Monday, February 28, 2022

The Way into the Holiest of All (Hebrews 9:1-10)

In the first ten verses of Hebrews 9, we have a description of the tabernacle in the wilderness, which was a precursor to Solomon’s temple. Thus, the paragraph begins, “Then verily the first covenant had also ordinances of divine service, and a worldly sanctuary” (1). It is “worldly” not, of course, in the sense of being sinful (it is called a “sanctuary” or holy place, after all!), but in contrast to the heavenly sanctuary in which our Lord now ministers (cf. 8:1). In particular, in what follows we have a description of this “worldly sanctuary” belonging to the old covenant in terms of the pieces of furniture in the tabernacle as well as how they were arranged. The author of Hebrews is going to make a major theological point here about the division of the tabernacle into a front and second compartment, which he will continue to apply in the following verses (11, ff).

The construction of the tabernacle is dealt with in the latter half of the book of Exodus (chapters 25-40). There we learn that it was a framed structure covered by various animals’ skins. The tabernacle proper was about 45 feet long by 15 feet wide and 15 feet in height. This was located inside a larger courtyard which was about 75 feet wide by 150 feet in length and surrounded by a wall comprised of hangings of fine twined linen. In the courtyard there was the bronze altar on which the sacrifices were offered and the bronze basin for ceremonial washing. This is not dealt with by our author, however, because he is interested primarily in the way the tabernacle proper was arranged and divided. In particular, in this paragraph the author of Hebrews gives a description of the tabernacle in verses 2-5, followed by the duties of the priests in verses 6-7, and then finishes with the doctrine of the ritual – what all this was meant to teach us – in verses 8-10.

The Description of the Tabernacle (2-5)

In verses 2-5 we are given a tour through the two compartments of the tabernacle. The word “first” in verse 2 is not a reference to the first of two tabernacles, but to the first of two compartments of a single tabernacle, called the Holy Place (“sanctuary,” ver. 2, KJV). The Holy Place was 15 feet wide by 30 feet long by 15 feet high. In this compartment, there was “the candlestick” (or rather, the lampstand), which was made of beaten gold, with three branches coming out of either side of a central stem. It had seven lamps which were kept burning day and night. The lampstand stood on the south side of the Holy Place. On the north side stood the table, made of acacia (“shittim” KJV) wood covered in gold, on which was laid the “shewbread” or “Bread of the Presence,” in two neat rows of six loaves each. This bread was replaced each Sabbath day with fresh loaves.

“And after the second veil” – the first has not been explicitly mentioned, but you had to pass through the first veil to enter into the Holy Place – “the tabernacle which is called the Holiest of all” (3). With these words, the author ushers us into the “Most Holy Place.” This second compartment of the tabernacle was a cube, each side approximately 15 feet in length. It was the Holy of Holies with which the most sacred of the tabernacle furniture was associated: the golden altar of incense and the ark of the covenant (4-5).

Now in our version, we read that the Holy of holies “had the golden censer” (4). The Greek here (thumiaterion) has been interpreted this way by a number of commentators throughout history, including notable Biblical interpreters such as Anselm, Aquinas, and Luther.However, most modern interpreters translate this as “golden altar of incense.” Either way, however, there appears to a problem. If you translate it as in our version, then our author has left out one of most important pieces of furniture in the tabernacle (the altar of incense), which seems very unlikely. Also, there is no golden censer mentioned at all in the description of the tabernacle in Exodus (those kinds of instruments were bronze). On the other hand, if you translate it as referring to the altar of incense, there is also a problem because this altar was in front of and not behind the second veil.

What is the solution? I think that Philip Edgcumbe Hughes and others are probably right when they posit that the point here is not so much the precise location of the altar as its association with the Most Holy Place.A theological point is being made here. For it was placed immediately in front of it the Most Holy Place so that when the high priest entered there on the Day of Atonement, he would take burning incense from this altar which would fill the Holiest of all “that he die not” (see Lev. 16:12-13). The incense from the altar along with the blood sprinkled on the mercy seat were together a part of the most important event in the religious life of Israel.

We come then to “the ark of the covenant overlaid round about with gold, wherein was the golden pot that had manna, and Aaron’s rod that budded, and the tables of the covenant; and over it the cherubims of glory shadowing the mercyseat” (4-5). It was a wooden box covered in gold, measuring 2.25 feet wide, 3.75 feet long, and 2.25 feet tall. Inside this box, three things were placed: a golden pot with manna, Aaron’s rod that budded, and the tablets of the covenant on which were written the Ten Commandments by the finger of God.

This box had a lid, also covered with gold, called the mercy seat. The term our author uses here is the usual way the Septuagint referred to the lid on the ark. The Hebrew is a bit more prosaic, simply meaning “covering.” However, it is significant that when the Bible speaks of our sins being forgiven, it often uses the language of our sins being covered, as in Psalm 32:1 – “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.” So even the description of the lid in terms of a covering was meant to say something very important. It was on the lid of the ark that the blood of the atoning sacrifice was sprinkled so that the sins of God’s people would be covered and forgiven. Just as significantly, the Greek word used here – hilasterion – is the word used to describe our Lord’s atoning work on the cross in multiple places in the NT (Rom. 3:25; 1 Jn. 2:2; 4:10). It is the word translated in those places by the word “propitiation.” Here again we see just how every part of the tabernacle was pointing in some way to Jesus Christ and to his atoning work on the cross for sinful men and women.

Also on the lid were two cherubim of beaten gold, looking inward toward the mercy seat. They were “cherubim of glory,” not because they were necessarily glorious in themselves, but because between them the glory of God, the Shekinah glory, dwelt: “And there I will meet with thee, and I will commune with thee from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubims which are upon the ark of the testimony” (Exod. 25:22).

The Duties of the Priests (6-7)

In the next two verses, we come to the duties of the priests. The tabernacle was not a museum; it was a workplace for priests. “Now when these things were thus ordained, the priests went always into the first tabernacle [i.e. the Holy Place, the first compartment], accomplishing the service of God. But into the second [i.e. the Most Holy Place, the second compartment] went the high priest alone once every year, not without blood, which he offered for himself, and for the errors [unintentional sins] of the people.”

The point here is that the first compartment, the Holy Place, had a lot of traffic, day in and day out. The priests were “always” there. However, the Holy of Holies was different. No one could enter into this place except once a year on the Day of Atonement, and only the high priest could do that, and only with the blood of a sin offering. On that day, the priest would offer a bull on the bronze altar and take some of its blood along with incense from the golden altar and sprinkle the blood upon the mercy seat for his own sins. He would then take the blood from one of a pair of goats (which had been killed) and sprinkle it upon the altar for the sins of the people of Israel. After accomplishing this, he would come out and confess the sins of Israel over the head of the other goat, symbolically transferring the guilt of Israel to the goat, which was then led out into the wilderness, never to be seen again (see Lev. 16).

The Doctrine of the Ritual (8-10)

Now all this had a meaning. We are told in several ways that the tabernacle was symbolic, that it was meant to be a parable. Thus the author says, “The Holy Ghost this signifying, that the way into the holiest of all was not yet made manifest, while as yet the first tabernacle was yet standing: which was a figure for the time then present” (8-9). In other words, there is an inspired doctrine to the description of the tabernacle and the duties of the priests. The word “figure” in verse 9 is the term “parable.” All this ismeant to be a parable for us of spiritual realities. And the main reality that all this was meant to preach is that “the way into the holiest of all was not yet made manifest.”

By the way, I think it’s important to notice the restraint of our author when it comes to interpreting the meaning of the significance of the tabernacle. In fact, he says that of the things in the tabernacle, “we cannot now speak particularly” (5); that is, he is not going to squeeze some type of spiritual meaning out of every detail of the tabernacle’s furniture. This restraint has not always been shared by Christian interpreters, unfortunately. For instance, one interpreter from the past said that “the almond-shaped cups [of the lampstand] . . . are the saints who are fitted to receive and transmit to others the oil of grace.” Now that’s a nice thought but it is hardly warranted by the textAnother said that “the table is Holy Scripture which supplies the food of life. The loaves are the twelve apostles and their vicars who offer the incense of prayer to God.” He goes on to squeeze meaning even out of the dimensions of the ark, for example, and says that the length of the ark (which was two and a half cubits long) is to be interpreted this way: “One cubit of its length signifies perseverance in doctrine, and the other cubit perseverance in labor, while the extra half-cubit signifies the imperfection of human capacities. . ..”Such interpretations are laughable, at best.

There is no need to do any of this anyway, because as we’ve noted above, the Spirit has already indicated the lesson we are to learn. Arguing from the division of the sanctuary as well as the deficiency of the sacrifices, our author shows that the old covenant worship was imperfect in the sense that its rituals could never actually in themselves give us access to God. The division of the sanctuary into two compartments so that only the high priest could enter once a year into the Holy of Holies was meant to show that the way sinful man may have access to God had not yet been fully revealed (8). On the other hand, the deficiency of the sacrifices “which stood only in meats and drinks, and divers washings, and carnal ordinances” (10) was manifest in that they “could not make him that did the service perfect as pertaining to the conscience” (9). They could not actually take away sin.

Nevertheless, underneath these deficiencies that led to the retirement of the old covenant is mankind’s unchanging need. The old covenant may be transitory, but the human problem it points us to is not. The two things above together clearly demonstrate our need for atonement in order to have access to God. They demonstrate that the only way that this can happen is through the shedding of blood. And they demonstrate that this atonement, though prefigured in the sacrifices of the old covenant, had not actually happened yet.

So let’s not miss the great point here. All this assumes our great need of access to God, to find a way into the holiest of all. In particular, I think it is important for us to see that access to God doesn’t just happen anywhere and in any way. There were many temples in the ancient world, but this is the only place God said that he dwelt. And in the tabernacle itself, it wasn’t the courtyard that was the place where God revealed his glory, or even the Holy Place, into which only priests could enter. It was the Most Holy Place, and there alone, in which God’s presence was most manifest. It was over the ark of the covenant, above the mercy seat, between the cherubim, that the Shekinah glory of God shone forth. It was there that God’s glory was revealed, that God’s fellowship was enjoyed, and that God’s forgiveness was imparted. And it is there that our need for Jesus Christ is so abundantly manifest.

So here we have our great need laid out before us. And I think it is worthwhile meditating together for a few moments upon these three themes: our need for God’s glory, God’s fellowship, and God’s forgiveness.

Our need for God’s glory

The highlight of the book of Exodus is not really found on the top of Mount Sinai, but at the end of the book when the tabernacle was finished. For there we are told that “a cloud covered the tent of the congregation, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. And Moses was not able to enter the tent of the congregation, because the cloud abode thereon, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle” (Exod. 40:34-35). Did you notice that the fact that God’s glory filled the tabernacle is mentioned twice? It was a big deal.

It was a big deal because God’s glory in his tabernacle was the visible symbol of God’s presence and blessing upon Israel. It is why Moses begs God after the children of Israel had sinned in the incident involving the golden calf, “I beseech thee, shew me thy glory” (Exod. 33:18). He wasn’t asking for some personal ecstatic religious experience; he was essentially asking that God not remove his presence and blessing upon the nation. More importantly, he was asking that all that God is be for Israel. What I meanby this is that God’s glory is the public and visible display of his attributes. And so to speak of God’s glory is a summary way of referring to the fullness of all that God is. So to say that we need God’s glory is just to say that we need all that God is to be for us. We need God.

That God’s glory is the sum of his attributes is clear in God’s answer to Moses’ request for God to show him his glory. “And the LORD descended in the cloud, and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the LORD. And the LORD passed by before him, and proclaimed, The LORD, The LORD God, merciful and gracious, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that will be no means clear the guilty: visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, unto the third and fourth generations. And Moses made haste, and bowed his head toward the earth, and worshipped” (Exod. 34:5-8).

We need God in the fulness of all that he is. We need the glory of God. We need to see it and to experience it. It is for this reason that the psalmist prayed, “O God, thou art my God; early will I seek thee: my soul thirsteth for thee, my flesh longeth for thee in a dry and thirsty land, where no water is. To see thy power and thy glory, so as I have seen thee in thy sanctuary” (Ps. 63:1-2). The glory of the Lord is the salvation of his people: “The heavens declare his righteousness [which is often displayed in the rescue of his people], and all the people see his glory” (Ps. 97:6). When the Lord builds up Zion, it is then that he appears in glory (Ps. 102:16).

So let me sum up this point by saying it this way: we need the glory of God because we need God. We need God in the fulness of all that he is: not just this or that attribute, but every attribute – his love and his justice, his holiness and his mercy, his righteousness and his wrath, his power and his gentleness. You were made, my friend, to know God in this way. You were not made for money. You were not made for human fame. You were not made for sex. You were not made for food. You were not made for earthly comforts, gifts though they are from God. No: you were made for God. And as St. Augustine put it so memorably, God made us for himself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in him. And as the Lord says through the prophet, “Fear not: for I am with thee: I will bring thy seed from the east, and gather thee from the west; I will say to the north, Give up; and to the south, Keep not back: bring my sons from far, and my daughters from the ends of the earth; Even every one that is called by my name: for I have created him for my glory, I have formed him; yea, I have made him” (Isa. 43:5-7).

The fact that there was a Holy of holies in the tabernacle was an indication both of the fact of our need for the glory of God as well as the fact that the way to this glory had not yet been manifest. That comes in Jesus Christ.

Our need for God’s fellowship

The Holiest of all was also meant to point us to our need for God’s fellowship. We are meant to have communion with God. It is the tabernacle, God says to Moses, “where I will meet you, to speak there unto thee. And there I will meet with the children of Israel, and the tabernacle shall be sanctified by my glory. And I will sanctify the tabernacle of the congregation and the altar: I will sanctify also both Aaron and his sons, to minister to me in the priest’s office. And I will dwell among the children of Israel, and will be their God. And they shall know that I am the LORD their God, that brought them forth out of the land of Egypt, that I may dwell among them: I am the LORD their God” (Exod. 29:42-46).

In other words, we don’t only want God to be for us, we also want God to be with us. We want his glory to be displayed on our behalf, and we want his presence to be enjoyed in our midst.

And to be sure, there is joy in the presence of God. A number of the psalms testify to this fact, as the following examples show. “There be many that say, Who will shew us any good? LORD, lift thou up the light of thy countenance upon us. Thou hast put gladness in my heart more than in the time that their corn and their wine increased” (Ps 4:6-7). “Thou wilt shew me the path of life: in thy presence is fulness of joy; at thy right hand there are pleasures forevermore” (Ps. 16:11). “Whom have I in heaven but thee? And there is none upon earth that I desire besides thee. My flesh and my heart faileth: but God is the strength of my heart, and my portion forever. ... But it is good for me to draw near to God” (Ps. 73:25, 26, 28). “How amiable are thy tabernacles, O LORD of hosts! My soul longeth, yea, even fainteth for the courts of the LORD: my heart and my flesh crieth out for the living God. ... For a day in thy courts is better than a thousand. I had rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God, than to dwell in the tents of wickedness. For the LORD God is a sun and a shield: the LORD will give grace and glory: no good thing will he withhold from them that walk uprightly. O LORD of hosts, blessed is the man that trusteth in thee” (Ps. 84:1-2, 10-12).

As human beings created in the image of God, we are meant to live in society, not alone. As God declared of Adam, it was not good for him to be alone, and Eve was created from Adam and for Adam and marriage was established at least in part to meet this fundamental need for fellowship. But the family is but a mirror of a deeper relationship we are meant to have with God. After all, we are created in God’s image, and this means at least that if we are created for fellowship, we are created for fellowship with God. And it is the tragedy of sin from the very beginning that it cuts us off from this fellowship and communion with God.

However, the tabernacle was meant to point men and women to the possibility of this fellowship with God. At the same time, it also showed that the way into the holiest of all was still barred. It is this barrier which is undone in Jesus, and when he died, the veil that separated the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place came down.

Our need for God’s forgiveness

Above all, the tabernacle was a place that pointed to man’s need for forgiveness and atonement before God. The tabernacle was a bloody place, and when the high priest did go into the Most Holy Place, it was always with blood (Heb. 9:7). This is because without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sins (Heb. 9:22).

The various barriers of the tabernacle reflected this need. Israelites could enter the courtyard, but only the priests could go into the tabernacle proper. And only the high priest could enter into the holiest of all, and that only one day in the year. All this was meant to point to our sin. It also pointed to the fact that the sacrifices that were offered could not in themselves take away that sin.

In other words, it is our sin that keeps us from having God for us and having God with us. It is our need of forgiveness that is our basic need in the sense that we must have this before we can have anything else.

But thank God, the tabernacle is pointing us forward to Jesus Christ. In the following verses, we are going to see how that Jesus fulfills the reality that the tabernacle pointed toward. He is the one in whom we are granted forgiveness and by whom we can enter into the presence of God. We can have “boldness to enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way, which he hath consecrated for us, through the veil, that is to say, his flesh: and having an high priest over the house of God; let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our conscience sprinkled from an evil conscience [compare to 9:9!], and our bodies washed with pure water” (Heb. 10:19-22).

Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God, gives us entrance into the presence of God by becoming for us a propitiation. He is the mercy seat, the one who stands between God’s law broken by us and the glory of God between the cherubim. In Christ, the glory of God becomes for us, not that which destroys us, but that which saves us. “For through him we both have access by one Spirit unto the Father” (Eph. 2:18). He is the way to God. His blood purges our sins and his righteousness gives us right into God’s presence with joy. Would you enter in? Come and welcome through Jesus Christ!

See P. E. Hughes, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews (Eerdmans, 1977), p. 311.

Ibid. p. 320-321.

Ibid., p. 318.

Sunday, February 20, 2022

Why I am a Baptist – and why you should be one, too (Heb. 8:10-12)

A Baptist is a Christian who (among other things!) believes that the rite of baptism is administered properly only to disciples who trust in Christ (subject) by an immersion of that disciple in water (mode) as a part of their profession of faith in Christ.  Thus, we differ from paedobaptists[1] in the matters of the mode and subjects of baptism.  Whereas they believe baptism is for disciples andtheir children, we believe it is for disciples only.  Whereas they believe that it is properly administered by sprinkling water upon the subject, we believe that it is only properly administered by immersing the subject in water.

In my interaction with Reformed paedobaptists, both personally and in the literature, it seems to me that there is one main argument for paedobaptism.  It is made through an appeal to the covenantal structure of the Bible.  (Note: for the purposes of this article, we will be interacting almost entirely with the Reformed tradition.  There are other traditions, like the Roman Catholic tradition.  This tradition does not appeal to the Biblical covenants, but rather to its view that baptism actually confers salvation and washes away original sin.)  In particular, in this argument, paedobaptists argue that the New Covenant is essentially the same as the Abrahamic covenant (see Gen. 17).  Since the sign of the Abrahamic covenant was given not only to Abraham but also to his children, it is argued that the sign of the New Covenant should also be given to believers and their children, especially since (they argue) there is no abrogation of the principle “believers and their children are in the covenant.”  Along with this is the fact that in the New Testament baptism and circumcision are parallel and point to the same realities; therefore, there is a strong presumption that the subjects of circumcision (believers and their children) should also inform how we practice baptism (also believers and their children).

There are other arguments as well, such as the practice of household baptisms in the book of Acts, and the example of the practice of infant baptism very early in the history of the church.  So it is argued that the facts of church history, both Biblical (Acts) and later on (beginning in the second century), support the argument from the covenants of the Bible.

Do the Biblical covenants support this argument?  Should we baptize, not only disciples, but also the children of disciples?  I think not, and I would like to give you the reasons why I think the Baptist position is the Biblical position.

Before I do so, however, I want to make the point that this is not a primary doctrinal difference.  In other words, genuine brothers and sisters in Christ can differ about how to practice baptism.  Some of my favorite theologians were and are paedobaptists.  I think of guys who like Augustine the fourth century African bishop, John Calvin, many of the English Puritans (like John Owen), Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield, J. C. Ryle, John G. Paton, John Murray, and many others whom I respect, were all paedobaptists and greatly used of God.  Apparently, the Lord does not think that this difference over baptism is as big a deal as some folks (on both sides of the debate) make it out to be.  

Furthermore, you might wonder why I am addressing this issue at this time, especially when there are much more pressing issues confronting the church in our day.  Well, I agree that this is not the most important issue of our day.  But baptism is a Biblical issue, and it is an ordinance that our Lord gave the church.  Baptism, therefore, should be accorded our due attention as Christians because we want to honor what the Lord has ordained for his church.  Though we don’t want to make it more important than it is and dishonor our Lord by neglecting his people, neither do want to make it less important that it is and dishonor our Lord by neglecting his will.

So how should we respond to the argument from the Biblical covenants?  Since we have just looked at the New Covenant in Hebrews 8, I think it is appropriate to consider this argument now, and especially since I think that the terms of the New Covenant – though they don’t address the issue of baptism directly – they do bring with them strong implications for believers’ baptism (in my opinion!).  Incidentally, I will not here be addressing the issue of the mode of baptism, only the issue of the subjects of baptism.  In this message, I want to start with the New Covenant as the main point, but then also append two other arguments that I think support the Baptist position.

The New Covenant Argument

Let me get down to brass tacks.  In Heb. 8:11, which is a quotation of Jer. 31:34, we read, “And they shall not teach every man his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: for all shall know me, from the least to the greatest.”  There is it.  The New Covenant is characterized by this fact: “all shall know me, from the least to the greatest.”  The “all” here means “all who are New Covenant members.”  The New Covenant is characterized by the fact that every covenant member will know the Lord.  And as we saw last time, this is a knowing which is saving, as in John 17:3 – “This is eternal life, that they may know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent.”

And just to underline the fact, the Lord says this is not “all” in the sense of “most but not everyone,” but this is an “all” in the sense of “from the least to the greatest.”  In other words, there are no exceptions to this rule.  If you are embraced by the New Covenant and belong to the New Covenant community, then you know God.

However, if this is the case, then it follows that the sign of the New Covenant belongs only to those who are saved.  We should give the sign of the covenant, not to infants who cannot give a credible profession of faith, but only those who can give a credible profession of faith, that is, to disciples.

What about the Abrahamic Covenant?

Now, at this point, the Abrahamic covenant is inevitably appealed to by our paedobaptist friends.  They will say that these two covenants are essentially the same.  And therefore, what is good for the goose is good for the gander: if infants are included in the Abrahamic covenant, they should also be included in the New Covenant.  Moreover, they will appeal to the promise in verse 10 (“and I will be to them a God and they shall be to me a people”; see Gen. 17:7) as a reason to put an equals sign between the two covenants.  In both covenants, God is setting apart a people for his name.  In other words, Baptists are rebuked here because they do not see the continuity between the two covenants.

We do agree that there is significant continuity.  We also agree that believers in Christ are embraced in the blessings of the Abrahamic covenant.  The apostle Paul makes this point in Rom. 4 and Gal. 3-4.  However, that does not mean that every aspect of the Abrahamic covenant carries over into the New Covenant.  For example, God very specifically promises Abraham the land of Canaan, which is not something that is incorporated into the New Covenant.  Also, in the Abrahamic covenant, God is separating Abraham’s physical offspring from the nations, and he does this in part by the rite of circumcision (one of the things incorporated into the Law of Moses which theologians often call “boundary markers”).  In the New Covenant community, however, the rite of baptism goes in the opposite direction: it is for all the nations (cf. Mt. 28:19).  In other words, though we agree there is significant overlap between the covenants (and we should expect this since both covenants are a part of the unfolding of God’s one plan of redemption in Christ), there is also discontinuity, discontinuity that is owing to what God was doing as a part of the historical outworking of his plan to bring his Son into the world through the family of Abraham.

In particular, we can see that there was a specific reason for the incorporation of Abraham’s physical offspring into the covenant; it was to set apart the physical family of Abraham from the nations so that the Messiah promised could be identified as the son of Abraham (see Mt. 1:1).  Now that the Messiah has come, there is no longer any need to do this.  Circumcision as a boundary marker has fulfilled its purpose and has passed away with the coming of Christ.  But it seems to follow that this aspect of circumcision, which incorporated not only Abraham but also his physical offspring into the covenant, has passed away.  We should not, then, look to circumcision as a reason to embrace believers and their children in the covenant community.

So my objection is that our paedobaptist friends don’t properly understand the discontinuity between the covenants.  Nevertheless, I would also argue that they don’t properly understand the continuity, either.  The continuity is not found in the principle of “believers and their children.”  Rather, the continuity is this: the blessings of the Abrahamic covenant are for the sons of Abraham.  But according to the apostle Paul,  these blessings, insofar as they are incorporated into the New Covenant, are for the children of Abraham by spiritual descent (that is, by faith).  Note well how the apostle Paul puts it to the Romans: “And he [Abraham] received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had yet being uncircumcised: that he might be the father of all them that believe, though they be not circumcised; that righteousness might be imputed to them also: And the father of the circumcision to them who are not of the circumcision only, but who also walk in the steps of that faith of our father Abraham, which he had being yet uncircumcised” (Rom. 4:11-12).  Of whom is Abraham the father?  He is the father of all of them that believe.  Paul will put it this way to the Galatians: “And if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heir according to the promise” (Gal. 3:29).  You must belong to Christ if you would inherit the promise of salvation which is promised in the Abrahamic covenant, and Paul makes it very clear that “ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus” (26).  In other words, again and again, in the New Covenant, the promises are always attached to personal faith, not the faith of the parents.  Abraham is your spiritual father if you trust in Christ and in no other way.

What about circumcision?

But what about the parallel between circumcision and baptism?  At this juncture, Col. 2:11-12 is often appealed to: “In whom [Christ] also ye are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ: Buried with him in baptism, wherein also ye are risen with him through the faith of the operation of God, who had raised him from the dead.”  In this text, both circumcision and baptism point to what is essentially the same reality: the reality of our union with Christ in his redemptive work.  That’s all well and good: but it does not therefore logically follow that the practice of circumcision defines the practice of baptism.  Even so, the text itself points in another direction: in verse 12, baptism and faith are once again put together.  If you are buried with Christ in baptism, you have also risen with him through faith.  This is not an argument against believer’s baptism, it’s an argument for it.

In any case, we do not define the church in terms of the way the community of Israel was defined by the Abrahamic covenant (and, later, the Mosaic Covenant).  The church is not the physical seed of Abraham; the church is made up of the spiritual seed of Abraham, which the New Testament defines in terms of faith in Christ.

What about the promise of Gen. 17:7?

But what about the promise in Heb. 8:10 which is so like the promise in Gen. 17:7?  Doesn’t this mean that the New Covenant community is simply an extension of the community created by the Abrahamic Covenant?  For our paedobaptist friends argue that because the promise “I will be their God” is part of the Abrahamic Covenant (Gen. 17:7), the New Covenant is essentially the same covenant as that established with Abraham.  It is further argued that this phrase points, not necessarily to a saving relationship with God, but to the establishment of an external covenant community (see, for example, Exod. 6:7).  Therefore, it follows that the descriptions in the New Covenant are compatible with being a community in which not all its members are actually regenerate, forgiven, and saved.

In response to this, I first note that there seems to be a failure at this point to see the connection between Old Covenant and New Covenant in terms of type/shadow and fulfillment.  The type is analogous to the reality it represents.  In the same way, the description of Israel being the people of God is analogous to the church being the people of God.  But analogies are not meant to be one-to-one correspondences.  The family of Abraham which would be constituted under Moses as a nation was constituted as the people of God in a very real sense, but only as a type and a shadow of the community constituted by Christ in the New Covenant.  Similarly, the forgiveness offered through the Old Covenant ritual sacrifices did grant ritual cleansing but not real forgiveness (unless the one who offered the sacrifice was connected by faith in God’s promise to the benefits of Christ’s future redemptive work).  However, it did point to the one, final sacrifice that our Lord offered on the cross.  There is some correspondence, true, but not a one-to-one correspondence.  

Thus, it is simply a mistake to say that the phrase, “I will be their God and they shall be my people” must be understood in exactly the same way, whether you are talking about the Abrahamic Covenant versus the New Covenant, or the Old Covenant versus the New Covenant.

This is actually something the terms of the New Covenant demonstrate.  Who are God’s people in the New Covenant?  Not believers and their children.  There is not a word of that.  The New Covenant community is composed of those who are regenerate, who know God in a saving way, and whose sins are forgiven.

In order to get around the clear implications of these realities, it seems to me that paedobaptists have to downplay the descriptions of the New Covenant promises.  So, they will say that to have God’s law written in the heart is only a difference in the form the law will take in the New Covenant. This is the argument that Presbyterian pastor Guy Richard makes in his book on baptism, for example.  (Though to be honest, what exactly he means by that, I do not understand.)  The New Covenant is a promise that God will write his law on his people’s hearts.  Now this happened under the Old Covenant, so there is no difference in that sense.  But it was not guaranteed to all the Old Covenant members.  Just because you were an Israelite did not mean you were born again!  (If you don’t believe me, read about King Ahab.)  However, the New Covenant does imbed that guarantee in this promise.  If you are a New Covenant participant, you are born again.  To say anything less than this is to water down and to misinterpret the promise.

In the same way, Richard says that the promise that all will know God is simply a reference to the fact that all God’s people in the New Covenant will have access to and knowledge of God’s law, and not just the privileged few, like priests and prophets in the Old Covenant.  He also says that the New Covenant is different in the clarity it provides.  Now, I’m not disputing that we are made a kingdom of priests by Christ.  Nor am I disputing that the New Covenant provides greater clarity.  But to reduce the promise here to that is, to say the least, to impoverish its richness.  To know God is to be saved (Jn. 17:3).  This is what is promised in the New Covenant.  It is not a promise that your children might be saved, or that you should hope that they will be saved since they are “covenant children,” but a promise that everyone – from the least to the greatest – in the New Covenant will be saved, for they will all know God.  

In the same way, the promise of the remission of sins is a promise of real forgiveness to all who belong to the New Covenant.  It is not simply saying that the blood of Christ is superior to the sacrifices of the Old Covenant.  That is true, of course.  But that is not all that is being said here.  It is not that the remission offered is superior, but that the real remission of sins belongs to everyone in the New Covenant: “For I will forgive their iniquities, and I will remember their sin no more.”  This is the promise of the personal forgiveness of sins to all who relate to God in the New Covenant, not simply the promise that the fulfillment of the type is coming or has come.

So it’s hard for me to see how we can look at these promises, promises which define those who belong to the New Covenant community as regenerate and saved and forgiven, and go away with the impression that it is okay to include as visible members of the New Covenant community those who display no evidence of an internal work of God’s Spirit upon their hearts.  The character of the New Covenant community is such that only those who are true believers belong to it.  And therefore, baptism, the sign of the New Covenant, belongs only to those who are true believers.

Two More Arguments

Why not grandchildren?[2]

With this question, we come back again to the Abrahamic Covenant and notice that the argument from the Abrahamic Covenant, if it were consistent, would actually not only include children but also all the physical descendants of believers in the covenant community.  This is because God did not just command Abraham to circumcise Isaac.  Rather, the covenant required all his male offspring to be circumcised: “This is my covenant, which ye shall keep, between me and you and thy seed after thee; Every man child among you shall be circumcised” (Gen. 17:10).  So actually, there is no principle of “believers and their children” by which is meant “children but not grandchildren.”  The principle of the Abrahamic Covenant is “Abraham [the Believer] and all his physical seed.”

In fact, you see this played out as Israel is about to begin the conquest of Canaan.  In Joshua 5:2-9, we read how Joshua had to have all the males in Israel circumcised.  It is because “all the people that came out of Egypt were circumcised: but all the people that were born in the wilderness by the way as they came forth out of Egypt, them they had not circumcised.  For the children of Israel walked forty years in the wilderness, till all the people that were men of war, which came out of Egypt, were consumed, because they obeyed not the voice of the LORD: unto whom the LORD sware that he would not shew them the land, which the LORD sware unto their fathers that he would give us, a land that floweth with milk and honey” (5-6).  Why were these fellows circumcised?  Not because their parents were believers.  Their parents had perished in the wilderness because of their unbelief.  They weren’t circumcised on any principle of “believers and their children.”  They were given the sign of the covenant because they were the physical descendants of Abraham.

So why not grandchildren?  If we really want to press the continuity between the covenants in this way, it would seem to be a legitimate question.  However, as we have already seen, the real parallel is not “believers and their children.”  The parallel is “Abraham and his seed:” in the Old Covenant, this meant the physical seed of Abraham, and in the New Covenant it means the spiritual seed of Abraham.

The Great Commission

For our last argument, we come to the Great Commission, where our Lord gives these instructions to his apostles: “All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth.  Go ye therefore, and teach [make disciples of] all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world” (Mt. 28:18-20).  This is a commission to the New Testament church.  It is a commission to declare the word of Christ and to make disciples.  And there are two things we are to do with those who become disciples: we are to baptize them, and we are to teach them all that Christ has commanded.

However, the main thing I want to point out is that this is the only commission in the Bible that gives the church the authority and the right to baptize.  There is no other commission.  And the fact of the matter is that the only commission to baptize in the New Testament is a commission to baptize disciples.  There is no word here about baptizing disciples and their children, though it would have been incredibly easy to say that here.  You will look in vain for a commission to baptize infants because there is none.

It won’t do to appeal to the Abrahamic Covenant and “just and necessary inference” because, as we have seen, there is no just and necessary inference from the Abrahamic practice of infant circumcision to the New Testament practice of baptism.

It won’t do to appeal to the book of Acts for the necessary justification.  The household baptisms are inconclusive either way.  It is at best an argument from silence.  There is just no clear example of an infant being baptized in the book of Acts, or anywhere else in the Bible for that matter.

It won’t do to appeal to early church history as a justification for infant baptism.  I gladly grant that infant baptism began very early, as far back as the second century.  What I do not grant is that the early church got everything right.  If you read early church history, it becomes painfully obvious that the church embraced elements of a sacramental system of salvation very early.  

Even so, it can be established that infant baptism was not a universal practice at the beginning.  In fact, the first undisputed reference to infant (or child) baptism is actually an argument against it, not for it.  It is by the second/third century theologian Tertullian, and here is what he said in his book De baptismo:

According to everyone’s condition and disposition, and also his age, the delaying of baptism is more profitable, especially in the case of little children. For why is it necessary — if [baptism itself] is not necessary — that the sponsors should be thrust into danger? For they may either fail of their promise by death, or they may be mistaken by a child’s proving of wicked disposition. . . . They that understand the weight of baptism will rather dread the receiving of it, than the delaying of it. An entire faith is secure of salvation! (Chapter 18)[3]

 This is an argument, whether you agree with it or not, in which Tertullian is arguing that baptism should be delayed, especially in the case of little children.

Conclusion

One thing we don’t want to do here is to conclude that because there is so much disagreement on the issue, we shouldn’t have to decide either way, or that it doesn’t matter.  Because this is an ordinance given by our Lord to the church, we don’t have the luxury to ignore it.  Here is what Jesus said to do: make disciples, baptize them, and teach them.  We can’t ignore baptism because people disagree about it anymore than we can ignore evangelism or discipleship because people don’t agree on the best way to do those things either.

Also, it means that if you believe in Jesus Christ, if you have embraced him as Lord and Savior, if you believe that God raised him from the dead – in other words, if you believe the gospel and if you love Jesus as he is presented to us in the Bible – then part of your obedience to Christ is to go public with your faith and to be baptized and to join the church.  This is the consistent message of the New Testament: believe the gospel and be baptized.  “Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost” (Acts 2:38).  Over and over again you see the pattern: people believe and are baptized.  It is the same today.  It is part of our glad obedience to Christ.

If you ask: but why is baptism so important?  What’s the point?  Well, I’m glad you asked.  And at this point I will say something about the mode of baptism.  Baptism is by an immersion of the body in water.  That is just what the word means.  Baptism no doubt points to the cleansing which we receive in the forgiveness of sins (and what better way to do this than by immersing the body in water!).  But it does more than that: it points to our union with Christ in his death, burial, and resurrection (cf. Rom. 6:3 and Col. 2:12).  Baptism symbolizes that reality.  In doing so, we are celebrating in a very vivid way our participation in these redemptive events.  As we do so, our faith is helped and strengthened through this act.  It also strengthens the faith of the church as we rejoice with those who have come to faith in Christ and see again a physical picture of a wonderful spiritual reality.

So, if you are a believer in Jesus and have not yet been baptized, there is one thing for you to do: confess your faith in the Lord by being baptized.



[1] Paedobaptist comes from two Greek word which mean “infant” and “baptism,” hence, it refers to people who embrace the practice of infant baptism.

[2] This is an argument that I borrow from Gavin Ortlund.  See his argument here: https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/themelios/article/why-not-grandchildren-an-argument-against-reformed-paedobaptism/

[3] See https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/how-old-is-infant-baptism

Monday, February 14, 2022

The Mediator of a New Covenant (Heb. 8:6-13)

Who is Jesus Christ? He is the Son of God who upholds all things by the word of his power, who eternally shares the very nature of God the Father, so that he is co-equal and co-eternal with him (1:1-3). But if that was all that Jesus was, we would be left with what some theologians call “a theology of glory”– a theological perspective that sees man saving himself by ascending up to heaven on the basis of his own righteousness and insight and wisdom and power. That is, on the basis of human glory. But there is no hope in that, and all the human efforts just to achieve utopia on earth have always ended in totalitarianism and gulags and concentration camps, in other words, in abject failure. We can’t even get heaven on earth right, let alone ascend into the presence of God. History and experience and Scripture join hands here to argue that any theology of glory is fatally flawed.

I think one of the reasons God gave us the Law of Moses, which is here denoted by the first covenant (7) and the old covenant (13), is to show us how impossible a theology of glory is. In fact, another way to express the idea behind the phrase “theology of glory” is the phrase “salvation by works.” And the Law of Moses shows us that this is impossible. For what does the Law of Moses say? It says this: “Ye shall therefore keep my statutes, and my judgments: which if a man do, he shall live by them: I am the LORD” (Lev. 18:5; cf. Rom. 10:5; Gal. 3:12). The basis of blessing in the Old Covenant is obedience. By the same token, the basis of condemnation and the curse is disobedience: “For as many as are of the works of the law, are under the curse: for it is written, Cursed is everyone that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them” (Gal. 3:10). Because we are by nature and by practice sinners, as many as seek to relate to God on the basis of their worth and works are bound to be under the curse.

Hence, when the author of Hebrews refers to the Mosaic covenant, he reminds us of its flaws. It was not “faultless” (7). However, the reason was not exclusively with the covenant itself, but with the people with whom the covenant was made: “For finding fault with them” (8). In what sense did God find fault with Israel? We are told in verse 9: “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 continued not in my covenant, and I regarded them not, saith the LORD.” The problem was that they simply did not keep the covenant. And this was not God’s evaluation of a single generation, but of the entire history of Israel from start to finish. The records of Old Testament history back this up. It is a tragic telling of human disobedience, of crime and punishment.

We cannot ascend up to God. This is not just a problem with the Jewish people; it is the problem with the human race, Jew and Gentile. Every Tower of Babel must always end in confusion. Rather, we need God to descend to us, to save us. And this is what Christ came to do. He who is the Son of God became Son of man, and as both Son of God and Son of man became a high priest for us. He became someone who could mediate between God and man, who could bring us to God. This has been the main point of this epistle and the burden of its argument. We can’t ascend to God so God descended to us. Instead of a theology of glory, we are presented with a theology of the cross and salvation by grace.

Central to the theology of the cross is that Jesus has become our high priest. Our Lord on the cross was both the priest and the sacrifice. But again, the cross is not there simply to elicit our sympathy or to present an example to us, but to accomplish something for us. And one way to put this is that on the cross he inaugurated a new covenant. He expressly says this in the institution of the Lord’s Supper: “This is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins” (Mt. 26:28). His blood is not just blood, it is the “blood of the new covenant.”

And so as our high priest our Lord has “a more excellent ministry” because he brings about a “better covenant.” It is better because it “was established upon better promises” (6). These promises are better than the promises of the old covenant, and when we look at verse 9, we are meant to see that the new covenant is better in the sense that it can really do what the old covenant could not do. What was the old covenant powerless to do? It was powerless to keep the people in the way of faith and faithfulness: “they continued not in my covenant.” And as a result, God cast them off: “And I regarded them not.”

When we look at the rest of the New Testament, and especially the writings of Paul, we see that the reason the Old Covenant was powerless is that it was merely external. It called the people to obedience to God’s law from without. It wrote it on tablets of stone. It preached it at them. Note the contrast Paul makes between the old and new covenants in 2 Cor. 3: God, he says, “hath made us able ministers of the new testament [covenant]; not of the letter, but of the Spiritii: for the letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth life. But if the ministration of death, written and engraven in stones, was glorious, so that the children of Israel could not steadfastly behold the face of Moses for the glory of his countenance; which glory was to be done away; how shall not the ministration of the Spirit be rather glorious? For if the ministration of condemnation be glory, much more doth the ministration of righteousness exceed in glory” (6-9).

Note the contrasts in that passage. The old covenant is a covenant of letter, written on stones. In other words, it was an external covenant. It is contrasted with the ministry of the Spirit. In verse 3, Paul had written: “Forasmuch as ye are manifestly declared to be the epistle of Christ ministered by us, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshly tables of the heart.” As a result, this covenant is designated a covenant of death and condemnation, for the precise reason that it could not create what it demanded. It demanded obedience but it produced sin and death.

There is a reason why God’s glorious law produces death. It is not because God’s law is bad. This is Paul’s point in Romans 7. The reason is in us. God’s law is not bad; we are. When sinful men and women are confronted with God’s law, our native tendency is not to obey it but to rebel against it. We want to be sovereign; we do not want to cede the illusion of our own sovereignty to God. This is what Paul is getting at, I think, when he explains why we need to be delivered from the law in order to bring forth fruit for God: “For when we were in the flesh, the motions of sins, which were by the law, did work in our members to bring forth fruit unto death” (Rom. 7:5). When our flesh, our sinful nature, meets up with the law of God, it responds in sin rather than in obedience.

So you see, the problem is not God’s law at all. The problem is us. The problem is in our hearts. It is not God’s law that needs to be changed; it is our hearts that need to be changed.

But again, why would God give this external covenant that stopped short of doing something in human hearts so that the people would gladly obey God? I think one reason God did this was to show us how impossible it is, how really bankrupt is any theology of glory and system of salvation by works. We can see in the tragic history of Israel our own history and the history of our own people. And the conclusion we need to draw is not that we can do better, but that we can’t save ourselves at all. We need God to do something in us and for us.

He has done this by Christ. So Jesus is not only the Son of God, but as our high priest he has become “the mediator of a better covenant” (6). The New Covenant is God’s promise to do in us and for us what the Law of Moses could not do: “For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh: that the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit” (Rom. 8:3-4).

Why has God revealed the New Covenant to us? What are we supposed to do with it? Well, I think the main thing it is meant to do is to make us see how utterly dependent we are upon Christ, and it is meant to show us how completely sufficient Christ is to save. For by his death he has inaugurated a New Covenant; by his death he is bringing about the reality that these New Covenant promises point to. He is the mediator of the New Covenant: all its blessings come to us through him.

In other words, we must beware of a danger which even Christian people can be guilty of: that of looking at this or that aspect of salvation apart from Christ. It is possible to think about the new birth, about justification, and adoption, and so on, and to think of them abstractly. But the New Testament never encourages this outlook: we are always to be drawn back to Christ and look to him for our life and our salvation. We are not saved because we understand the order of salvation. We are not saved because we hold a certain view about grace. We are saved because we are united to Christ by faith. If we trust in Christ as he is presented to us in the gospel, then we can say that we are saved. That is the important thing: upon whom does your soul find repose?

And so I want us to look at the blessings of the New Covenant and to do two things: I want us to see our bankruptcy and I want us to see Christ’s sufficiency. We see both in the four promises of the New Covenant, which I am referring to as regeneration, relation, revelation, and restoration.

Regeneration: Jesus solves the problem of our hostility toward God.

The first promise of the New Covenant, the first blessing, is that of regeneration or the new birth: “For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, saith the Lord; I will put my laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts” (10). This same blessing is variously described elsewhere in the prophesies of Jeremiah and Ezekiel. For example, in Jer. 32:40, we are told by God, “And I will make an everlasting covenant with them, that I will not turn away from them, to do them good; but I will put my fear in their hearts, that they shall not depart from me.” Or Ezek. 36:25-27: “Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean: from all your filthiness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you. A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do them.” This latter passage is probably behind our Lord’s words to Nicodemus in Jn. 3, when he is talking to him about the necessity of the new birth: “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” (Jn. 3:5).

The first thing I want to say here is that this is not the same thing Paul is writing about in Romans 2 where he talks about God’s law written on the hearts of Gentiles by which they are accountable before God for their actions (Rom. 2:14-15). For Paul is not talking about regeneration there, but about the conscience and the natural knowledge that all men have of good and evil. It is universal, not something special to the elect, which is true of the New Covenant blessings. Also, the law Paul is talking about in Romans 2 is connected, not to God’s blessing in Christ, but to his judgment (Rom. 2:12, 16).

So there is a sense in which God’s law is written on people’s hearts apart from the new birth. What then makes the promise of the New Covenant special? It is that in this writing of God’s law upon our hearts, our hearts are changed so that we want to keep God’s law. You see this especially in the way it is described in Jer. 32 and Ezek. 36. God puts his fear into our hearts so that we do not depart from him. By putting his Spirit within us, he causes us to walk in his statutes (law). In other words, when a person is born again by the grace of God writing his law into our hearts, there is a fundamental shift in one’s affections so that what we once hated we now love.

The problem is that we naturally hate God’s law. Not that the ungodly never do anything good: that’s the point of the Romans 2 natural law. Natural men can do good things. But their hearts are still alienated from God. What good things people do apart from the new birth, they do only because it fits their own agenda, not because they love God and submit to him. But when we are born again, that all changes. As Paul put it, “I delight in the law of God after the inward man” (Rom. 7:22). That is a change in affections that can only happen in the new birth, which is a blessing that comes from the new covenant in Christ. And when we say that men are passive in the new birth, we are underling the fact that it is Jesus, not man, who solves the problem of our hostility toward God. For the Spirit who gives us new birth is the Spirit of Christ (Rom. 8:9-10).

We need this because one of the things we are faced with if we are honest with ourselves is that our nature is fundamentally fallen and sinful. Yes, we are real moral agents with significant freedom, and this freedom gives us accountability and responsibility for our actions. But our freedom is still tied to our nature, and our nature, apart from Christ and the new birth, is at its core wicked: we are dead in sins (Eph. 2:1-3). Our affections are tainted with the fact that we are depraved. Our hearts are deceitful above all things and desperately evil (Jer. 17:9). We inevitably end up freely choosing that which is contrary to God’s law and God’s will.

One of the things that this means is that we can have real and strong desires for things that are totally bad for us. For example, when a person has same-sex attraction, we don’t want to deny the reality of that struggle. But we must and have to stand on the Biblical witness and say that those desires should not be acted upon, and if they are acted upon you have sinned. Those desires are real, but they are also wicked: both these things can be affirmed because of the Biblical witness of human fallenness and depravity. If we are fallen, we should expect to have desires that are fallen and not right.

Neither do we want to deny that such desires can be very strong. Now a lot of people are arguing that these sorts of strong desires should be affirmed rather than suppressed. It is argued that to suppress such desires is to deny who we are. But the question really ought to be: are we going to affirm our depravity or are we going to affirm the goodness of God’s law and God’s will for us? You can follow your heart, but if you do so, you will end up affirming a lifestyle that in the end will not bring you fulfillment but judgment.

I say all this because this is where the reality of the new birth is so important. New birth of course does not take away totally the effects of inward sin. But it does give us new power to with joy and hope pursue obedience to God’s law even in the face of real and powerful lusts. Hear what Paul says: “For sin shall not have dominion over you: for ye are not under the law, but under grace” (Rom. 6:14). The solution to sinful desire is not, at least not fundamentally, therapy. Nor is it to give into those desires out of despair. Rather, the solution is a radical change of heart by the grace of the Holy Spirit who sovereignly comes to us because of what Jesus did on the cross.

So the reality of the new birth points us to the power of God in breaking the power of sin over us. And this power doesn’t just begin the Christian life, but it defines the Christian life. As believers in Jesus, we come again and again to the fountain of his grace which empowers us to deal with the sin in our lives.

So are you struggling with powerful sinful desires? Do you feel enslaved by your lusts? The wrong response is to give up or to give in. Rather, you should look to Jesus Christ. Hope in him. For it in him alone that the power of sin is broken. Jesus solves the problem of our hostility toward God.

One more thing before we move on. You will notice that in the New Covenant God is writing his law on our hearts! There is no antinomianism in the gospel. The gospel does not free us to live however we want. Rather, it frees us to obey God, and we obey God by listening and conforming ourselves to God’s law.

Relation: Jesus solves the problem of our alienation from God.

The next promise is what I am calling the blessing of relation. It has to do with our relationship with God: “and I will be to them a God, and they shall be to me a people” (10). Now this is a promise which occurs in various covenants in the Old Testament, not only in the Abrahamic Covenant, but also in the Mosaic Covenant (Gen. 17:7; Exod. 6:7). The difference was that, under the Old Covenant, this relationship was again external. God became committed to guide and bless and preserve the nation of Israel. It was above all exemplified in his giving them his law (Rom. 3:1). Nevertheless, it did not guarantee the salvation of any individual Israelite. In that sense, the Old Covenant version of this promise was merely typical and pointed forward to the promise of the New Covenant in which God’s relationship with his people would be a saving one, a relationship that would be ultimately fulfilled in the New Heaven and New Earth (cf. Rev. 21:3).

You see, the problem is not merely that we are hostile toward God. The bigger problem is that God is alienated from us. As a result, we are all trespassing on God’s creation. We are breathing borrowed air. We are awaiting a sentence of condemnation.

But all that changes in Christ. Jesus brings those for whom he died into the bonds of family, into the family of God: “But as many as received him [Jesus], to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name” (Jn. 1:12). Regeneration is followed by the blessing of adoption into the family of God, which is what John Gill called “an instance of surprising grace.” It is the crowning glory of the Christian, the sum and substance of all other blessings, that he or she belongs to God the Father as their Father, and to Christ as their Elder Brother (cf. Rom. 8:29). That God would welcome rebellious creatures back into this presence is staggering, but this is exactly what the gospel promises: “Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom also we have access by faith into this grace wherein we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God” (Rom. 5:1-2).

I think this is best summarized in the words of Paul in Romans 8: “If God be for us, who can be against us?” (Rom. 8:31). When God declares that he is our God and we are his people, that is just another way of saying that God is for us. Who then can be against us? No one!

But again, how do we receive this blessing? We receive it in Christ (cf. Rom. 8:3-34). God only becomes our God in Christ. Every blessing, including the blessing of adoption into the family of God is a blessing that we receive because of our union with Jesus (Eph. 1:5). We receive it because he is the mediator of the New Covenant.

This speaks volumes to the issue of the assurance of our salvation. Even those of us who believe on Christ sometimes find ourselves doubting whether or not we are saved. In other words, we wonder: is God really our God? Is he really for us? These doubts come most often because we have become more aware of our own sinfulness. And this is good, not bad. However, it can become bad when our sins cause us to lose sight of Christ. We need to remember that our goodness is not the reason why God makes us members of his family; it is because of what Jesus Christ did on the cross, bearing our sins so that his righteousness might be freely given to us by faith. Another way to put this is that God is not for us because we are for him; rather, we are for him because God is for us in Christ. Look to Jesus!

Revelation: Jesus solves the problem of our blindness to God.

The next promise is one of revelation: “And they shall not teach every man his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: for all shall know me, from the least to the greatest” (11). Again, there is a sense in which all men know God in a Romans 1 sort of way. It is a knowledge which men suppress, but they have it, nonetheless. That’s not what is being promised in the New Covenant. The knowledge here is a saving knowledge. It is the kind of knowledge that our Lord is talking about in John 6:45, when he says, “It is written in the prophets, And they shall all be taught of God. Every man therefore that hath heard, and hath learned of the Father, cometh to me.” It is to know God in such a way that we come to him through Christ in living faith.

This is a knowledge that involves union and communion and fellowship with the Holy Trinity. There is a sort of ascending ladder in these blessings, so to speak: we go from dropping our hostility towards God’s law to being embraced by God in the bonds of family to being drawn nigh unto God himself in vibrant fellowship. God loves us and manifests his love to us, not only in the cross but in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in our hearts: “And hope maketh not ashamed; because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us” (Rom. 5:5). We are able to draw near to God in prayer and to approach his throne as a throne of mercy instead of judgment. We are not only adopted into the family of God, but we receive the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father (Rom. 8:15-16).

In this communion and fellowship with God, God is revealing himself to us. We know God, not because we found him but because he found us and revealed himself to us. We were blind to his glory, and he has taken off the blinders and enabled us to see him for who he is. It is what our Lord is referring to when he says, “I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes. Even so, Father: for so it seemed good in thy sight. All things are delivered unto me of my Father: and no man knoweth the Son, but the Father; neither knoweth any man the Father, save the Son, and he to whomsoever the Son will reveal him” (Mt. 11:25-27).

And this is a knowledge that all who belong to Christ enjoy. It is not something reserved for the super- spiritual. It is not reserved for some remnant. It belongs to all those embraced by the covenant, “from the least to the greatest.” It is no longer just the high priest who enters into the presence of God; it is no longer the prophet who hears a word from God, but every believer is privileged with the blessing of being able to draw near to God and enjoying fellowship with him. All know him.

My friends, the greatest privilege and honor any person could possibly have is to know God. I think it would be something to say I knew the President (past or present) or some great official. Perhaps some of you know a famous athlete. But to know God is infinitely greater than the privilege of being known by any man or woman. Here is unassailable privilege and honor. And what this promise is saying is that if you are a believer and belong to Christ, then that honor is yours.

Restoration: Jesus solves the problem of our guilt before God.

But this is not all. There is one more promise here, which I am calling the promise of restoration. In some sense, with this blessing, we come to the foundation of the other blessings (note the word “for”) – the blessing of the forgiveness of sins: “For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their iniquities will I remember no more” (12).

Our sin comes with a lot of baggage. Unfortunately, we often don’t get past the horizontal dimension of sin, perhaps because the destructiveness of sin is frequently more immediate in its horizontal dimension. But the fact of the matter is that the greatest destruction sin has caused is in our relationship with God. It has separated us from God and all his blessings. God’s wrath is upon us because of our unrighteousness and ungodliness (Rom. 1:18). God’s law has been broken, his character impugned, his rightful rule defied, his glory trampled in the dust by our sin and rebellion. We are just exposed to eternal judgment.

That means that before any other blessing can come to us, our sin has to be dealt with. And this is why the New Covenant is a mediated covenant. We cannot purge our sins and God cannot ignore our iniquity. This is why we need a theology of the cross. This is why Jesus is the mediator of the New Covenant. This is why his blood is the blood of the New Covenant.

How can God be merciful to our unrighteousness? It is not because God merely forgets them. Something has to be done to rectify the situation created by our sin. This is the genius and grace of the incarnation. By becoming a man, the Son of God came to fulfill the law in our place and on the cross to satisfy the demands of justice in our place. He took our sin so that we could have his righteousness. We make a great exchange every time we sin: we exchange the glory of God for the glory of the creature. But on the cross another exchange was made, an exchange that undoes our tragically exchanging the Creator for the creature, for on the cross Christ was made sin for us, who knew no sin, so that we might be made the righteousness of God in him (2 Cor. 5:21).

And the Bible tells us that if you believe on Christ, if you have received him as Lord and Savior, then his righteousness is credited to your account, and you stand fully justified before God. Not because you were righteous but because Christ is righteous. This is why God remembers our sins and iniquities no more. He remembers them no more, not because he has no more memory of them – how could an omniscient God do that? – but because sin and guilt no longer has any claim over those who belong to Christ. What a blessing! What a Savior! “I have written unto you, little children, because your sins are forgiven for his name’s sake” (1 Jn. 2:12).

So here are the blessings of the New Covenant. Here is Jesus the mediator of the New Covenant. Let’s come back to the question: why are the blessings revealed to us? For two reasons: so that we see our own insufficiency to save ourselves but also so that we will see the sufficiency of Christ to save. By his death, Jesus purchased these blessings: regeneration, relation, revelation, and restoration, and he will have the price of his death. It means that you should never look to yourself to commend yourself to God. Are you? Look to Christ, not to yourself, all of you – old and young, men and women, children and adults – look to Jesus Christ! Here he is passing by this morning in the glory of his gospel, and will you yawn and walk away? Are you more excited about football than the King and Savior? Will you not cry out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me?” Will you not, if necessary, like Zacchaeus, climb into a tree to get a better glimpse of this God-man? Oh, do not walk away! Do not say you have more important things to do or consider. Rather:

Children, if your hearts are warm

Ice and snow can do no harm 

If by Jesus you are prized, 

Rise, believe, and be baptized!

A phrase that I understand was coined by Martin Luther in 1518 in the Heidelberg Disputation.
ii The KJV translates this and several of the following instances of pneuma with a lowercase “s,” but this is almost certainly not a reference to our spirit but to God’s Spirit. See 2 Cor. 3:3.

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