‘The point of what we are saying is this….’ That’s how the author of Hebrews begins chapter 8. And, of course, it means he’s about highlight for us the main point of what he’s been saying. You listen to someone on the radio or on a podcast or in a lecture or in a sermon who is explaining something. And perhaps it’s a difficult topic and it’s hard to explain and the speaker makes one point and then another and then a third and a fourth and you’re perhaps finding it hard to keep up with the speaker. And then, just when you’re about to give up, the speaker says, ‘The point of what I’m saying is this….’ And when you hear those words, or similar words, you know the speaker is about to summarise what he or she has been saying and underline for you the main point. And that’s what the writer of Hebrews is about to do.
In the previous chapter, he finally got round to talking about Melchizedek. He mentioned Melchizedek in the middle of chapter 5, but then he backed off from saying anything more about him at that point, because it was hard to explain and his readers were slow to learn. By now they should be teachers, but they’re still going over the ABCs of the faith. And so, he appealed to them to leave behind the elementary teachings about Christ and to go on to learn new things about Christ. And last week I suggested that they needed to learn more about Christ, because the more we know about him, the more we’ll understand how great and glorious he is and the more we’ll trust in him. And the more we trust in him, the less likely we are to fall away from him. So, let’s go on to learn more about the Lord Jesus. In particular, let’s go on to learn how he’s our great high priest in the order of Melchizedek.
And in chapter 7 he finally got round to writing about Melchizedek, who was that high priest who appeared in the book of Genesis, out of the blue, we might say. And he blessed Abraham and then he seemed to disappear from Genesis. He appeared and then he disappeared. And the reason he mentioned Melchizedek is to show us that there are two kinds of priest in the Bible. There’s the Levitical priesthood which is the one we’re most familiar with. These are the priests who were from the tribe of Levi. And God appointed them to serve in the tabernacle and the temple and to offer up gifts and sacrifices on behalf of the people. But then there’s this other kind of priest, which was foreshadowed by Melchizedek and which was fulfilled, ultimately, by God the Son. And why were two orders of priest necessary? It’s because one of them, the Levitical priesthood, was not ‘fit for purpose’. They were not ‘fit for purpose’ because they did not make anyone perfect. That is, no one — as a result of their ministry — received the forgiveness of sins they needed to be able come into the presence of God. Those priests weren’t able to bring anyone to God. And, of course, they kept dying, didn’t they? Every Levitical priest died and had to be replaced by someone else. And, as well as that, they had to offer sacrifices for themselves, because they were sinners who needed forgiveness. And they had to keep offering sacrifices for the people, day after day after day because those animal sacrifices which they offered at the altar in the tabernacle and temple could not take away the sins of the people. They were ineffective. And so, those priests were not ‘fit for purpose’. That’s why another kind of priest was necessary. And the Lord Jesus is the perfect high priest who offered himself as the perfect sacrifice for sins to bring us to God. And though he died, he was raised from the dead to live forever. And so, he always lives to intercede for his people so that they will not fall, but will persevere in the faith until the end.
Verses 1 and 2
And having explained that there are two kinds of priest, and that one is superior to the other, the writer says to us in verse 1 that the main point of what he’s been saying is this: We do have such a high priest. We do have such a high priest, a superior high priest, a better high priest, indeed a perfect high priest. The Levitical priesthood was not ‘fit for purpose’. And so, we needed a a better kind of priest. And we have one. Melchizedek in the Old Testament foreshadowed it, but the Lord Jesus Christ, the Eternal Son of God, has fulfilled it.
And the Lord Jesus has now sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. When he refers to sitting at the right hand of the Majesty, he means this high priest is at God’s right hand. And so, he’s done what none of the other priests have done. The Levitical priests served in the earthly tabernacle and temple, but the Lord Jesus Christ, our great high priest, has gone right into the presence of God. And so, he serves in a sanctuary, the writer says in verse 2. But the sanctuary he serves in is the true tabernacle which has been set up by the Lord and not by man. And when he refers to the true tabernacle, he means the real tabernacle. The earthly tabernacle was a copy, but the heavenly tabernacle is the real thing. It’s the true one and it was set up by the Lord. So, the earthly tabernacle was built by men. After God gave his people the Ten Commandments, he gave them instructions on how to build the tabernacle and what to put in it. You can read those instructions in Exodus chapters 25 to 28. And then, in chapter 35, we read how the Lord chose Bezalel and filled him with the Spirit of God and with skill and ability and knowledge in all kinds of craft to make what was needed for the tabernacle. And the Lord enabled Bezalel and another man, Oholiab, to teach others to make what was needed. And so, these two men and other skilled men made the sanctuary. And so, it was man-made. The same goes for the temple in Jerusalem. It was man-made. It was a man-made copy of the real thing. And the real thing is not on earth, because it’s heavenly. Indeed it’s heaven itself. And it was not made by men or women, but by God. And that’s where our great high priest has gone. He’s gone right into the very presence of God.
Verses 3 to 5
And in verses 3 to 5 the writer reiterates this difference between the Levitical priests and the Lord Jesus. So, every high priest is appointed to offer gift and sacrifices, he says in verse 3. Now jump down to verse 4 where he describes the Levitical priests as men who offer gifts prescribed by the law. So, read through the book of Leviticus, and you’ll see all the different kinds of gifts and sacrifices which the high priests had to offer. There was the burnt offering. There was the grain offering. There was the fellowship offering. There was the purification offering. The law prescribed lots of gifts and offerings and there were also holy days and festivals for the people to keep. Now look at verse 5: those Levitical priests with their gifts and sacrifices served at a sanctuary that is a copy and shadow of what is in heaven. So, the true sanctuary, the true tabernacle, is in heaven, whereas the Levitical priests served in the earthly sanctuary which was only a copy and shadow of the true tabernacle.
Now, sometimes a copy of something can be almost indistinguishable from the real thing. From time to time you hear reports about a painting painted by some famous artist and everyone thought the painting was genuine. But now someone has discovered it was only a copy. It wasn’t really painted by Picasso, but by someone else who copied his style; and they did it so well, that all the experts believed it was real. And I was watching someone on TV or YouTube who had a copy of one of Leonardo Da Vinci’s notebooks. And it was specially made so that it was an exact copy, made of the same material, with the same blemishes on the pages; dog-eared in the same way; torn in the same places. It was virtually identical. Some copies are an exact replica of the original. And, in fact, the writer tells us that Moses was warned that he needed to make everything according to the pattern he was shown on the mountain. So, when he was on Mount Sinai, God showed him a pattern to guide him. Perhaps he was shown a model. Perhaps he was shown the real thing. But God showed him a pattern to guide him when they were constructing the earthly copy so that there was as close a resemblance as possible between the earthly copy and the true tabernacle in heaven.
However, we’re told that not only was the earthly tabernacle a copy of the true tabernacle, but it was also a ‘shadow’. And that word indicates that the earthly copy of the sanctuary, while being a close match, isn’t an exact replica of the heavenly sanctuary. So, it’s a shadowy copy. It’s a faint copy. We might say it’s only a shadow of the original. So, they’re similar, because one was modelled on the other. But nevertheless, despite their resemblance, the earthly copy pales in comparison to the real thing.
And, of course, shadows come and go, don’t they? They do not last. The sun casts a shadow on the ground, but the shadow is not permanent. And the earthly tabernacle was never meant to be permanent. It was always meant to be for the time-being only; and there would come a time when it was not needed any longer. And so, that’s where the Levitical priests served. They served in an earthly copy of the true tabernacle, which was really only a shadow of the original and which was never designed to last.
But our great high priest does not serve on earth in an earthly and shadowy copy. In fact, the writer tells us in verse 4 that if the Lord Jesus were on earth, he wouldn’t be a priest at all. He wouldn’t be allowed in the earthly tabernacle, because only the Levitical priests were allowed in it. However, instead of serving there, he serves in the true tabernacle in heaven.
Well now, let’s think about the significance of this for our worship. The Levitical priests served God in an impressive looking sanctuary. Think of the tabernacle which was made of linen of different colours and it was all richly decorated and with the Holy Place and the Most Holy Place and the altar and golden lampstand and everything else. Or think of the temple in Jerusalem made from great blocks of stone and there was gold everywhere. And think of the priests themselves, with their long robes and the high priest with his special turban and his breastplate with coloured precious stones on it. It all looked impressive; but it was all only a temporary copy of the real thing, whereas the Lord Jesus Christ has gone into the true tabernacle which is unseen. The tabernacle is unseen and he is unseen.
And when we meet for worship today, there’s not much for us to see compared to what it was like in Old Testament times. In particular, Reformed and presbyterian church buildings have always tended to be ordinary buildings. They’re not ornate. And reformed and presbyterian services of worship have always tended to be ordinary services. They’re not showy. They’re not flashy. Not much is going on. A few songs. A few prayers. Bible readings. A sermon. Baptism. The Lord’s Supper. There’s nothing visually impressive going on here; and there’s not much to look at. And it’s all very simple. And that’s because what matters most is not what happens here on earth, but what’s happening in heaven above, where Christ our High Priest is standing before the Father, interceding on our behalf, appealing to his Father to provide us with the help and strength we need to persevere in the faith so that we will not fall.
And impressive-looking buildings and fancy services can distract us from the unseen things which matter most. And so, we gather in a simple building for a simple serice so that nothing will distract us from hearing about Jesus Christ our great high priest who is unseen and who offered himself as the perfect sacrifice for sins and who is now interceding for us before the Father in heaven who is also unseen. And through Christ who is unseen we come to God who is unseen to offer him true — this is, heavenly — worship.
Verses 6 to 13
Let’s keep moving. According to verse 6, Christ’s ministry is superior to the ministry of the Levitical priests. It’s superior because it’s in heaven, whereas their ministry is on earth. But now he wants to move on to another topic. You see, not only is Christ’s ministry superior to their ministry, but the covenant he’s associated with is superior to the covenant they’re associated with.
So, let’s think about covenants again. A covenant is a relationship based on a promise. The example I always give is of a wedding. A man and a woman are married in church; and as part of the service they promise and covenant to be a loving, faithful and dutiful spouse to the other. And because of the promises they make to one another, they enter into a new relationship with one another as husband and wife. So, a covenant is a relationship based on a promise.
Right at the beginning of the Bible, before the Fall, God entered into a covenant with Adam and all his descendants to give them eternal life in his presence in glory so long as Adam obeyed God’s commandment regarding the Tree of Knowledge. But Adam disobeyed God by eating the forbidden fruit and forfeited the right to eternal life by means of that covenant. And so, God made a second covenant, which we call the covenant of grace, in which he promises to deliver his people from the state of sin and misery and to bring them into the state of salvation by a Redeemer who is Jesus Christ the Lord.
God first announced this covenant in the Garden of Eden after Adam’s fall, when he promised that the seed of the woman would crush the seed of the serpent. By that announcement, God was promising that Jesus Christ, who was descended from Eve, would come into the world to destroy the works of Satan and he would set his people free from their sin and misery so that they could enjoy eternal life in the presence of God in glory. And all the other covenants which we read about in the Old Testament relate in one way or another to this covenant of grace.
So, there’s the covenant God made in the days of Noah with the whole of creation not to destroy the world with a flood. And so, God promised to preserve the world so that, in time, the Saviour could come to save God’s people. There’s the covenant he made with Abraham that Abraham’s descendants would be like the stars in the sky and like the sand on the seashore. In other words, they would be too many to count. And God would give them a land of their own to live in. And all nations of the earth will be blessed through one of his descendants. And so, the Lord was promising to send the Saviour into the world through whom we are blessed; and he was promising to establish the church; and he was promising to give his people Eternal Life in the Promised Land to come. Then there’s the covenant God made with David that there would be a king who will rule forever. He was referring to Christ who is our Great King. All of those covenants were related in one way or another to the covenant of grace and God’s promise to deliver his people from their sin and misery by his Son.
The one covenant I haven’t mentioned yet is the covenant God made with the Israelites at Mount Sinai in the days of Moses. This too is related to the covenant of grace, because God graciously and freely chose the Israelites to be his own special people. And he promised to take care of them always and to give them the Promised Land of Canaan to live in. And he gave them laws to show them how to live as his people; and he gave them the whole sacrificial system including the tabernacle and the priests and the sacrifices so that, when they did wrong, they could offer the right sacrifices to God so that God’s wrath would not burn against them and they could continue to live in his presence. And he promised them blessings if they obeyed him and he warned them about curses if they disobeyed him.
However, while the people promised to do all that God commanded, they were not able to obey him. In fact, while Moses was on Mount Sinai, receiving the law, the people down below made an idol and bowed down to it. In other words, they broke the terms of that covenant immediately. And the history of Israel is a history of unbelief and rebellion and the breaking of that covenant, because again and again the people forgot the Lord and they disregarded his laws and they did not offer the right sacrifices. The Lord sent them prophets to remind them of his will and to warn them about a coming judgment. But they would not listen. And so, eventually, the Lord did what he said he would and he drove them from the Promised Land and into exile in Babylon.
However, through the prophet Jeremiah, the Lord announced a new covenant to replace the old covenant which he made with his people in the days of Moses. And the writer to the Hebrews refers to this new covenant in verses 7 to 13. Now, both the old covenant and the new covenant are related to the one covenant of grace. Both of them reveal something of God’s gracious plan to save his people. But it seems there was something wrong with the old covenant and it needed to be replaced. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that there was something wrong with the people. The covenant itself was fine, but the people were unable to keep it. In fact, that’s what the writer goes on to say in verse 8 where he writes: ‘But God found fault with the people….’ So, the old covenant was good, but the people could not keep it, because they were sinners who were sinfully inclined to disobey God. And so, because of their failure to keep it, God graciously promised to make a new covenant with his people. He refers in verse 8 to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. However, this new covenant is not limited to the Jews only. The promises contained in this covenant are for everyone who believes. And so, when he refers to the house of Israel and to the house of Judah, he’s referring to God’s people. He’s saying: This is the covenant I will make with my people.
This new covenant will not be like the old one, which he made when he took them by the hand and led them out of Egypt. So, God rescued his people from Egypt and he led them through the Red Sea and over to Mount Sinai. And what does he say about those people in the second half of verse 9? That they did not remain faithful to that covenant. And so, God turned away from them. That is, he sent them into exile. However, this is the covenant I will now make with them. This is the new covenant. This is my promise to them now. I will put my law in their minds and write in on their hearts. So, under the old covenant, he wrote the law on stone tablets. But now he will write his law on our hearts; and these are hearts that have been renewed by God. And so, he means he’ll enable us to keep his laws like never before. He will incline our hearts to obey him.
And then he says that he will be our God and we will be his people and no longer will we have to teach one another, because each one of us will know the Lord. He doesn’t mean we no longer need preachers or teachers. He means that his covenant people will all know him personally. Among the Israelites, there were some who loved the Lord and wanted to walk in his ways. Think of the great heroes of the faith whom we read about in the Old Testament. They loved the Lord. They trusted him. They wanted to obey him. They knew him. Men like Moses and Aaron and David and Joshua and Ezra and Nehemiah. But there were many other Israelites who did not know him or love them. They were Israelites by birth, but God was a stranger to them. But God’s new covenant people will all know him, because this is a religion of the heart, isn’t it? We don’t become a member of his covenant people by birth, but by receiving a new heart from the Lord so that we’re able to know him and love him and trust him.
And then, not only will he write his law on our hearts, and not only will we all know him, but he promises to forgive our wickedness and to remember our sins no more. The blood of bulls and goats could not take away anyone’s guilt. In fact, those Old Testament sacrifices were designed to remind the people that they were sinners who needed forgiveness. Those Old Testament sacrifices were for the time-being only, to prepare the people for the coming of Christ who would offer himself as the once-for-all perfect sacrifice for sins. And because of his offering of himself, God is able to forgive us our wickedness and he will remember our sins no more. He’s able to forgive us like that because the Lord Jesus paid for our sins with his life to satisfy the justice of God in full; and by his blood we are cleansed so that our guilt is washed away for ever. So, God will not remember our sins. He will not bring them up. He will not call them to mind. They have been paid for in full and the guilt of our sins has been removed.
And the writer adds at the end that by calling this covenant new, he has made the first one obsolete. It’s out of date. It has expired. It’s no longer in use. And so, there’s no longer any need for all the things associated with that old covenant. There’s no need for the old covenant temple. There’s no need for the old covenant priests. There’s no need for the old covenant sacrifices. There’s no need for any of those things, because we have a new covenant with God.
And so, why would we ever turn away from Christ? Why would we ever stop believing in him? The original readers of this letter were tempted to give up on Christ and to return to the Old Testament shadows. But the shadows are only temporary. The real high priest, the real Saviour, is Jesus Christ. And it doesn’t matter how many times we have sinned. It doesn’t matter how big our sins are. It doesn’t matter how serious our sins are or how shameful they are. It doesn’t matter how often we have sinned. None of those things matter, so long as you’re trusting in Christ, because God has promised to forgive our wickedness and to remember our sins no more. He will never hold them against us. That’s his promise to us. And he’s able to forgive us and to remember our sins no more, because of Christ who gave up his life to pay for our sins and who shed his blood to cleanse us from our guilt. And so, believe in the Saviour! And believe God’s promise! And rejoice in the forgiveness of all your sins.