break the covenant again and again.
What is the problem? Here is the problem with the old covenant. The old covenant tells you what to do but does not give you the power to do it. The old covenant tells you the demands of the covenant, but it does not enable you to live it out. In other words, get this. The problem with the old covenant is not the demands of the covenant but the sinful hearts of the people of the covenant. This is crucial. The law is good. There is nothing wrong with the law of God. The problem is that none of us can obey the law. Because of our sinful hearts, there is a bent inside of us that want to break the law of God. The law can tell us what to do but it cannot make us want to do it. Let me give you a personal example: speeding. The law can tell me to slow down. It tells me that the speed limit is 60 km/h. It is good and safe for me to drive at that speed in certain areas. But the law cannot make me enjoy driving at 60 km/h. Every now and then I would drive above the speed limit when suddenly I notice a police car up ahead on the side of the road. So, I immediately slow down to the speed limit, only to discover as I drive past the police car that it is empty. What happens next? I speed up again. Don’t look at me as if you have never done it. The law can restrain our lawlessness, but only for a moment. Can you see what happened?
This is the reason why God finds fault with the old covenant. Not because the old covenant is bad but because the people are sinful. They were not able to keep the condition of the covenant. And God was not surprised by it. He knew all along that his people would not be able to keep the covenant. This is why God gave them the tabernacle and the sacrificial system. God knew that his people would fail miserably. So why did God give them the law in the first place if God knew that they would not be able to keep it? I think that’s precisely the reason. God gave them the law so that they knew they could not keep the law and prepared them for the only one who can. Which lead us to the solution.
Hebrews 8:10-13 – 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, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 11 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. 12 For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.” 13 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.
This is God’s solution to the fault of the old covenant. God made a new and better covenant. And this new covenant is enacted on better promises. Pay attention to the terms of the new covenant. The new covenant still has demands like the old covenant. Some people like to say that the new covenant is unconditional. Yes, but no. The new covenant still has conditions on it. The difference is that rather than the people of the covenant, it is God himself who will fulfil the conditions of the covenant. That is why this new covenant is filled with God saying, “I will.” God is the one who takes the initiative to fulfil the demands of his covenant. And my friends, this is Christianity. Christianity is not about what we do for God but what God has done for us.
There are four promises in the new covenant. First, the promise of enablement. God says that he will put his laws in our minds and write them on our hearts. In other words, this is a promise of a new heart. The people in the old covenant knew the law in their minds. They memorized it day and night. The problem was that they did not have the heart to obey the law. But in the new covenant, God writes his laws in our hearts. It means that we not only know that we have to obey God, but we want to obey God. Our obedience is not just external but also internal. It is an inside out transformation. If you hear a preacher says that God does not demand obedience in the new covenant, that’s a lie. God demands our obedience, but God also empowers our obedience. Whatever God requires, he supplies. God sovereignly conquers our rebellious hearts and frees us to love and obey him. The new covenant gives us the power and delight to do the will of God. It does not mean that we have perfect obedience. But it does mean that we are growing in our obedience to God. What happens is that we find ourselves hating our sin more and more and loving God more and more.
St. Augustine, one of the early church fathers, had a very messy past. Before his conversion, he used to party like a wild animal. He lived out his life pursuing sexual desire and he had lots of mistresses. So, one day, after he became Christian, he was walking and saw one of his old mistresses. She came to him and started to flirt with him. She tried to get his attention and invited him to her house to do you know what. So, Augustine acknowledged her presence and said, “Thank you. Oh, that’s wonderful. You think I am handsome and sexy? I think so too. It’s nice to see you. Goodbye. Jesus loves you.” And he walked away. The woman was confused. She thought maybe Augustine did not recognize her. So, she grabbed him and said, “Aurelio, it is I.” I love how Augustine responded to her. Augustine looked at her and said, “Yes I know it is you, dear lady. But it is not I.” What Augustine said was, “I know it is you. I know I used to be attracted to you. I know I used to sleep with you. But Aurelio is no more. It is not me. I am different.”
The same is true about all of us. All of us were once driven by our sinful desires. We can say with Augustine that we used to sleep around. We used to be addicted to porn, drugs and others. We used to be selfish. We used to crave approval. We used to “___”. Name whatever it is. But here is the good news for us. Sin will come and tempt us. Sin will call out our names and say, “Yosi, it is I.” But because of God’s work in the new covenant, we can look at sin in the face and say, “Sin, I know it is you. But it is not I. The old Yosi is no more. I have a new life. I am no longer enslaved to my sinful desire. I have been given a new heart. I am free to love and obey God. So, I don’t have to listen to you.” It does not mean that we are immune to sin. Christians are not sinless, but Christians are empowered by the gospel to sin less. We have new power and desire to resist sin and obey God’s law.
Second, the promise of an intimate relationship. God says that he will be our God and we will be his people. This is the language of covenant. Pay attention. It is always God’s desire to make his people his treasured possession. But the promise came with a demand. God will make Israel his treasured possession if they obey God. But in the new covenant, God himself enables our obedience and guarantee our intimate relationship with him. Think about it. The God of the Bible, the God of the universe, he is not just an all-powerful God somewhere out there in the universe. He is our God. He is my God. He is your God. We belong to him, and he belongs to us. We are in an intimate covenantal relationship with him. It means that God has bound his happiness to our happiness. He will never abandon us. This is his wedding vow to us. No matter what loss we went through, what pain we experienced, he will never let us go. Do you realize how powerful this is?
Let me give you an illustration. Let’s say there is a poor boy who worked hard to earn money. He worked 60 hours a week, he saved lots of money, he ate instant noodle every day for 10 years, he graduated with Cumae Laude, and he became a very successful and rich man. He became rich through his hard work and sweat. He did all the work. And then he fell in love with a common girl from a poor family and decided to marry her. What happened to this poor girl when she married the rich man? She instantly became very rich. How? Through a covenant. One person did all the hard work to become very rich and the other person became very rich simply by saying, “I do.” This is the power of covenant. Now, listen. If a human covenant is that powerful, how much more is God’s covenant with us? It means that our past, present and future life does not define us. God defines us. Our identity is found in God who loves us. It means that everything else in this world can be taken away from me. You can take away my parents, and I am no longer a child. You can take away this church, and I am no longer a pastor. You can take away my voice and I am no longer a preacher. But there is one thing that you cannot take away from me. You cannot take God away from me because God has made a covenant with me. Nothing can take God away from me.
Third, the promise of personal knowledge of God. God says that everyone in the new covenant from the least to the greatest will know him. And this knowing is not speaking of intellectual knowledge but personal and experiential knowledge. It does not matter if we have been a Christian for 15 years or 15 minutes, we can know God. It does not mean that everyone in the church knows God. Coming to church does not guarantee that we know God. At any given time, the church is filled with both believers and non-believers. There are many people who think that they are Christians, but they are not. This promise is not for those who called themselves Christians. This promise is not for pastors or well-known preachers either. This promise is for every member of the new covenant. If God has worked in our hearts and give us a new heart, we know him. In the eyes of God, there is no distinction between 15 years and 15 minutes Christians. We like to make that distinction. We like to think that certain groups of Christians have more access to God. And do you know who we think have more access to God? Those who are like us. Those who share the same ideology, the same political belief, the same passion as us. And we think that those who voted differently than us, have a different view on social justice, and do not share the same passion as us, as having less access to God. We might not say it with our words, but we show it with our lives. That is why there are many divisions within the church. But in the new covenant, every member of the new covenant is made sons and daughters of God. Every member of the new covenant knows God.
Fourth, the promise of complete forgiveness. And this is the most important promise. This is the ground of all other promises. Because if our sins are not forgiven, then God could not enter a new covenant with us. But God says that he will be merciful toward our iniquities and he will remember our sins no more. In the old covenant, God extended forgiveness through the tabernacle sacrificial system. But this system is incomplete. Constant sacrifices for sins were needed. But in the new covenant, it is different. There is no need for constant sacrifices for sins because God remembers our sins no more. And it is not as if God has amnesia. God knows everything. He cannot forget anything. But in the new covenant, God chooses to remember our sins no more. It means that he refuses to view the covenantal relationship he has with us based on our sins.
This is very different from us. Often in our relationship with others, we view them by their track records. Our relationship is driven by performance. For example, husband and wife. When a husband and a wife fight, they like to bring up something that happened years and years ago. They might say that they have forgiven each other, but in the heat of fights, they recall all those past sins. “This is exactly what you did 3 years ago.” “Oh yeah? I have not forgotten what you said to me 5 years ago.” “Why do you think I said that? It’s because of what happened 7 years ago. “Don’t you dare think that I have forgotten how you let me down 10 years ago.” But God is different. We will never hear those words from God. God does not relate to us based on our past performances. God has put away our sins as far as the east is from the west. How far the east is from the west? Infinite. It means that in the new covenant God never recalls our sins.
This is why the author concludes in Hebrews 8:13 – 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. The old covenant is obsolete. We do not need it anymore. We already have a new covenant. And the new covenant is far better than the old covenant. In the new covenant, God not only gives the conditions of the covenant, but he also fulfils the conditions of the covenant himself. And that is why the new covenant is unconditional. It is unbreakable. God deals with the problem of sin once and for all and that solves the fault of the old covenant.
But how did God solve the problem of sin? How did God bring about the new covenant? Listen to what Jesus says. Luke 22:19-20 – 19 And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 20 And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” The price of the new covenant is the blood of Jesus. Jesus purchased the new covenant for us at the cross. That is why at the cross Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus, the perfect Son of God, was forsaken by God. Why? Because he took the curse of breaking the covenant on him. The old covenant said that if we obey God then we would be God’s treasured possession. If we disobey God, then we would be forsaken by God. Jesus obeyed the covenant perfectly. But instead of becoming God’s treasured possession, he was forsaken. Why? So that when we believe in him, we will never ever be forsaken by God. Get this. Jesus met all the conditions of the covenant so that we when believe in him, we can have the assurance of God’s unconditional love for eternity. This is the new covenant.
Let me close with this. I have never seen an ugly bride. Every bride looks gorgeous in a wedding gown. Every girl in a wedding gown looks 10/10. They look stunning. There is something about the wedding gown that covers the flaws and makes every bride looks gorgeous. That and also a good make-up. And one of the things that I love to see during a wedding is the expression of the groom as he sees his bride in that wedding gown. You know what I am talking about right? That expression that says, “I can’t believe that this stunning woman actually agreed to marry me? What did I do to deserve such a beauty?” But that expression does not last long. The bride only gets to wear that wedding gown once in a lifetime. Once the wedding is over, she changes into her regular clothes and puts away that wedding gown. That’s it. She can’t wear that wedding gown to her friend’s wedding. That is not going to end well. But here is my point. The way a groom sees his bride on the wedding day is the way God sees us every day in Jesus. This is the beauty of the new covenant. Right now, in all our weaknesses, we are clothed in Jesus’ perfect righteousness. Jesus’ blood has covered all our sins. God sees us as stunning and gorgeous. There is not one millisecond where his eye is not on us. That is why Isaiah says that as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall God rejoice over us (Isaiah 62:5). This is why the new covenant is a better covenant. The question is if this is true, why would we go back to the old covenant? Let’s pray.
- Explain how covenant creates intimacy. What does it say about our cultural tendency for “non-committed relationship”?
- What does it mean for Jesus to be the Mediator of a better covenant?
- In what ways do we still struggle with keeping God’s laws only on an external basis? Give examples.
- Out of the four promises of the new covenant, which one stands out the most for you and why?
- Is God’s love conditional or unconditional? Elaborate.
- How does the new covenant actually make us better law-keepers? Give specific daily-life examples.