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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