We have already discussed the importance of defining the word covenant correctly. We must also define the adjective new in the phrase “new covenant” correctly. A host of errors have sprung from the fact that we have misdefined this simple word new. We are under the “new covenant.” What does that mean exactly?
In the eighth chapter of Hebrews we are taught that Christ is our High Priest. He serves in the heavenly tabernacle, and not at all in the earthly tabernacle. The prophet Jeremiah predicted that God would bring this to pass, and make a new covenant with the houses of Israel and Judah. The fault with the older covenant was with the people, not with the covenant, but the heavenly covenant is founded on better promises — promises which take our sinfulness into account, promises which conquer our sinfulness. In this new covenant we find the internalization of the law. The old covenant is on its last legs, and is about ready to vanish away.
“Now this is the main point of the things we are saying: We have such a High Priest, who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens, a Minister of the sanctuary and of the true tabernacle which the Lord erected, and not man. For every high priest is appointed to offer both gifts and sacrifices. Therefore it is necessary that this One also have something to offer. For if He were on earth, He would not be a priest, since there are priests who offer the gifts according to the law; who serve the copy and shadow of the heavenly things, as Moses was divinely instructed when he was about to make the tabernacle. For He said, “See that you make all things according to the pattern shown you on the mountain.” But now He has obtained a more excellent ministry, inasmuch as He is also Mediator of a better covenant, which was established on better promises. For if that first covenant had been faultless, then no place would have been sought for a second. Because finding fault with them, He says: “Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah— “not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt; because they did not continue in My covenant, and I disregarded them, says the Lord. “For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put My laws in their mind and write them on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. “None of them shall teach his neighbor, and none his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them. “For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more.” In that He says, A new covenant,” He has made the first obsolete. Now what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away”
Sometimes the scriptural writers help us understand how to structure the points of the book they have given us. They say things like, “Now this is the main point of the things we are saying . . . (v. 1). And so what is that main point? We have a forever Priest, with His work completed, seated at the right hand of God’s Majesty. He is the Leitourgos or minister of the sanctuary and the true tabernacle. The word leitourgos is the one from which we get liturgy. Our Lord is the great liturgist of Heaven. More than this, our Lord is the ultimate Liturgy Himself.
From the definition of priest we know that He must have something to offer, but from the fact of how the law regulates offerings, if He were an earthly priest, He would have nothing to offer. He was from the tribe of Judah, not Levi. The earthly priests offer up shadow sacrifices in a shadow tabernacle. Christ offered up a true sacrifice in the heavenly tabernacle.
This is where we begin to see the importance of the word new. We must not understand our new covenant in an earthly way. The importance of this distinction is reflected in the cryptic title of this message. The old covenant was copied from something already existent in the heavens — the true tabernacle in which Christ now serves. Old and new are not coupled together in time like two railroad cars. The new and the “second” ministry was the one Moses was instructed to copy. “. . . who serve the copy and shadow of the heavenly things . . .” (v. 5). When we say new covenant we should understand this as heavenly covenant. When we say old covenant we should understand heavenly shadow covenant.
The new covenant was operative throughout the period of the old covenant. The old covenant was a copy of it. Those who understand the new covenant as something beginning at a certain point in time a mere two thousand years ago do not understand that the covenant is different in kind, and not merely different in time sequence. This covenant, like the Priest who is the minister of this covenant, is “without beginning of days or end of life.” The new covenant does not start in time — although it does come to fruition and fulfillment in time.
These are better promises. Christ has obtained a more excellent service, or liturgy. It is the liturgy of sitting down. His sacrifice and His offering have been completed, and He is seated at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. If the ministry of constant repetition had been adequate, then no need for Jeremiah’s prophecy would exist. But Jeremiah says plainly that a new covenant will have to be made. This new covenant has better promises — promises which actually deal with us.
With whom is the covenant made? The covenant is made with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. This is very important. Unless you belong to these two houses, the covenant is not for you. You are a true Jew if your heart is circumcised, a citizen in the heavenly Jerusalem. Every Christian must therefore be a heavenly Israelite.
Another feature of this covenant is the matter of heart law. The terms of the covenant are two-fold. The first feature is the internalization of the law — not the vaporization of the law. The second feature is forgiveness of sins. With regard to the first, we know that sin is lawlessness. We know that Christ has taken the requirement of the law and written them on the tablets of human hearts (2 Cor. 3:1-6).
With regard to the second, Christianity is a faith that is open only to screw-ups. Without forgiveness of sins, we would all be helpless and hopeless. Those who are content with how they currently are have no knowledge of genuine faith.