“For every high priest is appointed to offer gifts and sacrifices; therefore, it was necessary for this priest also to have something to offer. Now if he were on earth, he wouldn’t be a priest, since there are those offering the gifts prescribed by the law. These serve as a copy and shadow of the heavenly things, as Moses was warned when he was about to complete the tabernacle. For God said, ‘Be careful that you make everything according to the pattern that was shown to you on the mountain.’ But Jesus has now obtained a superior ministry, and to that degree he is the mediator of a better covenant, which has been established on better promises.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
There’s an old adage that says, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” The idea, of course, is that by copying something, you are making a statement as to the worth of the thing. Whatever else you think about it, you think it is worth making more of it. OF course, this isn’t always the case. Sometimes you make a second version or an update of something because the first thing wasn’t perfect, and you wanted to make improvements in it. In the world of computer programming, the first version of something is called the “beta” version and is always intended to be replaced by the superior full version. When it comes to our relationship with God, the first covenant of Law was always intended to be replaced by the second covenant of grace. The new covenant is the main version, and the Law was the beta. This is something the author of Hebrews begins unpacking here and for the next little while. Let’s explore it with him.
I just want to walk through these verses with you this morning, and then we’ll think about what they mean for us. The author begins by describing the duties of the high priest according to the Law. He is to bring gifts and sacrifices to the Lord on behalf of the people. While there were other things he did, this was the biggest part of the job. He was the one person appointed and ritually prepared to appear before the Lord – in His very presence – and not be wiped out by it. Thus, he did for the people what they could not all do for themselves.
Thinking even bigger than just the high priest of the Jews, though, this was the basic job of any high priest. Because of this, if Jesus was going to make a claim to be the high priest of this new covenant, He was not going to be able to show up for the job empty-handed.
Here, though, is where things get tricky. One of the things court cases are something focused on is whether or not the petitioner has the legal grounds to even file a particular lawsuit in the first place. This is called having standing. If Jesus were trying to make a claim to be a priest according to the Law of Moses, His claim really wouldn’t have had standing. The Law was incredibly specific in terms of who could be a priest. Jesus didn’t meet those criteria. There were already folks in place doing that job. He wasn’t needed.
And yet, here’s the thing about the priests that were already on the job when He showed up for work: They were the beta version. They weren’t playing with the real things they spoke about and ministered from. Everything they did, indeed, everything they were, was nothing more than a copy of the original. The original was heavenly and not accessible in this plane of existence. They and their ministries were good copies of the original as Moses had been very careful to get everything copied down accurately according to God’s instructions, but they were nevertheless copies.
Jesus, on the other hand, had access to those heavenly places the other priests could only copy. He brought with Him access to the full version of a relationship with God. The author’s conclusion to just this small part of his argument is incredible: “But Jesus has now obtained a superior ministry, and to that degree he is the mediator of a better covenant, which has been established on better promises.” What Jesus brings us is not simply new, it is improved.
His ministry is superior to the old covenant ministry because He has access to the real things of God rather than mere copies. The covenant He brings is superior to the old covenant because it is not subject to the corruptions of sin like the first covenant was. The promises of this new covenant are better in that they can actually save us whereas the promises of the first never quite got us that far. None of this means that the first covenant was wrong or somehow not good. Rather, it was not the final version of what God wanted with us. It was what it needed to be for as long as it needed to be that. But once the time came for the appearance of Jesus and the new covenant, its time was at an end. It was time for God to make available to us the avenue to relationship that had been intended from the beginning.
So then, what does this all mean for us. It means the same thing that so much of this letter has been about unpacking: In Christ, we have a new covenant with God. This is not the same covenant under which Israel operated. If we try to claim some kind of kinship with them, as if their covenant is on an equal footing with our covenant, we are putting ourselves on shaking ground. Actually, that’s not quite right. We are putting ourselves on no ground at all. That old covenant has been fulfilled and replaced by the new. It doesn’t even exist any longer. We do well to understand it because it offers important context and information that helps us to better understand the character of God as well as the covenant we have with Him in Christ, not to mention powerful inspiration through its many stories of faithful, courageous service, but it is our covenant. It was never intended to be our covenant. Jesus made a new and better one for us to live in and enjoy. We who would profess to follow Him need to make sure we are indeed living new covenant lives and are not trying to live according to what was but is no longer.
Now, none of this should give us any cause for pride. That is an error equal in severity, even as it is opposite in intent, to the error of conflating the two covenants. Hearing all this talk of the superiority of our covenant with God in Christ to the old covenant under which Israel lived and moved and had their being, it would be easy for us to conclude that we are better than them; that God favors us more; that He loves us more. Yet what is clear here is that the superiority here is of our covenant, not of the people who are taking part in it.
We are the deserving objects of wrath who have nonetheless received grace just as they were. We are no more deserving of God’s favor and His efforts at relationship than they were. If anything, given the surpassing greatness of the new covenant as compared with the old, we should be all the more overwhelmed by God’s grace than they were. We have every reason for radical humility and gratefulness in our hearts. We have every reason to receive this incredible grace and to share it with those who need to hear about it. Indeed, that is the proper response here: to receive it and to share it. Anything else simply doesn’t understand the gift we have been given. Let us then commit ourselves to living with this humility and gratitude with a full awareness of what our great God has done for us in Christ. That, more than anything else, is what we should do with this.